“Birth of the Cruel (Together We Burn)”

Share this story on social media!

"Birth of the Cruel (Together We Burn)"

Written by Seth Paul

I was drinking my sorrows away at the bar when I first noticed them.

Everyone else seemed to move right by, not giving them a second glance, but I couldn’t understand why.  They sat in a booth, having drinks and laughing, but not doing a lot of talking.  They just stared at the people who came and went, almost leering, like they knew some big secret that they weren’t telling anybody.

If they were Goths it would’ve made a lot more sense.  But there was no makeup, no fishnet shirts, no black hair or dour expressions.  They almost looked homeless, but even then, there was more to it than that.  One had misshapen fingers that were bent backwards or stunted, one had several missing teeth (and the rest filed to points), one had a blind, glassy eye, and one appeared fairly normal with the exception of extensive burn marks along his arms and neck.

I couldn’t help but stare back once I became aware of them.  It was such an odd crew, just sitting there.  I don’t even remember seeing anyone give them their drinks, but they had them, drinking and ogling, drinking and ogling.

I finished my cocktail, put some cash on the counter, and went over to their booth.

I would like to think the reason why I approached them was that I was a few sheets short of full-blown drunkenness, but it was more than that.  I was curious.  I couldn’t help it, like a magnet to a pile of iron shavings.  Of course, as I came, they stared at me, grinning and laughing as they had been.  The one with the filed teeth unnerved me, but it didn’t scare me away.

The one with the burns rested his chin in one hand, leaning on the table.  “Can we help you?” he asked. I stammered, not quite knowing how to react, at which he waved his other hand.  “Takes a strong man to walk over here and talk to the likes of us.  Why’d you do it?”

“I… I just saw you sitting here, and…”

“Saw us sitting here, and wanted to, what, say hello?  Like we’re old friends?”  The others laughed again.

“No, I just thought you…”

“Looked out of place?  Of course we do.  That’s because we are, and we’re glad of it.”  He slid down the booth and patted the seat next to him.  “Join us.  It’s fine.  We’re not big on new company, but it’s not every day someone comes to us.”

I sat down, and almost immediately my nose was hit by a foul stench.  It wasn’t just the scent of unwashed clothing and bodies, it was more. Something more rancid, old, and earthen.  I was pressed in tightly to the seat, and even as my arm brushed against the burned man’s clothes, feeling the tattered fabric, I didn’t flinch away, even though my mind wanted me to.

“I’m Joshua.”  The burned man touched his chest, and then pointed to the one with the odd fingers.  “That’s Matthew.”  Sharp teeth was next.  “That’s Daniel.”

The blind one, without waiting for Joshua, touched his own chest.  “Nathaniel!  But call me Nate.  Nobody does.”

More laughter.  More drinking.  A bored waitress came by and set down more glasses, one even in front of me, and left.  That was the first time I saw anybody other than me come to their table, and she didn’t even look up at them.

“Have a drink,” Joshua said as he eyed the glass, then me.

“But I didn’t order…”

“We always order an extra, just in case.  Matthew usually ends up having it, but it’s yours tonight.”

I had to admit, it did look enticing.  It was the kind of drink I usually ordered, and nobody had touched the glass yet.  I shrugged and tipped it back.  More guffaws, even some backslapping.

It tasted good.  Nothing special, but it helped push my blues away somewhat.

Matthew finished his drink, and let the glass slip through his stubby fingers onto the table.  “So, what brings you to a place like this on a cold October evening?”

“My sister is in the hospital.  Car accident.”

A loud, collective “Aw!” went up from the table.  It sounded very insincere.

“And what happened?  She have a few drinks and decide the world was her own personal speedway?”

I was taken aback by the joke.  I almost got up from the table, but something inside had me glued to my seat.  “No.  I was driving.  The car went off the road, and she didn’t have her seatbelt on.  It was a few days ago.  I’ve been… I’ve been at home or the hospital since then.”

Daniel frowned.  It hid his teeth well, and I was glad for it.  “Is she in a lot of pain?”

“I don’t know.  She’s not responsive, so she can’t tell us anything.”

