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"WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?!" a voice screamed in his ears, echoing through his head.
Abruptly he jerked awake and leaned up, blinking his eyes.
It was late afternoon, the autumn sun dim through the drawn shades and heavy blanket pinned over top. The door was open and the overhead light burned the room with brilliance and sharp shadows. Leaves rustled along the floor where they'd lain in death as the wind from the door whipping open disturbed them. Dirt and grave mold sat in clumps on the floor and dresser.
Still blurry eyed and blurry minded, he clenched the partially eaten corpse arm to his chest.
The formerly shrill scream became tinged with disbelieving horror. "YOU'RE EATING THAT?!"
She's afraid of the world, the Voice whispered. Let me keep her safe. The same Voice he'd heard for days, whether he was awake or asleep. The same Voice that promised, cajoled, complimented. The same Voice that was now his only friend.
Slowly his eyes focused and he recognized his wife.
His voice was rough from lack of use. His stomach sore from a week of starvation followed by a feast of decaying flesh. "Ooljee...? I thought--?"
"THOUGHT THAT I WOULDN'T BE BACK UNTIL TOMORROW?!" She turned away muttering, "Oh God... Oh my God..."
"Mommy?" his only daughter interrupted. "Somt'ing stinky."
Let me save her, the Voice whispered. I'll keep her safe and together with you for all eternity. She'll be free from all pain...
"Natalie," Ooljee stated, her voice not quite under control. "Go to bed. Your father's not feeling well."
"GO TO BED!" Ooljee clamped her hands over her mouth and in the sudden silence he could clearly hear tiny footsteps running down the hall until the soft rattle of bare branches blown against the side of the house drowned them out.
Pushing himself back, he sat upright. "Ooljee, you don't understand--"
She slammed the door shut and the leaves rustled again. "Don't understand? Don't understand?! Look at you! Do you know why I came back early? Do you? Your boss called. You never came to work, never answered calls or e-mail. He was afraid something had happened to you. GOD DAMNITALL STEVE! I was ready to call the police!"
Don't tell her! She won't understand. She'll be lost to you!
Yanking off her nylon jacket and throwing it to a bare spot on the floor she stalked over and sat on the bed beside him.
She won't understand!
Before she could sit, he grabbed the cloak and yanked it tight against his chest. The old feathers pressed against his chest and hid the ribs which pressed clearly outward. It was warm, comforting. A thing of beauty made of thousands of owl feathers somehow stitched together without a backing. The feather shafts were soft, not hard, and caressed his skin like Ooljee had the night of their honeymoon.
Don't let her have it! It's yours. All yours! I'll keep you all safe.
Ooljee turned and looked at the cloak. She flinched away from it, even though it was a thing of beauty. "Steve? What is that?"
Don't tell her!
"I found it. At a garage sale."
NO! It's yours! Yours!
"I... it was... He told me his great grandfather took it from one of your ancestors. It was to be a gift for you."
She reached out to touch it, but he yanked it away from her.
"Steve? What's wrong with you? There's dirt all over the hall and stairs. The whole house stinks of death!" She leaned towards him and he backed away, holding the feathered cloak tighter.
Don't let her have it. She just wants to take it from you. Steal it from you. Take it and destroy it! You'll never be safe. She'll never be safe! You'll be apart for all time!
He looked up at her. The anger was gone from her eyes, all that was left was a desperate need to understand. He remembered meeting her in college. She'd been different, afraid, alone, hated. That had drawn him, first in pity, and eventually in love. He found out that she wasn't Navejo, although her grandfather had been. It was just the mysteries of genetics that had caused the looks of her ancestors to flare up in her. In a whisper he said, "It's mine."
He saw her pause, her arms just beginning to move towards him, but then they relaxed into her lap.
"Steve, let me call a doctor."
A doctor? No! Don't let her! I can't protect you from their magic...
"Ooljee, I'm fine. Really I am."
"Then explain. Explain why you've been hiding, explain the dirt, explain the corpse. I want to understand."
No! Don't tell her anything! She's dangerous, she'll take the skin away! Help me take her. I'll keep her safe. I'll keep her always with you.
He looked at her, eyes blinking in the unaccustomed light. He remembered driving to the graveyard at midnight. Parking. Waiting until nobody could see him. The Voice had urged him on. Told him what he had to do. With wire cutters he'd clipped the chain on the gate, pushed it open. He was weak from fasting but he managed. The Voice had told him what grave to go to. All around were haunted eyes, forms drifting along the ground. Most fled from his steps, drifting away like a heavy disturbed mist. Some had beseeched him, reaching for the skin of feathers he'd had wrapped around him. The grave was new, the earth soft. He'd dug down, ignoring the wreaths the shovel threw aside and later buried in dirt. The cold clunk of the shovel blade against polished wood as his breath misted in the cold night air. A form had beseeched him to leave, begged him, warned him. But the Voice had warmed his soul, had kept him safe. The coffin had opened silently, clumps of wet dirt oozing down to thud onto the damp earth. The body had been heavy, stiff. He'd had to break it with a sound like a dry snapping stick to carry it over his shoulder. It had barely fit into his hatchback. He'd covered it with a blanket but he could still see the bent form looking like half a pair of pliers.
He'd kept the feathers wrapped around his dirt covered body all the way home. They were clean, the dirt wouldn't cling to them, as though it'd been afraid...
"Steve? Are you listening?"
He blinked his eyes and saw her hand moving back and forth in front of his face.
