by Tom Foster
“I am courage.”
“I am dependable.”
“I am responsive.”
“I am loyal.”
“I am exuberant.”
“I conscientiously analyze.”
“I balance with charm.”
“I desire an ideal.”
“I see optimistically.”
“I use to be steadfast.”
“I know of friendliness.”
“I believe in compassion.”
“This meeting will now come to order. Ladies and gentlemen of the assembled Zodiac please assume your rightful seats.” With an imperious gesture, the figure beckoned to those twelve who had each entered the room upon speaking their key phrases. The room in which the figure stood was quite plain, composed of granite walls painted over in various colors, from a deep and passionate red to a gentle aquamarine. A swatch of color had been painted to denote the color that was known to correspond to each sign, each of them easily five feet across and reaching up to the ceiling twenty feet above.
Ten feet from the wall, in front of each color, a chair sat facing inward towards the raised platform the figure now stood upon. Each seat was carved from a solid piece of teak and fashioned in the sign for the one that would sit therein. From the first seat, that of the Ram, to the last, that of Pisces, each chair was carved to resemble the creature or personage each sign was known by. Great curving horns adorned the top of the Ram’s seat, while the horns of a massive bull had been carved upon the armrests of the second. Twin sculptures rode the sides of the third chair, Gemini’s trademark, while the armrests of the fourth chair were carved in the shape of a crabs claws.
Hidden by the feminine form that sat in the chair of Leo was the fierce visage of one of nature’s supposedly most noble creatures, the mighty lion. The back of the chair around the face had been carefully rendered into a flowing mane, the artistry so detailed that it was easy to believe that at any moment it might leap from the chair and attack. The back of Virgo’s chair was etched deeply with the likeness of a woman that could only be described as heavenly, her face at peace as she cradled a staff and a handful of delicate flowers to her bosom. As with Virgo, Libra’s symbol, that of the scales, was carved upon the back of the chair, deeply etched with one side just barely higher than the other.
Scorpio’s chair was unique like the others in that it appeared to be no less than a very large, two-tailed scorpion, its bulbous stingers raised in attack position as they curled over the head of the one that sat upon it. A leaping centaur graced the back of Sagittarius’s chair, while the feet had been designed in the form of hooves. Horns that curved backward, much like a goat, denoted Capricorn’s chair, while upon the back of Aquarius’s chair was a scantily clad woman gently stroking the feathers of a great bird, perhaps a heron. Rounding out the group was Pisces, whose chair was verily covered with the images of fish swimming all about, their bodies so finely rendered that they might soon swim from the surface of the chair and seek refuge elsewhere.
As each person took their seat the figure standing upon the platform appraised them all in turn, enjoying the absolute authority she had over them. With her cowl and bulky robe none of them would truly know who or even what sex she was. Her voice was being carefully modulated by a specialized mouthpiece she wore over the lower half of her face, allowing her to remain completely anonymous. As for the robed and hooded figures that now sat in a half circle before her, she could easily tell the men from the women. After all, she had selected each of them many years ago.
Aries, Gemini, Leo, Libra, Sagittarius, and Aquarius were all masculine while Taurus, Cancer, Virgo, Scorpio, Capricorn, and Pisces were the feminine aspect of the Zodiac. They were placed from left to right beginning with Aries, each individual facing from their seat towards the Speaker, who commanded the most respect of any in the room. Standing a good five feet above them all, she could see by observing their supposedly calm demeanors that at least a quarter of them was nervous. The subtle tics and shakings of their garments betrayed their emotions. A slow smile spread along her face, hidden by the voice modulator.
“Dark times have come to our doorsteps my gentlemen and ladies, thus have I called you to hear this night to discuss such. We stand on the precipice to a new age, an age in which those of us and others who are like-minded must decide on how best to control what will be left from the ashes.”
