The month of September is filled with calamities. A favorite of death. At this very moment, a monster hurricane wipes the Antilles off the map. In Mexico, earthquakes claim countless lives. For Dr. John Smith, death has stolen his wife, Maria, and their sixteen-year-old son, Elijah, from him. Their lives cut short by a drunk driver.
A soft breeze teases the skirt of the priest’s dark habit, he looks up from the Bible in his hand to gaze at John.
“One day, this pain shall end. Death will meet its end for the Lord has promised it,” says the priest.
John closes his eyes. His surroundings disappear and his senses shut down. Numbness sparks from his spine and spreads through his body, enveloping him. A slight weight against his side startles him and he glances down.
Lilith, his youngest child, wraps her arms around his waist and buries her face in his chest, tears damping his shirt. John’s hand brushes her curls. To his right stand his eldest children, the twins Paul and Ruth, and Isaac, the middle child. Paul and Isaac are pale and red-eyed, and Ruth stares at the two coffins with empty eyes.
John winces as the cut on the left side of his face throbs. His vision darkens and it feels as though a weight is dragging him down. A hand grasps John’s elbow.
“Are you alright, Father?” asks Paul, his voice distant.
Someone thrusts a chair under John as his knees buckle. The priest pauses and everyone hovers over him.
“I’m fine!” says John, raising his hands. He waves away their concern.
The priest resumes the funeral. John rests his crutches against the chair and lifts Lilith onto his lap, shifting her weight slightly over his knees. His eyes burn with tears and his lower lip quivers.
If only he had been paying more attention. He could have saved them.
John shakes his head and searches in his pockets for a tissue. His regrets will not bring them back.
He takes a deep breath, feeling the dryness in his throat, and hugs Lilith closer. The gravediggers lower the coffins, along with John’s heart. The funeral is over.
“My condolences,” says the priest, shaking John’s hand.
The guests mimic the priest one by one, and John thanks them. John and his family remain, gazing at the two fresh graves.
Ruth drives them through the rural landscape of Ohio, toward their new home. As they arrive, a knot forms in John’s throat and a hollowness spreads across his chest. He tunes out Paul and Isaac’s sniffles. Ruth’s eyes are glassy. Only Lilith weeps.
No one is in any mood to eat and so they all retire to their rooms. Everyone but John.
He takes off his suit jacket and collapses on a chair. His eyes gaze into empty space. The day shifts into night and John remains in his spot, numb.
Eventually, he leans forward, buries his hands in his hair. His chest quivers as the sobs build and his vision blurs. Warm tears trickle down his cheeks and pool on the table, his back shaking with each whimper.
After a while, his cries quiet down. John sniffles and sighs then freezes in his chair. Outside the room, hesitant steps creak on the wooden floor. He hears the click of the light switch and squints at the sudden brilliance. When his vision focuses, John looks over at the doorway. Ruth stands under the threshold, pale and red-eyed.
John swallows past the lump in his throat.
“Ruth, what’s the matter?” he asks, voice hoarse. He clears his throat.
Ruth turns even paler and stumbles back. John does not blame her. He must look awful, his face feels sore and swollen around the cheeks. The throb in his temple increases.
“Do you want tea?” asks Ruth, stepping into the kitchen. She fetches the pot and the tea bags from the counter, fills the pot with water and places it on the stove, and turns it on.
John shudders, goosebumps rising on his skin, and he rubs his arms. Ruth leaves the room and returns with his coat, placing it over his shoulders.
“Thanks,” says John, wrapping the coat tightly around him.
Ruth prepares tea and when it’s done, she pushes a cup towards him. As they stir their drinks, John looks at Ruth who gazes at her cup, her cheeks red. He takes a sip and Ruth does the same.
The beverage takes effect. After two weeks of stress organizing the funeral, sleep finally crushes him. His vision blurs and he dozes off in the chair.
Ruth grasps his elbow. “Father, you must rest.” She helps him climb the stairs and leads him to his room.
John lies in bed, not bothering to change. Ruth covers him and he grabs her hand. He brushes her golden curls.
“Sweetie, I don’t want you to mother me. Don’t assume that you have to take your mom’s place. Please.”
John knows it might be fruitless, but he needs her to understand. After Maria’s death, Ruth has suddenly assumed all the household chores. He doesn’t wish that burden on her.
