Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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by John T. Bien

The alarm screamed at her. Suzi blinked her sleep-dried eyes. She rubbed at them, blurring her vision and wishing the sting away.

The blast of sound morphed into radio news. When the news ended, she would force herself from the warm cocoon of blankets. She focused on the speaker's words hoping the warm, mellow voice would not cause her to drift back into the dark comfort of sleep.

She needed sleep.

She wasn't going to get it; today was a workday.

As the weatherman's pessimistic forecast sank into Suzi's growing consciousness she threw the covers aside, letting the chill of her bedroom shock her into the morning. It's a rough day in the making, she thought as she hurried across the cold wooden floor to the bathroom. In minutes she had scrubbed her teeth and clouds of steam were drifting from the shower.

The hot water worked magic on her, bringing out a shower song. Music always made her feel better, but this morning it wasn't enough. A tiny headache, a hard finger poking at her temples distracted her. Her eyes burned with fatigue. The thick smoke from the bar and the late conclusion of the show the band had given the night before would haunt her all day.

She didn't like playing during the week, but they had to take whatever jobs they could get. That's just the way it is in the music biz. Say no just one time to a club owner, and it might be your last chance to play at that joint. There is too much competition and even a terrific band like hers -- End Days -- could be replaced in a minute by new bands willing to work for less money. Getting exposure is everything.

She loved it. Just not this morning, when she had to get up early to get to her day job. The class wouldn't wait, and the principal would be lurking in the hall to admonish her tardiness. He was uncomfortable with one of his teachers playing in a rock band and would...

The thought vanished, pushed aside by a sudden knife of worry: something is wrong!

She searched the bedroom, walked from room to room as though expecting to discover the source of her worry. There was nothing but the ordinary.

She glanced at the bed where her band mate, Mike, was still sleeping, undisturbed by Suzi's movement or the strange sense of foreboding that had suddenly stricken her.

She smiled. She had something special going with Mike. They loved music, had no ego conflicts when it came to music and the band. He was talented guitarist and singer; she could strum, sing, and write songs. They were a good team on stage and off and their off stage relationship was beginning to blossom. She was certain that he would give up his old apartment and move into her small, comfortable house. She smiled again, but the feeling of wrongness took some of the joy out of the moment.

She leaned over him, gently kissing his forehead, touched a finger to her lips, and then his. She smiled, warm and beautiful, but the worry still nagged at her.


"Miss Barnes?" Joseph asked from under a crown of mousse-spiked hair. "Don't you think this Dickens stuff is a little too much for us? None of the other freshmen are getting this old crap. This dude don't even write good English." He looked over his shoulder, deliberately chewing on a wad of forbidden gum. "What's a story about some dumb, thieving' orphan a hundred years ago got to do with us?"

There was a twitter of chuckles.

Suzi waved a hand, a nearly unconscious gesture. "Good writing is always relevant. Dickens is one of the greatest writers of all time. We can all..."

She saw the look of understanding light up her student's eyes. A smile was forming when the wave of evil struck her. She staggered, saw the look of fear twist the faces of her students.

"Miss Barnes, are you all right?" Holly was on her feet, reluctant to touch a teacher, even one who needed help.

"Yes, yes," Suzi replied. Her breath came in swallow gasps, her pulse hammered. What the hell was that? "I'm fine, thank you," she said to her worried class.

Another wave of her hand, a flicking of her fingers and the anxiety disappeared from everyone in the room -- everyone except her.


"What's wrong with you tonight?" Mike asked as Suzi dropped a microphone. "You really seem out of it."

"Oh, just a late night and a rough day at work," she said, but her eyes moved everywhere, searching the room for a hidden danger.

"You'll be okay for the show, won't you?"

"I always am, aren't I?"

"Sure but..."

"Let's just get this stuff set up," she said, hefting a monitor speaker and placing it on the floor in front of her microphone stand.

An hour later, the bar had filled with Friday night revelers. Clouds of smoke, the clinking of glasses and the loud conversations were a prelude to the blast of sound that washed over everything when End Days appeared on the tiny stage in a puff of smoke, and flashing lights.

It took only two songs to get the crowd up and dancing. It would be a good night.

