The Saturday Night Special: “The Damned Thing” by Ambrose Bierce (1898, The Project Gutenberg Text)

Ambrose Bierce October 7, 1892
Ambrose Bierce
October 7, 1892

By THE light of a tallow candle, which had been placed on one end of a rough table, a man was reading something written in a book. It was an old account book, greatly worn; and the writing was not, apparently, very legible, for the man sometimes held the page close to the flame of the candle to get a stronger light upon it. The shadow of the book would then throw into obscurity a half of the room, darkening a number of faces and figures; for besides the reader, eight other men were present. Seven of them sat against the rough log walls, silent and motionless, and, the room being small, not very far from the table. By extending an arm any one of them could have touched the eighth man, who lay on the table, face upward, partly covered by a sheet, his arms at his sides. He was dead.

The man with the book was not reading aloud, and no one spoke; all seemed to be waiting for something to occur; the dead man only was without expectation. From the blank darkness outside came in, through the aperture that served for a window, all the ever unfamiliar noises of night in the wilderness—the long, nameless note of a distant coyote; the stilly pulsing thrill of tireless insects in trees; strange cries of night birds, so different from those of the birds of day; the drone of great blundering beetles, and all that mysterious chorus of small sounds that seem always to have been but half heard when they have suddenly ceased, as if conscious of an indiscretion. But nothing of all this was noted in that company; its members were not overmuch addicted to idle interest in matters of no practical importance; that was obvious in every line of their rugged faces—obvious even in the dim light of the single candle. They were evidently men of the vicinity—farmers and woodmen.

The person reading was a trifle different; one would have said of him that he was of the world, worldly, albeit there was that in his attire which attested a certain fellowship with the organisms of his environment. His coat would hardly have passed muster in San Francisco: his footgear was not of urban origin, and the hat that lay by him on the floor (he was the only one uncovered) was such that if one had considered it as an article of mere personal adornment he would have missed its meaning. In countenance the man was rather prepossessing, with just a hint of sternness; though that he may have assumed or cultivated, as appropriate to one in authority. For he was a coroner. It was by virtue of his office that he had possession of the book in which he was reading; it had been found among the dead man’s effects—in his cabin, where the inquest was now taking place.

When the coroner had finished reading he put the book into his breast pocket. At that moment the door was pushed open and a young man entered. He, clearly, was not of mountain birth and breeding: he was clad as those who dwell in cities. His clothing was dusty, however, as from travel. He had, in fact, been riding hard to attend the inquest.

The coroner nodded; no one else greeted him.

“We have waited for you,” said the coroner. “It is necessary to have done with this business to-night.”

The young man smiled. “I am sorry to have kept you,” he said. “I went away, not to evade your summons, but to post to my newspaper an account of what I suppose I am called back to relate.”

The coroner smiled.

“The account that you posted to your newspaper,” he said, “differs probably from that which you will give here under oath.”

“That,” replied the other, rather hotly and with a visible flush, “is as you choose. I used manifold paper and have a copy of what I sent. It was not written as news, for it is incredible, but as fiction. It may go as a part of my testimony under oath.”

“But you say it is incredible.”

“That is nothing to you, sir, if I also swear that it is true.”

The coroner was apparently not greatly affected by the young man’s manifest resentment. He was silent for some moments, his eyes upon the floor. The men about the sides of the cabin talked in whispers, but seldom withdrew their gaze from the face of the corpse. Presently the coroner lifted his eyes and said: “We will resume the inquest.”

The men removed their hats. The witness was sworn.

“What is your name?” the coroner asked.

“William Harker.”

“Age?”

“Twenty-seven.”

“You knew the deceased, Hugh Morgan?”

“Yes.”

“You were with him when he died?”

“Near him.”

“How did that happen—your presence, I mean?”

“I was visiting him at this place to shoot and fish. A part of my purpose, however, was to study him, and his odd, solitary way of life. He seemed a good model for a character in fiction. I sometimes write stories.”

“I sometimes read them.”

“Thank you.”

“Stories in general—not yours.”

Some of the jurors laughed. Against a sombre background humor shows high lights. Soldiers in the intervals of battle laugh easily, and a jest in the death chamber conquers by surprise.

“Relate the circumstances of this man’s death,” said the coroner. “You may use any notes or memoranda that you please.”

The witness understood. Pulling a manuscript from his breast pocket he held it near the candle, and turning the leaves until he found the passage that he wanted, began to read.

II

“…The sun had hardly risen when we left the house. We were looking for quail, each with a shotgun, but we had only one dog. Morgan said that our best ground was beyond a certain ridge that he pointed out, and we crossed it by a trail through the chaparral. On the other side was comparatively level ground, thickly covered with wild oats. As we emerged from the chaparral, Morgan was but a few yards in advance. Suddenly, we heard, at a little distance to our right, and partly in front, a noise as of some animal thrashing about in the bushes, which we could see were violently agitated.

“‘We’ve started a deer,’ said. ‘I wish we had brought a rifle.’

“Morgan, who had stopped and was intently watching the agitated chaparral, said nothing, but had cocked both barrels of his gun, and was holding it in readiness to aim. I thought him a trifle excited, which surprised me, for he had a reputation for exceptional coolness, even in moments of sudden and imminent peril.

“‘O, come!’ I said. ‘You are not going to fill up a deer with quail-shot, are you?’

“Still he did not reply; but, catching a sight of his face as he turned it slightly toward me, I was struck by the pallor of it. Then I understood that we had serious business on hand, and my first conjecture was that we had ‘jumped’ a grizzly. I advanced to Morgan’s side, cocking my piece as I moved.

“The bushes were now quiet, and the sounds had ceased, but Morgan was as attentive to the place as before.

“‘What is it? What the devil is it?’ I asked.

“‘That Damned Thing!’ he replied, without turning his head. His voice was husky and unnatural. He trembled visibly.

“I was about to speak further, when I observed the wild oats near the place of the disturbance moving in the most inexplicable way. I can hardly describe it. It seemed as if stirred by a streak of wind, which not only bent it, but pressed it down—crushed it so that it did not rise, and this movement was slowly prolonging itself directly toward us.

“Nothing that I had ever seen had affected me so strangely as this unfamiliar and unaccountable phenomenon, yet I am unable to recall any sense of fear. I remember—and tell it here because, singularly enough, I recollected it then—that once, in looking carelessly out of an open window, I momentarily mistook a small tree close at hand for one of a group of larger trees at a little distance away. It looked the same size as the others, but, being more distinctly and sharply defined in mass and detail, seemed out of harmony with them. It was a mere falsification of the law of aerial perspective, but it startled, almost terrified me. We so rely upon the orderly operation of familiar natural laws that any seeming suspension of them is noted as a menace to our safety, a warning of unthinkable calamity. So now the apparently causeless movement of the herbage, and the slow, undeviating approach of the line of disturbance were distinctly disquieting. My companion appeared actually frightened, and I could hardly credit my senses when I saw him suddenly throw his gun to his shoulders and fire both barrels at the agitated grass! Before the smoke of the discharge had cleared away I heard a loud savage cry—a scream like that of a wild animal—and, flinging his gun upon the ground, Morgan sprang away and ran swiftly from the spot. At the same instant I was thrown violently to the ground by the impact of something unseen in the smoke—some soft, heavy substance that seemed thrown against me with great force.

“Before I could get upon my feet and recover my gun, which seemed to have been struck from my hands, I heard Morgan crying out as if in mortal agony, and mingling with his cries were such hoarse savage sounds as one hears from fighting dogs. Inexpressibly terrified, I struggled to my feet and looked in the direction of Morgan’s retreat; and may heaven in mercy spare me from another sight like that! At a distance of less than thirty yards was my friend, down upon one knee, his head thrown back at a frightful angle, hatless, his long hair in disorder and his whole body in violent movement from side to side, backward and forward. His right arm was lifted and seemed to lack the hand—at least, I could see none. The other arm was invisible. At times, as my memory now reports this extraordinary scene, I could discern but a part of his body; it was as if he had been partly blotted out—I can not otherwise express it—then a shifting of his position would bring it all into view again.

“All this must have occurred within a few seconds, yet in that time Morgan assumed all the postures of a determined wrestler vanquished by superior weight and strength. I saw nothing but him, and him not always distinctly. During the entire incident his shouts and curses were heard, as if through an enveloping uproar of such sounds of rage and fury as I had never heard from the throat of man or brute!

“For a moment only I stood irresolute, then, throwing down my gun, I ran forward to my friend’s assistance. I had a vague belief that he was suffering from a fit or some form of convulsion. Before I could reach his side he was down and quiet. All sounds had ceased, but, with a feeling of such terror as even these awful events had not inspired, I now saw the same mysterious movement of the wild oats prolonging itself from the trampled area about the prostrate man toward the edge of a wood. It was only when it had reached the wood that I was able to withdraw my eyes and look at my companion. He was dead.”

III

The coroner rose from his seat and stood beside the dead man. Lifting an edge of the sheet he pulled it away, exposing the entire body, altogether naked and showing in the candle light a clay-like yellow. It had, however, broad maculations of bluish-black, obviously caused by extravasated blood from contusions. The chest and sides looked as if they had been beaten with a bludgeon. There were dreadful lacerations; the skin was torn in strips and shreds.

The coroner moved round to the end of the table and undid a silk handkerchief, which had been passed under the chin and knotted on the top of the head. When the handkerchief was drawn away it exposed what had been the throat. Some of the jurors who had risen to get a better view repented their curiosity, and turned away their faces. Witness Harker went to the open window and leaned out across the sill, faint and sick. Dropping the handkerchief upon the dead man’s neck, the coroner stepped to an angle of the room, and from a pile of clothing produced one garment after another, each of which he held up a moment for inspection. All were torn, and stiff with blood. The jurors did not make a closer inspection. They seemed rather uninterested. They had, in truth, seen all this before; the only thing that was new to them being Harker’s testimony.

“Gentlemen,” the coroner said, “we have no more evidence, I think. Your duty has been already explained to you; if there is nothing you wish to ask you may go outside and consider your verdict.”

The foreman rose—a tall, bearded man of sixty, coarsely clad.

“I should like to ask one question, Mr. Coroner,” he said. “What asylum did this yer last witness escape from?”

“Mr. Harker,” said the coroner, gravely and tranquilly, “from what asylum did you last escape?”

Harker flushed crimson again, but said nothing, and the seven jurors rose and solemnly filed out of the cabin.

“If you have done insulting me, sir,” said Harker, as soon as he and the officer were left alone with the dead man, “I suppose I am at liberty to go?”

“Yes.”

Harker started to leave, but paused, with his hand on the door latch. The habit of his profession was strong in him—stronger than his sense of personal dignity. He turned about and said:

“The book that you have there—I recognize it as Morgan’s diary. You seemed greatly interested in it; you read in it while I was testifying. May I see it? The public would like—”

“The book will cut no figure in this matter,” replied the official, slipping it into his coat pocket; “all the entries in it were made before the writer’s death.”

As Harker passed out of the house the jury reentered and stood about the table on which the now covered corpse showed under the sheet with sharp definition. The foreman seated himself near the candle, produced from his breast pocket a pencil and scrap of paper, and wrote rather laboriously the following verdict, which with various degrees of effort all signed:

“We, the jury, do find that the remains come to their death at the hands of a mountain lion, but some of us thinks, all the same, they had fits.”

IV

In the diary of the late Hugh Morgan are certain interesting entries having, possibly, a scientific value as suggestions. At the inquest upon his body the book was not put in evidence; possibly the coroner thought it not worth while to confuse the jury. The date of the first of the entries mentioned can not be ascertained; the upper part of the leaf is torn away; the part of the entry remaining is as follows:

“… would run in a half circle, keeping his head turned always toward the centre and again he would stand still, barking furiously. At last he ran away into the brush as fast as he could go. I thought at first that he had gone mad, but on returning to the house found no other alteration in his manner than what was obviously due to fear of punishment.

“Can a dog see with his nose? Do odors impress some olfactory centre with images of the thing emitting them? . . .

“Sept 2.—Looking at the stars last night as they rose above the crest of the ridge east of the house, I observed them successively disappear—from left to right. Each was eclipsed but an instant, and only a few at the same time, but along the entire length of the ridge all that were within a degree or two of the crest were blotted out. It was as if something had passed along between me and them; but I could not see it, and the stars were not thick enough to define its outline. Ugh! I don’t like this. . . .”

Several weeks’ entries are missing, three leaves being torn from the book.

“Sept. 27.—It has been about here again—I find evidences of its presence every day. I watched again all of last night in the same cover, gun in hand, double-charged with buckshot. In the morning the fresh footprints were there, as before. Yet I would have sworn that I did not sleep—indeed, I hardly sleep at all. It is terrible, insupportable! If these amazing experiences are real I shall go mad; if they are fanciful I am mad already.

“Oct. 3.—I shall not go—it shall not drive me away. No, this is my house, my land. God hates a coward….

“Oct. 5.—I can stand it no longer; I have invited Harker to pass a few weeks with me—he has a level head. I can judge from his manner if he thinks me mad.

“Oct. 7.—I have the solution of the problem; it came to me last night—suddenly, as by revelation. How simple—how terribly simple!

“There are sounds that we can not hear. At either end of the scale are notes that stir no chord of that imperfect instrument, the human ear. They are too high or too grave. I have observed a flock of blackbirds occupying an entire treetop—the tops of several trees—and all in full song. Suddenly—in a moment—at absolutely the same instant—all spring into the air and fly away. How? They could not all see one another—whole treetops intervened. At no point could a leader have been visible to all. There must have been a signal of warning or command, high and shrill above the din, but by me unheard. I have observed, too, the same simultaneous flight when all were silent, among not only blackbirds, but other birds—quail, for example, widely separated by bushes—even on opposite sides of a hill.

“It is known to seamen that a school of whales basking or sporting on the surface of the ocean, miles apart, with the convexity of the earth between them, will sometimes dive at the same instant—all gone out of sight in a moment. The signal has been sounded—too grave for the ear of the sailor at the masthead and his comrades on the deck—who nevertheless feel its vibrations in the ship as the stones of a cathedral are stirred by the bass of the organ.

“As with sounds, so with colors. At each end of the solar spectrum the chemist can detect the presence of what are known as ‘actinic’ rays. They represent colors—integral colors in the composition of light—which we are unable to discern. The human eye is an imperfect instrument; its range is but a few octaves of the real ‘chromatic scale’ I am not mad; there are colors that we can not see.

“And, God help me! the Damned Thing is of such a color!”


From Wikipedia:

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (June 24, 1842– circa 1914) was an American short story writer, journalist, poet, and American Civil War veteran. His book The Devil’s Dictionary was named as one of “The 100 Greatest Masterpieces of American Literature” by the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration. His story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” has been described as “one of the most famous and frequently anthologized stories in American literature”, and his book Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (also published as In the Midst of Life) was named by the Grolier Club as one of the 100 most influential American books printed before 1900…”


Newsflash: Another Change Coming

As of July 1, instead of publishing individual stories and poems to its blog, The Chamber will publish its contents page, which will have a link to each story, poem, and article. Therefore, each story will still be distributed as always to as many social media as possible.
The reason behind this change is that The Chamber’s content is growing. It is now The Chamber’s goal to publish at least 40,000 words of short fiction in each issue (poems and flash fiction will not be included in this 40,000). This means there will be about twenty or more works published in each issue. If The Chamber continues to send out individual stories and poems to its blog, every month each of The Chamber’s followers would receive a burst of about twenty or more emails in their inbox. The Chamber does not wish to inconvenience its followers like this, so stories and poems will no longer be published in the blog. But with a modified Contents page being published, a link to each work will still go out via the same distribution channels as always. No one’s distribution should be affected.
What is published via the homepage will not be affected. Everyone will still be able to open the cover and go directly to whatever work they desire.
Let me know your thoughts in the comment box below.

