“Bloodsucker” Dark Supernatural Fiction by Mehnaz Sahibzada

At the start of my junior year, I move into a two-bedroom apartment with Anna, a German American girl I met in botany class the previous spring.  She wears berets and pale blue eyeshadow.  Evenings, she pours over psychology books while I lounge on our chaise, reading mysteries.

One night while making spanakopita for dinner, Anna says she wants to live in Athens after college. 

“What about you, Huma?”

“Maybe Lahore,” I say.

That first month in the apartment, we go grocery shopping together and peruse thrift stores downtown.  With the help of Gwen, a pre-med student we meet at a friend’s get-together, we paint our living room purple, embracing strangeness at twenty-one, much like Victor, the goth downstairs I know from math class.  He lines his bedroom windows with tinfoil. 

Anna and I watch sitcoms and gossip about our neighbors on the second floor.

Weeknights she spreads tarot on the dining table, peering at the cups and wands as though willing her future to conform to some wish.

One Saturday in September, Victor texts me to see if he can hitch a ride to a party in the foothills that Anna and I are planning to attend

We knock on his door after dinner.  He answers wearing a black sweatshirt over jeans, his long hair reeking of weed. 

“Thanks for letting me tag along, ladies,” he says. 

We drive down Speedway in my Nissan.  Anna tells us about this psychic reading she had that blew her away.  When Victor says he prefers palm readings, Anna rolls her eyes.  Finally, we swerve onto a dark lane, spotting a house that sways with lights and music. 

Inside people drink beer out of plastic cups.

I run into Reggie, a friend from Shakespeare class. 

A mustached guy wearing a red jacket stands beside him.

“This is Eric,” Reggie says. “He’s an artist.”  

Eric flashes us a silver smile as he shakes our hands.

Eric and Anna immediately lock eyes.  Leaving them to chat, I drift around the room making small talk. 

Victor, who runs into a friend, ends up leaving with him.  I find Gwen standing with a group of pre-med students in the kitchen.  When I hug her, she smells of a garden.  She compliments my dress and offers me an egg roll from a platter.

“Who’s the guy with the cute butt talking to Anna?” she says, gazing across the room.

“Some artist,” I say.

“Well, he can paint me any time,” she says, laughing.

Later, Eric hitches a ride home with us.  I play Morrissey while we drive, Eric and Anna holding hands.  I drop him off near an alley on 4th Avenue where he says he shares a house with three guys.  Anna steps out to hug him, and he kisses her on the cheek. 

Watching through the rearview mirror, I think of Kareem.

When she gets back in the car I say, “He seems cool.”

“He’s coming over tomorrow,” she hums.

~

Within a couple of weeks, the spiky-haired Eric comes over every night, saying things like, Neato.  His mechanical walk seems robot-like. Aside from a couple of art classes he’s taking, his time revolves around Anna.  His constant presence drives me mental.  I hear them kissing while I cook pasta; baby talking while I study Arabic.  In the evenings, they blast grunge music while they screw.  Sometimes I catch Eric walking around in his underwear.  He stays while Anna goes to class, watching our TV and drinking our milk.  

Mornings I come out to find him sketching skulls at the dining table.

Time swells with growing resentments.

Anna and I seem to talk less and less.

~

One evening Anna sits at the dining table sewing the hem of a cape Eric bought her online.  It’s for the vampire costume she plans to wear to a party.

While she sews, Eric sits beside me on the couch watching the news.  He burps a couple of times.  When I ask him to stop, he calls me a Paki shrew. 

The easy way the slur rolls of his tongue makes me lose my breath.

~

Kareem, the exchange student I dated my sophomore year, is back in Dubai.  He sends me pictures of his villa.  I can still taste the kisses he planted on my mouth.

The summer after he left America, we fell out of touch, but now Kareem texts often.  We chat on zoom, and I tell him about Arabic class, practicing my limited skills while he teaches me expressions he tells me will impress my teacher.

After shooting the breeze, he says, “I’ve started praying regularly.”

I nod, surprised.  The previous year, Kareem was an easygoing partier and vaguely spiritual.

Suddenly he says, “How often do you pray?”

The question startles me.  “Not enough.”

Then he says, “How do you like your new roommate?”

“She’s alright, but her boyfriend’s annoying.”  I tell him how he’s over often and condescending.

“Guests and fish,” Kareem says, “begin stinking after three days.  Tell Anna how you feel, my pretty one.”

I nod.

“And if you can, Huma, say your prayers.  God listens most to those who remember him.”

~

One weekend in early October when Eric is out of town, I sit on the chaise reading in the afternoon light.

My roommate enters the living room taking audible breaths.

When I look up from my mystery book, I see a pale-faced Anna quivering in a jersey dress. “You ok?”

She shakes her head. “I was lying in bed, and something touched me.”

“Like, a person?”

“A spirit.”

After a moment I say, “It was probably a dream.”

“I think it was a ghost.”

“You’re missing Eric.  He’s here so often, his spirit has taken root.”

Anna leans against a wall.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

I shrug.

Reaching for her black sneakers by the door, she says, “I’m going for a walk.  I need some air.”

~

Later the same night while folding laundry, I finally understand why Anna freaked out.

I’m wiping my dresser when something brushes the back of my neck.

A shiver traces my spine as I peer around the room seeing nothing.

That night I don’t sleep well.

The next morning while preparing egg sandwiches in the kitchen, I guiltily tell Anna what happened. 

“I wonder why the ghost’s shifted to your room?” she says, her eyes widening.

“Maybe he prefers brunettes?”

Anna gazes at me seriously.  “We need to figure out why he’s haunting us.”

My insides churn with uncertainty, so I drag Anna into my bedroom.  She leans by the open window, which overlooks the parking lot. 

Standing in the corner of the room, Anna closes her eyes and takes a deep breath while I hover in the doorway. 

A moment later she gasps, opening her eyes.

I step into the room.  “What’s wrong?”

“I just saw a flash of him.  He’s dressed in black, holding a ring.”

I laugh, out of nervousness or disbelief, I’m not sure.  “Maybe he’s looking for a bride.”

“That’s a bad sign.”

I don’t know what to say to that. So, I say, “Did you see his face?”

“No.  It’s shadowed.”

I don’t contradict her.   Anna’s either psychic or has an active imagination.

“Let’s burn some sage,” she suggests, her eyes brightening with resolve.  “It’ll clear the energy.  We need to send this spirit a signal that he should move on.”

I nod, grateful some simple remedy might fix this.  Anna bustles past me to collect the materials.

When she returns, she hands me some sage, an ashtray, and a lighter.  Then she tells me to light the bundle and hold it over the tray as I circle the room saying, “Move on in peace, bloodsucker.”  I walk around my bed, chanting, as she fans the rising smoke with her hands. 

Afterwards, I feel a palpable sense of relief.

That night, I sleep soundly.  If there was a strange presence in my room, it seems to have retreated.

When Eric returns from visiting family and hears about the ghost, he insists we burn sage for a week. 

Soon he’s back to being over every night, and the grunge music is blasting often.

~

One night a week later when I am cleaning out my dresser drawers, I notice the gold necklace and earrings that my grandmother gave me on my last visit to Lahore are missing. 

That burping fiend, I think. 

My gut says Eric’s been entering my bedroom while I’m in class, stealing trinkets he might sell at a pawn shop for a pretty penny. 

The next morning, I find Anna seated in the living room after breakfast.  She’s polishing her nails.  Eric is in art class.  And for once, we’re alone.

I take a seat beside her and finally confess that having Eric there all the time is making me feel claustrophobic. 

“He stays in my bedroom though,” Anna says, frowning.

“He’s here when you’re out.”

“So.  He doesn’t bother you.”

“I’m also missing some jewelry.”

“What?  And you think Eric stole it?”

“It’s possible.”

A dark shadow casts itself across her face.  “Keep your door locked then.  You have some nerve calling him a thief.”

Saying this, she places her bottle of polish on the coffee table and brushes past me into her bedroom, slamming the door behind her. 

~

Later that night while we zoom across time zones, Kareem asks me if I’ve ever considered wearing a hijab.

“No,” I say, surprised.  “Have you considered wearing one?”

Kareem laughs.  “Men don’t wear hijab.”

“Some might.”

“I like it when girls dress modestly.”

I want to ask him why he seems to be getting more conservative suddenly, but instead I hear myself say, “Can you teach me some clothing words?  I need to write a short description in Arabic.”

~

The next evening, on Wednesday when I get home after classes, the apartment is eerily dark.  Switching on a light, I head to my bedroom.  Anna’s door is closed, but I hear Eric murmuring something next door.

In my room, I toss my backpack on the bed and wrinkle my nose, noticing a fruity scent in the air.

I change into sweats, sneezing.  I have an Arabic test the next day, and I need to spend the evening studying.  Maybe Kareem will help me practice.

A moment later, I hear a knock at my door. 

“Come in,” I shout.

Anna twists the door open and steps inside.  Eric passes into the bathroom behind her but doesn’t say hello.

“How were your classes?”

“Good.”  I glance at her striped, black dress, the one I’ve seen her wear for occasions.  “You going out tonight?”

“We’re driving to Phoenix.  Eric’s mom’s birthday is tomorrow, and he wants to surprise her.  We’ll be back on Friday.”

“Nice.” 

“Thought you’d appreciate the space.”

I quash a wave of guilt.  “You don’t have to–”
“I know.  But I get that you want more privacy.  After we return, let’s figure out some compromise.”

I want to ask her about the jewelry but decide against it.  Instead, I stand up and hug her.  She hugs me back, but her shoulders seem stiff.

“By the way,” I say, “did you light a scented candle? It smells fruity.”

Anna shakes her head.  Then she says, “Gwen stopped by earlier to return some books.  She was wearing this strong perfume.”

“That explains it,” I say, wondering why Gwen didn’t text me if she was coming by.

Maybe she was in a rush.

~

After Eric and Anna leave, my sense of liberation is euphoric.  I blast Enya while cooking biryani, feeling like I can finally exhale. 

 When they return, I think, I’ll suggest they move in together.  I’ll find myself a studio downtown.

After dinner, zooming with Kareem, I tell him how I’m thinking about renting my own place. 

“Women shouldn’t live alone.”

I laugh.  “You sound like my dad.”

“Your dad must be a wise man.”

“Don’t you mean, a sexist?”

Kareem shakes his head.  “American girls are so sensitive.”

I feel my chest tightening. I want to tell him he’s overgeneralizing, but if we get into a fight and stop talking, I wouldn’t have a friend to practice my Arabic with.

As it grows dark outside my window, he tells me about his recent trip to Jeddah, and I try to listen but feel myself getting distracted.

After we log off, I lie in bed pouring over my textbook.  There’s so much to memorize, it’s daunting.  The only way I know how to cram the words into my head is to copy them repeatedly on pieces of paper. 

But as I sit absorbed in scribbling, something tickles the back of my neck.

I bolt up, recognizing the same sensation from weeks ago. 

It’s gone dark in our unit except for the lamp on my bedside.  Getting up, I turn on the lights around the apartment.

Anna’s bedroom door is closed.  The trepidation taking hold of me makes me shrug respectful norms aside.  I push her bedroom door open, switching on a light.  What I see shocks me.  The room is an utter mess.  The bed is unkempt and covered in textbooks.  Bras clutter the dresser, and Eric’s boxers form a stinky pile on the floor.  The trash can in the corner overflows with tissues and crumpled papers.  A used condom lies on top of the heap, like a rancid cherry on top of a garbage sundae.

“Disgusting,” I mutter.  “They could’ve at least thrown out the trash.” 

Then I remember why I’ve barged in.  I’m looking for the green box where Anna stores her sage, so I can repeat the ritual, hoping to dispel lurking spirits.  At last, I spot the box tucked by her bedside.  I lean down and grab it.  But taking off the lid, I gasp.  There’s no sage inside, just a candle that oozes a fruity smell. 

I sneeze.

It seems like the candle was lit recently.

Why would Anna lie to me?

I pull out the cell in my pocket, texting Gwen to ask when she came by.  A minute later she texts back saying she’s visiting family Los Angeles, which makes me lose my breath.

Once again, Anna lied, but why?

My heart pounding wildly, I sift around the room, opening drawers, hoping to find sage, but no luck.  A glance at my watch reveals it’s almost ten.  I tuck the green box back beside her bed and head to my room, shutting Anna’s door behind me.

My family and closest high school friends are scattered across the country in different cities.  I could ring them for support, but what I need most right now is to lean on someone nearby.

With a breath, I try to subdue the anxious spell of my thoughts. 

Nothing horrible has happened, I remind myself. I sensed a tingling on the back of my neck, then I discovered my roommate hadn’t been truthful. That’s all.