The first break arrived almost too soon. The band was really rocking, the crowd was into it. Suzi had almost pushed aside the feeling that something terrible was going to happen.

And then she saw her. Tall, blonde, gorgeous, and coming right toward the stage.

She spared a single, haughty look and a twisted smile for Suzi, before walking directly to Mike. She said something Suzi could not hear, and laid a hand on Mike's arm. He smiled, took her hands, and stepped down from the stage, heading for the bar.

The blonde cast one quick look in Suzi's direction, smiling a smile that didn't light her eyes.

This is it. This is the problem.

Suzi trembled as icy fingers gripped her spine.

She knew she shouldn't be jealous, but she was. It wasn't just jealousy; there was more, some power at work. She could feel it. It lacked the clean feeling her own gift contained. It felt greasy, nasty, like an oil spill spreading darkness on the blue sea.

She followed them to the bar, forcing herself between Mike and the stranger to get his eyes off her.

"Oh, Suzi," he said as though surprised to find her there. "This is Kathleen. She's an agent. She's here to see me...us." He smiled, showing perfect white teeth. He stepped to the side so his gaze met Kathleen's.

Habit lifted Suzi's hand, but Kathleen merely glanced at it before resuming her interrupted conversation with Mike.

"Now I am sure we can do business. A talent like you, we'll make a lot of money together." She took his hand in one of hers, caressing it with the other, smiling, and looking directly into his eyes. Her fingers moved, long nails teasing the flesh of his palm. "And there are some wonderful fringe benefits." The smile broadened.

Mike was captivated, enraptured.

"What about..." his eyes touched Suzi and quickly jumped back to Kathleen.

Kathleen's fingers moved again across Mike's flesh. "Nothing to be concerned about. The great talents always separate themselves, the chafe blows away with the first breeze."

Suzi's face reddened, her temper flared. "And what about the rest of the band? We all got this far together. You can't...Mike!"

Kathleen took Mike by the elbow, deftly turning him away from Suzi.

Suzi rounded up the rest of the band and headed to the stage for the next set. Embarrassingly, she had to call Mike over the PA system. When he stepped on stage a few minutes later he ignored the other players and stepped close to Suzi while she pretended to concentrate on tuning her guitar.

"What the hell was that?" He growled in her ear.

"We have a job. People are waiting."

"I was doing some business, the damn people can wait."

"We've got a show. The rest of us care about it. You're being suckered by that blonde bitch. There's something wrong about her. I don't know why --"

"You're jealous. You don't own me and neither does the band. Keep it in mind." He stalked to the other side of the stage, donned his guitar, and, without pausing to tune, began the first song of the second set.

They labored through the next two sets, not enjoying the large crowd or the music. They all felt tired and empty as they stowed their gear. All except Mike, he was on fire, filled with energy, talking about the great show that none of the rest of the band had experienced. He spoke in machine gun bursts, not waiting for a reply, his hands wrapping cables and casing his guitars with the skill of habit while his eyes were locked on Kathleen's.

"Why don't we just leave the amps and PA? We'll be back tomorrow anyway."

"We never leave the equipment," said Josh. "You know that. This place will be packed tomorrow. Who knows what could happen to the stuff if we aren't here."

"Well, that's up to you guys. I've got things to do. I'm out of here.

He jumped down from the stage. Kathleen took his arm and led him out of the club.

"What the hell was that?" asked Josh, not masking his hurt.

"I'm not leaving my drums here," said Ron and continued breaking down his set.

"I don't get it," Steve said. "We've been together for five years. We're friends, aren't we?"

"He just got that cat scratch fever," Ron noted. "Sorry, Suzi. I..." His skin brightened with embarrassment as he realized what he'd said.

"It's okay," she told him. "I was thinking the same thing. She's telling him she can make him a star and he's falling for it."

"He's good," said Steve, lifting the case that held his keyboard. "But not that good. Hell, Suz, you write the songs. Everybody knows that. If she should be talking to anyone it should be you."

"Thanks," she replied to the compliment. "I wouldn't talk to an agent about the band without you guys."

They finished packing the equipment, Suzi asking the others to put Mike's gear into the back of her van.

She was tired, hungry, and exasperated when she got home. She made herself a peanut butter sandwich, poured a glass of milk, and turned on the television. She was exhausted, but too wired to sleep. She put the sandwich and milk on the end table and immediately forgot it. Images from the Science Fiction Channel flickered across her eyes, but she was seeing something entirely different.

