The Saturday Night Special: Music for Rituals and Shamanic Journeys

All dark music videos can be found on the Dark Music playlist on The Chamber’s YouTube channel.

Let’s kick up the party a little and celebrate Walpurgisnacht (April 30- May 1) with Faun (from Germany).

I don’t know of any drink that shamans would have enjoyed, so I’ll go with the closest I can think of: Viking libations or drinks named for vikings or something viking-related (maybe).

I have no idea where these guys obtained a recipe for a screaming viking (they probably concocted it themselves), but here is a much simpler, alternative recipe that you can probably make easily out of stuff you have in your house tonight. I happen to have these ingredients at home tonight, so I will give it a shot.

Now take this opportunity to head out into forest to your special place and commune with nature.

Enjoy. Until next week…

The Saturday Night Special: Verdi’s Requiem – Dies Irae e Tuba Mirum

All dark music videos can be found on the Dark Music playlist on The Chamber’s YouTube channel.

If you’re going to listen to Verdi’s music, why not do it while enjoying some of his favorite beverage: wine.

Enjoy a glass while you learn about Verdi’s interesting life:

Now it’s time to party like Verdi:

Now, let’s kick it into high gear and bring it into the 21st century.

Arrivederci!

The Saturday Night Special: Playlist to Study like Nietzsche over the Abyss on a Tightrope between the Animal and The Uebermensch

For tonight’s foray, we are going out for a night on the town in Germany. The music is classical, but imagine yourself to be a German grad student studying classical music and literature in modern-day Berlin.

After your night of German cocktails, you can stop by here on the following morning to ease into your day.

While here, check out some of these world-renowned books by German authors that are available in The Chamber’s bookshop:

The Saturday Night Special: Private Eye Noir Jazz

As an experiment, on Saturday nights, The Chamber will bring you videos and maybe a few other things to liven your night. Some nights, it might be an evening barhopping or clubbing. Other nights, it might be an evening at a symphony or a play. Tonight’s theme is the private eye experience. Sit back, grab your favorite Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett novel, and enjoy an evening of suspense. Should you, like many a private eye, overindulge tonight, The Chamber even brings you a hangover cure for tomorrow morning.

All music videos are collected under the Dark Music playlist on The Chamber’s YouTube channel.

To keep the night in a private eye vein, enjoy being in a private eye’s office for a while:

To keep things rolling in the Private Spirit tomorrow morning, here’s a cocktail/hangover cure for a private eye:

While you’re here, check out The Chamber’s bookshop, where you can find classic detective novels like The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, and L.A. Confidential along with many other genres and subjects.

Now Appearing in The Chamber

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).

“Useless Things” Dark Fiction by James Mulhern

James Mulhern’s writing has appeared in literary journals over one hundred and seventy times and has been recognized with many awards. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was granted a fully paid writing fellowship to Oxford University. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. In 2017, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His novel, Give Them Unquiet Dreams, is a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019. He was shortlisted for the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2021 for his poetry. Two of his novels were Finalists for the United Kingdom’s Wishing Shelf Book Awards.

“The Red Eye of Love” Dark Fiction by Len Messineo

Len notes: “Previously published in Shenandoah, Tampa Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, The New Novel Review, The Sun: Journal of Ideas and other magazines, I am a former recipient of the Hugh Luke Award and my stories have twice been nominated for inclusion in the Pushcart Prize anthology. I teach at Writers and Books of Rochester and head up the Artisan Jazz Trio which performs throughout Upstate New York.”

“All the Coney Islands of the Mind” Dark 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.

“Greetings from Krampus” Dark Fiction by Tiffany Renee Harmon

Tiffany Renee Harmon is a writer and artist based out of Cincinnati, OH. She has an MFA from Lindenwood University, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Scarlet Leaf Review, Danse Macabre, and Z Publishing. Her first novel, Suburban Secrets, debuted in 2020. Learn more about her at http://www.tiffanyreneeharmon.com.

“Voice in the Casket” Dark Poem by Bernadette Harris

Bernadette’s work has appeared in a variety of literary magazines, including Ruminate, Braided Way, Introvert, Dear, and The Mindful Word. When she isn’t exploring her latest existential crises, she dabbles in writing children’s literature as well. She can be found at https://www.bernadetteharris.net/. 

“Ideal You Bars” Dark Fiction by Emma Burger

Emma Burger is a writer and young professional working in oncology research. She splits her time between Ann Arbor, Michigan and New York City. Her debut novel, Spaghetti for Starving Girls, was released in September 2021.

“Doctor Dread’s Creative Writing Revolution” Dark Fiction by Thomas White

Thomas White has a triple identity: speculative fiction writer, poet, and essayist. His poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print literary journals and magazines in Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He is also a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author who has contributed essays to various nonliterary journals on topics ranging from atheism, the meaning of Evil, Elon Musk, Plato, The Matrix, and reality as a computer simulation. The Encyclopedia Britannica selected one of his previously published essays on Hannah Arendt, Adolph Eichmann, and the “Banality of Evil” for inclusion on its website, Britannica.com…

Three Dark Poems by John Tustin: “The Crush of the Moon”, “Dead Candles”, “Respite”

John Tustin’s poetry has appeared in many disparate literary journals since 2009. fritzware.com/johntustinpoetry contains links to his published poetry online.

“The Black Curtain” Dark Surrealism by Leonard Henry Scott

Leonard Henry Scott was born and raised in the Bronx and is a graduate of American University, with an MLS degree from the University of Maryland.  He was a long-time staff member of the Library of Congress and he and his wife, Hattie presently reside in National Harbor, Maryland. Len’s fiction has appeared in; The MacGuffin, Mystery Tribune, Straylight Magazine, Crack the Spine and elsewhere.

“Resurrection” Dark Fiction by Kelly Piner

Kelly Piner is a Clinical Psychologist who in her free time, tends to feral cats and searches for Bigfoot in nearby forests. Ms. Piner’s short story “Blackout” was recently published in Scarlet Leaf Review’s anniversary issue. Her story, “Dead and Gone,” was just named Honorable Mention in Allegory’s upcoming issue. Her short story “The Old Man and the Cats” was published by Storgy Magazine. Weirdbook’s annual zombie issue featured Ms. Piner’s short Story “Lazy River.” Her stories have appeared in multiple anthologies. She also has short stories published in The Literary Hatchet, East of the Web and in be-a-better-writer.com. She just completed her first novel, FAT SANDS.

“Medusae” Science-Fiction/Horror by Elana Gomal

Elana Gomel is an academic with a long list of books and articles, specializing in science fiction, Victorian literature, and serial killers. She is also a fiction writer who has published more than a hundred short stories, several novellas, and four novels. She is a member of HWA and can be found at https://www.citiesoflightanddarkness.com/ and at

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/elana.gomel

Twitter   https://twitter.com/ElanaGomel

Instagram https://www.instagram.com/elanagomel/

Next Issue: May 6

 

“Medusae” Science-Fiction/Horror by Elana Gomel

…the worst thing is boredom. Standing at the checkpoint, waiting for a blowup that never happens – until it does. Everything is dusty: the sky, the hills, and the air. Hamsin, hot wind from the desert. You don’t see the sun for days, just a white splotch in the grey sky. You breathe sand and sweat mud.

Too many birds today. Circling above my head like a squadron in disarray.

Here, somebody is coming. Walking…Oh, hell! A woman! Hey, lady, stop! Yes, just there! Don’t come closer! Show your passbook. OK, now lift your veil.

What is this? What is…?

Sophie

I was going to the hairdresser today.

I almost decided against it. Looking in the mirror, I was struck by the familiar sense of futility. Grey hair. Not silver, not fluffy white. Just grey – untidy and dispirited. It did not belong to me. I was still twenty-five inside, just as I had been for the last twenty years. Some people never grow old. And some people never grow up.

Jesse was out of the house before I got up, a dirty coffee cup on the table. As I was making coffee for myself, my phone pinged, and a jolt of adrenaline told me it was Emma, but it was not. Jesse, messaging me he would be home late. I deleted it and took my pill. It helped me to decide that I would definitely go to the hairdresser today and tmorrow would start sending out my resume. Again.

I stepped out into the cool misty air of the Peninsula. The clouds were rolling down the Santa Cruz mountains like an invading army: heavy billows sliding down the wooded slopes. I imagined mounted riders hidden inside, about to erupt into the expensive suburbia of Menlo Park. The vision gave me a pleasant thrill, so I lingered in the driveway before getting into the Tesla.

And that was when I saw the woman.

She walked slowly down the street which was unusual in itself – nobody walked here. Joggers ran and dog-owners dragged their pooches but there were so few pedestrians that some streets in our subdivisions had no sidewalks. But here she was, a slender woman in a long dress and a large droopy hat that obscured her face. She clearly did not belong here, and I envied her conspicuous strangeness. All too often, I, a homeowner, wife, and mother, felt like an impostor, trying to fit in.

I almost stepped out and called to her – even though what would I say? – when it happened.

Two men appeared out of nowhere, running, and tackled her to the ground.

I believe I screamed. Whoever screamed, it was not her because she just crumbled like a rag doll, her hat sliding off, and the men…they bent over her but I could not watch, could not see, because I was fumbling with my phone that almost slipped out of my nerveless fingers, and dialing 911, and running back to the house, and locking the door, and answering the dispatcher’s questions in a voice that did not feel like my own, and trying to remember where Jesse kept his handgun…

I peered out the window onto the street. I expected to see her being raped, brutalized, robbed.

She was not.

The woman was up and walking away from the two men. One of them flopped on his back, spread out on the wet pavement like a gutted fish. The other man crouched on all fours as if offering a piggyback ride to an invisible child.

The scene was so odd that I just gaped at it, the urgent voice of the dispatcher droning from the phone, asking me what was going on. I could not describe what I was seeing. The misty morning, the black scratches of naked sycamore branches on the pale sky, the two men crawling blindly on the pavement, one of them rubbing ferociously at his face, and the woman, walking away unhurriedly as if she had all the time in the world, her long glistening hair slipping down her back from underneath her hat, thick soapy strands, pure white – like the white I would never grow into.

Jesse

I got a call at 5 am. Mr. Wei was pulling out.

Delivered in a staccato voice, with a lot of “actually” and “like” mixed in to cover up the dearth of actual argument, the ten-minute long monologue amounted to the fact that Mr. Wei no longer believed that the science underlying ForeCast was solid. Of course, at this point I tried to interject, regretting that I did not possess Tam’s talent for yelling. Mr. Wei just plowed on.

I took the call in the kitchen because I did not want to wake Sophie. She had not been sleeping well. A couple of times I found her wandering downstairs in the middle of the night, staring at her phone or peeking into Emma’s bedroom as if she expected our daughter to materialize there suddenly, transported, Star-Trek-style, from her college dorm in Berkeley. I tried to talk to her, encouraging her to start volunteering or spend more time with her friends, but her eyes would glaze over. She started looking for a job, though I knew she was unemployable after taking fifteen years off. Science is a competitive business; once out of the race, you can’t go back. So what? She had her family. We had a good life.

When the conversation ended, I did not know what to do. I wanted to call Tam and tell her what was going on, but it was too early. I tried to think about other investors I could approach for a cash injection, but my brain felt hollow. Maybe I was too old for this game.

At the end, I just drove to the office park. A flock of birds, starlings or sparrows, wheeled above, coming together in a solid body and falling apart, swirling like tea leaves in the yellow sky.

There was light in the window and I almost called the police about a break-in – we did have expensive computers – when I realized it was Svetlana, our cleaner. She had asked to come in early. She had tried to explain her reasons, but her harsh Russian accent gave me a headache and I just nodded. Or was she Ukrainian? Whatever. I would have to fire her in any case. We did not have the funds to rent this Menlo Park office for much longer.

I parked and went out. The air exploded with cawing and a raven strafed me, the shadow of his wings like a black lightning. I lifted my hand to protect my face, but the bird was gone, just as my phone vibrated in my pocket.

I pulled it out, half-expecting another shitstorm.

It was Emma. A video call.

When the picture flashed on the screen, I realized my daughter had dropped her phone or for some reason had the camera pointing away. It showed a patch of dirty pavement and a drainage grill. It was unbelievably filthy, as if garbage collectors had been on strike and had left behind piles of…trash?

It was not ordinary trash. Not torn newspapers, plastic bags and dog shit. There was some whitish stuff that looked like giant mushrooms, poisonous fool’s caps, pale and quivering. From the drain, reddish slime bubbled up. And heaps of something scrunched and wet: used wipes or…masks?

Wrinkled, dark-stained, a white stained rag twitched and humped up like a caterpillar.

“Emma!” I yelled. “Emma!”

The phone was turned around. I saw my daughter’s face.

Svetlana

I had my own construction company in Kyiv. Built sheds, storage units. Houses too. Better houses than these. And then Putin’s invasion, economy down the drain. No jobs. The company went belly-up. My husband got sick. No health insurance. At least in the Soviet times they’d bury you for free.

I was polishing the toilet seat when my phone went off. A stupid “gender-neutral” toilet. Those rich Americans – they pat themselves on the shoulder for being “progressive” and “inclusive” because they put up a plaque with “All genders, all races welcome” crap. And then they pay you starvation wages. But starvation wages in California buy Vassily his chemo in Kyiv.

I heard a car pull into the lot, the sound of its tires cutting through the annoying birdsong. Even birds sounded off here, as if singing in a foreign language, which I suppose they did. At first, I was scared but then I peeked out and saw Mr. Connor’s Lexus. It was strange that he would be here so early but why not? His office, his rules. I only hoped he would not realize that my beat-up Honda had been parked here overnight. I just could not face driving back to my shared rental in Tracy – a two-hour crawl each way.

I expected to hear the chink of the lock as he walked in, but all was silent. I went to the window and saw a man standing with his back to me like a black shadow against the yellow sky. If I were home, I would know he was getting his smoke before coming in, but this was not home, and Mr. Connor – Jesse, as he wanted me to call him, though I never would – did not smoke. Or maybe he was starting. I knew his company was going down. I am not stupid: I could see the signs. No skin off my nose, except I would have to start looking for another job.

A roar overhead rattled the windows, and a mug I had just washed slid off the countertop and shattered on the floor. A plane? SFO and San Jose Airport were both close, but this sounded like it took off from the parking lot.

Who was I kidding? I had lived through the Russian invasion and knew the sound of a military jetfighter.

And then the dry clatter of a chopper. It was beginning to feel like Nana’s tales of the beginning of the Great Patriotic War.

I opened the door and stepped into the chilly air. The birdsong had resumed as if military planes and helicopters were as ordinary as gulls and ravens.

Mr. Connor still stood by his car, not moving, head bowed. I wanted to call out to him but for some reason, my throat felt locked.

My phone buzzed again. A text from Vassily.

But I could not take my eyes off that huddled black shape in the pale light. He looked like a chuchelo. A scarecrow. Except that the crows were not scared of him. One of them, a large black thing, landed on his shoulder and then took off again, wings whirring. And still, he did not stir.

Another bass roar of a low-flying military plane. The noise got into my bones and rattled them as if I was already dead. I saw cross-shaped shadows on the white sky like smudged fingerprints in the dust.

A gust of wind and something flew at me. A newspaper? The parking had been clean when I went into the office.

It wrapped itself around my foot. It looked like a surgical mask. I was shaking my foot, trying to dislodge it, because I would not touch it. I scrubbed filthy toilets for a living, but I would not touch this thing.

It was clingy and moist and stippled with dark stains like smeared black-currant jam. It slithered up my sneaker as if it were alive and I cried out in disgust as I kicked it off.

And still, that huddled figure with its back to me would not move. No, not true. Something was moving around his head, something swollen and bleached: not his hair because his hair was dark, and he had precious little of it anyway…but something corkscrewing away from his skull, twitching and retracting like fat worms…

I rushed to my car and though my hands were shaking so badly I dropped my keys, I managed to get inside and pull out, swearing and praying to the Mother of God, begging her to take pity on my husband who would die in agony if I could not send him money.

The car fishtailed but then righted itself and I was almost out of the parking lot when a large bird flew across the windshield, making me brake abruptly. And the standing figure lifted its head, and looked at me, and though I did not want to look back, I did.

Sophie

The police never came.

I called Emma. And then I called again.

The screech of military planes overhead thrummed on my nerves. And when they fell silent, the birds started again. The Morse-code chirping of swallows, and the hoarse cries of gulls, and the cackling of ravens. They swirled in the grey air when I ventured outside, rising and falling in dense clouds of chaotic bodies.

My sister Veronica called. She and I had not spoken for ages.

“Don’t look,” she said. Her voice was calm with that icy brittle clam that I remembered from my childhood when it had always presaged another tantrum. “Don’t answer the door, don’t take videocalls, don’t turn on the TV. Don’t look at faces.”

And before I could erupt in fury at my wayward, hysterical sister, tell her that she had finally crossed the line, she hung up. My calls went to voicemail.

Not so my calls to Emma. The phone rung and rung in that hollow emptiness that tells you, better than any words, that your world has just stopped making sense.  

As an afterthought, I called Jesse. He did not answer, and I did not try again.

I turned on NPR. Radio, the quaint leftover of the last century. It is impossible to avoid faces when surfing the Internet. They pop in online ads, wink from an embedded video, stare from the journalists’ bylines. I could not risk it. When a disaster loomed on the horizon, my sister sensed its approach as unerringly as a bloodhound. My sister was crazy. But she was always right.

There was some political talk-show on NPR. The participants’ voices sounded hollow and unreal, periodically blotted out by the shriek of the planes and the commotion of the birds outside.  

I did not know who else to call. This was how attenuated my existence had become: a remote husband; an absent daughter; an estranged sister. I used to have friends. I used to have colleagues. I used to have a life.

My finger hovering over my list of contacts, I felt it descend before I could make a conscious decision.

Tam.

When Jesse had first talked about his hotshot new coder, I did not realize it was a girl. When I finally figured it out, I was bemused. I asked her about her name at some office do.

“It’s unisex,” she explained. “It means ‘innocent’ in Hebrew.”

She was not my idea of innocent. She occupied too much space, drew too much attention. Everything about her was big: her hair; her laughter; her eyes. The last time I had seen her, they were made even bigger by dark circles, so pronounced she looked like a racoon. She always talked about her parents and her two older brothers. I tried to tell myself I was not jealous, but I doubted Emma ever mentioned me to her friends.

I did not expect her to pick up. But she did.

“Sophie?” she said and in the pause that followed, I knew Jesse was not coming back.

“Do you know what’s going on?”

“No…yes. Sort of. Listen, I’m not sure. But it’s bad.”

“Should I…” I hesitated. “Should I drive to the office, get Jesse?”

“No! Stay in. And don’t…don’t talk to strangers.”

I snickered.

“That’s what I am supposed to tell you!”

We could not quite have been mother and daughter according to our ages, but we were close enough.

She laughed – a pale shadow of her usual booming laughter.

“Right! But seriously. Not online either. Just…don’t look.”

“Tam,” I said. “I want to know what it is.”

And I did. I realized it suddenly with piercing clarity. More than anything else, more even that Emma picking up the phone, I wanted to know.

I had been a scientist once.

Tam exhaled.

“Yes,” she said. “I need to…talk to my brothers. One of them is in the army. A pilot. But I’ll come by, Sophie. Later. We will talk.”

I went into the bedroom, retrieved Jesse’s handgun from the bottom of the closet and sat in the living room, watching the door.

Tam

 I needed to call Menachem.

But instead, I just sat at the table, my head in my hands, refusing to think. Refusing to act. Most of all, refusing to look.

After a while, my arms were cramping, and nothing was happening. Nothing would happen unless I did something.

I went into the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face. And I dared myself to look, studying my reflection in the toothpaste-speckled mirror that I had promised myself I would clean soon. Maybe it would be more prudent now never to clean it until it became an opaque expanse of smears and stains. Safe.

