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At Dark Matters Gift Shop, The Chamber markets t-shirts, coffee cups, mousepads, and posters with The Chamber’s gorgeous artwork including covers of various issues; pens with The Chamber’s motto and website address; and other merchandise promoting the magazine or commemorating issues (as the mood strikes the fictional Marketing Department staff–a.k.a. me, the publisher). Below are a few examples. Visit the Dark Matters Gift Shop to see dozens more.

Ladies of Horror Flash Project – #Horror #author Angela Yuriko Smith @AngelaYSmith @darc_nina #LoH — Spreading the Writer’s Word

The Ladies of Horror Picture-Prompt Writing Challenge! A Fun Guy by Angela Yuriko Smith “A fun guy,” he said. “All about the party games.” So I went with him. I love playing games I thought. Now hide-and-go-seek keeps me laying here bored to mossy tears my only companions now earthworms and fungi Fiction © Copyright […]

Ladies of Horror Flash Project – #Horror #author Angela Yuriko Smith @AngelaYSmith @darc_nina #LoH — Spreading the Writer’s Word

Body Neutral

Interesting comment from DL Shirey on his story “Body Neutral”, which appeared in The Chamber today.

DL Shirey

This story had an interesting affect on a member of my writer’s group. She walked out halfway through my reading. Granted, the main character is objectified solely on appearance. But that’s the whole point of the story. I urged the woman to wait for the big reveal at the end, to see if she felt the same disgust. I guess I’ll never know. I never saw her again. And I doubt she’ll click over and read it in The Chamber Magazine.

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Appearing in The Chamber on September 3

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).

“Furry Children” Dark Fiction by A. Elizabeth Herting

A. Elizabeth Herting is an aspiring freelance writer and busy mother of three living in colorful Colorado. She has over 60 short story credits, podcasts, and reprints as well as non-fiction work, and two collections of short stories published by “Adelaide Books,” “Whistling Past the Veil” and “Postcards From Waupaca” available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. For more of her work, contact her at aeherting.com,  twitter.com/AmyHerting, or facebook.com/ AElizabethHerting

Four Flash Fiction Stories by Jane Ayres

UK based neurodivergent writer Jane Ayres completed a Creative Writing MA at the University of Kent in 2019 aged 57. She is fascinated by hybrid poetry/prose experimental forms and has work in Sledgehammer, Punk Noir Magazine, Versification, Streetcake, The North, Crow & Cross Keys, Door is a Jar, Kissing Dynamite and The Forge.  @workingwords50

Three Poems by Melody Wang

Melody Wang currently resides in sunny Southern California with her dear husband. In her free time, she dabbles in piano composition and also enjoys hiking, baking, and playing with her dogs. 

“Aphorisms for a New Viscosity” Dark, Offbeat Fiction by Robert Garnham

Robert Garnham is a comedy performance poet. He has performed at festivals and fringes and comedy nights. A joke from one of his shows was acclaimed as one of the funniest at the Edinburgh fringe. He has made some TV adverts for a certain bank.    

“The Son of Immortals” Dark Fiction by Valeriya Salt

Valeriya Salt a multi-genre author from the United Kingdom. She studied History and earned her Master’s Degree in Art Expertise at St. Petersburg University of Culture and Arts. Born in Belarus, she lived for many years in Ukraine and Russia before settling down in the north of England. Apart from creative writing, she has a passion for travels, arts, history, and foreign languages. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including The Copperfield Review, Meet Cute Mag, Bewildering Stories, The Pine Cone Review, and Strange Fiction SF & F ‘Zine.

Next Issue: September 10

“Offshoots” Dark Fantasy by Cecilia Kennedy

At the Neon Studios Salon, tails creeped luxuriously along the napes of necks in shades of lavender and pearl—and I wanted one—one that hissed and shimmered, one that blinked with long eyelashes and snaky curves. My mother said that no self-respecting daughter of hers would ever go there. Rumor had it that the walls were filled with the bones of the dead, but it was also the best place to get the latest hair styles, the kind that all of the boys at school liked.