The loud knock on the front door startled her and she was off the couch and moving toward the door before her mind had completed its journey back into this world. A sense of power washed over her as she yanked the door open.

"What the hell do you want?" she barely kept herself from slamming the door in Katheen's face.

"Why that's simple, sweetie," Kathleen's voice was smooth and soft. She edged past Suzi and into the house. "I want to take everything you love away from you. I'm going to destroy you. You're nothing. You have the power, and don't use it for anything except an occasional nudge to help your students. You've made nothing of yourself. It's disgusting, your lack of respect for your gift. There's only so much power to go around and you've wasted yours. I intend to fix that."

"I'm happy."

"Not for long," She waved her taloned fingers.

"I don't think you can..." she stepped back, watching in horror as Kathleen began the transformation into her true appearance -- an ugly, mottle-skinned, knobby-horned demon.

"I'm going to crush you, you simpering little fool." The voice was deep, guttural, nearly a growl.

"I don't think so." Suzi felt power filling her as it never had before. She felt full, as though her glowing skin would burst in an effort to contain the brilliant energy,

The demon laughed a deep, ugly noise.

"Your boyfriend is already mine. Why you want him, I don't know. He's a weakling. You saw how easily I took him from you. Just a few words from me, and he was done with you and willing to betray his friends. He's nothing more than an energy source in a flesh container. I want him and I'm going to have him. If you live, you'll get to watch me consume him and toss him aside like an empty glass. Maybe I'll let you watch while I use up your other friends too. Then I'll destroy you."

A huge fist of power slammed Suzi into the wall. She slid down it, collapsed on the floor, stunned.

Another blow jerked her head sideways, the bones in her neck creaking and popping.

And her own power burst from her, lashing out with a fury Suzy hadn't known before.

The Kathleen-demon's arms were pinned to her side. She was lifted into the air. A torrent of angry words was silenced and the massive body squeezed until breath came to the beast in tortured gasps

Suzi rose easily and strode to where her enemy hung struggling against invisible bonds. The crushing web of power was causing the thing's angry eyes to bulge from their deep sockets.

"You'll have nothing of mine!" She laughed, the brilliance of the power filling her with joy. "I'll send you back to hell that spawned you!" A new force was gathering in her like a spear of light.

The Kathleen shape appeared again; tall, blonde, and beautiful in her bonds of woven air.

She laughed and was gone. Suzi's deadly spear, thrown too late by the raging power that formed it, struck a wall shattering into a million sparkling pinpoints of light that flickered out as they drifted toward the carpet.


Suzi realized that the sense of dread that had troubled her since yesterday morning was gone. She's won. Kathleen had fled to whatever dark place had spawned her. She smiled and sat down to wait.

Mike slipped quietly through the front door. "I didn't think you'd still be up."

"I was waiting for you," she said, setting aside her book and unfolding herself from the corner of the couch.

"You look tired," she took his hand, her thumb caressing his fingers.

"It's been a long day. I'm really tired. I could blink and be asleep."

She pulled him toward the bedroom. "I think you'll feel better tomorrow and I know what will make you feel better now."

She helped him pull his shirt over his head, undress, and slide into bed. She still felt the joy of the power that had flowed through her earlier. Taking control, she massaged muscles that Kathleen's presence had robbed of energy. She felt a tiny trickle of power drip from her fingers. She rubbed it into his tired body. He responded as his strength returned. Still she maintained control, taking him higher, releasing him, letting the power add to the sensations of their joined bodies.

Finally, sensing that even this wondrous power could sustain them no further, she let go and their bodies surged in a single, sweaty cramp of ecstasy.

Mike fell asleep, still breathing hard.

Suzi smiled. Everything felt right. She gently touched his face, brushing aside a wayward strand of his long black hair. He smiled, an impish little thing, in his sleep.

Reluctantly, she slipped from the bed. Snuggling would be great, but a nice hot shower now might well lead to another bout of loving in the morning.

The needle spray was hard and hot. She twisted a dial on the showerhead and the water pulsed, throbbing against her. She let herself be lost in the sensation. It took an effort to turn off the shower, towel dry and rejoin Mike in the bed.