No, nonsense. Your own face could not be…or maybe it could? How would I know?

I picked up my phone and then it trilled in my hand. Was Menachem awake? Time difference meant it was the middle of the night. But he was a soldier, used to ungodly hours. Had there been an emergency mobilization already?

But the name flashing on the screen was in Chinese symbols that I had input as a lark. Mr. Wei.

Donald Wei

I did not believe in this technology. Nobody can know the future in the present. “Study the past if you would know the future,” says Kongzi – Confucius as they mispronounce it in English. But if you invest in startups, you invest in what other people believe in – or may be persuaded to.  

Seemed like a simple idea. Collect information on the sidelines: all those odd little things that major trend-studies disregard because they seem irrelevant. But irrelevant is what counts. Black swans, they call it; events that swoop out of nowhere and change the course of history. I had been skeptical when Jesse Connor approached me. There are trends and there are accidents. History can be diverted from its course but not for long. Still, I went for it. There is a big market in predictions.

Connor was very persuasive. Until the algorithm started giving us those weird scenarios, like a bird epidemic in Sichuan. Not bird flu, bird. Whatever that meant. Connor and his team worked around the clock fixing the software but the more they tinkered, the stranger the results. Fungi forests in California. Worm-eating cornfields in Iowa. Mold explosion in London. And population numbers – dwindling to zero and then exploding off the charts.

And then a conference call. Tam, the hotshot programmer who wrote the software. Funny I did not realize Tam was a woman until I saw her on the screen. Big hair and dark circles under her eyes.

“It’s not the algorithm,” she said with no preamble. “It’s time itself.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“We think time is uniform. But it’s not. It branches out at crucial points. And it may even run backwards. Well, not exactly. Causality may work backwards – from the future to the past.”

And then she launched into a tirade punctuated with “quantum uncertainty” and “Many-Worlds solution”. When she ran out of breath, Connor took over until I interrupted him.

“What you are saying is that these predictions are true even if they impossible?” I said.

“Yes,” Tam said.

“And this is because the future is trying to eat the present?”

Tam blinked but I thought she understood. Connor did not.

“Something like this,” she said.

“Does it mean that your prediction algorithm is going to help it? Help this new future?’

Tam tossed her hair over her shoulder.

“I don’t know. I never thought of it.”

Count on gweilos not to think of the most important part!

I called Connor later and told him I was pulling out.

Kongzi says that a superior man must pursue the truth regardless of the circumstances. But what happens when the truth pursues you?

Erica my wife went to the mall this morning. She took MTR, the Hong Kong subway. It is always crowded. Some people still wore masks after the pandemic, but most did not. It was safe now. Time flowing smoothly once again, no eddies or rapids, no alternative streams.

She had not come back.

I called Tam. I put it on speaker, not video. I had heard the rumors.

At least she did not beat around the bush.

“Yes,” she said. “It’s starting”.

I sent her a link to the South China Morning Post.

Yesterday in Kowloon a forty-story apartment bloc, was found empty. Lamma Island was covered by a blanket of crippled butterflies. A witness saw a clutch of birds splashing in the water of the Victoria Bay, their wings sown into a patchwork by a raw bleeding cord.

“Anything we can do?”

“No.”

I hung up.

My grandmother had died in the Great Leap Forward. My great-uncle had been in the Red Guards. We escaped to the Fragrant Harbor, my parents carrying me in their arms.

The future that could have been was coming for me, sniffing me out, following the road not taken. I guess you could only run away for so long.

I heard the door of the apartment open and close. Erica was back.

Menachem

Tam called at 4 am. Crazy Californian time. But I was not asleep anyway. There was talk of Code Red and I was getting ready to go to the base.

Rina woke up but I waved her back into the bedroom. She was used to it.

My little sister, a computer genius. I heard her breathing as I was putting on my uniform.

“Don’t go,” she finally said.

I laughed.

Code Red. Syria, or Lebanon, or Hezbollah, or space invaders. They call, you go.

Rina was asleep again, her head under the pillow: she always did it, no matter how often I teased her about being accused of her murder if she suffocated herself. I kissed her hair; she twitched but did not turn over. 

The Twin-Tail Knights Squadron, the best in the IDF. Boys were already out on the field, but I was told to wait. The scuttlebutt made no sense. Unidentified objects? Were we supposed to go after UFOs?

An F-16 was taking off…and then there was a screech like millions of nails on millions of windowpanes…and I was on the floor as slivers of glass were flying over me and there was a stench of burning and fear. Familiar. The smell of war.

No, the plane had not exploded but it had gone off the runway and was now sagging like it was melting or something. The clear bubble of the cockpit was not clear anymore.

My face was washed in sweat as I was running out, and in the gray hamsin sky something was swirling, sullen and broody, like the twisters I had seen in Oklahoma. There are no twisters in the Middle East. We have wars instead. I flew combat: Lebanon, Gaza, Lebanon again. My father fought in the Six-Days War. My uncle Avi was a POW.

But this…this was…what was this? It looked like birds, pigeons or ravens. No. Birds do not fly tethered together like beads on an infinitely long necklace that is swinging above our heads. A necklace or maybe a whip; a spiraling cord that descended from the cloud. And yet these were birds, strung on this tough tendon, flapping their wings, croaking and whistling and screaming…Yes, screaming. Like POWs. It was so weird that my brain refused to process what I was seeing. Where was the end of this thing? What was it connected to?

The cord suddenly fell from the sky, piling up into a heap of squawking meat. And emerging from the dusty-glass sky, an enormous shadow. An F-16? Some new stealth bomber?

A bird.

It was as big as an Airbus-330, too big to be real. But real it was. The stench of raw meat and rot made my eyes water and I saw a soldier on the tarmac puking his guts out. Another idiot was shooting, discharging his machine gun into this thing – did as much damage as throwing pebbles. But the shooting drew its attention and I saw its eyeless head dip down, the beak gaping. The head was swarming with busy ant-like motion. The entire thing was pixelating like a bad TV screen. It was composed of flocking bodies, merging into each other. It rained feathers and blood.

The grey light curdled to darkness as the bird-thing was descending. More shooting, screams. And then I saw a line of people coming out of the HQ. They marched in lockstep, strung along a sagging umbilical.

I ran to the hangar where a small Cessna 182RG was tucked into a corner. Behind me a strange white noise rose and fell like an irregular heartbeat, composed of shuffling, flapping and croaking. But no more screams. No more shouts. The last machine-gun salvo disintegrated into silence.

My hands found the controls faster than my brain.

An explosion rattled the runway. The Cessna was cruising out, listing and shuddering as I was fighting with the controls. The day had turned black. The bird-thing – the flock stitched together by tortured sinews –was above me and I could see more and more birds flying toward it and adding to its rapidly growing body. The sky was alive with pigeons, geese, starlings and cranes.

The runway was blocked by a line of hunched-up figures. I plowed through them. The glass was splattered with red, but I didn’t need to see anymore. I am a pilot. My hands know what to do.

The screech of torn metal. I was airborne. I was flying.

My uncle’s body was returned for burial. There wouldn’t be anything left of mine to return. Better this way. Easier to cope. My parents have two more kids. Too bad I would not leave any behind. Rina would forget. My sister would remember.

Flying straight into the tornado of flesh as birds are being sucked into the engine. Imagining myself as a ball of flame tearing through the crawling sky and bringing back the sun.

Sophie

Tam came at midnight. I had been crouching in the sitting room, Jesse’s gun by my side, curtains down, radio and TV off, only the blue light of the computer monitor dribbling into the gloom. No matter what, I had to know.

Neither Jesse nor Emma answered their phones. And as I surfed the Internet, closing each window when a video clip popped up, as they seemed to do with insistence of a buzzing fly, I was burying my family. But they kept coming back. Emma as a toddler. Jesse on our wedding day. Twenty years of my life gone. I tried to pretend they had never existed; that I had taken a different route and I was now settling back into the life of that alternative Sophie who had persevered with her studies, had taken a research job, had never married, never had a baby. That they had never existed.

My husband. My daughter.

I opened the door with no apprehension. Tam’s face looked like a bruise; as if those dark circles had spread all over her pale skin, turning it the color of dusk.

“Not very careful, are you?” she said with a wry smile.

“Does it matter?”

“Not really.”

I asked her if she wanted to eat and she said yes but when I brought her a cheese sandwich, she took a minuscule bite and put it back on the plate.

“My brother is dead,” she said.

“The pilot?”

“Yes.”

I did not say anything because there was nothing to say. But for a moment, we were together in the shared bubble of bereavement, and I hoped it eased her pain as much as it eased mine.

“You know what ForeCast is,” she finally said, and I nodded. The truth was, I did not, not really. Jesse had stopped talking to me about his work long time ago.

“A killer forecasting algorithm. Universal too – works for finance, climate, politics, you name it. We were running last trials when it started throwing off these weird results. Like really weird. Apocalypse, kind of, but not the end of the world. More like the end of a world.”

“What does it mean?”

“Well, I am not a physicist but the idea at certain key points, the future may influence the past, so that a less-likely outcome will happen. Like some events – the emergence of life or the extinction of dinosaurs – are so unlikely that the only way they could happen is if something in the future forced them. Like…there is another kind of time. I’m not really explaining it well.”

“Not just another kind of time,” I said. “Evolutionary time. Moving by leaps and bounds. Punctuated equilibrium.”

Tam stared at me as if seeing me for the first time.

“I was an evolutionary biologist once,” I said.

“I did not know.”

“Doesn’t matter. Go on.”

“Well, that kind of explains it.  Because what’s happening – people losing their faces, birds melting together into a flying hive, stuff coming out of the drains – it’s a new ecosystem being born.”

“Invasion from the future?”

“Invasion of the future.”

“A new ecosystem? But what kind of ecosystem?”

She shrugged. But I knew the answer and it came back to me with a rush of forgotten pleasure: the pleasure of understanding; the sparkle of insight.

“I think it’s an evolution that went for colonial, rather than multicellular, organisms,” I said.

“Like bees?”

“No, like jellyfish or polyps. Colonies.”

“And faces…”

“Identities.”

She was smart; she understood immediately. A face is who you are: unique and irreplaceable; an individual. As part of a colonial organism, you don’t need a face.

“Do you think it can be cured?” she asked, our roles suddenly reversed, and I felt as if I was talking to one of those students I could have taught and never did.

“How can it be? There is no cure for time. The future is not coming because of an infection; the future is an infection.”

She nodded, her black curls obscuring her face as she looked down at her tightly clenched hands.

“Our investor, Donald Wei, suggested it,” she said in a small voice “and I think he was right. It is likely that the reason this insane future is happening is because we have forecast it.”

There was a knock on the door.

I ran to the entrance and stared at the Ring security screen.

They stood outside, so close together that their bodies blended into one on the pixelated display. Their heads bowed; their hands intertwined. But I did not need to see their faces to know who they were. I had invested my entire life in these bodies: feeding and loving; touching and worrying. The warm biological tie. Male and female; mother and offspring. I could not break it now; could I? Time only flows in one direction for each of us.

“Don’t open!” Tam was behind me. I looked back. She had picked up the gun.

 I hesitated. That was my other life calling; the life that might have been; the life in which my face was my own.

I opened the door. 

Tam

They stood on the threshold. They? It? One or many?

A man and a woman, their bodies squeezed together tight that they melded into each other, the clothes ripped and distorted by the protrusions of shapeless quivering flesh. I recognized Jesse’s familiar jacket and his daughter’s Berkeley t-shirt, but they were as irrelevant as yesterday’s newspapers: remnants of the world that was not simply gone but had never existed. Above them were two identical moist white ovals, as featureless and raw as a jellyfish’s tentacle. It looked so weird, that for a moment I felt like laughing. And then there was that slithering sensation under the roots of my hair, as if something were separating there, coming undone…

I lifted the gun and fired but my sight was dimming, and the shot went astray, and in the last seconds of having eyes I saw Sophie thrown against the wall, a dark patch blooming on her chest. I wanted to cry out in horror, but I had no mouth. And it did not matter anyway.

Sophie

I felt no pain.

But the shot turned me away from what stood in the doorway and I faced Tam as my top was turning dark and heavy and warm, rivulets of blood slithering down my thighs.

Her face was lying on the floor by her feet. Dark eyes open wide, tumbledown curls spread around like a corona. The pale quivering thing stepped over it and went to join the colony.  

Something was loosening up inside me and I pressed my hands to the wound as if trying to keep it all together, knit the unraveling seconds but it was too late as if always had been.

Redhawk-4 to base, Redhawk-4 to base, do you copy? Yes, I am on target. Flying over the city center. All clear. No pedestrians. No traffic. Stationary cars but not many. No fires. No signs of damage to infrastructure. Lowering altitude. Still nothing. No…wait! Something is blowing along the street. Yes, blowing! Like…snow? I know that there is no snow in summer but it sure as hell looks like…I am not coming down. I am over a circular plaza and it is covered…I don’t know how to describe it. Are you getting my feed? Looks like…like cuts of meat in a butcher’ shop, like somebody filled the fucking plaza with raw meat…No, I can’t go any lower without landing.

More of the white stuff carried on the wind. It is light and the wind is getting stronger. It can foul my blades.

Something above me, something big. Do you copy? I have to land. Forcing me to…

I am aborting the mission! Aborting the mission! Anybody is listening?

This is Redhawk-4 to base.

The streets are paved with faces.


“Medusae” first appeared in Legendary Tales in October 2020.


Elana Gomel is an academic with a long list of books and articles, specializing in science fiction, Victorian literature, and serial killers. She is also a fiction writer who has published more than a hundred short stories, several novellas, and four novels.  She is a member of HWA and can be found at https://www.citiesoflightanddarkness.com/ and at

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“The Black Curtain” Dark Surrealism by Leonard Henry Scott

“What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Sorry, I ….”  Marvene replied, trailing off in squints and shrugs.

Ivan stared at her briefly. Then with the help of a carefully pointed index finger, he slowly enunciated the one unequivocal rule, as if for the twenty seventh time. “We don’t go outside when the night is coming.”

“Yes….”

“We talked about this. We agreed.”

“—Yes, I know. But it’s not even close yet. It’s all the way across the street.”

Marvene motioned to the window. “See?  It’s barely moving.”

She was correct. The night was across the street standing quietly in the rain.  It seemed almost to be not moving at all, still as a photograph. But they both knew that was a deception. They knew the night was always moving and that soon it would be at their doorstep.  And this night would not arrive softly as a gentle veil to take them off to sleep.

This was a different sort of night. It moved ponderous and slow as heavy winter drapes. Now, it could clearly be seen in the near distance through the translucent blur of hard pelting rain and spaces between the autumn-colored trees. Stretching to infinity on both sides, it dropped down from the sky as a thick ebony curtain suspended from the heavens. Its uncompromising darkness blotted out everything behind it and buildings in front stood out brightly against its ink dark surface as if they had been painted on black velvet.

“We don’t go out at night.” Ivan reiterated.

“I know. I just wanted to empty the garbage, that’s all.”

 “The garbage?” Ivan replied shaking his head. “I’m talking about our lives here. This is our last night. Let’s just try to be safe and make it through. Forget about the garbage.”

“Yes,” Marvene replied persistently. “But we had fried fish and the garbage is stinking up the place. I only wanted to take that greasy, awful smelling bag to the dumpster.”

She had a sensitive nose. Ivan knew that about her. He knew everything about her. If he cut one careless fart, she’d be spraying Fabrize for a day and a half. 

“Why can’t we just leave the bag outside the door?”

“No, the animals will get into it and….”

“Animals?  What animals?”

“Cats.” Marvene replied. “And maybe raccoons, but I have seen cats in the mornings foraging around.” 

Ivan shook his head. It was hard to believe that anything could survive out in the night. He’d found the grim remains of a few dogs. At least that is what he thought they were. He’d found what was left of people as well, people that had been his neighbors. One in particular stood out in his mind. It was a disgusting sight, so tragically sad. There were red and brown foul-smelling remnants, crushed bones, shreds of clothing all melded together and painted onto the asphalt. To Ivan, the most disturbing part was the pieces of cloth. There were some shreds of a familiar multicolored material. He was certain that it was torn from a dress that Mrs. Murphy used to wear. She lived across the courtyard.  Ivan had always liked her. A nice lady, he thought, very pleasant.

Most of his neighbors had already left. They had gone to seek refuge in the long abandoned deep mines of the Black Mountain. He’d printed out a Goggle map two weeks ago, just before the internet crashed. He couldn’t recall at the moment the reasons why they had waited so long to leave.   

“Cats are resilient. They find places to hide.”

Ivan sat down beside Marvene on the couch.

“I don’t give a damn about the cats,” he said, “Or the garbage or the unpleasant smell. I only care about you. I want us to finish packing up the car so we can get the hell out of here as soon as the night moves down the road tomorrow.”

“Seconds,” she said.

“No.” Ivan replied firmly.

“I could be there and back in seconds”

Ivan sighed heavily and took a deep pause to calm himself.

“Seconds,” She repeated softly as Ivan placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“It’s just not safe. We’ve talked about this.”

“Whatever.”

Marvene shrugged.

‘Dammit Marvene!’ He thought. His mother would call him ‘hardheaded’ whenever he broke one of her sacred rules. She’d waggle a cautionary finger and pronounce with full motherly gravitas; “A hard head makes a soft behind.”  And he’d straightened up immediately. It worked for him, a tried-and-true method for any four-year-old. But Marvene was a grown-ass woman who could (and would) do whatever she damn well pleased. And she would not hesitate to remind him of that whenever he got too full of himself. And so, although he dearly loved her and respected her free spirit, it did make keeping her safe a bit of a challenge.

They sat together in the resonating silence. He could feel himself inexorably softening in the sweet cocoon of Marvene’s presence. They watched television.  Yes, although cable was dead, for now at least there was still television, rudimentary though it was, news alerts, cartoons, old black and white movies. More and more there was less of it. Ivan suspected that soon it would be gone altogether. To be replaced by what? He didn’t know.

Things change.

Ivan reluctantly dragged himself away from Marvene and the comfortable couch to take one last turn through the house before the night arrived. He went from room to room rattling closed locked doors and securing windows. He also checked the garage where the half-packed Subaru Outback was waiting for their dawn departure. The garage door was closed, and the house seemed to be safe from the night at least for a day or two. That is what they thought. But it was clearly wearing down.

Although the night was seemingly too thick to enter small cracks, it could easily pour through an open door or window like a great gelatinous sea. Once inside, it could fill up the entire house and smother and grind up every living thing inside.  Other than ensuring that the doors and windows were closed, there was nothing else he could do at this point to protect them against the oncoming night. He paused briefly at the attic window looking out at the rain and creeping darkness. That gloomy sight made him yearn for a long-ago different time when sunsets splashed brilliantly across an orange-colored sky and the sweet nights were soft and smelled of warm earth and honeysuckle.

Things do change.

Ivan knew that Marvene was right (at least sort of right). But even though the black night was some distance away, as she had pointed out, he felt that it was still much too close to take any chances. And what was the point? Usually, the night crept along almost imperceptibly; slower even than the slowest moving most plodding funeral procession. But that could change without any warning until all at once it was all at your elbow, ready to pounce like a great black angry dog. The night was unpredictable, almost as if it had an actual mind and could think.  

In the living room, Marvene stood up and delicately pinched her nose, even though no one was there at the moment to witness her displeasure. She made a face and with an exaggerated theatrical flourish fanned away a bad fish odor with her hand. Then, she reached out and retrieved the book of matches beside Ivan’s flip top box of Marlboro cigarettes. She carefully lit the two almond-colored candles that decorated the coffee table, an ancient gift from a long-ago lady friend. That truth of them, but a truth Ivan felt would be somewhat more than inconvenient.  So, he had told her that he had gotten them at Target. She was suitably impressed with his good taste.