            To get a boy to like you, everyone knew you had to have the stair-step bob with the long, leafy tail that sprung to life, growing in the back—the one that made the boys sneak a hand up there and run the tail through their fingers, hoping it would lick them.

“I’ve seen the way boys behave when girls your age grow a tail, letting it swing to and fro while walking, swaying their hips. Don’t ever disrespect yourself like that. Don’t get used,” my mother had said, but I didn’t see the harm.

            The tails were mesmerizing. Everyone I knew wanted one, and everyone’s grew in differently, in different colors. My friends told me that after the stylist washed their hair and trimmed it, they pulled out a sharp knife and cut an indentation in the nape of the neck. They said the stylists kept gems in various shapes and colors in a special drawer and would insert one into the cut. My friends swore that it didn’t hurt at all because the knife was incredibly sharp, and the stylists had a special license to perform light surgical procedures. Once the gem, which was gel-like, was inserted, the stylists pricked it and seeds oozed out. Over time, the tails grew, developed, licked fingers, or playfully hissed.

            The Neon Studios Salon didn’t exist inside of a mall, wedged between a movie theater and an arcade. To get to it, I borrowed my mother’s car (on the pretense of running errands) and drove it through wooded streets, just past the center of town, where all of the country clubs shared views of forest canopies in the summer. All kinds of women—important women—snuck off to the salon while their husbands played golf. They didn’t let their tails grow too long, and they modified the bob cut just a bit—enough to be stylish, but still acceptable in their social circles. I didn’t have to worry about any of that, and neither did my friends. We were young and had nothing to do with country club circles.

            At the edge of a wooded street, stood a massive, Craftsman-style home, with white trim. From the outside, it didn’t look like much. It didn’t look like it could be the hub of modern style.

However, there was a sign, done up in soft purple, fluorescent lights that flashed “Neon Studios Salon,” but not in that creepy, motel-by-the-side-of-the-road way. More like a dream-sequence music video in pulses of desire and mystery. Inside, walls the color of deep eggplant gleamed in the light of crystal chandeliers, which hung from the ceiling. The air smelled of perfume and fruit-scented hairspray and shampoo. Mirrors shined, etched in gold. A stylist, Rochelle, who was blond with a violet, glitter-streaked tail that slapped the air behind her, took me to the shampooing station to begin my appointment. Already, I knew I was in excellent hands. I ignored what I thought were groans and shrieks coming from the walls, somewhat drowned out by the latest Top 40 hits blaring through the speakers, booming with synthesizer beats. I still heard the noises faintly and wondered if Rochelle heard them too. They sounded sorrowful, anxious, and if I looked close enough, I thought I saw the walls move. But it was clear that Rochelle didn’t want me looking at the walls. She’d turn my head in the sink whenever she caught me straining my neck. The ashen flakes that fell all around, though, were hard to ignore. They landed on the sleeves of the protective black cape Rochelle game me, and in Rochelle’s hair. Someone came by to sweep up the piles that accumulated on the floor, and I wondered if they were the remnants from the dead—the bones in the walls. I wondered if that’s what made this place so special.

            In the main salon area, Rochelle worked quickly to chop off my shoulder-length locks, shaping my hair into a sharp bob with distinct stair-step layers in the back. Then, she took out a knife.

            “Most people say it doesn’t really hurt,” she told me. “Sometimes it does, though. Just depends.”

I nodded my head. She opened a drawer at her station and showed me the gems I could choose. They all looked impossibly beautiful, but I eventually settled on a diamond-shaped, green glittered gem.

            “Don’t move,” she said, “and uncross your legs. Otherwise, your body will be uneven and so will your cut.”

