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.

Dear XXXXXX,

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.

HOW DID I FINALLY MANAGE TO GET HOLD OF A CUSTOMER SERVICE AGENT AND MAKE THIS POSSIBLE?

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

http://www.titusgreenfiction.com


“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 

wander
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.