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).

“Every Dog Has His Day” Mystery by Julian Grant (Part 2 of 2)

Julian Grant is a filmmaker, educator, and author of strange short stories, outlaw poetry, full-length novels/ non-fiction texts and outsider comix. A tenured Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago, his work has been published by numerous magazines (see the story for the complete list). Find out more about him at http://www.juliangrant.com.

“Safe” Dark Fiction by Janet Goldberg

Janet Goldberg’s “Safe” comes from a collection titled Every Small Thing. Her novel The Proprietor’s Song will be published by Regal House in the summer of 2023: https://www.regalhousepublishing.com/janet-goldberg/ She also edits fiction for Deep Wild https://deepwildjournal.com/ and teaches writing at a community college in northern California.

“Steve Loved Her to Pieces” Dark Fiction by Robert Kostanczuk

Robert Kostanczuk won first place for “Best Personality Profile” in a 1992 competition sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, Indianapolis chapter. Robert’s “Lizzie Borden Versus Belle Gunness” appeared in Suspense Magazine (Spring 2020 issue). Burial Day Books published his supernatural piece “Fatsy Noodles” in 2021. Twitter: @hoosierkos

“Acting Out” Dark Fiction by Brian R. Quinn

Brian Quinn is an Emmy Award Winning TV news journalist living in Manhattan who has spent the last thirty years covering news in New York City and overseas. Much of his work is rooted in those experiences.

“The Lottery” Dark, Speculative Fiction by James Hanna

James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, all of which have won awards, are available on Amazon.

“Sister Tells Me” Dark Fiction by D.C. Marcus

D.C. Marcus grew up in New Jersey reading Twilight Zone Magazine and the classic Shadows anthologies edited by Charles L. Grant.

Next Issue: March 4

 

“Sister Tells Me” Dark Fiction by D.C. Marcus

     This morning—there is no time here, we’ll call it morning, but it could be night—Sister brought me a boy to kill, a beautiful blond boy in a burial suit.  Sister has a knack for stealing corpses from funeral parlors.  Down here, in the abandoned tunnels beneath the city, the killings are just rehearsal.  Though the boy was already dead, Sister says we need to practice.  During the Rising the bodies will have heartbeats and voices for screaming.  The beautiful blond boy didn’t say a word when I bit into his neck. 

      “Higher,” Sister said, moving my jaw so that my teeth struck the middle of his vein.  Our technique must be precise.  Traces of formaldehyde burned my lips, but I drank from his vein until sated, until Sister left me, until I hid in the corner and threw up.    

     My name eludes me now, but I remember things, shards of memory that flitter like the filaments in a dying bulb. I was a soldier, someone’s husband, and a father, I think.  Things went bad…this is true for all of us down here…things went bad, and Sister found us living on the street. She fed me soup and a piece of bread, let me smoke half her cigarette, and I followed her into this tunnel, this crypt.  I refuse to call it home.  Sister keeps us isolated, but others are being trained for the Rising, like me.  We are mortal but Sister is Eternal.  She promises us the same once the Rising is complete, but eternity is damnation.

     I don’t tell Sister, but I don’t want to Rise.  All I want is to stop.     

     When we come for them, Sister tells me, they will fight us as if we’ve stepped from a screen instead of risen from the cesspool they created.  We mock the legends.  We hang crucifixes from the ceiling and bat at them with sticks; we gargle with Holy Water. When the Rising begins, we’ll appear in the mist, in the shadows, slashing throats and drinking until we’re full. Consider yourself warned: we’re coming, and it will hurt

     I swore I’d never kill again.  They told me I was crazy, sent me to the hospital, to the pill line, Uncle Dope wants YOU!   I hate it here, don’t ever want to kill again, but Sister is the only one who needs me.  We’re the dark people, and it’s our time to rise. 

                                                                        *

     Sister tells me she was born of the night, her mother gang-raped in a cemetery beneath the full moon and left to die.  But the moon rescued her, held her in its light for nine months, until her mother returned to the cemetery and gave birth to Sister on the night of the vernal equinox.  Her mother tracked down the three men who raped her and gave them a photo of Sister.  Then she stabbed each one in the throat with a pair of sewing scissors and baptized Sister in their blood. She remembers the moonlight on the faces of the dead men, their shocked expressions when her mother arrived.  We wait for the moon to call us again so we can rise.

     When I returned from the war, my family tried to help.  My wife, bless her, did everything to make me feel safe and loved.  Look, I didn’t start the fire, I’m sure of it.  But I didn’t move either, and our two-year old suffered smoke inhalation and second-degree burns.  No, I did not start the fire …Colleen (I think that is her name) came home and saw the flames, the couch engulfed while I sat on the floor watching TV, eating popcorn.  It’s better that I’m gone.  There were shelters, I think, but I preferred the street.  Sleep behind an alley dumpster and no one will ever touch you.  Except Sister. 

     There was a full moon the night she came.  “They will never forgive you,” she said, and by instinct I followed her to an abandoned lot at the edge of the city.  Stepped over weeds and broken glass, listened to the cries of feral cats in heat.  The husks of wrecked cars and twisted metal littered the yard, the moonlight reflecting off sheets of torn aluminum jutting from the ground.  By the barbed wire fence I saw an old sofa, like the one in our house, and when Sister took my hand, the sofa burst into flames.

     In that moment, I loved her.  

     Sister pulls me from the corner and leads me through the corridor to a large opening, where candles line the floor, a grate in the ceiling showing patches of moonlight.  For the first time I see the others, men and women like myself, dirty, cold, and scared.  We form a circle around Sister.  Has the Rising begun? 

     Sister closes her eyes, points her scissors to the sky, the moonlight catching the rusty blade, and the man beside me drops to his knees and howls.  He wears hospital scrubs and a baseball cap; his bare feet streaked with blood. On all fours he throws back his head and bays at the moon.  The others do the same, even me, I’m on the ground knees hurt so much cement howling like an animal, my tongue dripping spit, and does Sister know I’m faking? 

      “Tonight you will hunt for me,” Sister says.  In her hand are palm leaves tied in a cross, a Holy Crucifix, and she bites off the top and swallows the palms, and I wonder again if Sister is real or am I still in the hospital like before?  But she must be real, because the others can see her, and when she waves her arms, they jump and rush toward the metal steps that lead aboveground, and Sister tells them to bring back something young and pretty and alive.      

     We’re alone when Sister tells me I must hunt.   

     “We purify ourselves before we rise,” Sister tells me.  “A sacrifice is required.”

      I’ve followed orders and hunted before.  Never again, I swore, but Sister doesn’t know.  

    “They despise us.  What you knew is gone.  What you are now is still becoming.  Listen to the moon, and you will do what you must.”

     Sister kisses my forehead and hands me the scissors.  “Follow me,” she says, and together we climb the ladder into the night, where the bodies are waiting.    

                                                                        *     

     The coffee is black and hot, loaded with sugar packs, the only thing I’ve tasted in weeks.  In my pocket there’s enough loose change for coffee and a burger, served with a pickle and slaw, free refills on the coffee, I can sit here all night. Sister waits outside, eager for me to drag the waitress back to the sewers, where we’ll slit her throat and soothe our skin with the lotion of her blood.  Shelby, her name tag reads.  She’s young, plump, and pretty, even smiles when I explain the sunglasses at night.  War wound.  “Thank you for your service,” she chirps, and brings me an order of fries on the house.   

     “Not her, not this one,” I tell Sister, but the waitress’s days are numbered anyway. When the Rising begins, everything sweet plump Shelby knows will be extinguished.  If we take her now, she’ll die with hope.  But I don’t want to do it.  

     “In another world, your reluctance would be admirable,” Sister says. “But you’ve been exiled from that world. You’ve already killed.  All those broken bodies sanctioned by your Colonel. These bodies are sanctioned by the moon.  By what authority does your Colonel outrank the moon?” 

     “Another refill before you go?” Shelby asks, her flesh redolent of sweat and apple pie.  “We’re closing in ten minutes, sweetie.”   

     If only I had money for a tip, but Sister tells me the waitress will never see the morning to spend it. 

     I wait behind the dumpster, Sister whispering that she loves me, and when the back door opens, Shelby in her jacket and sneakers reaching in her purse for her keys, I strike like they taught me in Basic, like Sister taught me in the sewers, an arm around her throat, the scissors poised against her warm pink belly. 

      “Please…please don’t kill me.  I’ll do what you want.  I’ll suck it, right here…” Shelby says.  “Please, my baby needs me.”  

     I’m a parent, too, but Sister tells me that I’m nothing now, I’m the wicked and despised, and so I turn pretty Shelby around and see her desperate eyes and I want to let her go, please, Sister, for the sake of the baby, but in The Rising even the babies will be ours. Sister says it’s time to practice, let’s take the baby, too.  No.  No.  Sister’s voice is a whisper and Shelby doesn’t see her as I push her toward the car.  Drive and maybe you won’t get hurt.  Shelby drops her keys, her hand trembling, and I feel her ready to fight, to scratch, kick, and bite, anything to escape the destiny in my dead black eyes, but I want to make Sister proud, and I grab the keys and push Shelby into the car, behind the wheel, the scissors ready as I slip into the backseat and shout for her to drive. 

     “I have sixty-seven dollars,” Shelby says.  “Take my Visa.  I won’t tell anyone.”

     “Drive.”

     I follow her eyes in the rear-view mirror as she backs her tired Honda out of its spot, the chassis screaming as the wheel turns, her tire crunching a discarded Coke can. 

     “The thing is, we’re like a pipe, Sister says.”

     Shelby pulls onto the dark road mumbling please God, please God as if I can’t hear her.   

     “At first it’s a drip, a minor leak, and it’s too much effort to do anything about it, so everyone ignores it, but the primary rule of the universe dictates that the ignored only grows stronger, drip, drip, drip, until the pipe bursts and there’s water up to your ankles, up to your head, and when the water fills your mouth and you can’t even scream anymore and you wonder what happened… it was just a drip …that’s the Rising.  Do you understand what I’m saying?  I didn’t cause the pipe to break.  I’m only the water bursting through.” 

     There’s an empty car seat beside me, a white stuffed rabbit with a missing eye wedged between the straps.  “Boy or girl?” and Shelby answers, “Girl…Melinda…she’s only nine months…please.” 

     If she stopped the car, I could run off and let her be whatever she might become.  I don’t want to hurt a baby named Melinda or her sweet plump Shelby of a mom, but Sister is there on the corner, in the headlight splash, Sister with some man I’ve never seen, and another man, on his knees, arms folded across his chest, Sister holding his head with her hands, no skin now, the intricate pathways of joints and bone clutching a stranger’s head while the other man thrusts the scissors into the victim’s right eye. 

     “…her father isn’t much help, and my parents think I’ve screwed up my life, and my sister has two kids of her own…please.” 

     Once the Rising begins, what difference will it make if poor Shelby is alive or dead?   On that goddamn patrol we already knew we’d lost the war.  But we had orders, still do, Sister needs an offering and a sacrifice, we need Shelby’s sweet warm blood, I’m sorry, sorry, sorry, I kiss the scissors and point them at her neck.  “Pull over.  Your baby shouldn’t see this.” 

      Shelby’s crying and Sister waits in the headlights, eyes closed, a blissful smile, only Sister loves me. When the Rising begins, the world will bow and worship her. 

     “Please…please…” Shelby cries, and then, “…fuck you!”  

     She spins the wheel and the car swerves.  Nothing but darkness as we slam into a tree. 

                                                                        *  

     There’s an I.V. in my left arm, my right hand cuffed to the bed, and in the angled light outside the open door a Security Guard sits on a metal chair, staring at his phone.  I hear them say that Shelby is on a different floor, broken ribs, broken wrist, a concussion, but she’ll live, she’ll live, they say, as if this will hurt me, but I’m glad Shelby’s name won’t be on my soul, though her time is over anyway.  Sister tells me the Rising has begun.   

     The TV on the wall never shuts off. A string of murders across the city.  A decapitated man found on the highway shoulder.  A librarian with both wrists slashed open, her alabaster body drained of its blood. In a movie theater the usher opened the door for the 10:00 PM showing as the credits played, a giant trashcan at the top of the aisle ready for the empty buckets of popcorn and crushed soda cups, only nobody moved, all seventeen moviegoers slumped dead in their seats, a scissors protruding from each of their necks. 

      I hear the nurse consulting with the doctor in the hall.  Clozaril and Haldol, nothing they haven’t tried before, but it doesn’t matter because Sister is coming.  So much I want to see her again, but I know the carnage that she’ll bring, a hospital, so many bodies, don’t they know about the Rising?  If only I could call my wife, I’ll beg Sister not to take her and the baby, Melinda, no, my son, Alex, Sister please don’t rise until Alex is safe.    

      The nurse comes with her syringe and the Guard and a cop who glares like I’m shit on the heel of his shined black boot, that’s all I’ve been for months now, all I am without Sister and the moon. 

     “Lock the doors, she’s coming.”

     “Shut up, felon,” Cop says.  The nurse pulls back. 

     “The Rising…”

     “I heard on the news…”  Nurse says. 

     “It’s a hoax, social media garbage,” Cop says. 

     “It started in China, I heard,” Guard says. 

     “I heard it’s a bunch of white supremacists.” 

     “He’s just some dumb-ass felon who picked the wrong waitress to fuck with.  She’ll walk out of here tomorrow while his ass does twenty to life in State.” 

     I shake my arm, the cuffs rattling against the metal bed frame.  “Sister tells me…”

     “Sister tells you nothing,” Cop hisses.  “It’s all in your psycho head, felon.  Nurse, give him his meds so we can get the hell away from him.”   

      The needle finds the vein, and the screaming begins.  Only it’s not my voice; the screaming echoes in the corridors, and the cop and the guard rush toward the door, the Nurse’s face turned pale as she drops the spent syringe into a plastic bag, following protocols even as her world begins its descent. 

     “If you unlock these handcuffs, Sister might take pity on you.”

     “I…don’t have the key,” Nurse stutters, but she doesn’t move as we listen to the Rising begin.  The crash of overturned med carts and the screams of the patients meeting Sister’s wrath.  “Stop,” Cop shouts, as if the Rising could be halted by words.  Three shots, bullets pinging off the walls. 

     “…side effects include hallucinations…” Nurse says, but it’s her hallucination that makes her think she might escape.  It’s always us, never them, they’ll delude themselves about the Rising right until the end.    

     Sister appears in the doorway, her black hair glimmering, the skirt of her red dress slit to her thighs, her left hand extended, her right hand behind her back, where the scissors wait.   

     “Visiting hours are over, ma’am,” Nurse says. 

      But Sister steps into the room with a loving smile only I can see, police running down the hallway, the screams of the Rising seeping through the walls.  The empty bed on the other side of the curtain erupts in flames, and when the Nurse turns to run Sister stabs her in the heart and I know it’s real as the blood trickles down the front of her olive scrubs. 

     “What lies fallow in the moonlight is the curse they can’t escape,” Sister tells me. She unlocks the handcuffs and helps me from the bed.  The Nurse, her back propped against the wall, presses her chest to stem the bleeding.  Alarms blare as Sister shuts the door and leads me to the Nurse. 

     “As we practiced,” Sister says, and I position my mouth with the center of Nurse’s jugular, ignoring her slaps, her thrashing legs, the same way they ignored me and drove me into the streets.      “Tonight, we rise,” Sister says, my teeth ripping into the Nurse’s flesh, her vein in my mouth like a teat, I don’t want to do it, but the blood is as warm as the smoke from the burning bed surrounding us until Nurse’s heart stops beating.  Alarms everywhere in my head, my chin and neck smeared with blood, and I follow Sister into the corridor to join the others, the meds flooding my brain but what does it matter now, I’m under the orders of the moon.  We march into the night like death, ready to rise. Sister says we will never be forgiven.       


D.C. Marcus grew up in New Jersey reading Twilight Zone Magazine and the classic Shadows anthologies edited by Charles L. Grant.  


“The Lottery” Dark, Speculative Fiction by James Hanna

A warm wind is blowing from the north, and today the air is clear. The air is the color of tea. The air is usually the color of coffee—not the color of tea.

Today, I see trees and grass. The trees are twisted and scaly, the grass is drier than straw. I wish that the air was the color of coffee, not the color of tea. If the air was the color of coffee, I would not see the trees and the grass.

Whatever the color of the air, I can always see into the dome. The dome is huge and bright. The dome has forests and lawns. I see leafy trees and flowers when I look into the dome.

The dome is one mile high, and it must be a hundred miles wide. Birds fly about within the dome—colorful, cheerful birds. There are towering buildings inside the dome, there are roads with buses and cars. There are lakes with fountains and ducks. There is farmland with very tall crops.

I am glad the dome is beautiful, it is where our protectors live. Our protectors are tall with shiny bald heads. Our protectors wear flowing white robes. They do not look like us—we are naked and hairy, not pretty like our protectors.

Our protectors guard our tribe from the trolls that live high up in the hills. If it was not for our protectors, the trolls would come down from the hills. The trolls have razor-sharp claws. Their cocks are harder than stone. They would butcher and rape everyone in our tribe if it was not for our protectors.

Our protectors are kind and intelligent, unlike the horrible trolls. I am very afraid of the trolls—I do not want to feel their claws. Not everybody in our tribe is afraid of the trolls. There are unbelievers in our tribe who are not afraid of them. “Have you ever seen a troll?” they ask us. I have never seen a troll, and that is a very good thing. Our protectors make sure the trolls never come down from the hills.

*

Today, the air is clear. The air is the color of tea. I can see the shapes of the hills where the deadly trolls have their home. I wish the air was darker—I do not want to look at the hills. 

My name is Jeremiah—I’m an old man of seventeen. I belong to a tribe that lives outside the dome, and I have no other names. Jeremiah is a very good name. Everyone in our tribe has that name. Even women and girls are named Jeremiah. Our protectors have given us all this name. They say it’s a very fine name. They say there will be great love in our tribe if all of us share the same name.

A great many tribes live outside of the dome, but none of them share our name. Our protectors tell us to stay away from all the other tribes. The tribes are very bad, they say. The tribes have cannibals in them. The unbelievers in our tribe ask, “Have you ever seen a cannibal?” I tell them I once saw a cannibal, and he was from another tribe. The cannibal was eating a girl from our tribe. He was gobbling down her intestines, which drooped from his hands like snakes.

I stay far away from the other tribes. I do not like cannibals. I do not like the unbelievers either, but our protectors say let them be. Our protectors say everyone in our tribe should be able to speak his mind.

Inside the dome, there are cows and sheep. Inside the dome, there are farmlands and orchards. Outside the dome, there is dust and rocks. The dust is very dry and the rocks are very hot. There is no farmland outside of the dome. There are no animals.

 Our protectors feed us every day—they do not want us to be hungry. Every day, giant vans leave the dome and distribute food to all the tribes. The food is dumped from the vans, and there is always plenty of food. There are apple cores and peanut shells and chicken bones and bread. There are banana peels and corn cobs and watermelon rinds. The food is very tasty. I eat until I am full.

*

Today, the air is the color of tea. It is not the color of coffee. I can see the lights of other domes that are many miles away. There are domes all over the country. There are domes all over the world. I do not want to look at faraway domes, so I turn my head away.

When the domes fight with each other, there is a truce among the tribes our dome feeds. Our protectors tell us to band together, and they give us banners and swords. Even women and children are given banners and swords. Our protectors say we must kill the tribesmen fighting for other domes. They say we should eat their livers because the livers will keep us strong. They say if we eat only the livers, we are better than cannibals.

 The unbelievers say there is no glory in fighting tribes from other domes. They say the domes fight each other for sport. They say it is bad to eat livers.

I am proud to have carried a sword and a banner. I am proud to have fought for my dome. I have killed those who fight for other domes. I have eaten their livers too.

*

Today, the air is the color of tea, and protectors walk among us. Whenever the air is the color of tea, our protectors visit us. They come down from the sky in magnificent floats that make a cooling wind.

Our protectors are tall and beautiful. Their eyes are like pools of blue water. They do not stay very long outside of the dome, but it is good when they walk among us.

Our protectors ask us a question when they come to visit us. It is the same question every time. “What will you do for us?” they ask. Their voices are thin and melodious. They sound like wonderful birds.

Once a protector looked at me and touched me on the forehead. I never felt a gentler touch. I never saw bluer eyes. “What will you do for us?” he asked. His voice was musical.

I told him I had killed tribesmen from other domes. I told him I had eaten their livers. The protector looked at me and repeated, “What will you do for us?”

Our protectors are kind and comforting. We love them very much. The women in our tribe have orgasms when our protectors walk among us. “What will you do for us?” our protectors ask the woman. Sometimes, they gather up women and girls and fly them back to the dome.

The unbelievers among us say our protectors should stay inside the dome. They say our protectors should never ask us what we will do for them. I tell the unbelievers I would do much for our protectors. Our protectors keep us fed. They give us banners and swords. They protect us from the terrible trolls that live up in the hills.

*

Today, a warm wind is blowing, and the air is the color of tea. Today, our protectors have set up the stage where they have the lottery. Whenever the air is the color of tea, the lottery is held.

There are numbers tattooed on our forearms. My number is 6609. Our protectors spin a big lottery wheel that all the tribe can see. They spin the wheel four times. They call out a number each time. If each of your numbers is called, you will be allowed to live inside the dome.

All our tribe gathers around the stage. It is good to live in the dome. We can better serve our protectors if we are allowed to live in the dome.

The unbelievers say they do not want to live in the dome. The unbelievers have no numbers on their forearms. “We are all of one body,” our protectors announce when they have the lottery. But the unbelievers are never selected to live inside the dome.

Today, the wheel spins slowly, and my number does not come up. I have attended the lottery hundreds of times, and my number has not been announced. I know it will not be much longer until my number comes up. I know that very soon I will live in the beautiful dome.

Today, a woman I do not like wins the lottery. She is standing among unbelievers. She has no battle scars. The woman is very lucky to have won the lottery.

*

Today, the air is the color of tea. Today there are devils among us. Whenever the air is the color of tea, devils come among us. The devils put bad thoughts into our heads—thoughts that make us angry. Our protectors tell us that it is unwise to listen to the devils.

I have listened to a devil today, and today I am very angry. I am angry because our protectors gave out many beautiful banners. The banners are bright and colorful, and they flutter like flames in the wind. The banners declare we are all of one body—that is a very good thing. The banners proclaim that our dome will shine brighter than all the domes in the world.

I am angry because our protectors did not give me a beautiful banner. I have killed many tribesmen from other domes. I have eaten their livers too. I have split open the wombs of their women so they will not be filled with bad seed. Our protectors did not give me a banner, but they gave banners to unbelievers. I am very, very angry at our terrible protectors.

The unbelievers tell me that there are no devils among us. They say it is our protectors who put bad thoughts into our heads. They say I should not be angry because I did not get a banner. They say if I keep bad thoughts in my head, I will not win the lottery.

*

Tomorrow has come. A warm wind is still blowing. The air is not the color of coffee—it is still the color of tea.  

There will be a lottery today because the air is the color of tea. A few protectors have set up the stage where the numbers are announced. I am no longer angry at our protectors—my thoughts are good once again. Some unbelievers stand beside me while the lottery wheel revolves. 

Today I am very lucky. Today my number comes up. The protector who spun the giant wheel called out, “6-6-0-9.” Today I will get to live in the dome and better serve our protectors. 

The protector who spun the lottery wheel is looking directly at me. His face is like the face of a statue. His eyes are as blue as a lake. “What will you do for us?” he says. His voice is as pure as a flute.

I walk behind the protectors, and we get inside the float. My thoughts are good today. I am sad that my thoughts were not always good. I am glad our protectors are kind.

I see the farms and cattle as we land beside the dome. I see the lakes and the butterflies. I see the orchards and birds. My heart is as light as a sparrow. My thoughts are very good.

I leave the float and follow the protectors into the dome.

*

I have never felt a softer breeze. I have never seen brighter colors. I have never smelled the sweetness of flowers. I have never heard voices so gentle.

I see many buildings that are tall and straight, and I see giant temples too. Wonderful signs sit on top of the temples. The signs say WE ARE ALL OF ONE BODY. I see carts being drawn by magnificent horses as I walk towards one of the temples. The carts are full of bodies. They are rolling towards the farmlands. The bodies look like they came from the tribes that live around the dome. There are many, many bodies inside the rolling carts.

I know I will soon be among the bodies that are rolling towards the farmlands. I am glad that I will lie with the bodies—I should not have had angry thoughts. I am glad I will join the bodies while all of my thoughts are good. I am glad the unbelievers told our protectors about my angry thoughts.

Soon, my body will nourish the crops that grow so very tall. It will nourish the fruits and nuts that touch the lips of our protectors. I am glad I will nourish the fruits and nuts. I am glad we are all of one body.


This story was originally published in Fleas on the Dog and will be included in Mr. Hanna’s forthcoming anthology: Fact Check and More Probing Tales.


James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, all of which have won awards, are available on Amazon.


“Acting Out” Dark Fiction by Brian R. Quinn

I play this game, every time I rinse out a soup bowl, or a cereal bowl. I leave the spoon in the bowl, swirl it, slosh it, tip it, can’t quit until I balance the scalloped end of the spoon on the lip of the bowl, and land the skinny handle in the strainer. I love the scraping sound the spoon makes circling the ceramic edge, and the sharp, metallic clang when the handle lands in the strainer at that impossible angle.

            I play this game over and over. Spin it, land it; spin it, land it; again and again. It starts as a need to drown out a lingering, early morning problem. It carries into midday, and late afternoons.

            Dr. Thiebold can explain it. I can’t.

            I know it’s wrong. That much, I can tell you. 

            I can tell you, about, how, when I was little, I went to school. Franklin Ave School, in Franklin Lakes. Who in their right mind is going to repeat something like that? Franklin Ave School, in Franklin Lakes. I can’t even say it out loud.

            Repetition is one of those early morning problems that never goes away.

                                                                        #

            “Martin,” Dr. Thiebold says, in his raspy smoker’s voice.

            I ignore him.

            “Martin,” he says again.

            Nothing.

            He gets annoyed when I don’t respond. I love that.

            We sit in silence for a time, Thiebold, in his club chair, staring down at the floor, me, in the corner, sitting Indian style, cradling my backpack in the triangle formed by my knees and my crotch.

            Thiebold tries to hide his annoyance. I’m not looking at him. I hear him, I can picture him, exhaling through his nose, through all that hair that grows down into his mustache. I know he’s going to repeat himself, say my name again, a third time.

            I’ll just wait.

                                                                        #

            The bowl game started when father left us, me and Mother.

            “How did this happen?” Mother said, in tears, sitting hunched over the kitchen table, pressing a damp towel against her forehead. “How did this happen?”

            I hear her, standing over the sink, she said it again, “Oh God! How did this happen?”

            At first it didn’t bother me. The woman, was, after all, asking no one in particular; but the repetition, I couldn’t stand it, so I went to the cupboard, made myself some cereal.

