Modern Vampyre – Prologue

Contrary to popular belief, vampyres do exist. The modern interpretation, however, is so far removed from reality that one would hardly know a vampyre if it bit him to his face.
-William S. Christos

Somewhere in New England, 178X

As the rain beat down upon the roof of a horse stable with torrential might, two men looked at each other in the eyes. One was weak with a crippled leg and sallow skin. He wore an old leather hood and clothes that were worn well past their prime, yet still sufficed enough to do their job. His hands were tightly bound together with thick rope behind his back. He took long, heavy breaths that could be seen each time he exhaled. Drawing some phlegm back into his nose, he glanced down at the ground around him. Three of his fellow villagers lay dead at his feet; their warm blood soaking into the hay and dirt. With a gulp, he looked back up at the man in front of him.

“Are you going to kill me?” he asked.

The Redcoat before him pursed his lips together and paused to think for a moment. He glanced down at the bodies and then back at the man before him.

“What is your name?” the Redcoat asked.

There was a long hesitation and a trembling in the man’s jaw before he managed to compose himself and finally speak.

“Albien,” he said.

Before the war had started, Albien had been a humble farmer. He didn’t have much to his name; a small one-room house and a tiny plot of land to grow his food. Having little land was not good for a farmer. Having poor land was even worse, and his land was the poorest of the poor. Not much grew and what little did was considered of inferior quality. Oh, it was edible and nutritious, but to the eye and to the tongue, there was no delight to be found. In a general sense, there was very little flavor to the crops he grew and the majority of it was malformed. All in all, it was so unappealing that few were willing to buy his crops. This often meant selling what he could at a severely reduced rate, which afforded him very little income.

Despite his plight being the result of a poor choice of land, Albien had placed the blame solely on the British, so when the War of Independence broke out, he was quick to take up arms. In a sad twist of fate, however, this was perhaps the worst choice he could’ve made. If he had remained farming, his life would’ve likely improved as a steady supply of rations was always in need, regardless of appearance or taste. His decision to fight would, however, prove to be disastrous. Being a soldier was something he was altogether ill-equipped for. Though focused, Albien struggled through every aspect of army life.

The years of the war were hard on him and things took a turn for the worst a few months ago when he took a musket ball to the shoulder and another to the back of his leg. The one to the shoulder somehow went clean through without striking any bone. The one to the leg, on the other hand, had lodged itself in the calf muscles.

Albien was taken to a local hospital, which was little more than a large tent full of cots and curtains, where he was treated. With some remarkable luck, the doctors didn’t need to amputate. After extracting the musket-ball, the wound to the back of his leg healed surprisingly well, though it left him with a permanent limp. The shoulder wound, on the other hand, only seemed to get worse. Green pus began to ooze from the stitches while cold sweats rolled down his entire body. During this time, Albien didn’t eat. It’s not that he refused, he just didn’t have the strength to do so. As the infection from his shoulder seemed to spread and his body lacked the strength to receive nourishment, his belly began to swell and his skin began to shift to an almost pale greenish-yellow giving a ghoulish look to him.

And then, one day, the wound stopped oozing and healed, and he sat up.

Soon, he had the strength to again eat and to walk soon after that. Though the wound had healed, his complexion never changed and his belly remained bloated. While some at the hospital feared his ghoulish appearance, the staff remained ever considerate, which is why he was gracious and understanding when it came time for him to be discharged. “There is nothing more we can do, I’m afraid,” they told him. “Unfortunately, we don’t know how to fix what has happened to your body, but you are able to take care of yourself now and we need to make room for other patients. Surely you understand.” He did understand and he was grateful for all that they had done. And he returned home.

As he gimped into town with his discolored skin, bloated belly, and sunken features, few people recognized him as the man who once sold unremarkable crops and those that did let out gasps of horror. The women shooed their children into their homes while the men stared and judged. It seemed as though there was not a friendly face to show pity on an old neighbor. With a slow, yet deliberate pace, he soon made it back to the home he had left years ago to fight the British.

Albien’s home was much as he had left it, with few items except for the necessities. His crops long gone, there was nothing for him to eat, so he scrounged some coins he had hidden away in case of an emergency to purchase some bread. That would get him through the night at least. For the next few days, he got by with begging, though few would help him. Some that knew him from before the war gave him some fruit or coffee, but none would let him into their homes. The rest of the townsfolk shunned him. By the end of the week, with no money for food and so few willing to help, he was enervated and malnourished and as such, he took to the shameful tasks of survival.

Every evening after sun-fall, he would head out to the alleys with a wicker basket from home and rummage through the trash in search of food. Most of the time there was very little worth eating. On a good day, he might find a half-eaten piece of fruit or some stale bread. On a great day, maybe a bit of leftover meat. If luck was on his side, he’d catch a rat and kill it to cook and eat at home. Though he tried to be as discrete as possible, passersby would sometimes see him and turn their faces in disgust. It shamed him what he had become, but he knew he must do this to survive. Perhaps by spring, he’d be able to cultivate his crops once more and resume a more dignified life. This, however, was not meant to be.

One evening when Albien was making his rounds, he came across a body in the trash. It was naked and appeared to be male, though he couldn’t be completely sure as the genitalia was missing. Though the body seemed to have been dumped not long ago, it was quite withered in appearance, it’s flesh sunken in. He reached out with two fingers and gave it a push. The corpse’s limbs flopped over with the push fully exposing its left arm. The flesh felt dry, but not so old dry that it had been dead long. He also noted that by the way the arm flopped, rigor mortis had not yet set in. And then he noticed a peculiarity on the arm that was now exposed.

A chunk of flesh was missing from the underside of the wrist. It appeared as though it had been torn out, exposing the muscles, veins, and tendons. Splotches of desiccated blood held to the internals and edges of flesh where the tear had happened. As he leaned in for closer inspection, an ear-piercing scream broke the silence of the night.

