Here is the reprint of this story I started last April. I hope to add to this story in the coming weeks!
Sammy Samuels wasn’t bothered by the late-night Philadelphia air. In fact, he rather enjoyed its touch of briskness. Made him feel more alive on his walks home. His breath plumed, funneling out and trailed behind the old man’s head. As he walked along the street, he whistled an old favorite R & B tune to himself. A large smile was stretched across his face. There were touches of gray along the edges of his afro. In his left hand, he held a smoldering, snubbed cigar and in the other, he carried a bottle of Jim Beam Bourbon.
As Sammy crested the hill on Jacobson St., he first spotted it. He skidded to a stop, and he stiffened in spite of himself. “Whoa. What in the hell is that?” he muttered under his breath.
At the bottom, in the hollow, at the corner of Jacobson and Alan Derry St., sat one of the ugliest statues he’d ever seen in his life. It was of a dog, a large one, possibly a German Shepherd. It sat facing back up at the hill. The streetlamp overhead gave it a wide spotlight of yellowish light. The statue’s fur was a natural patchwork of tan, brown and black. However, above its snout was a red plastic mask, white X’s over its eyes.
Never seen that here before, he mused. Sick joke or something.
He didn’t find it amusing. He’d come down this way a few times before from Delta Blues Liquor Store. He always had to when he’d miss the last running Metro bus like he did tonight. He was sure he’d have noticed that gaudy thing.
Sammy shook his head, chuckled, and returned to whistling his favorite song. One of them millennial artists musta placed it there recently. Prolly got some sort of statement and story behind it. Nowadays, everyone has something to say. An opinion that everyone just has to listen to!
He shook his head once more with disdain. Halfway down the hill, he stopped again. He nearly dropped his half-finished bottle. To the right of the street and sitting dutifully on both sides of a door were two more of the statues. Same red masks with the white Xs, different shades of fur. The pair were placed in front of Rawley’s Deli.
Sammy instinctively glanced to the left to see if there were dog statues posted as the others. Nothing. As habit, he scratched one temple with an index finger as he stood confused.
Instead of more statues, he only found a small alley entrance. Two tall brick buildings and several brown, city garbage bins crowded the alley. A flickering fluorescent light hung off one building, but it was further back at the end.
He looked back at the three dogs one by one, looking for a poster or sign to further elaborate on the work’s meanings. Again nothing.
Sammy shrugged, took a long swig from the bottle which he followed with a deep drag off his cigar.
He stepped forward, cursing the way the world was so over-populated with opinionated assholes and full of self-righteousness these darkening days, when he spotted the fourth dog statue. It was sitting motionless alongside the first one at Jacobson St. corner.
This time the bottle did drop and shattered at his feet. What da hell? Where did that one come from?
The dogs tilted their heads together, slowly to the right as dogs do, as if listening to his inner questions.
Sammy’s heart raced and his chest tightened with sudden fear. He took an involuntary step backward. Swiveling his head to the left then right, he looked to see if anyone else happened to be out at this late hour. He prayed he would spy someone — anyone – and not another dog statue!
Were they statues? The shocking question bubbled up in his mind.
No one else was out. Most of the store fronts were dark and closed. Due to the recent cold spell, no one was out or near the apartment buildings or out on their stoop either.
Three more dogs appeared. They strolled out from another alleyway ahead of him, walking in a line. They sat upon their haunches, in formation upon the sidewalk. Then they too tilted their heads in question.
Almost like they’re asking me ‘what the fuck you gonna do, old man? It’s your move. What’s your thoughts?’
His tongue snaked out quick and wet his lips. Sammy had grown up on the streets. He had toughened it out, surviving many fights and ambushes. He was cagey, yet it had been some time since he’d had to use those skills.
Whatcha gonna do?
Someone snapped their fingers together.
Like a bullet from a gun, the hounds bound to their feet and bolted at him.
He lurched forward to the left, but after two steps, he stutter-stepped then spun on his sneaker heels. He backtracked up the hill as fast as his arthritic joints would carry him. When he topped it, a fist caught him squarely in the nose and rocked him off his feet. He never saw it coming. He tumbled backwards and rolled along the street’s gutter.
When he came to a stop at the bottom, Sammy sputtered and spit blood as he laid panting on his back.