Coming to The Chamber July 1, 2022

Short Fiction

“Potsherds” Dark Magic Realism by Johanna Haas
“Good Girl” Fiction by Katie Trescott
“Death of a Poet” Dark Fiction by Guy Prevost
“The Bird Woman and the Silent Minority” Dark Fantasy by Elinora Westfall
“The Broken Doll” Horror by Kate Bergquist
“Another Will Take Your Place” Dark Drama by James Hanna
“Sour Dough” Dark Fiction by Kate M. Tyte
“The Ideal Man” Dark Science-Fiction by Leland Neville
“Angels of the Morning” Dark Fiction by Alan Catlin
“Thanksgiving” Folk Horror Dark Fiction by Sara White

Poetry

“The Man by the River” Dark Poetry by David Newkirk
“The Wolf in Winter’s Wool” Dark Poem by Algo (Alec Gourley)
“Proof That Dragons Still Live” Dark Poetry by John Michael Sears
Five Dark Poems by Damon Hubbs

Flash Fiction

“Taste” Flash Horror by Madison Randolph

Coming August 5

The Saturday Night Special: “Lukundoo” by Edward Lucas White (1907, the Project Gutenberg Australia text)


A few years ago, when I had only my personal website, I ran a dark story from classic (usually nineteenth-century) literature on Saturday nights at 10:00 p.m. I called these “The Saturday Night Special” and I ran these for about a year or so. To go back into the literary roots of The Chamber, I have decided to rerun many of those stories in The Chamber. Leave a comment below to let me know what you think of them.

I am going to start off the resurrected Saturday Night Special with one of my favorite horror stories of all time: “Lukundoo” by Edward Lucas White.


Edward Lucas White 1866-1934
Edward Lucas White
1866-1934

“It stands to reason,” said Twombly, “that a man must accept of his own eyes, and when eyes and ears agree, there can be no doubt. He has to believe what he has both seen and heard.”

“Not always,” put in Singleton, softly.

Every man turned toward Singleton. Twombly was standing on hearthrug, his back to the grate, his legs spread out, with his habitual air of dominating the room. Singleton, as usual, was as much as possible effaced in a corner. But when Singleton spoke he said something. We faced him in that flattering spontaneity of expectant silence which invites utterance.

“I was thinking,” he said, after an interval, “of something I both saw and heard in Africa.”

Now, if there was one thing we had found impossible, it had been to elicit from Singleton anything definite about his African experiences. As with the Alpinist in the story, who could tell only that he went up and came down, the sum of Singleton’s revelations had been that he went there and came away. His words now riveted our attention at once. Twombly faded from the hearthrug, but not one of us could ever recall having seen him go. The room readjusted itself, focused on Singleton, and there was some hasty and furtive lighting of fresh cigars. Singleton lit one also, but it went out immediately, and he never relit it.

Chapter I

We were in the Great Forest, exploring for pigmies. Van Rieten had a theory that the dwarfs found by Stanley and others were a mere cross-breed between ordinary negroes and the real pigmies. He hoped to discover a race of men three feet tall at most, or shorter. We had found no trace of any such beings.

Natives were few, game scarce; food, except game, there was none; and the deepest, dankest, drippingest forest all about. We were the only novelty in the country, no native we met had ever seen a white man before, most had never heard of white men. All of a sudden, late one afternoon, there came into our camp an Englishman, and pretty well used up he was, too. We had heard no rumor of him; he had not only heard of us but had made an amazing five-day march to reach us. His guide and two bearers were nearly as done up as he. Even though he was in tatters and had five days’ beard on, you could see he was naturally dapper and neat and the sort of man to shave daily. He was small, but wiry. His face was the sort of British face from which emotion has been so carefully banished that a foreigner is apt to think the wearer of the face incapable of any sort of feeling; the kind of face which, if it has any expression at all, expresses principally the resolution to go through the world decorously, without intruding upon or annoying anyone.

His name was Etcham. He introduced himself modestly, and ate with us so deliberately that we should never have suspected, if our bearers had not had it from his bearers, that he had had but three meals in the five days, and those small. After we had lit up he told us why he had come.

“My chief is ve’y seedy,” he said between puffs. “He is bound to go out if he keeps this way. I thought perhaps…”

He spoke quietly in a soft, even tone, but I could see little beads of sweat oozing out on his upper lip under his stubby mustache, and there was a tingle of repressed emotion in his tone, a veiled eagerness in his eye, a palpitating inward solicitude in his demeanor that moved me at once. Van Rieten had no sentiment in him; if he was moved he did not show it. But he listened. I was surprised at that. He was just the man to refuse at once. But he listened to Etcham’s halting, difficult hints. He even asked questions.

“Who is your chief?”

“Stone,” Etcham lisped.

That electrified both of us.

“Ralph Stone?” we ejaculated together.

Etcham nodded.

For some minutes Van Rieten and I were silent. Van Rieten had never seen him, but I had been a classmate of Stone’s, and Van Rieten and I had discussed him over many a campfire. We had heard of him two years before, south of Luebo in the Balunda country, which had been ringing with his theatrical strife against a Balunda witch-doctor, ending in the sorcerer’s complete discomfiture and the abasement of his tribe before Stone. They had even broken the fetish-man’s whistle and given Stone the pieces. It had been like the triumph of Elijah over the prophets of Baal, only more real to the Balunda.

We had thought of Stone as far off, if still in Africa at all, and here he turned up ahead of us and probably forestalling our quest.

Chapter II

Etcham’s naming of Stone brought back to us all his tantalizing story, his fascinating parents, their tragic death; the brilliance of his college days; the dazzle of his millions; the promise of his young manhood; his wide notoriety, so nearly real fame; his romantic elopement with the meteoric authoress whose sudden cascade of fiction had made her so great a name so young, whose beauty and charm were so much heralded; the frightful scandal of the breach-of-promise suit that followed; his bride’s devotion through it all; their sudden quarrel after it was all over; their divorce; the too much advertised announcement of his approaching marriage to the plaintiff in the breach-of-promise suit; his precipitate remarriage to his divorced bride; their second quarrel and second divorce; his departure from his native land; his advent in the dark continent. The sense of all this rushed over me and I believe Van Rieten felt it, too, as he sat silent.

Then he asked:

“Where is Werner?”

“Dead,” said Etcham. “He died before I joined Stone.”

“You were not with Stone above Luebo?”

“No,” said Etcham, “I joined him at Stanley Falls.”

“Who is with him?” Van Rieten asked.

“Only his Zanzibar servants and the bearers,” Etcham replied.

“What sort of bearers?” Van Rieten demanded.

“Mang-Battu men,” Etcham responded simply.

Now that impressed both Van Rieten and myself greatly. It bore out Stone’s reputation as a notable leader of men. For up to that time no one had been able to use Mang-Battu as bearers outside of their own country, or to hold them for long or difficult expeditions.

“Were you long among the Mang-Battu?” was Van Rieten’s next question.

“Some weeks,” said Etcham. “Stone was interested in them and made up a fair-sized vocabulary of their words and phrases. He had a theory that they are an offshoot of the Balunda and he found much confirmation in their customs.”

“What do you live on?” Van Rieten enquired.

“Game, mostly,” Etcham lisped.

“How long has Stone been laid up?” Van Rieten next asked.

“More than a month,” Etcham answered.

“And you have been hunting for the camp?” Van Rieten exclaimed.

Etcham’s face, burnt and flayed as it was, showed a flush.

“I missed some easy shots,” he admitted ruefully. “I’ve not felt ve’y fit myself.”

“What’s the matter with your chief?” Van Rieten enquired.

“Something like carbuncles,” Etcham replied.

“He ought to get over a carbuncle or two,” Van Rieten declared.

“They are not carbuncles,” Etcham explained. “Nor one or two. He has had dozens, sometimes five at once. If they had been carbuncles he would have been dead long ago. But in some ways they are not so bad, though in others they are worse.”

“How do you mean?” Van Rieten queried.

“Well,” Etcham hesitated, “they do not seem to inflame so deep nor so wide as carbuncles, nor to be so painful, nor to cause so much fever. But then they seem to be part of a disease that affects his mind. He let me help him dress the first, but the others he has hidden most carefully, from me and from the men. He keeps his tent when they puff up, and will not let me change the dressings or be with him at all.”

“Have you plenty of dressings?” Van Rieten asked.

“We have some,” said Etcham doubtfully. “But he won’t use them; he washes out the dressings and uses them over and over.”

“How is he treating the swellings?” Van Rieten enquired.

“He slices them off clean down to flesh level, with his razor.”

“What?” Van Rieten shouted.

Etcham made no answer but looked him steadily in the eyes.

“I beg pardon,” Van Rieten hastened to say. “You startled me. They can’t be carbuncles. He’d have been dead long ago.”

“I thought I had said they are not carbuncles,” Etcham lisped.

“But the man must be crazy!” Van Rieten exclaimed.

“Just so,” said Etcham. “He is beyond my advice or control.”

“How many has he treated that way?” Van Rieten demanded.

“Two, to my knowledge,” Etcham said.

“Two?” Van Rieten queried.

Etcham flushed again.

“I saw him,” he confessed, “through a crack in the hut. I felt impelled to keep a watch on him, as if he was not responsible.”

“I should think not,” Van Rieten agreed. “And you saw him do that twice?”

“I conjecture,” said Etcham, “that he did the like with all the rest.”

“How many has he had?” Van Rieten asked.

“Dozens,” Etcham lisped.

“Does he eat?” Van Rieten enquired.

“Like a wolf,” said Etcham. “More than any two bearers.”

“Can he walk?” Van Rieten asked.

“He crawls a bit, groaning,” said Etcham simply.

“Little fever, you say,” Van Rieten ruminated.

“Enough and too much,” Etcham declared.

“Has he been delirious?” Van Rieten asked.

“Only twice,” Etcham replied; “once when the first swelling broke, and once later. He would not let anyone come near him then. But we could hear him talking, talking steadily, and it scared the natives.

“Was he talking their patter in delirium?” Van Rieten demanded.

“No,” said Etcham, “but he was talking some similar lingo. Hamed Burghash said he was talking Balunda. I know too little Balunda. I do not learn languages readily. Stone learned more Mang-Battu in a week than I could have learned in a year. But I seemed to hear words like Mang-Battu words. Anyhow, the Mang-Battu bearers were scared.”

“Scared?” Van Rieten repeated, questioningly.

“So were the Zanzibar men, even Hamed Burghash, and so was I,” said Etcham, “only for a different reason. He talked in two voices.”

“In two voices,” Van Rieten reflected.

“Yes,” said Etcham, more excitedly than he had yet spoken. “In two voices, like a conversation. One was his own, one a small, thin, bleaty voice like nothing I ever heard. I seemed to make out, among the sounds the deep voice made, something like Mang-Battu words I knew, as nedru, metababa, and nedo, their terms for ‘head,’ ‘shoulder,’ ‘thigh,’ and perhaps kudra and nekere (‘speak’ and ‘whistle’); and among the noises of the shrill voice matomipa, angunzi, and kamomami (‘kill,’ ‘death,’ and ‘hate’). Hamed Burghash said he also heard those words. He knew Mang-Battu far better than I.”

“What did the bearers say?” Van Rieten asked.

“They said, ‘, Lukundoo!'” Etcham replied. “I did not know the word; Hamed Burghash said it was Mang-Battu for ‘leopard.'”

“It’s Mang-Battu for ‘witchcraft,'” said Van Rieten.

“I don’t wonder they thought so,” said Etcham. “It was enough to make one believe in sorcery to listen to those two voices.”

“One voice answering the other?” Van Rieten asked perfunctorily.

Etcham’s face went gray under his tan.

“Sometimes both at once,” he answered huskily.

“Both at once!” Van Rieten ejaculated.

“It sounded that way to the men, too,” said Etcham. “And that was not all.”

He stopped and looked helplessly at us for a moment.

“Could a man talk and whistle at the same time?” he asked.

“How do you mean?” Van Rieten queried.

“We could hear Stone talking away, his big, deep-cheated baritone rumbling along, and through it all we could hear a high, shrill whistle, the oddest, wheezy sound. You know, no matter how shrilly a grown man may whistle, the note has a different quality from the whistle of a boy or a woman or a little girl. They sound more treble, somehow. Well, if you can imagine the smallest girl who could whistle keeping it up tunelessly right along, that whistle was like that, only even more piercing, and it sounded right through Stone’s bass tones.”

“And you didn’t go to him?” Van Rieten cried.

“He is not given to threats,” Etcham disclaimed. “But he had threatened, not volubly, nor like a sick man, but quietly and firmly, that if any man of us (he lumped me in with the men) came near him while he was in his trouble, that man should die. And it was not so much his words as his manner. It was like a monarch commanding respected privacy for a deathbed. One simply could not transgress.”

“I see,” said Van Rieten shortly.

“He’s ve’y seedy,” Etcham repeated helplessly. “I thought perhaps….”

His absorbing affection for Stone, his real love for him, shone out through his envelope of conventional training. Worship of Stone was plainly his master passion.

Like many competent men, Van Rieten had a streak of hard selfishness in him. It came to the surface then. He said we carried our lives in our hands from day to day just as genuinely as Stone; that he did not forget the ties of blood and calling between any two explorers, but that there was no sense in imperiling one party for a very problematical benefit to a man probably beyond any help; that it was enough of a task to hunt for one party; that if two were united, providing food would be more than doubly difficult; that the risk of starvation was too great. Deflecting our march seven full days’ journey (he complimented Etcham on his marching powers) might ruin our expedition entirely.

Chapter III

Van Rieten had logic on his side and he had a way with him. Etcham sat there apologetic and deferential, like a fourth-form schoolboy before a head master. Van Rieten wound up.

“I am after pigmies, at the risk of my life. After pigmies I go.”

“Perhaps, then, these will interest you,” said Etcham, very quietly.

He took two objects out of the sidepocket of his blouse, and handed them to Van Rieten. They were round, bigger than big plums, and smaller than small peaches, about the right size to enclose in an average hand. They were black, and at first I did not see what they were.

“Pigmies!” Van Rieten exclaimed. “Pigmies, indeed! Why, they wouldn’t be two feet high! Do you mean to claim that these are adult heads?”

“I claim nothing,” Etcham answered evenly. “You can see for yourself.”

Van Rieten passed one of the heads to me. The sun was just setting and I examined it closely. A dried head it was, perfectly preserved, and the flesh as hard as Argentine jerked beef. A bit of a vertebra stuck out where the muscles of the vanished neck had shriveled into folds. The puny chin was sharp on a projecting jaw, the minute teeth white and even between the retracted lips, the tiny nose was flat, the little forehead retreating, there were inconsiderable clumps of stunted wool on the Lilliputian cranium. There was nothing babyish, childish or youthful about the head; rather it was mature to senility.