Grabbing my night dress and heading to the bathroom, I take a shower.  Standing beneath the hot water instills a sense of calm. Afterwards, I tie my hair in a turbie-twist and apply coconut oil to my arms and legs. 

With a wave of relief, I let go of the worry.  I’ll dry my hair, make a sandwich, and study for another hour or so before slipping into bed.

~

Later I sit on the chaise in the living room, hunched over my Arabic textbook.  Biting into the sandwich, I relish the cheese and tomato combination. 

I speak aloud the weather-related Arabic terms, enjoying their unfamiliar cadences.

When my legs feel cold, I glance to the side of the couch, searching for the small blanket I keep on hand for watching films.  The blanket’s missing, but the cape Eric bought for Anna’s costume lies crumpled in a basket.  Reaching for it, I shake it open. 

It seems rather large for Anna, who’s petite. 

I peer at the blood-red stitching down the side. The garment feels coarse to the touch.  I check the label.  The cape’s a wool-crepe blend.  Feeling along the inside lining, my hand brushes against the garment tag.  I pull it out and scan it. 

It reads, Psychic and Paranormal Item, eBay

A shiver traces my spine.  That’s strange, I think.  With a jittery hand, I toss the cape on the coffee table. 

At last, it’s time to sleep.  I place the Arabic textbook on the dining table, brush my teeth, then head to bed.

Under the covers, I sigh in relief.  My limbs ache from exhaustion and my eyelids feel heavy. 

But as I’m drifting off, something brushes my left hand, tickling my knuckles.

Gasping, I jump out of bed and switch on the bedside lamp.  When I glance around the room, I see nothing. 

I pull back the duvet, wondering if I’ll spot a spider.

But the sheets are clean.

So, what just brushed against me?

I shudder, thinking of the ghost.

Dodging a wave of anxiety, I change into leggings and a sweatshirt, then I grab my backpack and throw it onto the bed.  Maybe I’ll head to a motel or a diner to escape. 

But a glance at my cell reminds me it’s after midnight. 

Where can I really go at this queasy hour when the desert night reeks of tequila and burning bark? 

“Move on in peace, bloodsucker,” I say. 

The words croak out my mouth in an unconvincing whisper.

I lean against a wall, feeling faint.

How will I get through this night alone?

Maybe I should smoke some weed.

Picturing a joint makes me think of Victor, the goth downstairs.

My tense muscles relax.

Victor’s often up at night watching movies.  With a surge of hope, I grab my keys and slide on flip flops.  Then I head out of the apartment and down the steps, until I find the door for unit number eight. 

The lights don’t seem to be on, but I am desperate.  If I wake him up, I’ll apologize and say I owe him one.  I need someone’s help, and he is someone I know.

I knock at his door, holding my breath.

A minute passes.  Then another.

I gaze up at the moon, which is closer to full than crescent.

But a sinking feeling takes root in my chest.

Then as I’m about to turn around, the door creaks open at last.  There stands Victor in a black robe, puffing on a fat joint.  His long hair is unruly, and his eyes, bloodshot.  Still, he seems at ease.

Seeing him, I feel a rush of relief.

“What’s up, angel face?”

“Sorry, did I wake you?”

“Nah, I was listening to music.  You been here a while?”

“Not really, but I need some help.  Mind if I come in?”

“Sure thing.”  He pulls the door back and I enter as he hands me the joint.  I take a healthy drag then hand it back to him.  The living room is dark, spare the red lava lamps on the bookshelf by the television.  There are a couple of dusty couches in the room, and a large cactus plant sways near the hallway.

He motions for me to take a seat.  As we settle across from each other, I say, “This is gonna sound nuts, but I think our unit might be haunted.”

I expect him to snort, but instead he says, “No shit?”

In a stoned stupor, it all gushes out: the ghost I sensed weeks ago, what Anna saw in her mind, and how we used the sage.  “Something brushed against my skin again tonight,” I say.  “It freaked me out.  Either something’s lurking or I’m losing my mind.”

After I finish speaking, Victor leans back, taking another hit on his joint.  “Wonder why this thing would reappear today?”

I shrug.  “Not sure.  I’m home alone, which is unusual.  But I’ve just been studying.”

“Things really took off between Eric and Anna, huh? 

“I guess so.”

“That guy puts a lot of gel in his hair.”

I nod.  “I’ve seen those bottles of gel.”

Victor seems to be thinking.  “I don’t see why the ghost would wait for you to be alone, though maybe your roommate’s energy has been blocking him.”

“So, I don’t sound crazy?”

He shakes his head.  “Believe me, I’ve had my own experiences with the invisible.”

“Who lived in our apartment before us?”

“Two sorority girls, Jemma and Stacey.  They never mentioned any ghosts.”  He puts out his joint in the ashtray on the coffee table.  “Look, you’re welcome to crash here until your roommate gets back.  But let me check things out.  Sometimes, like Anna, I can sense things.”

“Do you have any sage?”

“I might.”

I wait as he slips out of the room.  The leather couch I sit on makes my thighs itch.  It wouldn’t make the best bed, but anything would be better than being in my unit alone. 

A moment later Victor returns empty-handed. “Sorry.  I’m out.”

He grabs his keys, and we head upstairs to my apartment. 

After I unlock the front door and step inside, Victor says, “Smells like someone shat out a giant strawberry in here.”

I laugh.  “I had a sneeze attack when I got home earlier.  I thought Anna lit a candle, but she said she hadn’t.   Then I found a fruity candle in her bedroom when I went looking for sage.  It seemed like it’d been lit recently.  I’m not sure why she lied to me.”

“Could be Eric’s candle,” Victor says.  “Though that’s interesting.”

Victor glances around the kitchen, before I head into my bedroom.  He circles the space, looking around curiously.

“What’s interesting?”

“Huh?” Victor says, fidgeting with the curtains.  

“You said my finding a fruity candle was interesting.”

Victor shrugs.  “I’m reaching a bit, but something occurred to me.”

I glance his way, and he turns around to face me.  I can tell something’s on his mind, and I wish he would just spit it out.  Finally, he does.

“From what I know, sweet scents are used to attract ghosts.  Anna, being the woo woo girl she is, would probably know that.  But maybe the candle belongs to Eric, and he lit it without her knowing.”

 “Something’s off about the whole thing.  The candle was lit in here.  Her room doesn’t smell.”

“Mind if we take a look in there?”

“Sure.  Just be prepared.  It’s a mess.”

When I twist Anna’s bedroom door open and switch on the light, Victor coughs.  “Jeez, they’re animals.”

Nodding, I reach for the green box by Anna’s bedside and show Victor the candle inside.  His eyes widen.  “Maybe this girl’s messing with your head.  You guys been having issues?”

I tell Victor about Eric being over all the time and how I confronted Anna about it the day before.

“She could be channeling, but I don’t think that beret-wearing Barbie is some super attractor.  She knows a thing or two about magic, and she could be using what she knows to take out her anger.  But I don’t get a spiritual vibe from her or that energy vampire she’s dating.”

“I’m beginning to think they summoned this ghost to toy with me.”

“Sure,” Victor says.  “We need to let this presence know he isn’t welcome.”

“How do we do that without sage?” 

A moment later he says, “I just remembered. I have some sage incense on my bookshelf.  I’ll go get it.  It might work.”

“I’ll come with you.  I don’t want to be here alone.”

Victor reaches into his robe and pulls out his keys, handing them to me.  As his hand grazes my own, a shiver traces my spine.  I blush, hoping he doesn’t notice. 

But he just says, “I’ll wait here while you grab the incense.”

“Okay,” I say.  Victor follows me out of the bedroom, taking a seat on the chaise in the living room. 

As I twist the front door open, I see him reaching for the cape, which I tossed on the coffee table earlier.

Somehow, I’d forgotten about it.

~

When I return minutes later with the incense, Victor isn’t in the living room where I left him.  I call out his name as I shut the door behind me, but no response.  I wonder if the stoner has collapsed on my bed and fallen asleep.

Then I hear a thudding sound, as though Victor may have tripped and fallen.

There’s a knot in my stomach as I toss the incense on the dining table and head toward my bedroom in the back where I hear Victor gasping for breath.  I enter the room to find him lying on the floor near the foot of my bed, waving his hands as though pushing something back. 

“Victor!”

His hands shake by his face, and I worry he’s having a seizure.  But when I reach down to grab his hand, something invisible pushes me back. 

I fall onto the ground, scraping my knee. 

Moments later, I will myself up and run back into the kitchen.  With trembling hands, I grab the incense, then race into Anna’s room to find a lighter.  There’s one on her bedside table, which I use to light a stick of incense before running back into my bedroom. 

Victor’s lying on his side, coughing, when I return.  Whatever was attacking him, seems to have retreated. 

“Jesus, Victor!  Are you ok?”

I notice the crumpled black garment lying on the ground beside him.

 “Whatever’s haunting your unit was wearing that thing when it attacked me.  That spirit is something vile.  It dragged me from the couch in the living room all the way here.”

Tossing the incense stick on the dresser, I reach for the garment and shake it loose.  “Eric ordered this cape from eBay for Anna.  It’s a Psychic and Paranormal Item.”

Victor whistles.  “That fool ordered a haunted garment?  He’s playing with darkness.”

I toss the cape aside, feeling a wave of nausea.  Then to my surprise, I find my necklace and earrings sitting on the ground, right under my bed.  I gasp. 

“What’s wrong?” Victor says.

I hold up the jewelry.  “These trinkets.  They’ve been missing for days.  I thought Eric stole them.”

“Maybe this lurking spirit was the culprit.”

I toss the jewelry beside me.  “Why did the ghost come at you like that?”

Victor finally smiles, raising an eyebrow.  “I’m guessing he saw me as competition for his Pakistani bride.”

I laugh, but before I can speak, Victor leans in toward me and kisses me right on the mouth.  His lips feel so warm.  I kiss him back, enjoying the taste of him. 

Wrapping my arms around his neck, I lay back on the ground as he climbs on top of me, making me sigh with pleasure.

~

On Friday evening, I sit on the chaise reading a novel when I hear a key unlocking the front door of the apartment.

A moment later, my blond roommate and her mustached boyfriend enter the living room.

Anna seems to flash me a guilty smile.  “How did it go, Huma?”

“Fine.  Been studying.”

“What else?”

“Nothing really.”

She seems disappointed.

Eric drops his duffel bag on the ground with a thump and points at the coffee table.  “Why’s the cape there?”

I shrug.  “I used it as a blanket.”

I watch as Eric and Anna exchange glances.

“By the way,” I say.  “I reached out to our landlord.”

“Why?” Anna says.

“To tell him your gel-wearing boyfriend has basically moved in.”

“Screw you,” Eric says.

I glare at him.  “Only two people can live here.”

“You’re a jealous rat,” Anna says.  “Sorry your man is riding camels in the Middle East and all you guys have is Zoom.”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” I say.

Eric laughs.  Then to my surprise, he reaches for the cape on the table and grabs it.  Waving it in front of my face he says, “This cursed cloak was supposed to haunt your dreams, you bitchy nag.”

Burping loudly, he pulls the cape over his back like a shawl.

A moment later, the room seems colder–even windy. 

Eric’s suddenly shaking so hard his eyes seem to be bulging.  His face takes on a greenish tint, and he begins speaking in a language I don’t understand, something closer to Russian than English.

The color drains from Anna’s face.

With a quick leap, Eric jumps on me, reaching for my throat. 

I gasp for breath as his hands tighten around my neck. 

His eyes blaze with anger as he roars gibberish, flashing his fangs at me.

I feel myself go faint.

But seconds later Victor blazes out of my bedroom, swaying a bundle of burning sage, which he tosses at me.  With the force of a Shaman, he pulls Eric off. 

My body collapses in relief.  Victor yanks off the cape and pushes Eric against a wall.  Then he turns to look at me.  “You okay, babe?”

I cough, reaching for the sage. “Barely.”

“You people make me sick,” Victor says, glaring at Anna and Eric.  “I just recorded that stupid stunt with my cell.  Try it again, and I’ll post the video on Facebook with enough hashtags to blow a hole through the internet.”

Eric gulps, breathing hard, while Anna, who leans against a wall, begins sobbing.

“Come on, bud,” Victor says, tugging at Eric.  “Let’s grab that cape. We’re gonna burn the crap out of your wacko costume in the dumpster behind the building.”

Anna’s head is in her hands.  Sitting on the floor, she seems to be hyperventilating.  Then she glares at me like she wants to finish off the job Eric’s possessor started.

As Victor drags out a seething Eric, I can’t resist waving the sage through the air and shouting, “Move on in peace, Bloodsucker!”