Sammy heard the patter of paws, sharp claws scraping against the tar road. The old man gulped and held brave to the thought he’d be alright. He’d be home soon, safe and relaxing in his comfy recliner and eating a microwave dinner in a quick hour. You’ll see. They’ll leave ya alone as you ain’t got nothin’.
He tried to ignore the painful sharp stings as their jaws clamped onto his wrists. As well, he didn’t resist as they dragged him toward the empty, shadowy alley. Inside the alley’s dark confines, more jaws snapped close upon his limbs. He kept his eyes squeezed shut.
Lord, I’ve been a good man for some time now. Please see me through this, he prayed inside. While he did have a strong faith, he also believed in the idea that the blessed be those who help themselves too.
He opened one eye then the other. The pack of dogs had surrounded him, their hot breaths baked his skin. Their fur was spikey, greasy and matted with mud and feces. A rotted, fetid stench from their breath and bodies soured his stomach, almost making him vomit. His arms and legs were held aloft by two dogs each. They were keeping him down but hadn’t actually torn at him, only imprisoning him. The person who struck him on the street was nowhere in sight.
“What? Hello?” Sammy’s voice was shaky and shrill, pleading. “I ain’t got much, mister, but it’s yours!”
But, no one came to take his wallet. No reply. He didn’t hear dog or man.
“Look! It’s okay. I get it. But I didn’t see you, only your dogs. I can’t ID you. I wouldn’t. Hell, dude, who’s gonna believe an old drunk anyway. You take what I have, just don’t hurt me anymore, okay?”
As an answer a massive jaw gripped his thin throat, choking him. Trickles of blood droplets dripped to the dirty concrete beneath him.
A gravely yet smug voice called out from somewhere above Sammy’s prone position. “Samuel Jeremiah Samuels. Born in 1948, survived a pair of ex-wives. Father to two sons who you haven’t spoken to in years. Retired as a building engineer when we all know you were only a glorified handyman. Now pitiful, broke, and useless to all around him.” The voice droned with other trivial information. It was masculine and judgmental. As the tirade continued, a pair of slick, lime green boots walked up next to his head. They were wet and caked in odd, slimy mud that smelled faintly of fish and worm. The rest of his view obscured by the bulky dog bodies.
“What do you want? Lemme go! You have no right to do this to me!” Sammy gasped out from under the mane of the dog.
“Oh Sammy. Going to go down that road? Deep down you know what’s happening. You know what I’m doing and why. It’s your Judgment Day. No right, you say? No, sir, I have every right and from the day you first understood your ol’ Granny’s words. She taught you that sins pile up and you’d one day have to atone.”
“Bullshit,” Sammy’s weak dismissal didn’t have much strength behind it.
A flash of memory popped in Sammy’s head. It was of the Sunday, when he’d been five years old and had been caught stealing with his two friends. They had been snaking dollar bills from the church’s tithe baskets while everyone else was in Sunday School. His Granny Josie had used a thin tree branch to deliver her punishment. She followed up with a fifteen-minute sermon on sinnin’ and doin’ the devil’s work. The Devil to Sammy was the worst of the world’s boogeymen. He learned later that the world harbored a multitude of monsters. Whoever this attacker was, he was right about him. He knew what sinning was from an early age.
Another snap of fingers.
Excruciating pain filled Sammy. Every nerve inside shrieked with agony. Muscles and skin tore, blood poured or fountained all about the alley. His muffled screams garbled by the penetrating fangs in his throat. His limbs flailed and writhed but were not released.
An orange aura of energy floated down over him. White flickering lightning bolts popped and lit up the alley. It blinded him so he couldn’t see much of the shadowy dark profile standing over him.
“I can keep you like this as long as I want, Sammy. I won’t let you die, you see. Can’t have you escape me so easily. You cannot outlast me either. It’s a new trick I picked up with… With my promotion. This pain, this Rending of your soul, it can last for eternity. So you see, I have brought your Granny’s Hell to you!” the Dark Form laughed.
Then Granny Josie’s voice howled out of the stranger’s mouth, “Sammy! Sammy, you stop livin’ like this! You be a good man. Those gangs are not for you. They pretendin’ to be your family. They usin’ you up and will throw you away just as easy! Stop your sinnin’, boy!”
