Appearing in The Chamber on July 2

The Chamber Magazine Cover July 2, 2021

New issues appear Fridays at 10:00 a.m. CDT/ 4:00 p.m. BST/ 8:30 p.m. IST/ 1:00 a.m. AEST (Saturdays).

“Red Hibiscus” Fiction by Rekha Valliappan

Rekha Valliappan has had dozens of her short stories, poems, review, interviews, essays, published internationally in literary, genre, print and online journals and anthologies, since 2017. Her mystery novella Rosewood was released in December, 2019. And A Pilgrim’s Push went online in America’s grand old publication The Saturday Evening Post. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her website is silicasun.wordpress.com.


“Red Hibiscus” was previously published by Intellectual Refuge in 2017.

“Sophie’s Choices” Poetry by Todd Matson

Todd Matson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.  He has written poetry for The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling, has been published in Ariel Chart International Literary Journal, Bluepepper, and The Chamber Magazine, and has written lyrics for songs recorded by a number of contemporary Christian music artists

“Granny Miller’s Grave Situation” Fiction by

Charles Robertson

Chuck started his career as a science teacher, but ended up in the information systems field.  He has been married for twenty-five years to a registered nurse but most of all a compassionate wife and mother.  They live in the Missouri Ozarks and have two college-age children.

“You Can’t Do Anything Without Me” Fiction by

Christiana Hoag

Christina Hoag is a former journalist and the author of novels “Girl on the Brink” and “Skin of Tattoos” In 2020, her fiction and nonfiction won awards in the International Human Rights Arts Festival and the Soul-Making Keats Writing Competition. www.christinahoag.com.

“Snake” Fiction by Vern Fein

A retired teacher, Vern Fein has published over one hundred fifty poems and short pieces on over seventy sites. He has non-fiction pieces in Quail Bell, The Write Place at the Write Time, and Adelaide, plus a short story in the the online magazine Duende from Goddard College

“Nature’s Trangression” Fiction by Thom Brucie

Dr. Dominic Jardine lifted the cover from an oblong tray to reveal two baked Cornish hens, their skins golden and slick with butter. He stabbed one with a fork and placed it on Anthony Moretti’s plate; the second he lifted onto his own. He then served salt-potatoes, boiled yellow corn, green beans, and thick rye bread with honey.

            “Enjoy,” Dr. Jardine said as he pierced his hen’s thigh.

            “Very good,” Anthony said, tasting a small red potato.

Dr. Jardine poured a glass of wine.  “Try this,” he said.

            “To the experiment, then,” Anthony toasted, and sipped the wine.

            Dr. Jardine was youngish looking, thin and sinewy, with a full beard, and when he got excited, his cheeks flushed. “The data from our experiment will prove with certainty that the beast in mankind is normal; that tendencies like kindness or even empathy hinder human progress.”

            “That’s where you and I differ,” Anthony said. “That’s why I volunteered. I think you might be wrong. By the way, what manner of experiment do you plan?”

            Dr. Jardine refilled Anthony’s wine glass. Then he lifted his glass of water. “I will explain,” he said. “But first, a toast. To Anthony Moretti. May your life bring value to others.”

            “Thank you, sir.”

            As Anthony chewed another piece of the buttery hen, he began to feel an unusual lightness, not inebriation, but very relaxing. He finished his wine. Dr. Jardine refilled the glass and stared at Anthony. Anthony felt mildly self-conscious, so he drank more wine, smiling as he did. When Anthony placed his glass on the table, his arm felt as if it had fallen asleep, and the glass teetered and clanked against the dish before it settled.

            “Strange,” he said, “my muscles feel mushy.”

            “That’s good,” Dr. Jardine said. “You have consumed three glasses of wine containing pancuronium bromide, a drug which will relax your muscles but keep you awake. It’s a derivative of curare, which some tribes in South America use to immobilize monkeys. I’m pleased you didn’t eat too much, since surgery is less dangerous when the stomach is empty.”

            “Surgery?” Anthony said.

            Dr. Jardine got up. “Excuse me a moment.” He dropped his napkin on the table and left the room.

            Anthony wanted to ask what surgery, but he could not speak. He tried to get up; yet when he pushed his feet against the floor, he hardly felt them. Oddly, his eyes worked. He noticed a small crack in the plaster above the window, and he detected tiny random strands of green and orange laced within the dull umber of the drapes.

            Dr. Jardine returned to the room wheeling a gurney. “Come along, Mr. Moretti,” he said. “We have work.” He lifted Anthony off the chair and eased him onto the gurney. Dr. Jardine pushed the gurney out of the dining area and through the dreary hallway to its end. They entered an elevator and rode down. They exited into a room full of cages.

            “Some of my animals. The rats eat meat. And the vampire bats drink blood,” Dr. Jardine said, pointing out two of the specimens. “How do I know, Anthony, that we men are, by nature, animals such as these? Think about it. We profess a love of nature as we mutilate and destroy it; we eschew the commandment of peace to engage in constant war.” He looked toward the ceiling, as if to gather his thoughts. “Philosophers and psychologists suggest that the depravity of mankind is expressed in sin. Sin engenders guilt.” Dr. Jardine leaned down to Anthony’s face. “There is no sin without guilt, Anthony, and I think we can eliminate guilt. Our experiment will prove that when we accept the true animal nature of our human state, we eliminate the guilt of trying to be something other than what we are. Guilt destroys lives, and that’s what our experiment is about.”

            Anthony agreed with the fact that humans share a beast-like attitude toward survival and territorial aggression. He disagreed with Dr. Jardine’s conclusion regarding guilt. For Anthony, guilt represented a moral propriety absent in lesser forms. He felt a grave discomfort that he could not express this distinction.

            Dr. Jardine pushed the gurney through two swinging doors into a brightly lit operating room. He strapped Anthony’s arms to the side of the gurney. “We don’t like to admit it, Anthony, but survival is an ongoing, violent, evolutionary process which sharpens our animal instincts. Reason reveals this. My experiment will record the loss of your morality and the natural rise of your instinctual aggression. I’m going to cut off your legs. That way, you must survive in an alien environment without locomotion.”

            Dr. Jardine pushed the gurney to the far end of the room and stopped in front of a large steel door. “This will be your new home, Mr. Moretti.” He flicked a light switch and pulled the heavy door open. “Look inside. It might help you later.” Beyond the door, in shadowed simplicity, Anthony looked into a stern, square room with a high ceiling. “The walls are masonry smoothed over with plaster and painted with epoxy,” Dr. Jardine explained. “In the far corner you will find a stainless steel chemical toilet. No other comforts. In the opposite corner, attached to the ceiling, bat boxes. And on the floor in the other corner, a rodent run made from oak.”

            The thick metal door closed with a thud. “No way to open this from the inside, and when it closes, the lock automatically sets.”

Dr. Jardine guided the gurney back to the operating area and pushed a stainless steel tray to the side of the gurney. Anthony observed scalpels and a bone saw, string, a suture-hook, and a pair of needle-nose pliers. The proximity of these instruments produced a dense fear, as if a vague, unknowable horror reclined upon him.

The doctor inspected a scalpel. An icy glint reflected along its brilliant edge. When he replaced it, the steel echo reverberated in Anthony’s ear like a proclamation. He struggled with disbelief; he could not convince himself that Dr. Jardine intended to amputate his legs.

Dr. Jardine took a syringe and pushed the needle into the vein in Anthony’s forearm to inject Midazolam. Though he could not move, Anthony felt the smooth silver of the needle and the rush of the hot drug as it swirled into the flow of his blood. Dr. Jardine removed the tube and left the needle taped in place.

“Furthermore, I’m going to pull your eyes from their sockets and sever the retinas. I’ll replace the eyes, but of course you’ll be blind.”

He placed the tube end of an IV onto the needle. “When you awaken,” he said, “you will find your life devoid of ordinary pleasures. I shall keep a journal of your descent, perhaps to insanity, perhaps to suicide. By mapping the stages of your despair, anger, and violence, I shall have proof of the intrinsic path of degeneracy that all humans endure. Once the world recognizes the simple elegance of this truth, it can let go of its psychological props of charity and mercy, and return without guilt to the natural behaviors of survival. We can then eliminate inferiors without remorse and release the full efficiency of evolutionary imperatives.”

            As Anthony felt himself slipping into sleep, he heard Dr. Jardine say, “Think of it, Mr. Moretti, you are about to become part of history.”

*     *     *     *     *

            When Anthony awoke, he could not see, but he felt gauze taped over his eyes, and he felt the needle, a sharp iron invasion in his arm. His muscles remained out of his command, and when he tried to call for help, his throat hurt too much to speak.

            Anthony heard Dr. Jardine enter and walk to the side of the hospital bed. He lowered the safety bar, pulled the sheet away from Anthony, and felt the stitching along the skin-flap at the stubs of his legs. “Skin folds look good.  Stitches holding.”

            Anthony heard Dr. Jardine’s clear, analytical voice. He wondered if his legs were really gone. And his vision. He heard the pen encode the paper of Dr. Jardine’s notebook. He felt the quick pulsation of Midazolam roil into his bloodstream as Dr. Jardine injected more of the drug.

            “Sleep now, Anthony. I’ll keep you drugged and fed through these tubes until your surgeries heal. Want you to be fully functioning as we progress further into the experiment.” 

Anthony listened to the footsteps receding and to the door closing, and he felt blackness envelop him, soundless except for his own breathing. The empty room encased him, as if he were suffocating within the cruel confines of a claustrophobic tomb.

            In his continuous drugged state, Anthony knew neither days nor weeks, only the protracted gloom of black isolation. Eventually, Dr. Jardine removed the bandages from his stubs and his eyes. Anthony’s mind hovered in opiated confusion, and his body remained out of his control, but he heard Dr. Jardine speak. “Mr. Moretti,” he declared, “you have healed enough to begin the next phase of the experiment.” Dr. Jardine injected Midazolam, and Anthony slept again.

*     *     *     *     *

            When he awoke, Anthony opened his eyes to blackness. He blinked several times and squeezed his eyelids, but the only light he perceived happened behind the lids in that vague and unsettling place somewhere in the brain where imagination and rational thought collide in odd shades of gray with flashing shards of silver and blue.

            He felt for the bedrails, but discovered that he now lay on a blunt mattress on a bare concrete floor, his torso covered with a bed sheet, but no pillow for his head. He had expected a scientific experiment of a benign nature, perhaps an animal experiment with note-taking and evaluations; thus, because of his predicament, blind, legless, and puzzled beyond misery, he cried. Tears wet his face and his fingers, for he held his head in his hands, though they provided no comfort.

Exhausted, he slept. He did not mean to sleep; weariness momentarily overcame grief.

            When he awoke to the blackness and the silence, he listened around the room at the stillness, searching for the motion of sound in much the same way he would have looked around a room with eyes. He visualized in his mind the ear’s ability to capture the activity of sound. He might never have discovered this odd talent of the ear if he were not blind. This thought, making him aware of his blindness, again brought depression.

            “Sightless and legless,” he said, and the noise of his voice shocked him. “I can talk,” he said, hearing the words in his ears and within his head at the same time. The sound proved too intense, however, so he spoke no more.

            He sat up and pushed the sheet away. He reached gently forward, letting the tips of his fingers explore the rivets of stitch marks along the stubs of his legs. He rubbed the tiny hairs of his thighs, soft to his fingers, and he could feel the curled tip end of each. Yet the skin stretched across the amputations felt smooth, not tender, but odd in texture, like fish skin after the scales have been scraped off. As he felt around the nub of his legs, he felt his toes at the same time. He felt an irritating itch between his toes, tormenting and relentless. He wondered what bodily device could measure an itch that doesn’t exist. His legs were gone; his toes were gone. How could he feel the itch of a ghost? Were his toes really gone? His legs? He fell into a quagmire of uncertainty, no longer confident of reality. He lay back; his arms flopped against the mattress. “What shall become of me?”

            Dr. Jardine entered the room. “Mr. Moretti, you’re healing well. I hope you’ve noticed the splendid work I did on your legs.”

            “Why have you violated me?”

            Dr. Jardine wrote this in his notebook.

            “How long have I been here? How long must I remain?” Anthony did not know that nearly two months had passed since the awful surgeries. The drug-induced sleeps and the weary exhaustion of isolation impaired all ability to interpret time.

            Dr. Jardine wrote but said nothing.

            “Please,” Anthony said. “Talk with me.” He wanted companionship. He needed it.

            “I will talk, of course, Mr. Moretti, but we cannot engage in conversation. That would spoil the experiment. I’ll make a note of your confusion and anxiety, and given your excellent progress, I will introduce some new components. From now on, I will pass your food through the small slip-space in the door. That will limit our exposure to one another. I will also let a few laboratory pets in for you. You may befriend them.”

            Dr. Jardine placed the food try on the floor. He paused at the door. “Think of it, Mr. Moretti, one day you will be as famous as Pavlov’s dogs.”

            The blackness of Anthony’s spirit exhausted him, and in a paralysis of trepidation, he held himself like a baby.

*     *     *     *     *

His nose caught the slight puddle of chicken blood at the bottom of a metal plate. He smelled water in a plastic cup, and he detected the nectar-scent of peaches from a can. He detested these smells. They reminded him that he could not see, that he could not walk to a table and sit on a chair to enjoy his food.

            The aroma of the chicken clung to the back of his throat, and saliva rose on his tongue. “Maybe I should eat,” he thought. He leaned across the mattress and felt for the chicken. He removed the skin and licked the meat. “Full of something,” he thought. “Probably make me sleep.” Indeed, Dr. Jardine had rubbed a mixture of parsley and Midazolam into the chicken flesh. Within minutes after he finished eating, Anthony’s mind surrendered to sleep.

            He was not conscious of dreaming. In fact, when he awoke, sometime later, he wondered why he did not dream. As he thought this, he heard the shy breeze of the door opening. “What is it?” he demanded. He received no answer, only the deep thud of the lock as the door closed. Perplexed and annoyed, he pushed himself up to a sitting position. His arms had grown weak. He touched the thin veins along his forearm. Even his fingers felt thinner.

            Suddenly, Anthony heard tiny noises behind him, sounds he had not heard before, like the rapid tapping of a pencil point pulled across a grate. He pointed his ear at the sound. Yet, he heard nothing more, and the black silence chilled him. His skin tingled with fear. He could not determine exactly what, but some new thing had entered the room, and it was alive. He twisted to re-position. Anthony listened around the room. Though he detected no further sound, he knew some creature now haunted his domain, and his imagination made the creature frightening.

            Suddenly, he heard the scratch of nails scurrying along the floor. He leaned toward the sound, but as he turned, a similar scratching came from behind him. Two beasts. Anthony stiffened, disoriented and unsettled. Again he heard movement, this time closer to him, a small sound, like quick feet across wax. He sat straight, preparing himself for an assault which did not come. Instead, the tiny noise moved closer until it reached the side of his bed and the food dish clanked. He leaned his hand toward the dish. He felt fur, but the creature moved quickly and bit Anthony’s finger. The pain drove him to the other side of the mattress.

            “What are you?” he cried.

            His finger bled. He felt more pain than the tiny bite required, for the unknown held more power over his mind than a bloody fingertip. The tin plate continued to jiggle with the sound of animals feasting, both creatures obviously at work. The slight scratches and the padded movement could possibly mean rodents. For what purpose did Dr. Jardine release them? To haunt him even more? To destroy him with fear?

            Anthony listened in immovable foreboding as the lab rats ate what remained of his rations. Finally, they stopped, and he heard them scamper into the darkness. He waited until silence again covered him. Only then, and with all caution, did he stretch his fingers to all four corners and along every inch of the surface to make certain the mattress was safe. Finally, momentarily assured, he fell backwards, and, exhausted, he plunged into a long loneliness of exasperation.

            Anthony awoke later to the slow hinge gasp of the door opening.

            “Are you awake?” Dr. Jardine asked. He stopped about five feet from the bed. Dr. Jardine’s shoes slide against the concrete. “Some grease on the floor,” he said.

            “What did you release in here?” Anthony demanded.

            Dr. Jardine moved closer, and Anthony heard his voice alongside the mattress.

            “Two lab rats that eat meat. At the doorway, I have two vampire bats in a cage. I’ll release them when I leave.”

            “Why?” Anthony whimpered.

            Dr. Jardine noted Anthony’s vocal anguish on the chart.

            “Research, Mr. Moretti. Components of our study. It is in the utility of complications that we discover meaning in our behaviors. You might like to know about your companions. The laboratory white rat is an albino strain of the brown rat, noted for spreading typhus and rabies. Rats are like bears. They eat anything. The bats are of the variety desmodus rotundus. Did you know that each night they drink about half their body weight in blood? If they don’t find blood for three nights in a row, they die. Normally, they drink the blood of horses or cows, but lacking these, they will accept humans. Of course, they don’t drink a lot of blood, and they’re so agile they can sometimes drink for thirty minutes without waking a sleeping donor.”

            “What you have done to me has nothing to do with science. Are you mad, like they say?”

            Anthony heard the slight grate of Dr. Jardine’s teeth and a tense exhale through the nostrils.         “All genius is mistaken for madness, Mr. Moretti. What you do not comprehend, others will. The condition of your body, the complexities of your moods, and the introduction of beasts into your environment will provide ample material for study. We shall learn what qualities of animal heritage you will invite and what qualities will emerge unbidden.”

            He went to the door. Anthony heard a small piece of wood move and the gentle ease of bat wings as a flutter of air lifted them up and around the room.

            “Soon you will discover there is no great, mysterious purpose to your life, Mr. Moretti. But before you make that discovery you will become like the animals and kill to survive, not for meaning, only to survive. Or they will kill you,” he said, pulling the door shut.

            The bats swooshed and dove, turned and glided around the room, exploring the square, black cave. Anthony could not hear their calls, but he felt the low vibrations of their chatter against the hairs of his ears. He held his head still and followed the disturbances of air their flights caused. Soon they settled, silent and motionless, and Anthony could not tell if they recognized the box at the ceiling as similar to the one in their laboratory cage. The rats, perhaps excited by the bats, lifted their noses, and their whiskers twitched.

Anthony sat in the center of a dense entombment, buried with flesh-eating creatures whose diet now included him, but even a blind, legless man must sleep, and eventually, he grew fatigued. He did not want to sleep. He did not trust such luxury. Yet, exhaustion mingled with despair, and his body gave way to its needs.

*     *     *     *     *

            For once, he dreamed. He was not aware of images, but rather of a euphoric peacefulness, almost sweet. He felt restful, like one feels at the edge of the ocean lying on hot sand. He rolled to his side and felt a warm drop of liquid slide along his neck. He reached to touch it, but instead felt the fur cover of rubbery bat skin. Without thought, he grabbed the bat by one wing, and the creature attempted to flee, pulling and crying against the entrapment.

            He threw the creature, after he pulled its soft, tiny head away from its body. He threw the head, too, both arms violent, both hands quick and precise. The scuttle lasted only moments, and the awful quiet followed. Then, in the background, the rodents, drawn to blood, ate, and the crunch of bat bones haunted Anthony like the erratic drip of rain into a rusty drain, eating away at the metal, eating away at his brain.

            Anthony realized in the emptiness of the moment that he had killed a living thing, that he had charged payment for his own blood and the cost was life. A sense of disproportion entered him, and recognizing the power of his action, he realized he could assume supremacy over a lesser being or he could reconcile the equality of life by choosing to never kill again.

            He knew both options could reward him. Superiority filled his ego, set him apart, satisfied his survival-driven lust, thus supporting Dr. Jardine’s premise that humankind is separated from the beasts not by morality but by intellect, the instinct to kill supported by an awareness of intent.

The choice not to kill, that ambivalent choice, that choice which seems contrary to nature could bind him to nature, offer him the solace of intimacy, a sharing of self which diminishes the self and which simultaneously forges it and makes it strong.

*     *     *     *     *

            Time without companionship fostered the dilemma of thought, and with it, memory. Anthony recalled a childhood summer he spent with his grandfather. The old man lived in a small cabin on the edge of a meadow, up the hill from a cold mountain lake. The treeline held the woods within, and a path through them led to a rocky beach. Once he found the remains of a snapping turtle on the shore. He kicked it over to discover the undulations of white maggots in an eating frenzy. The stench hung in his nostrils like hooks, and the image in his mind emphasized the gruesome celebration of life within carrion.

            What would become of him? Would his life amount to nothing more than maggot fodder, a legless moment in the history of uncaring time, passing unknown into the next generation of rats or bats?

            The remaining bat interrupted his thoughts. It glided with speed and grace, making sound captured only in the slightest movement of air. Anthony realized it was headed directly for him. He took a deep breath and held as still as a blanket, and the bat landed next to his ear. It walked with its wings as crutches, and eased its furry belly against Anthony’s neck. With neither sound nor pain, its razor teeth cut a single slit through his skin, and it began to lick tiny red droplets of Anthony’s blood, its quick tongue almost woeful in its tenderness.

Anthony felt as if he might make up for his mistake in killing the first bat, and the question of this possibility kept him still. The bat needed to eat, and Anthony accepted the odd position of provider with narcissistic contentment. Eventually the bat nearly collapsed, gorged with blood, and as he felt the sudden stop in feeding, Anthony curled his hand around the animal and placed it on his stomach. The beast lay still, satiated. Its tiny heart beat reverberated against Anthony’s groin, and in that moment of ecstatic union, Anthony felt forgiven. He let the bat rest, its belly full, its sense of loss for its mate dissipated, at least for now.

            The time in solitude acted to increase for Anthony the duration of emotional experiences, and this moment of joy coalesced into near tranquility. Anthony wondered if he could experience intimacy, forgiveness, and murder within the same frame of reference. Could he, for example, accept the violence of survival and the imperative of kinship as linked components of humanness? Burdened by this moment of mystical uncertainty and exhausted by the charity of bloody communion, he fell asleep.

*     *     *     *     *

            He awoke to the furious squeaks of irritated juveniles. How many litters of rats had been born? Four? Five? Each one with 10 to 12 pups. Not all lived, of course, but he wondered how many new lives now existed within the limited sphere of his influence. And, he wondered, how many of those lives were as important as his own?

            The noise of the rodent dispute continued, and he presumed that they argued over food. Dr. Jardine supplied adequate sustenance for Anthony only. Surely, he knew the rats would multiply. What about them? What exactly did Dr. Jardine expect? Was his experiment rigged by introducing over-population in order to give him the results he required?

            These questions demanded answers, but Anthony realized that he could not know the mind of another man. Thus, he decided to change the object of his questions. In a fit of insight, he asked himself – what do I want from this experiment? – shall I murder rats as I murdered the bat? – or shall I sacrifice something for their survival? – what shall that something entail? – and what, he pondered, what profound reality lurks within the knotty option of sacrifice?

            The power of intense thought obviated, momentarily, all physical sensations, and Anthony did not notice the disturbance at his finger until it became an acute pain. He grabbed the young rat. The heart of the beast beat against Anthony’s finger with the excited rhythm of a bird but with the compact denseness of an opossum or a badger.

            “You’re hungry,” he said. He held the creature around its stomach, its legs struggling between his fingers. The society Anthony had managed with the beasts included some recognition of individuals by weight and texture. “I don’t know you,” he said to this one. Anthony squeezed the adolescent. His fingers felt powerful. Forced to maneuver around the room using his arms as his legs, the strength in Anthony’s torso had increased. From his fingers to his stomach, the muscles of his upper body now contained their normal health and the added strength of his missing legs.

            “I could squash you,” he said. “But I will not. I have the freedom to choose my sins, and I will not kill you.”

