The Latest Issue of The Chamber is Out!

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).

“A Personality Examination, among Other Things” Flash Fiction by Ara Hone

Ara Hone writes speculative fiction. Before that, she climbed grain silos to admire sunsets, joined the military when it wasn’t cool, and survived a sales career. She adores a great TV series and editing stories for Flash Fiction Magazine. Her best advice? Drink coffee daily. @ara_hone

“Luck of the Draw” Dark Thriller by Joe Pawlowski

Joe Pawlowski has written three dark novels (most recently, The Cannibal Gardener), as well as the short-story collection from which this tale is drawn. He is a retired journalist, a U.S. Army veteran, a secular Buddhist, a Beatles fan, a vegan, and a lifelong student of classic horror and supernatural literature.

“Lights in the Sky” Dark Suspense by George Gad Economou

George Gad Economou holds a Master’s degree in Philosophy of Science and resides in Athens, Greece, doing freelance work whenever he can while searching for a new place to go. His novella, Letters to S., was published in Storylandia Issue 30 and his short stories and poems have appeared in literary magazines, such as Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Chamber Magazine, The Edge of Humanity Magazine, and Modern Drunkard Magazine. His first poetry collection, Bourbon Bottles and Broken Beds, was published by Adelaide Books in 2021.

“Where Light Could Never Reach” Dark Historical Fiction by Mike McLaughlin

Mike McLaughlin is a writer for Vietnam Veterans of America. His stories have appeared in The Wrath-Bearing Tree, with more to be published in COLLATERAL, The Nonconformist and UNSAID magazines. His historical features have appeared in The American Veteran, WWII History and American Heritage. Not to be outdone, he has written three novels and dozens of short stories. He lives in Boston with his family.

 

“The Glorious Fall Neighborhood Tour” Dark Fantasy by Steven Roisum

Mr. Roisum’s last story was featured in Tales to Terrify. He has been published in Bewildering Stories, and the Potato Soup Journal. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for his story Buckshot. He also appears in the Potato Soup Journal’s first anthology. He a former award-winning public radio reporter.

“An Autumn Nightmare” Dark Surrealism by Philip Laverty

Mr. Laverty is forty-six, and this is his first published fiction. He is currently working on some new horror fiction while looking to place his work with various publishers and agents.

He lives in Scotland and has two daughters. His main literary influences are M.R. James, Stephen King and Martin Amis.

Next Issue: January 7

“An Autumn Nightmare” Dark, Surreal Fiction by Philip Laverty

When I discovered that the hotel from my dreams had manifested itself in the real world, I did the one thing I should never have done and went inside.

In my dream, two men were staying in the hotel, which had a long, dark-blue corridor and high, narrow windows that let in little light. The wallpaper had a velvety texture, and it felt damp, like the walls were sweating.

The corridor had three rooms, the doors to which were black–so black that, at first it looked like you were staring into nothing. Then my mind made an adjustment, and small, square windows appeared in the centre of the doors, so that I could peer inside, and this was what I saw:

The men were sitting on the edge of one of two single beds, talking. They were dressed in crumpled, white shirts and cheap, suit trousers. They may have been travelling salesmen or criminals. Their room was as gloomy as the corridor, with an identical source of light.

One of the men stood up and exited his room. He did not see me, for this was the type of dream where I was an invisible observer. He knocked once upon the door of the next room before entering. The woman in the room was young and beautiful, and she begged the man to make love to her, which he did. Later, he returned to his room. The other man visited the woman; and the earlier scene, beginning with the begging, replayed itself.

When he returned to his room, the second man drank whisky with his friend, and they spoke of the woman and what they had done with her. As they spoke, a realisation seemed to dawn, and they looked at one another, horrified, no longer able to speak. Quickly, they began to pack, and they were soon fleeing the hotel.

I stared into the woman’s room and saw the trick that the hotel had played: on her bed lay nothing but a rotting corpse.

Upon waking from the dream, I decided to go for a walk. The morning was bright and desolately autumnal as I wandered along a lonely little street in a part of town that I did not recall having ever visited.

Passing a dilapidated house, I noticed that some local children had smashed each of the windows. I imagine they thought it was fun, and maybe even a little cathartic. Rusty water had leaked from the pipes and stained the building’s white surface. Oh, the bloom of youth had most definitely gone from this poor girl. Her basic, rectangular shape was the only thing that remained constant, while all else had changed and aged. Once she had stood, detached in more ways than one, nothing phasing her, but now all she could do was endure the slow end, and weep ugly tears.

She was set back from the other houses on the street. Those fresher properties did not want to be associated with such sadness, because then they might start to feel sad too.

A fence, long-since breached, had once hidden a garden where a child’s swing would pass long summers. The swing was still there, but the grass and weeds caressed its bottom half.

You could almost imagine that the satellite dish hanging above the front windows was sending distress signals, an S.O.S from the house’s soul to whomever might care to listen.

Suddenly, the kind of shock that can take the breath from you stopped me in my tracks. Leaves blew past as I stood dumbfounded. They raced like silent children towards October’s garish conclusion.

As incredible as it may sound, I had just seen the two men from my dream of the previous night walking with hurried intent from the house.

Whatever they were (travelling salesmen, crooks, or country-spanning hitmen for hire), they now vanished before my eyes, like they had been a projected image, and now the projector had suddenly cut out.

Part of me piped up after seeing the apparitions, the part that always advocates caution, and that thinks it knows the best way to get me through life unscathed. However, I was quick to dismiss its concerns and walked towards the front door. I suppose it would be more accurate to say that I felt like I was being summoned: something called wordlessly to me, and I could not resist.

The door was unlocked, Fate having gone before me and cleared all obstacles. It looked like it had been dipped in blood, but that was just the red paint peeling.

It was a harsh, wintry sun that lit the sky, the kind that makes the cold seem somehow sharper, more cutting. Therefore, my eyes took time to adjust to the interior, and all I really saw was darkness. This maybe took the edge off of the shock that my surroundings delivered. I was in the hotel of my nightmare, with the same dank corridor, the same sweating walls, the same sense of mundane evil. Looking back, I could no longer see the front door, only a turn in the corridor, leading no doubt to more rooms, and perhaps more horrors.

I peered in at the room belonging to the two men. Presumably just vacated, it still held their scent, and the sheets on the beds where they had lain and sat and smoked were crumpled, and would doubtless still be damp with their sweat.

Strangely, a tie had been left behind. It lay snake-like upon the floor.

Following the slow-to-dawn shock of realising where I was, I had drifted into that state of acceptance that characterises most dreams (even nightmares), but now, dread that I might never escape the hotel began to well up within me, turning my body cold. I went in search of the front door, but each turn led to only more corridor, and so I began a reluctant exploration of the place.

At one point, I came to an elevator’s steel doors. A tall, potted plant stood across from it, and on the wall a painting hung of a stormy and unfamiliar cityscape. On this same stretch of corridor, and separated from the elevator by a storage room (in which I saw only piles of white linen), I came to a glass door that led into a lounge area.

I was growing unsure as to how long I had been in the hotel. The light coming in the high windows had dimmed, and lamps with amber-coloured, bell-shaped shades had begun to come on. Some of these stood on their own, as tall as the plant, while other, smaller lamps sat on tables.

Entering the lounge, I saw that it had a fireplace, the flames of which had long-since turned to ash. Two armchairs faced it. These would once have been occupied on cosy winter nights, but now looked lonely instead of inviting. However, I still seized the opportunity to sit for a moment and gather my thoughts.

My period of rest was short-lived. A door opened and closed somewhere, followed by a loud thud and muffled voices. I felt sure that someone was checking in. In fact, I feared that the two men had returned, and that they would be certain that I suspected them of being responsible for the woman’s death. They would seek to silence me by whatever means they could.

I stood up, intent on bring my exploration to an end and escaping the hotel.   

I walked towards the door but froze before I got to it. There, staring in through the glass, was one of the men. Although a shadow was cast over his eyes by the fedora he wore, I could see them gleaming. His teeth gleamed too as he grinned at me. He looked off to the side, and I knew that he was looking at his companion. I wanted to run, but wondered where I could run to.

On the other side of the door, a finger was raised, the glass tapped twice, and then the man took a step back, turned and walked off down the corridor. I waited, expecting his companion to take his place, but he never did.

Eventually I grew tired of waiting. I ran out of patience with my fear, also, which was robbing me of the ability to act. I opened the door and left the lounge, resolving that even if I were to encounter the two guests, I would display courage. I’ll admit that I was still scared that I would never leave the hotel, that it would continue to play its tricks on me until I lost first my sanity and then my life. However, I would pour all my energy into escape and not into hiding.

Earlier, the thought had flitted through my mind that the men might be alive, that maybe my reality had somehow collided with theirs. The hotel, too, seemed to be a living thing, capable of changing, of making a door vanish that had been there only moments before.

Now I dismissed that notion, and believed the hotel and the men to be no more real than the dream they had leapt from. I was gripped by the conviction that this was all an illusion and that I was walking through an ordinary house, onto which the image of a hotel’s interior had been super-imposed. It was, in short, a sort of strange virtual reality. Although I wasn’t wearing a VR headset, I was sure that the same principle nevertheless applied. In short, although I appeared to be walking through endless corridors, and travelling between different floors, I was not. That being the case, then the front door would be where it had always been. The difficulty, however, lay in finding the thing, as I had now grown very disorientated.

In the end, I literally stumbled upon the solution to the puzzle as, starting to wander pretty aimlessly while I ruminated, I bumped into something that didn’t seem to be there. I reached out and ran my hand along the unmistakable shape of a kitchen sink. And there were the taps and a draining board. Thinking about it now, it’s a lucky thing that I didn’t slice my hand open on, say, a bread knife. I continued to grope, feeling a table, chairs, and, eventually, a door. I felt walls under my hands, even though I appeared to be touching thin air.

Along I went, hoping that my guess was correct and that I was in the hallway. I reached out, and then I felt it: the front door. In my excitement (or was it panic?), I failed initially to find the handle. Taking a deep breath, and forcing myself to calm down, I searched more slowly, and there it was.    

I opened the door, and stepped out into the real world once more.

This is the only time I have related this story, and whether or not you choose to believe what I have told you about the house is up to you. Maybe it was only haunted by my nightmare, and all that anyone else will find upon entering is an ordinary, abandoned property.

Still, you should err on the side of caution. Listen to the voice that I failed to listen to, the one that wants to keep you alive. Avoid the sad house with the smashed windows. Resist if you feel you are being summoned inside. Keep walking.


