The Saturday Night Special: Party like a Mongolian Motorcycle Gang!

A couple of weeks ago, we visited South Korea, now let’s return to Asia and swing north to modern Ulaanbaatar for a Mongolian heavy metal concert!

The morning after the Hu concert you find yourself wandering dazed but pumped on the streets of the capitol, Ulaanbaatar. Here is the language and a few of the people and sights you might encounter.

A little later, you encounter this lady who tells you more about the Mongolian language than you ever thought you would know.

You and she decide it is time for some day-drinking. You make some new friends and you all decide to go somewhere to try the traditional Mongolian milk vodka (but somehow your linguist friend is sadly left behind):

Not really happy with traditional Mongolian alcohol, you decide to find something more to your taste and happen upon an American bar with an American cocktail named for Mongolia (though, of course, it really has nothing to do with Mongolia).

You like the American idea of a Mongolian cocktail and spend the rest of the day drinking it by the liter and experiencing the cyberpunk side of Ulaanbaatar.

After an intense night, you decide it is time to chill until you catch your flight back to the states and head out into the Mongolian backcountry to relax and let that god-awful milk vodka work its way out of your system.

The Saturday Night Special: Empire (Darksynth / Cyberpunk / Midtempo Mix)

For tonight, just on a goof, catch a flight to Seoul and hit some cyberpunk/dark synth clubs.

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

If you are going to a darksynth/cyberpunk club, why not have a drink or two, something dazzling, mind-bending, and futuristic?

On your walk home, drop by a small bar for some soju or tea and quietly watch the rain and people.

Not familiar with soju? Hook up with the friends you just met in the bar and learn about it on this pub crawl through Seoul:

Once you’ve had enough partying, take a quiet walk through the rain to your hotel in Seoul.

The Saturday Night Special: Songs for Lonely Rainy Nights

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

I love this haunting melody.

Here is a good place to be on a rainy, lonely night reading Hemingway or Camus.

If you are going to be alone on a rainy night, why not chase the green fairy?

“Office Friends” Dark Psychological Fiction by Pauline Chow

I had a big meeting in fifteen minutes, so very unfortunate that I noticed a smell. It came to me as I waited for the printer. The copy machine broke? Seconds later, the machine churns out freshly baked double-sided collated copies. I sense a change in the air. It was as if someone lit a candle called Low Tide but on the 33rd floor of the corporate building, people did not light candles, not even birthday candles. Birthdays were personal. Non-company reminders were sparse: post-it notes with personal errands, occasional family pictures, and co-workers secretly texting external contacts. Otherwise, colleagues consorted on online chats and email. 

Thank goodness for my morning laps at the Olympic-sized pool. My lungs were able to hold in my breath, avoiding the stink, for the last two copies of a 6-page document. The company suggested length for research documents. I exhaled as soon as I left the copy room, glass windows on my left side and the large conference room at the end of the hallway. I re-read the first page, marveling at my own work. How could they not love my analysis of the company’s new foray into e-commerce? 

Then it hit me, again. A fragrance of festering water conjures images of dark soupy liquid that pooled on the edges of subway platforms. I duck into the bathroom and inspect under my feet, finger every crevice of my body, and inspect my ass in the mirror. A weird reaction to stress? An odor radiating everywhere but nowhere at the same time. I continue down the hallway, noticing the warped bugged-out stares of employees at blue-light screens.

I recite the last sentence of the paper to myself: The evidence shows that for every twenty-five dollars lost in selling essential goods like toothpaste and toilet paper translates into a three-fold profit for the company the following year. If the company hooked a customer once then they would return to purchase much more. The long game worked; no wonder small businesses struggled to stay open. Cue the wicked laugh. Though being privy to a secret felt exhilarating. 

Inside the clean and spotless meeting room, I pray to any god that I would not meet that horrible stench again, at least until the end of the meeting. I graze the back of my hand on my forehead. Not sick. In the bathroom mirror my face looked flush. Should have splashed cold water on my face. Too late. Focus, I tell myself. For months, I had pulled data, coded these algorithms, and positioned the output graphs with precision, thinking of nothing else. Please let my insight be enough. 

Attendees enter the room for my meeting, then read in silence, as all meetings started here. I fidget with the zipper on my hoodie in a corner, gauging my coworker’s expressions as they read. These people laughed and joked at happy hours but facing off over the conference table seemed like warfare. Nothing but stoned faced killers. Ding. A whiff of decomposing vegetables emanated from the table. Did someone fart? SBD. 

I almost fell backwards out of the chair when I see a wispy orb hovering over Mevis, the oldest tenured employee and always late to meetings. I rub my eyes. Specks of dust in my contacts? The lights dim. 

Mevis mutters an apology, sucking the energy from the room.

Then, I taste something metallic and fishy. My stomach ripples and I wretch. Head turns, reacting to the sound, so I stand up. My question redirects my energy. “Does anyone need more time?” I position my fist over my mouth to suppress a gag. 

Tom, my manager, clears his voice. “Ten minutes.” His face set in contemplation and mild irritation. It looks like he needs to take a shit. My mind goes there on account of the smell. Then, the floating tentacles reaches into Tom’s throat and pulls out a sloppy white mass. Tom does not react to this invasion into his body. No one does. 

The apparition sloshes from one person to the next: collecting shadows, consuming their essence, and foraging on the essence of people. 

Should I do something? I didn’t need compliments or praises. I want the director to tell me I still had a job. The requirements of my work visa said that I had to remain in this city and this same employer for at least 6 more months. Else, I would be sent away, back into a menial position that no longer suited me.

My existence didn’t matter to them.  

“Lovely.” I sat down to review the charts and graphs. My team will ask about figure 3, a line fitted to scattered points. I wondered if I explained the outputs well enough. Ding! The thing wipes its filthy appendage across my lips, reminding me of a weirdly nostalgic game from childhood, smell-my-finger, where an unwilling participant had to sleuth the origins of an odor from a finger shoved into their face. I gasp and it recoils from my reaction. This is the source of the vile-drenched tang. Sickening things are happening. 

The thing moves to and fro, slithering its stink. Part of my image is reflected inside the ghostly jellyfish’s shiny skin. I look haggard, aged many decades. Is this its imagination?  As if looking through a magnifying glass, I glimpse the faces in this room: whiten hair, bloodshot eyes, and sunken cheeks. Or Is this what the being does to us? 

“Time’s up,” I announce and sit in the empty seat at the table. Where is the bleach? Now the ghost pinches the skin on my arms and salivates as it peels off a layer. This is the pain of my soul ripping apart. Lights flickered. I hold my breath, concentrating on the visa and six-months. In my right mind I would run out of here screaming. But this option was better for my resume. My eyes begin to water when I ask the room, “Does anyone have feedback?” 


Pauline Chow writes speculative fiction to explore history and systems with disgruntled people. She was an attorney and now works in tech. In upstate New York with her husband, toddler, and rescue pup, she is living her best life in the woods. Find her at www.paulinechowstories.com or @DataThinker on Twitter.


“Flowers in the Woods” Dark Sudden Fiction by Anita Joy Balraj

“Forget-Me-Nots” Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

I went to the woods to meet Henry and Gertrude, then… Someone is at the door of my room. Mummy had painted flowers on the door to match with the floral pattern on the floor. I do love flowers, so pretty and delicate! Oh, it’s Mummy, she’s crying now on the floor. She is hugging my bridesmaid gown, how I love the way it glitters! I just wanted to see the pretty blue flowers deep in the woods and maybe see some birds, then… Daddy just ran in and held her, he seems to be crying too. Oh, he is so close to the jewelry box on my dresser! I do hope he doesn’t find the love letters from Henry, I have there. Rob just came in panting, with tears. He always makes me wonder if I really am the oldest. He is telling Daddy that they found me. I had finally found the blue flowers when someone called out my name, then… As soon as Rob spoke, Mummy fainted on my bed. He said I was found in the woods, at the bottom of the lake; I was dead.


Anita is a business analyst by profession and a poet by choice. She started writing when she was six, and has no plans to stop. 


“The Hangings” a Dark, Futuristic Parody by James Hanna

Maggie and I sit on our front porch at dusk. We drink ice tea and watch the sun sink. In our fifty-five years of marriage, we have rarely missed a sunset.

 Today, the sun bleeds through the haze, and the horizon is apple red. Maggie rocks in her rocker, knitting a shawl. I smoke a pipe filled with Captain Black tobacco.

Maggie sings a fragment of a song while she knits. “Give us any chance, we’ll take it.”  She pauses, shakes her head, and keeps on knitting. “That’s all I remember, Poppy,” she says. She still calls me Poppy after all these years. Sometimes, it gets on my nerves.

“It’s from Laverne and Shirley,” I say. “We watched it on ABC back in the seventies—it came on the year we got married.” I sing the next bar to help Maggie recall the song. “Read us any rule, we’ll break it.’”

Maggie drops a stitch. “I rather liked that show, Poppy,” she says.

“I liked it too, Maggie,” I say. “Especially that episode where the girls got into a tizzy.”

“They got into a tizzy every week, Poppy. I wish you could be more specific.”

“They got into a really big tizzy that week. I think they were wearing space suits.”

“Were they, Poppy? I don’t remember them in space suits.”

“I liked them on Happy Days too. The girls were even funnier on Happy Days.”

 Maggie sighs. “I never liked Happy Days much. That Jewish boy was such a braggart.”  

She recovers the stitch and keeps knitting. Despite her comment, she sings two bars from the Happy Days theme. “Sunday, Monday, Happy Days. Tuesday, Wednesday, Happy Days.”  She puts down her knitting, “It’s Wednesday,” she remembers. “We have to attend the hangings.”

The hangings now happen twice a week. Every Wednesday and Saturday, in towns across the country, fanatics are hanged in the courthouse squares. It is considered poor etiquette not to attend the hangings.

“It’s disgraceful,” says Maggie, “the way they drag those things out. The noisy bands, the endless speeches. Just hang them and be done with it, I say. Let’s be Christian about it.”

“‘First they came for the socialists,’” I quote. “‘Then they came for the unionists.’”

 Maggie does not like me to be trite. “They came for you a few days ago.”

 “Yes, but they let me go.”

“Wasn’t that because you turned in Doctor Beckman? Didn’t you tell them he was a writer?”

“He might have been one.”

“That’s true,” Maggie says. “If I started a journal, would you turn me in also?”

“I would never turn you in, Maggie.”

“What if they put you back in that jail? What if they beat you again?”

I have always been honest with Maggie. “They would have to beat me twice. I owe you that much, Maggie.”

Maggie looks amused—my answer must have pleased her. “Thank you, Poppy,” she coos. “You know how to make me feel better.”

I puff my tobacco and sing a Dylan song I remember. “People don’t live or die, people just float. She went with the man with the long black coat.”

“Be careful whose music you sing,” Maggie cautions. “That’s such a socialist song.”

I shrug. “They’re going to come back for me anyhow. I may as well sing that song.”

 Maggie shrugs too. “When they’ve picked you up once, they always arrest you again. You told me this never could happen, Poppy.”

“That was before the bombings.”

“Those dreadful bombings. Will they ever stop?”

“He promised to stop the bombings.”

“Yes,” Maggie says. “He promised that, didn’t he?”

The shawl she is knitting is blue—blue is a primary color. It is not smart to knit in non-primary colors. When Mabel Leibman was arrested last week, she was knitting a beige sweater. 

Maggie finishes a row. “He’s so much like Lincoln. I never knew how much.”

“Lincoln shut down the courts,” I say. “He shut down newspapers too.”

“I’m glad he’s a lot like Lincoln.”

My pipe is cold, but I do not fill it again. Captain Black tobacco is scarce. You can no longer find it in stores.

“I love you, Maggie,” I say.

She takes a sip of ice tea and sighs. The evening is dry and hot, as though someone left an oven door open. Maggie does not like heat.

I pat Maggie’s wrist. “Let’s go into the house. Let’s turn on Happy Days.”

Maggie taps her foot. “You never listen, Poppy.  We have to attend the hangings.”

“If they hang them quickly, we can still catch Happy Days.”

 “They won’t hang them quickly,” Maggie snaps. “They never do anymore.”

I don’t like to make Maggie angry; she has a tongue like a thorn. “After they cut down the bodies,” I say, “lets buy some frozen yogurts.”

Maggie swirls the ice tea in her glass, and the ice cubes rattle like bones. “Every time I get cross with you, Poppy, you want to buy frozen yogurts.”

 I change the subject. “Will the Boy Scouts be there, do you think?”

Maggie strokes her neck. “The Boy Scouts are always there, don’t you remember? It’s the Boy Scouts who fit the nooses. It’s the Boy Scouts who cut down the bodies.”

“I hope they cut them down right away. Before their tongues turn blue.”

“They cut Doctor Beckman down right away, and his tongue was as blue as a smurf.”

“They would have hanged him sooner or later. He never attended the hangings.”

“No,” Maggie says. “It was rude of him to never go to the hangings. I don’t know where that man picked up his manners.”

“I’m glad they let me turn him in. It gave us this evening together.”

“This evening is hot,” Maggie says. She presses the glass of ice tea to her brow then takes another sip.

Our anniversary is today, and I have a surprise for her. “We are going to fly to Hawaii,” I say. We flew to Hawaii fifty-five years ago to spend our honeymoon. Maggie liked the rainforests and waterfalls. She did not like the dormant volcanoes.

Maggie rolls her eyes. “You promise that every year, Poppy. How quickly you forget.”

“This year I’ll book a flight early.”

“I don’t do well on planes,” Maggie says.

“We’ll sit on the beach and drink Mai Tais”

“That wouldn’t be much of a change.”

Maggie returns to her knitting. The shawl is getting thick. “I’m glad you’re so quick to forget,” she says.

“Why is that, Maggie? Tell me again.”

She coughs and continues her knitting. “We have to attend the hangings.”

2

Maggie and I sit on our front porch. She rocks in her rocker, knitting a scarf. I sit on a stool with my pipe in my hand. We drink ice tea as we watch the sunset.

The haze is heavier, and it is hard to make out colors. It traps the heat so we sweat a great deal. Maggie always corrects me when I complain about our sweating. She says, “Poppy, women don’t sweat, they glow. How many times must I remind you?”

Maggie likes to remind me of things.  Sometimes, I pretend to forget so that Maggie can remind me. I don’t know what I would do without Maggie.

I am smoking my last pouch of Captain Black tobacco. Maggie is glad that I will soon be out of Captain Black tobacco. She says it smells like dead roaches.

 “Would you rather it smelled like live roaches?” I ask. I take another puff.

Maggie titters and keeps on knitting. “Poppy,” she says, “you can still make me laugh.”

“I’m glad I still make you laugh,” I say.

She frowns like a judge. “I do wish you’d stop it. Laughing is illegal now.”

I’m glad that Maggie reminds me of this. Sometimes, I forget that laughing can get you hanged.

The hangings take place every day now. In hundreds of towns across the country, turncoats are strung up in droves. They do not laugh when the nooses are put around their necks. They stand like statues and wait for the ropes to tighten.

I am glad that the hangings take place every day. Maggie no longer has to remind me on what days the hangings are scheduled.

We attend the hangings six days a week. We no longer attend the hangings on Wednesday. On Wednesdays, we stay home and watch Laverne and Shirley. It is risky not to attend the hangings, but we like to watch Laverne and Shirley. We do not watch Happy Days anymore. Maggie does not like the Jewish boy. She says it is scandalous to watch a show that has a Jewish boy in it.

We don’t watch television as much as we used to. We watch the televised speeches, we also watch the marches, but we don’t watch the football or the porn. Most of the time, the television watches us.

He promised to stop the bombings, but bombings have increased. Buildings are bombed all over the country every single day. Still, he appears on television each night and says he will stop the bombings. Some say he orders the bombings himself. It is not funny to joke about the bombings.

Maggie is knitting a bright red scarf. She no longer knits in blue. He told us that traitors wear blue. He says the bombers wear blue. He says you cannot hide from him if you ever dressed in blue. I remember when Maggie knitted in blue, but she likes to correct me about this. She says blue is worn only by murderers, and she never knitted in blue.

I suspect they will hang me today. They arrested me several weeks ago and then they let me go. That was because I turned in Doctor Beckman—I told them he was a writer. That gave me a few more evenings with Maggie. I like to spend time with Maggie. But they always come back and hang you after they let you go. This happens within a month.

I look at Maggie. I think I will miss her even though she gets on my nerves.  “Today is the day,” I tell her. “We may as well say goodbye.”

 “We’ve been saying goodbye for years,” Maggie says. “One more time won’t make any difference.”

“Does that mean you won’t come to my hanging?” I say.

Maggie rolls her eyes, so I know I am making her cross. “If they hang you on Wednesday—no,” she says. “I’ll miss Laverne and Shirley.”

I am glad that today is Monday. I don’t want her to miss Laverne and Shirley.

“If they hang me today, will you come?” I say. “I’ll buy you a frozen yogurt.”

Maggie does not look at me. She stares at her knitting instead.

 “Poppy,” she says to me after a while, “you may as well save your money. In all the years we have been married, I’ve never liked frozen yogurt.”

I am surprised to hear that Maggie does not like frozen yogurt. Every Sunday, after church, I buy her a frozen yogurt. I also buy her a frozen yogurt on the days we attend the hangings. What else don’t I know about Maggie?

I speak to her gently—I don’t want her upset. Not on the day of my hanging. “Why did you tell me you liked frozen yogurt?”

“Why did you believe me, Poppy?”

A van is parking in front of our house. Men are sitting in the van. It should be no more than an hour until the rope bites into my neck.

 “Do you remember when we went to Hawaii?” I ask.

“That was fifty-five years ago, Poppy.”

“It seems like yesterday, doesn’t it Maggie?”

Maggie groans and puts down her knitting. “You don’t remember yesterday, Poppy. You only remember Hawaii.”

“I remember you liked the waterfalls, but not the dormant volcanoes.”

“No,” Maggie says. She rubs her eyes. “I did not like the dormant volcanoes.”

“Would you rather the volcanoes were active?” I ask.

She chuckles and picks up her knitting. “Poppy,” she says, “you still make me laugh.”

“I’m sorry,” I reply.

I hear the van doors slam. Men are walking towards our house. I can practically trace out my name in the haze, and they look like a mirage.

“They’re here, Maggie.”

She keeps on knitting. Her eyes do not stray from the scarf. “Are they wearing red or blue?” she asks. The needles leap in her hands.

I look at the men, but I don’t answer Maggie. I can’t tell what color they’re wearing.

 3

A week ago, they hanged Poppy. And I did attend that man’s hanging. My, what a fuss he made. Standing beside the gallows, he begged the hangman to wait. All so he could hand me a dollar to buy myself a frozen yogurt. Poppy believed every problem in the world could be solved with a frozen yogurt. Not that his hanging was much of a problem. He dropped like a sack of potatoes, and his neck snapped like a whip.

Why on earth did I go to his hanging? Was I really hoping for closure? I still feel his absence when I sit alone on our porch. But I felt his absence when he was alive, so it’s really not much of a change. 

He comes to me in my dreams, you know—my, what a tiresome man. He used to snore like a trumpet, which kept me awake half the night, and now he has the temerity to bother me in my dreams. I truly wish he would just move on and let me enjoy my sleep. Doesn’t he have anything better to do than to come around pestering me? No, he probably doesn’t—that man did like our bed.

I go to the hangings alone now, and I’m finding them rather tiresome. Do you know they’re hanging women and children? First, they hang the women and then they do the children. The women grow rigid the instant they’re hanged; the children squirm like eels. That’s because children are lighter, and it’s harder to break their necks. Their little legs pummel the air as though they’re riding invisible bikes.

He appeared on television last night to explain why he’s hanging the children. He said the children come from bad seed. He said if the children are not eliminated, they will grow up to bomb our cities. He explained that he hangs the mothers first so they won’t see their children swing. I’m glad he’s such a thoughtful man. I’m glad he’s destroying bad seed.

The smog has grown much thicker; I can no longer see the sunsets. But it’s bad for your eyes to look into the sun so that’s probably for the best. Poppy often gazed at the sunsets, and it’s a wonder he didn’t go blind. I do think he lost his sense of smell though—his tobacco stank like dead roaches. “Would you rather it stank like live roaches?” he asked me the day they took him away. Up until the moment they hanged him, that man could make me laugh.

I sit on our porch, hand-stitching a sunset quilt, and it’s hard on my arthritic fingers. The quilt has yellow, red, and blue so I use three colors of yarn. I no longer knit shawls and scarves with blue yarn, but I still stitch blue into my quilts. A sunset wouldn’t look authentic without a bit of blue.

The patrols are much more frequent now. Black vans, the kind they took Poppy away in, glide up and down our street. They took away Gertrude Edelman and ten-year-old Aaron, her son. They took away Precious Jackson; they took away Marquis Jones. They did not take away Margaret Sullivan; she came to see me yesterday. She said she admired my quilt. She said blue is a telling color. That’s high praise coming from Margaret, she’s the prefect of our block.

Any day, they will hang me for putting blue into my quilt. So I always have my makeup kit on me and I always wear freshly-ironed dresses. Before they hang me, they just might allow me to freshen up my face. A dab of rouge would look nice on my cheeks when the color drains away. I must ask Margaret to speak to the hangman before he stretches my neck. It would be very disrespectful if I did not leave a pretty corpse.

He appeared on television yesterday, interrupting Laverne and Shirley. It was one of my favorite episodes, the one where the girls have a séance to get rid of a household ghost. He told us it’s his painful duty to hang the Boy Scouts too. He said the Boy Scouts are planting bombs. He promised the bombings will stop once the Boy Scouts are hanged.

 I do believe his speeches have awoken the trollop in me. Yesterday, when I heard his brave words, my nipples grew harder than bullets. That’s a fine howdy-do for a woman near eighty who stopped menstruating decades ago. If they’re going to hang me for impure thoughts, I hope they do it quickly.

I pray there is no afterlife; I don’t want my thoughts to go on. And I certainly don’t want to meet the souls of traitors and murderers. Imagine spending eternity hearing their wretched laments. No, I don’t want to go to an afterlife; I might be compromised there.

The quilt is nearly completed. A bit more blaze in the yellow, some ripple in the red, a tad more nuance in the blue, and I think it will be done. I rather wish Poppy were here to see it before I put it away. But Poppy liked everything I stitched so his compliments didn’t mean much. My god, I hope there is no world to come; I don’t want him back in my hair.

I stitch a little faster as the van pulls into our driveway. I do not look up as I hear the doors slam. I do not watch the men as they tromp to the house. I do not even offer them a glass of ice tea when they’re standing on the porch. I pluck a loose thread and I keep on stitching. “Wait ’til I’m finished,” I say.


“The Hangings” was originally published in A Lonely Riot and Literally Stories. It is also included in James’s anthology: Shackles and More Gripping Tales.


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


Three Darkly Humorous Poems by K.A. Williams: “Lunch at the Lake”, “Cal and Kay”, and “Night Caller”

Lunch at the Lake

Summer sun
Hungry rabid dogs
Running 
Running
So hot
So tired
A lake
Safety
Jump in quickly 
So cool
Dogs hate water
Splashing   
Oh, right
That’s cats

Cal and Kay

His name was Cal,
he lived by night.
If you met him,
you'd get a bite,
and wished you had
stayed in till light.

He met a girl,
her name was Kay,
but not like him,
she lived by day.
He sought a witch,
and had to pay.

The spell did work,
his fangs won't grow,
and his eyes lost
their bright red glow.
Cal looked for Kay,
she had to know.

Where did she go?
Cal had no clue.
When Cal found Kay
her new fangs grew,
and her eyes had
a bright red hue.

Night Caller

Mist entered the open window
and hung in the air,
transforming into a vampire
with a red-eyed stare.

Moonlight shone on the
woman lying in the bed.
The vampire glided forward
and bent over her head.

Startled, the woman screamed,
then looked at her clock.
"You're late," she scolded.
"And you forgot to knock."

“Cal and Kay” and “Night Caller” were originally published in The Creativity Magazine in 2020.


K. A. Williams lives in North Carolina. Her stories and poems have been published in many magazines including The Chamber, Black Petals, Corner Bar, Tigershark, Page & Spine, Altered Reality, View From Atlantis, The Sirens Call, and Trembling With Fear. Apart from writing, she enjoys rock music, and CYOA games.

“Two Beds, One Room” Dark Fiction by Angel Polanco

Liquid ambrosia in the form of a scorching cup of Cafe Bustelo is placed on the table. Outside the tiny one-bedroom with two-beds Washington Height apartment, the 1 train frivolously slithers from the tunnel. Violently shaking the timeline of picture frames that grace the antique dresser.

“This was the first thing I brought you. I was what? Fifth teen. I had that summer job at the sneaker store. Every time we walked past Rubio’s; you’d mention how you loved this dresser. You were so mad at me for spending my first check on it. But every time someone came by, you’d brag about it.” Henri said.

