Bled

 

Don’t really know where this came from, but it must have been somewhere evil. Didn’t have an end in mind when I started, and half the time when I sat down to write I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was going to do. Definitely starting to warm to that method of writing. Perhaps there were other forces at work, Gods… or Demons. Enjoy.

Bled

Ben Pienaar

 

Emma found Bled while clearing ivy from what she thought must be a long forgotten birdbath, at the bottom of the garden where the tall oaks lined the fence and cast everything in cool shade. Her parents were moving furniture into the new house and she was in the way, so she’d come to see what her new back garden looked like, and found nothing but long grass, small trees, and this pillar of overgrown stone. Partially hidden carvings on the side prompted her to clear away the ivy, though what she found when she did made no sense to her: a single cryptic word: BLED.

It was a pedestal, not a bird fountain. The cracked base was square, but the top slightly rounded and, beneath the plants, Emma made out sculpted features that clearly belonged to a face: a bust, like one of those memorial stones she’d seen in the cemetery. It was taller than her, so she had to come forward and stand on her tiptoes to get a good handful of vines, hoping to pull them all down in one savage motion.

‘Emma!’ She spun around and put her hands behind her back, though she hadn’t been doing anything wrong. Her father was standing on the rotted back porch, wiping sweat from his face and squinting at her in the afternoon light. ‘Wait ‘till we’ve been in the house a few weeks before you tear everything apart, alright? Mum’s in the kitchen making us all lunch, why don’t you give her a hand?’

She glared at the neighbour’s cat, an old ginger that eyed her from the fence, tail flicking. ‘Okaaaay!’

She left Bled where he’d been for who knew how long, but with a whispered promise: I’ll be back tonight.

 

*

 

It rained, and hard. Emma had never imagined rain like this in a seaside town. She’d always imagined Port Elson would be permanently sunny and warm, even in winter, like Hawaii. Now she lay awake in a dark room, the whole house asleep and rain hammering her windowsill like someone knocking desperately to get in. New house, new town, new part of the world; she’d never felt so alone, and she was breaking a promise to the only friend she had.

Only friend? He’s a statue, and you haven’t even seen his face. Terri was right, you are a dummy. Her ever chattering internal voice had been sounding more and more disdainful of late. She forced the negative thoughts away, but there was one she couldn’t dispel: an image of the tall stone bust in the lower back corner of the garden, sitting dark and abandoned in the rain, as lonely as she.

It was after midnight when she changed into some of her old clothes and crept downstairs. Each step creaked like a shipwreck but no one stirred in the house. When she opened the back door, icy air and rain pelted her and made her face red and her nose numb before she even stepped out, but step out she did.

She took the rest of the ivy down with difficulty, her nerveless fingers tearing at it and wrenching until roots and vines snapped and she could drag large armfuls of it away from the pedestal.

And then, her heart brimming with joy, she looked upon the face of Bled.

It was both the ugliest and most beautiful face she had ever seen. The mouth was a torn ruin in an otherwise unlined, smooth skinned face: lips, gums and teeth all messed together and half open as though in a threatening snarl. The head was round and bald, but it had been decorated with intricate lines that formed a maze with no end. Bled had no eyes, only two deep cavities, which, when she leaned up to look, were actually holes, though it was too dark to see inside.

It was strange, but standing there staring at his distorted visage, Emma found herself warming, somehow. The rain lost its sting and she was content to stand and look, her eyes playing over his finely sculpted features, ghastly as some of them were. Mostly the eyeholes, in which she knew there must be nothing but somehow couldn’t keep from craning her neck to look every now and then. She considered getting something to stand on next time, but dismissed the idea. It struck her as fitting that she be below him, looking up, and him snarling down at her.

She crawled into bed later – she didn’t care how much later – and fell asleep immediately. The next morning, her sheets were drenched and muddy. She found she didn’t care about that, either.

 

*

 

Emma played her first practical joke the next day, one she’d heard about at school. She wasn’t sure what drove her to it, except that she wanted to do something different for once. Something a bit naughty. She watched as her mother poured salt from the sugar bowl onto her cereal, thinking that it was about time, really. Lois had come to expect it of her – being a goody two shoes all the time. It wasn’t fair.

