“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.