Simple Favor to Ask…

The Chamber Magazine: Contemporary Dark Fiction and Poetry

If you were kind enough to purchase one of The Chamber’s many products at The Chamber Magazine’s Gift Shop or in The Bookshop, don’t forget to leave a quick, honest review of the product. This helps support the magazine and gets you a smidgen more public exposure, which every writer needs. It also helps me decide which products to carry and which designs are popular.

If you can’t decide which book to purchase, read one of Ryan Tan’s reviews to help with that decision or buy one of the many books available from The Chamber’s contributors. The Chamber has separate shelves in the bookshop for both of those categories.

Thanks for your time,

Phil Slattery, Publisher and Editor

The Saturday Night Special: “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood (1907) from Horrorbabble

Algernon Blackwood was an English author and one of the top horror/ghost story writers prior to the emergence of H.P. Lovecraft, who greatly admired his works and praised him effusively in his long essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature“. “The Willows” is one of Blackwood’s most famous short stories (along with “The Wendigo“) and relates the weird experiences of two young adventurers who go on a boating trip down the Danube River and spend a wild, supernatural night on an isolated island. As always, Horrorbabble does a superb job of converting a classic horror tale into a chilling audio version. If you are a devotee of classic horror, you will probably want to follow them.

Algernon Blackwood (sometime before 1916)

Coming to The Saturday Night Special on August 13: “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood–a Horrorbabble Presentation

Algernon Blackwood prior to 1916

The Saturday Night Special on August 13, 2022 at 10:00 p.m. (US central time) will feature a Horrorbabble version (narrated by Ian Gordon) of Algernon Blackwood’s famed weird fiction tale of two young adventurers boating down the Danube in the early 20th century: “The Willows”. Join The Chamber in experiencing this thrilling event.

“The Saturday Night Special” is a new feature of The Chamber Magazine that reprints classic stories of literary horror. It runs every Saturday night at 10:00 p.m. US central time for timeless thrills and chills.

Simple Favor to Ask…

The Chamber Magazine: Contemporary Dark Fiction and Poetry

If you were kind enough to purchase one of The Chamber’s many products at The Chamber Magazine’s Gift Shop or in The Bookshop, don’t forget to leave a quick, honest review of the product. This helps support the magazine and gets you a smidgen more public exposure, which every writer needs. It also helps me decide which products to carry and which designs are popular.

If you can’t decide which book to purchase, read one of Ryan Tan’s reviews to help with that decision or buy one of the many books available from The Chamber’s contributors. The Chamber has separate shelves in the bookshop for both of those categories.

Thanks for your time,

Phil Slattery, Publisher and Editor

Now Taking Submissions for the October 7 Issue!

The Chamber Magazine: Contemporary Dark Fiction and Poetry is now taking submissions for the October 7 issue.

The Chamber is now taking submissions for the October 7 issue. Submissions for the September issue are closed. Halloween-related material is welcome but not required to submit. Please have your submission in before October 1. Be sure to include the genre and/or subgenre of your work in your cover letter along with the word count and a bio of approximately fifty words or less.

Check out the latest in our Bookshop and Gift Shop while you are here.

Coming to The Saturday Night Special on August 13: “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood–a Horrorbabble Presentation

Algernon Blackwood prior to 1916

The Saturday Night Special on August 13, 2022 at 10:00 p.m. (US central time) will feature a Horrorbabble version (narrated by Ian Gordon) of Algernon Blackwood’s famed weird fiction tale of two young adventurers boating down the Danube in the early 20th century: “The Willows”. Join The Chamber in experiencing this thrilling event.

“The Saturday Night Special” is a new feature of The Chamber Magazine that reprints classic stories of literary horror. It runs every Saturday night at 10:00 p.m. US central time for timeless thrills and chills.

The Saturday Night Special: “The Drunkard’s Dream” by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1838)

The Saturday Night Special:  "The Drunkard's Dream" by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1838)

Being a Fourth Extract from the Legacy of the Late F. Purcell, P. P. of Drumcoolagh

“All this he told with some confusion and
Dismay, the usual consequence of dreams
Of the unpleasant kind, with none at hand
To expound their vain and visionary gleams.
I’ve known some odd ones which seemed really planned
Prophetically, as that which one deems
‘A strange coincidence,’ to use a phrase
By which such things are settled now-a-days.”

BYRON.

Dreams–What age, or what country of the world has not felt and acknowledged the mystery of their origin and end? I have thought not a little upon the subject, seeing it is one which has been often forced upon my attention, and sometimes strangely enough; and yet I have never arrived at any thing which at all appeared a satisfactory conclusion. It does appear that a mental phenomenon so extraordinary cannot be wholly without its use. We know, indeed, that in the olden times it has been made the organ of communication between the Deity and his creatures; and when, as I have seen, a dream produces upon a mind, to all appearance hopelessly reprobate and depraved, an effect so powerful and so lasting as to break down the

inveterate habits, and to reform the life of an abandoned sinner. We see in the result, in the reformation of morals, which appeared incorrigible in the reclamation of a human soul which seemed to be irretrievably lost, something more than could be produced by a mere chimaera of the slumbering fancy, something more than could arise from the capricious images of a terrified imagination; but once prevented, we behold in all these things, in the tremendous and mysterious results, the operation of the hand of God. And while Reason rejects as absurd the superstition which will read a prophecy in every dream, she may, without violence to herself, recognize, even in the wildest and most incongruous of the wanderings of a slumbering intellect, the evidences and the fragments of a language which may be spoken, which has been spoken to terrify, to warn, and to command. We have reason to believe too, by the promptness of action, which in the age of the prophets, followed all intimations of this kind, and by the strength of conviction and strange permanence of the effects resulting from certain dreams in latter times, which effects ourselves may have witnessed, that when this medium of communication has been employed by the Deity, the evidences of his presence have been unequivocal. My thoughts were directed to this subject, in a manner to leave a lasting impression upon my mind, by the events which I shall now relate, the statement of which, however extraordinary, is nevertheless accurately correct.

About the year l7– having been appointed to the living of C—-h, I rented a small house in the town, which bears the same name: one morning, in the month of November, I was awakened before my usual time, by my servant, who bustled into my bedroom for the purpose of announcing a sick call. As the Catholic Church holds her last rites to be totally indispensable to the safety of the departing sinner, no conscientious clergyman can afford a moment’s unnecessary delay, and in little more than five minutes I stood ready cloaked and booted for the road in the small front parlour, in which the messenger, who was to act as my guide, awaited my coming. I found a poor little girl crying piteously near the door, and after some slight difficulty I ascertained that her father was either dead, or just dying.

“And what may be your father’s name, my poor child?” said I. She held down her head, as if ashamed. I repeated the question, and the wretched little creature burst into floods of tears, still more bitter than she had shed before. At length, almost provoked by conduct which appeared to me so unreasonable, I began to lose patience, spite of the pity which I could not help feeling towards her, and I said rather harshly, “If you will not tell me the name of the person to whom you would lead me, your silence can arise from no good motive, and I might be justified in refusing to go with you at all.”

“Oh! don’t say that, don’t say that,” cried she. “Oh! sir, it was that I was afeard of when I would not tell you–I was afeard when you heard his name you would not come with me; but it is no use hidin’ it now–it’s Pat Connell, the carpenter, your honour.”

She looked in my face with the most earnest anxiety, as if her very existence depended upon what she should read there; but I relieved her at once. The name, indeed, was most unpleasantly familiar to me; but, however fruitless my visits and advice might have been at another time, the present was too fearful an occasion to suffer my doubts of their utility as my reluctance to re-attempting what appeared a hopeless task to weigh even against the lightest chance, that a consciousness of his imminent danger might produce in him a more docile and tractable disposition. Accordingly I told the child to lead the way, and followed her in silence. She hurried rapidly through the long narrow street which forms the great thoroughfare of the town. The darkness of the hour, rendered still deeper by the close approach of the old fashioned houses, which lowered in tall obscurity on either side of the way; the damp dreary chill which renders the advance of morning peculiarly cheerless, combined with the object of my walk, to visit the death-bed of a presumptuous sinner, to endeavour, almost against my own conviction, to infuse a hope into the heart of a dying reprobate–a drunkard, but too probably perishing under the consequences of some mad fit of intoxication; all these circumstances united served to enhance the gloom and solemnity of my feelings, as I silently followed my little guide, who with quick steps traversed the uneven pavement of the main street. After a walk of about five minutes she turned off into a narrow lane, of that obscure and comfortless class which are to be found in almost all small old fashioned towns, chill without ventilation, reeking with all manner of offensive effluviae, dingy, smoky, sickly and pent-up buildings, frequently not only in a wretched but in a dangerous condition.

“Your father has changed his abode since I last visited him, and, I am afraid, much for the worse,” said I.

“Indeed he has, sir, but we must not complain,” replied she; “we have to thank God that we have lodging and food, though it’s poor enough, it is, your honour.”

Poor child! thought I, how many an older head might learn wisdom from thee–how many a luxurious philosopher, who is skilled to preach but not to suffer, might not thy patient words put to the blush! The manner and language of this child were alike above her years and station; and, indeed, in all cases in which the cares and sorrows of life have anticipated their usual date, and have fallen, as they sometimes do, with melancholy prematurity to the lot of childhood, I have observed the result to have proved uniformly the same. A young mind, to which joy and indulgence have been strangers, and to which suffering and self-denial have been familiarised from the first, acquires a solidity and an elevation which no other discipline could have bestowed, and which, in the present case, communicated a striking but mournful peculiarity to the manners, even to the voice of the child. We paused before a narrow, crazy door, which she opened by means of a latch, and we forthwith began to ascend the steep and broken stairs, which led upwards to the sick man’s room. As we mounted flight after flight towards the garret floor, I heard more and more distinctly the hurried talking of many voices. I could also distinguish the low sobbing of a female. On arriving upon the uppermost lobby, these sounds became fully audible.

“This way, your honor,” said my little conductress, at the same time pushing open a door of patched and half rotten plank, she admitted me into the squalid chamber of death and misery. But one candle, held in the fingers of a scared and haggard-looking child, was burning in the room, and that so dim that all was twilight or darkness except within its immediate influence. The general obscurity, however, served to throw into prominent and startling relief the death-bed and its occupant. The light was nearly approximated to, and fell with horrible clearness upon, the blue and swollen features of the drunkard. I did not think it possible that a human countenance could look so terrific. The lips were black and drawn apart–the teeth were firmly set–the eyes a little unclosed, and nothing but the whites appearing–every feature was fixed and livid, and the whole face wore a ghastly and rigid expression of despairing terror such as I never saw equalled; his hands were crossed upon his breast, and firmly clenched, while, as if to add to the corpse-like effect of the whole, some white cloths, dipped in water, were wound about the forehead and temples. As soon as I could remove my eyes from this horrible spectacle, I observed my friend Dr. D—-, one of the most humane of a humane profession, standing by the bedside. He had been attempting, but unsuccessfully, to bleed the patient, and had now applied his finger to the pulse.

“Is there any hope?” I inquired in a whisper.

A shake of the head was the reply. There was a pause while he continued to hold the wrist; but he waited in vain for the throb of life, it was not there, and when he let go the hand it fell stiffly back into its former position upon the other.

“The man is dead,” said the physician, as he turned from the bed where the terrible figure lay.

Dead! thought I, scarcely venturing to look upon the tremendous and revolting spectacle–dead! without an hour for repentance, even a moment for reflection–dead! without the rites which even the best should have. Is there a hope for him? The glaring eyeball, the grinning mouth, the distorted brow–that unutterable look in which a painter would have sought to embody the fixed despair of the nethermost hell–these were my answer.

The poor wife sat at a little distance, crying as if her heart would break–the younger children clustered round the bed, looking, with wondering curiosity, upon the form of death, never seen before. When the first tumult of uncontrollable sorrow had passed away, availing myself of the solemnity and impressiveness of the scene, I desired the heart-stricken family to accompany me in prayer, and all knelt down, while I solemnly and fervently repeated some of those prayers which appeared most applicable to the occasion. I employed myself thus in a manner which, I trusted, was not unprofitable, at least to the living, for about ten minutes, and having accomplished my task, I was the first to arise. I looked upon the poor, sobbing, helpless creatures who knelt so humbly around me, and my heart bled for them. With a natural transition, I turned my eyes from them to the bed in which the body lay, and, great God! what was the revulsion, the horror which I experienced on seeing the corpse-like, terrific thing seated half upright before me–the white cloths, which had been wound about the head, had now partly slipped from their position, and were hanging in grotesque festoons about the face and shoulders, while the distorted eyes leered from amid them–

“A sight to dream of, not to tell.”

I stood actually rivetted to the spot. The figure nodded its head and lifted its arm, I thought with a menacing gesture. A thousand confused and horrible thoughts at once rushed upon my mind. I had often read that the body of a presumptuous sinner, who, during life, had been the willing creature of every satanic impulse, after the human tenant had deserted it, had been known to become the horrible sport of demoniac possession. I was roused from the stupefaction of terror in which I stood, by the piercing scream of the mother, who now, for the first time, perceived the change which had taken place. She rushed towards the bed, but, stunned by the shock and overcome by the conflict of violent emotions, before she reached it, she fell prostrate upon the floor. I am perfectly convinced that had I not been startled from the torpidity of horror in which I was bound, by some powerful and arousing stimulant, I should have gazed upon this unearthly apparition until I had fairly lost my senses. As it was, however, the spell was broken, superstition gave way to reason: the man whom all believed to have been actually dead, was living! Dr. D—- was instantly standing by the bedside, and, upon examination, he found that a sudden and copious flow of blood had taken place from the wound which the lancet had left, and this, no doubt, had effected his sudden and almost preternatural restoration to an existence from which all thought he had been for ever removed. The man was still speechless, but he seemed to understand the physician when he forbid his repeating the painful and fruitless attempts which he made to articulate, and he at once resigned himself quietly into his hands.

I left the patient with leeches upon his temples, and bleeding freely–apparently with little of the drowsiness which accompanies apoplexy; indeed, Dr. D—- told me that he had never before witnessed a seizure which seemed to combine the symptoms of so many kinds, and yet which belonged to none of the recognized classes; it certainly was not apoplexy, catalepsy, nor delirium tremens, and yet it seemed, in some degree, to partake of the properties of all–it was strange, but stranger things are coming.

During two or three days Dr. D—- would not allow his patient to converse in a manner which could excite or exhaust him, with any one; he suffered him merely, as briefly as possible, to express his immediate wants, and it was not until the fourth day after my early visit, the particulars of which I have just detailed, that it was thought expedient that I should see him, and then only because it appeared that his extreme importunity and impatience were likely to retard his recovery more than the mere exhaustion attendant upon a short conversation could possibly do; perhaps, too, my friend entertained some hope that if by holy confession his patient’s bosom were eased of the perilous stuff, which no doubt, oppressed it, his recovery would be more assured and rapid. It was, then, as I have said, upon the fourth day after my first professional call, that I found myself once more in the dreary chamber of want and sickness. The man was in bed, and appeared low and restless. On my entering the room he raised himself in the bed, and muttered twice or thrice–“Thank God! thank God.” I signed to those of his family who stood by, to leave the room, and took a chair beside the bed. So soon as we were alone, he said, rather doggedly–“There’s no use now in telling me of the sinfulness of bad ways–I know it all–I know where they lead to–I seen everything about it with my own eyesight, as plain as I see you.” He rolled himself in the bed, as if to hide his face in the clothes, and then suddenly raising himself, he exclaimed with startling vehemence–“Look, sir, there is no use in mincing the matter; I’m blasted with the fires of hell; I have been in hell; what do you think of that?–in hell–I’m lost for ever–I have not a chance–I am damned already–damned–damned–.” The end of this sentence he actually shouted; his vehemence was perfectly terrific; he threw himself back, and laughed, and sobbed hysterically. I poured some water into a tea-cup, and gave it to him. After he had swallowed it, I told him if he had anything to communicate, to do so as briefly as he could, and in a manner as little agitating to himself as possible; threatening at the same time, though I had no intention of doing so, to leave him at once, in case he again gave way to such passionate excitement. “It’s only foolishness,” he continued, “for me to try to thank you for coming to such a villain as myself at all; it’s no use for me to wish good to you, or to bless you; for such as me has no blessings to give.” I told him that I had but done my duty, and urged him to proceed to the matter which weighed upon his mind; he then spoke nearly as follows:–“I came in drunk on Friday night last, and got to my bed here, I don’t remember how; sometime in the night, it seemed to me, I wakened, and feeling unasy in myself, I got up out of the bed. I wanted the fresh air, but I would not make a noise to open the window, for fear I’d waken the crathurs. It was very dark, and throublesome to find the door; but at last I did get it, and I groped my way out, and went down as asy as I could. I felt quite sober, and I counted the steps one after another, as I was going down, that I might not stumble at the bottom. When I came to the first landing-place, God be about us always! the floor of it sunk under me, and I went down, down, down, till the senses almost left me. I do not know how long I was falling, but it seemed to me a great while. When I came rightly to myself at last, I was sitting at a great table, near the top of it; and I could not see the end of it, if it had any, it was so far off; and there was men beyond reckoning, sitting down, all along by it, at each side, as far as I could see at all. I did not know at first was it in the open air; but there was a close smothering feel in it, that was not natural, and there was a kind of light that my eyesight never saw before, red and unsteady, and I did not see for a long time where it was coming from, until I looked straight up, and then I seen that it came from great balls of blood-coloured fire, that were rolling high over head with a sort of rushing, trembling sound, and I perceived that they shone on the ribs of a great roof of rock that was arched overhead instead of the sky. When I seen this, scarce knowing what I did, I got up, and I said, ‘I have no right to be here; I must go,’ and the man that was sitting at my left hand, only smiled, and said, ‘sit down again, you can never leave this place,’ and his voice was weaker than any child’s voice I ever heerd, and when he was done speaking he smiled again. Then I spoke out very loud and bold, and I said–‘in the name of God, let me out of this bad place.’ And there was a great man, that I did not see before, sitting at the end of the table that I was near, and he was taller than twelve men, and his face was very proud and terrible to look at, and he stood up and stretched out his hand before him, and when he stood up, all that was there, great and small, bowed down with a sighing sound, and a dread came on my heart, and he looked at me, and I could not speak. I felt I was his own, to do what he liked with, for I knew at once who he was, and he said, ‘if you promise to return, you may depart for a season’; and the voice he spoke with was terrible and mournful, and the echoes of it went rolling and swelling down the endless cave, and mixing with the trembling of the fire overhead; so that, when he sate down, there was a sound after him, all through the place like the roaring of a furnace, and I said, with all the strength I had, ‘I promise to come back; in God’s name let me go,’ and with that I lost the sight and the hearing of all that was there, and when my senses came to me again, I was sitting in the bed with the blood all over me, and you and the rest praying around the room.” Here he paused and wiped away the chill drops of horror which hung upon his forehead.

I remained silent for some moments. The vision which he had just described struck my imagination not a little, for this was long before Vathek and the “Hall of Iblis” had delighted the world; and the description which he gave had, as I received it, all the attractions of novelty beside the impressiveness which always belongs to the narration of an eye-witness, whether in the body or in the spirit, of the scenes which he describes. There was something, too, in the stern horror with which the man related these things, and in the incongruity of his description, with the vulgarly received notions of the great place of punishment, and of its presiding spirit, which struck my mind with awe, almost with fear. At length he said, with an expression of horrible, imploring earnestness, which I shall never forget–“Well, sir, is there any hope; is there any chance at all? or, is my soul pledged and promised away for ever? is it gone out of my power? must I go back to the place?”

In answering him I had no easy task to perform; for however clear might be my internal conviction of the groundlessness of his fears, and however strong my scepticism respecting the reality of what he had described, I nevertheless felt that his impression to the contrary, and his humility and terror resulting from it, might be made available as no mean engines in the work of his conversion from profligacy, and of his restoration to decent habits, and to religious feeling. I therefore told him that he was to regard his dream rather in the light of a warning than in that of a prophecy; that our salvation depended not upon the word or deed of a moment, but upon the habits of a life; that, in fine, if he at once discarded his idle companions and evil habits, and firmly adhered to a sober, industrious, and religious course of life, the powers of darkness might claim his soul in vain, for that there were higher and firmer pledges than human tongue could utter, which promised salvation to him who should repent and lead a new life.

I left him much comforted, and with a promise to return upon the next day. I did so, and found him much more cheerful, and without any remains of the dogged sullenness which I suppose had arisen from his despair. His promises of amendment were given in that tone of deliberate earnestness, which belongs to deep and solemn determination; and it was with no small delight that I observed, after repeated visits, that his good resolutions, so far from failing, did but gather strength by time; and when I saw that man shake off the idle and debauched companions, whose society had for years formed alike his amusement and his ruin, and revive his long discarded habits of industry and sobriety, I said within myself, there is something more in all this than the operation of an idle dream. One day, sometime after his perfect restoration to health, I was surprised on ascending the stairs, for the purpose of visiting this man, to find him busily employed in nailing down some planks upon the landing place, through which, at the commencement of his mysterious vision, it seemed to him that he had sunk. I perceived at once that he was strengthening the floor with a view to securing himself against such a catastrophe, and could scarcely forbear a smile as I bid “God bless his work.”

He perceived my thoughts, I suppose, for he immediately said,

“I can never pass over that floor without trembling. I’d leave this house if I could, but I can’t find another lodging in the town so cheap, and I’ll not take a better till I’ve paid off all my debts, please God; but I could not be asy in my mind till I made it as safe as I could. You’ll hardly believe me, your honor, that while I’m working, maybe a mile away, my heart is in a flutter the whole way back, with the bare thoughts of the two little steps I have to walk upon this bit of a floor. So it’s no wonder, sir, I’d thry to make it sound and firm with any idle timber I have.”

I applauded his resolution to pay off his debts, and the steadiness with which he pursued his plans of conscientious economy, and passed on.

Many months elapsed, and still there appeared no alteration in his resolutions of amendment. He was a good workman, and with his better habits he recovered his former extensive and profitable employment. Every thing seemed to promise comfort and respectability. I have little more to add, and that shall be told quickly. I had one evening met Pat Connell, as he returned from his work, and as usual, after a mutual, and on his side respectful salutation, I spoke a few words of encouragement and approval. I left him industrious, active, healthy–when next I saw him, not three days after, he was a corpse. The circumstances which marked the event of his death were somewhat strange–I might say fearful. The unfortunate man had accidentally met an early friend, just returned, after a long absence, and in a moment of excitement, forgetting everything in the warmth of his joy, he yielded to his urgent invitation to accompany him into a public house, which lay close by the spot where the encounter had taken place. Connell, however, previously to entering the room, had announced his determination to take nothing more than the strictest temperance would warrant. But oh! who can describe the inveterate tenacity with which a drunkard’s habits cling to him through life. He may repent–he may reform–he may look with actual abhorrence upon his past profligacy; but amid all this reformation and compunction, who can tell the moment in which the base and ruinous propensity may not recur, triumphing over resolution, remorse, shame, everything, and prostrating its victim once more in all that is destructive and revolting in that fatal vice.

The wretched man left the place in a state of utter intoxication. He was brought home nearly insensible, and placed in his bed, where he lay in the deep calm lethargy of drunkenness. The younger part of the family retired to rest much after their usual hour; but the poor wife remained up sitting by the fire, too much grieved and shocked at the recurrence of what she had so little expected, to settle to rest; fatigue, however, at length overcame her, and she sunk gradually into an uneasy slumber. She could not tell how long she had remained in this state, when she awakened, and immediately on opening her eyes, she perceived by the faint red light of the smouldering turf embers, two persons, one of whom she recognized as her husband noiselessly gliding out of the room.

“Pat, darling, where are you going?” said she. There was no answer–the door closed after them; but in a moment she was startled and terrified by a loud and heavy crash, as if some ponderous body had been hurled down the stair. Much alarmed, she started up, and going to the head of the staircase, she called repeatedly upon her husband, but in vain. She returned to the room, and with the assistance of her daughter, whom I had occasion to mention before, she succeeded in finding and lighting a candle, with which she hurried again to the head of the staircase. At the bottom lay what seemed to be a bundle of clothes, heaped together, motionless, lifeless–it was her husband. In going down the stairs, for what purpose can never now be known, he had fallen helplessly and violently to the bottom, and coming head foremost, the spine at the neck had been dislocated by the shock, and instant death must have ensued. The body lay upon that landing-place to which his dream had referred. It is scarcely worth endeavouring to clear up a single point in a narrative where all is mystery; yet I could not help suspecting that the second figure which had been seen in the room by Connell’s wife on the night of his death, might have been no other than his own shadow. I suggested this solution of the difficulty; but she told me that the unknown person had been considerably in advance of the other, and on reaching the door, had turned back as if to communicate something to his companion–it was then a mystery. Was the dream verified?–whither had the disembodied spirit sped?–who can say? We know not. But I left the house of death that day in a state of horror which I could not describe. It seemed to me that I was scarce awake. I heard and saw everything as if under the spell of a nightmare. The coincidence was terrible.


[From Wikipedia] Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu (/ˈlɛfən.juː/;[1][2] 28 August 1814 – 7 February 1873) was an Irish writer of Gothic tales, mystery novels, and horror fiction. He was a leading ghost story writer of his time, central to the development of the genre in the Victorian era.[3]M. R. James described Le Fanu as “absolutely in the first rank as a writer of ghost stories”.[4] Three of his best-known works are the locked-room mystery Uncle Silas, the lesbian vampire novella Carmilla, and the historical novel The House by the Churchyard….(continued in Wikipedia)


If you liked this story, you might also like “The Damned Thing” by Ambrose Bierce.

Now Taking Submissions for the October 7 Issue!

The Chamber Magazine: Contemporary Dark Fiction and Poetry is now taking submissions for the October 7 issue.

