Quiet child, strain your ears and listen for the sound of her
Though I know you will not hear
For soon she will come on dark and silent wings to cloak the land in quiet shadow
When the sun grows weary and can no longer stay afloat, she will come
Then the wrens that sing in the willows will hush their songs and grow quiet and still
The frogs and the katydids, will summon her, singing her praises
And the evening breeze will whisper her name
The moon may rise in the heavens and struggle against her
But she will not be defeated nor relent
For some, she will bring the chance to dream, to reflect, and rest in peaceful slumber
While others dread her coming, cursed to once again wander through mazes of nightmare and regret
Quiet child, strain your ears and listen for the sound of her
Though I know, you will not hear
Rory Keene Hopkins is a writer and poet who resides in the backwoods of Kentucky. He is currently working on a collection of stories titled, “Tales From the Dark Cabin.”
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They were woven with tasteful white lace. You could tell they were new because the bands were still taut and springy. The crotch covered with brightly coloured butterflies, wings outspread, floating over a baby blue field.
I found the panties in the back pocket of James’s work khakis, crumpled up inside the laundry hamper. It was a Sunday. He was out day-drinking at some microbrewery.
So, this is your special project. The one that’s been keeping you at the office so late.
I was irate. I wanted to hammer his watches into bits. Pour all his fancy whisky down the toilet. Set his Audi on fire.
I’d given all my best years to James. Spending Christmas with his alcoholic mom and politically stunted brothers. Doing his laundry and nursing his hangovers. I’d been a loyal girlfriend, fiancée, wife. Soon to be mother.
It’s not like I’d never been tempted, either. Like I haven’t had my opportunities over the years, ones I’d passed by with the nonchalance of passing a street busker. At this point, who knows what opportunities I’d get? Now that I was six months pregnant there was hardly any choice. Like it not, I was tethered to James for life.
Still, I wanted him to suffer. After careful contemplation I threw the panties into my bedside drawer. Then I loaded up the washing machine with the rest of our dirty clothes. I pictured them spinning around and around as I lounged on top of the bedcovers, listening to Nina Simone.
It was dark when James stumbled back home, perfumed with IPAs and menthol cigarettes.
“In here,” I yelled from the bedroom. “How was your day?” “Hoppy. So much beer.”
I could hear him in the hallway, struggling to take off his boots. The telltale thrashing and swearing.
When he appeared in the doorway I was laying there on the bed – wrapped in my silk nightgown like a piece of candy – and as he took me in his eyes sparkled with desire.
“Still thirsty?” I said.
“Could do another.”
James unbuttoned his shirt with surprising dexterity. Next went his belt, then his underwear – completely oblivious to how unattractive he looked wearing nothing but socks.
He mounted the bed and slid his body towards me like a seal. Immediately he went for my breasts, then he began to migrate down to my belly, his beard prickling its way past my navel to deliver some half-hearted foreplay.
Eventually he found his way on top and initiated his awkward, drunken collisions – undoubtedly thinking of that girl from work. I did my best to feign engagement, even reciprocation, to which he seemed innately oblivious. The inebriated aloofness which I used to find so endearing now just came off like blatant solipsism. I felt like a corpse he was trying to bring back to life.
While James was out I went to the cemetery and stole flowers from the grave of a child. Afterwards, I headed to the market and bought chicken feet, mug wort, and cat’s claw. I had remnants of wormwood at home. There was just one more ingredient I needed for this to work.
The next moment I grabbed James’s back – pulling his body towards mine – and as I did I dug my fingernails deep into his white skin.
Hope you like it rough baby.
Numbed by lust and beer James barely reacted to the blood I drew, continuing his incessant crusade towards orgasm. Thankfully, it wasn’t long until he collapsed, and without missing a beat James rolled over on his side, surrendering to the sleep of the drunk.
After I was sure he’d passed out, I opened my bedside drawer and fished out the panties. Then I lowered the covers and wiped the crotch against the fresh scratches on his back, smearing the butterflies in James’s blood.
This should be enough, I thought as I rose out of bed. Careful not to disturb my sleeping husband.
The next day I read the local paper cover to cover. A young woman who plummeted down an empty elevator shaft in the middle of the night. Another one who drowned in the river. A building that went up in flames. Freak accidents – meaningless and unforeseeable. The Devil worked in mysterious ways.
James came home at six o’clock that day, quiet and dismal.