Lois coughed half her mouthful back into the bowl. ‘Ew. Oh, my god. Was that…’ She made a face and looked up with an expression of mingled disgust and surprise. Emma wondered if it hurt her mother to see that something had changed in her, and found the thought delightful.

‘Emma, that is not funny. Did you do this? Where is the sugar?’

Emma giggled. ‘I threw it away.’

‘You what? You wasted sugar for a joke?’ Her mother stood up, her tired eyes burning, and slammed the bowl down in front of her, taking the untouched portion for herself. ‘Right. Now you bloody well finish every last bit of it or you can forget about dinner.’

Emma glared, but her mother only returned the look and folded her arms. Inside, a new feeling boiled up inside her: hatred. She had always been told it was a horrible, evil feeling to have for another person, but now that she experienced it, the hot, urgent need to injure, she wasn’t sure she didn’t like it a little. It was alive in her. She picked up her bowl and threw it at her mother’s face. Lois raised her arms reflexively at the right moment and deflected it, sending it skidding across the floor.

‘I don’t care! Starve me if you want. It’s not my fault you don’t have a sense of humour.’

She stomped her way upstairs, ignoring her mother’s usual threat: ‘You wait until your father gets home!’

 

*

 

Bled was even more beautiful in the daylight. He had an aura about him, so that as soon as she stepped up before him she was entranced. The sun shone through the oak canopies and cast shadows over his features, so that when the breeze blew his face seemed to move, from snarling to grinning to crying, his eyes growing and shrinking, looking left and right. It was like watching a fire, the way the flames flicked randomly here and there.

She was careful never to get caught, though of course she still wasn’t doing anything wrong. It just seemed best not to bring her father’s attention to it. As part of her punishment for what she’d done to her mother he’d made Emma weed and mow the whole front lawn, and she’d hardly seen Bled that whole day – she’d had to visit him late at night again.

It wasn’t long before she found herself whispering to him and staring long into his eyes. At first just for her own amusement, then as though he were a real person, and there was a relief in venting her frustrations: at having to move again and again, never having friends, having a strict father and mean mother.

Soon there was more than relief. He made things better, though not in the way she’d expected. If she was sad when she went to him, she was sad when she left, too, only now she found some kind of joy in the sadness. She was able to delight in her misery, the way she’d delighted in her hatred of her mother.

After long enough away from him, the feeling would pass, leaving only emptiness.

 

*

 

‘I’m worried about her, you know?’ Jerry had always been a quick sleeper, but since they moved, despite all the physical work of renovating and getting the place up to scratch, he found himself lying awake for a long time, most nights, staring at the ceiling or out at the sky through his window. He was like this now, as Lois undressed and got in beside him, the springs creaking.

‘Tell me about it. She was the sweetest girl, wasn’t she? Then she hits thirteen and it’s like… boom, and she hates her mother.’

‘You’re implying this is a teenage girl thing. And she doesn’t hate you.’

‘Maybe not now, but you didn’t see her eyes, Jerry. And of course it’s a teenage girl thing.’

‘You don’t think there’s something wrong?’

The sheets ruffled as she turned over and he felt her eyes on him, but he didn’t look around. He was guilty, but the feeling he had was so strong he wouldn’t sleep unless he said something.

‘Something wrong? Like what?’

He shrugged.

‘What?’

‘She was in the garage, today, rooting around in all the stuff I just moved in.’

‘Okay?’

‘Half a dozen boxes open, lying around, like she was looking for something. She didn’t see me come in at first, and she was really going for it, throwing stuff over her shoulder, tearing boxes, hurrying. And I cleared my throat and she stopped and then looked around at me with big eyes – you know that face, the one she used to get when she was three or four? I’m innocent, daddy?’

‘Oh yeah.’

‘So I asked her what she was looking for. “For my old chess set, daddy”. Those were her words.’

Lois was silent, not getting it. He turned to look at her, and found her with one eyebrow raised and a half smile. ‘Wow,’ she said at last. ‘You’re right. She’s messed up.’

He didn’t laugh. ‘She doesn’t play chess, Lois. Never has. She barely touched that chess set when we gave it to her. Besides which, why would it be in with the power tools and weed killer?’

Lois sighed. ‘I don’t know, Jerry. It’s weird, I’ll give you that. But how bad can it be? It’s Emma.’

‘Yeah.’ He rolled onto his back and looked back out at the moon. ‘Our sweet little Emma.’