“How I slept through that raucous, I will never know,” Henri says, as she blissfully sleeps. There was a time when the wailing sirens, thundering trains, and medley of bachata, reggaeton and whatever the hip-hop track currently dominated the air waves, were lullabies.

“The Spanish translation for career is race. Isn’t that ironic?” Henri says, with his trademark devil-may-care smirk.

“I’ve been running non-stop. Chasing the dollar. The American Dream. What do I have to show for it?” He says, pausing to think.

“Honestly, I ran away. I ran from this one bedroom, two bed apartment. Trading the vibrancy of Little Quisqueya for the solitude of Long Island suburbia. I even shamefully clean in silence. I look in the mirror and I don’t know who I am. It’s not who you raised. You ran. You ran from traditional abusive parents and the drowning oppression of a third world country in the 80s. Arrived in New York at 16. A child with a child. How’d you do it all? Without losing yourself?”

A summer breeze gently enters through the open window. Carrying, with it the mouthwatering aromas of freshly baked pan Cubano from the corner bakery. Suddenly his stomach roars with the ferocity of a lion.

“I am craving your mangu and fried salami with the pickled red onions. I don’t remember the last time I had a plate,” Henri says.

Henri notices her hand hanging abnormally off the side of the bed. Carefully he moves towards that side of the bed. He closes his eyes savoring the scent of the boldly, rich chocolatey and nutty cup of hazel nectar. When he opens his eyes, his heart breaks. On the ground slightly out of her reach, is the 8×10 photograph, from the last time everyone was together.

Her birthday two years ago. Of course, he was late. Why? Now he couldn’t remember. Did he have a sales meeting that day? No, used work as an excuse hoping to avoid the event. She was changing. The poison of age began to grip her mind and body. Regardless he was late and worse, in bad spirits. Despite this she greeted him with love and a smile. It had been two years since she seen him. Her heart was always right even if her mind wasn’t.

“I remember this day. You called me William. Who is William? I don’t know. In the excitement of your birthday, Alyssa forgot to give you your pills and-,” he paused, fighting back regret. “I was so mad. I snapped at Alyssa. Who am I to snap at her? She’s been here, while like a little boy, I left. She dealt with the doctor visits, and I paid the bills. That was the deal, but she’s the one who bathed and fed you. She’s the one who changed your diapers.”

The venom that erupted from his mouth that caused ruined the festive night. Hateful words laced with pride. As he walked out the door, he saw his mother’s eyes. A look of confusion and sadness. He broke her heart, and she couldn’t even remember why. He didn’t even say good-bye.

He returns to his two beds, one room home much too late.

“Mommy I am so sorry. I was so stupid.  I should have been around. I’m sorry mommy. You needed me and I wasn’t there. I need you mommy.” Henri said, reaching to hold her hand. Tears flow from his eyes, uncontrollably. 

Her eyes open with the instinct of a mother who knows her child is in trouble. She screams, “HENRI!”

Alyssa rushes into the small room, embracing her… our distraught mother. “WHERE’S MY HENRI… WHERE’S MY HENRI…” His mother shouts weeping.

A gentle hand touches my shoulder. To Henri’s surprise, an ethereal, serene warmth surrounds him. Before he leaves, he looks at the picture one last time.


Angel is a Creative Writing Major at Full Sail University. After 15-years of training young sales professionals to communicate effectively through email and phone calls across various verticals. Angel has decided to leverage his talent for creative writing and storytelling to embark on a successful writing career.


“Fathers & Sons” Dark Fiction by Andre P. Audette

Gruesome Gertie,” Louisiana electric chair, now on display within the Angola Prison Museum, Angola, Louisiana.

The Execution Chamber defined Richard Clement’s life in many ways. He ran a bar and BBQ joint by the name a few blocks from Bourbon Street in New Orleans, filled with macabre decorations of serial killers and their untimely fates that made it a small, obscure tourist destination. If it was not the décor that brought one in, it was his fall-off-the-bone smoked ribs. Richard ran something of a one-man show, working the kitchen and the bar in the small, hot, and dark building, while the jukebox and a waitress or two attended to patrons on the busiest nights. He made a mean (and strong) Sazerac but could often be found on his down time sipping on ice tea or a can of Schaefer beer.

When the regulars got Richard talking, he would spin a yarn revealing a bit of the bar’s history. Richard’s father, Gilbert Clement, gave the bar its name when he was executed on Gruesome Gertie, the state’s electric chair, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary when Richard was 15. Gilbert was accused of rape and sentenced to die, despite maintaining his innocence. Richard was the sole family member in attendance as Gilbert was executed, his mom having left Gilbert shortly after Richard was born. He sat there with the required state witness and a prison chaplain as the switch was thrown once, twice, and a third time to finish the job. The final words of the condemned were “close yer eyes, boy.” Richard did not heed his father’s advice.

Richard and Gilbert were opposites in many ways. Gilbert was quiet and reserved, even awkward. He was a churchgoing man but did not have much else going for him that others would deem respectable. He was unemployed most of his life, becoming a father at age 16 and picking up odd construction jobs here and there to provide for Richard as he could. When he was sentenced to die the court officially declared him a “moron” based on his mental state. Despite his many flaws, Richard saw him as a decent man and believed him to be innocent of the crime he was supposed to have committed.

Richard, on the other hand, was quite sharp, despite making it through only two years of high school before heading out into the working world. His outgoing nature and business acumen led him to accumulate enough money bartending to start his own bar. Not much for religion, he preferred the nightlife of the French Quarter. “Ain’t got time for a woman though,” he’d say when people asked about his family. He lived alone in the small loft above the bar where he would hear the sounds of the close-down crowd with his windows open after a hard night’s work.

The Execution Chamber served all types, depending on the occasion. Sometimes groups of teenagers would wander over, other times tourists looking for an authentic hole-in-the-wall bar, or other out-of-towners who mistook it for a voodoo shop. The regulars, though, were working-class locals who would stop by for a lunch break or to unwind after a day’s work. Some would even bring their families by for a weekend lunch or a bite to eat when a kid skipped class for the day. These were the ones Richard got to know best.

Having not had much time with his own father, Richard looked longingly at sons with their fathers, hovering quietly as his guests talked about coming home from the army, going off to college, or even mundane life events over a cold beer. He would think back to the few beers he shared with his dad, though never fancy enough even for a bar like The Execution Chamber. “This one’s on the house” he would occasionally throw in for the guys he had seen growing up. Each time, it triggered something new in him: a sense that he needed to harness those emotions and keep building The Execution Chamber that got him this far.

And indeed, that is what he did. For The Execution Chamber defined Richard Clement’s life in many ways.

“So, where you two visiting from?” Richard made small talk with two guys in late on a Tuesday night.

“Just up there in Greensburg,” the dad replied.

“Well what brings you ‘round these parts?” Richard inquired.

“We was thinkin’ there’d be some work right over on the new buildings on Poydras Street.”

Richard grew more interested as they talked about the two of them working construction projects together after the boy’s momma died. After a few more drinks on the house, he learned they came down to New Orleans looking for better pay, and they also were not shy that they “didn’t mind the peep shows ‘n’ dancers you got down here neither.”

The few other patrons shuffled out of the bar as the hours dragged on, but Richard kept serving the duo.

“Speakin-a shows,” said the dad, slurring his words, “I’m just gonna pop on over to the house back where we were ‘n’ see if my pretty kitty is off yet.” He slinked toward the door, with a “you finish up here, boy, and I might see you at the Sun” – a run-down boarding house Richard knew of down the road. Richard looked to the son’s expressionless face, unsure of whether he heard or not. He could not tell if it was the face of a son who was used to being left by his old man or a kid that had too much absinthe in him. Nonetheless, Richard whipped up two drinks and shared a commiserating sup with him. He brought out a plate of some smoked meat to take the bite off the booze.

As the kid got up to leave, Richard walked out with him for a smoke and a nightcap in the cool night air. It was a quiet evening, and the boy quickly stumped off to find the room they were staying in.

Just as Richard breathed in to start heading in for the evening, he heard a snort, the sound of a drunken fellow sleeping outside. Following the sound, he found the father he had spoken to earlier lying in the alley with a black eye and teeth marks on his neck, as well as a few colored feathers clinging to his clothes. He was nowhere near lucid, but amenable enough when Richard told him to come back to The Chamber with him to at least clean up the vomit down the front of his shirt.

As they walked back into the bar, Richard sat the man down on a stool. He stepped behind the bar and slowly moved aside the chest cooler that sat beneath the counter. Underneath was a crack in the floor, a door to the basement that was a remnant of the Prohibition days. He pulled open the door and casually walked back to the man. He invited him down and helped him down the rickety stairs.

In the basement, Richard helped clean the man up. James, his name was, as his billfold revealed. Richard grabbed some ice for the man’s eye and some cool water to drink. “What would you like to eat, James?” he asked, “anything you like.” At the man’s request, he brought down some BBQ and a plate of fries, and another drink to cap things off. James would have to sleep things off right there at The Execution Chamber.

The next morning, Richard woke up and casually walked downstairs, moved the cooler once more, and stepped into the basement as he did most mornings. James was also awake, trembling and screaming from the chain link and barbed wire cell he was shackled in. Around him, James could see what looked like a torture chamber with different stations, a chair and a gurney, a crude and bloodied guillotine, two gallows, and a pile of sandbags with blood splatters on them. There was also a large meat smoker with a long skinny pipe to the outside that could just as easily have been part of the hellish setup. The remnants of his meal were on the floor in front of him next to a small drain. The cold concrete and brick echoed his shaky voice back to him.

Ignoring the man’s screaming and demands for answers, Richard pulled out a paper and read, “James Landry: for your actions of last night and your failure as a father, you are sentenced to death by lethal injection at 10:00am today. You may specify an alternative method one quarter hour prior to the execution.” James continued cursing loudly at Richard, screaming and begging for answers, but Richard coldly walked up the stairs without turning back and closed the door once more, placing the cooler over it for the time being.

Richard made some eggs and sausages and slowly ate a breakfast at the bar while some jazz music played on a record. The air was hot and stuffy upstairs. He swept the floor and did his dishes, glancing out the window at the quiet city streets and then shifting the cooler to one side yet again.

Richard opened the hatch and descended the stairs again, as James perked up and began cursing at him again and asking, begging, for a chance to talk things out. Indifferent, Richard approached with a leather notebook and asked to record any final words he had.

“What kind of tataille hurt you, man? Wha’d your daddy do to you, you sick bastard?”

“I watched my daddy die in that there chair,” said Richard resolutely, but still a bit taken aback by the question. He finished writing the words and closed the journal, placing it back on the stack of bricks it had been sitting on before. As James started cursing out Richard’s dad, Richard started opening the straps on the table that James now understood to be the place that lethal chemicals would take his life.

“Give me the chair too, you dirty cochon; I dare you!” yelled James.

Richard reached down, took an old watch out of his pocket, and checked the time. 9:43am.

“Heh,” he said with a cagey smile, not looking at James directly, “my first time using the chair.”

James stopped yelling and started watching Richard, looking for a last-minute way out. Richard grabbed a razor and a large carving knife, as James grew afraid he was just going to chop him up then and there. As Richard approached the cage, he set the instruments down and grabbed a thick leather strap. James pressed against the shackles that bound him to the floor, his veins bulging out of his head. Richard opened the cage and placed the strap over James’s neck, clipping it to a bracket on the floor. James spit in his face and almost immediately Richard knocked James on the forehead with his palm, hitting the back of his head hard against the concrete floor. James faded in and out of consciousness as Richard shaved James’s head and leg, coming to it once as Richard looked him straight in the eyes and said, “try that again and I will carve you slowly before I cook you.” He put a rag over James’s face and James temporarily slipped back out of consciousness.

When he came to it again, James realized he was strapped into a wooden chair with a wet strap on his head, a sponge duct taped on his leg, and a cloth wire coming from an old fuse box on the wall. Richard had crafted a thicker fuse that would take longer to break, with two backup wires to administer subsequent doses of electric shock. Richard finished up the preparations and sat himself near a switch several feet away from James. James could not speak, knowing his time was likely through, but he burbled out any defense noises he could. A quick and sudden trial from a man he had met only the night before…

Richard administered the first shock. James involuntarily clenched the chair as electric volts shot through his body for several seconds. The first fuse broke. James groaned and his head sank down as Richard got up and hooked up the second wire. The spit in his mouth foamed. After a few minutes of fumbling with the wiring, Richard sat down again. He calmly pulled the switch and a second course of electricity flowed through James’s body. This time James was silent. Richard hooked up the third wire to finish the job. The third round of electrical work went quicker, as less electricity is used in the final rounds of the death sentence, Richard learned. He sat down and flipped the switch until the third fuse broke.

James was not moving, and there was a slight stench in the air of urine and burnt hair. A puddle had formed around James. Richard looked at him pathetically, then threw a few lumps of charcoal and wood in the smoker. He was going to let James’s body cool first, just as they had done with his father.

Richard stayed clear of the chair as he walked back up the stairs, placed the cooler over the trap door, and took a cold shower to get ready for work.

Wednesdays were slow days, especially at the end of the month when local folks were waiting for their paychecks to come through. Richard put on a record and drank some ice tea while snacking on some jerky. The front door was open, waiting for a possible lunchtime drop-in, but Richard did not expect anyone to join him.

In walked James’s son.

Richard raised his eyebrows, took another sip of his drink, and said “where’s your pappy today, son?” The kid flopped down at the bar.

“He nain’t come back last night. Probably still sleepin’ somewheres.”

“Getcha somethin’ to eat?” Richard asked. James’s son took out a wallet, but Richard told him not to worry about it.

The two ate small sandwiches and chips, making small talk about the weather, the lady who ran the boarding house, and how built up the city was getting. After a half hour or so had passed, with no other customers gracing the doorstep of The Execution Chamber, Richard walked up to the door, closed it, and switched his sign to “closed.”

“Boy, I’m gonna show you something,” said Richard calmly. There was a small glint in his eye like a kid excited to show his dad his what he had built. He motioned for the kid to come back behind the bar. He scooted the cooler and told him he had an old Prohibition-era room downstairs where he could wait for his dad. “They don’t use these places much anymore, but maybe they oughta.”

He opened the door, and the dry, woody, delicious smell of the smoker eased any anxiety James’s son had about going down. Richard went first, stepping carefully onto the stairs. He reached out a hand to help the son in. “Close yer eyes, boy,” Richard said. The kid did as he was told, expecting a surprise of sorts.

As Richard and the kid took the first few steps down the stairs, James moaned in a dull crescendo. His son, recognizing his dad’s phantasmal voice, opened his eyes and saw the chamber that lay before him. “Ah shit,” said Richard.

Within seconds, James’s son instinctively shoved Richard down the stairwell onto the concrete floor. Richard murmured as he hit his head on the railing, the wall, and floor, but he did not appear to be completely unconscious. James’s son just looked on at the scene, unsure of whether he should help his dad, finish off Richard, or run. As his dad rolled his head around, the boy jumped off the side of the stairwell and grabbed the carving knife that was still sitting near the cage. James strained and groaned the word “chain.” The son grabbed one of the chains used for the shackles that hours earlier held his father. He angrily whipped the chain at Richard, striking him across the arms and chest and nicking his face. Having immobilized him slightly further, then he took the carving knife and stabbed him in the right leg. By now, Richard was in shock and nearly out of it. Strong from his days working construction, the boy dragged his ragged and bloodied body over to the cage and locked him in, not taking the time to leash him up further.

The son ran to his father and unhooked the leather straps that bound his arms and legs, standing next to three wires and a pool of sweat and urine that gathered at his dad’s feet. His father’s skin was blistered and hot to the touch, and he was obviously in pain, but James nonetheless pulled him up the stairs and laid him on the floor next to the opening of the stairs, as the father winced with each bump. He left the trap door open and desperately ran out to the streets for help.

Two blocks down, James’s son found a group of men on their lunch break. He told them a crazy man who ran the bar had just tried to electrocute his dad, and he goaded them to reluctantly follow him. They entered The Execution Chamber, a familiar haunt, and followed him around the bar. They looked down and were horrified by James’s crispy body, as he strained out a “help.” They peered into the basement and saw Richard beaten and caged in the torture room of his own creation. One of the men took to the phone and clicked out the number to the city’s emergency services.

The police investigation turned up the recorded death warrants and last words of seven men, including James Landry. Three men belonged to a single family, a father and two sons who moved to New Orleans from Mississippi in search of work. All three were shot in the heart or the head in Richard Clement’s basement. A fourth man faced death at the guillotine while his son went off to serve in the war. Another father and son duo were executed in the chamber, the father by hanging, while the son opting for a lethal injection after witnessing the father give a second round of final words. None of the bodies or personal effects were recovered; all but the first three had previously been reported missing. Richard Clement freely admitted to the crimes, and said there were more, but declined to speak further to the investigators. At trial, the jury did not have to deliberate more than 20 minutes before sentencing him to die.

Richard Clement spent the next seven years on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. He refused to participate in any appeals of his case, instead saying “let’s get this over with” and “get me in the chair where I belong.” Richard had scheduled no family or religious counsel to be present at his execution in the same chair as his father. After being told that James and his son, Ricky, would watch his execution, Richard was reported as saying only that “the boy oughta keep his eyes closed this time.” Meanwhile, his bar was demolished and replaced by a chain restaurant, a fitting close for the impending end of the Clement family line.

Richard was executed using a sequence of four electric shocks, which the state had devised years after his father’s death to ensure that the vital organs would fail. He was buried in the common state penitentiary cemetery after no one claimed his body. Witnesses said they believed his soul went straight to hell where he would be reunited with his criminal father, and that he was finally put where he belonged. For, as the papers reported just hours after notice of his death by electrocution, the execution chamber defined Richard Clement’s life in many ways.


Andre P. Audette is a political scientist by day but twists politics and social issues into poetry and short horror stories by night. 


“His Heart’s Desire” Horror by N.D. Coley

Hugo pressed his hands against his cheeks, now flushed and warm from the punches. He tasted blood in his mouth. It was salty and hot. His fingers pushed further and felt bones crunch. Tears dripped onto his lips and added to the savory flavors. It was all like broth made for vampires.

            Hugo slumped against the cemetery gate, a door of metal black rods and spikes that felt more like a prison enclosure than an entrance, and his small frame pushed it open with a creak. He looked around. In front of him a lone street light flickered. The menacing figure of Richard DiCastro was gone, and with him Hugo’s G.I. Joe backpack and history book and the die-cast Optimus Prime he’d received for his birthday. He sobbed and thought of how he would explain this to his father, who might very well hear the news, take another swig, and finish the job Richard started. Hugo, for his part, would have liked to have finished Richard. In his mind’s eye he saw himself holding a stone above Richard’s head, and he brought the stone up and down, and and down. There were crushing sounds and splashing sounds, and soon Richard’s face was not a face at all, but something more like an overturned cherry pie, but topped with detached eyes and teeth. Hugo shut the thought down, recoiling at his rogue imagination.

            It was dark and cold, and a breeze came through and crept over his shoulders and up his neck. He did not want to think about anything right now. Not Richard or Optimus Prime or when to go home. He wanted to walk and walk until everything that happened got left behind. He thought that a walk through the cemetery was just as good of a walk as any, and that nobody, not even Dick DiCastro, would follow him here. If Hugo had his own problems, the dead certainly had it worse. He wondered how many of them would trade their boxed prisons for one more chance to get up and walk the streets again, even to just get punched in the face, and for a moment he did not feel bad.

            A cluster of dark clouds moved above, revealing a moon so full and bright that he could see graves far in the distance. Mariam Memorial Park was a wondrous site. From where he stood it looked like a painting of rolling hills, each lapping over the other like waves, and on these hills he saw the tombstones, oval and square and in the shape of crosses. In the shadows of the moonlight, each grave had the same look — a deep, expressionless black. It seemed sad to him that the graves said so little. All of the names and dates printed on them. All of those lives, buried in the ground and next to hunks of stone. The whole lot was silent in the shadows.

            Hugo walked on, his shoes crunching over leaves. He stopped next to one grave. Up close he could see that it was pitted and discolored, with engravings from the late18th Century. Weeds grew around the sides.

             He placed a hand on it. The stone was hard and cold, and he thought that maybe he would learn or sense something. For a moment he imagined that it was a child’s grave, of someone taken by the flu or tuberculosis. His mind thought of a small boy in a small hat, with a small tweed jacket and brown shoes, coughing and crying and scared. The boy was in a bed in home, and then under a sheet in a morgue, and then in a coffin on display, surrounded by a weeping crowd of nameless adults. As the coffin shut, the boy opened his eyes and cried, but his noises were heard by nobody they and said nothing.

            Hugo realized that the sobs were not in his head, but in the air, carried by the chill that weaved in and out of the tombstones. The weeps were soft and gentle. They came and went, interrupted by a wet cough. Hugo stepped off the path and followed the sounds. He walked with care, as if on a hunt, around a row of granite crosses and up to a rectangular crypt with three cherubs atop the entrance. The cries were louder.

            He paused and, as if fearful of being caught, craned his neck around the side. There was the shape of a small boy, crouched on the ground, with his hands over his knees and his head slumped down. He wore a brown dress cap with a button on top, and as he wept his shoulders rose and fell.

            “Hello?” Hugo asked. “Are you alright?”

            The weeping stopped, and the hunched figure turned its head. Its face was grey and white, with eyes that looked like soft clumps of clay.

            “I am hungry,” the figure said. “I am so very, very hungry. Can you help me?”

            Hugo reached into his left pocket, his hand closing around a Snickers bar.

            “Yes,” he said, pulling the treat out. He held it forward, as someone might hold a biscuit out for a dog. The boy took it and fumbled with it. His hands were thin, with flesh that looked more like a stretched deerskin than that of a person. The hands were covered in sores and the sores oozed black. The boy struggled with the wrapper and winced.

            “Here,” Hugo said, taking the candy again and peeling it open. “Now, take it.”

            The boy shoved the chocolate into his mouth in two bites. It was so quiet in the graveyard that the sounds of his chewing seemed to echo off the monuments.

            “Thank you,” the boy said. “I have never had such a thing. It was nice. I have not had anything nice in a long time.”

            Hugo nodded and stepped back.

            “Could I ask for one more thing?” the boy asked.

            “Sure. What do you want?”

            “I am so cold. Cold all the time. I would like to be warm again.”

            “Where is your home?”

            The boy pointed to rectangular gravestone to his left.

            “There.”

            Hugo frowned.

            “Haven’t you got a real home? A house with a bed and all that?”

            “Not anymore. That’s ok. I just want a blanket. Could you get me a blanket?”

            Hugo thought on it. His father would not approve of him coming home and going back out again, though he was sure that his father would also be passed out. Hugo could do it.

            “Yes. Would you like a pillow too?”

            “Yes. That would be nice.”

            Hugo waved goodbye and set back the way he came, and as he left he couldn’t shake the idea that he was being followed and watched, not just by the boy, but by the residents of the graveyard who hadn’t taken shape and come out to say hello. He was sure that there were eyes in the scraggly trees and hands wrapped around the graves, growing in number by the moment, watching and breathing and waiting for Hugo to stumble.

            Hugo turned around. He was at the gate. Behind him a fog had gathered, setting the rolling hills of the graveyard behind thick clouds. For a moment he thought he had not gone inside at all, and that he had been slumped against the entrance the whole time.

             He shut the gate and made for home.

***

            Hugo had no trouble getting in and out. His father was, as he expected, passed out in his chair. The missing blanket and pillow would not be noticed.

            Hugo returned to the site where the boy had been, but there was nothing save for a small patch of flattened grass. It could have been from a fawn that had bedded down, or from a small boy. It was hard to tell.

            Hugo called out with a weak “Hello,” but his voice did not travel. He stood for several minutes and shivered, and decided to leave the blanket and pillow near the grave to which the child had pointed earlier.

            The temperature dropped and the air felt wet. Hugo made his way back through the fog and up the path. As he arrived back the gate, he stopped. A soft whisper entered his ear.

            “Thank you,” the voice said. “In return, I will give you what you truly want.”

            Hugo turned.  The fog had lifted, and the graveyard was empty. He was alone.

            He left the cemetery behind and marched on, making the first left. As walked he noticed a person slumped against the pole of a lone streetlight. The figure sat in a puddle of blood, and below one of his hands sat a backpack, discolored and soaked in red. Hugo approached and looked into the eyes of the figure, but there was no light in them. He was sure he knew the face, but his mind hesitated. It was not so easy to recognize the dead versus the living.  There was only a blank stare and a wide mouth. Hugo gasped, looked left to right, and thrust his hand inside the backpack, certain his fingers would close around his Optimus Prime.

            Hugo was afraid—he pulled the backpack out away from the body and looked around. The street was as before, deserted. A bird settled atop the streetlight, fluttered its wings, and took off into the darkness. Hugo stepped out of the light and followed, his footsteps moving soundlessly. He felt that he was not only trying to get away from the scene before him, but from himself. He crossed a small bridge, a narrow relic with wooden walls, built for a time for different little boys. He paused and reached into the backpack. Optimus Prime’s eyes glistened in reflected moonlight. They stared at Hugo and through Hugo. Optimus did not approve.