No one spoke, as they hadn’t been given leave yet. She enjoyed this type of power, it was intoxicating in a way, but also liberating. So long had she been a pawn in the earliest stages of her life that the absolute and total control over others was a balm to those sensibilities that she had felt were abused and taken for granted by those who had looked down upon her for so long. She would show them all what she had become one day when she and her brood were the last ones standing. They would see-
Her thoughts were rudely interrupted by the sudden wash of light that came from above, forcing everyone around her to wince as they too were taken by surprise. The magic, if one could call it that, was broken at that moment however, and as she looked in irritation to the portal leading into the realm she was forced to call home, she saw the heavyset and gray-haired form of her sire, holding out a vaguely U-shaped communication device as he refrained from stepping into the lair.
“Tandy I just got a call from the superintendent of your school. You and I need to have a talk young lady.”
She closed her eyes in frustration, pressing her lips tightly together as she looked around. Her sire, her father, looked around as well, his eyebrows rising in expectation as he gave them all the same look.
“In case you were wondering o’ mysteriously hooded strangers, that means out. Your leader and I need to have a chat.”
Murmurs and words of assent reached her ears as Tandy watched her friends, who’d known each other right away of course, get up from their chairs and go shuffling out. Many of them removed their hoods before passing by her father, who nodded at some of them and just shook his head at others. He didn’t approve of all of them, but more often than not minded his own business when they were over. She could only imagine why he had picked this time to step into her personal life. With the look, he gave her at that moment as the last friend exited she did not doubt that she was about to find out.
* * *
After another hour had passed and her ears had already finished burning from the scathing lecture she was back in the garage, sitting on the single step as she looked out upon the gathering room. Most times she could just close her eyes and pretend that the scene in front of her was as it should be, with the vibrant colors and magnificent carvings and the grandeur that it was worthy of. She wished for that every day instead of the shabby, knockoff appearance she’d worked so hard to make seem authentic.
She’d started the Zodiac council as a joke to start with. Its beginnings had been simple and taken place within the confines of a storage room in their high school with the permission of the principal. At first, it had just been a chance for the bunch of them to get together and bullshit about their day, but after a while, they’d wanted another reason to get together beyond hanging out. A social club could be anything really, from the nerds who enjoyed debating about fantasy novels and television shows to the jocks who often made their way down to the weight room or the local stores where they hung out to talk about their interests. Among their number, they had a few of everyone from the hierarchy that so typically ran a school, yet none of them had ever felt the need to judge each other.
They were friends, best buddies, and more than that they’d been together for so long it was hard to imagine being apart. In another couple of years, at least a few of them would be gone, off to college and a new life outside of their small town. But for now, they still had each other and were loathe to let each other go. Attempts to get them to break ties with one another had begun once junior high had hit and several of them had started developing new friendships with others. That hadn’t stopped them from getting together though. But still, they’d eventually needed something else to do besides just hanging out.
The Zodiac council had been her idea, as she was the eminent nerd/popular/jock in the group. Among them all, she was one of a kind, and the others knew this. That was why they had come to her with the request that she find something to keep them interested. It wasn’t that they would go on and forget about each other, but they wanted variety in their friendship now, and she could understand that. She’d been wanting a bit of a change as well, and she had found it in the Zodiac.
Her interest in astrology, which many thought of as a pseudo-science, had always been fairly strong, and with her minor background in astronomy that she’d coddled since the sixth grade she’d come up with a fantastic idea. At first, the Zodiac plan had been a little hard to weather for several of her friends, but after about the second meeting, the lot of them had gotten into it and had even started to make suggestions on how to make it better. From that point, ideas had been accepted, evaluated, and either respectively dropped or integrated into the main idea, and the Zodiac council had begun.
To date, they’d kept it going for nearly two years, and in all likelihood, they would keep it going until one or more of their members left. The fantasy of it was something that they all enjoyed, but it had never gotten so crazy that they forgot the real world they had to go back to. Sometimes though, she wished she could.