 

*

 

The cat almost made it, a ginger flash darting through the thick bushes in the corner of the garden. The last row of these were blackberries, however, and the cat became entangled in the thorns and vines just before it could reach the fence. Emma was there a moment later, grabbing the squalling thing by the skin on the back of its neck while her other hand wielded the gutting knife from her father’s fishing box, stabbing and twisting until it was dead, one leg still twitching in the thorns and blood dropping down rain dampened leaves.

‘Good kitty.’ She grinned and then made the incredibly slow and painful retreat from the blackberry bush. She looked around, but no one had seen her, which was just as well, because her face and arms were covered in tiny bleeding scratches, many of them from the frantic cat. They stung badly now, but she knew Bled would make it all better.

There was no hiding the scratches, so she hid the knife and then concentrated for a few minutes, trying to develop some believable tears. In the past she’d always been able to do it by thinking of sad things, but this time nothing seemed to work at all, so in the end she dabbed some water in her eyes and then ran to her mother.

‘I fell in the blackberry bushes, mum.’

‘Oh, God, you’re a mess! You poor thing, Emma.’ She hugged her tightly and then looked at her wounds, long searing lines through her skin. ‘Bloody hell, darlin’. What were you doing? Hang on, I’ll get some Betadine.’

She sniffed. ‘I just wanted to climb the tree and I fell in.’

‘Climb the tree? Oookay.’ She couldn’t meet her mother’s eyes. Emma had never been much of a tomboy. She’d been dolls and pink dresses from day one.

‘I just thought… I’d be different this time. In a new town. Maybe they’ll like me better if I climb trees and things.’

‘I see.’ Her mother finished patching her up and then kissed her on the cheek. She held her eyes for a minute, full of concern and worry, and Emma knew she had her fooled.

‘Listen to me, Emma, you just be yourself, okay? And if they don’t like you, they can go to hell.’

She smiled. ‘Okay mum. I will.’

 

*

 

She was so excited for the night she barely ate her dinner, and after bedtime she couldn’t bring herself to lie down. Instead she paced the room, revisiting her window, though the view was nothing more than a narrow asphalt driveway. No rain tonight, which was good – only a little wind. The sky was clear and stars and moon so bright they hurt to look at. She hoped Bled liked what she did.

It was near midnight when she snuck out the back door with practised ease, this time barely making a sound at all. It was more difficult extricating the cold ginger cat from the bush, but she got there in the end. She laid him beside her other materials: the gutting knife, a small pile of sticks, and a box of matches.

Bled watched her with those deep eyes, the torn corners of his mouth hinting at a smile. She wondered what he was thinking, who he was, where he’d come from. Somehow, she knew that if she just did this one thing, he might tell her about himself, and that whatever he told her would only serve to make her love him more.

It took her three matches to light the fire at the base of his pedestal, her hands were shaking so badly. Her heart shuddered along in anticipation of some intense climax, so that what might have disgusted her before now seemed so enticing she could hardly stand it. When the flames were crackling hot and high, she picked up the dead cat and the knife and stood up, holding them towards Bled.

It was time. She almost couldn’t contain herself – could practically feel the blood in her mouth as she cut into the cat’s chest and heard bones pop and flesh tear. She found his heart by the bright moonlight, dropped the knife and reached in to rip it out with her fingers. She held the small, slippery thing with both hands and let the body drop to the ground.

Kneeling, she held the heart out to Bled, his pitch black eyes watching. Though they weren’t totally black, were they? Somewhere in their depths shone two sparks not unlike the glowing red cinders in the fire, flickering on and off.

‘For you, my Great Lord Bled,’ she said. At least, she tried to say. Her mouth formed those words, it seemed, but what she heard with her ears was something else, a deeper voice saying foreign, thick words that she could never have pronounced. It didn’t matter – they meant the same thing. She repeated them three times, and then at last lowered her head and leaned forward until she was holding the heart over the flames with her bare hands.

She’d never felt such pain in her short life before – but it wasn’t like real pain, because she was blessed by Bled, and she found that the more agony that coursed through her, the more she liked it, even when her own skin blistered and shone red and the heart was popping and sizzling in her hands.

Stand.

At last she stood up, brought the heart to her lips and bit it in half, chewing the tough gristle and veins and letting hot blood drizzle down her throat. She stepped forward with the second half and pushed it into Bled’s leering mouth, and his broken teeth closed, nearly taking the tip of her finger.