John swallows. Ruth’s eyes are full of hurt. “If you say so, Father”
She kisses him goodnight and leaves, turning the lights off on her way out.
John tosses and turns in bed. He pulls the covers close and glances at his side. Empty. He wraps his arms around his chest.
A sudden shout and booming laughter startle him awake. Heart hammering against his chest, John grabs his crutches and limps down the stairs. When he appears in the kitchen, his children grow quiet.
“Everything ok?” he asks. “I heard a shout.”
“Paul pinched me,” says Isaac, glaring at his brother. Paul sticks out his tongue in response.
John sighs and walks over to Ruth. He takes the frying pan out of her hands, ignoring her protests.
As he cooks, John studies his children. Paul and Isaac are in a better mood, but still look pale. Ruth seems calm, but her eyes are watery. Lilith looks miserable. Dark circles outline her young eyes.
Lilith was closest to Maria, and Elijah was her favorite brother. Their death has taken a great toll on her.
A sob hitches at the back of John’s throat. He hates seeing his baby girl sad, broken.
“How are you feeling today, Lilith?”
“I’m fine,” she says softly, hands cupping her cheeks.
John swallows. He finishes cooking, serves them, and they eat in silence. John stares at the two empty chairs. His eyes moisten and he suddenly feels unable to catch his breath. He notices his children looking at him with wide eyes. John swallows past the lump and takes a deep breath, continuing to eat his breakfast without tasting it. The silence asphyxiates him and it’s torture not to be able to break apart.
Eight weeks later, Ruth drives John into town for his appointment with the orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Rodriguez.
“Wait here please,” says Ruth, leaning over the window as he gets out the car.
John nods and watches her drive away. He shifts his crutches and leans against the wall. As he tilts his head to the side, a ringing starts invading his ears.
Ruth reappears and opens the door of the clinic. He limps inside and goes to the front desk, as he opens his mouth to speak, static blasts in his ears. John doubles over in pain as it hammers against his skull. Gripping his head, he lets out a cry. His head threatens to implode. Ruth’s hands grasp his shoulders and two nurses rush over to him.
Then the static increases and images flash before his eyes. He sees and hears spaceships shooting at one another. He sees a strange planet, populated by people with black wings. A winged man takes a bundle from a winged woman, then the man fastens the bundle across his chest.
None of it makes sense for John. Nausea and discomfort increase and everything goes dark…
John regains consciousness, feeling something clutch his hand. Opening his eyes, John finds Ruth at his side. His head feels heavy between his shoulders. He tries to sit, but his vision swims and his stomach twists. He shuts his eyes tightly.
“How are you feeling, Dr. Smith?” asks Dr. Rodriguez.
John squints, as a searing pulse stabs his temples. “Like I have been trampled by a stampede of elephants.”
“Well, sir,” says Dr. Rodriguez, pausing for a moment. “You had quite an accident eight weeks ago, a nearly fatal one, and it’s a miracle you came out of it almost unscathed. It’s normal to have a few episodes before you fully recover.”
John tunes out his voice. Yes, it’s a miracle he is alive. He disconnects from his surroundings. The guilt crushes him. It suffocates him. He wishes he could scream.
John gazes outside, thoughts lost among the green vegetation as Ruth drives back. The rocking movement of the car lulls him but sleep is impossible. He wants the pain to be over. John is not sure how much he can take. Ruth fiddles with the radio station, her hands shaking. Blaring rock music replaces the heavy silence between them.
Once home, Ruth walks him to his room. “Would you like something to eat, Father?”
John sits, wincing as he props his cast-free leg onto the mattress.
He rubs his pulsing forehead. “No, I’m fine. Thank you, sweetie,” says John, lying down and pulling the covers up to his head.
The door closes and the sound of her footsteps die away. John curls into a ball, hugging his knees and falls into a restless sleep.
John dreams of the winged man, watching him from above. Then the dream shifts and John watches through the man’s eyes. He is gazing at the statue of a hooded figure clutching a scythe. They hear the breaking of debris and begin to turn around.
John wakes with a jump and sits bolt upright. He passes his hand over his face. John glances around his room. Why is it so dark?
“Ruth?” he shouts, rubbing his eyes. “Paul, Isaac, Lilith?”
John looks at his clock, it reads fifteen minutes past six. The house is too quiet. John struggles with the bedsheets and rises. His children are prone to cause mischief when not under his constant watch, especially Paul and Isaac.