After injecting the back of my neck with a topical numbing agent, Rochelle made the first cut, which felt like fire, searing and burning, despite the numbing solution, but I refused to scream or cry—or jump. Why would I? Pain was a part of the deal. I’d be entering the world changed, and everyone would notice, especially the boys.

            “There. All done,” Rochelle said, before pricking the diamond gel pack, letting the seeds run smooth and warm down my neck. She then massaged the area to work the seeds in and told me not to wash my hair for 24 hours at least. I left the salon with everything my babysitting earnings could get me, which included a 20-ounce bottle of lavender jasmine shampoo (specially formulated to help tails grow), matching conditioner, mousse, and hairspray.

            At first, my mother didn’t notice. The nub that formed on my neck was my secret, and I’d gently rub it, just to make sure it was still there. Within a few weeks, though, the seedlings started to sprout, growing like ruffles on lace collars, trailing down my neck, weaving themselves into one sturdy strand of brilliant garden green, speckled with light. Never mind that when I went to the beach that year, I wore a skimpy bathing suit, much too revealing for a girl my age. Never mind that I blossomed and spilled out of the spaces strategically cut into the bathing suit. It was the tail that enraged my mother the most.

“Oh, you’re getting attention all right. The wrong kind of attention. And everyone’s talking about you—all of the neighbors—all of my friends. I’m so embarrassed.”

            While I was somewhat ashamed because of what my mom said, I just couldn’t stop myself. I’d look in the mirror, pull the lovely strand across my shoulder and over my neck and admire the way the glint of green picked up lighter shades in my eyes. It hissed happily, darting between my fingers, and I just couldn’t imagine how I’d look without it.

            The solution to my problem, I believed, was silence. I shut my mother out. We stopped talking. I stayed longer after school, went over to my friends’ houses more often—my friends who all had tails, just like I did. Besides, a tail didn’t mean you had to do anything with a boy. You just could if you wanted to, at least, that’s what I thought until my friend Jodi mentioned the walls at the Neon Studios Salon. I remembered the rumors but hadn’t thought about them for a while. Despite what I had experienced when I got my hair cut, I brushed the sounds and the ashes off as nothing. To me, the rumors had to be entirely untrue.

            “Oh, no!” Jodi told me one day at her house. “If you get a tail, you have to follow through or else. The bones in the walls are from virgins—other girls who got tails but didn’t follow through.”

            “Follow through?”

            “Yeah, you know?”

            “Have you . . . followed through before?”

            “Yeah. It’s no big deal. But if you don’t, well, the walls know. They whisper their secrets to the owners of the salon. They find you in the middle of the night—or in the middle of the day.”

“That’s not true.”

            “Remember Betsy Mulligan?”

            “She moved.”

            “She didn’t. Her tail grew in, but she didn’t follow through. Think about it. When’s the last time you saw Betsy Mulligan?”

            “We were eating ice cream at the mall. And then, I don’t remember what happened next. I guess her parents picked her up or something.”

            “No. She was snatched up off the street. Her virgin bones were ground to powder and stuffed inside the walls. The sacrifices of virgins—not the shampoos and gels and seeds—make the tails grow.”

Jodi’s news was alarming, and I half considered cutting the tail off to maybe break the spell, if it could be broken that way, but I couldn’t. I loved it—the whole look. I couldn’t imagine going out in public with out it. I’d be so plain with just a naked stair-step bob. I’d be nothing special.       

            But I couldn’t let myself get sacrificed, either, if the rumors were true. As much as I hated my mother, I didn’t want her to grieve the loss of a daughter. So I followed through, with the first boy I met a party. We spent fifteen minutes in a closet together. For me, the experience was underwhelming, but necessary. He wanted another date, said he thought we bonded, reached for my hair, but the tail pulled away. In fact, the tail lasted longer than the boy, and I left the party with my life intact, but wondering if anyone would notice. Would anyone, such as my mother, be able to tell that I followed through?