“Where did these come from?” Van Rieten enquired.

“I do not know,” Etcham replied precisely. “I found them among Stone’s effects while rummaging for medicines or drugs or anything that could help me to help him. I do not know where he got them. But I’ll swear he did not have them when we entered this district.”

“Are you sure?” Van Rieten queried, his eyes big and fixed on Etcham’s.

“Ve’y sure,” lisped Etcham.

“But how could he have come by them without your knowledge?” Van Rieten demurred.

“Sometimes we were apart ten days at a time hunting,” said Etcham. “Stone is not a talking man. He gave me no account of his doings, and Hamed Burghash keeps a still tongue and a tight hold on the men.”

“You have examined these heads?” Van Rieten asked.

“Minutely,” said Etcham.

Van Rieten took out his notebook. He was a methodical chap. He tore out a leaf, folded it and divided it equally into three pieces. He gave one to me and one to Etcham.

“Just for a test of my impressions,” he said, “I want each of us to write separately just what he is most reminded of by these heads. Then I want to compare the writings.”

I handed Etcham a pencil and he wrote. Then he handed the pencil back to me and I wrote.

“Read the three,” said Van Rieten, handing me his piece.

Van Rieten had written:

“An old Balunda witch-doctor.”

Etcham had written:

“An old Mang-Battu fetish-man.”

I had written:

“An old Katongo magician.”

“There!” Van Rieten exclaimed. “Look at that! There is nothing Wagabi or Batwa or Wambuttu or Wabotu about these heads. Nor anything pigmy either.”

“I thought as much,” said Etcham.

“And you say he did not have them before?”

“To a certainty he did not,” Etcham asserted.

“It is worth following up,” said Van Rieten. “I’ll go with you. And first of all, I’ll do my best to save Stone.”

He put out his hand and Etcham clasped it silently. He was grateful all over.

Chapter IV

Nothing but Etcham’s fever of solicitude could have taken him in five days over the track. It took him eight days to retrace with full knowledge of it and our party to help. We could not have done it in seven, and Etcham urged us on, in a repressed fury of anxiety, no mere fever of duty to his chief, but a real ardor of devotion, a glow of personal adoration for Stone which blazed under his dry conventional exterior and showed in spite of him.

We found Stone well cared for. Etcham had seen to a good, high thorn zareeba round the camp, the huts were well built, and thatched and Stone’s was as good as their resources would permit. Hamed Burghash was not named after two Seyyids for nothing. He had in him the making of a sultan. He had kept the Mang-Battu together, not a man had slipped off, and he had kept them in order. Also he was a deft nurse and a faithful servant.

The two other Zanzibaris had done some creditable hunting. Though all were hungry, the camp was far from starvation.

Stone was on a canvas cot and there was a sort of collapsible camp-stool-table, like a Turkish tabouret, by the cot. It had a water-bottle and some vials on it and Stone’s watch, also his razor in its case.

Stone was clean and not emaciated, but he was far gone; not unconscious, but in a daze; past commanding or resisting anyone. He did not seem to see us enter or to know we were there. I should have recognized him anywhere. His boyish dash and grace had vanished utterly, of course. But his head was even more leonine; his hair was still abundant, yellow and wavy; the close, crisped blond beard he had grown during his illness did not alter him. He was big and big-cheated yet. His eyes were dull and he mumbled and babbled mere meaningless syllables, not words.

Etcham helped Van Rieten to uncover him and look him over. He was in good muscle for a man so long bedridden. There were no scars on him except about his knees, shoulders and chest. On each knee and above it he had a full score of roundish cicatrices, and a dozen or more on each shoulder, all in front. Two or three were open wounds and four or five barely healed. He had no fresh swellings, except two, one on each side, on his pectoral muscles, the one on the left being higher up and farther out than the other. They did not look like boils or carbuncles, but as if something blunt and hard were being pushed up through the fairly healthy flesh and skin, not much inflamed.

“I should not lance those,” said Van Rieten, and Etcham assented.

They made Stone as comfortable as they could, and just before sunset we looked in at him again. He was lying on his back, and his chest showed big and massive yet, but he lay as if in a stupor. We left Etcham with him and went into the next hut, which Etcham had resigned to us. The jungle noises were no different than anywhere else for months past, and I was soon fast asleep.

Chapter V

Sometime in the pitch dark I found myself awake and listening. I could hear two voices, one Stone’s, the other sibilant and wheezy. I knew Stone’s voice after all the years that had passed since I heard it last. The other was like nothing I remembered. It had less volume than the wail of a new-born baby, yet there was an insistent carrying power to it, like the shrilling of an insect. As I listened I heard Van Rieten breathing near me in the dark; then he heard me and realized that I was listening, too. Like Etcham I knew little Balunda, but I could make out a word or two. The voices alternated, with intervals of silence between.

Then suddenly both sounded at once and fast. Stone’s baritone basso, full as if he were in perfect health, and that incredibly stridulous falsetto, both jabbering at once like the voices of two people quarreling and trying to talk each other down.

“I can’t stand this,” said Van Rieten. “Let’s have a look at him.”

He had one of those cylindrical electric night-candles. He fumbled about for it, touched the button and beckoned me to come with him. Outside the hut he motioned me to stand still, and instinctively turned off the light, as if seeing made listening difficult.

Except for a faint glow from the embers of the bearers’ fire we were in complete darkness, little starlight struggled through the trees, the river made but a faint murmur. We could hear the two voices together and then suddenly the creaking voice changed into a razor-edged, slicing whistle, indescribably cutting, continuing right through Stone’s grumbling torrent of croaking words.

“Good God!” exclaimed Van Rieten.

Abruptly he turned on the light.

We found Etcham utterly asleep, exhausted by his long anxiety and the exertions of his phenomenal march, and relaxed completely now that the load was in a sense shifted from his shoulders to Van Rieten’s. Even the light on his face did not wake him.

The whistle had ceased and the two voices now sounded together. Both came from Stone’s cot, where the concentrated white ray showed him lying just as we had left him, except that he had tossed his arms above his head and had torn the coverings and bandages from his chest.

The swelling on his right breast had broken. Van Rieten aimed the center line of the light at it and we saw it plainly. From his flesh, grown out of it, there protruded a head, such a head as the dried specimens Etcham had shown us, as if it were a miniature of the head of a Balunda fetish-man. It was black, shining black as the blackest African skin; it rolled the whites of its wicked, wee eyes and showed its microscopic teeth between lips repulsively negroid in their red fullness, even in so diminutive a face. It had crisp, fuzzy wool on its minikin skull, it turned malignantly from side to side and chittered incessantly in that inconceivable falsetto. Stone babbled brokenly against its patter.

Van Rieten turned from Stone and waked Etcham, with some difficulty. When he was awake and saw it all, Etcham stared and said not one word.

“You saw him slice off two swellings?” Van Rieten asked.

Etcham nodded, chokingly.

“Did he bleed much?” Van Rieten demanded.

“Ve’y little,” Etcham replied.

“You hold his arms,” said Van Rieten to Etcham.

He took up Stone’s razor and handed me the light. Stone showed no sign of seeing the light or of knowing we were there. But the little head mewled and screeched at us.

Van Rieten’s hand was steady, and the sweep of the razor even and true. Stone bled amazingly little and Van Rieten dressed the wound as if it had been a bruise or scrape.

Stone had stopped talking the instant the excrescent head was severed. Van Rieten did all that could be done for Stone and then fairly grabbed the light from me. Snatching up a gun he scanned the ground by the cot and brought the butt down once and twice, viciously.

We went back to our hut, but I doubt if I slept.

Chapter VI

Next day, near noon, in broad daylight, we heard the two voices from Stone’s hut. We found Etcham dropped asleep by his charge. The swelling on the left had broken, and just such another head was there miauling and spluttering. Etcham woke up and the three of us stood there and glared. Stone interjected hoarse vocables into the tinkling gurgle of the portent’s utterance.

Van Rieten stepped forward, took up Stone’s razor and knelt down by the cot. The atomy of a head squealed a wheezy snarl at him.

Then suddenly Stone spoke English.

“Who are you with my razor?”

Van Rieten started back and stood up.

Stone’s eyes were clear now and bright, they roved about the hut.

“The end,” he said; “I recognize the end. I seem to see Etcham, as if in life. But Singleton! Ah, Singleton! Ghosts of my boyhood come to watch me pass! And you, strange specter with the black beard and my razor! Aroint ye all!”

“I’m no ghost, Stone,” I managed to say. “I’m alive. So are Etcham and Van Rieten. We are here to help you.”

“Van Rieten!” he exclaimed. “My work passes on to a better man. Luck go with you, Van Rieten.”

Van Rieten went nearer to him.

“Just hold still a moment, old man,” he said soothingly. “It will be only one twinge.”

“I’ve held still for many such twinges,” Stone answered quite distinctly. “Let me be. Let me die in my own way. The hydra was nothing to this. You can cut off ten, a hundred, a thousand heads, but the curse you can not cut off, or take off. What’s soaked into the bone won’t come out of the flesh, any more than what’s bred there. Don’t hack me any more. Promise!”

His voice had all the old commanding tone of his boyhood and it swayed Van Rieten as it always had swayed everybody.

“I promise,” said Van Rieten.

Almost as he said the word Stone’s eyes filmed again.

Then we three sat about Stone and watched that hideous, gibbering prodigy grow up out of Stone’s flesh, till two horrid, spindling little black arms disengaged themselves. The infinitesimal nails were perfect to the barely perceptible moon at the quick, the pink spot on the palm was horridly natural. These arms gesticulated and the right plucked toward Stone’s blond beard.

“I can’t stand this,” Van Rieten exclaimed and took up the razor again.

Instantly Stone’s eyes opened, hard and glittering.

“Van Rieten break his word?” he enunciated slowly. “Never!”

“But we must help you,” Van Rieten gasped.

“I am past all help and all hurting,” said Stone. “This is my hour. This curse is not put on me; it grew out of me, like this horror here. Even now I go.”

His eyes closed and we stood helpless, the adherent figure spouting shrill sentences.

In a moment Stone spoke again.

“You speak all tongues?” he asked quickly.

And the mergent minikin replied in sudden English:

“Yea, verily, all that you speak,” putting out its microscopic tongue, writhing its lips and wagging its head from side to side. We could see the thready ribs on its exiguous flanks heave as if the thing breathed.

“Has she forgiven me?” Stone asked in a muffled strangle.

“Not while the moss hangs from the cypresses,” the head squeaked. “Not while the stars shine on Lake Pontchartrain will she forgive.”

And then Stone, all with one motion, wrenched himself over on his side. The next instant he was dead.

When Singleton’s voice ceased the room was hushed for a space. We could hear each other breathing. Twombly, the tactless, broke the silence.

“I presume,” he said, “you cut off the little minikin and brought it home in alcohol.”

Singleton turned on him a stern countenance.

“We buried Stone,” he said, “unmutilated as he died.”

“But,” said the unconscionable Twombly, “the whole thing is incredible.”

Singleton stiffened.

“I did not expect you to believe it,” he said; “I began by saying that although I heard and saw it, when I look back on it I cannot credit it myself.”


From Wikipedia: Edward Lucas White (May 11, 1866 – March 30, 1934) was an American author and poet. Born in the USA in BergenNew Jersey, the son of Thomas Hurley White (1838-1902) and Kate Butler (Lucas) White, he attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he lived for the rest of his life. From 1915 until his retirement in 1930 he was a teacher at the University School for Boys in Baltimore.

“He published a number of historical novels, including El Supremo: A Romance of the Great Dictator of Paraguay (1916),The Unwilling Vestal (1918), Andivius Hedulio (1921) and Helen (1926), but he is best remembered for fantasy horror stories such as “The House of the Nightmare” and “Lukundoo” that were based on his own nightmares. Two collections of his short fiction were published in his lifetime, The Song of the Sirens (1919) and Lukundoo and Other Stories (1927)…”


Newsflash: Another Change Coming

As of July 1, instead of publishing individual stories and poems to its blog, The Chamber will publish its contents page, which will have a link to each story, poem, and article. Therefore, each story will still be distributed as always to as many social media as possible.
The reason behind this change is that The Chamber’s content is growing. It is now The Chamber’s goal to publish at least 40,000 words of short fiction in each issue (poems and flash fiction will not be included in this 40,000). This means there will be about twenty or more works published in each issue. If The Chamber continues to send out individual stories and poems to its blog, every month each of The Chamber’s followers would receive a burst of about twenty or more emails in their inbox. The Chamber does not wish to inconvenience its followers like this, so stories and poems will no longer be published in the blog. But with a modified Contents page being published, a link to each work will still go out via the same distribution channels as always. No one’s distribution should be affected.
What is published via the homepage will not be affected. Everyone will still be able to open the cover and go directly to whatever work they desire.
Let me know your thoughts in the comment box below.

Coming to The Chamber July 1, 2022

Short Fiction

“Potsherds” Dark Magic Realism by Johanna Haas
“Good Girl” Fiction by Katie Trescott
“Death of a Poet” Dark Fiction by Guy Prevost
“The Bird Woman and the Silent Minority” Dark Fantasy by Elinora Westfall
“The Broken Doll” Horror by Kate Bergquist
“Another Will Take Your Place” Dark Drama by James Hanna
“Sour Dough” Dark Fiction by Kate M. Tyte
“The Ideal Man” Dark Science-Fiction by Leland Neville
“Angels of the Morning” Dark Fiction by Alan Catlin
“Thanksgiving” Folk Horror Dark Fiction by Sara White

Poetry

“The Man by the River” Dark Poetry by David Newkirk
“The Wolf in Winter’s Wool” Dark Poem by Algo (Alec Gourley)
“Proof That Dragons Still Live” Dark Poetry by John Michael Sears
Five Dark Poems by Damon Hubbs

Flash Fiction

“Taste” Flash Horror by Madison Randolph

Coming August 5

Newsflash: A Positive Change is Coming to The Chamber

A major but positive change is coming to The Chamber. The Chamber will now average about 40,000 words of short fiction per issue. Flash fiction, reviews, poetry, and other miscellaneous posts will continue to be included in each issue, but the total word count for short fiction alone will average around 40,000. This means each issue will be about the length of a short novel not including poetry, reviews, etc. This change will take effect with the July 1 issue.
When The Chamber started as a weekly, each issue averaged around 5 works (fiction and poetry combined). That averaged about twenty works of both fiction and poetry per month. After The Chamber became a monthly, I endeavored to keep the size of each issue to about twenty works per month. However, this meant the size of each issue varied. So, to provide a consistent size for each issue, I decided to have a minimum word count. I set that count at 40,000 words per issue, which is generally considered the lower limit for a novel (though the minimum word count for a novel can be lower, depending upon the publisher). This also ensures that the reader can have a substantial issue to read. After all, where else can you get what is essentially a free novel every month? Besides, I really enjoy reading submissions. It is becoming an addiction of sorts, but with a positive effect versus a detrimental one.
I will try this for a while and see how much my workload increases. I do have a life outside The Chamber (though it is generally not as exciting as the worlds I visit when I read submissions). If it becomes too much of a demand on my time for each issue, I may lower the word count. The word count will vary somewhat depending upon the number of quality submissions I receive, but I will try to keep it consistent. So far, each issue has been averaging about 20,000-30,000 words per issue, so bringing it up to 40,000 should not be that much more difficult.
Let me know your thoughts in the comment box below.