            Hugo dropped the robot into the backpack, walked under a handrail and onto a pathway, and sent the goods into the stream below. The waters were high and fast moving. There was a small splash. The steady flow of the water resumed.

            Hugo quickened his pace and walked on, taking random turns as if trying to throw something off his trail, and with each step he thought on what else sat within his own heart, about the monsters and secrets hiding down there, tucked away in dark corners. He imagined that his desires were dull-colored, malformed creatures without eyes, with bony hands, and sharp teeth that lined drooling mouths.

            What else do I want? he thought, and what will I see when I finally go home? Did he want to find his father, face down on the coffee table, his lifeless cheeks coated in a pool of vomit? He did not know, and he suddenly wanted nothing at all— except to keep walking.

            The hoot of an owl sounded in the distance. Hugo opened his mouth as if to reply, but closed it, feeling silly. He moved on, his soundless footsteps taking him down lonely and dimly lit streets, deeper into the night.


N.D. Coley (MA, English, University of Pittsburgh) is currently a college English composition instructor. His work has appeared in Shotgun Honey, Coffin Bell Journal, Close To theBone, Bewildering Stories, Indiana Voice Journal, Corner Bar Magazine, The Mystic Blue Review, Teleport Magazine, Grotesque Quarterly, Jakob’s Horror Box, Massacre Magazine, Crack the Spine, and Funny In Five-Hundred. In his spare time, he laments the human condition, reads depressing literature, plays with his son and daughter, and irritates his wife.  You can irritate him at ndcoley1983@phil795


“Little Bunny Foo Foo” Dark Fiction by Tre Luna

Doctor Cutter, your new patient is in room three,” the nurse said. “Torn meniscus, left knee.”

“Uh-huh. BMI?” The question was automatic as breathing. Dr. Richard Cutter didn’t believe in mincing words when it came to obesity.

“She has a large file folder which she refused to put down in order to be weighed, and she held onto it during the X-Ray, too. I don’t know if she had it during the MRI,” the nurse said, compressing her lips. “But yes, she’s a big girl.”

“Naturally.” A file folder, eh? Self advocates were the worst—these days anyone with a third-grade reading level and access to WebMD thought they were a medical expert. Cutter rolled his eyes as he knocked smartly, then entered without waiting for permission.

The patient sat upon the examination bed, fingers laced together, hygienic tissue paper crinkled beneath her. Cutter summed her up with a glance, noting how the one-size-fits-all paper exam shorts were stretched to their limits due to the rolls of abdominal fat. Of course she had a torn meniscus. Why wouldn’t she? Her knees had to carry so much bulk every day, it was just logical. Why couldn’t these people ever see that their own irrationality and compulsions caused all their problems? Terrible willpower.

“Doctor Cutter?” the woman said. Her ponderous voice was oddly scratchy, like an opera singer on three packs a day. What kind of accent was that? Not that he cared.

“That’s me.” He took to the rolling stool and zipped across the examination room in a single practiced push to reach the computer. Cutter tapped in his login and her information populated the screen. “Evangeline Fey, is it? I hear you’re having difficulty walking. Your left knee is bothering you, as I understand it.”

“It is.”

“Looks like the MRI and X-Ray results are back.” As he spoke, Cutter focused on the screen showing layers of the patient’s knee structure, scrolling up and down to reveal the problem. Which was obviously not the little disk of cartilage poking out of its matrix, but the morbidly dimpled knee within which it was situated.

He cleared his throat. “As you can see, the issue is the structure on the side of your patella, which is called the meniscus, and it’s displaced…” 

Throughout the preliminaries Cutter noticed Evangeline Fey was being very quiet for a woman with a thick manilla file folder placed atop her neatly folded clothing. He frowned, distracted from the test results. There was a pair of bright silver scissors placed on the file folder with the kind of precision he associated with surgeons. He stared, taken aback. 

Instead of watching the screen like most new patients, Fey was gazing at him. “They’re Ginghers,” she said, interrupting him in the middle of a sentence. 

“I’m sorry?”

“Capable of slicing completely through a human finger.”

“The scissors?” Cutter blinked several times. 

She nodded once, self assured. 

Cutter looked away from the shears with an effort, as it was time to begin The Lecture. He swiveled on his stool to face her and cleared his throat, feeling a satisfactory sense of purpose—this is why he got up in the morning. “Ms. Fey, I realize that for someone like you this may be hard to hear, but you need to lose weight before medical care will be effective. Would you treat a machine the way you’ve been treating your body? Like a machine, your body needs the proper nutrition in the right amounts and plenty of exercise, or it cannot function correctly. This torn meniscus is only one of many such ailments that will lead to a painful death unless you take steps now.”

Evangeline Fey’s calm demeanor didn’t change, and she continued to regard him with an intensity he found vaguely off putting. “Is that your recommendation, Doctor Cutter?”

“Yes,” he said with force. “Losing even fifteen pounds would help take the load off of your knee, though more would be better, of course.” 

God, he loved this. It was the best feeling on earth to explain to these fools what they needed to hear—no one else but a doctor could communicate the information so clearly when everyone else thought it was too rude or direct. It was important, almost a holy calling. Cutter sat straighter on the stool, feeling his glutes work. They were still sore from this morning’s workout, though his alignment was absolute. With an internal smile he readied himself for counterarguments, yelling, or even better, crying.

Sure enough, Evangeline Fey stood and waddled—with a limp from the torn cartilage in her knee—to retrieve the file folder from the chair. He glanced over and realized the scissors were nowhere to be seen. Cutter frowned, but patients could be strange about their possessions. Evangeline settled back on the crinkly tissue paper, making eye contact as she opened the file folder; her eyes were bright black, like a bird’s. Cutter sighed, almost wishing he could just leave. Ugh, why did these people insist on quoting statistics at him? 

She cleared her throat. “Doctor Richard Michael Cutter. Graduated with honors, summa cum laude, from Yale Medical School. Third in your class. Internship at John Hopkins in Boston, then you practiced for three years in Virginia Beach.” Her scratchy alto was utterly dry.

Shocked, Cutter looked at the paper and realized it was his CV. “Where did you get that?” 

Fey hummed as she scanned it. “Miami Jackson Memorial, then on to Charlotte. This stint in Providence is a bit of a step backward for you, but I can only assume it was a family move.” She nodded at his wedding ring. “Let us move on to your published works.” She licked a finger and turned the page. 

“I… look, is this some kind of, er, sting operation?” Cutter shifted uncomfortably on the stool. What he knew about the police came from pop culture; the dun dun sound from “Law and Order” echoed through his head. What Cutter really wanted was to snatch the thick file folder out of her hands—was his address on the CV? His cell number? The invasion of privacy was unacceptable.

“‘The Impact on Bone and Muscle Health in Cases of Severe Morbid Obesity: A study.’ Peer reviewed and everything, hmm hmm. I see you presented it at this time last year with one Doctor Elliot Ward at the Bariatric Medical Conference in Atlanta, despite the fact that you’re in orthopedics.”

Actually, his friend Elliot was the bariatric surgeon—which made them a great team—and the conference was a lot of fun, but Cutter didn’t feel the need to correct her. “How is this relevant to your knee?”

“I assume you’re going to Atlanta again this year—it must be nice to get out of New England, considering the January we’re having.”

Cutter stood abruptly. “Lady, I don’t know what your intentions are, but we’re done here. I can’t believe you have my personal information!”

Fey said with slow precision, “I assure you that this is a professional review. Though your personal life may be impacted, depending on the outcome.”

“Uh-huh. Well, I recommend that you lose some weight—best thing for you. That’s all I have to say.” He banged out of the room.

Behind him Fey called, “But we’re not done yet.”

“Oh, yes we are,” Cutter grumbled under his breath.

Crazy fat women took up too much room. They should do the world a favor and die, which would happen anyway. Cutter breathed a sigh of relief at his escape and glanced at his smart watch. He was nearly late for the team meeting in cardiology, and Doctor Gupta had been wanting a consultation all morning. He strode away from the exam room with a straight back, whistling.

***

The best part about working at Shriner’s Medical Hospital were the office hours, in Cutter’s opinion. He could knock off and go home to his wife and daughter at a decent time of day.

Of course, now that Delany was moving around on her own and could singloudly, home wasn’t the cozy warm bubble it had once been. Cutter had enjoyed Delany’s infancy because she couldn’t do much except roll over—the potato phase, as his wife put it. Now that she was a toddler… well. Cutter poured himself a glass of dry Pinot Grigio, swished to aerate, and attempted to settle on what had once been a pristine white couch while avoiding a minefield of Duplos, molded plastic food, and other sundry items.

“If you get home before me, why can’t you do a better job of picking up?” Cutter said to Kara, though he kept his tone light. He liked his marriage, and enjoyed being married.

Kara glanced up from grading papers. “You want a broken wrist, Mr. Summa Cum Laude?”

“Little Bunny Foo Foo hopping through the forest, picking up the field mice and bopping them on the head!” Delany sang, off pitch and with evident enthusiasm. She made a fist with one hand and slapped it with the other, pantomiming the act with uproarious laughter. 

“Ah, the latest day-care contribution to our conversations,” Cutter muttered as he sipped wine.

Kara said, “Don’t complain, it’s better than the Paw Patrol theme song. I swear that show is just a bunch of male strippers at its heart. I mean, you have the fireman, the policeman…”

“Cute. Listen, the strangest thing happened to me today. Wait until you hear about this.”

“Then the Good Fairy said, I’ll give you THREEEE chances. If you don’t do what I say, I’ll turn YOU into a FOO!”

“I think that’s ‘goon,’ sweetheart.” Kara smiled fondly at Delany. 

Cutter cleared his throat. “So, this crazy woman came in today…” The story, as he retold it, seemed even less funny than when it had happened.

Kara frowned. “Why would she have your CV?”

“Logically speaking she must have found my information on the internet. I mean, you’d have to do a little digging, but it’s not impossible,” Cutter said. Delany tapped his knee insistently, and—sighing—he set down his wine to pick her up. “Ooof. Del, you’re getting heavy. Kara sweetie, it’s time to cut her caloric intake.”

“Daddy, wha’s…” Delany started to ask.

“It’s ridiculous to put a toddler on a diet,” Kara said. “She’s within her developmental benchmark.”

“At the very edge of the benchmark, anyway. We should switch to non-fat dairy and cut her sugar and white-flour carbs. No more Cheerios for you, young lady.”

“Daddy, wha’s caloric?”

“Ah, the golden question. Caloric is the reason Daddy hasn’t eaten an apple, which has a whopping 19 grams of sugar, since his undergraduate years. ‘Keeps the doctor away’ indeed.”

Kara frowned at him. “Richard, she doesn’t understand things like that. Delany my love, caloric means what you eat, okay?”

“The last thing I want is an obese daughter.” Cutter frowned at his offspring, and he pinched a roll of baby fat between his index finger and thumb. “What a horrible fate that would be.”

“Her body is not about you, Richard. Besides, if you take that attitude, she’ll become fat when she’s an adolescent just to spite you.” Kara went back to her papers. “Teenagers do things like that.”

“God forbid.”

Kara glanced up with a smile, though her eyes were concerned, and she said nothing more.

***

The next morning Cutter awoke at 4:30a.m. for his usual workout regimen before the day began. He trotted down the stairs with a sweat towel tossed over his shoulder, then frowned. There was a light on in the dining room—several, in fact, based on the glare through the open doorway. Hadn’t Kara turn off the lights before going to bed? He strode into the room, then stopped cold, his blood turning to ice.

Evangeline Fey sat at the dining room table, the manilla file folder spread open before her.

“Good morning, doctor,” she said in her scratchy alto. “As I tried to tell you yesterday, we weren’t done.”

“Get out of my house or I’ll call the police!”

“Hush now. You don’t want to wake your family.” She turned a page in the file and said, “We must enact the ritual so you understand the depths of your danger. The reading of the names shall now commence.”

“What danger?” For that matter, what names? Cutter reached over and snagged the file folder, pulling it toward him. He leafed through it, hissing under his breath. “These are my patients!”

“Yes. That there was Sarah Hilary Craig. She committed suicide last year, like several others on this list.” Fey watched with cool eyes as the pages flew past. “It has been determined that you are directly or indirectly responsible for sixteen lives lost. Though your patient who is my client—and pardon me if I keep her name to myself—is alive and well, and decidedly in our good favor.”

“You are breaching doctor-patient confidentiality! This is the worst violation of HIPAA I’ve ever seen.” Cutter tried to keep his voice down, though it was a struggle. “Cyber-stalking me, breaking and entering, and now this? Whoever hired you is just as guilty of breaking the law as you are.”

Fey gave a little sigh. “I accept that you’re angry, but my client is a polite young lady. Leaves out milk with a dash of cream for us every evening in a little bowl, just like the old days, and lately she’s been sweetening the deal by adding her home-brewed, vanilla-and-noyaux mead.” Fey shot him a sharp look. “Perhaps you would like to make an offering as well? Milk is traditional, though you must be a regular contributor in order to make it stick.”

“Offering?” Cutter was lost in this conversation; it was like dog paddling against a riptide.

“Think of it as a counter-suit.”

“You’re a lawyer? Are these patients suing me?” Cutter threw back his head and laughed. “Please, lady. You can knock off the dramatics. It’s not like I’ve never been sued before.”

“I’m sure.” There was a hint of wry humor in her black eyes.

“Honey?” Kara’s voice floated down the stairs. “Who are you talking to?”

“Someone who thinks I cave in to intimidation!” Cutter yelled, then sneered at Fey. “Get out of my house.”

Fey calmly reached over and closed the file folder, though she didn’t rise. To his astonishment she raised three fingers in the air, and her subtle accent broadened. Irish, maybe. “You have three chances. Mark it well, Dick Cutter. Do not bully, belittle or browbeat others for their heft. You will do no more harm under the oath you took, or your three chances shall go by in a flash.”

“Richard, why are you yelling?” Kara was coming down the stairs. “Is something going on?”

“Keep Delany away, love. I’m handling… this?” Cutter looked back, but Fey was gone as if she’d never been there. So was her file folder.

Only a slight scent of vanilla and floral almonds wafted in her wake.

***

The rest of the day Cutter was so jumpy that the nurse asked if everything was all right. The next day he had calmed a bit, and the day after that he was convinced he’d dreamed the whole thing up.

Another Monday, another obese patient taking up space on the exam bed with a crappy meniscus. This one was male and about seventy pounds over. He looked contrite during The Lecture, and Cutter braced himself for arguments.

Sure enough, the guy opened with a classic. “Doc, 95% of diets don’t work. Within five years you gain the weight back with more pounds on top of what you originally shed. Does it make sense to recommend a course of action with a 5% success rate?”

Cutter raised an eyebrow, enjoying himself tremendously. “If you had any willpower, that shouldn’t be an issue.”

“This isn’t about willpower. Doc, I’ve been on every diet imaginable. Atkins, South Beach, Keto. All they’ve done is to make me feel bad about my body.”

“I believe the psychiatry department is down the hall. You do know this is orthopedics, right?”

The man frowned at him. Glared, actually. “I can’t believe you just said that. That was completely unprofessional, and I’d like a second opinion for my knee.”

“Best of luck with that. Look, if you don’t want my medical advice, why did you even come in?”

“I need help because I can’t walk.”

“Lose some weight. That will help.”

“Thanks to this bum knee, I can’t climb on a StairMaster right now even if I wanted to.”

“So go swimming instead. I suggest deep-end water aerobics on a daily basis.”

“That costs a lot of money. I pay over nine-hundred dollars a month for my health insurance, which means you, Doc. Don’t you think, say, a cortisone shot or surgery should be part of this conversation? I have a feeling you recommend those options for your skinny patients.”

“Look, I’ll put in a referral for a physical-therapy consultation, okay?” Cutter glanced at his watch. “That’s all the time I have. Come back when you’re thinner, and then we’ll talk solutions.”

Cutter made his escape and headed for radiology, but a familiar figure stood in his path. Evangeline Fey was absolutely still in the corridor, her black eyes enigmatic. Slowly, ponderously, she raised a hand and gave him… the peace sign? What the hell?

Cutter opened his mouth to yell at her, but Fey was gone. Just like last time. His cell phone buzzed and Cutter answered it, still staring down the hall. Why did he have such a strange feeling in his gut?

Maybe he should inform the police, but he’d better do some digging first. The computer ought to have everything he needed to know… except it didn’t. The Shriner’s network refused to cough up any information about Fey. Last week’s appointment was gone, wiped clean from his calendar, leaving an unexplained blank.

Cutter didn’t know what to think; each theory seemed as bizarre and unsatisfying as the next. Was he imagining things? He didn’t want to become a target of the hospital rumor mill, so he kept his lip buttoned and braced himself. Cutter would find out more information about Fey soon, one way or another.

***

Delany skipped ahead on their way to the park, dressed in her winter coat and a hat with a pompom on top. Cutter lengthened his stride to keep up, though he kept texting as he crunched through the newly-fallen snow on the sidewalk.

She sang to the tune of “Following the Leader,” “My daddy has a long shadow, long shadow, long shadow, my daddy has a long shadow, hear… him… shout!”

Cutter ignored her, chilled fingers tapping away. Hey Elliot. Is Sung-Min coming with you to Atlanta?

Three dots appeared as Elliot typed his reply, and Cutter took a moment to brush snow off a park bench by the playground. Delany was already halfway up a slide in the wrong direction, feet skidding on the frozen plastic surface. 

Elliot’s text popped up. Not this year. Is Kara coming?

Nope. Just us guys, I guess. Two wild doctors out on the town.

“Long shadow, long shadow, my daddy has a long shadow…”

Elliot’s reply was prompt. Haha, yeah right. Happily married here, and I swear Sung-Min is psychic. No strip clubs for me.

Cutter snorted. Want to share a room this year? The bookings are super tight, with both bariatrics and GYN taking up space. The desk clerk said there was another convention in town, too.

Ooooh, GYN. Better than a strip club any day, and its legit. Atlanta, here we come.

“My daddy has a long shadow…”

“Yes, he does, sweet. People listen to what he says. Sometimes they kill themselves because of his words and actions,” said a familiar, three-packs-a-day voice.

Cutter looked up, aghast. Evangeline Fey stood on the other side of the playground with Delany.

“What the fuck!” he yelled, earning dirty looks from several adults, not to mention the laughter of nearby teenagers with sleds.

“Look, Daddy! It’s the Good Fairy,” Delany said, gazing at Fey with open-mouthed rapture as if she was a celebrity.

“Get away from her, Delany! Now!”

“But Daddy…”

Cutter hustled through the snow and frozen playground mulch, grabbed his daughter, and pulled her behind him. He glared at Fey. “This is getting old, lady. Why the hell are you stalking me? And my family?”

She favored him with a cordial nod. “I beg your pardon. I am bound by certain laws that keep me from counting personal incidents among your warnings, but your daughter is so sweet—she drew me like a will-o’-the-wisp in a swamp. Delany tells the truth. She sees what is, rather than what she believes to be. Do you know what a precious gift that is, Dick Cutter? Rare and terribly valuable.”

“That’s it, I’m calling the cops.” Cutter punched the numbers into his cell phone, but Fey was already gone. He glared at the spot where she had been, then yelled into the empty air. “Nice trick, lady! Goddamn it.”

Delany had both mittens pressed to her mouth. “Daddy?”

“Yes, Del?”

“Be careful, okay?”

“Sweetheart, she’s just some pushy fat lady. I don’t know what her deal is, but she’s the one who should take care, not me.”

“But Daddy, she has scissors.”

“I—how did you know that?” Cutter stared at his daughter.

“Snip, snip,” Delany whispered. “She’ll cut off your shadow for bopping field mice on the head.”

“Yeah, okay, sure. Whatever. Just don’t speak to that lady again because it’s not good to talk to strangers. She didn’t give you candy, did she?”

“Nooo.”

“Glad to hear it. Besides, you don’t need more sugar in your diet,” he said with a sigh. “Now go get some more exercise.” 

***

Atlanta was the usual crush. 

The worst part about the Bariatrics Medical Conference was the lack of available workout machines at the hotel fitness center in the early morning hours, but at least some of the gynecologists were hot. He even managed to talk a few into coming to his and Elliot’s latest paper presentation. Cutter relished looking smart for beautiful women, no matter how married he might be.

This year he even decided to open his talk with a joke. “So, this woman goes to see the doctor, and he said, ‘Don’t eat anything fatty.’ The woman said, ‘What—no bacon or sausages or burgers or anything?’ The doctor replied, ‘No, fatty, just don’t eat anything.’”

Laughter. Cutter grinned at his audience and bounced on his toes. Then he froze, shocked. Evangeline Fey was sitting in the front row, staring up at him. She raised a single finger in the air.

“Er… Richard?” Elliot muttered. “Want me to speak next?”

“I—what?” Cutter looked around wildly, but Fey was gone. Of course she was.

Elliot cleared his throat and began his part of their presentation. It was out of order, but Cutter was too distracted to care. Fey had followed him from Rhode Island to Virginia. She was here. This was going too far.

Cutter managed to get through his performance, then hustled to the convention logistics desk. Fey wasn’t listed among the attendees, exactly the way she hadn’t existed in the Shriner’s computer system. No one had seen a woman matching her description, and she would have stood out in this toned, trim crowd.

It was time—past time, really—to follow up on his threat, no matter how inconvenient it might be. Cutter needed to go to the police at last.

***

The nearest police station had all the charm of a urinal in a bus terminal, but Cutter waited it out until he was called. The black woman behind the desk should have never been an officer—how did they even hire someone like that? At least a hundred pounds over, she was as short as she was broad. Good lord, she even had a pink donut box sitting on her desk. How stereotypical could you get? Cutter stared at it—and her—with disgust as he described Fey and her stalking behavior.

The policewoman followed his gaze with a dyspeptic expression. “Is there something interesting about that box?”

“What?”

“My lunch,” she clarified. “I don’t see what’s so fascinating about leftover dim sum, do you?”

“Oh, dim sum,” he said with a laugh. “No, nothing interesting.”

“Glad to hear it. Now, about your complaint. Did you file a police report back in Providence?”

“No.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Really? Because if this woman, Evangeline Fey, broke into your home, in Providence, and followed you around at your workplace, in Providence, and confronted you in a playground when you had your daughter, in Providence, then why didn’t you take it to your local police department?”

“I…” Cutter glared at her. “I was going to. I’ve been busy!”

“Well, sir, I don’t know about that.” The policewoman settled back in her chair, her chubby fingers tapping the desk in a way Cutter found aggravating. “All I know is that it isn’t illegal to attend a medical convention here in the state of Virginia, whether one is a registered attendee or not.”

There was no good reply to that.

***

Cutter wanted to strangle someone. He couldn’t believe this was happening, and to him! Graduated with honors, third in his class at Yale. Weight loss was a holy crusade, and everyone listened to him. It was unthinkable that Fey could affect his peace of mind this much. 

The hotel where he and Elliot always stayed had once been a historic Masonic temple, lovingly restored and expanded for its current use. The lobby was a huge, perfectly round hall with a high ceiling, marble columns and wooden beams. In the exact center of the space was a crowd—fifty or sixty people—laughing, talking, and drinking from pewter tankards. They were dressed in quirky clothing, and Cutter wondered if they were in town for a Renaissance Faire or comic-book convention. 

Then he sneered. Every single last one of them was morbidly obese. A few were so overweight that they were in wheelchairs, immobilized by rolls of fat. Arms jiggled and double chins wobbled. Everyone was eating. There were Tupperware containers with cookies and pastries making the rounds among them, crumbs sprinkling upon expansive bellies and breasts. 

The worst part was they just seemed so happy

Cutter gazed at them for a long time, shaking with rage. He had never before understood the idea of “seeing red”—he’d always thought it an imaginative turn of phrase, but as he breathed in and out his vision was occluded by blood-filled mist.

A young guy wearing a rainbow-colored Utilikilt and a puffy pirate shirt—about a 36 on the BMI chart, Cutter estimated—approached with a goofy grin and a container of chocolate eclairs. “Hail, stranger! Please, feel free to partake with us.”

Cutter opened his mouth wide and screamed, “YOU PEOPLE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE.”

The lobby fell silent. Everyone stared at him.

“Don’t you care about your health? Can’t you see how you’re treating your bodies, how disgusting you are? What horrible examples you’re setting for your children, with your asthma and heart conditions? It’s completely unnecessary. You deserve the pain because you choose to live this way, and it’s your own damn fault. The worst of it is that I have to touch you, and I have to look at you, and when you open your big fat mouths and talk…”

One of the older men stepped forward and said in a calm tone, which carried to the ends of the lobby, “Fat saved my life.”

“What?” Cutter was panting, off balance.

“I love my fat. It saved my life in a major car accident. It cushioned me, while my cousin—skinny as a pole and sitting right beside me—died in the crash.” His eyes looked sad, but his spine was absolutely straight, and his feet were planted in a powerful stance.

