Bewildering Stories

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The Takers

by Eric S. Brown & D. Richard Pearce

It was the day before Thanksgiving, but Mark had little to be thankful for. As he drove away from his home, he replayed their last conversation in his head. "There are givers and takers, Mark," she'd said, "You can't have one without the other. And I'm through giving." He had said everything he could think of to keep the ship from going down, but it didn't matter. The marriage was over.

In a way, he blamed himself for not caring enough. Maybe she was right, but she'd known what he was like when she met him. He was meant for greater things - if she could just see that, that the times he ignored her were an investment in the future.

When he thought about it, the divorce just seemed like one of those things that was meant to be, part of his weird destiny. He supposed when the initial shock wore off, he would hurt a great deal more. But right now, he had other things to worry about. Where would he live? Who would take care of him?

He had no steady income to speak of. He was a writer who was just beginning his career. Sometimes he sold short stories or articles for cash but most of the time he only got paid in copies and exposure. Even in his best months, he was lucky if he cleared two hundred dollars.

He reached down and flipped on the radio, hoping music would help calm him down and take his mind off his problems, but all could find across the dial was news. America was in a new war and there was no end in sight. He hoped there wouldn't be a draft. He already had enough problems in his life, and he didn't have time for distractions like that.

Mark left the radio on a random station and gunned the car, increasing his speed as he tore around the winding curves of the road towards town. He realized that without really thinking about it, he had decided to head for his parents' house. They wouldn't be happy to see him on their doorstep with his suitcases, but he could swallow his pride and they would give him a place to stay. His mom wasn't as good a cook as his wife, but at least the laundry would get done.

While he sat behind the wheel, his mind was far away, making plans. He didn't notice until it was too late how close he was driving to edge of the road. His right front wheel dropped on the asphalt sending him careening out of control. He fought to stabilize the car, tugging at the wheel with all his strength, but his speed was too great. The car flew from the road and smashed into a nearby tree as Mark's world went black.

He awoke with blood burning his eyes. He reached up to wipe it away and a sharp stabbing pain shot through his body. Looking up at the shattered glass of the windshield where his forehead had struck, he realized that though his seat belt had saved his life it had also fractured several of his ribs. He painfully slipped it off and opened the door, falling out onto the damp grass of the roadside.

He propped himself up against the car and fished around in his pocket for a cigarette. When he managed to get the pack out he threw it away in disgust. The pack was soaked in blood.

He had no idea how long he had been out, but assumed it had been quite a while, as the sky was beginning to darken. Everything seemed grey, and he wondered if he was going to get rained on now as well. Great. Mark wondered why no one had came along and seen the accident. Surely, if someone had they would've stopped to try and help him. People still helped each other out, didn't they?

Suddenly, Mark heard laughter on the car radio. Mark leaned his body closer towards the car's open door to listen. How in the hell had the thing stayed on?

"Mark, Mark, Mark," the announcer laughed. "It's time to pay up, little brother."

Mark shook his head and thought he must be losing his mind. In the past few hours he'd been through enough to push anyone over the edge. He thought he recognized the announcer's voice though it was one he had not heard in years.

"Greg?" Mark mumbled to himself.

"Yep, it's me," the radio answered.

Mark stared at the dashboard in horror. He felt his heart sink inside his chest and tears began to well up in his eyes, washing the blood from his cheeks. "Greg . . . I am so sorry."

"I should think so," the radio voice answered in a cheerful tone, "You never come and visit me anymore. Why is that?"

"I, um, I guess I felt bad" Mark was confused, didn't Greg remember?

"About what, Mark? That I couldn't offer you anything else? You know, I was just reminiscing - remember when you showed up that day? It was the happiest day of my life. My long lost brother coming out of the blue after all those years apart. Do you remember how I hugged you?"

"It wasn't my fault."

"Whose was it? Dad's, for spoiling you so much, I guess, getting you used to having your way. I gave you everything I had, and you took more. I got you a job, gave you a place to stay. It's not everyone who can take another person's whole life, Mark. You took my career, my wife, everything I had. "

"I didn't mean for it to happen the way it did, Greg," Mark whispered.