The Chamber is now taking submissions for the October 7 issue. Submissions for the September issue are closed. Halloween-related material is welcome but not required to submit. Please have your submission in before October 1. Be sure to include the genre and/or subgenre of your work in your cover letter along with the word count and a bio of approximately fifty words or less.

Check out the latest in our Bookshop and Gift Shop while you are here.

Coming to The Saturday Night Special on August 20: “What Was It?” by Fitz-James O’Brien

The Saturday Night Special on August 20, 2022 at 10:00 p.m. (US central time) will feature the story “What Was It” by Fitz-James O’Brien, whose literary place is described as:

Fitz-James O’Brien, (born c. 1828, County Limerick, Ireland—died April 6, 1862, CumberlandMaryland, U.S.), Irish-born American journalist, playwright, and author whose psychologically penetrating tales of pseudoscience and the uncanny made him one of the forerunners of modern science fiction…His best-known stories include “The Diamond Lens,” about a man who falls in love with a being he sees through a microscope in a drop of water; “What Was It?” in which a man is attacked by a thing he apprehends with every sense but sight; and “The Wondersmith,” in which robots are fashioned only to turn upon their creators. These three stories appeared in periodicals in 1858 and 1859.

Britannica.com July 31, 2022

“What Was It? A Mystery” is one the earliest examples of invisibility in literature and his story “From Hand to Mouth” is one of the earliest examples of surrealism.

“The Saturday Night Special” is a new feature of The Chamber Magazine that reprints classic stories of literary horror. It runs every Saturday night at 10:00 p.m. US central time for timeless thrills and chills.

“A Cup of Kindness” a Dark Contemporary Retelling of a Traditional Fairy Tale by Kelly Jarvis

"A Cup of Kindness" a Dark Contemporary Retelling of a Traditional Fairy Tale by Kelly Jarvis

“We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, / For auld lang syne” (Robert Burns)

It was terribly cold and dark on this, the last evening of the year.

A little girl crouched in the corner of the St. Francis Shelter for Abandoned Youth, warming her feet against the baseboard heater. She had been brought here only a few hours before by a tired social worker. The little girl had been caught stealing a loaf of bread from a gas station market. The market manager had called the police, who had called child services, who had sent the weary social worker to decide what must be done.

The little girl had watched through the window of the police cruiser as the social worker shared a cigarette with the arresting officer. The social worker sucked on the cigarette until the tip glowed red in the twilight. Then she sighed deeply and offered it to the policeman, a ring of mauve paint staining the spot where her lips had been.

The little girl had refused to give the social worker her name. She had been in and out of foster homes long enough to recognize the tired eyes and resigned smile of people who could do nothing to help her.

The social worker, whose breath smelled like ashes, had decided to bring the child to the St. Francis Shelter for Abandoned Youth to spend the holiday. She would return to file paperwork in the morning.

The little girl had been served a warm meal and given a black garbage bag to hold her thin coat and torn mittens. Then she had been shuffled into a dormitory with long rows of wooden bunk beds. Now she crouched in the corner and listed to the rhythmic breath of the other sleeping children. She stared out the window at the deserted street below. Fat snowflakes fell to the pavement. A bitter wind moaned, but the little girl was the only one awake to hear its mournful sound. 

She reached into the hole in the seam of her dress, her frozen fingers touching the smooth metal of the cigarette lighter she had stolen from the seat of the social worker’s car. “Cold Hands, Warm Heart”, her grandmother used to say whenever she cupped the little girl’s hands in her own and rubbed her chilly fingers warm with kisses. The girl placed her thumb on the grooves of the flint wheel and expertly flicked the lighter. An orange spark of heat erupted from the base, greeting her like an old friend.

Now there was a warm, bright flame, like a magic lamp, and when the girl held her hand over it, she was suddenly sitting in front of a bonfire, like the ones her father had built in empty trash cans years ago when they spent winter nights beneath the highway bridge. The little girl heard the distant screech of sirens and remembered how the bridge would tremble as heavy trucks thundered over it. Gnawing pains of hunger rumbled through her until the flame went out, taking her vision with it.

She flicked her thumb against the flint wheel again, and a new flame doubled itself in the reflection of the dormitory window. This time she saw the soup kitchen where she had once eaten Thanksgiving Dinner. The scent of roast turkey and fresh baked bread hung in the air, and the little girl’s stomach lurched as she remembered the heaping scoops of stuffing and cranberry sauce on her tray. She laughed in delight as her father made the turkey wings tap-dance through mountains of mashed potatoes, but then came the stale smell of whiskey on his breath and the scratch of his beard against her chin. Her thumb slipped from the lever. The room fell dark.

When she flicked the lighter a third time, she found herself beneath a beautiful Christmas tree in a department store window. At the base of the tree were stacks of brightly wrapped boxes, each holding presents that her own family, even in their richest days, could never have afforded. She threw a crumbled piece of cement through the imagined window, sending shards of glass through the air. The pieces landed on the floor of the display and reflected the lights of the tree. They looked like shattered stars that had fallen from the sky.

“Tonight, someone will die,” whispered the little girl, for she had seen a falling star the night her grandmother, the only person who ever loved her, had died.

The little girl felt her heart quicken, and she desperately flicked the lighter again and again until a new flame appeared. Suddenly, she saw her grandmother. She knew that her grandmother had perished in a fire, her body burned into an unrecognizable heap of charred ashes, but now her grandmother floated before her in the dancing flame, her silver hair framed by feathery wings.

“Gramma,” cried the little girl, “I’m sorry! Take me with you!” She feared her grandmother would disappear, like always, as soon as the flame went out.

Her hand shook as she moved the lighter toward the tattered curtains on either side of the dormitory window. The cheap fabric caught quickly, and her grandmother’s wings ignited into glorious orange and yellow flames.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you! Please don’t leave me,” the little girl wailed, setting her mattress on fire.

With the methodical precision of one who knows how objects burn, she moved her lighter down the row of bunkbed mattresses until each one blazed. The sleeping children, stacked like kindling, awoke to an inferno of heat and terror, screaming for God to help them, but even God was reveling in the celebrations of the year’s final night, and could not hear their cries above the din of their poverty and despair.

#

In the cold dawn of New Year’s Day, the little girl stood hidden in a crowd of onlookers, unseen. Grey smoke curled upward from the smoldering pile of wet ash that was once the St. Francis Shelter for Abandoned Youth.

“The smoke detectors must have malfunctioned,” someone said. “There were no survivors.”

“Poor homeless children,” a woman muttered, making the sign of the cross. “May the Good Lord bless them and take them to a better place.”

The little girl calmly stroked the lighter in her pocket as firemen and police officers sifted through the debris counting the blessed, blackened corpses.

She watched the smoke lift in the blinking lights of the emergency vehicles, and then she disappeared toward the east where the fiery red sun was rising like a phoenix.


Kelly Jarvis works as the Special Projects Writer for Enchanted Conversation: A Fairy Tale Magazine. Her work has been featured in Blue Heron ReviewMermaids MonthlyEternal Haunted Summer, Forget Me Not Press, and Mothers of Enchantment: New Tales of Fairy Godmothers. She teaches at Central Connecticut State University. 


If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “The Little Wild” by Julian Grant.

Cover of The Chamber Magazine for August 5, 2022

Contents

Short Fiction

“Conjure the Moon” Dark Supernatural Fiction by E.N. Dunn

“Miscue” Dark Fiction by Steve Wilcenski

“The Worm” Dark Sci-Fi by Jesse Rowell

“Keep Your Head Down” Horror by Paul O’Neill

“The New Gods” Science-Fiction by K. Danckert

“Read the Sign” Dark Fiction by Peter Portelli

“Zombies in a Dreamscape” Dark, Supernatural Fiction by Hareendran Kallinkeel

“Daluse” Dark Fiction by Rob Plunkett

“Mal du Pays” Dark Fiction by Trevor Zaple

“Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” Dark Fiction by Curtis A. Bass

“A Cup of Kindness” a Dark Contemporary Retelling of a Traditional Fairy Tale by Kelly Jarvis

Poetry

“Night Mistress” Dark Poetry by Joe Farina

Flash Fiction

“Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold” Dark Supernatural Flash Fiction by Phil Temples

“Teacher–Listen” Dark Flash Fiction by Louise Worthington

“Sandbar” Dark Flash Fiction by K.A. Williams

Interview

The Chamber’s Interview with Author Russell James

Review

Road of Bones: Review by Ryan Tan

The Next Issue Appears September 2

“Sandbar” Dark Flash Fiction by K.A. Williams

"Sandbar" Dark Flash Fiction by K.A. Williams

Cavanaugh shielded his eyes from the morning sun, shed his life jacket, and stepped from the motorboat. “I didn’t want this assignment, besides it was Logan’s turn. Why do I always get the weird ones?”

Reed waited in the boat.

Cavanaugh turned. “Aren’t you coming?”

“Yeah, but I have to check some of my camera equipment first.”

Cavanaugh walked to the left end of the long sandbar and gazed over the blue-green ocean toward the seashore. “How many people disappeared here, was it two or three?”

“Three now,” Reed said, restarting the engine and backing the boat slowly off the sand.

“What are you doing?” Cavanaugh ran from the end of the sandbar to where water now separated him from the idling motorboat.

“Mason knows you’re having an affair with his wife. He paid me to strand you here, hopes you’ll disappear like the others.”

“You can’t just leave me! I’ll pay you whatever you want!”

Reed laughed. “You don’t have the money. Everyone at the newspaper knows you lose when you bet at the casino.”

The motorboat sped away, leaving Cavanaugh behind. He flopped down upon the warm sand and looked out over the sea, but there were no other boats. The sea was deserted.

It was common knowledge that he couldn’t swim but how did Mason, his editor, find out about the affair. They had been discreet.

Lost in thought, he didn’t notice the sand around him begin to swirl and sink. Then the sandbar devoured him, like it had the others.


K. A. Williams lives in North Carolina. Her stories and poems have been published in many magazines including The Chamber, Black Petals, Corner Bar, Yellow Mama, Altered Reality, Calliope, The Sirens Call, and Schlock! Apart from writing, she enjoys rock music, Scrabble, and CYOA games.


If you liked this story, maybe you will like these other works by K.A. Williams and published in The Chamber: “Storm”, “Son”, “Lunch at the Lake”, “Cal and Kay”, and “Night Caller”.

You may also like the anthology Ghost Parachute, which you can find in The Chamber’s bookshop.

“Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” Dark Fiction by Curtis A. Bass

Logan and I are heading to the park to play catch like we often do on weekends. He’s tossing the football up and down as we go. That’s when I realize I am dreaming. I must be dreaming because Logan is dead. I thought when you realize you are dreaming you wake up. But I’m still in the dream. It’s weird, but I want to stay. I miss Logan. He is my best friend. Was my best friend.

He gives me that famous Logan grin, the lopsided one, and opens his mouth to speak. His words are off with his mouth, like in a poorly dubbed Japanese horror flick. They are slow and echo around my head, “Go long.” I run so he can throw a long pass. I look back and am amazed at how much distance I have put between us. He tosses the football in a long arcing lob. As it begins its descent, he runs toward me, almost as fast as the ball is flying. I catch the ball against my chest, tuck it under my arm and turn to run. I usually run back toward him, dodging his tackle to score an imaginary touchdown. But in this dream, I’m running away from him. I don’t know why. He’s faster than me and will probably tackle me before I get very far. I glance down at the football and stumble. It’s no longer a ball. It’s Logan’s head, with his thick eyebrows and curly blond hair. “He’s coming for you,” the head says before I drop it. That’s when Logan tackles me. As we go down, I turn and see he has no head. It freaks me out and I start yelling. Yeah, I scream like a freaking girl. The park goes black, but I’m still wrestling with the headless body. It’s like he’s trying to wrap me up in a cocoon or like a mummy. I can’t get my arms loose.

A brilliant light pulled me up from the dream. Dad stood at my doorway in his striped boxers and white T-shirt and yelled, “What the hell’s going on in here?” I was tangled up in the sheet. I wrenched it off and threw it on the floor, scampering to the head of the bed, as far from the attacking sheet as possible.

Mama appeared beside Dad in my doorway. I suddenly felt naked in just my checked pajama pants. They didn’t even reach my ankles anymore. I’d stopped wearing the pajama top because the shoulders were binding, and I couldn’t button it. Mama said I was going through a “growth spurt”. I’d be glad when I stopped spurting and had some clothes that fit.

“Bad dream, honey?” she asked. Dad blocked her from entering my room.

“I’ll take care of it. You go on back to bed.”

She stopped trying to come to me but lingered outside my door. Dad came and sat on my bed.

“You were in here yelling like a baby. You’re fifteen now. I expect you to show a little maturity.” Dad was big on me being a man.

“But it was Logan.”

I heard my mama’s quick intake of breath out in the hallway. “He attacked me.”

“Logan’s dead. He’s gone. He can’t attack you, son,” Dad said. “That’s foolish talk.”

“It was his friend, Ken,” Mama called from the door. “The boy’s had a nasty shock.”

“I knew I shouldn’t have let him talk to the police,” Dad told her. “All that talk about mutilation put all sorts of crazy ideas in his head. Now his imagination is running wild. Your mollycoddling him isn’t helping. He needs to stop being a mama’s boy and man up.”

I didn’t like it when Dad talked as if I wasn’t even there. But he did it on a regular basis.

“But it was Logan,” I whined. Dad hated it when I whined. I hated it, too, but I couldn’t help it. I gritted my teeth and refused to cry. I could feel my face redden as the tears threatened to pour out. My anger at him, and the whole crappy world, was rising to a fever pitch.

“Logan is dead and gone. They buried him,” Dad said.

“No they didn’t. They buried his fucking head!” I shouted, tears slipping from my eyes at last.

“Ken, don’t,” Mama called, anticipating Dad’s response.

“I’ll let that pass on account you’re upset. You talk like that to me again and I’ll have to get my belt. I ain’t having no backtalk.” Dad was mad as well. I knew his threat was meaningless, though. He hadn’t used the belt on me since I was twelve. Coach had noticed the marks on my backside at PE and sent me to the school nurse. She called Social Services. They investigated and Dad had to take a course in anger management. I can’t see where it’s done much good, except he doesn’t use that damn belt anymore.

“Then y’all get outta my room. I didn’t ask you to come in. Leave me alone!” I yelled. Dad grabbed my jaw in a painful grip.

“You’re walking on thin ice, boy.” He shoved me back and left the room. I heard Mama and him bickering down the hallway until she announced, “I’m sleeping in the guest room.”

“Goddamnit!” Dad yelled and slammed the bedroom door.

“Sorry, Cupcake,” my older sister Junie said from my doorway. She always called me Cupcake when Dad got on me about not being man enough. I was mad, but not enough to forgo my standard comeback.

“Then eat me.”

She laughed and drifted back to her bedroom. I had to get up to put the sheet back on the bed and then to turn off the overhead light. On the way back to the bed, I stumped my toe on the leg.

“Ow! God fucking damnit!” I ground out through clenched teeth. 

I sat on my bed, massaging my aching toe, and staring into the darkness. I liked the dark. I could think without being distracted by sight. Mostly these days I thought about Logan. I would keep my blinds drawn and my room dark at night and think about him. I didn’t need to see for I knew where everything was, except the leg of my bed, apparently. In the depths of the night, I would sometimes wake up and look around my room. All the familiar sounds, the faint tick of my alarm clock, Dad’s snoring, which even my closed door couldn’t muffle. And the familiar dark figures barely visible around my room, huddled like sentinels. It was comforting. Comfort seemed in short supply these days.

Everything used to be so simple. Now Junie was going off to college this fall. I’d miss her. Mama and Dad didn’t get along. They’d always bickered as far back as I could remember, but it had gotten worse. Dad seemed mad all the time and took it out on me. I ran cross-country; I made good grades; I didn’t get into trouble. What was his problem? Recently, it was that I wasn’t man enough. He got on that kick after he found out Logan was gay. I guess he was afraid Logan would infect me with gayness. I’d known he was gay for almost as long as Logan had, but he’d only recently become more open about it. He was my best friend since first grade, and I didn’t see any reason that should change. Dad didn’t see it that way. He made me account for every second I spent with Logan, and when Logan came over, I had to keep my bedroom door open. And no more sleep overs. How sick is that? “He’s my best friend, not my boyfriend,” I’d said. That got me sent to my room.

I think Dad was suspicious because I didn’t have a girlfriend. I liked girls, it’s just that few of them liked me. I think it’s because of Mary Jo Kapechni. We had one date last year. Then she told all the girls I was a lousy kisser and grabbed her tits. Both were technically true, but she made me sound like some sex-crazed loser. Maybe I was a loser, but sex-crazed is a relative term when it comes to teenaged boys.       

So it was just me and Logan. He was the one person I felt totally at ease with. We just had a natural connection. Until two weeks ago. That was the day he disappeared.

Logan was the third victim. 

***

About six months ago, a guy from Chapel Hill disappeared. Stacy Johnson was a good student, a soccer and basketball standout, and well liked. His parents said he wasn’t the kind to run away.  A close examination of the back door of his house revealed scratches around the lock that the detectives said could indicate the lock had been picked. The theory was that someone came in the house and took him.

The story dominated all the local papers for a few days. Every detail about Stacy’s life was examined and sifted for some evidence. They posted a picture of him in his soccer jersey. He was a handsome guy, fifteen, with flyaway blond hair and big blue eyes. I wished I looked like him, knowing someone who looked like that had no problem getting girls. They mounted a massive manhunt for him but came up with nothing.

A week later they found Stacy. Or at least they found his head. Students came upon it in the middle of his school soccer field one morning. They posted gross pictures of the severed head before the police could secure the area. Of course, the pictures went viral. Logan and I had seen them. The handsome features were frozen in a rictus of terror, eyes and mouth wide. The cuts around the neck weren’t clean, but jagged. The police finally released that the murderer had made the cuts with a serrated blade, except for the bone. That had been cut with something heavy and sharp, an ax or a cleaver. The paper had clinically reported the cuts were “not post-mortem”.

No one could figure out why Stacy was taken or why he was killed. More important, they had no clues who would do such a thing. They never found the rest of his body.

It took weeks for the horror to die down, but it did. Everyone moved on with their lives. Newer tragedies pushed Stacy off the front page. His family was left to grieve alone.

About two months later, Jackie Sheldon went missing. He was a high school student in Raleigh. He was an average student, fifteen, long blond hair, on the basketball team but didn’t see much playing time. The newspaper said he had words with his father and stormed out of the house. His parents thought everything was okay when he came home that night. The next morning he was gone. People thought he’d run away. No one connected the two cases until a detective noticed similar scratches on the back door of the Sheldon house. Someone had picked the lock. They could have entered and taken Jackie.

When Jackie’s head showed up on his parents’ doorstep a week later, all hell broke loose. It became national news. The detectives scrambled to find some link between Stacy and Jackie. Chapel Hill and Raleigh are close enough for people to interact. There had to be some connection. The newspapers proclaimed a serial killer stalked the streets. They named him the Butcher. It sold papers.

There were no pictures online of Jackie’s head, but the other details became common knowledge. He’d been held for a week and then beheaded. His body remained missing.

***

Logan gives me his lopsided grin and opens his mouth to speak. His words echo around my head, not coinciding with his mouth, “Go long.” I begin running so he can throw a long pass. I look back and see I’ve covered a lot of ground. Something about this seems familiar. He tosses the football in a long arcing lob. As it begins its descent, he runs toward me, almost as fast as the ball is flying. I catch the ball against my chest, tuck it under my arm and turn to run away instead of running toward him. I glance down at the football and stumble. It’s no longer a ball. It’s Logan’s head, with his thick eyebrows and curly blond hair. “He’s coming for you,” the head says before I drop it as I’m tackled by the headless body. I woke up sweating but didn’t scream.

***

“I knew Jackie,” Logan said to me one afternoon, about a week after they found his head.

“I thought I knew all your friends.”

“I have to keep some secrets,” he said and laughed. “Create an air of mystery.” We were lounging in my room, he on my bed, me on the floor leaning against the bed, door open, of course. “We met in summer league basketball last year. We liked each other and kept up with emails and texts.” It surprised me that Logan had kept this secret. What else didn’t I know about him?

“Did you know Stacy?” I wondered if there was more.

“No. But Jackie mentioned him in an email once. I think he got some pot from him. The email is gone now.”

“Logan. That may be the connection the police are looking for. Jackie and Stacy knew each other. You need to tell someone.”

“I don’t have any evidence and I don’t need the police snooping around me. Just forget it.”

But I couldn’t. Maybe it was a drug deal gone wrong. No, they would probably just shoot. This was ritualistic, as the papers said. It took a lot of planning.

And then Logan disappeared.

We lived in Cary, which is nestled between Raleigh and Chapel Hill. Logan was a fifteen-year-old high school athlete. He had blond hair. It matched the established pattern.

His mom called us first that morning asking if he was with us. She said he wasn’t home when she woke up, so she thought he just left early. When he didn’t show up at school, I became nervous. By lunch I was frantic. Where was Logan? Was he in the hands of that monster? Was he aware of what was happening? Was he as afraid as I was? I’ve never been particularly religious, but I prayed as hard as I knew how. God, please return him. Return all of him.

The media circus descended on Logan’s house. His life was dissected and displayed for all to see. His picture with his heavy brow and signature grin stared at me from the newspaper.

As feared, his head showed up later.

***

“Go long,” Logan says as he pulls the football behind his head, preparing the throw. I have a moment of déjà vu, like I have seen this before. But I run. I look over my shoulder and see the ball sailing through the air. I turn just in time and catch it against my chest. I tuck it under my arm to run. It feels wrong. I look down and see it is Logan’s head, glaring at me. “He’s coming for you,” he growls. I throw the head down and am tackled by his headless body.

I woke, fighting with the sheet.

My heart was racing so fast I could hear it in my ears. I was drenched with sweat and was panting like I’d just run the length of the football field. Why was Logan tormenting me? He was my friend.

I lay looking around my darkened room, absorbing the comfort of night, trying to return to a calm place. Off to my right was the deep, black outline of my open closet door. That was where the monsters used to live, and when I was little, I made sure Mama closed that door every night so they couldn’t get out. I doubt that door had been closed since I was ten and decided monsters were kid stuff. Beside it was the bulky dresser with its six drawers and skinny mirror. I had to duck these days to see myself in it to comb my hair. Then there was the door to my room, which I kept closed as much as I could. This was my sanctuary. All others keep out. Opposite the foot of the bed was the tall chest where I kept my jeans, T-shirts, and Calvins. It almost came up to my shoulders. I remember when I couldn’t see or reach what was on top of it. I’d have to pull my chair from the desk and stand on it. And rounding out my familiar room was my desk, the scene of my homework successes and debacles for ten years.

There, calmness had returned. It always worked.

But something was wrong. There, beside the chest, was another shape. Tall and rounded in the corner. It was too dark in my room to make out what it was, but it didn’t belong. And then it moved. Logan’s message, “He’s coming for you,” wasn’t a taunt. It was a warning! I was paralyzed. How did he get in? He must have picked the lock. I’m a fifteen-year-old blond. He’s come for me! The next time he moved, it broke the spell.

“Dad!” I screamed. “He’s here! Dad!”

After a small eternity, the door burst open, and Dad hit the light switch.

“He’s in the corner,” I yelled. We both looked at the corner at the same time. There sat my desk chair with my hockey stick propped in it. A dirty jersey top was hung over it, swaying in the breeze from the central air conditioner. Just as I’d left it that afternoon.

Yeah, that went down about as well as you’d expect. I was grounded for two weeks.

***

People at school were weird to me. They avoided eye contact and didn’t speak in the halls. I’d catch people staring at me like I’d grown a second head or something. Ugh, I didn’t mean to make a pun. It was like I had some disease. I still sat with my friends at lunch, but there was a strained silence most days. Being the best friend of the victim of a serial killer was not the key to popularity.

I told the police detective what Logan had said about Jackie and Stacy. He thanked me and said it was a significant lead, but I could see the lie in his eyes. They were stalled in the investigation. It was as if they were just waiting for the next victim to drop.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the dream. It was always the same. Logan’s head always said, “He’s coming for you.” What if it was a message? Logan was my best friend. We’d do anything for each other. Wouldn’t he warn me if he could? But how could I protect myself? Mama was trying to get Dad to spring for an electronic security system. It wasn’t as expensive as I thought it might be, and Dad was actually considering it. I pushed for it, too, but he said I was a coward. Why was wanting to be safe considered cowardice? I decided my dad was demented.

Apparently, I couldn’t rely on him. I’d have to come up with my own way of protecting myself.I immediately knew what I should do.

***

Logan gives me his signature grin and opens his mouth to speak. His words reverberate around my head, “Go long.” I begin running so he can throw a long pass. I look back and see I’ve covered a lot of ground. Something about this seems familiar. He tosses the football in a long arcing lob. As it begins its descent, he runs toward me, almost as fast as the ball is flying. I catch the ball against my chest, tuck it under my arm and turn to run. I realize I’m running the wrong way and don’t know why. I glance down at the football and stumble. It’s no longer a ball. It’s Logan’s head, with his thick eyebrows and curly blond hair. “Wake up, now!” the head shouts before I drop it.

I startled awake with a catch of my breath. My heart was hammering from the dream again. But he hadn’t tackled me this time. I wondered why? Then I heard the faintest creak of a floorboard. I was lying with my eyes closed, but I opened them just enough to see. What I could make out in the darkness of my room looked as it always had. The open closet door, the dresser, chest, chair, and desk. I had moved the hockey stick after my last scare. But something was off again. Logan told me to wake up and I could feel something was wrong in my room. There. Against the blackness of the door to my room was a darker blackness. It was still, but I could barely make out an outline. The outline of a man.