Those were the actual words she had used when she bailed him out of jail the third time. The drive home had seemed torturous and infinite to him. But now… after she was long gone and buried, the words seemed like purity and wisdom. If only it hadn’t been another four years before he straightened up and wanted more in his life.
The laughter continued as the pain ratcheted up. The dogs yanked and thrust all about. First, they tore his arms from the elbow joints. Then tugged the stubs away at the shoulders. They worked away his feet and gnawed apart his knees.
The Dark Form’s words oozed into his ears. The menacing tone flooded through him over the sounds of his screams and pleas for mercy. “This will all end. Can all end and the sins washed clean, if you only say the words. You only need to say, I give unto Thee! Your appeals for mercy are sweet and savory to my ears, but I have a more demanding pallet! Give all to me, follow what you are told. If you do this, you will be free. Can you do that, Sammy? Are you going to say those four simple words? I give unto Thee!”
The jaws at his throat tightened further and crushed his windpipe between the molars. His spine snapping like kindling. Blood poured up and out of his mouth, splattering his face and chest. His skull cracked hard on the concrete as it separated and rolled away from his shoulders. Agony and fire filled his mind, consuming him.
“SAY IT, SAMMY! GIVE YOUR SOUL TO ME! SAVE IT OR THE HOUNDS WILL TEAR YOU INTO HUNDREDS OF PIECES WHICH YOU WILL FEEL EACH AND EVERY BIT OF!” The Dark Form screeched in a mad frenzy.
As two hounds chewed at his face and ears, pulling and stretching, Sammy gave in.
He couldn’t speak, his body was mutilated, unrecognizable. Yet the words I give unto Thee! filled his mind.
The Dark Form somehow knew. Although, he didn’t stop the relentless mauling right away. The dogs’ violence escalated.
A pair of hounds were at his neck, drinking and lapping up his blood. Others were eating his intestines and finding other organ delicacies. His genitals were caught in a vicious three-way tug of war.
All of it, Samuel Jeremiah Samuels felt and heard in a suspended state of life.
The Dark Form finally snapped its fingers once more. The carnage came to a bloody, frothy end. The Rending ceased.
“Your life is over as you know it. Your life and oath are forever bound to me now. You will wait for my needs, you will heed my words.” The Dark Form paused then uttered a single word.
This time Sammy felt it rather than heard.
Hours later, Sammy lay unconscious behind the garbage bins, taking shallow breaths. Finally, he sat up and looked around him. He was alone. No dog or man. Or whatever that Dark Form was!
He absently scratched at his temple, stood and hugged his arms to his chest. It was still cold that early Philadelphia morning as he made the rest of his trip home.
Rylund Faraday’s life had ended at that very moment, that very spot. At least, life as he knew it.
Once again, he was reliving the worst moment of his life.
He was locked, frozen in fear on the third step from the bedroom landing. Stephanie Faraday, stood motionless, clad only in her Elephant Andie pajama top and matching polka dotted socks. Standing before the massive 100-gallon saltwater aquarium in the living room, she was mesmerized by its dancing water. It churned with large, frothy bubbles.
Flames wavered in long rows along the wooden kitchen island and along the open archway behind the fish tank. The whole house had become an inferno. Heat rolled out over both of them, baking their skin and reddening his sister’s pale cheeks. Heavy clouds of smoke clustered along the ceiling as light ash flurried about them. Rylund’s view of the rest of the house was shielded by towering columns of flame, walls of fire and falling debris.
He knew what was coming next but unlike in reality, he couldn’t move, couldn’t jump and scoop her up into his protection. The heated water reached its boil and the glass shattered out in a brilliant, white flash. A blanket of fire, smothering steam and scalding water washed over her body. She fell instinctively to the floor, curling into a fetal position and hugged her limbs tight to her as death consumed her.
His screams filled the night, and his sightless eyes were wide when Stephanie rushed in and went to Rylund’s side. The sheets were soaked and his face glistened with beads.
“It’s okay now. It’s all over,” she cooed as she swept back his hair from his brow, trying to calm him from his nightmare.
He nodded but could not respond as he choked down large gulps of air, hyperventilating. He trembled as a light breeze blew in from an open window on the left of his bed. With a corner of his sheet he moped his brow and sat up on his elbows.