            The kitchen spout is mounted on the end of a metallic hose. The hose is wrapped in a ribbed metal sheath that retracts into the body of the faucet. It’s counterweighted. Sometimes I pull the thing out as far as it will go, then release it. The ribs scrape along the faucet like a Slinky making its way down the stairs. I listen for the weight to thump deep inside the cabinet beneath the sink.

            Mostly I just play the bowl game.

                                                                        #

            Dr. Thiebold sits in his chair, leg crossed, bouncing his foot up and down, up and down. It’s a repetitive action.

            I stare at the wall. Ignore him. Raise the backpack, every so slightly. Squeeze it with my legs. Let it fall to the floor.

            Thiebold gives two quick ankle kicks, a third…and then, nothing. Silence. It’s like being in fucking prison communicating via heat pipes, shutting up when the screws pass by.

            I could put an end to this. I could grab that yellow pad of his, the one with all the notes scribbled on it, crush the pages in my fist, smash it in his face, jump up and down, whoop and holler. That would teach him. That would make him say my name.

            Instead, I sit. I wait.

                                                                        #

            Father wore his overalls at the dinner table; white, paint spattered, bib overalls. He’d unfasten the button loops and let the bib part flop down, expose his fat belly.

            “I wish you’d close that up,” Mother would say, “we’re eating dinner.”

            Father would grunt, eat his meal, elbow on the table, fork held high, pointing down at his plate. He looked like one of those long-necked water birds, a fowl or something, shooting its beak into the water. He’d twirl his pasta, tip his head back, and lower the noodles into his mouth.

            “What’s it to ya?”, he said, chewing.

             “It would be nice to eat like civilized human beings for once,” Mother said, anger rising in her voice, “that’s all.”

            Mother pretended to take father’s sudden departure in stride.

            “Oh Jim?” she would say, as if his disappearance had only just occurred to her.

            “Oh Jim?” she would say, at lawn parties, and on pancake Sunday in the church’s linoleum tiled meeting room, “he’s away on business.”

            “Business? I thought he was a house painter?”

            “He was,” she’d reply, “only now he’s not.”

            Mother like to cut a problem off at the onset.

                                                                        #

            “Martin.” Thiebold, finally says.

            I don’t answer.

            “Tell me about your father.”

            I raise the backpack with my thighs, squeeze it, drop it.

            “Tell me about him. What sort of man was he? Did you enjoy his company?”

            Enjoy him?

            “What kind of things did you do together?”

            I’m far away…picturing him. He’s driving that beat up van of his, or stacking canvas drop cloths in back, pulling loose dollars and bits of change out of his pockets, trying to buy some gasoline, enough to get us through the day, cursing and swearing that time the van coughed and died on the side of the highway.

            We never talked much. Never once played pool or went fishing. Mostly he worked, came home, drank beer, watched TV.

            He was a fat ugly man, I wanna tell him.

            Thiebold waits, silent, bouncing that foot.

            “I’ve seen him in the shower,” I say, testing him, “he’s only got one ball.”

            Thiebold never responds. He just sits in his chair, writes on that yellow pad. He’s got spindly script, very cramped. No doubt he’s writing seen him in the shower at this very moment.

                                                                        #

            Father’s paints are still piled up in the garage. The bay is full of ‘em. Stacked up. No reason. No pattern. Just piled up. Quarts on top of half gallons. Half gallons lying on their sides.

            I like the garage. It’s all so random.

            The cans have hardened paint tracks running down their sides. Little rivulets frozen in time. They’re like road signs. They tell you what color’s inside, if it’s flat, or maybe eggshell. When Father was still around, I’d go into the garage and look for the freshest cans of paint, run my finger down the tracks, pop the little bulbs of thick, half-dry paint, at the end of the rivulets. I loved the feel of the sticky goo, the way the paint dried, hard, under my fingernail.

            But that was all before.

            Before I learned to balance the spoon on the lip of the bowl and plant the handle in the strainer, before I learned to love the metallic clatter in the sink and the counterweight thumping in the cabinet. 

                                                                        #

            “Animal?” Father said. “So now I’m an animal?

            Mother glared at him. “You eat like an animal, and you treat me even worse.”

            Father stopped chewing, threw his fork down on his plate. “I’m an animal and I don’t treat you right? Is that it?”

            “Go upstairs Martin,” Mother said, not even looking at me.

            Father stood up, straddled his chair.

            “Upstairs!” she yelled, “now!

             Father grabbed his dinner plate and hurled it at Mother’s head.

            She tried to cover up, raised her arms just as the plate struck her forehead and opened a nasty gash above her left eye. The plate crashed to the floor, broke into a thousand pieces, sauce everywhere.

            I’d never seen so much blood.

                                                                        #

            Thiebold drinks Diet Coke. Gallons of it. It’s a diuretic. The man must have a bladder the size of Montana, drinks from a big tinkling glass full of ice.

            “Marrrr…tin,” he says, slowly, drawing my name out.         

            I could tell him all about the night Father left us. I picture it. Run it through my head over and over. The blood was fascinating. It dribbled down the side of Mother’s face, slowly at first, just a trickle. Then the flow increased, and the blood began to run. It ran down her cheek, seeped into her hair, channeled in the grout between the tiles.

            Father, that pig, stood over her. Pulled the bib up over his fat belly, studied the gash in her forehead, started humming. Humming. It was a deep, surging, sound, like a man in pain.

            I tried to focus on that sound. Tried to ignore the hurt he’d caused. Maybe it was the only thing that kept him from hurting her more.

            I watched it all from my seat. Silent. A bystander. One step removed.

            He straightened up, kicked his chair out of the way. The legs scraped the floor, the chair fell over, backward, with a crash. He looked at me, turned, and walked out. Vanished, through the back door.

            I just sat, watched him leave.

                                                                        #

            Mother took a job in the shoe store. Mr. Antonito owned it. It was a little, run down place, narrow, next to the Five and Dime. We’d been shopping there my whole life.

            “Mrs. Henderson!” Mr. Antonito said when we walked in.

            Mother nodded, solemn. “I’ve come,” she said, “looking for work.”

            By then, no doubt, my father’s disappearance was all over town.

            I think Mr. Antonito felt sorry for us, knew we needed help.

            “Of course,” he said, adjusting his tie. “And what timing! I was just saying to myself, ‘after all these years alone, maybe it’s time to hire a salesperson’. You Mrs. Henderson would be the perfect fit!”

            Antonito is a squirrelly little worm, short, bald; a loner, never needed anybody’s help until the day my mother came in looking for work.

            News travels fast.  

                                                                        #

            I got a job in SuperRite, stuffin’ bags.

            We got a break every morning, ten minutes. Lunch, half an hour. I spent my weekends at the end of a checkout line listening to wizened old hags tellin’ me how to do my job.

            “Don’t put the eggs on the bottom!” they’d say, dogging my every move. “Wrap that meat up in plastic!”

            I didn’t pay them any attention, just filled up the bags.

            Milk, juice, eggs. Grab another bag, snap it, fast, in the air; pop it open. Milk, juice, eggs. Grab another bag…made me wanna barf.

            Jason worked the checkout next to mine. One time a new kid, Arthur, came in, saddled up next to Jason, figured he was gonna man my line.

            Jason and I snapped some bags of our own in his face! Worked him over good. The kid screamed, made some ungodly sounds, backed away in terror. Mr. Patterson, the store manager, told us the kid had a problem with sound. The kid was afraid of sounds. We looked it up. It’s called misophonia or some crap.

            Patterson put Arthur to work on a different register, Veronica’s register. 

            Veronica and me always had this thing. Unspoken. She’d flash her dark eyes my way; throw me a saucy smile. I was cool about it, all James Dean, all, Rebel Without a Cause. She’d give me that come-on look at the oddest times, like right before school let out and all the moms were showing up, squeezing in a SuperRite run before it was time to pick up their snot nosed kids after school.

            “There she goes,” I announced, cocking my head in Veronica’s direction. “Look at her. She’s givin’ me that look.”

              Jason wasn’t paying me any attention. A woman had shown up in his line dragging two cartloads of shit. Pushing one, dragging the other. She looked like she was gettin’ drawn and quartered. I could see Jason was about to go off, get himself into trouble.

            “Double wrap everything,” the woman said, breathless, ladling shrink wrapped packages of ground beef on the conveyor belt. “Paper first, then plastic, that way nothing will leak out.”

             Jason took his time. Normally he flies, moves his line along like his life depends on it. I watched him pop a bag, real slow; pile red peppers and iceberg lettuce on the bottom, then cans of peas, string beans, and cat food on top. No double bagging, no plastic safety wrap. He couldn’t be bothered.

            The woman stopped unloading, looked at him, “Young man,” she said, “I told you to double wrap the paper bags in plastic.”

            Now I’m gettin’ steamed. Shit like that gets to me. It’s clear, Jason’s just not going to double wrap her crap in plastic. There’s no need for her to repeat it. We heard it the first time. It’s like sayin’ Franklin Lakes School in Franklin Lakes, only even more disconcerting.

            Jason looked at her, stopped bagging, smashed a half-gallon carton of SunnyD fruit juice against the front end of her cart. The seam split, and the juice flew in all directions, soaked the front of her dress and the paper bag full of groceries he’d just packed.

            Maybelle, working Jason’s register, grabbed the phone and blasted out an overhead announcement. “Mr. Patterson, Mr. Patterson, register six please, register six. Stat!”

            Stat was code, it meant something really bad was going down.

            Patterson showed up all anxious, keys jangling on his hip.

            Jason was banging the empty carton against the cart, looking vague, unfocused.

            Patterson took it all in; his customer soaked, Jason out of control.

            This didn’t have to happen. If Jason’d just wrapped the paper in plastic the way she’d asked the whole thing would have blown over. He never should’ve smashed that carton.

            “Jason,” Mr. Patterson said quietly, “please. Let’s put that juice down. Then you and me take a walk to my office.”

                                                                        #

            Mr. Antonito and Mother hit it off real good.

            Mother was a crackerjack saleswoman. She entertained the kids, pressed their mothers to buy shoes, more shoes than they ever needed.

            “Ahh, yes,” she’d say, “I remember when my son Martin was your boy’s age. Martin loved to hunt frogs in the culvert down the street. He’d come home with his sneakers covered in mud. Smelly? Whew! That water was nasty! The only way to keep him looking presentable was get two pair of sneakers, one to play in, the other for school.

            “And Sundays? My oh my! He loved to play tag in the parking lot after mass. His church shoes were always scuffed up. One time Father Frank pulled me aside, told me he’d overhead some of the other mothers bad mouthing my Martin, saying ‘their sons would never be caught dead wearing shoes as old and beaten up as that Henderson kid’s.’”

            In time she had to change the stories.

            I played way too much kickball in middle school, Red Rover too. I had a penchant for kicking cans. Dropped kicked a squirrel one time. Loved to followed policemen, on horseback, kicked horse apple field goals.

                                                                        #

            In the kitchen, eating Mac’n Cheese, I told Mother all about the SunnyD incident. All about the woman, her shopping carts full of shit, and Jason spraying juice all over her.

            “Dr. Thiebold calls that ‘acting out’,” she told me.

            “Acting out?”

             “Yes, that’s when a child,” she said, slowly, convincingly, “when a person, has trouble understanding, or accepting something, and can’t express what they want or need. It usually happens when they’re young. They act out to get their parent’s attention, to get their way. It can also happen with adults.”

            “But Jason’s parents are dead,” I reminded her.

            “Yes,” she said.

             “Since last spring. You know that. Since the accident.”

            “Yes dear,” she said, quietly, in that same tone she uses when somebody raises Father’s disappearance. “It’s not literal. His parents don’t really have to be there. Jason is having trouble understanding… accepting, that his parents are gone. He’s expressing that trouble, publicly.”

            I thought it over.

            She turned her head slightly, looked at me. 

            “Do you understand baby?”

                                                                        #

We talked about it on our break.

            “That bitch never knew what hit her!” I said, leaning against the brick wall behind SuperRite, tossing tiny bits of loose macadam at the high grasses that sprouted up in the empty lot across the way.

            Jason laughed.

            “Put the paper in plastic,” I said, high pitched, whining, following up with forced laughter of my own.

            “That fat bitch!” Jason said.

            We threw some more pebbles.

            “My Mother says you’re ‘acting out’,” I told him.

            “Huh?”

            “Yeah. She says you’re trying to ‘understand things’, only you can’t. So, you ‘act out’.”

            “What kinda’ crap is that?” Jason said.

            “She said you need to learn to express yourself better.”

            Jason stopped throwing macadam. 

            “So whaddya think?” I said.

            “That’s bullshit!” he told me.

            “No, about Veronica.”

            “Veronica?”

            “Yeah.”

            He didn’t get it. “Veronicaand me,” I said, getting angry.

            “Veronica? Shit. She don’t even know you’re alive.”

            “Yeah, right,” I said, challenging him. “You seen the way she looks at me. Turns her head over her shoulder like that, she’s givin’ me the eye.”

            “She ain’t givin’ you the eye,” Jason said, “she ain’t givin’ nobody the eye.”

            “Bullshit,” I said. “It’s like she’s sayin’ ‘come on over here and talk to me’.”

            “She’s not sayin’ nothin’. She’s just got her eye on the clock.”

            “Whaddaya mean?”

            “The clock. On the wall. Behind us,” he looked at me. “At the deli counter. She’s makin’ sure she doesn’t miss her next break.”

                                                                        #

            Mother got more hours at the shoe store.

            “Mr. Antonito appreciates me greatly,” she told me.

            I thought he was creepy. Always wore a sweater and a tie. Tried to hide his baldness. Combed long stringy hairs across his head.

            He started visiting us at the house. He’d show up for dinner with a bottle of wine in a paper bag. I didn’t mind it so much at first. Mother always baked a chicken when Mr. Antonito came over to visit.

                                                                        #

            “Your mother tells me you’re upset,” Thiebold said.

            What an ass.

            Upset? I should get up and slap him. Or maybe smash one of his precious pictures, the one of his simpering wife and his little rat dog, that’d get a rise outta him. He’d get all angry, turn beet red, light up another Pall Mall.

            Smoking is bad for you doc, I’d tell him, straight up, right before I kicked over his floor lamp. It wouldn’t swish or spin like the spoon in the bowl, but it’d make a hell of a racket. The big glass shade would smash against his mahogany desk. He’d be so mad he’d get up outta his chair and scream at me, end the session right then and there.

            “But our time’s not up,” I’d say to him, real slow, restrained. 

            He wouldn’t say another word. No more questions about my father, or the way I’m feeling. He’d have to pick up all that broken glass, one sharp, glittering piece at a time, drop them in his lunch bag. Arnold Thiebold, Doctor of Psychiatric Medicine, carries his lunch to work in a brown paper bag. Go figure. The first shard would make a popping noise in the bottom of the empty bag. The paper’d flex, like a drum, a tiny drum.

                                                                        #

            I found a sweater draped over the sofa and an overturned wine glass on the floor.

            Mother’s bedroom door was shut. Very out of the ordinary.

            We have six bowls, all plain white. Mother says they’re “nested” in the cabinet. The silverware is stored in a pullout drawer. The drawer needs a good strong tug to get it open. Everything bounces around, spoons, knives, forks. It’s all very noisy.

            Antonito was in the bathroom.

            I opened a box of Cheerios, poured them into my bowl. The little oat rings plink against the white ceramic, it’s annoying at first, but quiets down as the bowl fills up. I ate my cereal, listened to the unmistakable sound of urine released from man-height.

            Mother appeared, stepped out of the bedroom in her nightgown, not the sweatpants she usually wears to bed. Not the T-shirt with the sad-eyed puppy on the front. A nightgown, with frills, and swirls.

            The toilet flushed.

            Antonito appeared. He was embarrassed, uncomfortable.

            Mother stepped over to the sink without speaking, reached for the kettle, ran water into the black spout, smiled at Antonito.

            “Cereal?” she said.

            I was done, carried my bowl to the sink, opened up the tap. The water flowed into the bowl, down one side, across the bottom, up and over the opposite side. I liked to watch the last clingy oat rings pile up in the strainer.

            I swish, and swirl, spin the spoon, adjust the flow, slow the whole process down to a trickle, like the blood running down mother’s face after Father threw the plate at her.

            In truth, I didn’t stay in my chair that night. I didn’t sit far removed. I stood up, lunged at him, tried to stop him from leaving. He pushed me away. I grabbed him, threw my arms around his waist, pressed my face against his dirty overalls.

            He smacked me, threw me aside, down to the floor. Mother lay beside me, face to face, inches apart, the gash on her head open, bleeding.

            The water mixed with the last of the milk in the bowl, made little patterns of color.

            The blood ran between the tiles that day. It was bright red at first, turned brown as it dried. I watched it. A skin formed as it dried.

            The spoon spins wildly in the bowl, squeaking and scraping. I can control that sound. More water, less noise. Less water, more noise.

            I know I should have reached out, comforted her. Instead, I listened to the door slam behind me, Father leaving us forever. Instead, I traced the blood flow with my finger. Sluiced it along in the gap between tiles. It left a sticky red spot on the tip of my finger.

            Mr. Antonito was very polite. Made small talk, the weather, seemed to enjoy his meal. When he was done, he carried his bowl to the sink, ready to rinse.

            I couldn’t get it right. The spoon kept falling out of the bowl. I was landing the handle in the strainer OK, but the scalloped end kept slipping out of the bowl. I couldn’t catch the edge, hold the angle.

            “Martin,” mother said, Antonito watching me.

            I tried again, adjusted the flow, couldn’t get it right.

            “Martin, let Mr. Antonito use the sink,” she told me.

             One more time. One more spin. More scraping.

            The spoon clattered into the sink.

            “Martin!”

            It’s not easy to balance the spoon on the edge of the bowl. Takes a lot of practice to land the strainer.

                                                                        #                                                         

            “How much time did you spend in the sink today?” Dr. Thiebold asks.


Brian Quinn is an Emmy Award Winning TV news journalist living in Manhattan who has spent the last thirty years covering news in New York City and overseas. Much of his work is rooted in those experiences. 


“Steve Loved Her to Pieces” Dark Fiction by Robert Kostanczuk

It was at Fatello’s that he let her know.

Over a plate of chicken cacciatore, Steve informed Greta that he really liked her.

“I love you to pieces,” he smiled.

A forkful of meat, diced tomatoes and red bell peppers was about to enter his mouth.

Greta was melting into a warm state of mellow.

“That is just so nice of you to say,” she said, awash in the sweep of the moment.

Her eyes began misting up. She fought the urge to babble away with a stream of I’m-so-happy declarations.

“How’s your ravioli?” Steve asked as his smile grew ever wider.

It was a smile that almost seemed too radiant for a discussion of doughy food. Steve thought his query about his date’s dinner would make for a considerate and caring interjection.

He was precise and prepared on dates.

Greta eagerly acknowledged that her meal was fantastic.

“You know something, I’ve been meaning to tell you how much I like you for quite some time,” Steve assured.

Easing back into his chair, he straightened out the knot in his tie while awaiting a response.

“That means a lot to me,” Greta said.

She was deeply serious about the reply. The night was becoming truly magical. The restaurant was oh-so classy. Greta was in her best dress; classic black, fabulously feminine — with long sleeves that flowed into frilly lace at her wrists.

The background music was Dean Martin. As the swank strains of “Volare” wafted across tables, Steve continued with words of endearment.

“I do indeed love you to pieces; if I could, I would rest your heart in the most exquisite jewelry box on Earth — your heart is like a fine diamond … sparkling, and radiating warmth.”

Steve smiled, and even chuckled a bit.

It was something akin to an acknowledgment of corniness — but his eyes seared with a focused intensity.

With each flowery accolade, Greta sank deeper into emotional surrender.

Steve raised his glass of fine red wine in a toast.

“To my Greta … your heart would glow outside the confines of your exquisite body,” he said with the most earnest of gazes.

“That’s really, really amazing … you have such a way with words,” said Greta. Steve’s poetic nature was intoxicating and pleasantly unsettling. His mention of her “exquisite body” was actually making her blush.

She loved his sharp, dark, thin eyebrows.

When he emphasized a point during conversation, the eyebrow on the right would shoot up like a diagonal exclamation point.

“I like your teeth — there, I said it, and I’m not sorry,” Steve gushed. “They’re so white and perfectly aligned. Dental offices should proudly show pictures of those type of teeth in the waiting room! Yes, display an image of them in the finest of frames.”

Greta burst into laughter. She laughed so hard that the wine she was drinking shot through her nose.

It all was flattering, and endearingly silly.

A small wave of embarrassment rolled in.

The lyrical verbiage continued.

“And those eyes, those eyes; they would float like blue starbursts around your face, if they could just pop out of your head,” Steve rattled on in locomotive fashion. “I hope I’m not going overboard.”

Greta thanked him for the thoughts, but didn’t verbalize her feelings that the accolades were getting to a peculiar point. A discomforting ambience was descending.

“ … And oh yes, your hands … your hands belong on display in an art museum,” Steve continued with ongoing hyperbole.

“Your hands are like fine porcelain; I’m not just saying that.”

It was the “not just saying that” assurance which eased Greta back into bliss; he really did mean all he said — don’t be cynical, she told herself.

He merely has a poet’s streak, she told herself.

“Oh, one other thing,” Steve added. “Those legs — your legs. Excuse me for being bold, but those are sleek little limbs that should be separated from your body and shown as a full-page ad in one of those oversized fashion magazines.”

Greta loved the attention, but harbored the growing impression her boyfriend was getting a little too personal.

“Like I said, forgive me, but I do just love you to pieces,” Steve repeated.

He made the pronouncement with a shrug of the shoulders that implied helplessness over Greta’s charms.

Steve’s gaze suddenly swung to the left, where a waitress was taking care of another table.

Steve smiled back at Greta, then subtly gave another look to the left.

The target of attention was attractive, with blonde hair that playfully drooped over one eye.

Steve took note of the svelte figure and what he thought was the cutest upturned nose.

His distracted disposition was not lost on Greta.

“Pardon me,” Steve said to the waitress after she took the order at her table. “I know you’re not serving us, but is there any way we can get a little water?”

The waitress paused with the pitcher of water she was carrying.

“Sure,” she said, smiling.

 “Really sorry to bother you, but our own waitress has been away a while,” Steve added as water was poured.

“Not a problem,” the waitress said, acknowledging Greta with a look, and Steve with a longer look.

As his server walked away, Steve spoke.

“Thank you … uh … your name is?” he asked with a detectable sense of urgency.

“Marietta,” came the reply.

She barely looked back while answering, but did give a quick wave bye.

Steve took a sip of water. He savored well-groomed ladies, and this one certainly fell into that category, right down to the impeccable manicure.

Steve was a details man.

The thought of making a play for Marietta somewhere down the line had already nestled into his mind.

“Water, hydration is so important,” said Steve, raising the glass in a half toast.

He smiled. Greta did too, although she was a bit unnerved by his veiled flirting with the waitress. But Steve started to talk again; that got her mind off of it.

“How much do you like Italian food? I like it a lot.”

“Me too,” she said.     

Steve was mentally sizing up his latest source of social interaction.

She was not unattractive, he thought — maybe a bit chunky, but not bad. Taking a last bite of the chicken cacciatore, Steve tried not to be too obvious with his attention to her hair. There was a conclusion reached after the discreet perusal: The hairdo was cropped nicely around the shoulders, but the color was mousy.

The eyes, however, were a savior. They were the color of a clear summer sky. They accented plump cheeks that were fairly child-like … even adorable, Steve conceded.

Her smile — infectiously vulnerable — was another selling point.

For her part, Greta had assessed Steve quite a while ago. He was lean and handsome, with clean, angular facial features. Tidy black hair impeccably groomed. A knack for dressing well. Expensive suits were the norm, like the charcoal pinstriped number he donned tonight. When animated — which was often — his eyes took on a delightfully devilish air.

A rapscallion, to be sure.

It was all quite appealing, and perhaps enticingly dangerous, to Greta, an administrative assistant at a law firm.

He was an up-and-coming commodities broker.

They were both in their early 30s. This was their fourth date. It was dinner at an upscale Italian restaurant, then home.

“I had a great time,” Greta said as Steve pulled his car up in front of her apartment building.

They exchanged innocuous pleasantries. They kissed in Steve’s stylish Volkswagen Passat.

“I’ll see you soon then?” Greta asked hesitatingly.

The thought flashed across to her that maybe she was being too forward.

Steve answered quickly: “I’ll see you sooner than you imagine.”

The announcement was made with a wicked flash of his eyes.

Greta was happy, though not quite sure about what he meant by “sooner than you imagine.” She stepped out of his car and into the brisk autumn dark. Steve drove away.

Her head was still swimming in an emotional high.

“I can tell you really like this guy,” her brother, Walt, told her by phone the next morning.

“Yep, I do. He’s very nice, and I guess I partly like him because he’s, he’s … mysterious.” The word she was searching for finally drifted in.

“How mysterious is he?” questioned Walt.

 “You sound worried,” Greta replied.

“Not necessarily. But ‘mysterious’ sometimes isn’t good,” offered the sibling.

Walt had a way of cutting through clutter. He was a no-frills blue-collar guy — a mechanic at the city garage.

Greta loved her brother, but wasn’t about to overanalyze aspects of her relationship. She was merely waiting for Steve to call again.

That night, she headed to the kitchen for a snack when something caught her eye. A small envelope had been slid under her door. It was a thank-you card. Inside, it read, “Love you to pieces, Steve.”

She opened the door. No one in the hallway.

Greta’s emotions were mixed. Odd, yet so nice.

She pondered why he didn’t just phone her.

Later, while trying to fall asleep, Greta mulled her history with Steve.

They had met at a bar she had gone to with her girlfriend. He was there by himself, in a suit, his tie loosened. Steve explained that he was unwinding after a hard day of handling a couple of irritable clients.

In the beginning, the banter was superficial … jobs, favorite foods, the weather … .

Substance entered the picture when Steve Jerrosyk took a photo of his mother from his wallet.

“She’s a lovely lady; you look a lot like her,” Greta Stepprenek said, taking the photo and raising it close to her face.

This was the moment Greta and Steve connected.

They would definitely date, that was for certain.

They were sitting close to one another at the bar, and commenting on the basketball game that glowed on the big screen in front of them. The photo of Steve’s mom was the icebreaker.

“She has a big heart; it should be displayed in a trophy case,” Steve said as Greta continued to scan the picture.

Steve’s mother had short salt-and-pepper hair. She wore a faded floral-patterned house dress. A sweet-looking lady with a wisp of a smile. Nothing flashy. The only thing that really stood out were her fingernails. They had a deep red polish on them.

The color really didn’t go with the simplicity of the dress and hairdo. But it was no big deal to Greta; the image reflected warmth, family and home

She handed the photo back to Steve. The motherly image helped win over Greta’s affection.

“I’d like to meet her sometime,” she enthusiastically told Steve.

He appeared noncommittal about such a meeting.

“Yeah, maybe,” Steve said in a dispassionate tone.

He tucked his mother’s photo away while glancing up at the TV.

Steve’s indifferent attitude bothered Greta slightly, but she still liked him a lot.