Mr. Laverty notes:

“I am forty-six, and this is my first published fiction. I am currently working on some new horror fiction while looking to place my work with various publishers and agents.

I live in Scotland and have two daughters. My main literary influences are M.R. James, Stephen King and Martin Amis.”


“Where Light Could Never Reach” Dark Historical Fiction by Mike McLaughlin

He had eighty-six days to go and it wasn’t real anymore.

None of it.

Like any short-timer, Dolan tried not to think about it. Getting killed was bad enough but getting killed when you were short was worse. The problem, naturally, was that trying not to dwell on it just made him do it more.

All that mattered now was the blessed bird. The freedom bird, coming for him now, slow but steady. To welcome him and bless him. Absolve him and spirit him home.

Eighty-six.

Sooner if the Army was feeling generous.

He pushed back from the desk and pulled the sheet from the typewriter. Scanning it once more, he gave it a sober nod then went and dropped it in Pulaski’s basket. 

The story had practically written itself. Three hundred words about an ARVN Ranger battalion that had taken on an NVA unit twice its size and – reinforced by American air strikes – had triumphed. The NVA had really leaned into the fight and were torn apart for it. A textbook example that the plan, such as it was, could work.

Finished for the day, Dolan lit a cigarette and drifted back to the desk. He should head home, he supposed. Return to his rented room five minutes away. Shower and shave. Put on his off-duty gear and go somewhere. Anywhere.

Sighing, he sat again and re-read his notes. The habit was deeply ingrained now. Reflexive as scratching an itch. His restless return to his documentation of the extraordinary and the banal. The astonishing and the absurd.

Flipping toward the end, he stopped on a forbidden page. The one with the invisible events and unknown places. The dates and names no one would ever know, all of which he could recall without effort. Each one straight as a razor’s edge and entirely off limits.

On the same day, eight miles to the east, two ARVN companies had ambushed a mixed unit of Cong and NVA regulars – and lost.

The area was rife with tunnels and the opposition refused to play fair. Many were killed, but enough disappeared underground then popped up again elsewhere. Firing off a few rounds then vanishing again. In the confusion, several South Vietnamese shot each other.

After calling in a long fire mission, the companies rallied. Pushing forward through the blasted landscape, they ran straight into a rocket attack. Not the usual kind with a few men and a weapon braced on bamboo poles but a carefully planned barrage. Bleeding the Republic units so heavily that one ceased to exist.

Combat ineffective, officialdom would declare – as if over a hundred men maimed or killed warranted the same concern as a dead truck battery.

 Dolan got there right after it finished. He had hitched a ride with a reinforcement company tasked to “resume the advance.” No one wanted to talk about it. What particulars he gained came from the medics as they directed triage and treatment. He asked a little and listened a lot, then he did what he could to get the wounded out.

For the next two hours he held his end of the stretcher, carrying men absurdly young out to the medevacs. His arms aching red hot then white then not at all. Keeping low, desperate not to trip under the rotor blast. Two kids died while Dolan was carrying them.

Blankly he had written a quick draft then handed it off to someone he trusted to get it back to Pulaski’s shop. After ruthless edits, the finished piece was a shadow of his work. The implication from this makeover was that, yes, the ARVNs had taken their hits but then they gave back twice as hard. It read like his actual report as much as Dolan looked like Robert Redford.

Absently he put the notebook away.

On the far wall the latest headlines from home were put up for all to see. He got up and went to read them.

None were about the war.

Jack Nicklaus now made more money than Arnold Palmer – playing fucking golf.

Apollo 16 had landed two more astronauts on the moon.

Congress finally passed the Equal Rights Amendment then handed it off to the states to ratify – where it would wallow among them for years.

An Elvis movie was all the rage. Not babes and beach stuff now but a full concert. No longer the lean hip-shaking kid from the Ed Sullivan show, the king now sported massive sideburns and flowing white suits swarming with gems or glitter.

Not to be outdone, Evel Knievel jumped his motorcycle over fifteen cars.

Then he crashed.

 Again.

Twenty-seven years after the war – the good one – America was ready to hand Okinawa back to the Japanese.

Polaroid had invented a camera that made self-developing pictures.

And a runner from Finland had won the Boston Marathon.

Jesus wept.

Suddenly needing coffee, Dolan shook his head then turned away.

Since he always carried what he needed, Dolan had no assigned desk and thus no fixed possessions. Correspondents like him would arrive, type up their pieces then head out again. Knowing no one would give a damn, he opened one drawer then another until finding a cracked souvenir mug from the French Open Cup in ’59. He blew the dust off it then departed.

The alcove had been a phone booth once. Every time Dolan went in he envisioned an old French colonial bellowing into the mouthpiece on the wall. The earphone was gone but the mouthpiece remained, along with an ancient coffee urn on a warped steel table.

As he began pouring, the table shifted ominously. The heater in the urn was absurdly hot and if it toppled over Dolan wanted to be outside the kill zone. Then he frowned and looked down.

Under one of the legs someone had shoved a triple-folded sheet of paper to prop up the table. It had come loose, hence the tilt. Curious, Dolan bent and picked it up.

It was a map of the South. Part of one of one, anyway. It was yellowing and brittle and had been torn neatly from the rest. The scale was massive. Far bigger than any Dolan had ever seen, and because it was only a fragment he couldn’t place the region. The terrain elevation looked mild enough to be near the coast but with no part of the gulf or any other waterway was visible. There were a few villages, but he didn’t recognize the names.

The colors were strange. Looking closely, he saw the map had been marked with colored pencils many times. Several markings had been erased then re-written. Here and there, ghosts of original letters and numbers were over-written by others. Lines and shapes with shifting dimensions had been drawn, modified, partially eradicated. The original notes lingered like a bad memory.

The effect was haunting. Symbols barely visible indicated advances here, withdrawals there. In places the paper was so worn it seemed held together by faith alone.

It took a moment before Dolan realized what he was seeing. Two contenders fighting over the same turf. Gaining and losing. Rallying and maneuvering and attacking again. Along the margin were traces of what might have been dates. If so, the fight had lasted three days at least.

Determining any winner was impossible.

More tired than ever, Dolan refolded the paper and shoved back in its place. Then he filled the mug and left.

Back at the borrowed desk, he put the scalding cup aside then reached for his cigarettes. Lighting up, he drummed his fingers idly, then studied the far wall again. As he did the words and images began to merge. Losing shape and texture. Looking but no longer seeing, he felt himself drifting through it. Falling beyond into a world dark and distant.

That morning a memo had gone around, stating that by the end of ’71 more than 57,000 Americans had died. Following this was the sobering fact that South Vietnamese troop losses were three times as high, at least. And as the draw down continued – nearly half a million Americans were now gone – the Republic’s losses would only get worse.

There was no mention of civilian deaths.

Dolan had long since decided that the goals of the South Vietnamese were simple:

There were none.

Aside from fighting not to lose, no plan existed. Certainly not one that would matter, even after all this time and ghastly suffering. The wheels churned on in Paris with the eternal promise that peace was coming. That peace was at hand.

Maybe it would be different through some brutal awakening. Maybe if the VC hadn’t just taken Hue in ’68 but occupied countless cities and towns and hamlets. Beating and maiming and slaughtering people by the tens or hundreds of thousands, simply for having the gall to be alive. It would be a violation of decency to rival what the Japanese inflicted on Nanking.

Or maybe something less quantitative but equally inspired. Like the British in India, shooting just enough of their subjects to remind everyone who was in charge.

Or maybe a loss so catastrophic it would dwarf Hiroshima. A blood-churning call to action like none other in history. But there wasn’t. There had been no Pearl Harbor attack and so no Pearl Harbor speech. No iron resolve to set aside differences and rise together. No will to conquer that would leave their enemy’s own passion far, far behind. The players were too divided. Too many disparate loyalties. Too many interests at odds with others.

Same as us, Dolan mused darkly, then wondered why he would be any different.

His father still had the flag his parents displayed while Pop was overseas. A white rectangle with red border, and a long blue star at the center. Families all over the neighborhood had them. Banners raised for sons fighting in Italy or Okinawa or any of countless places in between.

Only one had been gold.

The boy had died on Guadalcanal, and his mother not long after. A cousin had inherited the house then leased it to a young lawyer from Chicago. A married man with three children, he left the flag where it was. During his quieter moments Dolan would wonder, if it came to that, whether Pop would do the same.

Despite the pain and suffering, America came out of the good war better than anyone. And when it was over, not only joy and relief swept the nation, but the certainty that the hardest work the country could ever know was over.

The faith it inspired was simple:

Never again.

Dolan shook his head at the thought. Not thought but fact. It had been the high-water mark. The price for peace had been steep. Paying more would mean fusing the will of every man, woman and child into a seamless whole, eliminating all priorities but two.

The first was victory.

The second was death from pursuing it.

But what the hell would that take?

An alien invasion might do it. A real war of the worlds, he thought absently, like in those Mars Attacks cards. He was ten when they came out, and their apocalyptic scenes left all others in the dust. Willie Mays throwing from center field or the Hulk throwing a tank had nothing on the skull-faced Martians slaughtering humanity for the sheer pleasure of it. The Martian killing the boy’s dog was the worst. The visceral hatred that inspired in him still rang true. If he could have pushed a button to kill them all, he would have. Still would.

Every American alive would have to feel it. A bloodlust unquenchable by nothing but the extermination of those who created it.

It wouldn’t happen.

Ever.

And yet here, on the far side of the world . . . it could.

Many already had, but none had the Republic’s survival in mind.

As for the rest . . .

There were the minority Catholics – many born in the North – wielding most of the power. Then there were the Buddhists, refusing to placidly endure. And then there were the indigenous peoples of the Highlands, all of them alien to the “true” peoples of the land. And strung through it all were countless frightened people, wanting only to survive. Nothing more.

To truly win – if that word even existed here – the South would have to up the ante. To fight not only to win but to conquer in full. To not only crush the North but annihilate them.

To kill them as they fought. Kill them as they fell. Kill them as they tried to surrender.

To destroy every resource their enemies could possibly bring to bear, no matter how slight. To destroy not only factories and fields but every drop of fuel and scrap of food. Blasting to dust every government building, every utility, every hospital, every school, every home. Every store of fuel. Every vehicle and every airstrip. Every pier and dock. Every road and footpath. To burn every garden and poison every well.

To render every inch north of the seventeenth parallel as barren as the moon. To inspire the purest animal terror. To mutilate and violate in limitless unspeakable ways. Not merely shootings and beheadings but flayings and impalings and crucifixions by the millions.