Newsflash: A Positive Change is Coming to The Chamber

A major but positive change is coming to The Chamber. The Chamber will now average about 40,000 words of short fiction per issue. Flash fiction, reviews, poetry, and other miscellaneous posts will continue to be included in each issue, but the total word count for short fiction alone will average around 40,000. This means each issue will be about the length of a short novel not including poetry, reviews, etc. This change will take effect with the July 1 issue.
When The Chamber started as a weekly, each issue averaged around 5 works (fiction and poetry combined). That averaged about twenty works of both fiction and poetry per month. After The Chamber became a monthly, I endeavored to keep the size of each issue to about twenty works per month. However, this meant the size of each issue varied. So, to provide a consistent size for each issue, I decided to have a minimum word count. I set that count at 40,000 words per issue, which is generally considered the lower limit for a novel (though the minimum word count for a novel can be lower, depending upon the publisher). This also ensures that the reader can have a substantial issue to read. After all, where else can you get what is essentially a free novel every month? Besides, I really enjoy reading submissions. It is becoming an addiction of sorts, but with a positive effect versus a detrimental one.
I will try this for a while and see how much my workload increases. I do have a life outside The Chamber (though it is generally not as exciting as the worlds I visit when I read submissions). If it becomes too much of a demand on my time for each issue, I may lower the word count. The word count will vary somewhat depending upon the number of quality submissions I receive, but I will try to keep it consistent. So far, each issue has been averaging about 20,000-30,000 words per issue, so bringing it up to 40,000 should not be that much more difficult.
Let me know your thoughts in the comment box below.

Newsflash: Changes Coming to The Saturday Night Special

The Saturday Night Special, which appears at 10:00 p.m. (US Central Time) every Saturday, is changing. On June 18, the current format will be replaced with stories from classic dark literature featuring such authors as John William Polidori, Robert Chambers, Edgar Allan Poe, and many others. The featured story for June 18 will be the tense, supernatural tale of colonial Africa “Lukundoo” by Edward Lucas White. Be sure to drop by The Chamber and check it out.

Newsflash: Changes Coming to The Saturday Night Special

The Saturday Night Special, which appears at 10:00 p.m. (US Central Time) every Saturday, is changing. On June 18, the current format will be replaced with stories from classic dark literature featuring such authors as John William Polidori, Robert Chambers, Edgar Allan Poe, and many others. The featured story for June 18 will be the tense, supernatural tale of colonial Africa “Lukundoo” by Edward Lucas White. Be sure to drop by The Chamber and check it out.

Newsflash: Changes Coming to The Saturday Night Special

The Saturday Night Special, which appears at 10:00 p.m. (US Central Time) every Saturday, is changing. On June 18, the current format will be replaced with stories from classic dark literature featuring such authors as John William Polidori, Robert Chambers, Edgar Allan Poe, and many others. The featured story for June 18 will be the tense, supernatural tale of colonial Africa “Lukundoo” by Edward Lucas White. Be sure to drop by The Chamber and check it out.

The Saturday Night Special: A Trip to Margaritaville!

(The life of a writer can be a lonely and solitary existence at times, so I make these little YouTube adventures so those of us working on our novels and stories on a Saturday night can have a little color in our quiet lives. Each week I bring the writer to another night spot in some far-off land and try to create a story of the experience. These usually consist of one or two music videos, an ambience video of a night club or bar, and recipes for the local cocktails. I try to give the visitor as much of the experience of sampling the night life in a location as I can. These adventures vary widely in their make-up and locales, so take a look at the previous trips to sample the experiences.)

With summer barreling at us like an out of control cargo ship, it’s time to take the pressure off with a trip to one of my favorite locations: Margaritaville! We start off with a concert by the man himself:

The next morning we head to the beach for a day of first class chilling.

For a break from the sun, we then head to the cool shade of a seaside bar.

There we get the bartender to share his favorite margarita recipes.

By sheer luck, we happen to run into Jimmy himself and he gives us the background for what one of his his most popular and earliest songs. Then we head to the airport for the next flight home.

Special Feature–“Son of Abyss”: discographic debut of multifaceted duo Abisso

Last night about 9:30 p.m., I checked my email and came across the message below. I checked out their music and art and both are beautifully dark and eerie. The music impressed me as something you might hear in the background of a Blade Runner cyberpunk world, where Dekard might be prowling the halls of an abandoned building hunting for replicants or something you might hear in the soundtrack of a sci-fi movie about the first human exploration of Mars or Enceladus or, for that matter, Arrakis.

Abisso describe themselves as “…an italian artistic duo with a dark mood, composed of: EryaV & D’avy. The “Son Of the Abyss” project goes beyond the dimension of mere collaboration, translating itself in an authentic artistic symbiosis. Beauty and elegance intertwine with cinematic atmospheres and intense sounds dark ambient type, supported by textual and photographic elements with a strong poetic, alien and mystical vocation. “

Visit their Facebook page “abissoart” and their website abissomusic.bandcamp.com for more information.

“It Wasn’t My Fault” Dark Fiction by Joseph Buckley

The floods started as a small disturbance. First, the kitchen sink went, filthy, tepid, water pooled to the brim of our once functioning, silver sink. I tried the plunger but couldn’t get the water to give. I stabbed at the drain with a knife, but still no movement. The water sat in the sink for hours. Moving about the house, I felt like the flooded sink watched me. The water a stalking predator waiting for me to let my guard down, so it could spring over the edge, flood the house and drag me under, choking on a torrent of putrid waters. But eventually, I couldn’t stand the paranoia, or the stench, any longer, and scooped the mess out with a bucket, tossing the scuzzy water into our backyard splashing across the heads of Eli’s, my six-year-old, abandoned lego city.

Then the bathroom sinks fell prey to the toxic waters. Of course, this version of discolored water came complete with curled hairs skimming across the surface. You would’ve guessed right if you had said the toilets would go as well, since they went around the same time. Water bowled up over the porcelain edge releasing all variety of foul-smells to haunt our hallways. Who could tell they’re burning their son’s morning oatmeal when the entire house smelled like a landfill?

So, we built a fort in Eli’s bedroom. A peaceful sanctuary secluded from the ugly state of the remainder of our house. A place we watched cartoons. A place where we stuffed our cheeks with chocolate chip cookies and barbeque chips. A place I even let him stay up past his bed time. Anything to keep his mind distracted.

I looked up home solutions on the internet. Baking-soda and vinegar was supposed to have worked, but all that did was further complicate the mess, chunks of clotted baking soda swam around the surface like disfigured teeth. Bleach didn’t work either. In fact, my hands were so wet from the wretched waters the bottle slipped, then spilled all over my jeans, eating through them along with a the top-most layer of my skin.

So, since I was clearly in over my head, I gave up. I didn’t want to call a plumber. The idea of strange men nosing around my house unsettled me. I mean, who can trust a man to be honest? Don’t they always get away with whatever they want?

My husband Frank, for example, left us without so much as a note, didn’t even take his truck. One day he was tossing the ball out back with Eli, and the next he was gone. No explanation. I called the police, but they had patronizingly dictated to me how these types of things happen all the time. They even went so far as to insinuate that I was to blame for my husband’s sudden departure. And that, maybe I needed to take a look in the mirror first, examine what it was about my character that a man would want to abandon.

I tried Frank’s brother. But he had no answers either. He explained how he was deep into his own issues: Shirley wanted a divorce citing his drinking among many other issues — it runs in the family. Work hadn’t seen my husband either, so I was left trying to explain to our son where his father had gone. Eli believed he was still coming back. But that was the least alarming of his behaviors.

***

One night, I left him in the tub, only for a quick minute to refill my wine glass — I also hadn’t taken the disappearance well. At that time the floods had begun, but the tub still worked, or maybe it was that we had yet to use the tub. It’s hard to keep track of the details. My memory feels like a collection of thought bubbles floating whimsically, landing with me only at random. When I returned to the bathroom, Eli’s soap-bearded face lit up.

“Mommy, I just saw dad. He came back!”

“You saw him? What do you mean? He’s in this house?”
 “He was in the tub.”

“Eli stop that. How could he be in the tub? You know better than that. What did mommy say about lying?”

 “If I lie then I’ll go to…I’ll go to…I can’t remember.”

 “You’ll go to hell. Now look, do you see your father anywhere in the water?”

I splashed my hand around to demonstrate how, besides the toy boats and scuba man, there was no one in the tub with him.

“But he was laying in the tub. The water got all red. He looked broken.”

He blubbered.

“Oh come on Eli, get with it. I told you your father left us. There’s no way he would be lying in the tub. He couldn’t even fit in there. He’s not coming back. Okay? He hates us. Can’t you see that?”

He burst into tears. I realized my hands were shaking. The wine glass shattered onto the tile floor like a crime scene.

“But it was him mom, I promise.”

I grabbed a towel, pulled him out of the tub and bundled him up tightly in my arms.

“It’s okay honey. It’s gonna be okay.”

I dried him off and tucked him into bed. We then read his favorite story about a little boy who goes in search of his parents with a tiger in a boat, sailing around the world. I blew him a kiss goodnight from the doorway, but before I walked away he asked me:

“Mom, do you think he will come back again?”

“I’ll tell you what. If he comes back, you tell him to come and speak with me because I’ve got some things to discuss with him. Okay buddy?”

I left the hall light on for him. Back in the bathroom, I noticed a lot of water around the tub. Droplets had somehow splashed as far as the vanity, but then, when I looked closer I thought I saw ripples in the discolored water, as if something had just moved, something large. There was no way. I pulled Eli out of the tub a long while before.

The tub water was so gray I couldn’t see through it. Anything could have been lurking within, waiting for me to reach my hand in. I could’ve sworn I had pulled the chord when Eli got out, but the water hadn’t drained at all. Then I wondered: What if Eli was right? What if there really was someone in the tub? I had to go downstairs for another glass of wine before I returned to brave the task of reaching into the mysterious waters of my own bathtub.

Wine in hand, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and sunk my other hand into the water, waiting for the bite or clench then subsequent abduction to hell. But my hand parsed through the grit all the way to the drain. Clogging the drain was what felt like the coarse fur of an animal or beast. I tugged at it coming up with a fistfull of hair. Except it wasn’t Eli’s. Or mine. The knot of hair was indeed human and still attached to a small section of skin, scabbed with blood.

Then it hit me — the same rotten smell from the toilets drifted off the hairs and I gagged, then ran from the bathroom, slamming the door behind me.

***

The next morning, I couldn’t bring myself to open the door to the bathroom. Decorative squares embossed into it’s white surface like mouths, mocking me, laughing at me, like the door knew exactly what was happening in my house; took pleasure in my discomfort.

Below the door the dirty, gray water had seeped out, soiling the hallway rug. So, I shoved a stack of towels at the bottom of it and decided that we needed to leave the house, at least for the day. Between the gory waters and Eli I didn’t know which caused me more anxiety.

I called off work and school for Eli. Sure, my boss said he’d have to write me up. But, I only took the stupid retail job to appease Frank. Now that he was gone I would have to find a real job anyway. Go ahead write me up. Fire me. There was some strange and dark presence in my house. I couldn’t care less about what type of bath soap was the least pollutive, or what candle scent would settle some housewife’s chakras.

I figured we could go to the park. Try to have a little fun. I worried Eli may have been developing some type of disorder or trauma that the internet is always going on about. It’s like everytime I turn around somebody is opening up about some type of scarring incident, something their parents did they will never recover from. What if my son grew up to be one of those people?

On our way to the park, passing through the quiet, still suburbs, Eli was right back to it.

“I saw daddy again last night.”

It was hard to believe this tiny, round-cheeked person could have grown to be such a disturbed child. He was too young. Where had I gone wrong? I pulled the car over. A sprinkler stream inching closer to the windshield.

“I thought I told you to come get me.”

“I didn’t know what to do.” He pulled down the brim of his blue ball-cap.

“Eli, listen to me. Next time this happens you have to get me, I mean it.”

“I had to go down to the kitchen to get a cup of water. And then, and then, I saw one of his eyes floating in the pool in the sink. It kept looking at me.”

“Enough Eli! Stop with the stories.”

“But, I heard his voice too. He had a secret to tell me.”

“Enough!”      

I sped away, windshield blurred with sprinkler water. I couldn’t seem to find the wiper lever. Our car kept going faster, everything in front of us melting together. I couldn’t understand if I was going blind with rage or the water was in fact blocking my vision. The car sped faster. 

“Mom.”

“Not now Eli. Not now!”

“Mom, red light.”

I slammed the brakes at what looked like a red light. Then found the wiper lever and when I looked in front of me there was a woman pushing two children in a stroller, glaring at me.

***

At the park, the sky was an empty blue, not a cloud in sight. It was so blue that my vision of the outside world was too highly defined. I could feel the murmurings of a migraine somewhere in the depths of my head. The subtle bird chirps. The trickling creek. The buzzing cicadas all sounded like clattering metal,

grinding gears. It was too hot out. My breath felt short like my lungs had a belt clamped around them.

  “Mommy, will you push me on the swing? Pleeease.”

  I took a deep breath.

 “Okay.”

I pushed Eli, tried to take my mind off things, but then I thought of Frank. Still confused why he would leave me. I felt like I must’ve been forgetting something. Like I had blocked out the bad memories. Then, the next thing I knew, all the wind left my lungs. Eli’s sneakers had kicked me in the chest on his backswing, sending me to my knees.

“Sorry mom!”

“I’m going to take a break for a minute. Why don’t you run around the pyramid thing, or try the slide or something for a while.”

“But I wanna swing more.”

“You know what Eli? Do whatever you want. But, I need a rest.”

Surrounding the jungle-gym were benches. Two women in bright workout clothing talked quietly next to each other on one of the benches. They cupped their hands over their mouths like they were talking about me. Their manicured and polished fingernails glinting so sharply in the sun I thought my eyes had cuts.

Maybe they knew me, but I couldn’t remember their faces. Maybe I knew them from one of the PTA meetings I was forced to attend twice a year? Or, the wine club Frank used to drag me to, as if going to a club gave his drinking more credibility. Just because half the town drank at these gatherings didn’t mean it was okay for him to come home stumbling drunk, scaring our son.

I waved to the women and they turned their gaze to a small blond girl in overalls picking at the yellow dandelions.

On the other side of the playground, far away from the nosey women I found respite under a large oak tree. Listening to wind pass through the dangling spanish moss finally settled me. I didn’t even mind the scratchy grass under me. Above me, a spider climbed around the tangled vines of moss. I wondered what it would feel like to be that spider. All alone. Stalking this gigantic tree for food and then waiting, spinning webs, to trap and devour anyone who got in my way. What a life that would be.

Suddenly, a shriek broke my reverie, sprung me to my feet, gasping for breath like I had been underwater for hours. Over by where the girl had been playing, one of the women stood above Eli wagging her finger. The girl clutched the other woman’s stretchy, purple shirt in her tiny fists, her face buried in the woman’s bosom.

“What’s going on?”

I stepped in front of Eli, shielding him from the ravenous woman, who appeared poised to strike. Sweat percolated on her forehead under her curled dome of blonde hair.

“Your little devil of a son is trying to give our Daisy nightmares is what’s going on.”

