I wake up to our world of utter silence. In all the years before The Turning, I often cherished silence, an occasional break from all the noise and irritation of a world spinning out of control and gradually going insane. The Turning changed all that, depleting nearly three quarters of the world’s population in a few still unexplained moments of time. Amazingly, now I sometimes long to have all the noise and madness back. I wander through an emptied out country, rarely running into anyone, and the few I do meet are generally assholes anyway. The Murmurers are finishing the work of the initial Turning, but seem to be taking the few good people first and leaving the scum behind.
Rising from the earth, my only bed for some months now, I read from the position of the sun it is probably about six thirty in the morning. I am one of the few who still bothers with time. I have even kept track of the current date. I am trying to make sure the kid, still asleep below me, cares about time also, one of the many old habits from before I am trying to pass on to her. I rise early because stagnation leads to danger. We must keep moving, the kid and I.
The Turning didn’t change the world geographically, and our environment can only be improved by the decreasing population. Society, law and order, families and organizations—these were the concepts destroyed by The Turning. No weapons of mass destruction created this stark, disturbingly quiet world, just a mysterious flicker of time. Though nobody knows what happened in that instant, The Turning was not selective. Everyone has to deal with it. Those that it took and those it left behind.
As usual, the kid isn’t asleep very long once I am up. She has this uncanny ability to sense that I’m awake, even though we sleep a good distance apart.
“Good morning,” she says, with a smile, filled with the youthful exuberance of a new day.
I grunt something incoherent. I learned long ago to stop saying “what’s good about it?” or chastise her for being so sunny and considerate. Why try to beat it out of her? Someone else will come along and do those honors soon enough, and for the time being I am like some kind of Messiah to this kid. I haven’t done anything for her that anyone with the slightest trace of a conscience would not have done under the same circumstances, but that’s the rub I guess. That alone makes me practically walk on water to a girl who had been prime meat for exploitation and violation since the moment The Turning took her parents.
“Did you hear the Murmurers last night, kid?” I ask, as she rises and puts on her boots.
“No, slept through it, I guess.” She casts another one of those undeserved looks of affection my direction. “I have you to protect me, you know.”
“We’ve been through that. I can protect you from any human, any solid piece of flesh that attacks us. The Murmurers are another story. I’ll do my best, but--”
“I know, I know. Until I meet them, I’ll never know.”
“We have to keep the same pace, perhaps even pick it up. They were closer last night than they have been in a while.”
“Aye, aye, captain,” she jests. “Can we eat anything?”
“I’ll check the rations.”
I open my pack to see what we can spare. We really need to find a town soon that seems safe to stop in, at least briefly, and get some real food and rest, but the Murmurers are in pursuit, and if it’s true this kid has never met them before, I feel more confident than ever that some of them must be coming for her.
We share some dried meat and a few crackers and I tell her we can probably spare some sardines or oysters after we walk for at least half the day. I allow us to drain our canteen since I know there is fresh water just a few minutes from here.
So we walk on, and I know a town may be in range by just past midday, but I keep that a secret from the kid because I don't want to create another disappointment if the place isn't worth stopping in. It has been a while since I was there so the place could be overpopulated or picked clean by now. All of her life since the Turning has been a long series of disappointments. I want her life with me, as long as it lasts, to be an improvement at some level.
I found her in what used to be San Francisco. Huddled in the corner of a long abandoned ground level flat, rats crawling around her, scavenging in the trash, waiting with baited breath to see if this was the day she would finally die and they could ease their hunger. With all the horrors she had experienced, much of it at the hands of men, it was shocking how she held her arms out for me and how easily she trusted me as I held her tightly and then led her to safety.
I have never held her that closely again. The bond and trust between us was immediate that morning, and for me these were feelings I had not experienced for years; warmth, a sense of purpose, of belonging, after so many countless days of merely moving forward and surviving alone. But I can't afford to get any closer to anyone. When I do, it is always the other person that gets hurt.
The kid hugs me often, even though I don't initiate or deserve it in my opinion, and I usually shrug her off. She knows I will do anything for her. If she wants to equate that as love or something deeply felt between us, so be it. I know she can trust me to do my duty.
Just about the time we are both well beyond the need to take some sort of break, the town I remembered surfaces in the horizon like a mirage. She is filled with hope and excited to explore the first town she has seen since I found her. She hugs me tightly and kisses my cheek. I recoil as usual, but accept her gratitude, and am glad she is not upset with me for not telling her about the place, in case it is a bust.
After we have made a thorough sweep of the town that takes nearly three hours, I proclaim all is well, so we can stay a while. The kid is elated. We settle into a house a few blocks from the center of the town. Like the town itself, the place is deserted. We will each have a bed in our own room. The kitchen pantry is well stocked with canned goods. Either the previous inhabitants left in one hell of a hurry, unable to take much with them, or they just vanished one night when the Murmurers came.