He limps downstairs and turns on the kitchen lights. John sees the note on the counter and squints to read it.
Father, we have left for the movies. Food is in the microwave. Love, Ruth.
Shaking his head, John fetches his food and sits down. He takes a bite and glances outside. Goosebumps rise on his skin and his heart beats faster. He expects something to burst from the skies. John reaches for the newspaper and is about to read when the light in the kitchen intensifies. He looks out the window and turns cold, his heart dropping to his feet. A ball of fire is flying towards the earth.
“Calm down. It could just be a meteor, it’s not necessarily Judgement Day,” he says.
Johns steps into the backyard and, using his hand as a shield, scans the sky.
The fireball advances. Then the celestial object explodes like a supernova when it passes through the atmosphere.
John gasps and covers his ears as the roar increases, deafening him. Among the debris from the explosion, he sees a person falling. The object rockets towards him, crashing down a few miles away from his house. John is swept off his feet with the force. The wooden house shakes in its foundations, threatening to collapse, and the windows shatter into a million pieces, raining glass shards over him.
John rises and limps over to the crash site. He stops in his tracks. A man with raven wings, wearing a strange black armor, lies on the burning ship. He protectively clutches a bundle to his chest. Upon seeing his injuries, John switches into doctor mode. He goes to him, not considering that the man might be hostile. The winged man growls and his face morphs from that of a man to a skeletal mask but morphs back as he coughs blood. John approaches slowly and assesses his patient. The man is wheezing, bleeding everywhere, and John sees that he’s been impaled through the chest with a part of the door of the burning ship.
John bends down to check the gaping wound. It punctured his lung; he doesn’t have much time left. The man glares at him with yellow eyes.
John raises his hands. “I’m a doctor,” he says, stepping closer.
The man growls again but is cut short when he pukes blood. His breathing deteriorates. John kneels and grabs his wrist, then rips his shirt off and uses it to apply pressure to the wound on his abdomen. The man hisses in response.
“What’s your name?” asks John.
“Kritanta…” he says, his voice rattling with a wet sound.
Suddenly, Kritanta thrusts the bundle into his arms. John clutches the bag, mute. Then Kritanta hands over the hourglass hanging around his neck, placing the trinket in John’s hand. John stares at the necklace.
“It was destiny, John. Their deaths… and your survival,” says Kritanta.
John’s throat turns dry. Then Kritanta’s eyes glow, his body convulses, and a golden light streams from his gaping mouth. The hourglass turns hot in John’s hand as it absorbs the light, and Kritanta’s body becomes limp.
John drops the necklace and grasps Kritanta’s wrist but feeling no pulse he releases him. A small wail breaks the silence. John looks down at the writhing bundle in his arms. Oh no, please.
Removing the folds, John freezes. A baby boy wails in his arms. Instinctively, John rocks him.
He turns around to see his children staring down at him, the corpse and the baby.
John is in his room, searching for his medical bag. Ruth sits on his bed, rocking the baby. The baby wheezes as he sleeps. Lilith sits next to Ruth and Paul and Isaac stand in a corner.
“Why does he keep making that noise?” asks Ruth.
“I don’t know.”
Ruth lies the baby on the bed so that John can place his stethoscope on the baby’s chest, listening for his heartbeat.
His heart drops to his feet and he stares in wonder at the baby before him. Two heartbeats!
“What’s the matter?” asks Ruth.
“Hear it yourself.”
He hands the device over and Ruth listens, her eyes widen. “Weird and… interesting.”
John nods and continues the check-up. Finishing, he scoops up the baby and his hand feels a small pair of black wings on his back.
“They are so cute,” says Ruth.
“Freak,” says Paul and Isaac.
Heat flushes John’s face and he glares at his two sons. They fidget under his stare and mutter an apology.
“Are we keeping him, Papa?” asks Lilith, grasping his feathers.
The baby wails and John gently slaps her hand away. “We are, that was his intention.”
“What shall we name him?” asks Paul.
His children turn pensive. A devious smile appears on Isaac and Paul’s faces and John narrows his eyes.
“Please do not suggest names like Spock or Megatron.”
“How about Ellis?” asks Ruth.
As if to approve, Ellis stirs. He opens his eyes and reveals a bright yellow pair identical to Kritanta’s. Ellis smiles and John sees his sharp, milky teeth.