She took her time cleaning away the evidence of what she’d done, and when she finally made it up to the bathroom to soak her hands in cold water she could barely stand. The ecstasy she’d felt earlier dripped away, and nothing replaced it but bone deep exhaustion and a kind of hollowness that would haunt her until she saw him again. Only he could make her feel anything, now, but God, when he did…

She managed a smile, but when she looked up into the mirror, the water running over swollen hands, the smile faded quickly. She saw a pale girl looking back at her: half dead, old, dark eyed and bloody mouthed. A zombie.

That night, she cried herself to sleep. Now and then she looked at her closet and thought of the things she’d taken from the garage and hidden there, and what she planned to do with them. In those lonely minutes, she discovered that it was possible to be afraid of yourself. She told herself she wouldn’t give in, wouldn’t do the evil things he wanted. A compromise – that would be all she’d allow. One, but not two.

Bled waited patiently in the far reaches of her mind.

 

*

 

She did not visit him again the next day, or the one after, and she told herself she never would. Instead she was sweet little Emma, helping out with everything around the house, putting things were they should be, cleaning dust from every corner, and even helping move furniture with her stick figure arms. Her parents looked on, amused, and shrugged their shoulders. She apologised to her mother for the salt.

The world seemed cold and dead. She went for a walk on the beach but the air was icy and the sky vapour grey. She stood and watched the waves come in for hours, let the rain fall on her, and it was as though she were a rock in the sand. Often, she found herself standing in the street and staring at pictures of a missing ginger cat. Nothing touched her. She walked in the evenings until her mother called and told her to come home already, it was too dark. She smiled at her parents with lips like a rubber mask, spoke with someone else’s voice.

She’d never felt so vacant.

But Bled was there. Waiting.

And the memories. She relived those over and over. The heart thumping rush when she’d killed the cat, the intoxicating thrill of pain, a feeling almost too real to contain. It made her laugh to think of the devious ways she’d been hiding her burns from her parents, wearing gloves all the time, first against the cold, then for fashion. They were so stupid, they couldn’t even see – they didn’t care.

Down in the far corner of the garden where the ivy grew, Bled waited.

 

*

 

Three AM.

Emma’s eyes opened, seeing nothing. She sat up and tossed the covers aside. It was the middle of winter, and rain was once again falling, but she didn’t put anything over her thin night clothes. Instead she wandered, swaying as if drunk, to the door. Each step took her a minute, and she breathed the long and slow inhalations of a coma patient. In this way she moved soundlessly from her bedroom to the back door and into the living room. She drew a pair of paper scissors from her mother’s writing desk, and then headed outside.

The cold should have woken her, but it didn’t so much as raise goose bumps on her skin. She wobbled down the lawn into the darkness at the bottom. Bled watched her come, and the distant embers in his eyes flared up, sparks to flames. She stopped in front of him, and tears of sorrow leaked from her eyes.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she mumbled, hanging her head in a caricature of the chastised schoolgirl. ‘Please accept my… accept my… remorse.’

Perhaps.

            She bent over at the waist so that she was looking down at her toes, white worms in the mud. She wiggled them. She closed the scissors around her right pinky, and squeezed, slow and steady pressure. She wasn’t watching – her mind was on another plane, in another world, but her body knew what to do. She squeezed and squeezed until the toe popped off, and then she picked it up and stepped forward, holding it up to him.

She slid it into his mouth and he chewed on it, his eyes warming her with their heat, making her happy.

For now.

She returned to bed with a loopy smile on her face.

 

*

 

‘You’re right, something’s wrong.’

It was his turn to be surprised. He’d come up to read Andy Reynolds Pro Guide to Renovating for Profit in bed while she finished watching some cooking show downstairs. Now that she’d come in and distracted him, it occurred to him that he hadn’t heard the television for at least half an hour.

‘What happened?’

She didn’t come into bed right away, but sat down on her side, massaging her temples. ‘It was weird, Jerry. She’s never been the most emotional girl, but she practically threw herself on me in tears just now.’

‘Oh. Why?’

‘She said she had a secret that she really wanted to tell me, but wasn’t allowed to.’

‘Says who?’