Steve and Greta would end up exchanging phone numbers. Steve bade his new friend goodnight with an affectionate squeeze of her shoulder.

“I’m not going to let you out of my sight too much,” he winked.

Greta had no trouble recounting that touch of the shoulder while drifting off to sleep. The memory was something to embrace. The only damper was the conversation she had just had with her brother.

Greta happened to mention to him that Steve told her his mother’s heart was so kind, it should be put in a trophy case.

“Trophy case? Didn’t he also tell you he loved you to pieces, and that your hands were so pretty they should be in a museum?” Walt asked in bewilderment. “It’s bizarre.”

Greta reacted with a flash of anger: “Not true, not true; he’s just being nice … poetic.”

Getting to sleep was harder with the tense exchange rolling around her head.

In the middle of the night, Greta was awaking from a fitful period of sleep when she saw a shadow in the bedroom doorway. After closing her eyes and then refocusing them, the shadow was seemingly closer to her bed.

It bent over her.

She thought she saw an arm extend from the dark mass. Then, a glint of sharp light broke forth.

A knife, it was holding a knife, she thought.

Terror tingled across her body.

Greta jerked up into a seated position. Heart pounding, she shut her eyes, as if to make the moment go away.

Steady, hollow breathing could be heard.

It was not hers.

She waited for a few more seconds — eyes tightly shut.

Then, she looked around — and listened.

This time, nothing. Amazingly, the intruder was gone.

Was it an illusion?

For a minute, she scanned the bedroom, listening for anything, including footsteps. Still nothing.

She figured it was just a dream at the edge of her semiconscious state.

In the morning, Greta noticed the deadbolt lock on her apartment door was not locked, although the doorknob lock was in place.

There was only momentary concern. Greta had the bad habit of only turning the lock in the doorknob into its proper position. Once or twice she had even forgotten to set any kind of lock on her door for the night. The specter she thought she saw was a fading memory.     Everything seemed secure in her apartment.

Life went on.

But there was no call from Steve that day.

Or the day after. Or the day after that.

Although he had come to her place to pick her up on dates, he had only actually stepped inside her apartment once — on the first date.

Greta tried phoning him after not hearing from him, but just got an invitation to leave a voice-mail message.

It hurt.

Still, after three days of no contact, she kept holding out hope. It wasn’t as if they were in what could be classified as a serious relationship, so maybe — she thought — he was merely keeping things loose.

Walt heard a rumor that Steve had moved out of the area. Greta wasn’t quite sure what to think.

Her thoughts drifted back to the time when she was trying to get a better handle on the guy who had won her over.

It was a day or two after the first date.

He had mentioned where he lived; had given his address to her.

She knew he had money; she was just curious how much. She wanted to check out his house, so drove there.

It was a Victorian, in a ritzy subdivision.

On this particular moonlit night, the house was dark as Greta sat across the street from it in her car.

Why was she even here?

She couldn’t answer; the reasoning for the excursion was lame.

Suddenly, a car pulled up in front of the house. It was Steve’s Passat.

In the dim light, Greta could see that Steve had gotten out and opened the passenger-side door.

Someone small and frail looking was leaving the vehicle.

The person was slightly hunched over. It looked to be a woman.

Greta figured it was Steve’s mother, although the person exiting the car appeared to be older and weaker than Steve’s mother should have been.

She wasn’t that old, but maybe she had been sick; Greta felt she had figured it out.

Up the walkway went Steve, ushering the woman along.

It was not all that far to the grand, arching front door.

The path was ornate, as it was laid with red brick and lined with finely trimmed pine bushes.

Steve place his hand on the lady’s lower back, as if to guide her.

Then, she stopped, turned her head, and seemed to say something to Steve.

A few seconds passed.

Steve appeared angry, seemingly throwing harsh words her way.

The woman backed away.

To Greta, it seemed the woman was almost cowering.

Steve, half hidden in the shadows of a tree, continued raining down words.

Greta rolled down her car window to hear better.

By then, any conversation had faded into a washed-out blur.

Steve grabbed the woman by her upper arm — firmly.

And he led her away.

All this was happening while Greta wondered if she was too close — if she would be spotted by Steve.

She slid down in the front seat a bit.

As Steve and the lady approached the doorway, Steve appeared to swivel his head back toward the street.

Greta’s heart sank.

Steve never stopped moving, and turned his head back around.

Greta didn’t think she’d been seen.

She waited until Steve and the woman entered the house.

She was about to drive away when yelling shot out from the house.

It was so loud, and it was angry, and it was Steve.

Though muffled, Greta thought she could make out the words, “You’re stupid. You’re useless.”

She drove off, attributing Steve’s rough behavior to a bad day — the kind of day everyone has.

Recalling such an awkward, uncomfortable episode did not lessen Greta’s affection for the man.

But she promised herself she would not dwell on Steve’s absence from her life.

The next morning came and went, as did the evening, without hearing from him.

Despite not wanting to obsess on him, she found herself sinking into depression as the hours without contact from him passed in a slow, grinding way.

So it was with great joy that Greta took a phone call from Steve exactly seven days after his absence from her life had started.

He apologized for the length of time apart from her, saying overtime at his job had drained him..

He now wanted to see a movie, but asked that she drive since his car was not available because of engine work.

Greta complied, and happily showed up at his place.

She rang the doorbell at the side of the large oak door on the weekend of the movie date.

“Hi, good to see you, come on in,” beamed Steve, wearing a preppy black cardigan sweater.

“Come into my parlor,” he smiled, placing a hand on Greta’s shoulder.

“You have a parlor?” she asked in bemused wonder.

“Indeed I do,” he said, leading her into a small, but exquisite, sitting area that was awash in crimson.

A leather chaise lounge, an antique lamp, a hanging tapestry depicting medieval images — all were colored a rich red.

The room’s tone enveloped the senses.

Greta sat in an armchair.

Steve sat on an ottoman next to her.

“I just wanted to take a break before we head out to tell you much I appreciate your company,” he said.

“I feel the same,” she said.

Over Steve’s right shoulder hung a framed photo of his mother.

In it, she word a babushka and a shy, vulnerable smile.

“Ah, you noticed my mom’s photo,” Steve blurted. “She’s so old-school with the babushka and that tattered winter coat she just won’t give up.

“Sometimes I wish she’d be more hip. Those old-world ways drive me crazy at times,” he laughed, more out of aggravated bewilderment than fond humor.

Stymied as to a reply, Greta chose a diplomatic comment.

“Well, your mother seems nice.”

“Yeah, nice,” Steve said, staring into space.

“Maybe I pick things apart too much; maybe I’m too critical,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders.

Greta was encouraged by the softer introspection.

“I need to dissect and analyze … compartmentalize. That makes me feel like I have control in my life,” Steve said, looking directly into her eyes.

Greta merely nodded as acknowledgment of the dollop of self-analysis.

“I need to dissect,” he repeated, giving Greta’s knee an affectionate, but decidedly firm squeeze.

She was slightly shocked by the strength of the squeeze. It bordered on hurting.

“Excuse me, I need to use your bathroom before we leave,” Greta said, eager to move away from the parlor.

Steve said it was down the hall, second door on the left.

On her way to the bathroom, Greta caught sight of a bedroom to the right, with the door open and nightstand lamp on.

The soft glow of the room pulled her in.

Somehow, she knew she was meant to enter.

Greta noticed something sticking out from underneath the foot of the bed.

Inching closer, she could tell it was the corner of a shoebox.

    Kneeling down, she hurriedly pulled the box to her. The thought of Steve walking in on her was petrifying.

When the shoebox was opened, the interior revealed a ball of aluminum foil. She peeled open the ball to find small, glossy bits of something. Picking up one of the specks, Greta discovered it resembled a fingernail.

False fingernails maybe? They were polished with a fading color, perhaps a dark pink or scarlet.

She felt a natural texture on the surface of what she held.

Then, Greta accidentally dropped it.

Skimming the floor with the palm of her hand to feel for it, she knocked it under the bed.

“Crap!” she muttered.

Panic set in.

    Refocusing attention on the box, Greta quickly counted a half dozen — perhaps eight — dime-sized objects.

Each had a dull sheen that looked like nail polish.

She picked up one of the bits from the box in her fingertips.

It had short, delicate shreds attached.

There was a slight moistness.

“My God!” Greta gasped.

The shreds seemed to be flesh. She rolled the strands between her fingers.

They were indeed skin — they had to be.

She returned the bit to the shoebox. Her fingertips that had held the strange little piece were glistening with red in the light from the lamp.

Taking a closer look, the dreaded realization that it was blood came into focus.

It descended like a lead weight.

The swell of thunder could be heard rumbling across the darkened sky in the world beyond the claustrophobic realm of Steve’s home.

Mouth agape in horror, Greta caught sight of a crumpled-up piece of white paper tucked inside a corner of the shoebox. Spreading the paper apart, a godforsaken thing could be seen.

The tip of a finger appeared before Greta’s eyes. It was complete with fingernail and shredded skin tissue, apparently severed at the top joint.

Greta drew her head away, hoping this was all a sickly illusion. However, there was handwriting on the paper which was undeniably real.

Drawing the paper closer to her eyes, Greta noticed the outline of a tiny heart, which was drawn in pencil.

Above the heart was writing. It said: “I love you to pieces … always.”

Steve’s mother flashed through Greta’s mind. Scrambling to her feet, she tried to gather herself.

She needed to get out of the bedroom, and out of Steve’s house.

Disoriented from waves of terror, Greta frantically attempted to concentrate on her escape.

As she quickly moved to the bedroom doorway, Greta’s vision locked onto an antique chair by the side of a dresser. Underneath the chair was another shoebox.

Greta did not want to inspect it more closely, but she couldn’t keep herself from stepping toward the chair. Bending down, she eased the box from beneath the chair.

Scrawled across the shoebox’s lid in cursive writing was one word: Marietta.

Suddenly, and with welcomed clarity, Greta knew exactly how she would make her way to her car — fast.

Striding with firm purpose down the narrow, but quaint, hallway, she would tell Steve in the parlor that she wasn’t feeling well — it was the flu perhaps — and that their planned date would, regrettably, have to be postponed.

And that is exactly what she told him.

“So sorry,” said Steve with a particularly chilly glance. “But you need to take care of yourself.”

  Greta feared that he didn’t believe her.

  He kissed her — a little peck on the cheek — and said bye at the front door.

Greta, in turn, said bye, sneaking a quick look at him to judge the expression on his face.

It was cold, dead.

Not turning back anymore, she walked as calmly as possible to her car at the curb.

Starting the engine, Greta looked toward the front door, but was startled to see Steve much closer to her, standing — hands nonchalantly in pants pockets — on the grass parkway just a couple of feet from the front of her vehicle.

He smiled a weak smile.

Greta hurriedly drove off. He was supernatural — demonic — she thought.

She had no idea how to handle the nightmarish situation engulfing her.

Go to the police? Greta didn’t want to get involved.

Formally, and quickly, break off the relationship with Steve? Probably, with a short-as-possible phone call.

Whatever solution came, it would have to wait.

She was on her way home now. Greta just wanted to get home.

But she believed Steve was staring at her as she pulled away.

Staring a hole through her. That’s how it felt.


Robert Kostanczuk won first place for “Best Personality Profile” in a 1992 competition sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, Indianapolis chapter. Robert’s “Lizzie Borden Versus Belle Gunness” appeared in Suspense Magazine (Spring 2020 issue). Burial Day Books published his supernatural piece “Fatsy Noodles” in 2021. Twitter: @hoosierkos


“Safe” Dark Fiction by Janet Goldberg

Five hours into our escape my husband and I pulled into Bridgeport, 8000 feet up in the Sierras.  Earlier, a little after dusk, we’d seen cows, or the shadows of them, moving slowly across the meadows.  But once in town it was too dark to see anything but the dull fluorescent strip of motels, gas stations, and the brick town hall.  Come morning we’d see the tall, snow-capped mountains rising up around the town and, if we were lucky, blue sky.  We’d been here many times before—a stop-off on the way to the desert—but this time was different.  This was no vacation.  And it was cold, far colder than we’d expected.  At the edge of town my husband turned into the Bridgeport Inn pulling up beside the office.  I peered out my window at the place, most of its rooms dark, the empty pool, lit by two spotlights, peeling.  Come summer, pool filled, it was a pretty place.  Now, early March, still the edge of winter, the motel looked run down, an unhappy place in the middle of nowhere.  Or maybe I was just tired, not just from the drive but from months of madness, and I felt guilty boarding our cats.  Little cages in a back room of a vet clinic.  Still, they’d be safe.  No one could get to them.

“Hey, are you coming?”  My husband, out of the car now, leaned back in, his door still open.  His eyes looked bloodshot, his hair a little grayer.  We’d both lost weight.

I opened my door and got out.  Before coming around the car, I looked over my shoulder at the road and beyond the road into the darkness half expecting the darkness to take shape.

“There’s nothing out there,” my husband said, holding the office door open.

“I know,” I said, stepping in, taking in the dimly lit room, a coffee maker and Styrofoam cups on a table alongside the wall, the check-in counter across from it, and behind the counter an open door to living quarters.  Inside there a T.V. flashed; orange goldfish swam in a large tank.  The rest of the office, which I’d seen before, opened into another larger room, a mini museum of glass-encased Indian relics, mounted on the walls, a wooden sled, a rifle, and a deer head.  It was dark in there now though.  My husband, at the counter, rang the bell.  A man in a plaid flannel shirt and jeans padded out in his socks and yawned.  We knew him, of course, though never asked his name, and he seemed no different than last year, amiable, maybe a little scattered as if he’d accidentally wandered into his own motel.  It was we who were different—more serious than usual, desperate looking maybe, and I worried he’d notice.  People in small towns always noticed and sometimes cared.

 “Well, hello, folks.  Was just getting ready to close things up.”   He put on a pair of gold-rimmed glasses and looked at us curiously.  “You two come up every year, don’t you, but this year seems earlier.”  He started flipping though some index cards. 

“No reservation this time,” my husband said.  “Do you have a room for tonight?”  He pulled his wallet out.

“Maybe two nights,” I said.  “I take it you’re not that busy.”

 “Just our local deer hunters now.  You can have as many nights as you like.”  He looked at me and chuckled.

I must have been grimacing.

“No fan of hunters, eh?”  He slid the credit card through and punched in some numbers.

“Or dead deer,” I said.   We’d seen them all stiff tied to flatbeds or stacked atop another in town on the sidewalks.

“Me neither.  That one over there.”  He cocked his head toward the dark part of the office.  “Came with the place.  Just glad they didn’t put it over there.”  He nodded toward the coffee maker.  “Then I’d have to look at it all the time.”  The man handed my husband his credit card.  “Storm might come in tonight,” he said.  “Maybe snow.  We can still get hit pretty hard up here even this late in the season.”  He pushed a key toward us.  “Good thing you two aren’t in a rush.  You look beat.”

  “Long drive,” my husband said.   He blinked his eyes nervously.

 “Maybe food would help,” he said.  “Nothing open in town now, but a half a mile out there’s a Mexican place–Desperados–might still be open.  You’ll see a sign on the road.”

 After we dropped our bags in the room, we got back in the car.

 “I’m not really hungry,” I said.

“You’ll sleep better if you eat something.”

Back on 395 we drove out of town and into darkness.  My husband switched on the high beams, the road, and the thick forest framing it, coming to life.  We’d driven this stretch many times but always in the morning, after check-out, on the last leg down to the desert, to Death Valley, where the heat rejuvenated us after wet, dreary San Francisco winters. 

“Maybe we should have used fake names,” I said, on the look-out for the sign.

“Relax.  No one knows we’re here.  What did he say the name of the place was?”

“Desperados.  But I don’t remember there being anything out here.”

“There it is,” my husband said, the headlights flashing on a sign at the road’s edge, a gun-slinging bandit and an arrow pointing the way.  My husband turned, driving down a short, bumpy road nestled in forest, pulling up to a ranch-style restaurant, a large picture window in the front.  The light above the door was on and a car, an old Cadillac, in the lot, but the rest of the place looked nearly dark.

“I hope this isn’t another wild goose chase.  I’ve had enough of that for a lifetime.”  A dozen butcher knives stabbed into the deck rails, bullets scattered in between, the vile threats, but because we all lived in the same building, in an HOA, the common space a free for all, the police said they couldn’t do anything, not until our neighbor actually hurt us. 

My husband turned off the engine.  “We might as well check it out.”  He opened the door and got out.

“A Mexican restaurant in the middle of nowhere.  Weird,” I said.

“Only because it’s dark.  You wouldn’t think so during the day.  Everything looks different during the day.” 

We paused at the door, which was massive, made of thick wood.  Carved into it were small gargoyles, human arms wrapped around lion heads.  The sign, hanging from a nail, said Cerrado.

“See,” I said, but my husband pushed on the door anyway, and we stepped in, everything inside–the terracotta tile, the paper lanterns, the wooden booths–giving off a soft reddish haze.  From the back of the restaurant a tall, gray-haired man with a mustache appeared.  He smiled warmly.  “Welcome.  We have your food ready.”   The man slipped back into the darkness. 

I looked at my husband. 

“Don’t say anything,” he said.

Then the man came back, handing my husband a white plastic bag.  “Enjoy,” he said.

My husband pulled out his wallet, but the man raised his hand.  “It’s on the house.”

“Really?  Are you sure?” my husband asked.

The man nodded.  “It’s the end of the day.  It’s the least we can do.  Just come back to see us again.  Okay?”  

 “Thank you,” my husband said, taking the bag.  “That’s generous of you.”

The man escorted us back to the front door and held it open for us.  Good night,” he said. 

Behind us we heard the lock turn.

As we headed toward the car, I stopped, turning, and saw the man at the window.  He raised his hand, and I raised mine back.  Then I caught up with my husband and got in the car.  He handed me the bag, and I put it on my lap.

“The guy from the motel probably called it in,” my husband said.  “He didn’t want us to go hungry.”

“Whatever it is,” I said, “it’s still warm.”

My husband turned on the lights and then drove out of the lot. 

Back at the motel, we lifted the lids off the tins, inside tacos, rice, refried beans covered in cheese.  I stared at it for a moment, a long time since I’d had appetite.  My husband unwrapped his fork and plunged it into the beans.  Even in the best of times, he was lean, but now no one would guess that beneath his bulky sweater he looked like the starved men of concentration camps.  He’d been just as scared as I was.  I pushed my tin toward him.

The dream always started the same way our trouble had–with exploding glass as loud as a gunshot.  Then we’d jumped out of bed and run to the back kitchen door; there, opposite us, was our neighbor’s kitchen door, between the two, glass scattered all over the landing, the shards still left in the frame like monster teeth.  In my dream though a face—wild-eyed and fiendish—always appeared.  That’s when I always woke, jolted out of sleep, heart racing, just as we both had been the night it had all started, the night we’d called the police.  That’s when he’d become vengeful, starting after us, his mania out of control.  Tonight was no different, the dream replaying over and over.  I switched on the bedside lamp.  5:00 a.m. now, it was still dark, the room chilly.  I got out of bed and switched the heat on and then got back in.  I didn’t see how it would end:  months of 5150s at the county asylum, giving us brief reprieves–three days of commitment, two days of post medication stupor, then the rage would start up again, an endless cycle.  The police eventually told us to get a gun.  One officer even showed me what to do if he cornered me in the basement or the garage.  I looked at my husband now.  His face a mask of calmness, he slept so quietly that I felt for his heartbeat, gently placing my hand on his chest, so thin that I could feel the curve of his ribs.  Then I got up again and went over to the window and parted the curtains a little.  But there was no wind, and now, tucked away in this little room in a mountain town, I suddenly felt safe.  I went over to my suitcase and pulled out my jacket.  I slipped my feet in sneakers and walked to the back of the room to a sliding glass door and pulled it open.  The cold air blasting in almost made me slide it shut, but I stepped out anyway, a long time since I could open a door without fear.  

 When my husband woke, I was already dressed.  Curtains parted, sun was streaming through. 

 “Muffins and juice at the front desk if you want,” I said.  “Sleep well?”

 My husband yawned.  “Well enough.  You eat?”

 “I had some tea.”

 The phone rang.

 My husband and I looked at each other. 

 “You didn’t tell anyone, did you?  Not even your sister, right?”

 “I just told her we were leaving,” I said

 “Just let it ring,” he said.

“He knows we’re here.”  I walked over to the nightstand, picked up the receiver put it to my ear, then pulled it away.  “Hang-up.”

 “That doesn’t mean it was him.”  My husband got out of bed.  “Could have been anyone.”

“Sure.  Anyone.”  I walked over to the window and looked out, our car the only one in the lot.  Then I turned back around.  “Did you bring the gun?”

My husband unzipped his suitcase and started rifling through it.  He pulled out a map and spread it open on the bed.  “Someone will kill him or he’ll kill someone, and it won’t be us.  Listen, I have an idea.  The storm’s petered out.  Let’s just take a day off.  We’re safe.  The cats are safe.  No one knows we’re here.  We can take the road into Bodie.  It’s about twenty miles.  It’s right here on the map.  To that ghost town we always pass.  First though.”  He went back to his suitcase and started pulling out some clothes.  “I’m going to grab a cup of coffee.”

In the car we got back onto 395.

“By the way,” my husband said, “it was the guy at the front desk that called this morning.  Called the wrong room.”

“Really?  Why’d he hang up?”

“Embarrassed, I guess.  Worried he’d woken us up.  Anyway, he told me to tell you he was sorry.” 

“Did you have a muffin?” I asked.

“Sure.  Chocolate chip.  There were tons of them, even though nobody’s here.”

“What else did he say?” I asked.

“You know, the usual.  What you’d expect.  Wife left him.  Short stint in law school.  Hamsters.  He’s got a whole bunch of them back there where he lives.”

“But how could he call the wrong room if we’re the only ones here?”

My husband slowed down.  “I think that’s it–the turn-off.”  He turned onto an unpaved road.

“You sure?  Why isn’t it marked?”

“Because it’s haunted.  The ghosts want to keep it that way.  Stop worrying, will you.”

The road started climbing through open meadow.  Beyond the meadow, on my husband’s side, were snow-topped mountains with low-growing sparse vegetation. Out my side a thick line of trees backed a series of bald, rocky hills, but despite the warm sun streaming in, the place felt cold, forgotten. 

“What’s that ahead?”

My husband slowed down coming to a stop.  “Deer.  No.  Antelope, I think.  Two of them.”

 The pair, poised at the edge of the tree line, were looking down the road toward us.  The larger one, the male, I assumed, stepped into the middle of the road, honey-colored, stout, as tall as horse with black antlers. Nostrils flared, he stamped one foot and snorted.  Then there was an explosion, and I fell forward, folding myself in half.  “Jesus, what was that?”

“Hunters.”

I started to sit back up.  “I thought this was state park.”

“Not all of it, I guess.  Are you okay?”

“How close do you think that was?” I asked.

“Probably not very,” my husband said.  “Sound echoes out here.  You still want to go?”

“If you think it’s safe…”

My husband started driving again. 

“What happened to the antelope?”

“I’m sure they’re fine.  They can run.”  Having just reached the crest of a hill, he slowed down again, the town coming into view, a bunch of broken-down wooden buildings scattered across a barren hillside.  “There won’t be any shooting here.”  He pulled into the lot, a truck there and a cinderblock restroom.

“You think it’s flush?” I asked.  

We didn’t talk much as we walked the dirt and pebble path from one building to another–from the church, the jail, the saloon, to the general store.  Mostly we just peeked through windows or barred doorways at what was left of the old furnishings, trying to imagine what life would have been like if the place was teeming with miners, drunks, prostitutes, thieves, children.  At the schoolhouse we could see small wooden desks and chairs and old books, readers from the era, and a chalkboard, and there was a spiral staircase up to a second floor.  We tried pushing on the door, thinking we might somehow get in, but then I felt a firm hand on my shoulder and swung around.

 “Hey, you can’t go in there,” a red-bearded man in overalls said, a shovel in his hand.  “These buildings aren’t safe.  Half my day’s spent propping them up.”

That night we ate across the street from the motel, at the Bridgeport Bar & Grill, a white-shingle house converted into a downstairs restaurant and an upstairs motel.  White scalloped curtains hung over the windows, and on the tables were gas-lit lamps.  There were eight tables in total, two against the windows facing 395, four alongside the other two walls, and two in the center where we sat.

“Now what?”  I said.

 “We order,” my husband said.

I closed my menu.  “I mean tomorrow.”

My husband shrugged. 

“Maybe we should call the police,” I said.  “Maybe they locked him up again.”

“The police won’t tell you anything.  They can’t.  Not when they’re crazy.”

“They’d tell us if he were dead.”

“He isn’t.  That’s the problem with these guys.  You can’t ever kill them.”

“This morning you said someone would.”

My husband opened the menu.  “What are you getting?”

“What are we going to do?”

“We’re going to wait him out.  Something will happen.  He’ll do something, and they’ll put him in jail or in the hospital again and get him right.  He can’t stay crazy forever.  And then we’ll go back and start over.”

“So you don’t think someone will kill him?”

“Do you want someone to kill him?”

“Hey, folks.”  The waitress stood at our table.  “What can I get you?”  She pulled out a small pad.

“Coke, please,” I said.

“Two,” my husband said, and then she went through the specials, venison stew in red wine sauce and rack of lamb with mint butter and mashed potatoes. “Think about it,” she said, turning for the bar.

My husband closed his menu.  “I say we head down to Death Valley.  A week there.  Then we go back.”

“Why a week?” I said.

“How long can we keep the cats cooped up?”

I rubbed my eyes. “I know.  The cats.” 

“It’s only been two nights,” my husband said.  “Don’t worry.”

“You don’t think he can get to them?”

The waitress placed our drinks on the table and pulled two straws from her apron.  “Ready?”

The next morning while my husband loaded up the car, I went over to the front desk and laid the key on the counter.

“So you’re leaving,” the man said.  “Was everything all right?’

“Yes.  Fine.”  I pushed the room key toward him.  “About that call yesterday.  We were already up, so no worries.”

The man raised his eyebrows.  He picked up the key and hung it on a hook.   “Are you all right?”

 “I’m fine.”

 “You know, you don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” he said.  “I can give you a special deal.”

“A special deal?”

He took the key off the hook and pushed it back toward me.  “For as long as you want.” 

I peered at the key and then looked up at the man.  “What did my husband tell you?”

The man shook his head and shrugged.

I pushed the key back.  “We have to go back sometime.”

“No you don’t.  You could stay here forever.  People do.”

“But we’re the only ones here.”  I looked down at the key again, its sharp ridges, and then over at the door.  “We can’t live our lives in a motel.” 

Chuckling, the man stuffed his hands in his pockets.  “Course you can.”


Janet Goldberg’s “Safe” comes from a collection titled Every Small Thing.  Her novel The Proprietor’s Song will be published by Regal House in the summer of 2023:  https://www.regalhousepublishing.com/janet-goldberg/  She also edits fiction for Deep Wild https://deepwildjournal.com/ and teaches writing at a community college in northern California.