A woman came forward and gently took the man’s arm, then addressed Cutter. “It saved my life, too. The doctors would have let me die when a polyp exploded in my large intestine, but I survived two whole weeks because my fat protected me. It buffered my heart and lungs until I could get better care.”

“I get more dates because I’m fat!” a voice called from the back of the crowd. 

“I have better stamina than my skinny friends, and I don’t get cold.”

“Anyway, what business is it of yours?” 

Cutter swelled and enunciated each word with immense dignity. “I. Am. A. Doctor.”

“Oh, you’re a doctor. Gee, what a surprise. Fucking bigot.” The hall filled with laughter. The guy in the Utilikilt threw an eclair at him, and others followed suit. Desserts pelted Cutter’s back as he turned and fled. 

He had no idea where he was going. Blinded by outrage and mortification, he made his way outside and around the corner. It was dark. Cutter paused by a dumpster, smelling strongly of garbage, and there was a barking dog just beyond the barbed-wire topped fence. He took a breath, sick to his stomach. Cutter’s patients had always come at him one at a time. The crowds he’d addressed had always been sympathetic and educated, nothing like that medieval torches-and-pitchforks tomfoolery. Well, they’d pay for their ignorance… pain and death were coming for them…

There was a slight sound behind him—a resonance of metal sliding against metal. The dog whined, then fell silent.

Cutter swiveled, adrenaline pumping. Evangeline Fey’s eyes were black as the void. The edges of her extensive body fuzzed into the darkness; there were stars surrounding her, endless night. An ocean of sky. Cutter jerked back, mouth open with shock.

“I did warn you. You had three chances,” she said, and her voice filled his entire world. Delany was right, she was the Good Fairy. There was no other name for her.

He wanted to run like a deer fleeing a master hunter. Cutter almost managed to turn, but the Good Fairy touched him softly on the shoulder, and he knew it was futile. The Gingher scissors were in her other hand.

“Your shadow first, I should think, and then a finger. I will let you choose which one.”

“What?” Cutter couldn’t breathe. “What?”

“Hmm. Perhaps summa cum laude isn’t everything.” She grinned, her teeth extending far beyond her physical mouth.

The scissors snipped, and pain washed over him in waves. He lolled, lost in agony. He’d never thought of pain as a house with rooms, but he stumbled from one space to another, discovering new depths of torment with each slice of her shears.

“That’s better,” the Good Fairy said.

Richard looked behind him, but didn’t see any blood. “What did you do?” he said. His voice sounded different… less certain, higher pitched. Whiny. When Richard had been a child he’d watched the Andy Griffith Show on late-night TV, and there had been a character, Gomer Pyle, who spoke that way. An indecisive warble.

“Now for the finger. Have you decided?”

“But you can’t! I’m a doctor.” Why did he sound so petulant?

“I know.” The Good Fairy gazed at him. “Show me your hand.”

He automatically held up his dominant right, then swiftly pulled away and replaced it with his left.

“Ah, you do have a preference after all.” The Good Fairy caressed his hand, drawing out each finger with loving attention. “Go on, then. Tuck the others and offer me the one.”

Richard squirmed. “I don’t… I can’t…”

“You must, or I choose.” She gripped his index finger hard, and he yelped.

“No, wait.” He offered his pinky, feeling every inch the coward.

“Close your eyes,” the Good Fairy said. He followed directions, scrunching them tight. She whispered in his ear, “Now think happy thoughts.”

***

The EMTs didn’t hide their bemusement, and the lady cop he’d seen earlier at the station had laughed outright. Cutting off his own damn finger! Who’d have guessed? The social worker at the hospital had been far less amused. Subsequently, during his six days in psychiatric inpatient care, Richard was given prescriptions of Ativan, Risperdal, and Zoloft, and left the hospital with a habitual tick of looking over his shoulder to see if someone was there. Anyone.

What had happened in that back alley? Richard remembered choosing the finger. He remembered the pain. No scissors were ever found, but no one cared about details like that. There had been sixty-two witnesses in the hotel who’d said that he was a raving lunatic, clearly unhinged, and the policewoman had believed them. Everyone did.

Back in Providence, Richard cradled his bandaged left hand as he wheeled the suitcase over the threshold, home at last. Yet he was incredibly nervous for no reason at all.

Delany was in her high chair in the kitchen, singing softly while munching Honey Nut Cheerios. Richard gasped, shocked at the sight, then snatched the bowl away from her. Delany’s face scrunched and she began to cry.

“Richard, what the hell?” Kara said. “You don’t say a word of welcome, and the first thing you do is take away her Cheerios?” She swept Delany up in her arms, cuddling her close.

“I said no sugar! No carbs! Lower her caloric intake! I told you that, Kara.” Richard’s voice warbled indecisively, and Kara wrinkled her nose.

Delany’s watery eyes grew wide. “Daddy! Your shadow is gone.”

“What?” He gazed at her, not comprehending.

“I told you to be careful. Now no one will listen to you,” Delany said with authority. She looked at Kara. “Mommy, I want my snack.”

“You’d better believe it, kiddo, only let’s get you something at Grandma’s house. I’ll need to pack a bag, first.” Kara glared at Richard, then strode away with Delany.

“What? Kara, no. You can’t leave me,” he wailed from the base of the stairs.

She called, “It’s inappropriate to put a two-year-old on a diet. I won’t let you mess up your daughter’s relationship to food, or her own body. You’ve screwed up enough as it is.”

“But…” He cradled his tender, throbbing hand. “Don’t you care about me? I lost a finger, Kara.”

“Which is your own fault, as far as I understand it. Frankly, I don’t know why I ever took you seriously. You’re a self-centered ass with a heart of stone, and I’m getting out of this house. You can lecture yourself from now on, Richard Cutter.” Kara thundered down the stairs, Delany in her arms, and she gripped her suitcase decisively.

Delany pulled a thumb out of her mouth and said, “The Good Fairy turned him into a foo, Mommy.”

“I think you mean ‘fool,’ darling. Goodbye, Richard.”

The door echoed as it slammed shut behind them. Richard could hear Delany’s singing growing progressively farther away. “Little Bunny Foo Foo, hopping through the forest…”


Tre Luna has had horror, poetry, and non-fiction pieces accepted by Dark Horses Magazine, Idle Ink, the non-profit NeuroClastic, and the Sci-Fi & Fantasy Writers Guild in partnership with Cloaked Press. His blog can be found at https://panfae.medium.com, and his Twitter handle is @TreLuna5


“Interrogation” Dark Horror by Damir Salkovic

The corridor was cold and dark and stank of fear. Dull electric light bathed the iron galleries and rows of grim doors, threw long shadows up the stark white walls. The silence was absolute, funereal. Solovkin watched his feet move across the concrete floor of the passage without making a sound. His mind reeled: it was a mistake, had to be. They would realize it any moment now. Beneath his confusion he could taste fear, bright and hard and metallic, cutting through the daze like a knife.

The guard in front opened a heavy steel door. Beyond it lay a wide, windowless chamber, its walls and floors covered in stained gray tile. A long wooden table stood halfway across the room, and behind it sat two uniformed men. Before the table was an empty chair. Further back was small desk with a secretary hunched over a typewriter, a metal cart covered by a dirty sheet. Dim, terrible realization dawned on Solovkin, something his bowels understood before his brain did. He felt his legs give way. The guards half-led, half-dragged him across the threshold, dumped him into the chair without ceremony. Behind him the door slammed shut.

Harsh white light streamed from a naked bulb, blinding him. The faces of the two men were shadows in the painful glare. Solovkin recognized one of them, a tall, slender officer of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs who’d been present at his arrest. The other one was stocky and brutish, with coarse dark hair and a cruel set to his mouth. His huge, scarred fists lay knotted on the table like mallets. His eyes, flat and black and lifeless, stared at Solovkin like the eyes of a shark.

They had come for him in the dead of night, hammering on the door of his apartment, the ill-lit landing echoing with their shouts. Solovkin, half-asleep and dazed, was given ten minutes to dress and pack his belongings. An arrest warrant had been thrust into his face. Before he knew what was happening, he was in the back of a huge black car, roaring through the sleeping Moscow streets. Then the prison, a vast, sprawling nightmare of brick and concrete, bristling with searchlights and machine gun towers. That had been days or months ago: time slowed to a trickle in the mute, shapeless darkness of the cell. No one had spoken to him until the two guards came and ordered him to get up and follow. He hadn’t dared ask where they were taking him, afraid of the cell door closing again, of the thick, viscous silence that descended like a shroud, shutting out the world.

“Smoke, Comrade?” The tall interrogator pushed a crumpled pack across the table. Solovkin thanked him and reached for it with a trembling hand. The wood of the chair dug into his back. He lit a cigarette with the proffered lighter, feeling the eyes of the men on him. “My name is Malenkov and this is Commissar Kazakov. We have been commissioned to question you about the events leading to your arrest.” The pack vanished into an inner coat pocket. Malenkov leaned back in his seat. “Do you know why you’re here?”

“There has been a mistake, Comrades.” It took Solovkin tremendous effort to keep his voice steady. His gaze betrayed him, crept to the covered metal cart. Terror rose in him like an icy tide: he knew what lay beneath the stained sheet, had used it himself more times than he cared to remember. “I assure you I had nothing to do with the matter. I’m the deputy head of the Special Tasks Section, not a-”

“Surely you don’t think we don’t know who you are, Vitaly Dmitrovich.” Malenkov chuckled, a low, unpleasant sound. He rummaged through the thick folder before him. “A decorated veteran of the Great War and a stalwart of the Revolution. Before joining the Special Tasks Section, you served as acting chief of the Seventh Directorate. Your exploits in the fight against the enemies of the people, at home and abroad, are legendary. You’re something of a hero in the Commissariat. One of the Old Guard.” He put the folder down and steepled his hands under his chin. “This makes your betrayal all the more baffling.”

Solovkin fumbled for words, but found none. Malenkov’s eyes bored into his, glinting with cold amusement. “You claim your arrest is a mistake. Very well. It might be so. Think carefully before you answer. Where were you in October last year?”

A knot of hope and anticipation tightened in Solovkin’s chest; his mind grasped at it like a drowning man at a straw. “I was in Paris, on assignment. I stayed at-”

 “-the Hotel Quai Voltaire.” Malenkov was skimming over a tightly typed page. The expression on his face was suddenly stern; Solovkin felt the glimmer of hope die out. “Attending a trade exposition. Your cover was that of a publishing house representative. What was the nature of this assignment?”

“It’s in my report.” The light hurt Solovkin’s eyes. From somewhere behind the table came the distant clatter of a typewriter. “We – the Section – received orders to find and eliminate Konrad Odinets, a former White officer and reactionary ringleader. I went to Paris to gather intelligence and coordinate the operation.”

“How did that go?”

“It was a failure,” Solovkin said. “An agent was assigned to visit the target in his quarters and kill him with a cyanide bullet. Somehow Odinets must have gotten wind of it. He fled the city, took the overnight train to Marseilles. I dispatched two men to find him there, but they were unsuccessful.”

“I see.” Malenkov pretended to study the file again. “According to this report, on the third day of the exposition you met with a Finn by the name of Vartiainen. An antiquarian from Helsinki.”

“As you said. It’s all in the report. I met with him to preserve my cover”

“He gave you a package. What was in it?”

“Yes.” Solovkin could hear the tremor in his voice. The other Commissar’s silence was beginning to unnerve him. “A rare copy of Philidor’s Analysis of the Game of Chess, published in Paris fifty years ago.”

“Come now.” The thin man gave him a reproachful look. He reached under the table and brought out an old, leather-bound volume, the covers lettered in gold. “We found the book while searching your apartment. It is of no interest to us. We want you to tell us what you did with the letters.”

“Letters?” The walls seemed to close in on Solovkin. “I don’t know anything about any letters.”

“This Vartiainen,” Malenkov said, as if the prisoner hadn’t spoken, “is an enemy agent, in league with reactionary immigrant groups. He used you to transport ciphered messages to subversives and criminal elements within our borders. We want to know the names of his contacts here, in Moscow.”

“There were no letters,” Solovkin said blankly. The words sounded like they came from the mouth of a stranger. A horrible uncertainty seized him for a moment. What if Malenkov was right? Nonsense, utter nonsense: he knew how the game was played. This was what they were taught to do — spread confusion, tried to get the suspect to contradict himself, to question his own sanity. How many times had he sat on the other side of the table, smoking cigarette after cigarette, staring at the condemned with cold, calculating eyes?

“He’s lying,” said the thick-shouldered Kazanov. His voice was very even, void of accent or inflection. He leaned back in his seat and laced his massive hands across his stomach. “The bastard is sitting in front of us, lying to our faces.”

Malenkov shot an annoyed look at his comrade, turned back to Solovkin. “Do you know a man named Bogatsky? Mikhail Bogatsky?”

“He was second-in-command of the foreign intelligence branch.”

“Was?”

“He was arrested and executed for treasonable conspiracy.”

“Indeed.” Malenkov nodded and shuffled papers. “In his confession, the accused Bogatsky stated that he maintained contact with counter-revolutionary terror groups in Berlin, Warsaw and Helsinki. That he used his influence and position to betray state secrets to foreign powers through a network of dissidents and exiles. Are you aware of this?”

“I am aware.” Solovkin rubbed his temple. His mouth was suddenly very dry. A sinking realization settled into the pit of his stomach with frigid certainty: he would never leave the prison alive. He was the one who had dictated the confession to Bogatsky. He recalled how the old man’s hands shook while signing the statement, the desperate terror in those watery blue eyes.

“There’s no use denying it. Two reactionaries arrested last week signed confessions naming you as the courier. They accuse you of delivering the letters to the leader of a secret counter-revolutionary group. Who is this man, Comrade Solovkin?”

“There is no man.” He stared at the drab floor tiles. A dark, rusty stain had seeped into the grout, into the tiny cracks. “I’m telling you, I never-”

The blow caught him unawares, knocking him off the chair. For a man of his bulk, Kazanov moved like a panther. Shadows gathered in the corners of Solovkin’s consciousness. Malenkov’s voice reached him from a vast distance: … restraint… handled delicately… well-known public figure. A great hand picked him up, deposited him back into his seat with a boneless thump. The pain came in a dull bolt, almost an afterthought. He was vaguely aware of the cut above his eye, the warm stickiness crawling down the side of his head.

“We’ll have none of that,” he heard Malenkov say. A noncommittal grunt came in response. The blur before Solovkin shifted, resolved into the faces of his interrogators. “Why do you so stubbornly maintain your innocence? We have read your file. You’re apolitical; you hold no extreme ideological views. It is the belief of the Commissariat that you have been manipulated by the criminal reactionary movement. We know you’re not a subversive at heart. You can be reformed.”

Solovkin shook his throbbing head. To his right, the troll-like form of the hulking Kazanov hovered on the fringe of his vision. Malenkov sighed and rubbed his eyes.

“Is it ready?”

Behind the interrogators, a metal chair scraped across the floor. Footsteps approached and receded. Solovkin kept his stare riveted to the scratched surface of the table. It was an awful dream; any moment he would wake up, away from the interrogation room, from the hideous silence of the prison.

A typewritten page was thrust in front of him. He tried to read it, but his mind refused to make sense of the words. References to clandestine meetings, unfamiliar places, names he didn’t recognize. A drop of blood fell from his cheek to the paper, a dark red stain spreading across the whiteness. What use could they have for a false confession?

“Sign the statement,” Malenkov said, pushing a pen across the table. The tall man’s countenance was weary and sallow; dark shadows ringed his eyes. “It’s an admission of guilt, concocted to minimize your culpability in the affair. Ten years at most, but you can get amnesty in one or two.” The Commissar’s tone was businesslike. He rapped his fingers on the tabletop. Solovkin sat with the pen poised over the page for what seemed like an eternity. Finally he looked up and placed the pen to the side.

“As you wish.” Malenkov shrugged his shoulders. Kazanov took a menacing step forward, but his companion waved him away. A bell rang in the depths of the endless corridor beyond the door, and within minutes two prison guards appeared in the room. Solovkin was escorted down the dark passageway, through the great circular galleries, back to his cell. Thoughts roiled in his head, each one more dismal than the next. He didn’t think he’d be able to fall asleep, but exhaustion overcame him as soon as he settled on the hard, uncomfortable cot, and his sleep was full of nightmares.

#

In his dream he sat behind a chessboard in a vast, shadowy hall, its walls melding with the darkness. Across the board sat a tall figure, pale-skinned and gaunt and swathed in black robes. Its long, bony fingers flickered over the black and white squares with uncanny speed. Solovkin couldn’t make out his opponent’s face amid the shifting shadows; its contours seemed to meld and change with each shift of the flickering light. The only thing that didn’t change was its grin, huge and frightful: a hungry grin, looming in the darkness like the crescent of a diseased moon. The teeth in the grin were like a shark’s, folding back from the gums in double rows, too many to count. Bone-deep cold sank into Solovkin’s flesh; he was thankful for the shadows that hid the rest of that hideous face. Dream or no dream, he suspected the sight might drive him mad.

Frozen as his mind was with fear, his fingers danced across the chessboard with unusual confidence and cunning, seemingly playing the game on their own. The dark man played with blacks, cackling and tittering after every move, regardless of the outcome. At times his actions appeared erratic and haphazard; yet no matter how well Solovkin plotted his tactics and developed his position, his opponent remained a step or two ahead of him, weaving a tangle of moves and countermoves, the mad, glassy smile never wavering. Slowly the realization that he was going to lose dawned on Solovkin with chilling certainty. His second thought, groundless but persistent, was that there was more to the game than met the eye, that he was playing for the highest stakes imaginable.

A black knight blundered into the right file, leaving the middle exposed. Solovkin saw through the gambit and riposted deftly. The cackling ceased; Solovkin thought he could see the dark man’s eyes now, dull red embers glowing in the shadowed face. The robed figure leaned forward, grin twisted into a grimace, skeletal fingers grasping the sides of the chessboard. Sick, baking heat came off it in waves. Silence held for a moment; then the creature threw its head back and hooted with laughter.

“Excellent.” The dark man’s voice was the whistle of wind across a corpse-strewn battlefield. He shook and clapped his hands with mirth. A black piece slid across the board without making contact with the long, pale fingers. “Truly remarkable, Vitaly Dmitrovich. But how many moves do you have left?”

Solovkin stared at the board, a furrow of concentration etched between his brows. He launched a counteroffensive, but his opponent evaded, the black king dancing maddeningly out of reach. Still the game was drawing to a close: the black was on the retreat, the white advancing, cutting off avenues of escape.

“Closer and closer,” the dark man said, unfazed. For a moment the room took on the shape of Solovkin’s dismal cell, wavered, dissolved once more into dimensionless shadow. “There’s no escape. All for a handful of letters.”

“I already told you,” said Solovkin through clenched teeth. “There were no letters.”

“That’s of no importance.” It was Malenkov’s voice issuing from the man’s black lips. The tiny figures on the chessboard came alive, writhing in mute agony. “Your guilt has already been decided. By refusing to sign your confession, you’re preventing justice from taking its course. You’re a bourgeois parasite, a scab and a traitor to the Motherland.” This was accompanied by another convulsion of laughter.

“Who are you?” The notion that the dark man might be the devil crossed Solovkin’s mind, but deep down he knew that the truth was far more complex than that. His eyes had adapted; he could now see into the crawling darkness, where blind, ravenous shapes lurked. The thin veneer of reality had cracked and he looked upon the truth beneath it, chaos and madness spinning in the absolute nothingness beyond the rim of the universe. “What do you want from me?”

“I dwell in the cracks, in the small, hidden spaces,” came the cryptic answer. “I need to do nothing but watch and wait. Speaking of which, I fear our time together has come to an end.”

Solovkin glanced down and his heart sank: the white king was checkmated. Bit by bit, the robed figure faded into the blur until all that was left was the voracious grin, triangular, razor-sharp teeth gleaming in the darkness.

“Wait,” Solovkin said. The darkness grew thicker; something moved inside it, vast and unformed and older than time. “What do you want from me? What do they want?”

“You have been forgetful, Comrade Solovkin.” The face of the First Secretary stared out of the dark man’s cowl, the broad, stern peasant features stamped with malignant glee. Solovkin screamed and sprang backward, the chair beneath him tumbling to the floor. The robed figure shrieked in awful hilarity. “Some doors close, others open. There were no letters, but there was a book. What was in it? Can you be certain?”

“I never agreed to it.” The words took Solovkin by surprise. “The Finn — Vartiainen — said it was a parlor trick. That it would open new horizons, awaken dormant senses.”

An image came to him in the dream: a musty study lined with bookshelves, a faded rug rolled back to the wall. Vartiainen holding up the Philidor tome, drawing lines across the dark floorboards: a crude many-pointed star. Black candles burning at the intersection of the lines. Some sort of mnemonic device, the antiquarian had said — but if that’s what it was, why couldn’t he remember?

“The faithful are eaten first,” the mouth said. There was torment in its voice, a crooning hunger that the mocking tone couldn’t quite conceal. “Open the doorway, Vitaly Dmitrovich. It wants to come in.”

The slavering shapes circled closer. Solovkin raised his arms to ward them off, flailed wildly. He blinked at the darkness surrounding him: the cell was empty and he lay on the cold concrete floor, a dull pain in his elbow and side. A gruff, disembodied voice from the other side of the door shouted at him to be silent. He climbed back under the thin blanket and tried to fall asleep, but the white, featureless face floated behind his closed eyelids, the pestilent grin like a raw, suppurating wound.

#

At some point he’d fallen asleep, because when he opened his eyes the cell swam in pale light and a guard was shaking him awake.

He was taken back to the interrogation room and seated in front of the two sullen, unshaven Commissars. The covered metal cart had been wheeled closer. Laid out neatly on the table were the typed confession, a cigarette, a match and a pen. Solovkin pushed the paper away. Malenkov gave him a look of weary hatred, but Kazanov seemed almost cheerful, his dark, beady eyes shiny and malicious.

They made him stand in a corner of the room and kept him awake with a continuous stream of questions. Hours went by; at some point the two interrogators were replaced by others, and those by others again, shouting at him, waving the fabricated confession. Solovkin suffered in silence, his legs and back riven with cramps, the world around him a blur of angry faces and loud, echoing voices. Memory came to him in disparate fragments. In his delirium he saw a crack in the wall grow into a wide fissure, the pale sickle of the dark man’s grin rise up from its depths.

What is the name of your contact?

Where did you meet?

What did you carry from Helsinki?

The questions ran together, numbing his sleep-deprived mind. The answers had already been entered into the statement Solovkin refused to sign. The name of the man he was expected to denounce was vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t put a face to it. From what Solovkin could gather, the suspect had been accused of plotting to assassinate the First Secretary and a number of Party officials. Two men arrested as participants in this alleged conspiracy had already denounced Solovkin as a collaborator. All the Commissariat needed now was a confession from the chess master to close the circle. Several times he nearly broke down with exhaustion, but fear and desperation gave him strength: he knew that a signed deposition would spell certain death, both for the accused and for himself. A bullet to the back of the head, or, worse yet, whatever lay covered on the metal cart. He knew he was only delaying the inevitable, but for the moment that didn’t matter.

Hallucinations set in: there was a hole in the center of the concrete floor, a black pit that dilated like a great sightless eye. The room was collapsing into it: he could feel the irresistible pull, see the objects around him stretch and distort. The hole blotted out everything; an abyss opened under his feet and he was falling, into the bottomless, viscid dark, into the maw of the thing that slithered below.

An eternity passed. Rough hands lifted him to his feet, shook him awake. Kazanov’s broad, blank face hovered over him. Malenkov stood in the background, smoking a cigarette and leafing through the Philidor tome, flicking ash carelessly across the precious pages. Behind the table sat the dark man from Solovkin’s dream, grinning at the two Commissars who appeared to be oblivious to his presence.

“I trust you’ve come to your senses,” said Malenkov. He closed the book with a snap and sat down in the chair. Solovkin blinked once, twice. His eyes had played a trick on him: there was no robed, leering figure behind the table, only a shadow. “The sooner you sign, the sooner you’ll be released.”

“I can’t confess to a crime I haven’t committed,” Solovkin said. There was something about the book he couldn’t remember, something his exhausted brain couldn’t quite grasp. Vartiainen had spoken of unseen spheres and hidden realms, of forces beyond human comprehension. Philidor’s book, Vartiainen claimed, was a piece of a much greater puzzle, a story within a story. Solovkin remembered thinking the old man was mad, but the rest of the evening was a hole in his memory, filled with half-formed images: the window of the antiquarian’s garret opening on swirling galaxies; a vast cosmic cloud dimming the cold radiance of the stars.

“Don’t be a fool.” Malenkov’s face twisted in a sneer of disgust. “Whom are you trying to protect? Your accomplices have all been arrested. Your man in Helsinki was found dead two weeks ago.” The Commissar paused, mistaking Solovkin’s terror for grief. “You haven’t heard? The police could barely identify his remains. Poisoned, no doubt, by reactionary bandits trying to cover their tracks. But we’ll find them — there is nowhere for them to hide.”