She stood up. "That does it. I'm taking you to the hospital. Thank God it's not far." She turned away, muttering, "I'll have to call Maddy, get her to watch Natalie. I hope she's home from work--"
He just stared at her back. Entranced by the movement of muscles beneath her blouse.
Take her! She's yours! Give her to me so that I can keep her safe.
With a creak of abused springs, he slowly clambered out from the other side of the bed. He was naked, his body filthy with dirt and globs of greenish-red flesh that he'd torn from the corpse with which he'd ended his fast. The feathers swept around him, rubbing him, cuddling against him.
Make her yours! Let me take her strength, her warmth. It's what she wants!
Ooljee turned around at the sound. She whispered, "Dear God Steve. Dear God, what have you done to yourself?"
She wants you Steve. Take her. Take her soul Steve! Let me keep it safe.
As though by magic the clothespins that secured the blanket to the top of the shades worked loose and the heavy wool slithered down and thumped onto the bare wooden floor. Steve's naked body was silhouetted against the branch interrupted sunlight as the feathers coiled around him.
Do you hear it calling? Her soul wants to be with you, forever. Free it from her body and welcome it into your flesh.
He stepped around the bed and stalked towards her, his eyes blinking at the brilliant sunlight reflecting off her. Oh God but she was beautiful! Rather than fading with age, she'd blossomed.
She started backing away. Steve followed. She slammed into the dresser, the force knocking a box of her jewelry off and onto the floor where, with a bang, it burst open sending metal and plastic skittering and clattering across the wood.
You must free her from the flesh. I'll help you. I'll keep her safe. There'll be pain at first, but then she'll be with you. Always.
He was in front of her. He could smell her clean flesh, her perfume, and below them her odour. Distinctive, enticing. Reaching out with his arms he embraced her, the feathers clinging and sliding around his body. The glorious miasma of death swirled around them. She struggled but a supernatural strength filled him.
Do it! Do it!
Before she could scream, he hugged her against him, placed his mouth on hers as he'd done so many times ago. She tried to struggle, to tear away. He could feel her tongue recoiling from the scraps of putrid flesh still on his teeth.
He let her go as she shoved herself backward, sucking in breath.
Clasping both sides of her head, and before she could scream, he snapped her neck.
He caught her body in his arms as it slumped, and then watched as her soul, her essence slowly slid out through her open mouth. Around his body the feathers slithered, each barb gripping his flesh and crawling across it. The cloak swirled around the escaping soul, surrounding it, imprisoning it. Alternating pulses of cold and warmth spread through the feathers and against the cold flesh of his body.
The bag collapsed onto nothingness.
Slowly he let the cooling body of his wife slide to the floor.
Just one more thing! Your daughter. Take her and then you and your family will be together for all of eternity! Safe.
In a trance he walked over and pushed open the door. The hinges creaked. Outside the hall was dim, he could see his daughter's footprints in the grave dirt. His bare feet slapped against the polished wood and oozed through the mud as he slowly moved down the hallway.
He reached his daughter's door and looked at the taped pictures on it. Ones she'd drawn herself. Simple stick figures of a house and a tree and he and his wife holding hands. Images of birds singing. Images of happiness.
The world is cruel Steve. Take her from it. I'll keep you safe. All of you will be together, safe for eternity.
He pushed the door open and saw his daughter lying on her stomach on her bed. An open box of Girl Guide cookies was beside her, but she hadn't eaten any.
She spun around, her form pressing into the soft mattress. The searing sunlight bounced off her tear filled eyes and illuminated her red puffy face.
"Daddee? You alwight? Mommee?"
Let me take her. I'll keep her safe. I'll keep you all safe. Safe from the cruel harsh world.
He walked towards her, his only clothing the cloak of feathers that wiggled around him. Always moving, never still.
Natalie backed away. Her eyes were wide, her mouth was wide. "Daddee?"
Reaching the bed he leaned over as the feathers humped themselves around his shoulders. A clump of grave dirt slid off his breast and thumped onto the floor in a single blob pressed almost flat.
Steve grabbed his daughter and hugged her against him.
Soon she'll be safe. You'll all be safe.
She fought him. She screamed.
Until he snapped her neck.
The feathers swirled up and around his head like a cobra's hood. Like a thing possessed. It leapt onto her, keeping a portion of itself in contact with his shoulders.
His mind cleared. What had he done? WHAT HAD HE DONE!?
His daughter's body fell from his numb hands until only the swirling feathers kept it up, pressing her weight into his shoulders. Only for an instant though, then they let go and her body fell to the bed as the feathered cloak reared up.
He tried to back away, but he couldn't move.
Like a soft rain the feathers fell down, swirling around him, clenching tighter and tighter. Pressing him, squeezing him. He felt his body pour onto the floor like water to be sucked up by the feathers along with his soul. Inside there were others. Navejo, or dineh as they considered themselves. Thin, horrified things. They were only bones, and madness stared out from the holes where they would have had eyes.
Then he was swept aside, swept into them, as another soul, an old soul, an evil soul, poured from the feathers into his body. They could all see what it saw, feel what it felt, share what it did.
He felt what had been his body, now its body, flow into the shape of an owl. Massive, black, hungry. He felt its muscles move, its wings flaps, as it hopped up onto the bed. It walked, claws tearing through the bedding and then into the flesh of his daughter. It reached her eyes and then pecked at them, tore them out.
And swallowed them like tasty candy.
And he was trapped, with his wife, with his daughter, with the other victims.
Together For all eternity.