“I’m sure whatever he did was an accident. Right Eli?” I confirmed with my son who only stared back at me. “Eli, apologize to the little girl.”

“I’ll tell you what he did–”

“Ma’am, please let my son speak.”

“Show your mother what you showed our little girl.” She lunged toward Eli’s hand but I stepped in the way. “Of all the things. She’s going to be scarred for life. You know I didn’t want to believe what they said about you, but I guess the rumors are true.” The woman continued to rant.

She had passed off the young girl, pigtails bouncing, to the other woman. The two of them then retreated, leaving behind the purple shirted woman to take me down. 

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“Oh please honey. Everyone knows Frank walked out on you and honestly it’s easy to see why. You’re a mess. Keep that little demon of yours away from our precious child, or I’ll call child protective services so fast you’ll regret ever leaving the house.”

“Excuse me?” I was too shocked by what she had said to confront her any further before she stormed off to her car.

Her words only further shook my thoughts, my paranoia. What was everyone in town saying about me? It felt like everyone around me had gone mad.  

“Eli what on earth did you do to their girl?”

“I just told her about dad.”

“Oh God, again with the stories. Why do you keep doing this to me? Do you want your mother to go to jail. They’re going to take you away if you keep this up. You’ll never be allowed near me again. Is that what you want?”

He held out two teeth in his hand: full size, roots like dinosaur talons, speckled with dried dirt and blood. 

“What are you doing with those filthy things?” I tried to smack them out of his hand, but he took off running into the field. He was too fast. I went back to the car to see how long he would play this game of chicken.

Part of me wanted to just drive away, leave everything. Frank got to, why couldn’t I? So, I did. I put the car in reverse and was on my way to my own future. Free from all of this madness. Free from my possessed son.

But no.

No.

I slammed the brakes.

I had to be better than Frank. I had to prove those women wrong. Sure enough, the sight of our truck pulling out of the parking lot had sent Eli running back. I took him to get a scoop of his favorite ice cream, Rocky Road.

***

When we came back home, chewing what was left of our ice cream cones, the entire house had flooded. The basement was, what I assumed, a foot or two high. The water scared Eli. He didn’t want to come inside the house. The walls were sweating with the humidity. I wanted to be there as little as Eli, so I caved and called a plumber.

An hour or so later, I answered the door to an attractive man dressed entirely blue: blue work shirt, blue jeans, and blue boots. The only non-blue item on the man was his sagging work belt.

“Hiya, here to fix the pipes.” He chuckled.

“Right, come on in.”

“Oh my.” His large boots squished around the soiled carpet in the front hall. “Quite the situation here. When did you say this all began?”

“I don’t know. A few weeks now? Maybe more, maybe less.”

“All right, and no remarkable incidents? No flushing something crazy down the toilet? No cherry bombs, or rats chewing away the piping?”

“No, not that I can remember.”

I tried to remember when the flooding began. But it felt like my life had always been this way. Like the time before the flooding was the same. Then there was Frank, a shadow on my thoughts. But yes, perhaps it was him. Maybe he had sabotaged the pipes as a way of getting back at me, but why?

He was the one who left. He was the drunken one. The one forgetting birthdays and needing me to bail him out of jail. If anyone should have exacted revenge, it should’ve been me.

“Do you remember where it first started?”

“Maybe the kitchen?”

“All right then. I’ll check around, but this is worse than I imagined. It may take quite a while…this the door to the basement?” He asked.

I nodded. His large, calloused hands pulled at the door. I then realized how large of a man he was. He could crush me in the palm of his hand if he so desired. He scratched his head with those meaty hands.

“Let me recalibrate here.”

He walked out to his work truck in the street and returned wearing what looked like the same type of water-proof overalls Frank used to fish in. But before he went down the steps, he turned to me. His blue eyes sparkled through the wild mess of eyebrow and facial hair that covered his well-tanned face. He really was quite attractive.

“Hey, weren’t you that lady on the news?”

“News? No. What do you mean?”

“Yeah, it was you. Your husband went missing? They couldn’t find any traces of him anywhere. The reporter accused you of murdering him.”

“What in the world…that’s a strange thing to say to someone you just met. I think you should leave.”

“Whoa now. I’m sorry. You’re right. I apologize. I can’t leave you in such dire straights. It goes against the plumber’s code.”

He winked. For a moment, he stood there, staring, uncannily, before heading down the steps, whistling his entire journey deeper into our house.

First, the women in the park and then a random plumber. What did everyone know that I didn’t? There was no way I could have gone on the news without remembering it. Through the kitchen window, I saw Eli splashing in a puddle of water.

“Eli, get out of that dirty water and come in here.”

“Why?”

 “Don’t question me when I tell you to do something. Get in here. I need to talk to you.”

  He ran in the house, cheeks flushed. His red sneakers smeared with mud.

 “Sorry, I know I’m not supposed to play in the mud but—”

 “Do you remember your mother being on the news?”

 “You said we can’t talk about it.”

 “Talk about what? What happened?”

 I grabbed him by the wrist.

“You said that we can’t talk about the people with all the cameras. And the, and the —”

“And the what?!” I screamed

“And the lady who talked to you in the living room.”

My blood felt like thousands of ants marching under my skin. How had I not been able to recall this moment? What had happened. I couldn’t believe it. A ringing grew in my head. My head spun. Eli must’ve been lying again. That was it. Eli was lying, of course.

“Are you okay mommy?”

“I told you to stop lying.”

“Mommy you’re hurting me.”

The skin of his wrist had turned red around my fingertips. I let go quickly, shocked.

“Go play outside.”

He ran away. I poured a glass of wine, to the top. Then, the plumber appeared in the doorway to the basement.

“Ma’am, there’s some type of major blockage. I can’t tell what the hell is going on. I tried snaking the pipes, but got no movement. Something is lodged somewhere in there causing the entire system to back up. I’m gonna have to get inside the pipes…is that something you’re ready to do?”

“Huh? Get inside the pipes? What do you mean?”

“You see, to fully diagnose the problem I’m going to have pull apart your plumbing. It can be a large undertaking. We’re talking maybe a few days, weeks maybe, which means a lot of labor. The water will be turned off.”

He looked at my pityingly. What was it with these men in my life?

“And I suppose you’re going to say this is my fault? Accuse me of some other despicable action?”

I sneered.

“Whoa now. Maybe you were right. Maybe I should go.”

“Oh no you don’t. Not after you fed me all that crap about the plumbers code. Get back down in the basement and finish what you started. Smash the pipes to hell for all I care.”

He threw his hands up in caution. When he came back from his truck this time he carried two heavy bags in each arm. They were large enough to fit bodies into if he had to. What was this man’s plan with me and my son?

Bags clunking down each step, thwap, thwap, he made his way to the basement, whistling the whole time. Maybe he had killed Frank. Yes that was it. Then he had sabotaged my pipes in order to get a large payday. That was it. He was out for money. Sure, prey on the newly single mother. Just another man trying to get one over on me. Well, he had another thing coming if he thought that was going to work. 

“Can I go downstairs?” Eli asked.

“What for?”

I realized I had finished my entire wine glass and was sipping at nothing.

“I want to watch the plumber. I was gonna bring my boat down.”

He had already changed into a bathing suit and rain boots holding his boat in hand.

“You know what Eli, I want you to go pack your bags for a long trip, okay honey?”

“But mom, I want to help the plumber.”

“If you’re good we can get ice cream again. Okay honey? Now, go and be a good boy.”

From the butcher block I pulled the chef’s knife and walked down the steps with it behind my back.

“Oh hey, glad you’re down here. I think I’ve found something.”

I watched the plumber pull a leg from out of the pipe, still adorned in blue, now blood-red jeans, my husbands’, I mean ex-husband’s favorite blue jeans. The skin inside was sodden and colorless, and the rotten odor almost enough to knock me over.

“Oh jesus lord. This is someone’s leg. Looks like it’s been clear cut off.”

He threw it down into the water. Then my knife was in his gut, to the handle. I pulled it out and plunged it in again. His last breath exhaled, hot in my face before he dropped into the water with a splash and then everything was silent just like when Frank died.

I remembered it all then.

I was scared for my life. Frank, so drunk I thought he would kill me or Eli. I was only trying to keep him away. Trying to protect myself. It all happened so quick. He stomped toward me, cornered me in the kitchen. The butcher block of knives behind and then his blood rushed from his slumped body in torrents. I tried stopping the wound with a kitchen towel. The wound that I had opened in him but it was too late.

It was an accident. I couldn’t leave Eli with no parents. He needed me to protect from all the craziness in the world. So, I cleaned up the accident. I cut and shoved and flushed whatever I could into the sinks and toilets of our house. I just wanted to be there for Eli.

Blood spread into the waters around the plumber’s head. But the ringing in my head had stopped. I could see clearly. I knew we had to get out. then ran up the steps out of the basement.

“Eli? Where are you? Eli?”

 I rushed around the house searching for Eli. I found him under his covers, shaking.

“What’s going on mom? Why is dad in our pipes?”

“Daddy? No, no honey what did you see? That was nothing. It was a joke the plumber was playing. I think he found an old possum in the pipes. Okay sweetie?”

“I saw dad again downstairs. Right before you came up. He was all bloody.”

“Okay sweetie, okay.” I hiked Eli up on my hip and packed a bag for him with one hand. “Can you be a big boy and help your mother put this in the truck?”

He nodded.

“Good, then wait in the car for me.”

 When I pulled out of the driveway, Eli asked me “What about the plumber?”

“He left us honey. Just like your father. It’s like I said Eli, you can’t trust men.”

 “But his truck is still there.”

I turned up the stereo a little louder and tilted Eli out of the vision of the rearview. I could finally see clearly, not a man in sight. 


Joseph Buckley is a poet and dark fiction writer. His work is featured in December, Fogged Clarity, The Horror Zine, and elsewhere.


“Tea with Nanna” Dark Fiction by B.C. Nance

Lewis gritted his teeth and growled as he reached the end of Red Mill Road. He gripped the steering wheel, his knuckles white as he waited for an old truck puttering down Harpeth Turnpike to pass by. He accelerated into a U-turn, spinning his wheels, and headed westward once again, his heart racing and his breathing short and shallow. Nothing looked the same to him after so many years. He could count the time from his last visit in decades, and he feared he had waited too long.

He cruised the winding country road a third time looking for anything familiar. In his childhood memory the landscape was vivid as he peered over the backseat of his parents’ car, eager to spot the huge red oak, the forsythia hedge, and his grandmother’s house on a small hill overlooking the old road. A flash of movement ahead caught Lewis’s attention, and as he slowed, he finally saw the two stone columns that flanked the driveway to Nanna’s house, now camouflaged by privet and honeysuckle and wild grapevine. Whatever had moved was gone.

Lewis eased the rental car through the screen of foliage, cringing as the shrubs clawed at the sides of the vehicle. Nanna’s house lay ahead on the knoll, and though his sight line was obscured by rambling foliage, it appeared to be in poor condition. He peered through the living screen and was sure that he saw shutters hanging askew, shingles missing, and possibly some broken windows. Was no one taking care of Nanna? Lewis had always lived too far away. He was nearly one thousand miles away while he was in college, though he hadn’t bothered to visit when he was home on breaks. A new job had taken him too far for frequent visits, but he never made even the infrequent ones. Lewis supposed he had not kept the promise he had made to his grandmother so many years ago.

“I’ll never leave you alone, Nanna,” the eight year old Lewis had promised. “I’ll visit and help you out and keep you company.” Now a half-century old himself, Lewis didn’t think he could be held to his childhood pledge. Still he regretted his long absence and was well aware that this visit was out of his need and not his grandmother’s welfare.

Lewis crept the car up the looping driveway, past the unkempt azaleas and rose bushes that appeared to be dead, or was it just not the right season for roses. Even the huge oak tree appeared to have lost a large limb, and if his eyes didn’t deceive him, that limb had fallen on the roof right over Nanna’s parlor. “Parlor” was Nanna’s word, but Lewis’s mother referred to it as the “delicate room” because of the many fragile items displayed there.

Lewis slid from the car and removed his sunglasses, temporarily blinded by the sudden brightness, then rubbed the wetness from his eyes. The front door opened and Nanna stepped out. She beamed at him, and he ran to embrace his grandmother.

“Oh, Nanna,” Lewis said, “I’m so sorry it’s been this long. What’s happened to your house?”

“What do you mean, dear,” his grandmother said, offering him a tissue from her apron pocket.

Lewis stepped back and dried his eyes. He looked at the house and saw to his relief that his vision had just been clouded by the tears. There was never anything wrong with the house. It looked as it always had, neat and trim. The shutters were hung true, every shingle was in place, and the red oak stood strong as it always had.

Lewis’s grandmother led him into the house, and he paused to look into the delicate room. Porcelain figures were arrayed on display stands, all meticulously dusted, while fragments of colored light refracted through a crystal vase dusted the room with rainbow shards. Nanna hurried Lewis to the kitchen which had always been the heart of the house. The fragrance of fresh-baked bread and cinnamon and fruit filled his senses. His grandmother had just finished canning a batch of homemade strawberry jam, and the jars formed a regiment of delicious fruit filled soldiers along the kitchen counter. She sat him down at the table and put a kettle on the stove.

“Nanna,” he said in a creaking voice, “I’m sorry that it’s taken me this long…”

“Don’t you fret now, dear,” she interrupted. “You’ve had your own life to live and a family to care for. You can’t take time to write to your doddering old grandmother every day.”

“But I should have taken the time,” Lewis said. “I should have listened to you; I should have taken your advice, then things might be different.”

“Oh, Lewis,” Nanna said, “are things not right with your wife.”

Few in the family had ever liked Charmaigne. Not her unusual name, her “hippie” parents, her brusque manners, or her insistence on living far away from Lewis’s family and seldom visiting. Lewis had an equally good job offer only twenty miles from the rural middle Tennessee community where he had grown up, but Charmaigne had insisted that he accept a job in a larger city where the schools would be better, and her own opportunities would be greater.

These, he supposed, included the opportunities to have two affairs during their marriage. Opportunities to frequent night clubs and find dealers for the myriad pills she kept hidden in the bedside table next to an old silver broach, a family heirloom that his grandmother had promised to Lewis for his wife. It was a promise made long before Lewis had met Charmaigne and a promise that Nanna was loathe to keep. His wife had disdained the trinket, never once wearing it.

“Maybe it will be worth something when the price of silver goes up,” Charmaigne said, tossing the jewelry into the drawer.

“I’ve tried for years to hold things together, Nanna.” Lewis said, and tears were beginning to form in his eyes again. “We’ve stayed together for the children, but now that they’re in college I don’t know if I can go on.”

The kettle began to whistle, and Nanna poured them each a steaming cup of tea. She pushed the blue-patterned porcelain toward her grandson, and he inhaled the herbal-scented steam.

“Drink that, dear,” she said. “It’s my special herbal blend that I guarantee will soothe your jangled nerves.”

Lewis continued to inhale the vapors while he waited for the tea to cool.

“She won’t go to counseling, Nanna.” He wouldn’t say his wife’s name in his grandmother’s house, knowing how she felt about the younger woman. Nanna had seen through her. Nanna had known best. He blew into the cup and sipped at the tea.

