Gross sibling rivalry - Editor
The Favored Son
by Philip Roberts
Two of them watched the elder Paulk writhe on the bed. With the blinds drawn and the sun all but swallowed up by the night, the two sons could barely make out the withered face twisted in pain, thick veins like vines wrapped around the nude upper body. Tufts of thin white puffed out of the boney, wrinkled chest, the hair disturbed as the old man clawed at his skin, drew blood here and there.
Brian, the youngest at the age of twenty-two, reached forward to offer aide, but Jacob stopped the act with a brief shake of his head, face all but consumed by the darkness. He kept his head down, the oldest and the keeper of his father’s life. Though the elder Paulk had offered Brian five years of love and support, Jacob had always made it known that Brian wasn’t blood related, done his best to stress it. Now he turned from the violent coughs and glistening blood dribbling down the old man’s parched lips and left the room. Though Brian could’ve stayed, could’ve protested, he followed in silence.
Jacob closed the bedroom door and stood for a time, backlit by a lamp, the resemblance between son and father clear in Jacob’s thin chin, sunken cheeks, and curly black hair. Brian had seen pictures of the elder Paulk in his youth, and had always marveled at the resemblance between the two.
Behind the thick oak door the old man screamed into the night, voice deep and strong for just a few seconds before it dissolved into a string of watery coughs.
“We need a doctor,” Brian urged, pushing aside his normal hesitance in the face of Jacob’s stern demeanor. He’d known from almost the first day that Jacob disliked him, though he’d never been able to tell why. Jacob was never outwardly cruel, merely distant and disconnected.
Instead he followed Jacob through the large home and out into the frigid autumn day. Three miles out from the nearest town, only an expanse of fiery looking trees greeted them, even the ground consumed by the colorful, dead leaves.
“We’re going to get him help,” Jacob said and started across the leaves towards a path near the edge of the forest. Brian followed after him, feeling younger than he was, barely able to see in the dim evening with only the moon to guide them. Jacob moved with the air of knowledge, walking swiftly through the trees, weaving left and right, the path too erratic for Brian to mentally map out until he had no way of knowing where he was should Jacob get too far ahead.
Yet, while Jacob’s body language showed no interest in Brian’s presence, his pace slowed whenever Brian began following behind, the change in speed subtle, and Brian accepted the gesture without comment.
He’d traveled through this dense forest numerous times over the years he’d lived within the Paulk family home. He’d marveled at the beauty of the changing leaves, the sparkling white winter snow, the lush green spring, and the noisy, living summer. From the day Brian had seen the elder Paulk greet him at the door, the social worker by his side, Brian had never gone more than a few miles away from the home, nor had he ever cared to. Mr. Paulk provided him with everything he had ever needed, showed a keen eye towards correcting whatever problems Brian might’ve been facing, and somehow repaired the mental and physical wounds his birth parents had once inflicted.
“We’re almost there,” Jacob called out, tore Brian from his memories and his sadness at Mr. Paulk’s suffering. He knew nothing about Jacob beyond his family connection to Paulk. During the long months Paulk vanished for his business trips Jacob only spoke when he needed to give an order.
A hint of deep fear plagued Brian’s thoughts as the trees began stretching away from them, and he caught sight of the large mound of dirt rising up from the wet ground. Eyes partially adjusted to the darkness, Brian could clearly see the mound, not a single leaf touching its surface. Though he saw nothing to suggest he stared at anything other than dirt, he found his senses sharpening at the prospect of danger, aware of Jacob turning towards him, face once again hidden by the darkness.
“Why are we here?” Brian asked him. The two were of comparable physical builds, almost identical heights, in fact, but Jacob was at least twenty years Brian’s senior. He had no idea why Jacob might harm him, but still found himself backing up a step.
Without a word Jacob pulled the knife from his pocket and extended the blade. His arm down by his side, only a hint of moonlight reflected off the metal.
“Is this about your father’s money?” Brian asked, backing up another step. He didn’t actually know what wealth Mr. Paulk had, but given his home, Brian could only assume he had a significant sum, and his often cold nature towards Jacob said a lot about their relationship.