I feigned sleep. I remembered as a little kid I believed if I pretended to be asleep the monsters couldn’t get me. Or if I kept every part of my body away from the edge of the bed or covered by the sheet. No monster ever got me, so those magic tricks worked. But they would be useless against this monster. The hammering of my heart amped up a few notches. It was so quiet in the room I was afraid he would hear my heart thumping. I was on my right side, which was how I usually passed my nights. I made a small groan and rolled over flat on my back, my right hand slipping under my pillow, a bead of sweat rolling across my face into my eye, stinging. I kept my eyes cracked, watching the door. A long time passed. Maybe I was just being paranoid, seeing things that weren’t there. Maybe. But I’d swear the shape by the door just moved. It was coming closer. As usual, my blinds were drawn tight, but one errant moonbeam slipped through and suddenly glinted off what appeared to be a needle. He was going to drug me. That’s how he’s doing it! I continued watching, scared nearly out of my wits. I just hoped I didn’t wet the bed. Dad would never forgive that. If I screamed now would Dad refuse to come? Or if Dad came would the man murder my whole family? When the shape was less than three feet away, I pulled my hand from under the pillow. I aimed Dad’s Smith and Wesson and fired four shots point blank into his chest. In the flash of the shots, I saw a man in a balaclava and a night vision visor.

Mama and Junie were screaming as Dad burst through the door, hitting the lights.

“What the hell you doing with my gun,” was all he got out before he stopped and stared at the figure on the floor. The needle was still in the man’s hand.

“Holy shit! Excellent work, son. That’s my man.”

I just stared at him. I had two bullets left in the gun. I gotta admit, I considered it.

***

The media feeding frenzy that ensued was nearly worse than that awful night. I had a small sampling of what Logan’s family went through, except theirs was compounded by the loss of their only child. I can barely wrap my head around that kind of devastation.

The bad guy was a coach Logan and the others met at summer league basketball. He had photos on his wall of Stacy, Jackie, Logan, and me. I hadn’t played summer league, so I don’t know how I got on the nutjob’s radar. There were pictures of several other guys he was probably planning to grab after me. I don’t know why he was doing it, but I guess evil that dark doesn’t really have a reason. What kind of reason could there be, anyway?

Things finally settled down and life went on as it had before. Junie went off to college and Dad still acted mad all the time. But he treated me with more respect after I killed the bad guy. It seemed that using a gun had made me a MAN in his eyes. How sick is that? The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if I should have used those last two bullets in Dad’s gun that night.


A shortened version of this story appeared in The Terror House in January 2022.


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


If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy one of Curtis’s other stories published by The Chamber: “Escape to Paradise”, “The Park Bench“, “Welcome to Hell”, or “Inna Gada da Vida”.

“Mal du Pays” Dark Fiction by Trevor Zaple

"Mal du Pays" Dark Fiction by Trevor Zaple

On a whim Carlin decided to look up a girl from his youth whom he hadn’t thought of in fifteen years.  In retrospect he had no idea why he had decided to investigate her, other than that the weather outside of his apartment window was gloomy and rain-soaked, and that there was a certain boredom that had crept in at some point and set up a permanent encampment somewhere inside of him.  An image of her had come to him unbidden, a flash of memory-film cropping up between staring at the endless parade of items offered up on the internet and glancing out at the slow, meticulous sway of the trees that lined the street below.  He’d had to take a few minutes to remember her name.  Margaret had become Mandy had turned into Marcy before he’d finally resolved it as Melissa.  The last name had come easier; Carlin had worked with her father Terry in the Creamery, where the man had been in charge of ensuring that the recipe being mixed together was exactly right for the flavour and brand of salad dressing being made.  He’d been a drunk but he’d been all right for that; some people were worthless as drunks, but some, like Terry, had been perfectly fine except for an unhealthy bulge in the nose and a lost sort of sadness lurking behind their irises. 

            Even as he plugged her name into Facebook he wondered why he was bothering.  Surely she’d grown up since he’d known her, gotten married and delivered a series of children and resorted to dye jobs in salons to keep up the lustre of that nearly white blonde hair that was the central figure in his mind’s recollection.  Even if she had never been married, or had since been divorced, or had never had children, or her children had been taken away from her, there was no advance he could rationally take from simply looking up her name and finding the information that there was to find.  Who messages someone out of the blue after fifteen years of radio silence, except for vague acquaintances pushing pyramid schemes on everyone they’d ever met?  Carlin didn’t have scented waxes or miracle weight-loss belts to offload.  He didn’t have any reason at all to contact Melissa McVee, except that he was bored and lonely and the nexus of those two states of being is a certain wistful nostalgia.  It was a sensation the French had once referred to as mal du pays.

            #

            “Don’t you find it a little odd, though?”

            “Hmm?” Carlin’s roommate Sasha asked, not looking up from her laptop.  Her response was less a question than it was a simple animal noise, a recognition that something had been said and a refusal to engage with it beyond that acknowledgement. 

            “Are you listening to me at all?” Carlin asked.

            “Not particularly,” Sasha replied, continuing to tap away at her keyboard.  “There’s an idiot here who thinks that the presence of transgendered people as a part of society demanding the equality granted between anyone and anyone at all doesn’t make for a political situation.”

            “Not everyone’s read Ranciere, Sasha,” Carlin said.  “Could you stop for a couple of minutes and listen to me?”

            “Why?” she asked, looking up from her laptop at last.  “Not everyone has Facebook, Carlin.”

            “It’s not just that, though,” he replied.  “She isn’t on any social network, and when I do a Google search you know what shows up?”

            “The weight of the information Autobahn bearing down upon you?” Sasha muttered, returning her gaze to the screen of her laptop. 

            “Nothing.  Well, virtually nothing.  Just a message of condolences from the McVee family to someone who’d just lost their husband.  That’s it.  An entry in some two-bit funeral home’s register of grief.”

            “How utterly shocking,” Sasha muttered in response.

            “How does that not make your skin crawl just a little?”

            “Some people don’t have social media accounts.  Elvar doesn’t.  Elvar barely knows the internet exists.”

            “Elvar is one step removed from being a train-riding vagabond.  Melissa was a normal person with normal aspirations and normal friends when I grew up with her.  Even the unrepentant technophobes from the deep country I went to high school with have Facebook accounts now.  If they don’t have Facebook accounts, they have something.  They show up in pictures.  They have marriage announcements, birth announcements.  Those announcements are digitized by the local paper for people to read online.  Something.  There should be something about her.”

            “Look,” Sasha said, closing her laptop and rubbing the bridge of her nose.  “What is this about?  Why the sudden interest in a girl you sort of knew back in high school?”

            “What do you mean ‘sort of knew’?”

            “I’ve never heard you mention this girl once, not in the nine years I’ve known you.  You’ve gone into detail with me about every girl you’ve so much as kissed back then and I’ve never heard of this person.”

            “It’s hard to explain,” he replied, and in that moment it is the absolute truth.  It’s hard to explain the need to reach out to someone you only vaguely knew.  The feelings for someone are complicated when you knew their father but never really got to know them, despite your being the same age in a town where the necessities of compressed populations dictate that everyone knows everyone else in one way or another.  It comes down to a series of fleeting sense impressions, the only things that ever seem to remain indelible in memory as that memory begins to near capacity.  It comes down to watching a person walk across the street a block away; to running into them at a town festival and having a conversation that seemed deep at the time but you can’t remember a blessed thing about years later; to watching a person talk to two of the town’s more prominent basketball players and then walk away from them with the glint of tears reflecting May sunshine on their face.

            “Is this about you needing to get laid?” Sasha asked.

            “As I recall, that’s no longer any of your business,” he replied, and the rising pressure that her comment dredged up let him know that he would need to leave their apartment soon before he got angry.

            “It’s not,” Sasha said coolly.  “What I mean, though, is that you don’t have any trouble in that department.  No one really does anymore, as long as their presentable, tolerable, and halfway sane.  You don’t even need to put in the effort anymore, not really.  You take out your phone, swipe a few times, send out a few messages, exchange Snapchats, send a series of increasingly scandalous snaps in both directions, and make plans to meet up.  The revolution will be on TikTok and that revolution is really just another movement in the old Sexual Revolution.  Now that we’ve recognized that we all need it, we’re making it easier to get it every year.  Every month, it seems like.  Now you’ve come across someone you can’t just instantly message.  You can’t phone her, you can’t even get old-fashioned and romantic and send her a letter.  She’s out of reach, and it’s driven you a bit over the edge.”

            Carlin shook his head. 

            “It’s nothing like that at all,” he said.

            “Oh?  What is it like, then?”

            “I just want to know how she’s doing,” he replied, “and I can’t.  I’d have to go back home and look her up.”

            “Well,” Sasha said, “there you go.”  She shrugged, opened up her laptop, and resumed typing.

            #

            When Carlin got into his car and drove out of the parking complex buried beneath his building he had no real intention of getting very far.  He’d been seething at the time, still angry with Sasha for trying to psychoanalyze him in a half-baked fashion.  When he passed University Avenue he thought just a few more blocks and I’ll probably turn around.  Half an hour later when he took the onramp to the highway he thought I’ll grab lunch at Fire & Ice and maybe hit the big grocery store out near there and then go home.  Three hours later, as the scars of the sprawl of the modern city were receding in the face of more timeless spreads of corn, soy, and pasture, he had no more thoughts.  He tapped his finger on the steering wheel in time to the music on the radio, kept his eyes on the road, and let the worn neural pathways of familiar music substitute for actual thought.  He crossed the borders of Huron County without fanfare and felt no stirring inside of himself when he saw the iconic rise of the steeple of the Presbyterian church over the sleeping line of Seaforth. 

            He turned off the main road as soon as he could and crawled along the backstreets of Seaforth like an awkward ghost. Some magazine or another had once called it the quintessential small Ontario town, and as he returned to its creeping streets he realized that what this really meant was very little changed.  The line of houses were quiet, and the only movement came courtesy of the breeze.  Everyone would be at work, of course; it was near the end of the workday so the denizens of these stately brick houses would be busily engaged elsewhere.  The park was deserted.  In Carlin’s day there would have been at least a couple of burnouts lounging on the park benches taking in the sun, but times had apparently changed.  He turned back out on to the other main road through town and marvelled at how sleepy the commercial strip seemed even in the heart of the afternoon.  A couple of older women loitered near the post office, chatting in that peculiarly slow way that the elderly develop as they slip into the vagaries of age.  He thought about stopping to ask them directions to anywhere and then decided better.

            Further up the main street he saw a phantom from an older age – an actual phone booth. At first he refused to believe it was real, and when he got out of his car and approached it he refused to believe it would contain that other artefact of a bygone era, the phone book. It did, however: a thick grey-paged book with a bright yellow cover, containing people, addresses, and phone numbers in their multitude. He scanned through the M listing and there was McVee, T, real to the touch. He copied the number down and got back into his car.

            He took the car further up to the Optimist Park, where the baseball diamond still held dominion over a small grouping of playground equipment and a diminutive soccer field.  The phone rang on and on but just when Carlin was about to hang up and drive back home the connection was made. 

            “Hello?” the voice on the other end asked, and Carlin was mostly sure that it was Terry.

            “Terry?  Terry McVee?” Carlin asked.  There was hesitation on the other end.

            “May I ask who’s calling?” Terry said.

            “It’s Carlin, Carlin Chambers, we worked together back at the Creamery.  I guess, when the Creamery was still open.  You were working the recipe and I was on packing.”

            There was a pause on the phone, and when he spoke Terry’s voice was drawn-out and wary.

            “Listen,” he said, “What’s this about?”

            Carlin swallowed and found that his throat was quite dry.

            “Actually, Mr. McVee, this is really about your daughter, I went to school with her and-“

            “Not another one!  I really thought we were over this!  I’ve had enough of you-“

            “Terry, woah, Terry!” Carlin exclaimed.  “Calm down, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

            There was another pause, and Carlin wondered if Terry hadn’t just put down the phone and walked away.

            “Carlin Chambers?” Terry asked.

            “That’s right.”

            “Line 2, back in oh-one or oh-two?  Around then, anyway?”

            “Yes sir, I worked there with you.”

            There was another pause, and then, “Alright.  Alright.  Come on over, we’ll have a beer, I’ll give you the rundown.”

            Terry gave him the address and Carlin thanked him and ended the call.  He drove down to the address, noted the location, and then found a place to park for a time.  He watched the cars drive by the main road from the mouth of a side street and slouched down whenever he saw someone walking near.  Eventually he talked himself into the beer with Terry and retraced his steps.

            #

            Terry’s house was a spacious bungalow on the edge of town and Carlin found it surprisingly neatly kept.  The look that Terry gave Carlin when he arrived was wary but he was waved in regardless.  Terry showed him to the living room and returned a moment later with a couple of domestic pilsners.  He sat down across from Carlin, unscrewed the cap, and waited for a while before speaking.

            “So you knew Melissa in high school, then?” Terry asked.  Carlin looked around the room.  It was sparsely decorated, with very few pictures on the wall or accoutrement on shelves.  He was suddenly quite sure that Terry’s wife had passed on some time ago.

            “Yes, we were in most of the same classes together.  I went to go see if I could look her up online to see if I could get ahold of her, just to see what she’s been up to since we graduated.”

            “Oh yeah?” Terry asked.  Carlin noticed that he looked away, down and to the left toward the floor.

            “I didn’t find anything,” Carlin continued.  “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that before.  Nothing on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.  No dating profiles.  No news items or records of graduating from anything.  None of our mutual friends from high school mentioning her name in anything, recent or otherwise.  No death notice, either.  No reports of a missing person named Melissa McVee.  I got curious, so I decided to come home and find out what she was up to in person.”

            Terry drank half his bottle in one draught before responding.

            “Well,” Terry said, “the thing about that is that I don’t quite know.  I know where she lives, and I know that she’s alive, but beyond that, I can’t tell you.”

            “Did you have a falling out?” Carlin asked gently.

            “No!  Nothing of the sort. It’s hard to explain.”

            Terry rose from the sofa and walked to the window.  He peered out into the street, first to the left and then to the right, and then closed the curtains with a jerk.  When he turned around to face Carlin, it looked as though all of the muscles in the man’s face had sagged at once. 

            “It’s because of a camping trip,” he said.

#

            Melissa had been invited to go camping up on the French River with a group of people she went to school with.  Terry called them exactly that: “a group of people she went to school with”.  He didn’t call them “friends”, and the disassociation echoed in Carlin’s head while Terry told his story.

            “She came home one day asking if I would mind if she went up to the woods in the north for a week.  Some sort of get back to nature thing.  There was a bunch of them and they had it all worked out.  Tents, gear, canoes even to take out onto the river and fish and what not.  They would embark at some rickety little village, not much more than a dock and some buildings, canoe up the river to a likely spot, and then set up camp. 

            I had a bad feeling about it from the get-go.  Of course I did.  Those boys and girls she was going up north with were chuckleheads, the lot of them, I wouldn’t have trusted them to change my oil.  Still don’t.  Derek McDonald is doing just that over at Marty Henderson’s garage, and I wouldn’t go there on a bet.   What was I supposed to say, though?  No?  It’s not like I would miss her, I was on midnights that week and I would barely have seen her anyway.  She had enough trouble trying to fit in at that damned school, and I didn’t want her to have to miss out on maybe fitting in better just because her old man had a funny feeling.”

            “I don’t remember her not fitting in,” Carlin said, feeling a slow wave of confusion crawl over him.  “I don’t remember that at all.”

            “I guess it depends on who you were friends with.  Did you hang around with them?  Derek McDonald and the others?”

            “Not particularly, I suppose.  I was a smoking pit rat, and they hung out elsewhere.”

            “Well, then take it from me.  Those boys were only interested in what boys that age are always interested in, and those girls were the type to say one thing to your face and another behind your back.  Still, I thought it might be good for her, so I gave her permission.  Kick myself to this day for that.  One of them must have done something to her, I never found out what.  She never wanted to talk about it, after.  Hell, she never wanted to talk.

            When she came back she went to her room and basically shut herself up in there.  Closed the door, wouldn’t respond to knocking unless I got insistent, could hear her typing away on her computer at all hours of the night.  There would be weird noises.  Early on it sounded like she was hitting her keyboard, and sobbing.  Or not quite sobbing, I’m not sure.” 

            He paused, wiped at his mouth, and disappeared into the kitchen.  There were two more beers in his hand and Carlin accepted one in silence.

            “It was deeper than sobbing.  I guess maybe you’d call it guttural, if that’s a word for a noise a human can make.  When she did come out of her room, she wouldn’t say much of anything.  She looked exhausted and her skin was grey.  She would walk around the house in this sort of limp, like she’d forgotten how to walk and she was figuring out how to do it all over again.  Over time I didn’t hear those noises so much anymore, and she started to walk normally again, but for a while, I swear, honest to God it was like she’d been born all over again and she’d regressed to being a toddler in some ways.

            Her mother and I had a fight about it, a big one.  She wanted to haul the lot of them down to court, everyone she’d gone on the trip with.  I told her it wasn’t a goddamn option, it would be us against the rest of them, and that would mean it would be us against the rest of the town.  She dropped it, but she also left me pretty shortly after.  The letter she sent me told me I was a coward and that I wasn’t willing to stand up for my family.  She didn’t take Melissa with her, though.”

            He drained half of his beer at once and wiped at his mouth.  Carlin played with the label on his bottle and realized that he was holding his breath.

            “Wasn’t long ’til graduation, though,” Terry continued.  “She didn’t cross the stage for her diploma or any of that.  Just took the letter and didn’t talk about it, like everything else.  Few weeks later and she was gone, claimed she took a job and moved out.”

            “Claimed she took a job?” Carlin interjected, looking up quickly. 

            “Sure.  She never gave me very many details, she was home when I called in the middle of the day, and, just before she must have changed her address with the post office, they delivered a letter from the welfare department here.”

            He gulped down the rest of the bottle and slammed the empty down on the coffee table.  It wobbled uncertainly, threatened to fall over, and in the end righted itself.

            “I can give you her number if you want.  Maybe she’ll talk to you.  It might be easier for her, with someone who isn’t me, or her mother, you know?”

            Carlin wadded up a mound of gummy beer label between his fingers and stared intently at it.

            “I don’t know, Terry,” he said.  “It sounds to me like she doesn’t want to talk to other people, and I don’t know if I were in that position if I’d want some guy I barely knew in high school coming by and-“

            “Please, Carlin,” Terry said.  Carlin looked up and saw that there was a wetness quivering on the surface of the man’s eyes.  “I have no idea what my daughter is up to, if she’s working, if she’s anything like happy, if she’s even alive right now.”

            The wad of former label dislodged itself from Carlin’s fingers and tumbled toward the floor.

            “Another beer, and we have a deal,” he said.

#

            He drove out to the edge of town near the old Van Egmond manor and parked alongside an artificially spaced line of poplars, next to a row of graves from the early 19th Century.  He called her number, waited through nine rings, and broke off the attempt.  The day was darkening now and a stiff breeze was blowing out from the west, out from the lake that sprawled out in the distance that way.  He checked his social media, swiped his way through a series of photos that National Geographic had taken of the Arctic, and then his phone buzzed.  He checked the number and saw that it was Melissa. 

            “Hello?” he answered the phone tentatively.

            “Who is this?” she asked.  Her voice croaked over the connection, as though her throat was clearing out after a long period of disuse.

            “Melissa, this is Carlin Chambers,” he said, “I’m not sure if you remember me.”

            “Go on,” she said.

            “Well,” Carlin fumbled.  “You see, I thought about you the other day and wanted to know what it was you were up to these days, only I realized that there was nothing about you on social media.  I mean,” he laughed, “I guess it’s a little silly, how quickly it’s all come up and we expect everyone to be as embedded in that culture as we are ourselves, but it threw me for a loop and I had to come out here to find out.”

            “You…thought of me?” she said after a moment.  The pause between her words was oddly cut, as though there had been a little buffering bar loading underneath her voice.

            “Yeah, I was daydreaming and going back through some old memories in my head and then I remembered a few that had you in them. Look, I know it sounds a little bizarre.”

            “A little?”

            “We don’t have to meet up if you don’t want to,” Carlin said, stressing the choice that underpinned the invitation.  “I should be getting home before my roommate worries anyway.  But I drove all this way and I would love to talk to you.”

            “How did you get my number?”

            “Your dad is worried about you.”

            There was another awkwardly long pause on the phone.

            “My dad,” she said, her throaty voice falling flat on the words.  It was like listening to boiled water – devoid of any taste but still wet.

            “I should go,” Carlin said.  In the moment he felt as though he couldn’t press the red end button fast enough.  His screen melted away back to the home position and he placed it in the driver side cup holder.

            He rested his chin in the crux of his thumb and forefinger and watched the world subtly change through the windshield.  He chased the conversation through his head on a repeated gif loop.  Her voice, with its odd inflections and starts and stops; it was jagged, as if it was being dragged along a rough pathway.  He started the car and pulled out onto the main road.

            Where he was going was a mystery; the car rolled down streets and the wheel turned seemingly at random. He wasn’t sure what he was even driving around looking for, but on the outskirts of town he found a shabby-looking garage with a weather-beaten old sign that said “Henderson Fine Autos” that featured a pair of faded old 80s-vintage sedans quietly rusting in the parking lot. There was no movement, although the big garage door was closed and there were drawn blinds over the office, so Carlin wasn’t sure if there was anyone there or not. It wasn’t the end of the business day yet, though, so he decided on getting out and trying to find an employee.

            Inside the garage a radio hanging on the wall let out a steady stream of grungy gut-rock, 90s retreads that seemed to all blend into each other. There was a glass window immediately to the right of the entrance and behind it a middle-aged balding man sat behind a desk marking off paperwork. He wore a blue workshirt with “Henderson” stitched into it. Carlin knocked on the door of this little office; Henderson looked up and gestured him in impatiently.

            “Just drive the car in,” Henderson said, still looking down at his paperwork. “Then let Derek know what the problem is.”

            “It’s actually Derek I’m looking for,” Carlin said. Henderson looked up and looked at him without expression for a moment.

            “What’d he do this time?” Henderson asked, his tone defeated.

            “I don’t know,” Carlin replied, “That’s sort of what I wanted to talk to him about.”

            “Goddammit,” Henderson spat. “He’s out back dealing with some old tires. Don’t make a scene. You aren’t with the cops are you?”

            “No,” Carlin replied, biting his lip to keep from laughing. “Just trying to get a story straight.”

            Henderson didn’t offer directions but Carlin managed to find the back door, on the other side of four cars that were hoisted up and in varying states of repair. It screamed in protest as he opened it and the sunlight was overly bright even after the short time he’d spent within the garage. Derek McDonald was stacking old tires out against the cinderblock wall, just as Henderson had implied. Carlin vaguely recognized him from their adolescence, although the two of them had never really hung out together. The Derek in his memories was a lot skinnier, less pasty-looking, his posture upright and powerful rather than slouched.

            He wondered how to approach the situation, whether he should call out to Derek or simply wait. Derek solved the situation by turning furtively around, his hand darting to the front pocket of his workshirt (exactly like Henderson’s, only with “McDonald” stitched above the pocket his hand was diving into). He had probably been reaching for a cigarette, but when he saw Carlin his hand froze and his expression became a mixture of shock and dismay that Carlin almost found hilarious.

            “Hey, you’re not supposed to be back here,” Derek said. “This ain’t no public alleyway.”

            Carlin put a hand out, as though Derek were a dog or some other creature in need of soothing. “I’m here to talk to you,” he said. Derek cringed backward, nearly falling into the tires.

            “Aw hell no,” he cried, “I didn’t do it. Whatever you’re here to pin on me I didn’t do it.”

            “No,” Carlin said, frustrated, and then decided to try a different tactic. “Look, we went to school together.”

            Derek peered at him and Carlin was again struck by how much the man had let himself go in the ensuing years.

            “Yeah, I think I recognize you,” Derek said. “You’re named Carey or Carlin or something like that.”

            “Carlin,” Carlin said, feeling somewhat relieved. “So you remember me?”

            “Man, no,” Derek said, “I barely recognize you, like I know we went to school together and it was a small school but I don’t know what you’re here for.”

            “OK,” Carlin said, growing impatient. “Do you remember Melissa McVee though?”

            The impact that the name had on Derek’s demeanour was electric. The paltry amount of colour left in his cheeks vanished and his mouth closed tightly, as though he’d just taken a hefty shot of lemon juice.

            “Nah,” Derek said, and now there was real hostility in his voice. “Get the fuck out of here. I ain’t talking to you about shit.”

            The bizarre nature of the day had left Carlin with his own sense of bubbling rage and it erupted out at Derek.

            “So, what?” Carlin yelled. “You guys just took her out into the woods and what? Beat her up? Did worse things to her?”

            “What goddamn business is it of yours?” Derek shouted. He started toward Carlin, his fists raised and his eyes telegraphing his intent to bury one in the thin breakable cartilage of Carlin’s nose.

            “I just talked to her dad,” Carlin shouted back. “He told me she was never the same after she came back from that camping group with you…’chuckleheads’ was what he called you but I bet I could find way worse things to call you, right Derek?”

            Derek stopped six feet from Carlin and his fist withered and fell to his side. The angry glare was replaced by something altogether more dreadful; he looked like nothing so much as a little boy caught out in the rain without a jacket blocks from home.

            “I see her dad around town now and again,” he said, and his voice was quiet now. “He won’t even look me in the eye?”

            “What happened?” Carlin asked. “What the hell happened?”

            Derek looked at the back door for a long moment and then pulled a pack of cigarettes out of that front pocket. He lit one and leaned back against the wall.

            “We went camping, yeah,” he said, and Carlin felt that for Derek he might not even be there. “Big group of us. Me, Eric De Vries, Connor Sutherland, Dawn Gaeder, Lisa Schultz, Melissa. It was Melissa’s first time out in the woods, she’d kind of always been on the outside of us. Her and Lisa had become friends, though, so we invited her out. At first everything was okay. We went swimming, set up the tents, cooked dinner. There were drinks, of course – what’s the point of camping if you aren’t drinking – but it’s not like any of us were getting blacked out or anything.”