* * *
“I’m sorry I embarrassed you in front of your friend’s sweets,” her father said as she stepped back into the house, “But missing school is a serious issue and makes us both look bad.”
She knew he was right, and that he had a valid point, but her feelings were still slightly hurt. He’d gone after her like a bull chasing a red flag when her friends had finally left. At least he’d had the decency to give her that much before lighting her up with his latest lecture.
“I know dad,” she replied. Deep down she knew he meant well and that he cared, but it seemed to be an unspoken rule that no teen would ever dare show their parents that they understood how much they cared.
Slipping on a light jacket she made for the front door, her hand closing around the knob as her father spoke again.
“Where are you going?”
“I just wanted to take a walk is all. Maybe down to the corner store and back.” The corner store was a good mile away, her father knew this, but she also knew that they lived in a relatively safe neighborhood.
“You’re sure you’re okay?” he asked, becoming the doting father once more, the guy she loved dearly and always wanted to appease. She didn’t have a bad life at home, but sometimes she wished for a little more.
She nodded, “Yeah, I’m okay. I just wanted to take a walk is all. I’ll be back soon.”
“Okay,” her father said with a nod, “Just be careful out there, it’s getting dark.”
“’ Kay dad,” she said as she slipped out the door, knowing full well that he would watch her until she was out of sight. It was kind of irritating, but at least it meant he was a good father, and not just a yelling, swearing tyrant. Her life was pretty good.
* * *
Forest Grove was the type of place you went to be ignored she believed. There was plenty of community and enough to do to keep busy, but it wasn’t like other towns she’d visited during her high school years. Some towns, smaller towns, and even bigger ones had a great deal more pride in their schools, their community organizations, and even their school teams. Forest Grove was proud, but it seemed muted sometimes, almost as though they would only come together under the worst of circumstances.
Night had fallen as she’d stepped out into the open air, and she was walking largely in shadows as she made her way towards the corner store, fully intending to do just what she’d told her father. She had walked this way so often that she no longer feared the deep shadows that pooled around and within several of the properties that she passed. Some of them were ringed by high bushes and trees whose branches hung down like tendrils from some huge, ominous beast, but for the most part, the rest were clean-cut and kept up pretty nice.
One such home that hadn’t seen the touch of a gardener in a long time was the old McLowry place. The home itself was still in good condition, but its yard had long ago gone wild, and not even a notice from the city had done any good. The real reason behind this of course was that the McLowry’s hadn’t been seen for nearly a year. While there were many theories about where they’d gone and what had happened to make them just pick up and leave, the one that seemed to persist more often than not was that they had fallen behind on their house payment, and rather than deal with the banks had just up and left. It was a simplistic and unsatisfying rumor, as well as a bit unrealistic if one had known the McLowry’s, but it was the one bit of gossip that had become the norm.
She’d known the McLowry’s pretty well and had hung out with their three eldest boys throughout their younger years. The eldest, Eric, had always seemed kind of spacey, but he’d been a nice guy, as had his two younger brothers, Sam and Caleb. Their youngest brother Cole, who had been born only about five years ago, had been in first grade when the family had up and disappeared. No one had ever given any thought to the rumor that foul play might have been involved, which was fortunate. To think that anything had happened to any of them would have been horrible.
Corrin and Leonard, the parents, had been nice people, kind of laid back and prone to being on the go all the time. This was probably why she’d never bothered to count the McLowry boys as anything other than good neighbors instead of best friends.
Now as she stood looking at the empty home with its jungle-like front yard, she couldn’t imagine why she would have stopped. The wide front windows were devoid of any curtains, allowing for a very clear view of the house. As she and anyone else could see there wasn’t anything inside, not even a rug left behind for the tile floor of the kitchen area near the back of the house. Why had she stopped though? Usually, she gave a glance at this place and kept on walking. It held only a few better-than-average memories for her and was not a place she would have thought would evoke such melancholy.