‘That’s what I said. I mean, it’s not like she’s made any friends here yet, so who wouldn’t be allowing her? But she just shook her head and said it didn’t matter. And then she asked me… If I’d ever felt empty before.’

‘If you’d ever felt empty?’

‘Yep. I told her I got really sad sometimes, or exhausted, and that it was all part of life and it would pass, probably when she starts school and makes a few friends. She nodded, but there was a sad look on her face, as though I hadn’t told her what she’d wanted to hear, and she said. “Not like that, Mum. Have you ever felt dead?” I said no, and she hugged me and told me she’d never hurt me and that I was the best mother she could ever have wished for.’

She looked as bewildered as he felt. There was a long silence.

‘Have you ever felt dead,’ he repeated.

‘I know. Jerry, do you think it’s depression? I don’t know why she came to me in the first place – she’s always been closer with you.’

‘Yeah, maybe. I dunno.’ He set the book on the bedside table and rested against his pillows. He was remembering a boy he knew once in school. Tommy Collins. In final year, Jerry had witnessed Tommy and four other boys pin a first year on his back and hit him until he fell unconscious, head rolling back and forth and blood leaking form his mouth. Tommy’s face had remained neutral during the ordeal, even when his own friends pulled him away. Placid, uninterested.

Empty.

‘I’ll find out what it is, Lois, don’t worry. I’ll talk to her tomorrow.’ And maybe watch her, too. See if she knows where that weed killer is.

 

*

 

The day was uneventful, but busy at the same time. Lois was out for most of the day, looking for possible teaching positions in the area. Jerry decided he would get as much work done on the house over the next couple of weeks before he too would have to get looking for something to last until they sold on. Admittedly, he was also putting off the talk he knew he’d have to have with Emma. Maybe it would be best to wait for Lois to be home. They could have it over dinner, a nice comfortable environment: we’re worried.

So he was occupied for the most part, taking the back deck apart and replacing rotted boards with new, etcetera. But he kept track of her movements, half of him feeling guilty that it was the first time in a while he’d really paid attention to what his daughter spent her time doing.

It didn’t seem like much.

In fact, it bothered him, because as the day went, he got the distinct impression he wasn’t the only one watching.

While he was out on the deck, she was on the couch reading just inside. The book:  Andy Reynolds Pro Guide to Renovating for Profit. When he went upstairs to measure the bathroom in case they wanted to extend it at some point, she was on the landing playing minesweeper on the computer. Just after lunch, she asked him what he was planning to do with the garden.

‘The garden? Uh, hadn’t really thought about it, to be honest – I usually do that side of things last, you know. It’s pretty weedy and messy back there, I guess I’ll clean it up a bit, tear up that jungle down there and start fresh. Why?’

‘Do you think you’ll keep the statue?’

‘There’s a statue?’ Then he remembered – he’d seen it the first time he’d given the back garden a proper once over when they first arrived. It had been mostly hidden under everything else, and it wasn’t anything special: A pedestal with a bust of a woman’s head, a young determined gaze on her face. Probably she’d contributed to politics or something in the area, but he’d got an ugly feeling it was a grave. ‘Oh, yeah. I dunno.’

‘Can’t we keep it? It’s so nice, I love it there.’

‘Huh. Yeah, sure. Maybe it’s got some kinda heritage value or something. Why not.’

‘Thanks, Dad.’ And she’d hugged him for the first time in, hell, years. Over a statue.

 

*

 

He started dinner early, and Emma surprised him by offering to help. ‘It’ll be good practice for when I move out of home one day,’ she said. ‘I’ll make the drinks. Chocolate milkshakes?’

‘Yeah, sure Em, that’d be great.’

She was quiet, but strangely enthusiastic about the work, a light in her eyes he didn’t often see as she went scouring the kitchen for a million different ingredients to put in: a pinch of cocoa powder, a sprinkle of cinnamon. Once dinner was sizzling he left her to it and went into the other room to watch television and think about what he and Lois were going to say later on.

When she arrived in a bustle, arms full of shopping bags, he still had nothing. Ah, screw it, we’ll just wing it. Emma had the table set and ready, their drinks at their places. When Lois saw the tall glasses of chocolate with whipped cream and sprinkles she raised her eyebrows at him as if to ask: what did you say? But he shook his head.