And no one would be exempt, from infants to the frailest of the elderly, unable to aid their cause in any way. To erase their worth utterly.

As this ungodly scenario unfolded, Dolan recalled two images he had seen years before. Researching for a report about the Inquisition, he came across an old book with a set of woodcut prints. The paper was a sickly blend of yellow and gray and oddly soft to the touch. Scenes created with lines so black he kept thinking he would fall into them. Gone from this world, to damnation in the next.

The first depicted a man hanged upside down from a tree. He was naked, and his torso was slashed from neck to navel. A waterfall of blood and intestines spewed from him, falling not only to the ground but creating the rope by which he was hanged. Around the pool beneath him, wolves feasted on it all.

In the second, a hooded figure approached a ragged gateway made from bones. Swathed around them all was an unbroken ribbon of human skin, as though skillfully peeled from an apple. Atop this abomination was a head skewered on a spike. One eye was gone and the scalp had been torn away. And yet, impossibly, this remnant of a man was still alive. A single tear flowed from his remaining eye. A perfect picture of agony and regret.

Beneath each image was a caption in what might have been German. Neither had a translation but Dolan didn’t need one.

A true hell on earth.

Perfect metaphors for the degree to which the Viets would need to go. Waging war in the purest sense of the word.

 A total dissolution of decency. Utter dismissal of the human covenant. Surpassing the pitiless brutality of the Japanese and the industrialized hatred of the Germans. Simply slaughtering in place without the necessity to herd and corral. To deceive and dispatch.

Unless said enemies chose to surrender, of course. Pleading, begging, screeching for mercy – assuming they even had a society by then worth offering their cousins from the South. 

Horrifying, he knew.

All of it.

A very, very definite war indeed, with no question about who the winners were.

The harshest rulers in history would embrace it.

The Romans would admire it.

Genghis Khan would yearn for it.

Hitler would weep for it.

A perfect blueprint for the great work.

And why not?

Mao was a fat old man, Stalin a fossilized corpse, and the luminous Ho lived only in memory now.

Someone had to do it.

The vacuum needed to be filled.

A war to render all others meaningless. The very definition of sacrilege, irrevocably defiling those who wrought such terror on their enemies. Leaving them triumphant, yet so hopelessly corrupted their own ancestors wouldn’t possibly them as brethren. Deranged victors in a world where not only the earth was scorched but the sky as well. A place where all light of charity had been stolen away. Where light could never reach.

A sharp pain jerked him awake. His cigarette had burned down to his fingers. He shook his hand violently and the glowing butt fell to the floor. With his boot Dolan mashed it out then looked around.

No one had noticed.

No one cared.

Shaking himself, he raised the coffee to his lips then blinked. Hot as steam before, it had gone cold.

All around him the furor continued. The clacking typewriters and chattering printers. The ceaselessly ringing phones. The radios and televisions that sometimes murmured, sometimes squawked. Servicemen and civilians from all over the world doing what they had done for years. If the war ended today they would push on to the next.

And the middle, there was Dolan, relevant as a flea on an elephant’s ass.

If he made it home alive, someone else would pick up the slack.

Continue the great work.

The great march in the dark. The march to nowhere.


Mike McLaughlin is a writer for Vietnam Veterans of America. His stories have appeared in The Wrath-Bearing Tree, with more to be published in COLLATERAL, The Nonconformist and UNSAID magazines. His historical features have appeared in The American Veteran, WWII History and American Heritage. Not to be outdone, he has written three novels and dozens of short stories. He lives in Boston with his family.

“At the heart of my work are characters charging toward adversity. When they fall before it, they must learn to stand again. To endure and continue. To reckon with unseen perils inherent in great plans, and the bitter wisdom gained from fulfilling them.”  – MM


“Lights in the Sky” Suspense by George Gad Economou

Cynthia had her feet up on her desk, her gaze often wandering over to the open sea expanding under her window and away from her computer screen whereon The Lost Weekend played. She moved to the small seaside house three months earlier carrying the belief, and hope, that living in solitude, far away from the hectic big-city life, would allow her to work on her poems and finally realize her lifelong dream.

The past three months had proven her wrong. Despite the ample free time her, gradually depleting, savings offered, she hadn’t managed to write anything. As a teenager, she wrote several poems daily. While none of them would be considered good in any sense of the word, her teachers’ encouragement had fueled up the confidence that she possessed the talent one day to become a world-renowned poet.

She continued to ignore the great movie with the forced “happy” ending, opting to observe the star-studded sky and the roaring sea. An invisible fist clenched around her withering heart and drawing a single breath turned into a grueling task when a torrent of thoughts about her inability to put down even a few lousy lines flooded her whirling head.

The small house in the middle of nowhere should have proffered the perfect conditions for productivity. After all, she could stay in all day long, she didn’t have to worry about studying or going to work…it should have been perfect. The first doubts regarding her talent (or lack thereof) crept into her head, twisting her stomach into a tight knot. Perhaps, her true dream was simply to be able to stay home without having to worry about responsibilities, and scribbling poems had appeared, to her naïve younger self, as the best way to accomplish it.

She choked down her scotch and refilled the lowball glass, still scanning the night sky for inspiration like a lost wanderer searching for water in the desert. The bottle was half-empty and she desperately hoped it was within its bottom the fire of inspiration and creativity hid.

Nothing had worked so far. No matter how much hooch or drugs had gone into her body, they had proved insufficient to kindle the flames of creativity—or even just a damned spark. The blues had settled in, accompanied by the cruel realization that, just like so many others, she simply did not have it.

The smooth scotch glided down her throat, offering her insides a delightful warmth. Her eyes bulged—for a brief moment, even the blues enwreathing her heart dissipated—and she gaped at a tiny, lucent orb that cruised along the sky.

2.

The light vanished after a few seconds. Its brief appearance dispelled the theory that it might have been an airplane and there was no land nearby for it to belong to a car.

She sat up straight and scanned the sky with dilated eyes. She had read several stories about U.F.O.’s but never believed in them. It always amused her reading stories about crashed spacecraft and alien visitations but the rational part of her mind refused even to give the benefit of the doubt to any of those stories.

The strange light was a severe blow on rationality’s nose, forcing her to wonder whether those lights had indeed been of an unknown origin. The existence of aliens was undeniable; aliens flying over the house sounded like bovine excrement. She knew it, she felt it in her bones. Nonetheless, she rejoiced at the thought that an alien spaceship might have cruised over her head, offering her a strange connection to the cosmos.

 She choked down the scotch and fired up a cigarette. She exhaled the first plume of blue smoke toward the open window with a heavy sigh. No matter what she tried, she could not stop her heart from banging hard against her ribs. That last sip of scotch crawled around her head and made the room spin fast around her. Overwhelmed by enthusiasm and passion she had not felt since she was fourteen, she hunched over a yellow legal pad and whirled a pencil between her fingers.

The empty page stared at her, the lines dancing in mockery, challenging her to scribble down lines to rival the brilliance of Paradise Lost.

The dark, undulating sea expanded in front of her eyesight. She could envision the fish swimming around, living a life of freedom and of no tormenting worries about grandiloquent dreams. She stole a good gulp of scotch straight out of the bottle and the blues residing in her heart were temporarily drowned by a veil of euphoria.

Words and lines floated in her spinning head. After a deep breath, she brought the pencil’s edge down to the paper, seeing sentences and verses being born on the lines before she wrote them down.

Her lips twitched into a genuine smile when her fingers glided across the page and the words did appear, flowing out of her fingertips, passing through the pencil, and entering the page. For the first time in a long, long time, she remembered what happiness felt like.

3.

Her head had turned into a site of a relentless bombardment and she rubbed her pulsating eyelids as she lay sprawled on the couch. The last thing she remembered, the last memory her brain saved before setting sail for blackout island, was the strange light in the sky that sparked an old flame in her brain and took her back to her adolescence. A piano came crashing down on her head the moment she sat up. With her hand over her mouth,  she resisted the temptation of lying back down on the couch and waste the whole day curled up in the fetal position.

More jolts of pain traversed her body the moment she set her foot down on the floor. Flinching and wincing, she forced herself up, struggling against gravity that seemed hellbent on pulling her down. With the corner of her eye, she noticed the two empty bottles of scotch whisky, an ashtray almost hidden under a mountain of cigarette butts, and a tiny, almost empty plastic bag that had contained her last 8ball of blow that decorated her desk.

Between the bottles and the ashtray sat the legal pad. She took tiny steps toward the desk, pausing and wincing after every single one, and squinted at the handful of pages filled with her scribbling. She shook her head and shuffled away from the desk, incapable of even considering to sit down and decipher her awful handwriting that more closely resembled that of ancient untranslated languages.

She cursed the coffee maker when it growled and whirred. She collapsed on the metal chair, resting her chin on her closed fists. Her blurry, tired gaze moved to the large window. Despite a deep-rooted certainty that she’d probably written nothing but insipid lines, she did rejoice at the knowledge that she had managed to write something.

She fired up a cigarette and gagged after the first drag. She chased the smoke with some coffee and rubbed her pulsating forehead while trying to negotiate a peace treaty with her whirling stomach. Three months of a diet consisting mostly of booze, cigarettes, and some drugs had taken a toll on her body. However, the thought of the lines on the legal pad more than sufficed to ease the hangover that would have otherwise incapacitated her for hours.

Cold sweat ran down the back of her neck as she pondered what she might have actually written the previous night. After all, the lines could be so horrendous that they’d be the last proverbial nail on the coffin of her dream. Perhaps, it’d be better if they were bad enough to compel her to give up chasing the dragon of poetry.

She topped up her mug with more scalding coffee and shambled back to the living room, cupping the heated mug with both hands. The computer screen remained lit, its light hurting her still-throbbing eyes. The sky was blue and clear and a deep breath of the fresh sea air storming through the window faintly rejuvenated her.

The magnificent view was soothing and she insisted on staring at it, avoiding the dreadful moment of encountering the true product of her latest blackout.

4.

By night time she had read, edited, and revised the poems five times, flabbergasted by the quality and lucidity of what she’d managed to write while residing deep in the blackout mist, which not even blow had been able to lift.

She poured the second lowball of scotch right after draining the first, enthralled by the prospect of repeating the previous night’s roaring success. First, she transcribed the edited poems on her computer, her hands quaking from the desire to find literary magazines to send them to. First, she needed more poems, more work to have to present.

The only thing she could not shed off, and which had a firm grip around her heart, was the poems’ dark tone, and the prevalence of “lights in the sky” in all her poems. Could it be that that damn light she’d witnessed was the sole thing that sparked her creativity?

