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.