The floor suddenly spins under John’s feet and he sits heavily on the bed. Ruth and his two sons turn pale but Lilith, unperturbed, sits next to John.
“Hello, Ellis. I’m Lilith, your big sister.”
She tickles his nose. Ellis giggles and grasps her finger.
Lilith points at John. “This is our father.”
Then Ellis closes his eyes and starts crying. John begins rocking him, but he wails louder.
“I guess he’s hungry,” says Isaac.
In the kitchen, Ruth heats milk on the stove. Isaac and Lilith watch John with interest as he tries calming Ellis down, who seems to be getting more and more upset. Ruth finishes and pours the milk into the cloth coffee strainer. She hands it to John.
“Thanks,” says John, shifting Ellis in his arms.
Ellis latches his lips to the strainer and starts sucking. Suddenly, Ellis squirms and tilts his head to the side.
“What’s the matter?” asks John.
Ellis throws up over his chest and chin and John freezes, shutting his eyes shut as he tries not to vomit, too.
“Eww,” says Lilith, looking green herself, while Isaac snickers.
Ruth coughs, her cheeks are red. “Welcome back to fatherhood, Dad.”
John blinks. Well, this brings some lovely flashbacks to mind.
Then Ellis yawns and snuggles against John’s chest, wrapping his small wings around him.
John sees the others yawn. “Time for bed, my ducklings.”
They all head upstairs and he settles into bed, placing Ellis at his side. He covers Ellis over and brushes his soft, black hair. John tries not to sleep too close, fearing he might smother him. All night, he barely gets any sleep for two reasons: Ellis and his breathing, and the dream.
This time it’s different. He dreams of four golden-winged beings clad in white armor. Their violet eyes pierce his soul, exposing him to their knowing gaze. John sees the soldiers pointing their weapons at Ellis. He runs to him and shields him as they open fire.
His body jolts. Sunlight streams through the windows and John shifts on his back, running his hands over his face, then reaches for Ellis. John sits bolt upright. Ellis’ side of the bed is empty. John searches under the covers and rubs his eyes. Perhaps Ruth took him.
John yawns and gets out of bed. The fog lifts from his brain and as he looks down, shock sends him stumbling back into the bed. Ellis sits before him on the floor, but instead of a baby, John is staring straight at a toddler. Ellis smiles and stretches his arms. John’s jaw hurts as his mouth drops open. Pale, he kneels before the child. Ellis gazes up at him and the boy tilts his head to the side. John tries to make sense of what he sees.
How on earth did he grow from a baby into a toddler? In one night!
After dressing Ellis in Elijah’s old baby clothes, John heads for the kitchen.
His children stop talking when they see Ellis, but John ignores them and sits him down. Ruth hands them pancakes and drops onto a chair. The rest stare at Ellis, trying to figure it out.
“Did you feed him Purina, father?” asks Isaac.
John rolls his eyes. “I’m as surprised as you are.” His tone is sharp, not in the mood for teasing. He has a lot of thinking to do.
Isaac shrugs. “At least we won’t have to go through the dirty diapers.”
Paul and Ruth snicker and John narrows his eyes, which makes them laugh harder.
He sips his coffee and glances at Ellis. The boy looks like a normal toddler if one overlooks his strange eyes, wings, and rapid growth.
John cuts the pancake and offers it to Ellis. The boy takes a powerful bite, breaking the fork. John gasps and forces Ellis to spit the fork out. Paul, Ruth and Isaac chortle, but Ellis is not amused. He hisses and tests out his new set of teeth, and John’s concern earns him a solid bite on his hand.
Later, after cleaning up the glass shards, John goes to the crash site, intending to bury Kritanta, only to discover that Kritanta’s body has disappeared.
The following weeks are full of surprises for John. It’s hardly three days later when Ellis takes his first steps. Then two weeks later, John almost suffers a heart attack when Ellis says his first words.
John looks at Ellis, watching TV with his siblings in the living room. He rises from the chair and fetches a glass of water. Looking outside as he drinks, his skin prickles with unknown energy, creeping through his spine. Something tugs at his sleeve and John looks down.
“Papa, I’m thirsty,” says Ellis.
John opens the fridge and takes out a carton of apple juice. He hands it to Ellis who sips it and cringes at the taste. John chuckles. Ellis still doesn’t like many human foods.