            “We hit the tents once it got late and tried to get some sleep. I remember…” he exhaled smoke and stared up into the sky. “I remember thinking I heard Connor and Dawn going at it. They were clearly trying to be quiet, but the woods are quieter. At least I thought they were then. It was right after they finished, or when it sounded like they finished doing whatever it was they were doing. I heard another tent zip open and someone stepping heavily out into the trees. I went back to sleep but some time later I woke up. It must have been the footsteps coming back into that same tent that woke me up, but I could tell it was a lot lighter out. Light enough that I could sort of see through the door of my tent, and I saw an outline of Melissa going back into her tent.”

            “The next day was…odd. When she got up out of her tent in the morning it sounded like she’d caught a hell of a cold overnight, like her throat was just stuffed with snot. It got better throughout the day but she could hardly talk at first, and when she did it sounded slow, like she was picking over her words. Like it was the first grade again or something. She had some trouble walking, too. I don’t know what was wrong with her and I never found out.”

            “So she caught a bad cold out in the woods one night and it derailed her life?” Carlin was skeptical and starting to regret coming to the garage. Derek obviously had problems of his own and Carlin wasn’t sure how reliable a witness this greying, pudgy man could realistically be.

            “No man, I don’t think that at all,” Derek said, and Carlin saw that the man had refocused his attention back on him. “She was like a different person entirely. One who didn’t even know how to act as a person. Like she’d been reset out in the woods that night and she was trying to play catch-up. We kind of avoided her for the rest of the trip and then when we got back to town we avoided her some more. It seemed like a mutual decision. Everyone could see that something had happened to her though. They thought the same thing you did – that we did something to her out there that night, like we were monsters to her or something.”

            He tossed his cigarette butt into the gravel of the alley and spun angrily, getting up into Carlin’s face.

            “We didn’t do a goddamn thing to her!” he shouted. Carlin winced and wondered how long it would take people to come and investigate what was going on in the alley. “We invited her out there, what else were we supposed to do? She wandered off and came back and I don’t know what happened!”

            He lowered his voice, pitching it down to a near-whisper. “She would stare at us, the whole time after. Whenever we were fishing, or swimming, she would just sit and stare at us. You could look back to the shoreline and there she would be, just. Watching. Or whatever.”

            He pulled out another cigarette and lit it, not bothering to check the door this time. “Once I woke up and she was in the door of my tent, just squatting and looking at me. I got angry, swore a bunch, called her a lot of names you’re not supposed to call a woman. She didn’t even flinch, just kept eyeing me until she finally went back to her own tent. And the smell.” He exhaled smoke in a short burst of laughter and choked on it a little. “Like something rotting, or, I don’t know. Molding. Like wet leaves in the basement. She didn’t smell like that before. Before, she smelled like…” He trailed off. Carlin got the hint and shuffled his feet, uncomfortable.

            “Alright, I should probably go then,” he said. “Sorry to bring up the past like this, but…like I said, her father…”

            “Whatever,” Derek said, dismissing him with a wave. “Get lost before I get fired. If the boss asks you on the way out just tell him I’m stacking those tires like he asked.”

            Henderson was gone when Carlin went back inside, and the garage was deserted. He returned to his car and put his forehead on the steering wheel, at a loss for what to do next.

            #

            Carlin had made up his mind to leave, regardless of his promises to Terry, and had gone so far as to get near the edge of town when his phone rang over the Bluetooth connection. He pulled over when he saw the number come up; it was the same one he’d punched in sitting in that cemetery overlooking another borderland of the town.

            “Hello?” he opened cautiously.

            “Carlin Chambers,” Melissa said, and the inflections on his name sounded off. She had pronounced them normally but there was something just slightly off-kilter about the way they came over the car’s stereo.

            “That’s me,” he chuckled nervously. “I want to apologize to you about the call we had earlier today. I’m sure it was pretty weird for you too.”

            “Pretty weird,” she said. “I’m used to it.”

            You’re used to it was what Carlin almost said, but Melissa kept speaking after an oddly-shaped moment of time.

            “I was calling you back to see if you wanted to fetch up,” she said, “maybe get some coffee and talk about old times.”

            “I –“ did she say fetch up or catch up? Am I hearing things now? “I would love to do that. Is there a particular coffee shop in town you’d like to go to or…?”

            “Just come to my house,” she said. “I’ve got lots of coffee. Good stuff. Just come here and we can talk about things.” She gave her address in a sing-song fashion, as though reciting it for a class.

            “Sure, Melissa, that sounds nice.” The smile on his face was insincere. She hung up and he hung on to that smile about a second longer. He drummed his hands on the steering wheel and thought about it. It was on his mind to leave, to just keep going down Highway 8 and make the connections that would eventually lead him back home. He was a block or so away from the town limits, parked on the top of the hill that overlooked the YMCA swimming pool and baseball diamond. Before him lay stretched out farm fields, green and lush but now dappled in shadow. Thunderheads were gathering on the horizon; a darkness formed on the edge of town.

            He drove off in a different direction. His phone gave him the turns, and he whistled as he went. It was just a coffee. There was no need to make anything more out of it. A little bit of fetch up – or catch up, rather, what a silly thing to have thought another person said – and then back home before it got too dark. She could talk about what happened to her, or not. He was just being polite. And so on – he was providing post-hoc justification for what he was already doing. He had to see. He’d come all this way, after all.

            He passed the town limits sign outside of the old drive-in diner, back by where the elementary school had been before the powers that be had decided that rural education was just not in the budget. It was the first time he’d left town since he arrived, and now the storm was starting to run ahead of him, the shadows creeping over his car and darkening the road before him. By the time his phone indicated it was time to turn off the road rain had begun to spatter on his windshield and a low rumble could be heard some few miles behind.

            The road he was directed to take was one he didn’t remember clearly, and Carlin noted that it was not very well maintained. The next turn he was told to make took him into a small village named Vanastra. Most of the houses looked exactly like what they were: barracks built to house military personnel during the Second World War that were repurposed as low-income family housing. He drove slowly through town, the rain worsening, until he came to what his phone called “his destination”: a stooped and ill-favoured bungalow nestled against the woods that ringed the western edge of the village.

            He watched the house from inside his car, listening to the rain hammer down upon the roof. It was dilapidated, and one of the upstairs windows had planks of wood hammered overtop of it. He thought of the story that Derek had told him, about how Melissa had gone into the forest and come back hours later, different. Now she was here, in this decaying soldier’s barracks by the edge of another forest. The rain thrummed across his thoughts and he closed his eyes to try to block it out. He should turn around, get out of this driveway and just drive. Not necessarily even back to Toronto, but out of this little village and anywhere else. Just turn around and –

            There was a tapping on his window. When he opened his eyes he saw Melissa standing outside the car, peering in. She looked the same as she had when Carlin had known her in high school, except with more folds to her skin; it was as though her skin had just started loosening in lieu of ageing, and her eyes were more sunken than Carlin remembered. She smiled when she saw him open his eyes, though, and Carlin wondered if he wasn’t just psyching himself out.

            He rolled down the window and she gave a little wave.

            “Hi Carlin,” she said. “Sorry about the weather. Come inside. I have something I want to show you.”

            Carlin smiled back, although he could feel it wavering a little. Up close there was a slight croak in her voice, but it was raining out and Carlin told himself not to get caught up in some alky good ol’ boy’s paranoid ideas. Her smile seemed genuine enough and it was with only a hint of trepidation that he emerged from the car and followed her quickly to the doorway.

            That feeling quickly faded as he got into the house. There was a smell lingering in the atmosphere, something deeply wet and unpleasant. Every house has its own particular smell, depending on the food that its inhabitants cook or the animals they keep. Melissa’s house smelled like there was something mouldering in an unseen room, some pile of damp garbage. He thought about Derek’s contention that she smelled of decaying wet leaves and felt a wave of cold nausea run through his stomach. He stood in the drab entryway of Melissa’s house, torn; his feet wanted to go, badly as it turned out, but his rational brain still wanted to stay, and was busily browbeating his animal response with a long line of reasons as to why everything was perfectly normal.

            Melissa stood on the other side, in the entryway to what Carlin assumed was the kitchen. She beckoned to him, smiling.

            “Come here, Carlin. I have something I want to show you.”

            “I think I should go,” Carlin said, feeling oddly childlike.

            “Come here, Carlin,” she repeated. “I have something I want to show you.”

            God help him, he went.

            #

            The rattle of the doorknob downstairs brought an immense amount of relief to Sasha. It was nearly one in the morning and she had expected Carlin back from his nostalgia trip ages ago. She had suspected in the back of her mind for the last several hours that Carlin had found what he was looking for and was in the throes of reunion passion with this random girl he had apparently just remembered today. There was clearly more of a story there and Sasha planned on dragging it out of him in the morning, but for now she was content that he was home. She had pictured his car smashed up on the highway, the lurid flashing lights of an emergency response team surrounding him, cutting him out, and shaking their heads sadly as they called it with the precise time.

            “Carlin,” she called out, “Glad you’re back. Maybe call me next time you’re going to be late so I don’t think you’ve met your end in the middle of nowhere.”

            There was no response from downstairs. She caught a strange scent wafting up from below, like leaves left to moulder under the outdoor steps after the great autumn rains. Her first instinct was to make a note to tell the landlord to fulfill his cleaning duties, but then she remembered that it hadn’t rained in days.

            “Carlin?” she asked into the silence.

            “Come here, Sasha,” Carlin said. His voice seemed thick and draggy, like he’d caught a hell of a cold between leaving and returning. “I have something I want to show you.”


Trevor Zaple is a Canadian with an M.A. in Political Science whose work has appeared in Across The Margin+Horror Library+Trigger Warning, and Pif Magazine.  He currently lives in the second-best London with his wife, two daughters, two dogs, a cat, and a stuffed moose.


If you enjoyed “Mal du Pays”, you might also enjoy “Angels of the Morning” by Alan Catlin.

Two of Trevor’s books are available in The Chamber’s Bookshop: Prospero’s Half-Life and Interstitial Burn-Boy Blues.

“Daluse” Dark Fiction by Rob Plunkett

"Daluse" Dark Fiction by Rob Plunkett small town

Nothing much ever happened in Daluse.

It was a small town – tiny really – with two bars, a laundromat, a grocery, and a post office. One of the two bars was owned by the town’s mayor who was a stout man with a round greasy bald head and ornery looking whiskers and a constant supply of mucous in his throat which he coughed up in a handkerchief while giving speeches in the town center. The town center consisted of a modest circle of crabgrass and a few dark spindly trees with a cracked cement walkway running through the circle and a green wooden bench.  Almost no one ever sat on the bench.

There was also a five and dime in town where one could buy a can of chili or green beans or a household sponge or nails to hang up pictures.

But no one ever hung up a picture in Daluse – in their homes that is – because the townspeople who lived in Daluse were not artistic-minded.  They fished and hunted and farmed the land, etc.  Grew vegetables.  Chopped down trees to burn in their wood burning stoves.   Genuine out-doorsy, “live off the land” type stuff.  They were survivors.

They had survived the great war indeed.  The war had occurred right outside of Daluse quite a long time ago.  Only one person who lived in Daluse was old enough to remember the war.  His name was Eddie and most people called him “ancient Eddie” for obvious reasons.  Eddie had wispy white hair sprouting in odd spots from the top and sides of his shriveled noggin.  His hair was soft and looked like feathers.  He could no longer walk so his son Jasper pushed him along in a flimsy wheelchair up and down Main Street, Daluse where the two bars and laundromat and five and dime were and Eddie would bark out orders to his son as to where he wanted to go next.  He was near completely deaf so when someone was in one of the two bars, and even when Eddie was a block away, that person could hear where Eddie wanted to go next.  “Laundromat!” or “Five and Dime!” and so on.      

Ancient Eddie did not fight in the war but rather he hid.  All of the townspeople of Daluse hid which may very well have saved them from the slaughter that took place in the nearby city of Wanessa.  A large percentage of Wanessa’s population were decimated during the war.  “It was unpleasant to say the least,” Eddie would tell people in Daluse.  “We could hear their cries clear across the woods – hideous blood curdling screams.  At night.”   Daluse was then (and still is) surrounded by woods that were thick with an assortment of oak and hickory and cottonwood trees stretching up to the sky amidst their own kindly branches.  On a windy afternoon one could hear the branches shaking to and fro, the thinner branches knocking into each other with their waxy leaves shimmering.  On these afternoons it seemed all of Daluse was surrounded by a soothing chorus of woodsy knock-abouts.           

Which is why the wholesale bloody massacre that took place just one town over in the city of Wanessa was such a contradiction to what was happening in the tiny hamlet of Daluse.  There were homes in Daluse situated on the outer rim of the town limits whose backyards ended right where the woods began and these people would sometimes sit on their back porches at night after dinner to enjoy a cup of coffee and sweet roll and feel the breeze and listen to the branches.  But then sometimes they would also hear the distant shrieking of those in Wanessa being butchered.  When that happened they would grab their coffee cups and run into their homes and lock their doors and windows.  It was as if they lived down the road from a drive-in movie theater that was showing a horror movie every night and you could not hear any of the dialogue or the soundtrack or anything else but the screaming during the murder scenes. And mostly those screams that were high pitched like when woman or children were being killed.

Each resident of Daluse (five hundred and eleven give or take on any one day) had double and triple padlocked every means of entry into their homes.  Even the ones who lived in the apartments above the stores in the town center blocks away from the woods.  The ones who lived at the very edge of town up against the woods would then stand watch on their roofs with their rifles and their rifle scopes and look out over the tops of the oak and hickory trees  and struggle to see who or what was causing the slaughter.  There were glimpses of horrific huge figures not of human form with no apparent limbs yet they moved along and overtook the blighted townsfolk of Wanessa with ease and while the victims would struggle and shriek the forms would make no sound at all.   They would simply devour one Wanessia and then roll along to the next one and devour that one.         

“We knew they were being beheaded,” ancient Eddie would tell his friends at the bar owned by Daluse’s mayor, referring to the poor people of Wanessa.  “Because we found their bloody heads in the woods.”  The bar was called “Mayor’s Tavern” and it was always dark inside because the bar’s windows that fronted Daluse’s Main Street were small and there were only three light fixtures hanging over the bar each with a dusty green and yellow tiffany light shade.  On the outside of the bar at the entrance there was an old blue and red neon sign positioned right above the bar’s heavy oak door that read “Mayor’s Taver” because the “N” had long since burned out. The sign was lit night and day and it made a constant soft electrical humming noise.          

No one knew why the heads of the poor decapitated people of Wanessa were being discarded into the woods of Daluse.  “And we were not about to stroll into Wanessa from those woods to inquire,” is what Eddie would say, “I’ll tell you what!”

The crows would pick the flesh from the heads.  This is how the people from Daluse would find the heads – they would simply watch to see where the crows descended. They were superstitious folk (and still are to this very day)  and they did not want to leave the decomposing heads in the woods. “Bad karma” is how they would have explained themselves had they appreciated art and lived in the city of Wanessa which housed an art museum, two mom and pop bookstores and a small amphitheater where people played their brass and stringed instruments.  But Dalusians did not use these types of words. They just said things like “it ain’t natural to leave ‘em sittin’ there” or “sign of the devil” and then kissed a piece of garlic or a gem that hung from a chord  around their necks.

“The mayor back then made a speech in the town center about what to do with the heads,”  Eddie explained after a hearty swallow of domestic draft beer.  Daluse’s present mayor who was tending bar that day then spit up some phlem into his handkerchief as if queued by the mention of “mayor.”   “We then took a vote on what to do with the heads.  And by God . . .” and here Eddie’s entire skeletal-like frame shook and he gripped the arms of his wheelchair and became choked up and the tears rolled down his hollowed cheeks.

“I voted to throw ‘em back!!”

And he wept and wept like a baby and his buddies tried to comfort him by patting him on the back and rubbing his bald head. They had heard the story hundreds of times before so they were prepared with a hot toddy that the mayor handed to Eddie when he had composed himself enough to hold it. The mug warmed his gnarled hands and he sipped the syrupy mixture graciously and allowed the fearsome memories of those horrific times fade away and then he fell asleep and his son wheeled him out of the bar.

It was true Eddie had voted to throw the heads back to Wanessa.  But in fact what happened was the townsfolk of Daluse voted to bury them out of respect for the dead.  Being superstitious they also felt that the act itself of burying might appease whatever things were devouring the bodies of the Wanessian city folk and leaving their heads in the woods. (And here they thought of a knight or even a king eating a whole baked chicken while tossing the bones one by one off the dining room table leaving them for the servants to pick up and discard in the trash.)   Nor have the Dalusians ever told a single soul outside of Daluse about the terrible war that was so profoundly lost by the Wanessians (although the people of Wanessa waged a brave defense against the unlimbed murderers of their population).   Many of them would explain their silence by saying something like “so as not to stir up trouble.” They were known by those living outside of Daluse to be kind, uncomplicated folk, albeit generally uneducated.   

Which is why it comes as a surprise to all those living outside Daluse that while Dalusians are known to be a humble people who live simply and do not much appreciate art and generally ignore the humanities, etc., to this day the tiny hamlet of Daluse produces some of the most widely renowned and respected arborists in the world. 

While Dalusians are humble they are not stupid.  Rolling killers need space to roll.  Simple.


Rob Plunkett lives in New Jersey and works as a lawyer in Manhattan.  His hobbies include writing short fiction and playing drums in a three-member indie rock band.


If you liked this story, check out “Read the Sign” by Peter Portelli. You might also like Small Town Monsters by Diana Rodriguez Wallach in The Chamber’s bookshop.

“Zombies in a Dreamscape” Dark, Supernatural Fiction by Hareendran Kallinkeel

"Zombies in a Dreamscape" Dark, Supernatural Fiction by Hareendran Kallinkeel

Senan watches the scrawny figures of men and women as they wade through a wetland, in slush thick and sticky like molten chocolate.

A hint of red tainting their peeling skin, they appear like human anomalies accidentally tossed into Mother Earth’s lap.

In the fields on the other side, lush green plants sway in the breeze, waves lapping in an ocean of emeralds. Bright sunlight strokes the blades of leaves. Music flows as locusts rub their legs against their wings, luring their mates.

Soon, their mating will be over. They’ll pounce, to notch the tender rice seeds. Like a hungry pack of wolves feeding on the warm blood of a fallen prey, they will drain out the sweet sap and devour the savory husks.

Adjacent to the paddy fields, by the side of a stream, stretches the Master’s plantation of coconut and araca nut. In between the palms, he grows rows of assorted trees that serve as support for black-pepper plants to climb on and thrive.

The Master’s mettle derives from the money he rakes-in through the export of these tropical crops; and, unflinching loyalty of the laborers who toil for him.  

Senan’s eyes roam around.

Pink nylon ropes hang from a banyan tree, like the tongues of bloodhounds he sees in his nightmares. In their coils, they hinge a cushioned wooden plank.

The Master descends from the rain clouds. “I hold the power of wind in my wing muscles, and confine the strength of torrents within my chest.”

The swing sways in a breeze. The tree’s aerial roots, strands of dreadlocks, dance rhythmically in tandem as the wind gathers momentum.

Senan stands up, reaches out with a hand. The orange sun, glowing behind him, casts his shadow over the space before him in scattered patterns.

She emerges from shadows, parting the banyan’s roots, dreadlocks of ancient gods, with her hands. Her fingers wrap around the swing’s rope, and she hoists herself onto it. Her hair, auburn and lustrous, sweeps back from her shoulders, a cascade of brown lava, edges fiery golden.

“Even this girlie thing, a child’s source of glee…” The Master laughs. “It’s my legacy, like everything else.”

As she swings forward, the tail of her half-sari flutters in the wind, the flapping sounds compete with the music in her laughter.

She continues to swing. The wind comes from the fore, causing her linen garment to stick to her skin. Its constant caresses define her curvy contours; ample bust area, tapering to a flat belly, and flexing out to wide hips.

The Master’s breaths grow heavier.

The swirling air twists and coils the cloth around her neck and onto the rope. Her veins thicken, become pronounced on her pale skin, their greenish-blue hue pulsating with the thuds of her heart.

Senan yearns to rush forth, but fear freezes him.

Her large eyes pop out of their sockets, the gush of blood dark. He feels its warmth as it hits his face, a thick torrent.

“Anita!” Senan tastes her saltiness in his mouth. 

Behind him, the Master’s laughter resounds with a diabolic cadence. Unleashed, his bloodhounds ravage. The Master, leashes in his hand, approaches Anita. He stands watching, his back turned to Senan.

The canines pant, their labored breaths mix with the chaotic rustle of banyan leaves. The swing continues to sway forward. The Master throws away the shackles.

Legs spread, she swings towards him. It looks like the ferocity of the wind has erased any traces of clothing from her body.

The Master doesn’t flinch away from the glow of her dusky skin, a mark of a lower-caste girl. A whore, he calls her.

Her eyeballs shoot back into their sockets, a scene from played-back video. She looks at Senan, the veil of wetness in her eyes inadequate to mask the pleading in them.

Senan struggles to pull free his feet, clamped down by fear for the Master, dread for his wrath. His knees, turned into jelly, buckle.

The bloodhounds run after her as the swing freezes in suspension for a moment, at the point of return. They stand on their hind legs, raising their forepaws as if to dig at her flesh. The swing regains its forward motion.

The Master, head between Anita’s thighs, inhales her femininity. “She smells the same, no untouchables here,” he announces. “And, I won’t honor ties that bind blood to blood anymore.”

A threat, Senan thinks, to dissuade me. “Leave her alone,” he yells, extricating his legs from the ground’s hold, and runs toward the swing. It disappears, a wisp of smoke; so does the Master and Anita.

The banyan’s dreadlocks crawl along Senan’s shoulders, and wriggle on his face. They coil around his ears, their tips sneaking into his nose, like the forked tongues of serpents. Their slithery movements torment him… an ice-cold feel of the nightmares that steal his peace.

He wades his way through, parting the dreadlocks with his hands, and gliding through like a black cobra.

On the other side, as dusk falls in the paddy fields, Senan observes the laborers, who evolved as starving zombies, haggard, fatigued. Shackles binding their legs jingle as they try to tread beyond the extent their restraints allowed.

Tormented by the sting of metal rings, they freeze to the realization of pain gnawing at their ankles and wrists.

#

The stream flows, a wanton maiden dancing on bejeweled feet, silver anklets jingling in gleeful abandon.

Senan lies on the shore, the bed of sand cozy like his mother’s lap.

Silvery sunrays render a grayish shine over edges of glaciers, which move like enormous snails crawling along the mountain’s foot. Rain clouds hover, dazzled by the freezing air, seeking refuge behind cliffs.

The making of a Pangaea unfolds before his eyes, a snowy land merging into a tropical region, a phenomenon of Triassic periods repeating in the present; a subcontinent that drifted away, now amalgamates with a continent.

Braced in preparation for earthquakes and tsunamis, Senan doesn’t even feel a slight tremor. The ocean remains calm, the mountains unperturbed.     

The Master emerges, breaking a glacier’s wall, scattering chunks of ice around. “Look at me,” he says. “How I facilitate the amalgamation of lands whose traits contrast, how I drive a plate tectonics event.”

“To what end?” Senan asks, his voice vibrating along the glacier’s glassy surface, like the incantation of a mantra, a chanting of hymn for gods in the high skies.

“I can bring about calamity, akin to the one foretold to happen in Kali Yuga.”

Kali Yuga, an era of darkness, the last of the 24,000 years’ time cycle as per Hindu mythology, will end in 2025. A period of cataclysm, with disastrous consequences to the human race will follow. Trends of global warming, increased tectonic activities, and changes in earth’s cosmic neighborhoods may all represent the doom of humanity, an apocalypse. But, what the hell the Master has to do with those phenomena? Senan thinks.

“You aren’t a God, to control such matters…” he says.

“Oh, but I am, can’t you see?” The Master points to the ground that has turned into a large sheet of thin ice, below which water stands still.

Anita floats beneath the transparent layer, her eyes wide open, mouth gaping.

“I punish the guilty.” The Master laughs. “I give them life, again and again; to be killed again and again for each of their sins. Isn’t that a trait godly enough?”

“Release her from your spell, or…”

“Or what…” The Master snickers. “You have nothing. And, I’ll show you what power is.”

As the Master raises his hand, Senan feels an icy chill lick through his feet, blood freeze in his veins.

A tiny spray issues from the Master’s hand and a puddle appears on the ice sheet. As Senan watches, it churns into an enormous water body. Slowly, it turns into a huge wave, which crashes on the glassy surface, breaking it.

The Master’s mouth opens in a roar and his voice sends vibrations along the ground beneath Senan’s feet, shaking it. As tremors keep rocking his body, Senan observes an enormous whirlpool form, twirling the water.

Anita splays her arms and legs, gasping for air. The whirlpool swirls toward her, like a ravaging tornado.

“A twister creates a whirlpool, punishes a sinner… air and water at my command, what else you need to qualify as a God?”

#

Dewdrops hanging onto the blades scatter as a cobra wriggles through grass. Rumbles of thunder, shaking the rain clouds and vibrating along the earth’s surface, hasten its slither.

The snake raises its head, sensing danger, flicks out a forked tongue. Sunlight deflects from the specks on its spread hood. A shadow falls on its black, glistening skin.

“Wake up, Senan…” Her voice, mellow, echoes as a soft thud in his heart.

An eagle, soaring in the high skies, swoops down. The carpet of grass undulates. The bird’s scaled talons scrape past Senan’s cheek, and he jolts from sleep.