When the heat of the candle flames had asserted itself into the wax, a pleasant curl of jasmine smoke slowly emerged dancing cheerfully into the air. The sweet smoke blended with the lingering odor of fried fish to create a wholly new, somewhat less daunting aroma. It was better, Marvene thought, but still not good. She placed the book of matches back onto the table top and glanced up through the front window. The dark curtain had by now completely consumed the houses across the street, with front porches, steps and posts seeming to be stuck to its opaque pitch-black surface like bizarre decorations or pieces of art.

The metal dumpster was still in plain view near the edge of the courtyard, well in front of the advancing darkness. It shimmered and sparkled in a thousand splashes of falling rainwater. although it constantly beckoned to Marvene with its silent siren’s call through sparkles and squints of diminishing daylight, Marvene resisted.

That was just as well. Because as she turned her gaze away for just a moment and then looked back, the night had suddenly devoured the entire courtyard and stood now as a great black wall no more than two feet from their back window. Emptying the garbage this late in the evening would have been a mistake for sure.  Marvene stared at the way too close encroaching night and shook her head slowly up and down. She thought, ‘Success in life is all about timing.’ The falling piano crashes into the sidewalk, missing you by six inches. The guy in front of you in line at 7/11 wins the lottery for 100 million dollars just because you stopped to tie your shoelace. It all equals out somehow, she thought.

Ivan returned to the couch. The Subaru was packed and waiting. All they needed was to get through the night.

And now at once the night came fast and heavy, claws out, like a hungry, red-eyed beast in the wilderness.

Soon the house was altogether covered by the heavy black curtain. Ivan and Marvene sat together on the couch (as they had done many times before) listening to its eerie, rumbling cadence as it laboriously dragged and crawled and scraped its way across their shingled roof. The sound of it was frightening (of course). Yet their hearts did not burst with fear and their minds did not run wildly out of control with flailing hands and terrified thoughts. Ivan and Marvene, just like other members of their species, possessed an enormous capacity to adapt to the worst possible circumstance. No matter how frightening, no matter how dire, they simply got used to it.

So, now they just sat quietly waiting out the hours, hoping that the house, their once beloved home, would not suddenly give up and collapse around their ears. They knew the dawn was coming as it always did. But they hoped that they would still be alive to see it when it arrived. 

The house shuttered and groaned as shingles and siding were ripped away. Pieces of it, large and small, flew off and crashed into the yard. And there was a gathering rhythm of loud bangs and pops as the black curtain of night itself dragged heavily along the sides and across the roof. The ripping, rending, and crashing of things from the house had a certain cadence like a ceremony of shotgun blasts one after the other.  As things on the roof and in the attic crashed and ripped apart, the room filled with falling streams and great misty clouds of dust. Ivan and Marvene sat very close together on the couch, arms wrapped around each other, eyes tightly closed. But there was little to see anyway since the only light in the house came from the dim scented candles on the coffee table. Marvene wondered, ‘How much more can the little house take? But the horrible cadence of destruction continued deep into night and the absolute darkness that surrounded them when candles burned out.     

They knew that at some point when the heaviness of their eyelids outweighed their fear, they would drift off to sleep. The need for sleep can be as compelling as the need for relief of a bursting bladder. Nothing can hold it back. They knew that no matter how hard they tried to stay awake, no matter how horrible, how terrifying the night sounds would be, at some point they would be overpowered by the need for sleep.

They had two Big Ben clocks that sounded off like fire alarms. They set both to wake them before the sunrise.

When the loud ringing clocks woke them, the gray dawn was beginning to rise in the courtyard. The back of the night had just slipped through the front yard and was moving rapidly away. The rain had stopped. Devastation was all around. Everything was sopping wet. Houses that had been standing the day before were now just piles of shingles and wood, a myriad of broken, indefinable things.  They had thought that they might have two or three more nights before their home collapsed into a pile of rubble. But looking at the sad condition of it now, they agreed, the house would most likely die tonight.  It was time to leave.

 Ivan was tightening the straps around a three-foot pile of luggage on the roof of the Outback. Marvene had taken the garbage bag to the dumpster and was returning to the house through a gauntlet of rain-soaked trash and piles building parts. Ivan smiled to himself when he saw what Marvene was doing. He shook his head and mused that she was truly a credit to her community.

A tiny head popped up from one of the piles of debris.

“It’s Mrs. Murphy’s cat.” Marvene exclaimed.

‘Poor Mrs. Murphy,’ Ivan thought. He wondered why she had even ventured outside. Her house had remained standing right up until last night.  The cat came over to say hello. Then she immediately jumped into the back of the Subaru through the open rear hatch. 

“She wants to go with us.”

Marvene turned to face Ivan squarely and pointed at the cat.

“See? Cats know things I tell you! They do. She thinks that we know what we’re doing!”

“Do we?” Ivan asked.

She thinks so.”

The two of them worked together to clear the debris that had covered the driveway. After locking the front door to the house Marvene climbed into the car and backed it out of the garage. Ivan pulled the garage door shut and climbed into the passenger’s seat beside her. She would take the first turn at the wheel. Before they went half a block the cat was asleep.

This was the plan. They would get on the main highway. They would chase the night down the road as they ran from the rising sun. Hopefully they would not run out of gas or have an accident or break down. Hopefully the pocked and damaged road would hold up and they would not encounter a game ending sinkhole the size of a Greyhound Bus.  They would scrupulously follow the Google Map to the mines at Black Mountain and there (hopefully) they would meet up with other humans (including some of their former neighbors). And together, they would figure out what to do.

As they travelled down the highway, the sun continued to rise up slowly behind them. Soon it would be directly overhead. Whether or not they made it to the mines they would have to find somewhere safe before the sun set in front of them and the night appeared in their rear-view mirror. They could not allow its Black curtain to find them out here in the open. Ivan, now at the wheel, mashed down on the accelerator carefully dodging potholes and debris. They had plenty of gas and still hours of time. Although they increased their speed, they knew that no matter how fast they went, it would not be fast enough.  Ivan and Marvene would try very hard to find that safe place. Because they certainly knew that not even the fastest Subaru on earth could outrun the night.


Leonard Henry Scott was born and raised in the Bronx and is a graduate of American University, with an MLS degree from the University of Maryland.  He was a long-time staff member of the Library of Congress and he and his wife, Hattie presently reside in National Harbor, Maryland. Len’s fiction has appeared in; The MacGuffin, Mystery Tribune, Straylight Magazine, Crack the Spine and elsewhere.


Three Dark Poems by John Tustin: “The Crush of the Moon”, “Dead Candles”, “Respite”

The Crush of the Moon

Every night she appears
Above me
From her position of nowhere
To her position of somewhere
From behind the magic of a cloud
And I look despondently at her
From my perch at the window,
Drunk on the melodies of music
And embers of light in the darkness

And she looks down at me
With a bored but petulant rage,
Flicking me with a powerful finger
To put me in my place
And knock me down
Just as I am rising

Every night I corkscrew deeper
Into the sameness madness
Of a love that is wan,
That is not tender,
Crushed between the fingers of the moon
And floating further out
Each evening
Into the vast useless discomposure
Of a promiseless
Tomorrow
And the next

Holding on inside to the very things
That have cast me
Into the void

Dead Candles

The smell of matches lit in vain
For candles whose long wicks remain
But are irresolutely soaked in the tears
Of ghosts who never lived here
But in a place I was banned
That I imagine I would see in my dreams
If I still had dreams.

Respite

Even when I close my eyes
I cannot get much rest.
Still. Still.
After all these years,
living more than half a life
in fear and obscurity –
I will not, cannot relax.
The poetic term would be Respite.
No respite for me.

Perhaps it’s because I have words missing
as if chunks of memory deleted.
Faith. Bravery. Trust.
I search for those words
and when I find them
I break them open,
only to find their shells empty.
Standing on the beauty of a silvery sand,
held up by trillions of kernels,
tiny and abrasive individually
and all I can feel is alone,
exhausted, unable.
No respite for me.

When the water laps up to me,
I retreat.
No matter how good it feels,
I back away.
No respite for me.

After all these years
and all that’s happened
I’m still afraid to stand 
at the open window
unless the shades are drawn.
I close my eyes,
the lids shutting abrasively.
The breeze is there
but the shade absorbs it.
It doesn’t matter 
if it’s dark or light out there.
I’m naked and afraid,
my skin untouched.
No respite for me. 

John Tustin’s poetry has appeared in many disparate literary journals since 2009. fritzware.com/johntustinpoetry contains links to his published poetry online.


“Resurrection” Dark Fiction by Kelly Piner

After an eighteen-year absence, Raine drove past marshlands and farmhouses toward her remote, coastal hometown. She no longer remembered why she’d stayed away so long—maybe the distance, or a long-forgotten disagreement, not to mention having no one to cover for her at Serenity, the nursing home facility that she ran? But with her father’s failing health, she had to see him one last time. She shook off the thought and gazed at the surrounding landscape. Bogue Isle, an adjoining seaside town, was barely recognizable with its boutique hotels and trendy cafes. And ten miles down the road, a pang of loneliness gripped her chest when she passed her old high school, a sprawling one-story brick building situated behind a lily field. The once massive football field now looked overgrown and miniscule. How long had it been since she’d spoken to any of her old classmates? Thirty, maybe thirty-five years?  Then, exactly ten hours since leaving her mid-west home, she entered the sleepy village of Willistowne.

Areas of the town looked exactly as she remembered, simple Craftsman homes with large front porches tucked away under towering pine trees. But the upscale beach homes with lavish patios built along the sandy stretch of shore next to the old boat house looked out of place in the simple down-home community. She slowed when she crossed the bridge over Jarrod Sound and rounded the curve to the small local cemetery. Instinctively, she cruised off the road and onto the grass. Not sure why she had stopped, she sat and stared straight ahead. Fighting sleep, she took a last gulp of coffee as she stretched her aching legs and climbed from her car. Inside the overgrown burial ground, she leaned over and read the headstones of long-gone relatives. Covered in mildew and spider webs, a bouquet of plastic roses rested on top of her mother’s grave. Raine’s heart ached when she thought of how much her mom had loved flowers. She’d once been awarded Best Garden by the local botany society and had kept the blue ribbon on her bedroom wall until she’d died. Next to her mother, lay Raine’s baby brother, Jacob, whose unmarked grave had worn with age as relentless storms had left behind a film of silt and grime. She looked around at other headstones of the many residents who had died since she’d last visited, including her elementary school teacher, Miss Minnie, and the church pianist. When she next checked her watch, it was half past five, so she returned to her Jeep for the short drive to Aunt Delta’s, where her father and big brother, Robert, waited for her.

But a mile down the road, she couldn’t locate the dirt drive to her house. None of the terrain looked familiar; nor could she spot Aunt Delta’s home. After driving two miles out of her way, looking for a turnaround, she headed back west, but the scenery still looked oddly out of place with new row houses that she’d never seen. She parked at the empty post office lot and walked back in the direction of her home. She was bound to find it this way. Finally, she vaguely recognized a house resembling her aunt’s, but what had happened to her childhood home next door? As she stood in Aunt Delta’s front yard, a feeling of dread washed over her. The once brilliant eggshell-blue home with colorful window boxes now appeared uninhabitable and looked more like an abandoned building. Trees had overtaken the roof, and dozens of stacked boxes and old tools and trash cluttered the front porch. Slowly, Raine climbed five crumbling steps and tapped on the rusty front door.

An unfamiliar heavy-set woman greeted her. “It’s about time. We’d given up on you.”

Inside the jumbled living room, Aunt Delta vigorously rocked back and forth as she knitted. She wore dark glasses, and her long blonde hair was twisted into an old-fashioned bun. Dressed in a bathrobe, Raine’s 90-year-old father, frail and slumped in an easy chair, registered no recognition of his daughter. His oversized reflective sunglasses made his small head resemble a large bug.

“Dad, what’s wrong with your eyes?”

When he didn’t answer, Aunt Delta stopped knitting. “Severe photosensitivity. We both have it.” She then motioned toward the unfamiliar woman. “This is Lula, my home aide.”

Raine looked around the room at the mishmash of books and boxes. In one corner, a clothes rack held an array of old castoffs, and a stack of firewood filled the entire back wall. Raine couldn’t put her finger on a peculiar odor that filled the air. Feeling more like a stranger than family, she perched on the edge of the worn sofa, still wearing her heavy autumn sweater. “Where’s Robert?”

Without looking up, her aunt motioned with her head. “The bathroom.”

Lula spoke in choppy sentences, like a robot. “We’ve been holding supper. Till you got here.”

Delta tossed her knitting onto the floor. “I’m starved.” She stood unsteadily and leaned into her walker. “Let’s go.”  

The soles of Raine’s shoes made sticky sounds in the kitchen as she walked through years of ground in grease and grime. How long since it had been mopped? Five mismatched place settings had been squeezed onto the small Formica table. An array of utensils had been tossed in the center. Raine took the seat facing the window.

Right on cue, Robert emerged from the bathroom and sat next to Raine, looking decades older than his fifty-eight years. He stared down at his plate through dark-tinted Coke bottle glasses. “Hi, Sis.”

A lump constricted Raine’s throat. “Robert.”

Raine’s father hobbled into the kitchen. “Oh, Lordy,” he said and winced as he eased into his chair, his life force burning as dimly as a 10-watt bulb. At the stove, Lula poured a stew into a large bowl and then used a ladle to spoon servings onto each plate. She sat down next to Delta. “Let’s eat.”

Indistinguishable mush floated on top of a reddish fluid. Raine stirred it around. “What is this?”

When Lula spoke, broth dribbled down her chin. “Goulash.”

As Raine lifted the spoon to her mouth, a roach crawled from the stew. She shrieked, and the spoon clanked against the plate.

Aunt Delta looked up. “What on earth?”

“A roach.” Raine pointed as it crawled across the table, sniffing the air. Its antenna wriggled. 

Lula dismissively flapped her hand. “A roach never hurt anyone. They’re especially bad this year.” She resumed sipping broth.

Raine turned to Robert, but he avoided her gaze as he shoveled more stew into his mouth. She dabbed at her mouth with a paper napkin and folded her hands in her lap. When she looked out the window, a figure was darting behind an old crib house where her aunt stored vegetables. It happened so quickly that she couldn’t be sure if it was human or animal.

“Go ahead and eat,” her aunt told her.

“That’s okay.” Raine lied. “I had a late lunch.” She peered out the window, looking for the shape she’d seen.

Delta slurped more stew. “We’ve got something to show you after lunch.”

She turned to her aunt. “Oh yeah. What’s that?”

“You’ll see.”

Raine already regretted making the long journey, the oddness and all. Feeling as nothing more than an outsider, maybe eighteen years was too wide a gap to bridge. “Dad, what happened to our house? It’s gone.”

He spoke without looking up. “What do you mean? It’s where it’s always been.”

“I didn’t see it.” Something about her father raised the hairs on the back of her neck, a void, as if no one existed behind the reflective glasses.

“Weeds have grown up around it,” Aunt Delta told her.

After Lula cleared the table, she asked, “Dessert? I made a blood pie.”

Raine gulped. “No thank you.”

Delta raised her finger. “I’ll have a slice.”

When Lula cut into it, a thick, reddish fluid oozed from the crust and small bits wriggled from the pie, like worms.

When everyone had finished their dessert, Delta disappeared into the next room and emerged wearing an old sweater. “Better bundle up,” she said. “We’re heading out.” She handed Raine’s father a jacket. “Put this on, Brother.”

Raine buttoned the thick sweater she hadn’t bothered removing. She couldn’t imagine what her aunt had to show her—maybe some old relic they’d discovered in the attic? The family moved through the dilapidated screened-in porch and into the back yard filled with stray branches and pecans. Lula marched in front and led the group up more steps and into the old crib house. As a child, the crib house had frightened Raine with its cobwebs and creepy crawlies.

Her heart rapped hard against her chest as she followed closely behind her family into the dark dwelling that smelled of old rags and grime. As the family formed a semi-circle, Lula pulled a light cord and a naked bulb illuminated the room. Old crates stacked against one wall reminded Raine of her great Uncle Elmer, who had spent his days in there, sitting on the crates, whittling.  His old coveralls still hung from a nail, and she half-expected to see him rounding the corner. A hodgepodge of discarded tools had been cast into a corner. And then her eyes moved slowly to the rear of the room, and when she saw it, she pressed her hand to her mouth to muffle a scream. A dozen or more lifeless piglets hung upside down from hooks. Their maggot-covered faces seemed to cry out for help. Had she stepped into a nightmare? Her voice rose in panic. “Oh my God! What is this?”

“This is why it was so important that you returned,” her aunt said. “This is Phase I of the operation. I’d like to show you Phase II.”

“What?” Numb from shock, she turned to her father and Robert, but they stared at the piglets, seemingly transfixed by the sight. Had the entire family lost its mind?

Delta pulled a book from a rickety shelf. “It’s all right here in this book that we discovered buried under the floor when we decided to replace the rotted boards.” She held up an archaic book with a worn cover entitled Resurrection. A pentagram and goat were featured on the cover. “It’s a miracle we ever found it.”

“This is sick.” Raine raced outside. Her earlier curiosity had morphed into terror. She leaned over and heaved. She wanted nothing more than to hop into her car and drive away as quickly as possible, but she’d left her purse and keys inside the main house. “I don’t feel well,” she told her aunt. “I think I’d better drive back home.”

Delta lowered her voice and stared through Raine. “That would be the worst thing you could possibly do.”

Raine looked to her father who stood motionless, still wearing the reflective glasses. “I don’t understand any of this.”

“Be patient and I’ll explain the whole thing. Let’s pay a little visit next door. Lead the way, Lula.”

Lula marched in front, ushering the family across a field filled with crunchy autumn leaves, in the direction of Raine’s old childhood home. Delta shuffled slowly behind on her walker while Robert locked arms with their dad and steadied him. Raine had the sensation of moving toward a cemetery. Then, she saw it once again, a figure darting into the woods. She pointed. “There it is again.” She looked at her brother with questioning eyes.

In his first real show of emotion, Robert placed his hand on her shoulder. “Sis, don’t you know who that is?”

She shook her head.

“It’s Jacob, Sis. It’s Jacob.”

“No! Jacob’s dead. He got killed over fifty years ago.”

“But’s that the miracle of this whole thing.”

Raine’s legs went limp, like she might faint. Robert steadied her against an old oak tree where she took deep breaths. “Why are you all doing this to me? I just want to go home.”

Robert leaned in and spoke softly, so as not to be overheard. “You can’t leave. Dad’s life depends on it. You’ll understand it all soon.”

Raine swiped tears from her cheek and straggled toward her old home. With most of the house suffocated by weeds, the chimney finally peeked through a tangled web of branches. From a distance, the dwelling reminded her of old slaughterhouses she’d seen in horror movies with tarpaper flaps for doors. Her insides quivered as they neared the front entrance that hung loosely from its hinges. Lula led the family through a dilapidated utility room and into a kitchen where the floor had caved in. Her mom’s oak dining table lay on its side, and a colony of spiders had formed a home in the corner and waved their legs at Raine as she passed by. She couldn’t believe this had once been her childhood home. Why had the family let it fall into such disrepair?

She couldn’t make sense of what Robert had said about their little brother, Jacob. Maybe the entire family suffered from a collective delusion. She’d read about these occurrences in isolated areas of the world.

Delta limped along on her walker. “Watch your step. There’s snakes in here.”

“Snakes?” Raine regretted not escaping when she’d had the chance, but with Robert saying their father’s life depended on it, what could she do? So she watched her feet and took cautious steps.

Lula held up her hand when they approached the back bedroom. “Before we go inside, we need to explain a few things.”