Eventually, there were signs. The green strand grew long, sassy, and started to hiss. Apparently, you’re not supposed to let it get too long. You had to get it trimmed, but I liked the length. My mother, on the other hand, believed the length was a new source of embarrassment.

            “It looks awful. Even your friends haven’t grown their tails to the length you have. Why do you insist on just destroying yourself?” Then, she yanked the front of my hair, turning my face towards her, and asked, “Have you had sex? Tell me now. I’m not leaving you alone until you tell me.”

My mother’s threats were never empty. Her rage knew no boundaries. If I left the room, she’d follow me, and there were no locks on the doors in our house. Those were the rules.

            “Yes! So what? At least I had the decency to not get sacrificed to the salon. So there, Mom. You happy? Happy, Mom?”

My mother put her head in her hands and mumbled something about how she’d be able to take care of a pregnant daughter.

            “No, Mom,” I said. “I’m not pregnant. We were careful.”

            “So will there be more—boys? Times?”

For the first time in a long while, I saw a smile on her face. Her shoulders began to shake as she laughed. A big, powerful, triumphant laugh that rang out through the streets. I’d just said the funniest thing she’d ever heard.

            She never spoke badly about the tail again. In fact, she let me grow it out longer, and later, when Dad left us, she went to the Neon Studios Salon and got one too—in blazing red.

            “I don’t think so. It wasn’t that great.”

From then on, every afternoon during the rest of my high school years, we’d sit on the front porch. Mom would pour me a glass of champagne, and we’d watch the cars go by, our shimmering tails, hissing and snapping at the air.


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


“Seven Urns” Dark Fiction by Hayden Sidun

“Do you ever feel worthless?” the boy asked. He tugged at his father’s coat, the innocence of a young child exuding from his soul. His eyes, brown as mud and easy to get lost in, were drowning in tears, a trail of dried teardrops staining his cheeks. They were met by his father’s eyes, locked in a dazed stare, searching for the right words to answer the boy’s question as though those words were spelled in the boy’s eyes.

The father wanted to say yes because it was the truth. He was there when the fire occurred, standing on his half-cut lawn, sporting a horror-stricken expression, heat consuming his body, thick black smoke staining the baby blue sky. He did nothing when the first roof shingles caught fire, nor did he do anything when flames ate the rest of the house. What could he do? 9-1-1 had already been called, firefighters and paramedics dispatched, and he couldn’t be the hero of the story when he had a family in his own house to look after. So he stood on his property across the street from the scene, emergency vehicles flooding the street, the screams of painful death assaulting his ears, the smell of smoke billowing from the burning house filling his lungs, beads of sweat dripping down his face. When the fire subsided—or rather when first responders killed it—he stood there, his feet stuck like glue to the grass, watching paramedics haul charred, unrecognizable corpses out of what remained of the house.

Little did the father know that his son, only nine years old and still with little knowledge of what the world around him was really like, curious as any child (or any person, for that matter) would be, stood on a stool next to the window, watching in awe as his father did outside, sporting a horror-stricken expression as it struck his father’s, the windows hot to the touch. He couldn’t have known that his neighbors were burning alive in the blaze; his innocence let him believe that the blood-curdling screams he heard were only those of fear and maybe a little pain. But the boy’s interest subsided as the fire did, and as his father stood in the same place and watched paramedics haul charred, unrecognizable corpses from what remained of the house, the boy ran to his bedroom and cried into his pillow.

“Why would I feel worthless?” the father asked.

“We watched the fire, Daddy.”

The father looked toward the altar, where his neighbors’ urns were lined up on a cloth-covered table. The bodies were too charred, burnt enough in the house that it wouldn’t make sense to put them in caskets. Nevertheless, the image of their corpses stained his memory, even at the funeral and especially in the days before. It would probably be long before he forgot what the young couple and their plentiful children looked like before the tragedy, but alas, their remains embodied their legacy.

