“Hitogui” Fiction by Shane Huey

Rob loved what he got paid to do but it was now noon—lunchtime—and he would stop what he was doing for his well-earned, hourlong break. He had the time marked on his calendar as a standing appointment and rarely did he permit intrusions upon this sacred hour. Especially on Fridays and today, it was Friday.

Rob was always invited but seldom entertained the invitation to join his colleagues from the IT department for lunch on such Fridays, though he would on occasion. But, today was a special occasion and he wanted to celebrate it at best alone or, at worst, maybe with a few special friends.

He hit Windows+L on his computer and locked his screen, made his way out of the Philips Pavilion and into the employee parking deck, hopped into and started his car. It was Florida in summertime so it was hot. He fired the AC up, cracked the window, exited the deck, and was soon headed west on Glades. In just a few minutes, he was parked outside of Hitogui, a very traditional, Japanese-style Hibachi restaurant. His favorite restaurant.

Hitogui was an established but still relatively unknown restaurant catering to an exclusive clientele. Though in the heavily-trafficked strip mall for three years now, few knew that it existed. The management neither advertised, at least not via traditional means, nor placed signage indicating the presence of the restaurant. The plexiglass windows and door were darkly tinted and the only designation being the small lettering on the door, “Hitogui” beneath which followed the same in Japanese (人食い).

Rob opened a darkened door and stepped inside simultaneous with the ringing of a bell. The bell notified Chef Koroshi that he had a customer. Rob was the first customer for the time being and so he took his usual seat near the back of the restaurant at table number four, one of the only four table and chair sets in the place, all amply spaced out for an exclusive and private dining experience.

Unusual for the typical hibachi restaurant, each table had only one chair before it and a small grill immediately opposite the patron. This was no restaurant for groups and parties but one in which the patron could sample, directly at the hands of one of Japan’s most skilled artisans, a meal cooked personally for him. Nor was a menu on the table as the selections were few and especially personalized for the clientele that such lists of food were not required, save for the drink menu listing a number of Japanese beers and whiskies. Rob liked the Yamazaki 18 chased with an Asahi Super Dry or two but he had to be back to work shortly so he would have a water and a pot of hot matcha.

Chef Koroshi approached the table where Rob sat, placing silverware wrapped in a black linen napkin upon the table, turned over an empty glass and poured some water. “Good afternoon Mr. Rob,” he said in English but with a thick and heavy Japanese accent.

“Konnichiwa Koroshi-san,” responded Rob with a smile. “O genki desu ka?” Good afternoon Mr. Koroshi. How are you?

“Genki! Arigatou Rob-san. Just genki!” Great, just great, thank you.

Rob didn’t speak much Japanese, not for lack of trying as he had studied for years, but because Japanese is a very hard language to acquire for the typical westerner and, though Rob was smarter than average, he still spoke at a basic level but did try to speak a little when at Hitogui. It delighted Chef Koroshi just to see an American try.

“Nanika nomimasu ka, Rob-san?” Something to drink?

“Ee, ocha o kudasai. Arigatou gozaimasu” Rob replied, politely requesting the matcha and thanking the chef.

“Hai!” Certainly.

When Chef Koroshi returned with the small porcelain tea pot and cup, after having poured Rob a bit of tea, returned to English, “How you like your steak today Mr. Rob?”

“What Japanese, culinary magic did you work on this lot?”

“This week, we rub our meat with koji, a special (paused a moment searching for the word) fungus, yes fungus, and this tenderize steak in two day make look like forty-five day of dry age. Oishii desu—delicious!”

“Sounds great. Medium rare with the vegetables and fried rice. No mushrooms please.”

“Hai…right away, Rob-san,” bowing his head only slightly in the way the Japanese do to show respect while still demonstrating a certain superiority, he turned and walked back to the kitchen.

Rob sat sipping the green, powdery matcha as Chef Koroshi returned pulling his cart and donning his hibachi chef’s belt. Rob noted the well-worn handle of the santoku chef’s knife. He had always admired the implement, a harmony of hinoki wood and Damascus steel, as well as the skill with which it was wielded by Koroshi-san.

Koroshi sprayed and wiped down the grill, turned on the gas burner, streamed some oil upon the surface and within moments had it ready. He retrieved a silverish, covered platter from his cart, carefully removed the lid and tilted the bottommost plate toward Rob. Rob looked at the slab of pinkish brownish meat and nodded in approval.

Koroshi carefully placed the slab of meat upon the grill to which it replied with a burst of smoke and sizzle. He then poured out a bowl of vegetables to one side and a bowl of rice to the other. He tossed two eggs into the air simultaneously catching them on the edge of his spatula and with nothing more than a slight bob of the wrist the eggs slid out of their shells and onto the grill and the yellows did not break.

Koroshi flipped the carnivore’s dream and again, smoke and sizzle, revealing one side already browned and medium rare. He scooped the eggs up and placed them atop the pile of rice with a pour of soy sauce and then ran his knife through his hibachi fork across the mountain of grain, flipping with his spatula to thoroughly mix, finally scooping the rice up and placing it upon the ceramic plate on the table before Rob. Next came the vegetables.

Koroshi returned to the meat once again and, likewise, with hibachi fork and knife, sliced the former muscle turned lunch fare with a surgical precision that seemed less scientific than art. Rob watched with delight as the knife passed through the meat with ease. There was no resistance, no fight in this once vigorous and living thing. Life for life, thought Rob. All creatures feed up on other creatures for life, even vegetarians take life to sustain their own. They just like to pretend that they don’t, he continued to muse, silently and to himself.

Finally, the steak was done and Chef Koroshi laid it to rest alongside its accompaniments upon the plate. He turned off the grill, sprayed once more, and gave it a quick scraping, placing his implements and dishes back upon the cart, turned to Rob, “Enjoy your lunch, Rob-san.”

“Arigatou, Chef.” Thank you.

Chef Koroshi, cart in tow, returned to the kitchen leaving Rob now alone in the dining room, ready to enjoy the meal for which he had worked so hard.

Plate in front of him properly seated upon a large doily, he retrieved and unfurled the linen roll from the table, removed the fork and knife, and placed the cloth triangle upon his lap. There were none of the typical sauces before him and Rob would not desire those anyway, preferring to taste the essence of the meat itself. He spun the plate such that the steak was front and center, stabbed a piece with his fork, sliced his knife down the center of the morsel still steaming from the grill. The knife cut through the meat as if heated and rendering pats of butter. He carefully drew the entree to his mouth and placed it within, chewing slowly, carefully attentive to the oral sensations…the heat, the moisture, the flavor, the texture… It was delicious and he caught himself thinking so in Japanese, oishii desu. Then, for the briefest flash of a moment, be believed that he had felt a certain quickening within himself. And his heart raced, pumping a few extra ounces of warm blood. 

Finishing his meal, Rob looked at his watch and it nearing time to return to the office. He cleaned his plate, sopping up the last bit of red juice from the steak with a fork full of vegetables. Chef Koroshi came out, inquired regarding his patron’s satisfaction with the meal to which Rob replied, “Oishii Koroshi-san…oishii. As always.” Delicious Mr. Koroshi, delicious…

“I am glad you enjoy Mr. Rob,” placing the check on the table. “Take your time.”

Rob turned the check over. “$325,” smiling to himself. “And worth every penny. Can’t get a meal like this just anywhere.” He removed four bills from his wallet, placed them underneath the clip of the plastic tray with the check and stood, hands upon his stomach and grand, Cheshire cat grin. He was in heaven right now and wanted to savor the last crumb of the moment before returning to the world outside.

Walking toward the door he was met by Chef Koroshi, “Thank you Mr. Rob, have a nice weekend.”

“You too Koroshi-san. Say, how much more meat do we have?”

“Hmmm… about maybe two meal, maybe three still.”

“I guess I’ll have to get to work again real soon,” said Rob, not referring to his day job but, rather, his one true passion.

“Hai, yes…I think so Rob-san.”

The two men smiled at each other and Rob turned to walk out of the restaurant.

Before Rob could exit, Chef Koroshi reminded, “Oh, and Mr. Rob, when you make your delivery, please remember use back door.”

“Of course,” Rob replied.

“Oh, and I almost forgot. Silly me! I have a little something for you Mr. Rob,” said the chef with a prideful grin.

The chef reached into a pocket and retrieved a small envelope which he then handed to Rob in formal, Japanese fashion (much as one would share a business card with a new client—envelope resting upon cusped hands and humbly presented to the recipient with a respectful bow). “Dozo.” Please take it.

Rob carefully took the envelope from Koroshi-san’s hands doing his level best to emulate the gesticulations in return. The envelope was constructed of rice paper with, what appeared to be, real blades of grass embedded in its fibers. What it contained was not a document, this much Rob could immediately tell, but something small, oddly shaped, and rather tensible upon depressing with the fingers.  

“Thank you Koroshi-san,” Rob said while offering a bow before turning, finally, to return to his car and then to work. “Good bye Chef.”

“Mata ne.” See you next time.

As Rob walked to his car, the pleasure elicited by the recent meal was quickly supplanted by a rising excitement for his next hunt. Yes, he would begin preparations this very weekend. The planning almost as exhilarating as the hunt itself. It would be a successful hunt as are most for Rob was a very skilled hunter—methodical and careful.

At hunt’s end, as always, he would bring his prize to Chef Koroshi at the little hibachi restaurant, Hitogui. And Chef Koroshi would process, store, and prepare it for a very fair price. But Rob would pay any price for this special service for he loved to hunt so and to consume the game which had fallen by his own hands and prowess.

So excited was Rob that, by the time he had reached his car, he had completely forgotten about the envelope given him by Chef Koroshi. He started the car, hearing first the hum and then feeling the cool air, and he opened the envelope. He was initially puzzled as he removed an origami swan from its delicate sleeve, wings and neck fully extending as if spring loaded. He smiled to himself admiring it for a moment. Then he noticed that the swan was not made with traditional folding paper, or paper at all for that matter. No, it was fashioned out of what appeared to be a very fine mesh. Had Rob not known better, he might have suspected it to be constructed from the type of material used in screening off a patio. But he soon recognized the material for what it was. It was a special mesh, the kind utilized by surgeons to repair abdominal wall defects and injuries—hernias and the like. In that moment, his last kill replayed as if a movie in his mind and he recalled the slight but unnatural resistance that his cold steel blade had met as he finished off his quarry with the final thrust. Ahh…

He smiled again, carefully placing the swan back into the envelope and then into the glove box. I never kept a trophy before, Rob thought. Maybe I should start. And he returned to work having had a good lunch.

Shane Huey is the author of a number of short stories and the occasional haiku. He often writes about dark things from his home in sunny South Florida. Learn more at www.shanehuey.net.

“The Smudge” Fiction by Lauren Jane Barnett

It started with a streak of black on her face.  Her husband noticed it first. Helen, not willing to believe it, had to check in the mirror. And there it was: a dark blotch smeared over the apple of her right cheek. 

“There’s something black on my face,” she sounded surprised.

“That’s what I said,” Patrick replied, indignant.

“But how did it get there?”

 “I don’t know,” he defended himself.

“Maybe it’s my mascara, or…” Helen’s voice faded, listing in her head all the things it might be. Eyeliner, eyeshadow, shoe polish – all of them were plausible but didn’t quite make sense. She brushed the spot with her hand and watched it smear. The mark seemed to grow. She looked down at her hands.

“It’s all over me.  Look at this!” She rushed out of the bathroom and thrust her hands under Patrick’s nose. Her left hand looked as though she had just been fingerprinted, the tips tinted in various shades of black. Her right hand showed a scattering of black freckles in her palm; like tiny hollows bored into her skin. Patrick shrugged. Helen stomped to the sink.

As the water warmed, she stared at the rogue stains.  The smudges and streaks had the airiness of powder, but it was sticking to her like paste.  “Where did it come from?” she whispered to the running tap, before grabbing the tiny hotel soap. It frothed up white at first and slowly faded to a soft, streaky grey. The water bled the stains from her skin and she carefully examined the whispers of smoky liquid until they had completely disappeared down the tap. Her next mission was her face.  With the care one would give a wounded animal she dampened a towel and cautiously dabbed at the blotch on her face. When all shades of black had transferred to the fluffy surface, she breathed in.  How long had she been holding her breath? 

Her question remained unanswered. Patrick reminded her they were late and they hurried to the hotel bar for a drink.  One cocktail and a glass of wine into the evening any thoughts of the mystery marks had faded from her mind. She had come here to relax and for a few shining hours that evening she actually did. All the blots of imperfection in her life left her mind. The tangles of delays at work, the debt in her bank account, the constant stream of maintenance on their flat, and that inexplicable smudge – all of which mocked her keen sense of order in life – were left behind.  She even managed to fall asleep. 

In the morning, when Helen lifted her head from the pillow, the rush of anxious ill returned.  She hurled the offending object to the floor in a violent attack of disgust. She howled, jerking Patrick awake.

“What?” his voice was alert, even when his eyes were barely open.  It was not the first time she’d woken him screaming.  But this time it wasn’t a nightmare.

“There’s something disgusting all over the pillows!” Helen screeched pointing at the pillow on the floor. It had conveniently fallen with the marks facing the carpet and Patrick saw nothing.  Half-awake he looked at his own pillows, then the sheets, and finally at Helen.

“There’s nothing here. Go back to bed.” She knew that look in his eyes. He didn’t believe her. And he was exhausted. Not just from being woken, but from everything. It had been almost three months since she slept through the night.  This had been the first time she woke up after sunrise.  Isn’t that what they had gone away for? A chance to unwind. To finally sleep through the night.  But it had turned out to be more of the same. Patrick clearly thought so. To him, her outburst had been one in a long line. Another nightmare, another scream, or violent kick, or howl that kept him from any chance at peace. They were her nightmares, but he suffered to. And he was clearly getting sick of it. The guilt of it crawled over her skin with a million invisible legs. But in her stomach, something curdled. 

She had been apologising since the first night – when she jumped out of bed with a howl taking the duvet with her.  She had been apologising ever since. For waking him. For scaring him.  But no one had apologised to her.  She had felt the crack in her chest of a hot hammer crushing her ribcage. She had been thrown off a building and felt her back crack against the unforgiving sidewalk.  And after each horrific disaster destroyed her body, she awoke. Sweating but cold. The echo of the pain in her limbs, but not a scratch on her. Her voice hoarse from yowling. She could see in his eyes that he resented her waking him. Yet again. Yet this time it wasn’t a dream.

Helen leapt out of bed, picked up her pillow and crushed it in his face.  “Look! Just look at it! That disgusting black stuff! It’s mould all over my pillow.”  She could feel the bile of months of injustice fill her with heat and energy. She had to hold herself back from smothering him.

“Don’t hold it so close.” Patrick grabbed the pillow to free his lungs. But when he examined it, a familiar smug expression crept across his face. “It looks like mascara.” He curled his lips into a half smile; mocking her. She went cold.  Patrick looked up at Helen. Her hair was matted, her face was flushed, and on the very top of her right cheek was a black and grey mark. “Yup,” he pointed, “panda eyes.”

Helen leapt into the bathroom. She looked in the mirror with a murmur of ‘impossible’.  Nonetheless, there it was, gaping back at her like an inky wound.  He was right. 

But he couldn’t be.  She went over the evening in her mind. When they came back from dinner, despite feeling woozy from the drinks, she diligently went to the mirror and removed her makeup and washed her face.  She was never one to be sloppy. She opened the bin to check that the small cotton rounds were there. They confirmed she had taken great care in removing every last trace of mascara. Still, the mirror taunted her by pointing out the defiant black under eyes. 

A jolt of adrenaline suddenly rushed through her, waking her more thoroughly than any cup of coffee. There was only one smudge and was too far from her eyes to be mascara. It was really on her cheek, possibly in the exact same spot it had been yesterday. Like a deep-seated rot, wiping it away had only improved the surface, allowing the deeper stain to return.  She shook the idea out of her head. What person’s skin could rot? She cautiously rubbed at it to see what it could be.  The streak transferred to her finger in a feathery stroke.  

“I think this is powder,” she called to her now-sleeping husband. There would be no reply. It didn’t seem like mould, but it wasn’t behaving like any other substance she knew of. She rubbed her fingers together and spread like paint, multiplying rather than becoming thinner with each stroke.  It sent a shiver down her spine.  This seemed unnatural. 

A snore from Patrick interrupted her thoughts.  She was tired, she reminded herself forcefully. It was just mascara, and anything else was all in her head.  She just needed to relax. That’s what this weekend away was for.  How many times had she reminded herself of that?  With a deep breath in and out – just as her therapist had showed her – she returned to bed.

The next time she saw the black mark it was in grubby lines on the bedsheets. This time she didn’t say anything. Patrick wouldn’t want to know about it.  Silently she checked her body to see where the marks had come from, and slipped into the shower to watch it flow off her legs and down the drain.  It appeared again, when they went for a stroll around the quaint town. This time it was a smear on the back of her hand. She shoved it in her pocket and smiled at Patrick, who was saying how proud he was that she had slept through the night.  On the third morning it appeared on her check as before. She closed the door to the bathroom and silently wept, turning the shower on to disguise any sound of sobs.

Her secret hope was that the mystery substance lived in the hotel room. It was the only way she could get through the four-day weekend. When they got home, she carefully cleaned everything in her makeup case, every shampoo bottle, razor, and brush. Then she threw all of the clothes in the wash.  If Patrick thought it was strange, he didn’t say anything. To her relief, that evening passed without another sighting. Helen began to breathe deeply again.

The next morning, she did not make her usual pass at the mirror before jumping in the shower. She refused to notice the tiny splotches of grey that appeared on the soap. And how the water seemed to run touch darker than usual.   Instead, she got ready and went to work; happy to let numbers knock anything else from her brain.

By the end of the day, Helen had almost relaxed. That is, until she noticed a mark on the sofa.  It was hard to tell what colour it was against the dark blue of the cushion, but it left a grey mark on the dishtowel she used to whip it off. 