Solovkin was silent. He was staring at a crack in the wall, from which a cancerous blackness seemed to emanate. “May I have the Philidor manual back?”

“Certainly.” Malenkov waved the leather-bound tome. “As soon as you sign the deposition, that is. We’re done playing games.”

“I can’t.” Solovkin shook his head slowly. “You don’t understand. I have to see — have to know.”

“Know what?” asked Malenkov, but the prisoner was already sagging against the wall, his eyes glazed over: he had fainted again.

#

“It all happened before Philidor’s time, of course.” Vartiainen poured cognac into snifters and raised his in toast. “Right after the terrible winter of 1709. In a few decades most of it was forgotten. What survived was a sort of morbid legend, whispered among the city’s libertine circles, growing more lurid with each retelling. Even those who had been there denied the evidence of their own eyes, or refused to speak of it at all. To speak of him.”

“Him?” Solovkin drank and watched the flames dance in the fireplace. From outside the tall double windows came the tolling of a bell, sonorous and measured in the dusk stillness.

“The dark man.” A strange gleam had settled into the old antiquarian’s eyes. He drained his glass and reached for the crystal decanter. “The Devil’s bishop, some called him — not always in jest. No one knew who he was. He appeared out of nowhere and caused quite a stir on the Parisian chess scene that bleak spring. Tested his skill against the best players of the time, Marquis de Saint-Brie and one of the Princes de Condé, and defeated them both, along with a slew of other challengers. Or that’s how legend had it, at least.”

“It sounds more like a tall tale to me.”

“There is more to it. The mysterious stranger was frequently mentioned in connection with rumors of scandalous goings-on in the insalubrious quarters of Rue Glatigny and the Filles-Dieu. Among his accomplices in debauchery was the wealthy Comte de Bavière, an infamous profligate and gambler who also happened to be a chess enthusiast. In the midst of their revelry, the story goes, the Comte proposed a bet to the stranger. A dozen or so merrymakers would travel to the Comte’s estate at Villecresnes and spend a fortnight drinking and carousing on the premises. Meanwhile, the two players would lock themselves up in the Comte’s study and play chess, undisturbed, until one of them gained a three-game advantage over the other.” A smile crossed the old man’s lips. “Or until he succumbed to the wine and opium, of which there was an abundance. It was all terribly decadent, quite in the spirit of the day.”

“What were the stakes?” The strong liquor made Solovkin’s head swim. The warm glow of Vartiainen’s study suddenly seemed sinister, shadows pooling under the stained wallpaper, the encroaching night outside vast and close. He should be on his way to the hotel, the Philidor manual tucked under his arm; he’d only accepted the old antiquarian’s offer of a drink because the price the man had set on the invaluable tome had been ludicrously low.

“That’s the odd part of it,” Vartiainen said. “No one knew but the stranger and the Comte, although there was no want of speculation. Either way, the bet was accepted and a band of the hardiest revelers set off for the Comte’s estate. After a fortnight had elapsed, the valets and footmen came to Villecresnes to collect their masters. They found them scattered about the gardens and halls of the mansion, drunk to near oblivion and half-mad with terror. When there was no response from the Comte’s study, the door was broken down.”

“Let me guess.” Solovkin attempted an ironic smile, but it felt too tight on his face. “The Comte was dead, his features twisted in absolute terror, and no trace could be found of his mysterious companion.”

“The study was empty.” Vartiainen pretended not to hear the mockery in the other’s tone. “The walls had been stripped bare, the carpets rolled back to expose the floor. Diagrams and symbols drawn in ink and chalk covered everything. Other things — a servant went insane from whatever he saw up there.” The antiquarian’s glass was nearly empty again. “Neither the Comte nor the dark man were ever seen again. Many discounted the story as superstitious babble and claimed that de Bavière had fled France to evade a jealous husband, or royal disfavor.”

“But Philidor thought otherwise.”

“He must have heard the tale through his mentor, the great chess master de Kermeur. Apparently he became obsessed with it to the point of compulsion. The abandoned de Bavière mansion burned in a fire some years before, but Philidor decided to track down the survivors of that ill-fated orgy using his connections at the Court.” Vartiainen paused to light a foul-smelling pipe. “Mind you, this was almost half a century after the event took place. Few of the revelers were still alive, and of those fewer still had their wits about them. But Philidor persisted; he delved into the seedy underbelly of Paris, met with occultists and charlatans, astrologers and chymists. Piece by piece, the puzzle was completed.”

“Yet no one knows what the puzzle looks like,” Solovkin said. “His private papers make no mention of his occult studies. The world remembers him as Philidor the subtle, opera composer and chess genius, admired by Rousseau and Voltaire.”

“He was afraid.” The old antiquarian blew a puff of blue smoke. His eyes wandered the dimly lit room as if following some flitting shadow. “De Bavière had thought the dark stranger the Devil, and sought to offer his soul in exchange for unfathomable pleasures and wonders never before seen by human eyes. An escape from the trivialities of this world. But the truth, Philidor found out, lay well outside such tired scriptural platitudes as God and the Devil, good and evil. The dark man was a gatekeeper of sorts, the servant of beings from unfathomable realms beyond our world, the true masters of destruction and creation. Oh, he would show you wondrous sights, and whisper forbidden knowledge in your ear — but at a terrible price.”

“You speak as if you believed this drivel.” Solovkin tried to rise from the velvet armchair, lost his balance and sat back down. His words came out slurred, heavy. He reached for the book, but the old man was quicker: gnarled fingers leafed through the age-stained pages with infinite care, trailing over the numbers and letters.

“He couldn’t bring himself to destroy it,” Vartiainen said. “Instead he hid it in the pages of his famous work. A special, rare edition, printed exclusively for private circulation. The differences from the original Analysis are not readily apparent, but they are there. Diagrams, incantations, rituals to open the dimensional rift, to ward against that which lies on the other side — all disguised as chess moves.”

“Nonsense.” Fear thrust through Solovkin, cold and sharp, cutting through the daze. The room was melting away, shapes fading into the darkness. He could not bear the stare of the old man’s searing eyes. “Utter nonsense.”

“Is it?” Vartiainen chuckled and nodded toward the garret stairs. “Only one way to be certain, wouldn’t you say?”

Solovkin opened his mouth to reply, but no sound came out. His surroundings came back into focus. The old man was gone, and so was the study: he knelt on the floor of a prison cell, the stub of a pencil in his right hand. For a moment he didn’t know where he was, his heart beating a frantic tattoo in his chest. Then it came back to him: the arrest, the interrogation, the cruel faces of the men of the Commissariat. They would be back for him any moment.

He stared at the broken pencil as if expecting it to move on its own. A recollection lit up the recesses of his mind, bringing a smile to his lips. They had taken the book away, but he would remember: he never forgot a single move he’d played. Even in a dream.

The lead heart of the pencil traced a line across the concrete floor, haltingly at first, then bolder. The secret sign, hidden in the tangle of moves and countermoves, burned in his mind’s eye. Solovkin hummed as the image took shape, lost to the world around him. When the pencil was used up he tore his skin open and dipped the shards in the dark ink welling from beneath.

#

The guards were caught unprepared.

Several times they had escorted the quiet, bookish prisoner from cell 336 to the interrogation room, and he’d never tried to resist in any way. When they came for him that morning, he seemed even more subdued and distracted than usual. He shuffled along between them, his eyes glassy and unfocused, until they reached the staircase that connected the iron galleries. Then he spun round and shoved the guard behind him with all his strength.

The unexpected attack nearly sent the guard over the railing; he flailed his arms as he fell back, clutching at the metal bars. The man in front was too slow. By the time he turned, the prisoner was already halfway up to the upper gallery, bounding up the steps with desperate speed.

Shouts exploded in the staircase, footsteps thundering from below, the noise immense in the dead silence of the prison. Other guards joined the pursuit, but the fleeing man evaded them with ease. Yet there was nowhere to run: he was almost at the top of the staircase, two guards waiting for him on the uppermost gallery, truncheons at the ready. The prisoner scrambled over the railing and perched above the drop for a moment, arms thrown out like a grotesque bird of prey. Before the nearest of the guards could reach him, he stepped off into the emptiness.

They found him in a pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs, crumpled and twisted like a broken doll. He drew in a ragged breath, then another. His finger smeared a dark scarlet curve on the concrete, the start of a drawing or a strange symbol. His dying eyes gazed around the circle of faces; blood bubbled on his lips as if he were trying to speak. By the time the doctor arrived, the prisoner was long gone.

#

“Are you all right, comrade?”

“Yes,” Malenkov said through clenched teeth. “Leave me now. I have to go through the prisoner’s personal effects.”

The guard moved away, his steps noiseless on the carpeting of the corridor. Malenkov waited until the man was out of sight, exhaled a whistle of breath. The interior of the cell spun round him, mad designs and patterns inscribed into the floor and walls robbing him of all sense of dimension. He stepped in and closed the door behind him. The cell had to be cleaned up by someone reliable, someone who’d keep his mouth shut. There would be enough unpleasant questions to answer: not only had he failed to secure a confession, but the prisoner was dead. In the paranoid atmosphere of the Commissariat, even the smallest mistake could easily place one on the wrong side of the interrogator’s table. No one could know about this.

He crossed the room and peered at a shape that resembled an eight-armed star, surrounded by small, twisting symbols. Devil-worship of some sort, occultism. There had been nothing in the chess master’s file to suggest anything of the sort. Similar drawings covered every centimeter of the bare walls and floor like a hideous, tightly woven tapestry. Some had been drawn in pencil, others in the prisoner’s own blood, the strokes crude but precise, measured. A central piece above the cot featured a tall, slender form emerging from a crack in the wall: a huge, predatory grin cleft the face in two. In spite of himself, Malenkov shuddered. Something about this gruesome icon made his skin crawl, turned his mind to deep, sunless places in which screams could echo forever without being heard.

The silence was oppressive, the roar of blood in his ears deafening. Suddenly he no longer wanted to know what had happened, only to be as far from the call as possible; some long-dormant fragment of his consciousness screamed in alarm. The walls faltered, lost solidity. He turned round. The door had disappeared under the obscene scrawl. He clawed at the stone until his fingertips split and bled, distantly aware of the animal whimper coming from his throat. From behind him came a crumbling noise, the crevice in the wall widening, something pushing through. Fetid air rushed at him, the sickly sweetness of corruption. An irresistible force grasped his head, turned it against the resistance of his neck muscles and vertebrae. Malenkov heard the crack, saw the grinning maw yawn open, a razor-lined tunnel glowing with infernal light.


“Interrogation” was originally published in A Lonely and Curious Country: Tales from the Lands of Lovecraft by Ulthar Press (August 2015).


Damir is the author of the sci-fi thriller Kill Zone, the occult mystery Always Beside You, and short stories featured in multiple horror and speculative fiction magazines and anthologies, including the Lovecraft eZine, Martian Migraine Press, and Scare Street’s Night Terrors series. He lives in Virginia with his wife and his feline writing assistant. An auditor by trade and traveler by heart, he does his best writing on cruise ships, thirty-plus thousand feet in the air, and in the terminals of far-flung airports. He can be contacted at https://darkerrealities.wordpress.com.


“Act 1, Scene1” Dark Poetry by Prithvijeet Sinha

Sshhhhh.....
Put your ears on the wall.
There's a vile element in the concrete,
A phantasm of the moors.

This scullery is built atop
what once was a necropolis
and they buried masses of all hues six feet under.
Surely, the children have played here
and even spotted a finger bone or two
near the tree.

Listen,
stand here.
Somebody gargles,
hisses a curse,
then
'Deux Ex Machina'
or invokes a native sermon.

It thrills me
but grips like a vice
like how Master's eyes
lock with mine,
a tinge of forbidden desires
in the slow steps he takes
towards the kitchen door.

 ***
Sshhhhh....
Hear.
Nuns and sinners alike
speak various tongues.
Confessions afoot
with the decaying yellow haunting
of the afternoon.

The very light is stricken,
diseased,
separate from the entities of the night that lurk like
Lizzie and Bridget,
their secrets bitten under every lip.

The cat sits there,
breathing
and seeming as placid as Granny
on her rocking chair.

The phantasm from the moors
glows in the shadowed veil
of this room
and then whispers a dirty secret in my ears.
Stone cold
and frigid as the history of this town.
Did you hear it?

Previously published in Visual Verse. 


The writer’s name is Prithvijeet Sinha from Lucknow, India. He is a post graduate in MPhil from the University of Lucknow, having launched his prolific writing career by self publishing on the worldwide community Wattpad since 2015 and on his WordPress blog An Awadh Boy’s Panorama(https://anawadhboyspanorama.wordpress.com/)  

Besides that, his works have been published in several varied publications as Hudson Valley Writers Guild, Piker Press Online, anthology Pixie Dust and All Things Magical published by Authors Press( January, 2022), Cafe Dissensus, The Medley, Screen Queens, Confluence- South Asian Perspectives, Reader’s Digest, Borderless Journal, Lothlorien Poetry, Live Wire, Rhetorica Quarterly, Ekphrastic Review, Chamber Magazine, The Quiver Review, Dreich Magazine, Visual Verse and in the children’s anthology Nursery Rhymes and Children’s Poems From Around The World ( AuthorsPress, February 2021), among others. 

“In My Heart There Stirs a Quiet Pain” Dark Fiction by Kate Bergquist

The only time I ever visited the Maine coast was during my senior year of high school.  Honors English field trip up to Camden, to stay at an inn where the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was discovered. 

I lived in Standish, New York back then, north of Albany, a dusty mill town with three dive bars and one church.  It stormed that April weekend, and we left before sunrise, on a mud-streaked Greyhound bus, all of us giddy with excitement to see the ocean.  By noon, we were eating lobster rolls in the pelting sleet, and I remember watching the whitecaps, and boats tossing about in the harbor.                                                               

At the inn, each of us had our own room, painted in a blue and white palette, decorated with ship anchors and sea birds.  My room was tucked away on the top floor, and appropriately masculine with a four-poster mahogany bed, sturdy oak desk and a fireplace.

Everything was spotless, just the way I liked it.                                                                    

Still, you could never be too careful, so I wiped down all the surfaces with antiseptic wipes.  I cleaned the doorknobs, the TV remote, the flush handle for the toilet.  In the bathroom, I found a wet towel that housekeeping had forgotten to remove. And when I walked back into the bedroom, I noticed the ruffled bed skirt was lifted slightly on one side. When I checked under the bed to make sure it had been vacuumed, I discovered a small pillow centered beneath the mattress frame.

And a couple of old photos placed upon it. 

Curious, I slid my arm under the bed and pulled them out. 

The pillow was roundish, quilted in a faded flowered silk.  The photos were tattered and water-stained.  I could vaguely make out the faces of a blonde boy and a man, but it was evident they were both very good-looking.  The laughing man was holding up the boy, who was probably four or five, with eyes as clear as lake water as he grinned for the camera. 

I thought about bringing the items to the front desk and making a complaint to housekeeping.  But I had to admit — they were interesting, evocative details that could be used in my writing. 

So, I slid them back under the bed. 

The beginning of the weekend was uneventful, even dull.  We did a bit of sightseeing and shopping the first morning, spent the afternoon touring Millay’s childhood home in nearby Rockland.  In the evening, we talked about her poetry.  At the time, I really didn’t have much interest in poetry, or Millay for that matter.  Though I was kind of jealous of Millay’s early discovery by a patron of the arts.  I worked several nights and weekends stocking shelves at the Standish Drug Store and never seemed to have much time to write.  Now that I had a few days off, I was anxious to find some quiet time.  And starving for something to jolt my inspiration. 

On the second night of the trip, something happened that did just that.

We were gathered at the long dinner table, all ten of us plus our teacher, sweet rodent-faced Mrs. Stevenson.  Six girls, but only one of them — Diana — was almost hot: pink plumped lips and skinny jeans, but a complete, fucking narcissist so before I sat down, I whispered into her jeweled ear, it’s all lies, what they say about you! and smirked when I saw shock register on her face; and there was Mick and Wally with their legs touching, a popular couple who I fondly dubbed Milky, who spent most of the weekend practically oblivious to the rest of us. 

That night, there was one extra seat at our long table, but no setting.  When our crab cake appetizers arrived, a gaunt woman in a dark wool dress swept into the room.

She smelled like wet leaves. She sat down but didn’t acknowledge anyone.

We all stared.  She had a long neck, delicate as bone china.

Mrs. Stevenson regarded her curiously, somewhat nervously, so I knew she was uninvited.  She murmured something to the woman, who nodded after a few moments.

  Mrs. Stevenson gestured to the waiter, making this odd, solemnly beautiful woman our guest.  The woman pressed her lips into a tight smile.  It took some effort.

I studied her all during dinner.  Sculpted cheekbones, slender fingers, clean nails filed short.  She picked at the salmon and chewed robotically.  She scanned the room as if it were a distant landscape, then slid her gaze back to the safety of her plate.  She ate very little, allowed herself only a few sips of seltzer. 

After dinner, though, when Mrs. Stevenson started droning on about Millay’s bohemian days, contrasting it with her pastoral life in Austerlitz, New York, her literary significance, the woman’s eyes grew luminous.  She became attentive, hands clasped together, listening as Mrs. Stevenson gushed about Millay’s intellectual sophistication and her gift as both a poet and playwright. 

A few of us yawned, some fidgeted, anxious to get back to our phones, while I feigned interest, but honestly, Millay was a complete bore to me.  I hated rhyming couplets, and everything I had read of Millay’s, even her sonnets, sounded infantile.  To me, they were just a bunch of silly love poems.  I could write so much better than that.  I should be the one who was being celebrated tonight, not some old, long-dead female poet.

As if on cue, the strange woman suddenly stood, cleared her throat and began to recite from memory some of Millay’s sonnets.  To this day, I can still hear the deep tolling bell of her voice:

Small chance, however, in a storm so black,
A man will leave his friendly fire and snug
For a drowned woman's sake, and bring her back
To drip and scatter shells upon the rug.
No one but Night, with tears on her dark face,
Watches beside me in this windy place.

It was electric.  Her tremulous voice, her haunted gray eyes, her thin arms clutching her sides as if to keep her ribs from breaking.  She was that drowned woman, ruined by lost love, trying not to fall apart in front of us.  Trembling, trying not to scatter her shells, her fragile bones.

And her perfect porcelain face, a counterpoint to her battered soul.

We were captivated. 

I don’t know how long she spoke, maybe ten minutes, but it was the depth of her pain that drew us in. And it was a life-changing moment for me.  For the first time, I recognized the embodiment of suffering.  Yet, here she stood before us, somehow so beautiful and elegant.  And ethereal.  A fascinating study for my teen self who had published two short horror stories in our school literary magazine, Midnight Anthem, and fancied himself the next Stephen King.  Now a thundering wave of great writers and poets crashed over me, and the synapse between the written word and emotional pain was something I knew I wanted to capture.

When the woman finished, we were speechless.  Mrs. Stevenson quietly thanked the woman for her passionate recitation.  

But she didn’t ask her to continue. 

And no one applauded.

An uncomfortable silence filled the room.  Still standing, the woman nervously tucked a lock of black hair behind her right ear.  I noticed a single pearl earring and wondered if she even knew she wearing only one.

I took copious notes in my head.  I wanted to remember every detail.  Hard to tell her age. She could have been thirty or even older, her face scrubbed clean, thick lashes and brows framing those storm-gray eyes, a heart-shaped face.

And the earring.  It was one of those grayish, fresh-water pearls, and it gleamed in the dim light.

I remember her eyes darting about the room, shyly seeking out some human connection, however small or fragile.  When she saw me watching her, our eyes locked for a long moment, but I wrenched mine away. 

Flustered, I rose abruptly and went outside to smoke a joint.

The street was empty. The wind was blowing so hard; I almost couldn’t light it.  I zipped up my hoodie and walked to the harborside dock and watched two gulls struggle against the storm.  The wet air smelled like seaweed and dead things.

A short while later, the woman appeared at my side.  Startled, I flicked the joint into the harbor.  She was tall, just a couple inches shorter than me.  She leaned forward, her dark hair fluttering like bird wings about her thin shoulders, searching my face as if desperate to find someone she recognized.

“The rain is full of ghosts tonight,” she said. 

I couldn’t speak.  My heart was thudding so loud I thought she might hear it.  She touched her ear lobe, fingered the pearl.  She studied my face as she plucked it from her ear, handed it to me.  “In my heart,” she said softly, “there stirs a quiet pain.”  She pressed the earring firmly into my palm and closed my fingers around it using both of her hands.  

She shivered, clad only in the wool dress and low heels.  Her thin lips were chapped and I had a sudden urge to kiss them. 

 But those eyes!  Even clouded with tears, they cut right through me, into me, sliding down my throat, into my liver, slipping around my spinal cord.  I froze; my hands wet with sweat.  I didn’t know what to say or do.  She looked at me and knew everything about me.

Being in her presence was unsettling, exciting, all-consuming. Arousing. Was she seeing me as a fully mature young man? Did she want something in return?  

I didn’t wait to find out.  I didn’t even say goodbye.  I abandoned her and fled across the deck and back into the inn. 

My room, my refuge, perched on the third floor in the left wing – faced the harbor.

I went over to the window by the fire escape and peered out at the gathering dark. 

The window panes were cold to the touch and it sent a shiver through me.  Distant lights blinked in the harbor.  At the horizon, a tiny scar of moon.  No curtains, but I still had total privacy.  The window was closed, but unlocked.  I secured it and tried to relax.  Then it occurred to me that a glowing fire would warm me up and calm me down and set the mood for my writing.  It was a gas insert, so all I had to do was push a button and voila! – instant ambiance.

The wind started rattling against the window panes.  As I began typing a new story, The Pearl Earring, I popped a few Benadryl and washed them down with several vodka nips I’d pilfered.  The liquor stung my throat and sent a golden burn through my veins.  But I still couldn’t relax – I was restless and anxious as I typed into my laptop. 

Several pages in and the story just wasn’t coming together.  Lately, I really couldn’t seem to get anything decent down on paper.  It was all shit! Even my writing teacher Mr. Prior had warned my work was falling flat at times.  He announced during our previous class, “Joshua used the adjective ‘lugubrious’ to describe his character’s deep state of sadness. Why would you do that, Joshua, except to blow your own trumpet?” And the class actually laughed at me! It took of all my strength not to scream back at him, you fucking moron! My character is a Rhodes scholar! And then he declared, in front of the whole class, “You need to learn to harness your inner voice, Joshua.  Your writing lacks authenticity.”

Prior was jealous.  Obviously.  But his stinging criticism had set me off kilter.  Now I was questioning every word and I’d completely lost my flow.  I needed another story ready in three days and so far, it was all crap! 

I had to capture some magic in my writing.  Some emotional pain! My head was spinning. It was so damn hot in the room! I stripped off my hoodie, my T-shirt. I kept envisioning the woman’s face, and it was making me angry and confused.  And hard.  And the wind kept hammering the window, clattering against the fire escape.  I just couldn’t concentrate with so much noise! I pulled off my jeans and started to pace.  The lights flickered.  I felt dizzy and grasped onto the one of the bed posts to steady myself.

Then I remembered the pillow and photos under the bed.  How inconsiderate of housekeeping to have left that stuff in my room! They probably never even vacuumed under there!

Frustrated, I pulled them out, staggered over to the fireplace and flicked the photos in, mesmerized as they curled into little fingers of ash. 

And the pillow! So soft! Warm as a lover’s skin.  As I caressed it and slipped it all over my body, I saw it wasn’t actually round; it was a misshapen heart.  Delirious, I wrapped it around my manhood and harnessed my inner voice as the wind banged and howled and shrieked down the chimney.

A while later, I tossed the pillow into the fire.  It smoked a bit, then made a dull popping sound before it eventually succumbed to the flames. 

I fell onto the plush quilt, slipped down into the soft mattress and into a dead sleep. 

I dreamed of capsized ships, bruised and battered bodies.  Moist places where earthworms and other crawly things writhed.  And in that dark, lonely place, my nose filled with the pungent mix of seaweed and dirt, I reached for the silken bones of the woman with haunted gray eyes.

I overslept and only had time for a quick shower that morning, scrubbing myself clean with balsam-scented soap, before packing my duffel bag and joining the others for breakfast. 

My head was a concrete block.  But despite all the weed, booze and Benadryl, I was starving.  Practically drooling as I thought about wild blueberry pancakes drizzled with maple syrup. 

Downstairs, a tense commotion.  Muffled voices.  Milky sat together glumly, picking at cold eggs. Two paramedics were talking to a visibly shaken Mrs. Stevenson.  One put his arm around her as she squeaked; I wish I had known!  She was scratching at her neck, her jawline, and her dry skin looked raw in the harsh light.  A few silver strands had pulled loose from her bun.  Some of the girls were huddled together, whispering and texting. 

Diana shot me a cold, you’re-the-problem stare. 