Delta turned to her niece. “What we’re about to show you defies the imagination. But it’s all laid out in the book. Keep an open mind. Then we’ll tell you how you can help.” She pushed open the squeaky old door, where inside, two bodies lay on the bed. Raine pulled the collar of her sweater up over her nose to ward off the stench. The blood rushed from her head as she tried to make sense of what she saw. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t be. But despite the black, decaying flesh, she’d recognize them anywhere, her great Uncle Elmer and her mother. The room spun around her as she grasped a nearby chair and slumped into it. Thousands of maggots covered the corpses, and a repugnant odor filled the air.

“You’re crazy! You’re all crazy,” she told her family in a labored voice. “I was just at the cemetery. How’d you dig them up?”

“Never mind how they got here,” Delta said. “This is where you come in. The book lays out a plan to resurrect our loved ones. The maggots are key. They must feast on infant flesh for a week. This is why we use the newborn piglets. Next, they need protein and the DNA of relatives. That’s where the family comes in. Only then do we transfer the maggots to the corpses of loved ones. This is how we brought Jacob back. It’s easier with children.”

Raine covered her face and whimpered. Then, one of the corpses moaned.

Delta cackled. “Did you hear that, Brother? Elmer just made a sound. He’s coming around.”

Raine scanned the room. Maybe when no one was looking, she’d dart out of the house and speed away. But Robert and her dad stood directly behind her, and Lula watched closely from the corner. Would they kill her if she didn’t cooperate? “I don’t understand,” Raine said. “What does this have to do with dad?”

Delta nodded. “It takes a toll, the maggots. They suck away our life force and cause premature aging. That’s why Brother is so weak. He can’t do it anymore. It’s getting to me too. You’re the only living relative who can help. We need your DNA and protein to feed the maggots so they can transfer it to the corpses. Without your help, we likely can’t fully bring back Elmer and your mother. Do you want that on your conscience? We’ve gone too far to back down now.” Delta clutched Lula’s hand. “Lula is your great grandmother. She died years before you were born, but we resurrected her.”

Raine stared back in disbelief. “This is absolutely insane. Why are you doing this?”

“You wouldn’t ask if you’d read the book. We’ve been handed the miracle of everlasting life.”

Trying to make sense of the situation, Raine pressed her hand to her forehead. “But how do the maggots get our protein and DNA?”

Delta looked at Robert and at Raine’s father and in unison, all three removed their glasses.

“Oh God!” Through tear-filled eyes, Raine watched as maggots clung to their eyeballs, sucking away at the plasma. Several maggots wriggled from her father’s eyes and crawled onto his cheek.

“This is why we wear the dark glasses,” Delta added. “The maggots can’t tolerate the light.”  

Raine’s left arm went limp, and in a slurry voice, she protested. “I won’t do it. Let me go. Let me go.”

***

Rained wheezed and twisted the sheet in her hand.

“Wake up, Miss Raine. Wake up.”

Disoriented, Raine opened her eyes. She didn’t recognize her surroundings. A young woman stood over her, on her chest a shiny tag that read Serenity. “I’m Sarah, your nurse for the shift.”

“Nurse? Where am I?”

“Saint Grace’s Hospital.”

“The hospital? How’d I get here?”

“Don’t you remember? You had a minor stroke. Thank God your family sought help immediately. Hopefully, you’ll have a full recovery.”

Raine searched her memory. “I didn’t have a stroke. My family’s crazy. If I told you what they’ve done, you’d lock me up and throw away the key.”

“Now, Miss Raine. That’s just the sleep medication talking. It can cause unusual dreams. In fact, I’ve got a surprise. Your family is right outside, waiting to drive you home for the weekend.”

“No. I won’t go. You can’t make me go.”

Nurse Sarah squeezed Raine’s hand. “You’re on blood thinners. You’ve suffered brain trauma. You’re not allowed to leave the hospital alone or even in a cab. We can only release you to your next of kin. I just met your relatives. They’re sweethearts.”

Five hundred miles from her Midwestern home, no way would Raine’s best friend drive that far to get her. Plus, she had no other family in the area to help.  

Seemingly unconcerned with Raine’s pleas, Sarah motioned, and when Raine looked up, her family stood by her bed, all three wearing dark glasses.

Robert leaned down and kissed her cheek. “Hi, Sis. Excited about going home?”

“Oh, Robert. Help me.”

He and the nurse exchanged looks, and in a soft voice, Sarah said, “She’s had a rough night, the medications and all.”

“They want to put maggots in my eyes! Maggots in my eyes!”

Sarah patted Raine’s hand. “Now, now, Miss Raine. Your family’s waiting. Let’s get your stuff together.”

Raine’s body quivered as Delta tossed toiletries into an overnight bag. For a moment, she thought of calling hospital security, but what could she say; that her family had dug up relatives and used piglets and maggots to resurrect them? They’d transfer her to the psychiatric unit where she’d lose everything. And then Raine’s blood ran cold. What if the nurse was right, that she’d had a stroke, and maybe her surreal memory was nothing more than a well-constructed delusion caused by medications and brain damage? She’d been around elderly people her entire career. She knew the tricks the mind played.

Sarah rolled up a wheelchair and spoke softly. “If the visit goes well, you can move home permanently. Wouldn’t that be nice? But if you’re unhappy when you return to the hospital, you can meet with the charge nurse and make other arrangements upon discharge.”

Delta nodded toward an overweight woman standing by the door. “You remember Lula, my home aide. She’s our driver.” Then Delta handed Raine a pair of dark glasses. “Put them on.”

Practically a hostage with no transportation of her own, Raine played along. Once back at Aunt Delta’s, she’d make some excuse to go outside, and when no one was looking, she’d rush to the post office where she’d left her car and speed away, never to return.

Sarah helped Raine out of bed and into the wheelchair. “You’re a lucky woman. You have a family that loves and cherishes you.”  Raine silently rode in the chair as Sarah pushed her down the long hallway and into the parking lot. At the edge of a large field filled with dahlias and goldenrod, a small child waited. Raine instantly recognized him. His name was Jacob.  


Kelly Piner is a Clinical Psychologist who in her free time, tends to feral cats and searches for Bigfoot in nearby forests. Ms. Piner’s short story “Blackout” was recently published in Scarlet Leaf Review’s anniversary issue. Her story, “Dead and Gone,” was just named Honorable Mention in Allegory’s upcoming issue. Her short story “The Old Man and the Cats” was published by Storgy MagazineWeirdbook’s annual zombie issue featured Ms. Piner’s short Story “Lazy River.”  Her stories have appeared in multiple anthologies. She also has short stories published in The Literary Hatchet, East of the Web and in be-a-better-writer.comShejust completed her first novel, FAT SANDS.


“Doctor Dread’s Creative Writing Revolution” Dark Fiction by Thomas White

The members of the Friday Night Writers’ Circle sat at the small table, its cheap blood-red plastic covering littered with partially eviscerated bags of potato chips and colorful jellybeans. Joe Shank imagined a late-night card game played by declared bankrupts, their gambling addiction having moved them to purge even the snack bar for stakes.

Perhaps that should have been the basis of a story. The one he had written was certainly disappointing. A timely fable, he had thought when originally conceiving it, of modern romance on the Internet, entitled E-Love, now seemed too mechanical and wooden.

As he read it, his writer’s viscera told him that the members of the circle were rejecting his effort without mercy. Shank felt like a surgery patient who had humbly brought his guts to the hospital, only to have the medical team declare that he was too disgusting to be treated. Suddenly, he had a grotesque vision of himself naked on the blood-red tablecloth, the others stirring indifferently through his open frontal bodily cavities, while they calmly munched on a few remaining chips (the ones with the burnt, mole-sized scars always left for last). The literary review process is indeed brutal.

“Oh, Mr. Shank…” Shank was startled from his musings by the squeaky voice of the Dowager Downs, which contrasted absurdly with her hulking frame. She was writing a 1,000-page novel, set in 1960s New Zealand, about a pornographic start-up operation that was producing X-rated films based on the writings of Casanova to entice literate upper-class, private school girls as its audience. This ring of pornographers, with eyes on ultimately seducing all of the wealthy classes as either actors or viewers, was just completing—as the novel began—their first feature, Emily Goes to the Country.

 “Oh, Mr. Shank,” Dowager Downs said more sharply this time. “Are you reading a story, or are you thinking up a new one?” (Nasty but clever, thought Shank. I will put the screws in her when her turn comes.)                                      

Shank glanced at his watch and cursed; he must have wasted a good three minutes of his allotted time, silently letting his mind drift. Bending his head as if in homage to the Dowager, who was still glowering over her reading glasses at him, Shank quickly, guiltily, went back to reading, while covertly surveying the rest of the group.

At the head of the table sat Sunshine May, gazing placidly, almost sleepily, at Shank, like a thin, well-built, full-breasted Buddha. She was a former flower child who had once lived in a series of hippie communes from Queensland to the Blue Mountains to Tasmania. Despite being bare-footed and still wearing leather breeches and a crimson blouse, homemade items from her previous life, she now had some type of well-paid, high-flyer editor position reporting on Australia’s Alternative Life-Stylers. Her manuscript, equal parts memoir, journalistic expose’, and fiction, was about the life of Sasha in the various previously mentioned communes, where she was dominated by an odious control freak, occasional boyfriend, and compulsive psychopath named Zane.

To Sunshine’s immediate left sat two unlikely members of a creative writers’ circle, a pair of thuggish, slightly questionable, characters, Yallop and Rattio, whom Shank had labeled Dark and Darkness. The former wore all black, had a ring in his left ear, and had a bald head. The latter wore all black, had a ring in his right ear, and had a bald head. Their contributions ranged from muddled, weird, gothic-style passages, describing dismemberments and disemboweling, to wild, incoherent ravings about sex, Satan, and bodily fluids. This verbiage, or more to the point sewage, seemed to have no relationship to any particular work-in-progress but was a mere frantic recitation of extracts they had shared with their equally bizarro friends on a homemade Gothic website, www. Blood & Bones.com.au.

Shank cringed in his seat whenever they read; was it possible to take a vote to eject such members of a creative writers’ circle for not being engaged in “serious” literature? That was a tricky matter, one best left alone, as he had to walk in the same poorly lit late-night parking lot as these literary criminals. He imagined them stalking him under a full moon, suddenly yanking away their masks, faces like two pale, hard-boiled eggs with large teeth, and laughing soundlessly as their thick, hairy fingers reached for his neck.

 Nor was this a mere paranoid fantasy: the way they had glowered and nodded violently toward him when he had first introduced his story E-Love had made him uneasy. Their subsequent childish, half- coherent criticisms of Shank’s use of the Internet showed that they resented an old “book-based” punk like Shank using, or misusing, what they considered their special media.

But after gloom always comes the light: next was June, the newest member, June the Ethereal, as Shank called her. After perusing the rest of the tiresome, motley crew, it was a pleasure and a relief to let his eyes linger on her.

Spacing herself at a meaningful distance from D & D, her manner was that of a charming princess with literary and aristocratic standards who had wandered inexplicably into this herd of irritating commoners: not arrogant but slightly bemused, her distaste laced with a measure of saving good humor.

June wore long black gloves and a tasteful royal blue dress as if she had come straight from some formal dinner. In fact, her wardrobe on creative writers’ nights always displayed the ultimate in taste, her sleek style, classy charm, and expensive perfume offering a blessed antidote to the nauseating Bad Mouth Odor of Dark & Darkness, and their grimy, sweat-stained T-shirts that displayed the usual cliché logos of the Hell’s Angels.

Shank had once, during a recent break, tried to chat her up, but she had only mumbled, before turning her graceful white profile away from him as if he had D & D’s stinking breath. Still, when her turn came, Shank listened uncritically, his heart thudding, quasi-in-love, to her smooth prose style that gracefully painted a complicated, multi-layered, gentle world of ghosts who, in their corporeal state, had sought therapy for various addictions, including compulsive drunkenness. Though the premises seemed absurd, the execution was excellent, and even if her efforts had produced rubbish, Shank would have still defended her words to the hilt. She, however, never returned the favor. When he had earlier read a summary of E-Love’s plot and themes to the group, she had promptly dismissed the whole project as a useless exercise:

“How can real love be expressed in cyberspace?” she had demanded.

“By demonstrating how cyberspace distorts love, I will progress toward a true definition of love,” Shank had responded weakly.

Arching her chin elegantly, she sniffed. “Dudes don’t have a clue… I think you are wasting your bloody time on the whole story. “

 Shank wanted to cry out a few real-time clichés of love: if you knew how I felt about you, you would know that it was not a waste of time. I am talking, he had mentally shouted at her, about something emotionally real here. It is not about a bunch of stupid drunken ghosts, crazy gothic ravings, communes full of psychopaths, or ridiculous New Zealand peddlers of smut.

“Tisk, tisk June,” Peg, the group’s de facto leader (because she kept the key to the front door), sarcastically pouted. “You must realize that this is Mr. Shank’s first draft. We don’t expect to find a new Jane Austen amongst our number in our modest little circle, now do we?”

Shank turned to face Peg. Her eyelids seemed to be drooping, but he knew that she was cunning, watching the entire group intently. She was the indomitable Pudding Lady, skin and hair with the hard texture of dried, brown-reddish pudding bread—leftovers from last Christmas. This description captured, in a way, Peg’s literary offerings. Her memoirs rambled on endlessly about her 1940s Tasmanian home life. There was no sweet sauce of creativity; only the hardness of mundane facts: who was born, who died, who married whom, and who constantly sewed hand-woven quilts. Peg the Pudding Lady made matters worse by once passing around a yellowing, dusty album of hoary baby pictures and family portraits—the cheap plastic cover embossed with the words My Most Cherished Memories—to “document” her memoirs, an occasion only enlivened by a chorus of nasty jokes from the group. However, the Pudding Lady was hard. It had not bothered her. She only smiled a dry, cracked little smile.

                                                   ***

The hours moved slowly like most of the manuscript readings. Shank’s interminable piece was, as he feared, generally greeted with a collective yawn of indifference. DD asked an elementary technical question about email which provoked a few patronizing smirks from D&D, who suddenly lapsed into sullen silence when June glared at them with a majestic look of total contempt. Shank was hoping at least for a few sardonic remarks from June allowing him at a bit of eye contact and an excuse for some banter but, wordless, she was icily aloof. When the copies of Shank’s piece were returned, he saw that no one, including June, had even bothered to write comments on it.

                                                       ***                                                

The room was clearing; everyone, suddenly energized by the end of their enforced boredom, chatted almost merrily. Generally, the night’s session had been a dud: the offerings had ranged from the dull to the insipid. Even June’s latest section of her lively novel had fallen flat tonight. 

June, who usually exited, after the session, with her normal swift, regal stride, seemed to linger about for no particular reason. Perhaps, she finally wanted to chat with Shank? His bladder, at the breaking point, though demanded more immediate attention. Cursing this untimely bodily urge, Shank rushed into the men’s room (noting an unusual sight on the way: Peg conferring with Dark and Darkness in a corner, along with two other men, whom he had never seen, in greasy green pants, arms covered with skull and cross bone tattoos, and wearing T-shirts reading Love is Evil. Probably maintenance men come to fix that annoying wheezing radiator, Shank surmised).

Unfortunately, a sudden outbreak of constipated bowels further detained him from any effort to chat with June. After he was finally able to return, he found the room oddly, suddenly, empty, its soulless interior creepy, the old rusty radiator still rattling fitfully like a defective iron lung. D&D, he imagined, were creeping around outside in the gloomy parking lot. Maybe after disemboweling him, they would post a gruesome photo of his remains on their Blood & Bones website. (The fact that this building, part of a community arts center complex, had originally been a hospital for the criminally insane in the 1950s did not help calm his fears.)

 “Shank?” Shank twisted on his heels. Standing behind him was Professor (aka Doctor) Derrick Demester. Shank knew him from various articles in the local media and had once taken Demester’s evening creative writing course at the university.

With his streams of carefully crafted dreadlocks, he was known as “Doctor Dread” in both the local and academic community. And the professor loved his moniker. A few months back, he, an academic who had received tenure 20 years ago, had denounced the tenure system as a way to protect all the old “book-centric” academic has-beens. Speaking before a campus rally, he had been quoted in the student online paper, The Academic Body, as saying:

They call me Doctor Dread, and I am here today to strike dread in all the old academic has-beens—or better yet, the ‘never-were’— who still teach today’s youth like students were taught in the 19th century. It is time for a bold, new revolution in creative writing.

Thereafter, in a variety of well-orchestrated interviews and blogs, distributed through the university’s email system, he had unleashed a tirade against “those cowardly fools who hide behind the tenure system and do their old, useless research while delegating their lackeys to brainwash the students with more academic rubbish.” It was time, he had declared, “to truly recognize the revolution of the Internet, which is the actual enemy of soulless Big Brother and his Corporate State. Cyberpunks and hackers are the new revolutionary guard. “

Weirdly, though, in person, he did not dish out a rehash of 60s radical jargon. Having done his Ph.D. on Raymond Chandler’s novels, Doctor Dread had reinvented himself as a tough-talking 1940s private detective, who growled in a parody of noir clichés.

“Before you blow this dump Shank, we have to have a meaningful exchange of jaw,” muttered Dread through his highly stylized clenched teeth.

“You surprised the hell out of me Doctor. What are you doing here? I thought you said that creative writing was a waste of time.  ‘Words Suck’ I believe you once told our class,” Shank retorted.

“Cut the Big Despair, captain”, ‘ Detective’ Dread grunted. His yellowish, bloodshot eyes glared from behind the curtain of his dreadlocks in an effort to look threatening. Instead, he looked merely like a sleepy man who needed some soothing drops for tired eyes.

Shank and Dread entered the community center’s shabby kitchen commons area. Reaching into his jean’s hip pocket, Doctor Dread slipped out a small flask of whisky, which he emptied into two large mugs. Sprinkling in some instant coffee and pouring in boiling water from a steaming kettle, he handed Shank one mug. Dread sipped from the other. He quivered a bit, then said:

“I guess you have heard the news?”

“No, what?” answered Shank.

“About the new creative writers’ circle being formed,” replied Dread.

“Uh….” muttered Shank, “Ummm…”

“Yeah,” Dread said, cutting Shank off. Your old group is dust, passé, ancient history, Jurassic Age feces, yesterday’s song, a lime-green Disco Era polyester suit nobody wants”.

“That decision’s gotta come from the director’s office.” Shank was worried: June the Ethereal might leave if the original circle was abolished and merged with another group full of rank beginners, mumbling cranks, and Internet addicts who fall asleep during manuscript readings.

“Oh, Irwina Molina is in the bag”, chuckled Dread, “Everything is cool with her”.

“You mean Irwina Molina herself is saying that our circle will be canned!” exclaimed Shank, his queasy stomach sinking out of sight into his bowels, now constipated again.

“Well, not quite canned,” grinned Dread. “Let us just say restructured, or better yet revolutionized, to democratically meet the demands of the center’s growing numbers of internet-oriented students”. For the first time, Shank realized that he could smell Dread’s malodorous breath in the confines of the kitchen.

“You old fool,” he bellowed at Dread, shaking his fist as if he had him by his dreadlocks and was jerking them back and forth. “I’ll feed you to the sharks,” Shank’s frenzied mouth snarling as if tearing off chunks of Dread’s flesh.

“Screw you, Shank,” Dread said as he stood up and slouched toward the large walk-in kitchen closet, his boots shuffling as if he had crippled feet.  Shank thought of nothing but a scarecrow in ragged jeans, his dreadlocks dribbling around his ears like grey-blonde corn stalks, his plaid shirt draped loosely, like a rumpled flag, over his cadaverous chest.

Doctor Dread pushed a withered, spotted hand against the kitchen’s closet door. Creaking open, it revealed the Friday Night Writers’ Circle tied up, frozen mouths covered with duct tape, wriggling on the floor like sacks full of snakes. The two tattooed men, who Shank had seen earlier, hovered over them, clutching loops of thick, hairy rope, and wearing T-shirts which this time read: Love Kills.