“Hey there. Thought you said you were working late tonight.”
“Change of plans,” he said, avoiding eye contact.
“I made your favourite. Lamb stew.”
We ate in silence, James looking downcast, eating practically nothing. I devoured the meal and got up to rinse my bowl before he’d even taken his second bite.
“Honey, could you take the clean laundry out when you’re done eating? I complete forgot about it last night.”
He glanced up at me then, and as he did, I thought I saw a tear shimmer in the corner of his eye.
“Alright,” he said, coughing to clear the lump in his throat. “You got it.”
George Oleksandrovych was born in Kiev, Ukraine, but has lived in Vancouver, Canada for most of his life. He has previously been published in East of the Web, Rejection Letters, Idle Ink, Fairlight Books, and others. He does his best writing after everyone else has gone to sleep. Check out his work at georgenev.blogspot.com.
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though you know most of your own craziness
inside and out
only now and then do you get to see the fears, worries, demons
and how, sometimes, sadness overwhelms them,
madness hits its head against the wall
produces a big knot on the forehead
the animate meeting the inanimate head on
you understand the tunnels in which our emotions thrive
and how a mind runs its hands over a wall
while carefully stepping
no abyss to step into
palms of the hands like suction cups in the dark
you rub sensitive palms
over whatever is rough or smooth
I see you try to keep yourself upright
though I know you see nothing but the dark
you’re ready for a crack of light
I see you
hope you make it through your mind
hope you can squeeze out
into a more beautiful
world and cry
Another Incident in the History of the World
in the street
and the black jeep roars off
drives over her
the now nameless officer
just a second
life axed down
an army of police blanket the area
but the perps slip through the net
oily eels they are
evil slinks away
away from a helicopter's eyes
they escape for now
family, community do not
grief comes like a storm
doing her duty
a casket, a flag, an elegy
the job remains
good and evil remain
the sun is both light and fire
Affirmation and Negation All in One
it can't be done
the galaxy has spun
beyond that time and space
the faces are gone
the dawns have dropped like confetti
and though you want so much
nostalgic golden sun
movement of eyelashes
sugar dropping into black coffee
unlacing of crystals
drop of gossamer gown
violins plucking rhythm
a chorus of katydids
and you learning the German word Zeit
no, not to be
the echoes, the silhouettes
mist, fog, steam
Dan Cuddy is currently an editor of the Loch Raven Review. 2003,. Most recently he has had poems published in the End of 83, Broadkill Review, , the Pangolin Review, Madness Muse Press, Horror Sleaze Trash, the Rats’s Ass Review, Roanoke Review, the Amethyst Review, Synchronized Chaos and, Gargoyle.
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I was sixteen years old. The show was all ages though that was questionable. I was going with two friends, Joannie and Finnigan. Finnigan insisted on being called Flix for whatever reason, but I could never bring myself to call him that, so it was Finnigan to his mother and me. The three of us were looking forward to this and it took careful negotiations with all of our parents, especially Joannie’s who so desperately wanted to be the model permissive liberal parents. They had their limits with trusting others around their daughter. That’s why we all left home looking like your average skaters. Before getting on the bus downtown, the makeup and accessories came out. Finnigan hogged the eyeliner while I applied a burgundy lip. Joannie went for a dark shade of purple. Then came the abundance of rings, silver claw earrings for me, a spiked choker for Joannie and chains all around. My favorite part, the memory that runs clearest through my mind, was when Finnegan took his denim shirt off revealing his tight strikethrough cross Bad Religion t-shirt that looked like it had been treated with a sandblaster. Joannie kissed him below his left eye leaving a perfect bruise of her full lips which he never even attempted to wipe off. That moment always happens in slow motion in my mind. They were fucking beautiful.
You can always spot the kids at these shows. They manage to appear the most disinterested while being the most obsessed about being right up to the stage. The venue was not what I expected even though I had read a handful of descriptions and been told what to expect by the older punks at school. As soon as you step into The Plateau, the smell of beer, stale cigarette smoke, sweat and mold along with a low persistent hum of amplifiers overpowers any other information delivered to the senses. The place is all sounds and smells. Somehow it manages to mix the wet, organic flavours of October decomposition with a warm and unsanitary humanity. One part closed-in neglect, two parts ionized air. It’s oppressively sensual.