Albien looked up to see a woman and her husband looking in his direction. He shook his head and pointed at the body saying, “No, no. This was here. I…I just found it.” As more people came to investigate the screams, he panicked and ran.

As he ran through the village, he could hear more shrieks and screams as more people came to witness the corpse he had left behind. He ran and ran as fast as he could, bounding around corners and darting through alleys, hoping to make it home unscathed when he heard another scream suddenly silenced by gunfire. This scream was different, though. It did not come from behind him where he had left the corpse, but instead from the direction he was running towards.

In an instant, Albien was frozen in his tracks, unsure of what to do. He stood still and firm like a plank, arms down to his sides, his body rigid as if it had turned to stone. He dared not even breathe. As he listened for anything at all, silence seemed to engulf the world around him. No screams. No gunshots. No footsteps. Not even the sound of the wind. It was as if the entire world stopped to prepare itself for the end of time. When it seemed like eternity had finally passed, the sky opened up and drenched the Earth in the tears of God.

The sudden downpour snapped him back to his senses. The rain was coming down so hard, that sound of it drowned out anything more than a few yards away. As a cautionary measure, he ran to a house nearby and pressed himself against the outer wall. With deliberate circumspection, he peered around the corner in the direction the gunshot rang from.

Off in the distance just on the outskirts of the village, he could see what appeared to be the body of a woman lying on the ground. He squinted a bit, attempting to get a better visual of what was happening through the rain. At first, she didn’t appear to move. She just lay there without any sign of life. He put his hand to his forehead in an attempt to shield his eyes from further rain. This allowed him to see her much more clearly. With this better view, she seemed very familiar to him.

She was young, around sixteen. Her skin was ashen and dotted with light freckles. Golden blonde hair spilled out of her cream-colored bonnet. Her dress was yellow and stained with grass in ways indicating that she had fallen somewhere nearby and either slid or rolled to her current location. Not far away was a basket with apples spilled about on the ground around it.

Oh goodness, he thought as he pulled himself back around the house. This was Harold Markinson’s daughter, Rebecca.

Albien peered back around the corner and confirmed that it was, in fact, Rebecca Markinson. She hadn’t moved in the slightest. Despite his fears, he thought it best that he should go check on her. He took a few steps out when without warning, her head turned in his direction. Stopping dead in his tracks, he looked into her eyes as she mouthed the word help. It was right then, a bayonet plunged deep into her heart and blood gurgled out from her mouth. The shock caused him to gasp loudly and at the other of the bayonet, a British soldier turned to look at him. They locked eyes and the soldier pointed at him and shouted. Albien couldn’t quite make out what the Redcoat said through the rain, but he was certain the words were Kill him!

Albien did not hesitate to see if there were more British around to follow that order; he just turned and ran with as much gusto as his crippled legs could muster up. He hadn’t crossed much distance when a musket ball cut through the air past his head and splinted the corner of a nearby house. With that, he turned into a nearby alley and began zigzagging through the streets, taking every unusual path he was able to. He wasn’t taking note of where he was heading, only that he was moving away from the British troops. If he had made note of his surroundings, he would’ve noticed that he had paused to catch his breath not far from where he initially found the naked body. However, he had not made note and had ended up a mere three houses over.

By this point in time, a sizable crowd had gathered at the scene and though many of the people were simply trying to catch a glimpse of the body, some were hunting about their surroundings for anything out of the ordinary; any sort of clue that may lead them to the murderer. Anything out of the ordinary. The crowd knew a man had been killed in a horrific and vile manner. The crowd knew that Albien was seen with the body. The crowd knew that Albien had become a scavenger and that he ran when confronted at the body. What the crowd did not know was that Redcoats were about to storm their village.

“Hey! It’s him!” a voice shouted.

Albien looked up to see a towns-person pointing in his direction. It quickly went from one towns-person to many and the many began marching to his direction. He ran, and they ran after him. Despite his crippled physique, Albien knew the streets of this town better than anyone and with a little luck, he was sure he could lose them. He wasn’t, however, sure he’d be able to return home.

Without warning, gunshots echoed in the distance and the screams of his fellow townsfolk could be heard. The Redcoats had arrived and they were offering no quarter. Albien hesitated for a moment as he considered going back to help, however, his consideration dissipated when he realized that some of the townspeople completely ignored their fellow villagers being slain to continue their hunt for him. And so he decided to run. Though at this point his ultimate goal was to escape the village lest he die by the hand of neighbor or by the hand of Redcoat, he had to make so many turns to avoid being seen that he never quite reached the outskirts.

Despite the heavy rains, Albien spent so much time running that he was becoming parched. Eventually, he had to stop and catch his breath. When a safe opportunity arose, he ducked behind a house as shots of gunfire and screams could be heard in the distance. His dry throat gasping for breath, he opened his mouth towards the sky to catch some of the rain and then slumped against the house as he reflected on his situation. He had sacrificed what little he had for his burgeoning country and now both the enemy he had fought against and his fellow countrymen were looking to kill him. He almost broke down to cry when he heard voices through the downpour.

“Come on. I think he went this way.”

Blast!, he thought. They’ve found me. And with that, he ran as best as his crippled leg could carry him. It wasn’t long before he found a small horse stable at the edge of the village. Knowing that he would be seen if he tried to leave the community with foes so close-by, it wasn’t a difficult choice to hide in one of the empty stalls and enshroud himself within the straw. Unfortunately for him, the footprints he left in the mud outside the stable led his pursuers right to him.

“Come on. Who do you think you’re fooling?” a voice asked. “Get out of there, lest we drag you out.”