Suddenly, Peg the Pudding Lady walked in—her dusty 1940s photo album stuffed into a large straw handbag—holding a boxy 1970s Polaroid camera. She mouthed an obscenity directed at Shank and then began to snap pictures of the two men who turned and smugly gloated as if they were posing for a photoshoot after a big game kill.

Shank’s horrified gaze slid over the bound members—both DD and Sunshine May, eyes glazed over, looked comatose—but quickly fixed on June’s frightened, doe-eyed, pleading look, and her left, partially exposed breast.

A black swarm of movement in the gloomy kitchen, and Dark and Darkness entered quickly from the outside, both now wearing hoods; a quick blast of cold air chilled Shank’s sweaty face. They marched in mechanical lockstep toward June, seized the terrified, struggling woman, carried her out of the closet to the kitchen, and dumped her on her back. Dark flipped a coin and then punched the air triumphantly; clearly, he had won. Darkness’s hooded head slumped a little. Dark then began to unhook his pants belt as he circled vulture-like over June’s long body for just the right position, while the Pudding Lady delicately tip-toed in closer for just the perfect angle for her pornographic photo shoot.

 Before Shank could rush to defend June, Professor Dread and Darkness grabbed and held him in an arm lock. In his right ear, Shank could hear the cranky sigh of the kitchen’s radiator and the heavy, lecherous breathing of The Doctor. A massive ache from their grip slowly spread over Shank’s upper body like a thick, penetrating oil. Then, he heard June shriek—and the click of Peg’s camera as she happily snapped another picture for inclusion into her My Most Cherished Memories album.


Thomas White has a triple identity: speculative fiction writer, poet, and essayist. His poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print literary journals and magazines in Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He is also a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author who has contributed essays to various nonliterary journals on topics ranging from atheism, the meaning of Evil, Elon Musk, Plato, The Matrix, and reality as a computer simulation. The Encyclopedia Britannica selected one of his previously published essays on Hannah Arendt, Adolph Eichmann, and the “Banality of Evil” for inclusion on its website, Britannica.com.

In addition, he has presented three of his essays to the West Chester University Poetry Conference (West Chester, Pennsylvania), as well as read his poetry on Australian radio. His poetry collection Ghostly Pornographers, published by Weasel Press/Sinister Stoat Press, is available on Kindle and through the publisher’s website.


For anyone interested in learning more, please check the December 17, 2021 issue, which includes The Chamber’s interview with Mr. White.


“Ideal You Bars” Dark Fiction by Emma Burger

The city was a blank, unknowable slate to me. I’d graduated mortician school that May and had originally wanted to go to LA or Miami for my residency. Somewhere sunny enough to at least attempt to counter the morbid theme of my day job. As it turned out, there was only one hospital in all of the US that would have me, and it was in the city of Detroit – a place I’d never been and until match day, had never imagined going. “Trust me,” my advisor had assured me, “Detroit is the best possible place for you to learn. You’ll see more gunshot wounds and trauma cases in a week there than you’d see in six months in Los Angeles. You’re lucky – by the time you’re done, you’ll be the most employable of anyone in your class.”

Skeptical, I bought a used car anyway and packed it full of books and clothes. The first time I stepped foot in Michigan was just a week before residency started, everything from my old life in New York in tow. Although I wouldn’t be making much that year, I was hellbent on finding a place with no roommates, in a good neighborhood. What I’d ended up with was a 500-square-foot studio with a couple windows on the second floor of a brick townhouse in midtown Detroit. Besides downtown, the realtor had promised, this was the place to be. I’d be right in the heart of it – good restaurants, bars, shopping, this neighborhood was really up-and-coming – popular especially with students, young professionals, and hospital employees. Looking in either direction, I wasn’t convinced. There were a couple nice looking restaurants down the block and I was close to some student housing, but other than that, it certainly didn’t seem like the heart of much. Compared to my block in Queens, it felt eerily quiet.

Residency itself started only a few days later, all my things still in boxes, stacked neatly around the perimeter of my apartment. Orientation took place in a vast auditorium mainly used for lecturing med students and hosting grand rounds. My entire residency program didn’t even fill up the first row. It took all of thirty minutes for me to figure out that everyone else in the program was from the area, and mostly knew each other already. They all had their families close and had graduated from the same few local colleges. They’d spent the last four years copying off each other’s Embalming Procedures homework, swapping study group notes in Forensic Pathology. “You’ve never had a Coney dog, like, ever?!” asked one of my friendlier co-residents, sounding shocked. “You’ve gotta go to Lafayette – try Lafayette and American, and tell us which one you like better.”

For the first two weeks of residency, I was on days, reviewing embalming technique, restorative cosmetology, and container selection with the attending morticians at the hospital. Two easy, circadian rhythm-respecting weeks of days before I switched to nights. After my first night shift, I drove downtown to Lafayette Coney Island for my 7 am dinner. Breakfast. Who knows. If nothing else, I’d be able to tell my co-residents I’d tried it. To me, Coney Island was a littered beach. The rickety clatter of the Cyclone, the Mermaid Parade, minor league baseball, old Russian ladies in satin scarves and ankle-length skirts out on the boardwalk with their walkers. In Michigan apparently, the name was synonymous with what I would’ve called a Greek diner. Rather than a long Nathan’s hot dog with ketchup, the specialty at these Coney Islands was the Coney dog – a hot dog slathered in loose brown chili and topped with chopped onions, maybe a squirt of yellow mustard.

Despite my groaning empty stomach, which was slowly beginning to eat its own lining – I poked at the gummy, greyish boiled meat, wholly unappetized. The hot dog itself looked intestinal – shiny and taut and slathered in brown, soupy chili. Like innards. Maybe it was all the corpses I’d been hanging out with, but the thing looked disturbingly anatomical in its flimsy paper takeout dish. Lifting a sporkful of chili to my mouth, I set it down, my stomach churning. I pulled a morsel of soft white bread off the hot dog bun, convinced it should be inoffensive enough to choke down. Looking down at the mild, lightly sweet white bread though, all I could think about was the possibility that some loose cadaver had wedged itself under my glove and between my ragged, bitten down fingernails during the embalming process. No wonder I’d hardly eaten in days.

When I got home and turned sideways in the mirror, it hit me how gaunt I’d grown in the two weeks since residency started. My reflection was pale and skeletal, corpse-like even. It felt like years since I’d seen the sun. Longer even since I’d been able to keep real food down. My body was begging for some solid REM sleep, fifteen minutes of movement, fresh fruit, a vegetable if I was feeling ambitious. Anytime I sat down to eat though, all I could think about was the stench of dead bodies as they were wheeled down on guerneys, some still bloody. Leaky. The slick, slightly viscous feel of embalming fluid between my gloved fingers.

The whole point of residency was to learn from the experienced morticians. To shadow them, hour after hour, carefully copying their practiced motions as they pulled out IVs, removed bandages, wired the patient’s jaw shut. Observing closely as they drained the patient’s blood, replacing it gradually and completely with embalming fluid. Like all the city hospitals in Detroit though, we were chronically understaffed. As a result, the staff morticians jumped at the opportunity to relieve themselves of night shift, leaving me largely to my own devices. Alone with the unending parade of cadavers from 7 pm to 7 am most days. No better place to learn than Detroit, no better way to learn than by fire.

The only other person in the morgue at night was the young security guard who sat at the end of the hall connecting us to the main hospital – the juncture where the living met the dead. She wasn’t anything like the security guards at my clinical rotations during mortician school. She was young – younger than me even – and exceptionally beautiful. Glowing, really. Her skin was always dewy, a healthy flush in her cheeks. Her lashes, though possibly fake, were everything. Long, lush black eyelashes that tickled the underarches of her brows, thick curtains that revealed warm, deep brown eyes. Her jet black hair always in perfect coils, just brushing the top of her shoulders. With her posture and casual elegance, she even managed to make the boxy security guard suit jacket and slacks look flattering, feminine somehow. She seemed more vibrant, more alive than just about anyone else I’d ever met.

Each evening when I passed through the morgue doors I’d nod in her direction, my hair still half wet and lank from the shower, deep purple bags under my eyes from my sleepless days. Most nights, she’d look up from the notebook, pushing her gold wire-framed glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Have a good one!”, she’d smile, her straight white teeth gleaming. Never once did I pass by without her sunny greeting, never once was I not jealous of her perfect smile.

It felt weird to think that we were the only living people on the unit most nights. If I didn’t seem so anti-social and harried walking through those doors each night, I’m sure she would’ve made an effort to be friends. She seemed so charismatic and sweet, she must’ve been friendly with the last residents, I was sure. With a personality as warm as hers, I must’ve come across as a real loser for her to not make any real attempt at conversation.

My blood sugar felt low – my hands shook. In recent weeks, the only things I’d been able to stomach were products detached entirely from the cadavers I worked on. Peppermint patties, mango Hi-Chews, Bali Hai cigarettes. Something to bring me back to earth without feeling too real. Vegetarianism suddenly felt obvious. My thoughts felt as shaky as my hands. Unsteady and ethereal – not all there. “Shit,” I said to no one in particular, patting all my pockets. I’d probably left my badge in my purse, and I was already fifteen minutes late for my shift. The day shift mortician would be waiting, desperate for me to relieve him, to usher him into the night.

The blue security light at the morgue’s side entrance glowed bright. Perfect. I buzzed, waited, then buzzed again. It wasn’t clear whether anyone sat on the other side, but it was worth a shot. Better than waiting outside in the sub-zero temperatures hoping by some miracle that someone might happen to walk past or hear me knock. She suddenly appeared at the end of the hall, her curls bouncing with each step. “I’m so sorry!” I told her, rubbing my hands furiously together for warmth as she pulled open the door. “I was running late and completely forgot my badge at home.” Even the sterile air of the hospital felt nice in comparison to the frigid winter night.

“No problem,” she replied. “It happens all the time. What’s your name by the way? I feel terrible – I see you every night and still haven’t gotten a chance to ask.”

“I’m Sasha,” I told her, walking in lockstep with her, lengthening my stride to keep up. “What’s your name?”

“Daniella. It’s so nice to meet you,” her voice was affectionate and soft. It took all my effort to emulate her friendliness. Daniella even smelled nice – sweet and floral – the contrast stark against the metallic, microwave smell of the hospital. The hall was silent besides our footsteps. Glancing down at my phone, I estimated how long it would take me to get down to the morgue and relieve the day shift resident. “Sasha,” Daniella said aloud, breaking our silence. “I always loved that name. What do you do here? It’s so weird, I see you more than almost anybody and I don’t know anything about you.”

“I’m in my mortician residency,” I explained, bracing myself for the usual bad zombie joke.

“You should come down if you get a lunch break today or something,” she replied. Only someone else who worked in the morgue would skip over that fact like it was nothing. It made me like her even more.

“Yeah, for sure,” I smiled. “I’m gonna be so late – I should run, but I’ll come back up sometime tonight,” I promised her, power walking downstairs.

Time always moved slowly in the hospital, but especially in the windowless basement morgue when things were slow. “I’ve been sitting here all day scrolling Reddit,” the day shift resident had warned me at handoff. People always seemed to have a way of choosing the same few days to die. When things were slow like that, I craved a hobby. Something to do at work besides stare at my phone and will space-time to fold. I thought about Daniella and her thick notebook filled with writing, filling up incrementally each night as she manned the morgue. She must have had epics written in there, I figured. Whenever I’d brought a book or my iPad to entertain myself, it turned out to be a busy night. A flurry of bodies to prepare for the afterlife. Not wanting to jinx it, I’d stopped bringing anything to pass the time at all.

It had to have been past midnight by the time I looked up at the clock. “God, how was it only 8:45? Maybe I should go talk to Daniella. Find out her secret to boundless positivity. If nothing else, it would be good for me to interact with an alive person,” I thought.

“Hey!” She shouted, waving at me from down the hall. Her energy was magnetic. If there had been more people around on nights, they surely would’ve been there too, crowded around her desk, hoping to siphon some of the life force that flowed through her so effortlessly. Of all the jobs in the world, I wondered how she’d ended up as the night guard at a Detroit morgue. She should’ve been an actress, a dancer – even a child-life specialist or a music therapist, brightening the halls of the pediatric hospital as she wandered from room to room, strumming a Disney princess guitar. “I’m so happy you came! Slow night?” She asked, setting down her pen.

“You have no idea. I was starting to pull my hair out down there. How is it not even 9:00?”

“You’re telling me,” she replied. “At least you can get up and walk around. I’m stuck at this desk for twelve hours.”

“Can I ask what you’re always working on?” I asked, gesturing to the spiral-bound notebook, which lay open on her desk.

“Oh! I’m a poet. This is my poetry. You can flip through it you want,” she flipped the book around and pushed it in my direction. Of course. The contagious smile, the effortless charm. This is why she was a poet, and I was a mortician-in-training. The first two-hundred pages were bent and swollen, blackened with ink – the remaining hundred clean and white, yet to be filled. As I thumbed through the book, I was floored by how perfectly printed her bubbly handwriting was. Her penmanship was even better than I’d thought as I’d stolen glances on my way past her desk. It felt too intimate to sit with a poem and read it right in front of her, but I skimmed several pages, each one covered in carefully crafted prose. “I’m in school at CCS for creative writing,” she told me. “That’s why I work nights. Once I graduate though, I’m moving to Paris to write.” CCS was the College for Creative Studies, not too far from where I lived. I’d passed it a couple times and had meant to check out some of the student exhibits, but never could rally the motivation to venture out during the day, choosing instead to bury myself in bed until it was time for work.

“How do you have the energy for this every night?” I asked, jealous of her seemingly endless ability to not only stay awake, but to stay awake writing poetry, greeting me with a smile each night like she’d been waiting up just to see me and only me. To still dream of an artist’s life in Paris. I’d never seen her lids heavy, her attention waning. She seemed so incredibly present, so fully alive despite the bleakness of our shared surroundings. In my sleep deprived, hungry state, it had become increasingly difficult for me to really focus on another person’s words. For the most part, working nights provided a legitimate cover for my rapidly deteriorating focus and social skills. On the rare occasion I did have to talk to someone though, their words usually came through garbled, our conversation muffled and distant. I’d nod, looking them in the eyes to indicate yes, I’m here with you, listening, but my mind would be miles away. With Daniella though, it was different. Her energy felt radiant, uplifting even. Her voice cut through the fuzziness, addressing me directly.

“You want to know my secret?” Daniella asked, reaching under her desk and pulling out a shoebox covered in wrapping paper. She opened the lid, revealing stacks of what appeared to be chocolate chip protein bars, each wrapped individually in Saran Wrap. “They’re amazing – they’ll keep you going all night, seriously. Try one,” she handed me a bar. Normally, I would’ve politely declined, but I hadn’t seen a body yet that night and I was starving. Figuring it would be better to eat now before a corpse came down to ruin my appetite, I unwrapped the bar, eyeing it hungrily. It was soft, lightly sugary and pleasantly chewy between my teeth. Flecked with mini chocolate chips, it tasted exactly like the Tollhouse cookie dough I would secretly spoon raw from the fridge as a kid, but even better.

Maybe it was the starvation talking, but I could’ve sworn my eyes rolled back as I chewed, a heady rush flooding my brain. “These are incredible,” I said to Daniella. “Do you make these myself?”

“Thank you! I do – top secret recipe. It’s my little side hustle actually. A lot of the night shifters here buy them from me.”

“What’s in them? Caffeine?” I asked.

“Like I said, top secret. Come by tomorrow night though, I’ll hook you up,” Daniella smiled, closing up the box.

“Thank you so much. This shift work has been killing me. At this point, I’d try anything to keep me up,” I told her, putting the rest of the bar in the pocket of my scrubs. “I’ll see you later!” Daniella turned back to her writing as I walked away. The bar was so incredibly good, I was eager to polish off the rest in private. Whatever they were, I needed more.

That night flew by in what felt like minutes. Bodies started coming down just after midnight. In retrospect, I must’ve done at least three embalmings, but it felt like nothing had happened at all. Twenty minutes after I finished the bar felt like a rebirth. Energy coursed through my veins – my thoughts clear, my movements swift and intentional. Unlike the usual slog, the walk home that next morning felt crisp and bright. The birds’ early morning chirping sounded lyrical, rhythmic even. At home, I lay down in bed, pulling the cool comforter up to my chin and fell asleep like it was nothing. For the first time since moving to Detroit, the shouts of the guy living on my corner didn’t keep me up. No dreams of corpses reanimating as I wired their jaws shut. In fact, I didn’t dream at all. My mind felt completely at ease. As I rolled over, I looked at the clock. It was only 1:00 pm and I felt refreshed, fully rested, still satisfied from the bar I’d scarfed down last night. Since starting nights, I hadn’t once woken up with hours to spare before work, actually feeling motivated to get out and see the city. In fact, I had enough time to head down to CCS and see some art. Digging through my laundry basket full of just-cleaned scrubs, I rummaged through dusty teal tops and several hospital-issued ice blue pants before finding a pair of Levi’s and a sweater at the bottom. It felt like ages since I’d needed real clothes.

The lobby of the main CCS building was hosting an exhibit featuring a visual arts student’s senior thesis project. How fitting that they’d chosen mummification as their theme. Neon colored Egyptian-style mummies lined the walls – bright pinks and purples and blues. Ancient artifacts reassembled with metallic duct tape. I read through the artist’s plaque hung by the entrance – something about preserving the body in order to support rebirth in the afterlife as it related to modern rave culture. The role of psychedelics in preparing the soul to leave the material world. Ego death and all that. Not sure anyone could reasonably gather all that from the flamboyant mummies on their own, but the art was pretty if nothing else. On my walk home to get ready for work, I resolved to do more of this. This waking up early thing, putting on real clothes. Go see more of Detroit, which everyone had been telling me such great things about. Tonight, I’d need another bar from Daniella and then tomorrow I’d try to hit the Detroit Institute of Arts, or maybe go downtown. Try to actually eat something besides a Coney dog or a chocolate chip bar.

“Hey!” I walked up to Daniella’s desk, early for my shift for the first time ever. “Do you have more bars? That was amazing last night! I’m happy to pay for them.”

“Oh my god, are you kidding? I’ve got you! I never charge people I like,” she winked, handing me a plastic-wrapped bar. “Aren’t they incredible? I’ve been calling them Ideal You bars in my marketing,” she said, pointing at her signature lettering decorating the side of the box.

“So freaking good,” I replied, “They do make me feel like the Ideal Me.” That night, another shift flew by without me even noticing. It didn’t feel like I was high. Almost the opposite in fact. I felt more zoned in and awake than I’d ever been before at work. My movements flowed without even needing to think. My body felt light, but not that hungry eating-my-own-stomach-lining lightheadedness that had characterized my pre-bar night shifts. No, this felt much different. Like levitating.

So it went for the next four weeks. Nothing had ever transformed my life so completely and quickly as the bars. No single meal had ever tasted as good as that first perfectly chewy bite. Daniella only ever offered me one at a time, which seemed right. It was generous enough of her to share at all – if she thought it best to dose them out, I had to believe that was true. As badly as I craved more, the bars perfectly sated my hunger for a full day, down to the minute. No need to rush back to work with the assurance that Daniella would be there at her desk, as always, standing at the ready with more.

The biggest change of all was that I started loving night shift. I loved the feeling of being awake while the rest of the world slept, just me and the bodies. The quiet of the night made me feel important, reminding me of the seriousness of my job. The precision with which I needed to perform the rites in order for the dead to pass smoothly into the next life. The buzz I felt those nights wasn’t exactly like the first time I’d tried coke at a college party – my energy frayed and electric, my confidence false. This was different. My newfound vitality felt embodied – realer. Was I getting addicted? Maybe. But it was a healthy addiction, more exercise than cigarettes. If this was a drug, it was only making me better. Since I’d started waking up with energy, I’d actually started doing things. Fun things. Interesting, enriching, cultural things. I’d browsed the produce at Eastern Market, hand-arranging flowers in bespoke bouquets that brightened the window of my midtown apartment. I’d tried coffee shops, cocktail bars, strolled art galleries and skate parks and the Dequindre Cut. I’d stood at the edge of the turquoise Detroit River looking out at Canada. This was the Detroit I’d heard about – the one everybody had been trying desperately to sell me. The city was finally becoming knowable.