            Anthony set the animal on the mattress and placed his bleeding finger near its hungry mouth. The rat’s whiskers twitched at the side of Anthony’s finger, the palpitations manifesting its eager hunger. When it bit, the sensation of listening to his flesh intrigued Anthony, and the sting of the bite intensified with the sound of muscle tearing. The rat did not lick the blood. Instead, it bit again, its agile teeth sliding off Anthony’s nail before shearing another small mouthful. Anthony could not, at that moment, distinguish sentiment from analysis, for all of his brain activity seemed engaged in managing the pain of allowing another creature to eat part of his body.

            The rat finally scampered away, and Anthony tore a corner of his ragged shirt and knotted it into a bandage for his finger. He cinched the cloth until the tightness of it overwhelmed the throbbing of his nerves. He felt peaceful, and in the mysterious calm, the consequence of his choices forced him to realize that meaning and relevance are the by-product of willful action. This insight challenged the premise of Dr. Jardine’s thesis that brutality is the common currency of existence, and Anthony wondered how he might explain this revelation to Dr. Jardine. Perhaps Dr. Jardine could better explore his thesis not through the examination of another but through his own experience. Personal knowledge reveals much more than hypothetical curiosity. Anthony decided to invite Dr. Jardine into his own experiment.

*     *     *     *     *

Anthony maneuvered himself to the food passage to wait. Eventually, Dr. Jardine opened the slot and Anthony called to him.

            “Dr. Jardine? Could you look in on me? I’ve injured my finger, and I am in pain.”

            “What have you done?”

            “Please,” Anthony said.

            Dr. Jardine did not answer, but Anthony, understanding prey, neither moved nor spoke, and eventually the lock clicked and the door eased open. Anthony grabbed Dr. Jardine by the legs, yanked him into the room, and snapped his left tibia with enough force that the bone broke through the skin. Anthony pulled the door closed, and it locked.

            Anthony dragged Dr. Jardine to the side of his mattress. “Right now,” Anthony said, “you are in shock, and you are quiet. That’s good. You can listen for once. Later, when you realize what is happening to you, the pain will return and you will be grateful for it because it will confirm that you are alive.” Anthony settled onto his mattress. “Theory, Dr. Jardine, cannot always be reduced to experiment. Sometimes the only way to validate a supposition is to live the circumstances which challenge it. I’m providing you that opportunity.”

            Dr. Jardine groaned. The shock of injury and the isolating blackness of the room held him. His agony was mostly psychological, the flow of adrenaline helping to mitigate the physical pain, but suddenly he flinched and cried out.

            “What’s that?” he asked. “Something at my leg.”

            Anthony grabbed the muscular rodent. He touched the tendon-strong tail and felt the circular ridges like fleshy annular rings. “This is the male of the first pair of rats,” Anthony said. “He smells your blood. They all do.”

            Dr. Jardine tried to sit up. “Will you kill me?”

“Originally, I named the animals,” Anthony said. “They breed so fast, though. I couldn’t keep up, so I stopped using names. I continued to foster what relationships I could, but it’s an odd sensation to attempt to know a thing without naming it.”

            Anthony could hear the muffled heartbeats of the other rats, hungry and impatient. Dr. Jardine’s heartbeat continued to race. Anthony released the rat, and it returned to the bloody flesh of the scientist’s leg.

            “What are you doing?” Dr. Jardine called into the darkness.

            “Allowing him to eat,” Anthony explained, “and giving you the opportunity to choose your purpose.”

            “Food for animals?”

            Momentarily, more rats came to the raw flesh, and Dr. Jardine pushed against the floor and ordered them away with a terrified tremor in his voice. Blind with rage and fear, he reached into the darkness and grabbed a tail. He flung the beast with all his might, and the other rats drew back.

            Anthony listened to the rodent’s landing, hard against the floor. But they are a hearty species, and it scrambled back to the hungry pack.

            “I beg you,” Dr. Jardine said, “have mercy.”

            “Mercy,” Anthony told him, “is a choice that only humans can discharge, since animals do not recognize such a concept.”

The adrenaline breaths of the Doctor filled the room with uneasiness. “Please, Anthony.”

At that moment, Anthony distinguished the muffled flight of the bat. He laid back, stretched his arms at his side, and waited.

            “The bat must eat,” he said, “and you must keep still, Dr. Jardine.”

            The bat fluttered and landed on the mattress. Anthony exhaled softly and allowed the bat unobstructed access.

            “You have been feeding the bats with your own blood?” Dr. Jardine asked.

            “Not both,” Anthony answered, without moving his head. “The first, I killed.”

            “I see. Then you have become one of them, and you will kill me. Kill to survive; that is the primary meaning of existence.”

            “You hold forth one concept of life and death, Dr. Jardine. But there is another.” The bat was nearly full, but Anthony pressed against his tiny head with strong, gentle fingers. “That’s enough for now,” he said. “You can return later.”

            “You have become an animal, just as I predicted,” Dr. Jardine said.

            “You will have to think it through on your own, Dr. Jardine. You have a few days, at least. But as you ponder your theories, keep in mind there is another choice when it comes to life and death, the greatest gift one can give to another.”

            “What do you mean?”

            Anthony did not answer. Some knowledge must be earned.

He felt the tension of the rats, and when they could hold their hunger no longer, they ran at Dr. Jardine en masse and began to chew at his exposed raw flesh. Anthony moved to the Doctor’s side, and the rats, unable to distinguish one man from the other, gorged themselves in a turbulent frenzy, their undulating forms like maggots over carrion.


Thom Brucie’s books include the novels, Weapons of Cain and Children of Slate; a book of short stories, Still Waters: Five Stories; and two chapbooks of poems:  Moments Around the Campfire with A Vietnam Vet and Apprentice Lessons.

He has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, and his short stories and poems have appeared in a variety of journals including The San Joaquin ReviewCappersThe Southwestern ReviewPacific ReviewWilderness House Literary ReviewNorth Atlantic Review, and many others.

Dr. Brucie is Professor of English at South Georgia State College.

This story first appeared in 2013 in the journal, North Atlantic Review.


“Her Mother’s Others” Fiction by Dennis M. Kohler

She poked the stick down into the sandy soil. The rain from the storm that greeted them the night before had saturated the ground to the point where the stick made a satisfying popping noise as it entered.

The wet pop and ooze of black red water from the hole mesmerized her.

Soon she had traced a great line of dots from the back door of their new home to where the old ramshackle doghouse stood sad with lack of an occupant.

She tried to make out the faded name painted long before they arrived in this place. Painted in the hand of someone who cared. She saw two short names both beginning with R, but could not make out the letters well enough to know.

Behind the doghouse she leaned down until its smaller roof peak lined up against that of the larger house.

The old weather cock turned and she smiled at the notion of a dog needing to dope the wind.

With a roof like that, she thought, the old boy just might.

She lifted her head up and caught sight of a figure standing with back turned through the dirt in the attic window.

Funny she thought, mom shouldn’t be back from the market, but then a glimmer from the woods caught her attention.

She was fond of nature, or more precisely, the thought of nature, having never, herself had much experience with nature itself. The books she had read in their home in the city, however, had made her long for the woods, long for her time to walk, like an Iroquois Indian princess through the lands of her people.

She loved to read, and imagine. Her mother, though they had little, always saw to the books.

She looked up at the glitter. It was a tin can that had been cut into a star then had its edges bent up so any hint of breeze would make it turn in the wind.

The can, though now rusty and old, still had life left in it, and unlike the dog house, served a purpose.

She was entertained.

Entertained at the notion that a toy had a purpose, and a maker, and she felt less alone now knowing someone else had walked the woods.

Before she was fully aware of her action, she reached up and cut the string with the knife that her mother insisted she carry.

“It was your father’s,” she had said. “In case anybody asks.”

Nobody had.

She couldn’t remember his face, and she had never seen a picture, so the knife, and her mother’s stories were all she had.

The knife was sharper than her recollection of and that of her mother.

Several times recently, she had to remind her mother of some misplaced fact, or event out of order.

The string run between two pressed fingers was matted with the mud dripped down from the branch high above her head. It formed an icicle of sorts upon the tin star.

She carefully held it out in front of her as it turned prompted by the movement of her walk back toward the house.

The kitchen sink was not clean to begin with, but when the muddy star hit the bottom, she felt guilt. Mother had always been a clean freak.

She listened for the sound of footsteps in the attic, but heard nothing.

Under the sink, she found a soiled towel and used it to clean both star and porcelain.

The star was a bit of genius.

It was most certainly not the work of a dull mind.

She unwound a piece of fishing line from one of grandfather’s old reels. She had known him, like her father, only as a phantasm brought to life from her mother’s memory. She understood intuitively that if he had seen her cut his silk line, he would have been very disappointed.

A few minutes of wiping and knot tying and the star was almost new again.

Even the rust shined.

-x-

In the forest once again, she looked up at the severed string and realized her inability to hang it as high as it had been when she cut it down.

She made do with what she had, then followed, head down, her line of dots back to the house and under view of the attic window.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the figure again, then looking directly, she realized it was just a trick of shadows between the branches of tree and glass.

-x-

Her stomach was her clock.

Her mother was nowhere to be seen.

It had not been the first time she had made dinner for herself, but she understood it was the first time she recalled abandonment without her mother telling her first.

There was some cheese and bread left over from their train trip.

The porch swing protested it’s age, but it was the only perch that gave her a view of the dusty lane.

With her meager portion of cheese and bread expended, she napped until she heard her mother’s feet.

“What are you doing sleeping out here Cal?” her mother asked.

“Wondering where you were,” she answered through the fog of waking.

“Same place I said, just took longer than I thought, didn’t you hear me?”

“Yes, then you were home and…”

“I wasn’t home, you are dreaming. You remember that orchard we saw on the way in?”

“Yes.”

“It is owned by a nice man Mr. Hansen, a widower who seemed quite ruffled when I asked him if he needed pickers. He said he needed somebody to sell fruit at his wagon in town. His boy is going off to college it seems. So I have work, which is good.”

She reached into the pocket of her apron.

“With an advance.”

She put an apple down in front of the girl.

“Got some cheese and bread left,” the girl said and cut the apple in two with her jack knife.

“Mr. Hansen’s foreman has a son that goes to the school, he said he would have him come by and walk you there on Monday.”

“I’d like that.”

She realized what she meant with that was school, even though she was open to making a new friend.

School wasn’t always a place she liked, but it had been a long time since last she was in class. She had made friends there, and had learned new things. Most of all she liked learning, though she discovered school was often a place to follow orders.

Then, before she even had a chance to feel comfortable, in the middle of it all, in the middle of the night, her mother packed the bags and they left. Then it was summer come months early.

She knew how to read so she brought her learning with her. Her learning came from both the books in her suitcase that took up more room than her clothes. The books had been tools for her open mind.

-x-

The morning was the kind of cool that put sugar in the apples.

The foreman’s son waited at the end of the lane.

“I’m Isaac,” he said.

“Cal,” she answered.

She had never liked the name, and it showed.

“Short for something?” he asked.

“Just Cal, I had the misfortune of being born right after the farmhouse inauguration.”

She continued when he showed he didn’t understand.

“Calvin Coolidge, after the assassination? His father swore him in?”

Still nothing.

She gave him the benefit of the doubt. There was a slight possibility that she might not have known if it wasn’t for her name.

“What do you know about the stars in the woods?” she decided to change topics.

“I know you can’t see them very well.”

“Not the stars in the heavens, the tin stars.”

She walked to the spot where she had hung the star when she saw that he didn’t understand.

The star had been moved back to its place high up on the branch.

“Dunno,” Isaac said, “ain’t any of them in the orchards. Maybe they’re to scare birds off the fruit.”

It might have been a believable story, if there had been fruit near where they hung.

-x-

School was school, a small one room building with all the grades stuck together. She knew it would be a big difference from her last school, but not this different.

She learned two things. First, Isaac was not well liked. Second, she had no problem keeping up with the class.

In the evening, she informed her mother of both.

“I learned something about Mr. Hansen’s wife today,” she said over the sound of frying eggs.

“What was it Mother,” Cal asked employing her most interested tone.

“Books.”

“Pardon me?”

“Books, I will show you Sunday.”

Sunday couldn’t come quickly enough for Cal.

She loved surprises and tried her best to keep from asking Isaac, which in and of itself was not terribly difficult since Isaac, it turned out, was the sort of school bully thug that inhabited every schoolhouse she had ever entered.

He was the sort that enjoyed putting frogs in drawers and pigtails in inkwells more than anything that might have been mined from a book.

On Sunday, they put on their best dresses and walked down the road to Mr. Hansen’s farmhouse. Cal looked behind every tree for a sign of Isaac and his slingshot, but he was nowhere to be found.

When they arrived Mr. Hansen greeted them at the door, alone.

“Welcome,” he said, “just taking the roast out of the oven.”

He turned and walked back into the kitchen, leaving them to hang their own shawls on the coat rack.

“Not much for formality,” Cal’s mother said in a low whisper.

The table, set plain with no tablecloth or napkins, echoed the observation.

The lack of formality was forgiven when it turned out that Mr. Hansen was a good cook.

Where her own mother might have made apple pie, Mr. Hansen settled on Apple crisp, but the whole meal was constructed with care using ingredients from his own labor.

It was the best meal Cal had eaten in a very long time.

“Well,” Mr. Hansen said after Cal and her mother finished the dishes, “I imagine you are excited to see what your mother discovered earlier in the week?”

She was and said so.

“Right this way, my ladies,” the old man said and extended a crooked elbow to both.

When he threw back the door at the end of the hall, Cal couldn’t help but gasp.

There, in the middle of an orchard, in the middle of farm land, in the middle of nowhere, were more books than Cal had seen outside of a Carnegie library in her whole life.

And, they were clean.

-x-

“When can I go back?” Cal asked as they walked up the lane.

“That is up to Mr. Hansen, but don’t overstay your welcome.”

She didn’t, in fact, Mr. Hansen needed the company.

Cal could sense that Mr. Hansen was lonely.  Isaac, true to his nature had no need to visit an old man. She knew it was something he learned from his father.

Thursday afternoon found Cal with mint tea on the table a safe distance from the astronomy book she was reading.

Mr. Hansen sat at the table reading his newspaper.

“I forgot to thank you for hanging the star for me,” Cal said reminded of her manners by the late Mrs. Hansen’s taste in books.

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” Mr. Hansen said.

“The tin star that was hanging on the string in the woods behind our house. I took it down and cleaned it, then wasn’t tall enough to return it to its place so I hung it low. When I came back with Isaac, it was hung higher.”

Mr. Hansen’s face turned whiter than it was before.

“I would like to see if you please,” he said, then helped Cal on with her coat and donned his own hat.

He reached behind the door.

“Might see a pheasant for supper,” he said and took his shotgun in hand.

The star was just where she had last seen it.

It had lost some of its sparkle from the frost, but still danced.

Mr. Hansen stood and stared.

“You hung it there?” he asked and pointed at the lower branch.

“Yes.”

“Then when you came back, it was here?” he pointed again.

“Yes.”

“The Amish think that a tin star is a sign of good luck,” he said, looking up at the cut string hanging from the branch.

“Where did you get the line?”

“Grandfather’s fishing reel. I know I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t think of anything else.”

“You mind if I look at the reel?”

She started to walk back toward the house. The holes in the soil she had poked with her stick had long been trampled by her coming and going, but the path was the same.

Then, when she looked up from behind the dog house, she saw it again. There was a figure in the window.

This time, it didn’t move.

“Do you see her?”

She pointed at the window.

He looked up.

“I don’t see anything,” he said.

She realized he was right. There was nothing in the window.

Mr. Hansen waited on the front porch swing while Cal ran to retrieve the fishing reel.

“You said your mother had the reel before she came here?” he asked.

“She said she had, it came in a box. I had never seen it before.”

He turned it slowly over in his hands.

He was looking for something then stopped when he found it.

-x-

Then, she sensed, he was taken back to some distant memory.

“Where were you born?” he asked.

“In Florida, in the Keys. My mother was working for the railroad company.”

“No hospital?”

“Nope, I was born in the project manager’s house, his wife was a nurse in the war.”

“I suspect, then how long did you live there?”

“Until I was three, then we moved to the city.”

“You remember Florida?”

It was a funny question. Of course she remembered Florida, the beaches, and all the men who had come to build the roads. Her mother’s cooking. Fishing and the beautiful Ibis.

She nodded her head, then wondered if they were her own memories, or the memories of her mother’s stories.

She tried to remember.

“What about the storm?”

She had no answer because she didn’t understand the question.

“1926, around September. Florida got hit hard by the hurricane.”

She tried to remember.

“It doesn’t matter, you were very young.”

Mr. Hansen pulled some of the fishing line out of the reel and Cal heard the tinny popping of the ratchet.

As it clicked, she was trying to remember Florida, and the storm.

In her mind came a flash, it was a woman walking, not on a beach, but through a wooded area, then there was a bright flash.

The sun reflected a halo from behind her head, darkening her face.

“I’d best get back to my work,” Mr. Hansen said then was gone, leaving nothing but the reel in his place on the swing.

Cal walked inside.

She knew that her mother would be at work until the traffic, such as it was, died down. That gave her at least an hour.

She turned the latch on the front door and found a high chair.

The rope that pulled the hiding stairs from the attic was shiny from age.

Though she had to lift both feet off the chair and hang for a moment, the stairs finally dropped.

Open, they looked more menacing than they had closed.

Up in the attic, there was the smell of dust and the unknown.

She had never believed in spirits or the like, but she knew there was a lot about the world she hadn’t yet had the time to learn.

She lit the wick on the hurricane lamp just to be safe.

When her weight left the stairs, they rose back into the ceiling leaving her grateful she had the foresight to bring the lamp.

Outside of the dirty window, she saw the doghouse, and beyond that, the flash of light from her tin star. The natural light of the glass made the sky above the star light up in all the colors of the rainbow.

The dust on the floor of the Attic was thick.

She noticed quickly that there was no sign of passage.

With the lantern lighting an arc on the floor in front of her, she walked to the window.

There was no sign anyone had passed.

She turned to assure herself that her own feet were leaving prints on the floor.

She could see each step of her track from stairs to window.

She tried to stand in the exact spot where the figure had stood.

Then she saw among the stack of boxes a single apple crate that looked different from all the others. Where each of the others had a thick coat of dust, the top of this crate was clean. It was as if somebody had flown across the room, careful to not disturb the floor and inspected this single box.

Inside of it, there were books.

She turned each of them over in turn and recognized the titles. They were the same books she had borrowed from the library over the last year. They were mostly the adventure books that her mother had teased her about reading. They were books for boys, about animals and wars, but she had always felt compelled to read them, and now she saw a hint to why.

At the bottom of the box there was a single book she hadn’t read. Etched in gold leaf across the front of the book was a wildly stylized title;

“The Drummer’s Tale.”

She opened the book.

“For Grace.”

She took the book and walked down the stairs.

It was too chilly to sit outside and read, so she placed the book on the kitchen table.

She realized she forgot to reset the latch on the door when she heard her mother knocking.

She opened the door and helped her mother with the parcels she carried.

“Mr. Hansen paid me a visit today, and dropped off a few things,” she said, “he told me to tell you that they were favorites of somebody you both know, he said you would know what it meant.”

There were loafs of bread and salt pork, and two books.

The first said, “The Big Blow,” and she flushed at the title of the second, “The Drummer’s Tale.”

She held on to it with white knuckles until she could place it on the kitchen table.

“I got a little spooked at the wind,” she said as a point of explanation for the door.

“It happens some times,” her mother said, then busied herself with the preparations for dinner.

Cal picked up the books and moved into the sitting room.

She opened the front flap of the second book and read the inscription.

August, 3 1926.

Maddie,

I hope your life in your new home is as full of love as ours was there, especially now you have added two more to love.

Mrs. Dorothy Hansen

She leafed through the pages of the copy she had recovered from the box and the copy Mr. Hansen had given her.

They were identical down to the date of publication.

She stacked them atop one another and saw that the edges of Mr. Hansen’s copy were darkened and rolled as if the book had been read dozens of times.

The copy from the box upstairs looked as if it was newly printed.

Then she concentrated on “The Big Blow.”

It was a picture book that replayed the history of the Miami Hurricane and the attempts to rebuild in its wake.

There among the photo pages was a single photo of a beach where houses had once stood. Standing on the wreckage were dozens of white ibis. The side of the ship behind them bore the name Florida Star.

The caption on the photo read, “First to return after the storm.”

It was exactly the way she remembered it, exactly the way her mother remembered it for her.

She turned to the first page and began to read.

By the time she fell asleep curled up on the couch, she had been given an answer.

She knew her mother had lied.

Almost all of the stories she told about going to help rebuild after the storm conflicted with the words in the book.

She wondered what else her mother had lied about.

Wondered enough to pretend to sleep as her mother made the coffee and exited through the front door.

It was Saturday, with mom gone all day to sell fruit.

The smell of the coffee lingered in the house as she rolled over.

She didn’t finish “The Great Blow,” she didn’t need to.

What else had she lied about?

She poured a small bit of coffee in the bottom of a cup and added a large portion of boiled water.

It had been her intention since moving to train herself for the taste in small doses, a science experiment. After a night of fitful sleep, she wanted to feel better. The coffee always worked for her mother.

When she returned to the table, the edges of the books caught her eye.

Inside of the book that had come from the attic, there was a small but noticeable gap between the pages midway.

She opened it while juggling her cup.

A photo fell to the floor.

Across the back was written, Maggie, Diana, Cal and Rob Roy, Nov 1928.

She turned the photo and saw a woman with her mother’s face, that wasn’t her mother.

The woman in the photo was happy, and smiling, she didn’t wear the face of a woman who worked so much and loved so little.

Sitting on the left side of the woman was a little girl who wore the face she saw in the mirror, on her left a boy.

Curled up at their feet was a big white dog with a long face and long thick hair.

Cal walked toward the front of the house, turned and held up the photo.

Despite the passing years, there was no doubt that the photo she held in her hands and the picture her eyes were sending her brain were the same.

She sat down and looked the boy in the eyes.

“Who are you?” she asked.

Then she heard a creak from the attic.

The trip upstairs was easier for knowing the route, but she still rushed.

The source of the knocking was the window, that had blown open.

She moved to push it shut, but stopped.

The flash of light from the tin star hanging in the tree caught her full in the face.

She froze.

When her eyes readjusted to the light in the room she saw a figure standing under the tin star, that spun ferociously. It was a boy who pointed to a spot under the tree.

Again she was on the run, down and out of the house, then standing at the spot beneath the tree.

First, she dug with her hands, then when they started to hurt, she dug with a stick, but when the stick wasn’t fast enough for her she ran to find a tool, any tool that would help.

Down in the cellar entrance she found a shovel.

Three feet beneath the surface the consistency of the ground changed, and then, another foot deeper the shovel hit something that yielded but didn’t fill the shovel.

She had seen what filled the bottom of the hole before.

At Mr. Hansen’s house, outside on his porch full of potatoes.

It was, she had learned, burlap.

She sat down.

There weren’t potatoes under the dirty burlap sack.

Instead, she could see through the rip in the burlap caused by her shovel what was unmistakable to her. It was, she thought, the shape of a human skull, but there was something odd about the teeth. They were the sharp and pointed, built for the tearing of meat.

Then she saw under a thin layer of dirt that covered the burlap a rusted tin star.

She looked up into the tree and saw that the star she had cleaned was no longer present.

Her scream echoed into the forest.

She dropped the shovel halfway to Mr. Hansen’s house.

He had given her the photo for a reason.

He answered the door to her frantic knocking.

“I wondered how long it would take you to come around,” he said. Then he noticed the state of her clothing.

“What have you been up to?” he asked.

She started to cry.

