his vignette was the last piece completed for my third short story collection Needles & Sins. As with my last collection, the lineup of the book was set and I'd thought of a title... and then after thinking about the title for a bit, one day I suddenly had a story in mind to go with it. So the title story was actually a last-minute addition that now opens the collection.
Originally published in the collection Needles & Sins
Necro Publications, October 2007
e heard the song before he felt the pain. Just a whisper on the edge of wanton breath. A woman's breath, light and sweet. She moved in the shadows beyond his head, and the melody lurked just behind the heat of her earthy scent as his eyes struggled to open. To wake to this new place.
That's when the piercing began. That's when his eyes snapped open — no longer able to just drowsily think about it — and his body convulsed, and in a flash he saw:
…His chest laid open, a red, gory river snaking its way from somewhere below his neck to his belly button…
…His ribs glittering like a pearly cage of broken bones in the yellow lamplight…
…His gleaming, helpless organs revealed like a deli tray of cannibalistic delights…
…His genitals lolling like broken meat across a slack thigh, spattered with spots of crimson…
…His toes, purpled and bruised, spasming at the end of the table he lay upon…
…A white hand, fingers long and thin, pulling a long, hooked needle through the far end of the fatal gash near his belly and trailing an almost invisible fleshtone thread in the air behind it…
The song stopped, and a warm wetness slid across his forehead. Her tongue. A kiss. "Shhhhh," the liquid voice intoned. "We've only just begun."
"What happened?" he moaned, biting his tongue harder and harder until he felt the warmth of blood pass his lips as the woman's thread passed lower, through his torn flesh. He struggled to remember, but nothing would come. "Why am I so torn up?"
She whispered two words in answer. "You lived."
The needle dipped into a bowl of liquid near his ribs, and came out dripping golden rain in the weak light. Then it moved to touch the hamburger of his abdomen again. "Remember your wife?" the voice coaxed, and in a flash, he saw Sharlene circa age 32, just as she was trying her damnedest to make it work between them…
"Whatever you want," his wife moaned in the shadows of 2 a.m. He grinned, a lustshark in the bloodscented water of twilight and pushed her face down, down to the place where he knew Sharlene hated, where he knew she would feel defiled and humiliated, to the place that would haunt her dreams with feelings of self loathing and inadequacy. He knew all about her inner demons, but at that deepsea moment he didn't care, not then, not when he knew what could come, or cum, of it… "Yes," he grinned. "Suck it good."
The pain jolted him from the memory, an electric cattle prod.
He tried to push away from the table with his arms, but nothing moved. He was helpless beneath her song, and her needle. "Goddamnit!" he cried.
"Oh…he did," the whispering woman agreed with his curse. Again her needle left his torso, trailed bloodslick thread high in the air and descended to the bowl to be baptized with a splash of…something. And once cleansed of the stain of his gut, the needle hooked through his skin once more.
"What about your son?" the perfumed breath whispered over his eyelids. "Did you love him?"
Barry looked up from the hole he'd dug in the yard in panic. "Dad, I didn't mean to ruin the grass, honest, I was just looking for locusts, you know, that might have nests that got buried…"
His hand slapped the boy's face almost without thinking. The boy needed to learn. Learn to respect property, people. How dare he just start digging a hole in the middle of the lawn that had just been resodded a month ago? Barry had to learn…
Charles' hand came down again, clipping the boy in the lip and cuffing his head. In that moment, the sweet, wetlipped infant he'd once cradled in his arms metamorphed into a foul stain on his white sheets. In Charles' heart, Barry became nothing more than a nuisance, a delinquent, a problem, problem, problem child that had locked him down to a life he never wanted…
"Dad, I'm sorry, I won't do it again," Barry begged, tears already staining the dust on his face as he scrambled away from the pile of broken grass and muddy earth and launched his feet in a scramble for the house where mom and safety lie. But Charles' hand caught the hem of his shirt and yanked him off balance.
Charles right hand came down. "I'll show you sorry…"
"He needed to learn to respect property!"
"Of course he did," the woman whispered. "A broken arm is a good lesson. One he'd remember."
"I didn't mean…" Charles started to say, but then broke off to scream as the hook dug into the tight part of his flesh, just above the sternum.
"Why are you doing this to me?" he cried.
"Your life is one long thread. I'm just making you whole," she said. And she began to hum. He could hear the words in her melody, words about pride, and tears and needles.
"Ohhhh," he moaned. As the tip dug into the space above his rib, he looked down and saw slack, dead white flesh and sickly black hair curled atop it like leavings. The remains of his day.
"Why did you live alone at the end?" she asked.
The glass was cool against his lips and he smiled in the golden light of its love. Okay, it didn't love…but it was what he loved. What he needed. He remembered the last time he'd had a woman here, in the tiny space that he'd carved out for himself just off the broken pavement of 8th Avenue. The complex was a last stop for most, but he'd covered the uneven walls of his purloined space with a $10 can of beige paint that he'd watered down to make it go farther and thus had hidden most of the cracks in its distressed drywall. He pretended that he lived in a home and that the soybeans he ate tasted like filet. He'd stuffed blankets in the draughty cracks that separated the walls from the floor and the windows from the walls and most of the time in the winter, he kept the place above 50 degrees. With a bottle of Jack Daniels a day, he could make it feel like the place was warm, while his flesh shivered unheeded in the cold.