Albien sat up and brushed the straw away from his face and torso. Before him stood three of his neighbors, soaking wet and with various implements to end his life. The one in front had a black mustache and held a musket with both hands at his waist. A large satchel was slung over his shoulder and lay by the opposite waist. As for the two in the back, one had a red wiry beard and carried a pitchfork. The other one was thin as a rail, clean-shaven, and carried a rope.

“Stand up.” The one in front said calm, but firm.

Albien did as he was told and most of the remaining straw slid off of his body, though some remained stuck due to his dampness. He attempted to brush it off but was interrupted by the one who told him to stand.

“Stop.”

Albien did as he was told and adjusted his posture to make himself as presentable as he could.

“You know why we’re after you, don’t you?” the man with the musket asked.

Albien gulped and nodded before speaking.

“I didn’t do it,” he said.

“Then why did you run?”

“I panicked. I was scared. There was screaming and people were looking at me awful.”

“Because you did those awful things.”

“No!”

The one with the musket curled his lip and thought for a bit before speaking.

“I’m sorry to say this,” he began before motioning to the other two to tie him up. “Under normal circumstances, we’d drag you to the courthouse to be dealt with by the law. That said, it is my regret to inform you that our current circumstances do not afford us such luxury.”

“I didn’t do it!” Albien protested.

“That may be so,” he said reaching into his satchel, “but at current, I don’t really have any choice.” His hand emerged with a small cartridge that he tore open with his teeth. “I don’t know if you’re aware, but the British have arrived and are unleashing a slaughter upon us.” Half-cocking the musket, he opened the flash pan and poured in a small bit of the cartridges black powder.

“But I fought against the British as part of the Continental Army!” Albien protested as he was being restrained with rope as another held him at bay with the pitchfork.

“And for that, we are truly grateful. That does not change the fact that you are most likely the murderer and for that, justice must be dealt.” He shut the flash pan and poured the rest of the powder down the muzzle of the musket.

“Please,” Albien pleaded.

The man inserted the musket ball into the barrel followed by the cartridge. Albien just watched as the man removed the ramrod and pushed the cartridge and musket ball in to seat the charge. After putting the ramrod back, he cocked and aimed the musket at Albien’s chest.

“For this, I am deeply sorry,” he said. “Do you have any last words before I execute sentence?”

“Oh, enough of this!” a distinct voice said from the next stall.

All four men turned to see disheveled Redcoat step out into the open. Pale skin hung on a skeletal frame with messy black hair and pronounced cheekbones. A slight red stain was visible around his mouth. His coat was opened and a torn cotton shirt revealed visible ribs. His shoulder belt was completely missing. In fact, except for his trousers, boots, coat, and shirt, he appeared to be missing every other part of his uniform. No tri-tip hat, no cartridge box or haversack or anything. Not even any weapons.

“I can’t bear to see another man go down for my crimes,” he said. “This individual you have tied up did not kill the naked man in the alley.” He paused for a moment while the others looked on somewhat perplexed at the situation unfolding before them. After an awkward silence, he said, “I did. I’m sorry. I was hungry. I haven’t had a proper meal in nearly three months. I was desperate.”

There was a long, uncomfortable silence before the one with the pitchfork twisted his face into disgust and spoke up.

“What kind of person considers another man’s penis a proper meal?” he asked.

The Redcoat was bewildered for the briefest of moments before realizing what he was talking about and gave a relaxed laugh.

“Oh, no!” he said. “No. No. No. No. Noooo. I can see why you would think that, but I assure you, I did not eat his penis.”

This time, the thin one who had brought the rope spoke. He thought for a moment to gather his words, and asked in a somewhat unsure manner, “Then……what happened to it?”

There was another uncomfortable silence in the stable. Albien had not expected to be accused of murder, yet here he was about to die at the hands of his fellow countrymen as a soldier of the people he once fought stood before them admitting the murder was his. The three accusers thought they had the murderer in their grasp, yet here was a lone Redcoat admitting the crime in a situation that would clearly get him killed. And as for the Redcoat, he was now having to explain to those who would surely kill him what happened to someone else’s penis. It was a confusing and awkward situation for all involved.

“It’s not one of my finest moments, I’ll admit,” stated the Redcoat. “The thing is, I was quite malnourished at the time of the killing and he was surprisingly strong and spry. I found him very difficult to restrain and I feared he may escape or worse, warn someone of my presence. As such, I felt it was in my best interest to disable him.” He held his tongue and then spoke his next words carefully. “I ripped his penis off to make it more difficult for him to fight back.”

The four recoiled in horror and disgust.

“I agree,” he continued. “However, this issue left me with another problem. While I had disabled the individual, he was now losing precious blood at a rapid pace. As such, I was forced to tear open his wrist with my teeth and consume as much blood as I could before he lost it all through his…..wound.” He sounded uncomfortable as he said that last part and even winced a little as he said it. “Anyhow, after I had finished eating, I needed to dispose of the husk. The first thing I did was toss his clothes into the fireplace. Then I bought the body out into the alley to hide in the rubbish. It was my hope that sanitary practices here were not any better than the part of England from which I hail and that the rats and insects would consume most of the body before it was found. It is my displeasure to say that before I could sufficiently conceal my work, I heard someone approaching and fled.”

For a few long moments, the sound of the rain seemed extra loud. The way it pounded down on the roof of the stable, the way it splashed in the puddles on the ground. Somehow, it seemed to drown out the gunshots and screams in the distance and the only thing in the world right now were these five men. All the cards and been laid out by the Redcoat and no one was quite sure what to do with the hand they had been dealt with. The sound of the proverbial table being flipped broke through that of the rain when the one with the pitchfork shouted out loud.

“You son of a bitch!” he yelled as he thrust his pitchfork into the belly of the Redcoat.