A bath, a warm towel and a hot cup of chocolate later, she was able to stop.

“I recognized your mother the moment she arrived.”

“Then why didn’t you say something?”

“I can’t. It might upset her, and after all your mother has been through, she doesn’t need any more of that.”

Cal knew that she deserved an explanation, but she didn’t wish to press. She had been trained better.

Besides, she had never felt more comfortable in all her life.

“Your mother used to live in the house where you live now.”

She had questions, but decided to wait.

“She was born there, she met her first love there, my son.”

Cal began to put the pieces together.

The only thing missing from the photo was a man, a father. She had assumed that the photo had been taken by him, but she realized that she was looking at the man who took the photo.

“I took that photo two days before the news about your father came.”

He stood up and walked to the table in the center of the library.

He took a key from around his neck and used it to open a drawer. He lifted the contents of the drawer, a glass topped box, and set it between them.

Cal looked down into the box.

She saw a yellowing telegram notice, and read the first line.

We regret to inform you of the death of your husband.

Next to the letter, on a pillow of velvet was a medal, an angel with shield and sword hanging beneath a rainbow colored ribbon. There were two stars pinned into the ribbon. Stars, with the same number of points as the one that hung from the tree.

“It’s your father’s victory medal. The Army sent it with the papers for his citation star. It was the only thing they sent home. That was what started it.”

He waited for the question, but continued when it never came.

“That was the first event that started her slip into madness. The news of her husband’s death made her begin to forget. She started forgetting her child hood and the death of her own father. The forgetfulness continued little by little as if her mind was slowly wiping everything bad out of her memory. Then on November 7th, three years after the death of my son, the accident happened.”

He struggled as if he didn’t want to go on.

My wife, and a boy were working out on the main road in the fruit stand when a loaded milk truck broke lose.

My wife, the boy, and his dog were crushed.

“What was his name?” she asked, but knew the answer.

“Calvin Coolidge Hansen.”

-x-

She hung her feet off the pile of dirt from the hole she had dug while Mr. Hansen wrapped the new burlap bag around the two skulls.

“The day of the milk truck was the last day I saw your mother. My wife was buried down at the church, but I didn’t have the heart to bury Cal and old Roy anywhere but here. This tree, its shade was their favorite place.”

She helped him put the dirt back over the bodies.

When they were finished, he helped her nail a crude star she had cut out of a can top to the side of the tree.

“She most likely will never remember.”

The girl nodded.

“Come around the house tomorrow, and maybe we can see about you getting a puppy.”

She reached out and put her hand in his.

“Would you mind if I called you grandpa?”

“Not around your mother, at least. You mind if I call you Di.”

“Not around mother.”


Dennis M. Kohler is a native of Northern Utah. He has spent 30 years teaching philosophy, linguistics, learning theory and ESL at universities in the USA, Kuwait, and Korea. He was once a rugby coach, carpenter, painter, armored car driver, cook, bartender, teacher, firefighter, newspaper reporter and babysitter.


“Flesh” Poetry by Michael Brownstein

a thigh of sky
and a black zipper
frayed

painted fingernails of faith
glacier blue
a rainbow of water

but there is not a frayed zipper
only a charcoal smudge
a reprint of thigh

and now
a canopy of darkness
the metallic shape of home

how can you not forget
the tornado turbulent passion
when he was whole

how was it his thirteen year old victim 
from the Internet 
he had selected

was the predator 
who selected 
him


Michael H. Brownstein’s latest volumes of poetry, A Slipknot to Somewhere Else (2018) and How Do We Create Love? (2019), were published by Cholla Needles Press.


“A Grim Fairytale” Fiction by Louis Sisto

The early morning traffic at the intersection of 43rd and Lowry hummed along in its usual drone-like fashion, vehicles of all makes and colors whipping by, distinct reminders to the dreary, tired pedestrians that the reality of another workday was upon them. There were a lot of pedestrians indeed. So many, in fact, that it was quite easy for just about anyone to blend in. The energetic rays of the morning sun bounced brightly off the towering office buildings that hovered over the bustling intersection. Channel 8 was predicting a beautiful day, with temperatures in the mid-to-low seventies, with a light breeze. There was a small chance of showers later in the afternoon, but nobody seemed too concerned about it. After all, it was only a little rain; a far cry from the foot of snow that the poor bastards in the upper Midwest were dealing with. Car horns blared in a strangely melodic fashion, while people chatted away, their voices and words coming and going in the gentle morning wind. The northeast corner of the intersection was always the liveliest, mostly because of the doughnut and bagel shop that had opened just a few months ago. The aromatic combination of freshly-baked pastries and roasted coffee floated among the line of customers, eager for that first sip of liquid energy. People walked and people talked; life proceeded just as it did every single day.

            Nobody noticed Phil as he shuffled past First Federal Bank, his expression silent and still as he approached the intersection. “Phil” wasn’t even his name; not anymore. Everything about a person changed when they crossed over; when they went into the Vapors, as he so eloquently thought of it. It had taken him awhile to adjust to things, probably longer than it did most. A variety of factors went into one’s position or purpose in the Vapors. There were things about a person’s existence unobservable to the naked eye, as well as impervious to any desperate attempt by science to measure or study them. One could never fully understand until they entered the Vapors. Phil embraced his purpose in the Vapors.

All roads lead to the Vapors

This came from the Master himself.

            Phil’s admiration of the Master was toppled only by his fear of him. That was to be expected. Everyone in the Vapors feared the Master.

            Phil entered the crosswalk, his thoughts occupied with sharp, fleeting images of his own voyage to the Vapors: the emotional breakdown that accompanied his bankruptcy; the cold, startling touch of the gun barrel to his temple; the strange sensation of watching himself lying in his own blood in the corner of his apartment, taking his last futile breath. At times, other images were present, but they were hazy and disjointed. But that fatal shot; he would never forget that one.

            Phil reached into his black slacks and retrieved a cigarette.

No more cancer worries, he thought to himself. That was certainly one perk to being in the Vapors.

            He lit the end of it and took in a long, exhaustive drag, letting the smoke trail slowly out of his mouth. A few rebellious ashes blew onto his black t-shirt, which he brushed off, grinning as he did so. It wouldn’t be long now. He had been through this enough of times to where the process was becoming more familiar to him. The changes in the environment were always the definitive signs. It was only a matter of time before the Master had his rightful bounty. Phil was proud to be the one bringing the Master his bounty on this particular day.

All roads lead to the Vapors

That has a really nice ring to it, Phil thought to himself.

            He reached the end of the crosswalk and stood patiently on the corner, carefully observing everything around him. The taxis and buses were still moving in abundance, but were lagging a bit, as if being paused on and off like a movie scene. The chatter and laughter of the pedestrians were still intact, but had also slowed down, their deeper voice tones giving them an almost robotic quality. The morning sun itself had even changed, its once vibrant shine becoming dull, uninspired reflections in the office windows. This was always the most exciting part. The worlds were crossing over into each other, the boundary lines evaporating little by little. The most wonderful part about all of this was that Phil was the only one who could see it happening. In a few short moments the celebration and festivities in the Vapors would begin. The Master would get what was rightfully his. Everybody had a time and a place and the intersection of 43rd and Lowry was no exception.

            Phil took another drag on his cigarette and glanced at the entrance doors to the Walgreens he was standing in front of, looking for anything out of place. A fortyish-looking woman dropped her bag on the way out, spilling the contents all over the pavement. He watched amusingly as tubes of mascara and other small items rolled around on the ground. Another woman leaving the store stopped to help with the retrieval process.

Not there, he thought. It’s gonna come from somewhere else.

            Phil could feel the anticipation firing up inside of him. He knew his duty to the Master and knew it well, but he never knew quite how things were going to play out until they actually happened. Others in the Vapors had told him that that would change in time, as he proved his devotion by collecting bounty for the Master. You just had to put your time in they had said. Some even speculated that the Master could delegate one with the power to choose the method for creating and gathering bounty. The possibilities were infinite and Phil was going to give his entire purpose to the Master and the Vapors.

            A few feet away was a man in a tattered old sweater sitting on what appeared to be a barstool, playing a guitar, a green rectangular box on the ground in front of him for pedestrian donations. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Across the way, business at the doughnut and bagel shop appeared to be booming, the group of starving customers at least twice the size of what it was when the morning first started. City buses loaded and unloaded people like they were trays of cookies, while the ambitious taxis aggressively snatched up business- men and women, suitcases and umbrellas in hand, and scurried them off to work.

            The images were returning, clearer and more graphic than before. Phil could see himself hunched over on the couch in his apartment, a guttural moan escaping his jaws as the realization that he had just lost over seven hundred thousand dollars in savings set in. He would never forget the feeling of nausea in that moment; it had nearly suffocated him. The nausea came and then the desperation, hopelessness, and the emptiness.

He was out of options.

            The image of the apartment couch slowly dissolved and soon took on the twisted shape of the image from earlier. He was lying on his side in the corner of the apartment, a gun lying on the floor nearby, gazing on like a casual observer. He could hear (faintly) the sounds of pounding on his door and the calls and yells from the other tenants. It was odd. Reflecting on the image now, he could almost smell and taste his own blood…

All roads lead to the Vapors

            The cigarette died out under the weight of his black leather dress shoe. Everything around him was shifting. Something big was about to happen.

It was almost time to collect for the Master.

            As if on command from another authority, his head turned slowly to the left, his eyes locked tightly on the front of a white trailer truck, a little more than a block away from the intersection. There was something about the truck. Something that didn’t feel quite right. This had happened before. When his focus changed like that, it was a signal for preparation. It was just like the yacht incident, one of the very first times he had collected for the Master. He remembered how everyone’s voice had become hollow and distant and how the color of the water had faded right before the accident in which all thirty-seven people had drowned. What a day that had been.

             He had to be ready. The Master wanted things done a particular way. He wasn’t going to fuck things up, that was for sure. If he did, the Master would be ever so merciless. No, he would be sure to do his duty and do it right. He served an important purpose in the Vapors and felt quite privileged to be entrusted with the responsibility he was given.

            His eyes followed the truck as it approached the intersection. It was about a block away when things took a turn. He watched as the truck picked up speed and suddenly swerved into the other lane, smashing into the side of a taxi. The gut-wrenching sound of glass shattering and steel colliding echoed through the air as the first of many shrieks of horror began. The truck, unphased by the collision, roared into the second lane, narrowly missing an oncoming Kia, and shot up onto the curb, instantly crushing two early morning joggers between the trailer and the side of a department store building. Even though it was some distance away Phil could clearly hear the crackling sounds of their bodies being obliterated by the weight of the trailer. More terrified screams filled the air as onlookers watched the truck smash through an outdoor patio set outside of Casso’s Steakhouse, scattering the mangled, bloodied bodies of several patrons and their eight-dollar-special breakfast buffet trays all over historic Lowry Street. An older man, who was standing a few feet away from Phil reading a newspaper, vomited all over himself at the horrific scene that was unfolding. At this point other oncoming vehicles started slamming into the taxi that the truck initially hit, causing an instant chain reaction of accidents, one after the other, the sickening sounds of the vehicles totaling one another adding to the already morbid circumstances. There was so much screaming from various bystanders by this time that Phil couldn’t even pinpoint where it was all coming from.

It wasn’t over yet.

            After demolishing the outside patio of Casso’s Steakhouse the truck geared along, headed for the cluster of the once-jovial coffee lovers socializing in front of the doughnut and bagel shop. Like the traditional deer in the headlights, they were frozen in place, their eyes wide with terror as the unmitigated speed of the truck quickly eliminated any chance of running away or dodging the impact. Everything was happening all at once: people screamed, a bespectacled businessman near Phil fainted and split his head open on the curb, vehicles continued rear-ending each other, a random dog ran across the path of the truck and was swiftly splattered across the front of it. Phil hadn’t witnessed this much action at a scene in a while.

All roads lead to the Vapors

            The finale of the gruesome show was about to occur as the rebellious truck closed in on the coffee fanatics. Phil managed to catch a brief glimpse of the driver, twisting and jerking around in his seat. The final wave of desperate howls emanated from the coffee crowd as the truck plowed into the first of many unfortunate souls. Phil sat on the curb and calmly lit a cigarette as the carnage reached its peak. There would be a lot of souls to collect in this one. His thoughts wandered to the throne room, hidden within one of the twenty valleys of the Vapors. Only in that room could the souls of the deceased see the Master, the Reaper himself. It would take a little time, but they would all come to understand their new purpose, as Phil himself had. If the living only knew what awaited them. They wouldn’t bother wasting their time weeping into those stainless steel or mahogany boxes, their lonely, depressed tears falling onto the faces of the dead like little raindrops. What the hell was the purpose? What did it accomplish?

***

            The worlds were now completely merged, the dense, pale fog of the Vapors encompassing the intersection of 43rd and Lowry like a heavy winter blanket, the only real traces of light coming from the police cruisers and ambulances. Phil stood from the curb and walked to the middle of the intersection, stepping over the corpse of a young man who had fallen from the passenger seat of one of the vehicles, his upper torso battered and mangled from the accident, his face unrecognizable from the injuries. The wispy, nearly transparent beings slowly glided towards Phil in a deep silence, the magnetic force of the Vapors impossible to resist. As they inched closer, he could feel his energy expanding, his macabre power maturing with every passing second. Like the chorus of an old, familiar song, the words came to him again.

All roads lead to the Vapors

The bounty was collected. The Reaper was going to be happy.


Mr. Sisto notes:

“My name is Louis Sisto and I have been writing short stories and flash fiction for years as a
personal hobby. Some of my work has been published on websites and online magazines such
as Funny In Five Hundred, Slattery’s Art of Horror, White Liquor, and Winamop.”


Interview with Author and Film/Video Game Producer Tim Carter

Tim says about his life:

“I was born and raised on the West Coast of Canada. Began writing professionally while still in graduate school and survived as a writer and editor ever since. I’m gradually morphed from corporate writing and magazine editing into screenplays, video games, and now fiction. I live in Vancouver, Canada, with a toe still in Los Angeles.”

What is your greatest accomplishment as a writer so far?

I’m proud of my produced movies, but I would have to say the game Sleeping Dogs is my greatest source of pride. The production was very challenging but I love how it came out. Also it’s probably found the greatest worldwide audience. And many of the gangsters are named after friends and in-laws.

Why do you write?

I love storytelling. Also I’m crappy with numbers, so accountant was out of the question, I could never run for office and Canada already has enough hit men.

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.)

Except during film production, I start writing every weekday at 9 AM and try to do at least 3 hours of solid creative work. Anything more is a bonus. Anything less is a problem. I have various friends and fellow writers who I exchange notes with. It various from medium to medium. My short stories were all workshopped on the Zoetrope website.

You have written numerous films and several large video games and only recently started exploring narrative fiction. What has the transition from films and games to stories been like so far for you? Have you faced any new challenges in writing narrative fiction?

I’ve found it very different but very rewarding. It’s fun to get inside your characters’ heads, which you can’t do in film. On the other hand, you have to make a lot more decisions about detail, description, etc. There’s no production team to back you up. In a film script I might write “He walks into the office. It’s a mess.” The rest is the set decorator’s problem. You can’t get away with that in fiction, but choosing where and how to be specific and detailed becomes a real challenge.

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

Yes, I have a whole network of people. Different people review different types of writing. I try as hard as possible to have at least one expert read it, and at least a few women.

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

My day to day work is in adapting video games. I’m working on several, but I can’t reveal specifics. The gaming industry cares a lot about confidentiality. I’m also working on a novel and a series of short stories that I hope will evolve into a collection or a longer work. It’s fantasy based, so look for it in a fantasy magazine near you 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?

Nothing during covid until my next film or tv project is announced. At that point I’m in the hands of (and at the mercy of) studio PR people.

What do you hope to achieve as a writer?

I love to tell stories and make people feel something. Could be fear, laughter, it really doesn’t matter. Some of my work has political points to get across. Hopefully at least one series lands on the air soon. Beyond that, a happy life and creative fulfillment. Whatever that means.

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

They suck. But they’re part of life in a creative field. You have to be zen and just move on, I think.

What advice do you have for novice writers?

Keep writing. Finish things. Send them out. Write some more. Build a community of fellow writers. Most of all, keep writing.

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

I guess it depends on the story you’re telling. I don’t think you need much.

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

http://www.contradictionfilms.com


Appearing in The Chamber on June 25

The Chamber Magazine Cover June 25, 2021

New issues appear Fridays at 10:00 a.m. CDT/ 4:00 p.m. BST/ 8:30 p.m. IST/ 1:00 a.m. AEST (Saturdays).

Interview with Author and Film/Video Game Producer Tim Carter

Tim Carter is a writer of stories, video games, film and TV. He is known for MORTAL KOMBAT: LEGACY,
the DEAD RISING series of movies, and the award-winning video game SLEEPING DOGS. He lives in
Vancouver, Canada with his wife, two dogs, and a disgruntled cat.

“A Grim Fairytale” Fiction by Louis Sisto

Louis Sisto has been writing short stories and flash fiction for years as a personal hobby. Some of his work has been published on websites and online magazines such as Funny In Five Hundred, Slattery’s Art of Horror, White Liquor, and Winamop.

“Flesh” Poetry by Michael Brownstein

Michael H. Brownstein’s latest volumes of poetry, A Slipknot to Somewhere Else (2018) and How Do We Create Love? (2019), were published by Cholla Needles Press.

“Her Mother’s Others” Fiction by Dennis M. Kohler

Dennis M. Kohler is a native of Northern Utah. He has spent 30 years teaching philosophy, linguistics, learning theory and ESL at universities in the USA, Kuwait, and Korea. He was once a rugby coach, carpenter, painter, armored car driver, cook, bartender, teacher, firefighter, newspaper reporter and babysitter.

“Nature’s Trangression” Fiction by Thom Brucie

Thom Brucie’s books include the novels, Weapons of Cain and Children of Slate; a book of short stories, Still Waters: Five Stories; and two chapbooks of poems:  Moments Around the Campfire with A Vietnam Vet and Apprentice Lessons.

He has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, and his short stories and poems have appeared in a variety of journals including The San Joaquin ReviewCappersThe Southwestern ReviewPacific ReviewWilderness House Literary ReviewNorth Atlantic Review, and many others.

Dr. Brucie is Professor of English at South Georgia State College.

This story first appeared in 2013 in the journal, North Atlantic Review.

Appearing in The Chamber on June 25

The Chamber Magazine Cover June 25, 2021

New issues appear Fridays at 10:00 a.m. CDT/ 4:00 p.m. BST/ 8:30 p.m. IST/ 1:00 a.m. AEST (Saturdays).

Interview with Author and Film/Video Game Producer Tim Carter

Tim Carter is a writer of stories, video games, film and TV. He is known for MORTAL KOMBAT: LEGACY,
the DEAD RISING series of movies, and the award-winning video game SLEEPING DOGS. He lives in
Vancouver, Canada with his wife, two dogs, and a disgruntled cat.

“A Grim Fairytale” Fiction by Louis Sisto

Louis Sisto has been writing short stories and flash fiction for years as a personal hobby. Some of his work has been published on websites and online magazines such as Funny In Five Hundred, Slattery’s Art of Horror, White Liquor, and Winamop.

“Flesh” Poetry by Michael Brownstein

Michael H. Brownstein’s latest volumes of poetry, A Slipknot to Somewhere Else (2018) and How Do We Create Love? (2019), were published by Cholla Needles Press.

“Her Mother’s Others” Fiction by Dennis M. Kohler

Dennis M. Kohler is a native of Northern Utah. He has spent 30 years teaching philosophy, linguistics, learning theory and ESL at universities in the USA, Kuwait, and Korea. He was once a rugby coach, carpenter, painter, armored car driver, cook, bartender, teacher, firefighter, newspaper reporter and babysitter.

“Nature’s Trangression” Fiction by Thom Brucie

Thom Brucie’s books include the novels, Weapons of Cain and Children of Slate; a book of short stories, Still Waters: Five Stories; and two chapbooks of poems:  Moments Around the Campfire with A Vietnam Vet and Apprentice Lessons.

He has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, and his short stories and poems have appeared in a variety of journals including The San Joaquin ReviewCappersThe Southwestern ReviewPacific ReviewWilderness House Literary ReviewNorth Atlantic Review, and many others.

Dr. Brucie is Professor of English at South Georgia State College.

This story first appeared in 2013 in the journal, North Atlantic Review.

Appearing in The Chamber on June 25

The Chamber Magazine Cover June 25, 2021

New issues appear Fridays at 10:00 a.m. CDT/ 4:00 p.m. BST/ 8:30 p.m. IST/ 1:00 a.m. AEST (Saturdays).

Interview with Author and Film/Video Game Producer Tim Carter

Tim Carter is a writer of stories, video games, film and TV. He is known for MORTAL KOMBAT: LEGACY,
the DEAD RISING series of movies, and the award-winning video game SLEEPING DOGS. He lives in
Vancouver, Canada with his wife, two dogs, and a disgruntled cat.

“A Grim Fairytale” Fiction by Louis Sisto

Louis Sisto has been writing short stories and flash fiction for years as a personal hobby. Some of his work has been published on websites and online magazines such as Funny In Five Hundred, Slattery’s Art of Horror, White Liquor, and Winamop.

“Flesh” Poetry by Michael Brownstein

Michael H. Brownstein’s latest volumes of poetry, A Slipknot to Somewhere Else (2018) and How Do We Create Love? (2019), were published by Cholla Needles Press.

“Her Mother’s Others” Fiction by Dennis M. Kohler

Dennis M. Kohler is a native of Northern Utah. He has spent 30 years teaching philosophy, linguistics, learning theory and ESL at universities in the USA, Kuwait, and Korea. He was once a rugby coach, carpenter, painter, armored car driver, cook, bartender, teacher, firefighter, newspaper reporter and babysitter.

“Nature’s Trangression” Fiction by Thom Brucie

Thom Brucie’s books include the novels, Weapons of Cain and Children of Slate; a book of short stories, Still Waters: Five Stories; and two chapbooks of poems:  Moments Around the Campfire with A Vietnam Vet and Apprentice Lessons.

He has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, and his short stories and poems have appeared in a variety of journals including The San Joaquin ReviewCappersThe Southwestern ReviewPacific ReviewWilderness House Literary ReviewNorth Atlantic Review, and many others.

Dr. Brucie is Professor of English at South Georgia State College.

This story first appeared in 2013 in the journal, North Atlantic Review.

Appearing in The Chamber on June 18 at 8:30 p.m. India Standard Time

Indian Buddhist monk

New issues appear Fridays at 10:00 a.m. CDT/ 4:00 p.m. BST/ 8:30 p.m. IST/ 1:00 a.m. AEST (Saturdays).

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.

This week’s edition includes:

“Escape to Paradise” Fiction by Curtis Bass

Curtis A. Bass (Curtisstories.blog) is a writer of short stories in a variety of genres from the American South. He has been published in several online and print journals. When not writing he prefers to stay active ballroom dancing or downhill skiing. He is currently working on his second novel.

“Medium Well” and “Into the Smoke” Fiction by Jennifer Shneiderman

Jennifer Shneiderman is a landlady living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in many publications, including: The Rubbertop Review, Nanoism, Writers Resist, Anti-Heroin Chic, The Daily Drunk and Montana Mouthful. She received an Honorable Mention in the Laura Riding Jackson 2020 Poetry Competition. 

“A Tour of Fort Helix” Fiction by Thomas White

Thomas White’s poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print magazines in Australia, the United States, and Canada. In addition, he is a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author, and contributor to various non-literary journals on topics ranging from the meaning of Evil to reality as a computer simulation.           