When you get passed the narrow hallway and the mandatory coat check operated by an older punk with grey roots to his slicked-back green and pink mohawk, the room opens into an uncanny configuration for a music venue. The shallow stage lines the entire left-hand side of the room. The floor is all open space in front of the stage and the floorboards curl up and bounce from years of moshing and spilled beverages. I’ve been here on nights where the cigarette ash, sweat and beer were so abundant it created a tacky paste, coating the floor. I imagined little silver fish travelling the cracks in the wood, trapped in their own Pompei. The two extra floors above are all standing room balconies with their own bars and look as if the exterior wall of an apartment building was flipped inwards. Moshing is strictly forbidden on the balconies. There’s no telling how much they could take before turning the place into a newsworthy disaster with a death toll. You want to join in the chaos, you go to the ground floor.
We were there before the doors opened. We made a bee line for the stage immediately after proving that we were only carrying makeup and extra layers of clothes in our bags. My asthma inhaler got a strange look from the crusty punk doing bag checks, so I had to spend an extra minute proving it wasn’t some kind of one hitter she’d never seen before. Joannie and Finnegan were leaning their backs against the stage, and I was facing them. We were arguing over which books we wanted to read from the AP English summer reading list. I remember Finnigan wanting to read Crime and Punishment. I don’t know if he ever did. As genuine as Finnigan was, there was also a character he wished to present to the world. He had this innate guilt about being white and middle class and honestly, really comfortable with himself. Ditto for Joannie but she more sensibly looked to Beloved for instruction on how to check her privilege. I had no idea, but I knew I would survey the group and pick whatever hadn’t been touched by the others. I’m still like that. It’s not a purity thing, I just don’t want other people’s ideas in my head before I’ve had a chance to formulate my own.
Over the course of an hour, the place filled up, but we defended our territory fiercely. The crowd first gathered at the bar then shifted and grew outward from the stage. Anticipation for loud music started building through the audience and every time the music from the PA system ended, a moment of silence was observed to see if this was it. We were deep in self important conversation when Joannie and Finnegan abruptly stopped talking and stared directly above my head. I turned to see that right behind me was a guy, at least 6’5”, with a shaved head, chin beard, and a Black Flag shirt the size of a bed sheet. Probably as heavy as the three of us combined. He was staring intently at us, lost in thought but with this toothy smile, completely oblivious to the piano key pattern of grime between his teeth. It was unnerving.
“This your first show?” he said to all three of us but looking me in the eye.
“Yeah” Joannie responded with maybe a bit more edge than she needed to, but she must have also sensed what I had, that his question, while perfectly normal had a tone of warning.
“As soon as they step on stage, this whole place is gonna start spinning.”
“What do you mean spinning? Like people are going to mosh?” I asked.
“Yeah, this whole place is gonna start spinning. Won’t be standing still for long. We’ll take care of you. Everything stops if somebody goes down. Nobody stays down for long.”
Just as he finished that strangely kind bit of instruction, the lights went off and the first band came out. I can’t remember their name. No one does. There was a crush of bodies towards the stage. So much so that Joannie and Finnigan had to bend their torsos over the edge of it and I couldn’t raise my arms without shoving the people next to me.
The sound of those first distorted power chords galloped across the air and I felt this wave of warmth in their wake. I made the mistake of closing my eyes in an attempt to record the sensation. If I hadn’t maybe I would have seen the body of that first kid plow into my right side, immediately followed by a push back from the person now in front of me. I managed to stay on my feet and even in that initial unexpected chaos, a recent lesson on actions having equal and opposite reactions came to mind. I turned back around to the stage and saw I was now a good fifteen feet back from my friends and as I continued to drift across the room with the movement of the crowd, I understood what that guy meant when he said that the room would be spinning. He meant everyone in the room would drag me into an inescapable vortex I was not prepared for. The band was relentless. They didn’t pause between songs, just continuously hammering away on their instruments, creating the low-pressure system that fed the hurricane of bodies I couldn’t step out of. The only lights were the static foot lights on stage and three roaming spotlights that travelled the entire room. I could only see a portion of the faces of the people around me at any given time and even then, they moved so fast, I only registered a smear of features.