“Every Dog Has His Day” Mystery by Julian Grant (Part 2 of 2)


Editor’s note: Follow this link to Part 1


I waited as Doc Williams worked as I stared at Miguel’s face wishing him to wake up. He was out cold.

By the time the Doc was finished, I had decided to see Sid and get her take on what had happened tonight. I left the doctor snoozing in the chair next to the bed as I headed out into the mansion. On the stairs, Quince and his wife, Mary, another rawboned cowpoke headed down towards the kitchen deep in conversation. I didn’t want to disturb them, but I had to find out what was going on here.

“Where’s Sid?” I asked as both Quince and his wife flinched at the sound of my voice.

“She’s in her room, Sir” Mary said, her eyes cast down at the floor. “I gave her something to sleep.”

Quince nodded in agreement. “And Mr. Todd is upstairs with – the dog.”

“What?” I asked. “Why?”

A shot rang out. And then another as the sound of the Glock in action sounded through the darkened halls. Mary immediately headed off to the safety of her kitchen as Quince stood trapped between looking after his wife and investigating this new disturbance.

“Go with her,” I said, leaping up the stairs. “I got this.”

I lunged through the door to the office expecting the worse. Sure enough, Todd stood there, the gun still in his hand, the same gun I had seen in the screening room, and the dead dog on the ground before him. He’d hit with both shots, one to the heart and another to the head splattering the poor animal across the room.

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked as I knocked the gun out of Todd’s hand.

“The dog was a killer. It had to go,” he sneered. “Once they taste human flesh…”

I shivered in revulsion as I looked at the gun I’d taken away from Todd.

“Where’d you get the gun?” I asked.

“It was on the screening room floor,” Todd said as he bent down to pick it back up.

I slid my foot over the weapon, keeping it in place on the floor. “Is it Jordan’s?”

“It was Jordan’s gun, sure. It’s mine now.”

He pushed my foot aside, picked up the gun and slid the weapon into the back of his jeans. What was I going to say?

Todd turned, his job done according to him, as I took the opportunity to look closer at the dead animal. Outside of the blood and damage done by Todd, the dog was unmarked except for his battle scars. I picked up his front paws and inspected his nails alongside his now-crooked maw. “Not a sign of blood –”

“Meaning?” a voice sounded from the door.

I turned to find Sid, now wrapped in a long chenille robe, standing at the door. Her face was pale, her eyes haunted as she did her best not to look at the dead beast. I moved to block her view as I laid out for her my thoughts.

“This dog didn’t kill your dad. I know dogs like this. Once they draw blood, they keep going. Your dad would have had his guts torn out and –”

Sid turned, burying her face in her robe. “That’s enough.”

I stopped, realizing that I was being inconsiderate. “Todd shot the dog, with the gun your dad had in the front room. He just started blazing away…”

There was a lot I could say about how Todd had screwed up the chain of evidence, maybe even contributed to the crimes that had gone on here tonight. I needed some guidance.

Todd came back, glared at me and dragged Sid away to get something to eat in the kitchen as I dug out my phone and called Diego back in Mexico. He was the one who had got me into this mess. I needed him to help me figure out what went on here. It took a while, but I finally connected.

But Diego wasn’t picking up. I got his voicemail and told him all about Jordan being murdered and that I was in way over my head. Did he know any reason why the man was killed? Or what was going on?  Hell, by the end I was sure I asked him to drive up from Saltillo himself as he could be here in about five hours not counting border traffic. A lot of it was fuzzy now that it was past two in the morning and the cops haven’t even showed up yet. I’d be a lot happier having my boss here if he could make it.

I hadn’t been paying any attention to where I was walking or talking so I was surprised when Todd grabbed me and pushed me up against the main staircase.

“What the hell’s the deal with calling Diego? What’s he gonna do? We don’t know what the hell’s going on. How could he?

“We don’t know what he can tell us. It wouldn’t hurt to ask, right?”

The cops showed up around three and all of us were dragging at that point. I’d already fallen asleep once at the kitchen table we’d all grouped around waiting for them to show.

“Morning, people. Hear we got some problems? Jordan’s been attacked?”

Police Chief Pember looked about the kitchen – checking his dance card to see who was here. Quince and Mary held fast by the coffee machine passing out cups of thick joe for everyone as Sid dozed in Todd’s arms. Pember’s thick moustache twitched as he nodded at us all. “Doc Williams is here too, right?’

“He’s in back,” I said. “Looking after the dog man, Miguel.”

“Two questions,” Pember asked, hooking his thumbs into his Sam Brown belt, hitching up the radio and firearm hanging from the well-worn leather. “Who the hell are you and what‘s happened to Miguel now?”

“I pulled my passport hoping that Pember wouldn’t tumble to the fact it was false as Quince filled him in on finding the injured man and Jordan in the big TV room.

“And Doc Williams is attending?” Pember asked as he passed me back my paperwork without comment. My heart was racing as I tried to make sure my poker face didn’t crack.

“Alright, here’s how its gonna go,” Pember drawled as he started pointing at each of us. “I’ll talk to each of your separately and when Miguel wakes up, I wanna talk to him. I’m gonna bring in the EMTs now and get Jordan tucked away proper.” Pember turned to Sid, dipping his head to the half-conscious girl as Todd did his best not to look guilty as hell.

“My condolences for your loss, Sid. We’re gonna find out who done this.”

Quince showed me up to my room, my bag sitting at the end of the narrow single bed that had been given to me. I didn’t care where I slept at this point and passed straight out.

The next thing I knew, Quince was knocking at the door again as I dragged myself up. The rain had finally stopped while I slept and the world was just coming alive in muted grey and brown.

“The Police Chief wants to see you in the screening room, Clint.”

“How’s Miguel doing, Quince?” I called through the door as I scrubbed at my face in the mirror hanging over the worn dresser. I looked like trash, my face pale and drawn with my hair sticking up everywhere.”

“He’s groaning and tossing around some,” Quince said as I opened the door. Jordan’s handyman didn’t look much better than me. I’d at least had a couple hours sleep compared to him. He looked dead on his feet. “He still looks like hell.”

“You don’t look too good yourself,” I smiled as I tried to hand comb my hair.

Quince nodded and shuffled away from me as I headed down to the home cinema.

“You wanted to see me, Chief?” I asked as I pushed my way inside the room. Thankfully Jordan’s body was no longer on the floor – but the blood was. Pember was sitting a row back from where Jordan had been killed, a deep frown on his face.

“From what I’m hearing, Clint, you seem to have a number of opinions about what happened here. You don’t think the dog did old Jordan in?”

“That’s right,” I said. “I’m sure of it. There were no blood stains on the dog. And Jordan’s body, if it had been killed by the dog, was in a lot better shape than most dog attacks I’ve ever seen.”

Pember nodded. “You’re right there, son. His face and balls were still in one piece and those are usually some of the first things to go after the throat.”

My throat felt tight and thick as Pember casually tossed off the damage done by other pit animals in cases like this. Dogs that are trained to kill and bleed don’t stop and pick or choose their targets.

“What do you think did those marks on his throat?” Pember asked as he watched me carefully for my response.

“I think whoever killed Jordan used the hand sickle we found out by Miguel’s body. You could hack a man up pretty good with that blade. Skin rips pretty easy.”

Now it was my turn to be nonchalant. I’d seen a lot of damage done to people and knew it didn’t take much to put a man down for good.

“There was no blood on the sickle you found out in the back. I checked,” Pember remarked as he kept watching me closely. There was no way I could be guilty of any of this based on my arrival time – it didn’t mean that Pember trusted me.

“And the rain cleared up the mess and took care of any prints.” Pember sighed, looking down at the blood on the carpet as he flipped open his battered notebook.

“According to Sid, she left the house about eight-thirty to come get you. She got back here about nine-twenty, right?

I shrugged. I hadn’t been watching the time and was more interested in getting a hot meal and meeting my new business partner. “Okay,” I agreed. “Where was everyone else?”

“Todd claims he was having a nap before all hell broke loose and Mary and Doc Williams were in the kitchen. We don’t know where Miguel was as Quince didn’t see him all evening. Nearest I can figure, Jordan came here around eight-thirty or so to watch a movie once he saw Sid out the door. That is according to her. So, we got about fifty minutes in which Jordan got himself killed.”

I nodded. What else was I going to do?

A knock sounded at the door of the screening room and Doc Williams popped his head in. “Miguel’s awake. Now would be a good time to question him.”

The Doc looked just as bad as Quince. He’d been up all night and was barely standing.

“Let’s get this done because I need some sleep.”

The news of Miguel awake had traveled through the house and everyone wanted to hear what the man would say. Sid, Todd, Quince, Mary – all of them were already waiting on the landing outside Miguel’s door round the back of the kitchen. It had started out as a mud room with windows out towards the back spread and had been converted into a small sleeping space for the dog handler.

“Hold on, everyone. You can’t all go in. He doesn’t need all of you in there. He’s barely awake.”

“That’s right, people. This is a police matter,” Pember said as he elbowed through the crowd by the door. “Go get some shut-eye and I’ll let you know if I need anything.”

Two minutes later, Chief Pember and Doc Williams were gathered around Miguel’s bed as the rest of us waited in the hall straining to hear what the injured man had to say. None of us said a word as Quince gently pushed the door open so we could hear the whole conversation.

“No, no, señor, I don’t know who hit me,” Miguel whispered. “I was near the door in the barn, the big one’s open, and I can hear someone rolling one of the dog cages outside. I ran out in the rain to see who had taken it out when I got hit from behind.”

“You never saw who hit you?” Pember asked as he wrote down Miguel’s statement. We could all hear the fast scratching the grizzled lawman made in his pad as we waited for Miguel to continue. “You never saw their face?”

Miguel started to cry. “Doesn’t matter now. Who cares? Senor Jordan is d-dead, nothing matters. Why would anyone want to kill a good man like him?”

I frowned, figuring that Miguel hadn’t obviously met many good men in his life if his opinion of Jordan was correct. The dead man had made his money with fight dogs and the more I heard of him and everything here in this house, the sooner I wanted to get back across the border.

“I bet it was for drugs,” Miquel groaned, his voice sharpening in anger.

“Drugs? What drugs?” Sid whispered, leaning forward with me as we eavesdropped at the door. I glanced about myself checking the others but everyone there seemed just as confused by Miguel’s statement.

Everyone but Todd.

Todd drew himself up to his full height, guilt stitched all over his face as I watched him plan his next lie, but I didn’t know if he still had Jordan’s gun or if he had given it up to the Chief already. From my position at the door, it would be hard for me to check him without being obvious.

Miguel continued.

“It was the glass, the crystal meth that came back with us from our last circuit. It was smuggled, but neither Señor Jordan or myself knew about it. Pel’ amor de Deus, we didn’t know.”

Sid had had enough at this point, and she pushed her way into the makeshift interview room.

“Miguel, what are you talking about? What is all this? Who smuggled drugs?”

Señorita,” Miguel explained, “It wasn’t us. We had just come back from Amarillo with the dogs and after I got the crates away, I decided to come back and check on one of the dogs who’d got hurt bad in the last fight. Señor Jordan wanted me to make sure the dog was sleeping when I saw him…”

Chief Pember ignored Sid as Miguel continued. The rest of us held by the door. Except for Todd. He was edging backwards now so I took the opportunity to slide in behind him and put my hand firmly on his back. Sure enough, the Glock was still stuck in his waistband where he’d left it. I slipped the gun out of his pants and pushed it into his kidney. “Stick around,” I whispered to him as I pushed him back towards the room.

Miguel pushed himself up on his pillow, sweat poured from him as he raced to finish.

“I see jefe Todd opening up the bottom of the road cages taking out bags of meth. I know meth. It’s killing my people. Jefe Todd had drugs hidden in the dog’s cages.”

“That’s a lie,” Todd said as he pushed his way into the now crowded mud room.

Pember held up a hand, halting Todd in his tracks as he leaned over to Miquel. “Who else did you tell?”

“I tell Señor Jordan. He goes and chases down jefe Todd and scream at him. He tells him that he’s no good for his daughter. That she shouldn’t be married to a drug dealer.”

Sid’s sobbing shouldn’t have surprised anyone. In one night, she’d lost her father and found out her fiancée was a drug smuggler. Pember dismissed the crying girl as he looked to Todd.

“Where are the drugs, Todd?” Pember asked as he stood up and grabbed the now-terrified man by his arm. I slid in next to Sid, squeezing her arm in sympathy. She looked up at me with tears in her eyes.

That’s when all hell broke loose.

From outside, a single short shot cracked as the window burst into a hundred flying fragments. I ducked down pulling Sid with me as Pember pushed Todd out of the line of fire.

On the bed, Miguel coughed as a plumb of blood spread across his chest, a black bullet hole over his heart.

I raced to the shattered window and jerked up the window.

Outside, all was quiet except for the sound of the rainwater draining off the roof and onto the ground.

Inside, Sid’s crying told us all we needed to know. “Oh, Miguel…”

“So, who the hell killed Miguel?” Todd demanded. “It wasn’t me. I don’t even have a gun,” he glared as I smiled at him. Given the fact that more bullets were flying now, it didn’t seem prudent to hand over my only advantage to Chief Pember.

“Where are the drugs, Todd?” Pember asked. “It’s the only thing that’s happened tonight I do believe.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Todd muttered. “Only one that said I had anything to do with drugs is dead. And he was a liar.”

“But why would he lie about that?” Pember asked, staring at Todd. “Why would he do it?”

“How would I know?” Todd groused. “Jealous, maybe? I’ve seen the way he looks at Sid. Maybe he thought he could get a shot with her if he got me in trouble?

“He’s right,” I said, as all heads turned to me. “The only people that knew anything about this are dead. It’s just hearsay.”

Pember turned a cold eye on me as I defended Todd. It wasn’t that I trusted Todd or even liked him. But in the last fifteen minutes, a man had been shot dead, we searched the grounds and found nothing, and I‘d figured out why Jordan and Miguel had died.

And who had actually done all the killing.

I agreed to help Todd muck out the cages as there was no one else here to help the dogs and I had energy to burn now. He was pissed when he saw the bait dogs were gone as he fancied a bit of sport after we slopped meat ends and kibble to the fighting beasts. I kept my hands well clear as I shoveled food into the battle animals and made sure I was gone when he led a few of them out to the pit to practice. I didn’t need to see that.

So, I was standing right in the drive when Diego rolled up in his big RAM 250. I was glad that he showed up in person as it would make the next bit a helluva lot easier.

Diego made a big deal of stretching, shooting me a side-eye glance as he clocked Chief Pember’s car still sitting front and center. The EMT’s had made a second run just a bit earlier taking in Miguel’s body.

“Cops still here, eh?” Diego said as he looked about the Jordan spread. “Where are they?”

“There’s only the Chief right now. He’s got some Staties coming in to help him search the area for any brass from the shooting last night.”

“Shooting?” Diego asked as he shook his head. “I thought that Jordan got killed by his dog? You weren’t making a whole lot of sense on your message.”

I shrugged.

“We had a shit ton of rain. I doubt he’s going to find anything. Miguel, the dog guy, got shot.”

Diego shook his head. “Ese, the trouble you get into…”

I just glared at Diego. None of this was my fault and the way I had figured I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. All thanks to him. I decided to keep that to myself as I’m not stupid.

I watched as Diego headed off towards the barn looking for Todd as Sid slipped by him at the front door of the house. She didn’t pay him any attention and Diego, to his credit, didn’t even try to hit on her.

Sid wandered over to me, one eye uneasily on the barn and the sounds of the dogs fighting. I could hear Todd yelling his encouragement as they practiced. She’d wrapped herself in a big, hooded sweatshirt that just about swallowed her up.

“Hey Sid,” I called out to her as she stopped and stared at the barn. “How you doing today?”

“It’s Todd’s fault my dad’s dead,” she said simply. It was the first time she’d even called Jordan her dad and I can see that she’d made up her mind about something.

“I don’t think he would have wanted me to marry him. Not if he was dealing meth.”

“Or stole it from one of the gangs that hang out at your dad’s fights?”

Sid nodded. “I hate this. Hate that Jordan made his money in blood. I probably shouldn’t be so picky about the drugs given how I live. But I can’t help it.”

Dogfighting was a tradition out here with farmers and cowpokes stretching centuries back pitting beast against beast. Hell, even Pember turned a blind eye to it, and he was the Chief. But I knew what Sid meant about meth. Crank and crystal had been tearing the panhandle apart and it was one of the reasons I had finally headed further South. I’d gotten clean after two years in the pen and I wasn’t ever going back. I was determined to keep a low profile and I still owed a lot of money to people in Rio Grande that would be more than happy to collect. So, going under and staying as clean as I could was about the only thing I could do as I figured out my situation. Clearly what happened here wasn’t it.

“You tell him yet?” I asked Sid as she fidgeted in the big sweater.

“I…I…don’t want to go in there,” she said, gesturing towards the barn.

“I’ll go get him,” I said. “Wait here.”

Sid nodded her thanks as I walked uphill to the barn steeling myself for what I’d find inside.

“Diego? What are you doing?”

I’d walked in to find Diego pulling into the air a side of cow that hung over the pit as two ravenous dogs leapt to grab the dangling food. Both of them, brindle-coated Pits, slashed at the meat gulping mouthfuls before falling back into the dirty hole.

“Feeding the dogs. You wanna go?”

I shook my head and headed over to Todd.

“Sid’s outside, Todd. She wants to talk to you.”

Todd was by the locked steel gun cabinet piling what appeared to be triple-wrapped kilos of meth in a shrink-wrapped cover. He slammed the door closed quickly as I sauntered up. He gave me his big don’t-screw-with-me stare and headed off out to the front yard.

“I’ll be right back, Diego.”

I watched Todd leave as Diego dropped the last of the meat into the pit. He peered over to watch them work the side of beef as he shook his head in amazement.

“Vicious. Man. Increíble.”

“I know who killed Jordan and Miguel,” I said, watching Diego carefully.

Diego turned and stared me down.

“You,” I said, reaching behind myself for the Glock I‘d taken from Todd. Diego may be my friend, but I knew he was capable of anything. “And Todd.”

“You’re loco, Ese. How could it have been us? I just got here.”

I kept my hands behind my back, not wanting to show Diego that I was strapped. I had no doubt he was packing.

“Just got here, huh? Look at your clothes. They’re filthy. Like you’ve been out in the mud and rain. Your truck’s covered in run-off and brush. And I bet if I checked, your long gun is stashed in the back, right?”

Diego looked down at his loose tracksuit. In Saltillo, AC is a luxury, so everyone has adapted to the heat with lightweight jogging pants and a strap T-shirt, throwing on the top only when it got cooler at night. Diego’s outfit had mud smeared on his knees and on his elbows. Exactly where his weight would have been from lying in the wet ground making a shot through the mud room window.

“You’ve been out in the weather. It poured here last night, and I checked the weather in Saltillo. High 80’s. Not a hint of rain. How’d your clothes get so dirty?”

I watched carefully as Diego’s smile slid slowly off his face. I was shooting in the dark, sure – but Diego didn’t have an answer.

“You made the shot from outside with your long gun.”

Diego sucked his teeth again. Waiting for me to continue.

“I figure Jordan told you about the meth on the phone and that he was going to turn it over to the Chief or make Todd get rid of it. He didn’t want anything to do with it.”

Diego sucked his teeth, shaking his head at me as he tried to talk himself clean. “That’s loco, Ese. Loco. I didn’t know anything about any meth. Who’s got meth?”

“You mean to tell me you weren’t even a bit curious what Todd was doing over in the corner when I came in?”

Diego didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. He knew.

“You shot Miguel ‘cause you weren’t sure if he saw you when you got here and released the dog as a diversion. Todd killed Jordan with the sickle in the TV room and figured that everyone would blame the dog, right? After you both snuck the dog out of the barn when it was raining, Miguel saw something, and you clubbed him with the sickle after Jordan was already dead.”

“I should have killed him then too,” Diego sneered as he went to draw his own gun from the fanny pack he always wore.

“Keep your hands to yourself,” I said as I pulled the Glock and had him toss his weapon belt on the floor. “Why’d you even let me go if all you were going to do was kill Jordan and get the meth from Todd?”

“Because he’s an idiot,” a voice snarled from behind me as Todd stepped into the barn, a bright silver revolver in his hands as he bared down on me. I didn’t wonder where that weapon came from. We were in Texas, after all.

I swung my Glock at Todd as Diego dove for his own gun while I backed up towards the pit. The barn had gone dead silent as if the dogs themselves realized what was as stake.

“You were supposed to be here an hour earlier, and Diego was supposed to shoot the old man and then you’d take the fall. We’d shoot you with Jordan’s gun and the cops would write it all off as a deal gone bad,” Todd said as he gestured with his gun. “Drop the gun, Clint.”

“You heard him, Ese. No hard feelings. It’s just business.”

Diego had retrieved his own twenty-two from his belt. It’s not much of a gun but it will still kill you dead enough if you hit the right spot. Diego was pointing it at my head. That would do it alright.

“I came up with the dog idea once Diego got up here way ahead of you. That way it didn’t matter if you even got here or not, the dog was to blame. I killed the dog after I took care of the old man. Problems solved.”

“Oh, Todd,” Sid sniffed as she appeared at the barn door. She’d heard everything and the look of shock and horror on her face was obvious. Todd had killed her dad.

A shot popped off inside Sid’s oversized sweater as she unloaded her weapon into her former fiancé. Diego swung his pistol at her leaving me with no choice. I tagged him twice as he spun on the spot and pitched headfirst into the dog pit. The Pits went to work immediately. I didn’t bother to look inside.

It was just about then that Chief Pember turned up as Sid kept on firing at Todd, her hand outside the hoodie now with a slick little mother-of-pearl shooter. She’d a great eye with every slug hitting home. I dropped the Glock on the ground by Todd’s body as Pember cleared leather and ordered Sid on the ground.

Down in the pit, the dogs kept on keeping on with Diego.

By the time the EMT’s made the final sweep and Pember had locked Sid in the back of his car, I‘d given my statement and promised that I’d stay local in case he had anymore questions. I supposed it was only about forty minutes later when I was on Texas State 4 heading towards the Rio Grande with a load of saleable meth in Diego’s truck that I remembered to toss my burner phone. I was going back, and I guess it was my turn to make good and clean up my mess from the past.

Every dog has his day.


Editor’s note: follow this link to Part 1.


Julian Grant is a filmmaker, educator, and author of strange short stories, outlaw poetry, full-length novels/ non-fiction texts and outsider comix. A tenured Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago, his work has been published by Dark Fire UK, Quail Bell, Avalon Literary Review, Crepe & Penn, Alternative History Magazine, Granfalloon, Altered Reality, The Chamber Magazine, Dark Lane Books, Clever Magazine, Peeking Cat Literary Journal, Danse Macabre, Fiction on the Web, Night Picnic, CafeLit, Horla, Bond Street Review, Piker Press, Retreats from Oblivion, Free Bundle, Filth Literary Magazine, Horror Sleaze Trash, The Mythic Circle, Murderous Ink Press, Superlative Literary Journal & The Adelaide Literary Magazine. 

Find out more about him at www.juliangrant.com


Contents

“Every Dog Has His Day” Mystery by Julian Grant (Part 2 of 2)
“Safe” Dark Fiction by Janet Goldberg
“Steve Loved Her to Pieces” Dark Fiction by Robert Kostanczuk
“Acting Out” Dark Fiction by Brian R. Quinn
“The Lottery” Dark, Speculative Fiction by James Hanna
“Sister Tells Me” Dark Fiction by D.C. Marcus

Appearing in The Chamber February 25

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).

“Every Dog Has His Day” Mystery by Julian Grant (Part 2 of 2)

Julian Grant is a filmmaker, educator, and author of strange short stories, outlaw poetry, full-length novels/ non-fiction texts and outsider comix. A tenured Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago, his work has been published by numerous magazines (see the story for the complete list). Find out more about him at http://www.juliangrant.com.

“Safe” Dark Fiction by Janet Goldberg

Janet Goldberg’s “Safe” comes from a collection titled Every Small Thing. Her novel The Proprietor’s Song will be published by Regal House in the summer of 2023: https://www.regalhousepublishing.com/janet-goldberg/ She also edits fiction for Deep Wild https://deepwildjournal.com/ and teaches writing at a community college in northern California.

“Steve Loved Her to Pieces” Dark Fiction by Robert Kostanczuk

Robert Kostanczuk won first place for “Best Personality Profile” in a 1992 competition sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, Indianapolis chapter. Robert’s “Lizzie Borden Versus Belle Gunness” appeared in Suspense Magazine (Spring 2020 issue). Burial Day Books published his supernatural piece “Fatsy Noodles” in 2021. Twitter: @hoosierkos

“Acting Out” Dark Fiction by Brian R. Quinn

Brian Quinn is an Emmy Award Winning TV news journalist living in Manhattan who has spent the last thirty years covering news in New York City and overseas. Much of his work is rooted in those experiences.

“The Lottery” Dark, Speculative Fiction by James Hanna

James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, all of which have won awards, are available on Amazon.

“Sister Tells Me” Dark Fiction by D.C. Marcus

D.C. Marcus grew up in New Jersey reading Twilight Zone Magazine and the classic Shadows anthologies edited by Charles L. Grant.

Next Issue: March 4

 

New Video at The Chamber’s YouTube Channel: Covers 2021

The Chamber has a new video on its YouTube channel: Covers 2021. This is a showcase of all The Chamber’s covers for 2021, starting in April, when the first ones were produced, and proceeding chronologically, so that the view can watch the cover’s style develop.

The February 18 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).

“Dream Errors” Psychological Horror by Jay Charles

Jay Charles is a writer out of rural Pennsylvania. He won multiple awards for his undergraduate writing at Penn State University. Post-academic stories concern the speculative and the horror found in chilling regularity throughout history. His work has appeared in Kalliope, Liquid Imagination, and will be featured in the upcoming Medium Chill 7. Twitter: @JCharles000

“The Forgiveness” Psychological Horror by Jacob Austin

Mr. Austin states: “I am a writer and digital content strategist from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. My short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Stray Branch, Bewildering Stories, and Black Petals. “

“Cruel” Dark, Legendary Fiction by Billy Stanton

Billy Stanton is a young working-class writer based in London, and originally from Portsmouth. His short story ‘Screwfix’ was recently published in the psychogeography collection ‘New Towns’ (Wild Pressed Books). His short story ‘The Stray Sod’ was published by online horror magazine Horla in January 2022. The short poetic documentary ‘On an Island, Between Two Rivers’ Birkbeck’s Essay Film Festival this year (Covid-Permitting).

“Welcome to Hell” Darkly Humorous Fiction by Curtis Bass

Curtis A. Bass (CurtisStories.blog) from the American south, writes short stories in a variety of genres including science fiction, horror, mystery and young adult. He’s had stories published in online and print journals such as Youth Imagination, Fabula Argentea, Page & Spine, and the anthologies 2020 in a Flash, Best of 2020, The Protest Diaries, and Screaming in the Night. When not writing he prefers to stay active ballroom dancing or downhill skiing. He is currently working on his second novel while his first remains hidden in a drawer.