"Sure you didn't." Greg smiled, suddenly materializing in front of Mark's eyes on the road. The pale starlight of the night seemed to pass through Greg as if he wasn't completely there. He leaned over and offered a translucent hand to Mark. "Just like you didn't mean to throw them away when you were done."

Mark looked away sobbing and ignored Greg's offer to help him to his feet. Mark began to feel an anger stirring inside of him. "It was your own fault, Greg."

"It was my fault that you were a drunk and a loser with nowhere else to go? I tried to help you, Mark. Is that why you murdered me? Hacked me up, tossed in the trunk, and hauled me out here into the middle of nowhere?" For the first time, Mark looked around. Greg was buried not twenty feet from where he sat, but that didn't matter now. "Yes!" Mark screamed turning to look into Greg's hollow eyes. "What you had should've been mine! It was mine! I didn't ask to be dragged away as a child. I wanted to stay with mom too. This town was my home!"

"Well," Greg said, "I don't guess it matters now, does it? Your wife - my wife, actually, was right, you know, there are givers and takers, and you can't have one without the other." Greg paused, glancing off into the woods.

"They'll be here soon."

"Who? Who will be here soon?" Mark raged.

"The Takers," Greg watched the tree line, waiting. "I'd really love to stay and watch but not even the dead are safe from them. And I've given you enough. You won't get my soul too."

Mark blinked as a drop of blood from his mangled scalp dripped into his eyes, and Greg was gone. He was alone in the night.

Finding strength in his hatred of Greg, Mark pulled himself to his feet using the car to lean on. "Come back you bastard! We're not through yet! I killed you once and by God I can do it again!"

His voice echoed down the desolate roadway among the surrounding trees. Then he saw them, two black forms far in the distance. They stood on two legs like men but the similarity ended there. Their arms were elongated and their hands hung so low that the silver talons of their fingers scraped on the asphalt as they approached.

They were darker than the night and appeared to absorb all the light around them. The car's headlights flickered and died as they drew near. But their eyes glowed like the fires of Hell, orange and bright, full of anger and hunger. Yellow teeth gleamed hungrily when they opened their mouths to howl. Mark grew cold as they approached, and his argument with Greg was forgotten. His worries from the day vanished, snatched from him and drawn into their shadowy forms. He couldn't remember even his wife's name, all of his memories gone, and he was left with nothing but the hollow emptiness of terror.

"Oh G-God," Mark heard himself stutter. He fell into the driver's seat and tore frantically at the glove compartment until he got it open. He pulled out a .38 revolver from its depths and hobbled up out of the car once more.

They were so close now he could smell them. The foul odor of brimstone and decay intermingled. Mark pointed the gun at them with his trembling hand, not even remembering now why they had come, but desperate to escape them. "I don't know who you are but you don't have any business here." He pulled the gun's hammer back with his thumb. The beings paid no attention to his threats and continued their slow advance.

"Go away!" Mark wailed and fired. His bullet passed through the first creature and imbedded itself in a tree across the road from where he stood with a soft whacking sound. He turned to run, but stopped, unsure of his way, and unable to decide on a path.

"No!" Mark pleaded, finally running, but they were upon him. Their talons tore flesh and their yellow teeth gnawed upon his throat, but the physical pain was subdued, unreal compared to the feeling of having his being dragged from his tattered remains.

Greg watched them turn away from Mark's lifeless body as it sunk to the road. The lead creature held a small ball of light clutched in its paw like hand as the pair disappeared into the darkness, melting into it once more.

"Enjoy their company Mark," Greg said. "You've earned it." Then he too was gone.

A gentle breeze picked up the fall leaves from the ground over Greg's unmarked grave and swirled them up into the air but only Mark's soulless shell was left to see them reflecting in its glazed over eyes.

Copyright © 2003 by Eric S. Brown & D. Richard Pearce