An aching cold filled her stomach and spread out to her body. She felt suspended in time as she stared down at the towel.  Her senses immediately dulled. She could barely feel the material in her hands; barely hear the murmur of television in the room. All she could see was the dark smudge on the towel. 

“What’s up?” Patrick looked up from his phone.

“Nothing. Just spilled something on the sofa.” Even her own voice stopped sounding real.

“Well, don’t worry about it,” he shrugged.  Those casual words had always plagued her. Don’t worry about it. Advice as useless as asking her to breathe underwater. But now they seemed cutting in their cruelty. He would never believe her. He would never understand. She had to face this – whatever it was – alone.

As she put the dishtowel back, she noticed the back smears on her hands. Had they come from her or the towel?  She scrubbed her skin until it was pink.

For another week or two, that’s how it happened.  As she moved through the house, morning or night, Helen would notice a streak on a pillow, a scuff on her thigh, or a grey river running along her leg in the shower.  She was certain, even when she saw it on surfaces in the house, that it had come from her.  In the depths of the night she dreamed she could feel the black mould growing on her body. Her skin became prickly and flushed with scrubbing. And yet she always found another mark of black.

The trick was to avoid Patrick’s notice.  He seemed happy for the first time in too long. He kept telling her how proud he of her. She seemed to be getting better. How could she break that glowing hope?  At least one of them deserved to be happy.  And he hadn’t seen a single black smudge since they returned, or he hadn’t mentioned them.   But it began to make her sick to see him smile. There was no way to tell him. It wasn’t purely that she wanted him to be happy. Because even if she did tell him, she knew in her bones how he would respond. He would have told her it was nothing; not to worry. The problem would still be hers, but if she told him, it would also be her failure. So she hand-washed towels in the middle of the night and avoided any suspicion.    

Relief came in the form of Patrick’s work trip. He would only be gone for three days, but that would be enough.  She ordered industrial strength cleaning supplies. The ones that require a permit if you get them anywhere but online. She added to her order enough glycolic acid peel to cover her entire body. Twice. She outlined her plan to the sound of Patrick’s snoring. Every inch of the house would be cleaned so there was nowhere for the blackness to hide.  She would begin with her shower, then a chemical peel over her entire body taking away the entire top layer of her skin to fall to the bathroom floor. Then she would unwrap entirely new cleaning supplies – nothing that had been in the house before could be used.  She would start in the bathroom, cornering even the inside of the shower and the depths of the drain.  Then work her way out to the rest of the flat. Anywhere that the blackness could hide would be attacked vigorously.   

The day he left, they both went off to work, but Helen snuck home with a ‘migraine’ and began with the laundry.  All the towels with stains of grey and black went in together so there was no chance of contamination.  She jammed them on the hottest wash with the hotel recommended cleaner and an extra quarter cup of bleach, just in case.  Seeing the washing machine whirr to life felt like freedom. 

The systematic cleaning of her body brought a burning to her skin she hadn’t expected.  Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes as she counted the fifteen minutes until she could stop the pain under the shower.  Her skin was patchy and red. Fresh. Not even the slightest hint of shadow. It tingled in the air and ached against the towel. It was the most beautiful feeling in the world.

In a snowfall of plastic she unwrapped her tools and set to work.  After each room was finished, she closed the door carefully to seal it from any errant debris that might blow from room to room. She debated coating the doors with clingfilm but there simply wasn’t enough in the house.  Otherwise, she was willing to risk nothing. It was her only chance to rid herself of the blackness without Patrick knowing anything.  Her back ached.  The skin on her hands came loose and blistered under the humidity of the thick gloves.  She was forced to stop when little trickles of blood made their way along her wrist and on to the floor.

The smell of chemicals burnt her nose and throat and exhaustion made her eyes fog over, but she refused to give up. If she stopped, it only gave the smudges time to spread, to grow, to reappear. Infecting her newly cleaned space. This was the only way. She repeated it to herself until it took on a hypnotic resonance, keeping her brain from feeling her body as it groaned against the hours of labour. 

At last she backed herself into the front door and turned to wipe it with bleach.  Every inch was done and her body gave way. She fell asleep by the door, not even wondering if she had remembered to put the caps back on the enormous jugs of cleaner that formed a nest beside her.  She slept dreamless hours, but in the edge of the day, sun just hitting her closed lids, and brain slowly awakening, she was pulled back to a dream. She saw herself awaken to her flat, perfectly shining white.  She moved along the hallway, the carpet glistening and the walls nearly reflective with a smooth glow of sterility.  She opened a door to the glistening countertops, and snowy-white plastic of the washing machine. The light caught across the small window made her heart spasm.  Her chest heaved as she doubled over clutching the pain in her chest.  She looked up for only a moment, and a cry crept out of her lips.  There before her the machine was working, water sloshing like ink, bending and twisting black towels like slipper ropes of tar.  The image made her throat spasm.

She collapsed to the floor focusing on the lines and colours that made the linoleum a charade of wood.  It couldn’t be happening. Everything was clean. She had put nearly as much bleach in the machine as water.  At the edge of this panic, she was reminded this was a dream.  That part of her aware of the closed eyes against the sunlight and coarse carpet digging into her raw skin took over the dream.  This was not real. She just needed to see it through.  The dream-Helen crawled across the floor and peered to the machine.  With a cheerful ping the water settled and the machine stopped. Hands shaking, she gripped the edge of the door jam. One breath in, and one out. She opened her eyes and pulled on the door all at once. 

Whatever happened jolted her awake.  The shudder in her body knocked over the nearest jug of cleaner leaking it onto the floor. Helen quickly righted it and then looked down the hall.  She needed to face whatever was at the end of it.

In a stride she was up and half-way down the hall, body insensible to the chemicals burning the already savaged skin on her legs.  The walk to the washing machine only took a moment. To the door, even less. She didn’t feel or see her hands move. The catch on the machine clicked as the door unlocked. In a moment of terror, her mind filled with the image of black water oozing out from the washing machine door like blood.

And yet nothing happened.

The door opened smoothly. The towels where a clean knot of white.  Two of the towels had been mottled by the bleach, but as she hung them all out to dry around her, she was thrilled with the poof that they were clean.  She was overtaken by laughter.  It coursed through her, as though coming up from the floorboards or down from heaven, passing through her body in an involuntary twitch.  Relief came next. And then her senses.  With a shout she ran to the sink to wash her calf of the chemicals.  She had a small burn, but it was worth it.  The house was clean.  She, at long last, was clean. 

In a joyous haze she moved from room to room inspecting the perfect cleanliness round her.  Not a flake of dust, not a smudge or streak or blotch or smear.  She skipped to the bathroom and turned on the shower, her lips in a long-lost smile.  As the water heated up, she glanced in the mirror. She screamed. 

It was there. Despite the lingering scent of bleach in the air, her cheek was scarred by a long black cut spreading out to her hear. The screaming seemed to come from beyond her and deep within her. Piercing and strong she couldn’t get it to stop.  Her mind frantically tried to gain control over her voice and her body, but she stood there in a pathetic parody of a painting, screaming with the purity of a wraith. 

Nothing in particular stopped it. Her mind screamed desperately for so long that she was bored at the lack of her body’s movement. She felt like a doll, trapped behind her eyes. Then, a syllable burst out. The word – no – broke through her lips in a sharp shot that shattered her unearthly scream. And after it came silence.

She could move again. Her hands went to her face and tore at the mark, black falling into her fingernails as she scratched the surface.  It smeared against her hands. The skin was thin enough to break and rivulets of blood turned murky as they seeped into the smudges. She turned the tap and plunged her hands in to the water, splashing teardrops of grey along the surface of the sink.  She dipped her hands in the water and felt a pleasant sting and threw it violently to her face. Her eyes opened and saw the halo of black and grey water that fell on the counter and the tiled floor.  It was spreading. It was everywhere.

That is when everything stopped. 

Time, light, the world, the water. It ended. And there she was. Hands smeared; face cut with fingernails dividing up that gaping smudge. Black as night. As space. As nothing. Helen didn’t scream. She didn’t laugh.  Her heart no longer battered against the cage of her chest. She no longer felt the unsettling rush of adrenaline stream into her chest and her head. And just as suddenly, it started again.

The room spun with nausea. Her skin burned with heat. She refused to vomit. Instinct took over, animal and swift. She jerked her body back to the hall, to the jugs lined up like pins. She grabbed one, two, four.  She flew to the kitchen – the largest sink in the house – and tipped them into the glowing white surface. She saw the thick clear bleach mix with the smoky white of the other two in a whirlpool spotted with the occasional drop of her blood. The chemicals seemed to consume it until it disappeared in the sour-smelling mist.  Jugs empty they fell to the floor.  She breathed in the acrid smell, setting fire to her lungs. It was pure. It was clean. It was right.

She shoved her hands into the misty white liquid and felt the burn of the bleach and the water in her hands. Her face came next, a warm stinging burn spread over her face slowly until she was forced to come up for breath.  The world around her lit up in circles of fireworks every colour. Green and red and yellow and blue.  They overcame the room around her.  It was beautiful. It was bliss.  And the smell, no longer cruel and burning at the hairs in her nose, it was stable and simple. It had overcome everything. She sunk to the floor, cocooned by the thick greasy chemical slug flowing down form her face along her neck and into her body. Caressing her. 

A jug touched her leg. Blindly, she gripped it to her chest. Cap removed she could feel the gaping mouth sticky with the sweetness of bleach. In her mind she could see it again: the clean white perfection of the plastic, lined inside thick outline of clear purity.  What was inside her? Was that where the blackness was hiding? Seeping out of her day after day.  If only she could wash it all away. From the inside out.

Lauren Jane Barnett is an enthusiastic writer of horror fiction and non-fiction. Her short horror story “Toujours” appeared in BFS Horizons #12,and she was shortlisted for the 2021 Write Hive Horror Competition. Her first non-fiction book, Death Lines: Walking London’s Horror, is coming out with Strange Attractor Press in October 2021.  

Three Poems by Prachi Kholia


The hardly noticeable pulsation of its heart
Beating at the insides like drums;
Regular and systematic 
Going up and down, fascinating. 
I think I would have watched it still 
For minutes at length. 
There was something about it 
To begin, a rhythm 
Matching the vein in my head 
That was about to pop off.
The urgency was on me then
That vein in my head would burst. 
A frustrating agony awaits 
But my eyes refuse to leave the beast.
It was drawing me in 
The study breathing, music.
My heart was thumping with the rush
But I needed peace,
The vein wouldn't stop emphasizing it.
I felt the blade of the cool dagger 
As it drew hot blood gushing;
The creature let out a shrill cry 
And then came silence.
The vein was throbbing no more
My heart was finally at ease. 


as I go deeper 
into the man that he was
it seems to explain 
the previously unexplainable 
composition of my own character
it becomes much clearer
in him I find 
the excuse for my own derangement
we share the same deficiency 
in the configuration of our nature
or it’s just me unconsciously 
mimicking the legend 
probably the later
but anyhow it expounds my caricature 
at least for me
and I can no longer deny 
that I am as much of a lunatic as him
a reckless mess 
trying to mirror his logic
the unusual in him calls out to me 
my insanity is in accordance with his

the feverish ‘l'appel du vide’                            
that he often claimed to have overtaken him
I have, myself, felt many a times before
his madness explains mine
I blame it on his presence
throughout my impressionable years
tender age of growth 
shapes a person’s mind
mine was made to match his
in all of it’s abnormality 
during those vital years of my life
I was reading more of him 
more into him
some of the darkness through his words
seeped into my soul, unknowingly
and still I read him 
with the intense frequency 
and adoration of a child
till I started morphing into the person he was
without ever knowing what exactly 
I was committing myself to


It was so empty in that apartment 
I felt my heart would burst of this loneliness.
In that moment I knew,
I could never call this place home.
Time was running out,
It was as if all my life had burnt away
Like a cigarette, consumed in its smoke.
Just gone. Though I was still here,
Still roaming this Earth;
Left behind to wander aimlessly. 
Someone up there had forgotten about me.
The wine is turning into vinegar,
What a waste! 
Binging on blue ruin or black smoke,                                    
I could still taste blood in the air. 
The iron assaulting my mouth senseless
Meanwhile blue-blooded bastards from under,
No good for anything, petty sirens;
Were moon kissing their way into oblivion.

When I open the windows still, 
A familiar smell engulfs me.
Somewhere down the street, 
A rose was burning.
Can't say I particularly disliked the smell,
But it has such a distinct aroma 
That can be identified anywhere;
Smells like innocence on gasoline. 
It's intoxication feels so wrong,
I want to refrain from enjoying it.
But I do; 
One full breath and I am far too deep in it;
Right at the bottom of the swimming pool 
Refusing to swim back up onto the patio,
Even if it meant drowning.
It's the dark waters that restrain me, 
You see, but the waves just somehow
Romance me into inhaling it;
Completely love struck with the poetry.

Consciousness makes me feel all mopey
So I ditch the norm for a high.
Burning with a blue flame,                                                              
My better judgement, if I had any
Couldn’t stop me from going on a one way road.
It feels like something a sane person would do.
And I am so far beyond sane 
That there can be no scale for it;
Guess the burning smell wasn't coming from outside. 
Did I finally burst a string?                              
Or my ears are just ringing?
The past would often hit me,
Out of nowhere, like a sledge hammer. 
Or act like a reminder on the phone
That lights up the screen like a flickering light bulb.
Yet the future was a beacon of hope for me, 
One which was continuously moving;
Further and further away,
So far at last, that it got out of sight.

I had officially given up on me;
Even when I opened my eyes 
I saw blue, miles and miles of it;
Dark and deep; 
Dark and deep. 

Prachi Kholia is a Master’s student at the Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow. With a curiosity for everything ranging from Science-Fiction to Ancient History and a passionate love for reading; she is obsessed with the stars and the emptiness they reside in, often trying to weave stories through her poems. Her Instagram handle is _prachi98_.

Interview with John Tustin

The Chamber has published three of Mr. Tustin’s poems (“Dia de Muertos”, “Space Diminishing”, and “Steady on the Wheel”), all within the last three weeks.

Approximately 100-word (more or less) summary of your life: A life of minor aspiration, necessary loneliness and forced exile.

What is your greatest accomplishment as a writer so far?

Writing productively almost every night the last two years. For the first time since I began writing again I feel I’ve gotten to the point that I often actually say what I want to say when I write.

Why do you write?

I don’t know. I began writing poetry when I was fourteen. I didn’t have interest in reading poetry but for someone reason I was compelled to write it. I probably write poetry because it’s a good way for an introverted exhibitionist to express themselves.

What is your writing process? (Any favorite places to write? Any interesting quirks, traditions, or rituals you may have? How many times might you revise something before being satisfied with it? Besides you, does anyone else edit your work? Etc.)

My process has changed over time. I used to scoff at people who took out specific time to write. I didn’t understand that it could work like that. I thought that you got the idea or the first line whenever it happened to come to you and then you just started writing. That still happens to me sometimes but most of my poems are written at a specific time set aside for writing.

It works like this: Almost every night I set aside one or more hours to writing. It’s very ritualized – I listen to music and read poetry, waiting for a line or an idea. The poetry definitely inspires me. Since I began doing this about two years ago I’ve written much more and much better.

I use Microsoft Word because it’s important to get the words down quickly. It also makes editing easy. As for revising and editing, I feel that most poetry is unfortunately revised into a shiny lifelessness. I tend to write a poem and rewrite/edit it in the same sitting. It can be no rewrites or a dozen. I also sometimes take small breaks while writing if I’m stuck on the next line or even merely feeling overwhelmed with what I’m writing. 99% of the time my poems are completed in a small timeframe. One thing I always do is wait a month or so after I’ve written something to do a final rewrite/edit. Most of the time I don’t end up editing/rewriting anything at that stage but when I do I’m mostly rewriting lines for clarity. When you get further away from what you’ve written you can edit more clearly.

I can see by the link to Fritzware that you provided, that you have had a lot of poems published since 2009. How do you keep finding new ideas, new motivations for poems? How do you stay original?

Charles Bukowski said poets write about the same few things over and over. I agree. It’s easy to get stale. I read a lot – especially poetry. Living a life and/or being well-read is the best way to get new ideas or find a new way to write something.

Do you have anyone (friends, relatives, etc.) review your works before you publish them?

No. I have a private Facebook page and I post my poems there as I write them but most of my Facebook friends don’t care about poetry. I had one friend who would constantly critique my poems unasked and I had to unfriend her. I don’t care for being edited beyond typos and it’s probably because my poems are so personal to me.

Could you give us an idea of your upcoming works without spoiling anything?

As I write this I have poetry forthcoming in over thirty different journals, online and in print. I’m working on my first book of poetry and hope I will begin shopping it soon.

Do you have any writing events coming up? For example: something being published/released? A reading of one of your works? Interviews? Any speeches or talks?

I have poetry forthcoming in: Avalon Literary Review, Bare Back Magazine, Blue Unicorn, Cacti Fur, Chiron Review, Dalhousie Review, Eunoia Review, Euphemism, Freshwater Literary Journal, Garfield Lake Review, Horror Sleaze Trash, Impspired, In Parenthesis, Ink Sac, Lakeview Journal, North Dakota Quarterly, Pangolin Review, Perceptions, Piker Press, Prole, The Rail, Raven Review, Sparks of Calliope, Steam Ticket, Straylight, Tower Poetry, Triggerfish Critical Review, Unique Poetry, Vaughan Street Doubles, Visitant and  Writer’s Block.

What do you hope to achieve as a writer?

I want my poems to reach many people and make some of those people feel the way that I do when I read certain writers. I remember the first time I listened to Bob Dylan when I was about 16 and feeling like someone was expressing my own emotions and thoughts. That’s what I want to do. I want people to read what I write and feel good – feel not so alone. I want people to feel connected to my poems.

What do you think of bad reviews? Are they helpful or harmful to you?

The closest I’ve had to reviews are a few nasty or dismissive rejection letters from editors. I don’t take criticism well but I think it could be helpful. There are a lot of factors to consider.

What advice do you have for novice writers?