The Recoat staggered backward a few steps as a small bit of blood oozed out around the tines of the pitchfork. To the surprise of everyone, however, he seemed more annoyed than anything. He looked down at the pitchfork in his belly and frowned. With two hands, he grasped the handle and pulled it out of his body against the force of the one who had stabbed him with it. Then, with a thrust, he pushed it away, knocking the fellow to the ground.

“So,” the Redcoat said with disappointment, “this is how it is to be.”

With brutal efficiency and cat-like reflexes, the Redcoat thrust the fingers of his left hand into the stomach of the man with the gun and took his musket with the other hand. Then with the musket, he fired a musket ball into the throat of the man who had carried the pitchfork. And finally, to the man who had tied up Albien, he simply twisted the man’s head enough to snap the man’s neck.

After taking some time to survey the works of his hands, he looked up and locked eyes with Albien. Though quiet, Albien was breathing heavily through his mouth. Phlegm seemed to crawl down his sallow skin from his nostrils to his lips. The Redcoat studied him hard, as though he was trying to figure out what to make of this deformed man with a complexion he had not seen before.

“Are you some kind of ghoul?” he asked.

With a long draw, Albien pulled the phlegm back into his nose. He looked at the bodies of those around and pondered if he would be next. Swallowing the nothing in his mouth, he spoke.

“Are you going to kill me?”

The Redcoat before him pursed his lips together and paused to think for a moment. He glanced down at the bodies and then back at the man before him.

“What is your name?” the Redcoat asked.

There was a long hesitation and a trembling in the man’s jaw before he managed to compose himself and finally speak.

“Albien,” he said.

The Redcoat made an audible hmm and nodded ever so slight. He put his hand to his chin and seemed to think about something for a moment, then he sighed and walked behind Albien and removed his bonds. Albien pulled his hands to his chest and rubbed his wrists as the Redcoat walked back in front of him, but never turning to look at him. Instead, he kept his back to the recently freed man and looked out into the rain.

“You didn’t answer my question,” he said. “Are you some kind of ghoul?”

Albien removed his hood revealing a head of thick, graying hair which made his pale greenish-yellow skin somehow seem more vibrant. In all truth, Albien was not nearly as deformed as people made him out to be and his deformities, for the most part, weren’t all that uncommon. He wasn’t the only person in the village with a gimp; there were others before the war and even more after it had begun. And his hunch wasn’t a hunch at all, but merely a rounding of one side of his back from the way he carried his injured shoulder up and his head down close to it. Really, the only thing that was strikingly unusual was the color of his skin that he tried to hide by wearing a hood. But with a strange twist, the hood only seemed to accentuate all three of these things which may have created the idea of a monster in people. Yet without the hood, he seemed almost completely normal.

“I don’t believe so, no,” Albien replied.

“What are you, then?”

“Man to the best of my knowledge.”

The Redcoat thought about this before speaking. Then he turned to Albien and looked him over again. He had never seen such a person, yet aside from the color, there was nothing that couldn’t easily be explained away. Through the rain, the sounds of muskets firing the screams were becoming fewer, but they were slowly getting closer. He looked at the hood in Albien’s hands and decided that he didn’t care what he was. If Albien could help him, he would be most appreciative. Pointing at the hood, he spoke to Albien.

“May I have that?” he asked.

“Uh, sure,” Albien replied.

The Redcoat snatched up the hood and pulled it over his head. He then took his coat and shirt off and began undressing the bodies as Albien just stared and watched, unsure of what to do. He noticed that Albien was just standing there and reached out to shake his hand.

“Forgive me,” the Redcoat said. “My name is Abstinence. Abstinence Jackson.”

“Abstinence?” ask Albien as he returned the handshake.

“Yes,” replied, Abstinence. “My parents were puritans who were deadset on having a girl. Then I came along and like how stubborn puritans can be, they weren’t changing the name they had picked for anything.”

“Puritans? But wouldn’t that mean you’re…”

“Look, we can discuss my family history any other time, but right now, British soldiers are making their way through the village and if we are still here when they arrive, they will kill us both. If you help me get out of here alive, I will guarantee that the remainder of your days will better than you can currently imagine. Will you help me?”

Albien didn’t really see that he had much of an option. Help the man who helped him or die. He opted to help.

“Alright,” he said. “What do you need from me?”

“Thank you,” said Abstinence. “I can’t let the rain touch me and I can’t be seen looking like a Redcoat. Help me put on whatever will cover my skin.”

Quickly and carefully, they removed the most protective clothes they could from the bodies. Leather boots and gloves, a heavy shirt and pants. Unfortunately, these were not enough to completely protect Abstinence. Scavenging through the other stalls, however, Albien managed to find a thick horse blanket and Abstienece was quick to wrap himself in it.

The gunshots grew louder as the two looked out into the rain.

“You won’t regret this, Albien,” said Abstinence. “This I swear.”

And with that, the two ran out into the rain and headed for the forest. By the time that the British arrived at the stables, they were long gone and the rain had washed away any footsteps or mud that would point to them ever being there or where they were going. All that remained were three dead bodies and a torn British uniform.

Letters from Unsung Heroes: The Train – Johnathan Sandow

My Darling Katherine,

I apologize for my delay. The train which I have boarded seems to have broken down in a tunnel which no light can penetrate. It’s been very quiet and I’ve kept to myself as to not create a disturbance. Most here, at least of those from my car, seem to have the same idea. It’s been quite scary to say the least. I believe a man a few rows down from me passed away and the man next to him somehow didn’t seem to notice. What nerves of iron he must have to remain so calm in such a situation. He should be an inspiration to all of us. He was very well prepared too as seems to have an endless supply of matches which he lights whenever he wants to look at something. Or perhaps it is simply to cover the stench of the deceased next to him. A foul odor has been growing about the car and it is a relief every time he sparks one; I can only imagine what the smell must be like next to him.

