Family Ties II
by Christopher W Gamsby
Herbert felt withdrawn and tired all day at work. He appeared so fatigued that his boss stopped by his office to ensure he was working and not sleeping. Herbert knew that he couldn't spend all night chatting again, but he wanted to see his mother or grandmother. He entered the attic and waited, but no one came. He felt more hollow inside. The silver balls glowed the far corner. Despite not consciously wanting to summon another spirit, he moved to the case, reached inside for his father's orb and smashed it on the attic floor. A bright yellow smoke fumed from the sphere's wreckage and formed into the shape of Herbert's Father.
“I've missed you. Where have you been?”
“I'm sorry to have left you like I did after your mother passed and all.”
“I've been so alone this whole time.”
“Son, everything will be fine soon. You just need to wait. You have all the family you need right here.”
Herbert's father pointed to the container of glowing orbs.
“How? It all feels so useless....”
“Do you remember when you played football in high school? Do you remember when you sprained your ankle during the final game of the year?”
“Well, yes. So?”
“You wanted to give up, didn't you? Instead, you played through the pain and you boys won! The pain was worth it, and you pulled through. I think you will feel the same way now.”
Herbert felt that analogy was a little strange, but he nodded in agreement anyway. The pair talked for hours about life, love, and the future. Herbert never imagined his father felt so similarly as him despite his cold affect. Herbert appreciated his father more after they finished talking. He moved to a living room downstairs.
The children sat absorbed into their devices. Jenny typed away on her cell phone, and Alex played the most recent multiplayer online game with his friends. Herbert walked to a bookshelf in the room's corner and removed an old photobook. He took the book back to the couch and sat next to his daughter who acted annoyed by his presence. At first, Jenny pretended to ignore her father's nostalgic trip, but she quickly put her phone away and also looked at the photos. The early pictures were of Herbert's father and mother's wedding. The gouache styles of the 1970's made Jenny giggle, but Herbert was old enough to know that after each decade everyone looked back at the previous years and thought fashion was stupid.
The next pages showed Herbert's parents pushing a stroller in the local zoo. Great apes jumped around cages as the family approached. Penguins leapt from fake icebergs into scuzzy water tanks. On the next page, a toddler Herbert sat in white church clothes waiting to be baptized. The priest held up the boy and then the next picture showed him placing drops of water on his head. Herbert flipped the pages ahead years worth of photos.
Herbert found the pages full of photos from Christmas when he was 5 years old. He found a series of photos showing the sweater incident that he discussed with his mother's spirit. In one photo he opened a green and red striped box, and the next showed him pulling out a yellow sweater. He wore an ugly yellow sweater with an image of a unicorn pressed into the front. Jenny laughed at both the sweater's hideousness and Herbert's pouting face. Two photo's later Herbert sat holding an empty cone and crying. A huge glob of ice cream smeared the front of his chest. His mother sat in the background laughing so hard that she wiped tears from the corners of her eye. A strange realization hit Herbert, which tore his attention from the photobook.
Why did Herbert's mother remember being angry? She remembered some of the smaller things incorrectly as well, like thinking it was a white sweater instead of a yellow one. That seemed normal but how could she have thought she was angry instead of amused? The whole incident upset Herbert, so he thought others were upset, but why would she think the same? Also, his father never went to his football games in high school, not even the year they made the playoffs. Plus despite his ankle hurting, he never looked injured while playing and downplayed the injury afterward. Why would his father know about the pain or Herbert's thoughts on the matter.
Jenny pulled on Herbert's sleeve, and he snapped back to reality. The pair continued flipping through the book.
- - -
Herbert's dreams became more erratic and troubling that night. Three shades floated through a swampy marsh, and one carried a silver orb. Herbert ran to catch the center shade, but the more he ran, the further away the shade moved. Herbert broke off to catch the left-most shade, but it hid among the bushes and trees. The more he chased the shades, the harder he panted, and the heavier his body felt. Every step pulled his very being toward the ground, but he trudged forward. He almost fell when his eyes opened, and he laid in bed.
The vestiges of his mother, father, and grandmother stood at the end of his bed but disappeared as he focused on their shapes. He panted and wheezed as he caught his breath. His cheeks burnt and his face reddened as he tried to understand the changes in his body. He debated sleeping again when his alarm sounded, and the choice was ripped away. He smashed the alarm's power button and prepared for work. He rode the train to the city after readying himself. On the way into the building, he saw the eccentric homeless woman waiting outside of the occult shop, he walked to the strange building and approached her.
“Please.... please tell me what these are.”
The woman backed away until she was pinned against the wall.
“Stop, don't come closer, don't come to me! Stay away! Stay away! Those devil dogs haunting you! Stay away!”
“Devil dogs? What do you mean?”
The door to the occult shop opened. A tall Caribbean with her braided hair in a bun woman exited wearing a power blue pantsuit.
“Get out of here you crazy woman! and YOU come wit me.”
The homeless woman slunk away from the store's door, and the owner beckoned Herbert to enter. Herbert followed her, and his breath shot out in relief as he passed the threshold into the building. The Caribbean woman smiled.
“Feel much better aye? You are safe for now, but you can't stay long.”
“Safe? From what?”
“From the succubi. The ones that are stealing away your life. The ones that you freed.”
The woman said every word while staring out the windows. Her eyes tracked something, but Herbert couldn't find what she followed.
“What are those? These succubi?”