I break down some of the furniture we won’t need and build a fire. We have a luxurious meal of various soups and canned vegetables. Then we turn in for what the kid claims will be the most restful night of sleep for us since we met.
Ah, to be so youthful, and easily filled with faith and hope. Perhaps she is right this time. I’m willing to give it a whirl. I hope I hit the bed and fall into a near unconscious sleep, as she surely will.
But I know the night brings the Murmurers.
For a while, a few hours is my guess, there is only darkness and silence, pure, uninterrupted, peaceful, but then, slowly and gradually, the inevitable transpires--the Murmurers invade our quiet little ghost town.
First, I hear them murmuring in the distance, an indistinct hum that could be almost anyone or anything. But as they approach the intensity grows with the volume, and soon they are in my head again, crying out, calling to me and telling me how it is much better to let go, to cross over to their side of the reality. Is doing so a kind of death? Who knows for sure? Those that take a Murmurer's hand simply vanish. Nobody has been touched by them and survived to offer the truth.
They float into town, still invisible. I feel their presence, their longing for touch. They gave up on me long ago, for the same reason people who know my secrets fear me the most. I have managed to keep those secrets from the kid so far.
As the creatures reach our house, I hear the kid breathing deeply, almost snoring, in the next room, oblivious to their infernal murmurs, their incessant mournful cries of agony and loneliness. Their language of lies and deceit.
I give up on getting any sleep myself tonight. Perhaps I can get some in the morning, after they’re gone. I will guard the kid's door and find out whether these Murmurers are here for her, and then do what I can to get them to go back to wherever they come from. This can be done from my room, for I chose our rooms wisely. As long as my door is open I have a clear view of hers.
I hold this vigil for hours, hearing the Murmurers but still not seeing them. Sometimes they sniff us out immediately and other times it can take days, another of the many mysteries surrounding them. Against my will I fall asleep and when I jerk myself awake I am not sure how long I was out. It is still the middle of the night so it could not have been too long, but I still curse myself. A veteran of three wars and I can’t keep watch this one night?
Then, moments later, I see their telltale vapor trail, a grey mist that smells like a toxic combination of human waste and fossil fuels. The vapor creeps down the hall in search of human life, wondering if there is a desired human to “Turn” in this place. Their murmurs are now a cacophony, screeching in my brain, shrieks and howls become distinct within the mix and I cannot understand how the kid could possibly be sleeping through all this.
“Stop!” I command them firmly, trying not to wake the kid. “There’s nobody here you need bother with. She is young and has done no wrong, and me, well, that’s another story. So piss off!”
Their shrieking and moaning only increases, worse than nails on a chalkboard, like some banshee from the old days of horror cinema.
Out of the mist comes a shape, at first not discernible, but then gradually taking the form of a man. “We know who you are,” the Murmurer says, his voice like venom on ice. “That will not stop us. You’ll see.”
I look upon the Murmurer standing in my room, right at the edge of the mist. “Or should I say,” he says, pointing an accusing finger toward me. “It won’t stop you.”
I shiver with fear, a rarity indeed for a callous veteran who has seen it all at least once. I am afraid for the Murmurer is me.
I wake from the nightmare and realize that I am only now truly awake for the first time. The house is silent and dark, and the Murmurers have passed us by.
Of course in this world of survival, paranoia and madness it was too much to hope for that we could have this town to ourselves, but I thought it might last at least a few days, maybe even a week. But the very next afternoon, the strangers arrive to disrupt our respite.
Through my field binoculars, I size up the group heading our direction. There are seven of them. A man and woman about fifty are in the lead, followed by two more women and a man that range in age approximately fifteen to twenty years younger. A family, perhaps? Behind those five, walk another man and woman in their thirties. All of them carry backpacks bulging with supplies and they appear to be unarmed. No threat seems imminent, so I let them walk into town.
The kid is excited, of course. “No offense,” she says, “but it will be nice to meet some other people.”
“No offense taken. I just wish we could have relaxed and refueled for longer on our own.”
“But the town is empty. There’s plenty to go around. A lot of these abandoned houses are probably just as stocked as ours.”
“True enough. These folks seem peaceful. That’s not what worries me.”
I let that last comment drop, and the kid doesn’t ask me to elaborate. Her mind focuses on the new neighbors approaching. She’s not listening to me right now for the first time in a while. That stings, but I’m not the jealous type. I am thinking about what worries me. The problem with more bodies in this town was not food or shelter, but the simple arithmetical fact that more living humans equals more potential Murmurers.