“Something Like Doubt Tapping at the Door” Fiction by Edward Lee

Edward Lee’s poetry, short stories, non-fiction and photography have been published in magazines in Ireland, England and America, including The Stinging Fly, Skylight 47, Acumen, The Blue Nib and Poetry Wales. He is currently working on a novel.

He also makes musical noise under the names Ayahuasca Collective, Orson Carroll, Lego Figures Fighting, and Pale Blond Boy.

His blog/website can be found at https://edwardmlee.wordpress.com

“Sebastian and Angeline” Fiction by Thom Brucie

Thom Brucie’s books include the novels, Weapons of Cain and Children of Slate; a book of short stories, Still Waters: Five Stories; and two chapbooks of poems:  Moments Around the Campfire with A Vietnam Vet and Apprentice Lessons.

He has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, and his short stories and poems have appeared in a variety of journals including The San Joaquin ReviewCappersThe Southwestern ReviewPacific ReviewWilderness House Literary ReviewNorth Atlantic Review, and many others.

Dr. Brucie is Professor of English at South Georgia State College.

Appearing in The Chamber on June 25

The Chamber Magazine Cover June 25, 2021

New issues appear Fridays at 10:00 a.m. CDT/ 4:00 p.m. BST/ 8:30 p.m. IST/ 1:00 a.m. AEST (Saturdays).

Interview with Author and Film/Video Game Producer Tim Carter

Tim Carter is a writer of stories, video games, film and TV. He is known for MORTAL KOMBAT: LEGACY,
the DEAD RISING series of movies, and the award-winning video game SLEEPING DOGS. He lives in
Vancouver, Canada with his wife, two dogs, and a disgruntled cat.

“A Grim Fairytale” Fiction by Louis Sisto

Louis Sisto has been writing short stories and flash fiction for years as a personal hobby. Some of his work has been published on websites and online magazines such as Funny In Five Hundred, Slattery’s Art of Horror, White Liquor, and Winamop.

“Flesh” Poetry by Michael Brownstein

Michael H. Brownstein’s latest volumes of poetry, A Slipknot to Somewhere Else (2018) and How Do We Create Love? (2019), were published by Cholla Needles Press.

“Her Mother’s Others” Fiction by Dennis M. Kohler

Dennis M. Kohler is a native of Northern Utah. He has spent 30 years teaching philosophy, linguistics, learning theory and ESL at universities in the USA, Kuwait, and Korea. He was once a rugby coach, carpenter, painter, armored car driver, cook, bartender, teacher, firefighter, newspaper reporter and babysitter.

“Nature’s Trangression” Fiction by Thom Brucie

Thom Brucie’s books include the novels, Weapons of Cain and Children of Slate; a book of short stories, Still Waters: Five Stories; and two chapbooks of poems:  Moments Around the Campfire with A Vietnam Vet and Apprentice Lessons.

He has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, and his short stories and poems have appeared in a variety of journals including The San Joaquin ReviewCappersThe Southwestern ReviewPacific ReviewWilderness House Literary ReviewNorth Atlantic Review, and many others.

Dr. Brucie is Professor of English at South Georgia State College.

This story first appeared in 2013 in the journal, North Atlantic Review.

Appearing in The Chamber on June 18 at 1:00 a.m. Australian Eastern Standard Time

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

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 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.

This week’s edition includes:

“Escape to Paradise” Fiction by Curtis Bass

Curtis A. Bass (Curtisstories.blog) is a writer of short stories in a variety of genres from the American South. He has been published in several online and print journals. When not writing he prefers to stay active ballroom dancing or downhill skiing. He is currently working on his second novel.

“Medium Well” and “Into the Smoke” Fiction by Jennifer Shneiderman

Jennifer Shneiderman is a landlady living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in many publications, including: The Rubbertop Review, Nanoism, Writers Resist, Anti-Heroin Chic, The Daily Drunk and Montana Mouthful. She received an Honorable Mention in the Laura Riding Jackson 2020 Poetry Competition. 

“A Tour of Fort Helix” Fiction by Thomas White

Thomas White’s poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print magazines in Australia, the United States, and Canada. In addition, he is a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author, and contributor to various non-literary journals on topics ranging from the meaning of Evil to reality as a computer simulation.           

“Something Like Doubt Tapping at the Door” Fiction by Edward Lee

Edward Lee’s poetry, short stories, non-fiction and photography have been published in magazines in Ireland, England and America, including The Stinging Fly, Skylight 47, Acumen, The Blue Nib and Poetry Wales. He is currently working on a novel.

He also makes musical noise under the names Ayahuasca Collective, Orson Carroll, Lego Figures Fighting, and Pale Blond Boy.

His blog/website can be found at https://edwardmlee.wordpress.com

“Sebastian and Angeline” Fiction by Thom Brucie

Thom Brucie’s books include the novels, Weapons of Cain and Children of Slate; a book of short stories, Still Waters: Five Stories; and two chapbooks of poems:  Moments Around the Campfire with A Vietnam Vet and Apprentice Lessons.

He has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, and his short stories and poems have appeared in a variety of journals including The San Joaquin ReviewCappersThe Southwestern ReviewPacific ReviewWilderness House Literary ReviewNorth Atlantic Review, and many others.

Dr. Brucie is Professor of English at South Georgia State College.

Appearing in The Chamber on June 25

The Chamber Magazine Cover June 25, 2021

New issues appear Fridays at 10:00 a.m. CDT/ 4:00 p.m. BST/ 8:30 p.m. IST/ 1:00 a.m. AEST (Saturdays).

Interview with Author and Film/Video Game Producer Tim Carter

Tim Carter is a writer of stories, video games, film and TV. He is known for MORTAL KOMBAT: LEGACY,
the DEAD RISING series of movies, and the award-winning video game SLEEPING DOGS. He lives in
Vancouver, Canada with his wife, two dogs, and a disgruntled cat.

“A Grim Fairytale” Fiction by Louis Sisto

Louis Sisto has been writing short stories and flash fiction for years as a personal hobby. Some of his work has been published on websites and online magazines such as Funny In Five Hundred, Slattery’s Art of Horror, White Liquor, and Winamop.

“Flesh” Poetry by Michael Brownstein

Michael H. Brownstein’s latest volumes of poetry, A Slipknot to Somewhere Else (2018) and How Do We Create Love? (2019), were published by Cholla Needles Press.

“Her Mother’s Others” Fiction by Dennis M. Kohler

Dennis M. Kohler is a native of Northern Utah. He has spent 30 years teaching philosophy, linguistics, learning theory and ESL at universities in the USA, Kuwait, and Korea. He was once a rugby coach, carpenter, painter, armored car driver, cook, bartender, teacher, firefighter, newspaper reporter and babysitter.

“Nature’s Trangression” Fiction by Thom Brucie

Thom Brucie’s books include the novels, Weapons of Cain and Children of Slate; a book of short stories, Still Waters: Five Stories; and two chapbooks of poems:  Moments Around the Campfire with A Vietnam Vet and Apprentice Lessons.

He has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, and his short stories and poems have appeared in a variety of journals including The San Joaquin ReviewCappersThe Southwestern ReviewPacific ReviewWilderness House Literary ReviewNorth Atlantic Review, and many others.

Dr. Brucie is Professor of English at South Georgia State College.

This story first appeared in 2013 in the journal, North Atlantic Review.

“Sebastian and Angeline” Fiction by Thom Brucie

It was a match made in the classroom. He, Sebastian, the youthful professor with graying temples; she, Angeline, the dewy eyed graduate student. He had published two books and walked within an air of mild renown; she, mildly submissive, but tart. He, vital and mature; she in the spring ascent of womanhood.

            They rode their bikes, and on a downhill sweep, the front wheel of hers struck a stone. The bike wobbled, and she stretched her legs to hold balance. In the execution of her stabilizing gesture, she kicked him in the leg and he fell, slamming his head against a concrete curb.

            At the hospital, they placed him in a bed and told her he received a concussion. As he slept, she placed round slices of white potatoes between his fingers to pull any poison from him and into them. The nurse, with a look of disfavor, placed rubber gloves on her hand and removed the potatoes to the box labeled toxic waste. Angeline peeled an apple, cutting in a circle around it, keeping the skin in one piece. She placed this, like a headband, across his forehead, the ends dangling past his ears. The nurse, removing it, told her, “We do not practice that kind of medicine here.”

            When she returned the next morning, Angeline was not allowed in Sebastian’s room. She was told he had unfortunately developed signs of pneumonia. He needed rest.

            That night, Angeline brought a cedar log that had been scarred by a lightning bolt to the center of a clearing behind her home. At sunset, she brought fire to it. Throughout the long night, she tended the flames, kept their energy focused on the fierce consummation of the log. She walked in a circle within the smoke, its spice-like bitterness startling within her nose, its vapor seeping deep into her skin.

            When sunrise came and the log-fire waned exhausted, she placed a ladleful of ashes into a silver cup and carried it to the kitchen. A pot of water boiled, and she made a paste mixing her urine with the ashes. She poured the mixture into the boiling water and added two tablespoons of honey for flavor. She stirred this mixture with an aspen branch, thirty times clockwise and thirty times counter-clockwise.

            When she arrived at the hospital, she lifted Sebastian’s sleepy head from the pillow and fed him the soup one small sip at a time.

            Later that day, she searched the woods for a banyan leaf. She pricked her finger with a darning needle and guided one drop of her blood into the cup of the leaf. She put the leaf on a plate and set it on the window ledge for sun.

            Upon arriving at the hospital the next morning, she found that Sebastian had begun to recover, and a woman sat in the chair next to his bed.

            “This is my wife, Maria,” he told her.

            “Wife?”

            Although she attempted to conceal it, both Sebastian and Maria saw the spirit of anger emerge within Angeline’s face and condemn them through her eyes.

            She walked to Maria and shook her hand. She placed her other hand on Maria’s shoulder and said, “I am pleased that Sebastian is recovering.”

When she removed her hand from Maria’s shoulder, one strand of Maria’s yellow hair clung to Angeline’s fingers.

            At the table of her kitchen, Angeline made a small doll from dried straw. She wrapped the strand of Maria’s hair carefully around the doll’s neck and tied the ends into the double knot of the West Star. She lifted the darning needle and pushed the needle into the breast of the doll.

            At that moment, Maria felt a sharp discomfort in her chest, and she fell into a chair.

Angeline eased the needle from the doll, taking care to feel the withdrawal as one might feel the deliciousness of love.

Maria clutched the sides of the chair, fighting for breath, and in her efforts could engender only unsatisfactory inhales of shallow measure.

            The next morning, Angeline lifted the banyan leaf from the dish, and carried it with her to Sebastian’s room. She went to his side and put the leaf into his open hand.

“What’s this?” he asked.

She held his wrist with one hand, and gently, yet with the firmness of the moon, she closed his fingers around the leaf, encasing it in a precious container made of his flesh. Angeline held him in this embrace and closed her eyes. The second hand on the clock halted its pulse. The nurse entered the room, but unexpectedly she remembered paperwork at her desk.

The moment held sacred in a timeless instant while Sebastian’s skin drank from the leaf, deep and eager.

            At its proper moment, Angeline opened her eyes, the clock clicked to its next second, the nurse looked up from her desk as from a dream, and Angeline spoke to Sebastian.

            “You will love me forever,” she said.

            “Yes,” he answered.


Thom Brucie’s books include the novels, Weapons of Cain and Children of Slate; a book of short stories, Still Waters: Five Stories; and two chapbooks of poems:  Moments Around the Campfire with A Vietnam Vet and Apprentice Lessons.

He has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, and his short stories and poems have appeared in a variety of journals including The San Joaquin ReviewCappersThe Southwestern ReviewPacific ReviewWilderness House Literary ReviewNorth Atlantic Review, and many others.

Dr. Brucie is Professor of English at South Georgia State College.


“Something Like Doubt Tapping at the Door” Fiction by Edward Lee

The bathtub is full, but not with water; I do not know what that substance is, whether it is a solid, a liquid, or if it came from the taps that I have not turned in years, or possibly bled from the walls which shine as though freshly painted, nor can I be sure if it was there when I entered or only appeared after I closed and locked the door. I am not even sure what colour the substance in the bath is as it seems to shimmer as it eats light from the bare bulb hanging from the cracked ceiling, a thousand thin lines stretching on into forever, like a thousand paths, a thousand possibilities, waiting for someone to take a step, a life being left behind so a new life might be begun. And all the while, there is a screaming filling the small room, the word ‘more’ over and again – a screaming I would swear is coming from the substance in the bathtub – almost drowning out the morose tap-tap-tapping on the locked bathroom door, a tap-tap-tapping that began as soon as I slid the lock across, like an ever-repeating echo of the sound of the bolt sliding home.

I refuse to investigate the tapping. I refuse to touch the substance in the bathtub. Both, I know, would be the end of me, and cruel curiosity will not be the pale carrier of my death today, as it has been many times before. I will simply remain standing here at the sink, naked, my clothes long faded into dust, a brand-new razor blade loose in my shaking hand, the unbroken mirror over the sink offering me a fragmentary reflection, a familiar stranger staring back at me. My hand continues to shake, the hand holding the razor blade which shines like the birth of a new sun, while my other hand grips the edge of the sink with a tightness I imagine could still the spin of the world. The bathtub is still full and the tap-tap-tapping grows louder against the door.


Edward Lee’s poetry, short stories, non-fiction and photography have been published in magazines in Ireland, England and America, including The Stinging Fly, Skylight 47, Acumen, The Blue Nib and Poetry Wales. He is currently working on a novel.

He also makes musical noise under the names Ayahuasca Collective, Orson Carroll, Lego Figures Fighting, and Pale Blond Boy.

His blog/website can be found at https://edwardmlee.wordpress.com


“A Tour of Fort Helix” Fiction by Thomas White

Jack O. Crumpet, his billowing robe stirring up clouds of thick dust, scurried frenetically along the edge of Fort Helix’s protective inner fortress wall; his porta-phone buzzed.

A breathless voice jabbered hysterically into Jack O.’s ear: it was Dwarf Twirtle. “Bloody dangers here. We think we see big desert lizards …”

“You have laser cannons in your Sand Wagon so use ‘em to take out the bastards…” snarled Jack O. cutting Twirtle short.

Nasty indifference served Jack O. very well in this cruel, barren world. He had many times ordered Fort Helix staff shot for even buggery or some other minor disobedience.  Jack O. was only looking for efficiency because it translated into profits – though he carefully hid his mercenary desires from the Brethren. It would undermine his moral creditability to let on that he was building an army of killer mutants to help them fight for the Good against Evil solely in the name of filthy cash.

Shrugging his shoulders, Jack O. Crumpet glanced at his watch. Damn: another scheduled freak meat cargo was supposed to be here shortly, along with a Very Important Person, Agro the Esteemed, an alleged emissary from Magnifico the Divine. Dwarf Twirtle and his team were now on their own; and it really made no difference anyway. The stranded mutant shipment (and Twirtle and the other handlers) would probably soon be eaten by desert lizards. At least Jack O. would not have to feed the useless mouths of that bunch of wastrels anymore. If they could not even handle a routine cargo haul of freaks, they were not cost effective. “Cut your losses while you can” was Jack’s creed –  brutal but effective.

Approximately forty minutes later, Fort Helix’s gates slammed behind the solar-powered heavy-duty cargo truck – an odd boxy-looking vehicle with sun panels jutting out like massive, upraised palms – towing large silver-metal freak meat pods. Behind the controls was Agro the Esteemed, also the freak handler. In Magnifico’s world, even messengers of his Divine Word still had to get dirty and sweaty, as well as multi-task.

Jack O. slid gracefully forward with a small bow and said in an agreeable tone, “Come in kind sir; we truly welcome you as a respected messenger from the Most Honorable, Most Holy One, The Divine Magnifico. We exist here to serve Him and his sacred mission.”

Agro’s purple helix-shaped tattoos, emblazoned on his naked arms, suggested that this driver-handler wielded considerable power within the spiritual ranks. Often an unlikely person, no matter how crude or stupid, was granted emissary authority by the Magnifico – especially if that person pleased Him during sex. Jack O. looked at Agro’s thick neck, and shuddered at the thought of the Magnifico’s thick, sweaty, passionate fingers running over its reptilian scales.

 “So lead me,” said Agro, “to deese Brethren who can speak truly of The Change of the Soul – and also speak,” he added grimly, “without defiling the sacred power of the Holy One and his Good-Words.”

 “These holy worthies will enhance not defame Magnifico’s Divine Mission I can assure you,” Jack O. Crumpet groveled worshipfully.

 Agro merely grunted, dropping his self-righteous tone. “Let’s first free the weird meat.” Rattling his keys, he went around to the convoy’s trailer to collect the cargo of mutants for in-processing. Jack O. made a mental note to ask about his cash.

                                                                      ###

Jack O. Crumpet, waving his strobe lamp, like a baton, inched forward in the Helix Hives’ gloomy, chilly underground, leading Agro and a small retinue of dwarfish Fort Helix servants, who pushed the four metal, casket-shaped pods, containing the mutants, bouncing and rattling on wheeled carts, which Agro had delivered for re-coding. Groveling before such useless creatures as Agro was the price he paid for maintaining his business contacts with the Magnifico. Mutant Re-Coding was becoming a growth industry in the Battle against Evil waged today by numerous wacko religious cults. Magnifico just happened to have the most money and organizational strength: the biggest mobster in town always ensured Jack O. Crumpet’s fervent allegiance in the War of the Goodies versus the Baddies.

“This tunnel is ringed by genetic Change Rooms,” Jack O. said loudly, trying to sound authoritative despite his non-technical management role at the Fort, “but there is a meaning here that goes deeper…”

 “What pray may that be?” scowled Agro, his one normal cool green eye suddenly flaring angrily. “Only the Magnifico is the Way and the Path and can speak of where to find da sacred meanings.”

Remembering how quickly Agro had angered when Jack O. had kept the  creature waiting to enter the Change Rooms Complex – this ‘emissary’ obviously had the passionate, indeed dangerous, ambitions of the fanatical and single-minded – Jack O. calmly replied, “I rely simply on local interpretations of the uses of these Hive technologies as offered by our Fort’s illustrious teachers, trusted scholars whose canonical opinions have been ratified by the Magnifico himself…” Jack O. Crumpet loved uttering these pompous words in order to subtly mock Agro’s  now obvious ignorance of Fort Helix‘s spiritual and technical culture.

Jack O. wondered if there was any particular reason why Agro had not been properly briefed on the Fort’s customs and details. Since everything Magnifico did and said often had hidden meanings, Agro’s mission perhaps had other non-spiritual purposes. Possibly this, Jack O. reflected, was a ploy, the Magnifico using Agro as a clumsy spy to snoop around and find out if Jack O. was fomenting heresy far from His Holiness’s watchful eyes. After all Fort Helix, which was used to bioengineer the harmlessly deformed into killing machines, was a central cog in the Magnifico’s war against the forces of darkness. And the Brethren, as a valuable ally, needed to be watched and protected against subversion or insurgency.  

However, Jack O. really had no real interest in puzzling all this out, or exploring Agro’s “real” intentions. As far as Jack O. was concerned, Agro was a cheap, two-bit operator, a career bootlicker, and spiritual elitist wannabe who was nothing else than a pain in the ass – Jack’s ass. Political schemes and ambition bored him to tears; he was a businessman with no patience for fools. But Jack knew how to play brain-games for fun with this arrogant egotist.

 A little holo-trickery might do the job. Using his laser wand like a pen, Jack made scribbling motions in the tunnel’s frosty air: flat, cartoonish monk-like figures appeared and then began automatically fleshing themselves out into three-dimensional, realistic hooded shapes, grouped into choir-like rows. Rich, booming voices swelled forth in poetic hymns from the holograph:

O His Holiness the Magnifico
Creator of our Sacred Halo
We praise Thy Numinous Name
By singing of Thy Glorious Fame
As we gather at Fort Helix
To destroy the Evil Geek
To cleanse our beloved home
By creating the killer chromosome

“The Brethren are indisposed at this moment,” Jack O. said, “uh…in deep prayer, so this simulation will have to suffice. These are High Worship Days at Fort Helix. You actually chose a bad time to come here.”

“You mean I drove all dis way,” Agro whined, “to just ice da weird meat without even gettin’ to see the operation or break bread with da local Holies?”

 “We have an iron rule here your Graciousness” (Jack O. mentally winced at his shameful humility). Before touring the Hives, you have to have a purification blessing, and only the Brethren can dispense that,” Jack O. replied. “Besides, the genetic re-coding process is secret; only a small cadre of select brethren – elderly, technically astute, trustworthy, beyond reproach – who have been personally vetted and chosen by The August Magnifico Himself are privy to our dear Fort’s inner sanctum. At best Agro you would get only a cursory walk-through of the Vats – without special access rights –  even with the prescribed blessing…”  Jack smiled inwardly; he could almost feel the air whooshing out of Agro’s over-inflated ego. Clearly, this miserable creature had had no special office granted to him by Magnifico, as Jack had first incorrectly surmised; those tattoos must be fraudulent, not signifying any valid spiritual dispensation.  To be so uninformed about the Fort’s High Worship Days clinched Jack O.’s doubts: Agro was nothing more than small beans – despite his pretentious title and airs – a two-bit delivery boy only hired for cheap wages by Magnifico to haul mutants to Fort Helix for re-coding. Probably not even a spy either. Too stupid. Now Jack O. regretted his earlier fawning before this low-life – but then one could never be too careful. Agro’s minor associations with the spiritual elite had clearly convinced him that he had a future as something more important than a mere lackey. When Jack O. wrote his official report about this visit, he would report his suspicions about Agro’s false tattoos to the Brethren.

 In the gloom, Agro’s patterned forearms seem to squirm brightly, as if in furious reply to Jack O.’s doubts, like exotic, rippling fish; a scowl slipped over Agro’s face. “Why didn’t somebody tell me dis? I coulda have sent a team of Smalls to merely haul flesh – if that is what dis is all about.”

Better not, Jack O. thought, push Agro too far – the creature was ill-tempered and troublesome. “Nothing keeps you from seeing other parts of the process; your time here won’t be wasted, but first,” said Jack O. clearing his throat significantly, “we need to talk about my commissions”.

                                                                ###

The black beasts, their long sweaty fur flowing like dreadlocks, heaved, snorted, hopped, and lumbered about the fenced-in training field, constructed adjacent to Fort Helix’s administrative center. Bush Dwarfs, chittering happily, bounced and scampered, doing back flips, feints, and generally tormenting the Killer Kangaroos by skittering around their feet. (An occasional shrill yelp indicated that a kangaroo had gotten lucky, and thumped one of his tormentors.). Jack O. stood with Agro on a small observation deck overlooking the action.

Grumpy, after a complementary tour of the Hives’ boring anterooms – far away from the forbidden, more interesting, processing areas – and having failed to meet any of the real-life Brethren, Agro glared sullenly at the kangaroo/dwarf antics. Jack O. delighted to see that he had gotten under Agro ‘s skin, explained the scenes before them with the gusto of an eager tour guide.

 “Agro my good mate these are the warm-ups. The Smalls are here to piss off the Killer ‘roos; then we bring in the re-coded weird meat to fight them. It is part of their ‘killer instinct’ training since, as you know, most pure genetic mutants normally are cowardly wimps …”

Agro’s voice, depressed and emotionally flat, interrupted, “I know, but you –  we – spend a lot of time and trouble capturing and codin’ dis bait; how da you keep da ‘roos from killing ‘em?”

 “Well, it rarely happens but just in case we keep some shooters handy,” Jack O.  pointed toward three very muscular hunchbacks lurking on the edges of the training field like knotty tree stumps, “to take out any ‘roo who gets too hyper-manic”.