One of the detectives motioned to me, and led me over to a small table in an alcove.  Through the window, two schooners bobbed in the harbor, their sails like flashing suns.  It made my head throb even more.

“This won’t take long, Joshua,” the cop began, and when he introduced himself, I light-bulbed a plate of cookies. “Chip Oates.”  A sliver of something green was caught between his two front teeth.  I nodded, made a mental note.  I could use that name.

“We had a…situation here last night and need to ask if you saw or heard anything.”

 I told him no, recounting how I had gone to bed after writing for a while. 

Oates paused, took a breath.  “It’s about a woman, Alice Esker,” and I knew it was her; her name fit her perfectly.  Fragile, but elegant.  A candle burning low but not blowing out.  

It also had a familiar ring to it.  Alice Esker.  “The woman at dinner?” and Oates nodded solemnly, jotting something in his notepad, waiting.

“Something happen to her?”

“Yeah, you could say that.  She’s dead.”

“Oh, shit.”  I gripped the table edge.  “How?

He didn’t reply.  Then: “You hear anything, son?” Oates studied my face, and I knew he was a man who could read either the truth or a lie there.  “No sir,” I said, and turned toward the window, to watch gulls scream at the sea. “Just the storm.  It was raging! I thought my window might break.”  Dead?!

“We’ve been looking for Alice for weeks,” Oates explained, letting out a long sigh.  He lowered his voice to a whisper and all I could make out was, “Nervous breakdown.”

“Oh,” I stammered, “th-that poor woman.”   

“Tragic.  Lost her husband and young son in a fire. Both! Can you imagine! And her break with reality…well, it was profound,” Oates explained, and now his voice seemed like it was booming.  “Guy found her in a fishing hut in Lincolnville couple weeks back, buried up to her neck in a twisted pile of ropes and buoys to stay warm.” He shook his head. “Real shame.  Could’ve called us, should’ve called us, but we didn’t find out till days later.”

“But she…she didn’t seem that bad,” I offered.  My mind flipped through several possible scenarios.  Drowned? Hanged?

Oates coughed up something wet and spit into a handkerchief. 

“I mean – she looked so, so clean,” I continued.  “She didn’t seem like someone who didn’t have a place to stay.” 

Oates nodded. “You’re right, son.  She was trying to hang on.”  He took a gulp of black coffee, set the mug back down.  “Clever girl, that Alice.  Famous, in fact.  Wrote novels.”

What?!

“We believe she was staying right here, in this inn.”

A deadbolt slid across my brain.  A stream of lava issued from my duodenum and spread into my throat. I swallowed the stinging swill. 

“She didn’t have a key apparently, or any money, but she was staying here…hiding here, really.  Upstairs,” he tilted his bald head toward the staircase.  “We’ve got someone taking a look now.” As he kept on talking, my mind lowered the volume until I could barely hear his voice, and phrases wriggled out like loose worms…honeymooned hereshould’ve known she’d come back and the enormity of the truth, the utter horror of it, hit me with full force. 

My room…it was her room! Had she been sleeping…under my bed?!

And the pictures, the pillow…I just couldn’t go there.  I tried to stand, but my legs wouldn’t work.  In the background, the raging scream of a teakettle. 

Oates kept on.  “We’ve been piecing it together.  She’d access the room from the fire escape.  Apparently, according to folks we talked with this morning, she was making a lot of noise trying to get in last night.” He coughed again, a wet wheeze in his lungs.

“Just wondering how you didn’t hear her.”

Because I was messed up! And I’d locked the window! Oh GOD! She SAW?! This can’t be real. This can’t be real!

Oates looked weather-beaten.  “It seems one of her shoes – well, the heel — we think it caught in the steel grating, and, poor thing, she must have lost her balance and…” his voice trailed off as I steadied my arms against the table. 

Another detective thudded down the stairs and strode over to the alcove.  “We found this,” he said and placed something on the table.  It sounded like a small marble.  It started to slide off the crooked surface, and I caught it just before it slipped off the edge.  I set it back down.  Oates said, “I’ll be darned.  That yours?”

I took a closer look.  It was Alice’s earring.  It must have fallen out of my pocket when I pulled off my jeans.  But, wait – it looked so different in slanted morning light.  It wasn’t a pearl after all.  It was a…what? A tooth? She wore a tooth in her ear?! And not just any tooth, it was small like a child’s…!

And then, I knew.  I knew everything.

I launched myself up, only to pitch forward into a dead faint, fracturing my skull against the sharp edge of the table.  Like a beetle with a broken carapace, my mind scuttled into a slippery crawl space, grateful for the black.  But even in this deepest crevice, devoid of light, there was still no peace.  Alice’s voice slipped into my ear like amber syrup, reciting Millay.   

I can endure, and that the lifted dust
Of man should settle to the earth again;
But that a dream can die, will be a thrust
Between my ribs forever of hot pain.

Vague shadowy shapes appeared and then a blinding shock of light as I lifted back into consciousness.  Paramedics were waving pencil-lights into my eyes, Joshua, you’re going to be okay, we’re transporting you to Maine Medical, and everyone was crowded around me with looks of shock and concern.  Mrs. Stevenson was patting my hand, oh dear boy, dear boy.  And even Oates nodded sympathetically as he stuffed his notepad into his shirt pocket. Everyone cared about me more than Alice.  She was gone now and no one in that room ever really knew her like I did.  She sacrificed herself for me, perhaps intentionally, perhaps accidentally.  But she opened her window of suffering to me and gave me a gift that I will never forget.

And I will always keep her secret safe. 

That day was filled with sirens and sadness, but also with undeniable hope.  And I knew I could shoulder the burden of Alice’s truth.  I would transform her quiet, hot pain into extraordinary works of fiction.

I would make her proud.


Kate Bergquist holds a Master’s in Creative Writing from Rivier College in New Hampshire.  Insurance agent by day, dark fiction writer by night, Kate’s work was twice nominated for Best New American Voices.  An original dark thriller screenplay NO FORCIBLE ENTRY (co-written with Patricia Thorpe) was honored by Showtime, nominated for a Tony Cox award and won top honors at Scream Fest.  She finds inspiration along the craggy Maine coast, where she lives with her husband and several old rescue dogs.


“Like Moths to a Flame” Dark Fiction by Cecilia Kennedy

When a deluxe RV blocks our driveway, and the pocket parks in the neighborhood sprout graffiti and trash, we decide to move.

            “Our dream house is for sale,” Dillon tells me.

I know which one he’s talking about. It’s the one we built, two hours away, the one we sold for far less than what it was worth before we moved to this house, but now can afford to buy it back.

            “We won’t want it now. We’ll hate it.  You should never go back. You’ll only hate what the new owners have done to it.”

But Dillon’s convinced that whatever they’ve done, we can undo easily enough, and when some kids throw stones at our windows, I look for realtors.

#

            Brown grass and bare patches bleached by the sun, do nothing to offer “curb appeal” to the house we once owned. The scorched, concrete driveway is cracked with dandelions poking through. Dillon’s face drops. All of the plants and roses he’d grown—the trees he took care of—are gone.

            “I’m sorry,” I say.

He lowers his gaze, most likely thinking about all the work it’ll take to put the plants back in and to re-do the yard, which has been depleted of the mature trees that blocked the sun.

            Inside the house, I’m shocked to see our bamboo floors carpeted over and gaudy old- timey wallpaper covering every inch of the walls. The kitchen cabinets were painted over as well, and I hate it here.

            For months, we put everything back the way it was and plant gardens and open windows and cover the air with fresh lavender spray. We sleep tucked in between cotton sheets and thick duvet covers. Even the birds return. We see the flutter of cardinals’ wings.

#

            While folding the blankets on the couch, I hear the thud of a package hitting the front door. When I go outside to retrieve the package, I see a brown box wrapped tightly in layers of packing tape. I tear through the layers and brown paper wrapping to find a painting and a note from my mother. It’s a painting I remember—one she hung in my bedroom when I was child. In the painting, two dancers in pink tuille and tights and leotards lace up the pink satin ribbons of their pointe shoes. In the background, dark walnut lacquer contrasts with a halo of golden light above their heads.

            In the note, my mother reminds me that this painting was once hers, and she’d given it to me as a child, but I’d sold it in a garage sale. Later, it ended up in an antique store—and she bought it back. She had no use for it herself, so she gave it back to me.

            It doesn’t really go with the rest of the house; I still don’t want it, but I hang it in a spare bedroom, figuring it will only still come back to me. But I don’t have to look at it if I don’t want to. That’s the compromise.

            When Dillon and I tuck ourselves into bed that night, I picture everything in its place: the flowers outside, the bamboo floors, the freshly painted walls, the dancers in the spare bedroom—and I close my eyes to dream.

#

            A faint fluttering sound and a ray of light awaken me in the bedroom. Dillon’s sleeping in, so I go downstairs, the fluttering growing louder as I go down the staircase. The sound is nearly deafening when I enter the living room, and when I turn right to go into the kitchen, my breath catches in my chest. The entire floor is covered with brown, powdery moths. I look for the open window, to see how they got in, but it’s closed. Everything, including the windows, was in its place when I went to bed the night before, and now, these disgusting moths have taken up the floor and are crawling onto the cabinets. My stomach lurches when I see one squeeze itself into the pantry, while others follow.

            “Dillon!” I scream.

When he enters the kitchen, he rubs his eyes and stares.

            “Do something,” I say, knowing full well I could do something myself. Dillon swats them with a broom, but they scatter, and I’m hoping they’re not multiplying. Eventually, we use the vacuum and toss them outside. The kitchen reeks of them: A sharp, musty odor with a lingering gamey smell I thought only belonged to dead mice.

            “Do we get an exterminator?”

Dillon shakes his head no. This is just a fluke. I perfume the air with a stronger lavender smell and try to rest assured at night that everything is back in its place.

#

            In the morning, it’s still dark, and I don’t want to disturb Dillon, so I make my way down the staircase in the growing morning light, but I’ll need to steady myself, so I don’t fall. I touch the railing and something soft brushes the back of my hand, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d swear I hear the fluttering, just like I did the day before.

            When I get to the bottom of the staircase, I switch on the light, only to discover that the wall and floors are moving. Every inch covered in moths. Screaming, I run back up the stairs, swiping at my legs. It’s as if they’re crawling all over me, and I can’t shake the squirmy feeling that’s wormed its way onto my skin.

            “The house is crawling with them!” I tell Dillon, but he thinks we can handle this ourselves, just like the bamboo and the flowers and the kitchen cabinets. But I’m exhausted and I smell them. I smell them everywhere.

            “We’ll look for the source,” he promises. “We’ll set some traps. I’ll research it on the internet.”

            In the evening, when only the scent of lavender lingers, just over the bitter moth smell, Dillon sets out cameras. I inspect the walls near the staircase and the floors of the living room and kitchen for any signs of damage. At first, I don’t see anything, but then, when I look closely, I find what appears to be tiny smudges. I look again, and I see empty spaces filled in by dirt and soil and pure air and night sky. Ever so faintly, the empty spaces take on the shape of moths’ wings. I rub my eyes and shake my head until everything looks whole again, and I tell myself the world is not disappearing.

            Dillon’s placed cameras in every room, and the next morning, when the moths have covered the entire first floor and walls along the staircase, and when we’ve stepped on them and heard them crunch beneath our bedroom slippers, we retrieve the footage from the kitchen camera first. There’s nothing extraordinary to note. The kitchen is empty all night, but then, the moths suddenly appear, all at once, and we can’t see how they get there. We see the same thing happening in the footage we retrieve from every room in the house—except for the footage from the spare bedroom. In the grainy light of the film, we see the painting of the dancers open up, right above the torso of the tallest dancer. It opens wide, layers of lacquer unfolding. Moths pour out, for a good 30 minutes. They spill out from inside the painting, and I can’t imagine what makes it open like that—until the moths disappear, and the painting is left wide open, and from inside, what looks like two eyes begin to glow. My skin crawls.

            “What did these people do to this house?” I ask.

            “Clearly, it’s the painting.”

            “But something’s making it happen—something that moved in here between the time we left and the time we returned.”

Dillon shakes his head. “No. It’s simple. We get rid of the painting.”

So we take the painting out back and bury it, and when I go back up the stairs, I notice a piece of the banister is missing, and floorboard as well.

            “How do you explain this?” I ask.

Dillon can’t, which is why he doesn’t offer an explanation, just a promise to fix the banister and the floorboard in the morning.

#

            Every morning, we clear out the moths, piles of them, pungent and powdery. They spread their dust everywhere, and little by little, the house disappears along the edges, rubbed out by the wings, until one day, we wake up on the foundation of our house—the walls and the floors gone—all of the furniture nearly transparent, as if the house and everything inside had never existed. The moths settle in our hair, on our arms— rub their wings and their powder all over, and when I look down, the spaces between my fingers and my toes span the length of the garden, wilting in the sun.


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


Contents

“Ferry Ride” Dark Fiction by Alan Catlin
“Peppermint Candy” Dark Fiction by James Mulhern
Three Dark Poems by Peter Michael Bush: “Fear in the Eyes of the Crocodile”, “First…Serial…Rites”, and “Blood in the Sycamores”
“You Monster” Horror by Janelle Chambers
“Speakers” Dark Fiction by Patrick R. Wilson
“A Saga of Blasphemy” Dark Fiction by Hareendran Kallinkeel
“Like Moths to a Flame” Dark Fiction by Cecilia Kennedy
“In My Heart There Stirs a Quiet Pain” Dark Fiction by Kate Bergquist
“Act 1, Scene1” Dark Poetry by Prithvijeet Sinha
“Interrogation” Dark Horror by Damir Salkovic
“Little Bunny Foo Foo” Dark Fiction by Tre Luna
“His Heart’s Desire” Horror by N.D. Coley
“Fathers & Sons” Dark Fiction by Andre P. Audette
“Two Beds, One Room” Dark Fiction by Angel Polanco
Three Darkly Humorous Poems by K.A. Williams: “Lunch at the Lake”, “Cal and Kay”, and “Night Caller”
“The Hangings” a Dark, Futuristic Parody by James Hanna
“Flowers in the Woods” Dark Sudden Fiction by Anita Joy Balraj
“Office Friends” Dark Psychological Fiction by Pauline Chow

“A Saga of Blasphemy” Dark Fiction by Hareendran Kallinkeel

A church bell tolls, a single strike, noise that pierces her ears

Rosy’s eyes dart, seconds-hand ticks to the thirtieth minute of ten, gems on her Rolex’s disc glow

Morning sunlight, sans warmth, casts shadows on her pale skin; buildings countless, occasional trees, as her Benz gains momentum

Thanks she, God’s mercy, clear sight even at sixty

No need to rush, Rosy hisses, sweat erupts on driver’s forehead, hints of glee on goose bumps on her skin  

Pleasure perverse, emits shameless, unleashed grudges quell AC’s chill

Horrible prison cells, memories etched forever; in body or soul, it doesn’t matter, the torment revisits

Small town, metropolis; systems corrupt, pain remains same, inflicted out of frustration

Guards bulky, potbelly sporting, pant walking

Batons and canes, sleek and slender, nestle in cavities

Fence eats the crop, convicts mumble

Peace necessitates violence, guards rumble

Rosy, a pawn, gets shuffled; wrong to right, right to wrong, like all those inmates; many guilty, some innocent, all condemned to the same fate

Wronged by birth, a family in poverty; wronged by fate, a victim of abuse

Right by affiliation, a noble cause; right by choice, an advocate of social change  

Wrong again, by being in the right place

Right again, by being in the wrong place

Joining a revolution against injustice, choice of the right place, system says, Anarchist

Lands up in jail, the wrong place, yet fights for the right cause, society says, insurgent

Wrong for being right

Again

Wrong for being right

She leans back, she can raise her voice now, send it farther than the bell’s toll, let it resonate; no one will so much as raise an eyebrow

Right choice, right move, judge himself a rebel, within his heart, evokes human rights, and sets her free

Jails him in nuptial bond, she scores a home run, touts the trophy

Scars of incarceration, remain a laceration unhealed, bleeds forever

The boy, sitting next to her closes his eyes, an only grandson

Remain awake, she coos like a dove, only fools choose to miss the experiences

Open your eyes and train your ears, know your world; feel the breeze on your skin when it blows, it doesn’t last forever

The boy smiles, she ruffles his hair, grooms it back to order with her fingers

The car enters the school’s gate, approaches the open ground

The assembly awaits, principal presiding, waiting for over thirty minutes for the Queen’s grandson to arrive, keeps invocations at bay

The prince exits

Put on the aura, that mask of superiority, she whispers, you’re the master of all

Heaving a sigh, the boy blows a kiss her way

Roll the window down, Rosy commands

She puts her hand out, beckons with her middle finger

The principal stoops by the door side, shame more than age weighing his shoulders down

Here, she says, offering him a check, you asked for a hundred thousand, it’s a million; a school for the blind is a necessity

Thank you, ma’am, says the principal

Rosy leans out, gestures him to bend further

You know what, Mr. Thomas? She whispers into his ear, You’re just a pile of garbage in human form

Aloud she says, You’re most welcome

Rosy leans back on her seat. Roll up the window, she tells her driver, spite vented

#

Rosy stood sweating.

A single drop of tear rolled down the corner of her eye. No more would flow, because she’d already mastered the art of containing emotions.

Her fifteenth birthday gift, on August 1, 1975, from the English teacher, would ever remain etched in her memory.

Thomas, a young graduate in English literature, had just joined the school a couple of months ago, and he had instantly earned the reputation as a master of the language. Also known for his unique ways of punishing the guilty, he’d become sort of a terror among students in no time.

One of his favorite methods of punishment was sneaking his hand up the half-trousers of boys; skirts of girls, and a pinch that would last longer for the latter.

For boys who wore full-length trousers and girls anything other than half-skirt, he went for an ear.

“Will you, ever again, forget your homework?” he’d ask, repeat the question more than a dozen times, his hand hidden all the while. For a girl, it’d be a couple of dozens, often more, if the girl happened to be plump enough.

Rosy had always watched the torment of her classmates, so she promptly did her homework; except for yesterday. 

Her father, in celebration of the impending birthday of an only daughter, had brought home a bottle of arrack, a dirty brew that stank like millipede’s shit. She’d never smelled it, but her mother had told that they put millipedes into the vat for speeding up fermentation. So, she presumed the millipedes would defecate before they rotted, and the liquor would carry the stench of their feces.

Father stayed busy throughout the night, arrack’s demons unleashed; Rosy grappling with those monsters, Mother, cursing her destiny.

Even the first time default didn’t go unpunished, not in the teaching regime of young Thomas.  

“Will you, ever, Rosy…

Closing her eyes, she kept counting. Was she so plump, that he continued even after twenty-four?

She wouldn’t have minded the pinch. But his fingers that fumbled between her legs, unseen by the class, left a torment from which she’d never escape.

“See, she stands there,” he said, “like a statue.” He held his hand up, shook it a couple of times. “I have to hurt my fingers, pinching, to tame you sloths.”

Teachers, in those days, were revered as godly figures, an authority parents looked up to, reformers of societies.

Rosy scraped her notions, casted reverence aside.

You, Thomas, you’re just a piece of millipede shit, Rosy thought, that God had unwittingly rendered in human shape.

The single drop of tear had, by now, dried on her cheek.

#

The church bell tolls seven

Rosy exits her Audi, checks her diamond-studded Patek Philippe; she hastens up the flights of steps leading to the church, defying age with her agility

Morning mass, a Sunday ritual she’ll never want to be late for, begins at seven

She pauses midway, waits for her maid, Cathy, ten years younger, yet struggling to keep pace

The one who takes care of Rosy, the only one Rosy cares for other than her family; only one that fulfills her needs, other than her husband

Faster, Rosy says

Cathy pauses, hands on knees, slightly bent, heaves-in a few deep breaths

The church throngs with people, swelling bodies and thirsting souls, seeking redemption from sins unending

Inside the church, approaching the altar, Rosy’s mind sheds worldly thoughts

The Red Sea parts, feet clamor, as the masses pave way for the queen to pass

They bow, a presence they revere, their palms folded in salutation

Rosy returns their gesture, a hint of a smile creasing the corners of her mouth

A most pious gesture, Rosy places her hands on Cathy’s shoulders, leads her to the altar, to a place reserved for the ‘family’, a servant honored

Rosy kneels, only after Cathy does so, making sure that her maid remains comfortable

She prays to her God, the one whose grace sees her through

Rosy partakes in the Holy Communion, remembers the suffering, recognizes the love of God, purifies her soul and thoughts, Cathy close by

In the eerie silence that follows the Holy Communion, it happens

Rosy farts, a failure of body system’s control

A child sees the king naked, laughs

Others follow suit, a wildfire roaring through a jungle, dry grass and twigs crackling

Rosy sweats, tremors shake her body; feels her dignity melt, ripple down her legs, wipe the masses’ feet clean

Rosy’s eyes drill into Cathy’s, Stupid cunt, her spiteful hiss reverberates on the walls

#

James Chacko, a retired judge, Rosy’s husband, sits silent as the inspector thrusts an envelope towards him.

“It’s an open and shut case,” the young officer says.

“I know, a poor woman’s regret, having desecrated the church’s sanctity.”

“This suicide note,” the inspector continues speaking “it’s conclusive enough. The ME found it hidden inside her bra during the autopsy.”

“What?” James asks, as if surprised, and then says, “I mean…” He feels relieved that the officer hasn’t noticed his confusion.

“I also gathered she made a public apology in the church the day before,” the inspector says.

A sudden pain gnaws at James’ guts. “Thank you, inspector … I think I’ll leave.”

If he stays longer, the gnawing may intensify; he might end up revealing that Cathy was illiterate.


“A Saga of Blasphemy” was originally published in Sincerely Magazine [print] and Queen Mob’s Tea House [online].


Hareendran Kallinkeel writes from Kerala, India, after a stint of 15 years in a police organization and five years in the Special Forces. He reads for Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores and is also a Staff Reviewer for Haunted MTL Magazine. His recent publications include The Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Bryant Literary Review of Bryant University, The Chamber Magazine, and El Portal Journal of Eastern New Mexico University, among several others. His works are forthcoming in 34 Orchard, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and Untenured Journal. His fiction has been nominated for Pushcart Prize and he is also a finalist of the Best of the Net-2020. 


“Speakers” Dark Fiction by Patrick R. Wilson

The development lay over weedy slopes a fair drive from other neighborhoods and highways. If you wanted to walk for groceries, you’d better pack a lunch or settle for road snacks at the run-down gas station a few miles out.

“We’re way out here like a naughty child in the corner,” I told Gertz as we drove on the freshly paved road, sticky and black in the summer sun, passing rectangular plots with concrete slabs and white PVC pipes sticking up, patiently awaiting hookups. Aren’t we all?

“Coming from an overcrowded facility, this comparative isolation may require an adjustment.” Gertz, young and earnest, seemed too smart to lead this program to help ex-cons like me re-integrate.

“My whole life I’ve wanted nothing but this. Peace, meet Quiet.”

“Enjoy having the place to yourself, Mr. Lang,” Gertz said. “Eventually, you’ll have one hundred and forty-three neighbors.”

We arrived at the top of the highest rise. Two tiny homes huddled together there like a couple on a picnic watching the sunset. The houses were plain, mobile-home-like, house-like, but neither.

“Tour time.”

“Won’t take long,” I grumbled. I shouldn’t have grumbled. This new program meant rent and utilities, including electric, were F-R-E-E. I had to sign a paper agreeing to stay sober (check), seek employment (an electrician, I wanted to hook up with an honest outfit), contribute back (this place would need a tradesman like me once they rolled in some more teeny abodes), and, finally, be a good neighbor.

Yeah, that last one.

I interrupted Gertz’s pointing out the community dumpsters, unsoiled and new, sitting alone way the hell down the road from here.

“My place and that place are cheek-by-jowl. I’m a quiet man. I hope you’ve partnered me up with the like.”

“Quiet hours start at nine and end at seven.”

Gertz paused, perhaps recalling my criminal record.

“I understand you enjoy…silence. But those hours are reasonable, Mr. Lang,” he said.

That night, alone on this half-developed clearing, miles from another soul, just me and the tiny house and the buzzing locusts and the humming window AC unit, I had maybe the second-best night’s sleep I’d ever had. First was my wedding night.

Till 4:33 A.M., when a voice, distorted as if from a bullhorn, loud as a cop siren, startled me awake.

What do you think of your new place? the voice asked, over and over.

What do you think of your new place?

#

I stormed to the neighboring house, raging and bare-chested, as is my way.

The lights were on. I pounded on the door.

The flight felt an eternity, roared the amplified voice. Now more awake, I realized that the voice was female.

Between the blind slats, I glimpsed a figure with long blonde hair hunched over a laptop. No bullhorn, but there was a speaker. My ex-wife Mar used to go on the road with bands (as a sound tech, not a groupie) and she’d always hole up in the garage noodling in the guts of black Stonehenge boxes like that 2×12 Marshall.