Later, we sit at a large table together in what was once probably a quaint little pub, sharing a meal of our combined goods. The strangers actually had some fresh vegetables they had grown before moving on and the kid and I tossed in our share of canned stuff. I had to admit they were amiable enough and this was a nice enough meal, and we were getting warm and cozy, but of course I’m the one who brings the hammer down since nobody else has mentioned “them” yet.
I ask the strangers if they are being followed by the Murmurers.
“Well, sir,” answers Sweeney, their apparent leader, some kind of pastor from what I gathered. “There is no escaping them, is there? It’s obvious what they are, after all, is it not?”
I never knew if Sweeney was his first name or their family name, since everyone in their group called him Sweeney, Dad or Reverend. The rest of his family present here were his wife Sarah, two daughters, Leanne and Naomi, and Leanne’s husband, Tyler. The two folks that had pulled up the rear when I watched them approach the town were Penny and Rod.
I answer his question with my usual lack of tact, making the kid sigh. “I know they’re a big pain in the ass. That they are a product of the Turning. And I keep my distance from them. What else do I need to know?”
Without missing a beat, Sweeney digs right in. “There is no escaping our destiny, sir.” I still had not told them my name. “Each of us, in time, will meet our own . . . umm . . . match.”
I sense the tension in the kid immediately as Sweeney speaks. We had never discussed the Murmurers in any specific way before. It was a vague topic, kind of the way parents of teenagers approach the topic of sex from every possible angle but directly.
“You mean this nonsense that there’s a double for each of us wherever they come from? That our double wants to kill us and none of the others mean us any harm?” I watch the kid as I speak. I need to watch my words very carefully.
Leanne blurts out: “My Dad knows what he’s talking about!” She glares at me indignantly. “We’ve helped many to find the path to peace.”
“SShhhh, Leanne. The man’s entitled to his opinion,” answers Sweeney, condescendingly.
“My opinion,” I snap back, immediately, “is more than just an opinion. I’ve been running from these bastards, and fighting them when I can. So why haven’t I ever seen my double?”
“Never?” exclaimed Sarah.
“Only in my dreams.” It’s amazing how one lie leads easily to another until lying becomes your only option. This was for the best. The truth would devastate the kid and probably get me killed, since these seven seem extremely adamant about their simplistic take on the Murmurers, fanatical even perhaps.
“Bullshit,” says Tyler, Leanne’s husband, the one of them who seems the most out of place. He looks a lot like me, worldly, used up, probably converted late in life to whatever these people spoon fed to their followers. The group predictably gasps at his vulgar choice of words. “Something’s not right about you, mister. What’s your name, anyway?”
Why should I tell these crazies my name? The kid and I had bonded and been watching each others’ backs for months with no need for names. This continued anonymity was not intentional. We simply traveled together and communicated just fine. I didn't introduce myself right away when we met and she was out of sorts for the better part of a week, so the formal introductions just never happened. When you are the only two people around, it really isn’t necessary to use names. Now, after all these months, it didn’t seem right for the kid to learn my name among strangers.
“Names aren’t important,” I answer. I see relief in the kid’s eyes. “Go ahead and use the name the Marines gave me. It worked for three wars. They called me Raven.”
All of them look me up and down after this revelation. What was it about a name anyway? I could have said my name was Peter Pan, or even Tinkerbell, and they would have believed me. “That fits,” Tyler mumbles. I assumed he reached that conclusion noticing my black hair, dark complexion and eyes so dark brown they often appear black as well. Likely, the same reasons a sergeant in boot camp originally attached the name to me years earlier. The more ominous reasons the name became a good fit came later in my military history--killer instinct, thirst for blood--but nobody here needs to know any of that.
“Whatever,” I say, meeting his disdainful glance. The rest of them seem like a bunch of brainwashed religious commune types, another old custom resurrected after The Turning, but I have to watch this Tyler. He is still wild. “So enlighten us, Sweeney,” I continue. I can let him speak now that I have done my damage control. “I won’t interrupt. Go on.” I see the kid grimace out of the corner of my eye. Good, I think, it seems I’ve succeeded in planting enough reasonable doubt within her.
I have to hand it to them: at least their crock of shit is a new crock and not one of the same tired old ones I had been hearing for months. I will spare you Sweeney’s sermon and sum it up for you. He thought, and his followers believed, that the Murmurers were our souls. They were among many Christians whose immediate thought was the Turning was their Rapture. Initially, the Turning did have qualities we all imagined the Biblical Rapture would possess. Planes fell from the sky and cars crashed as their navigators vanished. Chaos ensued as police officers, prison guards and other emergency personnel were suddenly gone from their posts. But it didn’t take long for those of us left behind to take inventory and realize this theory was impossible. Though nobody is fit to judge if another person is “right with God,” I, like many others after the Turning, can guarantee there were people Taken that never had anything to do with God, or any god or belief system. Some of my fellow Marines were Taken and I can assure you nobody would have Raptured their asses.