She gazed at him for a moment, smiling, her emotions filling her with warmth that couldn't be explained by the shower.

She tucked herself in beside him and sleep took her.


Saturday was filled with cooking breakfast, being amazed at how that little task, and watching Mike enjoy that meal, could feel so good, so right.

It wasn't until they were nearly finished with the food shopping that she realized that he hadn't said a word. Nothing about breakfast, nothing about being dragged to the supermarket, nothing about the incredible loving, nothing at all from him.

"Are you okay?" she asked.

He didn't hear her, his eyes focused on something distant, something not found in the aisles of the store.

"Mike?" She shook his arm.

"Uh, huh, oh, sorry. I was just thinking..."

"I hope it didn't hurt too much." She laughed, but got no response.

"We'd better get home. A little nap before the show would be nice." She grinned, an obvious hint that she wasn't intending to let him sleep.

"Sure, but later, I got something to do. I need to get something from my place. I'll be over in a little while."

"What...?" She caught herself. Mike didn't like having to explain himself. He thought it was an invasion of his privacy. She didn't like it, but it was one of the things she thought would change over time.

"I'll see you later then," he grabbed her hand for a quick touch and was gone, walking away, leaving her with a cart full of groceries.

Not understanding, her mood swung to the downside. She sucked in a deep breath, concentrating on her breathing as her body loaded bags of groceries into the old van.

She drove home, still focusing on her breathing. The meditation technique had come naturally to her and had helped her through many rough spots in her life. She hadn't even realized that what she was doing was an ancient eastern method of focusing the mind, clearing it and relaxing the body.

It was also how she'd discovered the power contained in the vessel of her flesh.

She'd sought training, but no guru had understood the power she described to them. She learned to meditate, but learned nothing that would help her control and use the beautiful flow of magic: magic she'd only been able to use in small ways until now. Now she understood the fullness of her power, but still lacked the means to control it. When it had burst into action against Kathleen it had been a shock to her, had saved her...but she'd had no control over it.

Oh, she'd learned a few tricks, like the little, nearly unconscious, motion she sometimes used in her classroom to help her students absorb information they were struggling to understand. She never used it for herself, not her music, not the band or the songs; those things came from someplace deep inside her. She didn't cheat. Besides, she wasn't certain what she could do with the gift.

But she'd learned last night: learned that the source of the white stream of power was nearly infinite. It could be a weapon, but could it be a gentle tool?

A nap still sounded good. After unloading the groceries she sought the comfort of her bed. Her head hit the pillow. Her mind caught fire and sleep eluded her.

Something was still wrong. She didn't feel the demon taint, but she wasn't certain the beast was gone.

She rolled over and turned on the radio. She let herself merge with the music. Her body relaxed and, though she didn't sleep, she rested -- and drifted in the magic world of tone and lyric.

The phone startled her out of her peaceful trance.

"I'm going to have to meet you at the show," Mike said with out preamble.


"I'll see you there," he said, the words harsh.

"Sure, but...are you alright?"

"Never better, just tied up with something I have to handle."

"Okay." She knew he had some family problems that he would not discuss. She didn't bother asking him about it anymore. He avoided answering and while he grew angry at her questioning, she grew frustrated with his lack of response.

Suzi hung up. She had left most of the equipment in the van, bringing only the guitars and some other small things into the house so she would have room for the groceries.

"Might as well take care of that now," she said to herself.

She loaded the van, showered, ate, and read for a while before catching the TV newscast. Nothing of interest there; politicians lying, madmen killing, houses burning, people starving and the weather turning bad.

Finally, she changed into her stage clothes and set out for the club.

Ron was already there, tightening things on his elaborate drum kit. Steve was finished with his keyboard setup and was watching Ron, offering a hand when he could.

Josh ambled into the club, which was beginning to fill with fans. He set his bass and amplifier in position next to Steve's keyboard and began laying out his wires.

They had finished the entire setup including the PA and the light show before Mike made an appearance.

"Nice timing," Josh teased, receiving a dark scowl in return.

"We're finished setting up," Suzi said, fending off any argument between the two. "Let's get a drink. We have half an hour before we have to start.