Write. All the time. Write all the time and read much more than you write. Be open to anything and put down any line or idea you have. It’s OK to consider an audience when writing. I usually imagine a single person reading a poem I’m writing. Sometimes it’s an actual person and sometimes it’s an imaginary person. Reading is so important. Read a lot and not just literature.

What do you feel are the most important resources a writer can use?

Life experience and reading/listening. Pay attention to what others write and what they say. Everyone is interesting if you write them well.

Where can people find out more about you and your writing? (websites, social media, etc.)

http://fritzware.com/johntustinpoetry/ contains links to my published poems and https://www.facebook.com/johntustinpoetry is my promotional page. I post links when something I’ve written is published and I also post the poems of others I happen to be reading at the time.

Is there anything else that you would like our readers to know?

I like my words being read by strangers and I like when they are touched in some way by those words. Thank you for reading my poems.

“Revenge Killing” Poem by Todd Matson

She killed him
in dead of winter
in a dirt parking lot
covered with filthy snow
after he abused, stalked
and terrorized her for years.
She finally confessed.
She gave him what he deserved,
hit him over the head with a snow shovel,
dug a hole in the parking lot six feet deep,
buried him alive.
this never happened.
It’s impossible to dig a hole six feet deep
in frozen dirt with a snow shovel.

Todd Matson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.  He has written poetry for The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling and has been published in Vital Christianity.  He has also written lyrics for songs recorded by a number of contemporary Christian music artists, including the Gaither Vocal Band. 

Appearing in The Chamber on May 28

New issues appear Fridays at 10:00 a.m. CDT/4:00 p.m. BST/1:00 a.m. AEST (Saturdays).

Interview with Poet John Tustin

John Tustin’s poetry has appeared in many disparate literary journals since 2009.

“The Smudge” Fiction by Lauren Jane Barnett

Lauren Jane Barnett is an enthusiastic writer of horror fiction and non-fiction. Her short horror story “Toujours” appeared in BFS Horizons #12,and she was shortlisted for the 2021 Write Hive Horror Competition.

Three Poems by Prachi Kholia

Prachi Kholia is a Master’s student at the Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow.

“Hitogui” Fiction by Shane Huey

Shane Huey is the author of a number of short stories and the occasional haiku. He often writes about dark things from his home in sunny South Florida.

“Revenge Killing” Poem by Todd Matson

Todd Matson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.  He has written poetry for The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling and has been published in Vital Christianity.

Appearing in The Chamber on May 28

New issues appear Fridays at 10:00 a.m. CDT/4:00 p.m. BST/1:00 a.m. AEST (Saturdays).

Interview with Poet John Tustin

John Tustin’s poetry has appeared in many disparate literary journals since 2009.

“The Smudge” Fiction by Lauren Jane Barnett

Lauren Jane Barnett is an enthusiastic writer of horror fiction and non-fiction. Her short horror story “Toujours” appeared in BFS Horizons #12,and she was shortlisted for the 2021 Write Hive Horror Competition.

Three Poems by Prachi Kholia

Prachi Kholia is a Master’s student at the Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow.

“Hitogui” Fiction by Shane Huey

Shane Huey is the author of a number of short stories and the occasional haiku. He often writes about dark things from his home in sunny South Florida.

“Revenge Killing” Poem by Todd Matson

Todd Matson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.  He has written poetry for The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling and has been published in Vital Christianity.

The Latest Issue of The Chamber Magazine is Now Live.

Because of the time difference, many of our readers in India may not be aware that the latest issue of The Chamber Magazine went live last night at 8:30 p.m. IST. Check it out and let us know what you think.

The Chamber Magazine publishes dark fiction in English from around the world. We strive to reach English-speaking communities in every nation. If you write dark fiction or poetry in English, please consider submitting to us. Guidelines are on the website. We do not pay at this time, but all rights remain with the author.

The Latest Issue of The Chamber Magazine is Now Live.

Because of the time difference, many of our readers in Australia may not be aware that the latest issue of The Chamber Magazine went live last night at 1:00 a.m. AEST. Check it out and let us know what you think.

The Chamber Magazine publishes dark fiction in English from around the world. We strive to reach English-speaking communities in every nation. If you write dark fiction or poetry, please consider submitting to us. Guidelines are on the website. We do not pay at this time, but all rights remain with the author.

Appearing in The Chamber on May 28

New issues appear Fridays at 10:00 a.m. CDT/4:00 p.m. BST/1:00 a.m. AEST (Saturdays).

Interview with Poet John Tustin

John Tustin’s poetry has appeared in many disparate literary journals since 2009.

“The Smudge” Fiction by Lauren Jane Barnett

Lauren Jane Barnett is an enthusiastic writer of horror fiction and non-fiction. Her short horror story “Toujours” appeared in BFS Horizons #12,and she was shortlisted for the 2021 Write Hive Horror Competition.

Three Poems by Prachi Kholia

Prachi Kholia is a Master’s student at the Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow.

“Hitogui” Fiction by Shane Huey

Shane Huey is the author of a number of short stories and the occasional haiku. He often writes about dark things from his home in sunny South Florida.

“Revenge Killing” Poem by Todd Matson

Todd Matson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.  He has written poetry for The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling and has been published in Vital Christianity.

“The Liminal Lure” Fiction by Titus Green

I have been trying to get help via the chatbot function of a certain airline. It is a very straightforward request, requiring minimum human effort and research to fulfil. After entering my name, I was told to ‘enter a valid name’. After getting my nominal validity rejected for a second time, the only option was to return to the main menu where the virtual assistant asked me what I wanted. Information, I typed. ‘Enter your name’, it commanded and so again I did just that. Then it told me to ‘enter a valid name’ again! If Kafka, Phillip K Dick, Edgar Allen Poe, or Harlan Ellison were alive they would have enough inspiration from the shenanigans of artificial non-intelligence to write ten thousand more novels each. Does anybody have the number of a time-travel agent offering one-way tickets back to 1980? Please PM if you do!

So went my gut-angry Facebook post, posted in the angsty twenty-first century spirit of emoting digitally. The post gained a few sympathetic likes, a few ROFL faces (perhaps expressing some teasing recognition of my eccentricity) and nothing more. The message, with its weary and cynical surface tone, never conveyed the deeper, darker desperation at its core. It was read and disregarded in a few seconds as the social networking site’s vast, fast flowing river of commentary carried it off and away down the page-feed, submerging and obscuring it with equally meaningless discourse.

It was October 2020 and ten days earlier, amidst the chaos and uncertainty of the COVID19 global travel situation, I had been instructed by my employer in the Middle East to return to the country to resume my teaching duties.  More grim lockdowns were scheduled across the U.K. and COVID marshals, orange bibbed enforcers of ‘social distancing’, were emerging from the shadowy recesses of urban reality like the zealous descendants of Cromwellian infantry policing a plague-filled London of the past.

Although all flights were officially grounded between the UK and this country, both governments agreed a very limited number of flights would be made available to repatriate expatriates wanting to leave and vice versa. The university that employed me had mustered all its influence to have its foreign faculty vacationing overseas placed on a special permission to return list as ‘essential workers’. To get the one-way ticket, I was instructed to contact a certain airline which would make the arrangements. I was relieved by the news because at one stage during the summer vacation, it had seemed as though none of us stranded faculty would be able to return and would have our contracts terminated.

I clicked the link to the airline’s homepage supplied in the message from my university’s HR department. The busy landing page was packed with content. The top left area of the page had a link to travel updates, while the top central area had a number of informational drop-down menus on various flight-related topics. Most of the page’s area was occupied by transitioning images depicting dependability and satisfaction, from pilots and cabin-crew standing in unity, to glimpses of exotic travel locations to planes in flight with captions such as ‘COVID international flight regulations’ next to their wings. I spent five minutes scanning for a contact us link, which I found under the HELP menu. The landline number and address flashed up on the screen and I dialled.

After just two cycles of piercing ring tones the phone was answered by a cheerful recorded voice with a faint Arabic accent welcoming me to the airline in Arabic first then English. It prompted me for my language preference. Then a female voice took over and offered a bewilderingly long list of call path options. Flying had once been a simple experience, I reflected while wishing the days of analogue transactions and people who directly answered calls could be revived. I selected number 3, flight reservations, and a third female voice, this time North American and authoritative, told  me that the call might be recorded for training and quality assurance purposes. Then banal on-hold music followed. I listened for over ten minutes, hearing the interrupting assurances that my call was important to the company, and the reminders to wash my hands, wear my mask and keep my distance with weariness. A virus weary Britain wondered when friends could be met in pubs again, and I wondered if I would ever work again. Then, I got the encouraging change of tone and burst of optimism when I heard ‘Hello?’

“Hello. I need to make a flight reservation,” I said eagerly. “I know there are no official flights, but I have special permission from the government to re-enter the kingdom.”

“Yes. What’s your name please?” asked the male voice.

I told my interlocutor and was then surprised by the sudden interjection of a third voice into the call, sounding garbled and metallic like when sound packets are lost during mobile phone conversations. Some words were missing, but I heard:

“This one is right. He has the right profile.”

“Excuse me?” I replied, but the call abruptly dropped, and I was left with the familiar high-pitched sound of a dead connection. I pressed the redial key and was returned to the preliminary greeting menu, COVID precaution reminders, choices and on-hold music. I waited for another ten minutes before hearing, to my frustration, an all our agents are currently busy please call back later termination message. I sighed and replaced the receiver, fearing that this process of booking a ticket was going to become a victim of the year 2020. A doomed mission infected by the virus of chaos and supreme disruption. I reminded myself that I had a return timeline to obey and needed a booked flight quickly, or I would soon be joining the millions of unfortunates whose livelihoods had been burned to a cinder by this viral dragon’s fire.

I made a cup of coffee and returned to the phone twenty minutes later, thinking that this break would allow the obviously crazy volume of call traffic to subside. But I asked myself, who would be calling the airline while the pandemic was at its zenith and flights were officially cancelled? I redialled the number and got a duplicated experience, the only difference being the inclusion of marketing messages interspersed with the on-hold music and repeated please continue to hold entreaties spoken like prompted parrots. I returned to the company website and noticed an alternative customer service contact number in tiny characters hidden in the corner of the landing page. I dialled it and got another variation of the previous calling experience, this time ending with advice that I should call another number which reproduced the same sequence and outcome as the previous one.   

After several hours of being stuck on this dispiriting carousel, I tried the ‘contact us’ button which spat out social media links and invitations to ‘leave a tweet’. I clicked on the company’s Facebook page and was confronted with a picture of one of the airline’s 747s gliding through a clear sky over a crisp blue ocean. Flecks of sunlight glinted off the water’s surface and the plane’s sleek fuselage gleamed. To make contact, I posted a comment under the most recent video ad in its news feed showing a relaxed looking family entering an airport and checking in all smiles.


Can you please tell me the easiest way to get in touch with a customer service agent? I need to enquire about flights.

I left my laptop and went into town to do some errands and pre-departure shopping, for I expected to be back at my desk in the Gulf imprisoned by Microsoft Teams and cornered by docile, conniving students engaged in a lengthy educational charade shortly. Truly, I regarded this return to online teaching as a form of spiritual execution.

When I logged into Facebook later that evening, I was annoyed to find no answer to my posted question. In disgust, I looked at the buttons surrounding the company logo and a prominent, bright blue one invited you to ‘Book Now!’ for flights that almost certainly did not exist—how could they with the pandemic? I then noticed the Messaging icon next to it with interest.

As if telepathic, the messaging app ‘greeted me’ by popping out from the bottom of the screen. Was this sophisticated bell and whistle going to actually help me, however? Would it read and understand my sentences or just aimlessly respond with a vast menu of pre-set answers retrieved from cloud servers slurping up electricity in shabby data centres in the developing world? I clicked warily. I had experienced interactions with these clot-brained programs that would have failed the Turing Test and had Turing, from his grave, sending the programmers to Siberia for hard labour with no hope of parole.

How can I help you today Tom?

How on earth did it know me? I typed I want to speak to somebody in flight reservations.

Would you like to be transferred to a live agent replied the app. Great, I thought. I was just a cursor-click away from speaking with an intelligent human. I clicked the grey shaded yes button and waited to be transferred.  

However, only more instructions followed.

Please enter your name.

I shook my head at the stupidity of the request, since clearly this supposedly intelligent technology knew my name. However, I fed the app as directed, only for it to confound me with its reply.

Please enter a valid name.

“Are you joking?” I asked the monitor. This is my name!” I punched my moniker into the keyboard again and the same result appeared synchronously.

Please enter a valid name.

Agitated, I got up and walked around my flat while contemplating this unexpected impasse that threatened my progress. I wasn’t surprised, because I had suffered from faulty interfacing software before. So much for AI, I thought cynically. I had only contempt for cheerleaders of the colossal ‘artificial intelligence’ cult that seemed to be steering the world. Venture techno-capitalists, billionaires and certain politicians were holding court in forums and TED presentations. They were vomiting rhetoric about how technology, combined with a ‘reset of our economic foundations’ was going to deliver a sustainable utopia when the pandemic had been beaten. I recalled the cliches of a former US presidential candidate pontificating about how virtual currencies, AI and circular economies were going to miraculously bring about humanity’s post COVID healing, like one of those ‘magic swipe’ mops sold on the cable shopping channels painlessly sweeping away the poverty and suffering of the pandemic.

  It’s a digital world, moving at digital pace. Everything is moving faster – ideas, people and goods.

I grunted derisively at the politician’s enthusiasm. I certainly wasn’t moving at a digital pace. I wouldn’t be moving anywhere except for unemployment if I didn’t get on a plane shortly. I watched the chat-box warily, with all my trust now withdrawn, waiting for its next capricious surprise.

I entered my name for a third time, and the app frustrated me with different tactics when it responded.

Would you like to go back to the main menu? 

My lips mouthed expletives at the app. What should have been a routine request was becoming an impossible one. I needed to complain to the company, but how could I do this when no one answered their phones?

I redialled the customer non-service numbers again and the same recordings told me how the calls would be recorded for training and quality assurance purposes. After more long periods of on-hold music, the recorded voice cheerfully told me nobody could answer my call, but I could go to the airline’s Facebook page it said or leave a tweet.

Days passed. I received harassing messages from my managers in the Middle East. Why hadn’t I returned yet? The other English language instructors in my department had successfully returned. What was I doing? Why was I stalling? I explained the communication problems with the airline, but my manager responded with curt, sceptical messages repeating that I should return as soon as possible.

I logged into Twitter and located the airline’s page, which consisted almost entirely of cyclical newsfeed advertisements. I posted a reply under a marketing montage which implied that flights with the airline were profound, life-changing odysseys.

I need to speak to a customer service agent urgently.

Hours later, I saw to my dismay that my message had been shoved, unanswered, further down the thread, which consisted of similar requests and questions from frustrated would-be travellers. It was time to give the airline some blunt feedback, so I returned to its Facebook page and deposited a complaint under the same ‘life-changing journeys’ ad.

You have the worst customer service in the universe! Just how difficult do you intend to make contacting a customer service representative?

I logged into Facebook a few hours later and saw the following underneath my message:

Kindly contact the concerned department to assist you thank you.

While I thought about my next play in this imbecilic game, I saw a new message in my Outlook inbox. It was from the university.

Dear Tom,

This is to remind you that failure to report for duty to the university’s HR department by November 1st could result in the termination of your contract. Please return as soon as possible. The semester is about to begin.

I sighed at the obtuseness of Brad, the bearded American millennial who ran our English department with humourless heavy-handedness. What use was it even trying to make him understand my progress was at the mercy of this infernal app?

As I sat at my desk waiting for my laptop to boot the next morning, it occurred to me that this hopeless, obstructive interface, along with its internet ‘accomplices’ had paranormal powers which seemed to feed off and thrive on the agitation it caused me. There were also times during my futile exchanges with the virtual agent app that I sensed a presence watching me from the other side of the monitor, observing and monitoring my exasperation.

When I next logged into Facebook, the airline had hijacked my timeline with a column of perpetual advertising. Picture after picture of satisfied, grinning passengers reclining in business class seats with drinks on their tray tables and photo-shopped clouds surrounding theirmidriffs faced me.

“These bastards are actually taunting me!” I muttered incredulously.

The CHATBOT app, as if to mock me, popped open.

How can I help you today Tom?

Foolishly, I was lured into the hopeless interaction loop again, following the prompts, entering my name, having my ‘invalid’ name rejected, receiving the familiar, demoralizing message that I had the option of being transferred to a customer service agent only to be asked once again to enter my name-that-would-be-rejected.

I tried calling again, but when I dialled the customer non-service numbers, a recorded voice said that due to COVID19, the company was experiencing a very high volume of calls. It added that the call would be recorded for monitoring and training purposes. After five minutes of generic, melodious tunes the line simply went dead and five redials later came the same result.

Vexed, I searched online for reports of similar experiences from other frustrated would-be customers. Perhaps there was a chat-board or forum I could use for help? However, I found nothing. On the contrary, passengers had only glowing, enthusing testimonies to give about their experiences with the airline in their ratings on the airline review sites. Clusters of satisfied customers gave the company five stars overall for its customer support. I must be experiencing this company in an alternative dimension, I thought. To break away from this tiring mind-game, I went for a walk in the park opposite my flat where the refreshing chill of an autumn breeze and the enchanting air ballet of crisp brown leaves pirouetting calmed me. I sat on a bench marvelling at this choreography of nature. It was primordial and authentic, unlike the digital pest that was bothering me. I heard the faint, familiar rumble of an airliner above and watched its wispy trail make snail-speed progress across the sky. “That’s where I should be”, I muttered forlornly.

I got back inside my flat and went to the kitchen to seek comfort in coffee. When I picked up my smartphone, I saw a voice message from Brad in WhatsApp. Sighing, I tapped the black arrow with uneasiness.

“Tom, I’ve just been talking to the Dean and since the university has provided you with a means to return, and that other instructors have managed to find their way back without any difficulties or delays, the Dean of Faculty Affairs is giving you until next week to get on a plane, get back into the country and report for your work duties. I can’t buy you any more time I’m afraid. It’s up to you to get yourself organized and get back.”