“Sorry. Did I wake you again?” His voice was gravely and horse.
“Well, yeah. At first, I thought it was the TV, a horror movie or something. Uncle Max is passed out in front of it again.” She shrugged then fell into an awkward silence. They held hands in the dark and his breathing returned to a normal rhythm.
Stephanie was tall for her age at 9, but her curly brown hair hung down passed her shoulders to the middle of her back. She always seemed to have a mischievous smile in her eyes and on her thin red lips. Rylund was lanky at 13, with a shock of black hair and a spatter of freckles on his cheeks. Some burn scars were mixed in with his adolescent acne pockmarks.
Although they lived with their uncle, since the fire, she was his main caregiver. Their love and sibling connection can only be described as a fierce bond.
“Same nightmare?” she finally asked aloud.
“Yes. I always have to relive it. Every night. Like a penance or something.”
“Did you tell Doctor Bradwell?”
He answered in a falsetto voice, “’Your subconscious is holding onto it as you are. It’s only reflecting what your mind is keeping as unfinished business. Until you and your mind move on, your dreams may not as well. Only time will tell.’” Rylund finished the mocking impression by patting the top of his head. “Time’s up! Next patient please, Nurse Cora.”
They giggled together.
“He’s not that bad,” she said.
“No, he’s not. He really did help me with accepting that mom and dad are gone.”
More awkward silence with a couple of sniffles.
“It’s weird you can still see in your dreams. What do you think you are holding on to?”
“The dream is always the same but it’s also different from what happened.” He paused, sat up and crossed his legs Indian style. They continued to hold hands to support each other. “I remember waking up that night to ashes falling on me. When I opened my eyes, at first, I thought at first it was snowing in my room! Only then I could hear the muffled smoke alarm chirps coming from down the hall. I heard shouting above me. I think it was Dad. I jumped up and ran out. Smoke was flowing down the stairs. When I got to the top though, everything was covered in flames.”
His voice hitched and caught in his throat as his emotions got the best of him. “It was Granddad Chester’s grandfather clock that had fallen onto the hall desk and blocked their doorway.”
“Really? You never told me that before.”
“Yes. I could only see a few feet into the room, most of the ceiling had caved in by that time.” Tears welled and leaked down his cheeks. The fire had begun in the house’s attic somehow. It took the upper portion of the house easily and without warning.
In a whisper he said, “I heard their screams, Steph. How does anyone forget that? How can you ‘let go’ of or ‘unhear’ the sound of your parents’ screams?”
She squeezed his hand tighter. Tears welled in her eyes as well.
“When they stopped, I realized I had been standing there far too long. One of my sleeves had even caught fire. My mind was roaring around one thought: I wanted to get to you and had to get you out! But when I found you, you were standing at mom’s tank. The fish had all floated to the top, the boiling water was filled with bubbles.”
“Yes. I’d never seen anything like that. It was almost beautiful.”
“I knew it was going to explode! I leaped right off the third step. That is where my dream is different.”
“I didn’t do it. I can’t. I was paralyzed in terror. I didn’t reach you. You… die in the fire too.”
“Why? You saved me in real life.”
“I know!” he said breathless. “It makes no sense, and it fills me with such pain, and being so helpless! It’s so horrible.”
“You don’t regret it, do you? Is that why you dream it differently? So, you wouldn’t have had to lose…”
“NO! NEVER! Sure. Of course, I hate losing my sight but losing you would’ve been so much worse. Stephanie, I will never wish anything different. I’d do it the same way every time. I love—”
“But you lost so much,” her voice now low in whisper. “Losing Mommy and Dad was so hard, but if I had to handle the surgeries and blindness on top of it – I know I am not strong enough.” She shook her head and sobbed softly.
“Yes, you are. Look how you’ve done so much for me. Grown up so fast to help me. You are my rock.”
He stopped and poked his chin at where they had the set the clock on his nightstand. “What time is it?”
“The dream always comes at this time of night. How weird is that?”
“Is that the time the fire had started in the attic? Or when the lightning had hit?” her voice tightened by the scary idea.
“Okay, now you are just being weird, Stephanie! Uncle Max has let you watch too many of those paranormal shows. Time to go back to sleep!” He chided and teased her.