The taste lay somewhere between sassafras and licorice with a molasses sweetness and a mineral tinge. It was at once nostalgic and medicinal. It was the lilac-scented night breeze that blew through the open windows of Nanna’s house when he spent the night. It was the sting of mercurochrome that she daubed on his scrapes and scratches and the tang of ginger in her Christmas cookies. Lewis took a deep breath and looked his grandmother in her time-wizened eyes, deep and calm.

“I wish that I could go back to a time when you gave me sound advice and take with me the wisdom to listen to it, Nanna,” Lewis said in a steady, calm voice.

“Nanna always makes everything better, dear,” she said. She pushed a small jar across the table toward him. “Nanna has a tea for your wife, too. Have her drink this, and she will see what a wonderful boy you are. You are Nanna’s special boy.”

“I doubt that she will even take a sip,” Lewis said. “I think the marriage is just doomed.”

“Once she smells it she will come to the table, dear,” Nanna said, “and this is the same tea that saved my own marriage.”

Lewis’s eyes grew wide, and his grandmother’s smile was wider.

“Yes,” she said, “you probably don’t remember much about your grandfather. He died when you were very young, but even we had our problems.”

“I never knew,” Lewis said.

“That’s because of the tea,” Nanna said, tapping the jar. “He got into the habit of drinking a bit too much liquor and playing cards with his friends. He would come home staggering and usually angry because he had lost, and a time or two he forgot himself and gave me the back of his hand.”

Lewis’s expression had now turned to one of shock, but before he could speak, his grandmother went on.

“I knew we needed a solution, and the preacher’s advice was no help, but his wife sent me to Mrs. Hinshaw, and elderly widow who lived a ways down the Harpeth Turnpike. It was her herbal tea that solved our problems. The tea saved us.” Nanna again tapped the jar.

Lewis hugged his grandmother, and said goodbye. She clipped a newly bloomed red rose from the ordered bushes in front of the house for Lewis to give to his wife. He questioned whether it would last long enough to get it home, but Nanna overruled his objections. He drove away knowing that everything would be all right. Nanna always made things better. As he drove away he could smell the faint floral scent of the rose, and he touched the dried, decaying petals. He turned back to look at the house in time to see a rotted shutter fall off.

He returned just one month later. When Nanna didn’t answer his knock, he let himself in. She wasn’t in the kitchen, but he had an idea of where he might find her. From the back door a dirt pathway meandered up the hill and past the old orchard, where few of the long-neglected peach and plum trees still stood. The old stone wall around the cemetery was overgrown with Virginia Creeper, and the rusted iron gate had fallen from its pintils.

Lewis found the two tall stones in the center of the graveyard and brushed away the lichen to read the names. John Robert Haskin was born just before the First World War and lived until 1973, when Lewis was four years old. He had few memories of his grandfather. Lewis ran his fingers through the engraved lettering of the other stone. Edna Grace Haskin, born on the 3rd day of November in the year 1919, departed this life on New Year’s Day 2001.

“I should have visited more often, Nanna,” Lewis whispered. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his grandmother’s silver broach. He rubbed it with his thumb then placed it on the tombstone. Charmaigne would never touch it again, or anything else for that matter. Nanna’s tea had solved their problems.

Lewis stood and brushed the dirt and leaves from his knees. The broach glinted in a shaft of sunlight as if winking at him.

“I’ll go make us some tea, Nanna. I’ll make us some tea, and I’ll never leave you.”


B. C. Nance is a writer who still hasn’t given up his day job. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, he works by day as a historical archaeologist. After wandering the neighborhood in the evening, he writes fiction and poetry and stays up too late reading.


Contents

“Billy the Killer and Martha Jean” Horror by Rachel Brands
“Ghost” Dark Poetry by June Allyn Johnson
“No Rose without Thorns” Flash Horror by Madeleine D’Este
Two Dark Poems by Travis Black: “May My Sorrows Comfort Me in my Time of Need” and “The Sound of a Train in the Distance”
“Teddy Bear” Dark Poetry by A.N. Rose
“The Feverish Fast of Albert Drach” Dark, Surreal Microfiction by Karin Kutlay
“Quetzalcoatl Comet” Dark, Historical Fiction by Titus Green
“Last Call at the Divina Comedia” Dark, Hyper-Real Fiction by Alan Catlin
“Finding Shadows in the Fire” Dark, Historical Fiction by R.P. Serin
“12 Items or Less” Dark Fiction by Kay Summers
“Bloodsucker” Dark Supernatural Fiction by Mehnaz Sahibzada
“All’s Over, Then” Horror by Gershon Ben-Avraham
“Night” Dark Fiction by Amita Basu
“Tea with Nanna” Dark Fiction by B.C. Nance
“It Wasn’t My Fault” Dark Fiction by Joseph Buckley
Special Feature–“Son of Abyss”: discographic debut of multifaceted duo Abisso

The Next Issue Appears July 1

“Night” Dark Fiction by Amita Basu

From his third-storey hostel room Vikesh jogs down, hands in pockets jangling coins and keys, knees loose as if about to give way, happy knees relaxed and loose, Bata floaters clapping on speckled granite stairs. He saunters into the mess. The long steel tables and steel stools, all welded together against theft, clang with 500 young men’s steel dinnerplates and steel-strident voices. Vikesh greets friends on his way to the front of the queue, where his junior – a first-year History undergraduate, and his neighbour in hostel – makes way.

On the counter sit aluminium vats. Daal yellow-green-red with turmeric, coriander, and tomato. Sabzi – potato again, always potato, twenty rupees a kilo. Jeera rice. A plate of sliced radish and cucumber and onion, all colourless bar the occasional fingerprint. And a giant casserole of chapatti. Vikesh serves himself one chapatti and some salad, tours the mess saying hello, explains his plate – “My stomach’s upset” – and sits down near the door. He nibbles at the radish, sweet and young with a hint of pepper. Under his baseball cap he’s vigilant for glances cast his way.

When the influx ceases and everyone in hostel is in the mess, Vikesh deposits his plate in the cobalt-blue plastic used-plate basket, slips out, and heads gatewards. The boys’ hostel has no curfew: he could embark early tomorrow. He’s too restless to sleep, so he’s embarking now.

Approaching the security guards, Vikesh wonders how Simran felt, signing the attendance-sheet then sneaking out of her hostel before curfew. To avert suspicion she wore her homeliest clothes – salwar calf-long and two sizes too big, dupatta drawn up to chin – and avoided the guards’ eyes. But they never stopped her. For Simran’s got an angel face. What an innocent she was when she came to him, that first night in the hotel room he’d booked. He coaxed her open, showed her what he liked, and got her – as a man does – to show him what she liked. Their nocturnal education notwithstanding, her face still is like this full moon in the murky autumn sky. His blood churns in his heart and throbs in his groin.

He passes the frangipani, ravaged daily by 19-year-old boys plucking tributes for their girlfriends. Under the tree lie the fallen flowers. Fleshy, white, and brown-edged, these past-best flowers complain against their abandonment with the broadcast odour of staleness – the odour of Vikesh’s old-maid aunts. He steps around the fallen flowers, as his mother taught him. On the eve of love’s last great adventure his lips soften with affection for those plain-faced, simple-hearted old women, who struggled to earn your affection, who’d sweetly surrendered all hope of earning respect.

He wheels his motorbike towards the security guards, meeting their eyes. Who knows what’ll happen to him tomorrow: but he’s doing the right thing, and he must keep looking the world in the eye. As he approaches the hostel-gate, his Rubicon, his heart pounds in his ears.

Retired from the army as unranked jawaans, the security guards pull twelve-hour shifts to earn the same pittance as a domestic servant. All three years of his undergrad studies, Vikesh has bid them Good evening every evening, and has paused to chat with them on vacant evenings. For these men have served India honourably; besides, you never know who you’ll need on your side. Tonight he stares at them, and wonders whether they’ll see anything different in him, his breath coming shallower.

They bid him Good evening as usual. He returns their greeting, nodding graciously. His trepidation retreats, making room for other feelings. God, if his own hair ever got as thin as this old man’s, he’d know better than to oil it flat. These poor men don’t seem to care what face they turn to the world. No proper pride.

“That’s the cousin of the student body president,” he hears the long-time security guard murmuring to a new colleague. “His cousin controls contracts worth crores of rupees, yet Vikesh sir” – that’s how the 45-year-old secondary-school graduate speaks of the 21-year-old months away from getting his B.A. – “Is as modest and affable as my five-year-old.”

Vikesh pretends not to hear but, mounting his Royal Enfield outside, he pulls himself up straight. In their eyes he’s still the man: if something goes wrong they might be useful. God willing, nothing will go wrong on his last date as a free man with the love of his life.

###

He rides down Bank Road lined with hostels. Show your money and take your pick: private hostels and public, old buildings and new, red-brick and cement-and-glass, five-to-a-room and one-to-a-room, air-conditioned and hot-tin-roofed. At 9pm the November smog is settling, smudging the yellow streetlights into halos. The smog’s at streetlight-height: hasn’t yet descended to the asphalt. How wide the streets look, traffic-free, night homogenising the potholes and dung-stains that give a street its features but steal its spaciousness.

The fragrance of shiuli turns his head this way and that, seeking the inconspicuous bush that perfumes late monsoon and early winter lemon-vanilla. Can’t see the bush – must be behind a wall. He remembers the shiuli bush in Simran’s hostel garden. He’d stand waiting at her gate, his nostrils flaring and narrowing to draw in the fragrance from the small cream-petalled orange-stemmed flowers, which the girls gathered for evening puja in the tiny-idolled flashing-lighted shrines in their rooms.

Simran doesn’t go in for that old-fashioned nonsense. Sometimes she cradles a few flowers in her handkerchief – shielded from body-heat, keeping their freshness – and sniffs them when they’re riding down a particularly rubbishy or cowdungy street on their Allahabad tours. She sits pillion on his Royal Enfield, face dupatta-veiled against the dust, arm lightly circling his waist, cream-coloured legs in thigh-shorts resting against his hips. Under her oversized salwar-kameez Simran wears these party outfits, disrobing at her friend Ishita’s. But she bares her skin only when Vikesh is there to protect her.

He’s never had to ask her. Simran’s a feminist, but sensible.

It would’ve been awkward having to ask her. It’s alright when you can tell people to do things. But Simran’s never been the kind of girlfriend you tell – at best, with trepidation, you ask her, and watch for the lip-pursing that’s her only indication she’s displeased. Alone among his friends Vikesh has a girlfriend who has her own mind. He’d never admit this to his chauvinist-pig friends, but he’s proud of Simran’s mind. For a pole cannot lean on a creeper. His chin rises into the descending smog, and his heart surges thinking of the treasure he’s won.

He’s slowed his bike to a crawl: the wind’s less biting so. Shivers run up his spine. Seeking the cause of his alarm, he peers over his shoulders. It’s like there’s a lizard on his upper back, on the one spot he can neither see nor reach, but it’s there: a cold damp blight on his soul.

The streetdogs sit majestic as sphinxes, ready to riddle passersby. Their corneas shine green-gold with the light reflected back from their retinas, reflected back with an offset that makes each dog look both squint-eyed and all-seeing. The offset disorients you: you don’t know where to look, to look the dog in the eye. Already in the night the dogs are on edge; your shifty eyes push them over.

As Vikesh crawls past, one dog stares and tries a guttural growl, just to see how it feels and how the others feel about it. The growl proves infectious. Soon the pack is chasing Vikesh’s bike through the night. The lead dog sprints at Vikesh’s heels, just a few feet behind. Vikesh pictures himself ribboned by streetdogs, and across his consciousness like lightning streaks the thought: ‘I deserve this.’

As he accelerates away he remembers years ago a stranger riding through the night, chased by a pack of streetdogs. The rider kept glancing over his shoulder, slowing down and speeding up, teasing. He capsized at a pothole outside Vikesh’s house, leg trapped under bike, fangs gnashing, Vikesh watching from the balcony petrified, but thinking that man must’ve deserved what he got. At 21 Vikesh has shed his belief in God, but the fatalism that was one of God’s fathers haunts him still.

That man got what he deserved, and what will Vikesh deserve to get now? He speeds up, looks back, and slows down again. He lets the dogs catch up, looks away again, and prays fate to show him what he deserves.

On the air behind his ankles teeth snap. Excitement clenches his heart into a fist and drums in his ears. He speeds away a few meters, then slows again for the dogs to catch up. Teeth catch in the hem of his slim-fit chinos. He accelerates away, the baritone drone of his Royal Enfield one half in tonight’s jugaalbandi. The other partner in the impromptu music-jam is the dogpack, snarling barking growling.

‘If they catch up again, I’ll stop and let them have me,’ he decides. He slows down, but the dogs are falling away, trotting back home. He crawls around the corner. The dogs have given up; their leader stands barking, claiming victory. Disappointed, Vikesh decides, ‘Fuck them. They’re just dogs. They’d chase a good man as soon as a bad.’ Fate has refused to tell him what to do, so Vikesh tosses his fatalism to the half-moon glimmering through a rend in the smog, and speeds away.

###

This road runs between campus scrubland and Company Garden’s flowering trees. Stripped of their flame-coloured flowers and fan-shaped leaves, the gulmohars’ branches lifeless taupe under the white streetlights. The amla trees flaunt their silver-green foliage and pale-green clusters of super-sour fruit, bleached in the artificial light. Here amid greenery the smog falls early and thick; here the smog’s sulphur nausea is dispelled by amla’s earthy freshness: for feasting squirrels have left the fallen fruit, half-eaten, to scent the air. Vikesh slows and sniffs. For weeks he’s looked forward to tomorrow. Now his heart aches with all that he’s giving up. Never has the amla smelled so delectable, nor the smog-blanketed city looked so cosy.

The headlight of an approaching motorbike looms disembodied, rocking as wheels sink into potholes and roll over the speedbumps that fight a losing battle against Allahabad’s traffic. Vikesh remembers the lantern-bearing ghost – out on a foggy night, approaching the man whose hour had come – with which his grandmother frightened him on demand as a child. Emerging briefly from the smog, the motorbike passes by. Vikesh smiles, remembering what silly things used to scare him, then purses his lips as he realises nobody warned him about life’s real dangers.

He draws up outside Simran’s hostel, facing the university’s Science Faculty campus. The light’s on in her first-storey room. Has she already returned from the mess, or is she cooking her own dinner? She’s a good cook, producing traditional recipes with remarkable consistency and gentle twists: aloo jeera with saunf as well as jeera, baigan bharta with capsicum instead of eggplant. She’s made lunch for him all year. They eat her cooking out of his tiffin-carrier on the lawn, under the peepul that murmurs its wisdom patiently to the flighty winds. They watch their peers straggle down the History department’s wide stone corridors, cool even in June. The university’s buildings date from the British Raj. So does its syllabus.

Staring up, Vikesh wonders if Simran’s convection heater is on. It’s not cold enough for her to need the heat, but perhaps she’s cooking on it. Cheap to buy, costly to run, electric coils naked, blazing orange-red, these little monsters electrocute a few people every winter. But they’re cheap, and in this city of students they sell like hotcakes. One of them disfigured Simran’s cousin as a child. Still Simran refused to let Vikesh buy her an induction cooker and a sensible space heater.

‘This is what I’ve grown up with,’ she said. ‘Just have to be careful. I keep my eyes open – I’d never have an accident.’