Exasperated, I pressed the record icon, held the phone screen close and unloaded my exasperation.

“Brad! I am trying to get back dammit but I’m dealing with an impossible airline that’s impossible to get hold of in any way whatsoever. If it doesn’t answer my calls, e-mails or Facebook messages then what the hell am I supposed to do? Its chat-bot has been designed by a drivelling Satanic imbecile. Do you understand? And since the university insists that I use no other airline I am stuck going around and around with its nonsense.” Not wanting to see or hear Brad’s reply, I turned off my phone. He was certain to interpret my response suspiciously, probably imagining I was looking for alternative work somewhere in the napalm-scorched earth of the English language teaching business’ post-COVID job-market. Brad ran our department and kept our online classes of dubious educational merit running with banker-like efficiency. He made sure that our paymasters were satisfied for the sake of his own superannuation and wasn’t about to plead for more time or any sympathy on my behalf to a committee of men with the empathy of chainsaws. If I wasn’t back within a week I would be fired, and I would never see the severance pay I had accrued over a year.

I pressed the power button on my laptop and faced its screen, with the hypnotic aqua-blue glow of the rectangular Windows logo appearing like the spectral gatekeeper of this CPU generated realm of stress and confusion. I surveyed Yahoo UK’s homepage with exhaustion and ennui, skimming the click-bait with weary disdain. A c-list celebrity from the 1990s was complaining that her 38 cup breast implants had wrecked her career while one of her clones further down the huge menu of ephemeral, mind-corroding dross was ‘opening up’ about her unsatisfying sex-life.

“Is nothing private these days?” I asked the monitor and was shocked when the said has-been, a former Big Brother contestant once briefly elevated to the ‘B List’ for fornicating in a toilet with a Premier League ‘bad boy’ footballer, winked at me saucily.

I logged into Facebook and surveyed my homepage. Hundreds of people, some of whom I’d met once three decades ago or not at all, were simultaneously engrossed in the compulsive click-and-post rituals of this abnormal virtual temple of sacrificed privacy and cannibalized life. Some friends had posted breakfast photos, replacing the food they’d shared remotely the day before with a muffin in exchange for the blue-thumbed payment of approval. Others shared doctored images of politicians they didn’t like with acerbic captions embedded while others ranted vengefully about the latest viral social injustice. With each log in came the same string of strangers the website was determined to connect you with. People you may know. Friend Recommendations. People I never knew grinned mindlessly at me from the JavaScript conveyor belt of social pot-luck offerings.

I needed a plane ticket urgently but was no closer to the breakthrough of reaching the customer service agents, who were unreachable beyond this impenetrable wall of faulty high-tech software and deceptive web pages that shone, lit up dark rooms and dazzled the eyes but led nowhere. The internet was becoming a mirage, and I was now convinced the airline and its unreachable customer service agents simply didn’t exist. Was the entire operation an elaborate practical joke? Or just a nightmare?

The thought of facing the chat-bot for another turn of merry-go-round depressed me but I steered the cursor up to the search Facebook box. My action didn’t feel voluntary; it was if something else had seized control as it typed the airline’s name into the box and summoned the company’s page. The virtual helper sprang up like a jack-in-the box.

How can I help you today Tom?

Piss off! I typed. Its endless tormenting had driven me to drink that past week, and the stress that came with the increasing urgency to get my flight arranged had prompted me to start smoking again. Squashed butts filled an ashtray on my kitchen table, along with an empty glass pungent with the smell of consumed whisky.

Well, look who’s in a bad mood today!

I blinked and let out a low grunt of disbelief, but almost in the very same instant the message reverted to How can I help you today Tom? Perhaps my eyes had deceived me. The insomnia of the previous two days had left me in a woozy, barely conscious state where perception could be compromised. I was exhausted and wanted to go and lie down for a couple of hours before facing this excruciating riddle again. However, once again I sensed the app controlling me and forcing me to type the same tedious plea to be connected to a customer service agent in flight reservations. I obeyed the prompt to enter my name and watched the name rejection message appear followed by the option to be returned to the main menu.

I then typed the message that opened this story, a summary of the company’s abysmal customer support technology and my desire to step back in time to the off-grid era of simpler transactions and no usernames, passwords or virtual mazes. After I had posted the message, a new pop-up from the chat-box appeared.

You’re getting flustered there. Relax. Don’t hate us. We’re your friends! We’ll personalize everything for you. We’ll make your experiences unforgettable and convenient.  

Then when I screwed up my eyes and looked again the message simply said please enter your e-mail.

“I give in. That’s it,” I told the screen while waving an imaginary white flag. “You’re costing me my job. I clenched my fist and shook it at the screen.

Please enter your e-mail

“Oh, what the hell! Have it!” With this, I gave my e-mail to the chat-box, shut down my laptop and went into the kitchen to find the whisky and ice.

Later that night, the weird, episodic dream I had was ominously symbolic of my recent experiences. One moment I was hunched in front of the laptop, watching myself from above like an astral traveller. I was struggling as with my real waking experiences of the previous few days, banging in the futile letters of my ‘invalid’ name into the keyboard for the app’s spiteful amusement. Next, I was in front of the Great Sphinx which, instead of being in its familiar Giza location, was situated in some vast industrial wasteland surrounded by mountains of discarded technology–particularly hard-drives and PC monitors–reaching high into the sky. Matted blood was caked around the edges of the creature’s mouth that had the glossiness of real flesh and not limestone. It turned its massive head and imposing jaws towards me. Its eyes were disconcertingly human and incongruous with the monstrous body it displayed.

“Tell me weary web surfer, when you can’t go forward to get what you seek, what is the wisest way? Solve this riddle and you can summon human customer service agents at any time you desire,” bellowed the animal in a stentorian voice that carried with it the terrifying menace of millennia.

“I’ll pass on your challenge,” I answered. As I turned to run, I saw a giant version of the chisel-jawed politician from the NGO who’d been cheerleading on Yahoo for the grand high-tech global reset emerge from behind an IT trash mountain. He gave a macabre thumbs-up to the animal. I turned back towards the Sphinx and shouted, “When you can’t go forwards, you need to go backwards!”

The monster purred and its leonine head turned to me. “You’re right, clever man,” it said and swept up, with one of its paws, several grey victims from the vast human feed column in front of it. It chewed the bodies, covering the torsos with saliva as it drooled over the morsels. Strangely, these people didn’t scream or resist as they were eaten alive but went to their deaths with a kind of docile joy. I wondered what riddle they’d failed to answer as the dream landscape underwent a nebulous transformation and I was now in the reclining business-class seat of the flight that I’d spent the last few days seeking customer service agents to book. I was elated. Triumphant. I had finally secured my prize! My patience and determination had been rewarded. I felt secure in this luxurious cabin, and the glowing amber sunset emerging in the icy, desolate beauty of the Troposphere outside my cabin window filled me with sleepy serenity. Android flight attendants with mannequin faces brought me a meal of lobster and champagne.

“Now this is travelling in style!” I said, noticing but not caring that my fellow passengers in the spacious cubicle seats to my left and right were nothing but indistinct dark blurry shapes. A question intruded into my dream consciousness, floating like teleprompt text above the seat in front of me in upper-case.


Suddenly the champagne in my glass tasted despondently flat. I looked down and instead of legs of lobster there were, piled high on the plate, the bulbous chat-bot messages all bearing the dreaded message of the last two weeks along with the WhatsApp messages from Brad forming a hideous, inedible and excruciating topping. I threw the plate up into air and the messages became emojis with malevolent faces that floated to the floor like fragments of Satanic tinsel. A threatening and ominous vibe took over the dream, and the passenger in the adjacent seat to my left suddenly changed from a hazy, indistinct shape into a clearly recognizable man. He was well-groomed with thick, slicked-back, jet-black hair, delicate features, and rather prominent, crooked ears. However, his most noteworthy features were his haunted eyes that were possessed by intense, unbearable poignancy. When he turned and looked at me, a lifetime of torment and regret possessed his gaunt face, imprisoning it in eternal anguish. His dark, woolen three-piece suit was from another century and he emitted a foul odour suggesting a terminal disease. He watched me with a forlorn expression for a while and then spoke in what sounded like German, which the dream obligingly translated with floating subtitles.

“When I shaped hapless Joseph K from the sloppy clay of my imagination and had him scramble hopelessly through the pages of The Trial, I could not foresee that that was merely a naïve taster of the future. A preview of the giant prison of all souls that we’re sprinting towards. Our cells are being readied and we shall occupy them happily with digitally induced non-resistance and entertainment being the ultimate key. You can’t stop it. We will do the bidding of the digital gods.

Suddenly he started to cough violently, clasping his chest as though it was going to explode. Then a thick jet of blood and mucus spurted out of his mouth covering his jacket and some of his seat in a huge claret-coloured patch. When the fit stopped, I passed him a napkin and he wiped his mouth with a shaking hand while the flight attendants had disappeared.

“Thank you. This is the COVID19 of 1924 ja? Accept your destiny with courage.”

With this he vanished, and the cabin started tilting from side to side. I wanted to ask him if this was dream turbulence, but then realised he was no longer there. The plane lurched to one side yet there were no Hollywood screams in the cabin. An oxygen mask dropped from the compartment above and when I grasped it, it spoke in the familiar voice-on-hold, call-queue dulcet tone that I’d grown accustomed to over the past week.

“Thank you for your call, which is important to us. Due to the high volume of calls we are receiving you may experience a longer than normal waiting time. Calls may be recorded for training and customer service quality assurance purposes. You are currently number twenty-five thousand two hundred and nine in the queue.”

I wanted to get off this jinxed flight and out of this jinxed dream which was clearly a spiteful psychic contrivance of the airline which sought to disappoint and frustrate me both in wakefulness and sleep. However, when I reached for my seatbelt, it had become a padlocked chain and in the next instant, I was confined in a straight-jacket. On the in-flight entertainment screen, the Facebook page appeared and the moment I thought about the chat-bot it too appeared, with its speech balloon magnified many times showing a giant please enter a valid name. Dismayed, I looked out of the window and saw that the plane had nearly finished its descent and on the strip of field next to the runway PLEASE ENTER A VALID NAME was painted in giant white lettering followed by PLEASE ENTER YOUR E-MAIL. I woke up flustered and sweating.

Next morning, the message How to enter your valid name was in my bloated Yahoo inbox. Its bold lettering, denoting its unread status, beckoned my cursor. When I clicked it, the following message appeared:

Dear Tom,

We are sorry to hear that you are experiencing difficulties trying to contact us. To solve this problem, please enter your name into the chatbot backwards. If this fix does not work, please contact us by e-mail and we will be happy to assist you.

The message wasn’t signed but the sender’s e-mail address at the top was a generic ‘do not reply’ one. So, this company’s inverted logic continues, I thought. It tells me to enter my name backwards and then offers help through a do-not reply e-mail address. They are amazing!

I struggled to recall a notion from my nightmare that was germane to this, but there was nothing tangible I could salvage from the dissolving residue of scenes and impressions from the dream sequences. However, after some concentration I latched onto something significant I had said, to a mythical monster, before a calamitous journey on a plane had begun.

When you can’t go forwards, you need to go backwards!

So that was it—reversal! The inversion of things. Doing things backwards to get results. It was certainly a principle that ruled this cretinous airline, but why on earth would they tell me to do something as perverse as enter my name backwards into its defective application? How would that work exactly?

Feeling galvanised, but also wary, I arrived at Facebook and found my way to the airline homepage. I didn’t even need to move my cursor over the message tab. The app’s white column popped up from the bottom of the page.

How can I help you today Tom?

It amazed me that the application had such a poor memory for such an allegedly sophisticated example of AI. The app predicted my moods, read my mind and anticipated my decisions at the keyboard and yet it couldn’t remember the topic of our last failed interaction?

I wrote my name backwards in pencil first, to make sure each alphabet character followed in correct order. As I did this, I heard a familiar prophetic sentence:

Our cells are being readied and we shall occupy them happily.

But it was too late to dwell on its cryptic subtlety because I had already typed out my name backwards and hit the enter key. I was then, in the words of the Manfred Mann Earth Band song, blinded by the light. It was a light that burst out of the keyboard with the dazzling intensity of a supernova and filled everything in my field of vision. I was in white space and felt weightless. In this disorientating new infinity, I imagined this is what UFO abductees experienced before the frightening extra-terrestrial doctors appeared.

It was icy cold in this space and I shivered, clasping arms around my naked torso. I felt the solid resistance of something behind me. It was an invisible boundary. An edge or wall in this mysterious, unearthly place. I backed into it and slid down until I was nothing but a pathetic and disconsolate figure, abducted from the three-dimensional world that was my home and to which I knew instinctively I would never return. I was full of heavy terror. After an indeterminate period of time, I heard a voice.

“Is there no way out of here? Are we trapped?” asked an anxious female voice in a neutral accent.

“Yep. That’s it. We’re done for,” replied a man with a similar accent, before adding, “We’re part of the operating system now. Our bodies are gone. We are just virtual ciphers processing commands.”

I called out to them, but they did not answer. So, this was actually hell I had been lured into and I had never imagined its entry portal would be a laptop computer screen. I had to admit the ingenuity of it. The perfect concealment hidden in plain sight. No darkness or fiery pits, just blankness and a bright void. My distress increased; I had been denied the chance to say farewell to my parents and friends before this abrupt and shocking end to my physical life. I had read about the Gnostics and always been curious about their version of divinity that came when physical mortality ended. Wherever I was, ‘heaven’ was nothing like this spiritually sterile world.

Then, the vibration started. It was a low, droning hum which caused tremors in my muscles to gradually increase. Suddenly, the visible colour spectrum appeared, which each colour passing through me and causing a burning sensation. I was then pulled forcefully forward and when I went through red the sides of an azure tunnel appeared. Light shone through gaps in it and my consciousness alternated between awareness and blankness at regular intervals, with 0 and 1 becoming a binary cycle that represented my ‘birth’ and ‘death’ at split-second intervals. I was now electrical current forced through circuits and a prisoner of the CPU.

Next, I was propelled into landscapes of code and then dense bit-string oceans where I drowned in commands. I was taken to sites where I was forced to execute commands such as open pop-up windows to entice people in and rob them of their time and activate code sequences of Trojan virus e-mails so that they could possess vulnerable operating systems in one key stroke. My data enabled parasite and scammer e-mails to bypass spam folder coordinates to maximize the chances of their mendacious objectives succeeding. I upgraded malware and supported predatorial software in its search for victims. The inter-dimensional intelligence directing my back-end actions in the operating system was ravenous for human data and so forced me to lure people onto social media sites and get them hooked on posting, chatting and completing endless surveys and phoney petitions. It was my responsibility to make sure that failure to engage with the web pages every day left them feeling empty and depressed. My coding ran through game architecture more addictive than crack cocaine. The victims offered their psychic veins with gratitude, clasping their consoles like Pavlovian canines as the gameplay credits and money flowed. Once hooked, our adrenalin addiction algorithm made sure they didn’t stand a chance.

My nefarious work continued. I blocked password recognition for people, frustrated their financial transactions and helped construct gold-standard phishing sites. Sometimes my 0/1 cycles animated grotesque pornography and stole the credit-card details of the unwary, lust-driven fetish chasers. My form ‘merged’ from one job to the next and my assignments increased in their scope of wickedness and depravity. I was soon doing jobs for the dark web titans, such as executing buy commands for drug traffickers, terrorists and worse. While never totally happy in my three-dimensional previous life, I had at least adhered to a moral code and lived with an untroubled conscience. Now I was merely subservient software doing the bidding of demons.

From the other side of the monitor, behind my curtain of pixels, I watched the vacant eyes under the spell of the applications. We told them the future was digital and that AI was extending its benevolent hand to take away humanity’s troubles. The giant prison was nearly finished, and the cells were nearly ready. To my surprise, the cadaverous face of the mysterious consumptive traveller from the dream plane appeared before me in front of the monitor. He looked at me ruefully and shook his face. Then a tear streaked down the gaunt cheek of his pallid face.

Titus Green was born in Canada but grew up in the UK. His short fiction has appeared in numerous online and print magazines, including The Collidescope, Adelaide Literary Magazine, HORLA, Literally Stories, Sediments Literary Arts, Stag Hill Literary Journal, Sediments Literary Arts and others. He teaches English as a foreign language for a living. His published writing can be found at


“The Fog” Fiction by Lauren Jane Barnett

She chose green for the baby’s room to feel natural and soothing, but by night it looked sickly. The entire room – and the entire house – was chosen with the child in mind. She moved away from the city, her work, her friendships, the restaurants she knew; all in order to give her child a life in the country.  When she first saw the house, nestled in a blanket of vibrant green, it was exactly what she wanted for her child. Days running in the lawn, picking flowers, walking down to the river. It was the best any parent could offer.

The first morning after she moved in, she looked out as the fog retreated from the valley and imagined telling her son or daughter how it had kissed the grass with dew. Now that the child was here, the fog seemed to creep in on them at night, cutting them off from the green surroundings, and the open air.  Cast in the shadow of night, it seemed impossible this catacomb could be the same house. The fog pressed in on her, making it hard to breathe. The barren walls became an echo chamber for the shrill screams of the creature in her arms. And the sour green of the nursery walls made Katherine nauseous every night.

Tonight, with the cries of her child bouncing off the walls, the entire room seemed to collapse in on her with rot. The putrid green, the fog pressing in the glass, it turned the open modern space into the cavers of a tomb. The gaping windows conspired to mock by mimicking another wall of thick, tumbling grey. Everything in the house pushed in on her. Just like her wailing child. And the cried never seemed to stop. They bored into her brain as they ricocheted off the walls, forced inward on her by the pressing grey of the fog that pressed against the window panes.  In the first week she felt she was an animal in a cage. That was normal for nursing mothers, wasn’t it? But after a month, she dared to wonder if there was something inhuman about her child. 