The eagle lands on the ground, wings still spread. The serpent’s raised hood pulsates.

“Revenge…” Her voice reverberates in his ears. “Respond to injustice.”

A thunderbolt splits the sky, sun sneaks behind a hill. Storm lashes out and rain batters the land. Chilly gusts cool the air, rainwater softens the soil.

In the damp darkness, an orange glow taints raindrops falling in a slanted pattern. Heat radiates, causing beads of perspiration to break on Senan’s skin.

The atmosphere thickens with clouds of smoke. Senan turns back and looks at the hill.  

On the other side, where the stream meets the sea, he sees thick black clouds, edges orange, emit from the hill’s apex. His first sight of a volcanic eruption in this region, an experience that beholds him…

The Master stands in his hide, a demon rising from the tide, and yells into the murky dusk. Moon shudders, blinking once, stars shrink to naught. The evil, in its primal form, demonstrates itself; raw, savage.

Tremors jolt the Earth’s core and lightning whips a sole charging wave, driving it back from the shore in quick heaves. A tornado tears through the sand. The musky scent of sodden earth suffocates Senan as he stands sweating.

The Master wades through water, resurrecting waves in his wake, to lash at the shore. “Within me resides the cosmos,” he says. “And, in my hand the magic…”

Senan perceives a voice, so soft it renders itself as an inaudible intonation, from somewhere on the shore.

“It’s time…”

In answer, another voice whispers, “No, let the pot of sins fill. The time ripens only when it overflows…”

The Master strides to the shore, dragging Anita. Her curly locks twisted around his wrist, she fights trying to break free.

“Come to your damned senses.” The mellow voice Senan heard earlier whispers.

“The pot has to fill, overflow. There’s no other way for evil to bloom and perish unto itself.”

Senan knows, the Master has imported, with the money he gained from his exports, philosophies that appeal to him, and he has fed it to his brethren, who readily devoured it.

To the Master, the notions, which force the laborers and henchmen to act the way he wants in return for menial favors, remain the tools of his survival. The arrows in his quiver are never exhausted.

Ignorant men and women ravish on the crumbs he throws, less than the feed for his canines. Hungry, they devour the food with no appreciation of their entitlement for more. 

“It’s in your blood,” Senan says, “oppress those who oppose, throw morsels to those who acquiesce.”

“The powerless…” The Master harks up a lump of phlegm, spits it out onto the shore. “They just lament always, doing nothing.”

“The power you don’t see,” Senan says, “maybe, that’s your downfall.”

The Master holds Anita up in his left hand, rotates the index finger of his other hand. A twirling ray of flame dances around it for a moment and disappears.

“At my command,” he says. “Now, I’ll unleash the fire’s devastating energy from the tip of my finger, and burn her to ashes.”

“No matter what hideous forms you manifest,” Senan says, “you’re just one evil.”

#

The sky, bluish and bright, the abode of angels and gods, shakes in the dhvani, a resounding echo of a mantra.

“It’s the cry of one of the ashtanayikas – the eight kinds of heroines – the one whose soul languishes in pain of separation.”

Taking intermittent swigs from a bottle of scotch in his hand, Senan listens to beetles hum in the garden, and observes their bluish-black bodies disappear into the flower bunches of coconut palms.

In a few moments, those insects will drain the palms of their sweet nectar; leave them lusterless like the zombies in the paddy fields.

The toddy tappers, whose wages depend on the volume of sap they tap, will gaze upwards looking for gods they’ll never find. Their wives’ stares burning their backs, they’ll slump to the ground and embrace sleep, swallowing the bitterness of their children’s hunger.

The evil descends from the sky, gazes at the coconut palms, and laughs. “Sans sap,” the Master asks, “what do they look like?”

The pot of sin keeps filling. He sucks out the nectar, sap or blood, discards trunks and bones of plants or humans; fate’s design, so that the pot doesn’t break, sins don’t go unpunished.

“Beware…” A voice resonates in the high skies. “The quicker you fill the pot, the faster you perish, more gruesome the death.”

Senan takes another swig, lights a cigarette. It’s about time, he thinks, I can’t let heaven come down to earth.

“Your love,” she says, “is something I never had to my satiation, something I never stop yearning for.”

 “I’ll have to take care of the Master first.” Senan blows out rings of smoke into the air.

“You’ve no idea,” the Master says, “how enigmatic cosmos is, and what calamities await you in the black holes.”

Senan holds the bottle up to his face, sees he already had more than half of it. “I’ve been indulging, yet not to my peril. What can you, the one descending from a sky up above, do to us earthlings?”

In a ceaseless bout of laughter, the Master rolls on the Earth, grains of soil sticking to his skin. “All it takes,” he says, “is a moment. I will bring you doom, from the sky. Would you like a bolt of lightning electrocute her; the thunderbolts create cavities on earth to consume her?”

“Find her. Kill her, if you can muster the power.”

The Master stands up, makes gestures in the air with his hands, as if to pump strength into his arms.

Senan takes another swig of scotch, and gazes at the Master’s hands, fingers pointed skywards.

Gods in heaven ignore him.

#

The astrologer spreads the cowry shells, predicts about the cosmic influences in his client’s life, “Your stars shine, you’re a blessed soul, but you need to…”

“See…” Ramgopal holds up his hand. “My world is rid of buts, ifs, and the likes. When my stars shine, they shine and that’s it. I don’t want to listen to the rest of the crap.”

The astrologer gazes at him. “If you are a believer in astrology, you listen to what it suggests. My profession is my karma,” he says. “Allow me to perform it in the right manner.” He starts to retrieve the cowries.

“Okay, carry on.” Ramgopal leans back on his massage chair. Your pride can’t make me listen to what I don’t want to hear, he muses and switches on the music device on the chair’s touch-screen housed in its armrest, in earphone mode.

As the astrologer speaks, Ramgopal nods his head to the music’s beats. Suddenly, he pauses, thinking: Maybe, the seer has a point. I must know what dangers lurk beyond the shining stars. He lowers the volume.

“So, you have to be careful,” the astrologer says.

“Excuse me… can you repeat what you said earlier?”

The astrologer looks at Ramgopal’s fingers dancing on the armrest. “Your karma,” he says. “You’ve never walked the right path. Beyond shining stars, black holes await.”

“I’m not the sole soul to take detours, everyone does that.”

“Only, yours have been too much, too frequent.”

“What nonsense…”

The astrologer sweeps away the cowries with a hand. The shells fly, hitting the windowpanes behind Ramgopal. Deafening noises resound in his ears as glass shatters.

“The pot of your sins,” the astrologer says. His scrawny figure looms larger. “Is almost…”

“Damn you.” Ramgopal stands up as shards pour into his chair. “What the hell is going on?”

The astrologer’s figure grows, and his head touches the veranda’s ceiling. “The calamity,” he says, “will now befall you, rather than the ones you seek to destroy.” He sits down, regaining his original form.

Ramgopal watches a slug crawl down the astrologer’s left temple, its muscles rhythmically contracting and expanding; an undulating wave. Another emerges from his other side, leaving glazing trails of slime on his dull skin.

“Watch out,” Ramgopal shouts, “the calamity is now upon you.”

The astrologer, indifferent to the milling sloths lining both cheeks, stares at Ramgopal, as they move down his smooth chin, and drop into his lap like beads of sweat. 

“Can’t you feel their feet, the mucus they secrete, on your damned skin?”

The astrologist runs his hands along both his cheeks. “Why speak in riddles?” He asks, wiping his dirty hands on his dhoti, as if nothing unusual happened.

“You’re a disgusting devil.” Ramgopal pants.

The astrologer ponders for a moment, and then says. “I respect you, but you need to exercise more discretion while speaking to me.”

“I’ll show you what discretion is.” Ramgopal goes into the house to retrieve his gun.

The astrologer forsakes a possibly huge remuneration, abandons his cowries, and leaves in a hurry.

#

“You epitomize evil, like King Vena, one who eschewed dharma both as a king and a human, espoused adharma,” Senan says.

The Master looks up at Senan, who towers over him. “So,   you assume the role of Prithu, one who took birth from Vena’s arm, after he was dead?”

“Mythologies may have their versions, but you authored me, using the five elements. And you annihilated her with the four of them; will you now, with a fifth, the Earth?”

“You say that I’m evil. Evil has no form, so I can take any form, even that of earth, and consume her in my cavities. Do you think you stand a chance, to prevent the inevitable?”

“I don’t have to,” Senan says. “I’ve lost her. Now it doesn’t matter to me how many times you rebirth her to kill her again, and again.”  

“Yet, you want, I suppose…” The Master raises a hand to Senan’s shoulder. “You desire to protect Mother Earth, and her subjects the way Prithu did?” 

“What I desire doesn’t matter. But, remember, Vena’s evils perished with him. The sages had to churn out his dead body so Prithu could take birth, sustain Dharma on Earth.”

“The mythologies perished, the legends are dead, except in the imagination of frail souls like yours.”

“Legends remain immortal, in one form or other.”

“It’s me, the evil, no legend that still is.”

“My birth is the trigger to your doom; your karma, the premise to your death. Her annihilation, in different forms, added more droplets into the pot of your sins. It’s about to overflow.”

“So, you’d kill me, your father?”

“I’ve had a moral dilemma about patricide; the result, her death.” Senan looks into the Master’s eyes. “I desisted from thinking of you as my father, tried to see you from the point of view of laborers who toiled for you.” He shakes his head.

“It should’ve helped you…” The Master takes a step closer to his son. “To overcome the moral dilemma of…”

“Every time I thought I did, the memories flooded back,” Senan says, “you hoisting me up a white stallion; climbing up behind me, securing me between your thighs and forearms while you held the reins.”

The Master stares at Senan, traces of tears in a corner of his eye. “The reins,” he says, “are now for you to hold. I have a kingdom awaiting you, a beautiful damsel to marry.”

“I don’t…”

The Master presses a finger against Senan’s lips. “Let’s forget the past, make the best of future.”

“It’s in human nature…” Senan says, removing the Master’s hand. “To suffer as much as they can… then they react.”

The Master, about to hug his son, suddenly withdraws his arms and scratches both sides of his face.

Senan watches, nonchalant, the beetles crawl out of the Master’s ears and nose. “Dermistidae, in case you don’t know. They feed on cadavers.”

“What the damn…” Words choke in the Master’s mouth as more and more bugs pour out like a small stream. His fingers tear at his throat, pull at his cheeks.

The colony of bugs wraps around him and within seconds he looks like a mummy cocooned inside a blanket of buzzing bugs.

“All females,” Senan says. “The smell of decaying flesh and the scent of their mate attract them.”

Like a zombie, struggling to break free of chains, the Master flails his limbs.

“Looks like you have a male bug somewhere on your body; and you’ve begun to rot.” Senan turns and walks away.

#

They remain ever on the move, the zombies.

They toil in the Master’s plantation, or his paddy fields, tending his cows and buffalos.

They feed the Master’s bloodhounds but the dogs never show any mercy to them, as if their sixth sense had told them the zombies were destined just to serve the Master.

When the men receive wages, they go to toddy shops or arrack shacks, vent their frustration. Returning home, some exhaust their fury in their wives’ wombs. Others smell whiffs of the landlord’s sweat on their mates’ youthful skin, and turn their back.

Women lament their fate. Children, unable to grasp the meanings of grunts, moans, and curses, stare at bleak walls, and fall asleep.

When dawn arrives, the cycle of toil continues for the zombies until day paves way to darkness. Change, never, is a constant for them; not even a wish.

As the last of the embers in Anita’s funeral pyre dies off, Senan sits waiting for dawn.

The Master arrives, guards flanking his sides, when morning sunrays begin to emerge.

The rustle of banyan leaves grow more chaotic as the wind gathers momentum, the thin dreadlocks sway faster.

Senan stands still.

The Master walks towards him, parting the dreadlocks. “The girl’s parents are here. They want to see you,” he says. “If you behave, you’ll have the blessing of a blissful life.”

The bloodhounds stand guard.

“You killed Anita, now you ask me to marry another girl you choose?” Senan asks. He relishes the slight recoil of the Master’s body, caused by the recalcitrant response.

“You call her yours, the whore from a low-caste, low-class family?” The Master’s voice sounds harsh, yet devoid of its usual authority. “Do as I say or I’ll condemn you to the dungeons.”

“I’m liberated from fear, I see no reason to hold on to life; no dungeons can confine me, no fetters can restrain me, anymore.”

“You shout at me?” The Master’s double chin undulates as rage swells inside his throat.

Senan clasps his fist around a shackle in his hand. The metal jingles. He fixes his eyes on the bloodhounds.

The beasts back away. Tails tucked between their legs, they yelp and squeal, looking at their Master. Their tongues hang out, a white pallor taking over the pinkish hue.

“They’ve aged.” Senan snickers.

The Master stands, recognition dawning, the chill of an avalanche hitting his senses… a cold recognition. He’s aging more than his dogs. He stares at his faithful companions.

The Master remembers the astrologer’s words. “So, is it the black hole?”

Senan shakes the shackle wildly, its jingles become chaotic. The bloodhounds cringe away. “Yes, and don’t forget, the pot is full. You’re finished, no resurrection.”

The Master’s shoulder slump as he heaves a sigh, glares at Senan with dread clouding his eyes.

Through a misty veil, he sees the orange disc of the rising sun climb up from behind the mountain ranges, a bright halo around it. The ground turns into a thick sheet of ice, freezing his feet. Mountains spit fire, scalding his ice-cold skin, and crevasses appear in the earth as a storm builds.

“I’ve had my visions too,” the Master says. “I knew one day this would…”

“Your henchmen, their loyalty had swung in my favor,” Senan says. “Better promises; and fear consumes your canines, they’d just rest.”

Suddenly, in the backdrop of the lush green paddy fields, a fierce orange glow bursts as the laborers light torches.

“The elements, one by one, will now consume you.”

Zombies, holding torches, walk towards them. Their wives and children follow.

“Which one will be the first?” the Master asks.


This story was previously published in Vol.XII, Issue 2 (Summer 2020) of Pennsylvania Literary Journal. 


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


If you enjoyed this story, you may want to read “A Saga of Blasphemy“, also by Hareendran Kallinkeel.

“Read the Sign” Dark Fiction by Peter Portelli

Rain "Read the Sign" Dark Fiction by Peter Portelliin

Albertown was a town with nothing going for it. Except for the rain. It rained most days, even in summer, even when it was hot. It rained day and night. The people of Albertown did not care about the rain. If they did, they would have left. When conversations dried up, the people of Albertown talked about the rain. If it were not for the rain, the people of Albertown would talk less, a lot less.

There was one road going into Albertown, Pine Road. It was a decent road lined with trees and lush green views. One could even call it picturesque. About one mile outside the town, there was a sign saying, ‘Welcome to Albertown. The town where it always rains but never pours. Population: 9650’.

The town had everything you would expect it to have. Nothing more, nothing less. A church, a school, a police station, a fire station, a food market, a couple of drinking holes, a petrol station, a doctor’s clinic, and a town hall. Life in Albertown revolved around these places. If you had reason to look for someone in Albertown, the chances are that you would find him in one of these places. If not there, then your next best bet would be the forest. Most of the population worked in the logging industry.

Babies were born, children went to school, and people, usually old, died. The citizens were kind to each other, generally speaking. There was no crime in Albertown if one disregarded petty crime. Someone once painted the pastor’s dog green. They never found out who it was. The mystery remained unsolved.

That all changed on November 23, 2016.

It all started with an oddity. In 2016, November 23 fell on a Wednesday, which is odd. November 23 is more likely to fall on a Monday, Tuesday or Friday. But in 2016, it fell on a Wednesday.

Sheriff Vince Girard was polishing his hunting rifle at his desk, thinking about his next trip. He doted over the Winchester Model 70. He had bought it over a decade ago, but it still looked brand new. It was a post-1992 model with all the features of a classic Model 70. He had spent many days in the forest alone with this gun. Sheriff Girard was a simple man with no expectations from life. He loved his job, he loved his hunting, and he loved his rifle.

The phone on his desk rang. The loud ringing noise startled him just as his fingers caressed the trigger. He pulled it. The unloaded gun clicked. He smiled.

“Sheriff Girard,” he said in his most serious voice.

“Hi, Vince. Gaby Littlejohn here.”

“Hi, Gaby. How can I help you?”

“Sorry to bother you, but someone vandalised the sign on Pine Road.”

“Sign? Which sign?” asked the Sheriff.

“Sheriff, there is only one sign there. It’s the one that says welcome to Albertown.  Population 9650. Except that now it reads population 9648.”

“Ah, okay, Gaby. Thanks for letting me know. I will see to it.”

Sheriff Girard hung up. “Bloody bikers,” he said to himself. Bikers passed through Albertown, riding to or from the larger cities in the vicinity. They hardly ever stopped. There was nothing for them in Albertown. But come to think of it, he had not seen or heard any bikers in the last days. It must have been the Brandon kids then. They were always up to some mischief. He logged the call. He reached out for his hat, grabbed the car keys from the ashtray, which was never used for its intended purpose, not since he quit smoking anyway, and walked out of the station.

He was about to open his blue and white SUV, a Ford Explorer with the mounted lightbar, when Pastor John stopped him. The sheriff and the pastor grew up together in Albertown. They had even shared the same desk in Miss Pinkerton’s class.  Girard was surprised when John had told him that he wanted to serve God but not as much as John was surprised when he heard that Girard wanted to serve the law. Girard had been a bit of a rebel in his younger days.

“Sheriff Girard, just the person I wanted to see. Will you be joining us for the service this Sunday? I have an important announcement regarding this year’s fair.”

Sheriff Girard was about to answer when it happened. It was as if the street turned into a Rube Goldberg machine. Reverend John’s car started to move. He forgot to pull up his handbrake, although he later swore that he did. The chunky blue Volvo rode the pavement and hit the large sandwich board sign outside Mrs Dupree’s cake shop. The sign fell and hit a ladder propped up against the haberdashery shop. The ladder toppled onto the street, forcing an oncoming car to swerve onto the opposite side of the road, where Janice Trudy was pushing her two-month-old baby boy in a stroller. 

The whole chain of events lasted seconds, during which Sheriff Girard stood motionless, helpless. He recovered his senses and radioed for an ambulance. The white and red van did not take long to appear; the health centre was just a few blocks away. The two paramedics did all they could, but their efforts were futile. Janice and her baby died of their wounds.

Later that evening, Sheriff Girard met the mayor and city councillors in a hastily-convened meeting at the city hall. It was a decently sized place, enough for the needs of Albertown. It also doubled up as the school theatre for the Christmas pageant. The mayor’s secretary would not stop crying throughout the whole meeting. She knew Janice well. Sheriff Girard told the City Council how the accident happened. He spared the details.

“Where were you heading at the time of the accident?” Councillor Gates asked. Gates owned the town’s hardware store on Main Street, not too far from where the accident happened, the one with the old sign that said paints, oil and varnishes – ironically in desperate need of a bit of paint and varnish itself. But that was typical of Gates, always minding everybody else’s business but not taking care of his own.

“Gaby Littlejohn called me and told me that the sign on Pine Road was vandalised. I was about to head there and check things out,” he said.

The mayor thanked the sheriff for his recount and for the ‘leadership he showed in the most difficult and trying circumstances’. Janice did not have any close relatives. She lived on her own. The mayor offered to handle the funeral arrangements. He owned the only funeral parlour in town.

It was a late and sorrowful drive back home from the city hall. He stopped at the Blue Waters Bar, at the edge of town for a quick one. The place was packed. The smell of burnt cooking oil, stale beer and tobacco were a trademark of that joint just as much as the very decent locally crafted beer. The jukebox was playing a song by Pearl Jam. Girard loved that song …  I see the words on a rocking horse of time, I see the birds in the rain …

Nobody was talking about rain today. Molly wore the shortest of skirts and the tightest of shirts. She smiled at Girard. There was a brief history between them, a spark that never really took off but never went away either. Molly gave the sheriff his usual, which he downed without a word. He left the money on the counter and continued on his way home.

Sheriff Girard woke up with a thumping headache, courtesy of the empty bottle of Canadian whisky that lay on the floor. It was not the first time that empty whisky bottles rolled on his parquet floors. He had a drinking problem. He knew about it, as did everyone in Albertown. He showered, shaved and poured himself some coffee. Black, no sugar.

He drove to his office. His head was still pounding.  He parked in his reserved spot. He saw a small crowd gathered where Janice and her baby died. Some had brought flowers and placed them on the pavement. Janice was a sweet girl, loved by everyone – literally and metaphorically. Someone had placed a teddy bear. Sheriff Girard crossed the road to the impromptu shrine. He did not know what to do and stood in silence with a couple of other people who felt it was their duty to ‘be there’.

He opened his office, placed his car keys in the empty ashtray, hung his hat and sat down in front of his computer. He took out his notebook and started to type out the report. He was halfway through when the phone rang.

“Sheriff Girard speaking.”

“Good morning, Sheriff. This is Mrs Marple from Green Road. I don’t know if you remember me. You helped me find my prince once.”

“Of course, I do, Mrs Marple.” Prince was an ugly pug that was overfed and undertrained. It had not been difficult to find him. All it had taken was some biscuits to get him out of the hedge.

“Tell me, Mrs Marple, how can I help you?”

“Well, I was driving back into Albertown. I was at my sister’s in the city.” She emphasised ‘the city’ to underline that she was related to a person who had managed to escape from Albertown and now lived in the big beyond.

“Just as I was driving by, I noticed that the sign outside the city had been vandalised.”

“Thank you, Mrs Marple. As it happens, someone else reported it yesterday. I will see to it today. Make sure it is cleaned up.”

“You good you. It looks odd, though …”

“What looks odd?” asked Sheriff Girard.

“Population 9645.”

“9645? Gaby Littlejohn told me it said population 9648?”

“No, I am quite sure it says 9645. You see, I was born in 1945. That’s what caught my attention. The number finished with forty-five. I said how odd. Of all the numbers. Don’t you think that is odd?”

Sheriff Girard was about to say that everything about Mrs Marple was odd but decided not to. Instead, he reassured her that the sign would be fixed.

“I will see to it myself,” he told her.

It was raining outside. He decided to wait for the rain to subside before heading out. He stared at the flowers across the street being pelted with rainfall. Deputy Clayton handed him a coffee. His head was still throbbing. The sheriff’s deputy was some twenty years younger than Girard. Not the brightest crayon in the box, but in Albertown, beggars could not be choosers.

The phone on his desk rang.

He picked it up, expecting to hear Mrs Marple’s voice again, but it was Molly from the Blue Waters. Her voice was agitated. He could sense the fear in her tone.

“Sheriff, my Johnny. He’s gone crazy. Come quick. Please hurry … Help.”

Sheriff Girard heard a gunshot, a second shot followed by another and another. And then silence.

For the second time in less than 24 hours, Sheriff Girard drove down to the Blue Waters Bar. It didn’t open till late afternoon. The front door was locked and the carpark, which had been packed the night before, was deserted except for Johnny’s battered  red pickup truck. He walked to the service entrance at the back, the same door that led to the apartment above the joint. He took out his revolver and pushed the door. It was unlocked.

“Sheriff Girard here. I am coming up. I am armed,” he shouted.

No reply. He climbed the fifteen steps, his gun pointing towards the top of the stairs.

Molly, her husband and her daughter Ellie lived in that apartment. Lived. Because they were now dead. Molly kept her house tidy. There were flowers in a vase. Everything was where and how it was supposed to be. Everything except the dead bodies. Splatters of blood covered the pale blue bedroom wall. Molly had been shot at close range. Blood from the hole in her chest was seeping into the carpet. She held the telephone in her hand as she lay crumpled on the floor. Ellie was shot twice in the back while trying to run away from Johnny. Sheriff Girard checked her pulse. Nothing.  Johnny, wearing a white tank top and black tracksuit pants, was sitting on the bed. At least part of him was. His head, or rather what was left of it, was strewn all over the bedroom. Strangely, his body remained upright. It sat there with the rifle at its feet.

Sheriff Girard removed his two-way radio from his belt and pressed the speaker button.

“This is Sheriff Girard. Over.”

“Deputy Sheriff Clayton here. Over,” came the reply.

“Ten-fifty-one and ten-fifty-six at the Blue Waters Bar. I repeat ten-fifty-one and ten-fifty-six at the Blue Waters. We need a team here to close the area. Bring everybody and by everybody, I mean everybody. Over.”

It was the first time he had to call in a murder.

That evening the council met again. Sheriff Girard was the last to arrive. The mayor and councillors were eagerly waiting for him. He noted a sense of real concern in their questions mixed with a dose of morbid curiosity, particularly from Councillor Gates. Blue Waters was everyone’s drinking hole. Everyone inside the council hall and indeed in the town knew Molly, Ellie and Johnny.

Sheriff Girard led with the phone call from Mrs Marple. Something strange was going on in Albertown. People were dying, and their death was being pre-announced.

“I tell you, this is beyond odd. Someone is either playing a sick game or….”

“Or what?” asked Councillor Gates.

The mayor and councillors were unsure what to make of the sheriff’s story. The sheriff could read their eyes. They were listening, but they were not hearing. Or was it hearing but not listening? Councillor Banks leaned over and whispered something into Councillor Leblanc’s ear. Were they mentioning his drink problem, he wondered? Of course, they were.

The mayor took the floor. When he spoke, everyone else listened. The man practically owned the town and everything in it. “Let us not get ahead of ourselves or lose focus. We had a traffic accident yesterday and a shooting incident today. Johnny was a time bomb waiting to explode. We knew that. We all knew that. Molly should have kicked him out years ago. I am going out on a limb here but maybe, Sheriff, you should have made sure he spent more time in your lockup. I suggest that you drive up to the sign tomorrow and get to the bottom of these acts of vandalism. If this is someone’s idea of a joke, we need to find who this joker is and put a stop to it.”