Mehnaz Sahibzada is a 2022 Jack Hazard Fellow in fiction writing.  Her writing has appeared in Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen, Jaggery, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. Her poetry collection, My Gothic Romance, was published in 2019 by Finishing Line Press.  She is currently at work on her first novel, Jaani, set in post-partition Pakistan. For inquiries, contact Mehnaz through her website at www.poetmehnaz.com


“12 Items or Less” Dark Fiction by Kay Summers

The killer walked in the grocery store, grabbed a shopping basket, and headed for the bread aisle. He was out of sandwich bread; when he went to make a grilled cheese for lunch, the last pieces had been one moldy slice and the bottom heel. It was with some irritation that he entered the store; he was a man of routines, and he always made one trip a week to the grocery store, on Wednesday nights.

He picked Wednesday evenings because there were no weekend shoppers—no nine to fivers picking up a week’s worth of milk, cereal, and hamburger meat with one kid sitting in the cart and another trotting alongside, dressed for a soccer practice either imminent or just concluded. Those people always moved slowly, balancing requests from whiny kids for corn syrup-laden snacks against their own desire to shop in the same leisurely way they once had, before they defied all reason and self-preservation and procreated.

He came late enough on Wednesday evenings to miss the after-work emergency shoppers—the people who received panicked phone calls from their spouses on the way from work to home telling them that there was no milk for tomorrow’s breakfast, or the kids used the last roll of toilet paper yesterday and didn’t think to tell anyone. Those people moved too erratically, running from the front door to aisle seven or nine and stopping short when they almost ran into people who were taking the more standard progression in strict numerical order. Even now, knowing exactly what he needed and where it was, the killer took each aisle in turn, steadily.

He shopped early enough on Wednesday evenings to miss the post-church crowd, those Baptists and Methodists who had just sat through a mid-week prayer service while their teens hung out with their friends and called it fellowship even as they made weekend plans for parties their parents wouldn’t approve of and gossiped about who was dating whom and how far they were going. The adults always had a vaguely pious air about them. They knew they had done the right thing by stopping midweek to reflect and praise God, as the preacher always admonished them to do, so that they wouldn’t stumble off the righteous path in the treacherous evenings leading up to Sunday morning.

In fact, if he hit his Wednesday evening window just right, everyone else in south Alabama was either sitting down to dinner at home or sitting down in the church fellowship hall.

But this wasn’t Wednesday evening. It was Monday afternoon, an entirely unfamiliar time to shop for groceries.

The midday light coming in through the front windows was glaring; the clerks were different. In the middle of the day, you got the older grocery clerks, the people who had made a career of checking out other folks’ food, running one item at a time over the scanner that beeped the same beep as all the other scanners. The killer often wondered how they knew which beep was theirs. He believed that a lot of items ran over the scanner unscanned, as the clerks heard a beep and assumed it was theirs. It was a system he felt sure supported an unacceptable level of chaos.

The different faces and quality of light didn’t sit well with him. He felt his vigilance activate, the watchfulness that informed his professional life and had kept him alive as a hired killer for nearly three years now. He told himself to calm down; professionals don’t lose their shit because they happen to find themselves in Publix on Monday at 2 instead of Wednesday at 6:45. But he knew he wouldn’t feel right until he had checked out.

He swung through the produce section, rounding the corner where deli changed to fish market. He heard a familiar voice from behind the counter; his brother greeted him. He groaned inwardly; he had forgotten that Jonah would be there, working his 9-5 shift as usual.

“Hey, Toad, man, what’s up? Good to see you. You ain’t been around much. Momma wants to know when you’re gonna come by the house. She mentioned cooking this Sunday. You free?”

His brother had just said more words in ten seconds than the killer had said over the past two days.

The killer’s name wasn’t Toad. That was a nickname his oldest brother, Garret, had pinned on him before he was old enough to talk, hit, or defend himself in any way.

The killer’s given name was Tod. Like Todd, but with only one D. He was the youngest of five brothers. Jonah was number two.

Tod didn’t know why his parents left off the customary second D from his name. He suspected it was a symptom of the creeping nonchalance that greeted children who arrived after the first few. He hadn’t been able to articulate this thought until Zak, a similarly short-named platoon buddy of his, had put his finger on it.

Zak, who was one of four brothers, said it succinctly: “Every kid after number two, they basically start raising each other.”

Parents can’t provide the same level of care and attention to all their kids when they have more than one. People know this, of course—there’s a reason folks indulgently talk about first-time parents and their obsessions with first teeth and first steps and other developmental milestones, checking each one off in a memory book that really only serves to provoke anxiety or relief in the parents, depending on how quickly their offspring hit the goalposts. People say, “Just wait ‘til they have another one; they’ll stop being so silly.”

But most people don’t have more than two kids, or three, max. They don’t know about the diminishing returns, the built-in Darwinism, the Lord of the Flies existence of siblings who come in sets of four or greater.

For example, Tod knew that parents stop caring about names after they pick out a few. They labor over that first name—should it be Garret Andrew or Andrew Garret? Should we use your grandfather’s name as a middle name? How will his initials look? By the second kid, they pick a name they’ve always liked. For the third, they pick a name of someone they knew in high school who didn’t turn out to be a complete jerk. By number four, they are likely to pick the same name as the local TV meteorologist who has nice ties. Number five? You get three letters, tops. Better hope they remember to include a vowel.

In Tod’s case, it wasn’t until he joined the Army that he learned that his abbreviated name actually means “death” in German. Zak told him; he said it was pretty badass that his parents had given him such a metal name.

Tod nods back to Jonah at the counter, a “’sup” glance meant to convey affection, from a distance. He says, “I’ll catch you later, bro, I’m on the move right now,” with a smile and keeps walking.

Tod had joined the Army after 9/11, along with what seemed like every other guy under 30. It was a lucky break for him; standards then were really flexible. The Army recruiter, with his quota to make every month, had been happy to work around Tod’s weed busts from high school. Also, the Army recruiter had seemed slightly less psycho than the Marine recruiter. That guy was wound super tight. He was all “professional opportunities and free college” with the parents and then all “in the Marines, you’ll get to whoop ass and kill some ragheads” with the boys he was pursuing.

Tod went Airborne because it sounded fun. He enlisted right after high school graduation in June 2002. He was recycled once in basic training because he got a stress fracture in his foot on the first go round. He finished training just in time for Iraq.

Jonah had joined up, too; three of Tod’s four brothers did. Jonah and Garret had both been bumping around aimlessly for a few years after high school, still living at home. They had gone Marines because they said it was the most badass. Both of them came back from boot camp super thin and so mind-controlled that they wouldn’t sit all the way back in a chair. Tod’s fourth oldest brother, Ken (named after the local meteorologist who did the “Locals Turning 100” segment each week), had gone Navy just to be contrary.

Ken was using the GI Bill to go to college like they all said they would. He was in his third year of college now; going to get a nursing degree from Auburn. Tod thought Ken would make it, too; he had always been the most organized and motivated of the brothers.

Their middle brother, Adam (named after a guy his dad had known in high school), was the oddball. He had done well in school, gone to University of Alabama on a scholarship, and gotten a job in Atlanta as a graphic designer. He rarely visited.

Jonah and Garret returned home after their four-year stints. Both of them picked up where they left off; Jonah started back at the fish counter, and Garret resumed a string of dead-end jobs at various restaurants and pizza joints near the beach. Garret put on 100 pounds within a year of his return but still used his post-boot camp photo on social media, where he looked lean and mean.

Tod had been fine in Iraq. He didn’t mind the assignments too much. When he finished his four-year enlistment, he thought about re-upping but discarded the idea quickly. He was tired of the uniforms and constant ass-kissing required in the military.

He considered a contractor job with a group like Halliburton. But that, too, would have required an unacceptable level of obsequiousness.

In the end, his choice had been easy. Zak reached out to him. He had gotten hooked up, he said, with a great gig that was limited in time requirements and well-compensated. And Tod wouldn’t need to move.

The guy Tod would come to know as Whippet had put together a network of former military willing to put their US government-provided killing skills to use for profit. He had a site on the dark web with a number of ways in for people who were looking to rid themselves of problems.

When Whippet was first building his organization, he assumed he would need people who were willing to work mostly in cities, dealing with drug dealers and lowlifes. He was quickly disabused of this notion when it became apparent that the market for offing people was not exclusively urban. The small-town boys who gravitated to the service and were left at loose ends at the end of four-year enlistments had built-in markets in their hometowns. There was, it seemed, always someone looking to knock off Uncle Elmer or their no-good cousin Billy or that jerk from high school who now worked in the cubicle next to them at the insurance agency.

The thing that separated Whippet’s agency—the defining difference that allowed them to stand apart in a crowded market, as he put it—was his insistence on a motive. He required that all clients of his agency spell out in very clear terms why they wanted someone put down.

The reason was two-fold. First, it provided a type of insurance that protected them from their client getting a guilty conscience. It was a lot less likely that, say, Betty from choir practice would wake up feeling remorseful, call the police, implicate the agency, and try to plead temporary insanity if her hired killers had her on record saying that the specific reason Alice had to die was because she had, for 20 years now, insisted on bringing “her” special butterscotch brownies to church socials when it was, in fact, a recipe that she had borrowed from Betty back in 1985 and claimed as her own. Betty would sound cold-blooded and very, very sane on such a recording, and she knew it. So, Betty needed to be damn sure she wanted to do this and not think about growing a conscience later.

The other reason was equally practical: if the killers knew the reason, they could avoid any adjacency to that activity in the execution of their duties, no pun intended.

What the client got in return for this information was an assurance that the killing would be as painless as possible and would, to the extent feasible, not appear to be murder.

Take Mrs. Balder, for example. Tod just now nodded civilly to her as they passed on the soup aisle, but he felt himself inadvertently cringe away slightly. Mrs. Balder had hired Whippet’s agency to kill her husband of 35 years, Mr. Balder, because he had developed an online gambling problem and was eating through their retirement savings. Knowing this motive allowed Whippet, and by extension, Tod, to avoid any connection to gambling that might have tipped off law enforcement that there was foul play.

Instead, the plan had been simple: Mrs. Balder went to visit her sister up in Luverne for two weeks, as she did every spring. Tod planned the killing for a Tuesday evening when he knew Mr. Balder would be home gambling because he always gambled on Tuesdays. On Wednesdays, after he got home from prayer service, he always felt too guilty to gamble, but Tuesdays, it was on. Tod used the key he was given by Mrs. Balder, snuck in at 3 a.m., and placed a pillow over Mr. Balder’s face. The sleeping pill Mr. Balder always took kept him docile, and his heart condition did the rest. The police, faced with elderly, unhealthy corpse, were quick to assign blame to an apparent heart attack in an old man with heart problems. There wasn’t even an autopsy. Mrs. Balder was able to live comfortably off their retirement, life insurance, and Social Security.

Tod’s regular day job was with a landscaping company, keeping all the hotel grounds down by the beach in resort shape. He lived a quiet life, using his semi-regular windfalls from Whippet’s jobs in ways that were invisible to his family, who were never invited over to his small house to see the variety of electronic toys and metal-working tools he accumulated and enjoyed.

Tod’s mother, a chaos-Muppet-type woman with a head of crazy gray and brown curls, was a nurse at the local hospital. She was a practical nurse, not a registered nurse, a fact that she never failed to blame on Garret, who had the misfortune to be conceived before Mom finished college. She had worked constantly changing shifts throughout their childhoods.

Mom was kind but clueless, the kind of mother who arrived at your school play late, came right down to the front row, asked someone else to move over so that she and Dad could get seats together, and then cheered too loudly when her progeny emerged for their walk-on roles as trees, or townspeople, or rocks.

Mom also spent money like she could print her own, which she unfortunately could not. This was the main source of friction between her and Dad, a high school English teacher and massively frustrated writer who ate his feelings for 30 years or so and now weighed 300 pounds.

Dad had bad sleep apnea, and he snored so loudly that friends of Tod’s had sometimes mistaken the sound for a motorcycle on the highway just on the other side of their front yard. He slept in every weekend, saying that he was exhausted after a week of training young minds. Dad’s favorite movie was Dead Poet’s Society; he fancied himself the type of life-changing teacher who would live in his students’ memories for the rest of their lives. The truth was that the smartest of his students found him to be a bit of a blowhard.

Why Mom and Dad had five kids was a question that had troubled Tod for many years. As the youngest, he had seen how the diminishing set of resources—financial, emotional, mental—played out to the fullest degree. His dad was Catholic; Tod supposed the Catholic thing, which his dad played up or down depending on his mood, was the reason given for both the quickie marriage and the large family. But he suspected it had more to do with Dad’s idea of himself as a real character, someone larger than life, a patriarch. Like Don Corleone or the dad from Cheaper by the Dozen or Barbara Stanwyck in The Big Valley.

As Tod headed down the bread aisle, finally, he found himself face to face with Fern Davis, who had been in Ken’s class in school.