So Sweeney’s bunch believed the Turning was meant to take our souls from our bodies to wherever they were supposed to go. Either something went wrong, or some of us weren’t ready, so our souls were split from our bodies—aka The Murmurers—and now they were just trying to help us out, bring us out of our miserable life left over here and “take us home.”
During Sweeney’s sermon, I keep my promise to not interrupt. As difficult as that is, I just sit silently, staring at this assortment of nuts at our table, wondering how in hell the kid and I will get as far away from them as possible. Unfortunately, as I watch the kid while Sweeney pontificates, she looks genuinely interested. I guess this makes sense, considering her age and all she’s been through, but I can’t let her go that easily.
When Sweeney seems finished, I clear my throat and the rest of the table tenses up, wondering what I will say. “I’m not going to argue this with you, believe it or not. I didn’t kill God knows how many people for this country so I could come back and take freedom of speech away from anyone. And I know it doesn’t matter to you people what I think anyway. I just think you’re going to get us all killed is all.”
“But, Mister Raven,” Sweeney says, awkwardly. I guess he doesn’t understand the point of a military moniker. To him, all names begin with Mister or Miss. “Nobody is getting killed, or dying here, don’t you see? We were all meant to go before.”
“I happen to know that’s not true. But I’m not going to get into how I know that just now.”
“Typical.” Tyler again. “You just know, is that it? That doesn’t work here. This isn’t the military.”
“Look, bub. I’m making nice with your father in law here, but I’m not taking any shit from you. Your theory isn’t exactly stacked with empirical evidence, now is it?”
“No, but we’ve at least explained ourselves!” He is hot, already out of control.
“Enough, Tyler,” Leanne shouts, and then adds, softly. “Please, honey.”
“There’s no need to fight among ourselves, here,” says Sweeney. “I think we’ve had a long night. Perhaps we should break for the night. We have yet to settle in.” He turns to me. “You seem to think we’re dangerous to have around. I assume we can at least stay the night. We can talk again in the morning.”
“I’m not going to kick you out. I don’t own this place. Hell, nobody owns any place any more. I just want you at least a block away. A safe distance.”
“Fair enough. As they used to say in the movies: ‘this town is big enough for both us,’ hmm?” He casts a goofy smile, amused by his own cornball humor.
Sweeney’s bunch leaves the pub and walks down the street in the opposite direction from where we are staying. The kid is silent for a while, and I sense something is up with her, but I remain silent too.
“That was rude,” she says, finally.
“Turning them away.”
“What are you talking about? They’ll be right down the street.”
“Why are you so quick to cast everyone aside? Why does it always have to be just you and me? We’re not lovers, you know.”
Holy shit! This kid’s around more than one person for a few hours and immediately transforms into a teenager! “I’ve never even suggested such a thing, little girl.”
“I’m not a girl! Stop treating me like one.”
“Stop acting this way. I saved your ass, and since then we’ve done well together. We have each other’s backs. We are alert, in survival mode. That works. The way these people are approaching the Murmurers will get them killed. For them, their way works. But I’m telling you they’re wrong.”
“Tell me how you know that.”
“Not right now.”
“Then when? Everything’s a secret with you. I learn more about you when you talk to other people.”
“That’s because other people are too nosey for their own good. We’ve done fine just surviving together, don’t you think?”
“Is that all there is, Raven?” She pronounces the name deliberately and loaded with sarcasm. One of us uses a name--a first. I also realize this is the longest conversation we have ever had, and it’s an argument. “I thought we were friends. Maybe even family, in some perverse way.” And then she starts crying.
“You see?” I start talking right away again, not knowing the decorum here is to keep silent, hug her, comfort her. I am an emotional idiot. “These things you just said. They have been unspoken between us, but of course they’re still true. We have a bond as strong as Sweeney and his group, as strong as any family, but we didn’t have to discuss it, beat it to death. It just happened.”
“I’m tired of having to assume everything.” She’s able to speak now, though still fighting back tears. “Once in a while, you could show some affection or say something besides ‘today, we go west’ or ‘we’re out of water.’ For once, we were gathered around a table with some somewhat normal people, despite their difference in beliefs. And you run them off.”
“For the last time,” I answer back, sharply, then lower my voice, “I did not run them off. They’re right down the street.”
“Then please, for me, tomorrow, please be more pleasant and open minded. Would it be so bad to have them around?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t. I think they’re dangerous.” I pause and look at her. She has stopped crying, but the confused Hell known as puberty is all over her face. I owe her. “But tomorrow will be different. I promise.”
I shock both of us by walking over and embracing her tightly for the first time since the night I rescued her, and she receives the fatherly embrace by enthusiastically clinging to me as well.