‘Then think about the electricity bill,’ said Vikesh. ‘These things suck up electricity like, uh, like something into a black hole.’ Picturing Simran crouching cooking over a death trap upset him too much to conjure a proper simile.

Simran tossed her head. ‘The hostel pays the electricity bill. Besides, everyone else has one.’

‘By that logic,’ said Vikesh, ‘You should get an AC too. You’re always complaining how hot your room gets in summer.’

‘Oh, coolers are good enough for me. That’s what I’ve’ –

– ‘Grown up with,’ Vikesh supplied, and a laugh ended the argument.

But she perplexes him: a one-in-a-thousand woman whose favourite phrase is ‘good enough for me,’ an intelligent woman who’s convention-bound. Vikesh knows now that ‘good enough for me’ is Simran’s way of refusing to argue. As for convention – after tomorrow she will have to think for herself. He’s giving up his own freedom to set her free.

Engine idling, rolling down against the chill the carefully-folded-up sleeves of his blue-and-white-checked Superdry button-up – he remembers how she’d fast all day before she came to him: self-conscious about bloat and food-babies. God bless women, inventing things to worry about. She hadn’t been as innocent as she looked, not even that first night, when she yielded to him after eleven months of coaxing. When applying for an overnight pass she told her hostel warden it was to visit her local guardian. And she’d meet him only once a fortnight: any oftener and they’d suspect, she said. Vikesh didn’t argue: he understood she was projecting her own guilt, and it saddened him that she felt guilty. His own conscience was clear: they weren’t violating ethics, only hostel rules set by sex-starved wardens.

A jamun tree insinuates a sturdy primary branch towards Simran’s second-floor balcony. On the nights she wouldn’t go to him, he could’ve come to her. The hostel’s boundary wall is fifteen feet tall, but the plaster’s coming off, providing footholds, and there’s no barbed wire on top. Drop into the garden, clap to scare off snakes, scale the jamun tree that pelts the earth all July with large-stoned, God-fleshed purple fruit, and crawl along the branch to Simran’s balcony. He suggested this scheme to Simran in February.

Her head whirled to him and her brows knit in that childlike wonder he loves to earn. ‘How did you know all that? Does being related to the president mean the guards let you into the women’s hostel compound also?’

Vikesh grinned. ‘I despise people who use their status to get privileges… No, I just keep my eyes open. You can see all this from the gate… So? May I come? We’ll be quiet, and your cooler’s fan will cover up any noise. I can come to you, and you can stop complaining about running the gauntlet of the security guards’ eyes.’

No, said Simran. Someone would find out. One of her neighbours, her bosom friends would expose her. She’d lose her hostel room, her reputation, and probably her life: for the hostel warden would write home and her parents would ask her, ‘Have you gone there to study or to fuck?’ and then they’d kill her.

‘Hmm.’ Busy considering logistics, Vikesh hadn’t considered consequences. So all year he’s made do with her rare visits. After tonight there’ll be no worry about logistics.

Vikesh turns off his engine. All his first year of undergrad, before she said yes, he haunted this road. He didn’t stop haunting it afterwards, still alone most nights. Here he came to watch the moon rise and set, listening to the night’s yawning silence, to its sudden sharp noises like the choking snores of sleep apnoea. Sometimes they spoke on the phone, Simran staying inside her room; but mostly she was busy studying, her phone switched off. He’d stay here till he got pleasantly drowsy; then he’d return to his room and leaf through textbooks in bed till he drifted asleep.

Leaning on his handlebars, he closes his eyes and smells her lying beside him on the hotel bed, jasmine perfume mingling with musky nether odour. She learned fast. Her nervous giggles ceded to the same grave interest with which she regards textbooks, civil-service exam-prep books, their lecturers, and everything else she’s decided is important. As a teenager, Vikesh taught his younger brothers cricket and football: they still play fervently, while Vikesh dabbles. But it was Simran who really taught him how to teach: how to communicate the most intimate things one person can to another. Gratefully he spent hours showing her the city and the state, discussing his plans for their future. They’d move far away from this cultural backwater, and surround themselves with progressives: that’d make it easier for him to act right, for of course he knew the patriarchy had tainted him too. She looked and listened. But when he asked her what she’d do after graduation, or how she liked this banyan that was its own forest, she only tilted her head and pouted her lips.

Sometimes her passivity annoyed him. But he reminded himself she’d grown up beautiful. It’d been enough for her to arch her brow, to make her breasts shift under her teeshirt. She hadn’t had to plan and opine. Nor, he reflects, drawing up his collar against the cold, had she had to become brave. That’s why they’re doing it this way.

After two years sneaking out of hostel to meet him, she told him last month that her parents had arranged her marriage to a 25-year-old Brahmin software engineer. After he recovered from his shock, Vikesh rode to Chandigarh to scout his rival. He brought Simran back an accurate picture: flabby, only ever goes to work, boring car. Simran listened attentively, for she wouldn’t meet the man herself till the engagement. Then she shrugged. ‘A man doesn’t need to be interesting, only kind.’

Vikesh begged her to tell her parents about himself, to tell them it was him she wanted to marry. ‘They’ll behead me,’ she said, ‘If they know I’m not a virgin. And they’ll hunt you down and strangle you and toss your corpse into the Ganga. When people fish you up, your own mother won’t recognise you.’

‘They wouldn’t hurt us,’ Vikesh protested. ‘We’re in love, it’s right for us to be together. We just have to do the right thing, God will look after the rest.’ Exigency had made Vikesh religious.

‘Maybe if you’d been a Brahmin too, I might’ve dared tell them,’ she said. ‘You know I don’t believe in that caste nonsense myself, but… D’you want to get us both killed?’ Her coal-black fire-bright eyes beseeched him to see sense. He could see only the blank of a future without her.

That’s why they’re doing it this way. When the alarm is raised, please God, they’ll be where nothing else can hurt them. Filling his eyes one last time with her window’s square of light, stark behind the jamun branch, he rides off.

###

In Civil Lines, the new small malls and high-street shops stand fog-shrouded. He runs into Partha: on his Honda Aviator motor-scooter, a secondhand piece-of-shit a grease-monkey cousin fixed up. Cost when new: Rs.56,000; cost of being seen riding it now: Partha’s whole manhood, such as it was. Riding pillion is Partha’s girlfriend Ishita, Simran’s best friend. The two two-wheelers draw up alongside midstreet.

“What’s up?” says Vikesh.

“Nothing much,” says Partha guardedly.

Partha and Ishita have dined at the factory-sized, no-standing-room, chicken-biryani-only Eat On. Now they’re heading to the room Partha rents. His landlord lives in Aligarh, his moral policing confined to his proximal tenants – so Partha can have anyone he likes. Scenting on them the biryani’s star anise and rosewater, Vikesh’s stomach rumbles. He didn’t like Partha’s tone just now, so he draws him into discussing the one-day-international tournament.

“I like Australia’s chances,” says Vikesh. “This team’s stronger than it looks, under Clarke.”

“I doubt they’ll make it to the semis,” says Partha.

Annoyed to be contradicted by this cheap-ride punk, Vikesh scoffs. “Seriously? Whoever makes it through will be playing England for God’s sake. In the last qualifier England almost got beat by the minnows.”

“In the qualifiers only the minnows make a serious effort,” says Partha. “You can’t judge a serious team by their qualifier performance. No, England will beat Australia, and it’s 50-50 they’ll beat us too.”

Vikesh scowls and draws breath, then remembers tomorrow and shrugs. “We’ll see. No point speculating… What did you think of South Africa yesterday?”

It’s Partha’s motor-scooter they’ll use tomorrow. Vikesh can’t use his own motorbike: Simran’s parents would trace that easily – whereas it’ll be a while before anyone notices Partha’s absence. For Partha isn’t in Vikesh’s primary social circle: look at his no-brand shirt, his girlfriend with the haandi-round face and belan-flat chest. Nobody will suspect Vikesh chose Partha for his getaway ride – just as nobody would deny Simran’s prettier than Ishita, better worth a man risking all he has.

Vikesh mustn’t alienate Partha, but neither can he end the conversation on a losing note. He crosses his arm and leans back on air, discussing the ODIs, tossing at Ishita hints about tomorrow’s mission. That’ll teach Partha to toy with him. Partha side-eyes his girlfriend, clears his throat, and stammers terse replies to Vikesh. Enjoying Partha’s perplexity, Vikesh keeps nodding at Ishita, including her in this conversation which he knows, which he hopes, is gibberish to her.

Does Ishita suspect about tomorrow? It’s possible. Ishita’s told Simran, and Simran’s told Vikesh, that Partha’s always slightly drunk when he fucks Ishita, for Partha thinks sex is wrong. And Partha blabs when he’s drunk. If Partha has blabbed to Ishita about tomorrow’s mission, then the whole thing is off. Please God don’t let her know, prays Vikesh as he continues dropping hints. Ishita yawns at the moon, oblivious to both cricket and the two boys’ plans.

His nose crinkling, Vikesh remembers that Ishita’s one of those inert women who let their men speak and feel and listen for them. Simran at least is beautiful: she has an excuse for inertia. Simran at least turned out not to be inert at all, and Vikesh has accepted that fact, is preparing to rejoice in that fact. Partha grows more tense and Ishita grows wet-eyed with yawning. Vikesh stops toying and lets Partha go – with a magisterial nod, confirming they’re still on.

Riding away, Vikesh wonders what Partha makes of tomorrow’s plan. Partha knows he’s driving Vikesh to Simran’s hostel. Partha knows Simran’s engaged to marry another man. Does Partha know Simran refused to tell her parents about Vikesh? But even the best women are changeable, Partha knows – for Partha himself spent a year wooing Ishita.

Partha hasn’t dared ask Vikesh what their mission is. Partha owes Vikesh. This spring Partha’s brother became infatuated with the girlfriend of a student thug. The thug threatened to bash in the brother’s head. Vikesh got his own cousin, the student body president, to intervene; they paid for the abortion, arbitrated peace, and hushed everything up. If Partha’s mother found out, she’d be here on the next train, herding both boys home to the village – not because they got a girl in trouble, but because they risked their own heads. Now Partha would rather run the gauntlet of the police and Simran’s parents than face his own mother.

So Vikesh can count on Partha doing the right thing. Tomorrow, when Vikesh runs from the hostel gate back across the road to Partha’s motor-scooter – Partha might be shocked, but he won’t be petrified. Politics runs in Vikesh’s family: his uncles and cousins have graduated from student body politics to the state assembly. Vikesh knows that when the people are shocked, they’re likely to obey the first strong man who raises his voice. And tomorrow the people will be Partha, and the strong man will be Vikesh, telling Partha to go, go, go.

What if Partha won’t go? Ungrateful bastard, disputing Vikesh’s views on cricket! Before he met Simran, Vikesh played division cricket for Uttar Pradesh. Partha can’t even finger-spin. Anticipating betrayal, Vikesh shifts gears. His bike’s whine rises into a roar. Serves him right for helping a nobody fucking around with a somebody’s woman.

If Partha won’t go, Vikesh will go on his own bike, abandon it midway, and jump onto a train’s third-class carriage, where nobody’ll think to look for him. Simran always enjoyed slumming it with him, drinking in the stares of malnourished idlers drinking in her bare cream-coloured flesh. If Partha won’t go, he’ll go alone. The rest is up to God, who might or might not exist – he’ll find out soon.

###

It’s 1121 on Vikesh’s Titan Black Dial, the readout dim behind the streetlamp’s yellow glare. Chattering with Partha, Vikesh forgot the time – he’ll be late, and he’s never late. He speeds across the city, taking turns without slowing down, picturing himself as he’d look to someone peering through the curtains of a third-storey window: his wheels at an acute angle, the asphalt grazing his calves. Of course he isn’t really going that fast – impossible on these streets – but playacting never hurt.

They call Naini Bridge the rocking bridge – but really it just trembles under the weight of the eighteen-wheeler trucks that’ll be allowed into the city after 11pm. On the Ganga’s slothful surface this windless night, the yellow moon fractures into big clean shards. One night he brought Simran here, she leaned over, and the pendant he’d given her broke its slender silver-link chain and dropped 300 meters waterwards. He watched the panic in her eye, her hand snatching at air. He saw himself jumping after the trinket, plunging into the river which, below its slothful surface, hurtles seawards, a million gallons a second. It would’ve been worth it to calm her panic.

When he was six months old his mother had left him on the table with the cassette player. Playing with the cassette covers he’d dropped one, and pursued it down, racing gravity, earning a head-bump. His family loves recounting this story, laughing at him. But love has made him a child again, eager to dive after the impossible.

‘Forget it,’ he said, taking Simran’s wrist, steering himself away from the edge. ‘I’ll buy you another – or a different design, if you prefer it.’

‘That was my favourite piece of jewellery ever,’ Simran insisted. Moved, he’d pecked her lips. Pecking was all the PDA she allowed, even on a deserted bridge at dawn.

The lost pendant was a leopard: Simran’s favourite animal, he’d discovered. A month before her birthday, this discovery had cost him a mazelike conversation with Ishita, his question buried in the maze’s heart – lest Ishita guess his intention, blab to Simran, and spoil his surprise.

Outside Higgins, Roshan’s waiting, pacing by his hot pink TV Pep Plus. A female cousin who graduated last year gave it to him, and he doesn’t seem embarrassed to use it. But Roshan was raised by women: can’t hold him to normal standards. Stamping out his cigarette Roshan crosses the street to Vikesh, who’s leaning on his bike. Roshan smells of green apple and menthol, the most popular flavour of hookah. Hookahs, outdoor dining, and orange chicken are the three sirens beckoning to Higgins people across Allahabad over the Ganga.

“Enjoying yourself?” says Vikesh.

Roshan replies with a shrug studiedly casual. The bad boy look is a motorcycle jacket Roshan’s still growing into.

Vikesh remembers Roshan from their first year on campus: a Sociology student, thin and stooping, his face pimple-strewn, in thick eyeglasses and ill-fitting plaid button-downs picked out by his mother. But no wimp. A student thug sauntering near the teashop knocked down Roshan’s books for fun and felt a fist flying into his throat. Only Vikesh’s presence saved fifty-kilo Roshan from annihilation in broad daylight. All that first year Roshan pored over his books and resisted his hostelmates hustling him out for a night of fun, viz riding around mildly drunk, wildly whooping, courting the police. He told his hostelmates straightfaced that his widowed mother depended on him to study well and enter the Civil Services.

Now glancing left and right, like a trainee thug himself, Roshan hands Vikesh the package. Brown paper and tape. Slender and flat. Trust Roshan to have the packing skills of a gift-shop clerk. This ordinary-looking package will alter the course of many lives.

“Nobody knows,” Roshan assures Vikesh. “A friend’s friend had the key. I’ve covered my tracks.”

Vikesh claps Roshan’s back, lightly, but Roshan stumbles and his eyes fly open – as if Vikesh were already an outlaw, and contact with him contamination-by-proxy. Briefly Vikesh pictures punching the lights out of this small-town soft-brain shrinking from him. Vikesh totters on a cliff, ready to fall down either side. He falls into laughter: first gentle, then rising into hysteria. Roshan watches him wide-eyed, waiting for the laughter to explode into a punch.