Daniel slammed his fist on the table.  “Dammit!  That’s always the most important part!”  He flashed those horrid teeth of his again.

This time, I really went to stand up, but Joshua put a hand on my shoulder.  “No, no, don’t leave yet.  We tend to have a very dark sense of humor.  It’s the way we see the world, is all.”

“Doesn’t seem like it’s a very good outlook.”

“It all depends on your viewpoint.  We consider ourselves ‘people watchers,’ on the outside looking in.”  Joshua turned his head and watched a man getting out his keys, stumbling slightly towards the door.  Nobody else seemed to be noticing him leave.  “For instance, I have a feeling this place is going to get sued in the morning.  So be sure to drink up now.”

“Shouldn’t we stop him?”

“And get involved with people?  What would he say if I came up to him and told him to call a cab?  He’d push me away.  I’m not someone he cares about.  None of us are.  We are broken.  But we are wiser for it.”

Joshua sipped his drink.  Behind me, the front door jingled open, and then shut.  I wanted to get up and try to do something, but my feet were leaden.  Why wasn’t I doing anything?

“Broken?” I asked. “What do you mean by that?”

Nate leaned over the table, his milky eye somehow looking at me more intently than his good one.  “Look at us, buddy.  Do we look like the kind of people you normally walk around with?”

Matthew nodded.  “We’ve all been rejected, and that’s fine with us.  Why be a part of it?  We’ve seen what it is truly like, and we’re not missing much.”

“Yes,” Joshua concurred, setting his glass down and rubbing my shoulder vigorously.  That smell came wafting back again, and along with it came something I hadn’t noticed before, a scent like fried bacon.  “We are wiser because we know what lurks in humanity, and choose not to be a part of it.”  He looked down at the half-empty glass.  “Well, unless we absolutely have to.  But even that’s part of the fun.”

They suddenly all stood up, and for the first time since I sat down I found my legs and got up out of the booth.  Joshua threw something onto the table. I thought at first he was paying for the bill, but upon a second glance, the wad didn’t look like money.  He saw my double-take, and smiled.  “Oh, that.  Just a tip.  She won’t want to take the advice, but she should.  Come.”

In a daze, I found myself following them outside, walking the streets, seeing the city around us passing by, with but a few lonely stragglers making their way home, or wherever, heads down and ignoring us.  Even as Daniel and Matthew whooped and hollered and ran back and forth, no one gave us any attention.

Joshua moved in close to me once more.  “See?  No one cares about us.  We’re right here, sometimes in their faces, but they move on, either not seeing or not caring to see.  They have ‘better’ things to do.  To pay attention to us would mean taking a moment out of their busy lives to stare an ugly reality in the face, and most don’t.  The true cruelty of the world is too much to comprehend.”

“But… but I saw you.”  I realized I still had the drink glass from the bar in my hand.  I would have to remember to take it back.

“Yes, you did.  Why do you think that is?”

“I don’t know…”

“Oh, I think you do.  You just don’t know that you know.”

We passed beneath endless street lamps, twisting through alleys, walking across a deserted park, until finally we arrived at a four-story building. It was dark on the inside, with shattered windows all along the exterior.  The October wind picked up a few scattered leaves across our path, as Nate pushed the door open and waved us all inside.

The stench of urine and old garbage came to me and I nearly gagged, but Joshua’s smell soon masked it as I reeled back into him.  He grabbed my shoulders and with a gentle push guided me forward.

Although I had not seen any lights outside, a dull white light lit up a concrete-walled staircase inside, and we climbed it, our footsteps echoing along the hard surfaces.  Daniel screamed out, his voice dreadfully loud in the enclosed space, but still I moved on, following them to the third-floor doorway and out onto what may have once been an office space, but was now devoid of furniture.  It was a huge space, littered with abandoned supplies and old painting tarps, and the wind whistled through the broken glass.

Inexplicably, I could see, even though there was no clear source for the light.  There was what filtered in through the windows, but as far as I could tell, the building itself had no power.

Daniel ran to a window and yelled once more out into the night.  Nate went to another, but looked out quietly, as if standing guard.  Matthew dug through a pile of debris and found some old magazines, which he started flipping through as well as his fingers allowed him to.