The father would often spend Saturday nights with his neighbor, and more often than not, they would shoot pool in his garage and listen to music that evoked nostalgia, both men always with a beer in their hand. The boy’s mother—she was probably talking to someone somewhere in the church—shared a similar friendship with the neighbor’s wife. The boy himself would often play with the five young children who lived across the street, enjoying himself and the time he spent with his friends and neighbors despite at times being outnumbered. The house that burned to the ground was the young couple’s first together, and that house was the only home their children knew. The father could still remember when the couple first moved into the house, and he remembered each time they brought a newborn home, but those memories burnt and collapsed as the house did.

“There was nothing we could do but watch,” the father told his son.

“Nothing?”

A tear formed in the father’s eye. He shook his head, wanting to hide the truth from his son, knowing he couldn’t. “Nothing.”

The father still couldn’t explain why he didn’t turn off the evening news that night. Perhaps he was curious about what the press had to say. The evening news had never been a pleasant thing to watch, and of all the house fires they’d covered over the years, he never expected one would be in his neighborhood, on his street, within eyeshot of his house. But he sat on the couch nonetheless, locked in a dead stare at the television screen as monotonous anchors told millions about the house fire that killed seven. He doubted that anyone cared or bothered to listen to the anchors, and maybe the anchors themselves couldn’t bother to care.

But he cared, as did the boy. He cared when the screaming replayed in his mind, keeping him awake in the darkness of the night. He cared when he finally closed his eyes to sleep, dreaming only of the horror he witnessed earlier that day. He cared when he, the most obvious witness and someone who knew the family well, was asked to identify the bodies at the coroner’s office and relived that day as he tried to recognize the seven bodies lying on a table. The coroner told him it was okay if he couldn’t identify the bodies, so the father walked out of the room. Looking up, he still doesn’t know who is in what urn.

“Do you think they’re alive somewhere else?” the boy asked, his tinny voice beginning to tremble.

“Maybe.” The father hung his head and whispered, “Probably not.”

“Why not?”

The father looked down at the boy and met his eyes once again. “Well, maybe they are. No one, not even the smartest of the smart, really knows what happens after we die; it’s the single greatest mystery of humankind. So we make an educated guess, maybe live our lives accordingly, and hope we’re right in the end.”

“Do you think they’re happy now, Daddy?”

The father shook his head. “Why would they be happy?”

The boy shrugged. “Because their pain is over now.”

Looking at the urns again, the father told his son, “They died in pain and long before they were supposed to. Those kids? They deserved to live long, happy, fulfilling lives, and their parents deserved to watch them grow and live out the rest of theirs. They’re not happy, son; they’re the farthest thing from it.”

“So they’re sad?”

“Yes. They’re very, very sad.”

“I’m sad too.”

“Me too, buddy. Me too.”

The father took his son by the hand and walked into the center walkway between all the pews. Together, they walked toward the door, saying goodbye to their deceased neighbors, taking a moment to remember them one last time. All the father wanted was to leave the events of that day behind, but the fire still burned in his memory, the screams still played repeatedly, and the air still smelled of smoke. He had a family of his own to think about, a responsibility that saved his life and kept him from running into the fire to save his neighbors, but something still nagged at him. He wanted to do something to save them and wished then more than ever that he had done something, anything at all, to save them, and as he walked out of the church with his son by his side, he felt more worthless than he had ever felt in his life.


Hayden Sidun is a high school student whose short fiction appears in The Dillydoun Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Literary Yard, and Button Eye Review. Outside of school and work, he is active in local politics and often finds himself surfing the Internet in the middle of the night. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, of which he is a proud native.


“Body Neutral” Dark Science Fiction by DL Shirey

He looked 18 or 19, well within the desired age range Avril was hired to target. His sparse scruff of wannabe beard was the same sandy color as his hair. There was no subtlety in the way he stared at Avril. He pushed off from the wall he had been leaning against and gave a playful shove to two of his half-dozen cronies, parting them to get a better look.