Fern smiled and said, “Hey, there, stranger. Ain’t seen you in a dog’s age.”

Tod smiled back—he had always liked Fern—and replied, “Keepin’ busy, Fern. Just ran in for some loaf bread.”

She paused in the aisle. Tod tried not to look impatient.

“Guess you heard about Albie, huh?”

“Yeah, Fern, I was real sorry to hear about him. How’s your mama takin’ it?”

“Well, you know, she’s tore up. But I think it was probably for the best. I know that sounds terrible. But he gave her a rough few years. At least now, she can get some peace.”

Tod nodded. “Yep, it’s good to have some peace about it. Albie was a good guy back in the day. I’ll remember him like that.”

Fern looked like she might cry, then straightened up and forced a smile. “Well, it’s good to see you, Tod. Don’t be a stranger, ok?”

“Sure thing, Fern. You take care.”

Tod kept walking toward the bread. Fern had paid Whippet’s agency ten grand to take out her brother. Albie had been a druggie for years, but the final straw was when he broke into their mama’s house and stole some of her jewelry. He was picked up trying to pawn it, but their mama had refused to press charges; said Albie had her permission to take the jewelry.

Tod had done the job; made it look like an overdose, which wasn’t that big of a stretch. Fern, of course, never knew it was him.

As Tod made his way through the check-out line, he nodded to Jimmy Knott, who had paid Whippet’s agency to get rid of the man who was screwing his wife. That one had been messier than Tod liked, but a car accident was the most believable way to go for a healthy man in his early 40s.

He was taking his two bags to his truck when his phone vibrated. He glanced at it and saw a secure message from Whippet. He passed Bart Northam, who was working as a bag boy while finishing up high school. His grandma had paid for a suicide; she was living in a nursing home and had advanced Parkinson’s. She didn’t want all her savings going to the nursing home people; she wanted it for Bart so he could go to the university in Tuscaloosa. Tod had taken care of that for her and made sure it didn’t hurt at all.

When he got back to the house, he put away his groceries and went to his comms station in the dining room. Whippet had a satellite set-up that guaranteed untraceable calls; Tod logged on now and signaled Whippet that he was available.

Whippet’s reedy voice came on immediately.

“What’s up, man?” Tod hadn’t spoken directly to Whippet in months.

“Got a bit of a situation I need you to weigh in on.”

Well, now, this was unusual. Tod had never been asked for his opinion before.

“Job came in. Little unusual.”

“Yeah, how’s that?”

“Well, Tod…”

It was very unlike Whippet to sound so uncertain. He sounded, if Tod was honest, almost sad.

Whippet continued. “Job is on someone you know. One of your brothers. Garret.”

Tod knew his oldest brother was an asshole. But he was surprised that someone would spend money to take out such a useless individual.

“The thing is, Tod, man, the client is…” Whippet cleared his throat. “It’s your mom, man.”

Tod said nothing.

Whippet rushed ahead. “Ordinarily, as you know, a job’s a job, man, but you’ve been a good guy, you know, and it’s your family, man, and I just wanted to run this one by you…” He trailed off again.

Tod finally spoke. “Can I hear it?” They required all their clients to record the motive.

“Sure, man.” Tod could hear Whippet fumbling on the other end. He had never been so discombobulated in Tod’s experience.

Tod’s mother’s voice came on. She had a high voice, like Minnie Mouse, with a light Alabama lilt.

“The other morning, I came in after working the overnight shift at the hospital. Garret was asleep in his room. The door was open, and I could see clothes and dirty dishes all over the room. I had done some laundry the day before and left it out on the sofa in the living room for someone to fold and put away. It had all been dumped on the floor and scattered everywhere, like someone was rooting through for a particular item and couldn’t be bothered to neaten up once they found it.

“He was snoring just like his daddy. I knew he was going to keep me awake. I went in there and said his name a couple of times, as nice as I could. He said, ‘what the hell, Mom? I got in late and just got to sleep a couple hours ago’. I said did you work late? And he said no, he had just been out with Justin and what business was it of mine. I told him it was time for him to get up and fold that laundry.

“He cursed at me. Me, his momma, who dropped out of college to stay home and wipe his butt and who is still washing his dirty drawers thirty-some-odd years later. And I had just had it. It’s beyond time for that boy to grow up, but he won’t. If I don’t do something, I’ll be waiting on him until I’m in the grave. It’s him or me. This time, I’m going with me.”

There was a pause as Whippet stopped the recording. He came back on the line and said, “So, Tod, man, here’s the deal. If you want me to, I’ll turn down the job. It’s not unheard of. I can do that. I can’t promise she won’t find someone else—hell, she found me—but at least you’ll know it wasn’t us.”

Tod thought about his oldest brother. Thought about him coining the name Toad, always tripping him when he walked by, stealing his toys and breaking them even when Garret was way too old for them. Thought about him talking about his time in Iraq with a gleam in his eyes. Thought about his fat ass taking up space in the house whenever Tod decided to visit Mom.

Tod finally answered. “It’s o.k., man. Just get Zak to do it. And keep it painless.”

“Always, man. You know that’s our thing.”

“Listen, Whippet, I appreciate your stretching your own professional code and reaching out to me. It’s a nice thing.”

“No problem, Tod; like I said, you’re a valuable person to the organization and a good guy. You take care.”

Tod hung up and went into the kitchen. He finally made his grilled cheese and sat down to eat it with a Coke while he started a new book. After a few pages, he gave up and put down the book. He stared out the window for a few minutes, and finally shook his head. As he rinsed off his plate, he thought, whatever else happens, I’m never going grocery shopping on Monday afternoon again, that’s for damn sure. Messes up the whole week.


Kay Summers is an emerging fiction author with a 20+ year career in communications. She’s written on behalf of others for so long that she started writing fiction to make sure she still had a voice. She does. 


“Finding Shadows in the Fire” Dark, Historical Fiction by R.P. Serin

He looked towards the group. Their faces gleamed with excitement as they piled wood, torn from surrounding market stalls, onto the rising pyre. John, the respected Apothecary, well-loved husband and father, then turned his gaze to Emma, the local healer and confidant whose public humiliation was rapidly spiralling out of control.

Generalised insults had turned into something more specific, more dangerous.

     Witch.

Her composure contrasted starkly with the baying crowd. Many were neighbours, some had been friends; none had helped when Thomas Cottrell accused her of blasphemy and slander.

A witness had described how, on the morning of the accusation, he had heard a man’s voice – raised in anger – thundering from Emma’s cottage. Cottrell had then come storming out ‘furious and red faced.’

Emma contested the charge of blasphemy but admitted calling Cottrell a despicable old coot. She said that he had visited her cottage, insisting she produce a charm that would conceal, from his wife, the unwanted advances he made towards his young housemaid. She had refused.

The magistrate yawned several times as he’d listened to Emma give her defence before taking mere minutes to find her guilty on both counts.

 ‘It would usually be the case,’ he’d said, suddenly appearing more alert, ‘that a woman such as yourself, who finds it fitting to use her vicious tongue against a man of good standing, would be plunged into the river’s icy water for a number of times determined by myself. This, however, is not what the fates have in store for you.’

 Without further clarification, he’d then ordered Emma to be taken away until proceedings began the following day.

That night the ale-house had been teeming with patrons; most of whom had been toiling in the dry heat of the foundry, or in the dusty recesses of the mines. Now they were buzzing; intoxicated by the flowing beer and anticipation for the grim events to come.

John had been discussing Emma’s plight with a friend. The landlord had been stood nearby for much of the evening, clearly taking an interest in the conversation. As John’s friend began pondering the possible nature of Emma’s punishment, he had interjected suddenly, seemingly unable to contain himself any longer. ‘Ther’ll be no ducking tomorrow’, he’d said, telling them what they already knew. ‘From what I ‘eard the stool’s been decimated by a plague of woodworm that would of made old Moses squirm. Luckily,’ the landlord continued with grim enthusiasm, ‘a clergyman got this new thing when he been up to York: The Scold’s Bridle. I’ve seen it too an a fearsome looking thing it is. The wretch’s face is locked in an iron cage, an a gag goes right in ‘er mouth, holding ‘er tongue so she canna speak.’

John, who’d been feeing increasingly queasy, downed his ale, making some feeble excuse to leave.

The pungent smell of sweat and ale had given way to the stench of rotting food, animal dung, and human slurry but John had felt grateful for the quiet of the street outside.

It was a different place now, among this seething crowd; this senseless organism that could bark insults, throw rotten food and spit, but achieve little else.

Just a few moments before, Emma had been led down the gentle slope of Chapel Street, towards the busy square; towards the whipping-post that had been carefully assembled that very morning.

When she’d first come into view, the bridle straddling her face like the black claw of some unspeakable creature, the muttering crowd had fallen momentarily silent. Mouths gaped. Eyes widened. The curb-bit, holding Emma’s tongue in place, prevented any riposte to her persecutor’s debasements. Still, she’d moved her eyes about the crowd, holding the gaze of the minority who didn’t look away. Such resoluteness would come as no surprise to those who knew her.

Her husband, Philip Dryden, had died of Smallpox some eight-years prior, leaving Emma widowed at thirty-five. The owner of a modest plot of fertile land, he had been able to afford the some of the best physicians in the county, though none had been able to halt the diseases progression.

John had also been asked to help, more, he’d suspected, out of desperation than anything else. Emma was quite capable of providing any care that Philip needed. Not only did she have expertise in archaic folk-medicine, passed down through generations, she had also mastered the formal medicine of which John was a licenced practitioner. People from all levels of society sought her help, and often in preference to the more official channels.

Even John had sought her advice from time to time; she’d once cured his daughter of a fever that had been frighteningly similar to that which had taken the life of his young son just six months before.

The evening air was heavy and thick, and the July sun, which had shone brightly all day, showed no signs of relenting.

John looked over to the church, which loomed authoritatively above the crowd, another spectator to Emma’s ongoing ordeal. It glowed brightly as if on fire; stone and slate reflecting the dazzling sunlight. He turned towards the other side of the street, preferring to seek refuge in the shadows, where timber buildings tilted ominously over the street below.  

‘She’s an abomination,’ a woman cried, plucking him from his sombre reflections. ‘No wonder she’s barren: it’s what you get for doing the Devil’s work’.

‘Familiars. I seen her talking to Familiars,’ shrieked an over-excited man, who John could not locate within the pulsating crowd.

‘That disgusting mongrel of ‘ers, that’s one, I know it,’ the woman replied.

Most of those shouting out had been more than happy to visit Emma when they were in need. Hypocrites. John’s stomach churned as he thought about them, these flawed individuals, plaguing Emma with ludicrous denunciations. Emma wasn’t perfect, but she was no worse than anybody here, and probably better than most.

Some viewed her as nothing more than an unsociable widow; whispering snide remarks as she’d walk past them in the street. Her intelligence, self-sufficiency only added to their disdain. Her knowledge of their most intimate secrets, which they had willingly shared, added to their fear.

Once at the square the bridle had been removed. Then she had been secured to the post.

If the crowd had wanted to hear her cries, they were to be disappointed. As each lash had connected with her exposed back, all that could be heard was the sound of leather meeting flesh, and a barely audible grunt; not the loud expressions of suffering which were apparently being hoped for.

It was at this point, as if unsatisfied with this subdued conclusion, that the cries of ‘gossiping whore’ and ‘pig’ had started to be replaced with something else.

Witch.

Like a festering mould, these isolated mutterings began to spread. The crowd demanded more. Emma’s dignified defiance was not enough.

The pyre was nearly complete, and if Emma had thought that somebody might help, then such hope must have been creeping quickly away. She hadn’t been charged with the crime of which she was now being accused, and she had not been sentenced to this. Such legal technicalities were immaterial however, as those with the authority to stop the escalating violence looked passively on.

There must have been others who felt as he did, but none were speaking out. John raged silently against the crowd until he realised, with sickening clarity, that he wasn’t speaking out either.

He hadn’t thrown anything, and he hadn’t shouted vile taunts, he’d just been an observer, not considering himself a part of Emma’s torment. But in a way he was worse. As spontaneous as it had seemed, the building of the pyre had been a choice. Remaining silent, as the horror unfolded, had been a choice too.

As Emma was taken from the whipping post and trussed to the stake – which towered dismally over the timber heap like some murderous oppressor – John, thinking of innocence and guilt and shame, walked quietly away. He could smell the wood as it began to burn. It entangled his spirit like a hideous mass of sweetly fragranced thorns, piercing his cowardly attempts at denial. Then, rising from the crackle of the flames, he heard Emma as she finally started to scream. He didn’t turn to look. Instead, he hung his head and continued home, to his wife, and to his daughter – whose life Emma had once saved.


