Here is Mr Michael Squid’s second offering…
The Gristmill Cyclops
Cancer is the first thing I learned to truly hate at the age of 9. I’d curse its name and punch the bark of trees in the woods next to my home until my red knuckles split and bruised. My mother tried to tell me about foster families that would love me and care for me, but each time I’d storm out into those woods, suffocated by the thought of losing her. I’d sit and lean on the trees feeling so small.
I spent every day after school getting lost in those woods, eager to escape my frustrations. The babbling waters of the creek would whisper comfort and the trees would sway like welcoming arms. Fantasy wore thin with the onset of hunger, however, and I’d eventually trudge back home through the fallen leaves to my sick mother.
One day she came back from the hospital with glassy eyes. That evening she told me it had spread throughout her body. She presented a will for me to look at, her face looking paper-thin over her skull. I bolted out the door and ran farther into those trees than I’d ever gone.
That was the day I found the mill.
The trees thickened yet I struggled on, running from a pain no nine-year-old should face. The dappling of sun scattered sparingly on the forest floor as I pushed through dense clusters of trees. Eventually I stumbled upon a derelict stone building, overgrown with ivy and dark, twisted branches. Ancient stonework crumbled under the sagging wooden roof, and a splintered waterwheel sat warped and rotten in a dried up creek. It was an old grain mill, abandoned for decades and overrun with trees. The beauty of nature reclaiming the stone building was timeless and almost magical, but as I looked closer at the cracked door, I saw a wide, staring eye.
My blood chilled and I began to run, but then a deep, creaky voice called out to me “Wait.” I froze in my worn out boots then turned to face the doorway.
“Why are you here, boy?” asked the gravelly voice.
I watched the door with a pattering heart as it creaked open slightly, revealing a tall silhouette; only the sliver of his yellow eye and a filthy grey beard were illuminated in the shadows.
“You look sad” the voice spoke low and soft, “I am sad too. My animals are hungry and I’m too weak to reach their feed. I’m afraid I’ll lose them.” His voice was tender, tinged with the bitter pain, but his reply only angered me. I lashed out, unable to hold my tongue.
“My mother is dying, I don’t care about your stupid animals!” I screamed and collapsed to my knees weeping as snot and tears swirled salty streams down my chin.
“I’m sorry,” the voice continued, “I lost my parents in a fire when I was around your age, I lost my place in society as well because of the scars from those flames. I know what loss is.”
The door opened fully, and I saw a deformed, hideous face. His left side was missing an eye, and a gaping wound cut through his skull to his jaw as if half of his face had been eaten away around the shiny, pink skin. I was shocked at the twisted appearance of the one-eyed man, but I didn’t run.
“I’ve been unable to find a job or a friend all these cold and lonesome years. Only the animals stay with me, regardless of what I look like. That’s why they are so important to me.”
My heart opened in empathy, his animals were all he had since he was nine, my age. My problems seemed smaller and I walked up a few paces, embarrassed for snapping so coldly.
“I-I’m sorry. I’m sorry your life has been so hard,” I stuttered.
“Don’t feel sorry for me. I’ve seen the flowers bloom in the spring and the trees shift hue in spectacles of beauty. I’ve heard birds sing ballads so divine they’ve made me weep. I’ve watched a doe teach her fawn to walk on the frozen creek when it still ran, and they have all since become my family. For every moment of pain and loss there has been one of happiness and tranquility. Sometimes we need to shed tears in order to water new seeds.”
The old man opened the door and walked slowly inside to fetch a cup from the counter as he continued speaking. I kept my distance but walked closer to hear, watching him as he hunkered down into a creaking chair and sipped from a dirty old cup.
“This mill was the one job I could keep, looking the way I do. I would work alone with the animals and leave sacks of grain for the pickup each week in this gristmill. But once the river ran dry, the work was gone. I expected to die soon after, but look at me.”
I nearly jumped back as he threw something towards me, thumping the ground then rolling to my feet, only to realize it was a round apple. I picked it up, turning the small green apple streaked with red blush in my fingers. I looked up to see the apple tree twisting up through the old mill’s cracking roof.
“Some things burn brightly to help others grow,” he said solemnly, looking up at the sun.