About halfway through the set the band finally paused and gave the crowd a chance to stop and cheer. Everyone around me was gasping for air which had now turned into a fog of sweat and exhaled alcoholic vapour. I looked around trying to take in what was happening around me. I spotted the sides of Joannie and Finnegan’s faces, still crushed against the stage, kissing, really making out in that desperate, life support kind of way. It was bound to happen sooner or later, I guess that was as good a time as any. I didn’t want to interrupt so I decided not to rejoin them, not that that was an option because as soon as I heard four fast hits on the hi-hat, the floor beneath me bounced and I was being pummeled again. I didn’t have enough mass to make any difference, I was at the mercy of the kinetics of the room.
The next time I tried looking at the stage, something in the crowd directly across from me caught my attention. Something was reflecting light and for a moment it shined directly into my eyes. When I caught what had flashed in the darkness, a girl’s silver claw shaped earrings, I made a mental note that maybe it was time to retire mine. I scanned the crowd as best I could to see her again and spotted the left side of her face just as the roaming spotlight hit her, ten feet from where she was a moment ago. I noticed the side of her hair was shaved in exactly the same place as mine and the shade of her lipstick was identical. Unbelievable I thought to myself. I spun in place twice, narrowly avoiding several elbows, only trying to face the stage. It was too much. It wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to see the band. I was there to see them, but I couldn’t escape the pit.
When I managed to turn back around, I saw the girl who looked like me. I don’t know how she managed it, but she was in the middle of the action standing perfectly still. And she was looking straight at me. When the spotlight hit her, I could see her smile. The resemblance was so shocking I inhaled fast and coughed. She was still there the next time the spotlight came around, perfectly still, only this time no longer smiling. The claw earing had been torn out of her left ear. Her left ear was gone, and blood was flowing down her neck, draining down the sloping angles of her chest.
I started to make my way to her. If for no other reason than she seemed to be in the eye of it all, a static location in all this movement. Maybe I could save her from further harm. I lost track until the spotlight hit her again. The skin on the right side of her face was no longer there. Ripples of wet, frowning muscle glinted in the spotlight, weeping more blood, dripping down, soaking through her shirt.
Every step I took led to the next tackle. Every step toward her led to two steps back. I was having difficulty breathing. I realized that in my fear and confusion at what I was witnessing, I was having an attack. My inhaler was in my bag, at Joannie’s feet. Still, I was trying to push my way to the girl being torn apart rather than to my inhaler.
Finally, I found a space where someone had pushed through with way more force than I could. Before it filled in, I moved across, closing the gap between us. My chest was tight, not only from difficulty breathing, I hadn’t taken a proper breath in minutes, but also from anticipation of what I would see next. The next time the spotlight came around to where I expected to see her, what I saw finally took what was left of my breath away. The big guy from before, the one who warned me about the whole place spinning, was holding her above the heads of cascading moshers. His bulbous, stubbled cheeks were wet with sweat and tears and smeared with blood from right temple to chin. His lips were shaking. Her left arm was torn off, tendrils of skin and muscle hung around a spike of broken bone. Bloody punctures ran through her exposed mid-section like cores removed to study the layers. A chunk of one thigh was gone along with that section of her ripped black jeans, the same ones I was wearing. I thought I could see through to her femur. Hands of moshers were reaching up, trying to grab more of her. Poking their fingers in the holes in her flesh, coming away with bloodied fingertips and bits of gore. Translucent hands, far too many of them. There weren’t that many people below her. All the while the big guy was crying and shouting down the disembodied hands. Doing his best to protect her. Why was I the only one seeing this? My vision darkened and with the sudden end of a song and the freezing of the crowd, I fell to the ground.
I passed out.
I was on the sidewalk outside breathing in warm, humid night air. The music was still coming through in explosive bursts whenever the door to the Plateau swung open, letting out a fresh group of kids needing a smoke. I was actually taking in air, though it required too much effort. Joannie was standing over me with my inhaler and Finnigan was right behind her, telling some punks to stand back and give me space to come to.
Joannie actually let out a squeak when I made clear eye contact with her and after hesitating for just a moment, took me in her arms. Combination relief and anger at having been made to feel so scared. Finnigan’s eyes were watering.
They got me on the bus and told me what happened. It wasn’t much of a story. Right after the last song of the opening band, the big guy picked me up from the floor, carried me over to my friends, signaled them to follow him and brought me outside. He gently placed me on the ground and walked down the street. He never said a word to Joannie or Finnigan. Luckily, Joannie realized what was happening and reached for my bag which she had thought to grab right before leaving, removing the inhaler, and doing the best she could to get some of it down my airways.
