We might be an Eiffel Tower short of the Paris Review, but our writers don't seem to mind. At Pages of Purgatory Literary Magazine we had the reputation for attracting the best work. Our pay rate made the New Yorker blush—or it did until we lost our biggest benefactor. We needed one more piece for the next issue, one more piece to save the magazine. I was getting desperate when my prayers were answered at 3:33 on a Sunday night.
The email was from a "Mr. Walker" and included no cover letter and no short biography. I assumed it would be a throwaway, the type of submission sent to dozens of publications. It would either be incoherent babbling as the protagonist wandered around in a drug haze or something that combined werewolves and spaceships. I opened the attachment, began to read, and found myself in tears by the end of the first page. It told the tale of a writer who'd fallen out of favor with his hometown as he fought to find his way back. More important than the craft and plotting was how I felt at the end of each paragraph. It was like lukewarm gold pouring over my skin. I had to publish it.
Composing my message took hours. I opened with praise, followed by begging, and concluded with a heartfelt apology that we couldn't pay him. The anticipation was making me shake so hard I could barely type. His reply arrived immediately, and consisted of an address and a single sentence:
"I will accept payment in human bones."
I should have deleted the email and moved on. However, this was a demand I could fulfill with relative ease. The district in my town had made a hobby out of building schools. But without firm commitments for funding, it was only a matter of time before each new construction folded. This led vultures like me to descend on the abandoned campuses at night to pick their carcasses clean of anything remotely valuable. The holy grail of these searches had been a stash of bones found in what was meant to be a biology classroom. I had a literal closet filled with skeletons.
Even though I found the request bizarre, it wasn't the first one I'd received from an eccentric artist. I looked at it as a win-win. He got what he wanted—I got to do a little spring-cleaning. I popped a couple of hands and a femur into a nondescript box, scribbled an address, and added stamps. A few days later we moved forward with publication.
Luckily, the new issue proved to be a major success. Mr. Walker faded into the background and I assumed that would be the end of our dealings. The whole incident would have been a strange anecdote I pulled out at cocktail parties—that is until he contacted me about becoming a regular contributor. I figured there was no harm in it; I had enough bones stashed away to fill a couple anthologies. The last day of each month he'd deliver a story and I'd deliver the goods.
It could have stayed simple, but after a year I got curious. I dropped another care package at the post office, tracked the address, and arrived at a phone booth. Age had frosted the glass and the smell of rotten meat breathed through the slivers in the door. Something wasn't right. I crossed the street and huddled in the bushes to wait for the mailman.
The post arrived, and as the truck pulled away, Mr. Walker slithered out of his cubby. He was cloaked in a robe and wore a human skull over his head. Strapped to his back were two magnificent wings assembled from the trinkets I'd been sending him; vertebrae framed each and ribs spanned the gaps. Before he could fully retreat to his lair, I stood up.
"Wait!" I called out. "You don't have to hide. Your work is beautiful."
I'm not sure what inspired this outburst. He froze, twisted his neck around, and lurched over to me. The way he moved wasn't human, like a baby horse trying to find its footing for the first time. Soon, he was close enough for me to hear his ragged breathing. I was so overwhelmed by the craftsmanship of his pinions that I didn't notice the talons until it was too late. Hollowed out, jagged phalanges slid over his fingers as smooth as gloves, and each digit pierced my guts. Skin was shredded; arteries were ruptured. I hit the pavement and he dragged me back to his doorway.
The phone booth wasn't his home; instead, it served as foyer to a larger chamber in the sewers. A laptop was wired to a generator with a crooked stack of parchment casting a shadow over the keyboard. Perched on top was an inkpot filled with viscous red fluid (of course he wrote in blood). The ceiling was webbed with Christmas lights and a rusted boiler with a dozen twitchy gauges dominated the back wall.
By then, shock had filled my brain with icicles—but not enough to keep me from figuring out the plan. He was going to feed me to the iron beast, and after my melted flesh had filtered through the floor, my pieces would be added to his collection.
In the center of the room was a well of oily smoke. Somewhere beneath the ashes I could make out weeping from hundreds of souls. I realized that these wings hadn't been constructed to grip the air and climb into the heavens—they'd been built to swim through the darkness below.
He folded me into the industrial sarcophagus, and as strange as it sounds, I found the black comforting. Anything was better than being devoured by the fiery mouth of the underworld. With the last of my strength, I scratched my final words into the soot and burnt hair clinging to the metal walls: "The End."