          “Da-amn,” he said, elongating the word into two syllables, adding, “Look at this chiquita.”

          For Avril, a male/dominant like this was golden. His reaction would have a greater influence on the marketing statistics than these other six teenagers combined. Yet it was Avril’s job to treat the m/dom like any other consumer: forget he was cute, don’t add twitch to her hips or throw back shoulders to thrust out her chest. Just be a normal girl walking the mall, don’t even think about the stats.

          The outfit she wore today was stylish, yet bland: a long-sleeve cashmere turtleneck that showed just a hint of tummy, vintage Levi’s that fit well, but not too tight, and scruffy Chuck Taylor’s. People were to see Avril as a fashionable young woman in her early twenties, but not linger on her clothes or the shape of her body.

          Avril loved modeling. She enjoyed being the focus of attention, turning heads and feeling eyes upon her. It was exciting. Yet, thanks to some training in disciplined anatomics, Avril kept color from flushing her cheeks. Any change to her body could skew the results for this job.

          She glanced at the m/dom and made sure he was looking, then shook back her shoulder-length purple hair. Avril’s earpiece registered his eyetrace.

          “I’d die to get with that,” the m/dom said and followed with a mime. He pulled the trigger of his finger pistol and mouthed POW as the mock bullet exited his opposite temple. A head snap completed the improv until the laughter of his fellows brought the m/dom back to life.

          Avril ignored the performance.

          A chime from her earpiece indicated that the requisite amount of consumer impressions had been reached. It had taken three laps around the mall to achieve the numbers. Now Avril could relax a bit and let go a few of her anatomizations.

          Mall walks were hard work, even for someone trained as a Variegate. Well, partially trained. Avril had cut short her apprenticeship to model full time. She felt she had mastered her craft enough and it seemed like a good decision. Her career was progressing nicely. The agency had booked her for more runway jobs and even paid for Avril’s travel to better-paying mall gigs, like this one. If she could maintain her numbers, Avril’s future would be filled with the glamour and attention she craved.

          She stretched her neck to pull out stress. Twenty minutes of forced anatomics took its toll. Tremendous muscle control was needed for a Variegate to configure specific body features, such as lifting the cheekbones or elongating the neck. She’d been told that a few more years of apprenticeship would train her to modify properly, without the stress that novices endured.

          But Avril knew better and her status proved it. She was still a rising star at the agency, though that one job had gone terribly wrong. Every model had a bad day now and then, even full-fledged Variegates. Avril pushed the incident from her mind.

          She trudged up carpeted stairs to the nondescript offices on the third floor of the mall and her skin darkened with each step. Coloration was one of the easier things to turn on and off, and reverting to her normal skintone saved energy. This assignment called for a specific look, so until the job was done, Avril could not totally unbuild her present augmentation. It took hours to construct the required anatomy and only minutes to lose it, should Avril’s concentration slip.

          What she wouldn’t give to let the strong hands of a masseuse soothe her aches and stiffness. Avril often scheduled a massage following a job, not only to relax, but also to luxuriate in the feel of strong hands on her skin. Being touched was something she did her best to avoid while working.

          She opened an anonymous door to a very small room. There was one desk on the far wall behind twin monoliths of frosted glass. The panels were four-feet wide, parallel to one another, and stretched floor to ceiling. They did not resemble a toaster, but that was the appliance Avril thought about each time she stepped between the opaque partitions. She couldn’t move for two minutes and by the time the download was complete, her skin color would be its normal, cinnamon brown. Cinnamon toast, she thought.