“You’re good then?”
He made a shooing wave. “Go check on Uncle Max. Move any open bottles away. Oh, and clear out any ash trays.”
“Good night, Rylund. Try to sleep, we have a big day, remember?”
“Hmmm, right. Baseball game,” he answered and shrugged non-committed to the idea. “Fun.”
As she closed his bedroom door, he stretched and made a silent prayer for the rest of the night to be dreamless and peaceful for both of their sakes.
The crowd was deafening, roaring as the baseball flew high over their heads and into the rows of “cheap seats”.
“It was a homerun. Vasquez did it!” Stephanie squealed in high-pitch delight and clapped her hands.
“STEPH! DIDJA SEE DAT?” Uncle Max shouted, slurring from the effects of the large amount of alcohol already consumed.
Not waiting for her reply, Uncle Max was laughing and hooting cheers again with his two buddies. The baseball game had been as Rylund feared only an easy excuse for the adults to get drunk. Stephanie wisely made a pre-emptive strike and asked for their uncle’s debit card to pay for a Uber ride home after the third inning.
“Vasquez is the best and the cutest player on the Phillies!” She squealed again.
Rylund shook his head. “Velasquez. His name’s Vince Velasquez.”
“Oh,” she giggled. “Whoever! We’re tied at least.”
He sighed in boredom. Even before his accident, baseball was too long for him to watch, let alone now listen to his sister’s poor play-by-play.
A breeze scented with butter floated over them, his stomach growled in response. He reached out and patted her shoulder. “Let’s hit the restroom then make a run for some food. Okay?”
Stephanie’s sudden silence wasn’t surprising, and he didn’t need to see her face to know what she was thinking. Her shoulder had tightened in reflex under his fingers. To be truthful, he didn’t relish the idea of meandering among the Spectators either. Spectators was the name he gave the unseen members of the crowds that watched and sent him looks of pity. Spectators that meant well but mostly watched him struggle and were secretly grateful they weren’t him. Spectators were his version of roadside rubberneckers.
“I brought my cane, I’ll be alright – just going to find the first stall, I’m in an out. Simple.”
“Yeah, cuz I’m not going in! It’s—”
“You don’t need to. That’s what I’m tellin’ you. I’ll go in on my own. Stay by the doorway so we can go together to the food kiosks.”
Minutes later, he trailed behind her as she wove them skillfully through the throng of fans that milled about the stadium. Rylund heard lots of noise, most of it he tuned out as “crowd white noise”. While some people liked to “people watch” crowds, Rylund liked to eavesdrop and guess their stories.
A cranky toddler somewhere behind them was fussing and whining about a lost toy. The mother was refusing to go back for the white wabbit. Children’s voices tended to catch his attention first – the higher pitch the voice the more they impacted his senses.
A woman to the left of them was laughing, flirting with someone as her laughter seemed too long and forced. Another younger voice interrupted hers and her words also came out sounding forced, bordering on obnoxious. A male’s lower, gruff voice interrupted now and then.
She’s drunk. Goin’ to be a cat-fight soon, he mused.
Stephanie squeezed his hand. It was their agreed upon signal for stopping. He sensed her leaning in close to him. “I will be on the left. There’s a long line for the Kettle Korn. Once you get past the line, on the right is the Men’s Room. Got it?”
“Yep,” he answered and tapped out a quick series of staccato notes on the stadium floor with his cane.
The faint, tainted air of urine and bleach marked the restroom’s unpleasant location. As he neared the open archway, a silvery flash flickered in the corner of one eye.
Someone collided with his shoulder. The strike spun him to the side where he bounced off some lady’s large backside. She cursed loudly while he wobbled unsteady trying to regain his footing.
She must’ve turned to face him, noticed the cane, and her mouth snapped close. He shrugged as his poor apology, headed again toward the restroom. His cheeks burned red in embarrassment.
Yet, his mind reeled, his thoughts mixed and tumbled over each other. His sight had been completely cut off ever since the night of the fire. The explosion of aquarium glass and scalding water had been the last thing he saw, and they had done irreparable damage. Thus, it had been nearly a year in “darkness”.
The term darkness doesn’t aptly describe blindness. Being blind isn’t like keeping your eyes closed. It’s more akin to trying to see the room about you with your elbow. It simply doesn’t happen. Nothingness is a closer definition for being blind.