“Finding Shadows in the Fire” was originally published in Horrified Magazine (March 2021). 


R.P. Serin was born in 1981. He lives in the UK with his wife and two children and has worked in the NHS as an Operating Department Practitioner for over 15 years. In 2018 he graduated from the Open University with a 1st class Honours Degree in History. He writes fiction and non-fiction, which has been published in: ‘Horrified Magazine’, ‘Sirens Call Ezine’, ‘Zobo with a Shotgun Website’, ‘Evolution of Horror’ Website’, ‘Between These Shores Literary and Arts Annual’, ‘Literally Stories’, ‘Storgy Magazine’, and ‘The Teatles Fanzine’. He was diagnosed with Autism in 2019.

rpserin.com

https://twitter.com/rpserin


“Last Call at the Divina Comedia” Dark, Hyper-Real Fiction by Alan Catlin

Virgil stopped and spoke, “Where we’re going is a drinking man’s ultimate dream: a bar where it’s always happy hour, where the drinks are free, and there is no closing time.  I’ll bet you didn’t think such a place actually existed.”

“Not in this life.” I said.

I thought I heard him laugh, but I couldn’t be sure.  Maybe he was simply clearing his throat; taking a deep breath for the final push into the darkness.

“Make sure you stay close, now.  We’re almost there.  I wouldn’t want to lose you now.”

“I suppose I shouldn’t look back either.”

“Sure, you can, if you want to.  No point in it, though.  There’s nothing to see.”

Nothing to see.  Truer words have never been spoken.

He pushed against something in the darkness.  A door gave way from the wall, and he ushered me inside.

“Watch your step.” He said.

And I stepped inside.  The door closed behind me without a sound.  I looked back where the entrance should have been, but I could not see anything resembling a door.  It was as if the wall had sealed itself, the way a wound would, without leaving the slightest trace of scab or scar.

“So, what do you think?” Virgil asked. 

“It’s tough to tell.  The light in here is very strange.”  And indeed, it was.  A strobe light flashed on and off at regular intervals. It was a kind of black light and its source was from somewhere behind the bar.  Consequently, the place seemed colorless and featureless at first.  Like a black and white movie image that had failed to fully clarify.

“Don’t you be worrying about that none. ” He was saying.

“Careless and trouble free, is that it?”

“That’s the spirit.”

“Ever it be so humble…”

“Something like that.”

“So, what’s this place called?”

“I call it the Divina Comedia but it really doesn’t have a name.  Doesn’t really need one.  Call it whatever you like.  Grab a drink.  Don’t be shy.  See, there’s one on the bar for you waiting to go.”

I looked, and I saw that he was right.  It was my brand.  The right mix and it burned all the way down when I took a good, long swallow.  It could be worse than this. A whole hell of a lot worse.

“Take a look around.  Make yourself at home.  We’re all friends here.”

I certainly hope so, I thought, as I slugged about half of my tall drink down, and placed it on the bar.  There didn’t seem to be anyone back there making drinks, but there must have been.  The next time I looked at my drink it was filled to where it has been before I had taken my first long swallows.

“What’s with the flashing neon?” I asked.

“Atmosphere.”

“I hope you don’t have too many epileptics among the regulars.  That constant flashing would have them on the floor rock and rolling like an old-time revival band.”

“They will do that for you.”

“The constant flashing doesn’t get on your nerves?” 

“Nope. You get used to it.”

“Nothing gets on your nerves, is that it?”

“Pretty much.”

“I don’t see how I could get used to something like that.”

“Don’t trouble yourself.  You’d be surprised what you can get used to when you try.  Put your mind at ease and enjoy the sights, and sounds, and, the free drinks.  Take a look around.  Make yourself at home.”

If this was to be my home away from home, I thought, it was going to be a long, strange, drawn-out affair.  At first, focusing was difficult due to the nature of the interior lighting.  Although the bar was oddly quiet, you couldn’t help but sense the presence of the other drinkers; the other patrons along the long expanse of the wood.  I wondered who had designed this magnificent hand planed surface, who maintained the surface, and kept it waxed, oiled, and hopefully, free of permanent damage from distracted smokers, graffiti carvers; the careless, and the bereft.

The first person I saw was a small, aged man, almost completely bald, wisps of greasy hair lying askew across his bald spot.  It was difficult to see his face in the haphazard light.  His shadowy form was enveloped in a haze of smoke and dust, as if the light source were from a projectionist’s booth, and the life illuminated, was a flickering form disrupted as soon as it assumed a shape. 

What was clear was, his back was permanently stooped, hunched around the shoulders as he sat before a jukebox selector. The cards indicating the song selections were laminated in yellowed plastic stained so badly the hand typed words could not be read.  Each card contained eight selections, both A&B sides. The pages could be turned by flipping the selections, one after the other, using small metal rods affixed to the bottom of each page. The whole card assembly was encased inside a small, glass cage smudged, dirty, and greasy with an accumulation of filth only an untold amount of human contact could bring. 

The man was transfixed by the device, and was driven to continually place the same quarter in the coin slot at the very top of the machine. The coin traveled the length of the machine, clanging as it went, until it settled noisily into the coin return where it was retrieved, then dropped into the coin slot, and the whole process began anew.  Time after time after time.

“It’s what he does.” Virgil said, as if he were reading my mind. “No point in trying to change things you can’t control.”

No point at all, I thought.

A few stools down from the old man, sat a fat woman of indeterminate age, dressed in a filthy, hopelessly out-of-date house dress.  The woman was crying noiselessly, not crying so much as weeping, with an intensity so complete, I wondered what it could be she was hearing from the two skinny men sitting on either side of her. Their hands were cupped to an ear on either side of her head, whispering loudly, but inaudibly to everyone but her.  The tears rolling down the fat of her cheeks, onto the wattles of her neck, sliding further down to stain the fabric of her faded dress.  And the whispering.  Always the whispering.

I turned to face the bar, cradling my tall drink between my hands.  I noticed a circular, slightly raised platform to the left of the back bar mirrors, on which a cage was placed.  Inside the cage was a young female dancer swathed in white bandages as if she were a burn patient, or a mummy whose exposed skin had been covered by white baby powder. Except for her face; that impassive face, coated with black grease paint. And false eyelashes teased unnaturally long; her unnaturally red lips, and her all too white teeth filed to a point. 

I couldn’t say for sure if what her body was doing could be called dance.  Movement yes, but dance?   Whatever it was she was hearing, came from within; a silent inner music, dissonant and mournful, slowly transferred from her brain to her outer limbs.  Limbs that slowly translated the cranial impulses into a sluggish, mechanical movement.  The pediment she stood upon seemed to give off a kind of damp, dank effusion, a soft glow that served no real purpose, neither illuminating her body, nor emphasizing what it might be doing.

Reflexively, I looked in the back bar mirrors to see what had made a noise behind me in the darker corners removed from the bar.  What I saw there disturbed me more than a sudden noise in an unfamiliar place did; the mirrors were alternately concave, convex panels, horribly distorting, and absorbing all the objects that fell within their purview.  The glass oxidized, and unclear in places, crowded with smoke, and, shadows, and the unfiltered dust.

Beside the bottles, an ancient, hand crank, ornately designed cash register.  A NO SALE ticket prominently displayed inside the glass fronted space for the recorded transactions.  A hand lettered sign on either side of the cash machine that said HAPPY HOUR PRICES IN EFFECT: FREE FROM NOW UNTIL…?

Now Until….?, seemed suitably vague.  As vague as the indefinable shape behind the wood.  I tried to focus on what the unmoving form might have been, but it remained immobile, fixed as a cigar store Indian. I saw a human figure, cloaked in a long-sleeved white shirt with a black garter around the sleeves to keep the cuffs stationery.  And then I saw carved wooden cigars in its out-thrust hands.  The fake, faded headdress and the folds of the tribal gear made from animal pelts covering the body. 

I drank deeply, closed my eyes, and tried to clear my head. 

When I opened my eyes, the vision was gone, replaced by a small fun house clown rotating on a metal axis that rocked back and forth, laughing at something so unimaginably funny, nothing could stop the laughter.  The silent, wild laughter.

I hoped that if I drank enough, closed my eyes, and, looked again, this vision too would no longer be there.  I might think that, might temporarily be relieved of seeing them before me, but the relief would be temporary. I knew that anything I imagined seeing was sure to remain, and fixed in my memory and subject to recall without notice.

Even the young, thin woman dressed in a clinging black evening dress, hunched over the bar, sipping a frothy white drink through a long, plastic straw.  Her unnaturally pale skin, sepia tainted by the light, when there was light, oddly present as an after-image, when there was not.  I felt drawn to her, but I couldn’t say why, couldn’t begin to imagine what would happen if I acted on my impulsive attraction.  All things here being equal and opposed, black as white, white as the black foam of her drink; the strange evanescence of her skin in the encapsulating dark.

I turn from the solitary woman, to look at the other patrons sitting at randomly spaced intervals along the bar.  Collectively, they look like Dust Bowl pioneers, refugees from a Steinbeck novel like Grapes of Wrath; their shabby clothes, thin cotton jackets, and pants losing threads, torn and tattered from years of traveling, hard work and abuse.  All their shoes were careworn, lost soles, holes where their feet showed through what remained of the leather.  I thought of the Dust Bowl poet and how she saw, with unflinching eyes, the hordes of the hopeless struggling against the wind, the dust storms, the heat and privation, struggling Westward to a promised land that became just like where they left only with grass and clear skies, instead of dust and infertile plains. 

I thought of how they would discover more unrewarding, back breaking work, for insufficient wages, they would piss away in a place like this, hunched over a bar.  A bar that would stink to high heaven of human sweat, rancid beer, and defeat.  I thought of the last their few nickels rubbed together, as if somehow there might be luck in it, but all that ever happened was a faceless man behind a bar removed them one after the other in exchange for another, not-cold-enough, tasteless beer. A beer that increased the despair they felt, that hung about them as an extra layer of skin.  

They no longer possessed the ability to dream of a better place. Their posture, their demeanor, everything about what they did and did not do, was reflected in their slow, determined, dedicated-to-a-cause-like-no-other, drinking.  If they had been drinking for free, the way I had been, it certainly did not show in their mannerisms, the way they turned to look at me as one; their tired, dead eyes inset amid darkened shadows in the leanness of their face and bones.  A look that was so far beyond life, even death wouldn’t qualify it. 

If I were capable of feeling horror, and, of showing it, I would have done so then.  Instead, I turned toward an odd, disruptive noise that came from a pinball machine. The way it was working was oddly fascinating. Despite not having someone to work the push buttons, the flippers and levers, the metal ball traveled the intricate gridwork of the machine on its own, triggering flashing lights, and toting scores as it went.  The face of the machine briefly lit, and flared, revealing the face of a laughing carnival clown in a setting that suggested a Coney Island funhouse.

Just as I began to have a sense of the machine, it would stop dead and the steel ball would roll unmolested through the board maze. TILT would register in large capital letters on the board.  Just as abruptly the machine self-started and the lights would begin flashing again, a dizzying momentary glowing that would fizzle out in mid-turn. It was as if a crazy, unseen spirit, had been playing. There was no doubt in my mind that he was winning whatever game this was.  

Then I hear the hollow sound of heavy, wooden darts sinking into the pitted cork of the boards the players threw their missiles at.  They were keeping score with chalk on a board that squeaked as they drew the odd shaped numbers on it. Their uncut nails slide across the skin of the chalk, and the board, and the face of the dart board, as they played, and threw, and watched. Boldly, they drew concentric circles in the false black lights of these neon dreams, and sudden alcoholic reveries of places like this one. Places thrust open, to admit a ravening crowd, the native sons and daughters of the night game players, mole people and worm runners, fully blood lusted and raring to go wherever the next cocktail will take them; even if where they are going is well past the point of no return. 

That’s where they’ll find me now. Now that I’ve seen the contents of the self-portrait in oiled cloth on the barroom wall. That painted visage framed in spoiled wood, stained with blood, and alcohol, and tears, gold flecked, in places, to contain the perfect image of the penitents’ bearing torches down the side of a volcanic mountain at near-dusk.  The procession leading the unseen spirits from their graves to walk again, on hollowed grounds, inside the sulfuric tainted mists that cling to the blue blackened sky; the red sun sunken into itself behind the black mass of volcanic stone.  Those torches borne, as weights, that can never be successfully removed from the chained hands of the living and the dead, chanting as they come and go. The seen and the unseen, animated as I watch, as I try to read the caption inscribed in gold plate that says Los Dias de los Muertos.

What else could it say?

Nada, hermano.