          But the colors most important to Avril were the ones appearing on both slabs of glass; silhouettes of her body, front and back, rendered in reds and greens and blues. This was a visual aggregate of everyone who had fixed eyes on her; the colors translated to hot, medium or cold depending on which body parts had been gawked at the longest and those ignored:

hair

face

neck

shoulders

arms

hands

chest

stomach

waist

hips

butt

thighs

calves

feet

The colors mixed and pooled into a body-cloud of subtle color variations: reddish browns and rosy yellows on all the popular parts, violets for areas receiving mixed assessments and shades of blue for least viewed regions. Finally, streams of numbers tallied themselves next to each body part. These were viewer stats based on audience type, categorized by dom, subgroup, age and sex.

          Avril’s earpiece chimed again and she sidestepped from the toaster. The colorful outline of her body remained on glass. Avril studied the numbers and smiled. Round Three had registered neutral viewer stats on most body parts, except hair— those numbers exploded. Which was the whole reason for today’s job, to see which hair color attracted the most attention.

          Avril felt a small pang of conflicting emotions; virtually no eyeballs had lingered on her tummy. Totally blue, for the third time today. She was pleased to a point because it meant she had remained body-neutral and wouldn’t have to re-do the session. But it could also mean that the poof of belly fat was viewed as unattractive. Avril didn’t like that. Neither would the agency.

          Back to business, Avril thought.

          She walked over to the desk, referred to the assignment board and typed Purple #122-3479-3 on the console. Thumbing the ENTER key made the anatomic heat-map disappear from the twin towers of glass.

          Avril removed the purple wig from her scalp and placed it on the plastic headform. She raked her manicured nails where it itched most, just above her ears. Her stubbly sidewalls were growing out and would soon need another buzzcut. Avril rubbed, but did not scratch, between the five tight rows of crocheted braids, pulled back from her wide forehead. She checked to see that the tiny ring of elastic at the nape of her neck was still doing the job of holding the braids taut.

          On to Round Four; twenty minutes with the jet-black wig and she would be done for the day.

          Avril pulled on the hairpiece, aligning the mop-cut bangs above the arc of her eyebrows. She rarely wore make up, but this job stipulated lipstick. She reapplied the designated shade. One final check in the full-length mirror and she was ready for Round Four. There was only a moment’s hesitation as she pulled down the sweater to try and hide her belly. Avril was capable of redistributing her body fat, as she did for runway jobs, but there were only so many anatomical balls she could juggle at one time.

          This was the one regret Avril had for leaving training; not being able to render all those fine details that a certified Variegate can do to perfection.

          By the time she reached the mall’s first floor, Avril had repigmentized her skin and double-checked that all configurations were in place.

          She recognized many of the people she had passed in previous rounds. Repeat eyeballs were an important metric. The eyetraces of those who had noticed her before would be compared, the differences measured, and any reactions to Avril’s hair analyzed in micro-impressions. Avril tried to walk the same path, at the same speed, with the same posture, to gather as many Repeaters as possible.

          “Wasn’t her hair purple before?” The f/dom said it, a robust black lady, pack leader for six mall-walking seniors, all women. They were clad in colorful workout clothes, stretching in preparation for their walk, adjusting socks and sweatbands.

          Avril had seen them before, gathering like a flock of hens, the f/dom headmost in the pecking order. She and Avril had locked eyes before. Now, the woman was really giving Avril the once-over.

          “Kids these days.” The f/dom was talking to her group, obviously speaking loud enough for Avril to hear. “I mean, she struts around here with clothes tight enough to show everything God gave her.” The gaggle clucked and muttered in agreement.

          Avril assumed the comment was about her breasts. Had she not been on a job, Avril could have shocked the women by increasing her cup size. It would require her to release the hold on the other body parts she was governing and rechannel fluids to her chest. Avril could only imagine the looks on their faces as her bust enlarged.

          Avril caught herself smiling, then realized how the last few seconds might affect the results of Round Four. She needed to concentrate on maintaining the required configuration and keep walking or she might have to abort this black-wig session and start it all over again. One thing the agency did not like was a re-do.

          Avril elongated her stride slightly, intending to put distance between her and the seniors.