“By the way,” she whispered. “I guess the whole no name is out the window, huh?”
“Yeah, funny how that happens. Everyone thinks names are so damn important.”
She breaks our embrace so she can look into my eyes. “Mine’s Jenny.”
I smile and shake her hand. “Gunnery Sergeant Randall Stephen Bishop at your command, my lady.”
She laughs louder and longer at this than any time since we met. Laughter has become so rare. I never knew if it was my awkward presentation or the name itself she found so damn funny, but, for whatever reason, she decided to stick with Raven.
“Jenny, I will tell you how I know these guys are wrong. Something I haven’t told you about me and the Murmurers. But not tonight, okay?”
“I guess I can accept that. It has been a long day and night.”
We turn in for the night and everything is okay with the world again for about three and a half hours.
They always come at night, as most cowards do, and have a knack for catching us off-guard. Surprisingly, despite the anxiety of the day, I am dead to the world when they show up. It is not the Murmurers themselves that wake me up, but Rod and Penny, out in the street, crying out: "The time is here again! We see them in the distance."
Snapped alert, I throw on some clothes and that was when I heard them--the low moans and shrill screams of those torturers of the night.
"Jenny!" I shout into the darkness. Figures the first time I use her name it is to issue an order. "Stay put! No matter what happens." Then I yell out the window to the idiots below. "Shut your mouths down there, you crazy bastards!”
Now those two fools have conjured the whole nutty group, and they spread out in the street, waiting for the monsters they perceive as some kind of twisted Messiahs. Well, that alone is fine by me. If these morons want to get themselves killed, or Taken, or whatever the hell they choose to call this meeting of the Murmurers—that’s just fine. The problem is they’re involving the kid and me in their decision tonight. That is unacceptable.
Looking out my window, I see the Murmurer’s familiar grey mist gathering, bringing their foul odors into town along with them. This world of fog and stench and shrieking--how could Sweeney and his bunch think this was a portal to anywhere but Hell? The first phantom emerges from the mist, like some kind of primordial ooze, and then slowly becomes that of a man, or the shadow of what once was a man.
"Vincent!" someone shouts out from the group.
"What's happening?" I hear the kid whisper, realizing she is now at my side.
"I told you to stay put."
"I'm just right here." She smiles at me, that certain smile that always gets her way. "Not down there, at least."
"These damn fools are dangerous."
"Leanne called that one a name," she says, looking down at the scene below. "I don't see a face on it at all."
"More evidence these guys are crackers."
We watch in silence as Naomi, the younger daughter, moves towards the Murmurer. Dressed in a bright red cloak, the creature appears almost seven feet tall, unless Naomi is a lot shorter than I remembered. Beneath the hood is a shapeless glob of flesh without a face. There is a rumor that only the one the Murmurer has come for can see its face, but I know that’s a lie, and apparently I am correct since now both of these sisters seem to recognize the thing.
It reaches out its arms and begins some kind of infernal chanting. This chanting is not as painful on the ears as the shrieking, but it sounds demonic to me, if anything, and it was hard to believe these idiots could think the opposite was true. At least the rest of the Murmurers have fallen mercifully silent as this one faces Naomi. Soon Naomi is under its spell, frozen like a statue before it, drooling and wide-eyed as though in some hypnotic trance.
"Vincent," she whispers again, seeing a face where there is not one.
The kid draws close to me, obviously a little frightened, and then I remember she was never seen anyone Taken before. Her folks disappeared in the initial chaos and I had thus far kept us isolated from most other people, and the Murmurers.
"Not on my watch," I mutter, and then shout out the window: "Hey dickhead!"
Sweeney glares at me, appalled by my language and pissed off that I am intruding. This matters little to me, for the last thing I'm going to allow is for any town I'm held up in to become a safe haven for these creatures.
"You with no face! Up here."
The thing looks in my direction and shuts up for a just a second, but long enough to break Naomi's trance.
"No--don't stop him. It's Vincent!" Naomi shouts at me.
Sweeney adds his two cents from down below: "Stay out of this, Mister Raven. He's come for her. To bring her home. Peacefully.”
The Murmurer just stands there for a moment, waiting, taking it all in. The faceless creature grows two crystal blue eyes and stares at me.
“Obviously don’t know who you’re screwing with here,” I mumble lightly. My reputation as Man Who Doesn’t Give A Shit Or Scare Too Easily had apparently not reached this creature or his brood. His eyes turn blood-red as he glares at me more venomously. I just laugh loudly at his attempts to intimidate.
"Whoever Vincent is--or was--this ain't him. Don't you people get it?"