I look back toward the bar, and there I am behind it, raising my carved hands in a  toast to the drinkers here, there, and everywhere else.  And here I am in the dark of the barroom, returning the gesture, touching glass to glass with others, I have known, or, will come to know. Tilting the one that matters, the one that holds my flavor that I must drink; drink, and drink, and drink from until I can drink no more. 


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.


“Quetzalcoatl Comet” Dark, Historical Fiction by Titus Green

He looks out across his resplendent city in the glowing sunrise and sees the sacred sun silhouette the Temple of Tlaloc and Huītzilōpōchtli. Will the latter god save them from the annihilation in his recent dreams, or had the war god grown sick of the priests’ gifts of gory hearts and flayed corpses? Had he decided to do the unthinkable and abandon the Mexica to darkness, famine and extinction? The dawn sun basks the sky in a fiery orange. The water of Texcoco scintillates in the light, and the causeways reach out to the world beyond Tenochtitlan, from where the strangers with metal skin and moveable volcanoes for weapons will deceive him and raze his kingdom to the ground.

Sleep has been impossible for weeks. He has shifted restlessly in his royal chamber, dismissing his concubines when they call. His only desire has been to watch Tenochtitlan through the ominous night and keep a vigil over his domain, which is vulnerable to a permanent darkness and damnation should the gods indeed desert them and approve the end of the world. So, he watches, hearing the waking, squawking cacophonies of the myriad birds in his multiple menageries across the metropolis. Why do they cry out so? Why are they agitated? Why do they wake the soldiers, the priests, the artisans, the merchants, the slaves and the sacrifices who want to be fresh and rested when they climb the temple steps, prostrate themselves and face the obsidian blade?

However, he knows only too well that creatures recognize danger more acutely than men and that the force bearing down on the city is pregnant with terrible significance. Watching the brilliant glowing orb in the sky, he trembles. The benevolent Tonatiuh lives again, and gifts them power and life—but for how long will this birth, death and rebirth cycle last? His life had convinced him it was infinite, but his dreams suggested it was finite.

Then it appears. The massive, blindingly brilliant light bursts out of the womb of the sky and streams across the heavens. Its huge head glows more brightly than the sun, and its fiery tale stretches for miles. It assumes the form of the flaming serpent he’s revered from birth. Quetzalcoatl has returned, roaring across the sky! He was coming for his kingdom, and he, Moctezuma II the mere mortal ruler, would not stand in the way of the God of the West, the Patron of Priests and Creator of the Heavens and the Earth. Then he hears Quetzalcoatl roar, and his bellowing shakes the earth, terrifies the air and scatters the birds in the sky. The caged parakeets squawk and the captive jaguars growl as His Lordship grows bigger and brighter. From below his balcony, Moctezuma hears a collective wail from the population of the city. A deafening lament that sounds like the earth pleading for mercy reverberates across the temple-tops, reaches out across the waters and hits the mountains on the horizon. Then, to his dismay, the fiery serpent in the sky passes the sun, Tonatiuh, and hurtles on towards an unknown place with its vast, smoky feathered plume streaking the sky. Quetzalcoatl was not stopping. He was abandoning the Mexica and its citizens to oblivion.

“The end is coming. We are doomed!” 

The words eject from his lips, but he is not even sure whether his mind has chosen them. It is as though they had been sent by a higher force in the cosmos, an intermediary of destiny’s gods serving his people.

A gust of wind chills Moctezuma and numbs his body. Trembling, he turns around and returns to his chamber. When, he wonders, will the terrible darkness come? So far, his nightmares have not given up this secret.

***

He dreads sleep, which has delivered the same cyclical nightmare for more than a year. Each time he drops into the underworld, he sees the four brothers of time facing him on top of the mighty pyramid, far away, that he knows well. The Avenue of the Dead extends below them, and the baleful silhouettes of their freakish bodies glow in the dawn. They always torment him at sunrise. In this particular nightmare however, there is some variation. Whereas before, the brother gods communicated their vision of Mexica’s destruction with indifference, he notices this time the curling, sneering lips and glints in the eyes behind their garish, bestial masks. They regard him now with weariness and contempt, this feeble-minded, mortal worm obliged to do their bidding. They seem finished with Man, through with providing their celestial favours and now appear committed to nothing more than satisfying their primordial lusts in the heavens.

In the dream, Moctezuma speaks with these haughty, vicious gods and their conversation always comes to the same futile conclusion.

“Huītzilōpōchtli, oh god of war, I implore you,” he pleads. “Grant us your power again. Inspire the brave, give us victory and an eternity of suns and I will feed you more blood and flesh than ever before. You will never know hunger again!”

“Silence!” snarls the deity of death. The rasping voice cuts through the air and makes the king freeze in awe. It is the voice of millennia that has intimidated the immortals. Reptilian hisses come at the end of his speech.

“I do not want your tributes. Your people are parasites and you are a coward!”

The god of war’s muscular blue torso is filthy with blood and a net-sack full of severed human heads hangs from his waist. Their faces look bewildered, as if this monster puzzled his victims to death with riddles before butchering them. The warrior deity raises his huge macuahuitl and points it towards him and shakes the weapon. Its blades are caked in matted blood.

Then Xipe Totec, god of the vegetation and spring, leers at him with a crooked smile that reveals his obsidian fangs soaked in blood. His head-dress of giant turquoise feathers towers over him, and his face is covered by the top half of a human skull. He wears the coat of a young warrior’s skin and grasps a golden mace in his claw and begins to move his limbs up and down in a hideous dance like a marionette. He says nothing but points his talon at Moctezuma and wiggles it provocatively and begins to cackle in a high pitch reminiscent of a forest bird. Moctezuma knows this god has no need of words. Xipe Totec feeds on Moctezuma’s terror of the future; the dread he feels about the fate of his people excites this cruel, corrupted creature of Mexica minds who had starved and fed them capriciously for centuries in exchange for hearts torn from chests and oceans of blood. Is this all our gifted lives meant to this wretched, debased freak? Laughter? Xipe Totec hears his insulting, blasphemous thought and emits a shrill and furious cry. He shudders at the god’s flared nostrils and the glare behind the eye sockets of the skull. Totec reaches behind his back and hurls a spear at him which, according to the character of this dream, becomes a serpent in midair.

“Why do you come here, oh sleepless, anxious one?” It is Quetzalcoatl who asks this, with his long dragon snout pointing upwards. His huge white breastplate is smeared with gore and he reeks of rotting bodies.

“I need…answers,” says the emperor.

“But did you not see the comet? Are you blind to the obvious?” Quetzalcoatl’s voice is deep and melodious. It echoes across the expanse of Moctezuma’s mind and lingers in his past. Why had he never heard this voice, supposedly belonging to the Mexica’s great cosmic guide, in the waking world? Why had he been silent for so long? Where had it been when they had marched the doomed captives past the spire that they had erected to revere him? Why had he not bellowed his gratitude when the priests’ hands tore into the chests of the young, the old, and the beautiful and gripped those beating, incarnadine hearts?

“Answers?” The Feathered Serpent god is amazed. The knobbly, scaly skin on his face makes a shrivelled mask of incomprehension. A crow perched on his shoulder caws, and the god’s tail flexes and slaps the ground. He gives a dispiriting laugh, and Moctezuma fears the forthcoming speech, even though he knows it well by now.

“How can I answer you, you fool? I don’t exist!” He looks towards his brothers of the North, East, South and West. “We don’t exist!” Huītzilōpōchtli nods to support this devastating statement, and the ruler of Mexica’s spirits ebb away once more. “Your foolish ancestors planted our deeds in your minds. They embellished nature’s powers with our grandiose names. They imagined us, just as you are doing. We are fictions.”

“Save us from darkness. I beseech you!” cries Moctezuma. 

Xipe Totec emits a wheezing laugh and Quetzalcoatl shakes his head in resignation like a teacher giving up on a difficult pupil. He looks over to Tezcatlipoca, the fourth god or Smoking Mirror, and gives a nodded signal. This is the prelude to the climax of these dreams that puts him into a frenzy of fear, for this is when the most intimidating of all the gods gives him fleeting visions of his future and that of his people. Tezcatlipoca, the god of magic, looks terrifying and magnificent in his costume. His headdress of black and yellow feathers, combined with his turquoise mask, make him appear like a peacock that flies between the worlds of above and below bearing the misery and happiness of mortals on his wings. Black stripes cross his skull-white face, and a white necklace of skulls lies on his muscular shoulders and there, in the centre of his chest, is the circular black obsidian mirror whose glinting surface reflects such terrible scenes that make the king shake with fear and wake in the night screaming with his aristocratic sweat soaking his sheets.

“Look, come and see,” calls Smoking Mirror telepathically. Moctezuma feels the familiar power drawing him towards the god whose eyes now glow behind the mask. “Come,” repeats the seductive, hypnotic voice. Resistance is impossible in these dreams, and the king surrenders to the timeless force once again. He floats towards the rays of light and through the glowing sockets behind the mask and is surrounded by the vast, infinite blackness of the universe. Before, when faced by the void at this point in the nightmare, he had seen the reassuring gaze of infinite Ometeotl upon him with his eyes composed of stars. The presence of the suns had been the one comforting part of these terrible journeys in his sleep. Now there is nothing but an impenetrable darkness surrounding him, and he gasps. Suddenly he is projected out through Tezcatlipoca’s eyes, through tunnels of swirling colours, and he is back in his former position, facing the hostile gods again. The risen sun now accentuates their hideous forms, filling them with shadows. They have never been more menacing. They are ebony demons baying for his downfall. In the place where Tezcatlipoca stood, there is now a large black disk. From its centre, he sees the dreaded misty glow forming and the palpitations of Moctezuma’s heart make his chest cavity throb. Now it is time for the show of visions and the entrance of Smoking Mirror’s prophecy!

The glow grows brighter and sharper and begins to shimmer, and soon it engulfs the black circle of the mirror. He is now on top of Huēyi Teōcalli, the city’s temple of Tlaloc and Huītzilōpōchtli, surveying a gruesome panorama. A torrent of blood gushes down the temple’s sacrificial steps and collects in a gutter at the bottom of the structure, and from there it flows into Tenochtitlan’s main canal. Blood fills all the architectural arteries of the city, floating boats of decaying maize and slaughtered passengers. Vultures are everywhere, perched on the tops of temples, the window ledges of homes, and the stone icons protruding from the walls of the civic buildings. Their feathers are coated in gore, and their talons are loaded with human carrion. Their coarse screeches carry across the city, but the rest of Tenochtitlan’s birds are silent. Most ominously, the dream sky is a dark, dirty, smoky grey which smothers the sun. No rays can pierce it or bring any warm fragments of hope to this nightmare, which has slammed its pitiless message of Mexica’s oblivion into his senses forevermore. This time, however, the sky is darker than ever.

Then he hears the low, glottal human sound in the distance; it is omnidirectional. It is a tormented groan which encapsulates the city and reverberates throughout its flagstones and temple-tops, carrying its harrowing cry of suffering for miles. It emanates from a ubiquitous source. It carries from the mouth of Tōnatiuh himself, implacable and omnipotent at the centre of the Sun Stone which sits in a relief carved into the wall of the opposite temple. It rises from beneath the cracks in the pavestones, from behind the ornate doors of the unseen nobles and from the glossy, muscular rock of the mountains beyond the water.

In the distance, he sees them beyond the floating gardens at the start of the causeway. There is a vast throng of bloody corpses assembled, standing with patience and purpose, their glowing yellow eyes glowering at him. The procession begins to move across the causeway, edging slowly and gradually towards the temple. When it is nearly halfway across, he appreciates its magnitude. It reaches back for miles, a column thick with butchered bodies that begin to move. The cadavers do not walk but slouch forward with heavy strides while groaning in sync through open mouths. He notices the glistening flayed bodies and feels the peculiar nausea: as emperor in the conscious world, seeing one Tepanec prisoner after another torn open at the summit of this temple to the accompaniment of beating drums and priestly incantations evoked neither revulsion nor excitement but ennui; after a while, witnessing each sacrifice became as stale as the taste of the limbs he was obliged to eat. Yet sleep accentuated the vividness and energy of these scenes and he saw them with a clarity not present while awake. When he looked at the distressed, dismembered victims of his culture’s pantheon shuffling towards him en masse with the wounds in their chests festering, and the skinless flesh of the most unfortunate ones rotting, he recognized in––and only in––this didactic dream the concept he had hitherto not known in his life as a potentate: suffering.

The march of the sacrificed has now reached the temple, and as it passes him below, all of its participants turn their heads, or their skulls, towards the noble at the top of the temple and express their silent curse. Moctezuma II knows what to expect next, and on cue the meteor of guilt now crashes down on him, flattening his royal immunity from the consequences of his ancestors’ three-hundred-year legacy of purchasing Tōnatiuh’s solar protection with human hearts.

“It was the will of the gods!” he cries in an effort to placate their anger.