It didn’t have cholic. The doctor had told her so on every visit she made. Each time he said the same thing: the baby was healthy; the baby was happy. The doctor had the gall to tell her “it’s normal for babies to cry” as though she was a scared teenager who found herself accidentally caring for something completely alien. She was nearly forty. She knew babies cried. She’d read every parenting book they published – in the two languages she spoke. She read the blogs and did mommy-baby yoga. She was an intelligent, capable, responsible adult. And she knew this behaviour wasn’t normal. Children didn’t cry every time you tried to feed them. Maybe it wasn’t cholic – that was only her best guess – but something was wrong. Of course, the medical profession didn’t agree. Instead, they sent her home with pamphlets on postnatal depression, websites on insomnia and no option but to endure hours of whimpering screams and refusal to feed. Alone.

How long had it been, she mused, since she brought home the pink mass with its fragile egg-shaped head and its tiny pink mouth? How long had it been since the baby seemed so quiet or so peaceful? On the island of maternity, there was no way to mark the weeks and months. Even the last feeding was something of a mystery. The “ideal baby schedule” torn from a book was lost somewhere in the house, long since memorized by Katherine and rejected by the baby. The child had melted time into a single unified blob. It was never, and it was always, feeding time. It was perpetually just after naptime, or maybe just before. The crying would last for hours. Longer than was natural. Or healthy. Or humanly possible.

Her mind seemed to be filled with fog. Or maybe it was the room? Could the night air be seeping in at the window seems? She reached for the light and the room came into sharp focus. Shadows sprung up on the walls around her to form prison bars. She nearly laughed in agreement with the image. Until she noticed the state of the floor.

Paralysed by the sight, her eyes took in the scattered debris of toys, books, and diapers. A ring of baby powder puffed onto the rug where the bottle had fallen, nearly five feet from the changing table. A cold sick clutched her chest. It had happened again. Her mouth went sour. The jagged angles of books spiked up from the carpet reminded her of the glass shattered before. This was not haphazard or chaotic. Every object felt like a boobytrap laid out for her.

A week ago – or maybe a few nights ago – she had come into the room to feed the baby. By some miracle, the room was quiet and still. She crept over to the crib and tripped over a stuffed horse that was usually up on a shelf. She staggered forward and knocked her ribs into the changing table. Had she not caught herself she could have cracked her head. When she blinked though the pain, her eyes were foggy and blurred.  She struggled to see around her until finally, in a moment that still froze her spine, she noticed the bedlam. A warzone of bears and blankets made the floor impassable. Amid the debris only the lamp’s bulb was broken. Picking the glass out of the rug had taken twenty minutes, and she still managed to lodge a piece in her knee. There was a scar to remind her it was real.

This time she refused to clean up the mess. She had done enough, cleaned enough. If her house was being invaded she didn’t have the energy or the will to fight it. And the child was screaming. And her eyes ached with the pain of exhaustion. As she felt tears and snot of her baby against her breast she looked up to heaven, not really praying. What was there to pray for? Every person she had gone to for advice or help had told her nothing was wrong. That it was all in her head. And maybe some of it was.

Maybe she was too tired to remember the last feeding.  And maybe she was always tripping over things because she was half-asleep and disoriented. Maybe she had thrown the child’s toys around the room and forgot why. Twice.  No, three times. Although that could have been a dream.  She thought she saw in the hall mirror a tendril of fog slip over the walls and shake the changing table as it passed behind, casting the diapers and towels and powder to the floor.

It must have been a dream. She lived in the constant company of nightmares ever since she came home from the hospital. One nightmare: the fog pressing in at the windows until her lungs, and the house, exploded.  She remembered waking up screaming.

The nightmares made Katherine more open to the idea that she was depressed. It made sense. She was on her own all day. The only one to care for the baby, mummified by maternity leave that left her stranded from the real world except the occasional call. Exhausted and aching, she barely slept anymore. Anyone would be upset, even lost. But if she took that for granted, she still couldn’t ignore that something else was going on too. Even in her muddled mind, she was certain.

If you explained away everything else, you couldn’t explain the baby. It only cried when she held it. This wasn’t a matter of opinion; no matter what her friends said. The child never cried until she touched it. She tried once to leave the baby completely alone, ignoring feeding schedules and playtime until it cried. Her plan was to pretend the baby wasn’t even there. She had dinner, watched something for a while, and took herself to bed. She turned off each feeding alarm on her phone (even the act of sliding that glowing circle felt liberating), although it didn’t stop her from waking up at three in the morning.

In the pitch black of the night, she started to think. She last fed the baby before dinner, at seven. Usually, she would try another feed before bed, although it never seemed interested. Now would normally be her next attempt. How long could a child go without food? In her exhaustion, she had to count the hours out loud. Eight. No baby could go eight hours without food.  An adult would be fussy after eight hours without food – unless they were asleep. A sudden sick swell of anxiety shot her bolt upright on the bed.  It wasn’t possible. She must have tuned out the cries.

She tried to steady her mind. She took a breath in, but it made her dizzy. She needed to check on the baby. It must be crying. But as she got closer, she heard no noise from the nursery. She crossed the threshold and the room smelt sickly sweet. Any minute the baby would cry, she told herself. But, still, there was no noise. Her stomach started to turn sour. She thought she could smell burning (was that the sign of a stroke? Or was that anxiety?). She looked at the crib from the door, frozen. Terror hit her in the spine and rose into a cold heat that snapped like a rubber-band. What if the baby was dead? What would they say if she starved her child? How could you explain that to your boss? To your friends? To the police?

She stood there for too long. The green walls turned hallucinogenic in the sunrise. Her head spun – had she hit it? – and she stumbled to the crib. Her vision clouded with tears she stared at the silent bundle of sheets, completely still in the middle of the crib. She couldn’t see even the tiniest movement of breath. She fell to her knees. She’d done it. She’d killed her child. She reached out to touch the small corpse. Tears ran down her face as her fingers gently for that tiny little hand. She felt the warmth of its skin at the moment the scream pitched into the air. It was alive. But how could it be alive?

There was no question after that horrible night that something was wrong. For hours the child was silent. Until she touched it. When she told the doctor he dismissed it as a dream. Elisabeth, her best friend, called it pregnancy brain. They both used that saccharine phrase: “I’m sure it seems that way.” The way you talk to a child or an invalid. Yes, it had been a nightmare, but she had been awake for it. It isn’t my fault she mentally screamed at them. The child was possessed. It had to be. How could you explain the long hours without feeding? The hatred of her touch? How could you explain…

But that may have been a dream too. It couldn’t have really happened. She had been burping the baby, nestled in the crook of her shoulder, head lulling on the handmade burp cloth as it screamed into her ear. The pats and jostling finally seemed to produce some kind of results as she felt the warmth trickle on her shoulder. But she pulled the baby away and there was no sign of spit around its mouth, face still scrunched in discomfort. And a lock of long, brown hair in its clutched fist, clotted and red at the ends. The burping cloth stained with a blossom of blood.

She’d thrown the cloth away, so there was no way now to check if it had been real. She didn’t want it to be, even at the time. The baby could barely close a fist around her finger, it couldn’t have pulled out her hair. And it hadn’t even hurt. She should have felt the pain of it. Still, she had no other explanation for the scab buried in the hairline just behind her ear. She never told the doctor about that. Every time she thought about it heat of anger and shame flooded her body. She wasn’t sure who she blamed: herself or the baby.

Suddenly, something caught at the edge of her mind. A sound. A muffling. She looked down to see her hands red with pressure, forcing the child against her chest, screams muffled breathlessly into her. In a flash she pulled her hands away, nearly losing her grip on the infant. Its screams at least showed it was breathing. She nearly suffocated it. Just as quickly as it came, the sharp stab of fear in her chest rotted into anger.

“Why won’t you feed?” She screamed at the child. The immediate silence cut through the air. Large watery green eyes looked up at her, mouth open in a miniature gasp. At the sight of the fragile little face, guilt crept in. Katherine had waited for ages for the child to be silent in her arms, and now it was silent because it was afraid. 

Suddenly she couldn’t get enough air. She was pulling gulps of it through her mouth, but it didn’t make it to her lungs. Tears burnt in her eyes and the image of her child blurred. She needed to put it down before she did something else. Something awful. She lay the baby in the crib (had it fed?) and she ran out to the bathroom. Without the light, she stumbled toward the sink. The tiles were so cold it was painful. It did something to slow the tears, but not enough to clearly see the taps when she turned them on. She could tell by the sound the rush of water was in front of her and she dove her hands in and splashed the water against her hot face. The second she felt it against her skin she regained her breath.

She wasn’t sure how long she smoothed water over her face, but each splash helped. She remembered talking to the doctor.

“Most mothers have no idea what they are doing… You may feel like you are failing but you are just learning… As a single mother you may feel more pressure, but you are just as capable.” She willed herself to believe it, and to repeat her overused chant: Everything is fine. Being a mother may be frustrating, but it will all turn out fine.

As the heat in her face cooled and the air returned to her lungs, she turned the taps off. She let the water drip down her face onto the cotton shirt of her pyjamas. She would try again. And this time it the baby would suckle. She patted off the water on her face with the towel and glanced at the mirror to see how badly her eyes were swollen. She was relieved to find it was barely noticeable.

But something caught her eye. A fleck on her chin. She leaned forward to look closer in the shadows of the night. There was barely any light in the bathroom save the slivers that leaked in from the nursery, but she could just see a little something hanging off her chin. Like a crumb. She brushed at it with her hand, but it didn’t budge.

A flick of the switch revealed the flake of dried skin at the point of her chin. She gently took it between her nails and pulled. As she did the fleck expanded out, unraveling a smooth, transparent sheet taking on the shape of her jaw. She stared at the shred of her own skin, like a fine sliver of mica or a delicate lace.  Her fingers parted and she watched it float to the white surface of the counter, where it crumpled.

Her eyes went back to the mirror She leaned in closer to find the next edge, just below the pout of her lip. The thin layer of skin drew away, following the curve of her lip in an ethereal smile. Where it broke another flap lifted and her fingers followed instinctively. This time tracing her nostrils along the bridge of her nose and flaring in a triangle at the arch of her eyebrow. Strip by strip, her skin piled on the counter, building its ghostly layers. Each one a large section, marked with fingered veins showing the lines and plates of her skin. Before long Katherine peeled back the surface of her face. Staring back at her was a mottled web of blue, purple, and red veins.

She didn’t scream.

She ran out into the night. Into the fog. Her eyes clouded with mist as she stumbled into the ground. She registered the cold dew against her hands and the grass spiking into her knees, melting her body into the dirt. She begged the fog to wash over her, to rinse her away; for every inch of her skin to fade into moonlight. To dissolve completely. She was nothing anyway.

She had been too long a shell, a husk. A dead thing walking and living; forced to be alive. Forced to breathe. Forced to feed. Forced to care for something else. And how could she when there was nothing to her? She needed it: the fog. Breathing it into her nostrils, she urged it to sweep over every inch of the skin lining her lungs and pull it out from her. She willed it to seep into her blood, dissolving every cell until she could evaporate into complete and blissful nothingness. Her breath stopped taking control as the fog poured into her, flitting under her fingernails beneath the skin; peacefully spreading her out into a million tiny fragments until she could completely fall into air.

As she waited for it to come – for that bliss of becoming air – she realized she could still feel the cold dew on her skin. Her all too solid surface had not cracked. Goosebumps appeared in response to the chilled air. Nothing could save her now.

And she dragged herself back into the house.


Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear.

The child’s rhyme kept appearing in her head as she made her rings of paper. The baby was in a rocker beside her, gently swaying with the tap of her foot. The kitchen table was covered in papers. Newspaper sheets, pastel pages from picture books, glossy strips from magazines; all were torn into strips strewn over the kitchen table. It reminded her of childhood. Her mother taught her to take each strip and bring the ends together to form a little circle. Each circle was connected inside the one before to make a paper chain. You could make them as long as you wanted, as long as you had the paper.

Her mother had never told her so, but you could do the same with dish towels by tying the ends together. They sat in the sink soaking in the acrid liquid, which made Katherine dizzy. But it was only a pint or two. And she got used to the scent.

Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear. One step, two step, tickle you everywhere.

It was too simple a song to leave her head, and too repetitive to keep there. But it got her through the daylight. She was nearly ready as the sun began to slip from the sky. An energy made Katherine’s entire body seem light.

The kitchen ran with strings of these chains in every color. It could have been a birthday party. They hung from the ceiling, draped over the counter, and snaked their way to the pine chairs, each with its own paper chain coiled around it like a snake. The rags made their sodden chain from the kitchen to the stairs. A less buoyant but equally impressive sight.

Katherine filled a pan with oil and placed it on the cold hob. She went upstairs to dress, adding a layer of long-johns under her clothing, and a second onesie over the crying child. She settled it down on her bed in the hopes it would get a small amount of sleep. Looking through the window she could see the last yellow rays of sunlight. The day had passed so quickly.

Light on her feet she shoved her phone, laptop, and a few small pieces in her purse. She didn’t want it to be too suspicious. She double-checked the diaper bag and added a quilted blanket. Shadows spread into the house making it harder to see, but she only wanted to turn on the kitchen light. She put the bags by the door. Looking around the house, it seemed to be covered in slithering creatures as the shadows poured in. But she wouldn’t be there long.

The hob ignited with its usual click and she carefully steered a chain of paper just below the pan. It caught in a brilliant glow of orange, but she waited until the next chain caught. The rags finally ignited. Then it began to spread. The oil sputtered out of the pan and caught. She didn’t have much time. She ran upstairs and grabbed the small bundle from the crib, nestling it in the nook of her arm. For once the child didn’t scream. It was the sign of hope Katherine didn’t realize she was looking for. They were finally connected. Her baby knew she was being saved by a loving mother. She jumped down the stairs to a surprising billow of smoke. She ducked below the surface and ran to the bags. She hooked both on her arm and pushed through the door into the open air. The fresh cold smell mixed with the growing scent of smoke.

She needed to get clear of the house. Wrapping the blankets to hold her daughter against her Katherine ran, the other bags banging into her legs as she fled into the fog. The glow behind her grew large but faint as she tore away into the fog. At last, she dropped them to look back and the glowing house. Her heart was pounding in her ears. Her breath stabbed in her lungs. The cold hit her neck and she stared. The house she loved. The house in the countryside she chose for her family. The green lawns and rainy days she dreamed about. It all slowly burnt. She saw part of the roof fall in and a shutter of orange parks cascade into the air like fireworks. Within the clouds of grey, a single column of black smoke swirled upward. It stood out even from this distance like a snake leaving its hovel, Draining bile from the house, and escaping into the sky. The sight of it unlocked her heart. She broke into a laugh edged with tears. They were free. The tears on her cheek felt pleasant. In a flood of love and warmth she looked to the fragile body in her arms, and into the moon-tinted brown eyes of her daughter’s teddy bear.

Lauren Jane Barnett is an enthusiastic writer of horror fiction and non-fiction. Her short horror story “Toujours” appeared in BFS Horizons #12,and she was shortlisted for the 2021 Write Hive Horror Competition. Her first non-fiction book, Death Lines: Walking London’s Horror, is coming out with Strange Attractor Press in October 2021.  

“Dead End Job” Fiction by Cecilia Kennedy

The Lime County Historical Museum is the tallest brick building in the center of town. Built as a train station in the late 1800s, with 1920s black-and-white-checkered floor tiles inside, it is now a cultural and historical center, with a coffee shop attached and meeting spaces for rent. People say a ghost rides the elevator up and down the eight floors, after hours, but Elaine didn’t believe in such things. She thought they were just stories to keep the residents of the small town interested—an excuse for ghost tours in the name of history and economic development.

            “We tried to keep this quiet, but once, we invited a ghost-hunting crew to see if they could figure out who was riding the elevator,” Elaine’s boss Jan told her one day. Elaine felt chills run down her spine when Jan described how, late at night, when she was in the manuscript room on the top floor, she heard the elevator start up, even though no one else was there. It stopped on every floor, and she heard the doors opening and closing, several floors below her. When the elevator reached the top, Jan ran for the fire escape stairs and got out before the doors opened.

            “I just didn’t want to see what was inside,” Jan said.

            “Was there ever anyone inside?” Elaine asked.

            “Maybe. The paranormal crew recorded sounds. Whatever was inside tried to speak, but they couldn’t figure out what it said.


            A rancid odor seeped in from a ceiling tile near Elaine’s cubicle, on the top floor. She didn’t notice it during the day, but at night, it was nearly overpowering—like a mixture of rotting sewage and spoiled meat—like carcasses decomposing in the sun. Over in the corner—near the elevator—the tiles in the ceiling were brown in spots. Elaine just thought that the old building suffered water damage, which Jan never repaired. Also, the elevator traveled up and down the floors of the building, on its own, but that phenomenon was nothing more than one of the old building’s peculiarities. Who knew how many wiring systems and renovations this building suffered? The elevator moved because of a glitch in the wiring, and the tiles smelled from neglect, Elaine thought. She was so confident in her assumptions that she worked with her back to the elevator—not quite curious enough to look at it, even when the doors would open.


            Eventually, the nausea set in, at night only, when Elaine worked alone on the top floor. The smell was pervasive and clung to Elaine’s clothes, which reeked of mold, feces, and rot. Elaine asked Jan about the smell, but since it didn’t show up during the day, Jan wasn’t concerned.

            “Well, it’s not healthy to work under these conditions. Who oversees the maintenance and upkeep of this building?”

            “I do,” Jan said, firmly.

Elaine knew she had struck a nerve, but she didn’t care.

            “You know the health department could fine you for this. I mean, what if it got out that we have people in this building—wandering about the exhibits—and docents who are older—inhaling filth and muck and—”

            “Are you trying to be insubordinate? Are you threatening me with something?”

Elaine bit her lip to keep from saying anything further.