On a more pleasant note, a sweet old lady sitting a few rows behind came over to me earlier today with an oil lamp strangely enough. She sat down beside me and we exchanged pleasantries. And then, out of the blue, she started talking to me about the Bible. I was so glad too, as I was feeling quite uncomfortable and squeamish. We talked at great length about Sodom and Gomorrah and had an absolutely wonderful discussion on 1 Corinthians 6:9. You should have seen her face, Katherine. She seemed so elated to have someone to discuss scripture with. I suspect she must get shut-down about it often as our conversation really seemed to make her day. We exchanged address and telephone numbers so that we can perhaps have a Bible study sometime. Until then, if we are to remain here for longer, perhaps I shall offer her some company and we can discuss some of the finer points of Origen and his writings

Anyhow, my darling. I hope to see you in Church this weekend. I pray that the Lord shall see us all safely off this train and into the embrace of our loved ones.

Yours in Christ

Johnathan Sandow

Where We Put Our Faith

Matthew sat alone at his desk in the living room, the only light coming from the computer monitor in front of him and the kitchen through the doorway. Smoke rose up from the cigarette between his fingers as he stared at the bright screen. It had been a particularly miserable day and he felt completely drained. He scrolled down the screen until he found the numbers he was looking for and compared them to the piece of paper in his hand.

“Fuck,” he muttered under his breath. Not a single number matched. He wouldn’t even be getting his two dollars back. Matthew crumpled up the lottery ticket and threw it into the small can by his desk.

Picking up the 24 oz can of Milwaukee’s Best Ice on his desk, he gave it a shake. Save for a few warm drops, it was empty. Matthew put his cigarette down and headed for the refrigerator. It was time for beer number three. He reached in, opened the next can and took a swig. Closing the door to the refrigerator, he nearly choked on the beer as turned around.

Standing outside the kitchen door was a somewhat short but slim Asian man. The porch light was off, so Matthew wouldn’t have seen him if he hadn’t been standing so close. The man was older, probably in his fifties, and sported a dark gray wiry goatee with streaks of silver running through it. A black bowler hat sat upon the man’s head as he simply grinned a thin smile at Matthew, just enough to show a row of perfectly straight and white teeth.

Matthew reluctantly opened the door part way to find out what the man wanted.

“Can I help y…?”

Before Matthew could finish, the Asian man took the opportunity to pull the door all the way open and push his way inside. He was very well dressed in a suit that looked custom-made in the fashion of 19th century attire. Black jacket, vest, tie, and shoes, with a white shirt. A silver pocket watch chain hung from the waist pocket and buttons of brass on his clothes. In his hand was a black briefcase which he promptly placed on the kitchen table.

“Let’s get down to business,” the Asian man said authoritatively as he opened the briefcase revealing a large stack of papers. “I’ll just need your signature on these forms and then I’ll be on my way.”

“Wait, what… who…” Matthew stumbled out the words. He didn’t know what was going on and was absolutely flabbergasted that this strange man just pushed his way into his house and basically started barking orders.

“Look,” the Asian man said, “I’m here to help you out, to give you a better life, but in order for me to do that, I need your signature. Legal documents to cover your ass and mine. Without this, there’s no deal.” The Asian man flipped through the pages until he found what he was looking for and pulled out a pen. “Ah! Sign here please.”

Matthew looked at the outstretched document confused, then to the man holding the document.

“What are you talking about?”

The Asian man looked mildly annoyed, then sighed reluctantly. He had come on a bit strong. Couldn’t really fault Matthew for being confused.

“My apologies. To put it simply, what this document states is that in exchange for your immortal soul, you will live the perfect life you’ve always wanted. Everything you do will be incredibly fulfilling, you’ll live in good health, and you can fulfill your dreams. At the end of said contract, your soul is forfeit and shall descend into the pit of Hell where it will burn forever in eternal torment. At your time of death somewhere between seventy-one and one hundred and twenty-two years of age, dependent on when the most Holy One has deemed your time on Earth to be finished, your soul will be collected. Though we cannot control the exact date and time of death, we can push it into a roughly fifty year window. We also guarantee that your death will be peaceful and comfortable as every moment living from the time you sign this contract will be absolutely perfect.”

Matthew just stared at the Asian man in silence for a few moments as he let what he had heard sink in.

“Did you say my immortal soul?”

“Yes I did.”

“Uh-huh. And who is ‘we’?”

“That would be myself and the denizens of Hell.”

Matthew pursed his lips together and furrowed his brows somewhat as he continued to stare at the man. He took a sip of his beer, not once taking his eyes away.

“Wait. Are you telling me that you’re the Devil?”

“Bingo!” the Asian man said with a smile, swinging a pointed finger into the air. “Now you’ve got it. I’m sorry for not properly introducing myself earlier.” He began walking a circle around Matthew. “I sometimes get so caught up in the agreement that I forget the important stuff like introductions and terms of the agreement and what have you. By the way, you can call me Todd.”

“But I didn’t ask for you to come,” Matthew said as Todd continued to walk a circle around him.

“No. No you did not,” Todd replied, “but any salesman worth his salt will identify and seek out those in need of his services. One cannot just sit there and expect the clientele walk through one’s doors. Though in my line of work most people do anyways. Despite this, it is still important to be proactive. Besides, if someone is going to spend the rest of time itself in the lake of fire, shouldn’t they at least have a fantastic life? Shouldn’t they get some small pleasure and enjoyment while they can? Shouldn’t they…”

“Are you stupid?” Matthew cut him off.

Todd stopped in his tracks on Matthew’s left. He turned his head and looked him in the eyes.

“Excuse me?”

“I’m a Christian,” Matthew answered. “I’m not going to sell my soul to you. What makes you think I ever would?”