She rubbed the bridge of her nose and stared at the sea, how it connected with the night sky over at the horizon’s edge, creating a delightful, crepuscular dome that ensheathed and protected her. Draining the second glass sufficed completely to obliterate the hangover that had tormented her while she had hunkered down over her poems

While the third glass rejuvenated her and filled her body with a warm sensation, she could not force her fingers to guide the pencil onto the page, let alone to form any words of some coherence. She lifted her gaze up to the pallid moon, bathing her tiny corner of the world with a soft green light that hardly illumined anything.

The grin into which her lips tugged up when the effulgent lights made a reappearance was more radiant than the moon. This time, there were three distinct lights, moving in a triangular shape. They vanished just as abruptly as they had appeared and her joy turned into melancholy in the blink of an eye.

5.

After finishing her coffee, which failed to subdue the raging hangover, she scrutinized the second batch of poems she’d produced during moments lost in the alcoholic blackout. She bit the corner of her lips, almost failing to believe that she had written the poems that filled several pages of the legal pad.

Of course, they all revolved around the mysterious lights in the sky, and the second batch also had a much darker tone, but they were exceptional, if she might say so herself.

Delighted to have several new poems to send around, she checked her liquor stock and her heart sank: only a fifth of scotch, a fifth of tequila, and a fifth of vodka remained. They were the last soldiers standing, waiting patiently to give their lives for the greater cause.

She lined them up on the desk, their sight enough to make her postpone the necessary visit to the liquor store for the day to come. She cracked the fifth of scotch and poured the first lowball, making sure to crank the volume up on her computer before taking the first nip of the day under the sound of The Byrds’ Mr. Spaceman.

    She broke one of her cigarettes and poured the tobacco on a large rolling paper, mixing some pot in it before rolling it up. The slightly bent, badly rolled joint looked back at her squinting at it and she choked down some scotch. Her brain remained a barren desert devoid of all ideas. There was not a single spark of inspiration in her body.

Two drags from the joint sufficed to make her head feel lighter and to numb her arms. She poured more scotch down the scalding charcoals that had appeared in her throat and hunched over a clean page of the legal pad, holding the pencil’s edge just an inch above it.

No words agreed to appear but she needed, craved, demanded, to prove that the two-night writing streak was not a result solely of the mysterious damn lights. She had to have it in her, the damn lights that appeared only for a few seconds could not have had such a profound influence on her.

Without any forewarning, a storm erupted and a deluge of rain fell on the tumultuous sea. It was impossible not to gawk at the sudden change of scene and marvel at nature’s raw power, capable of exploding in almost destructive ways within seconds.

More scotch went down the hatch, keeping her warm from the frigid breeze that penetrated the house through the wide-open window. Nothing worked. Nothing could sire even a trace of inspiration in her psyche.

It had to be the lights. For some mysterious reason, those goddamned lights had done something to her that nothing else ever could replicate. Why? She sank the scotch and decided to drink the rest out of the bottle. Why waste precious time by filling up a glass?

Perhaps, it would be in blackout she’d experience the strongest of emotions, those that guide, and even impel, the hand to start writing, for no other reason than to get rid of feelings and thoughts repressed into the innermost, most hidden and protected cavities of one’s very being.

Her fingers were inches away from the bottle of tequila, standing there like a beacon of felonious hope, when a loud knock on the front door overshadowed the clamor of the storm and had her spin around with the desk chair, coming close to toppling off to the side.

6.

Flashes of lightning illumined the room every few seconds while the following thunder rattled the air, making her jump on the desk chair every damn time. Her gaze remained glued on the front door, wishing for the power to look through sturdy surfaces.

Her heart palpitated in her throat and her head swirled. In her tipsy condition, answering the door in the middle of the night was not smart. She was in no condition to defend herself, let alone think clearly. On the other hand, if someone braved the storm during this ungodly hour must have had a good reason.

Inebriation fueled her innate curiosity and she lumbered off the chair. The moment she was up on her feet, she held the side of her head hoping it’d make the room stop spinning like a carousel gone mad. After a deep breath, that only increased the whirling of her head, she shuffled toward the door, holding on to any and every piece of furniture in her way.

Whoever the mysterious visitor was, they hadn’t knocked on the door again. If it’d been an emergency, they would have, wouldn’t they? It only made sense that they would; her intoxication made even these simple contemplations appear like deep philosophical musings about knowledge’s true nature.

She crushed into the door and, with heavy panting, tried to open it. Nothing happened. She yanked at the doorknob, tried to pull, and even force, the door open. She huffed and puffed, leaning against the doorframe to stop her rubber legs from sending her tumbling down on the floor.

After another violent tug at the door that almost sent her flying backward, she slapped her forehead and burst into loud guffaws. She grabbed the keys from the end-table to her right and squinted at them trying to feel up which was the right one. Only after she’d unlocked it, with her heart taking residence on the tip of her tongue, did she realize the stupidity of what she was doing.

She would not be able to slam the door shut if the visitor had bad intentions. She opened the door and flinched, almost expecting something bad to happen. Nothing happened. She gawked about at the deserted front yard peppered in puddles of water.

After another quick glimpse around while scratching her head, she closed and locked the door, happy nothing had happened but unable to bear the confusion twirling her head. She laid down on the couch and shut her eyes, covering them with her forearm. Quickly, she succumbed to Morpheus’ embrace and prayed it’d help her overcome the strange, unproductive night.

7.

She rubbed her heavy, shut eyelids and squinted about, trying to dig up the memory of how she ended up in the bedroom. Someone had knocked on her door late during the previous night, that much she could recall almost vividly…she sat up on her elbows, wincing under the thunderous pain of anvils being used as drums by primitive tribes high on bad meth, and grew fearful of the results isolation had had on her mind; namely, whether she hallucinated the whole door-knocking incident.

Enunciating each movement with deep groans and grunts, she clambered up to her feet. There was a knock on the door, there had to have been one. It’s impossible she experienced auditory hallucinations; after all, booze does not cause hallucinations. Parched and with her stomach whirling like a washing machine reaching its crescendo, she shuffled into the kitchen and shoved her face under the faucet. The cold water did nothing but increase her nausea and pinch her sweaty skin. She started the coffee machine and cursed at it like a drunken sailor when it began growling.

After the first nip of the scalding, stale coffee, which did nothing to ease the raging headache or the turmoil ravaging her stomach, she headed back to the living room, ignoring the small drops of coffee that created a trail behind her.

On her desk awaited nothing but the heartwrenching sight of the legal pad’s empty pages. There’d been no blackout poems and she collapsed on the chair, which creaked under her weight, and cupped the mug with both hands, bringing the brim close to her dry lips without stealing a sip.

She bent forth and gagged after dragging the first puff from her cigarette, fighting with all her might to stop her stomach from evacuating her body. A shiver crossed her spine and she cast a sidelong glance at the front door. For some reason she couldn’t comprehend, and didn’t even know if it was an urge coming from within her, she was drawn to the front yard. She had to go outside, for some damn reason.

At first, she just shook her head and nipped on her coffee. Getting out of the chair was a herculean act. However, the burning urge pushed her up on her feet. Failing to ignore the brutal headache that threatened to split her head into two, she dragged her carcass to the front door.

She unlocked the door and put her hand on the icy knob. Her stomach knotted painfully and she couldn’t bring herself to opening the door. It made no sense being so afraid, but she quivered and breathed heavily nonetheless.

After a deep breath and straightening her back, she opened the door and peeked outside. Nothing was out of the ordinary. The yard appeared flooded with various puddles but that was nothing but the result of the storm that had now passed. She smiled at the smell of wet grass that penetrated her nostrils and she took a step out in the yard, avoiding the puddles that were dispersed on the stone pathway leading to the street, and stole a sip of coffee.

Slightly more rejuvenated, she turned around, ready to go back inside and perhaps attempt to put some words onto the page. The mug slipped from her fingers and she didn’t even feel the coffee that splashed all over her feet.

On the front door stood a message written in a strange, lively green color that appeared to be undulating:

WE ARE COMING

8.

After hours of scrubbing the door, she could finally go back inside. She shook her numb arms and her spine produced several cracking sounds when she stretched her back. After flinging the window open, letting the cool sea breeze swarm the room with the hope it would rejuvenate her exhausted mind, she collapsed on the desk chair and reread the poems already transcribed on her computer.

She cracked the fifth of vodka and poured herself a triple, shuddering at the realization it was the last bottle of hooch left in the hose. She savored each nip and wheels turned in her head as she sought ways to make the bottle last till the end of the night. The bottom right-hand corner of her computer screen cruelly informed her it was too late for a quick dash to the stores.

Despite her increasing thirst and the burning desire to sink the lowball, she only stole small sips; every nip she had brought her closer to the bottom of the bottle. She stared at the bright computer screen and her poems, but it was impossible to concentrate. Her mind kept going back to the awful reality that the house would soon be depressingly dry. It clouded all her thoughts and obliterated her attempts to focus.

She sank the lowball and stole a swig out of the bottle; making the bottle last all night long was the wrong course of action. She fired up another cigarette and filled the lowball up to the brim before picking her pencil up and twirling it in her fingers while staring at the fresh page of the legal pad.

She kept toying with the pencil, twirling it in her fingers and tapping it on the desk, making sure it became an extension of her fingers, turning it into an integral part of her body and self. It didn’t work. All she could think of was she was about to run out of booze before she could get drunk enough to pass out.

Her gaze moved back to the window and the magnificent view that was what had drawn her to the house. She had thought it would have helped her recapture the fire of inspiration. The legal pad’s fresh page mocked her, challenged her to prove she still had it, or, at the very least, something resembling talent.

After topping her glass off, the bottle stood next to her half-empty. It was the most disheartening sight, one that filled her heart with dread. She swallowed another long sip, simply to somehow untie her stomach that had clenched into a knot.

She brought the pencil up to her eyes, staring at it almost with hatred until it turned blurry and double. There were no words, no lines to be written. All that engulfed her was darkness and the threat of spending a dry night.

“Come on, damn it,” she snapped and hunched over the legal pad, trying to force the pencil to move, to produce something. Even just letters with no meaning strung up together. It could be a start. A tear dropped from her eye and formed a moist stain on the page.

A humongous triangle of lights appeared in the sky, momentarily overshadowing even the half-moon. The lights were more lambent and larger than before. Whatever caused them was closer than ever before. They vanished once she blinked, but she continued to stare at the sky with intensity and hope.