I knew he wasn’t talking about the apple tree that had overtaken the decrepit mill. He was talking about my sick mom and me. I tried to squeeze my eyes shut but the tears trickled down regardless. As much as it hurt to face the truth, I knew his words were needed. I wiped my snotty nose with my tattered sleeve. The man walked further in and I heard a weak animal’s cry, and curiosity pulled my feet up to the door of the worn-out structure as he kept talking.
“Please come in, don’t be afraid. I’ve been screamed at, attacked, insulted and called a monster. I’ve shed many tears from this one eye. Sometimes monsters look like the ordinary people. Beautiful women with makeup and jewelry signing deals to bulldoze the trees and blacken the air. Handsome, rich men in shiny suits that take everything from the people who work hard.”
The air was musty and thick in the old mill and as I peeked in the door. I saw a large, open chamber with hay on the ground, and heard weak animal cries. I no longer feared the old man, I felt bad for him, and I spotted the large feed bags high on a shelf, dusty and out of reach. I walked a bit inside towards the forms of the animals lying on the hay in shadow, whimpering. Once inside, I was startled by his low voice just behind me at the door. I spun around.
The tall man stood over me, his wide, glaring eye next to the hole eaten into his scarred face over a horrible, wide grin. The padlock in his wrinkled, knobby fingers slipped into metal loops on the door as he continued.
“And sometimes they look like me.”
The padlock snapped shut on the metal latch screwed into the wooden door. I tripped backwards into the hay, towards what I thought were animals. I saw the split flesh and gagged mouths and pleading, horrified eyes. They were people, naked, filthy and hog-tied with chunks of the flesh from their calves and forearms hacked away. The bloody white of bone sat exposed in pits of crusted blood and oozing infection. I screamed as the tall old man wheezed a phlegm-filled, raspy laugh, damaged by decades of grain dust.
The man’s sinewy arms reached for me as he approached, and I ran from him, among the butchered victims squirming in the filthy hay. The smell of death was unbearable, and I saw a few burned, blackened bodies crawling with maggots in a corner near a high open window, likely there to vent the pungent stench.
The one-eyed man charged at me with a wide grin of rotted, yellow teeth, and I squeezed the small apple in my hand that he’d rolled to me earlier. My heart thundered in my small chest as I threw the apple hard and true. A loud thuck accompanied an angry howl as it slammed the man’s one eye, and he shrieked in pain, clawing up at his face with gnarled fingers. I ran to the pile of bruised, decaying corpses under the window, knowing it was the only way out.
My fight-or-flight response drove as I scampered up the slippery skin, crunching the bones within and I vomited from the smell of the soft, ripping flesh between my desperate fingers. I found footholds in exposed ribs and cracking spines in the charred, mushy meat as I climbed. My fingernails bent back in excruciating pain as I clawed up the stone wall from the shaky stack of rotted bodies. He was almost on me.
Adrenaline pumped through me as I pulled myself up and over the sill, falling out the high window. A painful thud knocked the air out of me and I hit the ground and rolled on the dry leaves before rising in pain. I ran, covered in rancid fluids, screaming through the woods like a madman. I finally made it back home and into the arms of my worried mother.
We called the police, but he was already gone by the time they’d reached the mill. The decomposing remains of twelve adults and two children were discovered, but the two women and a man who were found alive were expected to recover, though in need of partial amputation of their butchered limbs.
I lost my mother just two months later, but we had profound, deep talks about love and life before then. We shared dreams, secrets and smiles, and I promised her I’d be safe, and she promised she’d always be with me. I stopped running away from the emotions and started listening to her wisdom and advice. She had wanted to prepare me for life without her as best as she could in the limited time she had left, and I treasured each moment with her until she died.
The body of that murderer, dubbed “The Gristmill Cyclops” by the local papers, was discovered by a hiker soon after. He was found to be the same 9-year-old child who had gone missing after killing and eating pieces of his parents back in 1953. The fire that took half his face was accidental, a result of him attempting to cook their bodies. His only recorded words before escaping the paramedics in ’57 were included in the article. My hair stood on end as I read the familiar quote in that vile context. “Some things burn brightly to help others grow.
Mr. Michael Squid will drag you deep into a well of unfiltered nightmares. Horror without seatbelts or breaks that will make you think and make you terrified.
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