Vikesh wipes his eyes and sighs breathless. “Aunty would be proud,” he says. They’re not related, but every civil young person addresses elders as relatives. “You wanted to grow up fast and make your mother proud. Now you have.”

Roshan grimaces. Where his hostelmates failed to bring him out of his shell, the big city’s charms succeeded. Roshan’s found new friends, and they’re very friendly indeed, for night after night Roshan loses money at poker, and doesn’t see how, and pays unfailingly if grudgingly. Since May it’s with Vikesh’s pocket-money that Roshan’s been paying his poker debts. ‘Pay me back later, or never,’ Vikesh told him, long before he had any idea he’d need him – for Vikesh pitied the small-town boy gone astray.

“You haven’t told me what it’s for,” says Roshan, gesturing at the package distantly, eyes averted.

Vikesh understands. Now that the package is out of Roshan’s hands it’s not Roshan’s business. Roshan’s got enough troubles of his own: gambling, failing classes, lying to his mother. Vikesh met Roshan’s mother when he invited Vikesh to his village last spring for Holi. Now a letter, telling her what’s become of her bright boy, her life’s hope, would give the widow a heart attack. Whatever Vikesh is planning – and Roshan doesn’t know, Roshan doesn’t know – is better than a letter home from Vikesh.

“I told you what it’s for,” says Vikesh. “Science experiments.”

“You’re a History student.”

“Not a good one!” His smile fades. His hysteria has taken the edge off his feelings. Gazing at the restaurant’s yellow-orange lamps, he becomes reflexive. “There’s nothing for me back here, nothing I can do with my own efforts I mean. I could get someone to get me a plush job, grow flabby and smug, but that’s not my style. If you’ve got nothing to lose, it’s easier taking a risk, eh?”

Roshan’s eyes widen at this uninvited confidence, then turn back towards the restaurant, where his new friends are preparing him for another night’s play, one last night’s chance to win all his money back. Slowly he repeats, “You haven’t told me what it’s for.”

“Yes, I haven’t told you what it’s for. You’re safe.” Anger gone, laughter gone, Vikesh feels a tranquil comradery. After all, Roshan and he are in the same boat. He holds out his hand – Roshan dares not refuse – and says thanks.

“Good luck,” says Roshan, sincere now that he’s out of it. He knows about Simran. Vikesh has told everyone about the love of his life, the woman he’s going to start a whole new life with.

The Royal Enfield glides back over the river. The fat lazy water rustles in Vikesh’s ears. The water dampens the wind, blunting its blade; but the water chills the wind into a hammer of cold. Going at 70kph, Vikesh’s unhelmeted face numbs. To awaken his muscles he grimaces at the moon in the river, shrugs mightily, and jogs his shoulders, all without slowing down.

Roshan’s a coward, but most people are. He’s done his bit. Mentally Vikesh promises Roshan, ‘Whatever happens, I won’t involve you.’ He pictures Roshan, miles away, with his friendly friends who’re treating him to the green apple-flavoured hookah to ease him into the night, for you’ve got to spend money to make money. Roshan inhales from the hookah too deeply, gets giddy like the innocent he is, and feels invulnerable. ‘I’ll say I procured it myself,’ says Vikesh. A good friend deserves loyalty unto death. This thought spasms in Vikesh’s heart, pumping out a flood of blood suddenly alive, throbbing alive, pushing into Vikesh’s consciousness the fact that all this while he’s been terribly lonely. Tears blind him. Midway over the bridge he slows down and wonders: should he jump in? That, too, would solve all his problems. Simran still has enormous qualms about running away.

He can’t jump in. When he was a kid, his father told him: ‘If you get beaten up at school, don’t come home till you’ve beaten the other boy up.’ What would his mother think, when they found his corpse and showed her her grown son beaten by a girl?

###

Back in the city proper, in old Katra he stops at the Kali temple. One of those waist-high steel-trunk-sized temples that guard every street corner, the exterior lumpy cement and stripes of gaudy paint, the idol within a black dwarf in a gilt crown, its body garlanded in layers of sunshine-smelling orange-and-yellow marigold. Kali’s room is locked for the night, but from the low ceiling, behind the grill gate that constitutes the temple’s front, the naked yellow incandescent bulb still flickers. Over the gods the lights must never go off.

Yes, Kali’s the right deity for a last-minute appeal. A super-goddess who defeated the rakshasa threatening humanity, then went on a killing spree and trampled her own husband. Vikesh dismounts and stands, arms by side, asking Kali for a sign for tomorrow. Yay or nay?

Kali bids him search the sky. Vikesh throws back his head. The smog blurs the yellow streetlamps and veils the moon. He sees nothing unusual. He faces the goddess – she tells him he already knows what he must do. Vikesh bows his head in thanks and resumes his last ride around the city, savouring every second.

Tomorrow at 0850 when Simran hurries out of her hostel gate, soft fingers adjusting satchel straps, feet stepping lightly as if nothing’s wrong – Partha’s Honda will be parked outside the sweetmeats shop, Partha idling the motor, looking across the road at Vikesh. By the hostel-gate, out of sight behind the wall protruding from the cowshed next door, Vikesh will be waiting. The brown-paper bag ready, the flat bottle inside opened, his arm raised.

Simran said they couldn’t be together. Vikesh has wept and pleaded and argued. Now he accepts her decision. But if he can’t move forward with her, then he must move radically backward without her. If he can’t have her, then she must lose something too.

She must lose her parents’ approval. Her parents think she’s a do-it-all: acquiring a western education while clinging to her Indian sanskaar, preserving her virginity for the man they’ve chosen for her.

She must lose the life that’s been planned for her. A life with that mama’s-boy, a flabby virgin who has bought Simran with his upper-caste birth-certificate, and with the plush job that is the reward of a lifetime’s mindless grind.

She must lose her beauty, which draws strangers’ eyes from across the street – but seldom draws their whistles, for her beauty’s babylike, her face an angel’s face, protecting her even from street harassment. A woman who flings away her virginity, then flings away unblinking the man to whom she flung it, deserves a face to match her heart, a face to tell the world how to treat her right. The prospect of their parting doesn’t seem to trouble her: too late, he’s realised she’s always considered this a fling, and that he’s fallen for a whore.

What will they do to him? It doesn’t matter, for he can see no life without Simran. He’s told everyone about the woman he loves, the woman he’s going to marry, and she’s made him lose face, so she must lose hers. Tomorrow at 0850 Vikesh will be waiting, bottle uncapped, to fling sulphuric acid into Simran’s face.


Amita Basu is a cognitive scientist by day. Her fiction has appeared in over forty magazines and anthologies including Fairlight Shorts, CommuterLit, Bandit Fiction, Bewildering Stories, and Gasher. She lives in Bangalore, and blogs at http://amitabasu.com/


“All’s Over, Then” Horror by Gershon Ben-Avraham

Joseph Interpreting the Dreams of Pharoah’s Chief Butler and Baker, print, formerly said to be after Jusepe de Ribera (called Lo Spagnoletto), Alexander Bannerman (MET, 25.62.2v)

“In three days Pharaoh will lift off your head and impale you upon a pole; and the birds will pick off your flesh.” — Gen. 40.19 (NJPS)

There was a time when many people believed dreams were messages from gods. Guilds of dream-masters, trained in decoding these “visions of the night,” arose in ancient Egypt. These Masters of Secrets soon stumbled upon a perplexing question: Did they read the future or create it? Of course, if they only read it, they weren’t responsible for what would happen. But what if their interpretation produced the future they foretold; was a prediction, an omen, not a predetermined fact? Were they accountable for what they prophesied then? What if Divinity sent a dream but acted based on the interpreter’s words? This difference is crucial in comprehending a tale recorded in early Hebrew writing. It is the story of a gruesome death—prophesied by the most famous dream-master in Hebrew literature, a man named Yosef.

            In Collected Tales of Old Mesopotamia, Gila Goldener, late Isaacson Professor of ancient Near Eastern literature, Grün College, University of Beersheba, includes a letter addressed to Yosef by one of his clients. Her source text is A1107K, from the University of Beersheba Library, Special Collections. Below is Goldener’s English translation of the original. Make of it what you will.

*

Master of Secrets,

            I cannot sleep. I cannot put what you told me out of my mind. Like termites that penetrate the roots and hollow the heart of a date palm, your words have entered me and eaten away my strength. I have become like water. There is no one to help me, to whom I can turn, no one who cares. If I could, I would erase the hours between now and yesterday. I would return to the time before we spoke, remain silent, and in doing so, change tomorrow. But I cannot. Times river neither stops nor returns for anyone.

            Yesterday morning I awoke troubled. During the night, I had a dream I could not understand. I have always disliked dreams. They are often frightening, populated with strange creatures and odd situations. They take place in mysterious, unusual places. They terrify me. When I was a child, my father told me that dreams have no meaning. They are merely physical phenomena, he said. They come from drinking too much wine, for instance, eating spoiled food, or sleeping by an open window through which a cold night wind is blowing. On the other hand, my mother said that dreams are messages from the gods. I hoped my father was right, but I believed my mother.

            When my cellmate awoke, I told him what I had dreamed, hoping that he might help me understand it, but he had had a similar one. We examined both of them and tried to decode them. Our efforts were fruitless. When you arrived to attend us, sensing that something was not right, you asked why we looked so downcast. We told you that we had had dreams and could not grasp their meanings. Interpretation belongs to God,” you said, then invited us to tell you what we had dreamed. I hesitated, unsure if I should trust you. You are a foreigner. I hear it in your speech; see it in your manner. My cellmate was not as cautious.

            He and I worked for the same man, who put us both in prison. Our employer found a fly in a cup of wine that my colleague, a wine steward, had poured him. That was sufficient to land him in jail, even though no one could say if the fly had been in the cup before he poured the wine or had fallen into it afterward. The timing of the flys arrival made no difference to our master. I am a baker. My offense was a matter of his biting a pebble in a loaf of bread I had baked. Such are the caprices of men with power.

            Vines, branches, blossoms, grapes, and a wine cup were the stuff of my companions dream. I listened carefully to your interpretation of it. What lovely things you said! There was nothing he needed to worry about, quite the opposite. You told him he would be freed in three days and restored to his position. When finished, you requested a simple kindness. You asked that he remember you and speak favorably of you to our master, hoping that you, a prisoner like us, might leave this place.

            After hearing such a reassuring interpretation, I decided to share my dream with you. There were baskets, not vines, overflowing with baked goods in mine. I was balancing three of them on my head. Birds were flying around them, picking at their contents. I often found birds arriving to claim their share after placing freshly baked things in the palaces kitchen windows to cool. There, however, I had my assistants chase them away. I was walking, in my dream, carrying the baskets, and had no assistants. I could not frighten the birds away. So they ate as they pleased.

            When I finished telling you my dream, you looked at me curiously. Without sympathy or compassion, without feeling, like one of my helpers reading back to me a marketing list I had given him, you said the words that haunt me now.

            I have to stop. The suns rising, and I hear the jailors key rattling the lock. Alls over, then.


Gershon Ben-Avraham writes short stories and poetry. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image), received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. His short story “The Plan” appeared in Issue 11 of The Dillydoun Review. Ben-Avraham holds an MA in Philosophy from Temple University.


“Bloodsucker” Dark Supernatural Fiction by Mehnaz Sahibzada

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

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

“What about you, Huma?”

“Maybe Lahore,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside people drink beer out of plastic cups.

I run into Reggie, a friend from Shakespeare class. 

A mustached guy wearing a red jacket stands beside him.

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

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

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

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

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

“Some artist,” I say.

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

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

Watching through the rearview mirror, I think of Kareem.

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

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

~

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

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

Time swells with growing resentments.

Anna and I seem to talk less and less.

~

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

The question startles me.  “Not enough.”

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

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

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

I nod.

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

~

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

My roommate enters the living room taking audible breaths.

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

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

“Like, a person?”

“A spirit.”

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

“I think it was a ghost.”

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

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

I shrug.

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

~

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

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

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

That night I don’t sleep well.

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

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

“Maybe he prefers brunettes?”

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

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

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

A moment later she gasps, opening her eyes.

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

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

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

“That’s a bad sign.”

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

“No.  It’s shadowed.”

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

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

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

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

Afterwards, I feel a palpable sense of relief.

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

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

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

~

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

That burping fiend, I think. 

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

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

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

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

“He’s here when you’re out.”

“So.  He doesn’t bother you.”

“I’m also missing some jewelry.”

“What?  And you think Eric stole it?”

“It’s possible.”

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

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

~

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

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

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

“Some might.”

“I like it when girls dress modestly.”

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

~

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

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

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

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

“Come in,” I shout.

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

“How were your classes?”

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

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

“Nice.” 

“Thought you’d appreciate the space.”

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe she was in a rush.

~

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

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

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

“Women shouldn’t live alone.”

I laugh.  “You sound like my dad.”

“Your dad must be a wise man.”

“Don’t you mean, a sexist?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sneeze.

It seems like the candle was lit recently.

Why would Anna lie to me?

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

Once again, Anna lied, but why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

It reads, Psychic and Paranormal Item, eBay

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the sheets are clean.

So, what just brushed against me?

I shudder, thinking of the ghost.

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

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

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

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

The words croak out my mouth in an unconvincing whisper.

I lean against a wall, feeling faint.

How will I get through this night alone?

Maybe I should smoke some weed.

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

My tense muscles relax.

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

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

I knock at his door, holding my breath.

A minute passes.  Then another.

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

But a sinking feeling takes root in my chest.

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

Seeing him, I feel a rush of relief.

“What’s up, angel face?”

“Sorry, did I wake you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess so.”

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

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

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

“So, I don’t sound crazy?”

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

“Who lived in our apartment before us?”

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

“Do you have any sage?”

“I might.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s interesting?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mind if we take a look in there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do we do that without sage?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow, I’d forgotten about it.

~

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

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

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

“Victor!”

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

I fall onto the ground, scraping my knee. 

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

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

“Jesus, Victor!  Are you ok?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong?” Victor says.

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

“Maybe this lurking spirit was the culprit.”

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

“Fine.  Been studying.”

“What else?”

“Nothing really.”

She seems disappointed.

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

I shrug.  “I used it as a blanket.”

I watch as Eric and Anna exchange glances.

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

“Why?” Anna says.

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

“Screw you,” Eric says.

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

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

“He’s not my boyfriend,” I say.

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

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

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

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

The color drains from Anna’s face.

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

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

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

I feel myself go faint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


“12 Items or Less” Dark Fiction by Kay Summers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Guess you heard about Albie, huh?”

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

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

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

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

“Sure thing, Fern. You take care.”

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

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

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

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

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

Whippet’s reedy voice came on immediately.

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

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

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

“Job came in. Little unusual.”

“Yeah, how’s that?”

“Well, Tod…”

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

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

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

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

Tod said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

     Witch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Witch.

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

rpserin.com

https://twitter.com/rpserin


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

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

“Not in this life.” I said.

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

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

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

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

Nothing to see.  Truer words have never been spoken.

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

“Watch your step.” He said.

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

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

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

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

“Careless and trouble free, is that it?”

“That’s the spirit.”

“Ever it be so humble…”

“Something like that.”

“So, what’s this place called?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Atmosphere.”

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

“They will do that for you.”

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

“Nope. You get used to it.”

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

“Pretty much.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No point at all, I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What else could it say?

Nada, hermano.

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


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