Jacob smiled just a bit, lips curling upward, head tilting down towards the blade. “You’re going to save his life.”
“How is this going to help him?”
“It pains me to admit it, but he was right about me. I think until tonight even I hadn’t fully admitted that to myself.”
“Right about what?”
Jacob moved before Brian could even see, darted forward so fast it almost looked as if the night itself absorbed him whole and placed him behind where Brian stood. He tensed as he heard the feet rustling through the leaves, but Jacob’s hands grabbed hold of him before he could defend himself.
He felt the coolness of the blade before the pain ripped open his neck, the job purposefully sloppy, skin ragged as the blood gushed from it. The dirt clogged Brian’s nose, smeared across his face as he convulsed on the ground. He sank his fingers in it as he tried to pull himself forward as if he could still escape, but Jacob’s shoe dug into his side and pushed him onto his back. Then that dark face was looming over him once more, the knife almost glowing, its tip oozing with red.
“I know it’s wrong of me,” Jacob said. “I really shouldn’t take such joy in this, but seeing your love for him, I just can’t help myself. I’m not doing this out of any love for that man, yet I’m saving him all the same. You’ll understand soon enough. I almost want to say more, but I think it’ll become clear. He was right about that, too, you know.” He pulled back, loomed above Brian with a bitter smile. “He told me I wouldn’t be able to say more.”
Jacob pulled a flask from his pocket and dropped it onto Brian’s chest. Brian grasped at his bleeding neck, felt the blood running through his clenched fingers, and watched as Jacob arched his own head back as if to stare up at the moon. With the light shining directly onto Jacob’s face, Brian could see as Jacob opened his mouth wide and grabbed hold of his tongue with his right hand. He stretched it forward, bringing it almost out of his mouth, the wet appendage stretching to almost four inches long. With it pulled taut he brought up the knife and cut swiftly into the base, sending a stream of red down his own face, making him cough right as he tore the tongue loose with a final jerk.
Jacob hunched over, vomited onto the ground beside Brian, the severed tongue gripped firmly in his hand, and as Brian watched, he saw it beginning to move, shifting rapidly back and forth like a snake.
The edges of his vision blurred, both hands falling limply away from his neck as Jacob knelt down on top of him again, reached towards Brian with the tongue, and placed the wet skin onto Brian’s chest. He felt more than saw the tongue snake across his body and crawl into his neck. He groped weakly at it but could only touch the slick tip of it before it disappeared completely inside of him.
Intense heat swelled within his neck, made his entire body jerk upward, eyes stretched open wide enough to send streams of blood down his face. Something bulged up his throat, made him gag and gasp for air for just a few seconds before the air actually came, lungs overflowing after a sharp inhale.
So overcome with his efforts to breath Brian almost didn’t notice Jacob on his knees in front of the mound of dirt, clawing at the base of it. Brian tried to call out but his throat was still too sore to talk, and he felt something else tearing at the back of his mind, flickers of images and emotions he had trouble sorting through in the face of everything else.
A ripple ran through the dirt, sent it crumbling down, revealing something pulsing right below the surface. Jacob reached towards it, arms extending into it, and Brian suddenly realized he was being pulled in. The odd creature beneath the dirt sucked Jacob inside with a thick, wet sound, the entire surface of the dirty skin splitting open into thin, pinkish slits Brian could only assume were mouths, but it seemed to absorb Jacob directly into the flesh rather than through the openings. The entire process was over with in less than a minute and Brian sat alone in the dark woods staring at the pulsating thing embedded deep within the ground.
An understanding born from a new memory told him he saw only the tip of this thing; that a much larger creature lived beneath the ground he sat atop. The memories that crowded out his thoughts felt like a direct message, a pre-recorded list of instructions for him to follow if he wanted Mr. Pualk to live, and with them came a fierce love for the man who had helped him.
Before him the creature seemed to descend into the earth, while it front of it a thick liquid bubbled up, pooled within a crevice of rock. He picked up the flask by instinct and knelt in front of the sludge. This, he knew, was all that remained of Jacob. He poured the liquefied remains into the flask.