“So show me some real action… I didn’t drive through bloody Hell’s hell to see a circus act,” grumbled Agro.

 Jack O. quickly hid a gleeful smile with his hand. “No worries, mate”.

With a wave, Jack O. signaled for the release of the killer trainees. The Bush Dwarfs scattered. Six bow-legged, pink-eyed albinos softly loped onto the field chased by three handlers, whips snapping. Two of the albinos, crying and trembling, suddenly broke from the group, peeing and vomiting on themselves. One of the hunchbacks fired; the first crumpled and fell. Tripping on its own feet, the second went sprawling. Before either could be dragged away, an especially aggressive Bull Kangaroo bounded in one leap and kicked the second albino in the ribs. Barfing a splash of blood, the agonized mutant shrank into the fetal posture. Another hunchback fired; the attacking ’roo, fatally wounded, spun crazily across the field, crashing against a far fence. As if on cue, the other re-coded freaks, drawing laser pistols, rushed the remaining kangaroos. Agro grunted with sadistic pleasure, “Finally!” Barely attending to the violence, Jack O. Crumpet was quickly figuring the cash value of his latest crop of properly genetically modified mutant products that would staff the killer army to fight the Forces of Evil. The numbers made him smile.          


Thomas White’s poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print magazines in Australia, the United States, and Canada. In addition, he is a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author, and contributor to various non-literary journals on topics ranging from the meaning of Evil to reality as a computer simulation.  

Thomas notes that “A Tour of Fort Helix” was originally published as “Fort Helix” by Whispers of Wickedness in 2007.


“Medium Well” and “Into the Smoke” Fiction by Jennifer Shneiderman

Medium Well

After Ethel Kramer had bid on a psychic reading at a charity auction, Alex Miller, a young man with topaz eyes, showed up at her door.  Ethel tried to remember where she had seen eyes that color.  To her amazement, the kid knew things.  He knew the night nurse stole Sam’s Oxycontin.  And he knew that Sam had a flirtation with a buxom torch singer when he was on tour with Tommy Dorsey.  Alex said Sam was sorry and Ethel wiped her wet eyes.  Before Alex left, Ethel begged him to see the recording studio Sam had built.

They walked to a secluded back house on Ethel’s property, the late afternoon sun low in the sky, the only sound their boots crunching on freshly fallen snow.  The windowless structure was obscured by low hanging pines. Ethel punched a code into an alarm pad and ushered Alex into a musty-smelling, dimly lit studio. There was a cobweb-covered drum kit with missing cymbals and some microphones in the middle of the room. A dirty twin mattress covered in crushed candy wrappers was on the floor next to an unopened case of Bud Light. A doll with cigarette burn eyes hung by a thin rope from the ceiling. Alex hesitated but a dusty Les Paul guitar beckoned and Ethel nodded her permission. Alex picked up the instrument and slung the leather strap around his neck. His fingers gently tickled the strings. Ethel quickly stepped into the control room, shutting the soundproof door behind her. Alex returned the guitar to its stand and pulled on the door lever.  It wouldn’t turn. He waved at Ethel through the studio window, mouthing, “It’s locked.”

Ethel approached the control panel and pressed the intercom.  It crackled to life. “I’m sorry, Alex,” Ethel said calmly into the microphone.  “You are my only connection to Sam. I can’t let you leave.”

Alex stared at her, disbelief distorting his face.  Ethel looked back at him impassively, turned and walked out.  She glanced back and saw Alex screaming and throwing flimsy music stands against the thick glass. Now she remembered where she had seen topaz eyes.  In sheep.  She had spent a summer on a farm in upstate New York. Sheep—with their 300 degree peripheral vision and strange, rectangular pupils.  And yet, they couldn’t see in front of their noses. 

Ethel would come back later.  And then she could have a chat with her beloved Sam. Oh, yes, they would have many chats in the months and years to come. 

Into the Smoke

Within moments the entire brokerage firm would know. Ellen wouldn’t be able to pay back the money her lover convinced her to steal. She watched as the plane hit the north tower. Alarms went off and, while everyone was mesmerized, she ran for the elevator. She paced the sidewalk and chain-smoked, knowing she could not go home. When the towers fell, she ran, emerging unrecognizable and disappeared into the smoky streets.


Jennifer Shneiderman is a landlady living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in many publications, including: The Rubbertop Review, Nanoism, Writers Resist, Anti-Heroin Chic, The Daily Drunk and Montana Mouthful. She received an Honorable Mention in the Laura Riding Jackson 2020 Poetry Competition. 


“Escape to Paradise” Fiction by Curtis Bass

At 8 pm on a Thursday in January, Jenna heard a knock at her door. She looked through her peephole and began shivering. It was Dusty. Dustin Randall, her ex-boyfriend. Dustin, the ex-boyfriend who wouldn’t let go. Dustin, the ex-boyfriend who nearly put her in the hospital the last time he beat her. Which would be the LAST time he beat her, she had decided. She had packed her bags and left him. First, she fled to the Women’s Center. They helped her get an apartment. She never gave him her new apartment location. Someone must have ratted her out.

            “Go away, Dusty!” she shouted through the door. She was aware he could hear her through the cheap thin material.

            “Come on, baby. Let me in,” he wheedled.

            “You’re not supposed to be here. I have a restraining order.”

            “Yeah, my daddy’s getting it dismissed. Come on, babe. I just want to talk.”

Jenna closed her eyes and prayed for strength. The results of their last ‘talk’ had not yet healed, leaving lingering yellow and green marks on her face and arms.

            “I’m calling the cops!” she yelled.

            “And what are they gonna do? They’re all on my daddy’s payroll.”

            “My lawyer said I could call the State Troopers. They don’t kowtow to your family.”

            “You don’t want to make me mad, Jenna. You know how I get. You just bring the misery upon yourself. Don’t make me hurt you.”

            “Go away! I’m done with you. I don’t ever want to see you again. Can’t you get that through your thick head?”

            “You know I can’t do that, honey. We belong together. You and me. You belong to me. And I aim to keep what’s mine. Now open this freaking door!” Jenna had just finished dialing 911.

            “911 Emergency. What is the nature of your emergency?”

            “There’s a man trying to break into my apartment,” she whispered.

            “Are you able to get out of the apartment?”

            “No. He’s at the only door.”

            “Do you know the identity of the intruder?”

            “Yes, my ex-boyfriend. I have a restraining order against him.”

            “I’ve already dispatched the police, in the meantime..,”

            “No. The police are on his daddy’s payroll. They won’t do anything. Can you send the State Patrol?”

            “Sorry, ma’am. We’re only connected to the police. Your police department is not owned by any family. They will protect you. I suggest you get into the most secure room you can and barricade the door. The police should be there in five minutes.”

            Wham! Jenna dropped the phone at the sound of Dusty trying to break the through the door. She could hear the faint squawk of the 911 operator still trying to talk to her. Jenna scurried into the kitchen, clawed open a drawer, and pulled out the revolver she had just bought. Rechecking that she had loaded the gun and that the safety was off, she put her back against the wall directly in front of the door. With arms extended, holding the gun with both hands, Jenna pointed it at the door. The end of the revolver trembled violently.

            “Dusty, go away! I have a gun.”

            “And what do you think you’re gonna do with a gun? I ain’t scared of you, girl. You ain’t got the balls to shoot me. We gonna have us some fun. You ever heard of being pistol whipped?” Wham! A huge crack appeared in the door.

Wham! The thin veneer of the door shattered. Dusty pushed his arms through, knocking the plywood out of his way. He leered evilly when he saw Jenna ten feet away, scared out of her wits. She usually thought he was so handsome, and he usually was. But when he got that evil look on his face, she knew she was in trouble. He forced his way into the room. Before he said anything, Jenna fired the pistol at him three times. All three missed, mostly because she turned her head to the side and closed her eyes as she fired.

            “What the hell, girl? You gonna pay for that.”

            Jenna fired the remaining three shots. At least one hit him because Dusty went down howling in pain. Bright red appeared on his thigh. She could hear sirens in the distance.

            Dusty looked at Jenna through the grimace of pain on his sweaty face.

            “You have just signed your death warrant, bitch.”

***

            The police swarmed in a few minutes later. They immediately recognized Dusty and knew what was what. Jenna was disarmed and taken into custody. They called an ambulance for Dusty. She called her lawyer from the police department. Since she was in her own apartment, had a restraining order and a broken-down door her lawyer could bully the night cops into not booking her but releasing her to him. Mr. Randall would probably fire them.

            As he drove her to a friend’s house he said, “Too bad you didn’t kill the bastard. Save us all a lot of trouble.”

            “He said he is going to kill me. He means it, too.”

            “Well, he’s going to have to wait. Violating the restraining order, breaking down your door, communicating threats. We might put him away for a while this time.”

            “No, we won’t,” Jenna said with defeat in her voice. “His daddy will just paper over it. He’ll be bandaged up and out on bail by morning. He’s never going to stop. Not till one of us is dead.”

            “That’s just defeatist talk. Come on. There’s a new judge who isn’t owned by the Randalls and I think I can get this before him. We might get that ass some serious time.”

            “You really think so?” For the first time there was hope in her voice.

            “Yeah, I do. Here we are.” He pulled up in front of Arlene’s house. Arlene was Joyce’s half-sister. Joyce was Jenna’s best friend. Joyce’s apartment would be the first place Dusty would look. Dusty didn’t know Joyce had a half-sister which made it a perfect hideout. Arlene opened the door as they got to the porch.

            “Come on in, honey. That bastard acting up again?”

            “Ms. Connors, thanks for taking Jenna in like this. Remember, for both of your safety, the Randalls mustn’t find out she’s here.”

            “I ain’t scared of Dusty Randall. Let that punk set foot on my property. I got a shotgun and I don’t miss. I’d love a chance to blow his ass clear across North Carolina.”

            “I love your fighting spirit but please, lie low. Good night, Jenna. Get some rest. I’ll call you tomorrow.” He left.

***

            When her lawyer called the next day, the news was as expected—not good. They had released Dusty on bail that morning. He never went to the jail. His family arranged for him to be held overnight at the hospital. The Randalls were making noises about suing her, but her lawyer explained NC law was on her side. The broken door, the recording of the 911 call and the all-important restraining order proved that she was within her rights to defend herself, with deadly force if necessary. The good news was that he had the case placed before the new unbiased judge. The bad news was that the case wouldn’t be heard for another month. Until that time, Dusty was free to do as he pleased.

            “He knows where I work. I can’t take a month off. He’s going to find me and kill me.”

            “We’ll work something out,” he said.

***

            On Monday morning, Jenna drove her five-year-old Honda Civic to the State Employees’ Credit Union where she worked. She didn’t see Dusty’s Camaro anywhere in the parking lot, but still waited for the security guard to come out to escort her into the building. She worked in an office, not as a teller, so Dusty would have to get past the security guard and locked doors to get to her. She knew he was crazy enough to try it, though.

            After work, the security guard walked her out to her car. As she pulled away, she thought she saw Dusty’s blue car a few blocks behind. Since he didn’t get any closer, she figured he was trying to tail her to her apartment. As planned, she drove straight to her attorney’s office in a highrise. It had the benefit of a gated parking lot. The gate guard watched as she entered the building. Once inside, she went through the building, out another little-used service entrance, across an alley to where Arlene was waiting. Tomorrow Arlene would bring her back to enter through the side entrance and she would take her car to work. Jenna knew this would not work for long. Dusty was a lot of disagreeable things, but stupid was not one of them. Crazy, but not stupid. That’s what made him so dangerous. He would figure out there was a ruse and discover it. But she had a few days.

***

            “Aruba? You think I can afford to go to Aruba?” Jenna exclaimed over the phone to Joyce. It was Wednesday evening.

            “Yes, you can. My brother and his fiancée are having to cancel. They can turn the tickets over to us. They’re willing to let them go for half-price. It’s a steal. And it leaves this Saturday. You can get away from dickhead and relax. By the time you get back, it’ll be 14 days closer to the hearing. Less than a week to go at that point.”

            Jenna was hesitant. She had vacation time and her boss at the credit union was very supportive and concerned about her situation. It was a near certainty that she would approve the time off. But a cruise? Such a luxury seemed almost obscene considering the trouble she was facing. But then again. Fourteen days without having to hide, look over her shoulder, be constantly on edge would be heaven.

            “How much?” she finally said. Then, “I’m in.”

***

            Jenna packed in her apartment on Thursday night with a State Trooper guarding her. She realized she hadn’t obsessed about Dusty for several hours and was feeling a little happy again. Just one more day to go.

***

            As she ate her lunch on Friday at her desk, as she usually did, Jenna heard a commotion out in the lobby area of the credit union. Someone was shouting. She walked over to the security station near her office and looked at the console which had a view from all the security cameras in the building. Sure enough, in the lobby was Dustin Randall, red faced, probably a little drunk facing off against two security guards. He ranted while they just impassively stood in front of the door that gave access to the rest of the offices. Her boss showed up beside her.

            “That asshole needs to get shot, and not in the leg,” she said. “You’re doing the right thing to get out of town for a few weeks. Send me a postcard. I can stick it on my refrigerator as my inspiration to get back into my bikini.”

            As they watched the camera footage, Dusty seemed to wind down his rant and give up. He turned as if to leave, but it was just a feint. He swung back around with a roundhouse punch aimed at the first security officer’s jaw. The officer reacted in time and only got a glancing blow. Immediately the guards jumped on Dusty, taking him to the floor. In no time they cuffed him, with him screaming obscenities and Jenna’s name, waiting for the police to come pick him up. Jenna revised her estimation of Dusty. Looks like he is stupid, after all. Well, she thought, this will keep him tied up until tomorrow. It looks like I will get away.

***

            “Wow, I didn’t realize how big it is,” Jenna gaped at the Ocean Flyer, pride of the Cormorant line, as they were boarding.

            “Yep, just us and 2,000 of our closest friends,” joked Joyce.

            Once on board, they hustled up to the Lido deck for the buffet lunch. Sitting at a table, looking out over the palmed resorts of Fort Lauderdale, Jenna momentarily wondered if she was just having a wonderful dream. She was so afraid she’d wake up to find Dusty breaking down her door. This is paradise.

            “Forget him,” Joyce said, placing her hand on Jenna’s. “At least for the next 14 days. Relax, unwind, get drunk, flirt with some cute guys. That’s what vacation is for.”

            “You’re right. Tell the waiter I’ll have a margarita. And find me some cute guys.” They both laughed gaily.

***

            There were so many activities on board the ship they hardly knew what to do first. They would be at sea for two days before any island stops so they’d have plenty of time to explore. Jenna found one activity that she considered a must.

            “There’s an orchestra playing ballroom music in the Queen’s Lounge after dinner. Let’s go.”

            “Ballroom? Seriously?”

            “Yes. I took lessons for a couple of years, BD, Before Dusty. I let that get away. I want to reclaim something that he has no part of.”

            “Okay,” Joyce said dubiously. “But you’re buying the drinks. And if it’s all old folks, I’m outta there.”

***

            It turned out there were mixed ages in the lounge and several single men. That immediately caught Joyce’s eye. She and Jenna were attractive young ladies, so they quickly caught the attention of the men present. A very attractive fortyish man came to their table.

            “I’m Jack, a ship dance host. May I have this dance?” He held his hand out to Joyce. She giggled girlishly and accompanied him to the floor. Two minutes later, after she had walked all over his feet, he sadly returned her to the table.

            “Sorry, guess I should have told you I don’t know how to dance,” she said to him sheepishly. Jenna could tell he was biting his tongue. “You should ask Jenna here. She’s a bona fide ballroom dancer.”

            “Joyce! I am not. I haven’t danced in two years.”

            “It’s like riding a bicycle. It comes back easily. May I?” the host asked. Jenna allowed him to lead her to the floor. She could tell it was a foxtrot.

            “I only know American style foxtrot,” she said. It impressed the host she recognized it was a foxtrot and that she knew there was a difference in styles. He beamed, took her in dance hold and moved off. Slow, quick, quick. Jenna found that it came back. They floated around the room effortlessly. This is what dancing is all about, she said to herself. It’s like flying. Just skimming along, free and easy. We’re like Fred and Ginger. Oh, how I have missed this. When the host returned her to her table, he commented it was one of the best dances he’d had recently and hoped she would allow him to dance with her again later. She smiled and assured him he was welcome anytime. She felt like she was glowing.

            “Ooh. He likes you,” Joyce giggled. “And so debonair. Looks like Cary Grant.”

            After another song, a young man, upper twenties, their age, came to their table. He was cute, and Jenna found his nervous look endearing.

            “I’m nowhere near as good as you, but do you want to dance? I’m Drew, by the way,” he said to Jenna. It was a rumba. Jenna figured even a novice could probably handle it.

            Drew proved that he had a basic understanding of the dance. He only stepped on her a few times, but mostly he did basic moves. This gave her an opportunity to talk to him.

            “So, are you enjoying the cruise?” was all she could think to say. She grimaced at how trite it sounded.

            “Slow, quick, quick,” he said. “Can’t talk. Counting. Slow, quick, quick.”  She giggled and allowed him to finish the dance without further interruption.

            He returned her to her table and asked Joyce to dance, but she said no. She decided she wasn’t a ballroom dancer and was content to just watch. Plus, she was on her third hurricane.

            Drew came back a couple more times that evening to ask Jenna to dance as did Jack. The third time Drew returned her to the table, Joyce asked him to stay awhile.

            “Shtay awhile,” she drawled. “It’ll shave ush all time.” He looked at Jenna and she just grinned. Joyce was a lovable drunk. Drew pulled up a chair and sat by Jenna.

            “Look at that old couple,” Jenna pointed out a couple in the crowd. It was a waltz so nearly everyone was dancing. “They aren’t doing anything fancy, but they look so happy. They’ve probably been dancing with each other 50 years. It’s so romantic to be so comfortable and in sync with someone. Her eyes are closed. She’s probably remembering the handsome boy she fell in love with.”

            “Her husband or some other guy?” Drew asked. Then he winked and laughed.

            “Oh, you,” Jenna chided and swatted his arm lightly.

            “You are such a romantic,” he said. “It’s nice to find that. I’m afraid I don’t see it all that much.”

            “Drew. You have a southern accent. Where are you from, anyway?”

            “Well, I grew up in Winston-Salem. That’s in North Carolina. Now I work for a bank in Charlotte. Me and my buddy Bill decided to take a cruise together. He’s probably up in the disco putting moves on underage girls. He’s a mess.”

            “Hey, we’re from North Carolina, too. Just outside Greensboro. And I work in a bank. Well, at least, a credit union.”

            “Wow, howdy homegirl,” he laughed. They heard a snore and noticed Joyce was out.

            “Well, I guess I need to get Sleeping Beauty to bed. Come on, girl. Up.” She grabbed Joyce’s arm and dragged her up. Joyce stumbled a little, and Jenna put her arm around her.

            “Let’s go, babe. Goodnight, Drew. I hope to see you around the ship.”

            “Night.”

***

            Midmorning next day found Jenna ensconced at a small table on the Lido deck enjoying the sunshine and a breakfast of fruit.

            “I swear I’m not stalking you. Really. Cross my heart.” Jenna looked up and Drew stood by her table with a tray of food.

            “Well, good morning, have a seat,” she invited.

            “Thanks. Where’s your other half?”

            “In bed with an ice pack on her head.”

            “Ouch.”

            “That’s what she said,” she quipped. “How about Bill?”

            “Oh, he’s out at the pool chasing a bikini.”

            “Already? It’s barely past 10,” she asked with surprise.

            “I guess the early bird gets the bimbo,” he said.

            “You don’t seem to think much of Bill, sometimes.”

            “Don’t get me wrong. I love him like a brother. It’s just he has no judgment. He just thinks with his, well, his smaller head.” Jenna couldn’t help but giggle.

            After breakfast, Drew went to check on Bill. Jenna thought a walk along the deck would be nice. As she neared the front of the ship she saw people gathering at the rail and pointing. She went to see what was going on. Just fifty yards away she saw a family of dolphins leaping about playing and having a marvelous time. Everyone was exclaiming and taking pictures. She was as charmed as anyone. She looked up and saw people on other decks had also noticed the dolphins. About two decks up she noticed a handsome man, a very handsome man with an evil leer. He was staring at her. It was a face she knew all too well. It was Dustin Randall. She froze for a second and then bolted. She raced as fast as she could back to her room. Once inside, she bolted the door and slumped to the floor leaning against it. Her heart felt as if it would burst.

            “What’s going on?” Joyce croaked blearily from her bed.

            “Oh my god, Joyce. Dusty is on the ship.”

            “What? He can’t be? How would he even know?”

            “Hell, his family knows everything that goes on. They probably had your phone bugged or something. I just saw him on deck, staring at me.”

            “Are you sure it was him?”

            “Joyce. I lived with him for six months. I know what he looks like. He’s here. He’s come after me. What am I gonna do?”

            “We need to see the captain.”

***

            They soon found out that no one can just ‘see the captain’. The purser’s office directed them to the security office.

            “So you think your boyfriend followed you on this ship?” said Chief Security Officer Nigel Scott.

            “Yes.”

            “Has he made contact or threatened you in any way?”

            “No. But I have a restraining order that he can’t come within a thousand feet. Anywhere on this ship is inside that. And he knew I was coming on this ship.”

            “What’s the name?”

            “Dustin Lee Randall.” The security officer pulled up a computer file.

            “No one by that name on the manifest. Does he have an alias?”

            “Not that I know of.”

            “Well, there’s no one with that name listed. And our security is too tight for any stowaways. Maybe you just made a mistake.”

            “It wasn’t a mistake. You took pictures for our key cards when we got on. Let me look through the pictures and I’ll find him.”

            “I can’t let you go through our files, miss. That’s about a dozen breaches in security protocols. And even then, there are about a thousand men on this ship.”

            Jenna pulled out her phone. She didn’t have service on the ship but the camera app worked.

            “Here’s his picture. Can you look for him for me?”

            “Miss. I have more important things to do than look through a thousand pictures trying to find a person who isn’t even on the ship.”

            “Oh, please. I’ll never be able to relax if I think he’s here. He’s said he will kill me.” She hated playing the damsel in distress, but this was an emergency.

            “Okay, look. Go to the purser’s desk and buy some phone minutes. Send his picture to this number.” He handed her a scribbled number. “When I have some free time, I’ll try to run through the guest photos. All right?”

            “Yes, thank you.”

            Jenna followed his instructions and then locked herself in her room.

            “So you gonna stay here in the room the rest of the cruise?” Joyce asked, hands on her hips.

            “What else can I do?”

            “Oh, babe. Get over it. Go and live it up. There’s like a hundred people around you all the time on the ship. He’s not going to try anything here. Plus, there are hunky deck crew, totally kissable, too, standing every few feet on the deck. They can surely take care of him. You’re safe here. Safer than anywhere else. Don’t let him take this away from you.”

            “You think so?” Jenna was unsure.

            “I’ll be right beside you. If I see him, I’ll scream bloody murder. Everyone will be watching. Probably taking video.”

***

            Joyce had recovered by the evening, but sipping only ginger ale. She raised an eyebrow as Drew approached their table in the Queen’s Lounge.

            “Mind if I join you ladies?”

            “Please, sit,” offered Jenna. After a moment, Joyce gave Jenna a pointed look. A look that said ‘go for it’.

            “I’ve got a roll of quarters I need to throw away. I’ll be in the casino if anybody needs me,” she said airily and walked away.

            “Is it something I said?” Drew looked puzzled.

            “No, just Joyce being Joyce.”

            They danced to several songs. While he was nowhere near the skill level of the dance host, Jack, he was competent. Jack claimed a few dances, but he had to work the entire room. After about her fourth dance with Drew, Jenna said, “You should probably dance with some other ladies or people might talk.”