That Tuesday night started like any other. I’d gone down to the brewery below my apartment for a Diet Coke before work, determined not to break my streak of societal participation. Convinced staving off agoraphobia and narcolepsy was not a one-time effort, but a daily habit, like flossing. That Tuesday I’d actually struck up conversation with a nice couple sitting next to me at the bar. I’d seen them around and figured that it was what normal people did in their neighborhood. Me! Starting conversations! Meeting my neighbors, maybe even friends. This was the new me.

As I badged into the hospital that night, I strained my eyes to see down the hallway, surprised not to immediately recognize Daniella’s perfectly coiffed head of curls. In her place sat a 350-pound bald man, eyes closed, snoring. Walking by without acknowledgement, my first thought was how I missed the sweet sound of Daniella’s “have a good one!”, followed closely with a crushing hunger pang. How was I supposed to get through the next twelve hours without a bar? “Hey! You off tonight?” I texted her, hoping I didn’t sound too desperate. My phone sat face up next to me that night, but nothing came through.

This went on for the next three weeks, the pattern from that Tuesday repeating itself – her replacement guard snoozing, me fighting to keep my eyes open throughout the night, struggling to keep any food down when I got home. White toast just looked like bones to me, white rice like marrow, plain broth like fluid secretions, still sometimes bubbling up from the bodies’ mouths, even after death. My stomach rejected it all violently – I lost seven pounds. Slept all day. Back to zombie mode. “Hey!” I texted her. “Everything ok? Haven’t seen you in a while.” Sad face emoji. Broken heart emoji. “I miss you.” Skull emoji. “U alive?”

Another barely conscious night in the morgue. Little bottles of five-hour energy lined my desk – the only thing keeping me awake. I stared down at the face lying supine on the gurney, staring up at me. A little old lady – her face bloated but still human looking. From behind me, I heard an unexpected knock on the door. I jumped, footsteps fast approaching. “Oh my god!” I whipped around, surprised to see another living person awake in the morgue at this time of night. “You scared the shit out of me, I’m sorry.” He was tall and skinny, kind of cute in his loose-fitting scrubs in an abject, gaunt sort of way.

“Hey, sorry. I guess it would get kinda creepy here alone at night,” he said, glancing down at the corpse lying between us. “I know this is weird, but you’re friends with Daniella, right? The security guard?”

How did he know? I guess I did spend a lot of time lurking around her desk. “Yeah, well I thought so… I was friends with her anyway – I haven’t heard from her in weeks though. Do you know what happened?”

“Nah,” he replied. “She won’t return any of my texts. I’m pretty sure she got fired though. The new guy said he thought she might’ve been stealing from the hospital. Anyways, question for you. Did she ever sell you any of those bars?”

“Oh my god, yeah. I miss those.” I didn’t correct him, but it made me happy to think she’d given them to me for free – I remembered her telling me she’d sell them to some other night shifters. That must’ve meant we were real friends. “They’re so freaking good – I can’t function without them. You?”

“Dude, right? She was my hookup. I don’t think I can keep doing this without them. I think I figured something out though, and I might need your help. Check this out,” he said, handing me his phone, open to the Cremation Wiki article, scrolling to a section titled RVGs.

I scrolled, skimming the article furiously. RVGs stood for Revitagenic Byproducts, a group of biochemicals released during the cremation process. It was believed by some that they contained life-giving compounds, returning some of the life that had been lost to anyone who consumed them, like new mothers swallowing their own placentas. “What the fuck,” I muttered, disgusted.

“Listen, I know this sounds crazy, but I think I know what Daniella was stealing. Where do those vents lead?” He asked, pointing at the large metallic tubes connecting the morgue to the cremation chamber.

“I’ve never gone in before. It’s a biohazard – I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t breathe in whatever’s in those rooms, but there should be a key in one of these drawers.” Digging through the mess of papers and pamphlets, I scanned for the yellow lanyard my attending had pointed out during orientation, just in case something should ever go wrong. “Ahh, found it!” I held up the bronze key. He followed me to the back room, waiting patiently as I jammed the key into the sticky lock. “Can you try? I can’t get it,” I asked, handing him the key. He wiggled it forcefully, pulling it out and pushing it back in until we heard a sharp click, and he pushed the door open.

The room was small and hot – uncomfortably hot. It smelled repulsive, nauseating at first, but then I recognized it. A vague, sweet smell. Not the tiny chocolate chips or the mild vanilla sweetness of the dough, but an unmistakable, addictive chemical headrush. On the floor beneath the silvery ventilation pipes sat a white bucket labeled RGVs, in those familiar, perfectly printed bubble letters. “So, this is what she was using? Dead bodies?” I asked him, already knowing the answer. Hating myself, hating Daniella, hating this guy. He nodded. The whole enterprise was fucked, but I needed it. I needed more. I couldn’t go on living like this, already half dead. “This stays between you and me,” I said, looking him square in the eyes. Unspeaking, we each knelt, hoisting the heavy bucket. Two strangers bound by a shared appetite and no other option. For once, I was firm in my conviction. If given the choice between life and death, I was choosing life.


Emma Burger is a writer and young professional working in oncology research. She splits her time between Ann Arbor, Michigan and New York City. Her debut novel, Spaghetti for Starving Girls, was released in September 2021.


“Voice in the Casket” Dark Poem by Bernadette Harris

Good night and hello, my wandering one,
Deep in the moors, and whence did you come?
Quaking and pale, cheeks kissed from the winter,
Frost in your hair, lips frozen and splintered.

Step over my ’thresh, blackened by mold,
Smothers the spot of whitening gold,
Tortuous star in celestial tower,
A shriveled heart, now ashen flower.

Surely you pity this human-like form,
This diet of red, this home among worms,
Prostrate the dust, alone with the slaughter,
Stretched upon bones of unfortunate daughters.

Why do you shrink, my sweet little meat?
My body has ceased, but eyes still may weep,
Take hold of my fingers, sink into the clay,
For shame, wary boy, you now turn away?

Come to this corpse, breathe into the tomb,
I came from the fire, torn straight from its womb,
Throat withers within, I gasp for the veins,
Along with the twilight, a stolen life wanes.

Bernadette’s work has appeared in a variety of literary magazines, including Ruminate, Braided Way, Introvert, Dear, and The Mindful Word. When she isn’t exploring her latest existential crises, she dabbles in writing children’s literature as well. She can be found at https://www.bernadetteharris.net/


“Greetings from Krampus” Dark Fiction by Tiffany Renee Harmon

Aubrey pulled her coat closer to her body as she slowly crossed the parking lot. As she neared her silver Toyota Camry, the mall loomed menacingly behind her. Wet snowflakes started falling. Aubrey saw the artificial baubles and gold garland adorning the light poles, illuminating the parking lot with a festive fluorescence that made her sick. She’d never particularly enjoyed working retail, the endless swipes of credit cards and folding t-shirts into tower, but the holidays made it a particularly horrible hellscape.

She exhaled and her breath came out like a fog of despair as the water vapor froze around her. She dug around in her pocket for her car keys, her fingers less dexterous while ensconced in thick red gloves, but eventually she fished them out. Behind her, there was a scraping sound. She flinched – her keys fell out of her hands and landed with a metallic thunk on the cold concrete before her. She narrowed her eyes reflexively as if it would help her see the unseen but there was nothing there. It might have been another car, a reckless driver, all that mattered was that it had nothing to do with Aubrey.

Aubrey picked up her keys, rushed into her car, and turned it on after locking herself safely inside. The small car warmed quickly, and she could feel her mood lifting as she drove out of the parking lot.

Halfway home, sitting at a red light, she heard another scraping sound beside her. Jesus, she thought, it was like no one knew how to drive in a little snow. She glanced at the rearview mirror to see what was behind her and gasped as she saw two red eyes staring back at her. She shut her eyes and reopened them. Slowly, she turned around. A blue car honked at her, clearly upset that she was still stopped now that the light was green. Shaking, Aubrey hit the accelerator and continued home. Surely, she hadn’t seen what she thought she’d seen. No, it was just red traffic lights in darkness and snow mixed with a tired but overactive imagination. It wasn’t him.

The next day, Aubrey folded white t-shirt after white t-shirt as Christmas carols mocked her in the background. She signed and swore this would be the last holiday she worked retail. It was an empty vow – something she’d promised herself last year too and the year before that. She looked down at the mountain of shirts and wondered how long it would be before the next toppling. Why were people even bothering with white t-shirts so far after Labor Day?

“Aubrey” a male voice called, and she looked up to see her portly boss, a perpetually reddened face framed with dashing caterpillar eyebrows. She’d often wondered how such a sweaty, unpleasant man had ascended the ranks of customer service to become manager.

“Yes, Chad?” she asked.

“You’re overdue for a break and then come back and work register 3 until closing. Gina has to leave early. Her kid’s Christmas pageant is tonight and Kara’s angel #4 or something like that.”

Aubrey nodded and resisted rolling her eyes. No way Gina had raised even the fourth most important angel. She and Chad were probably sneaking out for some Christmas cheer of their own. Everyone knew about the affair, but Aubrey truly didn’t care as long as it didn’t impact her hours. She clocked out for her break and headed to the food court for a coffee, sidestepping toddlers and weaving to avoid being hit by shopping bags swung by careless housewives desperate to finish their Christmas shopping.

Finally, she found the coffee line, even that was excessively long. She groaned and looked around at the madness surrounding her, practically dizzy with all the holiday rush. Why did the food court also have to house the winter wonderland complete with Santa’s workshop? At least, that wasn’t her job. After grabbing her coffee, she could escape back to the world of clothing. She didn’t have to don a green elf costume or a scratchy fake beard. And while children sometimes undid her hard folding work, she wasn’t in danger of one of them jumping in her lap and peeing on her.

“Your mocha,” a bored voice said as the pimply teen handed Aubrey her coffee.

A scraping sound echoed across the food court and Aubrey jumped and a few drops of coffee spilled out from the flimsy lid and burned her hand. She twirled around, thinking she was seeing red eyes and antlers out of her periphery, but nothing was there when she turned around. No, it must have just been a chair sliding against the floor. He wasn’t really there.

That night in bed, Aubrey dreamed of the past. There were no visions of sugarplums from her childhood Christmases. No, the images swirling before her were of switches and chains. She saw the antlers peeking out of a red hood lined with bloody fur, his red eyes glowing in front of her.

Aubrey awoke but she wasn’t alone in the darkness. Her limbs felt heavy as if chained to the bed. Was it sleep paralysis? Was she stuck inside herself, awake but dreaming? The huge, cloaked figure loomed over her, his demon eyes drilling into her. She heard the scrape of chains on the wooden floor as he dragged them, stepping nearer and nearer. His horned antlers were soon nearly touching her as he leaned down, his hot breath steaming the air between them. Aubrey pressed against her paralysis, desperate to fight back or run, but her body betrayed her. Warm tears rolled down her cheeks, as she whispered his name, “Krampus.”

The next morning, she awoke in a daze, the nightmares from the night before still causing her heart to race. She stayed under the hot water of her shower as long as possible until she knew she’d have to rush or be late to work. Still, she dressed like a zombie, avoiding the inevitable, but she knew what she had to do.

That afternoon on her coffee break, she stood and watched the families with their smiling faces and canned laughter as jungle bells and Santa’s ho-ho-hos peppered the air. They didn’t know. They couldn’t see the demon always in the background feeding off their joy.

Aubrey stepped closer to the gingerbread facade background where Santa and his helpers were moving quickly through the photo op line.

“Mommy, she’s cutting in line,” a little boy cried.

“Shhh,” his mom chided, “I think she just works here.”

Finally, Aubrey was close enough. She reached into her pocket for her thermos and dripped the liquid all along the base of the gingerbread.

“Hey, what’s she doing?” a voice shouted behind her. It sounded like Chad but might have been someone else – all the mall managers were starting to sound the same.

Aubrey reached for a match, lit it, and stared for a second at the little flame before dropping it into the gasoline and stepping out of the way. She didn’t run – this is what she had to do. She was saving them. As screams echoed around her, Aubrey stood and admired the flames pluming around black smoke. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Now, she was finally in the Christmas spirit.


Tiffany Renee Harmon is a writer and artist based out of Cincinnati, OH. She has an MFA from Lindenwood University, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Scarlet Leaf Review, Danse Macabre, and Z Publishing. Her first novel, Suburban Secrets, debuted in 2020. Learn more about her at www.tiffanyreneeharmon.com.


“All the Coney Islands of the Mind” Dark Fiction by Alan Catlin

There is a man standing beneath the El.  In the shadows.  He is wearing a black rain coat like mine.  He is wearing black slacks and a black hat.  Also, like mine.  He is wearing black leather boots of unmistakable high quality. I am not.

I cannot see his face.  He appears to be reading a newspaper although it is dark and there are no street lights.  In the shadow of the El.       

The man is watching me through some square holes he has cut in the newspaper.

I wonder how long he will stand by the trestle, not reading his newspaper.  As I walk in the shadows of the buildings, not looking back in his direction.

There is an amusement park three blocks from the El.  A large amusement park full of neon lights, cotton candy and rides. And a boardwalk overlooking the sea. I buy a newspaper at the corner newsstand opposite the amusement park.  I burn two black holes in the first section with a cigarette.

A misting rain has begun to fall.  I am leaning against a wall opposite the entrance inside the amusement park. Listening, reading through the dark holes of my newspaper.

I feel something against my leg, something like a newspaper cut full of holes.

The attendant in the ticket booth who has taken my money has changed his clothes.  They look exactly like mine, like those of a man standing beneath a trestle, waiting without a newspaper.

 I throw my cigarette at a mange infested dog digging in the garbage.  He drags a bone like a human thigh out of the rubble. Into the night.

I examine the remains of the overturned trash cans, see a photograph of a man dressed in a black rain coat, matching black slacks and a black tie.  I cannot make out his face.  In the darkness.  Perhaps, it is mine, perhaps not.

The man in the photograph is wearing black leather boots.  I am wearing my best pair of black dress shoes despite the rain.

I may be trapped in the amusement park, may be confronting more serious danger than I could ever have imagined.

I enter a fortune telling lady’s booth.  She is dressed like a tourist’s conception of a gypsy.  Her hair is tied back in a severe bun that is hidden beneath a silk scarf.  She motions me to sit on the customer’s side of her rude wooden table opposite the crystal ball.  I see two men dressed exactly alike, holding their black hats close to their eyes passing outside her booth just beyond the slightly parted curtains.  Their passing is an opaque shadow grotesquely bending into the grey dark night beyond the crystal ball.

The fortune teller’s voice is harsh and gruff.  She seems afraid to speak of death outside her booth. Her eyes betray nothing.  Like a photograph cut from a newspaper.

It is all in the cards, she says. The Tarot. The initial overturned card is a laminated photograph of a man dressed in black.  I cannot see his face on the table.

 Outside the gypsy’s booth the rain is a mist falling on the sea beyond the boardwalk.  Two men dressed identically in black exchange sections of a newspaper.  Each section is a checkerboard of newsprint and black spaces.

I hear a noise like an elevated train passing overhead.  I am momentarily relieved.  Perhaps these people outside have overlooked the train.

I see an effigy of a man dressed all in black, from his hat to his dress shoes, hanging from the highest arch of the roller coaster track.  I hear the cars crashing down the ramp, screaming out toward the boardwalk.

Outside, I stare down a desolate row of neon shops, each promising hidden pleasures and sudden thrills.  The yellow, overhead lights make everything unreal and dreamlike.  It is so difficult to focus, so difficult to perceive human shapes amidst the artificial haze.  I am most imprudent in this manner, staring out into the artificial light, in full view of anyone who cared to approach me.

“Shine Ya Boots, Mistah?”

“Certainly Not!” I say, stalking off into the nearest darkness, clutching my newspaper to my chest as I go.

I am in a hall of mirrors.  Everything is irregular.  The hall is the nearest darkness to escape within.  A man with a slick black toupee and a face full of smiles takes my money.  I see his smile bending in the infinite mirrored hall.  The news­print on his cheek.  Distorted in a thousand places.

I hear someone laughing.  Far away in the darkness. Beyond the mirrors.  “Shine your shoes Mistah.” It is a laughing matter.  For someone in full possession of a voice.

I light a cigarette.  At least, a thousand different ways.

I am absurdly small at the waist.  My chest is abnormally large and my face is exploding through my cheeks.  My hat is a mere wrinkle drifting off the top of my head, floating away.  Beyond the mirror.  Where the sea is a mist.

Inside there is no mist.  My hands are elephantine against the glass.  My feet enormous.  I am afraid to see my eyes stretched out like rubber bands, longer than a taut, live wire.

Someone is counting the veins in my eyes.  Calculating the total on an abacus. In a sound chamber.  Each vein is a dull metallic sound, the sound of a disk, the sound of a foot moving deliberately somewhere. In the mirrors.

My fingers are like spider legs.  Terribly elongated.  Reaching out, passing through glass.  My hands are full of glass.  The mirror gives way.  I am a face with someone, dressed as myself, his black hat aslant, his neck taut and slightly awry.  Hanging from a rope.

I throw my cigarette toward the sea.  My hands are full of glass.  Embedded in a thousand places, between the stains of the newsprint.  I hear the roller coaster overhead like an elevated train.

I step behind the broken mirror.  I am not without fear, lighting a cigarette in my own, my one way.  Mirror glass cracks beneath my feet.  In a sound chamber. “Shine Ya Boots Mistah!” I open the exit door.  A poster sized reproduction of a man dressed in black hangs on the alley wall opposite the exit.

I toss my cigarette at the poster.  I cannot see his face.  Stretched a thousand times out of shape.  A taut rubber band. Breaking in a hall of mirrors.

I hear footsteps in the alleyway. See two black hats.  Shadows on the slick pavement, holding a length of rope tied in a noose. I am running like a mange infested dog. Dragging a human thigh.

 I am leaning my shoulders against a pillar.  Like a man beneath an EL.  I pull my hat low over my forehead and turn the collar of my black rain coat over my neck.  No one can see my face.  The red ash of my cigarette burning the darkness. Perhaps, I will be mistaken for the other men.  Those men without faces.  I have forgotten about my shoes.

I am aware of the stillness.  The dampness in the bones of me, stiffening. The dull pains behind my eyes.  The glass beneath my fingernails.  The darkness like a satin sheet. A veil.

I am staring out of my darkness.  Seeing nothing. The silence is like a dog scratching the cobblestoned pavement, scratching the darkness.

I feel the pillar, the hand on my shoulder, shaking the scream from my lungs, shaking my heart in my chest like a marble eye in a shallow cup.

“How about a match, mistah?”

I am inside the nearest door.  Outside, I see a man leaning against a pillar in an relaxed pose.  He withdraws a pair of scissors from his black rain coat and begins to cut squares in the newspaper.  I see a cigarette smoking on the ground near where he stands.  Where I have stood. He is staring in my direction through the squares of newsprint.  I see his black leather boots, the noose of rope around his waist as a belt.     

I must proceed into the darkness, into the unknown building.  I am walking in what appears to be a narrow corridor.  There is a railing on either side of the passageway.  The floor­boards are old and rotten, the overpowering smell of dog urine and of vomit, the sound of the sea close by, beneath the build­ing.

The hallway is irregular.  The railings are constructed at odd angles in and away from the pedestrian.  The floorboards are built in odd tangents, as well, slanting in upward or downward directions at unexpected intervals.  The ceiling does not maintain uniform angles, forcing me to bend and crouch as I walk.  What if I were to enter a cul de sac, bending forward into a wall, and am confined in a corner, unable to move, frozen in a grotesque posture, screaming until my mind fibers snapped like too tightly strung wires?