That flash… That flash! Is that a sign of…healing? He wondered, the thought nearly tripping him up again. Could he dare to have hope?
The metallic clink of a bathroom stall door signaled his quest’s end. His hands groped and found the handle. The metal was cold and sticky to his fingers. It was unlocked and he entered.
After months of healing, his body had made astounding changes to accommodate for his blindness. Some of the changes he hadn’t fully expected or anticipated. Of course, his sense of hearing became sharper which is often reported by the blind. However, it was also changes to his fingers. They became extra sensitive to temperatures and textures. Also, his sense of smell deepened. He found he could discern various smells easier than before the fire. It was like going from a broad, wide paint brush to a fine detail brush. It was as if his brain flicked off switches to burned-out light bulbs then flicked other switches on for replacement lights.
At that moment, as he sat down upon the cold seat of the toilet, his heightened sense of smell was not a blessing. He held his breath, blocked out the various noises and echoes, and tried to not gag.
Maybe it was all my imagination. Nothing. Don’t get so excited over this.
He left the stall and worked his way to the sinks universally placed across from the row of stalls. He heard running water and splashing to the left. Then more, two more sinks going on his right. The bathroom had gotten crowded.
The fifth inning must’ve ended, and everyone made a mad dash to relieve themselves. I’m lucky the stampede hadn’t—
Another silvery wave of light floated in front of him, it expanded like a circular tear, like a blooming portal. Its edges were ragged, expanding and contracting. Through this portal, he saw a partial profile of a man as he passed by Rylund and left the restroom. He was much taller than him, a black elderly man with a graying afro. His eyes burned red and there were trailing wisps of smoke in the air. A faint, red aura encompassed him.
When the man slipped out of the Men’s Room entrance, the portal snapped close! The nothingness, the blindness returned like a cold, backhand slap to the face.
Gasping for breath, Rylund gripped the sides of the sink, his cane clattering to the floor at his feet.
“Kid? You okay?” a voice behind him spoke out. It had a deep bass, authoritative timbre.
He couldn’t speak yet, his legs were shaking, but he nodded he was alright, hoping to be left alone.
“You sure? You’re pale and sweatin’. Do you need help to the toilet to throw up?” Another male voice asked.
“No, no. Thanks. My-my sister is outside, she’ll help me,” he mumbled weakly.
Footsteps scampered away from him. Others came closer, crowding him. Spectators! All with good intentions, but it only magnified his state of confusion, his sense of panic building.
Rylund forced his hands free of the wet porcelain and knelt for his cane. Someone put it into his grip. He rushed through the gathered Spectators and fled to the fresh air of the stadium landing. Hugging the wall, he worked his way to the right then pressed up against the grimy wall. He gulped the air and nearly sobbed with emotion. His mind raced from a whirlwind to now a full Level Five Tempest.
He had seen someone! His eyes had worked for a brief second. Nothing or no one would convince him otherwise. The man had been so clear and so close, Rylund could have picked him out of a police line-up.
Giggles burst from his lips, garnering him probably even more stares. Your Honor, the Defense would like to call its next eyewitness, Rylund David Faraday the Blind Boy From Southside!
A hand slipped into his. “Come on. It’s going to be alright. I’m here.”
He didn’t pull away, let her take him away from the stadium fans all ogling the poor blind kid. Spectators!
He knew there were looks of pity and the mournful faces of sadness. Normally, it would have devastated him. He had had bad times in the rehab center – throwing temper tantrums and ‘why me’ cussing sessions. When he felt the waves of “so-sorry-kid” thoughts overwhelm him. Made him feel helpless, tiny…disabled.
Or like the time at the mall, he tripped on an extension cord and fell headlong into a comic book display, spraining his ankle badly. He was mortified not being able to stand. His embarrassment had rocketed to new levels as several strangers lifted him without asking and carried him to an ambulance. Stephanie was there at his side the whole time, but too small to help. She later told him how embarrassed she had been as well. Her new role in their relationship hadn’t always been easy.
He knew what the Spectators were thinking, saying in their heads, the looks they were giving him and his small sister. This time, however, he was numb to it. None of it mattered. They didn’t know.
Stephanie didn’t even know!