            “Let them talk. I enjoy dancing with you.”

            Jenna knew she was blushing, but it was nice to be getting positive attention for a change.

            “You seem preoccupied. I hope I’m not boring you,” Drew breathed.

            “Oh, it’s not you. I just had a bad moment today. I thought I saw my boyfriend.”

            “Boyfriend? Um, am I in the way?”

            “My ex-boyfriend. He’s been harassing me. I think he’s on the cruise, the bastard.’

            “I don’t want to get mixed up in any weird domestic stuff. Why don’t I go sit at another table?”

            “Don’t go, Drew. He’s not going to cause any trouble. I alerted the ship. They’re looking for him. As Joyce said, we’re always surrounded by like a hundred people. What’s he going to do?”

            “You sure. I don’t want to cause you any trouble.”

            “You won’t. You’re the nicest thing that’s happened to me in a while. I’m enjoying it.” Drew smiled self-consciously. She thought she saw a hint of a blush. It was adorable.

            “We’re stopping at the private island tomorrow. Care to explore it with me?” he asked.

            “I’ve already talked with Joyce about hitting the beach.”

            “Bring her. If I can pry Bill away from his bikini bimbo, we can make a foursome.”

            “Sure.”

***

            Drew showed up at the gangway the next morning alone.

            “No Bill?” Jenna asked.

            “The bikini apparently held more promise. I swear she’s not even 17.”

            The three of them left the ship and were soon walking along the sand under palm trees. It was the middle of January and here she was in paradise. Bright sunshine, sparkling water in a shade of blue only seen in the Caribbean, gentle breeze softly scented with tropical flowers and coconut. If only I could stay here forever, Jenna thought. Stay here with someone like Drew.

            “Listen, you kids. I don’t need a sunburn as my souvenir, so I’m going to park it in a chaise under a palm tree. I’ve got a novel full of heaving bosoms to keep me occupied. You go have fun.” Joyce shooed them away. So they explored. Jenna had a delightful time. Drew turned out to be quite charming.

***

            That evening the purser found her at her dining table and asked to see her for a moment.

            “Security Officer Scott has checked the photo you provided against the passengers. It doesn’t match anyone on board. I’ve talked with the captain. Our security team will remain on alert, but we feel sure it was just mistaken identity. It’s happened before. Please try to relax. Here is a complimentary pass from the captain for a day in the spa. Please enjoy.”

            Back at the table, she told Joyce that there was no sign of Dusty.

            “I was sure I saw him.”

            “Your nerves have been a mess, girl. You probably just saw what you fear. Kinda like your worst nightmare.”

            “I guess.”

***

            After dinner, they went back to the room to freshen up. Joyce said she had actually won money at the casino and would try her luck again.

            “Anything beats watching you and Casanova make cow eyes at each other.”

            “Joyce!” Jenna was shocked.

            “Hey, I just call it like I see it. He’s way hunky. I say go for it. I’m okay with the old bra on the doorknob, but I’m not spending all night in the library. Make it a quickie.”

            “Joyce! You’re scandalous. I’m not bringing Drew back to my room.”

            “Okay. Go to his. But mark my words. Sex is in the air.” She leered playfully and left before Jenna could throw anything at her.

            Jenna changed to a dress a little less formal than her dinner wear and headed for the lounge. She left her room and began walking up the long narrow hallway. You could see nearly the entire length of the ship here. It was dimly lit and kind of spooky. There was no one about except a gentleman coming from the direction she was heading. She started out. She suddenly noticed the man’s limping walk looked familiar. Her heart flew into her throat as he got close enough for her to make out his face. Dusty!

            She turned and fled back to her room. She could hear his running steps behind her.

            “Jenna! Stop, damn you!”

            She zipped her card in the lock and quickly slipped in the room and bolted the door. As she leaned back on the door, sobbing, she slid slowly to the floor. Would this nightmare never end?

            Once she was relatively together, she called the security desk. She explained that regardless of what they had told her, someone matching the description of her ex-boyfriend had just chased her back to her room. She realized she was sounding hysterical but couldn’t help it. Before long Security Officer Scott, her room steward and the ship’s doctor were in her room.

            She accepted a sedative from the doctor. “He called my name. I know his voice. Why doesn’t anyone believe me?”

            “I’m sorry, miss, but I just don’t see any way he could have gotten on the ship. I have passed the photo you gave us to all ship’s personnel. If he is on this ship, we’ll find him. There is a suite available on the King’s deck. Entrance to the deck is key carded. We can upgrade you and your roommate there for extra security if you wish. No charge, of course,” the security chief offered.

            The purser had paged Joyce, and she burst into the room.

            “What’s happened? Jenna, are you okay?”

            “No. Dusty IS on board. He chased me down the hall.”

            “Oh, shit. Sorry, guys,” she apologized for her colorful language.

            “I was just telling Miss Davenport that we can upgrade the two of you to a more secure deck.”

            “It’ll be a bitch to move all this stuff again,” she groused.

            “Don’t worry,” he said. “Your steward can arrange for some porters to transfer your belongings.”

***

            By nearly midnight, they had moved into the new suite.

            “Nice digs,” noted Joyce. “We actually can turn around without bumping butts.”

            “Yeah,” Jenna said wanly. She was a little spaced by the sedative. Joyce sat on the bed beside her.

            “Jenna, level with me,” Joyce said seriously. “What’s going on? Did you really see Dusty? Or do you just think you did? I mean, be honest. How could he have gotten on the ship with no one knowing? It doesn’t make sense.”

            “Not you, too,” moaned Jenna. “No one believes me. Do I have to turn up with a freaking knife in my chest to make you believe me?”

            “Oh, no, baby.” Joyce tried to soothe her, taking her in her arms. “I believe you. If you say you saw him, then you did.” Jenna just folded herself into a ball in Joyce’s arms and cried.

***

            Drew found them at a table during lunchtime the next day. He came up to their table, smiling.

            “Ok. This time I am stalking you. What happened last night? I missed you in the Queen’s Lounge.” He suddenly noticed her pallor. “Oh god, what’s happened? The boyfriend again?”

            “Yeah, he attacked her last night,” Joyce told him.

            “Oh my god. I thought the ship said he wasn’t on board.”

            “Apparently the ship screwed up,” Joyce said tersely.

            “I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

            “Well,” Joyce said. “I gotta take a leak. Stay here while I go.”

            “Your friend has a way with words,” Drew murmured, trying to lighten the mood. Jenna just looked at him.

            “She’s just angry. Dusty has ruined her vacation, too. He poisons everything.”

            “I’m sorry you’ve had to go through this. You are such a nice lady.”

            “Thanks. I think I’ll go back to my room.” She got up to walk away.

            “Shouldn’t you wait for your friend?”

            “Oh yeah. Walk me to the elevator? They restrict my deck entry. I’ll be safe from there.”

            He walked her down to the nearest elevator.

            “I know you’re feeling low right now. But I hope you come to the Queen’s Lounge tonight. It’s just not the same without you. I’ll miss you.”

            Jenna made a half smile. “I’ll see.”

            The elevator opened, and some people got off. She got in, with a group of people, pressing ‘King’s Deck’ on the panel. Drew seemed quite taken with her, she thought. She was somewhat taken with him, as well. Too bad the cruise was such a bomb. She could really do with two weeks of mindless flirting.

            The elevator stopped. A few people got off, a few got on. When the elevator stopped on the Queen’s deck, most people got off. It required a key card to go further. As the last person exited the elevator, Jenna glanced in the mirrored wall and almost died on the spot. The reflection showed that Dusty was right behind her in the elevator.

            “I said I’d kill you,” he hissed. He grabbed for her arm, but she evaded him, and dove out the rapidly closing door, screaming. By the time security personnel had arrived, the elevator was long gone. One of the deck crew lifted her in his arms like a child and carried her to sickbay.

***

            Hours later, Joyce helped Jenna climb into the bed in their suite.

            “It’s going to be all right, babe. Don’t you worry. Joyce is here and everything’s going to be fine.”

            “No, it’s not. They think I’m crazy. You do, too. Everyone does. Maybe I am.”

            “Now, that’s crazy talk. You know I’m with you on this. You just get some rest.”

***

            The next day, the ship’s doctor, purser and captain came to see her.

            “Miss Davenport,” the captain began. “We are terribly upset that your vacation has been marred by problems on this ship. My crew and I have done everything we can to ensure your safety, but I don’t know what else we can do. Tomorrow, we dock in Curaçao. There is an American embassy there. If you wish, my staff will assist you in contacting them to arrange air transport back to your home destination. Unfortunately, we cannot offer a refund since the voyage is nearly half over, but if you have purchased trip insurance, our ship’s doctor will assist you with filing.”

            Jenna thought for a few moments. “Yes, I’d like to go home. Joyce, I want you to stay. There’s no need to ruin both our vacations.”

            “Nothing doing, hon. We’re in this together. I go where you go. Besides, I’d have a crappy time without you here to enjoy it with me. Looks like it’s time to pack.”

***

            “You up for dinner in the dining room tonight?” Joyce asked later that day.

            “Yeah, I think so. Might as well use it while we can. I have enjoyed the food on this cruise.”

            “You and me, too. A couple more days and I’d have to break out my fat britches.”  Jenna had to laugh.

***

            After dinner, Joyce said, “Come on. I’ll go with you to the Queen’s Lounge. You know Romeo will be there looking for you. And don’t worry. Neither of us will leave you for a second. Total protection. But you need to unwind a little.”

            “You don’t like the music. I hate to make you go through that.”

            “Oh, hell, girl. I’ve gone through much worse for a lot less. Just buy me a couple of hurricanes and I’ll be fine.”

            As soon as they found a table in the Queen’s Lounge, Drew showed up.

            “I was so worried about you,” he said to Jenna. “Are you going to be okay?” She had taken a half a sedative tab after dinner, so she felt she had a grip on her nerves. For now.

            “Thanks, Drew. You’re a dear. I’ve enjoyed meeting you.”

            “That sounds a lot like goodbye,” he said, puzzled.

            “It is. I’m leaving the cruise tomorrow. The captain said I can get a flight back to the US from Curaçao. I just don’t feel safe on the ship anymore.”

            Drew’s breath caught quickly. “Are you sure that’s the right thing to do? To just toss the whole vacation?”

            “I don’t know what else I can do. Constantly look over my shoulder waiting for him to attack me? That’s not a vacation.

            “Joyce, talk some sense into her. She’s just giving up.”

            “Why do you care?” Joyce asked. Drew got quiet.

            “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know I’m not allowed to have an opinion.”

            “Joyce, you don’t need to be rude,” Jenna said. “Drew, I’d love to stay. I’ve had such a nice time with you, but it isn’t working. I’m a nervous wreck.”

            “Well, it’s just that you’ve become kind of special to me these past few days. You seem to understand me and are so nice. Aw crap, I don’t know how to say it. I like you. And I’d like a chance to know you better.”

            “Drew, don’t start. We’re from different worlds.”

            “What different worlds? Charlotte and Greensboro are what, a couple hours apart? Maybe we were meant to meet.”

            “Oh brother,” Joyce said dryly. “I’m on the Love Boat.”

            “Well, at least, can we dance?” he asked. They danced several dances. Drew seemed determined to keep her dancing. He really is taken with me, she thought.

            A rumba came on. Drew pulled her close, very close. She realized she enjoyed dancing this closely with him. His face was close to hers. He kept looking into her eyes. Oh god, she thought. This feels like one of those trashy novels Joyce loves. He leaned in, as if hoping for a kiss. What the hell, she decided. Give him a nice memory. She opened her mouth to him. Maybe the sedative was just kicking in, but she was feeling a bit lightheaded. Or maybe it was the kiss. Damn! He’s good at this. A moment later, he had his mouth by her ear.

            “Oh, Jenna. I think about you so much. I’ll be lost without you. Won’t you reconsider leaving me?” he whispered in her ear.

            “I’m not leaving you, Drew. It’s this ship. I can’t be on a ship with my ex. And I’m sure he’s somewhere on board.”

            “Jenna, you’re tearing me apart.”

            “Drew, please don’t make this any harder for me.”

            They remained in the lounge until the band quit at 11, but Jenna could tell the life had gone out of Drew. She’d been unaware of how deeply he felt. She liked him, too, but he was way ahead of her. The ladies gathered their belongings to leave.

            “Will I get a chance to see you tomorrow?” he asked. She would swear there were unshed tears in his eyes.

            “We’re doing an early breakfast. I’ll be at Lido at 7.”

            “Okay. Bye.” He looked down at the floor. She felt awful.

            “Drew, you’ll be okay. Just do like Bill. Go chase some bikinis.”

            “I’m not interested in bikinis,” he said like a truculent little boy.

            “Joyce, go on. I need to talk to Drew.”

            Joyce looked at Drew. “She has a curfew of midnight, young man. Not a minute after. Got it?”

            He gave her a half-hearted grin. “Yes, ma’am.”

            Jenna laced her arm through Drew’s. They strolled up the incline out of the lounge into the central part of the ship. He turned right, and they went through the double doors out onto the deck. There was a half moon out. It cast enough light on the water that you could see the outline of an island in the distance. It was quiet and romantic. Drew dropped her arm and propped both of his on the deck railing, looking down into the dark sea.

            “Drew, I’m sorry.”

            “Are you? Was I just a game?”

            “No, Drew. You know I care for you.”

            He petulantly snatched his arms off the railing. He jammed his hands in his pants pockets and started walking away, down the deck. Jenna followed.

            “Drew, I’m not trying to hurt you.” He passed a windbreak and stopped again at the railing. She came up to him. It was darker here. He pulled her gently into himself. She had to admit she liked his arms around her. It had been a while since she felt safe in a man’s arms. He was leaning in again, so she helped and reached her mouth toward his. She also had to admit she liked kissing him. She was becoming lightheaded again. Maybe she shouldn’t have taken that half tab. But it was hours ago. It should have worn off by now. She realized she had trouble keeping her balance. Drew supported her.

            “What’s wrong, hon?” he asked. “Like my kisses that much?”

            She found that she couldn’t get her tongue to work to answer him.

            “That’s okay, baby. You don’t need to say anything. Dusty said you always talk too much.”

            What? her brain flared. She tried to struggle, but could not control her body.

            “Shh, honey. Everything’s okay. It’s just time for you to take a swim. You’ve been depressed and talking crazy the past few days. I’ll say I tried to get to you but you jumped before I could stop you. I had a bit of trouble dosing your drink tonight. That bitch of a roommate of yours wouldn’t take her eyes off me. I can tell she’s hot for me. She’ll need consoling after you go overboard. She’s not bad looking. I can probably get her in bed in no time. Whadaya think?”

            Jenna was paralyzed and could only look at him with eyes wide with terror.

            “You were so easy. You just ate up my sad little boy routine. Dusty said you’d probably spread your legs for me before the week was out. I was hoping for some of that before you went over, but you had to mess it up. He ain’t even on this ship. He’s back in Greensboro. You were crazy to think he’s here, but it works in our favor. Now the whole ship thinks you’re nuts. Anyway, this is where we part ways.” He put an arm under her to lift her over the railing.

            She heard a click and realized it was a gun being cocked.

            “Stop right there, Mr. Wilson.” It was the Chief Security Officer Scott. “Release Miss Davenport and turn around slowly.” When Drew released her, she fell to the deck. The momentary deflection of the guard’s attention gave Drew the moment he needed. He jumped past the guard and raced down the deck. Two burly deck hands cut off his exit. They cornered him. With a crazed look back at Jenna, he dashed to his right and sailed over the railing. A deckhand ran to the side and threw over a life preserver, the other ran to the wall and rang the man overboard bell. The security guard came and propped Jenna up. “Good thing I kept an eye on you.” Once again, a deckhand picked her up like a child and carried her to sickbay.

***

            Jenna was sitting by her attorney in a courtroom twenty days later. It was the beginning of February, so she was the only one in the courtroom sporting a suntan. She got it during fourteen glorious days in the Caribbean. Once she had realized Dusty wasn’t on the ship, she could relax. She realized she had experienced hallucinations, but they had seemed so real. The ship’s doctor said that was common in survivors of abuse. The final eight days had done her a world of good.

            “Guilty,” the judge intoned. “Sentencing to be on…” he looked at the court calendar. “The 24th of February. Bailiff, take him away.” The bailiff led Dustin Randall in an orange jumpsuit from the courtroom.

            “Your honor. I’m Mr. Mills from the District Attorney’s office,” said a man approaching the gate separating the attorneys from the courtroom. “We’d like to request a delay in sentencing of Mr. Randall until the disposition of our case. I have three warrants for the arrest of Dustin Lee Randall, his cousin Andrew Scott Wilson and his father, D. Jarratt Randall. We plan to charge them with multiple felonies including bribery, racketeering, wiretap, suborning felonies, conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to hire a murder, attempted first degree murder, kidnapping, assault with intent to kill, witness tampering. And there may be more.”

            “Your honor,” the Randall lawyer objected. “These charges are all hearsay. A spurned woman violently attacked young Dusty and now they want to drag the Randall family name through the mud. The family has suffered enough. I move to drop the charges as baseless.”             “Objection overruled. The charges will stand. Sentencing is delayed. Since we relate the counts to the current tort, the clerk will calendar them on my court dates. Court adjourned.”


Curtis A. Bass (Curtisstories.blog) is a writer of short stories in a variety of genres from the American South. He has been published in several online and print journals. When not writing he prefers to stay active ballroom dancing or downhill skiing. He is currently working on his second novel.

This story originally appeared in January 2020 in Scarlet Leaf


Appearing in The Chamber on June 18

The Chamber Magazine Cover June 18, 2021

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

“Escape to Paradise” Fiction by Curtis Bass

Curtis A. Bass (Curtisstories.blog) is a writer of short stories in a variety of genres from the American South. He has been published in several online and print journals. When not writing he prefers to stay active ballroom dancing or downhill skiing. He is currently working on his second novel.

“Medium Well” and “Into the Smoke” Fiction by Jennifer Shneiderman

Jennifer Shneiderman is a landlady living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in many publications, including: The Rubbertop Review, Nanoism, Writers Resist, Anti-Heroin Chic, The Daily Drunk and Montana Mouthful. She received an Honorable Mention in the Laura Riding Jackson 2020 Poetry Competition. 

“A Tour of Fort Helix” Fiction by Thomas White

Thomas White’s poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print magazines in Australia, the United States, and Canada. In addition, he is a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author, and contributor to various non-literary journals on topics ranging from the meaning of Evil to reality as a computer simulation.           

“Something Like Doubt Tapping at the Door” Fiction by Edward Lee

Edward Lee’s poetry, short stories, non-fiction and photography have been published in magazines in Ireland, England and America, including The Stinging Fly, Skylight 47, Acumen, The Blue Nib and Poetry Wales. He is currently working on a novel.

He also makes musical noise under the names Ayahuasca Collective, Orson Carroll, Lego Figures Fighting, and Pale Blond Boy.

His blog/website can be found at https://edwardmlee.wordpress.com

“Sebastian and Angeline” Fiction by Thom Brucie

Thom Brucie’s books include the novels, Weapons of Cain and Children of Slate; a book of short stories, Still Waters: Five Stories; and two chapbooks of poems:  Moments Around the Campfire with A Vietnam Vet and Apprentice Lessons.

He has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, and his short stories and poems have appeared in a variety of journals including The San Joaquin ReviewCappersThe Southwestern ReviewPacific ReviewWilderness House Literary ReviewNorth Atlantic Review, and many others.

Dr. Brucie is Professor of English at South Georgia State College.

Appearing in The Chamber on June 18

The Chamber Magazine Cover June 18, 2021

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

“Escape to Paradise” Fiction by Curtis Bass

Curtis A. Bass (Curtisstories.blog) is a writer of short stories in a variety of genres from the American South. He has been published in several online and print journals. When not writing he prefers to stay active ballroom dancing or downhill skiing. He is currently working on his second novel.

“Medium Well” and “Into the Smoke” Fiction by Jennifer Shneiderman

Jennifer Shneiderman is a landlady living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in many publications, including: The Rubbertop Review, Nanoism, Writers Resist, Anti-Heroin Chic, The Daily Drunk and Montana Mouthful. She received an Honorable Mention in the Laura Riding Jackson 2020 Poetry Competition. 

“A Tour of Fort Helix” Fiction by Thomas White

Thomas White’s poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print magazines in Australia, the United States, and Canada. In addition, he is a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author, and contributor to various non-literary journals on topics ranging from the meaning of Evil to reality as a computer simulation.           

“Something Like Doubt Tapping at the Door” Fiction by Edward Lee

Edward Lee’s poetry, short stories, non-fiction and photography have been published in magazines in Ireland, England and America, including The Stinging Fly, Skylight 47, Acumen, The Blue Nib and Poetry Wales. He is currently working on a novel.

He also makes musical noise under the names Ayahuasca Collective, Orson Carroll, Lego Figures Fighting, and Pale Blond Boy.

His blog/website can be found at https://edwardmlee.wordpress.com

“Sebastian and Angeline” Fiction by Thom Brucie

Thom Brucie’s books include the novels, Weapons of Cain and Children of Slate; a book of short stories, Still Waters: Five Stories; and two chapbooks of poems:  Moments Around the Campfire with A Vietnam Vet and Apprentice Lessons.

He has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, and his short stories and poems have appeared in a variety of journals including The San Joaquin ReviewCappersThe Southwestern ReviewPacific ReviewWilderness House Literary ReviewNorth Atlantic Review, and many others.

Dr. Brucie is Professor of English at South Georgia State College.

Appearing in The Chamber on June 18

The Chamber Magazine Cover June 18, 2021

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

“Escape to Paradise” Fiction by Curtis Bass

Curtis A. Bass (Curtisstories.blog) is a writer of short stories in a variety of genres from the American South. He has been published in several online and print journals. When not writing he prefers to stay active ballroom dancing or downhill skiing. He is currently working on his second novel.

“Medium Well” and “Into the Smoke” Fiction by Jennifer Shneiderman

Jennifer Shneiderman is a landlady living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in many publications, including: The Rubbertop Review, Nanoism, Writers Resist, Anti-Heroin Chic, The Daily Drunk and Montana Mouthful. She received an Honorable Mention in the Laura Riding Jackson 2020 Poetry Competition. 

“A Tour of Fort Helix” Fiction by Thomas White

Thomas White’s poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print magazines in Australia, the United States, and Canada. In addition, he is a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author, and contributor to various non-literary journals on topics ranging from the meaning of Evil to reality as a computer simulation.           

“Something Like Doubt Tapping at the Door” Fiction by Edward Lee

Edward Lee’s poetry, short stories, non-fiction and photography have been published in magazines in Ireland, England and America, including The Stinging Fly, Skylight 47, Acumen, The Blue Nib and Poetry Wales. He is currently working on a novel.

He also makes musical noise under the names Ayahuasca Collective, Orson Carroll, Lego Figures Fighting, and Pale Blond Boy.

His blog/website can be found at https://edwardmlee.wordpress.com

“Sebastian and Angeline” Fiction by Thom Brucie

Thom Brucie’s books include the novels, Weapons of Cain and Children of Slate; a book of short stories, Still Waters: Five Stories; and two chapbooks of poems:  Moments Around the Campfire with A Vietnam Vet and Apprentice Lessons.

He has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, and his short stories and poems have appeared in a variety of journals including The San Joaquin ReviewCappersThe Southwestern ReviewPacific ReviewWilderness House Literary ReviewNorth Atlantic Review, and many others.

Dr. Brucie is Professor of English at South Georgia State College.