          “Step lively now, ladies,” came the voice from behind.

          Avril needed to tamp down her emotions, or at least keep them from affecting her appearance. Others watching her might see a thrusted chin, knitted brow or a narrowing of eyes. Any body differential could adversely affect the numbers.

          Dealing with Instigants, like these women, was the worst part of mall jobs. Avril wanted to stand up for herself, but that would negate an entire day’s work. Sure, the data-collection system would weed out stats from anyone who instigated verbal contact with Avril, hostile or otherwise. But if a confrontation escalated to a certain level, it could nullify a whole job’s worth of data gathering. Especially if an Instigant touched Avril.

          “I’d rethink that outfit if I was you. That top is too short,” the woman said from behind, between breaths, “And those jeans, a little snug in the crotch, don’t you think?” The mall-walkers chittered with laughter.

          Avril realized she was clenching her teeth and the first taste of panic made her mouth go dry. What if the woman caught up and put a hand on Avril’s shoulder? Any unexpected physical contact and Avril could lose control of her body. It had happened in the past; that sudden gush of adrenaline would undo everything Avril was holding together.

          Avril couldn’t afford another invalidation, the agency wouldn’t stand for it. She decided to make a hard right, go up the stairs to the second floor, hoping the women would not follow. But her escape was cut short by a familiar pack of teenagers.

          “Chiquita,” the m/dom said as his posse blocked the stairs, “Long time no see.”

          He angled his scruffy beard into a smirk, then reached out and grabbed one of Avril’s hands. He whispered something close to her ear.

          It wasn’t the disgusting words that made Avril repulse and push away, it was ebbing of her restraint. She could feel all those little dams of muscle control start to give way. As hard as Avril tried to resist, the backslide progressed. And with it came fear.

          The older woman changed instantly from antagonist to ally. She stepped up beside Avril. “Keep your paws off of her, young man. Who do you think you are?”

          Avril held up her hand to keep the woman from intruding.

          The m/com laughed and grabbed Avril again, this time by both her shoulders. Rage coursed through Avril’s body and she could no longer maintain the tenuous hold she had on her anatomy.

          Avril shoved the m/dom. Hard.

          “No, I got this,” she said to the woman. Avril’s voice lowered to a growl.

          “That’s right. You go girl. Show ’em what you’re made of,” sang the chorus of mall-walkers.

          Avril snatched off the black wig and threw it to the ground. She swallowed hard, letting loose an Adam’s apple that wasn’t there before. Fists clenched in anger, Avril took one threatening lunge toward the m/dom.

          “I ain’t fighting no girl,” the teenager said as he backed off. “Or whatever you are.”

          The flimsy sweater tightened around Avril’s bulking shoulder and arm muscles as they returned to normal girth. Avril took another step toward the teenagers and felt his penis and testicles descend, pressing on the inseam of his jeans.

          “What in God’s name,” the old woman exclaimed when she saw the coarse stubble shadow Avril’s cheeks and chin. “Time to move on, ladies.”

          It took every bit of restraint Avril had to keep from taking a swing at the scruffy teenager. The m/dom stood his ground for one long moment, then pushed past his six sidekicks and retreated up the stairs. They all followed.

          Avril felt the heat leave his cheeks. He could have sped up the process, but didn’t have the strength. All he could think about was how the agency would react. His budding career was in jeopardy now that it had happened twice.

          Picking up the wig, Avril walked back toward the office. He tried not to make eye contact with the shoppers who stopped and stared. Avril knew many of them had seen him before, as his earpiece chimed over and over again, still registering their eyetraces.   Everyone was looking at Avril.


DL Shirey lives in Portland, Oregon under skies the color of bruises. Occasionally he lightens up, but his dark fiction can be found in Confingo, Zetetic, Liquid Imagination and in anthologies from Truth Serum Press and Literary Hatchet. Find more of his writing at www.dlshirey.com and @dlshirey on Twitter.