Rosemary didn’t survive to see the birth of her child, and that might have been for the best.
She didn’t even live long enough to register that something had gone wrong. The others — covered in bits of bone and flesh — would endure the real terror of that day’s events. She got as far as a furrowed brow and a puzzled smile, and then… gone. Existence one moment, utter annihilation the next. At least she didn’t have to endure the agony of physical pain or emotional torment. Rose didn’t have the time.
The furled-up banner — ready to release at a moment’s notice — hung strung out between two trees. A cakebox, its lid sealed shut with an unbroken bit of tape, held a hidden delicacy. Either pink or blue icing. Schrödinger’s genitals until one opened the container. A small cannon sat to one side, the fuse for the father-to-be to light. Several helium-filled balloons bobbed, here and there. Tethered to table and tree branch. A puncture from a pin would send gender-themed confetti across all in attendance. Like snow. Some of the guests prayed that — should it be a boy — the little pieces weren’t phallus-shaped.
“This little fella—” Rose cradled her bump “—is gonna be the most important little guy in the world!”
Oohs and ahhs and awws. A few even cooed.
“Do you get the feeling that it’s going to be a boy, then?”
Rose grinned and looked up at the sky, as if to say, Shucks, who knows? She shrugged. “I don’t care as long as it’s healthy.”
That got a warm response. The partygoers agreed that it didn’t matter.
As long as it’s healthy.
“Isn’t she positively glowing?” one commented.
A sheepish grin. “Aw, yea—”
“No, look at her. She’s literally glowing.”
All eyes swivelled to her.
“Oh my God,” said someone in a gasp.
“She really is!”
But, as they’d soon discover, Jesus had abandoned them.
A red aura throbbed around the pregnant woman. It flowed and pulsated across her skin, crackled like blood lightning. Rose looked down at her hands. Her countenance about to change into something more fitting for the oncoming terror.
Someone managed to utter, “What the f—”
She didn’t even have a moment to express her abject terror. Didn’t get a faltered heartbeat to rent the air with a scream. Only a bang. Not dissimilar to the pop from an inflated bag of crisps. A cartoonish sound. Something you might hear from that kids’ show about the roadrunner and the coyote.
But someone else screamed. A chorus of shrieks soon joined them in an inharmonious wail. Most yelled out of confusion. One or two — the sharper members of the congregation who understood what they’d seen — moaned out of sadness. Some squealed out of fear and surprise, their wellbeing the primary concern. And who can blame them?
Warm bits of meat showered over the attendees. It splattered down on them like rain. Extremities and bone fragments tapped and thudded across the table. Crimson flecks daubed them, a flesh and skin Jackson Pollock. A bit of a rib and part of a finger plonked into the punch bowl.
Rose disintegrated. Evaporated.
But something remained where she had stood.
Something that squirmed and cried like a baby. You’d forgive someone for thinking it a human infant if they only glanced in its direction. A look that lingered for longer than a split second would soon put an end to that notion. The red skin — beneath the blood — horns and hooves would be a dead giveaway.
The banner unfurled by itself. It slithered down from its position, a snake from a tree. The slide of parchment hissed a sibilant tone beneath the shriek of the partygoers. It flapped down like a huntsman spider from the shadows. Its eight legs squirming in your hair, writhing down the back of your shirt.
Congratulations! It’s a—
The banner burst into flames. Tongues of fire licked and curled the edges, blackened the material. Nobody saw the original hue — pink or blue. Nobody caught the last word. Nobody needed to. Girl or boy. The thing at the epicentre of the flesh bomb defied their boring boundaries. It rendered the question irrelevant.
Gong. Gong. Gong.
Church bells chimed over the hills. Only no Earthbound place of worship rang these. The sound burst up from the ground, which cracked and crumbled with seismic activity. Chunks of earth dropped into the abyss, a hot red glow left in their wake. Mist seeped from the holes of the Earth, thick and sulphuric. It swirled around ankle and foot, its tendrils reaching, grasping, searching.
Gong. Gong. Gong.
The infernal chimes echoed across the land, reverberated in bone and bowel. All who heard those gongs knew their time grew short. Atheist and agnostic. Catholic and Jew. Christian, Buddhist, Muslim. All realised Judgement had arrived. And all knew themselves to be guilty. The conflagration would spare none, all would burn as equals. The understanding hit them all at once. The scales fell from their human eyes as Hell’s bells rang through the air.
The party, which had long since devolved into chaos, scattered. Some screamed themselves hoarse and ran for the hills. These dropped into the flames below as errant sods of ground cracked from the Earth’s crust. The maw of the underworld gaped, open and hungry. It swallowed them whole.
Others fell to their knees and clawed their eyes out, sockets reduced to shredded jelly. A few even professed their newfound faith in the Beast Reborn. Perhaps the inferno spared these individuals. Or perhaps the flames charred their skins the same. Perhaps they experienced more agony for daring to mock the Beast. No last moment converts round here.
In those last moments on Earth, as the seconds stretched out into eternities, the Beast spoke to them. The words bled from the molecules in the air, swam around inside their bones. The sentences — strung together in ways never before dreamed about — ping-ponged inside. Like errant pinballs in fractured minds. The madness that whispered through them almost burned them worse than the flames.
The fingers of fire popped the balloons, incinerated the confetti housed within. The cannon detonated and flung shrapnel in every direction. Those lucky — or unlucky — enough to have survived thus far received its payload. The sheared-metal bullets punctured their toasted flesh, turned them into human pincushions. The cakebox — somehow spared from the carnage — unfolded to reveal a bloodied heart. It thumped. Tha-thump. Tha-thump. Tha-thump.
And then the fire consumed all.