They didn’t come back. Perhaps, they were toying with her. Appearing only once, and for only a few seconds, just to make sure she doesn’t forget about them. While she realized that perhaps she would never know the truth about the lights’ origin and true nature, she needed to solve the mystery, if only so she would understand whence her poems, and the writing outbursts, had come.

She fell off the chair and rubbed her throbbing hit. A thunderous thud reverberated across the house and she glared up at the rooftop when more thumps were heard.

9.

She staggered off the chair and eyeballed the front door. Her heart drummed right behind her ear, punching her brain and forcing her to wince. Whatever that sound had been, she needed to go outside and check it. Perhaps, an accident had taken place and someone could need help. Deep inside her, she expected someone to knock on the door.

While she wanted to believe that the previous night’s incident was a prank, it was hard imagining anyone would drive in the middle of nowhere just to pull a prank. That message on her door had to have a deeper meaning…perhaps, it was related to the lights in the sky. Her gaze moved back to the remaining vodka in the bottle, waiting to proffer the coveted bliss.

The house was locked, she could swill it down, hopefully pass out, and sleep the madness away. She’d wake up hungover but back into normalcy. She shook her head at the idea; if she even just got heavily inebriated, she would find herself at the mercy of whoever, or whatever, lurked outside, trying to get in.

Her heart nearly came flying out of her mouth when the knock came. Petrified on her spot, she simply gawked at the door, clenching her fists into tight balls. If she ignored it, if she didn’t make a sound, perhaps the visitor would just leave.

She jumped when the second knock blared inside the graveyard silent house. The only other sound in the house was her palpitating heart. With her teeth drilling holes in her lower lip, she lumbered toward the door, compelled to answer. What if someone needed help? What if there had been a car crash or some other sort of accident?

She couldn’t just stand there, ignoring the demanding knocks on the door. If she did, she might end up responsible for someone’s death. She perused the room, searching for anything that could act as a weapon, just in case the mysterious visitor did not have the best of intentions.

Kitchen, she thought and turned on her heels. Once she held the butcher knife’s handle, once it was in her closed fist, she’d feel safer and more confident about opening the door. After taking just one step toward the kitchen door, a thunderous explosion caused the house to quake, and bathed the house in a blinding white light, and she dashed back toward her desk, and as far away from the front door as possible.

10.

She peered at the window and at the heavy rainfall showering the sea. The explosion was nothing more than thunder. While it explained the explosion, and she knew abrupt weather changes were not preternatural, the question of the visitor remained.

There hadn’t been another knock for a few minutes and it allowed her to breathe a little easier. She threw herself on the chair and slapped her hand away when she reached for the bottle. A good sip would allow her to relax but if the visitor still lurked around, she could not afford to be in a stupor.

She brought the bottle’s neck to her lips, taking a sniff of the odorless liquor. There was hardly enough vodka in the bottle to get her drunk. The adrenaline her brain had pumped through her veins had obliterated the buzz she had worked on. Just enough vodka to numb her body just enough to make her feel comfortable and fuzzy.

After biting the corner of her lips, she swilled it down and smacked her lips, cherishing the warm wave that traversed her body and gave rise to tingling sensations all over. She fired up a cigarette and exhaled the first plume of blue smoke toward the open window, letting the strong breeze take it away.

After twirling her head, she hunched over the legal pad and picked the pencil up while the cigarette dangled from her lips, sending thin sheaths of smoke up her nostrils. Perhaps, whatever had happened would suffice to kindle some sparks of inspiration.

She peeked over her shoulder at the front door. Things had been quiet; whoever the visitor was, they must have given up on waiting for her to answer.

She gave up; tilted the bottle in her mouth and the vodka glided delightfully down her throat, first warming her intestines, then moving back up in her head. She crouched over the notebook, ready once more to battle the goddamn page. Perhaps, this whole ordeal, whatever it was, would provide enough inspiration.

However, the message on her front door had been real, someone had written it. In short, someone intended to visit her, to…what would they want from her? She glared at the empty bottle, her head only softly spinning and demanding more booze. She had nothing with which to quell her great thirst.

She wasted about an hour, smoking and playing with the empty bottle, often looking into it with a vain hope of finding some surviving splash of precious hooch. A dry night loomed ahead and that was more terrifying than the mysterious visitor’s potential intentions. The house was bathed in an effulgent white light that momentarily blinded her.

No thunder followed.

11.

She clenched her fists and pricked her ears. The thunder she expected never came. It had to be a distant lightning, nothing more. Sweat ran down her forehead, burning her eyes. Something was afoul, she could smell it in the air.

She glanced up when another thump reverberated throughout the house. More thumps followed; footsteps. Someone was on the roof. She blinked and stared at the ceiling as more and more footsteps were heard, almost as if an entire group of men had landed on the roof.

She leaned against the desk, keeping her gaze fixated on the ceiling. Her brain whirled in hopeless attempts to figure out what she should do. Mechanically, she lit a cigarette and dragged two long puffs before setting the burning cigarette atop the mountain of butts almost concealing the ashtray.

Would the plume of blue smoke she exhaled be her very last one? The footsteps on the roof faded. She peered about, clenching her quaking fists, trying to locate the mysterious intruders. For a moment, she almost expected them to leap into the house through the window, just like it sometimes happens in movies.

That didn’t happen. She twirled her ankles and punched her thighs. She groaned from the cold pain that traversed her muscles and took a few steps around in the living room. There was nowhere she could hide in. The house had no basement, no attic, nothing…after all, the house was not built in order to sustain a heavy attack by unknown forces.

She dashed into the kitchen, slamming the door shut, when heavy knocks thundered the front door. A moment after she was in the kitchen, a blaring sound caused her to wince. The front door was down and she had nowhere to go.

12.

How would the tiny kitchen help her to hide? She yanked one of the counter drawers open, almost pulling it out of its hinges, and grabbed the butcher knife. The sweat in her palms made it almost impossible to hold on to the handle and she raised it up to her gaze, wondering about the last time it had been sharpened.

She didn’t like the answer that came to her head and she licked her arid lips. Cowering in the corner away from the door, she pricked her ears and arched an eyebrow when she heard the ongoing conversation in the living room, transpiring in a language that did not sound native to the planet. She tiptoed her way to the far-end corner and slithered inside the laundry room; nothing more than a tiny room where the washing machine and dryer were. She closed the door slowly, cursing it for creaking.

She pushed the washing machine slightly away from the wall and crawled behind it, wondering why she thought it would offer her any protection. The footsteps moving around in the kitchen caused her blood to freeze and she squirmed deeper behind the sturdy machine while holding the knife with both hands right in front of her chest.

A commotion came from the kitchen: drawers were being jerked open, glassware broke, furniture were dragged across the floor. The intruders obviously were looking for something; what was it? Her gaze dropped down to the knife pointing outward. Did she have it in her to stab anyone, even if it was an alien with evil intentions? She had no idea.

The silence that suddenly befell the house terrified her more than the clamor of moments earlier. She held her breath when the door leading to the laundry room creaked and a thin ray of moonlight illumined the crepuscular, tiny space.

13.

She gasped at the long, thin shadow cast on the floor, reaching up to the wall right next to her. She tightened her grip around the knife’s handle and bit her lips down. The shadow of a tall, lanky creature with a triangular head grew larger, as its owner moved closer. It had to be a trick of the light. It had to be that.

It was just a burglar whose shadow turned monstrous due to the moonlight coming from the kitchen window and hit him in the back. Whatever the intruder’s true nature—human, alien, or supernatural—he stood but a foot or two away from her and would soon catch her.

The knife’s handle was slipping off her sweaty palms and she wondered if her heart’s palpitations were in fact as loud as they felt, and if the intruder already had heard them. An urge overwhelmed her; she needed a drink and to sit in front of her legal pad, to fill pages upon pages with the lines that swirled in her head.

A voice broke the silence and she tasted copper after biting her lips down hard. More voices came from the kitchen, sounding agitated, and the shadow disappeared, along with its owner. Silence engulfed the house. She pricked her ears and heard nothing.

She didn’t dare stir. Perhaps, it was a trap meant to lure her out. She drew a short breath through the nose and held it in, unwilling to lower the knife she held in front of her as a short lance.

14.

Nothing disturbed the awkward silence for a while. There was no way to calculate exactly how long it’d been since she last heard a sound, but it felt like a damn century. She crawled out of her hiding space, rubbing her sore back and stretching her arms and legs. The cracks her joints produced echoed in the night.

Still holding the knife with both hands, she returned to the kitchen with tiny, reluctant steps and gaped around at the destruction the intruders had caused. In the living room and the rest of the house, the situation was similar: the couch had been turned over and the cushions ripped apart, drawers and closets stood wide open and with everything they contained down on the floor, and painting had been slashed in half. It’d take her days, and lot of money, to restore the house to its former condition.

If she hadn’t heard the bizarre language of the intruders, she’d have attributed all this to a gang of burglars looking for jewelry and money. Then, her glance landed on the desk.

Her computer screen had been shattered, and tiny smidgens of glass blanketed the wooden surface of the desk. She dragged her feet to the desk and gawked at the bottle of a strange, red liquid that stood right next to her legal pad. She blinked at something written on the first page of the legal pad, in symbols she had never before encountered.

The utter destruction of the house and the money it’d require to be fixed, courtesy to her having no insurance, meant that her plan of staying in the house for a few more months on her savings had been annihilated.

She picked her pack of cigarettes from the floor and fired one up. Her gaze moved back to the strange bottle the intruders had left behind; the liquid within undulated, almost as if it invited her to have a sip.

What if it was nothing more than otherworldly whisky? She sighed a cloud of blue smoke and looked at the night sky and the calm sea. The storm had passed and everything was peaceful outside the house.

She needed a drink. She craved a drink. It was the only way she could relax a little and momentarily forget that the house looked like a goddamn war zone.

What if the bottle was poisonous? It didn’t matter. She’d risk it all, just in case it was nothing more than an alcoholic beverage from another planet. The first nip was strong, smooth, and carried a faintly sour taste.

She smacked her lips and leaned back on the desk chair, that had miraculously survived the onslaught of everything else in the house. It was alcoholic and didn’t kill her—at least, not right away. She chased a drag from her cigarette with a longer sip, tasting a fruity aftertaste in the drink.

Happy she had something to drink, so she could forget she sat amidst the debris of her house, she glanced back down at the legal pad and rolled backwards with the chair. The words on the page made sense, she could now read the symbols.

After reading the note of the intruders, she gulped down half of the bottle. They’d come back; the next time they did, though, she was not going to hide.