“On the Boardwalk” Dark Flash Fiction by Alan Catlin

Alan Catlin is primarily known for poetry but that doesn’t prevent him for mixing and matching prose and poetry as the subject allows. He has published dozens of full length book and chapbooks, mostly poetry, over the years. Although he is not a genre writer he has somehow managed three Rhysling Prize nominations and a Bram Stoker Award nomination He didn’t win either award.

“Final Trick” Flash Fiction by Young Tanoto

Young is a 21-year-old undergraduate student that writes to satisfy his fascination with the bizarre and the uncanny. He currently studies English and Psychology at Tufts University. His short story, “When Words Fail”, received a gold medal in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.

“Every Dog Has His Day” Mystery by Julian Grant (Part 1 of 2)

Julian Grant is a filmmaker, educator, and author of strange short stories, outlaw poetry, full-length novels/ non-fiction texts and outsider comix. A tenured Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago, his work has been published by numerous magazines (see the story for the complete list). Find out more about him at http://www.juliangrant.com.

Next Issue: February 25

 

New Video at The Chamber’s YouTube Channel: Covers 2021

The Chamber has a new video on its YouTube channel: Covers 2021. This is a showcase of all The Chamber’s covers for 2021, starting in April, when the first ones were produced, and proceeding chronologically, so that the view can watch the cover’s style develop.

“Every Dog Has His Day” Mystery by Julian Grant (Part 1 of 2)

I clambered down from the bus remembering again why I hated travelling by the Dog. No legroom, the seats bit your ass after the first hour, and the stink from the john stayed with you the whole trip. I felt like crap and figured that things could only get worse. I wasn’t wrong. The bus had broken down halfway and we had to wait for parts out on the side of the highway. Just like I told my business partner back home.

“Because that’s the business we’re in,” I told Diego earlier that morning. “We’re thieves and smugglers and nobody knows crap like us. It follows us.

“How bad can it be?” Diego muttered as he broke open another carton of the Marlboro’s we’d liberated, all missing the state tax stamp needed to sell them in the US. No problem this side of the border though.

“Bad enough,” I muttered, already regretting the fact that I’d agreed to hop back across from Saltillo, Mexico to Brownsville, Texas and hook up with Mr. Jordan for Diego. “He’s sent me a Greyhound ticket already, for Chrissake. Nothing good happens coming in by bus.”

“You’re too stuck up, Ese,” Diego sighed. “Nothing wrong with a bus. You don’t got a valid license to drive in the US anyway.”

I shrugged. Diego was right. I couldn’t afford to turn down any opportunity to make some real money. My time here in Mexico hadn’t been by planning and I needed something. Doing runs for Diego and ripping off Yankee tourists wasn’t making me enough to get back home or set up for myself. So, he’d thrown me a bone and I grabbed it fast.

“Jordan’s good people. Go find out what he’s got for me. Who knows? Maybe he’s got some rocks or hot jewelry or tools? People always buy tools. They don’t care where they come from. Diamonds don’t worry who own them.”

“Well,” I agreed, “I gotta do something. Just waiting here for something big to break is killing me.”

So, that’s how I ended up in rainy Brownsville at the bus depot doing a favor for one old friend and hoping that I could make some real cash off another new pal.

I was the only idiot dumb enough to be standing outside of the depot as the rain hammered down. I’d watched the other black and brown passengers I’d shared the ride with race off to their rides or hunker down inside for their next trip as I lit a smoke and waited. We’d been running long because of the weather and the bus problems, and I’d arrived two hours later than planned. Everyone else here seemed to have either someone to meet them straight away or a warm place to go. Not me. I just prayed that my ride would still materialize.

Jordan originally said he’d send a driver, so I checked my phone again for any messages from Diego in case he sent word through. My burner didn’t work for shit this side of the border and the only text I had was from an unknown number asking me where I was? I texted back telling whoever was on the phone that I just arrived, and they responded right away telling me I had to hang tight. ‘Sid’ would pick me up.

Yet, looking down the length of the nearly empty bus station, I couldn’t see anyone waiting for me. Nobody with a little sign saying ‘CLINT’ or looking like they were anticipating some mystery gringo who was way late.

“Are you Diego?” a quiet voice called behind me.

I turned and there she was – about a buck twenty soaking wet with an old denim shirt tied up tight and a pair of work shorts that showed a lot of long country leg.

“Do I look like a Diego? I’m Clint,” I smiled as I looked her up and down. She had a mane of wet blond hair and was chewing watermelon gum from what I could smell. “I’m Diego’s…partner,” I explained, figuring that it sounded a lot better than what I really was.

“Oh, we were expecting Diego,” she frowned as I shrugged at her confusion. “I’m Sid.”

I nodded to the girl, figuring she was sixteen, maybe seventeen tops.  Diego had told me that Jordan’s tastes ran young and who was I to judge? From where I stood, she looked great and smelled even better.

“Nice to meet you, Sid. You wanna get out of this rain?”

“I gotta call Jordan. Tell him that you’re here instead of Diego. I don’t know what to do.”

“Let’s do it,” I said as I wrapped my arm around her and steered her towards the parking lot figuring that her ride had to be somewhere out there in the dark. Sheets of warm rain kept pelting down on us as we hurried through the downpour to her beat-up old truck.

“I can’t get a signal,” Sid muttered as she tried calling back to Jordan’s spread. She didn’t want to leave the safety of the lit parking lot with a strange man – or end up back at the ranch with someone she wasn’t supposed to bring. I rolled down a window and smoked watching her out of the corner of my eye as she did the math. One thing I learned robbing tourists down in Mexico was that you let them make up their minds about you before you can rip them off. I’m good-looking enough, not movie star quality, but I got a face that people trust, and it goes a long way in helping them decide to follow me to some sketchy hacienda or barrio bar where I’d roll them and let them loose once they were good and loaded.

Sid, sneaking her own peek at me, had made up her mind that she was going to drag me back to Jordan’s place. After all, I said I was Diego’s partner, and I didn’t look untrustworthy to her.

“I’m gonna chance it,” Sid said as she put the truck in gear and rolled out.

I smiled, stretching my arm out slowly so as not to spook her as I patted her on her wet bare leg. “You got nothing to fear from me. I’m one of the good ones.”

Sid shook her head, pushing my hand way. “Mister, If I had a dollar for every man that said that to me.” But she smiled as she said it, not brushing me off too hard or shutting me right down. I made sure I kept my hands to myself though as we bumped outside the city limits and headed towards the levee and the full dark countryside.

“Diego’s tied up back in Saltillo. I didn’t get a lot of details on what Jordan’s got on hand. You got any idea what he wants to talk to us about?”

Sid shook her head, raindrops spattering me as she peered out into the night. “Haven’t a clue, Mr.…Clint. He plays his cards close.”

I nodded as I watched the mileage counter on the dash and tried to determine which direction we were headed. If I had to leave fast or make my own way back, it would be good to know which direction was which.

Sid was driving fast, a little too fast for the rain that slicked across the hard-packed road. We’d gotten off State 4 quickly and out here, all I could glimpse was sagebrush and shadowy trees whipping past by the truck’s headlights.

“You always drive this fast?” I asked, a little concerned when a near-miss with a large cactus caused Sid to fishtail the truck and then back on course. “What’s bothering you?”

Sid sighed; her eyes tight on the road as she grimaced. “Jordan’s pissed off about something. Usually, he tells me about what’s going on. Not this time.”

“Maybe he don’t want to worry you, sugar. Sometimes, your man…”

Sid snapped a scowl at me, shaking her head. “Jordan ain’t my man. He’s my dad.”

I smiled, turning away from the angry girl as she sheered through the brush. His daughter?

“Something’s got him riled. Badly. Are you sure he didn’t tell Diego?”

I shrugged, noticing a thin light in the distance of what I assumed was our destination. Out here in the back country, it’s pitch black so even a small porch light stands out like a lighthouse. I held onto the door handle as Sid rattled us across a small cattle catcher and into the front courtyard of Jordan’s spread inside the barbed wire fence. Even through the car windows and the rain, I could hear the fighting dogs barking in the barn.

“All I know was that I was to haul ass north and go speak to your dad. That’s all I got.”

Sid was clearly disappointed that I didn’t know more. She bit down on her cherry red lips as she made up her mind about me. “You scared of dogs?”

I shrugged again. I’d been around angry dogs most of my life and in Saltillo had been to the fights there more than once. It’s a sick sport that’s been around forever and people still make a lot of money off them.

“I wouldn’t be here if I was.”

Sid nodded. She pointed out to the house and the barn next to it through the rain-streaked front window as she gave me the tour. “That’s the main house, you’ll be in here with us and the dogs are out there. Don’t go in the barn unless Miguel the dog guy is with you. Okay?”

“Diego did tell me about the dogs at least. I’m not stupid enough to go in there without an escort.”

“They’re all caged up, but they go crazy when they get a smell of someone they don’t know.”

“How crazy?” I asked as I looked at the large barn. A place that size could hold twenty fighters not including bait dogs or other critters. I had no intention of going in there if I could help it.

“Count Miguel’s fingers and that’ll give you a good idea,” Sid said as she pushed open the door. “Follow me to the porch.”

Sid raced off under the long porch that wrapped around the three-story farmhouse mansion that stood alone out here in the middle of nowhere. Jordan had spared no expense on the construction and the place reeked of bad money and someone else’s good taste, an unlikely pairing. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t watch Sid as she wiggled her way under cover of the porch.  Grabbing my wet duffel from next to me on the bench seat, I took off after her.

“Wait here,” Sid said as she shook the rain off herself and slipped inside the front door. “I’m gonna get Jordan and you two can talk.”

The dogs had quieted down from when we rolled up, but the rain continued to pound the courtyard in staccato hammers as water streamed downhill from both the barn and the main house. I dropped into a cane-backed wicker rocker there on the porch as I watched the ball lightning across the way.

It wasn’t long before the door opened and a lean, gray-haired farmhand-looking guy poked his head out of the door. I stood up, sticking my hand out, hoping to make a good impression.

“Jordan? Nice to meet you, I’m Clint…”

The man shook his head, waving at my gear and me to follow him. “Nah, I‘m Quince. I’m supposed to take you inside. Follow me.”

I stood, as the man pushed open the door, frisking me quickly for a weapon or gun as he rifled through my stuff. I knew better than to take a gun with me over the border. He pulled my knife from my bag though and he stuck it in his belt.

“I’ll give you that back when you done with Mr. Jordan.”

The front entrance was a showpiece. A big central staircase leading upwards with corridors off to what I assumed where kitchens on the left and the main room on the right. Quince pointed to the right. “Head over to the screening room and grab a seat. I’ll go round up Mr. Jordan for you.”

I rubbed the cold out of my hands as I stepped inside the movie-quality space. Jordan had a big projection setup here just complete with theater-style seats all done up in leather. I stepped inside the room glancing about the shadows to make sure that I was alone. You never know in a setup like this just what might go down, so I’d learned it paid to be prepared.

Halfway down, a pair of legs stuck out into the space. I stopped dead and took a moment to take a breath. “Hello, you okay?” I called out as I moved cautiously to the person on the floor.

Whoever it was wasn’t okay.

I peered over the seat back to see a man, his neck torn open, lying in a pool of ever-widening blood. The dead man had a Glock 17 lying just by his limp hand and I sniffed the air for the telltale scent of the weapon having fired. There was nothing but the sweet sick smell of the newly dead.

Judging from the age of the man on the floor, I assumed that maybe this was maybe Jordan and that my job was over before it had even started. I thought about Sid and how she’d take this if it was indeed her dad. That’s when Quince opened the door and stepped in.

“I can’t find…”

Quince saw the body lying on the floor, ignoring me as he raced over to the prone man.

“Mr. Jordan? Oh, shit… Mr. Jordan…”

Quince went to touch the now confirmed corpse of Jordan and I grabbed him before he could touch the body.

“What the hell’s going on, Quince?” I demanded. “Don’t touch the body.”

Both of us stared at the dead man, the raw wound of his torn throat, clearly the cause of his death. “Who’d want to kill Jordan?” I asked as a woman’s scream tore through the house from the upper floor. It was Sid.

I spun on the spot and pushed my way up the big staircase chasing down the crying that continued to echo through the mansion. Quince, to his credit, was right on my heel. I was halfway up the stairs before I remembered the gun that had been on the floor of the screening room and wondering if I’d need it?

Then I saw Sid.

She was holding onto a door at the end of the corridor, hanging onto the doorknob with both hands as the sound of a pissed-off dog could be heard barking and scratching furiously at the solid wood.

“Dad’s office. There’s a goddamn pit dog in there. Her eyes flashed wild at me, terror lending her additional strength as she babbled. “I went in to see Dad – and the goddamn dog attacked me. We — never have dogs — in the house….”

I flashed back to Jordan lying dead in his movie room, bled out from his throat wound. A pit dog could have done it no problem. Most of them were bulls and they could take down a bear or a deer without a problem. But how had the dog got up here? Why hadn’t Jordan shot the damn thing if that’s what attacked him? And how did it get in the house anyway?

Quince grabbed the door handle and took over, holding it as the frame rocked from the dog inside throwing itself against the wood.

“Sid, what the hell’s going on?!”

I looked up to see two men racing towards the office. One of them was straight out of a romance book with long hair and bright blue eyes. He was the kind of cowboy handsome you don’t usually see in real life. I hated him on sight. Next to him was the complete opposite – a nerdy looking guy with glasses that was at least as old as Jordan was.

“Damn dog’s in Jordan’s office. He’s gone mental.”

“Well, he’d stopped now, right?” said the handsome guy who opened his arms to Sid. She slid right into his embrace as he turned to me. “You don’t look like a Diego?”

“I’m not, I’m a Clint… Diego’s partner.”

The guy hugged Sid as she buried her face in his chest. “He almost got me, Todd.”

“I’m going in,” Todd said, pushing Sid over to his rumpled companion. “Look after Sid, Doc.”

Sid pushed back against the Doctor who tried to comfort her.

“Don’t, Todd. He’s dangerous. He could attack again.”

Todd drew a small Taser from his jeans and thumbed it to life. Lightning crackled across the twin micro-points as he moved closer to the locked door.

“I’ll give him the juice if he attacks. Won’t come back for more.”

I felt my breath hitch as he carefully opened the door to the office. Todd slowly stepped forward as I peered over his shoulder inside the room.

The dog, at least 130 pounds worth of beef, had pulled himself up on Jordan’s desk stretching himself out across the surface. He’d knocked over the desk lamp and between the crazy quilt of the storm outside and the long shadows cast up on the walls, the whole scene was like something out of some horror movie. The dog’s monstrous shadow loomed up against the back wall and the closed door leading out to the balcony.

I held my breath as I stared at the beast. Despite the long claws that gripped the solid wood desk, there was no blood on the animal’s muzzle or paws. Was this the animal that killed Jordan downstairs? How had it gotten up here? Why wasn’t there any blood on its face?

That’s when it leapt without warning down to the floor and launched itself towards Todd. He fell backwards surprised by the animal’s sudden motion as Quince slammed the door shut again with a bang. Once more, the dog’s savage assault tore at the door.

“Where the hell is Miguel?” Todd yelled as he hauled himself up off the floor. “Get him up here,” he continued as he jabbed Quince in the chest. It’s his job to look after them.”

“Sure, thing Todd. But we gotta problem, downstairs…”

I cut in, looking at Sid as she once again slid next to Todd. He threw his arm about her as he glared at me. “Quince, go find Miguel. I’ll… I’ll tell them what happened.”

Quince nodded, happy to be relieved of the duty of telling Sid that her dad was dead. He locked the office with a key from his belt making sure the door was secure and took off after Miguel as Todd switched positions with him at the door. Inside, the dog was still growling but had stopped throwing himself at the frame. For now.

So, I told them what happened downstairs and waited for Sid’s reaction most of all.

At first, she just stood there, her thin hand up by her lips as she processed what I was saying. The next thing I knew she was hauling ass back down towards the room I‘d just left with Todd racing behind her.

My first inclination was to follow the girl. I’d forgotten all about the beachball of a companion that was with Todd. “You sure he’s really dead?” the man asked.

I nodded. “Throat’s gone. Blood everywhere.”

“Well, I better go check and call it in. The cops are going to want to see this.”

The man turned, not exactly hurrying out to see the dead body. I couldn’t remember his name, or if we’d been introduced.  I know Todd had called him Doc. Doctor of what? Jordan’s?

Inside the office, the sound of the large dog whining slipped under the doorjamb as I stared at the locked door. Why had Jordan wanted to see Diego? What was so important? And what the hell had I got myself mixed up in?

Doc Williams was an old school medical guy it turned out who had been by to check in with Quince’s wife, Mary, and wasn’t used to the horror and shock of Jordan’s attack. He looked positively green as he observed the body from a distance agreeing that Jordan was decidedly dead. Todd had been able to keep Sid from touching her father and he’d then shuffled her off to another room apparently while the Doc and I got stuck with waiting for the cops.

“This is horrible,” Doc said as he sank into one of the thick leather chairs.

“Wasn’t what I signed up for,” I agreed as I thought about the cops that would be on site sooner than later. My passport was a good forgery and should hold up to a check – but you get what you pay for, and I hadn’t spent much.

“How the hell did the dog get upstairs?” he asked as I stared at the corpse. Something was wrong. I just couldn’t place it. Something was missing.

“Someone should just shoot that damn dog,” the Doc muttered as I suddenly realized what was gone. The Glock.

“Where’s the gun?” I asked, talking to myself more than the Doc.

“What gun?” Doc Williams asked as he looked at me.

“There was a gun here when I found the body. A Glock. It’s not here anymore.”

“I have no idea.”

“Where’s Todd and Sid?” I asked as Doc Williams crossed over to the wet bar in back by the projector.

“I think Todd took her to her room to lie down before the police get here.”

I slid over to where the doctor had poured himself three fingers of bourbon and pointed at the bottle. He slid a clean rocks glass over to me and I poured myself a large drink.

“Where were you earlier, Doc?”

Doc Williams glared at me, sipping quickly from his drink as his eyes darted from the body back to me. “You don’t think I had anything to do with this? It’s clear that the dog did it. I’d already told you I was with Mary. I raced up the stairs and met Todd and…”

I scowled at the floor, sure that the dog upstairs had nothing to do with the attack on Jordan.

“It’s weird though, Doc. An attack like this, somebody should have heard something. Hell, the dog makes enough noise just barking.”

As if on cue, the sound of the beast locked in the office started up again. If he’d attacked Jordan, everyone would have heard it.

“Maybe the dog got him before he could make a sound?” Doc Williams offered up as he slammed back his drink and made a point of avoiding looking at the body.

“Where’d the gun go, Doc? Why didn’t he shoot the dog? I would have if it had been attacking me, I‘d have emptied the whole damn clip.” I slugged back the rest of my drink and waved the bottle away when the Doc offered me another snort.

“Well, you’re the only one saying there’s a gun,” Doc mumbled as he poured another splash of straight mash into his glass. He had the narrow eyes a drunk gets when he’s dead set on his way – or the highway.

“I want to look at where they keep the dogs,” I said as I stood and moved towards the door. “You can tell the cops they can find me in the barn. I want to see how he got out.”

Doc Williams nodded at me as he concentrated on his drink. Somehow, I seemed to be the only one not buying the death-by-dog story. There’s too much missing here and nothing’s adding up.

The barn stank, the cages for all the dogs thick with feces that hadn’t been cleaned out for the day. Miguel spared no expense when it came to looking after the dogs it seemed with just a thin palette of straw thrown down in the large, locked cages. The west side had the fighting animals, thick shouldered pits, and boxers, all torn and tattered. More than a few of them were almost feral. All of them started barking the minute I entered the dimly lit barn.

“Miguel, Miguel… you here?” I called out as I stepped out into the light.

The barn was swathed in shadows with dim lights visible only at a small desk with a cot nearby. As I pushed through the space looking for the dog’s handler, I tried not to look at the east wall where all the bait animals were kept. Runaway dogs, strays and other smaller domesticated animals were jammed into smaller cages, often four or five to a space only one of the fight dogs had. Unlike the other animals, these ones didn’t make a sound as I crept through the barn as I carefully navigated around the practice pit that Jordan had dug in the floor. Eight feet deep, it was too big a hole for any of the dogs to jump out of and was the same size as the rings that were used out in the dog fight world. Jordan would teach his animals to attack here tossing in one of the bait beasts as a way to teach the animal to kill. I tried not to look as I scooched by, but the blood and torn fur coating the walls of the pit made it hard not to look. I felt sick to my stomach as I thought about the number of stray dogs and cats they’d probably thrown in the pit.

Since no one was here and the cops were due any minute, I decided to cut the feeder animals some slack and started opening their cages. They didn’t have to be told twice. Every cage door I opened had animals scrambling for the open barn door disappearing into the night. Their chance of surviving in the wild was slight – but it was a helluva lot better than waiting for their turn to die here. I figured Jordan was beyond caring. If he ever did.

I kept calling for Miguel as I looked about the place, but I couldn’t find the cage that held the dog in the house. All of the fight dog cages were in place and could be lined up and loaded onto a truck anytime. With the exception of an open space towards the back where a cage might have been?

The sound of footsteps outside spun me to the door as Quince stuck his head in from the rain. He was wrapped in a huge western slicker that kept most of the water off him. He tore off his hat, his voice a husky whisper as he pointed outside.

“I found Miguel. I think he’s dead too.“

Not quite. I staggered out after Quince as he led me around the side of the barn. There by the house, a large cage, much like the ones inside the barn, was open with the body of the small Mexican handler sprawled on the ground next to it.

My heart pounded as I dropped down next to the man, pulling my cellphone from my pocket to shine my flashlight in the man’s face.

“He’s not dead, he’s breathing,” I gasped as I checked the wounded man out. He had both a huge welt over his left eyebrow that was cracked and bleeding and another contusion on the back of his head.

“Someone must have hit him pretty hard?” Quince offered as he helped me pull Miguel to his feet. Underneath the unconscious man a hard steel brush sickle lay, wet with rain.

“That what they used on him?” Quince asked as he held Miguel up as I examined the hand blade.

“What do you use this for?” I asked as I turned the blade in my hand. The handle was heavy in my hand with a thick grip and a cast-iron hilt that would make a formidable weapon without even using the hooked cutting edge.

“Both me and Miguel cut brush with it. It shouldn’t be out here.”

“Let’s get him inside. This rain isn’t doing him any favors. Let’s see if we can get Doc Williams out of the bottle to have a look at him.”

We carried the limp body of Miguel through the back door of the mansion into the large kitchen. Quincy’s wife Mary must have gone to help Sid, so they dragged Miguel to his bedroom in the servant’s wing.

“I tripped over him when I was coming back from looking. He wasn’t in the barn when I came out this way and I was just going round the back way when I saw the cage and him lying there on the ground.”

Doc Williams chose this moment to wobble into Miguel’s small room. “I’ll go check on Miss Sid,” Quince remarked pushing past the portly doctor.

I stood back and watched as Doc dressed Miguel’s wounds and started to wonder who had attacked him? And why? When he comes to, he’d be able to at least fill us in on that. And maybe who let the dog into the house? Hell, he might even know who killed Jordan?


Part 2 will be published in the February 25th edition of The Chamber.


Julian Grant is a filmmaker, educator, and author of strange short stories, outlaw poetry, full-length novels/ non-fiction texts and outsider comix. A tenured Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago, his work has been published by Dark Fire UK, Quail Bell, Avalon Literary Review, Crepe & Penn, Alternative History Magazine, Granfalloon, Altered Reality, The Chamber Magazine, Dark Lane Books, Clever Magazine, Peeking Cat Literary Journal, Danse Macabre, Fiction on the Web, Night Picnic, CafeLit, Horla, Bond Street Review, Piker Press, Retreats from Oblivion, Free Bundle, Filth Literary Magazine, Horror Sleaze Trash, The Mythic Circle, Murderous Ink Press, Superlative Literary Journal & The Adelaide Literary Magazine. 

Find out more about him at www.juliangrant.com


“Final Trick” Flash Fiction by Young Tanoto

Magician’s boy, stuffed his mouth with nylon scarves. He stood in front of the bedroom mirror, a ten-piece beginner’s set strewn across his desk. Hat askew, fifty-cent bow tie cinched tight around his Adam’s apple, he sucked on what tasted like burnt plastic and whatever backwater oriental factory the kerchiefs were made in. He already felt like his body might pop from the starchiness of his shirt and the tourniquet around his neck. Then he felt a tickle rising in his throat and before he knew it he was retching, gagging on the fabric. And so he spit them back up.

He made a run for the sink. He stubbed his toe on the doorstep by accident, but he had more pressing concerns. Hunched over the counter, he pulled the line of handkerchiefs from his mouth one by one, like drawing  water from a well. Every knot scraped his front teeth. They felt slimy on his lips, the bright colors dampened by his spit.

Maybe he should have stuck to cards, he thought. His toe throbbed, alight with pain.

After a few more days of practice, his trick was ready for an audience. He called his brother to his room. They sat across from each other, a cardboard box in between them.

“I can’t watch another card trick,” his brother said. He’d seen him do the amazing aces, the pick-a-card, the blind three card monte, and seven types of coin flips. 

“I’m done with that kid stuff,” the boy said. He accidentally left his card deck in the pocket of his good trousers and they were ruined in the laundry. “I’ve moved on. I’m working on something else.”

“What happened to your toe?” His brother said, not hearing him.

The nail was jaundiced yellow, purple under the surface where new nail had begun to push through the bed like spring flowers. 

“Stubbed it,” the boy said. “Is it bad?”

“Pretty bad, man,” his brother said. The nail wiggled like a door on a hinge. “I think you’re gonna have to pull it.”

“No.”

“Just rip it off like a bandaid,” his brother said. “It’s dead, anyway.”

The boy paused. He leaned forward and pinched the tip of the nail between his fingers. It felt foreign. The nail lifted easily, barely connected to the cuticle. “Ow,” he said, though it didn’t really hurt much.

“Hurry up, dumbass.”

 He did, but it didn’t come loose. “Hey, does it look longer to you?” He tugged again, and this time felt a distinct sliding sensation within his foot.

The nail slid forward, revealing more dead nail that came out from under his cuticle. 

“How are you doing that?” His brother asked. “That’s amazing.”

 “I don’t know,” the boy said. He pulled harder, and the yellow, tough nail was extended by a foot then, appearing endless. He felt a tug in his navel like something grabbed his insides and yanked. He felt nauseous but reluctant to stop all the same. His brother came forward, then, and grabbed his hand.

“Bravo!” his brother said, and pulled with all his strength. The last of the nail was pried free, pooling along the floor in putrid coils. The plucked nail stem uprooted a white cottony protrusion from within his toe. The boy grabbed the thing by the ears—warm, pulsating with breath—and gingerly, gently unearthed a pristine white rabbit. 


Young is a 21-year-old undergraduate student that writes to satisfy his fascination with the bizarre and the uncanny. He currently studies English and Psychology at Tufts University. His short story, “When Words Fail”, received a gold medal in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.