Todd made an uplifting sigh and continued his circle around Matthew.

“Well, yes, you are a Christian, that I know, but just being Christian doesn’t get you into Heaven. Matthew 7:21. Look, Matt. I know you. You’re a very depressed individual.” Todd looked at the 24 oz can of Milwaukee’s Best Ice in Matthew’s hand. “That’s what, beer number three for you tonight?” Todd glanced into the room with the computer. On the desk was a half empty pack of cigarettes with one almost burned out in the ashtray and then back at the beer in Matthew’s hand. “Let me guess, you’ve got three more in the fridge. I know you. You’re going to drink yourself miserable and drunkenly jack off to whatever pornography suits your fancy at the given moment. You’ll lie down with a cigarette in one hand and the final beer in the other crying about how sorry you are, begging for forgiveness. Eventually you’ll pass out naked somewhere in the house and wake up in the morning feeling horrible about yourself. The next day you’ll try to pass it off and feel renewed, all peachy keen and living for the Lord. And it’ll go great for a few days. Maybe even a few weeks or months. But you’ll fall again and repeat the same process over and over again.”

Matthew inhaled deeply through his nose, eyes closed and held his breath. The words stung. Todd was right. He was a miserable sinner. God wouldn’t want him. Every good thing he ever did was just one broken promise after another to God. Every vow he ever made had been broken. He often became so depressed about it he would sometimes plan to get messed up, not because he wanted to sin, but because he wanted to forget about his sin, even if it meant intentionally sinning in order to escape for only the briefest of times. He hated himself and he hated his life. Oh why couldn’t Jesus come and take him in one of the brief moments of grace he sometimes felt?

Matthew exhaled slowly and then took another deep breath before speaking.

“What of it?”

“What of it!?” Todd exclaimed. “What of it!? I’ll tell you what of it. Heaven doesn’t want you. You’ve rejected the grace of God all too often. You’ve burned your bridges. Your words are empty and hollow. Let’s face it, you’re coming to see me whether you like it or not. You might as well enjoy life while you can because your suffering is going to last forever. And the thing is, you know deep down you deserve it. No amount of continuing to go to church is going to change that.”

Matthew looked away and spoke through his teeth, ashamed of himself, but angry enough about it to fight back against the accusations.

“You’re right,” he said. “I do deserve death and Hell. But you know what? I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!”

Todd froze where he stood. He was stunned, but only so briefly. An evil smile came back across his face and he started circling Matthew yet again.

“Quoting Luther will get you nowhere,” he said. “You Protestants think you’re so great, but you’re the most deluded of them all.” Todd’s clothes started to stretch and break at the seams as his body began to grow. “You don’t worship Yehoshuah. Your American culture won’t let you.” As the clothes fell off Todd’s body, horns began to grow from the sides of his head, his muscles increased, and his skin started turning to red. “Your independence is so ingrained in what you are that though you talk a big game, you rely entirely on yourself. So how about it? Would you like to enjoy your remaining years?”

Todd leaned in behind Matthew, stopping just over his shoulder. A large red hand with terrible claws held up the contract, another held up a blue ink pen. Matthew was sweating profusely and breathing hard. His life had been miserable. He’d always suspected he would burn in Hell for the terrible things he’s done. And here was Satan, offering him a chance to have some happiness before the end. If only he’d just sign.

And then something clicked in Matthew’s head.

If he’s going to Hell anyway, why is Satan trying so hard to get Matthew to sign? Being proactive is one thing, but this was resorting to scare tactics. Satan was supposed to be the most beautiful of angels, not this big red demon that shows up in the movies. This kind of effort is completely unnecessary unless…

Matthew took a deep breath and turned to look over his shoulder. There was the face of the devil staring back at him. A red dragon-like face with black beady eyes looked directly into his. Matthew gulped and then spoke softly, but forcefully.

“FUCK. OFF.”

Satan roared in outrage, throwing the contract and pen in the air. Reeling back, he lunged with his right arm and grasped Matthew firmly around the throat. Lifting him into the air, Satan slammed him down on the floor, squeezing tighter and tighter.

“Do not insult me boy or I will kill you right here where you stand!”

Matthew struggled with his hands to no avail in an attempt to pull Satan’s fingers from his neck.

“Go for it,” Matthew managed to gurgle out. “I hate this life anyway. I’ve got nothing to live for. You’ll just be sending me to Jesus early.”

Satan leaned in mere inches from Matthew’s face and scowled. There was no fear in his eyes. Satan squeezed his neck a little tighter. Matthew choked a bit, but managed to smile. He was telling the truth. He was ready to face death. With a snort in Matthew’s face, Satan released his grip and stepped away.

Matthew lay on the floor gasping for air. When he finally looked up, he saw the Asian man whom Satan had come into his house as stepping out the front door.

Todd stopped briefly and looked at Matthew who was still gasping. He smiled and said, “Just so you know, it is possible to lose your salvation.” With that, Todd tipped his hat and left, gently closing the door behind him.

The following Sunday, Matthew met with the pastor of his church after the service and told him all that had happened. The pastor quietly listened, not interrupting but making sure to absorb every detail. Though the pastor was skeptical about whether this really happened, he was deeply concerned.

“You said at the beginning of our conversation that you beat Satan,” the pastor said.

“Yes,” replied Matthew.

The pastor stood up and walked to the window. He looked outside to see the trees and birds. He felt the warmth of the sun on his face. Normally, he would marvel at God’s creation on the day like this, but not today. The pastor had dealt with tragedy many times over his career. Members abandoning the faith. Death in the congregation. But nothing had ever felt quite like this. Without looking back, he spoke to Matthew.

“If what you tell me is true, then I am afraid you did not beat the Devil. In fact, I fear he may have achieved exactly what he set out to do.”