The phone rang, and he almost dropped his glass. The phone never rang. Probably just another creditor or solicitor, he thought, brain buzzing with the metallic jolt of whiskey. Still, he answered it, pressing the cool plastic to the scratchy whiskers of his chin. Idly he scratched at the dry skin there as he said, "Yeah? What can I do you for?"
"Dad," a voice said from a faraway crackle. "I need help."
"Buy me a beer," he answered, and laughed as he dropped the phone between two couch cushions. He looked for it squirting in the shadows, but his hand didn't seem to have the energy to dig between the seams to retrieve it. Instead he fell back and closed his eyes. From somewhere far away, he heard a voice calling his name, but he no longer felt like answering…
The needle dug closer, and his eyes shot open, wider than wide in agony. A jet of crimson spurted like a geyser from some lost artery near his heart, and he gagged on the bile that gathered in the pit of his throat. "Stop," he gagged.
"…the tears I gotta hide," the woman's voice whispered, singing along with the tune she'd been humming with every stitch. "Needles and sins," she laughed softly, and completed the stitch as his body jolted against her hand. "Needles and sins."
Charles was 16, and glad to be away. He crept through the cattails holding his BB gun like an army rifle. He was ready to use it. That's when he saw the mouse scurry down the trampled path to disappear into the crumpled mass of stalks and dirt. He kicked off the top of the mound and laughed as momma mouse bolted away from the nest, leaving four pink, hairless babies to sniff and paw at the air, blinded by the unnatural light of the day. He cocked the air socket of the gun, aimed and blew tiny ball bearings through the thin skins of those helpless rodents. One, two, three, four. Tiny circles of blood blotted their purplish bodies, and the mice shuddered and clutched each other as they collapsed onto the matted grass of their once comfortable nest. They couldn't understand the sudden change in their lives from warmth to pain, but mercifully, they died in seconds, just like the…
The needle plunged deep, drawing its thread tight.
…love that died as Charles lifted his hand for the first time when Gwendolyn told him in the back seat of his Chevy Citation to cut it out, that really hurt and maybe he should try learning some manners the next time before he touched a woman as if she was just another piece of trash for the curb, but he didn't listen and her spit and blood coated his hand as she turned away in hurt and shame just like the way…
The needle dipped into the bowl, and dripping cool sting, slipped inside his flesh again.
…happiness died as Charles looked at his daughter in her prom dress and laughed, saying "who do you think you are, the reakin' Queen of Siam? Do you think the other kids are going to go out looking like that?" And as Rachel's face crumbled into a black hole of betrayal…
The needle dripped and stitched, washing his flesh clean of blood as it closed his exposed organs back up within.
… Trust died as Charles promised that he'd be home on time tonight, and instead stopped off, just for one nip, just one, just one more, just a quick last taste…
"Stop, please stop," he begged.
But she only whispered from behind his head, her voice sweet as spring lilies. "Still they begin," she said. "Needles and sins."
…And Ambition died as Charles watched the next hotshot and the next and the next walk past his cube over the years atop the soulless grey carpet to take a manager's office at the end of the hall. An office with a door. And at last, one night he walked into that envied office and sat himself in the chair of his boss, 10 years his junior, who had left for home and cocktail parties two hours before, leaving Charles to work alone, pulling the weight for both of them. Charles sat in that leatherbacked chair, and leaned back to stare at the framed poster on the otherwise sterile wall that featured the block letters spelling SUCCESS in a black bar at the bottom and at long last, years in the making, he began to cry.
The needle now closed the livid tear near his throat, the end of a long scar of twisted, bloody, knotted flesh. "They say not to sweat the small stuff," the woman whispered behind his head. "But that's what it's all about…"
"I wasn't like that all the time," he said, and then moaned, "It hurts."
Images clustered in his mind's eye of his wife and kids and broken dreams mixed with the memories of dying mice and the spiderwebbed glass of the car his parents last drove in and the pink slip that sent him from a broken home to the apartment where the liquor drove away the cold. And then his memories fled like dandelion seeds in an angry April breeze.
The voices reverberated from inside, first louder, but then muffled, as the woman pulled the last skein of thread through his suppurating skin.
"It will hurt," she whispered, humming softly into his ear. "It will hurt forever."
"But why?" he moaned, trying without success to lift his arm to touch the horrible stitching that held him together and formed a knot at his heart.
"Because you lived."
At last she moved so that he could see her. After tying off the thread that wound and bound inside him, she picked up the bowl of liquid. Her chin thrust into the dull shadow in stark, bone white, heavy eyes shone black as night water. She drank the deadly liquid from the bowl and grinned, her teeth stark in bony sockets stripped of flesh.
"Every stitch soaks my poison into the flesh," she grinned. "Just like every sin poisons the soul."
"So this is the end," he whined. "All of my days done?
She only laughed.
Behind her, Charles watched the black shadow of wings unfurl in the wavering amber of the room's deadly light.
"Still they begin," she whispered and gathered him to her to start again… her needles and his sins.