The mayor’s speech was met with a chorus of ‘hear, hear.’

Sheriff Girard walked out of the city hall. Across the street, someone had scrawled on the wall, ‘So it was written, so it shall be done’ in large black letters. The sheriff felt something he had not felt in years. The hair on the back of his neck was standing up. He never felt that in Albertown. He wondered what tomorrow would bring. That night he hardly slept. He did not touch any alcohol. He wanted to think straight. He needed to stay sober because everything else around him was anything but straight.

The following morning, Sheriff Girard headed first to the station to pick up Deputy Sheriff Clayton and then drove straight to the sign. The car’s radio was tuned to the local radio station. The town’s busybody ran the station. She made it her official business to know everything about everyone. The past two days had given her a lot to talk about. She wasn’t just going on about the deaths. She rattled on about the ‘things we all know of but dare not speak about’. She never actually spelt out what these things were. She announced that she would soon be joined by Pastor John, who, she added, had some news to share.

“Reverend John is with you in these troubled times,” she said.

After a very short commercial break, Pastor John came on.

“Dear listeners, tragedy has struck our peaceful town—five deaths in two days. We are shocked by these untimely deaths and shaken to hear from our very own sheriff that these deaths were announced on the sign on Pine Street. All this reminds me of The Bible, the Book of Daniel. Remember the writing on the wall mene, mene, tekel, upharsin’… God has weighed the kingdom of Belshazzar and found it wanting. Make peace with the Lord, for we do not know when our day of reckoning is coming.”

Sheriff Girard switched off the radio.

“This cannot be a coincidence,” he said. “Somebody is marking the deaths before they happen.”

“But Janice’s death was an accident. Johnny’s was a suicide. Surely you do not think there is a common hand in both?” replied Clayton.

“I do not know what to think,” said the sheriff. “But something is not right.”

The rain picked up as he drove outside town and was now pouring down heavily. Sheriff Girard had never seen it rain so hard, and he had seen all types of rainfall. But nothing like this. The wipers were working at full speed but could not keep up with the rain. Luckily, there were no cars on the road. They drove slowly and eventually got to the sign. The sheriff parked safely on the side of the road, a few yards away from the sign. The sign stood ominously in front of them. Their eyes immediately went for the number. They froze. They expected to see the number 9645. That is what Mrs Marple had said. But the number on the sign read: 2.

“Did you feel that?” Deputy Sheriff Clayton asked.

“Feel what?” asked the Sheriff.

“The Earth moved,” replied the Deputy.

The Earth moved. Sheriff Girard had never experienced an earthquake before. He felt nauseated. They looked towards the forest, their eyes following the rumbling sounds.

“The trees,” shouted Clayton. “The trees are moving.”

They stood in awe, petrified as the whole forest seemed to edge forward half a mile from where they stood. It was the oddest, most terrifying scene Sheriff Girard had ever seen. The trees were like soldiers marching in formation.  The sound of crunching branches and of rocks and boulders falling accompanied this march forward. The sky filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of birds, flying from their nests. The sheriff and deputy sheriff held on to the roof of the car.

Then came the loudest, most horrible sound they had ever heard. It was as if the mountain self-mutilated itself and threw the rejected part away in anger. An avalanche of debris, rock and trees lurched forward at breath-taking speed. The sheriff and deputy sheriff stood motionless, watching the thunderous flow hurtle towards Albertown, crushing everything in its path. The deadly mass first hit the Blue Waters and then continued on its murderous drive flattening street after street. Girard saw small explosions coming from buildings, at least they looked small from where he stood on the mountain.

“The town hall, the town hall,” shouted deputy Clayton just as the tallest building in Albertown was flattened like a child’s sandcastle. The sheriff looked towards the school, his school. This was a normal school day, children would be sitting in the same room where he had attended class.

“No, please no,” shouted the sheriff as the deadly wave crashed into the school. The wave finally came to a halt on top of where Albertown once stood. Everything was gone. All the buildings, all the roads, everything was buried under the mound of rock, mud and trees.

Sheriff Girard and Deputy Sheriff Clayton looked at each other. Their heads turned towards the sign.

‘Welcome to Albertown. The town where it always rains but never pours. Population: 1’.

It is not clear who reached for the gun first. Fair to say that they both managed to shoot. Sheriff Girard was more precise. His shot hit the deputy straight between the eyes. But the deputy was faster. He had let off two rounds that hit the sheriff in his midriff.

“Damn you, Clayton,” said the sheriff, pressing his hand on his stomach. Blood was gushing out from the wound.

He limped towards the car and opened the door. He sat down in his seat, lifting his legs and placing them inside the vehicle. As he did so, he looked toward the sign. Population: 0.


Peter Portelli calls the Mediterranean island of Malta his home. He is a career civil servant, having served in the highest offices of the public service in Malta. He started out writing short stories and has now also completed the manuscript for his first novel, The Armies of God.


If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “Bath Time for Panda” by Maxwell C. Porter.

“Teacher–Listen” Dark Flash Fiction by Louise Worthington

"Teacher--Listen" Dark Flash Fiction by Louise Worthington

‘Listen,’ Miss says, ‘to the wind tonguing its way around loose windows in the classroom. It’s got muscle.’

            Silence grows skin, and I grow goose-bumps because Miss wants us to write about ourselves, to delve into feelings and spit out our hearts.

            ‘Conjure a world away from here!’ Miss waves an arm like a wand. She takes a black marker pen, its nib so thick that her words on the board – ‘Creative Writing’ – even smell masculine to me. Miss knows nothing about me or the place I call home with my father and brother. Miss has it all. All that honeysuckle perfume, fairy-tale ring on her finger and Snow White eye-shadow.

            For inspiration, Miss reads aloud something written by a dead bloke. Words billow out as smoke, squeezing a throat and clenching a heart until its faintness is terrifying.

            I take a biro in my hand like it’s an amulet and feel surprised when ink drips, black as a magpie’s tail.

            Fat Vinny gets out of his chair forcefully as though he’s avoiding a fatal collision. He says it’s too hot to concentrate and cracks open the window like he’s slamming on the brakes. I hear a muffled half-sigh of air. I know it, like breathing into a pillow to stifle pain, subdue a scream, a cry for help. The rest of my oxygen is on paper.

            ‘It’s like a fucking séance in here!’ Vinny says.

            Miss pretends not to hear, as if ‘fucking’ is beneath her. She keeps moving slowly around the classroom, performing some kind of ritual that’s meant to help us weave spells to build our own palaces.

            I conjure a waterfall in slow motion, turning me to liquid, purifying every cell and tissue in my body.

            A reckless gust of wind rattles the window to remind us of its muscle. ‘The wind’s ripped!’ Vinny jokes. ‘Like me.’ And he wobbles the white blubber on his stomach to raise a laugh. His belly button is submerged in the riptide. The motion of flesh drags me out of my waterfall onto a cotton sheet stained the colour of cherries, tomatoes and squashed plums. No amount of washing gets it clean.

            If only words could slice the rotten, heal wounded flesh, and hide what can’t be undone under a permanent layer of snow. Miss will hear my voice soon, like the wind trapped between opaque glass.

            I title my piece Dad’s Stick of Dynamite and sit back. Vinny dislikes something about the freeze frame and throws his chair across the room. Paint red as blood spots chips onto the back wall. He grabs my story and swallows it whole. Hungry – as I am – to fill the hole inside.

            Choking, Vinny tries to cough up my words. The poison of its content clearly doesn’t suit his palate. Miss thumps him on the back with an impressive whack, but still his airwaves are constricted and his bloated red face turns to blue. He jerks forwards, trailing his pudgy hands down the whiteboard, smudging the words ‘Creative Writing’ Miss wrote less than an hour ago before I knew my power. He lands heavily on the carpet.

            Perhaps I do have a voice, after all.


Teacher – Listen” was first published by Horla in 2020.


Louise writes about the complexity and the darker side of the human heart in the genres of horror and psychological thrillers. Many of her stories explore motherhood, mental health disorders, revenge and family. Her tales are imbued with strong emotional themes and atmospheric settings with strong female characters and multi-layered plots. She is at her most poetic describing the dark and disturbing. The latest release is Doctor Glass.


If you enjoyed this story, you might also enjoy “And” by Grove Koger.

Two Dark Poems by Joe Farina: “Night Mistress” and “all souls day”

"Night Mistress" Dark Poetry by Joe Farina
Night Mistress
Night mistress
Come quickly darkness
Hide this servant from the eyes
Of Deadly light
Come mistress
Fondle me
In your entwining arms
Sooth me with winds of fantasy
Blind my despair with your dark caresses
Come quickly Night
And sleep wiith me
In our bed of lonliness
Away from the inquiring day
Bare yourself to me
Let me rest in your brief ecstacy
Come quickly Night
Share with me
Your all consuming despair
Come quickly night-my mistress
all souls day
prayers for loved souls to purge their passing
reveal our grief  this all souls day
the earth gives up its dead to-night
waiting to be received-
carrying marzipan skeletons
to place on their tombs we bring our offerings
of water, wine, oil and grain
sit and eat with them beside us
sharing our lives with them again-

i begin to recite the prayers for the dead
with the cross, the book, and sword
promising salvation and the cleansing of  sins
of those whom we this day commemorate
to pass from their darkness to eternal light


"But though I have wept and fasted,wept and prayed."
T.S.Eliot

black confessions
whispered to a silver cross 
shoulders turned away
from paradise 
completes the superstition

Joseph A Farina is a retired lawyer in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. An award winning poet. Several of his poems have been published in  Quills Canadian Poetry Magazine, Ascent ,Subterranean  Blue  and in   The Tower Poetry Magazine, Inscribed, The Windsor Review, Boxcar Poetry Revue , and appears in the anthologies   Sweet Lemons: Writings with a Sicilian Accent,  cabadian Italians at Table,  Witness  from Serengeti Press and Tamaracks: Canadian Poetry for the 21st Century . He has had poems published in the U.S. magazines   Mobius, Pyramid Arts, Arabesques, Fiele-Festa, Philadelphia Poets and   Memoir (and)   as well as in Silver Birch Press   “Me, at Seventeen”   Series. He has had two books of poetry published— The Cancer Chronicles   and   The Ghosts of Water Street .


If you liked this story, perhaps you’ll enjoy these other works by Joseph Farina published in The Chamber: “fever planes”, “simulacrum”, and “what we leave behind”, “Nightwalker” , “The Jackal People”, “Shadows Flowering”, and “incense and white wine”. Search The Chamber for older works by Joseph Farina. 

“Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold” Dark Supernatural Flash Fiction by Phil Temples

Little Johnny holds his breath in anticipation. It’s his third attempt at invoking the ancient incantation, and he’s finally rewarded: the ground opens, unleashing all manner of evil entities from below. One especially hideous, demonic form heads directly for Sally’s open bedroom window across the street.

Trick or treat, he whispers.


Phillip Temples is still trying to make sense of it all. Writing and photography help.  He can be followed at https://temples.com or on Twitter @PhilTemples.


If you enjoyed this story, you might also enjoy “You Monster” by Janelle Chambers.

“The New Gods” Science-Fiction by K. Danckert

My soul died the day I decided to become immortal. But with no sun to measure time against, it is difficult to gauge how long it has been since we left the earth’s atmosphere. A hundred years or perhaps more in this spaceship. As I play the violin, I realize the vibrations should be creating music with the air as I pluck them. But I cannot hear the music. Not anymore.

My mind is processing my last day on earth as I play, something that happened so many years ago. I knew that black curtains draped the windows of the church. I also knew that flowers surrounded the open casket, but I could no longer see the colors. My flesh and blood had been replaced by a metal frame. The room was quiet in the church, the same one where we used to worship before we had made ourselves gods, before we had bitten from the apple.

Part of me was hoping to find you, yet another part of me was afraid. “It’s time to leave,” one of the humanoids said to me. Finally, I saw the back of your hair; the same color as your mother’s. I didn’t dare approach though. I knew you didn’t want to see me. Your family was beside you. Two young girls, a baby, and a husband. People I should know, be connected to. I turned away, feeling pain throughout the circuits in my body. I looked again at your mother, who was now gone.

“This doesn’t matter,” the humanoid said, its voice echoing through the church, sounding more autotune than human. In a place where I needed empathy, there was none. This was the price of immortality and we all paid it. But unlike the others, I hadn’t made this transformation to live forever, just to have more time.

As you exited the church, I walked over to the casket and put your mother’s hand in mine one more time, despite neither of us being able to feel it. I wish I didn’t need to leave her behind. I wish I didn’t have to leave you behind.

#

The humanoid had been right. It didn’t matter if I was ready or not. Gambling our immortality no longer made sense since we could live forever. We would be safe on this ship where no outside elements could hurt us. There would be no exploring; There would be no adventures. Being alive is more important than living, even if life is a hollow empty shell.

I sit alone in a large room in this spaceship, towering with books that had never been digitized, teddy bears that had belonged to children, and hair clips of those we had loved in a past life. In it, I play the violin that was your mother’s and hold the pictures I have of you. I don’t know if you’re still alive, but I still find myself mourning, wanting to tell you how sorry I am. I want you to know about the decision I was faced with. At the time, I didn’t know that both options would leave me disconnected from you.

Many humanoids had taken their own lives, shutting off their own consciousness, forgetting why they had originally made the choices they did, longing for a sense of purpose and meaning in a world where none could be created. They were regressing like I was. Wishing they had realized sooner that the cost was too great. Becoming like a god wasn’t worth the price.

#

The papers seemed to scream beyond their two dimensions on that fateful day, the day that changed the trajectory of my life, many years ago. I hold the paper clipping now, a sentimental reminder of when part of me had died.

“It’s so beautiful, isn’t it?” your mother said looking outside, her red curls not yet brushed. It was a cool autumn day, the colors of the trees so bright and colorful that it seemed impossible that winter would ever come. The memories of the colors still haunt me as I try to recall how they fused into each other to create such a spectacular scene. The bump beneath her blue dress was barely visible then.

She hugged me as I sat, my body still weak from the weeks of treatment. “I can’t believe how lucky we are, Vito.” My name felt smooth as it fell from her lips, a name I haven’t heard in a long time. She grabbed my hands, her blue eyes locking with mine.

I gave her a small smirk, feeling the lie eating at me. Images of a child’s first step, a baby’s cry, for all the plans we had made flashed before my eyes. I looked at the bump, apologizing in my mind for the things I would miss. The wedding I could never attend. The prom photos I would never take. The tears I would never comfort and the laughs I would never hear.

My life was a ticking clock back then. All human life was, but for me, that ticking had become louder, almost deafening. The doctors had told me that I didn’t have long to live. The chemo had stopped weeks ago. It wasn’t possible to save me.

“Yes,” was the only word I could muster. I wasn’t sure what I was agreeing to, the luck or the beautiful day, but your mother seemed satisfied. She kissed me as she headed out of the room to practice her violin, leaving me with my thoughts and the guilt, something I was attempting to drown out with anything I could find. My fingers settled on a newspaper which I quickly opened.

The paper was thin and smooth to the touch as my fingers opened it up. I had been one of the few who still preferred a paper copy to the digital formats. I loved the paper against my skin as I listened to your mother begin practicing the violin. The notes were smooth beneath her fingertips, but I was distracted.

The headlines on the paper in the year 2050 felt bigger than usual against the light newsprint. The weight of those words felt heavy in my hands as I stared at the pages.

My glasses slid down my crooked nose, as the typeface formed words, thoughts, and new information. The sun’s gaze peeped through our window, its rays lighting up the side of my face. I could feel its invitation to look outside, as its light danced on the blades of uncut grass.

However, I ignored the sun and the melody of your mother’s violin became background noise. The Helvetica glared at me, yearning to be seen. These headlines were promising to change my life forever, to potentially save my life.

Human Consciousness Successfully Transferred to a Machine

The taste of coffee burned my tongue as I slammed my mug against the kitchen table and spit it out. The shock of the headline felt fresher than the burning remnants on my hand. Drops of my ritualistic morning beverage splashed out like a geyser as the mug cracked, creating a waterfall barely missing my lap.

The newspaper never left my hand; My eyes widened as your mother walked over, carrying the red violin in hand and placing it on a chair.

“You okay?” she asked, her voice high-pitched and frantic.

Her blue eyes were pools of concern, as they sparkled like diamonds in the soft sunlight. Her lips pouted, scrunching the freckles on her nose as her fingers gripped her instrument, the violin’s shape mirroring her own. The memory now felt like a dream. A beauty I can never fully remember.

“Everything is great!” I exclaimed as I clutched the newsprint, reading further, ignoring the broken pieces of plaster resting beside me and the pond of coffee streaming into rivers down the table.  My eyes were moving back and forth like a swing, trying to absorb the information. The meaning of this new technology. The possibilities for humanity. The possibility of my future. Maybe I wouldn’t have to miss the laughs. Maybe I could be a part of those memories with you and your mother. It was all I wanted. 

Your mother must have noticed the excitement on my face. Her small fingers wrapped her hands around my shoulders, pressing her thumbs into my backside. I leaned back into them, closing my eyes.

“What is it then?” she asked, her whispered breath was now a tickle in my ear.

“They transferred human consciousness to a machine!” I said, squeezing her hand. “Do you know what this means, honey?!” My voice echoed through our hallways as I stood up and kissed her. “What this could mean for us and our future?”

But my kiss planted on her face as if my mouth were against a wall. A cold stone wall.

“I don’t,” your mother said as she stepped back from me, inching away, grabbing her stomach. She allowed the silence to hang in the air for a moment. I just wanted to break it. “I thought you were getting better.” I could see the hurt in her eyes as her brows crinkled and her mouth opened, though no more words escaped her lips.

I looked at her as the pools of tears formed, dripping down her face. “Honey, I wanted to tell you…”

She turned away; her arms were shaking as she dropped the red violin. It hit the tile of the floor, chipping the color on the left side. The sound echoed through our kitchen as I picked it off the ground and handed it to her, placing her face in my chest. I could feel her heartbeat against mine as I breathed in the lavender of her shampoo.

“It will all be fine,” I whispered. “We have options now.”

She looked up at me, still not speaking, although her eyes had created wet spots on my shirt. I could feel the baby bump as I stood to hold her, my body feeling tired in my weak frame. The future I wanted was here in my arms, if I was only willing to give up my human body. The trade seemed simple enough and I didn’t want to just be a picture in a frame. I wanted to be there in the photos with my family.

The light bounced off her red hair as she kissed me between the tears. I did not know at the time that beauty was purely a human experience.

#

I remember opening my eyes in this new metal frame. Something was different as I regained consciousness; My senses no longer functioned the way they used to. I was placed in a sarcophagus, my old body in the machine next to me. I could sense things, but my brain interpreted everything around me through waves and then delivered output. Everything looked like computer code, all numbers that I could process quickly. It left out the colors and the melody.

“You’re alive!” your mother screamed as she hugged me, her body embraced my metal frame, creating a clank as my arms hit my torso.

I was too struck to say anything; I couldn’t properly see her face. It was all just numbers where her smile had been.

The sound waves bounced across the room, entering my new brain as code. My arms had folded around her, but I couldn’t feel her skin against mine.

I looked at her with my new eyes, but the red in her hair was missing from my processing. I could no longer see the glint in her eyes. She kissed me, but I could not feel it. Somehow the love I had felt was missing too. My emotions were dimmed, a fraction of what they had been.

I looked at my metal body, unable to see it, not recognizing myself with these eyes that no longer processed mere sight.

“What have I done?” I wondered as I held her tightly, wishing to feel her, wishing to touch her. Even though she had been in my arms, I had never felt so disconnected from her. At that moment, she took a picture of us. It was the only one she ever took of the three of us. Me and her with you in her belly. That picture is long gone though.

#

This technology was not focused on making us more human. Instead, it robbed us of our senses, freeing us to process information faster. Scientists promised that a full range of emotions would be added back into our capabilities. My programming could no longer see that multiple layers to the truth could exist. My goal had been to continue experiencing the life I loved so much and that had still been taken from me.

“Honey?” your mother said during breakfast one day, squeezing my hand. I looked at it longingly, wishing to feel it. You had been born a few months ago and you were perfect, though at the time I didn’t see it. I had criticized how long it took for you to speak or to process information, instead of looking at the miracle you were. Your mother had been patient with me, hoping at the time that I would return to my old self. But I could see how upset she was every time I criticized things that were supposed to be monumental milestones.

My plate was empty in front of me, though your mother still set the table for the two of us each morning. I told her it was illogical, but she insisted upon giving me some sort of normalcy. In the background, you were crying and the noise felt like someone was scraping the metal inside of my systems. Your mother left briefly, returning with you in her arms.

I looked up into her eyes, scanning her face, unable to detect any obvious emotions.

“They’re having a sale on flights,” she said. I could detect the smile now. “We can make it back to Italy next year. You. Me. And Melinda.” She paused. “I’ve been saving and Melinda loved the beach when I went with her last week.” Her voice was so slow to me. I wished I could speed it up and I hated myself for having those thoughts. The war inside of me was constant. My former self was fighting my programming, hoping to reclaim parts of my humanity.

“Why would we do that?” I felt myself burst, losing the battle. It was no longer logical to go. We had already been there and it put us at unnecessary risk. As long as I didn’t damage my new body, I could be immortal. Human activity and exploration came with so much uncertainty. The words felt harsh as they exited my mouth, but my brain weighed the options. Home was the safest place to be.

“To spend some time together,” she said, the smile still on her face. “To celebrate the baby and that you’re here to meet her.”

“We spend time together every day,” I said. I hated having to use human speech to communicate with her. It felt so slow compared to the thoughts soaring through my new brain. I closed my eyes, angry at how disconnected I felt from her. I felt removed from these human desires, to celebrate or enjoy. Living was my main concern and I felt a void that nothing could fill. I remembered what it was like to feel it, to have a purpose. But those memories felt so distant at the time.

“Okay,” she said. “We won’t go then.” Her voice dropped a little. She put you down as she collected our plates, walking to the dishwasher. I continued to sit there, feeling so far away from her, even though we were in the same room.

After that, your mother stopped trying. She would continue to set the table, but stopped trying to hold my hand. I, myself, had lost the desire to be touched, but I missed the connection, one that was difficult to recreate in my new frame.

I no longer slept, though I would watch your mother when she closed her eyes. We had spoken of trips in our youth, but despite my added time, we never explored any further. She never brought up Italy again. 

I would often catch her as she watched old videos, yearning to hear my real voice, and see my real face. She would fall asleep clutching a photo of us at our wedding, mourning the death of a husband that could never die.

And one night, I saw her rip up our only family photo. She was crying and for the first time since I had transitioned over to this body, I felt something real again. The feelings were muted, but they were real. A feeling of loss entered my system, something that felt like it was more than just a coded input. By then you were already a teenager and wanted nothing to do with me. I had spent years with you, like I always wanted, but I barely know you.

And now your mother is dead.

#

I look out at the void surrounding our ship, surrounding me, mirroring my future. I still play this violin as often as I can. It is the only thing I can do to avoid the loneliness that surrounds me. You and your mother had refused to go through the procedure, although I had insisted. Before the operation, I told her we’d have forever to chase our dreams. I had outlined the possibilities for us and you, thinking she would change her mind. At some point, I thought I could use logic to convince her, but she had already seen what I had become.

I place the red violin down now, missing the magic of the music, something I know now to be purely mathematical. I stroke its shape, touching the chip, having never fixed it.  It would forever be broken like I was in this form.

The eternity that I had promised your mother to chase our dreams is becoming an eternity of tomorrows.  I shudder at the years that had passed on board this spaceship, of the excuses I had made. With no star to orbit, I try to ignore the years that pass, but they continue, despite me. There is no illness and parts can be created at a moment’s notice. Since there are endless tomorrows, we never have to start anything today. We loom around the spaceship, like ghosts of our former selves.

There is no reason to leave the ship, so we don’t. We process information about the solar system from a safe distance, but do nothing with it. We don’t need to. Gambling our immortality is not worth the price of exploring. In our humanity, death was always looming on the horizon, so the stakes were not as high. But the promise of immortality had made taking risks illogical.

I grab the picture from our wedding day. My eyes scan the room, processing her face instead of seeing her, yearning to see those red curls one more time. I take the picture of you, wishing that I had gotten to see you with my real eyes before you were born and that I could know what became of you. I then look at a picture of my younger self, wondering if I would have been disappointed to see what I had become. I felt pain flow throughout the wires of my system. Today’s models aren’t programmed to have these emotions, since they had never been human in the first place. Emotions are deemed illogical and obtrusive, but I am grateful to feel them once more. It reminds me that the man I had once still existed. That parts of me were becoming human again.

I push the pictures away, hiding them below the violin. The one that had played music for me, the music I longed to hear. As I close the door to my memories, I wonder if the price of escaping death was worth the cost. We had achieved immortality, becoming like gods, but this isn’t what I wanted. I looked at the button, the one that powered me, wondering if I should shut it off, wondering if death could make me fully human again.


When not running marathons, painting, or looking for her car keys, K.Danckert explores new ideas and new worlds through fiction. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey. Updates on her writing and art can be found on kdanckert.com.


If you enjoyed “The New Gods”, you may also enjoy the sci-fi horror short story “Medusae” by Elana Gomal.

“Keep Your Head Down” Horror by Paul O’Neill

Butcher-"Keep Your Head Down" by Paul O'Neill

They sent me to the shop to buy the jackets for the jacket potatoes. That’s when I knew it was going to be a rough first day. In the shop, the look the lassie behind the till gave me could’ve melted enamel off a bathtub. Stood there in my butcher’s overalls like a proper bell-end with a queue tailing behind me, all guffawing and pointing knobby fingers at me as realisation of the prank dawned.

The door chirped its robotic beep, beep as I stormed out of there. The sun beamed down on Balekerin high street, almost shimmering off the grey stone. The pressure in my gums promised blood as I grit my teeth, keeping my head down on my way back to Denny’s butchery.