“Summer In Uummannaq” Fiction by Mark Mellon

The Chamber Magazine Contemporary Dark Literature

After we crossed the Northwest Passages, a vast expanse of gray sea, and were over Baffin Island, the Commodore allowed the barbot to serve me a martini.

            “Just one, Rome. Try to keep yourself together. After all, we have Claire to think about.”

            The Commodore said this in front of Claire, in fact, in front of everyone. We were on the bridge, admiring the Commodore as he steered AS Vanderbilt, jaunty in a white yacht cap and red blazer with a garish crest on the pocket. I ignored my father and gratefully sipped the ice cold cocktail infused with toad venom. The barbot knew my preferences.

            “Peyton, that tickles.”

            “That’s why I did it.”

            My older brother and his new wife tussled and giggled. Laurel, my mother, watched with an approving smile, faint like everything else about her. The Commodore chuckled, but then returned his attention to the wheel. I continued to drink. The bridge was in the bow. Encased in a transparent glaz canopy, we had a three hundred degree view of bright sky above and surging seascape below, an amazing prospect that once thrilled me as a child. We were over the Davis Strait by that point. Not long now. The Commodore turned the wheel hard to port.

            “Turbulence ahead. I don’t want anything upsetting Claire. For all I know, she may already be carrying my grandson.”

            “Commodore, how you talk.”

            As if Claire would get pregnant on her own, like a savage. I took another sip, tried to make the drink last. Only the first day and my family had already stretched my nerves to the breaking point. We all knew the Commodore was faking, that the giant airship was efficiently, continuously steered by AI with no need for human guidance or help. I’d figured it out at twelve and lost respect for him forever. But still, here I sat with my family, headed once again to our summer resort.

            “Wait until you see Uummannaq, Claire. I know Peyton has shown you holograms, but until you see it in person, you can’t appreciate it properly. It’s a very special place, full of happy family memories. And I know you’re going to add to them this summer, my dear.”

            Claire giggled. She was blonde, tall, and perfect, no surprise since her characteristics were specifically chosen by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Gates, in close consultation with their personal biogenetic engineers.

            The conical, gray airship sailed in solitary grandeur through a blindingly blue sky over a black sea. Powerful electric motors drove long bladed propellers at four hundred kph. Midmorning sunlight poured into the bridge, softened by glaz filters. Laurel had a bowl of strawberries and cream. I finished my drink and blinked at the barbot.

            “I said one, Rome.”

            “Yes, Commodore.”

            Vanderbilt passed Disko Island, a lush, green dot fifteen kilometers below. Almost there. To our right, a vast, endless sward of tropical jungle spread before us, Greenland. The airship  descended. The Commodore vigorously spun the wheel.

            “Stand beside the canopy, Claire. I want you to be first to see Uummannaq.”

            Claire took Peyton’s hand. They went to the bridge’s edge and looked down at the white capped sea below.

            “Uummannaq straight ahead,” the Commodore cried. “Clear the decks and batten the hatches for fun and adventure.”

            I inwardly groaned and yearned for another drink. Claire wildly squealed in delight.

            “Oh, there it is. And it’s wonderful, just like you said, Commodore.”          

            Laurel went to look as well. Vanderbilt headed toward the broad, electric blue fjord carved from Greenland’s mass. A small island loomed ahead, capped by a towering crag, the most prominent peak in western Greenland, topped in turn by a half kilometer high structure of gleaming glaz and titanium steel, the Vanderbilt summer home, one of a half dozen Greenland private resorts.

            “Oh, look,” Laurel said. “It hasn’t changed.”

            “Why should it, dear?”

            A blazing fireball soared in a tight spiral around the airship, then flashed past in a shower of red and gold sparks. The airship pitched and yawed, a violent oscillation AI guided stabilizers desperately scrambled to overcome. The fireball streaked toward Uummannaq.

            “What’s that?” Claire shrieked.

            Peyton sighed. “Don’t worry, dear. That’s just Barton.”

            Indifferent to the terror my younger brother’s typical stunt inflicted upon Claire, the Commodore chuckled. “They broke the mold when they made Barton.”

            “Thank God for that too.”

            “Please, Eaton. Can’t you be pleasant?”

            “I’ll be pleasant, Laurel, if you don’t call me ‘Eaton.'”

            “That’s enough, Rome.”

            I fell into sullen silence. The Vanderbilt steered for the mansion’s apex. Propeller blades retracted into their housings that folded in turn into apertures in the airship’s horizontally ribbed hull. VTOL rotors steadily whirred the airship downward. Three massive clamps on an inline axle sprang open on the airship’s keel. Matching catches opened on the landing pod beneath. With a great hiss of helium, Vanderbilt slipped into the berth. The clamps slammed home. The Commodore tethered the wheel with a rope and dusted his hands, plainly pleased by yet another job well done.

            “Safe and sound, just as I promised. Now to disembark and begin our vacation.”

            The Commodore snapped his fingers. With gentle, hydraulic ease, the canopy split in two. An air saloon ascended from the landing pod. It hovered close, an electric rotor powered open coach with seats for eight upholstered in mammoth hide. A short ramp extended from the saloon and locked into place with the bridge. The Commodore needlessly assisted Laurel up the ramp. Claire and Peyton followed with goosing and giggling and other obligatory, young married nonsense. I went last, sat up front, and brooded.

            The ramp unlocked and retracted. The Commodore sat in the stern and put his hand to the tiller. The saloon lifted noiselessly away from the airship. Black maintenance drones swarmed over Vanderbilt like a horde of winged ants. A gap opened in the landing pod. The saloon descended into the mansion. Numerous, gargantuan floors passed by, endless, tastefully furnished spaces brightly lit by transparent glaz walls that opened onto blue panoramas of sea and sky.

            The saloon landed in garden niche T-37, a recessed, hundred hectare inset with an AI controlled microclimate. The Commodore intended to show off his collection. Hopefully, I could drink when lunch was served. Amid the broad green sward where lesser Cretaceous reptilians gamboled, bots laid out a feast fit for the gods upon a damask clad table. The centerpiece was an auroch’s gleaming, roasted haunch, clad in aspic, surrounded by broiled chickens, ducks, and pheasants.

            “Everyone must be famished after that long trip. Sit down and eat.”

            We took our places. The Commodore nodded. Wheeled, bow-tied waitbots trundled forward and served choice viands whether we wanted them or not, grilled filet of coelecanth, thick, juicy indricotherium chops, three kilo bats stripped of their wings and fricasseed in their skins.

            “Oh, what a nice meal. Don’t you think so, Claire?” Laurel said.

            A few meters away, a velociraptor tore out a duck billed hadrosaur’s throat with his sharp claws. Claire gasped. Peyton smiled.

            “Don’t worry, Claire. We’re all right behind the tension barrier.”

            “Don’t let a raptor eating lunch bother you. After all, you’re doing the same thing, just with less effort.”

            Barton strolled up. Another of his sneaky entrances. He must have used a tether.   

            “This is Claire, right? Say, Peyton got lucky. I got to congratulate you.”

            Barton slipped an arm around Claire’s shoulders and planted a kiss on her mouth more appropriate for a late night date than a new sister-in-law. Peyton just took it. But then again we all did, even the Commodore, but he thought Barton was cute.

            “Barton, enough horsing around. Sit next to your mother.”

            “Certainly, Commodore.”

            He sat down, pecked Laurel on the cheek, and ate with his huge appetite. I had a chicken wing and a large glass of white wine I frequently refilled.

            “So how is Galt’s Gulch, Barton?” the Commodore asked.

            “Dull. That’s why I came early. AI flashed the airship was only five K’s away. I decided to give you a real Uummannaq welcome, Claire.”

            She smiled. “I admit I was scared, but Peyton explained it to me. You certainly make an impression, Barton.”

            “You could get us killed with your stunts, Barton. Maybe someday we’ll get lucky and you’ll succeed.”

            Laurel’s mouth formed a small “o” of dismay. The Commodore gave his patented cold stare, but I was long immune. Peyton scowled. Barton just laughed. Used to rigidly maintained gentility, Claire’s eyes went wide in blank incomprehension. Two triceratops mated in the distance, reptile jaws gaped wide in carnal ecstasy. I continued to drink. It was just as good a time as any other for Claire to learn what the family was really like.

            “You’re overreacting and being gratuitously cruel, Eaton. You promised if I showed you the respect you claim I’ve denied you, you’d curb your sharp tongue and drinking in return. I see you’ve no intention of fulfilling your bargain. Try to be civil for a change.”

            I got up and walked away.

            “Eaton, you have not been dismissed from the table.”

            “The name is Rome,” I said over my shoulder.

            “You can always take a rocket pod home, Rome,” Barton said.

            I ignored him and continued to the terrace’s edge. As I surmised, a tether hung there. I winked. The tether recognized my retinal signature and came alive, crackling with energy. I slipped on a silicon glove, broke the invisible tension barrier, and grasped the tether.

            Bonded tight by the glove, I plummeted downward, twenty stories to my quarters at the mansion’s base, as far from my family as I could get. Once inside, I downed a stiff, straight shot of skullbustium and laid down on my bed, anxious for oblivion.

            I slipped into a deep, black sleep, devoid of dreams.

***

            It was almost 1800 when I came to, slightly groggy. I shook off the drug’s aftereffects, cursed my indestructible constitution, and got up. A wink turned a glaz wall transparent. The summer sun was pitched high in the northern latitudes. Hours of daylight remained. I decided to walk outside and filled my flask with brandy.

            I slipped through a side entrance to the two story high master portal. It was a balmy thirty degrees C. Uummannaq’s craggy flanks were fringed with tropical foliage, wine palms, teak, ebony, mahogany. Green lichen ate into the mountain, ever so slowly sapped the stones of nutrients.

            I put on a glove, and snapped my fingers with my other hand. A tether snaked from a wall to form a gentle arc downward to the plain. I grasped the tether and flew toward the ground, careful to look away (heading rapidly, inexorably toward an unyielding landscape makes me nauseous). At the last moment, the tether slowed my fall and I landed with a fair grace. The plain was thickly forested with wine palms and other fruit bearing trees.

            I took a path to the sea. A faint breeze tried to ruffle my hair, but it insistently stayed in place. Thick undergrowth restricted my vision. Waves crashed in the distance.

            “SSSSQQQQQUUUUUAAAAAWWWWKKKK.”

            A large, male dodo jumped onto the path before me, gray feathers ruffled and short wings spread wide in a full threat display. He snapped his powerful beak at me. His mate must be nursing an egg somewhere nearby. The dodo was ready to fight.

            “Here, pretty birdy.”

            The silicon googleplexchip ring on my right hand discharged low voltage into the bird. The dodo shrieked and ran into the brush. I resumed my walk. Two kilometers later, I reached the beach, a broad, flat stretch of sand that extended into the hazy distance. Dodoes hustled among nearby trees in search of fallen ripe fruit. This was where we swam, when Peyton and I were small, before Barton came along.

            I  arranged palm leaves into an improvised pallet in the shade, stretched out, and drank from my flask. Birds circled over the beach in uncountable numbers, common gulls and the great, white winged pelagornis, while black and white great auks clustered on worn rocks that jutted from the sea. In the distance, a plesiosaur’s long, sinuous neck and head reared forth from the sea only to submerge again. The vast, light blue sky was cloudless. There was nothing human around me. The waves’ susurrus and the steady heat combined with alcohol to lull me to sleep.

            “This is a pretty spot. Didn’t you try to drown me here when I was two?”

            Barton sat on the pallet’s edge, arms wrapped around his legs. I sighed, sat up, and took another drink.  

            “You know, it’s none of my business, but even a biologically engineered liver can only take so much punishment.”  

            “What do you want, Barton? You never see me unless you want something.”

            “Rome, that’s not true. You’re the only one besides me who can face facts. Laurel, Peyton, definitely Edgar, they’re not much different from bots.”

            “Then why do you kiss Edgar’s ass? It’s what I hate most about you.”

            Barton lightly slapped me on the knee. “You know I only do that so I get my fair share of the estate when Edgar hits one hundred twenty. That’s only seventeen years away.”

            “You’re counting every second aren’t you?”

            “No. I’m only forty-three.”

            “I hope Edgar leaves it to Peyton. That would serve you right.”

            Barton snorted. “Edgar favors me, not that slavebot Peyton. Take Claire. An excellent example of his inadequacy for any real, important task. She’s more woman than he can handle. Why should she be with him?”

            I looked Barton dead in the eye. “That’s why you’re bothering me. You’ve got some crazy idea about using Claire to hurt Peyton. Because it’s the worst, most completely inappropriate thing you can possibly do.”

            “You give me too much credit, Rome. Still, nice chatting with you. We should do it again.”

            He stood up to leave, but turned to look at me.

            “One thing puzzles me. Call yourself whatever you want, but why ‘Rome?’ Why not ‘Paris’ or London?'”

            “I like the place.”

            “It doesn’t exist anymore.”

            “Neither do the other cities you mentioned. That doesn’t mean I can’t miss them.”

            Barton shrugged. “I never will understand you, Eaton.”

            He strapped on his jet pack. Barton took off with a blast of flame as he soared toward the mansion’s peak. I lay back on my pallet and tried to forget the whole unpleasant interlude, but failed. Summers at Uummannaq had always been emotionally fraught affairs, but Claire represented a new source of tension and strain. Barton was plainly hell bent on mischief. And Barton always had his way, no matter what.

***

            Things seemed to calm down after that, at least on a superficial level, as the family settled into the holiday routine. We took the airship low over Greenland to view natives in their primitive huts. The Commodore promised to hold a party, to invite guests from other grand homes like the Rockefellers, Putins, and Dimons so Claire could meet everyone as Mrs. Peyton Vanderbilt. The Corsair was run out from dry dock, black, sleek, with a sharply raked hull and four 6000 hp electric motors.

            We took a cruise. Barton harpooned a megalodon outside the fjord. We watched him die from the bridge. The giant shark thrashed about and leaped from the sea, biting at the harpoon that pierced his side, but finally rolled over and lay still upon the surface.

            “Shark steaks tonight,” Barton crowed as powerful winches reeled the thirty-five ton monster toward the Corsair.

            I saw the admiring look in Claire’s eyes. She had to notice how active Barton was compared to Peyton. He shared my indolent, passive nature, although not my vices. Claire had a lively disposition herself. She liked to organize parlor games after dinner with everyone’s enthusiastic participation, myself excepted. I watched them laugh as the Commodore tried to act out a word. Barton roared along with the rest of them, but his eyes never left Claire.

            His attentions toward her steadily increased with invitations to play jet pack handball over the landing pad, to race one horned elasmotheriums across the island plain, goaded by laser prods, or just to hang motionless for hours in the bodywarp web, mutually lost in mindless limbic ecstasy.

            It was more than obvious what he wanted. Of course, the Commodore thought Barton was just being attentive, making Claire feel at home. If Laurel had any concerns, she kept them to herself. She stuck to her laser knitting, cutting and stitching various bits of DNA to make tiny, fanciful creatures she kept in plaz terrariums. Peyton just laughed it off. After all, Claire still slept with him every night. He’d don a holomask and return to supervising sandhogbots as they dug for rare earths and alien metals on our lunar mine, another task like steering the airship AI could handle perfectly well.

            I confronted Claire when she was alone and told her the truth.  “You should know Barton never does anything nice on purpose. He only wants to play a mean trick on you and Peyton. Stay away from him.”

            Claire gave me a sad, pitying look. “What the Commodore says about you is true, Rome. You drink too much and look at things all wrong because you’re drunk. From now on, Rome, until your attitude improves, I’d prefer that you left me alone, if it’s all the same to you.”

            “Just as you say.”

            The party was held soon after that. Airships hovered over the landing pad. Elegant saloons descended down to the Grand Ballroom, a square kilometer in size and three stories high. Music bots hummed a gentle, quiet welcoming drone. Men wore opaque suits that made them  walking cubist blocks while women were attired in flaming sundresses that hurt the naked eye so everyone had tinted masks. The Commodore was in his traditional sporran and kilt in the family tartan while Laurel wore a simple white gown adorned with living, writhing homunculi. He held his arms high in greeting.

            “My dear friends, let’s get another summer off to a good start with music, food, drink, and dancing.”

            Given their cue, the bots pumped out tek with a thumping beat. Guests danced, lively or sedate depending upon age and disposition. Barton took Claire’s hand, held her tight, and put her through the sinuous motions of the shameless, sordid Galt’s Gulch Grind. They couldn’t have been any closer if they were sutured together. Younger guests laughed and cheered them on. And Peyton took it with a dumb look on his face.

            The party went on by the sun’s light, a pale disc hovering just above the sea’s edge. Food and drink were consumed, megalodon steaks cooked in lemon juice and garnished with thyme, plesiosaur roe with sour cream on a fifty kilo baked potato, tender percopteris leaves with Roquefort dressing, washed down with champagne, beer, toad venom shots, and pineal gland bitters. Everyone ate and drank so heartily they were close to stupefaction. Peyton was particularly hangdog, slumped in his chair, eyes half closed, drumstick in one hand, empty glass in the other. He sat up, shook himself aware, and looked around him.

            “Where’s Claire?”

            I scanned the vast hall, but didn’t see Claire or Barton. Had they slipped out unnoticed in the party’s hubbub?

            Shortly afterward, Barton showed up. He sauntered slow and cool across the ballroom. No one seemed to notice, probably due to being stuffed and inebriated. I’d had as much alcohol as anyone else, but barely ate and was in my usual state of lucid drunkenness. I watched him approach Peyton. I knew we stood on the edge of an awful, unforgivable event, a ratcheting up of family ugliness to an unbearable level.

            Barton snapped his fingers and overrode the AI. The musicbots ceased. A woman’s sobs filled the air, soft, miserable, inconsolable. Claire’s.

            “Barton, how could you? I loved you and trusted you-“

            Barton laughed. “Peyton, I usually like to keep these as souvenirs, but it’s really your property for now, so here.”

            He threw a pair of mauve shamseen panties onto Peyton’s lap. He looked down and the flimsy undergarment’s meaning sank into his sozzled brain. Peyton threw his wine glass at Barton. He neatly sidestepped it.

            My brother’s unexpected show of anger surprised and pleased me. I hoped for more, but Peyton instead reverted to type and ran weeping from the room. Kilt a-flap, the Commodore went to the table.

            “What in the name of sweet plutocracy have you done, Barton? You seem to have upset Peyton terribly.”

            “He’s just angry, Commodore, because he knows Claire’s mine now.”

            “Come, come, Barton. You like to joke, but I went to a great deal of trouble to arrange Peyton’s marriage to Claire. You can’t upset that on a whim. We’ll find you an appropriate mate in due time.”

            “No, I want Claire. She needs a real man. Just tell the Gates you switched brothers.”

            I had to get away, from the guests, the mansion, and most of all, my family. I grabbed a bottle of champagne and ran to the ballroom’s rim where I broke the tension barrier and grabbed the nearest tether. Outside, I hustled quickly down the path, glad for once to be born athletic. The sun had slipped away and the weak gray night begun. Dodoes huddled in their nests, grateful for the brief rest.

            The long, curved beach was fringed by a delicate scroll of shifting, small, silver waves. I unsealed a hermetic pod with my ring and dragged out a long unused rowboat. I pulled the boat into the water, got in, and put the oars in their tholes. Out in the fjord, Barton couldn’t sneak up on me and I could drink in peace.

            Biologically engineered muscles easily adjusted to the unwonted exercise. I rowed until I was in the middle of the fjord with a clear view of Uummannaq, then shipped oars. The boat bobbed gently in the water. I uncorked the champagne. Foam arced into my lap. I drank deeply.

            At the mansion, the tek had resumed, loud enough to be heard in the fjord, along with occasional snatches of high pitched, feminine laughter. Order or what passed for it in our family had apparently been restored and the party had resumed. The Commodore liked to keep up appearances. I took another stiff pull from the bottle and wondered. How would things finally play out? Would the vicious fighting ever end or simply drag on for the rest of our lives?

            A giant fireball erupted from the mansion, a huge explosion that shattered glaz and steel and cast fragments in all directions. I held my arms before my face to shield myself from white hot steel scraps and razor sharp glaz fragments. Another explosion, even more massive and destructive than the first, snapped the mansion in two. The sundered top fell into the fjord, taking my family and most of Terra’s plutocrats with it. A huge wave swept toward me, but the cork like boat easily crested it. Wreckage was strewn all around me.

            My question was answered. Peyton had taken a coward’s revenge and blown up Barton, himself, Claire, our parents, and everyone else who had witnessed his cuckold’s shame. I’d only escaped by sheer accident. Always under strain, dysfunction had reached the point where the family cracked like a badly cast vase, the fault built in from the start.

            I laughed for a while and cried for a time. When I finished the bottle, I threw it into the water, and put the oars back in their tholes.

            I rowed westward, where the sea could swallow me and Terra would finally be done with Vanderbilts.


Mark notes:

“By way of background, I’m a novelist who supports his family by working as an attorney. I have four novels and over seventy short stories (many as reprints) published in the USA, UK, Ireland, and Denmark. Short fiction by me has recently appeared in Thriller MagazineTigersharkTall Tale TV, and Into The Ruins. A novella, Escape From Byzantium, won the 2010 Independent Publisher Silver Prize for SF/Fantasy. More information about my writing is available at: www.mellonwritesagain.com.

Mark says about this story: “You may be interested to know I wrote this yarn as an SF version of a John Cheever New Yorker piece, something I felt compelled to do after reading his collected short stories.”


“Midnight Ride” by Brendan Burton

Melody’s eyes closed for a heartbeat, and her old Honda Accord drifted off the side of the lonesome two-lane road, and veered towards the rock of the mountain wall. The shaking vibrations of the rumble strips on the edge of the pavement ripped her back out of dream land.

Bloodshot eyes burst open, and she slammed her foot on the brake pedal, bringing the car to a screeching halt. She sat in a silence for a moment, letting her heartbeat still, and brought her hands up to rub her eyes.

Jesus, she thought.

Melody reached down and grabbed the thermos sitting in her cup holder, raised it to her lips, and took a long swig of the lukewarm coffee. A close call. The digital clock on the radio read 11:45, a quarter to midnight. 5 hours, she told herself, halfway home.

She’d been studying for her finals at Ohio State when her father had called from Florida. Mom was in the ER. It’s bad. Come quick. Now she was somewhere in the mountains of Tennessee, following a one-way road that looked carved from the flesh of the earth by some willful deity.

Melody blinked a few dozen times and set her thermos back down. When she looked up again, she noticed the shapes illuminated in her headlights. Her eyes focused and she realized a mass of crosses lay off the edge of the road.

There were dozens of them, and they spread out as far as the dim beams from the Honda could illuminate. Some were bare wood, all ornamentation washed away by years of exposure to wind, sun, and rain, but many more were decorated. Painted in a rainbow of colors and bedecked with flowers and the pictures of deceased loved ones.

Melody tore her eyes from the crucifixes and examined the road ahead. It gently curved along the slope until reaching a tunnel carved in the mountainside. No sharp turns or steep angles. Nothing to explain the loss of so many lives.

Her eyes went back to the memorials, and a shiver danced down Melody’s spine. Doesn’t need to be any hazards, she thought, a little sleep deprivation and a moment of weakness do the trick. She shifted her foot from the brakes, and gently pressed down on the gas, leaving the monuments to the dead behind.

Melody drove until she came to the tunnel mouth, slowed to a crawl, and turned on her high beams, edging her way inside. It was dark as Hades, and the ink black recess drank in the light like a man dying of thirst. The space looked ancient. Cracked, interlocking stones made up the interior. They dripped perspiration and moss and fungi grew in clumps all along the surface. Graffiti decorated the walls, draping the stone in crisscrossing letters in a myriad of shapes and styles.