The thing cocks its head as I speak, like I’m some kind of alien. The kid looks at me, confused, as though part of her wants to believe Sweeney's simplistic reading of the Murmurers, but at the same time she has grown to trust me implicitly. I had delivered us from far worse predicaments than the one playing out here.
"You have a right to your opinion, Mister Raven,” Sweeney calls up to me. “We look upon this creature and see Vincent, her dead husband, come to take Naomi home."
In that instant, as the thing still looks at me, a face appears, of a young man, with the same blue eyes that had been staring at me earlier. It grows sandy blonde hair, and produces a smile that reeked of innocence and ignorance.
Jenny gasps. I know what she is thinking and counter her confusion by saying: "Don't go there, kiddo. Stay with me. It's a trick. The thing probably read her thoughts.”
Below us, the Murmurer faces Naomi again and approaches her. Drawing very close, her face is filled with warmth and acceptance of the figure before her. It begins murmuring again, torturously, growing from a low moan to a high pitched shriek that causes us all to cover our ears, trying in vain to blot out the confounded noise.
"Son of a bitch!" I exclaim, rushing down stairs and out the door. "Stay put!" I order Jenny in vain, for she is at my heels.
Once I am in the street, Sweeney rushes me like a lunatic, crying out bullshit like: “let him take her” and “it’s not your business.”
“Like hell, it’s not,” I hiss at him, barely audible, knowing he’s not listening to me any more than I to him. “You brought this fight here, not me.” I draw the knife, the weapon acquired months earlier.
The thing the strangers insist on calling Vincent embraces Naomi and she closes her eyes, surrendering as he draws her near. At the sight of the knife, the other Murmurers surround me, howling at me in rage, understanding my intentions.
“No!” I shout as I approach the Vincent-thing with the knife. Dozens of Murmurers cling to me, slowing down each step I take. If Naomi believes, and succumbs, there is little I can do. I will not reach her in time, I realize, and in the next instant both Murmurer and victim shimmer like a hologram for a few seconds and then disappear.
I sheath the knife, but the gang of fiends holding me tightens their grip. Usually, all of them disappear after Taking their latest victim, but they are angry and want to attack instead. “Fuck all of you,” I breathe and draw the knife again, slashing their arms and featureless faces.
Jenny has reached me now and her mouth gapes open as she witnesses this sight for the first time--Me against Them.
“What are you doing?” Sweeney shouts at me. “Leave them alone.”
Then one of the tall, really mean bastards picks me up and raises me above his head. His formless face has only one Cyclopean amber eye, dripping with pus. “Put me down,” I order it, giving it one chance. It laughs venomously, underestimating my potential. I slash its eye with my crystal blade and it writhes in pain as I slash its throat. With only the slightest stroke, the magical blade creates a cut so deep it nearly decapitates the thing. Its disgusting head flays comically behind it, and then it drops me to the ground.
Jenny runs to my side, crying, not knowing what to think, and Sweeney, Sarah and Tyler are standing above me, looking down in disgust. I look around and see the Murmurers are gone. Jenny helps me to my feet and the others just keep staring at me silently for a few long moments.
“What in the name of God was all that about?” Tyler cries out to me. “That was Naomi’s late husband. He fell off a cliff ledge a few weeks ago and she has mourned him since. Why were you interfering? And what’s that?” He points to the knife, covered in slime and blood.
“You used to be a cop or something I take it, jackass? Don’t interrogate me. You have no idea—“
“Stop—both of you!” demands Sweeney. “Obviously Mister Raven here has not been totally honest with us.”
I wipe the blade clean on my pants. “It’s for your safety. Trust me.”
“I would like to know, too, Raven,” adds Jenny, accenting the fact that she is using my name again. “Who have I been traveling with? Why are you attacking them?”
“They’re not exactly throwing me a party either, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
Tyler again. “Yeah, they don’t seem to like you much. What is going on here?”
“I told you to back off, dickhead. I’m not talking to you at all anymore. Sweeney here’s your leader—I’ll deal with him.”
“What about me?” Jenny blurts out. “We’re a team, remember?”
“Of course, kid. You and me and Sweeney—tomorrow. Let’s all try to get some sleep.”
After some initial further grumbling, they agree to act on my advice. I curse myself for staying with the kid so long, for stopping here and getting involved with others again, for I knew from experience this only leads to catastrophe. My unique relationship with the Murmurers always makes things shaky—I am always better off alone. But Jenny would not have survived alone. I have always known that, and I took this chance for her, but now I am once more painted into a corner and this time my lies will probably not be enough for me to tiptoe my way back out again.
We go our separate ways in silence. After the kid is asleep, I take some pills to keep me alert for another twelve hours or more because I don’t want to sleep. I succumb to sleep after all, however, a sleep filled with nightmares, and the return of the Murmurer replica of myself, taunting my efforts to elude them.