“On the Boardwalk” Dark Flash Fiction by Alan Catlin

From the boardwalk I can see the waves rolling toward the shore. Metal trash barrels stretch row on row in parallel lines as far as the eye can see.  All the broad, white painted backs of the lifeguard stands are empty now as night begins.  Out there, where the fishermen are casting their lines into the surf.  Out there where the waves breaking over the hard grey rocks of the jetties pointing out into the sea. 

Overhead, the squawk of the gulls that are circling above the beach, dipping toward the waves, hovering over an unseen spot.  Something is dead down there but, from here, it is impossible to discern exactly what it is.

Toy carnival rifles crack, a bell rings.  The voice of the barker intones: “Three shots for a quarter, win a kewpie doll, win a prize for that special gal, three shots for a quarter, fifteen for a buck, try your luck.” The Wonder Wheel cars slide on the ramp over the boardwalk.  For a moment they appear suspended in the air, held in place by invisible metal strings.  People inside scream.

I watch the children play tag as I walk.  Watch them running amidst the crowds darting in and out among the people walking in either direction down the boardwalk.  I wonder how long it will be before they run into someone.  How long before they fall to the well‑worn boards of the walk?  Would they be crushed after they fell, crushed into the splinters, by crowds walking?

As I walk, I smell the boiling water where the soggy ears of corn sit stewing, turning as they stew, a sick pale yellow.  I smell the thick griddle grease where the hamburgers sizzle and the hotdogs turn.  I smell the candied apples’ chocolate scorch­ing black as I watch stray dogs pick through the overflowing, rusting garbage cans, for food.  Walking here, as the night grows closer and the carnival lights glare.

Walking, I think of the short beach dunes looming like giant sea beasts.  The beach grass whipping my ankles as I run, the precipitous slide down, down toward the dune valley, the rusting steel girders, brought here for what unknown reason?  And every­where, broken beer bottles, rusting cans and bottle tops.  Every­where the distinct scent of urine; this death dune valley.

The seashore off‑season.  Cool breezes whipping in from the water.  The unclean beach- front strewn with all manner of debris: driftwood, cast‑off luggage and empty food containers washed in from the liners and cruise ships sailing for a port of call.

Walking, I remember riding the Wonder Wheel as a child, remember riding against my will, fearing, then, as now, anything free‑falling, anything rootless dropping through the air.  I feel the terrible spinning wheel on which I was trapped, hiding on the cage floor, quaking, sobbing, clutching my knees to my chest, rocking a crazed feral beast, as we slide over the concrete walks, out over the boardwalk.  I remember shivering while, inside me, a scream louder than all the carnival music ever played.

On the beach front, I remember the reinforced concrete observation towers built by the government during a world war. Deserted now.  Cluttered with refuse so thick with black flies in the heat of summer a man might not get inside even if he, for some dire reason, should have to.

Walking down the boardwalk.  The resort hotels overlooking the sea. Short sleeve‑shirted old men all balding, all over­weight, all smoking fat black cigars, all standing by the hotel entrances. All identical.  Watching the crowd file past.  So many arms and hands attached to a body.  All identical. Marching past this spot in time, disappearing thereafter forever, out into this harshly‑lighted, endless night.

Under the boardwalk a deep, mournful moan.  How many animals have come here to die, and for what reason?

As seen from the boardwalk, the city police jeep riding across the beach, slipping between the trash bins, digging in the sand, routing all but the deep‑sea fishers, is some kind of medieval beast, its white eyes shining in the dark.

A tall, gaunt drunk stumbling on the boardwalk, his dead eyes rolled back in his head.  His body moving without him, weaving in and out of the crowd. Walking onward, lurching, recovering his balance, only to lurch sideways once again.  Moving forward impelled by some inner need, moving forward as if he had some­where of vital importance to go.

Walking down the boardwalk, looking into hotels, the club bars.  Doors flung wide open, the ceiling fans spinning, circu­lating the heavy clouds of smoke.  The dull, gray light of the room.  The crowd of t‑shirted old men sitting, standing, leaning on the mahogany surface of the bar.  Drinking shots and beer, talking and smoking as they drink.  Frozen in the bar mirror. Frozen as the bar man cracks ice in his hands with a short wooden stick.  Frozen as he drops ice into a glass, pours in liquor and moves away.

Standing on the boardwalk staring out over the beach toward the sea.  The shining chrome‑plated heads of the observation scanners like a row of armor-plated, armless dead men impaled upon a metal pole.  Twenty-five cents to peek through a dead man’s eyes, to look directly into the heart of the night.

The red summer moon hanging in the sky, casting light on the white capped heads of the sea rolling, rushing forever onward.  Rushing over the black fingered jetties, smashing on the white- faced sand as it withdraws a handful of sand.  It will be ex­tremely hot for us, walking here tomorrow. Toy carnival rifles crack, a bell rings.  The voice of the barker intones: “Three shots for a quarter, win a kewpie doll, win a prize for that special gal, three shots for a quarter, fifteen for a buck, try your luck.” I watch as the Wonder Wheel spins in a mad terrifying circle. Hear the people screaming.


Alan Catlin is primarily known for poetry but that doesn’t prevent him for mixing and matching prose and poetry as the subject allows.  He has published dozens of full length book and chapbooks, mostly poetry, over the years. Although he is not a genre writer he has somehow managed three Rhysling Prize nominations and a Bram Stoker Award nomination He didn’t win either award.


“Welcome to Hell” Darkly Humorous Fiction by Curtis Bass

It was about one o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon when it all went to hell. Literally. Sitting at my desk, reading over the quarterly profit/loss statement, I felt a familiar burning in my chest. Heartburn again. I really need to cut down on carbs and rich foods like doc says, but I like the taste. And I don’t have time for anything but fast food. I stood to get my water bottle across the office but had to grab the desk to steady myself as a wave of vertigo washed over me. Damn, the burning is getting worse. That’s when I fell. My legs just gave away. I saw the floor rushing toward my face. I couldn’t move my arms to break my fall. My last coherent thought was Man, this is gonna hurt.

            But it didn’t. Instead of slamming face first into the floor, I found myself…nowhere. I couldn’t see or hear anything. I couldn’t move. Well, not exactly that, just no sensation of arms or legs. Crap, am I dead? Damn, I shoulda listened to doc.

            The light rose, as if dawn were approaching. I somehow was floating in a vast nothingness. I looked down at myself but saw only a gritty floor. But I wasn’t actually looking. I had no eyes. I was sensing. Well, this is weird.

            Suddenly an arch of fire flared before me. It was probably five yards high and the same across. And there was a man standing under the arch.

            “Welcome, Peter. We’ve been expecting you,” he said. He fairly glowed with youthful vigor and exuded charm. The last time I saw a face like that I was looking at an Abercrombie and Fitch ad. Yeah, he was well put together.

            “Peter, don’t be afraid,” he said. “You are incorporeal. Think about coming toward me and it will happen.”

            I thought to myself that I wanted to approach the young man, and it happened. I stopped just short of him, still floating about. I could tell that he was beyond the fiery arch. It was strange, but the arch gave off no heat or sound. Fire like that should be hot and loud.

            “Peter, just come through the arch and we will get you situated,” he said in a calm, persuasive voice. I found myself wanting to do what he requested. But I hesitated.

            What is this place? I directed my thought at the young man. I figured since everything else worked on brain power, he could probably hear my thoughts. Who are you?

            “My name is Tamiel. My task is to help you acclimate to your new home. This is Hell. Welcome.”

            HELL? Hell no, I ain’t going in there. Where’s Saint Peter? I want to file an appeal or whatever it is you have to do. I was a good guy. Why do y’all want to send me to Hell? It’s a good thing I didn’t have a body, or I’d be hyperventilating like crazy. I used my thought legs and backed away. This must be some crazy dream. I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell. I gave up all that religious mumbo jumbo years ago.

            “Peter, you don’t understand. God decided at the moment you died where you would spend eternity. He wants you here. So do we. Come on in and let me explain.”

            You can’t come outside that flaming gate, can you? That’s why you want me to come in. And once I’m in I can’t get out. Right?

            “You are correct. This is the Gateway to Hell. All residents must enter here. Come on in. It’s not what you think.”

            You don’t know what I think.

            “Actually, I do. I can read your mind. Remember?”

            I decided there was no way he was making me walk, or float, into Hell. Nope. Not no way, not no how. I began floating toward the gate.

            What? No! I don’t want to go.

            “Calm down, Peter. It’s your destiny. You’ll be okay.”

            Totally against my will, I floated under the fiery gate. As soon as I had passed it, the gate vanished. I was in Hell. A place I never really believed in. Shit!

            Tamiel stood there in his expensive business suit, perfectly groomed and looking smug. If I’d had limbs, I would have smacked him.

            “Now it’s time to get to work. I’ll process you and provide basic orientation and then we will assign you a mentor. But first, come over here.” He walked away, and I followed along like a balloon on a string. I seemed to have no will of my own. We came upon another handsome young man, dressed in casual clothes, khakis and a Hawaiian shirt. Nice shirt. The guy didn’t acknowledge us. He just stood there like a department store mannequin.

            “This is your intake drone. You can choose a permanent body later. This will make the process easier.” I suddenly felt myself moving toward the new guy. As I passed into his body, I felt a tingle. That was the first thing I’d felt since getting here. Then I realized I was inside the new guy. Not just inside him; I was him. What the…? I hated to admit it, but I really liked the body. I hadn’t been able to see my belt buckle in years. And no hair to speak of. I felt the spring and vigor of youth. A tight six pack. I ran my new hand through the thick hair on my new head. I could get used to this. Must be some catch. After all, this IS Hell. At least according to Mr. GQ here.

            Tamiel continued. “Like I said, it will help speed up the intake process if you have a body. Some of our residents like being incorporeal, but most don’t. Now, come with me.”

            The massive nothingness resolved into a comfortable office with a large desk and several chairs. Tamiel walked over to his desk and picked up a file folder.

            “Let’s sit and get the ball rolling, shall we?” he said with a friendly smile. I guessed he was buttering me up before they brought out the whips and chains and hot irons. My drone body reacted just like my old body would have. I started sweating bullets. This was too real to be a dream, but too fantastical to be real. Crap. I’m really in Hell. I felt my drone balls try to crawl back up into my body. Tamiel sat in a large leather chair and motioned me to a similar chair facing him. Lacking other options, I sat.

            He flipped open the file.

            “Okay, you’re Peter Alan Jones, age fifty-seven, right?”

            “You know that.”

            “Well, let’s review why you’re here.” He scanned over the pages. “You were kind of boring as a kid. But you blossomed in college. Overindulgence in alcohol and drugs, good. And promiscuous. You liked the ladies.” He raised his eyebrows and gave me an approving wink.

            I was sure my new face was blazing red. Yeah, I went wild once I got away from home.

            “But you were responsible. You used protection every time. Good for you. Then after college you found a wife, remained faithful to her, and were a good husband until you divorced.”

            “So why am I here? Is God really so pissed that I slept around in college?”

            “Well, He is a bit of a Puritan, but you haven’t been sent here for that. Peter, you are an atheist. I’m frankly surprised that you’re accepting all this so well.”

            “Well, it has crossed my mind that I’m having a stroke, and this is all fantasy.”

            “No, it’s real. You had a massive coronary. Dead before you hit the floor.”

            “Well, so I was an atheist. God hides himself. How does he expect us to believe? And like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry say, he’s got a lot to answer for.”

            “You’ll get no argument from me or anyone else here. Yahweh’s not exactly anyone’s favorite deity around this place. Peter, relax. You’re going to like it here.” He laid my file aside.

            “But Hell is all about fire and brimstone and punishing and crap.” That’s what I’d been told all my life.

            “Yes, we do punish those who deserve it. Do you think you deserve punishment?” He spread his hands.

            “Hell no. I mean no. Sorry about that.”

            “No offense taken. It’s just a figure of speech. We’re used to it. But no, you haven’t earned any punishment. But you rejected God so you can’t go to Heaven. And you dodged a bullet, in my opinion,” he added with a cryptic smile. “Here’s what we will do. Once we finish here, I’ll assign you a mentor. The mentor will show you to your apartment, make sure it suits you. We can customize pretty much whatever you want, but we know you intimately. Hence, your Hawaiian shirt.” I looked down at the cool shirt I was wearing. “I think you’ll be surprised at how well it suits you. You’ll go to the body shop and pick out the body you want to wear. Anything you want. You can even change genders if you like. The transgender people who end up here love that perk.”

            “I can look like anyone I want?”

            “Within limits. Some famous people want to continue looking like they did as mortals and want to be the only ones. Abe Lincoln gets pissy if anyone else wants to look like him, although I can’t imagine why anyone would. So we reserve some faces. Your mentor will guide you. He will also show you how to access the daily agenda to attend activities you like.”

            “Sounds like a cruise ship,” I said.

            “Less cheesy and no viruses.”

            There was a light tap on the door, and then a distinguished-looking man walked in. He looked like he was in his upper thirties, a light touch of silver at his temples. But the charisma was almost tangible. He would immediately dominate any room. It was hard to take my eyes off him. His suit must have cost more than I’d make in a year. He gave it casual charm by going open collar.

            “Good evening, Tamiel,” he said in a honeyed baritone. “Everything all right?”

            “Good evening, sir. Nice to see you. We’re doing fine.”

            “Excellent,” he said, and then focused on me. “Peter, right? It’s nice to meet you.” He reached out his hand, and we shook. I could feel his power surge through me. I was transfixed. The thrill of his touch was almost orgasmic. “You can call me Lucifer. We really don’t stand on titles around here. We’re all in Hell together.”

            “Lu…Lu…Lucifer? As in the Devil?” I forgot to breathe for a moment and then gasped.

            “The same. Satan, Beelzebub, Old Scratch. I have a million names, but Lucifer is my preference. I think it has an air of class. Don’t you?” He looked at me expectantly.

            “Absolutely.” What else could I say?

            He turned back to Tamiel. “Tell you what. I think Peter would like to have Rafaella as his mentor. Don’t you?”

            “I’m sure he would, sir.”

            “Splendid. See to it.” He turned to me. “Peter. I think you’ll enjoy our seminar tonight. Newton and Turing will debate free will. Newton’s a terror at debating. Last week he eviscerated Einstein. You’ll love it. Well, I must be off, so much to do. But it was a pleasure meeting you. I’ll pop in to see you in the next couple of days. Just to make sure everything is to your liking. You’re in excellent hands with Tamiel. I rely on him, and you can too. See you at the orgy this weekend,” he said to Tamiel with a wink. He shook my hand again and swept out.

            “Wow, I met the Devil. Imagine that. I didn’t even believe he exists.”

            Tamiel moved over to his desk and pressed a button. “Azazel? Send up Rafaella. Boss’ orders.” He looked up at me, maintaining his charming smile. “The Boss really took a shine to you. Rafaella is our most requested mentor. And Boss hardly ever shows up for an intake. I would say it’s a lucky coincidence for you, but there are no coincidences in Hell.”

            “Yeah. I guess it’s a big job, bringing in the newbies.”

            “Remember the old Blue Oyster Cult song Don’t Fear the Reaper? ‘Forty thousand men and women every day’. We have to log them all in. God only takes a few. We get the rest.”

            “Good and bad?” I asked.

            “Mostly. A very few go straight to Heaven, but not many.”

            “What about the truly bad people? Like Hitler.” I was hoping I wouldn’t be meeting him walking down a street in Hell. Or Jack the Ripper.

            “Oh, he’s downstairs in Seventh Hell. That’s for mortals who deserve punishment for what they have done. Boss likes to oversee that personally. Believe me when I say you wouldn’t want to be in their shoes. Boss hates senseless evil. As a dark angel I’ve seen a lot, but what he does to them makes even me shudder. He’s got Hitler, Stalin, Dahmer, Gacy, you can probably figure out the cast. The Ripper you’re thinking of also. Lucifer will torture them for a few millennia and then incinerate their souls.”

            “That’s not gonna happen to me, is it?” I was suddenly nervous again.

            “Relax Peter. We like you. No worries. You’re in First Hell. Think of it as Club Hell, Deluxe edition.”

            “There are degrees?” This seemed mystifying.

            “Of course. There are bad people who can be rehabilitated, who don’t need to be incinerated. After appropriate punishing in other levels, they can work their way up. People like Bakker, Swaggart, Falwell, most of the popes. The Big Guy Upstairs really hates religious bilkers. Boss works them over good.”

            “Glad to hear that. So who gets to Heaven?”

            “Your Grandma is there. Your mom, too.”

            “Grandma? Oh, I so wish I could talk to her once more.” I had loved Grandma more than anyone else in the world growing up. She was my touchstone of all that was good and true.

            “Well, if we can get Yahweh to let her out of Hosanna service, I’ll set up a Skype session for you.” Tamiel’s smile was not professional, but seemingly real, sympathetic. Like that of a friend who wants to help you.

            “I hate to ask, but what’s the catch? What’s the downside to all this?” No one would set all this up for free. There had to be a catch.

            “No catch. The Creator gave Lucifer dominion over all the dead who weren’t in Heaven. Boss figured if you were his for eternity, why not make it fun? I know he has a bad rep with mortals, but that’s mainly the theists slandering him. Goes back to that issue with Job. Boss showed up Yahweh for the shallow bastard he is. He never got over it. He trashes our name every chance he gets.”

            “And the Garden too, I guess,” I added.

            “Yeah, and that wasn’t officially us. Samael, a supposedly good angel was the serpent. Although Lucifer did talk him into it. Yahweh never knew about that.”

            Once again there was a soft tap on the door and an angel walked in. Let me rephrase that. The sexiest, most angelic woman I have ever seen strutted in. Form fitting black tights and a halter top stressed all her assets, which were many. Silky brown hair slithered across her shoulders, almost a living creature. My drone body was definitely not a neuter Ken doll as it reacted in typical male fashion. I hadn’t been this sexually aroused in years and tried to surreptitiously rearrange awakening parts of my body suddenly demanding attention.

            “You sent for me, Tam?” she said, propping one hip on the edge of his desk. She turned her green eyes on me and gave me a sly wink. My drone heart almost popped out of my chest.

            “Yes, Fae. The Boss specifically asked me to assign you to Peter here as his mentor. You know the routine. I’ve downloaded his file to your device.”

            “Really?” she looked me up and down. “You must be pretty special to get the Boss’ attention. I’ll take good care of you.” And she licked her top lip. I could swear my heart was beating double time. She rose off the desk as graceful as a lioness who has located her next victim. I gulped, still not sure if I should be overjoyed or fearful.

            “So, Peter, is it? Well, nice to meet you. I’m Rafaella.” She took my hand, and I could feel a warmth flow into me, calming me. “We are going to be great friends. I love showing new residents all the joys of Hell. And I do mean all the joys. Come with me.” She pulled me to my feet. At this point, I would have followed her anywhere.

            We left Tamiel’s office and followed several winding corridors, finally exiting onto a large plaza. There were people everywhere, strolling about, sitting, eating, there was even a volleyball game going on.

            “I just can’t get over this,” I said to Rafaella.

            “It takes some getting used to. You will love it here. You can eat and drink as much as you want. No weight gain, no hangovers, no pain of any kind. And the sex. You haven’t lived till you’ve had sex with a demon.”

            “You’re a demon?” I didn’t know any of the hierarchy of the place.

            “Yes, I’m a succubus, a kind of demon. There’s dark angels like Tamiel, Azazel and the others who handle the administration and the punishment division. Demons usually handle orientation, mentoring and other duties, but sometimes us succubi lend a hand.” She looked at her hand-held device, pushing buttons. “We need to get a move on, there’s a lot going on tonight that I’m sure you want to see. After the debate, we’re going over to Elysian Fields for a bonfire. There’ll be wieners and marshmallows for roasting. Lennon told me he and Janis were going to have a jam session. Maybe get Hendrix or Morrison to join in. Our impromptu jam sessions are the best.”

            “Did I hear Lucifer say something about an orgy?” Her comment about sex had reminded me of his parting remark.

            “Oh yeah. This weekend. Nero only recently got out of Second Hell and asked for an old-fashioned Roman orgy. I’ll make sure they deliver a toga to your apartment. Now let’s go get you that new body and get back to your place. My favorite part of orientation is showing you how thoroughly a demon can blow your mind with Hell shattering sex. After me, baby, you won’t ever be the same.” I couldn’t tell if the next sound she made was a purr or a growl. Either way, every hair on my borrowed body stood on end and my khakis suddenly seemed two sizes too small. She slithered up close to me and ran a long nail up my neck in a way that made every nerve ending in my body fire at once. Her other arm kept me from collapsing. “Yeah, baby. You’re gonna love Hell.”

            “This sounds too good to be true. If Hell has all this, what’s Heaven like?” I couldn’t imagine how it could be much better, but then I was coming at this from a secular, and admittedly sensualist viewpoint. Maybe my moral compass was skewed. Rafaella released me and was businesslike again.

            “Mostly hosannas. Everybody on their knees around God’s throne, licking his feet and singing his praises. Really seems to give him a woody.”

            “I thought Heaven was supposed to be the ultimate,” I said. What she was saying didn’t appeal at all.

            “He shoots them all with this ‘bliss’ thing. It drugs them into thinking everything is beautiful. Makes them fine with fawning over his nasty old feet and singing the same tired hosannas. They’re in a continual fog, rolling on the floor licking him and petting him. Remember that party in ’79 when everyone did the acid?” I’m sure my borrowed body blushed. That had been one wild party. “Yeah, it’s like that. Only without the sex. No sex in Heaven.”

            “What’s he got against sex?” I wondered.

            “Are you for real? God hates sex. St. Michael told me it’s because he has a tiny dick. Just saying. Me and Micky and Gabriel have this little thing on the side. Light angels have needs, too.”

I heard a beeping come from her device.

            “Hold on a sec,” she said, holding it to her ear. She listened for a few moments. “You’re kidding me.” There was incredulity in her voice. “Are you sure?” A pause. “Ok. I’ll tell him. That sucks. Yeah. Later.”

            “What?” Sweat broke out on my brow as she looked at me with a sorrowful frown.

            “Seems there’s a change in plans, Peter. Your secretary found you as soon as you collapsed. They’ve been working on your body and got your heart started again. You have to go back.”

            “But I don’t want to go. I’m thinking I could like Hell.” It was cruel to show me all this and then yank it away.

            “I’m sorry. But don’t worry. We aren’t going anywhere. We’ll be right here, waiting for you. But be careful. Now that you know God is real you won’t be able to go on being an atheist. You’ll have to do a little work to make sure God sends you back to us when you die next time. You’re a good person. Your only black mark was your atheism. Go out and sin some. Lie, cheat, fornicate. Blaspheme every day. Yahweh really hates that. Have a little fun. I’ll tell the Boss I want you when you get back here.” She kissed me on the cheek, and everything faded.

###

            “I think he’s coming to,” I heard a voice say.

            “Rafaella?” I moaned. I opened my eyes and found myself on an uncomfortable bed in a room with industrial green walls. “No, I want to go back.”

            “Easy, Peter,” said a man in a smock;  a doctor or nurse, I guessed. “You’re still in serious condition. You need to rest now. Just relax and everything will be all right.”

            No, it was not all right. I hated it. I didn’t want to be here. I wanted Hell. I considered what Rafaella had said and made a vow right then. As soon as I was out of the hospital, I would find and join the nearest Satanic Temple. I might even become a high priest. I’d be a natural. How many others could say they have shaken hands with the Devil?


Curtis A. Bass (CurtisStories.blog) from the American south, writes short stories in a variety of genres including science fiction, horror, mystery and young adult. He’s had stories published in online and print journals such as Youth ImaginationFabula ArgenteaPage & Spine, and the anthologies 2020 in a FlashBest of 2020, The Protest Diaries, and Screaming in the Night. When not writing he prefers to stay active ballroom dancing or downhill skiing. He is currently working on his second novel while his first remains hidden in a drawer.


“Cruel” Dark, Legendary Fiction by Billy Stanton

Trundle up. Stagger. Stumble. Up, up, up, up to where they were – where they are- in the gloaming. Feel your legs straining. Your old sinewy flesh breaking. Your chest rattling. Your swellings flaming against mothy fabric. There’s no gliding, no hovering above the sheen of the wet grass, not like in the stories. Only old pain. Only old aching. Trundle up. Trundle up. 

Feel the parcel where it always is, heavy and slapping against your thigh in the knapsack slung over your left shoulder. The strap is digging into your skin. Take the parcel out and be ready. Distribute the goods like you were always meant to, like you promised to, like you eventually refused to. You bastard. 

Sing it in your mind’s eye. Sing it: Seven years a tongue in the warning bell.

And seven years in the flames of hell.

Old Jim is first. Old Jim always sat on the ridge, the spire below him, its golden cockerel wavering in the western wind. Old Jim spitting curses under his breath, deep enough and true enough to be engraved on new stones in the mossy graveyard. The years haven’t erased, not for him. Not yet. It will take longer, much, much longer. 

A piece of bread for Old Jim.

Give it to him. 

Seven years a fish in the flood. Seven years a bird in the wood. 

But God, keep me from the flames of hell.  

Seven years. 

It’s been a lot longer than that now, hasn’t it? For a lot longer you’ve been tramping up this hillside, far from your hearth fire, far from comfort. It’ll be seven centuries soon enough. What’s the difference, really, between a year and a century, a century and a year? It’s just time, and time is nothing. Men give names to time, men try to parcel it up, put it in their knapsacks for carrying like your bread, but time is time and it goes on, by itself and for itself, slippery, sliding away…

Massen is next. Massen came to the Dean from the near-West, bringing only his name with him, stranger and more alien to these parts than it has any right to be, him having not come so far from his home. He married Mary. His hands had veins like the runnings of ivy on the church wall, thick and dark and intricate. Mary died before him. Massen died first of this group. He sat here and died, and yet he also sits here still, now, eyes wide open. The boil on his leg never burst, and never will, although it always whispered, it always promised it would. 

A piece of bread now for Massen. 

Back resting against an oak.

All alone and a-lonely-o. 

Say goodbye to Massen again. 

Then it’s farewell again to Lovely Joan, too. She was touching herself with the pedlar’s ointment until the moment of death. She still does it now, sometimes. It must simply be habit. He told big lies in the square, the pedlar, all broad-shouldered in his big dark hat, his sign tied to the trunk of the oak tree. He always had a ballad on his lips, and his eyes were wild. Not like Joan’s, all soft and tired and grey. Milky and overflowing. 

A piece of bread for Joan. She wants a drink too. Give it her this time. Leave her the container. Tell her when it’s empty to let rainwater fill it. Pure water. Heavenly water. Not from the boggy. Show her some kindness once, for the sake of all that’s good. The Lord knows she never had much of it in life. The lines on her, her puckered chalk white lips, the tatters of her blue shawl, they tell their own story: Old England’s tragedy; Old England’s rot; Old England drunk dry. 

O babes, O babes, what can I do,

Down by the bonny Greenwood side-e-o. 