He knew as well his time was short. Brian ran through the woods, the way almost lit up like a beacon. He flew through the dark trees, across the dead leaves, and beneath the shining moon until the dimly lit, three story home loomed up in the distance and Brian was running across the lawn towards the front door.
Jacob had sent all of the other servants home hours before, a move Brian had protested at the time, but now understood perfectly as he ran through the hallways. He could hear the screams of pain, heard the thrashing as Paulk waited for his savior to arrive.
Paulk’s watery eyes glimmered in the moonlight streaming through his window when Brian burst into the room. He had no thoughts anymore beyond his task, entire will focused on kneeling before Pualk and allowing him to drink Jacob’s remains. Only as Paulk sucked at the liquid did something in Brian realize he had never actually heard Paulk call Jacob his son, or Jacob utter the word father, their relationship merely assumed from the beginning and never corrected whenever Brian himself used those terms. But staring at Paulk’s skin smoothing out with each gulp, his muscles swelling beneath the new flesh, black hair sprouting rapidly from his skull, Brian accepted that Jacob had never been Paulk’s son.
Paulk seemed to sense Brian’s growing hesitance as the last drops of the flask were emptied into his mouth. Whatever had driven Brian on so thoroughly before now seeped out of him, left him stumbling away from the bed as the youthful Paulk rose up dressed only in boxers.
He moved with the same speed Jacob had, slipping into the darkness until he grabbed hold of Brian with powerful fingers, dug them into Brian’s arm in order to lift him up. Physically he could offer no resistance, his body limp, dead weight to be dragged out of the room by Paulk. Brian had trouble even lifting his head up anymore, eyes focused on the ceiling and the dark lights up above.
“I did appreciate the company you offered me,” Paulk said, smiling as he moved, showing no strain or effort as he opened a door Brian had never noticed before. “Jacob wasn’t much for company, just as you won’t be after everything is finished, but I can’t fault either of you for that much. Still, I did enjoy the company while it lasted.”
He pulled them both into the darkness and the humid, dense air within the small room. Brian’s body felt warm, skin tense and itchy, but he couldn’t move to scratch it, helpless as Paulk let go of him and stepped back.
Light flooded the small, padded room, the ceiling almost entirely composed of a giant vent. The padding was old and yellowed, claw marks visible here and there where fingers had ripped into them in failed attempts to escape. The feeling was beginning to return to Brian’s body as the intensity of the itchy feeling increased, but he still couldn’t reach out to Paulk as he wanted to, couldn’t grab hold of the man as he took a step back into the doorway.
“The process takes ten years to complete,” Paulk said to him. “By the end of it you’ll look like me, like Jacob, and though you’ll have memory of who you were before, when the time comes and I’ll need to restore myself with your body, you won’t be able to resist the orders, but you have well over fifty years before then. I’m afraid the transformation you find yourself going through now will not be pleasant, but you’ll survive it.”
Brian tried to leap for him, felt his body jolt forward but come up well short, and Paulk smiled at the attempt. He backed out of the room, and while Brian groped towards his once benefactor, Paulk slammed the door shut.
He writhed on the floor, clawing at his body, trying to purposefully tear open his wrists, but he always pulled back before he could, went limp just briefly until the suicidal urges somehow passed him, and only then was control given back by whatever crawled within his body.
Eventually there would be another like him, another orphan brought into the home, and Brian would roam its halls just as Jacob had watching the child be prepared for the same torturous fate. Countless looks and urgings now came back to him that he’d seen on Jacob’s face, looks Brian had mistaken for jealousy or hatred, but now grasped at their real meaning.
Jacob hadn’t been able to warn him. Brian ignored the pain in his skin and deep within his body. He closed his eyes and lay flat on the floor. Paulk assumed no one was capable of breaking free of whatever control this creature inflicted.
He told himself he would prove Paulk wrong. He opened his eyes wide and began waiting for the next child to be brought into Paulk’s home.