Matthew was stunned. So much so that it took him a few moments to respond.

“What do you mean?” Matthew asked.

“Satan is the great deceiver and will do whatever it takes to bring us down with him. From what you describe, it sounds to me that his goal was not to get you to sign the contract, but to make you lose what faith you had.”

“What?” Matthew said as he stood up. “That doesn’t make any sense. It was my faith that saved me. That’s why he let me go. He knew if he killed me that I would go to Heaven.”

“In that moment, yes, perhaps.” The pastor turned around to face Matthew, a deep concern and worry for the member of his congregation showed on his face. “But despite your flaws and sinful ways, you still had faith in Jesus. You still hated your sin. But now, I fear, the Devil has turned your faith away from Jesus and onto itself.”

“I….I don’t understand,” Matthew stammered.

“Your faith is no longer in the one who saves but in your own ability to have strong faith. The switch was almost unnoticeable, but it happened. I heard it in the way you approached me. You said, ‘I beat the devil. My faith in Jesus saved me.’ The focus in your language was not on Jesus but on you. Don’t you see? You were already saved. You had your problems, but you were saved.”

Matthew dropped into the chair he had risen from, his face almost expressionless. The words Todd spoke at the end of their encounter rang through his mind. Just so you know, it is possible to lose your salvation.

The pastor carefully pulled a bible off the shelf and laid it open on his desk. Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. And so the pastor began to read the Word and prayed that Matthew would hear.

Letters from Unsung Heroes: The Train – Ester Heraldine

Dear Mildred

Pardon my lateness but I have been stuck on the train for almost two whole days. There seems to have been a power outage of some sort and we’re stranded in the tunnel. I’m not sure how much longer it shall be, but I hope the power is restored soon; people seem to be getting restless. I admit, it is a long time to sit and my legs are getting a bit stiff. I imagine people would like to get out and stretch their legs a bit. I’ve noticed some men have stepped outside to smoke their tobacco.

Listen Mildred, you know I’m no prude and I know people need to de-stress, but don’t they realize how awful that tobacco is? Why, the Collins boy, you remember Jimmy, well he died a few months back from emphysema. He was only forty-three years old. I think it was due to all that tobacco he smoked. I heard that he smoked two or sometimes three of those little cigarette boxes a day. He didn’t care none what it did to him. He just liked the way it made him feel. Can you imagine? He tried to hide it, but I cannot fathom that he enjoyed all that coughing. I think he just had too much pride to admit he was wrong. There’s a reason pride is a deadly sin and the Collins boy is proof.

Speaking of sin, I’m beginning to think this train is turning into a haven for the devil. I saw this older man flirting with a young girl who couldn’t be anymore than twenty-three and then walk off into a restricted part of the train. I think they were up to some hanky-panky. It’s simply disgusting the brazenness some people will have in a public setting. At least the queer boy in the next row over seems to know enough to hide his shame in public and not flaunt it. He just remains quiet and keeps to himself. I wonder if anyone has talked to him about Jesus yet? Perhaps I should go sit with the boy after I hand this letter over to the nice postman. He seems like such a sweet child. It’d be a shame for him to burn in Hell on account of his sin.

Also, I’ve heard a few people using foul language. It seems the more time we spend on this train, the more obscenities I hear. It’s as though Satan himself has grabbed ahold of these people’s tongues. Why, it’s making me just a little bit frightened. Hearing someone utter the word “blast” is bad enough, but some of these words begin with f and d. I even heard a word that began with the letter c. I don’t know what it meant but I did know that it was horribly offensive.

Not all is bad though. Some people are making the best of their time. One gentleman appears to be writing a correspondence to someone by match light as to not wake up the gentleman sleeping next to him. It’s so sweet to see someone being careful not to disturb those around him. I, myself, am actually writing to you by oil lamp.

In case you’re wondering, it was found in your sister’s attic. Apparently, it had belonged to your great-great-grandfather. He was a seaman of sorts and took this lamp everywhere he went. It lit his cabin on the boat and his way when he walked. It helped him to deal with a great many foggy nights. Anyhow, I was visiting your sister for tea and told of how I was coming to visit you. That’s when she sprang up and told me to wait as she ran into the other room. When she returned, she was holding this oil lamp. That’s when she told me all about the lamp and its history. She asked me if I would bring it to you because you so love to study family history. It even has the initials MHD carved into the side for Martin Henry Dennison; the same initials as you. A find like this is ever so delightful. And even though it hadn’t been used in over a hundred years, it was still full of oil.

I’d hope to have it all preserved for you when I arrived but it is ever so dark in here and I needed some light source some of the time. But, you’ll be pleased to know that it works splendidly and the light that it casts is most comforting. I cannot wait to hand it to you when I arrive. I hope that this letter reaches you in good fortune. And don’t worry for me. I have many other activities to keep me company. I brought my crosswords and my knitting. I cannot wait to see you again. Ta-ta!

Your friend
Ester Heraldine

The Unforgiving Christ

Deep beneath the Vatican is an immaculate painting of our Lord, Jesus the Christ, crucified upon the cross.  Painted entirely in browns and dark flesh tones, this painting is the most realistic representation of Christ’s death ever to exist.  And it is locked away in the deepest recesses of the Vatican in lone room long forgotten.  Where it came from, nobody knows, but the dark secret it keeps is one that strikes the very soul.

Legend has it that it was discovered in the rubble of a long fallen down home in early 17th century Germany by a young Lutheran minister.  As the tale goes, he would go through the cemetery into the forest behind his church.  There was an old footpath that had been overgrown with tree roots and various foliage that led to the house of an old Catholic Priest that had died a few centuries before the reformation.  Stories surrounding the old Priest’s home and his acquirements caused rumors to rise up and the church was soon abandoned.  After the Protestant Reformation, a group of Lutherans restored the old church and used it for worship.