            During the day, the elevator seemed like a clean and ultra-modern addition to the older building. It still smelled new, and the numbers on the buttons shined. The overhead lighting was bright—and it didn’t make any awful noise or shaking. A spotless mirror graced the back wall, and the building inspection certificate hung prominently near the doors. So, during the day, there was nothing to fear about the elevator. However, at night, along with the worsening smell, and the growing hatred she felt towards her boss, Elaine noticed more frequent trips that the elevator took up and down the floors of the building. She soon found it difficult to concentrate on her work because she was counting the trips the elevator made. On one night, she estimated that the elevator, during a span of six hours, traveled from the first floor to the eighth floor at least seventy-two times, or every five minutes each hour. And the doors would crash open loudly each time, culminating in a frenzied crescendo. Still, Elaine didn’t turn around while working. Surely, something was wrong with the wiring, and there was nothing she could do about that. Jan would never fix anything anyway, and if she mentioned it, Jan would write her up for insubordination. Instead, she just made it a habit to never ride the elevator anymore. She would take the stairs from now on.


            On a particularly gray afternoon, on her day off, Elaine decided she should try to integrate herself into the town’s social scene, which was dying. Two hotel lobby bars and a few desolate strip malls remained—and everywhere that Elain went, that horrible smell followed her. It seemed that this place, where she had chosen to make her career and home, fresh out of graduate school, was a skin-and-bones version of its former self, with flies buzzing about. Still, Elaine met a man on a dating app—someone local—and decided to join him at the hotel lobby bar across from the museum.

            On the dating app, Ronald appeared somewhat older, but distinguished and confident. However, the only other man walking into the bar at that moment was somewhat slouchy and balding. When he met Elaine’s gaze, he looked a little too eager—too hungry—to see her. And when he sat down next to her and smiled, she noticed that his gums were graying, and he smelled strongly of talcum powder and drugstore deodorant.

            “Oh, wow! Are you a sight for sore eyes!” Ronald said. “My wife died over a year ago, and I haven’t been out since. Truth be told, she was getting to be a bore around the last ten years of our marriage. If I had been a more dishonest man, I’d have left her at home so I could go on more dates.”

Elaine asked the bartender for another rum and Coke—with mostly rum—and perhaps also a shot of tequila on the side.

            “I’d love to have something to drink,” Ronald said, “but I gave that stuff up years ago. My old wife was nagging me so much. I swear she drove me to drink. Ah! What the heck? Barkeep! I’ll have a Manhattan.”

Then, Ronald raised his glass and toasted: “To dead wives and a brand new one someday—at my age, even! I’m 80!” Then, he knocked the whole thing back.

Elaine excused herself to use the restroom and sneak out the back window. Unfortunately, she knew that in a place like this, she would most likely run into Ronald again. Lonely, older men often volunteered to lead groups around the museum. So, she figured she would just have to stay on the 8th floor at all times—with the smell and the faulty elevator.


            Deep into the winter, Elaine heard the elevator door open and close every three minutes within an hour. Then, every two minutes—with the smell always sickening her. Elaine still knew better than to involve Jan, so the temptation to turn around—to see what was behind those elevator doors—grew. In between the sounds of the doors opening and shutting, she thought she heard something in the distance—a disembodied voice calling, “Elaine. It’s you! I’m looking at you!”

The temptation to turn around haunted her at night in her dreams where she looked into a mirror. Without warning, Ronald’s pale, bloated, balding head floated into view, materializing from a hazy, brown cloud—one that carried that familiar awful smell, right into her dreams. Ronald smiled, revealing gray teeth and gums.

“You’re a sight for sore eyes,” he said.

Elaine, unable to control herself in her dreams, pulled out a knife and cut away chunks from her own face—cutting until pieces showed through: the nub of a nasal bone, the edge of a frontal skull bone—tissues and flesh clinging still. And when she was done cutting, she saw her future self, decaying, rotting—the result of snatching up the first job of her young life and staying put in a town that wouldn’t be able to sustain her. All of these things, the mirror reflected.


            The rattling and shaking of the elevator now jolted Elaine’s nerves. Her hands trembled as she read newspaper clippings and tried to enter data into the computer system. In her mind, the elevator doors sounded explosive when they opened and shut—and it just didn’t seem fair that it waited until the evening—until Elaine’s shift—to travel at breakneck speeds, raging through the shaft. It seemed that something in that place wanted her to turn around—wanted her to notice, wanted her to hear, “Elaine! It’s you! I’m looking at you!” On that night, Elaine held out as long as she could, but when the doors slammed open on the 14th pass to her floor, she shouted, “Enough! Stop it!” and got up from her chair to look. This time, the doors stayed open. This time, the elevator didn’t go back down. It waited, and as Elaine looked inside, she saw her own face reflected in the mirror mounted on the back wall of the elevator. And, for half a second, she thought that if she looked long enough, she would see it cut away in ribbons and chunks, revealing her skeleton below, and she didn’t want to stay long enough to see that happen. The elevator hovered in place, with the doors open, so Elaine returned to her desk to find a heavy stapler. She threw it at the mirror—splintering it into fine, web-thread cracks. But, she wasn’t finished. She wanted to tear that mirror from the back wall. Elaine stretched and reached just beyond the threshold. The doors remained open, long enough for the elevator to fly back down to the first floor, the impact of the dropping elevator car, splitting her body in half, her torso tumbling down the shaft into the void—the doors closing behind her, swallowing.

 Cecilia Kennedy taught English and Spanish courses in Ohio before moving to Washington state and publishing short stories in various magazines and anthologies. The Places We Haunt is her first short story collection. You can find her DIY humor blog and other adventures/achievements here: (https://fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog/). Twitter: @ckennedyhola

“Wet Trickery” Poetry by Stephen House

so many parties
too much everything 
dancing on broken glass 
blue lips of lust 

nurse my mind
bathe my need 
wake up to an icy dawn
in a park with that man again 
in shattered mist i crawl within 
grip his poison soul 

why do i slide back to you 
slouched in your way of always the same 

i feed him a cigarette 
didn’t i see you mumbling and stumbling 
last night 
somewhere we both loathe in crave  

a dying bird at the edge of a pond
i kneel to hold its rolling gasp 
stare blind at screeching eyes 
me and my other truth entwined 
in crumpled song 
of sharing death with slipping more 

and i say nothing like always before 
now is again the void   

a scarlet flower in bubbling mud
i lick the bloodied petals
whisper prayers into a rocky breeze

don’t cry drowning in fight 
wet trickery never helped before 

for god’s sake 
stand up and move away from you
do something new
recite your manufactured silence
of repetition midnight through and through
feel limp courage fade
hold me
help me
or slink away as you do and do
and release me until the next time chimes

Stephen House has won many awards and nominations as a poet, playwright and actor. He’s received several international literature residencies from The Australia Council and an Asia-link residency. His chapbook “real and unreal” was published by ICOE Press. He’s published often and performs his acclaimed monologues widely.

“Steady on the Wheel” Poetry by John Tustin

Out there on the parkway
with the subnormals.
That Mercedes behind me
will pass me at ninety
and zoom in front of me.
Here he comes.
There he goes.
I can read the future
maneuvers of cars
like a fortune teller
reads a face.
My brain flaming out
on the Cross Island Parkway.

My desires shrinking.
My life in disarray.
My sanity in doubt.
I need a dozen drinks
and a bed 
and alone.
I get none of it.
It takes my all
to steady my hands 
on the wheel.
One bad moment
and I’m gone.

It takes my all
to steady my hands.
Stuttering heart,
jack hammered head.
Hands shaking,
but, yes,
still steady.
I could easily wipe out
on that curve,
slide the rain-slicked road
into smoky oblivion
fall to pieces on the trees.
But I drive on,
but steady.

The weight of the world
on my shoulders,
straining my back.
Life is a bullet
that approaches my head
but never arrives.
Just threatens.
My hands steady
on the wheel.
But slipping.

I get to where I’m supposed to,
but don’t want to,
I sigh,
put away my toys,
bring out my tools,
grit my teeth,
squint as the sun mocks me,
open the door,
and submit to my downfall.

Steady on the wheel,
to oblivion.

John Tustin’s poetry has appeared in many disparate literary journals since 2009. fritzware.com/johntustinpoetry contains links to his published poetry online.

Appearing in The Chamber on May 21

New issues appear Fridays at 10:00 a.m. CDT/4:00 p.m. BST/1:00 a.m. AEST (Saturdays).

“Steady on the Wheel” Poetry by John Tustin

John Tustin’s poetry has appeared in many disparate literary journals since 2009.

“Dead End Job” Fiction by Cecilia Kennedy

Cecilia Kennedy taught English and Spanish courses in Ohio before moving to Washington state and publishing short stories in various magazines and anthologies. 

“The Fog” Fiction by Lauren Barnett

Lauren Jane Barnett is an enthusiastic writer of horror fiction and non-fiction. Her short horror story “Toujours” appeared in BFS Horizons #12,and she was shortlisted for the 2021 Write Hive Horror Competition. 

“Wet Trickery” Poetry by Stephen House”

Stephen House has won many awards and nominations as a poet, playwright and actor. He has received several international literature residencies from The Australia Council and an Asia-link residency.

“The Liminal Lure” Fiction by Titus Green

Titus Green was born in Canada but grew up in the UK. His short fiction has appeared in numerous online and print magazines. He teaches English as a foreign language for a living. .

Appearing in The Chamber on May 21

New issues appear Fridays at 10:00 a.m. CDT/4:00 p.m. BST/1:00 a.m. AEST (Saturdays).

“Steady on the Wheel” Poetry by John Tustin

John Tustin’s poetry has appeared in many disparate literary journals since 2009.

“Dead End Job” Fiction by Cecilia Kennedy

Cecilia Kennedy taught English and Spanish courses in Ohio before moving to Washington state and publishing short stories in various magazines and anthologies. 

“The Fog” Fiction by Lauren Barnett

Lauren Jane Barnett is an enthusiastic writer of horror fiction and non-fiction. Her short horror story “Toujours” appeared in BFS Horizons #12,and she was shortlisted for the 2021 Write Hive Horror Competition. 

“Wet Trickery” Poetry by Stephen House”

Stephen House has won many awards and nominations as a poet, playwright and actor. He has received several international literature residencies from The Australia Council and an Asia-link residency.

“The Liminal Lure” Fiction by Titus Green

Titus Green was born in Canada but grew up in the UK. His short fiction has appeared in numerous online and print magazines. He teaches English as a foreign language for a living. .

Appearing in The Chamber on May 21

New issues appear Fridays at 10:00 a.m. CDT/4:00 p.m. BST/1:00 a.m. AEST (Saturdays).

“Steady on the Wheel” Poetry by John Tustin

John Tustin’s poetry has appeared in many disparate literary journals since 2009.

“Dead End Job” Fiction by Cecilia Kennedy

Cecilia Kennedy taught English and Spanish courses in Ohio before moving to Washington state and publishing short stories in various magazines and anthologies. 

“The Fog” Fiction by Lauren Barnett

Lauren Jane Barnett is an enthusiastic writer of horror fiction and non-fiction. Her short horror story “Toujours” appeared in BFS Horizons #12,and she was shortlisted for the 2021 Write Hive Horror Competition. 

“Wet Trickery” Poetry by Stephen House”

Stephen House has won many awards and nominations as a poet, playwright and actor. He has received several international literature residencies from The Australia Council and an Asia-link residency.

“The Liminal Lure” Fiction by Titus Green

Titus Green was born in Canada but grew up in the UK. His short fiction has appeared in numerous online and print magazines. He teaches English as a foreign language for a living. .

#PitDark from the Horror Writers Association

Earlier today, I received the below announcement from The Horror Writers Association (HWA). I am reposting it here for those who are interested. I checked with Jason and it is open to all authors.

Dear HWA member,

I am contacting you because we are organizing the next #PitDark, the first and only Twitter pitch event to highlight literature of a “darker” nature. This is not limited to horror works; however, any pitched manuscript must contain an element of horror or darker writing. Examples of such categories include pure horror novels, dark fantasy, murder mysteries, psychological horror stories, etc. MG, YA, NA, and Adult age categories are welcome. The last #PitDark occurred on October 29, 2020 and was a trending Twitter hashtag the entire day.

The next #PitDark is scheduled for May 20, 2021. For #PitDark rules, as well as a running list of agents and publishers who have confirmed participation in #PitDark, please visit: www.JasonHuebinger.com/pitdark. Also, if you are aware of an agent, publisher, or editor who would like to participate in #PitDark, please let me know. 

As with any pitch contest, promotion is key to #PitDark’s success.  As such, even if you are not participating in #PitDark, we would greatly appreciate any tweet or post about the event. 

Jason Huebinger, HWA

“Monsters” by Michael Horton

Outside, monsters gathered. Waiting. Patient. Arthur could sense their presence. They weren’t there for shopping or the dentist or to do someone’s yardwork. They weren’t just hanging around—they gathered for Arthur. Arthur and his mother.

 And they were out of luck. The boy had plans. He was the smartest in his sixth-grade class—Hey, Fatty. Hey, Weirdo, they might call him but his classmates knew he was the smartest.  

He had more than enough time to himself to plan. He had prepared for the long haul. Over time, and at some physical cost, he had badgered his mother into supplying him with a stockpile of canned goods. Enough for a month. She never paid any real attention to what he was asking for at the store, or where it went. She made him push the cart, load the groceries. If she thought about it, she assumed he was feeding himself when she wasn’t home, when she didn’t feel like cooking, or ordering out. She could care less about cans of beans, mini beef raviolis.

Arthur hid water in plastic gallon milk jugs. He stored light sticks, two LED flashlights, extra batteries, his favorite books on Kindle, and a white-gas two burner camp stove—his father’s before his mother ran him off.

And, just as Arthur knew they would, they came. Were out there now. Arthur stared one-eyed through the slit in the curtains. Across the street the Pearson’s yard was a pristine green, park-like with grooming—Mr. Pearson obsessive about yard chores and home maintenance. Not a likely hiding place. Yet Arthur knew the unlikely was exactly what a monster would count on. That element of surprise, the heart-stopping shock, the sudden leering appearance as if from thin air—stock in trade for monsters.  The hedges in his own front yard hid anything on the sidewalk under four feet tall—or something large crawling on its belly.

The huge, shaggy Russian spruce that cast its gloomy shadow across one third of the front porch–it was a foregone conclusion monsters lurked there. And his mother, as if intentionally, tauntingly, pulled her chair deep into its purple shadow, clinking ice in her glass of gin and tonic, pushing the green crescent of lime down with her finger, then licking her finger. Later, when it turned to straight gin, she would declare it a martini.

Letting the fuck down, she said. My reward for another god-awful day at work. She laughed, the sound like a shaken box of rocks. Another day at the freak house—at the shit factory, she said. She sat in the gloom of that shaggy giant as if it was the least of her worries. As if she wasn’t being studied, appraised, the very sound of her pulse digested in the depth of those shadows. The boy kept to the house, only came out when she hollered.

He had tried to tell her. Tried and tried, until she would get tired of his voice and smack him, just in warning. Not as hard as she could, that was for special occasions. Back off, buster, she would say. I don’t want any of your shit tonight. No fucking shit. Not tonight. She would sink into her chair as though she were melting, her bones turning to water, her face sagging like candle-wax.

She would sit and stare into the air over the yard as if she was watching a TV show. A show she had no particular interest in, but without interest enough to turn it off. If she moved, it was to jab her glass at the boy to refill. Then she would clink down its contents, crack the ice cubes in her jaws like a bulldog cracking bones, and, after the third or fourth, threaten him in general. No shit, you little fuck. No shit tonight. I can’t take anymore. You and your stupid shit.

She had to talk nice to customers—clients—all day over the phone. She didn’t bring it home with her—the talk-nice. It wasn’t a big deal for Arthur anymore. He was fine. He’d gotten used to it. For his father, though, Arthur thought it might have made a difference. If she’d tried to talk nice just a little, before his father left. If she’d tried, she might have coaxed him back, the boy thought. He’d pleaded with her until he was black and blue.

I’d want that pitiful excuse back, why? She’d slap Arthur’s head, pinch his arm until his eyes grew bright, and say,You—you’re just like him. She would slump in her chair, or sit on the couch and turn on her TV shows. She would kick off her shoes, massage her swollen ankles. Christ, she would say. Christ O’Mighty. Then she would tell him to bring the chips. Put some gin in this glass. And fucking don’t forget the ice.

When his father had been gone for months, not a word from him, the boy sensed a darkness beginning to grow as if his father’s absence had released it. Things were moving. Closing in—something bad was coming.

Something bad was going to happen. Arthur had done his best. Done his best to warn her. Over and over. If only things were different, he tried to tell her. If only she would listen. Only listen. And, finally, how they needed to be ready. How she needed to be ready.

What did I ever do to deserve this, she had said, narrowing her eyes and shaking her head. Saddled with a moron, she said and swatted the back of his head, cracked ice cubes in her jaws like gun shots.

Before things reached this stage, he had invited her down to show her the space he’d made in the furnace room in the basement—the lock, the bar he put up on door. The blankets, cans, his LED flashlights. She didn’t want to see. Couldn’t care less. Get the fuck away from me. Can’t you see how beaten up I am? I’ve worked all goddamned day. Don’t I deserve a little peace?

With no choice left to him, he gave up. Spent hours by himself in his safe space. He would disappear down there when he came home from school. He took his sandwiches downstairs and ate in the dark, shining his flashlight first here, then there. Shined it on his tower of cans stacked on the shelves, along with the dried-out paint cans, boxes of nails and screws, mineral spirits, the yellow carton of rat poison, weed-killer, the rusting hedge-trimmers his father had keep the hedges neat with before he went away. Before she drove him away.

You have to try, he told her. Make him come back, he said. For everyone’s sake. Said it more than once. But after her third gin and ice, she would refuse to look at him or listen. She didn’t care. She would sit and drink and stare and eat without tasting what she ate. When she shouted Arthur brought her cheese doodles, powdered sugar donuts that whitened her lips, weight-watchers chicken stir-fry in its microwave container. If he was slow, if forgot something, she’d swear, pinch her mouth together like she was going to spit. Eventually, she would stagger off like the ground was quaking beneath her feet. Off to the bathroom, her bedroom—oblivious to the danger the boy knew was growing. Inching closer and closer. She refused to see it.