She reread the note and smiled at the bottle, the alien, strange liquor already crawling around in her head, making her delightfully intoxicated:

We come in peace;

We want to help; we want to go home.


George Gad Economou holds a Master’s degree in Philosophy of Science and resides in Athens, Greece, doing freelance work whenever he can while searching for a new place to go. His novella, Letters to S., was published in Storylandia Issue 30 and his short stories and poems have appeared in literary magazines, such as Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Chamber Magazine, The Edge of Humanity Magazine, and Modern Drunkard Magazine. His first poetry collection, Bourbon Bottles and Broken Beds, was published by Adelaide Books in 2021.


“Luck of the Draw” Dark Thriller by Joe Pawlowski

“Two Frogs in the belly of a snake were considering their altered circumstances. ‘This is pretty hard luck,’ said one.”

—Ambrose Bierce, Fantastic Fables

That night, Maxim Nichols—“Maxie” to his friends—could do no wrong. 

By leaving his players-club card in machines for others to play on and by strategically buying-in and cashing-out chips at different windows, Maxie managed to fool the casino operators into thinking he was a big spender. A big enough spender to reward with a complimentary hotel room and a steak dinner at the casino’s upscale restaurant. 

Not only was he lucky that way, but he also made a hundred bucks at the blackjack table and only lost twenty at the slots.

He was about to carve into his plateful of bloody rib eye, feeling pleasantly buoyed by his good fortune, when a woman at the next table caught his eye.

She sat alone, picking at a salad, looking bored. On the losing side of fifty, her auburn hair newly permed, she wore an embroidered, off-the-shoulders blouse and had the sort of long, boney face that some might indelicately describe as equine. She was no one’s idea of a babe, but something else about the woman drew his attention: he could smell money on her. 

What the hell? He’d roll the dice.

“Excuse me, missus,” he said, “but I was wondering if I could join you at your table. I hate to eat alone.”

She dabbed at plump lips with a napkin, appraising him. “Well, I suppose there’s no harm in it,” she said in a deep voice. Before she could say another word, he carried over his plates, silverware, and coffee cup.

“I’m Maxim Nichols,” he said, shaking her hand. “Perhaps you’ve heard of me. My family owns Nichols Jewelry, the diamond stores.” His estranged half-uncle’s family, actually. Maxie’s role in the firm’s operations was limited to supplying it with bargain-priced gems of suspicious origins. Nichols Jewelry listed him as a consultant, but most people would have described his occupation as a fence.

“I’m Enid Frank.”

Her earrings were pearl. She wore a diamond stickpin in her blouse, and on a pinky finger, a cameo ring with an ivory setting. Her nails were French-tipped and manicured.

“You a slot player?” he guessed, sawing into his steak.

“I’m not much of a gambler.” She speared a green olive with her fork. “I just came here with a friend. A girls’ night out.”

It was funny how some women chafed at being called a girl, then applied the term to themselves, perhaps thinking it made them sound younger. Was she trying to sound younger for him?

“Where is your friend?” he asked.

She paused and studied him briefly. Go ahead, he thought. Trust me. She shrugged, deciding some question in her mind. “Marjorie made an early night of it. I stuck around, though I’m not sure why.”

Maxie grinned. “To soak up the atmosphere, perhaps? That’s why I come here. I’m not much of a gambler either, but I find the gaming atmosphere charged. Exciting. People are so hopeful when giving fortune a spin, don’t you think? And so thrilled to win a cupful of quarters or score at the line on a two-dollar pass bet. It’s delightful viewing. It beats watching television at home.” Did that count as two or three lies in a row? Come to think of it, the part about watching TV was the truth.

She nodded and returned his smile.

After dinner, they made small talk, then circled the gaming floor together, amid the flashing lights and the ringing bells. They shared a few drinks at the casino bar, slow danced beneath a strobe-lit disco ball, kissed outside a gift shop, and wound up passing the summer evening in Maxie’s comped hotel room.

Enid Frank was a widow. Her husband, Earl, had been a talented stockbroker who left her well off when his heart imploded six years ago. They’d had no children, and few friends who weren’t colleagues or family of Earl. Since Earl’s death, she saw less and less of these people, though at least she could count on Marjorie for companionship. But most nights, Enid spent alone in her condominium in a coved community on Prior Lake, watching movies or reading mystery novels. Her favorite author was Agatha Christie.

The next morning, they ordered breakfast from room service and ate it in bed: eggs, bagels, and strong coffee. 

“I must say, Enid, I certainly enjoy being with you. Do you think we could go out again sometime? Maybe for dinner?”

Was that a blush? She patted her permed hair and adjusted the collar of her fluffy white hotel robe. “Of course, Maxim. Nothing would please me more.”

He offered to drive her home, but, as she’d brought her own car, that was unnecessary. It was a good thing, too, since Maxie’s somber, beige, ten-year-old Chevy Malibu hardly seemed like the sort of vehicle a prestigious diamond merchant should ride around in. She did leave him with her cell-phone number, though, written on the hotel stationery with her name spelled out beside a tiny heart.

When she left, Maxie sat back down on the bed, licking his chops like a lion about to pounce on a tasty wildebeest.

“SO, HOW ARE YOU GOING to play it? Short con or long?”

Leaning over the pool table’s green felt at the Two Stooges hall in Fridley, Fast Benny Santiago snapped his wrist, and the cue ball knocked the solid-yellow one ball into the corner pocket. He chalked the tip of his stick.

“Not sure. This is kind of new territory for me. What would you do, Benny?”

Stepping around the table, Benny—all a hundred and twenty-five pounds of him, his worn tan suit hanging loosely on his frame, his pork-pie hat pulled down over his eyebrows—lined up his next shot and mulled Maxie’s query. “Well,” he said, nudging the cue ball with a little spin toward the orange five. The five dropped into a side pocket. “How rich are we talking?”

“I’m thinking pretty rich. A quarter-mill, maybe more.”

Benny whistled. “She’s a widow, you say? Are you thinking of marrying her?”

“Not if I can help it. She’s not much to look at, and her idea of a fun time is watching a Miss Marple telethon on PBS.”

Benny did some serious chalking of his pool stick. “You could woo her. Make her think you might marry her. At least make her think you’re open to the idea. Get her to let down her guard. Then get her to hand the cash over voluntarily. ‘A foolproof investment.’ Something like that.”

“This is the part where it takes money to make money. I’d have to impress on her that I don’t need her cash. That’s the only way she’d hand hers over to me. Putting on a front like that would cost more than I’d like to spend. It’d take a fancy car, a pricey house, and some wrangling to get her a sham tour of the Nichols Jewelry office. That will mean talking with my uncle.”

“With Jack?”

Maxie shrugged “It might be necessary to convince Enid of my story.”

Benny had the blue two ball near the far corner pocket, but Maxie’s striped ten was in the way. A banked shot with just enough kiss on it might drop the two, but it meant banking around the eight ball. A tricky shot.

“Take it one step at a time, Maxie. Rent yourself a snazzy car, pick her up at her place and take her out for an expensive meal. And don’t chisel on the tip. You drive back to her place, maybe she lets you in, and you get a better handle on how vulnerable she is.”

He could afford to rent a car.

“I’ll bet you ten bucks I sink the two ball,” Fast Bennie said.

“You’re on.”

MAXIE PARKED THE MERCEDES-BENZ E-300 in the visitors lot and stood there in the warm night air for a minute admiring it. He’d never before driven as ritzy a car. Metallic blue, tan leather interior, automatic climate control, Bluetooth, heated seats, sunroof. The works. It was four years old, but the dealership was bleeding him over a hundred bucks a day for it. He only hoped the investment paid off.

The condos all looked down on a harbor cleanly lined with speedboats and pontoons. Concrete steps led to the front doors. Enid’s place was toward the middle of a grouping of four-story, newly painted luxury buildings that must have cost half a mill at least. He climbed the stairs to her home and pressed the doorbell, Enid’s estimated net worth having doubled already.

A woman answered. Not Enid, but a mid-fifties brunette, a little on the plump side but athletic, with eyes as cold as January frost on Lake Minnetonka. She smiled, sort of, but like her eyes, her smile held no real joy. “You must be Maxim,” she said. “I’m Enid’s friend Marjorie. She’ll be down in a minute.”

Marjorie held open the door, and Maxie entered.

The place was airy and neat, with all-new or nearly new furniture. There was a lot of leather, chunky wood polished to a shine, and glimmering brass. Stairs led to the second, third and fourth stories, and an open doorway led to the basement.

Marjorie walked across the room and closed the basement door.

“Enid says you’re in the diamond business?”

“My family owns Nichols Jewelry. I’m semi-retired at this point, but I own a half-interest in our store at the Mall of America, and I own a diamond-import business with offices in St. Louis Park and Antwerp.” The lies glided smoothly from his tongue.

Marjorie’s cold eyes narrowed. “That sounds impressive.”

“Nowadays, the businesses just sort of run themselves. I have good people, but I stop in occasionally just to let them know the old man still has a hand in running things.”

“You live in St. Louis Park?”

“Edina. I knock around in a big old house by myself. Not sure why I even have it. I guess you have to do something with your money. Besides vacationing in St. Thomas, that is.” He winked at her.

Her eyes thawed a degree. “I hope you don’t mind me asking you these questions. I feel a bit protective of Enid. Ever since Earl died. There are scoundrels in the world ready to swoop in on a wealthy widow. To flatter her and break her heart, just to get at her money.”

“Shameful,” Maxie said, pulling a troubled face. “I hope you don’t count me in with those characters. I assure you, all I want from Enid is the pleasure of her company. Speaking of which.”

Enid descended the steps in a black evening dress with a cowl neck and a high slit that revealed one nylon-clad leg, and a hat with a black veil. 

“You look radiant,” Maxie said. “I hope you brought an appetite.”

“I’m famished. Where are you taking me?”

“I thought we’d grab a burger and a shake at McDonald’s.”

She looked stunned.

“Or,” he said, “we could have surf-and-turf at Mancini’s.”

She laughed. “Oh, Maxim. I’ll have to get used to your sense of humor.”

AFTER DINNER, OVER COCKTAILS, Maxie began tightening the noose.

“I so enjoy your company, Enid.”

“And I yours, Maxim.”

“Do you believe in fate?”

She leaned forward, patting her perm beneath the brim of her hat in a conspiratorial manner. “I believe in hard work and luck. If our destiny is predetermined, then what’s the point of setting goals for ourselves? Of keeping our noses to the grindstone and living upright lives? Fate, it seems to me, is a wretch’s excuse for failure.”