There is no way out. I have to tell them all about my experience with the Murmurers. Once told, I could almost guarantee I would be traveling alone once more.
I wake up from my fitful sleep to find that the kid is gone. This is not good. She is upset with me and I fear what the others may say to pollute her thoughts.
My fears are realized when I find her outside consorting with Rod, the single guy tagging along with this crazy bunch. Apparently his girlfriend was Taken fairly early on and soon thereafter he met Sweeney.
As I approach them, my initial impression is their hug is innocent enough, but my anger grows as I draw nearer to find out it is the embrace of lovers, and they are kissing. They see me and pull apart from one another, sensing my anger.
“Raven,” Rod says, smiling, feigning innocence.
“What’s going on, Jenny?”
She glares at me. “Oh, I think you know. And I’m sure you have an opinion.”
“You know how I feel about these people. No offense, Rod.”
“None taken. We’re not wild about you either.”
“You do make the least sense in this group.”
“Whatever. I’m not going to argue with you.”
“I understand your loss, but isn’t this a bit soon to be—“
“To what?” Jenny interrupts. “It was just a kiss. My second in my lousy life. You act like you’re my father or something. Can’t you let me be, for once?”
I remain silent for a few long moments and look at them. What is the big deal, really? She is, I would guess, about seventeen or so, red hair and blue eyes, the kind of girl that would be pursued in any high school. If the Turning never happened, she would be in a San Francisco apartment right now, arguing her case with her parents to date this man, older than her but arguably pure of heart. I let it go.
“I’m sorry. If you’re not an adult, you’re close enough in this mess of a world. And I know I’m not your father, or anyone’s.” After a long uncomfortable pause, I add: “I would make a pretty shitty parent.”
That’s it. My usual righteous indignation, “have to get the last word” act, and then I walk away.
If the kid is going to let love, lust, or both, come crashing into the situation, the seeds of her destruction are already being sown. It’s just such a bitch that I let myself get so attached this time to my latest victim of circumstance.
As I walk away I say, in my all business tone: “I’ll be waiting in the place where we ate together last night. Bring Sweeney and I’ll tell you what you all want to know. Just you and Sweeney. Take your time—no rush.”
And since there is no rush, I decide to pass the time retreating to my past, the past before the kid, when my personal vices could only harm myself. I had not drunk a drop since I saved her, and she obviously knew nothing of the effects of alcohol and thus did not discern at least half of my nervous and hostile behavior was caused by lack of the drink. Now, as it seemed things were going to crash and burn once more, I let down my guard and grab from the shelves of that abandoned tavern that which we had all left pristine on the shelf the night before. I find a thirty year old bottle of scotch and just start chugging it down, like a baby nursing after hours of sleep.
A couple hours later, Sweeney and Jenny find me half-crocked but coherent enough to tell them what they want to know. When my narrative is complete, I tell them I will not interfere with their plans and that I will leave alone the next day. Jenny puts up a fight at first, but after hearing my story it comes pretty easy to decide to jump ship and stay with the lunatics. I am something far more dangerous.
In the middle of the next night, I hear the return of the Murmurers.
Ironically, passing out from the booze had brought me the soundest sleep in months. I knew the drinking and its affects would be the last straw for the kid, and she would bond with her new family. With me, she had merely survived, but with them she could find much more. Love, hope, other concepts lost to me long ago.
Awake and realizing how many hours must have passed, I know Sweeney and the rest of them had done enough damage to pull her away from me for good. However, moments later I would find out just how far their influence had festered in those few hours.
I walk outside and see the approach of those creatures of the night again, but this time, as promised, I will not interfere. As I stand there, I wonder if it is the return of alcohol in my veins, or my passive nature for once that allows the change occurring in this encounter with the Murmurers. There is certainly no sense in the fact that, as I watch the mist give way to their cloaked human forms, I am at ease, almost at peace. Where once there was shrieking, I only hear a calm humming, and where I once saw monsters I now simply see lost souls come to take their counterparts to some better place in the afterlife. I am still an outsider, make no mistake there. They do not even acknowledge me as I watch in awe. One by one, each member of Sweeney’s band is Taken in this calm and sanctioned abduction.
Once all the strangers are Taken, only the kid remains between the fog of Murmurers and me. One of the Murmurers throws back its hood and its face is that of a beautiful woman about my age, with long flowing red hair and sincere crystal blue eyes. The instant the thought reaches me—“she looks like a grown up version of Jenny”—I realize that this is already the end for the kid. I knew this would happen, just not so suddenly.
“Mommy!” Jenny cries out, suddenly seeming much younger, stripped of any hardness I instilled in her. Then she turns to me and whispers, barely audibly, “I’m sorry. I chose to believe.”