In an open, level space, I lean against the railing, resting.  This funhouse, the amusement park is getting the best of me.  Of my imagination.  Only the darkness is uniform.  The night bends like a funhouse floor.  The sea rumbles down the rails beyond the boardwalk like a roller coaster.  Voices are screaming.  I light a match.  The red ash of my cigarette burns.

Sufficiently rested, I walk, holding on to the slick varnished railing.  The red ash of my cigarette hangs from my lip.  A board cracks beneath my left foot.  I am too startled to scream.  My right foot slips on a patch of a moss like substance and I fall.  I hear the bone, my left thigh snap like a piece of dry wood.  The red ash raising welts on my chest. My glass wounded hands slip, clawing at splinters.  In the vomit.  The stains of my insides on the walkway.

The pain is more intense than my fear of the darkness.  I drag my lifeless leg from the hole left by the broken plank.  My raincoat is no longer black.  Is a smear of vomit, of blood and mud like slime.  I have lost my hat in the darkness.  The sea against the foundation of the funhouse.  Rumbling.  The irregular bending of the sound down the multi‑leveled passageways.

I am trapped, holding onto the railing.  Crippled. I touch a lighted match to my broken cigarette.  In the darkness, the sound of leather boots approaching.  A rope dragging along a wooden floor.  The heavy steps of men collecting bodies.  In a sound chamber.

I am desperate.  Madly struggling down the railing suddenly bending upward, the floor- corridor declining and I, with it, sliding down a felt ramp into yet another vast unknown.

My voice on the rails, screaming out over the sea.

The felt ramp ends abruptly in the darkness.  Two black doors like window shutters spring open at my first touching.  I am propelled onto a foam rubber matting, which, despite its softness, does little to dull the excruciating pain the fall causes my broken leg.  I am conscious only of the broken bone ripping through my skin.

The impact of my fall upon the matting causes the wall opposite the shuttered doors to become lighted.  A full-length poster of a man dressed in black, from his hat, to his leather boots, fills the wall.  Just like a laminated Tarot card.  In a gypsy’s booth.

            I am afraid of death beyond the screaming sea.

            In a gypsy’s booth.

            The sound of rope dragged down a multi‑leveled walkway.

            Leather footsteps in a sound chamber.

            Collected bodies tied against a pillar.

            The red end of a cigarette burning through a shirt.

            Reading newsprint through paper holes like eyes.

  Like my eyes.

            The walls.

            Cut full of holes.

            I cannot see the faces.

            The splinters in my thoughts.

            In my thighs.

            So much worse than glass beneath the skin.

            The splitting of flesh about the broken bone.

            Marrow on my skin draining like blood.

            I feel a dog scratching through the garbage.

             Through the vomit.

             Clawing at my skin.

             Pulling my broken leg bone through the hole in my leg.

             Out into the darkness.


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.


“The Red Eye of Love” Dark Fiction by Len Messineo

Bad enough Eddie’s separated from Colette, out of work and having to wait in those long lines at the unemployment office with the wretched of the earth. Bad enough he’s back living with Mona, his stepmother, in her ramshackle house on Cos Bay Bluffs, having to put up with his buddies at the fire station needling him on how he’s tied to the old lady’s apron strings, and with her always ragging him to get a job. Now he’s gone and let Presley, Mona’s precious cockatoo escape.

            He’s glad in a way. At the same time, he knows he’s in torrent of water, what with Mona already threatening to throw him out on his ear.

            He would have liked emptying his old Rem pump action 20-gauge shotgun into Presley’s cage. Would have been fun to see feathers fly, like those blitzkrieg pillow fights he used to have with his brother Buddy when the old man was just dating Mona, a woman fifteen years younger than him, the two of them, Mona and the old man, out at the Blue Moon Tavern, sucking up JD through a swizzle until they were as pickled as gherkins at the bottom of the barrel.

            When they’d come home, he and his brother would listen at the top of the attic landing to the fracas coming from the old man’s bedroom. It was like he was racing a buckboard, Mona whinnying, the headboard slapping the wall sounding like a whip. That was before Mona got religion and became a Celes­tial Seasons teetotaler, before the old man died of cirrhosis of the liver for drinking his and Mona’s share, snorkeling up the sauce with a garden hose.

            Now, Mona believes her late husband’s soul has transmigrated into Presley’s, and Eddie’s beginning to believe it’s true. The cockatoo has been ragging him lately, and never worse than since winter when he moved down from the unheated attic and started sharing Mona’s bed.

            Eddie had always had a thing for Mona. Ever since he’d danced with her at the old man’s wedding, the band playing “Jalousie,” her clove-sweet breath on his neck, her insinuating thighs bumping against his invitingly to the strains of the violin.

            It all seemed so appropriate somehow. Didn’t his psychology professor at Hemiston Community—this is before he dropped out–say that the driving force behind civilization was the child’s desire to surpass the father, to displace him in the mother’s affection? Every boy back to old Oedipus dreamt of sleeping with his mother. Well, it wasn’t like you dreamt of sleeping with your mother. It was like, you have a dream in which you sleep with this mysterious wall-eyed woman. And then the psychologist would say, “But isn’t your mother wall-eyed?” It was symbolic, like.

            Except in Eddie’s case, he was actually sleeping with his mother. Well, his stepmother. And he wasn’t repressing anything. Not like his up-tight brother Buddy, a successful orthodontist up in Portland. Eddie was more a slacker, like his father.

            And then there was the guilt–even though Mona wasn’t his mother. And that cockatoo ruffling its feathers, cackling, “Ho, boy, yer in big trouble.” Who taught Presley that? Not Mona, with her stern sanctimoniousness.

            He’d slept with her anyway. Eddie knew she’d started drinking again, those pretended evening meetings in which she dressed fetchingly and did the bar scene, her breath tart and smoky behind the breath mints. The way she negotiated the kitchen with a syrupy puckishness, as if she were the homecoming queen.

            Don’t put on false appearances for me, he’d thought to say. He did not. Instead, he bought her a fifth of Johnny Walker for her birthday, three long-stemmed roses, brooding scarlet, a nondescript greetings card in which he wrote “For my favorite gal.” He didn’t bother to sign it. He half knew he was striking a match in a tinderbox.

            From the loft where Eddie lay curled up on his bed under a sleeping bag reading an Erskine Caldwell novel, the space heater churning out its red-hot magma against the chill winter, he heard her come in. Her heels clicking across the linoleum, stop­ping, clicking again, in and out of her bedroom. Finally, she stood at the bottom of the landing. “How thoughtful of you, Eddie,” she shouted up to him. She climbed the ladder until she was half in his bedroom. “I know I’ve been short with you, hon,” she said. She expressed her concern, his brooding all the time, his separation from Colette. “Would he like to have dinner with me?  Help me celebrate?  My treat.”

            Mona had gotten herself all gussied up, stockings and heels, a cranberry knit dress that hugged her body and showed off all her curves. He’d pulled on a clean pair of jeans, his Western shirt with the pearl snaps, lizard boots.

            They ate little that evening. They went to Joe’s Steak House where the sirloins were gristly and the drinks cheap. At first, she was reluctant to drink. “What’s the problem,” Eddie said. “It’s only one. It’s your birthday.” After she’d nursed the first, the second went down like she was a sailor on shore leave. She started looking at him rapaciously. Or maybe it was the thought of that fifth waiting for her at home.

            They continued partying at the kitchen table. Mona sitting there, crossing and crossing her lovely gams, smoking a cigarette like a starlet, making large airy gestures, leaning forward showing off her cleavage teasingly from behind her lacy bra, sipping at her tumbler full of JW, straight up. He, slouched low in his chair, smoking a blunt, taking her in. The kitchen was dimly lit by the yellowish stove hood lamp; the only other light, the reflection through the window of the security flood on freshly fallen snow. It was quiet, except for their empty prattle, and the hiss and thud of the gravity furnace.

            “You were sweet to me tonight,” she said, her voice deep, a little slurred.

            He laughed. He leaned forward in his chair, one elbow on the table, fist to his cheek. He let the back of his other hand brush her leg, right above her knee. By then his old neurons were flickering like a shorted Christmas tree.

            She looked downward at his hand, her lips parted, her eyes shadowy. Was this the look of longing? reproval? He couldn’t tell. Even if he could, he didn’t care. Everything felt unreal, like they were making a movie. Just what he thought he was doing, he didn’t know. She didn’t withdraw, and his hand slid higher up her thigh.

            She uncrossed her legs. The quiet rasp of her stockings raised the hair on the back of his neck. His heart thudded against his chest like a nine-pound hammer.

            He followed her towards her bedroom, her taking small wobbly steps, looking back over her shoulder, her eyes large, her face blushed, her mouth open as if she wished to chasten him for his sauciness but just couldn’t find the words.

            At the doorway she made a show of resistance, mewing and complaining, her arms locked against the door jam. He didn’t pay her any heed and when he fell on top of her, he felt himself falling forever.

            When he finally rolled off her, Mona was asleep, or maybe unconscious.  He listened and in the distance he heard the muffled roar of breakers on Cos Bay slamming against the bluffs.   Eddie felt a deep nausea buffeting his intestines. He eased himself off Mona’s bed, hoping to slip back to his room. Mona started up, grabbed him by the elbow. She rolled over to his side of the bed, hissed into his ears, “Things are going to be different around here, sweetheart.” She bit his ear lobe and straddled him. Mona was no Colette. Colette had been all holding hands, cotton candy at the state fair, strolls in the moonlight, modest, shy, almost virginal. 

            As she took her fill of him and Eddie realized why his pop took to drink, why he called Mona the widow maker. Mona was not at all the demure creature she pretended to be, the sensible pumps and starchy high-collared prim dresses she wore to Sunday services, the prayer book clutched to her breast; or the house coat-frocked homemaker, her hair pinned up, sitting at the kitchen table with her coral-framed reading glasses cutting out coupons. Her passion unleashed, Mona was fiery, insatiable. He had miscalculated, unlatched the cage door, freeing a feral creature.

            Their affair went on all that winter, into the spring and summer. Mona used him for her pleasure, then remonstrated against him: that he didn’t contribute to the kitty, didn’t help her around the house, hung out with his do-nothing friends at the fire station. Strangely, the more she chided him, the more he worshiped Mona.

            Was it in the summertime he first noticed the bird haranguing him? Was it because he had too much free time? He’d just been furloughed from Northwood Mill.  “Fire in the hole, fire in the hole,” Presley would screech, squaring its shoulders, staring fiercely at him, taking agitated crab-like steps along its perch, sometimes lifting a leg and dropping a load.

            Eddie hated that bird, saw in its blood-red eyes his father’s mean spiritedness, the endless preachments. Its cackle was like the sharp report of his father’s barber’s strap across his hindquarter, the endless lickings he got for no good reason.

            How many times, Mona off to work, he’d wake to that cackling sound, clammy and feverish, all tangled in the sheets, suffocating in the midmorning heat, Mona’s cloying perfume still lingering in the air.

            He had to leave the house else he was sure he’d strangle that bird. But sometimes, he didn’t. Instead, Eddie’d get himself a Miller’s High Life. He’d grab up one of Mona’s cats, feral toms that in the summer Mona left out to fend in the wild. He’d sit back in her sewing chair, put the cat up on the armoire, or the sewing machine, or the boxes piled in the corner, let the cat exercise Presley who, with hackled crown, would suffer the cat batting at his cage while staring at it imperiously, evilly, as if he were wishing some unspeakable horror befall the cat. He hated that bird so much, he even put buckshot in his feed, looking in on him every day to see if he’d died of lead poisoning. The ugly wretch would cackle, “Ho, boy. Yer in trouble now!” while picking up buckshot in its beak, spitting it back at Eddie.

            This morning he’d just about had it with that damned bird. Presley woke him out of a monstrous- sized hangover with its cawing. He’d gotten himself a High Life out of the frig, pulled out Mona’s sewing machine into the center of the room so as it was right under the cage, then brought in one of the toms. Presley was not making a peep, but staring out defiantly at the cat, which was standing on its hind legs, pawing at that cage, like Presley was lobster and cooked just right. Eddie was blowing cigarette smoke into the cage. After a second brewski and a third, he got bored. He unlatched the cage. Thought he’d raise the stakes.

            This was great. He felt like he was on one of those Animal Kingdom specials, one of those zoologists. He wished he had a video recorder so as he could show his buddies down at the Hemiston FD.

            In fact, he was thinking he might just rent himself one over at Video City and do a documentary. He’d get one of those camcorders that allows you to caption. He’d call it “Safari in the Sewing Room.” Maybe they’d feature Eddie’s video on the Animal Planet station. Enthused by this stroke of genius, Eddie let his chair fall on all fours. This distracted the cat’s concentration. Soon as the cat took its eyes off the cage, Presley, with a loud flutter, flew out the opened cage.

            The cat took right off after him as if born to the hunt. Eddie found this immensely entertaining. Only, shit-brained that he was, he’d forgotten to put up the accordion stairway that led to his bedroom. There was that big gaping hole where he’d taken out the ceiling fan, the one Mona had been nagging him to fix for weeks and which was now sitting up against the tool shed in the tall grass, going to rust.

            Presley reconnoitered the kitchen and the living room and Mona’s bedroom with the cat in hot pursuit, doing flips and twists and double half gainers in the air like he was on the Olympic gymnastics team. Then Presley flew up through the attic loft, saw daylight through the ceiling fan vent, and, as the expression goes, flew the coop.

            Just like that. And Eddie’s thinking, Good riddance, I hope you get eaten by turkey vultures.  Except he knows that when Mona gets home, surely she’ll kick him out on his butt. Lately, since he’s not been performing what she calls his nightly duties, he’s noticed she’s not drinking as much; she’s been reading in her 24 Hours a Day, that twelve-step program, acting right­eous with him. He’s not regular, a bad influence on her, besides being a wastrel drunk. Eddie can’t afford to get kicked out just yet, his unemployment benefits barely enough to keep up his Camaro payments, and the cooler in the trunk filled with beer.

            Which is why for the last hour, he’s chasing after that goddamned Presley, his face slathered with sweat, milkweed spores stuck to his hair and shirt, his clothes glued to him with the late morning heat, his ankles chaffed and torn up, even through socks, with thistle, his head throbbing something awful because he’s drank his breakfast.

            Then they’re at Oswald’s Overhead, a sheer forty-foot drop onto jagged rocks, the pounding surf below. This is where, long ago, after his father had beaten him for taking his air pump apart, he’d run the old man’s whippet off the cliff, throwing a stick for the bitch to fetch. That dog, his father’s favorite, was stupid as sin. He’d just hightailed after that stick, leapt out over the cliff’s edge, as if this were a steeplechase. 

            Eddie, by now, is feeling like he’s about to have a heart attack. Maybe the bird’s smarter than him, he’s thinking. Presley keeps lighting in the low branches of a chokecherry or hawthorn where he could easily bag him with his fishing net. Except soon as he’s underneath the branch, Presley flies up, cackling in that scoffing voice, “Ho, boy. Yer in big trouble.”

            Then they’re at cliff’s edge. Presley perches on an old juniper tree that leans out over the precipice, practically horizontally, gnarled and stunted from the salt breeze. He has his back towards Eddie. Presley keeps looking out over the ocean, then turning his head sidewise. Strong gusts of wind puff up its feathers, practically dislodging Presley’s grip. Eddie can smell its fear.

            Eddie makes sure of his footing, wrapping an arm around the juniper trunk. He reaches out with the net. Presley flaps his wings in protest. Eddie has Presley trapped. There’s nowhere for the bird to go. Next stop, Singapore, he thinks.

            Then just as he’s lowering the net over it, Presley drops out the bottom where two branches form a “V.” Eddie tries to whip the net around and underneath the bird and just misses. Instead, he catches the net on a broken branch. Pulling too strenuously, Eddie loses his foothold. He swings underneath the tree, his arm slipping from around the trunk until he’s holding himself up with one hand clutching at the trunk, the other the long pole handle, the hoop still snagged on the branch.

            He looks down at that dizzying drop beneath him, jagged rocks, the crashing surge of breakers. His heart palpitates in his throat. He can barely breathe, and he’s wet himself.

            Presley falls like a stone, then opens its wings, catches an updraft.

            Presley floats upward until the bird is only inches away, its wings flapping noisily, its malevolent red eyes glowering at him. It lights in the juniper tree between Eddie’s hand and where the hoop is snagged. First it starts pecking at his hand, piercing jabs that feel like someone is pounding asphalt nails through Eddie’s wrist. Eddie lets go of the trunk and grabs the net handle. He makes one last effort to shimmy himself up the handle. As he does so, the hoop opens into a horseshoe, only the strong nylon netting holding it together. Presley starts pecking at that too.  It’s funny how when you’re about to die you can see so clearly how every lapse, every misstep, led you to perdition. Eddie watches with cool detachment as the netting unravels. He’s going to miss Mona, he thinks. Meanwhile, Presley leaps into the air, silent wings flapping, the ocean breeze carrying the bird inland, a sailor returning to his bride.


Len notes: “Previously published in Shenandoah, Tampa Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, The New Novel Review, The Sun: Journal of Ideas and other magazines, I am a former recipient of the Hugh Luke Award and my stories have twice been nominated for inclusion in the Pushcart Prize anthology. I teach at Writers and Books of Rochester and head up the Artisan Jazz Trio which performs throughout Upstate New York.”


“Useless Things” Dark Fiction by James Mulhern

Nonna called and asked if I would accompany Mrs. Muldoon and her to a faith healer. The woman had allegedly cured a young girl whose cancerous tumors disappeared and an old arthritic man who later ran in the Boston Marathon.

“Does Mrs. Muldoon have cancer?” I asked.

“No. She said she wants to see the woman as a precautionary measure.”

“That’s silly, Nonna.”

“Of course it is. Mrs. Muldoon is crazy, but I can’t refuse to help her. That wouldn’t be nice.”

“Why can’t she go on her own?”

“Molly, she can barely find her way to Broadway to do her food shopping. How’s she gonna manage a trip to downtown Boston? That’s like asking her to travel to Africa.”

I agreed, and one Saturday in May, Nonna and I drove in her Plymouth Fury to Mrs. Muldoon’s house. The day was brilliant. Not a cloud in the sky, bright sun, just a few clumps of dirty snow leftover from a freak storm the previous week. There were puddles all over, and small streams ran in the gutters along the street. The temperature was in the low 50’s; water dripped everywhere. A chunk of icicles fell from the railing as we stepped onto the porch. I saw Mrs. Muldoon through the sheer curtain in her living room. She opened the door.

“Come in. Come in. Stomp your feet first. Don’t bring any of that wetness in here.” 

The house stunk like mold and sour milk. The living room had boxes with clothes and old shoes spilling out.

“Mary, it smells in here. And what is that mess?” Nonna pointed at the boxes.

“I’m going to have a garage sale if I get inspired. Or maybe just donate the things to the Salvation Army. I hear they pick up stuff, don’t they?” She led us into the kitchen.

“The things in those boxes smell pretty musty. I’m not sure anyone would want them.”

On her grey Formica table were several plates with leftover food—bits of toast, old bacon, half-eaten sandwiches. Dirty take-out boxes from a Chinese restaurant had fallen between the sink counter and the basket. 

“We gotta get you a maid. What’s going on with you, Mary? Why did you let your house become such a pigsty?”

“I’ve been busy, Agnella.”

“Doing what?!” We stood in front of the sink with hardened Comet in the basin.

“This and that. Let me grab my coat from the back hall and we’ll get going. Molly, are you excited to be healed?” Her pretty blue eyes sparkled. I thought she must have been beautiful when she was younger. Such fair skin and perfect teeth, or were they dentures?