A hazing – that’s what they call it. Only to be expected, really. Reserved for anyone starting a new job. They’ll all be eating out my hand soon. Work hard. Make yourself known. Not gonna be the whipping boy for any length of time. Gotta get on in life. Make your mark.

I squeezed myself back into the shop, getting elbows and rough comments about skipping the queue before they noticed the blue apron. They parted like the red sea to let me through like I was Mr. Denny himself.

With the blood eventually cooling down my face, draining down my neck, I made my way behind the counter. The sweet, watery smell of fresh meat collided with the sprinkling of bleach and lemony cleaning products. Glass counters reflected the sun and the large fluorescent lights above, aching a space behind my eyes I didn’t even know existed until today.

The team of butchers and servers crawled over each other like a mob of ants, barging, giving each other the odd punch in the side. If it weren’t for the customers there would’ve been a brawl.

I looked at the clock on the wall above my station. It wasn’t even ten o’clock yet.

The crowd were so desperate to get in and get served, shouting their orders over the counter. They were like a horde of ravenous zombies. Their eyes… Dunno if it was a trick of the light, but they all seemed to shine silver, reeking of desperation. I stood there, fidgeting with the knot on my apron behind my back, trying to fight away the image of falling into that crowd and being torn limb from limb.

Beep, beep, the door dinged as it opened. Its constant noise as the customers piled in tweezed at something in the centre of my brain.

“There he is though,” said George, my manager, standing next to me. “Where’s the jackets, Aiden? Poor potatoes will have to go in the bin now.”

“Ha, bloody ha,” I said. “Got me good. Won’t get me again, though.”

“Wanna fucking bet? Jackets, that’s what I’ll call you from now on. Hey, Jackets, look over there.”

He pointed to something on the pock-marked ceiling. As I stared, he drilled me with a kidney punch. I folded over, wheezing out pain. The guy was at least twice my seventeen years, and about twice as big, too.

“Listen,” he whispered as he leaned in, “you sound like a nice enough lad. Just you keep your head down. Smart arses don’t survive long.”

I tried to spit anger, but it came out in a constipated wheeze. “Prick.”

He turned, rage slipping off his face. “Mrs. Robinson. Nice to see you, my love. Interest you in the best sausages Scotland has to offer?”

Beep, beep. Beep, beep. Beep, beep. The door went non-stop. It made me want to take the thing off the top of the door and stick it through the mincer.

Keep your head down. Aye, right. That’s what my old man said before I left the house this morning, too. Bless the old guy and his proud brown eyes. Don’t care what they all say. I’m not one to wait around. Not gonna die with nothing to show for my hard work. Won’t be laying on my death bed, plugged into a machine, beep, beep, beeping endlessly, waiting for—

“Oi, Jackets,” said George, snapping me out of it. “Slice this fucker up for me. Thin as your hopes and dreams.”

My job was to slice ham all day. George flung a thick, slippy piece of pork at me. The meat slicer looked like a jigsaw a carpenter would use to saw through large pieces of wood. Despite its gnarly teeth looking like they’d split through my finger bones, I was only given a two second showing of how the thing worked before they opened the doors and pandemonium started.

By the time the hour crawled to noon, my forearms ached. My temples dripped with sweat. Sweat that landed on the ham more often than not. When I asked George for a lunch break, he almost dropped a handful of orange sausages.

Those were the award-winning ones. Stretched translucent skin showed the almost pumpkin coloured meat within. Only the senior butchers like George were allowed to run down to the cellar where they prepped the meat. A coded door made sure I couldn’t peek at the secret ingredients that had the customers practically frothing at the ears, dancing on the spot while they waited to be served like junkies outside the pharmacy on a Tuesday morning.

George had told me all about the last boy that dropped a packet of those sausages. Fired on the spot, but not before they took him downstairs to the fridges and beat him senseless until he could barely walk. Hadn’t showed his face around here since. There were a lot of stories like that.

My side groaned in pain. I could feel the bruises already forming. I swear, if someone chopped me in the ribs again when I wasn’t expecting it, I’d be spitting blood by the end of the day. Gotta go along to get along, as they say. At least to start. Until I could show them what I’m made of.

In they came. Beep, beep. Beep, beep. On and on like the whole of Balekerin stumbled through those doors.

I got myself into a rhythm, ignoring the hunger pangs that pulled my mood down to the sticky floor. The vibrations of the meat slicer rumbled through my palms as I pushed pork through it, turning it into floppy slices.

The air in the shop changed.

The butchers and red-faced servers all went quiet. Chins drooped to chests as if someone had placed a heavy weight on their heads.

The reason for the sudden hush sauntered out from the back. Mr. Denny himself. His apron was as crisp as mine’s had looked that morning. Not a red spot on it, while the almondy stench of caked blood wafted up to me every time I moved.

Sun-tanned like he lived in Greece, waving like a politician, he walked forward. Something about his movements seemed awfully practised. Robotic, even.

He was allowed to swim in the adulation that came his way. The creator of the sausages that had everyone in Scotland crawling in like maggots to get a taste.

I set the pork on the tray. My gloves slapped against my wrists as I took them off.

“Don’t do it, Jackets,” said George, the piss-taking note gone from his voice. “Honestly. Don’t even.”

Bertie, an old, crumpled butcher stared down at a chop of beef on the counter, barely blinking as he sliced at it with precise movements of a small knife. His voice was a smoker’s whisper. “Keep your head down. Always and always. The blood is real. Beep, beep, beep. Don’t you lose your head like those other boys. Couldn’t listen. They never listen. Will you listen?”

Mr. Denny waltzed from behind the counter and into the waiting crowd, shaking hands. If there was a fresh baby in the shop, he’d probably have kissed the thing. 

“Warning you,” said George, following my gaze. “Put yourself in front of the big man there, and your career will be cut short.”

“You happy enough doing what you’re doing there, aye? No big plans for the future.”

“Calm yourself, Jackets. I’ve had dumps longer than you’ve worked here.”

An image of my dad came to my mind. How burst he looked after each day at work in the factory. How he sat on his big seat in our sparse living room with barely anything to show for the elbow grease.

“Need to make your mark to get ahead,” I said. “Need to—”

George burst forward and smacked me so hard in the belly I folded over, knees crumpling. My face hit the bleach-laden floor, leaving me with a taste in my mouth like swimming pool.

When I bounced back to my feet, ready to throw a punch of my own, the look in George’s eyes stopped me. I’d expected them to shine with malice like they’d done all day, but there was a note of sadness in them that made my fist fall against my leg.

He only nodded at the slicer and I took my designated spot. Mr. Denny swanned through the crowd and out the door, taking my opportunity with him.

“You the new fellow, young lad?” said a reedy voice.

A cave-creature like man with glasses so thick I couldn’t see his eyeballs leaned over the glass counter. He was all arm and bowed back, his spine bumping over the contours of his jacket. A green line of mucus snailed down his nose, almost touching his upper lip.

“Got a tongue in that shiny gob?” he said.

“A-Aye.” Couldn’t take my eyes from the globulous trail being made. “New, aye. Started this morning. Aye.”

“They giving you a hard time?”

“Let’s just say I’ve earned my nickname already.”

The man slapped his thigh like it was the funniest joke ever told. “He he, doesn’t take them long, eh? You got a nice set of stones on you laddie?”

“Excuse me?”

“Most young chaps burst out of here crying and bawling like they miss their mumsies. Can’t take the heat.”

Beep, beep. Beep, beep. More crowd flooded in.

“Can you take the heat, hmm?” the creep continued. “Most of the young team that worked here before you haven’t been seen since.”

George coughed into a balled fist, shooting me a look that said why you talking to the customers, Jackets?

“Better get to my station,” I said, backing away. “You need anything? I can ask one of the—”

“No, no. Just checking out the new meat.” He licked his lips with a wet, lizard sound. His tongue attached itself to the pale snotters like a spiderweb. Soon, there was a line of gloop from nostril to lower lip, vibrating like a guitar string. He just let it hang there, not touching it.

That line of bogies haunted my mind when I got home that night. Went straight to the fridge, opened a can of Fosters and shoved half the can of lager into my face. The harshness of it scratched the back of my throat as I gulped and gulped. Jesus. What a day.

Ribs ached like fuck. Eyes throbbed like I’d been at a Daft Punk concert for twelve hours straight. Seen more punishment and abuse in that shift than I’d seen at school an entire year.

“Ah, you survived,” said Dad, lounging on his big seat in the living room, eyes almost drooping shut. He stared at the blank TV like it was too much of an effort to find the remote. “Good shift?”

I rested the back of my head against the wall. “Was alright, I suppose. Not top of the food chain. Yet.”

“Och, enough of that pish. Always gotta be skipping ahead of yourself. Need to learn the value of an honest buck. It’s all your salmon t-shirt wearing, eyebrow weirdo generation. Don’t know that it’s all about the graft.”

“Out grafted most of the old bags in there today. Burst couches, all of them.”

“They’ll burst your coupon for you if you’re not careful. Bunch of hard nuts in there, so I heard.”

I almost told him that it felt like they’d bruised my organs. Instead, I gulped the rest of the can of lager. When I crumpled it up in my hand, the tinny noise was loud in our small, two bedroom council flat.

“That your advice?” I said. “Work myself to the knuckles and hope I get seen one day? Nah, fuck that shit in the tailpipe. Gonna walk right up to the big dog tomorrow and make myself seen. Put myself on his scoresheet.”

“Your mum, she’d—”

“Don’t you bring her into this.” My voice cracked off the low ceiling. “Don’t.”

The next breath I took in had a wavery quality to it. I held it in, not trusting myself to speak straight.

He looked so old. So shrunken. He was a giant in my thoughts and memories. I’d done zero good by him these last few years. Not chipping in. Blaming him for not being man enough, not working hard enough when I could see plain how he gnawed himself to the bone with his double, triple shifts. He looked like a man who’s heart was about to pack in and that he’d welcome it. Looked that way ever since my Mum beeped her life away. All those machines, doing sweet fuck all to help. Beep, beep, beeeee

“Make my mark,” I barked out. “Have to. Don’t you see? I can’t be like her. Can’t whittle myself away for a company that doesn’t give a flying fuck, only to get to the age where you might wanna start enjoying life, and for life to pull the rug. I can’t… All that hard work for nothing.”

“Quite sure she wouldn’t put it like that. Quite sure she’d say she would rather be here. Money or no money.”

The queue the next day was unbelievable. Saturday and it looked like we had Oasis or Stereophonics headlining at lunchtime. Queue snaked around the two other butcher’s shops who were empty and desperate.

A butcher I hadn’t seen before unlocked the door and let me in. As I snuck past him, a couple of tidy lassies from the queue looked me over like I was a boss. That’s right, babes. I’ll be leading this thing in no time. Make my mark. Just you wait and see. Taste all my treats and creations by the time I’m boss man. Piece of me in every one of you, my—

“Jackets,” roared George, popping up from behind the counter. “Nice of you to show up. Shift started at seven.”

I covered my semi with my pathetic lunchbox, pushing the thoughts of summer lassies and their sly smiles out my mind.

“Seven? Eh?” I said, sounding every bit the squeaky douchebag.

“Oh, that’s right,” he said, menace in his eyes, “didn’t tell you, did I? Like I did it on purpose or something. Oh, well. Late again, Jackets and I’ll report you to the big guy.”

“Woah, hey, no, no. Don’t. Was hoping to have a word with him today. Can’t have him knowing I was late.”

“What did I tell you about keeping that thick head of yours down? Drop it and do your work and maybe I won’t slap you about. As much. And they say I’m not a good manager. Ha.”

Shoppers swarmed the shop like a Black Friday sale, leaning against the glass counter so much I thought it would crash in on itself.

Slice, slice, slice went the machine as I fed it pig guts all morning long. Sweat stuck my t-shirt to my back. The customers waved their shaky hands over the counters, trying to claw at the servers for their fix.

If yesterday was manic, today was mania. Lost count of the serving lassies who whizzed past me in tears. The butchers wiping their injuries on their aprons, too busy to stop the bleeding. We all tripped over each other like soldiers in a trench.

“The blood is real,” said Bertie, staring at his thin hands like they were someone else’s.

I walked over and put a hand on his shoulder. “You alright there big guy?” I had to talk loud to be heard over the tumult. “If it was me running this place, I’d look after you, bud. Make sure everyone was kept alright.”

He turned his milky eyes on me. “W-Who are you?”

“I… I’m Aiden. You know? Jackets.”

“When do we shut?”

“Got, like, seven hours left.”

“Is that all? Aw, man. I tells my Katie I need to be here so much to bring in the pennies, you know? Hates me, so she does. She hates me. Hates my blood. I hate me, too. Kept my head down, though. Always kept my head down.”

I pressed his shoulder and tried to guide him round the back to have a seat, get a drink of water, but he shrugged me off. He went back to his place at the side of the counter, kneading mince with his skeletal fingers. The sloshing, purple worm sound of it made a shudder ripple up my spine.

Back at the slicer, spots started pricking at the sides of my vision. Breaths came up short like I’d just run a marathon. Uniform was suddenly tight about the neck. Blood gathered about my cheeks. Strange sensation ran up and down my arms.

I stumbled towards the double doors that led to the back area, side-stepping a donkey kick from George. Back here was even worse. It was like a boat-load of Vikings had landed at a village and chased the locals about with cleavers and meat hooks. The crazed look in every workers’ eyes made me slink away to a corner.

As I turned my back on them, I collided into someone’s aftershave-laden chest.

“Watch it, you ar—” I gulped, looking up at the figure. “Mr. Denny. I-I’m so sorry. Didn’t see you there.”

Fuck, fuck, fuck. Fucked it now. Slam into my boss on day two. Idiot boy. Should’ve just kept your head down and—

“It’s Aiden, right?” he said, his white, white smile breaking like dawn over a field. “Or do you prefer Jackets?” He leaned in closer. “Only the very best ones get a name in the first couple of days. The worst go straight in the bin. And we see a lot of those. Takes a certain kind of man to work in here. Think you got what it takes?”

I stood as straight as I could, doing my best not to puff my chest out. “Aye. I mean, yes sir. Ready to take on any challenge. Ready to make my mark.”

White and blue blurs zipped around us as if we stood in our own time zone. I felt the air of my co-workers as they whizzed by, but it was only Mr. Denny and I that mattered.

“I like my boys to have a certain set of guts to them,” he said. “We’re a close-knit family here. Every one as important as the last. Well, except the ones who barely last a day. Their contribution won’t be forgotten, no matter how short lived it was.”

He leaned over and patted me on the back with a hand as big as a paddle. Nearly burst the air from my lungs.

“Best keep your head down. Get on with it. Leave the running of the place to us.”

There it was again. Keep your head down. I felt a vein throb in my temple when he uttered it. He pivoted on the heel of his shiny shoes and started walking away, the workers zipping past automatically giving him space.

I stared down at the floor. The smell of the place filled my lungs as I tried to steady my breaths. That smell. It was more brown than red. It caked everything. The lining in your nostrils, the roof of your mouth until everything tasted black pudding, fried scab metallic.

“Mr. Denny?” I called after him. He paused and looked over his shoulder at me. “I get what you’re saying about getting on with it. But sir, I can take on more. I promise. I’m not like those other boys that vanished off the face of the Earth.”

His back still turned to me, I caught the rise of a smile in his eye. “Oh, really? And what makes you any different?”

“I know what it’s like to go hungry.”

He chuckled a stately chuckle. “About here, we all know what it’s like to go… hungry. Maybe in five years you can take Bertie’s station when he pops his clogs.”

“Five years?” Almost choked on the words. Five years of constant abuse and silver eyed customers for maybe an extra quid an hour?

Mr. Denny’s shoes clopped on the shiny, yellow-tooth coloured floor that had once been white.

“I can do it,” I shouted after him. “Whatever to help this company succeed. You tell me, and it’s done. Anything.”

A moonlight gleam was in his eyes like a hawk staring down its prey. “Shop’s shut tomorrow, but you come on down. Let you directly see the contribution you can make. How about that?”

Despite feeling like my soul and my body had been hit by a train, I was buzzing by the time I got home that night. A special meeting with the big boss himself. I was well and truly on my way. Those bastards that gave me sly digs will be sucking my managerial dick in no time.

“Dad, you alright there?” I said as I took a seat on his armrest.

Snores clicked out his open mouth. This close, I could see from the lines in his face just how worn he was. Hadn’t seen him smile since Mum went. In the hospital, waiting, waiting, waiting. Mum with her tubes, wires and heavy smile saying not to make a fuss. Beep, beep. Beep, beep.

“I’ll make you proud, Mum,” I said. “Do my bit for the family.”

The world felt like it had hit the pause button as I sauntered down to the shop early the next morning. Sunday. No junkies in the alcoves of shops. No customers queuing anywhere. Even the wind was hardly there. Mozzies buzzed around my head in lazy squares like I was a piece of spoiled meat.

Mr. Denny waited in the shadowed doorway for me, looking every bit like he should be smoking a cigar, his hair greasy as a gangster’s.

“Good morning, Mr. Denny,” I said. “What special stuff you got to show me, then?”

“You really don’t stop, do you?”

“Not until we’re relaxing, me and my dad with pints in our hands, watching as Mu…”

“Yes?” he said leaning closer.

The image of Mum with her toes in the sand, face up to the sun, cut a dagger through me as I waited on him unlocking the doors. It was almost a physical pain, harder than any blow George and the other crazy arseholes who worked here had landed in the last two days.

“Doesn’t matter.” I ducked under his arm and into the empty shop.

It smelled as if the place had been lathered with every cleaning product known to the human race, yet the coppery, almondy taste of meat was an undertone that would never leave.

“Weird without all the pressing bodies, eh?” said Mr. Denny, shooting past me and behind the counter.

“Aye,” I said, a lump gathering inside my throat. “Like a sweaty church in here.”

He turned, an amused smile across his sun-wrinkled face. “A church, you say? No one called it that before. But I suppose we do provide a service for the good of the community.”

“How so?”

He cleared his throat and examined the ceiling. “We produce what the people want. What the people need.”

“The stuff that keeps the other butcher shops empty as a finished crisp packet.”

“Indeed. They are jealous of our traditions. The secret ingredients of our produce has been passed down through my family for generations. Centuries. All through Europe they brought it.”

He turned his attention on me. My back straightened. My insides wobbled like they were about to fall out my arse. Keep it together, man. Don’t do anything weird. You’re here to make your mark.

“Want to see how it’s done?” he asked.

“You mean…”

“I can see you’ll do whatever it takes to help us succeed. Your team mates, they’re set in their ways. They don’t care about you. I’ll take you down into the workings and share what only a few trusted people have ever seen. Unless, that is, you just wanna keep your head down and get on with the job?”

Big gulp. It felt as if ice was packed tight in my veins. The shiny points of his teeth when he smiled were more silver than white.

“No, sir,” I said, standing outside the locked door with its green-lit keypad. “Let’s do this thing. I won’t tell anyone what I see. Promise.”

For a flash, the corners of his eyes crunched up like he’d just been told his puppy had been run over. It melted away, then he tipped me a wink. He pushed the buttons without making any effort to conceal the code. Beep, beep, beep, beep. 1-5-6-7.

A rush of cold air covered me like a mist, hitting me with the crisp taste of ice and things frozen. There was an undernote of sweetness to the air as we stepped into the cave-like dark, being enveloped into a large space. As my eyes adjusted, I saw the two doors to the freezers on the far wall.

“Here’s where all the meat is prepped.” He pointed to the rows and rows of silver tabletops with racks of knifes at each one. Mr. Denny flicked a switch and my eyes screamed at me when the lights came on.

I stood there, blinking like an absolute fud for what felt like a whole minute.

“A good man is hard to find. Someone who is true to the cause, knows how to keep secrets. You’ve got something like that in you. Worth your weight, you are.”

Something about the way his eyes crawled up my legs made me want to shit and run. I didn’t know what to expect. Was he going to come closer and try to punch me, or try to stick his tongue down my throat.

“In there is where the most important insertion happens,” he said.

“E-Excuse me?”

“Freezers. Where we keep the goods. Let me show you.”

He made his way over to another heavy door. As I got closer, I could feel the cold radiating off it. The sensation made me go green all over. Must’ve been the nerves. This was really it. I was on my way. Being trusted with all the secrets.

Mr. Denny punched in another code, then set his forehead against the silver freezer door as if breathing it in. “Once I open this door, ain’t no turning back. You’re mine for the rest of your days, got that? And you’ll make the most important contribution to our success here. That will not be forgotten. You’ll be part of the family. Part of the success that keeps the punters coming back and back for more. Always back for more.”

“Oh, hell yeah. Let’s do it.”

“Yes, indeed.”

The heavy door scraped along the metal floor. The noise made something squirm about between my ears.

I walked past him, into the curling mist of the freezer.

As my eyes adjusted, something heavy knocked into me, sending me onto my knees. It was a slab of meat, hung from a hook.

The laugh that escaped me sounded like a giggling school girl. The noise bounced around the space, doubling, tripling in volume.

The meat swayed. The metal of the hook creaked like an old swing at a play park.

“Keep it together, man,” I told myself.

I pictured my mum in her death bed. Her skin had turned porcelain white at the end. Her eyes focused on nothing, gone inside. I wondered what she’d say to me, seeing me in the bowels of the operation, making a mark in such a short time. Stuck it out longer than most of the young guns that came through the doors of Denny’s only to disappear.

I looked up. The meat rotated slowly in front of me, pale and waxy looking. When I sniffed in, the sweetness of it was dulled, numbed by the misty cold in my nostrils. That cold tried to nip at my bones.

My eyes felt as if they’d creak out my eye sockets.

A gasped exhalation died white around my face.

What had bumped into me was not dead cow.

It was human.

My eyes grew wide, stinging in the icy cold.

Rows and rows of human bodies extended to the end of the freezer. They all didn’t have heads or feet or hands. All primed, hung, ready for the butcher block.

“Now you understand,” said Mr. Denny behind me. He was outlined by the bright light from the room outside.

“T-The boys before me… The ones who worked here who everyone said just disappeared.”

“Some poked their noses in where it shouldn’t be poked. You young ones don’t know how to work hard and show up day after day. Expect everyone to throw you a bone just because you want something bad enough.”

“The customers. They go crazy for it. They’re… They’re eating human meat. You sick bastard. Let me out. I-”

I went to lunge forward, but my boot scraped to a stop on the icy floor. Mr. Denny looked like a glowing shadow. Something evil with only a void for insides. One hand slowly rose up from his side. It was the outline of a gnarly meat hook. I could just make out the silver-toothed smile that rose up his face.

“You’re crazy. Let me out,” I said. “W-Wait. This is another joke, eh? Like the jackets for the potatoes. Ha, ha. Got me good again. Mr. Denny? Y-You can let me out now. Mr. Denny?”

Before my brain could tell my numbing limbs to dart forward, to fight, he slammed the door closed. Darkness crawled all over me as I slapped uselessly at the door.

Mr. Denny’s voice was muffled through the thick steel. “Should’ve kept your head down.”


Paul O’Neill is an award-winning horror writer from Fife, Scotland. He’s an Internal Communications professional who fights the demon of corporate-speak on a daily basis. His works have appeared in Eerie River Publishing’s It Calls From The Doors anthology, the NoSleep podcast, Scare Street’s Night Terrors series, the Horror Tree, and many other publications. His debut collection, The Nightmare Tree, is available now. You can find him sharing his love of short stories on twitter @PaulOn1984.


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“The Worm” Dark Sci-Fi by Jesse Rowell

"The Worm" Dark Science-Fiction by Jesse Rowell

If the National Ministry of Peoples found out about me, they would drag me to the center of the town square and hang me. I’ve watched it on the state news. Political prisoners, men and women and children who dare to speak out against the regime, or those who have grown too weary to abide.

            They could be forgiven for not giving the Ministry’s soldiers their water, their bread. They could be forgiven for not burning their books that the Ministry demanded. They could be forgiven, but they are executed. So the rest of us fools, meek as mice, cower and whisper and nod submissively, but underneath it all our anger turns like a worm in our hearts.

            I am a Dev. I spend hours facing an old computer monitor working for the Ministry of Advanced Technology. Simple tasks, reading citizens’ emails and social networking messages, spying on the populace through a pixilated filter. When the General isn’t monitoring my activity, I send encrypted messages, try to warn the professors and political activists, but they are always captured and disappear. I’m left monitoring their empty email folders, walls that won’t update.

            “You’ve been summoned,” the General says resting his hand on my shoulder.

            “Summoned?” I ask. I have never heard of somebody from our group being summoned. I look around at the other Devs before staring up at the General. “Summoned for what?”

            “The Minister of Justice and Peace made the request. Official channels.”

            My heart freezes. The worm stops turning inside. “The Minister…” I trail off.

            “Yes, the Minister himself. I’m sure it is nothing you can’t help him with. He has a particular challenge that requires your specific talents.”

            “It is with great pride,” I say. “That I serve the National Party with humility. I hope that I can assist tomorrow as my wife and daughter have dysentery and I must get them their ration of water.” I know they’re waiting for me, huddled together on our bed, shivering with fever.

            “They can wait,” the General says. “I will personally attend to your family as you will be taken to the palace forthwith.”

            Who has sold me out? I try to comprehend this betrayal as the palace guards, two doltish and lumbering brutes, escort me through the town square. The interminable town square, wide enough to swallow oceans. The guards boots click against its cobblestones. I can’t feel my limbs, tingling and numb, as we pass Grecian columns. The same columns that sit on our paper currency. Our country’s worthless currency, devalued like my life.

            The Minister’s Attendant, a slender man with a slender mustache, meets me at the palace entrance. I hate the sight of this man, the caterpillar crawling above his absent upper lip. I hate the sight of the interior of the palace, its gilded vases and candles, it’s paintings of our National Minister. It looks like a goddamn church inside here.