“They are creatures, some call them demons, some call them spirits, both are correct, neither are correct. They are born from eggs using the energy of life. Once they are released, they suck the life energy of the person who set them free until that person dies and they return to their world.”
“Please, how can I stop them?”
“You can not. There is only one thing you can do. If a succubus feeds on the essence of their 'parent', that is the person whose life essence brings them to this world, they become feral. Feral succubi are stronger than the others and will kill any nearby succubi before returning to their world. They will do immeasurable damage to their species before they are killed, but succubi will continue to live on anyway.”
“So I need to find my orb?”
“Yes, you can rest here, but not for long. The succubi scratch at the wards like feral wolves trying to reach a chicken inside a hen house. I'm afraid if you are here too long, they will come in.”
Herbert stayed long enough to call out sick from work and then returned home to search for his orb.
- - -
Herbert searched the silver orbs' container for the ball with his name, but it was nowhere to be found. He tore apart the attic and still came up empty. He searched the bedroom, closets, living room, and kitchen but still no sign of the missing orb. He even searched places that made no sense, like the toilet's reservoir or the flour jar but despite his desperation, there was no trace of his soul fragment. Late into the night, his desperate wife begged him to calm down and tell her what was happening. He was struck by the realization of the orb's location and excused himself to bed.
Inside the dream world, three shades float away from his conscious mind. He looked them up and down hoping to find a part of his soul. A silver glimmer came from the left most spirit and Herbert shot out to chase it down. The shade noticed and sped up to avoid its pursuer, but Herbert gained ground. As Herbert approached, the shade flew into a gray door with a golden handle. Herbert reached the entryway, pulled the handle, and was sucked inside.
He stood in the bedroom of his childhood home. The memory was not his own since he was still an infant in the crib. His grandmother stood over the crib cooing at the child inside, and he remembered the lies his mother's spirit said to him. The room was a lie designed to pull on his emotions, and that meant it wasn't really his grandmother.
“Give me the orb!”
His grandmother's vestige turned to him and hissed. She transformed into a veiled blackened creature with darkened sockets replacing her eyes. The shade flew through a nearby window, shattering the glass and sending a shockwave emanating from the room. Herbert followed.
Herbert stood in a Gothic cathedral with marble pillars holding aloft an intricately stenciled ceiling. Stained glass windows projected images of wise men, crosses, and other iconography onto the floor. A priest held Herbert as a toddler next to a basin of holy water. The priest attempted to eulogize when he abruptly stopped and stared at Herbert standing in the middle of the aisle. Crowds of onlookers gawked at him from the pews lining the sides of the holy building. Herbert scanned the faces until he found his grandmother. He made eye contact, and she transformed back into a monster. The walls shook and cracked, and dust fell into to the room's rug. The stained glass mirrors melted into puddles on the floor and finally the whole structure collapsed.
Herbert found himself standing in his elementary school. His childhood form was pinned against his locker by his childhood bully. Herbert barely remembered that bully's face, but the dirty red and white Pokemon shirt was clear in his mind. The larger boy pushed the other child and shook him. Herbert's blood boiled at the memory of the scared, helpless feeling. Herbert grabbed the bully and threw him to the ground, and he disappeared. The class bell rang out, and Herbert snapped awake in his bed.
Herbert's alarm clock signaled the beginning of a new day. Herbert hit the power button and gave a heavy sigh.
- - -
Three days later Herbert approached the occult shop carrying the case of silver orbs. He pushed through the door, and the store's owner gave a disgusted shutter.
“Are you mad? You can't bring that in here!”
“I've tried everything to get rid of these! I've thrown them in a lake, off a ravine, in the trash, but they always come back, they are always there mocking me!”
“Of course they are! Those things that follow you, they won't let you abandon their siblings.”
A buzzing sound much like a bug zapper hissed and whined from outside.
“They are angry and clawing at the seals, it won't last long! There are good souls in here, they can't come in, you must get out!”
“Can they see me in here?”
“Will they know what I did in here?”
“Not unless you open another egg. Why? What are you thinking?”
“I need a plan, in case I fail... please this will only take a minute.”
- - -
Herbert laid withered and dying in his bedroom. His wife and children stood by his side as the last semblance of strength siphoned from his body. His fear for the last twenty years that he was going to end up like his grandmother, father and mother was coming to fruition. Over the last week he chased the succubi through every facet of his memory and life but they out-raced him, out-smarted him and outplayed him at every turn. The vestige of his grandmother stood over the husk of his body, as if to almost gloat at their impending victory.
“Don't worry Herbie. We've done this for a long time. You put up a good fight, but now it's time to rest. No one has been this close to beating us, you should be proud.”
“Are Julie, Alex, and Jenny going to be safe?”
Julie perked up from the side of the bed and began to speak, but Herbert couldn't make out her words over the voice of his grandmother.
“Yes, they are safe for now. We need to wait until one or more of them die, so the next person opens many many orbs...”
Herbert was tired of fighting and he knew he wasn't going to be able to defeat the succubi. For his contingency plan, Herbert erased the names written in dry erase marker on his children's orbs. He rewrote Jenny's name on Alex's orb and the reverse as well. In the future after his wife passed and only one child lived, the succubi would hide the wrong child's orb after they cracked open an orb. The whole plan relied on a condition that was far out of his control. Herbert sighed and whispered his last words to Julie, Alex, and Jenny.
“I hope my children grow to love each other.”
Julie and Jenny were already crying but now even Alex's macho facade crashed down with a round of tears. Herbert's life left his body and the succubus smiled with green bile dripping around her teeth.
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