Joshua, in the meantime, leaned against a wall and glared across the expanse of the floor.  Even though he did the least of anyone else, he was the one who held my attention, and I waited for him to do something, anything, to speak again, whether it was to speak to me again or give an order to this weird ‘family.’

“Is this where you all live?”

Joshua shook his head.  “We don’t ‘live’ anywhere.  We go wherever we want, whenever we want, and we don’t care if anyone owns it or not.”

A loud metallic clang startled me, and I turned to see Daniel kicking an old can of acetone across the floor, the rusty can still sloshing with the liquid inside.

Joshua sighed and rolled his eyes.  “Respect, Daniel!  I’m talking here!”

Daniel giggled, grabbed a piece of cardboard, and started picking his teeth with it.

Joshua seemed about to speak again when Nate waved to everyone.  “She’s coming down the sidewalk again.”

Everyone walked to where Nate was watching, except for Daniel, who ran to it, cardboard hanging from his cat-like jaws.  I went as well, and looked down on a lone figure in a pink hoodie, making her way as quickly as she could across the park.

“Who is she?”

Matthew waved one of his mangled hands vaguely at her.  “Every evening that we’re here she comes walking by. She’s a college student, lives at home, doesn’t tell her parents she comes this way.  She thinks it’s safe, but she has never noticed how often she just misses them over there.”

I followed the path of his twisted index finger to another abandoned building, where dark shapes moved inside.  I couldn’t tell what they looked like, or how many of them there were, but I knew at least somebody… or something… was in there.

“One of these days, she won’t be lucky.  But when that day will be, no one really knows.”

“Maybe today?”  Daniel cackled and slapped his hands on the broken window sill.  One hand caught a piece of glass. He didn’t even seem to notice as his hand began leaving behind smears of blood wherever it came into contact.

We all watched as the object of our fascination wandered ever closer to the other building.  The others got more and more excited, but me, I held my breath, my heart pounding.  Nothing was right about any of this. Why had I come here? What was I doing, letting these people take me far away from home?  None of this made any sense.

A dark shape appeared in the doorway.  The young woman stopped, saw it, and screamed.  I still could not make out the shape as it darted from the door, chasing her. She sprinted in the opposite direction, towards the building we were in.

The others with me laughed.  Daniel, of course, was the loudest, but even Joshua had a quiet chuckle at her expense.

“How can you laugh?” I cried. “What did she do to deserve this?”

Joshua turned to me, facing me directly, and put his hand on my shoulder again.  “Because we aren’t like her,” he said matter-of-factly. “We aren’t part of her world. We’ve all seen the cruelty of their world, and realize we are well-removed from it.  Don’t you agree?”

“Why would I agree?  What are you talking about?”

“Your accident.  Was that what it truly was? Was it, really?”

Suddenly, in my mind, but almost projected in front of me, I saw myself in the car, my sister next to me.  We were arguing again. We argued a lot. She told me all about how she didn’t understand why she had to go, to be out on her own, out at college with her friends.  This place was dead to her, the city choking her off, and she needed her space. Why would I keep her from that?

I had had enough, that’s why.  I had grown tired of the arguments, the endless fighting.  She never wanted to help anyone. She was so independent and selfish, and never wanted to understand where I was coming from.  She had all the answers, and I had none.

I remember twisting the wheel, and the car jumping the curb.  I saw the tree in front of us.

I woke up with some cuts on my forehead, my ears bleeding, and one broken finger.  She had been thrown through the windshield.

No.  No, I hadn’t wanted to hurt her.  She was my sister!

Or did I?  Or was I only trying to hurt myself?

Either way, the end result was the same.

The vision stopped, replaced by another.

I saw a man bent over another, beating him ferociously with his bare hands, breaking bones and ripping flesh.  The face looked familiar, but the hands did not. These were whole, unblemished… at least, they were. The process of tearing the other man to pieces was doing a fine job turning them to stumps.  Their clothes were out of place… they reminded me of movies from the 1940s.