Melody scanned the calligraphy and her face twisted in puzzlement.

“What the hell?” She whispered.

Instead of the bawdy jokes, or the declarations of love she had expected, she found each and every bit of writing was a name, and all the names were painted on in the same crimson hue.

Almost looks like blood, she thought, and put her foot down on the gas with more force.

The tunnel was short, but the minute long crawl through its bowels was like an eternity. Melody made it to the arch of the exit, and her heart shuddered. Painted at the top of the tunnel mouth, still dripping wet, was her own name.

Melody rubbed at her puffed up eyes and blinked, but the letters didn’t change. That can’t be right. Gooseflesh rippled down her arms and the hair on the back of her neck stood on end.

A coincidence, she told herself, clearing the exit. She slammed her foot on the gas, eager to be done and away with the lonely stretch of mountain road.

She drove hard and fast, doing her best to look ahead and not back at the black maw that had spat her out. A few hundred feet away from the tunnel, a sudden light reflected in the rearview and bathed the cabin of the Honda in glaring white. Melody had to squint her eyes to keep from being blinded, and when she looked up to the mirror, she made out the silhouette of a colossal semi, lights burning as bright as a dozen suns, pulling up behind her at an incredible speed. Where did it come from?

In a matter of moments, the truck had closed the distance with Melody. It pulled up within a few feet and let loose a thunderous peel of noise from its horn. The sound was a physical force in Melody’s skull, and her ears rang with the violence of the din,

She turned on her blinker and switched over to the right lane. The semi didn’t pass. Instead, it followed her over, pulled up close enough to almost kiss her bumper, and sounded the siren again. The shriek was louder this time, and the tone was different, higher, distorted, wrong.

Melody beeped her own horn, its tinny whine a pathetic retort to the ear-shattering clamor of the truck’s.

“Pass me!” She screamed, her face red, eyebrows narrowed in fury.

Once again, Melody flashed her blinker, and made a lightning-fast lane change. The truck careened in behind her.

What the fu-.

Melody’s thoughts were interrupted by the savage impact of the semi smashing into her rear.

The collision sent shockwaves through the little Honda, lifting its back tires off the ground and flinging it out of control. Melody fought with the steering wheel to regain traction. The guard rail on her left rose up to greet her and she yanked to the right, swerving to the next lane. A string of curses exploded from her lips, and she slammed the gas pedal to the floor board.

For a split second, she had a lead on the semi, but it closed the gap in a few heartbeats. The truck drew up beside the Honda, and Melody finally saw her tormentor. A raw, savage scream tore from her throat.

The fell vehicle was hewn from obsidian, the black mirror sheen reflecting the hell fire crackling along its length. The cab windows pulsed with a burning, bloody light and the smokestacks belched noxious fumes from severed, blackened human skulls.

The juggernaut made a swift turn, careening towards Melody. It pushed against her car’s frame, forcing her closer to the jutting rock of the mountainside.

She slammed on the brakes. Momentum threw her forward into the steering wheel as her engine shrieked and tires squealed. She fell back behind the semi as it smashed into the mountain, rebounded with the collision, drove through the guard rail, and sailed off the edge and into the night air.

There should have been the calamitous noise of tons of steel slamming into the ground below, but Melody heard nothing. Her car puttered to a stop. Melody shifted the Honda to park and she sat in the middle of the road, her fingers gripping the wheel with white-knuckle tension.

Her body trembled, and tears welled in the corner of Melody’s eyes. What the hell just happened? She wanted to brush the whole thing off as an insomniac hallucination, but the skid marks, and the twisted metal of the shattered railing bore testament to reality. What was trying to kill me?

Melody drew in a series of deep breaths, fighting against the panic threatening to consume her mind. I’ve got to move, she told herself, and put the car back in drive. Get off this mountain, find a fuel station or a welcome center, and get help.

She went to shift her foot to the gas, and as she did so, glaring luminescence reflected in the mirrors, blinding her. The semi was back. Melody let out a wail and crushed the pedal to the floor.

She pushed her little car into the red, but she couldn’t escape. The truck grew closer and closer, until it had pulled up right beside her. The semi let loose with another hellish screech from its horns, and to Melody, it wrung with the tortured laments of the damned.

She went to slam on the brakes again, but the demonic engine didn’t give her the chance. It smashed her right side at full force, herding her to the guard rail. Metal ground against metal in an ear-piercing screech, and sparks ricocheted away from the contact.

The last thing Melody saw before the railing buckled and she was sent flying down the mountain, was her own screaming face reflected in the flickering light of the truck’s dark surface.


Brendan Burton is a fledgling writer beginning to dip his toes in the murky water of publication. After being laid off in the COVID shutdowns, he took to constructing short fiction to pass his newfound free time and he’s been addicted ever since.


“Pride and Joy” Fiction by Julian Grant

The first bolt smashed through the door pinning the night beast to the wood. It screamed feral fury as Joshua reloaded the crossbow with shaking hands. He ratcheted the bolt into position, hands trembling still as he took aim at the screaming monster.

“Slowly, son… take your time. It’s not going anywhere,” cautioned Jacob.

Together they stood vigil in the hallway of the broke-back house staring down at the impaled bloodsucker. Joshua gulped, his eyes wet, never leaving the creature as he tried to level his weapon.

Jacob guided his arm on target.

“Do they even feel pain, Father?”

Jacob shrugged and spat, sour spittle hitting the floor beneath the creature’s foot.

“I sure hope so, son. I want them to feel every one. Okay, let it fly.”

Joshua unleashed the killing bolt — looking to his father for approval.

At home, Joshua threw feed to their scrawny chickens. Inside the barn, his father’s mechanical hammering could be heard as the steel tang of the blacksmith’s strike echoed sharply through the open door. Corn feed slid between Joshua’s numb fingers in a wide absent spray as memories flooded over. Staccato frames of horror flashed in quicksilver speed as the killing wrath of the night before returned.

Bloodied teeth.

Sharp, cracked fingernails.

The spider quick scuttle of frenzied mad things.

The banshee wail of death.

Joshua shivered as icy, rough fingers scraped his spine in cruel memory. Shuddering, he turned back to his afternoon chores. Last night had been forever ago — yet still burned bright in his fourteen year old heart.

The barn was now silent. Time had slipped by.

“Pa?”

Joshua called out to his father turning away from the absent birds. His father was strangely silent now.

Hidden within the cavernous barn, nothing moved.

No sound could be heard.

No hammering. No Jacob.

Silence hung over the yard in a disquieting shroud.

“Dad, everything okay?”

Joshua stepped to the barn. His stomach souring, feet heavy in the coming as he tried not to let his fear overwhelm him. He had finished his last chores with the chickens now fed — so he was okay. His work was done. Silence from his father could mean many things though; stony dissatisfaction, that he was taking a secret drink, or when he too was lost in his own memories of their once-ago family. Joshua had a long list of times and circumstances he could map with absolute surety that would result in punishment because of quiet.

Silence was always a prelude to pain.

“I finished my chores, Pa. You got anything else for me to do?”

Joshua eased inside casting furtive glances about the cool-shadowed building. Light fought for purchase through the strange angled shadows dominating the weathered wood. Pools of light illuminated the doorway, his father’s workbench and the much-used forge. The rest was black.

“Pa?”

Joshua’s feet padded slowly forward, his heart pounding in lock step as he crept inside. He knew his father was there — had to be. He had just heard him working on the horseshoes for their last broken mare.

The furnace stood untended, tongs and hammer of the trade abandoned on the dusty floor, fire still crackling with assured heat inside the forge.

He picked up the tongs, then the heavy eight-pound hammer lying absently on the hard-packed ground. Jacob would never leave his tools in the dust — a lesson he had learned never to do at his father’s harsh hand. Touching the weathered handle, his father’s hammer, felt like an act of defiance. He had to use both hands to lift the dead-weight steel. Joshua gently placed it on the anvil as his eyes searched the stables that had long been emptied. Between the endless drought of this summer and the ensuing ‘Sucker infestation, the downward spiral of their home and the surrounding county was assured. Homewood county had been wrung dry. Death was the only constant here now. Noah, his baby brother had passed when the pigs and horses got infected. His Ma had been attacked by ‘Suckers on her way home from visiting her sister one town over.

Nothing moved inside the barn.

Joshua stepped even deeper into the dark.

The sharpened bolts for the crossbows were lined neatly on the gritted workbench along with a sour, wet sack still dripping from the night before.

Joshua could barely look at it.

Red, thick blood pooled on the weathered bench as fat blue bottle flies sang in the afternoon heat. Jacob had struck the creature’s head from the still-twitching corpse as Joshua dry-heaved his victory. Sawing through the jugular and the soft part of the neck, Joshua could still hear his father instructing him on the best way to field dress a vampire.

“Always cut from front to back. Keep well back from the jugular on the first cut. Blood gets everywhere.”

In demonstration, Jacob deftly sawed through the yellowed-throat of the now truly-dead creature. Blood, rude-red in color, splashed spitting as Jacob continued to cut.

“If it was still kicking, this thing would geyser like a tapped well. Always keep in back and don’t get any on you. The blood alone will turn ya if you get it in your mouth or an open cut.”

Choking back his nausea, Joshua nodded dully as his father severed the ‘Sucker’s head.

“Cut upwards with the blade into the spinal column and find the soft links between the vertebra with your knife. The cut only works there.”

Jacob’s blade snickered neatly through the corpse as the head tumbled to the floor, rolling across to Joshua.

“Use the gunny sac to cover it and always haul it by the bag. Don’t ever let your skin get in direct contact with it. Remember, it’ll turn you if you touch the blood.” Jacob’s eye twinkled in the half-light of the hallway as the soon-rising sun slid first light through the window.

“ Never hesitate, son. If you hesitate, you die. Understand?”

Joshua nodded as he slid the grimy burlap sac over the head of the creature using the toe of his boot. He kicked the covered package over breathing a sigh of relief.

Now, the same bag sat on the shelf before him.

Slowly, rising and falling as if the head inside had returned to life yet again. A sly, thin chuckle wheezed from inside the sac.

His eyes widening in shock, Joshua crabbed backwards away from the bag falling onto the dry pan of the floor.

“Dad! Dad! Dad!”

Joshua scurried backwards away from the head gasping as he tried to bite back the panic. He knew this was not real. It was his imagination.

The sack on the table was still.

Long seconds passed as he stared at the blood soaked package.

He could detect no movement from within.

Rubbing his cheating eyes, Joshua stood slowly, continuing to watch the head for any movement.

His fingers found the ball-peen hammer on the anvil. He felt better just touching the steel — willing away his fear. He could do this.

Sunlight streamed through the door as Joshua strode through the dust motes spiraling in the half breeze. His tongue traced tombstone teeth in careful measure as he steeled his resolve determined to pull the dirty bag from the monster’s head. Proving that is was truly gone.

That he was a man now.

He stepped forward.

A drop of scarlet spattered his outstretched arm as he reached for the burlap sack.

From above.

He gasped as he pulled back his clothed arm and craned his keening eyes up.

Jacob was cradled in a nest of corruption deep in the rafters.

Four adult creatures and two undead children clung hideously to his father in the shadowed depths. They drank from neck, arms, wrist and groin in languid stupor. Like tics, they were lost in their feeding once attached.

Joshua shook at the sight of his father hanging in space being fed on. Determined not to scream and alert the feasting monsters. Soft sucking sounds drifted to him through the thick summer air. With eyes closed in evil ecstasy, the ‘Suckers did not notice the horror-stricken boy admist them.

Unless he screamed.

They knew screams — seeking them out always.

Joshua willed himself silent. Any sound now could kill him.

Jacob’s steely eyes opened as if sensing his son, his blood-streaked iris’s floating to the stakes on the worktable and crossbow hanging on the peg next to them. His lips moved slowly with great care so Joshua could read them.

His message was clear. “Kill me.”

Jacob had taught his son well about ‘Suckers. If he did not kill his father, he would return as a night crawler, if they didn’t drain him dry. He was already a dead man. Joshua watched a lone, red tear leak from his father, knowing that he was sorry, saddened that he was abandoning his son to a world gone mad with night terrors. He was broken — unable to see his son grow strong.

Joshua nodded in silent agreement.

Moving slowly to the forge, he gingerly slid the poker into the heated maw as he watched the crawlers continue to feed. Joshua pushed the metal rod deep into the coals. On feather-light feet, he stepped to the crossbow, lifting it from the peg.

He had only one shot to make before they realized he was here.

With careful hands, he slid both bolt and bow into position all the while blind to what his hands were doing. His eyes remained fixed on the grisly tableau above as he chambered his weapon. Jacob had taught him how to assemble, crank and operate the crossbow blindfolded.

“When would I ever need to know how to do this, Pa?”

Jacob had made him practice endlessly for this exact purpose, Joshua now knew. Sighting tight on his father, he watched Jacob’s head dip in acknowledgement.

Then close his eyes.

The bolt flew true breaching the bloodletting with furious result, the hand-carved stake smashing into Jacob’s heart with merciless accuracy.

From above, the ‘Suckers screamed in unison as Joshua raced to the forge grasping the red-hot poker.

The engorged monsters fell from the roof furious at being disturbed as Joshua threw the fiery steel over them into the well-packed hay stacked behind. The tinder-dry cuttings he had spent days assembling burst into immediate flame shooting skyward hot tongues of wrathful fury.

Joshua stepped back into the welcoming light of the door as he took one last look at his father pinned to the ceiling above.

It was a good kill.

He walked out into the baked summer yard as the death screams of the bloodsuckers behind him wailed through the inferno. Joshua knew his father was proud of him.


Julian Grant is a filmmaker, educator, and author of strange short stories plus full-length novels/ non-fiction texts and comics. A tenured Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago, his work has been published by Quail Bell, Avalon Literary Review, Crepe & Penn, Clever Magazine, Peeking Cat Literary JournalDanse Macabre, Fiction on the Web, CafeLit, Horla, Bond Street Review, Free Bundle, Filth Magazine & The Adelaide Literary Magazine.  Find out more about him at www.juliangrant.com


“When Stanley Met Demon Fire” Fiction by Thomas White

The Chamber Magazine
thechambermagazine.com

Stanly had as a youth watched the bright orbs shift and glide above the desolate plains, known in the guide books as the Wastelands, near his home. Local gossip was always abuzz with claims that UFOs were in the area and about to land. But as Stanly found out what comes from the skies are not necessarily aliens in spaceships from the other side of the cosmos.

About a year ago, when Stanly had been unemployed, he had been approached by a little man at Stanly’s favorite café. The man had all of the appearances of a street person: frayed and stained overcoat, multiple layers of heavy sweaters smelling of rancid sweat and body odor, patched and torn trousers. A grey-grizzled face with a puckered mouth slightly dribbling tobacco completed the picture of a man down and out. But his teeth! Where there should have been a tramp’s dirty yellow, rotting stumps were glistening white rows of precision-crafted incisors. And instead of an overwhelming stinking whiskey breath, his mouth had a slight greasy smell as if the little man’s mouth was a car hood opened to reveal its engine. Then Stanly noticed the front of the odd man’s neck: leathery and flaming red.

At first Stanly thought the little man, sniffling and mumbling, was going to ask for a tissue or money.  Instead, he flashed a very professional business card that read:

      ‘Heaven is Hell traveling under false pretenses.’

       Interested in learning more?

       Talk to the Star Watchers

       If you want to earn some quick cash.

Offering to buy Stanly a coffee, the man said in a low, almost timid voice, “Excuse my trashy clothing, but when I am traveling on earth I like to keep a low profile. You see my name is Demon Fire, who lives amid the thunder and lightning in the Hell that humans call ‘Heaven’- aka the skies.”

The little man glanced at his grubby boots, then flashed a rigid grin like a corpse trying to be sociable. Noticing a puzzled Stanly starting intently at his face and neck, Demon Fire chattered and flexed his mechanical teeth while pointing to his leathery neck. “These teeth are not human but precision machined from junk parts from an old car engine… but the neck is … real.”

“Who are the Star Watchers?” asked Stanly

“That is what we need to talk about: your big chance to earn some quick cash,” Demon Fire said as he motioned to Stanly to leave the café with him.

                                                  ###

About two miles from the café was a sleazy strip joint, The All-Star Club. Stanly and Demon Fire took a taxi there and Demon paid the driver. (For a street person in shabby clothes, DF seemed to have plenty of ready cash, Stanly mulled, smiling to himself.) Both settled comfortably into a booth. A waiter in a bright red leotard took their drink orders.

Demon Fire got right to the point. “We want to hire a guide to take people out to the Wastelands. We have it all set up: it will by day be billed as an eco-excursion, but by night a star gazing tour. The website has already been created. The entire package is called The All-Star Watchers Experience. So Stanly how would you like a job as the guide? Training is included. We pay well.”

Stanly obviously thought the whole thing very weird. What was this eccentric claim to have teeth made of junk auto parts? What did that crazy story about traveling on earth in shabby clothes mean, as well as living in the sky?    Very bizarre marketing ploys to draw attention to their new tourist enterprise? It was, however, best to not ask any questions about this. Stanly needed a job badly, his rent was two months overdue, and any probing into that weirdness might personally offend Demon Fire and cause him to withdraw the job offer.

After relaxing over more drinks with Demon Fire, and reading the tour’s website on Demon Fire’s iPhone, Stanly signed an employment contract for a nice salary as a guide for the All-Star Watchers. Despite the wackiness of his new boss’s tales and his bedraggled appearance, he handled the hiring in a very thorough, professional manner.                                

                                                   ###

After his two-weeks paid training on the ecology of the Wastelands and basic facts about astronomy, Stanly was directed by Demon Fire to meet the first All-Star Watchers tour group in front of thestrip club. Stanly had expected the usual crowd: backpackers, retirees wearing long black socks and plaid shirts, perhaps some foreign tourists too, but instead the group was composed of five muscular men with clenched jaws in oil-stained overalls; their greasy t-shirts read: “Jones Junkyard. Body Parts: Just for You.” 

One who seemed to be their leader identified himself as Mr. Jones. He mumbled that they needed to stop first at the 7-Eleven near the entrance to the Wastelands to get some snacks as his team was hungry. Stanly was puzzled. These guys did not have cameras, and, in fact, obviously were locals. Jones Junkyard was a small buyer of wrecked cars and scrap metal on the outskirts of town not far from the Wastelands.  Very strange that Jones and his employees would be ‘touring’ literally in their own backyard. Yet once again Stanly did not question Demon Fire, who had arrived shortly after Stanly to greet the ‘tourist’ party, about this new oddness. None of Stanly’s business to question the motives of paying clients. The customer was always right, as his tour training facilitator had repeatedly emphasized.

Demon Fire spoke a few words to the men which Stanly did not hear, then drove off in a spiffy SUV. Stanly followed in the All-Star Watchers four-wheel drive van while the junkyard men fell asleep. DF quickly disappeared around a corner, while Stanly got stuck in traffic. Though Stanly thought the men would ask some questions about the tour’s itinerary and agenda, they just continued to sleep, snoring loudly. Stanly drove in silence not volunteering any information.

Stanly pulled up into the parking lot of the 7-Eleven so the men could buy their snacks, but he was surprised to see another four-wheel drive parked there, its front door also marked “All-Star Watchers Tours.” None other than Demon Fire jumped out of the driver’s side and yelled and waved at Stanly to come over and introduce himself to a second group of tourists who would also be going along today.

 Looking into the back of the van, Stanly saw bodies, unmoving and strangely quiet, tied up in rope, duct tape plastered on their mouths: stereotypical tourists dressed in plaid shirts and checked shorts, youth in pre-ripped jeans with backpacks, as well as other people in casual hiking clothes prepared for their big day out on the Wastelands. This time Stanly knew he needed to ask Demon Fire some questions, but the junkyard men bounded over like smooth cats and grabbed Stanly, slapped some duct tape on his mouth, hustled him into the van seat next to Demon Fire, and then piled into the back with the captive tourists.

Ten minutes later, they all arrived at a desolate spot on the Wastelands. Demon Fire sprang screaming hysterically from the van and stripped off his ragged, smelly clothes as if they were in flames. The sky darkened quickly as he waved wildly, storm clouds mushrooming on the horizon.  At a flick of Demon Fire’s wrist, bolts of lightning   rammed the heavens like angry spears.

The junkyard men dragged the bodies from the back of the van and dumped them like sacks on the grass. Knives flashed and the men went to work slaughtering them. Hands, feet, fingers, arms were, with great professionalism, neatly sliced off like skilled chefs working a large round of beef at Stanly’s favorite buffet at the Holiday Inn. Surprisingly, however, the tourists did not scream though even when these butchers worked their way into the guts with rotary saws. Hearts, intestines, livers flew through the air, torrents of blood rained, but not a sound. A slaughterhouse drenched in silence.

Demon Fire by now, having fully cast off his ‘little man’ ‘street-person’ identity, had sprouted into a tall muscular creature with horned feet, scarlet-red leathery skin, and a pointed nose.  Seeming to read Stanly’s thoughts, he growled smugly:

“When one is an evil demon one has ways of keeping people quiet even when they are being slaughtered… After all we don’t want to scare the neighbors,” he said, shushing quiet by a long, knobby-knuckled finger on his lips.   Before Stanly could reply, Demon Fire said, “You see stupid humans have thought for centuries that evil demons came from some kind of hot, underground smelly place called ‘Hell’, but, as I told you over coffee, ‘Heaven is Hell traveling under false pretenses’…and all those ‘UFOs’ humans have reported on for years?  They are actually our Fast Demon Modules –  FDMs -we use to get around in the sky and avoid repulsive humans.”

“Why are your junkyard savages butchering innocent tourists?” Stanly demanded.

“Well for a long time, we demons replaced our own body parts, knees, teeth, elbows, fingers, et cetera.  –  demons’ bodies wear out too like humans’- with reengineered metal scrap from various junkyards. But with all of the new industrial technology coming online, our workshops are having trouble with the complexities of the new recycling and manufacturing processes. It is now time to use the original, realhuman body parts, which are certainly more cost effective, too.  Jones Junkyard, one of our longtime suppliers, is developing a new, more simplified business model to accommodate our growing need for authentic anatomical components, hence the very professional demonstration you witnessed today.”

“And in case you think the disturbance,” Demon Fire’s red eyes glared like raw wounds and rolled toward the sky, “that I caused with the clouds and lightning was me doing a rite of worship in homage to some kind of ‘Sky God-Demon’ think again. Demons are independent operators who do what they want. I was just in the mood to create a gothic/scary atmosphere that was appropriate for our junkyard team’s excellent effort today… We demons are not all boring business…we like a little drama in our lives once and awhile.”

 One of the junkyard butcherers came over and whispered something to Demon Fire. “Excellent,” he proclaimed, “all the body parts have been collected.” Demon Fire flicked his wrist again: a larger bright orb popped out of nothing and then slowly lowered itself to the dark grass. It dimmed slightly to reveal a saucer-shaped, semi-translucent hull through which various shapes could be seen moving about.

Demon Fire flashed his frozen smile’s metal teeth again. “Well, Stanly we really need a reliable human to run errands for us on earth. I don’t want to dress up in trashy costumes to hide my identity anymore. I will double your salary and, as an added perk, you will get plenty of travel.” Demon Fire waved toward the FDM. “And besides,” his hot breath whispered, “you really don’t have much choice do you?  After all, I am sure you want to keep all of your body parts.”

As the Jones Junkyard guys slowly gathered around Stanly to escort him to the Fast Demon Module, Stanly could not have agreed more.


Thomas White’s poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print magazines in Australia, the United States, and Canada. In addition, he is a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author, and contributor to various non-literary journals on topics ranging from the meaning of Evil to reality as a computer simulation.