I look at her, sorrowful for myself, but glad for her, and all the while wondering why this night I am able to see the Murmurers through her eyes, and those of the strangers. Is what I see before me now the truth? And have I been creating the more sinister version all this time?
I feel tears in my eyes for the first time in years as I answer her finally. “Then I can’t help you. Goodbye.” I wave and she waves back. “Go find out for yourself, and if I have been wrong all this time, I am sorry.”
There is nothing else to say. She nods, and then turns back to her Murmurer, and in their embrace they disappear, and I am once more alone in the darkness.
After the Turning, many of my friends and acquaintances succumbed to the secondary phenomenon known as the Taking. There were many theories concerning being Taken, and I decided it did not matter which one was true, I would resist it. Nothing personal really, resistance was just my nature. After three wars, two of them of actual significance in my mind, fighting was my way of life, whether in some far away land or in my own living room.
This resistance of the Murmurers led to the fateful night of my encounter with them that is my blessing or my curse, depending on one’s outlook.
Most often, the Murmurer that Takes someone is in the form of a relative or loved one, but when they came for me I was one of the rare humans whose Murmurer is their identical twin. Nobody knows for sure why this happens every so often, but the night it happened to me I freaked out. Initially, I embraced denial, assuming I was having a nightmare or that someone was playing an elaborate trick on me. Once these possibilities were eliminated, I stood in horror before a cloaked and perverse copy of myself. His eyes were larger and more intense than I would have imagined mine could ever have been, and his head was bald, but beyond that it was me.
It murmured at me, chillingly, and I tried to discern any actual words within the annoying sound. It raised its arms, ready to embrace me in its cloak, as I had witnessed being done to others many times before, but this time, my time, I reacted instinctively. I pulled a knife from my belt and plunged it deep into the belly of my Other.
The moment the contact was made, I knew my mistake had extraordinary consequences. My Other howled in agony and shock as a bright white-hot light engulfed the entire area from Its belly to about my forearm. Enormous power, like an extremely high and dangerous electrical current ran through my body and I began howling back at the contorted face before me, the face of my twin.
The Murmurer slumped and disappeared, and then other Murmurers charged me. An instant later, however, they froze in place, staring at the knife in my hand. When my twin had disappeared, the shock of the electricity was gone with it, and my arm had gone completely numb. I looked at the knife in my hand again, noticing it had turned from metal to a shining crystal, with a blue tint that seemed almost more like a sapphire.
I will never know exactly what occurred when I slaughtered my twin, but somehow that action transformed my ordinary weapon into one capable of killing the Murmurers. In that brief period of time they were frozen before me, I used the knife to test this theory and slaughtered two more before they vanished.
I have only confessed this to a handful of people since it occurred, for it always has the same effect--the listener fears me, is disgusted by me, for most of the theories regarding the Murmurers somehow revolve around them being “a part of us,” whether they are souls, as Sweeney believed, or some fractured part of us separated in the Turning of the World.
In short, if Sweeney and those like him are correct, I am a man without a soul.
That is why I bowed out of the situation after I told Sweeney and Jenny the truth.
So, after another night of alcoholic slumber, I pack up as much as I can carry, this time adding booze and pills into my supplies once more, and I wander away from the ghost town and, hopefully, from the Murmurers for a while longer.
I am alone again, as it should be, the man without a soul, with the dangerous dagger that can destroy Murmurers. That is the other problem with my uniqueness. If Sweeney and others like him are correct, I have not just destroyed my own soul, but those of the other people whose Murmurer I have slaughtered. If this is true, I am certainly beyond redemption. I must have been a fool to think I had a purpose, that I could somehow “save” Jenny. On the other hand, perhaps my purpose was bringing her to the town where she could meet Sweeney and be prepared for her end.
I long ago gave up on trying to second guess these things. I will now go back to mere existence, my life before the kid (it hurts too much to use her name any longer), mere survival and violence my only reaction to my encounters with the Murmurers.
I think again about my dream in the town the night before Sweeney and the others arrived. My twin in the dream pointed his finger at me and asked who would stop me? My answer is the kid stopped me, in the few brief months of something near love and concern for others she aroused within me. But how can I attest to feelings like that if I have no soul?
This keeps me in motion, one foot in front of the other, like a shark in the ocean that will die if it stops moving, the chance that someday there may be some sense to this miserable existence. In the meantime, I walk, I sleep, and I ingest nutrition and defecate. There is nothing more, save the possible hope that perhaps a soul can be made, or another could be given me, if I somehow find a way to love and believe again. Maybe then, I will also understand my purpose and why I carry the sapphire knife that seems to burn in my pocket as I walk.
In the meantime, the world grows empty and the road is long, and the damned man who slaughtered his own soul travels onward.
The Chronicles of Raven
Will Continue in:
Once Out of Nature
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