The second pastor to minister to this Lutheran congregation found tranquility in nature and would often go out to the woods when he wasn’t needed and just walk.  One day, he came upon the Priest’s old house.  He did nothing that first time but shrug it off and return back to the church.  In the church archives left over from its Roman Catholic history, however, he found records of all the previous Priests and learned that the house belonged to one of the later ones.  With this information, he grew excited to see what documents and artifacts he might be able to find in the old house and so he would make daily treks to the old church.

The Lutheran pastor would paw through the rubble, but for the most part he would find nothing of value.  That is, until one day, he looked through the window of an old fallen down wall and saw what appeared to be a framed portrait.  He couldn’t make out what it was of, but it looked as though it was intact.  It took many days to carefully break away the wall and rubble that surrounded without damaging the item, but he eventually got it, a portrait of great size.

He picked up the large portrait and held it out.  It was very large at three feet in height.  It was also very filthy and he could barely make out what it was.  Deciding that it must be cleaned up, he placed it under his arm as best he could and steadied it with his other hand as he began to walk back.

However, as he walked back, he found himself becoming increasingly depressed for no explainable reason.  The portrait grew heavy in its frame and the normally reasonable walk seemed to drag on for much longer.  When he approached the church cemetery, the sun had gone down and tears of mental anguish slowly rolled down his cheeks.  He couldn’t carry it much further, it was simply too much for him to handle.  So the pastor entered the church and left it in the narthex and then went home.

That night was very restless for him and his wife and child could see it in his face when he arose in the morning, still full of sorrow.  After breakfast, he went to the church to clean up the portrait which took the better part of the day.  As it became more and more clean, he became more and more distressed, cursing himself and all that he was.  And when he finished, the eyes of a crucified Jesus stared down upon him.  Judging him.  Condemning him.  And he broke down in tears as he all at once knew all of his sins.  He pleaded for forgiveness, but he found none.

It was almost midnight before he returned home.  He collapsed in a heap as he fell through the door, exhausted from repentance and tears.  His wife found him the next morning lying in the doorway sleeping soundly as could be as peasants outside looked at him in awe.  With the help of a neighbor, she got him inside and into bed.  When he finally woke up, he just began apologizing for his sins.  Every sin.  Sins that he never even knew he had committed but now remembered in every detail.

He stayed at home for a few weeks and over time he recovered.  The lord Jesus Christ had forgiven him of his every sin and he knew it.  God’s mercy through Christ’s blood shed on the cross had covered all his sins and he was glad.

The following Sunday, church services resumed as normal.  Parishioners were fed the flesh and blood of Christ.  Sins were forgiven.  Spirits were high.  And there was much rejoicing.

 Sometime after the service after he thought all had left, he heard a terrible weeping coming from the Narthex.  Under a table, he found a small child crying uncontrollably.  It was a boy and he was babbling over and over about how sorry he was, and that’s when the pastor saw it.  The painting he’d found had been shoved behind the table, and there was Jesus looking back at him, dying on the cross.  The pastor removed the boy and took him home to his mother before returning and examining the painting.

Just as before, he felt the complete guilt of all his sins at once.  He prayed for forgiveness and repentance in the Lord but received none.  He exhausted himself in sorrow and passed out on the floor.  When he eventually awoke, the anguish was still there as strong as ever.

The story goes that he was eventually dragged out of the church and taken to a hospital where doctors and preachers tried to nurse his mind back to health, but to no avail.  Nothing could convince him that he was forgiven.  They say he eventually killed himself by bashing his head against the stone walls of the hospital when he was left alone one day, a sin in the eyes of the church, but probably for the better.

As for the old church, rumors of demon possessions and evil sprang up and caught like wildfire.  The church was soon abandoned and slowly over time fell into disarray.

The painting would not turn up again until the late 19th century when some children playing in the woods came upon the old church, now over grown with plants.  They found the painting covered with dust rubble, but still intact.  Knowing their father was a man of the arts, they brought it home to show him what they’d found, although they were significantly depressed by the time they returned.

He sent them to bed with good tidings.  When his wife went to bed, he began to clean the painting.  And he felt the weight of all his sins.  And no forgiveness.

When his wife awoke in the morning, she found him dead, his wrists slit and straight razor lying limp in his hand.  Against the fireplace was the portrait of crucified Jesus, immaculately cleaned. And he judged her.  And she felt the weight of her sins.  And she found no forgiveness.

It was days before she was found.  She was next to her husband.  Dead with their two children.  She died of slit wrists and the children of impalement.

The painting moved around pretty quickly at this point, racking up quite a few deaths in mere weeks.  The Vatican heard about it and it was sent for it to be investigated, but only on holy ground.  It was covered, boxed up, and sent to Rome where it was to be examined on the holiest ground.

The group examining suffered from extreme guilt and it took weeks of being away from the portrait with constant supervision and consultation before they could feel the forgiveness and go back to their work.  It was decided that the painting must be destroyed, but when the time came, the guilt overcame them and they could not bring themselves to destroy such an image of their lord.

They covered it with a sheet and left it locked alone in a room for weeks on end until they could once again feel Christ’s mercy.  They called in a Priest who had no former contact with it to take it to the most recessed, dark, and unused areas of the Vatican and lock it in.  And it has been there since and still is to this day.  Nary an individual has seen it for over a hundred years.  Yet on occasion, someone will go down to the dark room to leave a strange trinket with specific instructions no to touch anything.  Those who go down say they feel an uneasiness about the whatever is under the sheet and express that, for no apparent reason, they begin to feel shame and sorrow.  When they ask about it, those who know of the portraits existence grow cold and simply tell them that, “The Devil works in mysterious ways.”