“Impostor! Traitor! Animal and thief of life!” comes the deafening, chorused reply of the no-longer-silent mass of moving dead. He sees the flayed and beheaded rising from the soil of the chinampa gardens and from the blood canals to join the demonstration. Now, the dream takes, if it were possible, a more disturbing direction as the bloody, mutilated mob is succeeded by a new generation of Mexican dead following behind. These chanting corpses have not been cut open or cut up, but their emaciated bodies are coated with hideous sores that weep as they lurch forward. They do not look at the emperor but merely stare ahead with glazed eyes, too weak and wasting to show anger. They look fit only for death, again and again. Over and over.

The number of the diseased dead is greater than the sacrificed, and the pestilential procession staggering across the causeway reaches back almost to the mountains but finally the last column of his doomed subjects starts to cross the bridge into the city. They are pursued by the most terrifying elements of these dreams, which are the mysterious foreigners with silver skin, strange weapons, baffling flags and extraordinary creatures. The fundamental difference between this cluster of entrants to Tenochtitlan and that which preceded it is that the men within it are very much alive. Moctezuma sees him again. The sallow-faced, hook-nosed, bearded man with the silver head at the front of the column points to Moctezuma from the center of the causeway, and at that moment a part of the dream occurs that was not in its previous iterations. The bright, brilliant comet of that morning whistles through the filthy sky followed by its smoky tail. In place of its head, he does not see the serpentine face of Quetzalcoatl however, but an ominous symbol consisting of two bisecting red lines, with the vertical line longer than the horizontal.

This comet, unlike the one that had appeared in reality that morning in the azure sky above the metropolis, does not pass over them and continue its trajectory. It lands in front of the temple and erupts in a giant sphere of fire, sending blazing debris in all directions. The assembly of the sacrificed and infected below reacts with anger. Thousands of aggrieved voices accuse in unison, calling the emperor a murderer and a traitor. He then notices a large pile of jagged stones in front of the temple steps. In it there are flints, pieces of quartz and, of course, deadly sharp slates of obsidian. Many in the multitude now reach for these and use them as missiles, hurling them at him with superhuman, catapultic force. As the first stone strikes him in the forehead, he screams and suddenly he is awake and upright in his bed shaking and sweating heavily while his traumatized concubine staggers out of the bed and runs down the corridor screaming for help.

***

“They are coming, Your Highness,” whispers the court official into the left side of the divine ruler’s face. The official has interrupted a meeting of elders: a cabinet of conquerors counselling the emperor on tactics for a new campaign to terrify and exploit upstart new states beyond their borders that have dared to defy their demands for human tribute. They are also discussing new raids on Teotihuacan and Alcoman because the crops have been failing and the gods have never been thirstier.

“Where are they now?” he asks, taking a gulp of chocolate from a golden goblet.

“They are on the other side of the lake approaching the causeway, Your Highness,” answers the official, who withdraws at the emperor’s signal.

The news makes him apprehensive, although he has been prepared to receive it for months after hearing the reports of the floating mountains cutting through the ocean off the coast of Yucatan. The apprehension then becomes a heavier, more crippling dread. The very words they have arrived seem cursed. Poisoned. Deadlier than blowpipe darts. The notion of greeting these troublesome travellers from afar evokes buried terror. As a boy he had once nearly drowned in the waters of the Texcoco. He remembers the helplessness as the salty water forced its way down his mouth and into his nostrils and the panic as he saw through the blurry filter of the water not only the fuzzy shapes of fish but the glowing and malevolent skull face of the death god Mictlāntēcutli smiling. A friend, and stronger swimmer than himself, saved him and allowed him to inherit his exalted adult life but that terrifying face intruded on many dreams and jolted him out of sleep often, until the more potent nightmare about the comet and procession of death replaced it. Now Mictlāntēcutli is clawing back into his consciousness once more.

He is at the head of his welcoming party, walking down the center of the vast causeway, which is exactly as it was in his dreams. However, the sun is high and blazing and the sky is clear, which encourages him. He declined both his litter and escort of jaguar knights because he did not want to convey the impression of indolence or insecurity to these trespassers, who they say are stirring up sedition in the vassal states. This will be a diplomatic encounter, he reasons, and nothing more. He told the treasury to prepare the gold objects that he heard they covet and ordered his concubines to scent their breasts and loosen their thighs. One week of hospitality, and with his celebrated charm, they will be on their way. And if not, well….

As the foreign party advances, and their forms and faces become more distinct, he recognizes the silver on their bodies and the creatures from another world that carry them. There, at the front of the column of beasts is the dream character with the hooked nose, beard and crafty eyes. The vast column of the dream is also there, except that it is not composed of the dead but thousands of living mercenaries from the rebellious states.

“No! Quetzalcoatl! Save us!” he blurts out. His aides look at him with bewilderment, believing the emperor is seeing the immortal deity leading the people approaching them on the causeway, and this conviction contaminates them with awe.

Moctezuma sees the four gods towering over the mountains, sneering, and then they are gone. Helplessness takes possession of him, and all he can do is watch his destiny dismount from its beast and approach him accompanied by a black-clad character, obviously from this man’s priest class, whose robe bears the symbol of the two red lines that decorated the comet’s face. Behind them, a Mexica woman in strange dress follows.

The bearded man walks up, bows and offers his hand. He then speaks in a language Moctezuma does not know.

“Greetings, Your Highness,” says the Mexica woman in Nahuatl. “I am Hernan Cortes, an emissary of the Spanish Crown.”


“Quetzalcoatl Comet” first appeared in The Collidescope in 2019.


Titus Green was born in Canada but grew up in the UK. His short fiction has appeared in numerous online and print magazines, including The Collidescope, Adelaide Literary Magazine, HORLA, Literally Stories, Sediments Literary Arts, Stag Hill Literary Journal, Sediments Literary Arts and others. He teaches English as a foreign language for a living.


“The Feverish Fast of Albert Drach” Dark, Surreal Microfiction by Karin Kutlay

It was the third day of Albert Drach’s fast. He had been eating null, inputting nought, defecating null, outputting nought. He was awaiting fever dreams to descend on him. He was awaiting descensions of the kind no one had known before, the way the sun’s sunset sets on the Polish Poppy Proletariat, intoxicated from hours with the black seed, who on their way home would imagine their wives had all slept with a purple fabric seller from Kiralyhida and poisoned their dinners. Albert Drach was awaiting such descensions.

And they did come unto him. (In parts.)

He threw his head back walking out of an ocean; his hair coalesced in one single strand splattering its salt water into a white sky and plopping on his back like a whip. He was groping pebbles in blue, black, and gray, crawling ahead in fast devolution from human form; this here rectangular rock larger than his palm and this here short shard of slippery volcanic vomit. He gasped for air as if his pastel pink lungs were fit for a muddy, pre-Cambrian ocean. Standing on a shore of pure stone, he looked ahead, and without a gaze could feel his nakedness, in waves emanating from his hips, not from shame or negation, but a viscous cold filling in his creaks.

Two and a half girls waited, leaning on layers of white rock squashed into each other for centuries. The half girl had one hand, only hand, in a gap in the wall – but no, it was more of a cliff looked from below, but no, it sharpened as it rose and stood alone, but no – and had her body asymmetrically made. Two feet and two calves and three quarters of a lower body and half a torso and one arm and one hand. It was an artist’s job, this, no sinew or stain in sight, everything perhaps unsuitable to the eye tucked inside a half-wet periwinkle dress. Albert Drach remembered not the name of the poet or the sculptor or the gynecologist, but remembered another immortal work of him, the god Elohim.

The other two sat in an awkward gang. Left girl had her legs crossed, again in periwinkle paper, ruffles rolling over boulders and bishop sleeves. Right girl held a Rodin pose, and a belt of red crepe paper encircled somewhere not her waist. Their faces pale and puffed, eyes small and round, hands fit for a life of craftsmanship at first sight, and after a thought, hands like those after a life of craftsmanship. Left spoke: “We were waiting for someone else.”


Karin is a sophomore studying Physics, from Turkey, and now living in California. She was long-listed for the 2022 Erbacce Poetry Prize, and this is her first published work.


“Teddy Bear” Dark Poetry by A.N. Rose

Teddy bear teddy bear
Cute as can be
Sitting on my dresser
Staring at me

Eyes of glass
Silently taunting
With a smile stitched shut
All the more haunting

A stare so frigid
As cold as the serrated blade
That drew fresh blood
Where we have laid

The only witness
To the end of your life
To the end of your pain
Your suffering and strife

I know I did the right thing...
You would've done it too,
Teddy Bear...
Wouldn't you?

Alex says about his background: “I am a freelance poet, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia with my beloved spouse and children. An enthusiast of everything thriller/horror related, when not writing, you can find me working in a nursing home. You can find my haiku on Instagram @hauntedhaiku82.”


Two Dark Poems by Travis Black: “May My Sorrows Comfort Me in my Time of Need” and “The Sound of a Train in the Distance”

May My Sorrows Comfort Me In My Time Of Need

Gazing out from the pane
Iridescent sky unfold, 

Boundless and eternal

Cold slumber
Pitch sable chamber, 

Sorrow’s grip
Black, icy, delicate and soothing, 

Embrace 
The Sound Of A Train In The Distance 

Metallic and firm
Spectral vision of time from afar, 

Cold and icy 
Apparition haunting hills and mountains, 

Phantom song 
Lyrical composition - sorrow and death, 

Time, 

Relentlessly and brutally, 

Marches 

On 

Travis J. Black (He/Him) is a gay poet, writer and visual artist living in Metro-Detroit Michigan. His work has appeared in Peeking Cat Poetry Magazine and the 200th anniversary book Determined Hearts: A Frankenstein Anthology. His work often explores the mysterious, imaginative and darker aspects of life. You can follow him on his author’s webpage at https://www.amazon.com/author/travisjblack


“No Rose without Thorns” Flash Horror by Madeleine D’Este

1. Rose oil

The body was face-down on the kitchen floor. A halo of blood on the polished concrete. A woman with blonde highlighted hair. Another single person household. No sign of forced entry. The only witness, a cat with bloody paws.

Before they turned the body, I knew what we’d find. For four years, I’d been dreaming about the others. The first one was January 14th 2018. Easy to remember, it was the day before my thirty-fifth birthday. Of course, I’d seen worse. Car accidents with nothing but red pulp left behind. But there was something about these bodies that made my skin itch. How many murders made a serial killer? This was number four.

Enticed, you tap. You draw closer to your lit-up screen. Run your hungry eyes over my inventory. Wet your lips as you dream of what my wares will bring. The promises and fantasies in a bottle I sell. But do not fear, I have the perfect one for you.

Your heart flutters as your mind drifts, how my scents on your dewy curvaceous skin will transform you. How intoxicating you will be. His hard gaze on you. His stubbled chin scraping up your neck. His throaty moans. The wolf who wants to eat you alive.

Which one will you choose? The Egyptian priestess, the femme fatale, the tragic heroine. Musk. Rose. Cedarwood. Jasmine. A whisper of romance. A hint of lust. A lingering presence to haunt his dreams.

Staring at your hand-held rectangle, you choose.

2. Jasmine

I didn’t notice at first, it was a pup of a Constable who mentioned it. He was standing in the doorway taking up room.

‘Stinks,’ he grumbled.

At first I ignored him. Thought he meant the blood, he was green after all, couldn’t have been more than a few weeks out of training. I don’t even notice the stink of blood now.

I sniffed and grimaced. ‘I can’t smell anything.’

‘Perfume,’ he said.

I sniffed again. He was right. A floral scent hung in the air.

‘Recognise it?’ I said.

‘Nah. Just hate the stuff.’

The choice is made, your coins tumble my way. But your gold is not my goal. You will make payment in other ways. Not every patron is special enough for my individual attention. I am too wildly popular for that, and far too clever.

As the names rush past my eyes on the screen, I carefully select those worthy to receive a personal touch. Your name jumps from all the others. You chose Fairy Queen. I know you, you covet light-heartedness, flirtation, magic. You see yourself as dull, unworthy and empty. A squirt of my fairy dust at your chubby wrists and ankles will rouse the wolves and bring fun tumbling your way.

Before my little elves package up your purchase, I add a drop of something special to the vial. A concoction so secret I cannot even breathe when I list the ingredients. Handed to me through dreams and trances, after years of fasting and genuflecting, I now have the answer. And today the answer is you.

Swiftly my present weaves through the world. Along roads, conveyor belts and on bikes until a woman in day-glo yellow delivers the small brown box to your door. After another grey day of disappointment and smudged mascara, my gift is a bright spot. You tear open the wrapping and sniff the vial. Across the city, my lips part as I wait for you to take the first spray. We both close our eyes in unison, and swoon as one.