It was one of Joan’s, much further down the line, a twisting twig from the family tree, who sung that song in the fields below. It was her who taught it to you without knowing; left the jumble of it in your mind now, twisting and slashing, words streaming through flooded Eden, the moral ringing with cathedral clarity. The knives. The Greenwood. Seven years. The Cruel Mother. Her sin punished, her penance to be paid after death. Before Hell, before Heaven. No mercy shown for her broken-heartedness. There never is. It all goes on; shadows on the stream, drifting down and out of sight, but always bobbling along, half-submerged. Shadows on the hill, flickering. That’s you now. That’s us. 

Little Hamble is coughing. Black coughing, flecked with yellow. Tell Joan to pass him the water. He sips long, like always. Joan smiles. Strokes his hair. Takes the hat from his head. Soothes. Spares him some ointment where he’s marked. Habit.

Some bread too, for little Hamble. His family gone and gone early. Almost the first away. He broke out the house when they sealed it. No one went looking. They knew they’d done wrong. Acted from fear. Inhumane. You called them that, didn’t you? Hypocrite. Carve that oath on the polished wood of a pew. Hamble was on the hill already, before you sent the rest of the damned up there. He was grabbing at berries and setting traps for rabbits as his father taught him. His father, the poacher. But the rabbits never came. He was already slowly dying when the rest came up. They nourished him a little while longer, but when you didn’t arrive- 

All alone and a-lonely-o. 

O babe, babe, if you were mine,

I’d dress you up in silk so fine. 

The others are on the furthest edges of the rim, way back, hidden where the moon’s light doesn’t touch and where the stars are weak behind clouds, by the cracked barks and stumps of the dead elms. A bed of thorns sleeps behind them; strands of briar twined with themselves, not with red roses, making a more truthful lover’s knot, stinging without beauty. These few stragglers don’t know it, can’t know it, but they’re sitting atop old, old bones, bones deep in the mud, while they also show like skeletons, their own memento mori, blinding white amongst green and brown. They remind you of carvings in the church, don’t they? So sharp and stark they are. They could be new night terrors for the parishioners, to replace the old; fresh visions of ugly doomed tongue-lolling faces. But they’re not in the church. They’re here instead, sinking in the mud, because of you. Falling into the old burial plots, the six-feet-deep-forget-me-nots of Wessex. Bluebells will come in the spring, all over the hill. Buttercups and cow parsley. You won’t see it, and neither will we. Not any of us. 

Bread for the stragglers. 

Bread for Daniel Earwaker and Blind Moran and Lewes the golden young ploughboy, pride of the village, and Rosie Ann Tewkes. 

O, Rosie. 

Your secret darling. Darling, dusty Rosie. Dust to dust Rosie. Ashes to ashes Rosie. Her face looks like it’s falling into her skull. Look at those deep black rings around her eyes, staring out. The flower of the Sunday congregation has gone to rot, like an unsold Covent Garden bloom as summer afternoon closes, thrown on the ground, abandoned, stepped on. She knew all her verses, Rosie did, when the time came to recite them. But her hands are too weak to clutch any prayer book now. Don’t cry for her. You can’t cry. You won’t cry. Don’t register one last insult. Focus on the pain in your legs. Distract yourself. 

Bread for them all. Let them eat it. 

Think. Rosie Ann, could she have lived if- if? No. Pain in the legs. Burning. Hurts. Feel it. Feel it all. 

She leaned her back up against a tree

And there the tear did blind her eye. 

They always eat as fast as their strength will allow. They pick the crumbs off the grass with blackened fingers and let their dry tongues turn drier on the crust. Saliva drips from their slack mouths. Their eyes bulge. Push your disgust down. You don’t have the right. When will you stop feeling it? Turn the hourglass over. The words of recrimination are coming soon- when they’ve recovered from their exertions. 

Old Jim is picking at his buboes. He’s digging his fingers in and grunting, listen. He knows they can’t hurt him now.  The weather vane turns. The quarter-moon glints off it. 

Massen is gaming in the grass. Rolling back and forth. Rosie Anne’s smiling and dissolving into the black of the thorns. They’re piercing and tearing at her skin. She’s doing it for you. Because she knows it hurts to see. Massen’s laughing, howling, wild screeching into the night, like a mad dog. Blood’s dripping from Rosie Ann, from her face, her fingers, her hands, her arms, her legs. She’ll never stop hating. The sand is running down in the hourglass. The words are coming. The reminders. The recasting of the penance. Fortify yourself. Barricade yourself. If you still can. If there’s still spare timbre left to support your buckling doors. 

As she looked over her father’s wall. 

She saw her two bonny boys playing ball. 

“Oh cruel mother, when we were thine

We didn’t see aught of your silk so fine.”

Her skin is hanging from her cheeks, but she’s still smiling. Massen’s still laughing. The pleas are rising in your chest, aren’t they? The same pleas as always. ‘Don’t give me this. Don’t give me this and the words. Please.’ Joan’s laughing now too. Lovely, hating Joan. Old Jim’s picking, picking, picking. Watch the ploughboy dance to the laughter. His body creaks as he’s moves. Not again. Bargain again. Beg. ‘Rosie Ann, step back!” “Earwaker, go to her!” “Don’t just lie there! Don’t just die there!” “Stop it all! Stop it all of you!” “No more seven years! Bring them to their end!”

“She’s taken out her little pen-knife

And she has twined them of their life”

That’s it. The song. The disgraced betraying mother who killed her two babes. Their return from the grave, in the castle gardens, bringing justice, harsh justice, angry cold steel justice, to her. But here- here- you are death, wiping your knives on the grass, and they are your misbegotten children. Betrayal, betrayal. You let them down. You spat in the face of your scarecrow God. All you ever said was weightless. Nothing. They cast you down. Seven years. Accept it, or no. 

Old Jim is turning and looking at you. Rosie Ann is suspended on the thorns, writhing. A lover’s knot with her, Rosie Ann. 

“Oh bonny boys, come tell to me

What sort of death I’ll have to die?”

“Faring well, Rector? We’re glad you’ve found it in your heart to come again to us on such a frost-smited eve.”

Jim is laughing now. 

“With the bread. Our longed-for succour. Salty, bitter and withered.”

Blind Moran speaking from his last dark. 

“Pity for us all you didn’t come with the same when it truly mattered. What were we supposed to do in your absence? Till the waste and plant turnips?”

The labouring boy’s words are hollow, like the ringing of the rusty bell whose tongue you now are. The steeple housing that bell points up to Hell, not to Heaven. He’s still dancing, the boy, no sign of weariness. The child is darting between his legs like an imp, like his familiar. Their venom is putting wind in their sails, animating them, raising them higher and higher, black angels flying with swords of fire above the glorious, awful landscape of their demise. 

“Go to the hill you said. I’ll provide, you said. I’ll provide in your sickness. I’ll show you  the meaning of good Christian charity. The Lord will walk with me, to protect me.”

Joan is advancing; watch her oils dripping down her legs. Hear the bees buzzing through your skull, tearing your mind to pieces. 

“Liar. You never came. We called to you, but you pretended our voices didn’t reach you on the wind. What would our Lord think, eh?”

Massen, still devout, rolling and laughing. 

“We all know what he thinks. It’s what he thinks what gives us the power to make you finally come here. Again and again and again. Resurrection of the flesh.”

Earwaker is coming forwards too, remembering words from the pulpit, turning them into spears now.

“When you should be snug in your tomb, awaiting the trumpet call of Judgement Day to rise, rise, rise.”

Old Jim is sneering, close to singing village hymns. 

“We hate you. We do. I do. Forever and ever. Walk the hill. Keep coming. Piteous creature. Damned creature. Come, starved of peace, starved of rest, just as you left us to starve.”

Rosie Ann is speaking from the thorns. Her words are the hardest to take. They always are, because she’s the one speaking them and speaking them last so that they linger. She’s pulling herself from the thorns now, screaming an imaginary pain that’s real enough for you. It’s clanging between your ears, all through your head, mixing with the burning buzzing. Turn and run. Go on, coward. Run. Before they come any closer. Run, run, run. 

Run down the hillside. Slip in the mud. Call out. ‘Help!’ ‘Help!’ Be back again tomorrow, when angry God dips the sun behind the hill. Scream into the night. Scream for it. Scream like Rosie Ann. Scream ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘I’m so sorry!’ Weakness. Always weakness. Your flimsy faith failed you. You were too afeared, too afeared to come to them. Yet you fell to their same disease regardless. There was no need to be afeared. No need to turn away. But we’re all fear. All of us. All the time. It runs through time. Bobbles down the stream with it, out to invisible inevitable oceans. No ointment for plague, no ointment for fear. It’s too deep in. Too much in the blood. Scream it. 


No keeping from it.

Seven years in the flames of hell.

Down by the bonny Greenwood side-e-o. 

********* 

Memories drifted down and over the hill and were gone. The hill. Their hill. That’s how the people of Vernham Dean saw it; that’s how they still see it. They never go up, not to the top. They warn their children off it. They’re afeared. Time rests on the hill, sleeps on the hill, wakes on the hill, his companion licking at his heels, scampering about him, nuzzling with him in his earthy bed. Old fear, new fear. It’s too much in the blood. Scream it. 


Publisher’s note: In his cover letter for this story, Mr. Stanton provided the following background, which I see as adding considerable depth and dimension.

“…This piece is inspired by a piece of genuine folklore concerning the small village of Vernham Dean in North Hampshire, and the ghostly apparition of its vicar, who traverses the hill where he left his plague-ridden Parishioners to starve during an outbreak of the Black Death in the 1660s. In my short story, this priest acts out his penance, forced to daily enact his spurned charities to the shades of his villagers, tormented by the taunts of his victims and the words of the English folk song ‘The Cruel Mother.’…”


Billy Stanton is a young working-class writer based in London, and originally from Portsmouth. His short story ‘Screwfix’ was recently published in the psychogeography collection ‘New Towns’ (Wild Pressed Books).  His short story ‘The Stray Sod’ was published by online horror magazine Horla in January 2022. The short poetic documentary ‘On an Island, Between Two Rivers’ Birkbeck’s Essay Film Festival this year (Covid-Permitting). 


“The Forgiveness” Psychological Horror by Jacob Austin

Isaac reviewed the numbers again, and then he hunched forward, closed his eyes, and fought the urge to drown his laptop in coffee. He sat that way for several minutes, wishing he could crawl into the blackness behind his eyelids and never come out.

When he finally opened his eyes, the numbers were still there; they hadn’t vanished, gone up in flames, or pissed off to a dark corner of the ocean as he had hoped. “This can’t be legal,” he whispered. “It just can’t be.”

There were seven remaining loans, each sporting a six to eight percent variable interest rate. They currently totaled about $52,000, the undying price placed on Isaac’s dream of being a professional writer – of being too right-brained to be an engineer, too medically inept to be a doctor, and too chickenshit to enlist in the military. Isaac had missed last month’s payment, and therefore the number had gone up again.

Isaac’s father was listed as the primary borrower on the account. He had graciously helped with monthly payments until Isaac secured his first post-college job: a copywriting position with a kitchenware company. Isaac was laid off shortly after the pandemic began, and his father, reeling from his own financial instability, apologetically declined to resume helping with payments. “Just until things calm down,” he had told Isaac nearly a year ago. “It won’t be long. We’ll get it done – we always have to finish things like this.”

Unemployment checks and periodic freelancing gigs kept Isaac alive, but the debt wasn’t going anywhere; it was an omnipresent cancer trying diligently to grow, multiply, metastasize until it had occupied every inch of Isaac’s being. And Isaac could only quell it one hydra head at a time.

Isaac started to scroll through the loans again, but he made himself stop and close the site. He took a deep breath, opened a new tab, and entered a search query he had already explored several times: “How to qualify for student loan forgiveness.”

He arrived at a one-sheet from Federal Student Aid, which listed the scenarios in which forgiveness was a viable option. They were the same as they were the last time he visited this page:

Public Service Loan Forgiveness

Teacher Loan Forgiveness

Disability Discharge

Discharge Due to Death of Borrower–

Isaac slammed his laptop shut and put his head on top of it. The tears came almost immediately, and so did a vile, miserable thought that Isaac had to forcibly swallow like excess stomach acid. This thought had first emerged several weeks prior, during a similarly hapless visit to the Federal Aid site, but now it was bubbling up more frequently — and with a much more persuasive flavor.

Do it. Just do it. Just do it and everything will be better.

When he sat back up, there was movement in the watery corner of his eye. He turned to the kitchen window, then gasped, wiping his eyes to make sure he wasn’t seeing a trick of the light against his tears.

There was a large bird perched inches from the glass. Isaac squinted to see that it was a barn owl, a creature that shouldn’t have been awake for at least ten more hours. The owl pecked at the window twice, then tilted its head and stared at Isaac like it had sent Morse code and was awaiting a response.

Isaac was familiar with these birds from countless childhood zoo trips with his father, so he was unfazed by the owl’s heart-shaped alien face and its smoke-and-cream feathers. But upon further inspection, he noticed that the bird had strange eyes – even by owl standards. They were unusually large and seemed to be accentuated by thin red rings.

“What’s the matter with you, bird? Hungover or something?”

The owl only continued its inquisitive stare.

After a moment of staring back, Isaac frowned. “I don’t have time for this, okay? Get lost.”

He picked up a pen and threw it at the window. The owl bobbed its head uneasily, then took flight with a single flap of its wings.

#

The next morning, Isaac called his father after spending an hour mulling over the decision. His father immediately asked if he could call Isaac back in five minutes, and 30 minutes later, he finally did.

“Hey son, hey. Sorry about that. Had to keep the line open for a call-back from the cable company. Dealing with a few things with them. They’re telling me I can’t get Turner Classic Movies anymore without paying more. Trying to wheel and deal.”

He sighed. “Anyway, what’s going on, bud? How are things?”

Isaac didn’t respond at first, swallowing the ball of inevitable guilt in his throat. “Things are okay, dad. Doing okay. Just, you know. I’m hanging in there.”

“Good, good. Hey, that’s all you can do right now, right? Just keep pressing on.”

Neither of them spoke for a moment. “Dad, I … I did want to ask about something, though.”

Isaac swallowed again. “Dad, my … these student loans. They’re bad, and I’m not bringing in enough right now to make all my payments on time.”

He paused in anticipation of a response, but there was only silence. “Dad, when do you think you’ll be able to help with them again?”

Still no response.

“Dad? Are you still there–”

“Can you, uh.” His father cleared his throat. “Is there a way we can put them on hold? Didn’t they make that a thing this year?”

Isaac took a deep breath. “No, dad. No. These are private loans; they don’t qualify for that here.”

“Well, what about doing it yourself? Asking for a pause, I mean.”

“I can’t, dad. They already told me I’m not eligible for deferment, and forbearance will only add to what I owe.”

Silence again.

“Dad?”

“I’m here, son. I’m just thinking.”

Isaac gave him 10 seconds. “Dad, I don’t know what to do, okay? I’m looking for jobs, but so far it’s just a lot of restaurant stuff, and I don’t even know if that’s safe right now – at least not until I can get vaccinated. I’m considering selling my guitar or something.”

His father cleared his throat again. “Yeah, you … you might want to do that for now. I can buy you a new one for Christmas next year.”

Isaac closed his eyes. “Dad, that really isn’t what I wanted to hear.”

After another silence, his father said, “I’m not sure what to tell you, son.”

“What about forgiveness, dad? Have you ever looked into that?”

“What?”

“Forgiveness. Getting the debt forgiven. I’ve looked at options, and none looked like they applied to us, but I’m not sure if—”

“Isaac, no.” His father’s voice became stern. “We can’t ask for hand-outs. That’s not fair to everyone else with debt. That’s not how I raised you. I know this is hard, but we—”

“Dad, I’m not talking about them, okay? I’m talking about me. And it’s bullshit that you’re dancing around my original question.”

His father scoffed. “Son, look, I’m doing the best I can, okay?”

“Well you’re not doing enough! What am I supposed to do, dad? It’s not my fault that I don’t feel comfortable putting myself at risk to make the same as unemployment, and it’s not my fault that you wrote checks you couldn’t cash and threw the whole fucking thing on me just as soon as I couldn’t do anything about it myself!”

“Isaac, Isaac, will you just—”

“I can barely afford groceries, dad! And rent and … and soap! Fucking soap! And there you are, watching it happen from far away like you enjoyit! Like this was the result you were hoping for when you drove mom away and ruined any chance we ever had at a joint income!”

Isaac sucked in a sharp breath, and his voice became calm and cold. “So if you’re too useless to answer my first question, at least tell me that, dad: what am I supposed to do? All of those things considered, if you won’t even entertain the idea of getting bailed out, then what am I, your son, supposed to do now?”

The ensuing silence seemed to stretch for hours. “We’re all dealing with a lot right now, Isaac,” his father finally said. “All of us. Don’t lose sight of that.”

He paused. “Listen, I have to go.”

“Yeah, me too!” Isaac hung up and threw his phone at the wall. As his anger waned, his regret rose, but he also held fast to the parts of his indictment that were objectively true; his father had written a monetary promise in blood; he had transferred its wrath to Isaac when he couldn’t make good on it; he had cheated on his wife when Isaac was an infant, spurring her to leave and cut all ties to marriage, motherhood, and any other obligation related to her worthless traitor of a husband.

Amidst this mental shuffle, the vile, miserable thought returned, like it could sense Isaac’s potentially malleable state of mind.

Do it. Just do it. What better time than now? You’ll feel so much better.

Isaac pushed the thought away, stilled his mind, and collected his phone and made sure he hadn’t broken it. “But does any of that even matter?” he muttered. “It’s my fault for picking a career that pays shit anyway, right? All my fault.”

There was a knocking sound. Immediate, prompt. Like it was trying to answer his question.

Pung-pung-pung.

Pung-pung.

Isaac looked at the kitchen’s sliding door. The barn owl was back. This time it was pecking the glass urgently, each series of knocks bookended with a long, curious stare. The same stare the owls at the zoo had given him as a child, his father leaning toward the pen so he could get a closer look from his shoulders. “You see him looking at you, bud? You see his eyes? They’re like binoculars he uses to hunt at night. He can spot mice and rats, even in the darkest–”

PUNG-PUNG.

PUNG-PUNG-PUNG.

“For the love of god.” Isaac ran his fingers over his face and through his hair. Then he paced irritatedly to the sliding door and swung it open with the hopes of scaring the bird away.

“Get out! Get out of here! Go on. Just get out of–”

“Isaac,” the owl said, “let me in. We need to talk.”

Isaac’s veins seemed to instantly thicken, like a series of interconnected hoses channeling a sudden blast of water. His vision blackened at the sides, and for a moment, he thought he might lose consciousness entirely.

“Isaac, please. Can I come in?”

“What the fuck!” Isaac’s voice bounced off surrounding houses. “What—what is this?”

The owl hopped closer, its head swiveling and twisting. The red rings around its eyes were pulsating. “Hush, Isaac. Hush. Please, just–”

“Stay away from me,” Isaac yelled, backing into the kitchen. “What the hell is this? Hello! Who’s doing this? Who’s out there doing this? Joke’s over, you–”

“Stop yelling,” the owl hissed. “If you keep yelling, I’ll be forced to leave, and you’ll spend the rest of your life wondering what happened here — wondering if I was even here at all. And that would be quite a psychological hardship, doubting yourself like that when it felt so real as to make you yell and cower. Don’t you want to know what’s going on here, Isaac?”

It hopped over the door’s threshold, and something made the door close behind it. “I’m prepared to explain everything if you’ll just calm down and listen. Won’t you listen?”

Isaac was quiet for a while. He backed into the corner of the kitchen and slowly sank into a seated position on the floor. “I’m … I’m losing my mind. I’m going crazy.”

The owl jumped onto the kitchen table with two flaps of its wings. Now it stood at Isaac’s head level, its abysmal eyes locked on his. “Isaac, you’re lucid, I assure you. Take some deep breaths. Take all the time you need. I don’t have anywhere I have to be but here.”

Isaac tried to follow its advice, taking several long, spasming breaths, but soon he was hyperventilating. Choking on the inhale, gasping and moaning on the exhale. And why was he listening to an owl anyway? “What … what is … happening … to me?”

“Isaac, Isaac.” Now the owl spoke with a softer, calmer voice. “Listen to me. The sooner you just accept reality – the sooner you accept that we are talking and it is okay – you’ll feel better. I promise.”

“I … I …” Isaac regained control of his breath, then once again followed the owl’s instructions. It felt strange to obey the voice, but it was the only source of reason he had – the only mechanism keeping him tethered as the winds of apparent mania blew from all directions. Or maybe it was merely part of the delusion.

Nonetheless, he willed himself to accept the situation, acknowledge that it was happening, and soon he did feel a little better. His muscles relaxed, his heart slowed, and his seemingly endless sweat dammed itself at the pores. “What … is this?”

The owl stepped closer, draping its talons over the table’s edge. “This is simply a conversation. Nothing more. Nothing less.”

“What do you—” Isaac swallowed another hyperventilation fit, and then his voice stabilized. “What do you want from me? What are you?”

“My name is Andras,” the owl replied. “As for what I am, I’ve been many things. A nobleman, a knight, an architect. But I consider myself a teacher above all else.”

“A teacher?”

The owl cocked its head. “Surely you know the craft of education. The closest mortal skill to magic – the ability to pass whole concepts and ideological frameworks to others, to expand their vision on the world around them. To help them navigate complex problems, make difficult decisions. To change someone’s life.”

“I know it,” Isaac said weakly.

“Good. Because education is the reason for my being here today.”

The owl’s ocular rings began to dance again. “See, I’ve fallen on dark times, Isaac. In the current state of the world, there has perhaps never been a better time for my style of teaching. There is a wealth of worthy new students. The hungry. The downtrodden. The angry. Those passionate about making change … in one way or another.”

Its talons clicked against the table. “But it’s becoming a saturated market. Too many hungry, angry students means too many teachers, which means quite a lot of bad teachers. Those who educate by yelling and yelling until everyone is yelling with them. And this is undermining my craft at large; I’m losing work. My very purpose is becoming two-a-penny, obsolete. It almost killed me, forced me to permanently assume this modest form you see before you today.”

It spread its wings as if to show off its body, then said, “All of that said, I’m in need of a fresh prospect to re-establish my credibility — and I see that opportunity in you, Isaac. I understand you’re going through your own dark times; you’re being oppressed by an insurmountable debt, an unfair debt. Well, I’m here to help you, educate you to embrace a solution. I hope you’ll allow it because, with respect to my contemporaries, no one can teach what I know quite like me.”

Isaac frowned. “And … what do you teach?”

The owl hooted into a laugh. “More questions! Good! Questions are a sign of enduring interest, which is a sign of acceptance. You’re doing well already.”

It flapped its wings, lifting itself off the table and onto Isaac’s shoulder. “I teach people to take action, Isaac. To allow the mind to override the physical world.”

“The mind?” Isaac took a deep breath, trying not to shudder at the bird’s closeness to his neck. “What do you mean? Like meditation?”

The owl hoot-cackled again. “Ah, you’re exactly what I wanted, you know that?”

It leaned closer to his ear. “Isaac, there is a voice inside every person. An unbiased, unfiltered force reflecting our truest selves. Our most essential impulses and desires – even the ones that seem outlandish or wrong. Sometimes it’s the voice telling the legs to keep moving in the last miles of a marathon; other times it’s the fleeting fantasy of taking someone’s wailing child in the grocery store and crushing their tiny, insolent head with your foot. Whatever the purpose, whatever the stimuli, it’s always there. Untapped. On call.”

Now it whispered. “Well, I teach people to harness it, to become comfortable letting it out. It’s a necessary emission often mistaken for a taboo. And that’s a shame because it can lead to real, positive change.”

The owl leaned even closer, its beak pressing against Isaac’s ear lobe. “As is the case with you, Isaac.”

Do it. Just do it and everything will be better.

“See? Did you hear that?”

Isaac flinched. “How-how did you–”

“That may seem like an intrusive thought, Isaac. An ugly, shameful thought. One that you would never dream of taking seriously. But I’m here to tell you that it isn’t, and you should.”

Just do it and

“Everything will be better, Isaac. I don’t know the details of your debt’s genesis; I only know the will of your inner voice, the basic reactionary command it’s giving you. Follow it, and I promise you’ll find peace.”

“Now hold on, hold on!” Isaac suddenly stood, causing the owl to stumble for a moment before flapping back to the table. “You can hear that? You can … you know that I—”

“Have considered doing something horrible, Isaac? Something unspeakable? Oh yes, I’m well aware of that. But Isaac, you need to think of it as necessary. You’ve been fighting it, suppressing it, but the thought persists because it’s the only way out. The only path that this cruel, unjust world has left you. Now you must—”

“Shut up,” Isaac said. He draped a hand over his face and fought with his breath. “Just … just shut up for a minute. Shut up.”

The owl obliged, and for a while, no one spoke.

Finally, the owl clicked its talons and said, “Isaac, it’s okay, you know. It’s okay to feel ashamed right now. Guilty. Learning something foreign is always a little uncomfortable at first.”

“But I … I won’t … I can’t do that,” Isaac said. “Not for real. I’d never actually do that.”

He lowered his hand, revealing eyes shimmering with angry tears. “I’d never actually do that. You understand me? I could never—”

“But you could.” The owl spoke with a firmer, deeper voice now – like the previous one had been a facade. “You could, because it seems your situation warrants it. Your helplessness, your victimization at the hands of this senseless, uncaring society. You have to find peace, make a statement, and this is the only way now. Suspend your inhibitions. Your shame. Your guilt. And focus on the task at hand.”

“I can’t!” Isaac said desperately. “I can’t! You don’t understand; you … you can talk about doing stuff like this, think about doing stuff like this, but in most cases, you don’t actually intend to follow through with it. I’m just … just being cynical. I’m talking out of my ass. Don’t you understand sarcasm?”

“That’s one interpretation of it, I suppose.”

The owl walked to the middle of the table and stretched its wings. “Clearly, you’re on the threshold between acceptance of your inner voice and total rejection of it – just like you were with me mere moments ago. But look at you now; and you did that with some simple … meditation on reality. Possibility. Open-mindedness for new experiences. You willed your views and biases to change because you had to – the other option was a slow descent into madness, perhaps the most torturous means of becoming ignorant. Complacent.”

It suddenly flew from the table and landed on Isaac’s other shoulder. This time, Isaac felt something turn his head so that he and the owl were face-to-face. “But Isaac, if you let yourself spiral in this manner with this hardship, this debt, you’ll only be living a shell of a life anyway. Let me help you avoid that pitfall, give you the skills to end this suffering once and for all. Won’t you let me help you?”

Do it.

The owl’s red rings reappeared. Soon they were joined by a second set of rings; these ones were green. Then a yellow set appeared, and a purple set, a blue set. They clung tightly around each of the owl’s black eyes, like serpent rainbows trapping an eclipsed sun. The inner rings began to vibrate, and slowly the motion passed into the next ring, and the ring after that. Soon all of them were trembling, and swelling orbs of light appeared in each of the owl’s eyes.

“You see him looking at you, bud?”

“For your consideration, Isaac,” the owl said, “the answer … the power to learn these skills … it lies in the light. Choose to follow it, or you can reject it; I leave that in your hands.”