            “Ah, good,” the Attendant says. “I’ll show you to the network closet.”

            “Network closet?” I ask, holding my relief cautiously in check.

            “Yes, network closet. You are familiar with what a network closet is, aren’t you?”

            Network closet better not be a euphemism for an execution chamber. I mumble something nonsensical wishing I could drive a screwdriver through the back of this man’s neck.

            He leads me through a narrow hallway to a door. A naked bulb illuminates a network closet. All of the cross-cables have been ripped out, multicolored copper wires littering the floor.

            “Evidence of vindictive sabotage,” he whispers, his voice a thread and needle weaving through my ear. “You must fix it. Posthaste.”

            “Shut up,” I tell the man. “Let me concentrate.” Inside I’m cheering the efforts of the previous workman who has damaged the palace’s telecommunications, but my shoulders sink upon the realization that I will now be the one fixing it. If I don’t I will be met with the same end as the saboteur.

            The Attendant’s face puckers as I waive him off. “Now, see here,” he sputters. “Nobody tells me to shut up.”

            “No, I will not waste a second of the Minister’s time.” I’m beginning to enjoy kicking this little bureaucrat. I have the power. He is dependent upon me completing this job. “I must attend to this disaster immediately. Who damaged these cables? Have you caught the perpetrator?”

            His face falls, and he cowers like a dog whose owner holds a rolled up newspaper over his nose. I almost feel sorry for him. What if he is a brother in arms like me, working from the shadows to bring down the Ministry? He could have been the one who trashed the network panel. And I have become the iron heal of the regime breaking his spirit.

            “Well, brother?” I ask to test him.

            “We are trying to locate the perpetrators,” he says, either ignoring my signal or ignorant of the code.

            “More than one, eh?” I pick up the copper wires with the Attendant standing over my shoulder watch me. He murmurs and frets as I punch cable pairs into the PBX board. I string new cross-connects, and write down the cable pairs and port numbers.

            “Done,” I say handing him the updated port list. “Now I must get back to my wife and daughter. They have been without water since yesterday.”

            The Attendant grabs my arm. He grips it with such earnestness and stares so intently at me that I think he is going to whisper something conspiratorially in my ear. Brother, we are with you. We will rise against the fascist regime. Down with the National Ministry of Peoples.

            I’m about to tell him who I am, let him know that I am working against the Ministry, but he speaks first.

            “Dev. You will now see the Minister directly. There is a delicate matter that requires your attention.”

            I shake myself free of my previous intention. Had I almost revealed myself based upon the look of a government employee? Holy hell, I thought. I have to be more careful than that. Years of work lost.

            The sound of an old modem dialing up echoed against the marble. The sound of antiquity, if antiquity ever had a sound, is a modem’s crackle like hay in a windstorm. While the rest of the world moved on to T1 and wireless connections, our country remained mired in its dilapidated infrastructure. Our country’s enemies draw caricatures of the Minister as a cotton farmer refusing to upgrade to a cotton gin.

            He watches me. Those soft eyes set between sagging jowls, banal and empathetic, belying his ruthlessness. His tongue combs through his mustache after state dinners, searching for any last scrap of meat that might have deposited itself there, the temerity of food. I think of the billboards that show our Minister looking off into the distance, his eyes wistful with the promise of bountiful harvests, bread and water.

            Take the state newspaper, its photos and propaganda, shred it in a blender and pour it into a bowl of goat’s milk. That is the mush that settles in our brains, a mix of the contradictory and absurd. Our Minister. We serve the National Party with humility, but the worm turns in our hearts, and we seethe.

            He sits behind his colonial desk waiting for me. His Attendant pushes me forward, his hand on my lower back. I cast my eyes down and bow.

            “Thank you, The Peoples’ Minister,” I whisper. “Your light casts no shadows across our great country.” There are three approved phrases the public are allowed to say to any high ranking member of the Ministry. You are lucky if you never have to pick which one of them to mutter through gritted teeth for fear that your insincerity will call you out as an enemy.

            “Rise and be greeted,” the Attendant says.

            As is custom I rise and wait as the Minister assesses me. I feel like a piece of meat, every nook and cranny of my soul scrutinized by this dog who wants only to devour my soft tissue.

            He murmurs his approval and casts his hand out. The Attendant retreats and we are alone.

            “Dev,” he says smiling. “Your General tells me you are one of our country’s best. You alone have discovered hundreds of terrorists. Found where their rat nests lie, where they breed and infect our people with their disease of revolution. Incurable. Has to be cut out. You are better than our country’s finest doctors as you have taken a scalpel to the cancer that eats at our borders.”

            He always demands an audience, and he would keep talking if it were only a bed of dolls with hollow eyes staring up at him. I nod as his words prod at me like bayonets.

            “I have a problem,” he says. “You will find a solution to my problem. But you will not breathe a word of what we do here today. You will not tell your wife. You will not tell your daughter. Do you understand?”

            “Yes,” I say. I see my wife and daughter sick, tangled in blankets, the General watching over them. I realize now that his volunteering to attend to my family was leverage to ensure my cooperation. A tuning fork has been struck, my wife’s soul resonating across the fields and ghettos, through the canals and sewage tunnels, over the town square and up the palace stairs, ringing in my ears and vibrating me to my core. I will cooperate with whatever sick request the Minister will invent. I will protect my family.

            He motions for me to approach, and I do. I am his puppet. I stand beside him and smell his cologne.

            “See here,” he says pointing at his computer. It’s a new model, one that has not been provided to the Ministry of Advanced Technology yet.

            I look at the monitor. It shows the login page to a censored social networking site. I am impressed that the Minister was able to circumnavigate our firewall to access the site, and I comment on his prowess.

            “That is your first mistake. The last Dev made assumptions too, and tried his hand at sabotage. As you can see he is no longer with us.”

            My body contracts and my eyes grow wide with fear as I apologize. I understand now that somebody previous to me has helped the Minister access the site, and ripped out the network cables at some point. The courage of that stranger, somebody lost to the tattered pages of our country’s history. What is courage but a tourist book of suicide? The cripple holding a gun to his heart, or the intellectual fighting for revolution, one in the same married in death.

            “Enough of your mea culpas,” he says. “Stand here and put your fingers on the keyboard.”

            I do as instructed, fearing electricity might jump from the letters into my veins. Is this some fantastical way for the Minister to enjoy my execution?

            “I want you to create a profile for me. I want it fully integrated with the marketplace so that I can access goods and services from businesses outside our country. I want it connected to my children so that I can read their posts and see their activity.”

            His children, like so many dictators’ children before him, had been sent to colleges and universities outside our country to give their future rule a shade of legitimacy with their degrees in political science, architecture and agriculture.

            “I can set up your profile,” I say, my voice shaking. I hate how weak I feel. “I can link it to the Ministry of Treasury.”

            “Good,” he says licking his mustache. “I need access to my cognac and cigars. Now, I’ve been told that I will be able to see my children’s activities. They represent the Ministry as they promote the Peoples’ message outside our borders. I must be sure that they are behaving themselves. I do not want any embarrassments while they matriculate.”

            “About that,” I say as I type furiously, making him a profile and sending link requests to his children. “You can only request that they add you to their network. After they agree, you will be able to see their activities.”

            “What?” he asks grabbing my arm. He pulls me down so that I am tilted sideways and level to his face. “Why do I have to ask? There should be no asking.”

            I struggle to keep my balance as I answer. “That is how the site was built.”

            “Change it. I do not ask permission.”

            “It is not up to me. The site was built before time. We have no control over it. We can only block it or monitor it.”

            “Before time, eh?” He pulls me closer. “Did God himself build it?”

            I stand hobbled over close to his face listening to the wind rush in and out of his nostrils. I hear his teeth grinding against each other like boulders sliding down a mountain.

            “Look,” I cry. “One of your sons accepted your link request.”

            He lets go of my arm and stares into the screen. He looks helpless, his face sucking up the light from the monitor, like a baby pig curled to its mother’s belly. His half sunken eyelids, his tongue darting out. I could crush him at this moment, grind his pig face against the screen, free the people from his tyranny.

            “Clicking here you’ll be able to see you son’s status updates,” I say. “And here to see his posted pictures.”

            Courage. If only it were as ubiquitous as the smog from the smelting plants, a vast reservoir to breathe in and change history. The worm spins like a gyroscope in my heart as I imagine my hands around his neck, choking off his cries. The keyboard falling to the ground. Keys scattering across the marble to spell out the future of our country.

            The Minister is engrossed in viewing his son’s profile. He reads his posts and chuckles. “Ah,” he cries out. “He does me proud. This future of our great nation. Listen to this: ‘Trotskyite professor said God don’t exist. He will see his Salvation.’” The Minister nods and smiles. “He has such a sense of humor.”

            I see this tyrant turn almost human as he looks lovingly at his son’s pictures. Goddammit. I want to kill him, but I see myself in his fawning face as I think about my own child. She’s waiting for me at home, waiting to crush my neck with her little arms, hug me and never let me go back to work. Stay home, daddy, she commands. Don’t trick me.

            My hands tremble as I try to breath in courage. I inch closer. The Minister doesn’t see me, content, drowning his eyes in the blue glow of his monitor. Pictures flit past, the tyrant’s son standing in front of Radcliffe Library, huddling with a group of scholars, drinking tea, playing ping pong. Activities foreign to the populace trapped here.

            Reaching for him. Why have we been left alone? Perhaps this was the plan all along. The earnest looks of the Attendant, the room cleared of cabinet members, senators, and guards. It was as if the entire state apparatus had gently placed a knife in my hand and pushed me into the room.

            “The Minister does not like to be touched,” the Attendant says standing behind me.

            “Uh, yes,” I stutter. “I was about to show him the live-chat feature.”

            “Oh?” he asks. “Through his neck? Odd choice for a computer interface.”

            Now the Attendant is having fun at my expense, kicking me with his little bureaucratic feet, smirking at me with his lipless mouth. He had been lurking in the shadows all along, waiting for me to make a mistake. Only seconds remain before he will snap his fingers like a flamenco dancer. Seconds before the guards will rampage through the door and throw me off the balcony. I brace myself.

            “You are dismissed,” he says curtly.

            I open my eyes, and like a freed prisoner I am mute. Unbelieving.

            “Well, Dev? Are you deaf?”

            “No, no,” I say. “You mean I can go home? To my wife and daughter?”

            “Yes.”

            The walls evaporate and I am air. I fall through the sky, my matter merging with cloud. I rain down on the town square. I’ve escaped. All that lies between me and freedom is the ocean of distance to the other side of the square at its gates.

            “Good work, brother,” the Attendant says at my back as he closes the palace doors.

            They shut at my back and I stride forward with purpose. The guards wait at the other end, lounging against themselves, oblivious that an enemy held concert with their leader. I will live to see them executed, held responsible for the deaths of my countrymen. My confidence grows with each step.

            The gates. How welcome their spikes, their iron flanks. I pass under the arch and pause to look down into the canal. The canal is connected to a network of underground passages and sewage tunnels. How did they let me escape this far?

            “Hold there for a sec,” says one of the guards, his Pygmalion body shifting into animation. “The Attendant is trying to get your attention.”

            I look behind me and see that the Attendant has wiggled out from the palace walls and is running toward us. He holds a sheaf of paper above his head and is calling out. I can make out his words faintly at first, echoing across the square. The words rebound off each other, intensifying like a wave. We all stand there dumbly, watching him approach.

            “Way op way op… wait sop sop… wait stop. Wait! Stop!”

            What has this slimy little bastard done? Has he found the string of code I deposited into the Minister’s computer, like pushing a worm into the ground? Has he alerted the General, who holds the throats of my girls? Has he come to detain me?

            “Stop! You must stop!”

            Or is he chasing me down to help the Minister with some other trivial task? Help him lift his fork to his mouth. Wipe his ass. Regretful tasks, but I will live. I will pretend. I will go along to get along. Cower and whisper and nod submissively. Twist like a worm in the fingers of a fisherman.

            I look down into the canal. I could jump now, wiggle into the tunnels, but the General will execute my wife and child. If I stay rooted to the ground, they will execute me, and maybe my family will live. The canal’s water is dark, framed by brackish stains against the stone.

            “Wait! Stop!” He’s getting closer.

            We deny. Then we bargain. Then we run to avoid our fate. The worm turns in our hearts, and we project courage. In the end we are all cowards.

            I jump into the canal and disappear down the length of dark tunnel. I am sobbing as I run.


Jesse Rowell is an SFF author featured in multiple publications, including NPR and several literary journals. He can be found at https://jesserowell.com


If you liked this story you might also like “Thanksgiving” by Sara White.

Interview with Author Russell James

Russell James grew up on Long Island, New York, and spent too much time watching Chiller, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and The Twilight Zone, despite his parents’ warnings. Bookshelves full of Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe didn’t make things better. He graduated from Cornell University and the University of Central Florida.

After a tour flying helicopters with the U.S. Army, he now spins twisted tales best read in daylight. He has written the paranormal thrillers Q Island, Dark Inspiration, The Playing Card Killer, The Portal, Lambs Among Wolves, and both the Grant Coleman and Ranger Kathy West adventure series. He has four short story collections, Tales from the Beyond, Outer Rim, Forever Out of Time, and Deeper into Darkness.

CONNECT WITH RUSSELL ONLINE
Website: russellrjames.com
Facebook:
Russell James – Author
Meet Russell at an upcoming convention in 2022!


What draws you to the horror genre? Apparently, you have a love for it going back to childhood.

Sometime early in high school, I picked up Stephen King’s The Stand. It was on the family bookshelf and I’ll admit that the size of it intimidated me. It ended up being the first novel I ever read that so engrossed me I could not put it down. I jumped on the rest of the King books on the shelves after that, and had the same experience. So, while I’d had a nice diet of horror movies and television shows growing up, these books cemented that link between scary stories and the written word. I am certain that one of the reasons I prefer this genre is that early influence.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment as a writer so far?

For me, my greatest accomplishments might seem very small. They are the moments when a person tells me that the story I wrote moved them. One man told me that my high school buddies horror story Sacrifice made him look up his old high school friends. Once, a father told me about how I was his young son’s favorite author and his son did a book report on one of my Grant Coleman Adventure novels. Another time, a woman told me that the hero couple in The Portal reminded her of how she and her deceased husband used to be, and it made her smile. I’ll certainly never hit the NYT bestseller list, but every conversation like these inspires me to keep working on the next book.

Why do you write?

Anyone who writes enough to pursue publication will tell you that the desire comes from within, and that there is no other way to satisfy it. Stories and ideas and images bubble up and practically demand to be put on a page. To keep that creative urge from boiling too hard, I try to write every day. But sometimes life disrupts that schedule, like when I attend a four-day convention and that absorbs all my time. I can feel that unreleased storytelling rising inside and can’t wait to get back to the current work-in-progress. It’s the most satisfying job I’ve ever had.

What is your writing process? (Any favorite places to write? Any interesting quirks, traditions, or rituals you may have? How many times might you revise something before being satisfied with it? Besides you, does anyone else edit your work? Etc.)

I have a splendid workspace set up at home with a big south-facing window and a lot of desk space. That space is critical because my cat Timothy thinks if he isn’t close by, I’ll churn out drivel, so he needs his spot where the sun hits the desk.

I’ve found that I can productively create new prose for about four hours a day. After that, I start rushing through the writing process, and the next day it reads like a junior high composition assignment. So in the summer, I spend the morning doing something outdoors like yard work or working on the cars in the garage, and then after lunch when the heat really kicks in, I will write. In the winter, I reverse that order to take advantage of warmer afternoons.

After the creative part of the process delivers a complete rough draft, now comes the editing process. I’m not a pre-plotting kind of writer. My rough drafts contain a lot of notes about continuity errors from earlier I need to fix or foreshadowing I need to add now that I’m certain of what happens later in the book. The first pass fixes all those notes and typos.

The second pass skips through the book, landing on only the scenes a specific character is in. During this pass I work on character continuity and dialogue consistency. In the third pass, I listen to the book read aloud. Here I hope to catch repetitive words or sentence structure, as well as punching up some of the descriptive language.

After that, I can’t stand looking at it anymore, and off it goes to my cherished beta readers.

How do you come up with your ideas for novels?

Every novel springs from a different inspiration, usually from something I’ve observed or an article I’ve read. From that I get a creepy premise that gives me either a way to get a story started or a splendid climax to a conflict. The new release, Demon Dagger, is the only one inspired in the middle.

Russell James

I love visiting the local Florida theme parks. They all have big, costumed characters for photo ops. I thought about how one never knows who is inside that costume and giant head. They could look like anyone, be any gender. As a horror writer, I of course have to look at everything through a dark lens. Normal people assume it is a benevolent person inside the costume head with the fixed smile, but what if it wasn’t? What if a demonically-possessed person was in that costume, ready to prey on the people who let down their guard in the safe fantasy world of the happy theme park?

That got my wheels turning. Who would the demon target? Well, the young son of a demon hunter of course, as revenge for previously sending the demon back to Hell. This idea turned into a short story, and the more I polished that story, the more I filled in the blanks on either side of it. Before I knew it, it had become the center of a novel.

Then I created a beginning to talk about how the demon hunter got into that line of work, and an ending with a climactic battle between the demon and the hunter, with the hunter’s family set squarely in the middle.

What is your background in literature? How much reading do you do? What do you read? How necessary do you feel it is necessary for an author to read?

I try to do some reading daily, usually after my creativity has been spent for the day. Lately I’ve been reading the works published by the other authors at the presses that publish my work. Flame Tree Press published Demon Dagger and they have some splendid authors there. You can’t beat Catherine Cavendish for gothic horror, JG Faherty for a white-knuckle horror thriller, or Brian Moreland for historical horror. At Severed Press, Hunter Shea is the Master of All Things Monster and the king of cryptid tales.

Writers need to read. It’s the only way to get a varied perspective about the craft. I met a girl at the last con who said she wanted to be a writer and loved to write but hated to read. That’s like saying you want to be a professional skater, but will never watch any skating competitions. If you don’t want to do read, you really don’t want to write.

Do you have anyone (friends, relatives, etc.) review your works before you publish them?

I am blessed with splendid beta readers. Donna Fitzpatrick and Deb DeAlteriis are huge horror fans who give me great input on the first version of every novel. Teresa Robeson is a fantastic author who was part of my first writing group. She has gone on to publish two award-winning children’s books and has also done beta reading for me.

Sometimes I’ll ask for specific feedback from one person for something within that person’s area of expertise. Demon Dagger got feedback on the family dynamic from horror author and super-mom Somer Canon, and on medical matters from professional nurse Josie Evans. It’s wonderful having friends willing to make me seem more knowledgeable than I really am.

Could you give us a general idea of your upcoming works without spoiling anything?

Demon Dagger comes out this August. In it, Drew is the main character, and when a demon possesses a person, he can see the horrific-looking demon that dwells within. This ability has made him a demon hunter, armed with the one weapon that can send these fiends back to Hell; the demon dagger.

A demon named Nicobar sets its sights on punishing this hunter. It starts by taking the soul of Drew’s son, condemning the boy to life as a psychopath.

This fast-paced, chilling novel follows Drew’s attempt to save his son’s soul and then use the blade to end Nicobar’s time on Earth.

My next Severed Press release is called Temple of the Queen. This is the start of a new series set in the 1930s. Antiques-dealing couple Rick and Rose Sinclair go out looking for lost treasures and find supernatural dangers and giant monsters in each adventure. Their first trip takes them to Arabia in search of the lost treasury of the legendary Queen of Sheba.

Several of your books deal with scenarios in which the protagonist must evade a mass of monsters (for example, Claws or Mammoth Island.) Then several are supernatural horror/ adventure. The Playing Card Killer concerns a protagonist coming off anxiety medication. In Demon Dagger you explain sociopaths using demons. There seems to be a trend from adventurous, Jurassic-Park-type adventures to the supernatural and psychological. What is driving this new focus? Do you have a growing interest in psychology? Is this shift only temporary?

Both types of books are still coming down the pike. The giant monster adventure books are published through Severed Press, who dominates that niche market. Demon Dagger and the more mainstream horror books are distributed through Simon and Schuster, a press better suited to reaching that wider market. Neither publisher would be interested in the works the other have published. I love writing both kinds of stories and I am very blessed to have found two publishers willing to indulge me.

What do you think of bad reviews? Are they helpful or harmful to you?

No one likes getting bad reviews and I cringe when I see a review headline with very few stars. If it is a well-reasoned, insightful review, I can certainly read that with an open mind. I’ve read poor reviews that point out parts of my story that I had my own reservations about, or that highlight problems that I can admit I missed fixing.

Then there are one-star reviews that get me mad, like ones that say the price is too high, or the book was damaged in shipping. None of that has anything to do with the quality of the book. The worst are the reviews that claim there are things in the book that absolutely are not there, or that misinterpret characters in inexplicable ways. I’d love to be able to have those reviews removed, but you can’t.

The most important thing about poor reviews is to let them pass on by. Do not mention them or try to rebut them. All that does is give them oxygen so they can grow to find more readers.

What advice do you have for novice writers?

If you want to be a writer, then write. Sit down and put words on a page. If you are new to the whole thing, get some professional education on the craft. Take an online class, take an in-person class, check out writing self-help books from actual successful writers. Like any other skill, the more you do it, the better you will be.

How do you develop a character? How do you get an idea for a character? Some authors let the characters do as they will (so to speak) while others consider them galley slaves to do exactly as they are told. Where do your characters fit on that spectrum?

I restore classic cars as a hobby (you will see the influence of that in Demon Dagger for sure) so I am mechanically minded. In the same way that every part in a machine works to make it run properly, every character in a story kind of works the same way. Each one has to support and drive the plot, otherwise the reader will read that character’s part in the novel and say “Who cares?”

Looking at it that way, I know I need a protagonist and an antagonist to start with. Those usually come baked into the initial inspiration for the story. Drew, as an example, is the protagonist demon hunter in Demon Dagger.

Then a plot problem arises. How does Drew learn to be a demon hunter? The character of Lincoln is the solution, an older, experienced demon hunter to explain the gift Drew has to see demons and how to kill them.

Now I get to flesh out who is Lincoln. What’s his backstory, and how did that prepare him to be this boy’s mentor? Lincoln had to be tough and independent and a car expert, so he became an African American man who came up doing dirt track racing in the South. That will toughen someone up. Filling in the rest of his backstory details made him a credible person to train Drew. I’ll leave the specifics on that unsaid to not spoil the fun reading them.

Was Demon Dagger or any part of it based on a legend or myth? Is there a historical basis or belief behind this as there is for many works?

There are plenty of myths around demon possession, and facts if you believe the doctrine of the Catholic Church. I used those as a basis for the process of summoning a demon and becoming possessed. In the story, the demon feeds on human souls the owners trade for riches or success. This part I made up, as well as the impact losing one’s soul has, which is that without the moral compass a soul provides, they become a sociopath.

Part of the Demon Dagger story touches on the mission system set up in Spanish California in the 18th and 19th centuries. These settlements were government/church partnerships to pioneer the untamed California coast. I add an ulterior motive to the mission system’s purpose that I won’t spoil by mentioning here, and I also created the fictional missing 22nd mission as a location for the climax of the story.

Nietzsche once posed an interesting question: if you could live your life over and over again for eternity, but had to always live it exactly as you have lived it so far, would you do it? What is your response?

I’m fine with having the one life I’m living. I firmly believe there is a superior afterlife once we die, and that it will be even better than this amazing life I’ve had so far.

Is there anything else that you would like our readers to know?

I have a pretty extensive convention signing schedule and I love to meet readers and authors on the road. Check out my tour schedule at http://www.russellrjames.com. While you are there, there’s a link on the landing page to sign up for my monthly newsletter that will keep you up to date on all the latest happenings.


Russell James’s new book, Demon Dagger, will be released on August 16, 2022. Watch for it in stores, online, and wherever books are sold.

“A thrilling game of supernatural cat and mouse.” — Publishers Weekly

“A hugely entertaining story of all-too-human heroes battling soul-devouring demons. James’ best novel yet!” — Tim Waggoner author of We Will Rise

“Demons. Possession. Stolen souls. And a body count that’s rising. Demon Dagger delivers all this and more as novice demon hunter Drew Price must stop one of Hell’s most powerful archdemons before the creature destroys Drew’s family. Russell James doesn’t pull any punches as this story races to a thrilling climax.”
– JG Faherty, author of The Wakening and Sins of the Father

Drew Price has a gift, or perhaps a curse.

When a demon possesses a person, Drew can see the horrific-looking demon that dwells within. This ability has made him a demon hunter, armed with the one weapon that can send these fiends back to Hell; the demon dagger.

A demon named Nicobar sets its sights on punishing this hunter. It starts by taking the soul of Drew’s son, condemning the boy to life as a psychopath.

This fast-paced, chilling novel follows Drew’s attempt to save his son’s soul and then use the blade to end Nicobar’s time on Earth.

Demon Dagger is an immensely enjoyable page-turner that wastes no time and will keep you engrossed right from the beginning. I hold out hope that there will be a sequel or two from James in the world of Demon Dagger, as he planted the seeds to follow it up with many more stories.” — Grimdark Magazine

DEMON DAGGER

Flame Tree Press — August 16, 2022

288 pages

Hardcover: $26.95 Paperback: $16.95, Kindle: $4.99

ISBN:  978-1-78758-693-2

FLAME TREE PRESS is the imprint of long-standing independent Flame Tree Publishing dedicated to full-length original fiction in the horror and suspense, science fiction & fantasy, and crime / mystery / thriller categories. The list brings together fantastic new authors and the more established; the award winners, and exciting, original voices. Learn more about Flame Tree Press at www.flametreepress.com and connect on social media @FlameTreePress