In the end, it was Lois who spoke first once they started eating Jerry’s steaming beef stew – Emma’s favourite. ‘So, Emma,’ she said. ‘I… We’ve been thinking. We’re a bit worried about you.’

Silence while Emma chewed and swallowed, not looking up from her meal, spoons clinking on plates.

‘Why would you be worried?’

‘You’ve just been a little…’ She looked to him for help.

‘Different,’ he said.

More silence. Emma took a long sip from her chocolate and Jerry followed suit. ‘Hey, this stuff is really good by the way. Em, if you ever move out you might want to consider just living on these bad boys.’

No smile, more silence. Staring at her food, though Jerry swore he saw her eyes dart towards her mother, a look of annoyance flashing across her face.

‘Just because of what you said to me the other day,’ Lois ventured. ‘You seemed very sad, and we’re just worried you might be… depressed? Was there anything you wanted to talk about?’

‘I’m in love.’ She said.

Of all the possible things, that was the last Jerry would have expected, and by the look in Lois’s eyes as they met his across the table, she felt the same.

‘Oh? With who?’ she said.

‘With Bled.’

‘Bled? Lois, you know any Bleds in the area?’

‘He’s not a person,’ she said, the disgust at the word person present in every syllable. ‘He’s a God.’

Jerry sat up a little straighter, wary. ‘Em?’ he said, an edge to his voice now. ‘Just how old is this Bled guy?’

‘I told you, he’s not a person.’ She said. She wasn’t eating anymore, but staring deep into her stew as though she saw something in it, the reflection of a face that wasn’t hers, perhaps.

‘He’s a God. He’s the God of pain, death, hate and destruction. And love, too. He’s the God of love. He showed me that you can love all those things more than any of the other stupid stuff. And that if you can fall in love with suffering, than you can fall in love with life, because all life is suffering.’

Lois’s eyes were as wide as Jerry’s were narrow. He didn’t want to grill her just yet. Let her talk for a bit and she might drop some clue as to who this guy was. Lois took a long draught of her milkshake, clearly wishing it had something with more of a kick than sugar.

Now, a smile wormed its way across Emma’s pale face, though the look in her downcast eyes remained hateful. ‘Bled takes away all of the fear, when I’m with him. Fear comes from all those things, from pain and death, and if you can love those, then you can’t feel fear anymore. Bled taught me that I’m the one to be afraid of. I’m the thing hiding in the dark. I’m the monster.’

She looked at Jerry as she said those last words, and in the same moment Lois, who’d been looking steadily sicker with each sentence, leaned forward over the table and vomited blood across the white cloth. ‘Oh… God.’

‘Lois? What happ…’ He stared at his milkshake, and then back over at Emma, who laughed at the look on his face.

‘Don’t worry, Dad, I couldn’t do it to both of you at once. One of you had to be alive to see the beauty in your suffering.’

‘What – ’

Lois vomited again, her chair screeching as she stood up and leaned forward, her stomach heaving. The blood was a little darker this time, arterial. ‘Honey, maybe call an ambulance,’ she said faintly.

‘Jesus.’ He dialled the number and told the dispatcher his wife had drunk weedkiller by accident. He confirmed that suspicion a second after hanging up when he opened the cupboard just beneath the sink and saw the bottle sitting there, the cap missing.

He filled a glass of water, having no idea if it was the right thing to do, and offered it to his wife, who promptly threw up all over him and then collapsed to her knees. He helped her up and the two of them staggered out into the front garden, where he lay her out on the grass. It was a nightmare, a hellish nightmare. Hadn’t they been talking quietly over beef stew just a moment ago? How could this have happened so quickly?

Lois’s eyes flickered like a candle in a breeze, moments from being blown out altogether. Her face was so pale it made the blood around her mouth a shocking bright red. She was shaking, from the cold or blood loss he didn’t know.

‘Stay with it, Lois. It’s gonna be okay. Just stay awake, don’t go to sleep.’

But she was fading. He had to roll her onto her side so she could vomit again, and he watched black blood gush over the grass, her life sinking into the mud forever. When the ambulance arrived, she was hardly moving at all, and her head had become so cold it chilled him at the touch. He watched them load her body into the ambulance and wondered if that was the last he’d ever see of her. One of the paramedics asked if he wanted to ride in the back, but he shook his head. ‘I need to stay here with my daughter.’ Five or ten minutes couldn’t have passed since he met her eyes over the dinner table.