The vision changed again.  A beautiful house, but dated, like one I had seen pictured at historical museums.  Another somewhat familiar face, looking through a keyhole, as moans sounded on the other side.  He went to a dresser and removed two items: a revolver and a hatpin. He checked the revolver, shut it, and then turned to the door.  Before he went to it, though, he grabbed the hatpin, and turned it towards the eye that had been looking through the keyhole.

Another change.  The dead of winter.  A covered wagon. Frozen bodies everywhere.  A lone figure sat in the snow, covered in warm blankets and furs, grabbing fistfuls of flesh from a woman, still warm, breathing heavily and looking at him in shock and terror.  The figure threw the long, bloody knife aside, eating some unidentifiable organ, and laughed.

Then a final vision.  A man in robes, wearing a long-beaked mask, dissecting the body of a small child.  No, not dissecting… what was the word? Vivisecting. The boy looked up, whining and whimpering, his body covered in boils.  A door to the room, despite being heavily barricaded, buckled and bent under the force of many people pushing and shouting. Then, the man smiled, touched the dying boy under his chin, and then threw a vial of some liquid on the ground.  The unmistakable smell of smoke rose in the air.

It all ended.  I looked around the room.

“You… you are all monsters…”

Joshua smiled.  “And yet you’ve seen us.  That can only mean one thing… you are destined to be with us.  You know what you’ve done. You know how cruel the world can be.  It’s time to leave it behind. Watch with us.”

I shook my head and backed away, but I slipped and fell.  The glass I had been holding shattered, and my head landed on it.  My ear, still smarting from the accident, was bleeding when I lifted my head.

“No.  I couldn’t have meant to hurt her.  I couldn’t.”

“Does it matter?  You needed to find comfort, and you did what was needed.  You know what awaits you for what you have done. Join us, and you need not suffer any further.  Because we don’t suffer. Suffering is beneath us.”

I slid back and reached behind me as the four began to move closer.  I threw boxes, debris, anything I could find as they came at me.

One of the items sloshed when I grabbed it.  I looked at it and saw it was the can of acetone Daniel had been kicking earlier.  The top was far too rusty to try and open, so I grabbed a broken piece of wood, stabbed the container, and from the hole a few drops and a pungent smell wafted out.

I threw the open container, which splashed on Joshua, a trail leading from me to where it landed.

I took my sister’s lighter, flicked it, and tapped into the acetone trail.

The fire blazed to life in an instant.  The flames leaped onto Joshua, engulfing him, and then overtook the debris around him.  The whole floor began to light up, and the other three backed away.

I stood and looked back to the exit.

The stairwell.

I ran for it, then heard a voice calling to me.  My name. Had I ever told them my name?

Joshua stood amidst the flames.  He was surrounded by them, but they didn’t touch him.  His clothes and skin remained unscathed and intact.

“You may run, but we are always here.  Watching. You don’t know it, but we burn.  We burn together.”

The other three came through the smoke, standing next to Joshua, smiling their cruel smiles.

Overwhelmed, I blacked out.

* * * * * *

The sudden jab of a finger brought me back to my senses.

“Hey, we’re closing,” a nearby bartender chided me. “You can’t stay here.”

I looked around and saw I was back in the bar.  I checked the clock on the wall. 2 AM.

How did I get back here?  Had I ever even left? Was it all…?

On the TV above the bar, where the bartender who had poked me awake was sweeping, was the image of a building downtown, an abandoned office building, ablaze.  Then scenes of a reporter, talking to a young woman in a torn pink hoodie. She was crying. She described how she had been attacked, but that the fire had scared off her assailants.

She was real.  She was alive. If I hadn’t tried to escape, she would’ve been killed.

If I had joined them…

I felt my ear.  A large cut ran along its edge.

The bartender looked up from her sweeping and caught a glimpse of my injury.  “Wow, was there some glass on the bar? That looks like it hurts.”

“I’ll be all right,” I assured her. “I have to go to the hospital anyway.”

It would’ve been too late to visit my sister at the time.  But in the morning, I would. And the day after that.  And the day after. Until she got well.

That night, I saw what it was like to be broken.  Now, I’m wiser. Now, I have a chance to fix it.