All alone, you sip white wine in your sheepskin boots and dowse yourself in my scent. A smile graces your lips as you snuggle into the couch and I congratulate myself. Once again I have chosen perfectly. But I must be patient, and I know how to be patient. The dosage must be exactly right.

3. Cedar wood

It was the coroner who named the notes. ‘Rose, jasmine and cedar wood,’ he said, sucking air in through his big nostrils. After a twenty-year career surrounded by the stench of death, how he could pin-point the smells, I’ll never know.

‘You know it?’

He squinted, then blinked. ‘No,’ he said eventually.

‘Thanks for nothing,’ I snorted.

Another dead-end. Waste of my time. I went back to looking for proper evidence.

— 

You are greedy, I don’t have to wait long. You ripened exceptionally and three days was all it took. Entranced by the scent, you lather on more and more until your home is a cloud of fairy dust. You leave the door open for me. Of course I know where to find you, you told me yourself. I slide in through the door and you don’t even blink. Your tortoiseshell cat hisses as I stride toward you, my blade gleaming in the flickering television glow. You welcome me with a smile, then loll back your head, exposing your blotchy throat. With the silver tip, I carve you a new smile from ear to ear. I peel back the skin and scoop the nodes from your throat, taking away my treasure in a glass jar.

As you jerk and splutter, then roll face-down on the hard floor, I take back my gift and every trace of my fairy dust, and leave the cat to your blood.

Within the hour, I sup on you, the perfect garnish to my rich venison stew. I raise my glass and say a toast. Here’s to one more year.


Madeleine D’Este is a Melbourne-based writer, podcaster and reviewer. Inspired by folklore and forteana, D’Este writes dark mysteries, including steampunk, historical fantasy and vampire tales. Her novel The Flower and The Serpent was nominated for an Australian Shadow for Best Novel in 2019.

Find Madeleine at www.madeleinedeste.com or @madeleine_deste on Twitter


“Ghost” Dark Poetry by Julie Allyn Johnson

on a gauzy october breeze
tire swing sways
rubber-garbed 
guillotine ballet

sliver of moon perforates 
moldy gray clouds

curl of smoke streams
from brick-broken stack
though the old house
remains dark, shadowless

amber-red lights recede: 
a waning 747

amid rural dereliction
hoot owl punctures 
the hushed
reclusive night

gusty squalls spiral
north, then northwest

a chill intrusion, 
the mesmerizing 
yowl & snap
a frigid perpetuity

Julie Allyn Johnson, a sawyer’s daughter from the American Midwest, loves walks in the woods, gravel-travel, photography, poetry and hiking in the Rocky Mountains.  Her current obsession is tackling the rough and tumble sport of quilting.  Her poetry appears in various journals including The Briar Cliff Review and Phantom Kangaroo. 


“Billy the Killer and Martha Jean” Horror by Rachel Brands

The town outside has gone to hell, and I can’t find anything good to watch on TV. My options are never bountiful when I get off work this late, but The PiYo Craze from Beachbody! feels especially grim tonight.

I came home to find my poor answering machine overloaded with missed calls from my mother, most of which were likely made before she found out Billy Fillerton was running around town, chopping up our neighbors with a katana. I heard myself when a frantic teenager nearly drove a gold minivan through the glass doors of the hospital, seeking help for her mother, who was a pile of limbs and guts.

Polly came running up to me at that point and breathlessly asked if I had heard the news.

“Sure,” I said. “Somebody fucked up Mrs. Abernathy real good.”

Billy did,” Polly moaned. “He’s on a rampage! I mean, how do you not know?”

She then proceeded to show me several videos from her friends’ Instagram Live feeds, all of which showed a big, skulking figure cutting up our townspeople, whose screams populated the warm night air.

Figures. Polly was always getting reamed for being on her phone at work. Mine was carefully tucked away in my locker, like a professional.

“Oh, God, Martha Jean, what do we do?” Polly asked, tearfully.

I don’t know about any ‘we,’ but ‘I’ finished up my shift and went home. The hospital was surprisingly quiet for being in the middle of a town under duress. My guess is that Billy is finishing the job.

On my way out, I found the front desk empty and the discarded phone still on the line with the sheriff’s office. Jo must have booked it as soon as she heard. I hung up the phone and sprinted to my car with my pepper spray handy. Don’t think that’s on account of Billy. I always cross the parking lot like this after the late shift.

I didn’t stick around to see, but I hope Polly went home to her boring husband and squalling baby.

On the drive home, I listened intently for screams akin to those on the videos, but heard nothing. The only clue that anything was amiss was the squad car that went racing past me, sirens wailing. It’s times like these that make me wonder if maybe our town should’ve hired more than two cops.

I arrived home and ate ice cream straight out of the carton in my dark apartment while watching late night TV. The way I see it, Billy will come for me whether I want him to or not, and a bored, unruly part of me wants him to.

It’s that same demented curiosity that made our entire town line up on Main Street to get a first look at Billy after more than a dozen years in the slammer. A bunch of vultures, is what they are. I was so peeved when my boss wouldn’t give me the day off, so I could go.

I hear a noise and whip around, heart racing, but it’s only my air conditioner kicking on. In my fear, I squeeze the carton too tightly and now Neapolitan is dripping down my arm and onto my leather recliner. Cursing, I stumble into the kitchen to wash off in the sink. The running water coats not only my arm, but the stack of dirty dishes, and the backsplash wets my shirt. I hastily turn off the faucet and dry myself with a towel. I wonder if I made too much noise.

Not that it matters. I expect he will pay me a visit tonight and I’m strangely cavalier about it. I just wish I knew how he planned to make his entrance. Would he creep up on me in the night, or bash his way through the entire apartment complex to get to me? I don’t like surprises.

I’m tempted to peruse the socials for any clues on how Billy will approach, based on other townies’ experiences, but I stop myself. If I turn my cell on, I will be assaulted with the many texts and calls my mother has undoubtedly left for me over the course of the night. I’m sure she’s imploring me to take refuge with her and Daddy and the rest of my siblings at the farm, which is her go-to emergency plan for any disaster, such as when it rains too hard for her liking.

No, thank you. I’m good and fine right where I am, Ma, in the dark and all alone.

I putz around the kitchen for a bit, habitually checking the time on the stove, but detect no movement. Billy is taking his sweet time getting over here.

After I wear myself out pacing around the apartment, I give up and decide to crawl into bed. I’m tired and I don’t wait more than an hour for any man. Billy can wake me up before he gets me, or not. It might even be better if I’m asleep. Less flailing.

Impatiently, I stride down the hallway to my bedroom and throw open the door and–

“Billy,” I breathe.

There he is: a husky, hulking mass of a man, filling up my doorframe entirely. His face is obstructed by a Ralph’s paper bag, but I can feel his eyes poring into me through makeshift eye holes. His right hand is curled around the handle of a katana sword, which he slowly raises in my direction. The tip of his sword cuts through my scrubs and pokes my abdomen, producing a pinprick of blood.

My breath catches in my throat.

The last time I saw him, we were fifteen and he shot a woeful glance at me as he was shoved into a squad car for allegedly running over his stepfather with the family truck. When Billy went away, I thought of him often, but never called or wrote. I didn’t know what to say.

I’m frozen, but only for a moment.

Once I’ve regathered my composure, I lean forward and the sword punctures me further. I wince at the pain, but don’t feel afraid. I hear a faint, startled gasp from underneath the paper bag.

“Billy,” I say again, as I move closer still.

He removes his blade from my belly and wipes my blood off the tip with his rough, bare hand. I reach up to stroke not his face, but the side of his paper bag mask and he flinches away from my touch. I halt, but after a moment, keep inching my hand towards him.

I gently grip the side of the bag and the flimsy paper crinkles beneath my fingers. Slowly and carefully, I remove it and look at Billy’s face for the first time in years. Gone is the lanky kid with the chestnut-colored mullet and mischievous smile that I knew in my youth. In his place stands a tall brick house in the shape of a man, with scraggly salt-and-pepper hair and a beard to match. Only his eyes are the same – a steely grey gaze laced with intensity.

I stand on my very tip toes, but even then, I only come up to his neck. He has to bend for our mouths to meet, and he tastes like salt and copper. His bloody left hand cups my chin and I let my tongue out to explore his lips and teeth, familiar territory. When we pull away from one another, Billy is breathing hard and I notice I am pressed against him. Our eyes lock. I caress his bare face with my hands.

He shivers, but it’s a warm night.

Billy roughly grabs me by the waist and manhandles me into his arms. For a moment, I fear he will hurt me, but that moment quickly passes when I realize he means to carry me bridal-style to the bed. Gentleness and grace are simply not two of his strengths.

I hear the katana clatter to the ground and, for the first time, wonder where he got it from.

We fall into the clutches of my unmade bed a sweaty, uncoordinated mess. I’m still in my teal scrubs from the hospital and Billy is sporting a black jumpsuit, which has surprisingly little blood on it, for someone who’s been slashing and stabbing all night long. I experience a little of what my fellow townspeople did that night, as I clench and moan on the receiving end of his bloody passion.

When we had finished, I lay awake on his broad chest for a long time. We don’t say a word to one another, only bask in the moonlight and the pungent smell of sex and body odor. I think back to the last time he fucked me, during the restrictive freedom of our teen years. We lay just like this then, too.

It finally occurs to me to ask about my family, and if he has paid them a visit yet. He tells me with his eyes, imploring for my sufferance.

“Please,” I say.

I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I woke to an empty bed and birds singing outside. The only evidence that Billy was ever here is a deep “down there” ache, and the Ralph’s bag on my nightstand, with a smiley face painted with blood.

He knew that would make me smile and it did.

In the weeks after Billy’s rampage through our quaint little town, we were hounded by a circus-media of paparazzi, tabloid reporters, and other bloodhounds. Ashwald became a tourist trap for those seeking a peek of America’s fastest working serial killer, only to discover he vanished in the night. They went away disappointed, and with a patented Billy the Killer t-shirt.

Poor Billy is a public spectacle, now more than ever, the victim of a mob of excited, chatty no-nothings who will never give him a rest because he is the only interesting thing to happen in this town, ever. His name once again populated our press and earned an array of new nicknames. Most notable of which is the Orphan Maker. The reason for that one is he slaughtered many of our adult population, and left the children untouched.

Well, mostly. He did kill Mike Bell, but that kid was 6’3” and had a full beard at fourteen, so it was an honest mistake.

Some speculated that those he killed played a part in his trial or mistreated him in some way; others believed he murdered at random; a select few counted the male to female ratio of his kills and theorized he was making some sort of gender statement.

I have my own thoughts, none of which I can prove as absolute fact, but I knew Billy best and I think I’m right. I think he simply looked at the faces of every man and woman in town, and in them, saw his stepfather, who delighted in hurting him, and his mother, who let it happen.

I’m in no hurry to correct them, since I know the mystery of Billy will always be more interesting than the sad reality of his life. Billy the Killer, they called him long before he ever killed anyone, thanks to that stupid article that misspelled his name. His stepfather is still alive, for God’s sake, remarried and living comfortably a few states over.

Although, I suspect, not for long.


Rachel Brands holds a BFA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Loras College. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, hanging out with her cat, and watching scary movies. She resides in Illinois.


The Next Issue of The Chamber Appears Friday, June 3, at 10:00 a.m. US Central Time

Chamber cover for June 3, 2022

Containing:

New fiction by Rachel Brands, June Allyn Johnson, Madeleine D’Este, Titus Green, Alan Catlin, R.P. Serin, Kay Summers, Mehnaz Sahibzada, Gershon Ben-Avraham, Amita Basu, B.C. Nance, and Joseph Buckley
New poetry by Travis Black and A.N. Rose
New microfiction by Karin Kutlay

The Next Issue of The Chamber Appears Friday, June 3, at 10:00 a.m. US Central Time

Chamber cover for June 3, 2022

Containing:

New fiction by Rachel Brands, June Allyn Johnson, Madeleine D’Este, Titus Green, Alan Catlin, R.P. Serin, Kay Summers, Mehnaz Sahibzada, Gershon Ben-Avraham, Amita Basu, B.C. Nance, and Joseph Buckley
New poetry by Travis Black and A.N. Rose
New microfiction by Karin Kutlay

The Next Issue of The Chamber Appears Friday, June 3, at 10:00 a.m. US Central Time

Chamber cover for June 3, 2022

Containing:

New fiction by Rachel Brands, June Allyn Johnson, Madeleine D’Este, Titus Green, Alan Catlin, R.P. Serin, Kay Summers, Mehnaz Sahibzada, Gershon Ben-Avraham, Amita Basu, B.C. Nance, and Joseph Buckley
New poetry by Travis Black and A.N. Rose
New microfiction by Karin Kutlay