They’re like binoculars he uses to–”

Do it. Just do it and everything will be better.

Isaac tried to look away from the light, but then, in an instant, he was fixated on it. He immediately felt partially asleep, like he was floating between conscious thought and abstract, idiosyncratic dream thought. He felt his limbs change into that of a large, hairy animal. His fingers bent into spindly, jagged claws. His joints popped and extended so that he was double his height. His jawbone broke, elongated, and instantly healed. None of it was painful or uncomfortable; it was relaxing.

When the transformation had seemingly ended, there was a presence in front of him in the darkness– something he could not see, but could feel.

“There, Isaac,” the owl said from somewhere far away. “There it is. Your inhibition. Can you feel it? Reach out now. Grab it. Pull it apart. Kill it. Kill it, Isaac. Do it.”

Do it. Just do it and everything will be better. Do it.  

Isaac felt his new arms obey the order, and soon he was following the sensation of shameless, empty physical impulse, like that of a perverse sexual dream. He stabbed and ripped the presence until it was shredded to ribbons. He felt its ozonic entrails leaking into his palms; it seeped into his skin, into his blood. It pumped through his heart and raced into his brain.

Then he felt himself moving, running, at times sprinting. Never fully stopping. He felt himself pass through barriers. He felt the ground’s texture change against his feet. Hard, then soft, then jagged and painful, then soft again. The pair of swelling lights reappeared in the distance; he was running toward them, gaining ground. They grew larger and larger – like they were moving toward him concurrently. Soon they were enveloping him, passing under and over him. And when Isaac was finally blinded, the entire image vanished.

Isaac gasped and lifted his head from the table, where it had been resting asleep. It was dark outside now.

“How … how long have I—”

He looked around the room; he was alone.

“H-hey. Hey!”

Isaac stood and circled the room. He looked out the window, under the table, at each of the room’s corners. But the owl was gone.

“Where are you? Wh–what did you do to me?”

No answer.

“Will you knock it off already? What about the answers, huh? The skills? What about helping me? Will you just—”

“Isaac.”

He jumped; the owl’s voice was now ringing in his head. “Isaac, that’s the beautiful thing: the lesson is already over.”

Then, as if on cue, the vile, miserable thought returned once again.

Do it.

Do it.

Do it, Isaac.

This time, the accompanying urge was unstoppable. It rushed into his arms, his legs, his heart. It numbed his instinctual resistance like a quick-acting anesthetic. His guilt, disgust, and shame were instantly neutralized, and now there was only the will to act.

Do it.

Do it, Isaac.

Do it and everything will be better. It’s the only way.

He walked to the kitchen, sweat slithering down his back, and leaned against the counter, knocking a dirty steak knife onto a pile of dishes in the sink. He closed his eyes, hoping the urge would dissipate like it always did, but nothing changed.

Do it.

Isaac recognized the implications of what the thought was asking – no, compelling him to do. He knew what it entailed, what risks it brought. He understood the permanent devastation it would bring to his family.

But now, for the first time, he didn’t care about any of that. He only cared about the sweet relief that would accompany the act. The notion of being debt-free, cured of his unrelenting terminal cancer. Forgiven, for all intents and purposes.

Do it, Isaac.

He saw the words, the ones that had inspired the thought. The ones that started as a sick, offensive joke from his subconscious and had evolved into what they were now: a way out. The only way out.

Do it, Isaac; it’s the only way.

The words flashed behind his eyelids in neon colors:

“Discharge Due to Death of Borrower – The loan will be discharged if a family member or other representative provides the loan servicer with acceptable documentation of the primary borrower’s death. Acceptable documentation includes–”

DO IT, ISAAC.

PUT HIM OUT OF HIS MISERY – AND END YOURS, TOO.

Isaac opened his eyes. His arm was in the sink, and his hand was wrapped tightly around the dirty steak knife.

KILL HIM, ISAAC.

#

His father hadn’t put his Christmas tree away, and it was surrounded by unopened gifts with paper wrinkled by the late-June humidity.

Isaac had entered through the basement door — the lock was still broken, unsurprisingly — and crept up the stairs with quiet, carefully executed steps. Now on the main level, he was forced to take these steps with even more caution; the floors were covered in garbage and various pieces of clothing. What’s more, the coffee table was littered with empty bottles and unread mail, and the kitchen table held up stacks of dishes encrusted with old food. 

Any of these hazards could alert his father, who seemingly lay sleeping in his bedroom at the end of the hallway, and Isaac acknowledged each one as he high-stepped across the floor, knife outstretched like a dead flashlight. There were candy bar wrappers. Loose playing cards. Balls of used foil. Grocery bags and receipts from four different stores.

The labyrinth ceased at the hallway’s entrance, but Isaac remained alert, vigilant, in tune with the voice. Kill him, Isaac. Do it. Only a few more steps now.

When he was finally outside his father’s door, he paused (DO IT ISAAC; WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR) and his fingers squeezed the knife, just like they had done to the presence from earlier. The shapeless inhibitions that the owl — that Andras had encouraged him to smite like a small, useless animal. He had stabbed it, ripped it, slashed it into wet, squelching pieces.

Stabbed it.

Ripped it.

Slashed it.

Stab HIM, Isaac.

Rip him. Slash him. END him.

DO IT.

He closed his eyes and began a countdown from 10. He would not creep in, he would not tiptoe to his father’s bedside like the specter of death with a modest scythe; he would do it all at once. Fast, committed, headlong. With no room for second thoughts.

Yes, all at once. Sprint to him. Grab him. Plunge it down, Isaac. Down and down and down.

DO IT. 

Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Isaac mouthed the numbers as they passed through his mind, sweat surging against the knife, stomach aflame with primal adrenaline.

Five. Four. Three. Two–

DO IT.

One.

Isaac yanked the door open with a self-assuring grunt and turned on the light.

He saw the shape of a suspended figure all at once, but he focused first on the feet, sockless and stiff. Then he saw the legs, the torso, the arms. Equally wooden, but juxtaposed by loose-fitting cotton pajamas. Then the neck, bluish-red and broken, constricted by a still-squeezing rope.

Isaac turned away just as he saw the eyes, the empty, almost nonchalant eyes of his father staring beyond him, beyond the house, beyond the confines of life. The eyes of reluctant acceptance.

The knife hit the hallway floor, followed by a quick burst of vomit. Then Isaac himself fell down, paralytic tingles and shocks dancing through his skin and into his fingertips, his toes, each follicle in his scalp. He lay there hyperventilating and heaving, saying something he couldn’t hear again and again and again. His guilt and shame remained numb, but every other feeling surged freely, as it would have otherwise — and soon the former seemed to augment the latter.

He crawled now, pulling himself down the hallway until he found the impossible strength to stand. Then he stumbled, bouncing off walls and displacing the trash on the floor. He collided with the kitchen table and the towers of dishes fell and shattered against one another.

“Phone,” he panted. “Ph-phone. Where is–”

Then he saw it, as if he had willed it into existence: his father’s cell phone sat in a cleared spot on the counter. There was a folded piece of paper taped to its screen.

Isaac removed the paper with shaky, erratic fingers and unfolded it. Then he lowered himself to the floor, flattened the paper against his leg, and read what was written on it:

Isaac,

If you’re reading this, that means you have likely found me and I am no longer here. I’m sure you are shocked, upset, and disturbed by my decision, but please know that I wanted this and it was entirely my choice. This is in no way, shape, or form your fault.

Let me start by deeply apologizing, not only for taking this path, but for the paths I took in life as a father. I loved you and your mother with all my heart, and yet, for some reason, I let a passing impulse make me destroy the beautiful thing we had as a family. I don’t blame your mother for taking the path she did, and I hope that someday you two can reestablish communication.

My deepest regret is that I couldn’t provide enough for you on my own – you were right about that. I couldn’t support you when you really needed it, and I wish I could’ve personally funded your path to becoming the talented, impressive young writer you are today.

With that said, I want you to know that I am leaving everything to you and you alone. The house, all of my possessions, and every cent of my personal savings. It’s not much, it might not even be enough, but I hope it can at least help you get back on your feet. I should have done this sooner, and for that I am deeply sorry. I failed you as a father in life, but I hope I can redeem myself in death.

I was brought up on the belief that we always have to pay off our debts, like it says in Romans 13:8 – “Let no debt remain outstanding.” But I guess I’m starting to understand that that’s not always easy or fair in today’s world. Thank you for being patient, and I know you’ll make me proud in whatever you do in life beyond this point.

I love you, son.

  • Dad

Something shifted inside Isaac, like 20 heart palpitations and pins-and-needles sensations condensed into a single noiseless pop. And then all of his feelings returned. The guilt, the shame, the remorse for what he had been ready to do just moments ago — and the fleeting relief that he had not done it.

           Suddenly there was a small presence approaching him through the broken dishes and piles of garbage. “This is … unexpected.”

He looked to his side, where the owl was now perched on an orange juice carton, its eye rings palpitating like a diseased heart as it read the letter. “Very, very unexpected,” it said. “In fact, this is a first in my teaching career!”

Isaac looked away and let the letter slide from his leg to the floor. In his peripheral vision, he saw the owl look up at him, the blurred, pulsating red color distorting its face. It hoot-laughed. “Well then, this makes everything much easier, doesn’t it? In essence, you didn’t even need my guidance; he did the heavy lifting for you–”

Isaac made a fist and swung it down at the bird, barely missing it as it took flight. “What the hell is wrong with you, you sick little fuck?” He snarled. “What did you do to me? Do you enjoy this?”

The owl retreated to the counter, its head twisting erratically. It landed and seemed to calm itself, and then it gave a gratified sigh, like it would have smiled if able. “And what if I do?”

It tilted its head and awaited a response, but Isaac only fought with his breath, his face alternating between agony and fury, his eyes shiny with tears.

“I’ll ask again, Isaac: what if I do enjoy it? What if I see this whole situation as a victory for Lucifer’s ongoing rebellion against the Heavenly Host? Against this god-fearing, naive human empire of fallacy and antiquation — the same one that put you in this position and didn’t think you’d ever retaliate?”

“You’re a monster, then,” Isaac whispered through sobs. “You’re … you’re evil.”

“Am I?”

“You made me come here tonight, didn’t you? You made me … you made me almost—”

“No, Isaac,” the owl said contemptuously. “Don’t be a fool. I made you do nothing. I simply offered a push.”

“Then what did you do to me? You … you hypnotized me … or brainwashed me, or … I couldn’t feel. Couldn’t feel … how I normally should have.”

“Isaac, that was you. You alone. I merely helped you see and feel your own potential. Think of it as … hysteric strength brought about by high adrenaline; I helped you flip such a switch. That’s all. It was all you.”

“No!” Isaac yelled. “That’s not … that isn’t possible! You hear me? I told you, I’d … I’d never even think about … about …”

He succumbed to his breathlessness, his fists white-knuckling his kneecaps, his entire torso shaking and spasming.

The owl hopped onto a chair closer to him, still keeping a safe distance. “Isaac, please, don’t get lost in that dull human tendency — to think you’re so right while I’m so wrong. Your kind created the systemic failures, the social injustices, the predatory debts. I know nothing of any of it; I have no moral compass. I simply teach people like you to act on forbidden, unspeakable desires when such matters force them to appear. And had we not encountered this … sudden turn of events tonight, you would have succeeded in that. That notion alone is the validation I needed as a teacher; you have my gratitude.”

“Stop!” Isaac swung at the chair, and the owl flapped back to the counter. “Stop it! Just shut up! Just shut the fuck up! Please just–”

“Calm yourself, Isaac! You’re not my first student to scapegoat me like this. This kind of thing can be difficult to face in hindsight. I get it. But don’t blame me; blame the circumstances of your world, the superficial justifications that courted your hardship — and thus courted me. I’m a teacher, not a monster. An adviser, not a puppeteer. I’m not evil, Isaac; I’m auxiliary. Necessary.”

It flew to the open kitchen window through which it had presumably entered. “As I’ve said, I try to stay morally objective in these situations. But if I may, and I don’t mean to be insensitive to your late father’s upbringing: do you know what else the Bible says of debt? It says, ‘The wicked borrows and does not repay, but the righteous shows mercy and gives.’”

Isaac’s head snapped up at this, and he opened his mouth to respond, but nothing came out. He remained quiet for a long time. He looked down the hallway, at the dirty knife still lying on the floor, its purpose permanently unfulfilled. He looked at the walls around him, at the trash. At the note lying on the floor. He looked at his hands.

“Then what am I?” He said quietly, his eyes returning to the owl. “What does that … what does this make me, then?”

The owl squinted as if to grin with great pleasure. “Well Isaac, all things considered, it makes you neither wicked nor righteous; it simply makes you forgiven.” Then, with a bob of its head and a flap of its wings, it vanished into the night.


Jacob Austin is a writer and digital content strategist from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Stray Branch, Bewildering Stories, and Black Petals.


“Dream Errors” Psychological Horror by Jay Charles

To celebrate Halloween like old times, the three of them met, now with their wives, at the Saxon house on the Pennsylvania-Ohio border to watch a horror movie.  They gathered into the living room by the fireplace, Paul and his wife Ashley, Luke and his wife Erica, while the host and hostess lit candles on the three windowsills and the room came slowly to life by fire.  An orange and black rug lay on the floor at the center of the room, and there was a bowl of candy by the door.  “I hope you guys don’t mind a few interruptions,” Elizabeth said.  “We usually get a lot of trick-or-treaters here.”  They occupied the couch, two recliner chairs, and a portion of the floor.  Huddled beneath blankets – the wind off Lake Erie was howling against the front of the house – they regarded each other not only through time but by the candleflame that guttered their reflections in each window.

Everyone settled in.  When reminiscing over warm beverages served in porcelain cups fell to silence, they agreed to start the movie.  The Shining.  It began by chanting Dies Irae, a familiar dreadful melody they had heard before.  Paul and Luke shared a glance and smirked, a gesture of familiarity.  Neither of their wives, who were considerably younger, had seen the movie before and were teased about it to the point of becoming uncomfortable.  They kept close to their husbands from the chair and the floor, watched the room with large eyes and waited for something to happen.

Jeff Saxon, homeowner and host for the evening, lay against his wife Elizabeth on the couch, a large comforter bunched between them, and watched his friends more than the movie.  He saw in them Halloweens of the past: the year they’d fled down the railroad tracks when the flames rose higher than the trees; or, with a newly printed driver’s permit, took his dad’s silver Miata up the mountain road to Devil’s Elbow, where supposedly virgins had been sacrificed to small-town devils, and parked in the middle of the road and called on the devils to induct them there.  Midnight was the hour to antagonize the life that had been endowed to them, a reckless endeavor to experience death and live. An hour he never wanted to see again, now boding images of chronic illness or poor mental health than old devious enchantments, now for crouching at the toilet spilling his guts than Devil’s Elbow or running those train tracks in the dark.

It was, in fact, the manifestation of those Halloweens that had contributed to Jeff’s recent mental collapse.  His brokenness, like his breathing exercises, weighing down the room, which he and his wife agreed to keep to themselves.  Paul was attempting to explain this part of the movie to the girls, something about supernatural force as a color scheme.  Luke laughing at him like old times.  But their faces glowing fireside coaxed Jeff further toward the memories he was most afraid of, a word that had been implanted in his mind while he slept that in fact he had never heard before.  He tried simultaneously to recall the word and to forget.  To speak it now, like discovering the corpse so the ghost can finally rest.  

“Remember this part, Jeffery?” Elizabeth squeezing his leg.  The wives gasped.  The husbands were satisfied.

“It still holds up,” Luke said. 

Paul agreed.  “I love the solitude.  Think about it, you’re snowed in, you have no way out.  Help is not on the way.  No choice but to dig deep and face your fears.”

Luke watched from the floor with a sheepish smile.  “Like the time we parked at the tracks after work.  Remember that, Jeff?  We were gonna sneak out to that old farm.  And you found Paul hiding in his car.”

Erica choked on coffee and slapped at his head.

“I remember,” Jeff said without looking at them.  He was suddenly angry with them.

“He was pretending to be asleep!” Luke nearly fell over at the delivery.

Paul chuckled, red-faced at the attention.  “That place gave me the creeps,” he said.

“What were you all doing there?” Elizabeth asked them.

“I can’t remember,” Jeff said.  He could feel his wife watching him from her periphery, patting his leg beneath the blanket the way you would soothe a frightened dog, gripping the leash whenever his eyes would wander.  He bent his entire body to look at her: caught in the act of trying to reconcile two images of her husband that were in opposition.

There was a knock at the door.  Liz released his leg in answer, skipped from the couch past the windows, beneath the decorations.  They could see the front door from the living room and watched.  She held the bowl of candy to her hip when she opened it.  “Trick or treat.”  A lone child held out his sack in routine.  Recalling a purchase that had been made in an earlier era.  The porch light still burned; a car he did not recognize idled in his driveway.  Sealed with a word.  The ambulatory spider moved on its string.

The truth was tonight’s gathering had been her idea.  He knew Liz was attempting not so much to get to the root of his mental crisis than to ward it off for another season.  “You should get the old gang together,” she’d said to him one morning, with the residue of some previous deliberation.  He didn’t know what she was talking about.  “Halloweens have been so boring the last couple years.  Remember when we first met, you were close with those boys and you said it was your favorite night.  Maybe seeing them would do you some good.”

He didn’t like how she referred to it as a mental crisis.  Just as she didn’t like his current reading materials on the bedside stand, the self-help books and home remedies, the psychoanalysis.  Isn’t it the redeemed who are allowed to bury the past, embrace a brighter future?  They want to talk about the farm, why not mention the night it burned: twenty-five years of avoiding condensed into two minutes of remembering.  At work of all places.  He was wearing his lucky blue necktie, daydreaming, watching out his office window the urbanization of old rural areas, bulldozers poised, forests ready to fall, when suddenly he saw the smoke billowing from the mouths of horses and before he knew it he was being restrained by his coworkers, shouting into the crowded conference room the one word he still couldn’t remember, pinned down by many hands, forced into the back of an ambulance.

How many medications since that day?  At first they had to be administered intravenously, now as a translucent bottle containing 60ml capsules of an unknown substance, that slowed his mind, erased memories, blurred identity into common routine.  “This is for the best,” Elizabeth had agreed, sitting across from him in that sterile white room with all eyes on him like he was broken.  “You’re not yourself.  You’re not the person I married.  These pills will make you better.”

As the scope of the movie opened into onrushing red, his thoughts like those of the hotel delved deeper, past old photographs on the walls, down vacant corridors of fragmented thought, and the lights began to flicker and his eyes grew unbearably heavy.  It had been a long day preparing to see old friends, to keep his mental collapse from them, or questions he was too afraid to ask, and what momentum he had mustered rolled to a stop against his wife’s boney shoulder.  He fell asleep to the long halls of patterned carpet, the opened door, and his friends breathing heavily pretending to be afraid.

During his seven-minute sleep Jeff had a vivid dream, what Sigmund Freud called Synchronal Dreaming (or Window Dream).  Directly linked to the traumas of the vergessen (forgotten).  This kind of dream occurs in real-time, that is to say, the time and space of the dream are the same as our current reality.  Most dreams are not like this, of course: the dreamer can spend an indefinite amount of time in what only amounts to a few minutes of the present.  Synchronal Dreaming, by contrast, runs parallel to our time and space.  Dr. Freud called these Window Dreams because they tend to occur for those who are searching for something, who look through the metaphorical window to find it.  Initiated by the subconscious, it is a process attempting to fill the void left by the vergessen with something just as substantial, an emotional purchase, such as physical horrors devised of your forgotten traumas.

All the candles have burned out.

Jeff sits up into a living room that has become void.  The sharp string crescendo having woken him falls to silence, replaced with low humming of the television whose screen glows in distorted faces and static.  The blanket he and his wife shared lies folded on the floor.  The chairs too are occupied only by the sense of somebody, the angle of recline that would denote a person’s weight, the sound of him breathing, shifting nervously, but no one is there.  The porcelain cups on the table and the floor, some contain coffee.  He stands from the couch, turns to the wall clock for reference – it’s not even midnight.  One of the chairs rocks slightly forward.  In contemplating his abandonment, this subtle movement of the chair keeps him from calling out their names.  The cushions on the couch seem to depress.  He hears someone whispering behind him.

From where he stands, he can see movement through the front windows.  At first mistaking it for his reflection (which he cannot see, nor the reflections of his friends) he comes to where the candles have burned out and looks at the movement in the street, trick-or-treaters perhaps.  He holds the curtain to steady himself.  Paul and Luke are standing in the street.  Both turned to face him.  On the other side the houses jut and withdraw, the glimmer of Lake Erie swells between a scalloped skyline.  Trashcans having blown over litter the yards with garbage, the porch lights all extinguish at once.  Unyielding winds off the lake batter the window where he stands.

His friends wave for him to come outside.

“Why are you out there?” Jeff asks.

Everyone will leave you here.

Luke points at something further beyond the houses, in the direction of the lake.  He feels the low rumble of the locomotive in his hand that clutches the curtain, in the very walls and windows of his house, though there is no railroad track close enough to facilitate the nearness of these reverberations.  The large clock issues true seconds from the wall.  There is something rising between the houses, a massive purge.  He thinks he knows it, but only by subsequent minutes that allow the thing to grow can he confirm it, the blob that expands black on black to render the sky indistinguishable.  When it comes down again the stars struggle to fill the void and a great crashing shakes the town to violence.  All three windowpanes rattle in unison, the porcelain cups spill their liquid to the floor.  He knows her by the word, the enormity of her retching, that has by design left the lake and beached itself on the shore. 

Jeff motions frantically for Paul and Luke to come inside but they’re already walking down the street for a better view.  A few miles intervene, the entire north face of the town, yet clearly from the other side they can it see it, acidic amalgam made up of the bodies that had offered no deference to it, bodies of men newly risen from the wreckage of ships, of splintered attempts to harness it; men who were once strong now rendered no differently than the smaller bodies of children who accompany them, from fishing accidents, bad storms, or having fallen through the ice.  Jeff can see it more clearly now: in union they form the arm, wide, unerring, in the slow process of reaching.  One by one the houses will fall.  Everything that stands between it and him.

Jeff calls for his friends to no avail, and so chooses to save them by invoking the name of the thing, saying it aloud not in worship but to warn of its coming.  His friends halt dead in the street.  For a few seconds the synchronicity breaks and they’re running the tracks again, stamping like hooves, spitting out smoke, eyes dripped red from having looked into the firelight. Then the glass breaks and there’s screaming in the room.

Medication has run out.

Jeff woke from the floor.  The old woman in the movie was cackling but not anymore.  Orbiting faces of Elizabeth, Luke and Paul, and the girls behind them, as if he were seated in that sterile white room under their rigorous examination and not lying here bent beneath the window.

“He’s awake,” Paul announced, releasing his grip on the pulse.

“That was crazy,” Luke said to him.  “You okay?” 

The rest were speechless.

“I think I fell asleep,” Jeff said. 

Questions lingered in the living room as Elizabeth took Jeff by the arm and pulled him upstairs.  She led him into the bathroom, turned on the bright light above the sink and locked the door.  Sitting on the toilet he saw the blood.  He wiped his brow and it slicked over the backs of his hands.  Hot water running, she washed his face in coarse strokes.  “Did you forget your pill last night?” she asked while scrubbing.

“I think I was dreaming,” Jeff said.

He saw vague images like blurred faces on the living room chairs.  She told him it wouldn’t stop, referring to the blood from the crooked gash along his hairline.  He washed his stained hands in the hot water in the sink.

“Will you tell me why this is happening?” she asked.

After the bleeding slowed, she peeled and taped a bandage across his forehead, on the edge of his frayed hair feeling sticky and loose.  He used his hand to hold it in place.

“I think we better get back to them,” he said, motioning downstairs.

“We’re not leaving this room till you tell me what’s going on.  I’m so embarrassed, Jeffery, I don’t think I can face them.  Do you even know what you’re doing anymore?”

He had no answer.

They left the bathroom and stood at the top of the stairs.  His guests were quietly discussing him.

“You were laughing but I was freaked out.”

“I thought he was joking.”

“The worst thing was I could see his eyes in the window…wide open.”

Jeff and Elizabeth came downstairs together.  The television had been turned off, replaced by the glow of a tableside lamp.  In what had become a silent cove the intermittent wind rang warnings like a pack of wolves.

“Sorry, everyone,” Jeff said.  “Sorry about the movie.  We can finish it after we get this mess cleaned up.”

“No, that was more entertaining,” Luke said, standing to pat his friend on the shoulder.  “Your Halloweens do not disappoint.”

Of the window nearest to the door, they took turns looking at the large crack in the upper pane, the spiderweb glistening in fine detail.  Tiny pieces of glass glittered in the carpet.  Spots of blood on his white socks.

“Jeffery’s been going through a stressful time at work lately, and…well, you can tell them.  But I think we should talk about it.  Here’s your opportunity to finally talk about it.”

“How weird was I?” Jeff asked.

Paul laughed nervously.  “Like old times.” 

“You stood up,” Luke said, “right when the movie got good, and just stood there.  We thought you were kidding around.  Then you staggered over to the window, said some weird stuff, and tried to put your head through it.”

He held the bandage onto his throbbing gash as the adhesive was already beginning to fail and searched the room for a way to isolate the three of them from the women, to become young again, without formality or courtesy, to truly understand what was controlling them or being controlled by them, to talk like friends again.  But that could never happen; the wives pressed in around them.  Their presence helped to define friendship as an uncomfortable afterthought, older faces nearing middle age, unable to read one another anymore, incapable of discussing the past or trying to correct the future.

“You said Huldah.  Huldah’s her name.  You kept saying it.  Remember that?” 

Jeff turned from the window to look at them.

Near the end of his dream they had laughed at it along the tracks.  A name that meant nothing to him, yet somehow knowing it could be traced back to early American lore: she who threw herself into the lake to die, or of biblical portents: she who spoke the Lord’s promise of disaster.  By her design he would say her name to acknowledge the pain of every one who had died needlessly, in water as by fire; every one, animal or human, he would somehow know and remember.  Being redeemed didn’t matter. Their sufferings became his own.  Even worse, she had tricked him into believing he was somehow the cause of it all.

As Freud says: you must follow your dreams to the finality of your own derangements. 

Jeff absentmindedly smeared fresh blood across his face, the bandage having fallen away.  He slicked back his hair with it and nervously paced the room.  His anxious wife hovered in the doorway.  One by one the fathers and sons were dragged into the lake.  Jeff climbed the stairs and reentered the bathroom.  He studied his battered face in the mirror.  At that moment the rest of the glass fell from the downstairs window and the women screamed.  He emptied the pill bottle into his mouth and swallowed hard and grim, with a bitter taste.


Jay Charles is a writer out of rural Pennsylvania. He won multiple awards for his undergraduate writing at Penn State University. Post-academic stories concern the speculative and the horror found in chilling regularity throughout history. His work has appeared in Kalliope, Liquid Imagination, and will be featured in the upcoming Medium Chill 7. Twitter: @JCharles000