“I don’t think I need to be healed. I’m healthy, Mrs. Muldoon.”

“Darling, we all could use healing. Ya know it’s not just physical healing,” she said, putting her arms into the sleeves of her red coat. I liked the black fur collar. “It’s spiritual healing as well.” 

The healer’s business was on the street floor of a six-story building with various ornate architectural features. At the top was a mansard roof with dormer windows. The granite exterior was dirty with lines of black and green, formed when rain pools on the many outcroppings and ledges seeped down the face of the building. The parlor where “Lady Jane” cured people was underneath a printing company squeezed between a luggage store on the left and a jewelry store on the right.

We parked across from the building, along the edge of the Boston Common. I could see a line of desperadoes that extended from the front of the building and around the corner to Court Street. Nonna’s parallel parking was awful, and Mary screamed that we were going to hit the car behind us. At last, we were parked. For a few moments we sat in silence, the three of us taking in the sights. Two skid-row men on a bench, wearing derby hats and unkempt mismatched suits, shared a bottle wrapped in a paper bag. One of them pointed to something at the top of the building. I followed his finger to a flock of large black crows perched on a ledge.

The people waiting in line looked pathetic. Mostly old ladies, a few men, some with canes or crutches, a young blonde girl in a wheelchair. It was a motley group, a range of ethnicities, all seemingly poor.

“You sure you want to go, Mary? These people look pitiful. I think they need curing more than any of us.” It was true. We were wearing nice dresses and overcoats. I thought we would be out of place in that crowd.

“Of course I’m sure.” Mrs. Muldoon pushed her door open and pulled herself into a standing position.

We followed Mrs. Muldoon’s lead, who told us to hold hands as we crossed the street.

Nonna cut in front of an Indian couple, explaining that I had leukemia “very bad,” and the doctors gave me three months at most. “It’s urgent that we see Lady Jane. You don’t want the poor girl to die, do you? She’s my granddaughter!”

Mrs. Muldoon whispered irritably, “That wasn’t a nice thing to do.”

The Indian woman was beautiful with large dark eyes. She had a red dot between her beautifully shaped arched brows. In an Intro to Religion class, I Iearned the spot was called a Bindi or Kumkum, marking a spiritual center or chakra, placed there out of respect for an inner Guru, all of which I thought was bullshit. She wore a purple sari and a pink headscarf. Her short, bespectacled husband had a flat nose with large blackheads; tufts of hair sprouted from his nostrils and ears. He wore a blue navy suit. 

They spoke Hindi for a few moments, then stepped back and nodded for us to move in front of them. There were grumblings and complaints from those behind us.

“Hey, go to the end of a line like the rest of us. What makes you so special, ladies?” an Irish-looking guy with a broad red face and a scally cap said.

Nonna teared up. “My granddaughter is dying.”

The man’s face blanched, and he looked at me with a sad expression. “Sorry, lady. Not a problem.”

I tried to appear sick. I shook a little and drooled, not sure what a leukemia patient’s symptoms were. The Indian couple stepped back.

We turned forward and Nonna put her arm around me as if trying to keep me from fainting. Mrs. Muldoon looked upward at the gathering of crows.

Nonna followed her gaze. “I hope they don’t shit on us,” she said.

“Agnella, it’s good luck. Let them poop if they need to. I’ve got a handkerchief in my purse.” The idea of birds pooping on my head was vile, but I refrained from making a wiseass comment. 

Finally, we were inside. The healing room, or parlor, or whatever you call it, had metal fold-up chairs along the sidewalls. Some of the armrests were rusty. I thought we would need a tetanus shot if we used them.

Lady Jane sat in a large throne-like chair on a platform at the back of the room. She couldn’t have been more than 27 years old—petite, with long bleach blond hair, a pixie face, and deep-set shiny green eyes. I was surprised that she wasn’t an older woman. She wore a tight-fitting black and white dress with a high hemline. She was busty with long satiny legs that ended in white ballerina slippers, a flower pattern of red gemstones near her toes. Her white string shoelaces were untied.

“She’s not what I expected,” Mrs. Muldoon whispered and sighed. “She looks like a tart that’s trying to make a few extra bucks before she goes to her other job in the Zone tonight.”

“What’s the Zone?” I said.

“It’s where all the hookers hang out, just around the corner. Perverts, pimps, drug dealers, and dirty bookstores,” Nonna whispered.

Lady Jane made circular motions with her hands over the head of an old man with a cragged face. Her eyes were closed and she mumbled.

It was only a moment or two before he yelled “Hallelujah” and threw his crutches towards the chairs on the left side of the room.

When it was our turn, Lady Jane said, “I take it you three are together.” She had a fake British accent with a hint of Georgia twang.

“Yes, we’re together.” Mrs. Muldoon sighed, clearly disappointed with Lady Jane.

“What can I do for you?” She looked at each one of us, scrunching her face. I noticed a pimple on her nose.

“Cure us. Do your mumbo-jumbo so we can get outta here. This place is a dump,” Nonna said. “I think we’re more likely to catch a disease here than be cured. Maybe the bubonic plague. So heal us quick before a rat bites one of our feet.” 

“I know you want to be cured, but first you must tell me what ails you.”

“For Christ’s sake, at our age, everything ails us,” Nonna said. “Where do you want me to start? How ’bout you make my breasts perky like yours?”

Lady Jane pretended to be indignant, then said, “I can’t do anything to help your breasts, lady. I’m not a plastic surgeon.” Her Georgia twang was strong.

“Agnella, you mustn’t talk to this woman like that,” Mrs. Muldoon said. “I would like to be cured spiritually, Lady Jane. Forget about my body. That’s too far gone. I want my soul to be cleansed.” 

Lady Jane put her hands in a crisscross on Mrs. Muldoon’s heart area, then closed her eyes while she softly murmured an ostensibly sacred language. I thought I heard what sounded like ‘pussy’ in her gobbledygook. I think Nonna heard it, too, because she gave me a look and rolled her eyes.

“The masters have told be you are spiritually cured for your trip.”

“Cut the crap! Mary’s not going on any trip.”

“That’s not true, Agnella. I am,” Mrs. Muldoon said excitedly, as if there might be some authenticity to Lady Jane after all.

“Where the hell are you going?”

“I’m going home.” Mrs. Muldoon was beaming.

“To your family in Ireland?” Nonna asked.

“To my family.”

“And how can I cure you, dear?” Lady Jane looked earnestly into my face.

“I don’t know.”

Again she did the crisscross thing with her hands. Again she murmured her sacred prayer. And again I heard a distinct “pussy.”

When she opened her eyes, her face was pale. “What’s your name?”

“Molly.”

“Molly, I hate to tell people things like this.” Now she spoke entirely in her Georgia twang. “I see a gruesome death in your future. Not yours, but someone close to you.”

“Let’s get outta here,” Nonna said, clearly upset. She started muttering in Italian. 

Lady Jane said to Nonna, “I take it you’re the grandmother.”

“That’s easy to tell. I couldn’t be her mother. Too old and dried up.”

“Tell me about this death,” I said.

“You have the unlucky fortune of being someone who will either find dead people or be with them when they die, sometimes in violent situations. I guess you might say, ‘You’re an Angel of Death.’ ” Then she started giggling like a little girl. It seemed out of her control, and she curled up in her throne.

The Indian woman behind us whispered something to her husband, and then they rushed out the door. I wonder if the woman’s inner Guru told her to get the hell out of there.

“Angel of Death! Ffangul’!” Nonna said. She pulled Mary and me out of the line and we followed the couple. Before the door shut, I looked back and saw that Lady Jane was still laughing. She waved to me. I mouthed, “Fuck you,” echoing Nonna’s sentiment.

During the ride home, Mrs. Muldoon and Nonna argued over what “Angel of Death” might mean.

“Maybe she’ll be a police officer?” Mrs. Muldoon said. “That’s a nice profession. Protecting citizens. All police officers witness death now and again, don’t you think?”

“Are you crazy? No granddaughter of mine is going to be a police officer. I think that broad saw that Molly was gonna be a doctor.” She smiled at me in the rearview mirror. “What do you think she meant, Molly?”

“I think she made things up to frighten us. Maybe she spotted someone further down the line who would pay, and she was in a hurry to get rid of us.”

“A man told me she doesn’t accept money. Believes she has a calling is what he said she said,” Mrs. Muldoon answered.

“He said, she said? Do you know what Mary’s talking about?” The car swerved as Nonna turned to look at me.

“Lady Jane, I mean. . . Watch it, Agnella!”

“I noticed people slipping her bills,” I said.

Nonna zipped through a red light.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. You’re going to get us arrested or killed,” Mrs. Muldoon said.

“Don’t worry. We have a cop in the back seat. She’ll use her connections and get us off the hook.” 

We all laughed.

As we passed Logan Airport, Nonna asked Mrs. Muldoon, “When is your flight?”

“What flight?” 

“The flight to Ireland. When will you go home?”

“Oh . . .” She paused to think a bit. “The third week of August.” I thought it funny that her pronunciation sounded like “turd.”

“I’ll be sad to see you go, Mary. At least we have you for a few more months though.” She patted Mrs. Muldoon’s shoulder. The car swerved again. “I’m gonna miss you, but I’m sure you’ll be happier. Everybody needs family. And you got nobody here, right?”

“Nobody.”

I leaned back in the seat and thought how Mrs. Muldoon and I shared something. Sure, I had Nonna, but I still felt very alone. But aren’t we all essentially alone? I thought of a quote by Hunter Thompson: “We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and—in spite of True Romance magazines—we shall all someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of company, we were alone the whole way.”

We wanted to see Mrs. Muldoon before she left, so we took her to the Renwood Diner. I had the seafood platter, and Nonna and Mrs. Muldoon had sea scallops with pancetta, mushrooms, and fresh tomato.

Mrs. Muldoon made a joke about this being our last supper. “It is in a way, don’t you think? I won’t be seeing either of you again after tonight.”

“Of course you will. You’re not leaving until five days from now,” Nonna said, motioning for the check. “I’ll drop by before your flight on Thursday.” The waitress put the bill on the table.

“Let me pay for that,” Mrs. Muldoon said. “I appreciate you girls bringing me out to dinner. It’s not often I get out. Ya both have made me so happy.”

“I’m glad you feel good, Mary, but I insist on paying.” Nonna took cash out of her purse and placed it on the check. The waitress picked it up.

“I’ll see you one more time, Mrs. Muldoon. Nonna’s driving me to Boston University on Thursday to speak with a counselor. On the way over, we can both say goodbye.”

“That would be nice, Molly.” She smiled at me.

After the waitress returned with the change, Nonna put it in her purse and snapped it shut. “I’m tired. I don’t know about the both of you. Let’s get outta here.”

We dropped Mrs. Muldoon off, and she waved from the front porch before she opened the door. I noticed several trash bags along the gray clapboard wall.

“Wonder what’s in all those bags?” I said as we drove away.

“Useless things. When you get old, you accumulate a lot of junk, Molly. And eventually you become useless too. So live while you can.”

That night as I fell asleep, I thought about “useless things” and living “while you can.” I dreamt of seagulls pecking someone’s eyes out, sharks in bloody water, and a dead fish with white stripes along its sides.

Nonna called Mary on Wednesday evening to ask for her flight time, but the phone service had already been disconnected, so we drove over around 8:00 a.m. on Thursday.

“She may have already left.” Nonna pulled the car into Mary’s driveway. “We might as well see if she’s still here. I forgot to tell you. When we were in the ladies’ room at the restaurant, Mary told me she had a present for you. She said she left it on the table just inside the archway to her living room.”

We got out of the car and walked up the steps. Nonna held her nose. “Those bags smell God awful. Maybe she dumped the food from her refrigerator into one of them.”

I rang the doorbell. We waited a few moments. Then Nonna turned the doorknob. When the door opened, a horrible smell gushed at us—a combination of shit, vomit, body odor, and rotting fish. I noticed a small purple box on the table as we turned into the living room. Flies buzzed in the hot, humid air around our heads. Three standing lamps were lit. Nonna bent over and vomited.

I walked towards Mrs. Muldoon’s body. She was seated in the purple chair that Nonna hated so much, eyes half open and bulging, swollen tongue protruding. There was an intricate pattern of blood vessels and blisters on her face. Her white robe was smeared with blood and a yellowish fluid that dripped from her nose and mouth. Her face, arms, and legs were bloated; her abdomen was distended. Her skin was green, red, purple, and black. White lines crisscrossed her varicose calves. There were two shimmering pools of urine on the mahogany floor, as well as feces on the seat cushion. 

I kneeled and pressed my finger against a dark purple spot above her right ankle; the skin was so cold. The flesh broke and blood trickled slowly down the side of her enlarged foot. I stood, then bent to stare into the thin slivers of her eyes. The pupils were fixed and dilated. The corners were filmy. I thought I saw wetness along the sides of her nose and cheeks. Were they tears or simply the body’s fluids seeping out? I touched her pretty red hair and some fell to the floor in clumps. A bloody maggot writhed as it emerged from her flaking scalp and crawled towards my hand.

Nonna still gagged behind me. She kept saying, “We gotta call the police.” Although I found the smell overpowering and coughed a bit, I couldn’t move away. I guess you could say I was mesmerized.

“Molly! What are you doing? Call the cops! I’m too weak to get up.”

I picked up the black-and-white photograph from the TV table and examined it: an attractive couple, the young Mrs. Muldoon and her husband, in their wedding attire. Both of them dressed completely in white. He wore a tuxedo with a bow tie and a wing-tipped collar. On the top of her auburn hair sat a veil with a crest of small white flowers; she wore a pearl necklace around her neck. Both smiled above a large bouquet of white roses that obscured parts of their chests. In the dark background, blurred white faces hovered like disembodied heads.

“Molly!”

I turned the photo over. In blue cursive, now faded, Mrs. Muldoon had written “The happiest day of my life.” Next to where the photograph had lain was an empty pill bottle. I pulled it close to read the label: “Diazepam, 5 mg. tab. Take one tablet twice a day as needed.”

Nonna had reached the phone. I heard her talking to the police. “Hurry,” she said and hung up.

“What the hell are you doing?” she screamed at me. “Get away from her.”

I turned, accidentally stepping on one of Mrs. Muldoon’s bare feet. The skin cracked and a clear fluid oozed from her big toe. The nail ripped off, falling like an autumn leaf into a puddle.

I walked over to the small purple box with my name on it. Inside was a gold necklace with an emerald and diamond cross.

Nonna stared at me. “What is it, Molly?”

“A useless thing.”


James Mulhern’s writing has appeared in literary journals over one hundred and seventy times and has been recognized with many awards. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was granted a fully paid writing fellowship to Oxford University. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. In 2017, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His novel, Give Them Unquiet Dreams, is a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019. He was shortlisted for the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2021 for his poetry. Two of his novels were Finalists for the United Kingdom’s Wishing Shelf Book Awards.


Contents

“Useless Things” Dark Fiction by James Mulhern
“The Red Eye of Love” Dark Fiction by Len Messineo
“All the Coney Islands of the Mind” Dark Fiction by Alan Catlin
“Greetings from Krampus” Dark Fiction by Tiffany Renee Harmon
“Voice in the Casket” Dark Poem by Bernadette Harris
“Ideal You Bars” Dark Fiction by Emma Burger
“Doctor Dread’s Creative Writing Revolution” Dark Fiction by Thomas White
Three Dark Poems by John Tustin: “The Crush of the Moon”, “Dead Candles”, “Respite”
“The Black Curtain” Dark Surrealism by Leonard Henry Scott
“Resurrection” Dark Fiction by Kelly Piner
“Medusae” Science-Fiction/Horror by Elana Gomal

Appearing in The Chamber April 1

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).

“Useless Things” Dark Fiction by James Mulhern

James Mulhern’s writing has appeared in literary journals over one hundred and seventy times and has been recognized with many awards. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was granted a fully paid writing fellowship to Oxford University. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. In 2017, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His novel, Give Them Unquiet Dreams, is a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019. He was shortlisted for the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2021 for his poetry. Two of his novels were Finalists for the United Kingdom’s Wishing Shelf Book Awards.

“The Red Eye of Love” Dark Fiction by Len Messineo

Len notes: “Previously published in Shenandoah, Tampa Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, The New Novel Review, The Sun: Journal of Ideas and other magazines, I am a former recipient of the Hugh Luke Award and my stories have twice been nominated for inclusion in the Pushcart Prize anthology. I teach at Writers and Books of Rochester and head up the Artisan Jazz Trio which performs throughout Upstate New York.”

“All the Coney Islands of the Mind” Dark 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.

“Greetings from Krampus” Dark Fiction by Tiffany Renee Harmon

Tiffany Renee Harmon is a writer and artist based out of Cincinnati, OH. She has an MFA from Lindenwood University, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Scarlet Leaf Review, Danse Macabre, and Z Publishing. Her first novel, Suburban Secrets, debuted in 2020. Learn more about her at http://www.tiffanyreneeharmon.com.

“Voice in the Casket” Dark Poem by Bernadette Harris

Bernadette’s work has appeared in a variety of literary magazines, including Ruminate, Braided Way, Introvert, Dear, and The Mindful Word. When she isn’t exploring her latest existential crises, she dabbles in writing children’s literature as well. She can be found at https://www.bernadetteharris.net/. 

“Ideal You Bars” Dark Fiction by Emma Burger

Emma Burger is a writer and young professional working in oncology research. She splits her time between Ann Arbor, Michigan and New York City. Her debut novel, Spaghetti for Starving Girls, was released in September 2021.

“Doctor Dread’s Creative Writing Revolution” Dark Fiction by Thomas White

Thomas White has a triple identity: speculative fiction writer, poet, and essayist. His poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print literary journals and magazines in Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He is also a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author who has contributed essays to various nonliterary journals on topics ranging from atheism, the meaning of Evil, Elon Musk, Plato, The Matrix, and reality as a computer simulation. The Encyclopedia Britannica selected one of his previously published essays on Hannah Arendt, Adolph Eichmann, and the “Banality of Evil” for inclusion on its website, Britannica.com…

Three Dark Poems by John Tustin: “The Crush of the Moon”, “Dead Candles”, “Respite”

John Tustin’s poetry has appeared in many disparate literary journals since 2009. fritzware.com/johntustinpoetry contains links to his published poetry online.

“The Black Curtain” Dark Surrealism by Leonard Henry Scott

Leonard Henry Scott was born and raised in the Bronx and is a graduate of American University, with an MLS degree from the University of Maryland.  He was a long-time staff member of the Library of Congress and he and his wife, Hattie presently reside in National Harbor, Maryland. Len’s fiction has appeared in; The MacGuffin, Mystery Tribune, Straylight Magazine, Crack the Spine and elsewhere.

“Resurrection” Dark Fiction by Kelly Piner

Kelly Piner is a Clinical Psychologist who in her free time, tends to feral cats and searches for Bigfoot in nearby forests. Ms. Piner’s short story “Blackout” was recently published in Scarlet Leaf Review’s anniversary issue. Her story, “Dead and Gone,” was just named Honorable Mention in Allegory’s upcoming issue. Her short story “The Old Man and the Cats” was published by Storgy Magazine. Weirdbook’s annual zombie issue featured Ms. Piner’s short Story “Lazy River.” Her stories have appeared in multiple anthologies. She also has short stories published in The Literary Hatchet, East of the Web and in be-a-better-writer.com. She just completed her first novel, FAT SANDS.

“Medusae” Science-Fiction/Horror by Elana Gomal

Elana Gomel is an academic with a long list of books and articles, specializing in science fiction, Victorian literature, and serial killers. She is also a fiction writer who has published more than a hundred short stories, several novellas, and four novels. She is a member of HWA and can be found at https://www.citiesoflightanddarkness.com/ and at

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/elana.gomel

Twitter   https://twitter.com/ElanaGomel

Instagram https://www.instagram.com/elanagomel/

Next Issue: May 6