He’d done his best. If she wouldn’t listen, how was it his fault? His father wasn’t to blame. He didn’t live there anymore. When he had, he’d been blamed for everything. Arthur’s mother would scream blame at him over and over, stomping around the house, up and down the stairs, like she would bring the whole thing down on top of them. In the end, he escaped. Alone. The boy didn’t blame him. His mother did, but most of the time Arthur didn’t.

And now the moment had come, despite all his trying and pleading. All his wanting things to be different. The time had come as he knew it would. As he had been preparing for. He imagined it as if he’d already witnessed it. The monsters were too powerful. It stood to reason—they were monsters. They had come for him.

But it was her—sitting in that purple shadow as if nothing mattered, as if none of it was her fault—it was her they had come for first. He handed her a fresh gin and tonic.

Mr. Horton says about his life:

“I’ve worked as a janitor, factory worker, bookmobile librarian, prep cook, head of university housekeeping, purchasing agent, and IT guy at different times but writing is what I do. I have been lucky enough to attend the Sewanee Writers Conference (my mini MFA) where I learned from the remarkable Alice McDermott and Tony Earley.”


Interview with Author Steve Carr

Steve Carr, author and contributor
The Chamber Magazine

The Chamber published Mr. Carr’s story “Catacombs of the Doomed” on April 23.

Tell us something about your life.

I was born in impoverished conditions in Cincinnati, Ohio and joined the military for seven years, three in the Army, four in the Navy, right out of high school. During my stint in the Army I was a military journalist. After the military I completed my university degree in English/Theater and afterward worked in healthcare management while writing plays that were produced in several U.S. States. After owning my own theatrical production company, I was able to retire early and took up writing short stories in June 2016. I’ve had 500 stories – new and reprints – published since then.

What is your greatest accomplishment as a writer so far?

The entire process of writing and then submitting a short story to a publication is grueling and sometimes brutal, and I’ve done that successfully over 500 times. That is an accomplishment that few others can lay claim to.

Why do you write?

I needed a verifiable legacy, and that is why I write.

What is your writing process? (Any favorite places to write? Any interesting quirks, traditions, or rituals you may have? How many times might you revise something before being satisfied with it? Besides you, does anyone else edit your work? Etc.)

I guess it might be called a process, but I don’t really think of it as that. I write at least 1000 words a day, usually divided into two sessions of writing 500 words each session, writing 500 in the afternoon and the other 500 in the evening. I do permit myself to take time off from writing whenever I want. I don’t adhere to the dictum that you have to write every day. I edit as I write and do one final read and final editing before submitting it as soon as it’s finished. Since I know even before I begin what publication I’m writing for and what they’re looking for, I never need to hold onto a story and search for a publication to submit the story to, unless it has been rejected the first time. No one, ever sees anything I have written until it is published.

You have written over 500 short stories but published your first novel, Redbird, in 2019. What was the transition from writing short stories to writing a novel like for you? If I recall correctly, Hemingway said that a novel is a “different animal” from a short story.

I absolutely hated writing the novel. It didn’t suit my pace of developing a story, required way too much time plotting and planning, and it felt like I was purposely extending the boundaries of the story simply to make it fit a novel word count. I’m not one to say “never” but I can’t see repeating writing a novel, ever.

Do you have anyone (friends, relatives, etc.) review your works before you publish them?

No one, absolutely no one, sees my work before it is published.

Could you give us an idea of your upcoming works without spoiling anything?

I have a list of ideas for short stories I plan to write but the list would make no sense to anyone else as it is mostly just story titles or very brief notes.

Do you have any writing events coming up? For example: something being published/released? A reading of one of your works? Interviews? Any speeches or talks?

My short stories are published all the time and it would bore you to tears if I gave out what was being published and when. Despite coming from a theater background, I hate reading my works aloud. Interviews, and I’ve done a lot of those, seem to happen spur of the moment.

What do you hope to achieve as a writer?

To write that . . .one . . .perfect . . . short story that will be studied and discussed long after I’m dead.

What do you think of bad reviews? Are they helpful or harmful to you?

Other than rejections from editors who sometimes think their role is to be a literary critic, I can’t think of a time when a short story of mine actually received a bad review. Not enough people read my novel to review it one way or another. Well it got a few good reviews on Amazon, but it was my friends who bought and reviewed it.

What advice do you have for novice writers?

Rejection happens to every writer, don’t take it too seriously. Also don’t become to enamored with your own work. That leads to all kinds of bad writing decisions. Learn grammar and never take advice from someone who knows less about writing than you do.

What do you feel are the most important resources a writer can use?

(1) Life experience: go everywhere you can, see as much as you can, experience as much as you can, remember everything or keep notes. (2) learn how to use Google. (3) Read. Read. Read. Even the back of a cereal box can be informative.

Where can people find out more about you and your writing? (websites, social media, etc.)

My website: https://www.stevecarr960.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/steven.carr.35977

Twitter: @carrsteven960

My Amazon bibliography: https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B07CRL1PHF?ref

My publishing imprint Sweetycat Press website: https://www.sweetycatpress.com/about

Is there anything else that you would like our readers to know?

Few writers, other than journalists or advertising copywriters, actually make a living by writing. Keep your expectations low and hold on to your day job until you have a healthy bank account, and even after that, resist being okay with living in your parents’ basement.

“The Year Unknown” Fiction by Tim Goldstone

The Chamber Magazine

There was civil war here once, although official records are careful not to give it that name. If you look through the government-backed newspapers of the time you will find the language they preferred: subversives, agitators, extremists, disturbances, and then: Necessary Measures.

Location: England, the southern seaboard.

You should still stay out of this city.

Post civil-war life. Late November. Pre storm.

Jake stepped out of the warm fug created by the single portable gas heater in Eddie’s Café, its silver-coloured metal guard scorched brown, and down the three breeze blocks acting as steps, into the foul night. He’d felt better sitting up at the counter in Eddie’s, where Tajana had made his fried-egg sandwich just how he liked. Outside again, the filthy, wet night struck him hard in the face. A storm had been building for days, but this was not it.

Jake’s boots were provided by the flour mill but he wore them all the time – being the first perfectly waterproof footwear he’d ever had. He stared up into the oncoming rain to wash the flour dust from his eyes. If he went to sleep with that gunk in them they’d be stuck together when he woke, and still blurry for the early-morning shortcut to the mill, through the marshalling yards, then along the side of the rail tracks in the winter dark.

Frank, flush with prize money from fighting at the docks, had noticed Tajana clearing a small hole in the condensation on the café window with the back of her hand, and had watched her peer into the blackness after Jake. Frank had seen him before in Eddie’s. Smelt him. That flour dust.

The wind pushed Jake in the back, buffeted the café’s flimsy sides and juddered the padlocked metal cage containing the gas bottles, a ragged map of rust rising up around each of their bases; in the summer, kids regularly try to set fire to them. Jake hoicked up the collar on his long, thick overcoat, old army issue. A few, insignia removed, still turn up in the second-hand shops. When troops were deployed at the height of the Measures the city was nicknamed Khaki-on-Sea. But that was the past – as politicians on all sides insist – although not yet a past so far away it could safely be taught in schools. Jake hunched his head back down. There was salt in the rain.

Tajana squinted at him through the café window.

Several knuckles on Frank’s hands were newly broken. It made no difference to Frank. It was because he would keep punching long after his opponent was unconscious on the ground. But that was the part he enjoyed the most. There were fatalities at those dock fights. Frank enjoyed that too.

Tajana hadn’t known that Frank considered her to be his girl. She’d seen him looking at her, but other than telling her what he wanted to eat he’d never said a word to her, and she preferred it that way. Sometimes though, she would say something to a customer and immediately hear Frank’s laugh. Another thing she didn’t know was that Frank had been noting the extra care she always took making Jake’s sandwich.

A split second before Frank began his attack, he would tilt his head rapidly from one side to the other as though he was comparing two annoyingly similar weights inside his head.

Then, just before he unleashed, he would suddenly ask, “What’s your name?” A trick his sergeant had taught him – “Confuses them, Frank me old mate. And punch the vein in their neck.” The sergeant was the only friend he’d ever had, the only person who’d ever helped him. The first time Frank’s laugh had ever been genuine was in a foreign land watching the sergeant feed bits of his peeling sunburnt skin to abandoned half-starved dogs. An hour later Frank had to wipe what was left of the sergeant off his uniform. He couldn’t do it. He’d needed to ask someone help. “Pull yourself together, soldier,” he’d been told, “or you’re

no damn use.” From that day he showed no weakness. He didn’t care that on his return the promise “Jobs for our boys” was an empty slogan. He didn’t need any help, and later, the neat, wiry army chaplain at the homeless-veterans’ hostel who offered it to him, quickly agreed. He’d read Frank’s eyes and wasn’t prepared to risk his life contradicting him. So Frank had walked out of there leaving the chaplain shuddering at the only words Frank had spoken to him in an hour and a half: “I’ve killed for my country with weapons, and I’ve killed for money with my hands. It feels the same. Just one’s quicker.” Frank didn’t need friends now. And he would take what he wanted.

The city was on the coast, but there were no sands, golden or otherwise, here. No shops selling postcards and buckets and spades, although there was sometimes an ice-cream van.

No excited shouting and screaming of holidaymakers running eagerly into surf, no colourful holiday illuminations. This was not that kind of city. People did scream here though, and run.

It was a port, but in a storm you’d be better off staying out at sea. Tajana couldn’t forget the time Jake didn’t want his change and handed it back to her without the owner seeing. It had been enough for her to get an onion to go with her rice after work. It had made all the difference. Before she ate she’d attached a cheap earring she’d found onto a piece of cotton and hung it over her single candle. Her room had no electricity. She cooked in the tiny

fireplace with any fuel she could find – scraps of wood, bits of plastic. She’d used up the Warning Unsafe Structure sign the first night she’d spent there. She had a roof tile as a plate. Tiles fell off regularly in gusts of wind. She’d found one unsmashed in the street. Her idea had worked; the earring moved in the warm candle air and glittered. “I am lucky,” she’d said out loud in her tentative English, and curled up on the floor to sleep before anything could go wrong.

The city hadn’t built a new Memorial in the end, just added names to the old one. No need any more, though, for even a token guard against the Scrapers – those people who’d lost civilian loved ones and bitterly resented that only soldiers’ names had been added. But eventually a concession was made, and the names of the children who took messages through the city, and were killed for it, were officially engraved onto the bronze plaque. Such delicate compromises hold the taut peace that a succession of political leaders have pointed to as success.

The first child that died had been lifted onto the floor of the only vehicle that passed, an ice-cream van, but hadn’t lived to reach help. It had been hot. Blue sky. No clouds at all. Under the full glare of the sun the van went as fast as it could along a road dug up in parts so rubble could be used as missiles. And with every jolt, blood flowed silently out of a crack in a skull not yet fully grown, to the looped shrill desperate warbling of Greensleeves. In the panic no one had thought to turn it off. An hour later the driver had hosed the blood away and was plying his trade on one of the estates. Life went on.

The ignition buttons for the gas rings at Eddie’s Café no longer worked and Tajana had to use matches. She knew how Jake liked his fried-egg sandwich – the yolk runny – so she

scored the bread to help soak the yolk up; she didn’t want any of it wasted by dribbling out. All that protein – he needed it. She knew what job he did. And he liked pepper on the yolk but nowhere else. Tajana had burns from the spitting fat. She’d got used to the ones on her hands, but it was the sudden searing on the insides of her thin wrists that never ceased to shock her and made her want to cry. She didn’t, though.

When the gas bottles were getting low, cooking was the priority at Eddie’s so the washing up, even of greasy plates and frying pans, was done in cold water, leaving her up to her elbows in a film of scum. They’d had soup like that in the camp, until the whooping cough epidemic had brought the Red Cross and proper rations. In front of the sink, Tajana would dream about being a dancer at the Nelson. A lot of those girls used Eddie’s Café. They weren’t pestered there – nobody was. When a long haired fork-lift driver had said loudly about Tajana, “Oi, look, someone’s splashed skin on that skeleton,” Frank had followed him out, and that fork-lift driver wasn’t seen again until what was left of him washed up further along the coast, entangled in neglected sea defences.

The redundant dockers still used pilfered metal hooks to fight with, but now only amongst themselves, divided loyalties still raw and untreated. The old docks, with their dark corners and labyrinthine warehouse quarter where dissension first fermented, had gone, their leading part in The Unrest stamped on with concrete and steel, powerful floodlights, high nests of swivelling CCTV cameras. The myriad small yards where on bitter mornings lorry drivers had lit fires on the ground directly under their engines to unfreeze the diesel were replaced with a single massive, numbered and gridded, micromanaged lorry park. No vehicle, no load, no driver moved unobserved any more.

Unlike the other prefabs hurriedly built post civil war to feed the bused-in demolition crews and then the construction workers of the much-heralded, grandiosely named “Regeneration Era”, Eddie’s Café, caught in a blind spot between overlapping administrative areas, had never been removed. Its original name had been Feeding Station 874. It was a shell by the time Eddie acquired it for a few favours and a brown envelope full of notes, but it hadn’t taken him long to re-equip it from the dumps. Since Eddie there had been many owners, but the café always kept the name, Eddie’s Café. It was cheaper than repainting the signs, and Eddie’s was already well-known in that area, one of the first where the momentum of new development had eventually ground to a halt with the phasing out of government incentives, both financial and personal. There were no longer fortunes to be made, no more honours to be bought, no more committees with “Renewal and Revitalisation” proudly in their title and the words “urgent” and “dynamic” in their reports. No more money could be made from the city, and it was abandoned to its own devices, area by area. The same mistakes were being made again, and parts of the city were not as punch-drunk as they seemed.

At night the glaring white from the dock’s new floodlights fell just short of Eddie’s, from where a dim nicotine colour managed to break out through the bare, grimy windows and spill across the uneven tarmac where huge puddles formed, sheened with petrol, oil, diesel. They rippled with the cold wind from the industrial-grey sea that slopped and slapped and gobbed against the dockside. Tajana had watched Jake disappear, swallowed up into the night, and then let the space she’d cleared on the window fill with condensation again. Frank had watched her.

As Jake walked away he heard the rain clattering on the parts of the café patched with tin.  The rain blurred the intermittent lights of the chugging freight trains in the distance; they still moved cautiously out of the place. Some habits clung on, ingrained, just in case.

In unreconstructed backstreets, if you knew the right people, you could still obtain the motley and illegal memorabilia of The Uprising, from leaflets to tattoos, the police no longer having the manpower for periodic crackdowns. The selling of more deadly items was dealt with instantly, by a different force, from outside the city, with all the money and muscle it needed.

Post civil-war life. Early December. Post storm.

It is half past ten in the morning. Inside the shut pub, along the windowsills, there are still flies from the summer, mummified in dust. Tixe sits at the bar, wrapped in the Nelson’s  faded surroundings, the parcel tape holding together the rip in the bar stool crackling slightly every time she shifts her weight.

She and Paul the barman are the only people there. Paul opens up every morning, and Tixe slips in behind him as he goes through the door. She knows he can’t say no to her. She is nineteen. There are still the faintest traces of puppy fat in her face. Her fingernails are bitten down a little and her red nail varnish is flaking, but her red lipstick has been newly applied. Once when she’d had to describe herself in a few words, another dancer with more experience had told her to write “petite”.

Paul hasn’t turned the lights on in the bar yet and it is duller than the December morning Tixe has just walked through, arms folded, quick little steps in high heels, short, tight, faded denim skirt, the cold strong wind off the sea reaching even further into the city than usual today, biting at her bare legs. Most of the debris left by the storm has been cleared now. Or scavenged. Her hair hangs down over her shoulders and strands constantly fall across the sides of her face or over her eyes and eventually, not straightaway, she will remove these by a toss of her head, or a perfunctory brush of her hand if nobody is there to see.

Last night Tixe washed her collection of soft toys in the sink in her one-room bedsit after she’d noticed they had mould on their backs from where she had leant them up against her window. It was unusual for her to spend that long in her room any more. She dried them as much as she could in her only towel, then pegged them up on her makeshift indoor washing line, making it droop. Then she lay under her blankets and listened to the vehicles swishing by on the wet road below, and to the rain’s muffled hissing. Tixe could see her breath, but she wasn’t going to spend money turning on the electric fire. She slept until morning, when outside, directly above her window with the rotten wooden ledge that soaks up rain like a sponge, a seagull called raucously as it pecked at something in the blocked guttering, the overflowing water escaping down the wall.

Paul, wiping down the bar and anxious to be part of things, wanting to appear “in the know”, says, “No one’s seen Tajana since the storm, or Jake. That’s over a week now. They reckon, down at Eddie’s, Frank got them. No one’s seen him either, but that’s not unusual – the stuff he does. I liked Tajana. She shouldn’t have danced here, though. And that Jake seemed OK. Sort of polite. But I don’t know what they’ve got to do with Frank.”

Tixe knew.

Paul puts another shot in Tixe’s glass from the huge Bell’s whisky optic. He is pleased he remembered not to say “Taj” this time. It has become the trend in this city to call New Permanents by their full first name.

Paul says, “Eddie’s is open again now – they fixed that quick.”

“Can’t I have some vodka?” Tixe says.

“No, Warren notices if I take anything from the others. This is the only optic big enough.”

Tixe says, “All right then cheers then.” Her bangles slide down her forearm towards her elbow, clinking as she takes a swig.

Paul wants to ask her out, but he doesn’t know how it works with girls like that. He glances again at the two scar lines on her left wrist, one heavier than the other. A third might have done it but the pain had been too much. Everything else now was extra; her form of optimism. She notices where Jake’s looking and moves her arm so her bangles fall back down. He doesn’t know where these girls get their strength from. He thinks, “There should be medals,” and then, “Or at least a good meal.”

Tixe grimaces at the whisky taste. She says, “I think Jake read too many books,” and drinks again.

Paul still floundered at times. He was used to holiday-season bar work in the resorts strung like tawdry decorations along the coastline of the English Channel. But this was a seaport brooding through winter, freezing sea mists moving in at speed inches above the massive expanse of dark water, swarming ashore at night to lay the first imperceptible corrosions in the buildings of the unfinished Reconstruction Areas. He watches the gulp in Tixe’s throat as she drains her glass.