She was about to turn and walk away when she could have sworn she heard her name whispered from somewhere on the grounds, close enough that she should have been able to see the speaker. But all she saw were shadows, and she’d seen enough horror films to know better than to go investigate. If someone was playing a trick it was better to just keep going.
We’re still here, Tandy.
Now that was damned spooky. She was about to walk forward again when she suddenly realized the view of the street had been replaced by the faded and blank view of the garage door at the end of the front drive. Shaking her head and blinking her eyes did not change the view, or the disorientation she suddenly felt. How had she gotten here?
She blinked again and she was startled to find that she was now at the front door, which was standing wide open, the screen door propped open as she stared into the empty interior of the house. What in the hell was happening?
Again that sounded too close, and she had to be anywhere but in her right mind if she was getting this close to the house. This was becoming way too much like a horror movie, but she got the feeling that if she started trying to resist the result would only be the same, and that she might soon enough be put in front of something that she wouldn’t like.
Close the door, Tandy.
She tried to shake it off, but as before she blacked out for what felt like a second, and when she woke next she was standing in the front room, slightly closer to the hallway that would lead towards the three bedrooms that were located at its terminus. Her throat clenched as something suddenly passed through her peripheral vision to the right, there and gone before she could even register what it had been. Turning she thankfully found that she could move, but still she could see nothing as she looked along the front window and then to the wall that separated the living room and the garage.
There had been something there, and as she looked closer her breath caught as she saw something upon the wide front window. Upon moving closer she could see it was a small handprint, like that of a child. The faint lines and patterns of the palm print were so distinct that she could imagine that the young child that had made it might still be nearby, though such a thing was impossible. Leaning over she noted that the handprint wasn’t fading away as it should, but instead was becoming more distinct as something else was appearing above it.
It took her only a moment to realize that what was appearing were the smudge-like letters that were often made by fingers when writing on the condensation that formed on the glass.
Tandy wanted to back up but couldn’t, her mouth opened wide to scream even though all she could muster was a choked squeak. Taddy had been what the young McLowry brother had called her in the past, as his minor speech impediment had not allowed him to pronounce his n’s. She wanted out of here like now, but as she tried to turn she felt a presence looming behind her, something she could not see but could sense in a way that seemed far more visceral and oppressive held her in place.
Do not struggle.
The strange, almost willowy voice could not have belonged to any of the McLowrys, though as she tried to fight she felt the grip of not one but two separate individuals upon her wrists as they dragged her forcefully forward, not stopping until her palms were flat upon the glass. She felt the sensation of flesh upon her own but could see nothing as she struggled to escape the unseen grip of her captors. Before she could so much as shout however an equally invisible hand covered her mouth, clamping down just hard enough to stifle any sound that might emerge.
Her heart was racing as she felt the presence loom even closer, ghostly breath seeming to tickle her neck as she suddenly had visions of rape, dismemberment, and a death so grisly she could not fully appreciate its horror. Surely someone would come by and see what was happening? Someone out walking late at night like she was would perhaps come by and see a young woman being forced up against a window, against her will.
But she had conceded at this point that it was Forest Grove, and the town started closing up around 8 o’clock. Few if any individuals would be out at this point. She was alone, and would likely not survive this.
She could not, and even as the sleeves of her light sweater were pulled back she attempted to struggle, but to no avail. The force that had her wasn’t letting go, and as she felt rough hands lightly grasp her forearms she tried again to scream, to kick, to even bite, but nothing worked. She was trapped.
You will bear these marks, the voice said, these symbols.
Before she could wonder at the meaning of the words she felt something burning itself into her forearms, hot, aching heat that slipped past her flesh and scoured bone as she tried once again to scream. The hands did not let go, nor did the burning sensation end as the hands now clamped around her forearms, the same hands that were burning her, slipped down slowly, initiating new points of pain only to move on again and again as her entire arms felt as though they were on fire. She wasn’t allowed to move as tears streamed down her face, her conscious mind not allowing her to pass out as should have been warranted in such a situation.