When we arrived in Ecuador, so–.

“It’s quiet hours,” I shouted, “QUIET HOURS!”

When we arrived in Ecuador, so lush and exotic, I could only think of John thousands of miles away in Manhattan. Ben noticed me staring out of the plane window. He said it was beautiful.

I raised my fist to hammer at the window as the door opened.

It was not a blonde, but it was a blond. A long-haired dude, half my age. Prescription sunglasses, stubbly. Loose gym shorts. Wrinkly yellow t-shirt that said THE WEST IS GOLDEN.

“Hold on,” he shouted over the racket. Different voice, not a lady’s.

“So beautiful,” I said, but I was thinking of John. Why had I left him? Why couldn’t I stop think–.

The guy hopped over to his decade-old Dell laptop and hit the spacebar, stopping what I now realized was a recording.

“It’s my art project,” he said, fumbling with the knobs on the amp. “Thought the place next door was empty.”

The man had only a vague sense of the world around him. He seemed arty, all right. Not drug-high, but his head was in the clouds.

“Travis Lang,” I said, extending my hand when the man returned.

“Ben Argothy,” he muttered, suffering the apparent major inconvenience of having the most mundane of introductory conversations with his new neighbor.

“Gertz just move you in?”

“Mm-hm. They released me at midnight.”

“He explained the rules?”

“Yeah. Thought I was alone.”

He glanced back at his laptop, yearning for me to leave.

“You got headphones, right?” I said, not seeing any among the cables and equipment.

Headphones,” he scoffed. “Can’t feel through headphones, brother,” he said.

The urge grew to make this condescending twerp feel something, like my fist. But if I so much as breathed too hard on someone, they’d toss my ass back in the cooler till the Cubs won another Series. I had to be better.

“Quiet hours, brother,” I, Better Travis, said.

He gave me a thumbs-up. I detected a sneer behind his cascade of hair as he closed the door.

He stayed quiet till nine A.M. on the dot.

#

I lasted fifteen minutes, then called Gertz.

“So, you’ve met Benjamin,” he said.

I held my phone out of my front door towards the other home.

Reynaldo pursued me through the crowded marketplace. Heat rushed to my face, and not from exertion. Do I let him catch me? Or do I lose him in the bustling crowd and return to Ben, dignity and clothes intact, but my body unfulfilled?

Pursued me.

Return to Ben.

Pursued me, Ben.

Pursue me, Ben.

“I don’t get it.”

“He’s chopping up an audiobook like he’s mixing beat samples.”

“Shouldn’t you be online applying for jobs?”

“Shouldn’t he?”

“Can you wear headphones?”

“Can’t he?”

“Travis. He’s breaking no rule or law. I have no time to referee.”

“Where’d he come from? Seems a peeping-Tom type.”

“I can’t tell you. But you’re close. He was never in the joint. More a psychiatric situation.”

“Fucking hell, Gertz. I’d rather live next to a serial killer.”

“I’ll arrange that. But first I gotta get more homes out there. My advice: Be friends.”

#

I cooked up four patty melts with off-brand American cheddar slices and expired deli meat and fried the sweet potatoes they stocked me with into a hash. I toted the lunch, along with a plastic jug of Kool-Aid fruit punch, a stick of butter, and a wad of paper towels, in a cardboard half-box from a Deep Eddy vodka display case and presented the offering to my neighbor.

Argothy welcomed me in. With a sigh.

Hey, fucker, I rarely behave like the neighborhood’s social glue. Keep the eye rolls to a minimum.

He stacked yellow notepads filled with scribblings, words in tiny print going end to end, width-ways and top-to-bottom, on his laptop and moved the bunch to his speaker box. He nodded towards the empty spot on his fold-down table.

“Too hot to sit outside anyway,” I said. These little houses were marvels of efficiency, but his felt cramped with two grown men maneuvering around each other to settle in for a bite. I found a fold-down seat I hadn’t discovered in my home yet. He slumped down into a ratty old swivel chair he must have brought with him.

He ate unselfconsciously, like a child. Breadcrumbs caught in his yellow stubble.

Not a single compliment reached my ears.

The old Travis might have taken offense at the lack of acknowledgement. Better Travis ignored the snub.

“How long till they stand up more houses? Heard anything?”

Argothy shrugged. “Don’t really think about it.”

“Just thinking about your work?”

That dismissive scoff sound.

Dude. I’m twice your size. My arm is bigger around than your thigh. I brought you lunch I made myself. Show some respect.

“We got off on the wrong foot this morning,” I said. “I’m interested in what you’re working on. You a songwriter?”

He finished his first patty melt and reached for another.

“I’ll keep it quiet during quiet hours.

“I’m an electrician, and my ex-wife is a music tech. Could I help with your setup?”

He blinked. I noticed dark circles behind his glasses.

“If I turn it up, I can feel her vibrations,” he muttered, staring at the cheese oozing over the aluminum foil and onto his fingers. “But I’ll blow that God-ancient speaker before I feel her enough.”

Hm.

I had to be careful before he slammed the door closed.

“The narrator’s voice is bourbon-sweet,” I said. “Make you want to say ‘ahh’ when she talks.”

Argothy snorted.

“I’ve said that about her voice since high school. I’ve gotta be the reason she narrates.”

“You know her?”

“I dated her,” he said. He held up his phone to show me the audiobook he was mangling. Paradise of Choice, written by A.D. Sterling, narrated by Clemmie Whitaker. Never heard of ’em.

“Lucky,” I said. “Wouldn’t mind that voice in my ear. You edit her books?”

The door started to close, his eyes drifting back towards his laptop.

In that moment, I suspected they were not together, and he was not doing this for work.

He did it because he was weird and pervy for her still, and that his pursuit of Clemmie Whitaker is what got him locked up.

Lots of assumptions. But just look at the guy.

“I know what you mean, feeling a rush when those sound waves pump out. I got up to the first row of a Metallica show fifteen years ago. Bass made my balls throb.”

He flipped his hair back and pointed at me.

“You get it, then.”

“Yeah, I get it.”

I did not get it the way he got it, though.

Argothy dropped (not put down, dropped) his oozy sandwich and wormed his way between cardboard boxes to his speaker cabinet. He flipped on the power and upped the volume, then opened his laptop, spilling his legal pads, and played a segment of the book wherein the heroine and her rich companion Ben were having a tryst on the balcony of a swanky hotel.

(Dawned on me that one of the narrator’s lovers had the same first name as Argothy. Dude must have come in his floppy shorts when he heard Clemmie W. say his name.)

Argothy upped the volume until it distorted. It was loud for out here on a lonely hilltop, and damn certain too loud for me, but that cabinet wouldn’t have been suitable for the smallest of dive bars.

The speakers can’t take any more than that,” he shouted.

How loud do you need it?

Are your balls throbbing?”

At that moment, I had a li’l ol’ idea, about how sexy-throated Clemmie might help me solve my problem with Argothy.

#

On the way to my ex-wife’s place, Gertz seemed relieved after I told him we became buddies.

“And Marianne? Friends now, too?”

“She doesn’t know I’m coming. Drop me off on the corner.”

“I’ll wait,” Gertz said.

I patted Gertz’s shoulder, ever so gently. “She’ll see that I’m better. She’ll even give me a ride back, I bet. Go on.”

Mar’s garage door was open. A pedestal fan blew broiling summer air into the stuffy confines. She emerged carrying a speaker cabinet to load into the back of her pickup, still fit as hell. Mercy.

I dashed over.

“Travis?”

“Let me assist you with your burden, Mar.”

“I got it.”

“Let me, Mar, it’s heavy.”

By then she’d made it to her truck. She pushed the box into the bed and slammed the tailgate closed. She turned to me, hands on hips.

I couldn’t read her eyes behind her big brown sunglasses, but those lips weren’t smiling.

“How long you been out?”

“Since the first.”

“Early.”

“I’m behaving, Mar. It’s a new Travis. Better. I even got me a tiny house. It’s a new program….”

“Thanks for stopping by, Travis. You look good. Keep it up. Gotta go.”

She moved to the driver’s side door.

“I haven’t seen you for six years, Mar.”

She stopped, looked at the door handle.

“Whose fault is that?”

I wanted to touch her shoulder (and the rest of her, desperately), but dare not.

“Mine, Mar.”

She inhaled and faced me.

“Why are you here, Travis? If it’s for either of the two things I think, the answer’s no.”

“I need auditory advice.”

“Starting a band?”

“I’m helping a neighbor,” I said. “He wants to do music instruction videos, bass guitar, and he wants decibels.”

“Any music store in town will rent–.”

“We aren’t flush with cash and, unless something’s changed, you’re sitting on a storeroom or two full of old junk you haven’t touched in years. So here I am, trying to turn my life around, be the helpful guy, you know, and I thought of you. I knew you’d have my back. As long as I was trying to do the right thing.”

She brushed her hair back. Gray streaks interrupted that coffee brown. Mar wasn’t one to bother with coloring and would probably proudly rock a head full of white in a few years.

“Ride with me to storage. Help me pull some shit I need out of the back, and I’ll lend you a cabinet. Consider it my congratulations-for-not-dying-in-prison present.”

Mar enjoyed supervising me as I lugged out a dozen old 2×12 and 4x12s, Peavy and Marshall, mostly, to get to a pair of Mesa Boogies she sold to a Baptist church. Not her normal clientele, but money is money, she said. She said she’s still making a living, fixing, and selling once-trashed equipment.

When we were done and she asked me what I wanted, maybe this cute Orange 1×8, I told her I needed loud. The loudest she was willing to lend.

She drove me home with a 4×12 Line6 covered in death metal stickers and a beat-to-shit 2×12 Marshall.

I invited her in.

That, Mr. Lang, is not happening, she said.

I asked if she had a boyfriend.

She looked over to see Argothy stepping out of his little house, a smile on his face like we were delivering a high-tech sex doll.

“Do you?”

“That’s my new friend I’m helping.”

“He looks like he needs help.”

“Mar, how loud do these get? I’m thinking about 100 decibels.”

“Roughly, sure. It’ll be plenty loud enough for you two.”

She told me to unload the speakers and she’d pick them up next weekend.

#

Ben Argothy and I set up the cabinets in a triangle, facing inward, in the middle of his living room (or living aisle), with his amp head with the volume and other knobs down a trail of cables to the far end of the home, under the loft that held the bed.

We both agreed that allowing me to control the volume would allow Argothy more freedom. More immersion.

What I didn’t discuss with Mar, and sure didn’t with Argothy, is that I did some research about how many decibels it would take to burst a person’s eardrums.

Best number I found was 185.

I figured that putting these three amps together would net about 100 times 3, or 300 decibels — easily loud enough to fuck up Argothy’s ears and send him into a hospital. By the time he returned, I’d have a new neighbor and he’d have to move in a tiny house elsewhere.

And Better Travis’s hands would be as clean as one of my freshly scrubbed toilets in the joint.

Argothy clambered over the Line6 with his laptop, dragging an aux cable (and its multiple adapters and connectors) with him and awkwardly sat cross-legged in the center of the mini-Stonehenge.

“You good?”

“Yeah, good, yeah,” Argothy said. “Thumbs up means louder? Yeah?”

Abso-fuckin-lutely.

I hit the red switch. Power on.

Volume was pointing straight up, midway.

Argothy started his audio file on his laptop.

Hi, Ben, came Clemmie Whitaker’s voice, snipped out of A Paradise of Choice.

“Hi Clemmie,” I heard Argothy mumble over the humming speakers. “You look great this morning.”

You look splendid — as well–my–love. Tell me — your day –about.

About your day, damn it,” he said, then typed notes to himself to fix it.

I rubbed my temples. He’s crafting a whole fucking conversation.

“Louder, bro?” I called.

Thumbs up.

I bumped it to 6.

Marvelous, Ben! Marvelous. Ben. Ben, do you know what I dream of? May I tell you?

A pause, in which Argothy was supposed to respond. He didn’t.

He was undressing.

Thank you for listening. To me. I dream of — seeing you again. I dream of — telling you. I was wrong. I was wrong. For leaving you. On our date. Ben. I was. Scared. Of my feelings, how I long for you and what our lives could be in New Y–. If only I could tell. You.

“Tell me,” I think he said, and lifted his thumb again. His arm was bare. His wrinkly yellow shirt and gray gym shorts lay atop the Line6.

He had stopped making notes on his laptop.

As the edited recording continued, he was, unmistakably, starting to pleasure himself. I could see the top of his blond head fall backwards, eyes closed, right arm working hard.

Savor it, you little freak, ’cause that’s the last thing you’re ever going to hear, I thought, and twisted the volume knob all the way.

I stuffed my fingers in my ears.

I want to. Embraced in the park on that spring day in Vermont. I forgot all about the chill in the air when you pulled me close and grazed my neck with your soft lips. When my mouth met yours, I forgot all about my duties as a PR professional for the candidate’s campaign through the northeast. I only thought of you and I and your hands all over me, on my breasts, on my thighs under my sundress.

I could feel every syllable in my feet.

But that motherfucker seemed unaffected.

He seemed to feel no pain and made no motion for me to turn it down.

Keeping my ears plugged, I used my elbow to turn every knob, Gain, Bass, Middle, Treble, all the way up.

And Argothy did not stop till he came with a shuddering grunt. After a minute, he waved his left hand to tell me to shut it off. Sluggishly, he pulled his shorts back on and stood, his skinny white chest glistening with various fluids.

I shut the power off. My ears rang.

He leaned on his elbows on top of Mar’s Marshall.

“Fucking awesome,” he said. “I need to do some more edits, though.”

How the hell is he all right after being pummeled with 300 decibels?

“Loud enough?”

“Does your ex have more speakers?”

“I’ll ask.”

“Hey. Thanks, Travis,” Argothy said, climbing out of his box. “I know this seems strange, but you’re being an amazing friend for helping.”

He extended his hand.

I tossed him a nearby bath towel.

“I’ll call her,” I said on my way out.

#

I decided to give it a night. Weird little dude almost made me feel guilty, he was so grateful, and I wanted to see if maybe getting that wank session out of his system would chill him out.

Not a chance. The concept of Quiet Hours went out the window. I heard about the goddamn illicit Vermont fuck session and that horndog Reynaldo that popped up in every marketplace in Ecuador till four in the morning, when Argothy must have finally wanked himself out, and slept for perhaps the first time since arriving.

I called Mar at eight the next morning.

#

“Wasn’t loud enough for a YouTube video?” She sounded like I woke her up.

“You said a cab could output about a hundred decibels. Three together means three hundred. I don’t think we got to three hundred.”

I heard the creak of the bed as she sat up. “Nothing, nothing,” she said in response to a male voice. That stung. She divorced me while I was locked up, and we were barely hanging on even before that. Back then, though, I was not Better Travis. Now I was and had been thinking about how to propose rekindling Marianne & Travis when I wasn’t thinking about Clemmie & Argothy. I might have had my own (silent) wank about Mar after he finally shut up last night.

“Your math is wrong, dummy,” she said. “Decibels is logarithmic. Tripling the speakers does not triple the decibels. You’d only get a couple points.”

I was staring out the kitchen window at Argothy’s place. No signs of movement yet.

“So, it’d take hundreds of cabinets to get to, like, 300 decibels.”

“You aren’t getting to 300 decibels, Travis. Jesus, what are you guys doing?”

“Videos.”

“Like, bro stunt science bullshit? You told me guitar instruction, so that was a lie. And your buddy isn’t a very good scientist, then.”

“We want to burst a balloon.”

“Will you ever grow up? First, I’m positive you’ll need a more powerful amp head than you and Mr. Wizard are using now.”

“Can you lend me one of those?”

“No.”

“I saw a bunch in the warehouse.”

“No. Go rent one.”

“If I were to rent one, what kind could burst a balloon?”

I heard a screen door slam. I bet she was on the back porch now.

“I’m getting a weird feeling, Travis. Like when you said you needed my truck to move lumber. For a friend. And it turned out to be–.”

“This is straight-up science, Mar.”

“You only get intense like this when you’ve been aggrieved. You trying to blow out someone’s….”

Eardrums.

“…windows?”

“Marianne. I’m different now.”

“Are you aggrieved?”

“I’m grieving the loss of our beautiful relationship.”

“Jesus. I’m going. Whatever you’re up to, don’t fuck up. I’m still getting those cabs on Saturday.”

She hung up just as Clemmie uttered her first words of the morning.

Do we have plans?

Oh yes, we do.

#

The rideshare ate up half of my debit card balance. I didn’t tip, which I felt bad about because the guy was nice and took me to Home Depot, then looked the other way when I used my new bolt cutters to get into Mar’s locker. Getting in the place was easy, though. I had noted, out of hustler habit, her gate code. 2788. No idea what it meant to her, but it got me in.

That done, I knocked on Argothy’s door.

He answered in a bathrobe, oblivious to his red, inflamed junk hanging loose.

“That for our project?” he said. He seemed drained, literally and figuratively.

Our project. Sure, bud.

“It is,” I said, unfolding the chrome rolling stand it had been sitting on in the warehouse. I sat the amplifier on top.

“You can bring it in.”

“It’s too tight in there. I grabbed more cables and connectors. I’ll run lines from your place to mine. This sucker has three outputs. Never seen it before.”

“Looks old school. 60s.”

“This here,” I said as though I knew what I was talking about, “Is a Fender PS-444. I picked this for two reasons. First, it’s the only one I saw that said it was a bass amp. See? Bass Instrument, it says. You want to feel those sound waves, make your balls throb? This ought to do it.”

“Fuck yes.”

I pointed out the strip of gaffer tape with Mar’s handwriting she had taped next to the Master Volume knob.

“Second reason. Look what she wrote: ‘Never above.’ I’m thinking she means ‘Never above where this tape is, four.'”

“Must be loud. If this works, it’ll feel like she’s touching me. I’ll let you try if you want.”

“She does have a nice voice.”

“Oh, not with her,” he said.

#

I set up the amplifier on my kitchen sink so I could see into his place when it came time to twiddle the knobs, plugged it in, and flipped the power switch.

All my lights cut off, and Argothy’s too. That sucker was a juice-sucking beast.

As I stared at the breaker box, working out how I could get more current in with my limited access to supplies, here drives up Gertz.

I put on a bit of an act as I met him at his truck.

“Checking on our welfare? For starters, your crap electrical crew cheaped out on this job, Gertz.”

“Came to check on your situation, Travis.”

Argothy stepped out to join us. He had put on clothes.

“We’re getting along great,” I said. “Can’t keep the lights on, though.”

“Isn’t it just a break–.”

I flipped the breaker switch. It flipped off immediately.

“Aren’t you an electrician, Travis?” Argothy said.

“I’m an electrician with no tools or materials,” I said.

Gertz rubbed his face like not another god damn problem.

“I can’t get a crew out here till next week, earliest,” he said. “What do you need to get going?”

Two hours later I had us fixed right the hell up. I mean, you could have run an electric chair with motorized cupholders and built-in tv with the AC full blast by the time I was done with it.

#

I hadn’t gotten an angry call from Mar yet, so there’s a chance I could handle Argothy’s wing nuts and get the Fender back to the locker before she was any the wiser. I’d figure out the sliced lock later.

We checked it with a random song I clicked from the internet. The Meters, Look-Ka Py Py, and that funk was loud. We clearly heard those guitar stabs over in my place, and the Fender was just grazing 2, much less Not Above 4.

“The file I gave you works?”

Gertz’s rehab program issued me a basic Windows laptop that I didn’t know how to use, but Argothy set me up. (There’s no way he’d surrender his own to me, not even for a few minutes.)

I hit the spacebar on the laptop like Argothy showed me.

Remember when we embraced in Verm–.

Ugh. I stopped it.

“Works. Enjoy it, brother.”

“I will, Travis. Then we’ll find a good audio file especially for you and we’ll switch so you can feel it, too.”

“Can’t wait,” I said, grinning.

After Argothy skipped away, I ripped apart a sheet of paper towel and wet it. As I plugged my ears up, I watched Argothy, now completely naked, scale the speakers. He situated himself down in the center of the triangle.

The amp was in my house and the speakers in his, with cables running into and out of both of our windows, connecting us for what I hoped would be the last time.

Argothy’s thumb rose into view.

Why didn’t you just rough him up and tell him to use headphones and be done with it? Why go to all this trouble?

Because I am smarter now, that’s why. Better.

I powered up, then clicked the spacebar.

The rig worked, and the lights stayed on.

Clemmie, it’s showtime.

#

I’d heard this bizarre dialogue quilt enough to know that Argothy started with a conversation with Clemmie and knew that I needed to wait to crank up the volume till the empty spaces for Argothy’s lines gave way to Clemmie’s monologue. When she launched into her recollection of their imaginary northeastern tryst on the campaign trail and her pledges of love as they overlooked the Ecuadorean jungle from their hotel in Quito, that’s when I’d try my best to break that volume knob slamming it to max.

Argothy’s thumb came back up again. I juiced it a tad and his thumb came down.

The conversation continued. When Clemmie spoke, my windows rattled, and my feet vibrated. If I hadn’t memorized her cobbled-together speech, I might not have known it was a human voice, because it sounded like a chainsaw was erratically cutting through a steel drum.

During Argothy’s turn to speak, I heard nothing, but I could sense the power that the amp head was pushing through this Frankenstein system like I was next to a monster taking in breath.

The Master Volume knob pointed to two. Bass was up all the way, middle and treble way down.

And then came that spring day in Vermont.

No hesitation.

I turned everything up to ten.

Every fucking knob on that fucker, I turned up to ten.

The sound was not recognizable as human. When my mouth met yours became a beastly series of roars from a deep cave from the reverb. I felt Clemmie punching my eardrum with every syllable even at this distance. I had the same sense of being surprised at how far away you could still feel the heat at a distance from a homecoming bonfire.

Argothy’s kitchen window cracked, held for a moment, then shattered, spilling glass onto the ground, and giving me a clear view inside.

Frantic, he waved at me with both hands.

His mouth formed the same word over and over: STOP STOP STOP.

I fell backwards against my table, holding my ears, trying to remain upright and resisting the urge to hit that power button.

And then Mar, inexplicably, shockingly, was there, in my house.

She, too, screamed at me, furious, hands over her ears.

“STOP IT, TRAVIS!”

She made for the power button.

I grabbed her around the waist and pulled her away before she punched it.

“WAIT,” I screamed as she fought me, aiming her elbow at my balls.

“YOU’RE GONNA FRY IT!”

Through my window, I saw Argothy attempt to climb out of his three-walled speaker enclosure.

He collapsed down into the triangle as if Clemmie herself had dragged him back.

Mar saw, too.

“YOU’RE FUCKING THAT GUY UP, TRAVIS!”

“HE WANTS IT!”

“YOU’RE BOTH INSANE!”

Grappling with Mar felt so familiar. We’d rassled endless times over car keys and telephones and being-in-a-bar, one or the other of us doing our physical best to keep the other from doing something they wanted to do. The last time we tussled, she was trying to prevent me from shutting up this loudmouth in an IHOP that was ruining everyone’s Valentine’s Day. I got free of Mar and scooped up the metal pronged centerpiece that holds ketchup and salt and menus and bludgeoned that fucker.

Just once.

But it cost me six years.

And here we were again, Mar trying to stop me from shutting someone up.

Smart woman that she was, she pivoted from reaching for the amp with her hands and feet and instead kicked the hanging cable connecting my laptop to the amp.

The amp didn’t budge, but the laptop disconnected and fell to the floor.

The buzzy drone of an unplugged cable replaced Clemmie’s voice.

I let Mar go. She switched off the PS-444.

As our ears rang in the sudden silence, we stared at each other and caught our breath.

“You ruined the video,” I said.

“You broke into my place and didn’t even lock it up again. I’m lucky–you’re lucky–no one stole anything. Except you.”

I lifted my window.

“Ben,” I shouted.

Mar began coiling wire, the precise and fast way I never got the hang of.

“I don’t have to tell you not to contact me again. Right?”

“Ben!”

“Go check on your scientist.”

I left her to check on the little twerp.

“Load all my shit in my truck, Travis. Right now,” she called to me out my open window. “Fucking asshole!”

#

Argothy, naked, lay curled like a baby inside the triangle of speaker cabinets. His glasses lay against the bottom of the Line6. Both hands held his head as if he had a massive migraine, which he probably did, and he shook, spasmed.

“Dude,” I said. “I don’t know what went wrong. Can you sit up? Want some water?”

He spoke, but through his chattering teeth and the bell echoing in my head, it took me a minute to work it out. It was a phone number.

I punched it in my phone but paused before calling.

“It’s Clemmie,” he said, shivering. “If I don’t make it, tell her I’m sorry for the t-trouble I c-c-caused before.”

“Not make it? Dude. You just got your clock rung. Give it a minute….”

“Travis! Call 911.”

Of course, Mar followed me in.

“He’ll be fine. Stay out of it. You’ll get your shit, Marianne.”

“He’s bleeding out his ass, Travis.”

I had tried to avoid looking at the man below the waist. So he was.