She says, “Aww that’s disgusting.”

Paul says, “Why do you drink it then?” and immediately regrets it. There is that sudden silence he noticed you got sometimes with Tixe. He can hear her breathing.

Then Tixe says, “Be quiet now little barman.” She says it softly because she doesn’t mind Paul. She thinks anyone who hasn’t hurt her yet might be nice. A hope endlessly deferred.

Paul shoots some vodka in her empty glass, puts his own money in the till and leaves the bar to find the song on the jukebox that he’s heard her ask men to put on for her. Away from Tixe he notices for the first time that morning the familiar mustiness of the carpeting and the stink of stale tobacco.

With her back to him Tixe says sympathetically, “Tajana said chimneys instead of funnels.”

Frank had liked it when Tajana used the wrong words. He had laughed at her and not told her why. It was the first time he’d laughed since the army. Then he had started to leave presents for her at Eddie’s. He called her Taj.

Paul hides Tixe’s drink under the bar as Warren comes in talking to another man. Warren casually snaps a stray piece of chalk left on the bar. He has fat fingers. One day his signet ring would have to be cut off. You have to be careful who you call wharf trash.

“Lovely yeah,” Warren continues. “Powerful car. Only problem is soon as I get drunk the tyres start to squeal.” The man chuckles. Warren nods towards Tixe and says, “Oh well, back to the daily grind – and there she is now. Either too much lipstick or someone’s just shot her in the mouth,” and he laughs loudly and then the man does too. Warren’s experienced eyes check Tixe’s skin for the slightest hue of telltale yellow. There were always rumours it was back.

“Any ferry jobs yet?” Tixe risks.

Warren says, “There might be something coming up,” and adds, “if you’re good.”

The man nods towards Tixe and says, “Is it any good?”

Warren nudges him and says, “I’ll show you in a minute.”

From outside comes the noise of a young child who has just learnt to whistle. But the thin uncertain sounds are snatched away by the wind whipping through the streets before the chilled lips can form a recognisable tune.

Warren warns, “Tixe, get yourself changed now. Paul boy, wipe those tables.”

Paul under his breath: “No rest for the wicked.”

Tixe whispers back, “We get a lot done, though,” and remembers the first time she’d got drunk before stepping up onto the Nelson’s stage – the twelve-foot-square wooden platform, ten inches high – and how she hadn’t felt the usual humiliation scrambling around the stage afterwards picking up her clothes. Now she can’t sleep without a drink.

As Warren and the man move through into the back there is more laughter as Warren says loudly, “She knows what to do with the drunken sailor all right.”

Paul sees Tixe looking into her lap.

They hear the man ask Warren, “You still with that wife of yours?”

Warren laughs contentedly. “Nah, I chucked her out. Silly cow got herself cancered up.”

Holding out that he could get jobs on the ferries for the girls was Warren’s way of having power over them. Most of the girls saw a job on the ferries as a step up. Warren knew people, and his connections went back to The Unrest. There was always a high turnaround of ferry girls; the shift hours and their cramped cabins, with the bunk beds, near the engines, wrecked them. He could arrange a job on one if he chose, and then the girl would “owe him big time” – a phrase he loved to use. Tixe stayed working at the Nelson because she thought it was her best chance of a ferry job. It excited her to see them leaving for France at night, all lit up, and she shuddered with the glamour of it all. Tixe was one of Warren’s best girls – and by best he meant most explicit – and he’d noticed the rise in takings when she was on. She was an asset, a word he also liked to use. Tixe was going nowhere. He didn’t mind her getting free drinks from Paul. It was something he had over his barman, a little bit of power in his back pocket for casual use later, like some people would swing a sag – the local improvised cosh: you took off a sock, dropped any coins you had into the bottom of it, tied a tight knot just above them. No doorman was going to take both your socks and all your change off you before you entered a club.

Warren hadn’t needed a weapon since he’d left school, where he’d unscrewed the blades from pencil sharpeners. He had other ways now of getting what he wanted. “Got anything to eat?” Tixe asks Paul.

Paul chucks her a packet of salt-and-vinegar-flavoured crisps, the ones they couldn’t get rid of. Warren always warned him not to feed the girls for free. Tixe fishes in her little purse for coins, handing them to Paul on her open palm, looking up from under her fringe, her big brown eyes presented to him in black mascara.

“That’s OK,” Paul says.

She knew the effect that look had on men, and once, before she’d got work dancing at the Nelson, a woman: Molly. Tixe had told herself, “A girl needs to eat.”

Tixe had waited until Molly’s eyes closed before releasing a yawn. In the morning, Molly brought Tixe breakfast in bed. Tixe hung around in the woman’s flat as long as she could bear it, but in the end she had to ask bluntly for money. When Molly became tearful, Tixe pretended she’d just meant a loan for a taxi. Molly gave her a handful of change from the bottom of her handbag, some loose cigarettes she’d forgotten she had, and a quarter-full box of England’s Glory matches.

Tixe’s look hadn’t worked on Frank, though, alone in that place with him, in between the coils of gigantic black chain and the piles of girders waiting to support a structure that had been paid for but was never going to arrive.

Tucking into her salt-and-vinegar crisps Tixe consoles herself yet again that anyone would have told Frank what he wanted to know, about Tajana setting her sights on Jake, about Tajana dancing and the men who shouted at her – no she didn’t know their names and yes she would find out. She would. Yes. Yes. Yes. She’d known she was in trouble when she’d seen Frank’s wide intense smile with the gums showing above the teeth. Frank’s threats were never veiled. If Frank asked you something it wasn’t a question, it was a test with a right or wrong answer. Even Warren was afraid of Frank, however much he called him wharf trash behind his back. Tixe told Frank about that too. Frank had needed to bend down to place his knuckles under Tixe’s chin, using them to turn her head towards a grubby discarded holdall with a broken zip, twenty yards away. “You’d look good in a rucksack,” he’d said. “You’re little enough to fit in that,” and walked off. Tixe could have cried with relief. She knew Frank didn’t make jokes – that she’d just heard a direct threat. But she remained physically unharmed. She needed her looks. She knew what they all said: cheap but pretty.

Tixe finishes her crisps, rubs her fingers around the inside of the empty packet, then sucks them. Jake had once told her, grinning, “Human beings have nine thousand taste buds. You have two. One for salt and one for sugar.” She starts to drum along to the song Paul has put on the jukebox, using the rings on her fingers to bang against a green glass ashtray that is heavy enough to kill someone. Paul puts another whisky shot into her glass. She doesn’t grimace at all this time.

Tixe had chosen her own dancing name to look good on the blackboard – the shorter the name the larger it could be chalked. It didn’t take long before some girls became known even outside the Nelson by just their blackboard name. Tixe didn’t mind, though. She liked her dancing name. If the blackboard wasn’t moved into the porch in time the rain made a mess of even the shortest name.

Tixe had got her name in an alleyway down the side of the derelict cinema where she’d seen the word “Exit” reflected in her compact mirror, litter blowing against her ankles. The corner of a torn poster on the opposite wall had flapped manically, the only band names still distinguishable: Empty Vessels, Bulkhead.

Paul hears the loud footsteps of Warren and the man on the narrow wooden stairs in the back.

Tixe says, “One more and I’ll go and get changed . . . Please?”

Paul wants to keep her with him downstairs. He pours her another whisky before he passes her the duffle bag she keeps behind the bar. She knocks the drink back in one.

Paul remembers something Jake had told him and says, “Did you know they put Nelson’s body in brandy?”

Tixe shrugs and says, “Why the hell not?”

Outside a child is whistling again. An older child this time, whistling unmistakably one of the old Resistance songs. It sounds ghostly in the cold air and only a few hear it in between

The deep slow barks of a reclamation yard guard dog before both sounds are drowned out by a rumbling convoy of lorries. Only a few people recognise the tune, but one of them begins to mouth the words under his breath.

“I better go up then,” Tixe says matter-of-factly, wiping her crisp-greased fingers on a bar towel.

Paul sees Tixe wince as she gets off the stool. The stage isn’t sprung. Warren doesn’t let the girls use liniment on their pulls and sprains because of the smell, and Tixe daren’t mix painkillers with alcohol again. Warren had advised her, “Ignore your pain, girl. I am.” She walks into the back and Paul listens for her light tread on the stairs as outside the heavy sky lowers itself down possessively over this city. It’s quarter to eleven in the morning. Time to turn the lights on. He still doesn’t know why they call themselves dancers. He wonders again what’s happened to Jake and Tajana.

Post civil-war life. Late November. Storm.

When Tajana had arrived at the Nelson, Tixe showed her to the toilets. They’d walked along a narrow corridor amongst the peeling paint, the damp, the dirt. The thin raggedly cut lino laid directly onto uneven flagstones was mapped with the marks of stiletto heels. The ceiling was low and when they reached the toilet door they were standing directly under a botched repair in the flat roof. The repair was made of corrugated Perspex that trapped rainwater until it turned to a sludge of algae. It had bathed Tixe and Tajana in its dark-green light. While they talked, heavy raindrops had begun to plop and splatter above their heads, like plump insects hitting a windscreen.

Tajana had whispered, “I have no water at room, I must wash face at café in washing up before plates. Can use water here?”

“Yes,” said Tixe. “Help yourself.”

Then Tajana confided, “Frank gives me prizes. I’m worry.” She mistook Tixe’s puzzled look and said, “You know, Frank? Big.”

“Yes, I know Frank,” Tixe said, and then realised. “Oh, presents. Not prizes, Tajana. Presents.”

“Thank you,” Tajana said. “Presents,” and she had placed her hand for a second on Tixe’s shoulder. Tixe was shocked at how light it was – she hardly felt it – and how cold.

Tajana said, “You lucky with Jake. Is kind.”

“Oh, no,” Tixe said, surprised. “We’re not . . . together.”

“Oh, I’m mistake. Sorry,” and for the first time Tixe saw Tajana smile, just a little bit. “I make his egg,” Tajana had added, then disappeared into the toilets, and just before the door shut she’d said, “Thank you.” At first Tixe wasn’t sure what for, but then she’d had an uneasy feeling in the part of her stomach where she sometimes felt hunger. Nothing that another drink couldn’t get rid of, though. Alcohol worked when she was hungry too.

Tixe had assumed someone else would have told Tajana to change her name for the blackboard – Tajana wasn’t her responsibility anyway. All Tixe had done was tell her where the Nelson was and what to say to Warren to get what he called an “audition”. Another word he liked to use. Tixe couldn’t imagine what you’d have to do to fail, but that was before she’d seen Tajana on the stage.

One of the men next to the stage had bellowed at Tajana, “Oi! Put ’em away for the lads!” and his friends had laughed. Then they booed her. She hadn’t known you should choose a different name, so her real name had been chalked up outside for everyone to see, on top of the smear where another girl’s name had been rubbed out by the palm of a hand.

Afterwards, Tixe had watched Tajana through the Nelson’s water-blurred window. The rain had become torrential. She saw her run outside. Then she’d seen her bump into Jake, and at that Tixe felt better and turned away. A man had come over with a vodka for her. There’d been a piece of lemon in it.

“Where’s your coat?” Jake said loudly to Tajana through the torrents of rain.

After a long pause Tajana said, “I have not got one.” Jake had offered her his.

“No,” she’d said. Her bare arms were mottled with cold, and her teeth were beginning to chatter.

Even though he disliked the place, Jake had been about to go into the Nelson to give Tixe the Maritime Employment leaflet he’d spent weeks trying to get hold of for her. He’d been shocked to see Tajana coming out of there. He’d realised he hadn’t seen her anywhere else but in Eddie’s. In the cold, the constellation of burn scars over her hands and wrists were a vivid purple.

Tajana spoke as though remembering each syllable just in time. “They did not like my dance. But I cannot do cooking more. It hurts me. Too much. But your egg – I am sorry. But I’m go home now,” she’d explained.

It shocked Jake that he’d never thought of her as living anywhere. Tajana’s clenched jaw and the determined look in her eyes – as though fixed on something way in the distance – reminded Jake of a propaganda poster he’d seen in a book in the library; another showpiece project, another concession.

After a second refusal of his coat he decided he’d have to walk her to Eddie’s. The flow of water in a roadside gutter had started to carry away pieces of broken glass, and litter was piling up over the drains. He opened his coat and moved Tajana – already bedraggled – in close so that some of the heavy material would be covering her. Their faces touched for a second – he could smell on her skin a mixture of pub smoke and fresh new chilled wet air brought into the city on an increasingly powerful wind, from far out at sea.

Behind them the deluge had extinguished Tajana’s name on the blackboard, and all over the city a cascade of roof tiles was falling and smashing.

As they rounded a corner, storm rain, sweeping in all along the shoreline, appearing in the distance as drifting smoke, had driven straight at them. A cat with a wound on the side of its face had flattened itself, anchoring its bony body to the ground against the gusts of wind. Tajana had stumbled, shivering violently all over him, clinging on as they passed the old wharf with its tang of sodden rusting iron and its abandoned military watchtower. Children still played the old game – daring each other to lick the railings. They tasted like salt, blood and iron: the history of the port on the tip of their tongues. They spat it out, but the taste stayed with them.

Jake and Tajana were now nearing the former front line of the city’s indelible near past, horrifying, or glorious, depending on your allegiances, where after two sweltering, breathless days and nights one late June, the long-smouldering Insurgency had finally ignited.

By the time a CCTV camera picked up the two bedraggled figures crossing the old battleground – now a vast exposed span of cracked and stained concrete that in summer was criss-crossed with the shadows of cranes, elongating and contracting with the movement of the sun – Tajana’s arms were wrapped so tightly around Jake’s waist that she was walking sideways with the front of her body moulded to the left side of his, making them constantly veer off course through pools of quickly gathering water. Jake had felt the wetness seeping through his boots.

Certain historians will tell you there are bodies under all that hastily laid concrete. Locals know that’s a lie; that’s not where the bodies are.

The CCTV cameras had picked out Frank, fists clenched, teeth bared, now a hundred yards behind Jake and Tajana, his rapid marching stride making no allowances for the full-frontal assault of the accelerating storm.

Staggering along now in weather pounding the coast and smashing sea defences, all Jake had wanted was to find somewhere safe. For them both. He’d thought of the abandoned shacks further inland along the estuary. But he knew in this storm they’d be grateful just to make it to Eddie’s.

Out to sea a distress flare had shot up through the grey air. Tajana had begun to weep. Not for herself, for others. Always for others. Then, in the middle of it all, instinctively, they had stopped, and clung on to each other. It was all they could think of to do.

Tim Goldstone is a published and broadcast writer. ‘The Year Unknown’ first appeared in The Mechanics’ Institute Review Anthology 15, in 2018. He has roamed widely, including throughout the UK, Western and Eastern Europe, and North Africa, and currently lives in Wales. Loiters in twitter @muddygold 

“Destruction” Poetry by Stephen House

The Chamber Magazine
slam smashed crushed of once alive 
earth falling 
by stark hit hard reprise 

smacking new over recurrence continue
grip on twisting 
wonder why kill living

going on is what never expected we wait
destruction quantity 
now exposed in blood

disappearance of wilderness gapes painful
collective creepers 
refuse our stop extinction	

breathing in smoke of distress us contribute
asking multiple help 
without relief in need 

wonder void hopeful conclusion waiting 
i knew a life 
of joining cohesive once 

realized it but end riddle deepened sharp 
confronted remembering 
before sang my begging  

choice of your dream whatever for imagine 
pray to pull motionless 
steady need corpse silent 

leap mixed colours not before seen striking 
coughing planet 
struggles to whistle relief 

wish of life then continual barrage destroy 
empty eventually 
sinks us down	to vanish 

Stephen House has won many awards and nominations as a poet, playwright and actor. He’s received several international literature residencies from The Australia Council and an Asia-link residency. His chapbook “real and unreal” was published by ICOE Press. He’s published often and performs his acclaimed monologues widely.

“Space Diminishing” Poetry by John Tustin

The Chamber Magazine
The space diminishing.
The hours narrowing.
The clock winding down
To slowness, ready to stop
Before we are prepared to stop tracking
The time.
I open the blinds just before dusk
To find the sun is dying,
Fallen from her perch above it all
And bleeding in the street 
An orange-yellow blood
That is in flames pooling along the gutters.
You are all stuck in your homes
Watching as the sun blinks out
Just as I am.
The blood of the sun irradiating us,
Making the minutes into seconds, the days into hours.
Might as well sit down and wait.
I move to the cool easy darkness of my bedroom,
Shut the door, turn on the overhead fan.
I hunker down with my poetry books
And the memories of when the sun was in the sky
In the day, the moon there at night
And you beside me, above me, beneath me
In the brief times between
All of the sadness.

The space diminishing.
The walls becoming tighter, the ceiling lowering.
The sun is dead, the streets in flames of blood.
It’s nice and dark in here, though.
I feel the glow coming from the windows.
I think about other things, getting into bed,
The hours so narrow
It is day and also night,
The moon melting upon
The corpse of the still hot sun
As I lie here waiting.
Just waiting
The way I have always

John Tustin’s poetry has appeared in many disparate literary journals since 2009. fritzware.com/johntustinpoetry contains links to his published poetry online.

Appearing in The Chamber on May 14

New issues appear Fridays at 10:00 a.m. CDT/4:00 p.m. BST/1:00 a.m. AEST (Saturdays).

“Space Diminishing” Poetry by John Tustin

John Tustin’s poetry has appeared in many disparate literary journals since 2009.

“Destruction” Poetry by Stephen House

Stephen House has won many awards and nominations as a poet, playwright and actor. He has received several international literature residencies from The Australia Council and an Asia-link residency.

“The Year Unknown” Fiction by Tim Goldstone

Mr. Goldstone is a published and broadcast writer and has roamed through several nations. He currently lives in Wales.

Interview with Author Steve Carr

Mr. Carr has written plays that have been produced in several states and owned his own theatrical production company before taking up writing short stories.

“Monsters” Fiction by Michael Horton

Mr. Horton has attended the Sewanee Writers Conference and has learned from Alice McDermott and Tony Earley.