Ellis finishes drinking and hands the empty carton to John when he freezes, his small pupils dilating. John raises an eyebrow as if to ask what’s wrong, when Ellis turns to the door, hissing. The doorbell rings.
Ruth glances from the TV. “Are we expecting visitors?”
“Not that I’m aware off,” says John.
The four golden-winged beings flash through his mind and every hair in his body rises. Ellis’s stiff posture concerns him. His boy never behaves like this.
“Ruth, take Ellis,” says John, listening to his gut.
John grabs his cane and limps to the door. He pulls it open, and a hand grasps John’s neck and pushes him inside. His children scream as John gasps for breath. It’s them!
The four creatures point their guns at Ruth and the others as they step inside. John hears a hiss and looks over as Ellis’ face morphs into a skeletal mask, wings spread.
“Ruth… take him!” says John, choking as the winged being tightened his grip on his throat. A soldier points his gun at Ruth. No, please no! His vision darkens.
Suddenly an explosion sweeps John and his captor off their feet, concrete falling in the dust around them. John gasps for breath. Someone crosses John’s line of vision and stabs his attacker with a sword.
John looks up at his savior. A tall winged woman stands before him, wearing black armor with her long black hair in a tail braid.
One of the soldiers rises and launches at the woman. She blocks him and stabs him, but another shoots at her from behind.
“Get your children and get out!” she shouts. She kicks another being, sending him through the wall.
John rises, ducking as the woman blocks another attack. He runs to the children, grabbing Ruth and Ellis.
“Paul, take Isaac and Lilith out!”
John follows them, but a soldier blocks his way. The man shoots John in the leg and kicks Ruth. John falls, gasping and his body spasms.
The man kicks John in the face and the force smashes his skull against the floor. The soldier circles around Ruth. She whimpers and hugs Ellis closer.
John crawls over to her and hugs her tightly against his chest. The soldier loads his gun and John hugs Ruth closer.
“No, father!” says Paul, clutching Lilith and Isaac in his arms, cowering in a corner.
John glares at the man, his heart pounding in his ears. The man takes aim, but the winged woman thrusts her sword deep into his chest from behind.
She kneels next to John. “Are you all right, John?” she asks, tying a tourniquet around his leg.
John simply hugs Ruth closer, who sobs. He takes Ellis from her trembling arms and the boy clutches his shirt, his small body shaking.
“Who are you?” asks John, voice hoarse.
“My name is Lachesis. I have come on the order of Lord Kritanta. I’m here to protect Ellis, the future Horseman of the Apocalypse.”
John shakes his head. What? Horseman? Apocalypse? Her words don’t make sense. Nothing makes sense to him anymore. His brain is still in a daze.
She grasps his elbow. “I will explain further, but I need to escort you and your family to safety.”
John finally regains control of his thoughts and asks, “Why?”
“The Theratavith has marked you as their enemy. They will not stop hunting you down until you and Ellis are dead.”
“But why would they kill him?” asks Ruth, her voice hysterical, tears streaming down her face.
Lachesis hesitates and John’s patience reaches its limit. He grabs her arm, fingers burying into her armor.
“Just tell me what the hell is going on!” says John, gritting his teeth. Everyone else in the room freezes.
“Among the Iyahtal, we have a being capable of destroying worlds. You, humans, think of this being as the Horseman of Death. The Theratavith tolerates us but not the Horseman,” she says.
Lachesis caresses Ellis’ head. “Lord Kritanta was the current horseman. The duty is passed on every ten thousand years.”
She looks at John. “Now it’s your duty to protect him.” Lachesis grabs his hand. “Please, John. Come with me, you’ll be safe with us.”
John hesitates, but one glance at his children fixes his resolve. He nods to Lachesis and follows her outside, watching as white lines appear all over Lachesis’ skin. A ship materializes in the sky and hovers over them. Then a beacon of light bathes them and teleports them inside.
Five Iyahtal wait inside. John hugs Ellis and Ruth close as he sits down in front of them. Fear churns his heart. What other dangers await?
Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Works in the Museum of Art of Ponce. In 2015 published her first micro-fiction, The Rebirth of Richard Adams. Then, in 2018 published a small book about Puerto Rico's poet and writer, Rosario Ferré. Currently working on her first Sci-Fi novel and short stories.