“I see what you mean.” Maxie reached out across the table and took her hand in his. Blue veins snaked beneath her paper-thin skin. “But aren’t we all affected by forces beyond our control? Don’t you sometimes feel the pull of inevitability? Take, for instance, you and I. Was it just luck that has brought us together?”

She smiled slyly. “Perhaps good luck. It’s a bit early to say.”

He feigned being wounded. “You cut me to the quick, dear heart. Am I the only one who feels the attraction?”

She licked her thick lower lip and looked down through her veil at his hand on hers. “No. You’re not the only one.”

A waitress brought their bill in a brown leatherette folder. Maxie examined the charge, opened an overstuffed wallet, and handed a pair of crisp fifties to the waitress.

“I’ll get your change,” the girl said.

“Don’t bother.” Maxie grinned. “You keep the extra.”

IN THE COMING WEEK, they went out for dinner again one night. Then, on Saturday, they had a picnic lunch in shady Centennial Lakes Park in Edina, where they listened to a rousing concert put on by the 1st John Philip Sousa Memorial Band. The musicians skillfully delivered on various marching tunes that sounded familiar, even if Maxie didn’t recognize most of them by name. However, he immediately recognized the closing number. He, Enid, and the rest of the crowd were on their feet and clapping as the orchestra broke into a hardy rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever.” It soared in all its glory on the cheery summer breeze.

Then, holding hands, Enid and he strolled the park’s leafy greenery.

“Would you like to see my bungalow?” Maxie said.

“Yes. Very much.”

Fast Bennie knew a guy who knew a guy who rented out expensive homes throughout the Twin Cities through an Airbnb-type service. Usually, the rental guy charged $160 a night for the “cabin,” as he called it, but Maxie got him down to $120 a night on a four-day deal. The days didn’t need to be consecutive, as long as they were convenient for the landlord.

Maxie had checked the place out when he picked up the key this morning. It was a hell of a place: two stories; large, open rooms; polished wood floor; tastefully furnished. The master bedroom, which was almost as large as Maxie’s entire apartment, came with a stone fireplace, a king-size bed, and windows that took up most of the wall space. Behind the cabin ran a wooded creek.

He familiarized himself with where everything was; then he laid out a few personal touches: bathroom items, clothing, some dirty laundry for the bathroom hamper, a bag of groceries for the fridge, and Johnny Walker Red and Kentucky Owl Confiscated Bourbon on a counter. He left a diamond catalog from Botswana, and a handful of mail addressed to Maxim Nichols at this Edina address on the kitchen table. He left a cabinet open, moved the chairs around loosely, ruffled the drapes, and just did his best to give the place a lived-in feel.

That afternoon, when Enid stepped through the doorway, Maxie could tell he made the right impression.

“Maxim, it’s gorgeous,” Enid said, her eyes filled with dancing light. “You must think I live in a hovel.”

“Not at all, dear heart. I never judge a person by the size of their wallet.”

They talked about the concert, about Enid’s sister who lived in sunny Florida, about that crazy Trump fellow who was running the country into the ground. Eventually, they got around to discussing Marjorie. Maxie had been to Enid’s condo three times now, and two of those times, Marjorie had been there.

“So, you and Marjorie are very close friends, I take it?”

“Yes. Marjorie has been my rock, through good times and bad. She has her peculiarities, but I couldn’t ask for a more faithful friend. We graduated from Highland Park Senior High together. Some of the other kids shied away from her, said she made them nervous, but I never felt nervous around her. Marjorie is a welder. Isn’t that interesting? Anyway, she was in my wedding party, you know. Maid of honor. She was with me when Earl passed. Marjorie would do anything for me, and I for her.”

Maxie could still feel the iciness of Marjorie’s gaze. He understood why she made people nervous.

He whipped up spaghetti with white sauce for dinner. They talked about politics and movies, and music. She asked him about the diamond business. What was it like? He told her about cut and clarity, about how diamonds were formed and what parts of the world they came from. He touched briefly on conflict diamonds and how Nichols Jewelry couldn’t in good conscience deal in those tainted gems (a lie, of course). He talked about Antwerp and Amsterdam and how she would love a visit to Holland. She’d never been there, but then, in truth, neither had he. The closest he’d ever come to foreign shores was an Asian restaurant called Ping’s on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis.

“You’ve done well for yourself, Maxim.”

“Well, I hate to brag,” he said, blotting white sauce from his chin. “But what about you, Enid? How are you fixed financially?”

He thought he saw her cringe, but he was being careful to make the question appear off the cuff and wasn’t looking directly at her at the time. She went silent.

“I’m sorry if I’ve overstepped,” he said. “Your finances, of course, are your affair. It’s just that in the diamond trade, there are so many opportunities to make money that I would be a poor friend if I didn’t offer you a taste. If you had any interest, that is. And if you could afford it.”

She cleared her throat. “Before he died, Earl converted our stock investments into municipal-bond funds. They provide me with a steady if somewhat frugal income. I also receive monthly social-security payments for Earl. The condominium is paid in full, aside from the association fees and utilities. Earl’s life-insurance money is just sitting in the bank, earning very little in interest but protected by the FDIC. I haven’t touched it.”

Maxie screwed on his concerned face. “Well, you know best. But it seems a shame that the only ones collecting anything of note from that insurance money is your bank.”

He could see the scales of indecision shifting within her.

He let the subject drop, giving her time to think it over.

They made love on the king-size bed, the evening’s stars twinkling down on them through the massive windows. He found her pelvis a bit bony but otherwise enjoyed the pleasant ebb and swell of their merging. Afterward, he fetched them each a bourbon and water. From the kitchen, he heard her talking to someone on her mobile phone in the bedroom, but couldn’t hear what she was saying. By the time he returned, the conversation had ended.

They sat up in bed, sipping and talking quietly. She seemed more distant now, but it could have just been the dreaminess that often comes from lovemaking.

WHEN THE RENTED MERCEDES pulled into the visitors parking lot at Enid’s condominium complex, Maxie helped Enid out of the car. He draped an arm over her shoulders, and they stood looking in wonder at the moonlight shimmering on the bay.

“I’ve really enjoyed our time together, Maxim,” she said.

“As have I, dear heart. As have I.”

The pale moon shined on her forehead. Her eyes turned enchanted for an instant, and they kissed.

Then he felt her draw distant again.

Up the concrete steps to her front door, they climbed. He wasn’t sure if she was going to ask him in, but he hoped not. He wanted to get back to “the cabin” and tidy up before it got too late. He promised the landlord he’d be out by eleven the next morning. 

He still needed to bring Enid round to Nichols Jewelry headquarter in St. Louis Park to set the hook firmly. That meant he’d need to line up cooperation from his estranged half-uncle and a few of the employees. Have them call him Mr. Nichols and kowtow to him and so forth. He wasn’t looking forward to speaking with Uncle Jack, who would have written him off years ago if Maxie hadn’t provided him with a pipeline to stolen diamonds. The old devil owed him, and he was sure he could collect. After all, it was such a small favor to ask.

If all went right, Maxie estimated that life-insurance money would be in his hands in a week or two. Three weeks tops.

“Would you like to come in?” Enid asked, hopefully.

“Of course, I would,” he lied.

A table lamp near the door lit the entranceway. The rest of the house was dark, except for a sliver of light shining from beneath the basement door. She moved in the dark, and he followed her into the kitchen, expecting her to turn on another light. But she didn’t. He was about to suggest it when movement disturbed the shadows behind him.

He started to turn toward the source when something unforgiving smacked the back of his head. It felt like a pipe or a solid piece of wood. His knees gave out, and he collapsed to the floor. He started to raise himself with his arms when the second blow fell. Blackness lunged out and grabbed him, yanking him in.

The last thing he remembered was the touch of cool linoleum on his cheek.

HE AWOKE GROGGY, his left eye glued shut with sleep goop. He forced it open and batted his lids until his surroundings began to swim into focus.

A powerful throb gripped the back of his head to the nape of his neck. Pain rattled in his skull like shattered glass, threatening to pulse out from behind his eyes. His stomach lurched but did not empty. When he tried to move his hands, he couldn’t. They were duct taped to the arms of a steel folding chair. Loops of tape also wound tightly around his belly, his shoulders, and his calves. 

He sat totally naked.

The room he occupied was clawed from soil—a subbasement of some sort. A dim light bulb hung from an extension cord suspended from a hook in the ceiling’s low rafters. Against one wall was a tall, padlocked, military-style locker of gray metal. About six feet to his right, someone had dug a wide, deep hole. Bags of kitty litter and lye lined the wall just beyond the hole, along with a mound of dirt displaced by the digging. Spiders built extensive funnels of web in the room’s far corners.

A dirty-wood hatch opened overhead, flooding the room with light. A woman’s legs, bare to thigh-length denim, dangled through the opening. When she dropped, he saw who it was. She pulled the hatch door back into place and wiped dirt from her hands. She was too tall for the subbasement’s confines, so she hunched like Quasimodo.

The woman wore jean shorts, a black T-shirt with a skull advertising some horror novel called The Watchful Dead, and a pair of pale pink flip-flops. She walked boldly past Maxie to the locker, dialed a combination, and popped open the lock. The overhead bulb cast just enough light to leave the contents of the locker largely in shadow.

Holding open the locker door and looking back at him over her shoulder, she said, “You remember me?” Her cold eyes glowed in her plump face.

His first attempts to speak were unsuccessful. Finally, he got it out: “Marjorie, Enid’s friend.”

“That’s right.”

She kicked away the flip-flops. then pulled off the T-shirt, stripping to bare skin. She worked the shirt onto a wire hanger and suspended it from the venting on one of the metal doors. She’d recently been tanning, and the strap of her bathing suit had left a white stripe across her back. Dark hair sprang from her armpits. 

“What are you going to do to me?” he asked.

She turned from the locker and faced him. Despite her slight chunkiness, her appearance was remarkably sexy, the swell of her breasts shining and firm; the brown waves of her medium-length hair pinned up in the back, revealing a surprisingly long and slender neck; even her frosty eyes offered a glimpse of forbidden pleasure. His overwhelming fear now mingled with a tinge of arousal. Under different circumstances, he could imagine bedding her.

Under vastly different circumstances.

“That depends on you, Mr. Nichols. I’m guessing you won’t let things get too unpleasant before you cooperate. But I’ve been wrong before.”