You will serve, as you desire. The voice slipped into her ears like venom, muddying her thoughts and creating confusion as the pain continued to rise.
Finally, the unseen hands came to rest just above her budding breasts, eliciting disgust and rage so strong within her that she bucked again, this time finding a small amount of leverage as the hand seemed to withdraw ever so slightly. Sensing that minuscule bit of freedom she attempted to break free, but the hand upon her mouth clamped harder and was suddenly added to as more hands wrapped around her waist and legs, firmly pinning her in place.
The last marks seared into her chest, causing more tears to flow as the voice spoke to her again.
You shall be our vessel, it said, our link to this world. Through you, we shall thrive once again.
The burning within her arms and chest continued to simmer as she stood there, realizing only a moment later that no hands bound her, no one was holding her in place, and she could work her lips once again as the presence had departed. Tears stained her cheeks as within she could sense another presence, something, or someone, watching from behind her eyes, a simple observer and nothing else. This should have unnerved her greatly, but as Tandy looked up to the window she saw something that truly scared the hell out of her.
The McLowry’s were there, all of them. The parents, and the four boys, were all visible within the window in stark detail as though they stood right behind her. Her pain was forgotten for only a moment as she turned around, half-expecting to see them and half-expecting what she found, which was nothing. Looking back to the window she saw nothing but the unkempt yard outside and the dark street beyond.
Her sleeves had been rolled down again, and the pain she could recall from only moments before was gone, as though nothing had ever happened. Rolling them up she almost dropped to her knees as she saw the symbols etched into her flesh, each one vibrant and bearing such detail that she almost wept at the sight of them. Her horror was swiftly replaced with awe as she sank slowly to a knee, unable to breathe as she held her arms to her body.
This voice was real and startled her so badly that she slipped as she spun around, landing hard on her backside as the shadow behind her did not advance. She could see from the ambient light that the stranger was male and that he appeared to be in his late teens or early twenties. But apart from that she didn’t know him. Something though, some part of her, said that she should have.
“Who are you?” she said shakily, fear staining her words once again as she attempted to keep her distance. The figure did not move towards her, but neither did he move away.
She couldn’t help but feel somehow drawn to the man, no matter that she was instantly afraid of him as well. He was good-looking, blonde, with a well-kept beard and mustache. There was a lean look to him despite his obvious and impressive musculature, a look that gave her the impression he had done and seen much in his time but had remained unbroken. This was a man that looked as though he’d walked through hell just to see what it was like and then walked back out under his own power. It was an odd thought to have, but one that seemed to fit.
“No one you’d know now, but someone you or yours might come across in the future. I have one bit of advice for this new life you’re about to embark on.”
How did he know anything about her? Who was this guy? More and more questions began to pile up as the seconds passed, but she couldn’t entertain them all as she licked her lips, focusing instead on the moment and not what she would have liked, which was getting the hell out of here.
“What do you mean?”
The stranger turned as if to go, his ice-blue eyes raking across both Tandy and the house as though evaluating every square inch. It was a look she did not care for as it made her feel as though her every fault was laid bare, her every lie exposed. But then the stranger had turned all the way around, and the feeling passed.
“Keep one eye on the horizon, Tandy. There’s a storm coming.”
“What do you-?”
She was about to ask what he meant, but in that instant, the darkness took hold again and when she woke she was outside, on the road, her sleeves rolled down again. Frustration and fear warred within her as she looked back to the McLowry house, seeing that the interior was completely dark and, as far as she could tell, empty. She looked long enough to satisfy herself, but could not see anything other than the bare flooring and the shadows that played along the walls and ceiling.
Had any of it really happened? As she rolled up her sleeves she had her answer.
Oh yes, it had happened.