His nose, too.

Fuck.

Mar went outside to call an ambulance. I heard her grumble nasty shit about me.

I regarded Argothy as he trembled like he was in a freezer.

Ok, it went too far. This wasn’t just busted eardrums.

My self-preservation instincts kicked in.

“This is what you wanted, though,” I said, hitting Dial on a video call.

“No. N-no. Th-thumbs down,” he sputtered, choking on his own blood.

A woman about Argothy’s age answered the video call. Glasses, hair up in a loose bun. Cute, but not my type.

“Hello?”

She didn’t recognize me, of course, but I recognized her butter-smooth voice instantly.

“Hold it, Clemmie,” I said, then turned my phone towards Argothy.

“Ben? Why are you on the floor?”

Trembling, he reached for his glasses.

“Who called me? Who are you?”

I kept the camera focused on her forever suitor.

“You hurt your boy terrible,” I said. “I don’t mean when you ghosted him –so uncool, by the way–I mean now.”

Mar stuck her head in. “I don’t know how to describe it. Can sound waves cause a heart attack? I don’t know what happened. He’s bleeding. Maybe he ruptured inside? Just get here, Christ.”

Clemmie’s voice went up in panic.

“Ben? What happened?”

You did this,” I said. “This is on you.”

I kneeled to help him put his glasses on–he shook too much to do it himself–and held the phone up close.

I didn’t see her expression but could see his.

As she begged him to tell her whether this was real or another stunt, he smiled, eyes overflowing with utter adoration.

Until they suddenly blossomed red, like a time-lapse video of someone getting stoned.

Blood welled up into his mouth like he was puking, then he collapsed into the fresh, bright pool.

Clemmie made a sound I hadn’t heard her make before in Paradise of Choice. She screamed.

“Destruction follows you everywhere,” Mar hissed. “This is no accident. Judge is gonna throw you right back in. For good.”

I shook my head.

“I don’t hurt people. I’m better, Mar.”


Bio pending.


“You Monster” Horror by Janelle Chambers

He paints over the blood on me again before she arrives. He makes my two beds. He vacuums and organizes the desk in my corner. He kicks a paint and blood splattered shirt under the bed and adjusts his tie. He opens my balcony door, but the miasma of copper and paint fumes only dance along the waves of air that rush in.

Maybe she wouldn’t notice.

I feel the clickety clack of six-inch pumps approach. Her tapping is a tickle just below my eye.

He turns up the music, filling me with the spirits of Louis Armstrong. “Come in,” he says, after opening me up.

“You alone?” Her voice is husky from too much smoking.

“I have Molly. And cash.”

She enters, pumps sinking into my softness.

“Sit,” he says.

“Cash first,” she says. She follows him to the balcony.

They light cigarettes and he holds out a baggy to her.

“Molly?”

“Cash first.”

“Relax,” he says.

She sighs, holds out her hand, her fingers wiggling.

He fumbles for his wallet. She snatches it, pulls out cash and stuffs it in the front pocket of her blouse.

“Molly?”

She puts out her cigarette and walks back inside. He follows, closing the balcony door behind him. Closing us all in together, before he strikes.

The bed groans, as if to say not again.

For a moment, Louis’ solo becomes an off-kilter duet, the cacophonous sounds of screaming, ripping fabric, the headboard against my stone body, and finally metal meeting flesh over and over. And over.  Two minutes tops; he’s getting better at this. My white is painted red again.

The music ends, the static of a record player pleading to be shut off. The souls of all the women he’s brought me slowly fill in the empty space.

He washes evidence of his masterpiece off his hands, down my drain, filling my veins. Her body lies on my bed, the only thing he won’t let me keep. He lies on the other bed, and faces her, watching.

Blood pools, the flowered quilt stealing color from her. She stares up at me, one pump hangs delicately from an unsupported foot. Any moment now.

The scratching of the record player mingles with the buzz of the bathroom’s fluorescent lights.

I wait for her to join me and mine, the meandering ghosts of women who close in to welcome her. But she doesn’t come.

She blinks, her ashen face coloring and I realize then, the red isn’t sticking to me like it had with the others. I feel my feast pulling away and I see her now. Like a flower, her smile grows, oh so slow. It stretches behind her ears, her lips thin and pale as her skin, until no lips remain, only a black curved line.

The shoe drops.

His head lifts, hair in his eyes.

Her hand moves to the knife in her gut. No nails, just skin.

I throb with the need for blood. My lights flicker. He can’t let her escape. I need her back. My reserves are dry, I feel the weight of me, the cold. But, she’s not…

He sits up, the bed groans as if to warn, don’t go there.

“What?”

“Bad boy,” she says.

He stands above her unblemished person. “No,” he says.

“Yes,” she says, and in one-two-three seconds she pulls the metal from her meat, jamming it into his hip. Out again, and then fun retribution to his stomach. Into his bicep.

The blood is there, out of my reach, until he hits the floor. She straddles his fallen form and who cares if he’s crying and pleading? My ladies’ faces contort in mocking horror and silent screams. They laugh at old phantasms of each perfect moment now gone horribly wrong.

And I? My carpet sponges up each red drop and it is good, and it is foul, but not enough.

She pulls the small bag of pills from his pocket.

“You’re a monster,” he rasps.

“And so are you,” she says. “Molly?” She dumps the pills down his throat, holding his lips closed. She carves a line that frames his face, and it is a great gift, a new masterpiece. I fill, and she stands, opening the balcony door for another smoke.


Janelle Chambers lives with her husband, two daughters, dog, ferret, and unknown number of fish. She is inspired by the works of Poe, the Grimm’s brothers and way too many fantasy writers to name. In addition to writing, she also hopes to successfully make it as a voice actress. 


Three Dark Poems by Peter Michael Bush: “Fear in the Eyes of the Crocodile”, “First…Serial…Rites”, and “Blood in the Sycamores”

Fear in the Eyes of the Crocodile
Give me the time, 
I will tell you of fear 
in the eyes of the crocodile- 
Black and lifeless, 
Summing up, stalking 
While frozen in terror I stand 
My son falls into 
Brackish water 
And takes, does the crocodile, my boy. 
 
My arms they flail, 
They beat about on 
Water’s cold dead face; 
Parting the deep, 
Revealing small children, 
And surrounding them, the crocodiles, 
Their bodies long 
Twisting slow in the ice.  
 
So, I carry these children 
Across, one dying step at a time; 
Yet, still I sense 
The crocodile’s black eyes 
On me damning, hunting, burning 
Me with this hate; 
Promising me that, 
Come the spring, he will find us again. 
My boy clings fast 
To my freezing body 
as we make our way across 
 
Evil waters 
To stare, time and again, 
Into hungry, black, lifeless eyes.
First…Serial…Rites
Blood, pitter patter, at right angles 
From his chin to the floor falling. 
Perfect circles. Perfect circles. 
Naked body splayed out before him- 
Science pig opened up, pinned down, 
Strewn about for present eyes to see. 
And the blood, the blood, squeezed like juice 
From some unnamable piece of flesh 
Gripped tightly between his fingers. 
The cherry popped, a virgin no more 
With no fear, life no longer a dream; 
But a fantasy to be revealed, to be 
Reveled in, basked in, rolled in, bathed in 
This metallic, coppery taste 
Spilled in a surreal train of pictures 
Later to endlessly be replayed: 
Uncomfortable fumbling, discomfort, 
Unknowing fear lending to panic; 
Pain and torture, torture and pain… 
Gurgling, disbelieving death; 
But the money shot: so like God: 
Power, control, reality’s master. 
An experience so vivid, 
The memories, the film - a promise 
That next time would be all the sweeter. 

Blood in the Sycamores
Between Noodle Dome and Stink Creek 
Out where our fathers hunted squirrels, 
Dead in the middle of Crater Wash 
Hard in the night, the moon waning 
Headlights blaze white over mud flats. 
 
Blood in the sycamores tonight 
Splatters wet, crying out innocent.      
Where we go, men were not meant to dwell. 
 
Hearts grow shocking cold in ugly work. 
Hands ill-prepared for wicked measures 
Blister on the rough skin of shovels 
Digging deep before the sun rises 
Dead in the middle of Crater Wash. 
                                     
Blood in the sycamores this morning 
Dried to black circles on fading leaves 
Made witness to passions of fallen men. 
 
Time rolls on in floods flowing over the Wash, 
Erases markers of makeshift graves 
Where ghosts reside now forgotten. 
Rumors once strong slowly drift away,  
Make secret what the stars have seen. 
 
Blood in the sycamores always 
Accusing from beyond the silent,  
Penitent men unforgiven. 
 
What we have done, what we have chosen 
Lies indelible in the record: 
A thorn gone festered in my mind 
For that night on Crater Wash. 
Between Noodle Dome and Stink Creek 
             
There is blood in the sycamores. 

Peter Michael Bush is a mental health therapist in rural South Georgia. He spends his free time writing, editing and pondering his own existential dread. He has been involved with powerlifting for over thirty years and has been writing for longer than that. Pete has completed three novels but considers himself a poet first as that is where all of these high jinks began. His work has been published in AlbatrossThe Poet’s PenDream Fantasy InternationalThe Florida Times Union, Independent InkMidwest Literary MagazineThe Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and Anatomy.   


“Peppermint Candy” Dark Fiction by James Mulhern

Helen threw the candy wrapper into the trash barrel, then walked to her desk as I read a line from Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”: “For many hours the immediate vicinity of the low framework upon which I lay had been literally swarming with rats.”

She vomited. The other students screamed epithets, laughed, or moved their desks away as chunks of school lunch spewed from Helen’s mouth.

“You fucking loser,” Gabe said. He used the textbook cover to wipe bits of nacho off his shirt.

“Quiet down,” I shouted to the class. I grabbed some napkins from my desk and asked Sandy, who sat by the door, to get the school nurse.

 I gave Helen the napkins.  She wiped her face and said she was sorry.

“No need to apologize. Sit down and rest your head on the desk.”

She leaned onto crossed arms.

“Go to the bathroom and wash yourself up,” I told Gabe.

He flung the vomit-smeared textbook onto the floor.

“Gross!” Damien, a long-legged track star with frizzy hair, said.

When Nurse Sommers entered with Sandy, she appraised the situation with darting eyes. She was a tall black woman with golden-brown eyes and a no-nonsense demeanor. “I want calm in here. Listen to your music if you want.” Immediately cell phones and earbuds came out.

When she was next to Helen, she spoke softly and touched her forehead. “Are you still feeling nauseous?”

“Huh?”

“Like you’re going to vomit again?”

“No. I think I got freaked out by the story, and those nachos at lunch were really nasty.”

“You feel warm,” Nurse Sommers said. “Are you strong enough to walk with me to my office?”

“I think so.”

“You, sir.” She pointed at Damien. “Assist me.”

“Why me?” Damien looked around at the other students.

“Because you look strong and responsible and kind.”

Damien smiled. “I’ll help.”

“Mr. Darnell.” She seemed tired. “Call Ms. Antonelli and let her know what happened.”

“I already did.”

The door opened. Ms. Antonelli, the school principal, a woman in her early forties, always dressed impeccably in designer clothes, entered. She had a serene presence and was well liked by the students.

“I’m taking her to my office. This young man will assist me,” Nurse Sommers said.

“Great. Thank you.” Ms. Antonelli turned to me. “Can I speak with you in the hallway?”

“Of course.”

I said to the class, “Keep quiet while we talk outside.” Most of the students nodded.

After the nurse exited with her arm around Helen and Damien on the other side, I shut the door and met her in the hallway.

“Tell me exactly what happened.” Her voice was relaxed and her brown eyes concerned.

I told her about Helen Thano.

“You’ll have to make out an incident report.”

“Now?” I looked through the glass of my door. The students seemed fine.

“You can drop by my office after school. I’ll have the janitor clean the room. Just keep the students away from where Helen was sitting. Mr. Abbas will need to disinfect. I’ll have Valerie see if there’s a room where you can bring the class.” She looked at her watch. “Never mind. The bell will ring in five minutes.” She twisted her lips and looked up. “When is your planning period?”

“After this class.”

“Perfect. Mr. Abbas can clean the room thoroughly. If you want to get the form out of the way, stop by next period. It won’t take long. Valerie, as you know, is quite efficient. She’ll help you.”

The bell rang and the students exited quickly, excited to tell the story of “Heaving Helen,” I heard one student say. I waited for Mr. Abbas, a kind thin man with sunken cheeks and sparkly eyes.

“It’s always something.” He dragged a mop and bucket into the room. His hands were gloved. Another janitor, a chubby man whose name I couldn’t remember, followed with a cart of supplies—disinfectant, paper towels, plastic bags, cleaning solutions.

“You’ll be all right in here? I have to go to the office.”

“Sure. Sure,” Mr. Abbas said. The chubby man was already on his knees spraying a solution and wiping the puke up with paper towels.

“Ain’t nothin’ new. Always cleaning up a mess around this place. Sometimes I wish I could disinfect the school of students. They can be such pigs.”

“I understand. You’d be surprised how often I think of ways to get rid of them.” I laughed. The chubby man guffawed. His forehead was sweaty, his hair greasy. He probably needed to be sanitized himself, I thought, smiling at him.

I grabbed a pen and walked to Ms. Antonelli’s office.

“I’ve got the form right here.” Valerie pointed to the top of a pile of papers on her desk. Her cubicle smelled of Christian Dior’s Poison. Her fingernails, as usual, were perfect—a French manicure. Rumor was she worked just to get out of the house. Her husband was a rich contractor, and they certainly didn’t need Valerie’s small salary.

I sat in the blue plastic chair while she watched me fill out the form. The top part was general information—student name, sex, grade, and a section about the observer (me). The second part was confusing.

“It says ‘Accident’ here.” I looked at Valerie who was shuffling through papers. “She vomited. Is that considered an ‘accident’?”

She sighed and waved her hand. “Well, she didn’t do it on purpose.” She laughed. “And who the hell cares? No one looks at these things anyway. They get filed away in some drawer.” She fluffed her blond hair and rubbed a spot on her pink dress.

Most of the information was impertinent — “Burn, dislocation, puncture, concussion.” I was thankful for the comment section, where I wrote a succinct account of the event. As I handed the paper to Valerie, Ms. Antonelli entered.

“I was looking at Helen Thano’s file. She has an I.E.P.” An I.E.P. is an Individualized Education Program, a document for students with special needs or concerns.

“Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Crohn’s disease, seizure disorder. . .  This young lady’s a mess. Have you read her I.E.P., Mr. Darnell?”

“Of course, I have. I read all student documentation.” Does she think I’m negligent? I felt my cheeks burning and removed my glasses. I hung them on my shirt pocket. I noticed a speck of puke on my chinos.

 “Her file also records that you’ve had a few meetings with her Exceptional Needs Facilitator, Ms. Stillman, and the school counselor and Mrs. Thano.”

“Yes.” I folded my arms. She stared into my eyes, as if waiting for me to say something else. Valerie said she had to use the restroom and excused herself.

When she left, Ms. Antonelli said, “She wears too much perfume” and coughed.

“Yes, this place reeks with the smell of Poison.”

“Ms. Stillman said there was some friction between you and Helen’s mother at the last meeting. She said you ‘had words’”

I shrugged. “I don’t think so. I simply stated facts about Helen’s performance in class, her speaking out of turn and making snide comments. I suggested to Mrs. Thano that perhaps Helen might be seeking attention.”

“Ms. Stillman said you seemed irritated, and after the mother left, told her that Helen was a . . .” She looked at the pad she was holding. “‘rat and her mother was a pain in the ass.’”

“That sounds accurate.”

She sat down in Valerie’s chair. “Don’t you think that’s a bit harsh?”

“No. I believe my assessment is spot on. Besides, I said those things in confidence to Ms. Stillman. Sometimes we need to vent. You understand that.”

“Yes, I do.” She put her elbows on the desk and rested her head in cupped palms.

I said, “Helen likes to be the center of attention. She often says she has a problem with the workload in my class and talks about colleagues in a disparaging manner. I think something may be going on at home. Did Ms. Stillman tell you that I also expressed that concern? I was hoping she could look into it.”

“That’s not the point, Mr. Darnell.”

“What is the point, Ms. Antonelli?”

“I think you could be more empathetic.”

I snickered. “And helping her wipe up her vomit or calling the school nurse immediately is not empathetic?”

“Other students have complained you can be mean,” she said, almost sympathetically.

“First time I’ve heard that. Why haven’t you mentioned this before? Are you afraid of me, Ms. Antonelli?” I glared at her. She scratched her neck. Her mouth quivered.

“Not at all.”

I feigned a sweet voice. “I understand. I will try to be more warm.” I rose from the chair. “Have you spoken with the nurse?”

“Nurse Sommers says Helen’s fine. Her mother is coming to pick her up.”

“That’s good. The poor girl could use some rest. . .  Will that be all? I have to prepare for my next class.”

She stood up. “Yes.” She smiled. “And thank you for taking care of Helen.”

“Certainly.” I smiled and left for my classroom.

A while later, Ms. Antonelli entered, followed by Helen and Mrs. Thano.

“I want to thank you for taking care of Helen today.” Mrs. Thano’s face was white, her auburn hair a mess. She pushed bangs away from her glassy blue eyes. The end of her nose was red, and she held a tissue in a fist.

“Of course.”

“Helen gets nervous sometimes. I think that horror story got to her.”

Helen pouted. “I told you it was mostly the nachos from lunch.”

“Okay, sweetheart. All that matters is you feel better now.” Mrs. Thano kissed her forehead.

“Poe can be pretty graphic. I understand how the part about rats might have bothered her.” I smiled at Helen who was holding onto her mother’s arm as though her life depended on it. She looked away.

“What do you say?” Mrs. Thano glanced at her daughter.

“Thank you, Mr. Darnell.”

“No need to thank me. I’m glad you’re OK.”

“I hope the rest of your day is less hectic.” Mrs. Thano laughed. “We’ll leave you alone.” She opened the door and began to leave.

Ms. Antonelli said, “I’m happy things worked out all right.”

“We’ll be fine. Probably just a small case of food poisoning.”

“That seems likely,” I said.

When the two left, Ms. Antonelli said, “I want to apologize. I was a bit accusatory earlier.”

“Apology accepted. And I understand how I may come off as ‘harsh.’ I’ve been told I can be too blunt. It’s just that I like to be direct. I enjoy getting things done and coming up with solutions for problems.”

“You’re a good teacher, Mr. Darnell. Keep it up.” She looked around the classroom. “I’m glad to see Mr. Abbas cleaned things up.”

“He always does a good job.”

She looked at her watch. “God! You only have ten minutes before next period. I’ll leave you be.” She opened the door. “Enjoy your evening.”

“You too. . .  Would you like a piece of candy before you go? Peppermint?” I held one up.

She placed a hand on her abdomen. “No thanks. I’m trying to avoid sugar. Those hard candies are so addictive.” She laughed.

“True. And if you eat too many, they can make you sick.”

When she left, I took the Visine out of my drawer. I found the paper listing the poisonous effects from tetrahydrozoline, the active ingredient in the eye drops. If swallowed: difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, and coma, among other effects.

I thought of the care I had taken to lightly rub Visine onto the candy before rewrapping it. Then I searched through the trash barrel for Helen’s wrapper. I placed it in the zipper pocket of my satchel with the printout about the drug.

I retrieved the peppermints from my desk drawer and placed them in my satchel. I would share them again another day.


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.


“Ferry Ride” Dark Fiction by Alan Catlin

I am listening as the waves are slapping against the harbor, slapping against those dark pylons stretching into the swirling, forbidding depths of the water.  The garbage floats on the oil-stained wavelets as they lap against the man-made shore.  The ferry looms; a beast astride the water, tethered to the mooring, fuming as it waits.

I am staring into the dark pit of the ferry, seeing only the runway cage enshrouded by shadows through which a procession of slow-moving cars slides into night.  I hear the harsh, repetitive clamor of the heavy rubber wheels moving over a steel plated ramp.  Beyond the ferry, a lone, flashing, red buoy light in the harbor.

Jostled by the crowd, I embark. I’m eager to leave the city behind, eager to escape the glaring, stunning streetlights, the threatening shapes of towering structures, the constant fevered movements of faceless men and women brushing against each other on the sidewalks. I am unnerved by the dizzying shriek of car horns, mechanically roaring buses, rumbling of locals and the uptowns below, trembling the pavement, as I walk, seeing the river spanning bridges dominating the sky-scape, jutting out of my nights into my days, casting stark, terrible shadows on my life.

I consider the passengers’ compartment: the white painted wooden benches, Mae West jackets packed tightly in orange rows on the wall opposite the entranceway, the grit smeared picture window panes of the compartment through which nothing can be seen, passengers huddled on benches speaking in subdued tones.  I smell the wood rot and human decay, refuse bins overflowing with discarded food wrappers that black flies and yellow jackets swarm to.  Smell the burning hot cacaos and bitter coffees, steaming rubberized hot dogs behind the snack bar, competing in their vileness with deep fat frying foods, and putrid uncleaned griddle greases.

Inside the passengers’ compartment, the cigarette smoke haze hangs from the ceiling, clouding the already densely packed room obscuring the “Emergency Only” glass case containing fire hoses, hatchets and a cylinder of foam, marred by a black magic marker inscription: “For a good time call BJ 599-5224.”  I hear a terrible rumbling inside the bowels of the beast; the engines growling as the ferry lurches out into the harbor.

I am sitting on the edge of a bench toward the rear of the compartment, wishing I had procured a window seat near the front of the room.  In the rear, I must watch the people: the immense woman consuming various prepared foodstuffs concealed in the voluminous folds of her dress, a homeless alcoholic drinking wine by the pint from the neck of a bottle protruding from a soiled, wrinkled paper bag, the harried, young Latina mother of five, addressing her brood in wild street Spanish, her man aloof, drinking a half quart of Budweiser from an aluminum can, staring at the river moving beneath us, as we surge into the night.

“Hey Mistah, gotta light?”

“Excuse me?”

“I need a light.”

“Hold on, I’ll look.”

Searching through my pockets, feeling through loose change, rumpled tissues, ticket stubs, pocket lint, considering as I grope this gaunt, black man of no age at all.

“You live on the island?”

“Me? No, I just like to ride the ferry.”

“I been livin’ there a long time-a real long time.  Gotta nice little place overlookin’ the water. Just been in the City for the day.  Don’ like the City.”

“Ah, here we go.  You can keep them.”

“Thanks Mistah.  You like the City?

“It’s where I live.  I don’t know where else I could live.  Comfortably I mean.  It’s–I guess, it’s all I’ve ever known.”

“Don’ like the City.  She be evil.  But the Island’s different.  The Island’s okay.  It’s cool man. Want a hit?”

“No, thanks, really.”

“Yeah, the City.  She evil alright.  Know what I seen today?”

“No.”‘

“I seen the biggest, baddest, meanest mother of a rat.  And you know what she was doin’? She was pullin’ at this here paper, diggin’ around for all she was worth at somethin’ buried in the garbage. Man, she was hungry and this be dinner.  Want to know what she was gettin’ at?”

“No.”

“Was what was left of a human baby, man.  Know what else?…sure you don’ want no hit?”

“Sure.”

“There be rats down there everywhere-not like the Island.  Those mothers grow so big down there, they have to in order to survive, I swear you can’t hardly walk around with all them rats, some bigger than badassed tom cats, man, I saw two rats take on the biggest ole alley cat I ever seen and eat that sucker up alive.  Woo-wee was that somethin’ else again.”

“Excuse me.”

“Man, that sucker was squealin’.  Hey man, where you be goin’? Hey, boy, you alright, you don’ look so good?”

Rising, I stride as fast as possible across the passenger compartment, slide the exit door open and step out onto the ferry deck.  A sharp, damp wind assaults me, whips the canvas-shrouded lifeboats hanging from the upper ferry deck.  Staring into the darkness, inwardly embracing the cold, I adjust my army surplus jacket, tighten the knit scarf around my neck, the river mist touching me, welding me to the rail. I hear the compartment door opening, closing, hear footsteps on the deck.  I know that I am being sought out, know the terror each footstep brings.  I should hide somewhere, anywhere in the night bit I wait, paralyzed, shivering, as if forbidden to move by some unseen force.

“Hey, man, you alright?”

“I’m okay.”

“What ails you, man?  I guess I know when a body ain’t feelin’ alright.”

“I just want to be left alone.”

“I can dig that.  Look, I’ve got this smoke of many dreams here, man, you can have free of charge, if you think it’ll make you feel alright.”

“No thanks, I have enough dreams already without the smoke. I just went to be left alone.”

“You be in the City too long, you best get out.”

“What do you think I’m doing here.”

“Come on, man, take a hit.”

“I Don’t Want It!”

“Okay, man.  No need to get violent.  Shit, man, I was just tryin’ to help.”

Footsteps receding in the darkness.

Backing away, slowly.

The chill spray on my clothes.

Staring at the white capped confluence of river and sea in the night.

Lost.

The Island lights, gleaming, glowing in the distance.


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.