They made their way to the bar, Mike, Suzi and Josh sat on tall stools while Steve and Ron stood. Suzi reviewed the set list, giving each a copy that would be placed on the floor near their position. It was routine. It was comfortable and helped calm the jitters that she still got even after hundreds of shows.

They hit the stage. The lights went out. In a puff of smoke, a flash of strobes, and a thunderous power chord, the show began.

The music, the motion, the interaction between the members of the band was all there, but something wasn't right. Something was missing. It was like French onion soup without any cheese.

They played three sets. The bar was packed and the crowd loved the show, not noting the lack of passion in the performance.

Last call was sounded as they packed their equipment. Nobody spoke. They seemed in a trance. She hated shows that were technically good, but lacked that extra something that happened when it all came together.

Mike rode home with Suzi.

"Tough night," she said.

"What was tough about it? It was fine." His temper flared as though he were mad at her.

She pulled into the driveway, killed the engine, and sat for a moment looking at him. He looked tired, his eyes dark and baggy. He didn't look in her direction as he climbed from the passenger side of the van.

"Let's leave this shit for now."

For once she didn't argue.

"I'm taking a shower," she said. "Join me?"

"No. I just need sleep."

He was asleep by the time she finished drying off. She carefully joined him. For a change she didn't snuggle up to him, afraid that her body heat would keep him from getting the rest he obviously needed. She reached out and gently touched his back. His skin was cold, he felt... strange, wrong. She wanted to hold him, warm him, but resisted the impulse. She pushed her worry aside and began the slow breathing that would help sleep take her.

She slipped into a deep sleep, but a sleep filled with strange images. She saw Kathleen, laughing in a place where the air formed swirling bands of color. The blonde flickered between her stunning human image and her true form. A trickle of dark water separated Suzi from Kathleen. It grew wider, rougher. Waves reached for her as though the water had a malevolent life of its own. The distant shore on which the demon blonde stood drifted farther away. Suzi could hear the laughter clearly across the distance. She shivered as the cold water engulfed her feet, rising, rising to her calves, her thighs. It kept coming, flowing over her breasts, her shoulders. Her feet were swept clear of the sucking mud of the river bottom.

The cold penetrated her flesh. She shivered again, uncontrollably

And she woke.

She wasn't cold. She was hot, sweaty.


She rolled out of bed, searching the small house.


Mike was gone.

On the kitchen table she found a crinkled piece of paper, torn from a note pad. She felt the familiar nasty presence before she touched it.

Gone to my destiny. Sorry, but you were holding me back. This is my chance and I am going to take it. You are content playing in little clubs and teaching. I want more. I will succeed. Good luck with the band.

The hastily scrawled note didn't sound like Mike, even the handwriting seemed different.

As she stared at the paper, tears welling in her eyes for a future stolen, she felt the evil receding. Mike was gone. She could search for him, no doubt she would find him, but she would not find the Mike she loved. Even now, only a few hours later, it was too late. The Mike she loved would be gone, broken, growing too weak to use further after his powerful life force and talent were drained by the demon. His benefactor would leave him, a broken shell, and move on to suck the energy and talent from another potential star.

But she was just guessing, hoping she was wrong and looking for someone to blame for his weakness and his denial of their future.

She hoped he would find the success he saw in his dreams, but knowing he wouldn't: he had no future now.

She walked across the room and stared out the window.

Betrayed, or stolen and used. It made no difference. Mike and all he'd meant to her were gone.

She was alone.

Tears and anger filled her.

She would master her power...somehow. It was too late for Mike, but not too late for her.


© 2011 John T. Bien

Bio: John T. Bien is a graduate of Rutgers with a degree in English Secondary Education. He did a brief stint in the Army and a few years in the NJ National Guard. He played guitar, wrote songs and started a small candle company with his two best friends. For fun, he ran in local road races and played baseball. As the years passed, he began to indulge his love of writing science fiction, fantasy and horror, with stories published in a number of venues, worked for the U.S. Treasury Department and wrote articles for an investment newsletter. Since leaving the Treasury Department, he has taken to day-trading stocks and writing. He now lives in New Jersey with a beautiful former model turned executive secretary and two crazy dogs. He still makes candles for fun, walks instead of runs, plays guitar, and writes.

E-mail: John T. Bien

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