Marjorie snapped open the fly of her shorts, pulled them down over her thick legs, and afforded them a hanger all their own. She was now completely naked, and the dim light gave her skin a surreal glow. She faced him, two yards away—beyond his reach even if his hands had been free—standing hunched, legs spread, one hand on a fleshy hip, the other clutching a pen and notepad of paper. She waved the pad and pen at him.

“Are you a religious man, Mr. Nichols?”

“Religious?”

“Yes. Do you go to church? Do you go to a Christian church and pray to God and Jesus? Do you?”

He wasn’t sure if this was some kind of trick question. What if I give the wrong answer? What could this madwoman want from me?

“S-s-sometimes, I guess.”

She frowned.

“Some Christians are so engrossed in the suffering of Jesus that they feel the need to share it. To bring great pain upon themselves in a misguided act of faith. They equate suffering with redemption, you see. With being pious and dutiful. Historians say that even St. Francis succumbed to this line of thinking, pummeling himself mercilessly and encouraging others to do likewise unto themselves.” 

She chuckled and shook her head.

“I understand the allure of pain for these people. Pain, you see, holds a deeper truth than the most profound philosophy. Suffering brings us at once into the immediate moment. You cannot reason with it. Words are meaningless to pain. It’s a reality in itself, don’t you agree?”

“Well … to each his own, I guess.”

Her teeth gritted, and she moved her head from side to side.

“Would you like me to flog you, Mr. Nichols? Would that expiate you of your sins?”

“Sins? What do you mean?”

“Oh, come now. I imagine you’ve done your share of sinning in this world. Maybe taken advantage of certain people. Lying. Maybe telling lies to those who trusted you? Or are you guiltless as the babe in a manger?”

Maxie struggled against his bindings. “Look, I don’t know what this is about, but I’ll do whatever you say. Don’t hurt me. Please.”

She studied him as if he were a fly in one of the spiders’ corner nests.

 “Alright. Let’s start with your PIN numbers,” she said.

“My what?”

“Your personal identification numbers. From all your accounts.”

“My PIN numbers? Is this a robbery? Is that what this is all about?”

“You’re a little slow to catch on, Mr. Nichols. Let me make your situation clear. You are duct-taped to a chair in a hole in the ground where no one could possibly hear your screams. You have the misfortune of being in said hole with a woman who would relish nothing more than to flay your skin from your bones if you fail to answer any of her questions. Is that clear enough for you?”

“But what about Enid? What have you done with her?”

“How sweet. He worries about Enid. About his little dear heart. Rest your mind, Sir Galahad. Enid is upstairs, probably watching the late news. Enid is my friend. I wouldn’t harm a hair on her head.”

“But I don’t understand. Has she any idea what you’re doing to me?”

“To say she’s been apprised would be an understatement. Now, let’s have those PINs.”

“Then what?” he demanded excitedly, trying to force himself up from the chair. “Is that hole in the ground meant for me?”

She set down her pad and pen on the earthen floor, went to the locker, and removed a cat-o’-nine-tails. She snapped it in the air so suddenly that he recoiled.

He ceased his struggling. “Listen, Marjorie. I may have given you and Enid a false impression. The truth is I’m not really rich. I don’t own diamond exchanges in Antwerp or anywhere else. I fence stolen rocks. It’s a living but—”

The whip flashed down on his thigh, each tendril biting into his skin with white-hot intensity. He yowled. 

“You live a pretty good life for someone who’s just getting by. A Mercedes, which, by the way, has already been sold. Then there’s the house in Edina. Quite the digs, from what Enid said. And we spent some time researching you and your family. You’re listed on the website as a special consultant. That’s all we needed to know.”

Again the cords of leather crashed down on him, this time on the opposite thigh. The explosion of savage punishment brought tears to his eyes. 

“Stop it! Stop it! I’ll tell you whatever you want.”

Another blow, piping hot on his naked chest, threatening to rip him open, talons of torment sinking into his muscle and bones.

“Aaah!” he shrieked in the primal language of the tortured. “Aaah! Aaah! Aaaaaaahhhhh!” 

In the end, he gave up everything: the numbers, the institutions, the accounts. He even volunteered the information on an account the government didn’t even know about. Anything to stop the pain. All told, it didn’t really amount to much. Fifty thousand dollars, maybe, spread out over a half dozen financial firms—the savings of a lifetime from a small-time fence and wannabe con man.

As she jotted the last of the details in her notepad, all the fight had been taken out of Maxie. His flesh swarmed with burning welts, dark bruises, and pinprick ridges of blood. The sweat dripped from his chin. His bladder had given out at some point during his ordeal, and the air was heavy with the smell of urine.

“Please let me go,” Maxie said in a voice barren of strength and dignity. “I promise I won’t tell anyone about this.”

She stood over him for a minute like a demon-possessed peasant woman, breathing heavily from her exertions. She smiled widely, not a hint of compassion in those cold eyes.

“But, we’re just getting to the good part,” she hissed.

Marjorie returned the cat-o’-nine-tails and the notepad and the pen to the locker. She fumbled with something in the deep shadows. She pulled free a casing on wheels and rolled it out before him. A metal sheath housed two tanks with pressure gauges, coiled red and yellow tubing, and a shiny brass nozzle. 

She uncoiled the tubing. “Do you know what this is, Mr. Nichols?”

He nodded vigorously, his face awash in sheer terror. He floundered in the metal chair, pleading with her to let him free.

“This is an oxy-acetylene torch,” she said. “See, I’ve attached a braising tip to it. That will give me a nice, slender flame, which is the best for this kind of usage. Here, I’ll show you.”

“Please don’t do this. Please let me go.”

She opened the oxygen valve all the way and just cracked the acetylene one. “To start, you only want a little flame.” She held a striker to the tip and squeezed out a spark. It lit at once.

“Please. I’m begging you.”

“Next, you want to lengthen the flame out, like this.” The fiery plume shot out in a great whoosh. “Your oxygen gets regulated here.” She pointed to the relevant knob, then twisted it. The flame narrowed and turned to a concentrated stream of purest white.

“Now,” she said. “Let’s have some real fun.”

Copyright 2021 by Joe Pawlowski


Joe Pawlowski has written three dark novels (most recently, The Cannibal Gardener), as well as the short-story collection from which this tale is drawn. He is a retired journalist, a U.S. Army veteran, a secular Buddhist, a Beatles fan, a vegan, and a lifelong student of classic horror and supernatural literature.


“A Personality Examination, Among Other Things” Flash Fiction by Ara Hone

Your leadership style bears examination because of the coup. The personality brochure distilling complex human traits into four categories rests in your hands, pretending to help, but you flip a bird. The world’s end is a damned inconvenient time to grapple with temperament. The glossy, color-coded brochure smugly insists now is always perfect for self-reflection.

Your needle pegs red. Why are controlling personalities always labeled as the color red, as though red signifies rage? You flick past those pages; your index finger wetted for better traction. The snapping echoes off the cave walls crowding close, like the traitors who gathered with cool disdain at your so-called trial.

You rip out a page and wad it. No faceless trait scientist [literally faceless by now, you’ll bet] will convince you that waiting and starving is superior in strategy to striking and running. You’re still standing. The dumb fuck who wrote this brochure likely isn’t.

D = Director: You don’t just occupy your space; you own it. Among Other Things, you are human. Your blood-under-the-nails instincts rule. You bare your teeth, grip your knife, and scream into the inkiness: Come and get me!

BUT

Your rust weeps from too many cuts and slicks your leathers. Your heart pounds as rapidly as the boots that wrestled you here. Your propensity for flashy victories [their words, not yours] comes at the expense of friends, family, and followers, and those remaining seek vengeance, indeed, not truth.

I = Influencer: [Amusing, right?] The brochure claims you’re possessed of a negotiator’s DNA, illustrated by the color blue [never your favorite]. You don’t simply pursue agreement: you alert on the tiniest advantage to your agenda.

A parlay Among Other Things was brilliant; negotiations would have established leverage for humans. But you, a self-proclaimed chameleon, utterly failed to spot the inside double-cross. The slaughter’s stink still swirls your senses.

A snarl reverberates off the cave walls. Sick gurgles in your belly. You’re about to die, but two points bear further hashing.

S = Statesperson. Point one: 99.9 percent of [remaining] humanity hides, shunning controversy like the proverbial plague, which isn’t proverbial anymore. But you? You strap on the brochure’s canary yellow and bore through conflict like debris through a black hole [which is how those motherfreaks got here] because, Among Other Things, conflict is their language, and you’re now fluent in their tongue.   

Point number two: Loyalty matters. You’re humanity’s leader [okay, were]. You accept that leaders are flashing neon targets [for dissenters to take aim] but taking an arrow from within your ranks from someone you love[d]? That’s just…wrong.

Shivers quicken your hands, the ones that cradled your boy’s body the same day the man who shared your heartbeat laid the blame of his death at your feet. You should have been wary of the shadows entering his gaze. He betrayed you at the parlay and disappeared, leaving you to explain how you’d never sell out humankind to invaders.

Blood dopps onto the brochure from the G your former followers carved into your brow.

[G for guilty.]

You crumple the entire brochure and drill it into the darkness.

Snarls unfurl a heartbeat’s distance away.

A good thing you’re a

C = Cog-nator: Go-go juices spurt into your limbs. Your breath feathers hot over your lips. You hold, hold…a force drives you back. You strike. The stink is palpable, Among Other Things. You plunge the blade down and in. The tip skips off bone, but you keep pressing. [The high-pitched squeal is yours.] Bone is an organic component comprised of collagen protein. The major minerals are calcium and phosphate. Bone is hard; it is not the brochure’s green like tree saplings. You fight.

Among Other Things, if you fight, you will survive.

It turns out, self-reflection for healing is worth the sweat.

You’ve been judged, dumped, and left for dead, but you are who you are.

You’ve made mistakes—sure. But no color-coded brochure of red, blue, yellow, or green encapsulates you.

An apocalyptic plague of aliens from the stars is self-explanatory: humans didn’t start this crap. The self-healing process lets you see that peoples’ thoughts about you don’t matter.

Only living does.

Because Among Other Things, you are unique, and you’ve done your best. You will overcome. You will rise from the pit. You will choose to forgive and, in turn, be forgiven.

Humanity needs you, so you’ll lead again.

Among Other Things, the victory will be yours, and one by one, all the things coming against you die at your feet.


Ara Hone writes speculative fiction. Before that, she climbed grain silos to admire sunsets, joined the military when it wasn’t cool, and survived a sales career. She adores a great TV series and editing stories for Flash Fiction Magazine. Her best advice? Drink coffee daily. @ara_hone