When the ambulance had disappeared around the corner, Jerry turned to see Emma watching him from the front steps with eyes just like her mother’s. She had a broken smile, the wind blowing tears across her cheeks. She turned and ran back inside.

He stood in the cold wind and stared at the leaning house for what seemed a long time. Then he went after her.

 

*

 

Bled was alive with joy when she saw him, and she was in such a rush to reach him that she fell face first into the mud along the way. She crawled towards him, blessing him, thanking him, feeling a wash of brilliant happiness flood her as she arrived at his feet. His eyes shone the bright orange of a bonfire and his wrecked mouth laughed to see her, knowing that she’d passed the point of no return, and having given so much couldn’t help but give more and more and more.

‘Save me,’ she said, hugging his pedestal as though he were a being standing there instead of a statue. ‘Please save me so I can serve you. I’ll give you all of them, everything you want. Please.’

She didn’t hear her father until he was halfway across the garden, a heavy footfall landing in a puddle and making her look around.

He was carrying a hammer in one hand, striding purposefully toward her, his face twisted in a rage she’d never seen before. She realised that Bled was influencing him even then, feeding on the grief he felt for his wife and fuelling him with hatred, more hatred than any father was capable of feeling for his daughter. ‘What have you done, Emma?’ His voice was half a roar, hysterical and strained. ‘What did you do to her?’

‘Save me,’ she whispered.

You failed me.

            ‘No!’

The sacrifice is not dead.

‘She is! She will be soon!’

Her power does not belong to you until she dies. You are on your own.

‘Wait! No!’

Jerry was there, then, and it was too late. At the last second Emma threw herself at him, lunging for his face with claws bared and mouth open, screaming, clamouring for a bite. Two sacrifices, she thought madly, tearing at his skin, trying to blind him. Imagine that ecstacy!

            Then the hammer connected and she landed hard on her side at his feet. He kicked her in the chest, winding her, then the face, then struck her back with the hammer as she tried to get to her feet.

She was going to die, but she was before her Lord and Master and the thought of death didn’t bother her at all. In fact, it exhilarated her. What a beautiful death, to be beaten, to feel such pain, and at the hands of her father! She couldn’t imagine a more horrific, agonizing end, and with each broken bone and rupture she cried out with exultation.

It had to be soon, now. She wondered if He would take her soul, too, and she could spend eternity with Him.

But the end never came. As Jerry was raising the hammer for the final blow, a very sick woman drooled the last of her lifeblood from a slack mouth, shook violently once more, and died.

Bled laughed.

 

*

 

Jerry felt it hit him, but at the same time he didn’t, because the Jerry of a moment before and the Jerry of a moment after were in many ways different people. The former was overcome with hate and sorrow to the extent that he was moments away from driving a hammer into the grinning face of his own daughter. The latter, however…

The insanity melted away from his face and his grief slipped away with each beat of his heart. He lowered the hammer and then let it drop. Emma wiped blood from her eyes and smiled up at him. ‘Can you feel it, Dad?’

He could feel it, alright. It had the effect on him, this immense relief, as if someone had tapped him on the shoulder and told him that his wife wasn’t dead at all. And not only that, but that the two of them and their daughter were going to live forever in utter happiness. Death, fear and pain no longer existed for him, and he wept in the face of this truth.

His eyes turned slowly to the presence before him whose gift this was. She was no less than a Goddess, he saw now, and nothing like the plain statue he’d seen before. She wasn’t beautiful. Her eyes were huge discs in a screaming face, her mouth a hole that stretched from ear to ear with fat shredded lips and no teeth at all. Her hair was an intricately carved mass of long worms draped over her shoulders. No, she wasn’t beautiful, and yet she was, and more so than anyone or anything Jerry had ever seen or imagined.

Her eyes captivated him, a strong white light glowing from somewhere deep inside her head, making them like two full moons without craters or shadow.

‘I see it, now,’ Jerry said, coming slowly to rest on his knees.

Beside him, Emma sat up and caught her breath, leaning back against the pedestal to savour her agony for a minute. Jerry envied her.

They were content to sit at the feet of the Goddess for a while, even as it began to hail, and enjoy the inner warmth and benevolence. It was so nice, such a happy relief, to be able to sit and wait for the Goddess to direct them.

But they did not have to wait long.

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