I was exhausted and nauseous. My head filled with images and questions. None of it made sense but I never doubted it. I still don’t. We decided not to tell our parents what actually happened. I never told Joannie and Finnigan what happened to me. They had their own memory of the evening with its enormous highs and lows and thinking that was the night their friend lost her mind did not need to be part of it. We were close at school, in that context it was easy, but once they started dating, they faded out of the scene within a year. Despite our best intentions, I don’t see them often.
Because I never left.
I bartend at the Plateau now. It was a disaster at first, but I had a drive to get better.
I never saw the girl again. The girl who looked exactly like me, being torn apart. I never saw the big guy either, the one who attempted to save her, who actually saved me. I’ve been to thousands of shows over the years, plowing my way through as many mosh pits. I’ve done every drug, seeing if that would help. It didn’t.
I’ve made some friends but alienated too many to count.
I’ve met a few others who have their own stories about the Plateau, but none match what I experienced. Maybe there’s something to that as well. I document what happened to them. I show them care and kindness. We tend to be those who need it.
Some would steer clear after what I saw, but I’ve never done things like other people.
I can’t recreate the exact circumstances no matter how hard I try and maybe that’s the only way to do it.
I still want to know though.
What did I see?
Patrick Malka (he/him) is a high school science teacher from Montreal, Quebec, where he lives with his partner and two kids. His fiction can be found in Five South’s The Weekly, Nocturne magazine, The Raven Review, Sky Island Journal and most recently at On The Run. He can be found online @PatrickMalka on Twitter and @malkapatrick on Instagram.
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When their teachers call our homes, reporting absences and erratic behavior, we tell them we know nothing.
We don’t tell them about the relief we felt, the collective exhale we sighed, when our daughters began to show an interest in that singing show. Any mother would prefer it to the sort of reality TV where scantily clad women compete for male attention, the only kind of reality TV that seemed to be on those days. In fact, we were so relieved that their interest was piqued by something so wholesome, so normal, that we even encouraged them to watch it, taking turns hosting view-parties, providing them snacks and beverages, letting them stay up late and sleep through their morning classes. When our daughters began to idolize Marcella, the soulful contestant who wore cardigans and long skirts, with messy, braided hair and eyes so light that, through the TV, it looked like she had only pupils, we thought it was nice that they had a modestly dressed, talented, and naturally beautiful woman to look up to.
When the police come knocking on our doors, their uniforms freshly pressed, smelling of both starch and mildew, we tell them we know nothing.
We don’t tell them that the song, Marcella’s song, was catchy. It was so catchy that we would find ourselves humming it as we did the dishes, as we bought the groceries. A touch of magic, my sweet divine, oh darling, I’ll make you mine. We don’t tell them that, as much as our daughters enjoyed the show, we enjoyed it too, stealing glances at the television above their heads, eagerly watching Marcella enchant the judges with her deep voice, night after night after night.
When our neighbors gossip in grocery lines, whispering what they’d heard second- and third-hand, and look at us, expectantly, to contribute, we tell them we know nothing.
We don’t tell them how our daughters’ idealization soon grew to obsession, and we smiled, remembering what it was like to be teenage girls and to feel a part of something. When they stopped straightening their hair and chose instead to wear it loose, with intricately woven braids peeking through their ringlets, the way Marcella wore hers, we thought it was lovely that they were wearing their hair natural, that they had stopped bleaching it to try to look like whichever celebrity was frequenting the covers of the tabloids those days. We even helped them braid the back of their heads, those tricky areas they couldn’t reach.
When the reporter from the local newspaper approaches us for an interview, begging for a quote to use in her piece, asking us questions about corpses with bite marks and empty eye sockets, we tell her we know nothing.
We don’t tell her that, when our daughters threw away their denim shorts and crop tops, we were the ones who bought them long, silk skirts, in the same shade of baby blue that Marcella wore each night. They started covering their shoulders with scarfs and cardigans, leaving only the skin on their faces exposed, and we thought it was wonderful that their role model was so modestly dressed.
When the detective from out of town meets us at the station, showing us photographs of what remained of the sixteen men from the next county over, demanding to know what we know, we tell him we know nothing.
We don’t tell him that, not long after the show ended, our daughters’ eyes started fading, first to a sandy brown, then to an ashen gray, then finally to a hue so light that the whites and the irises were muddled together, indistinguishable. And when they looked at us, with those pale eyes, and told us to take them away from the city, to drive them to the mountains, that they were going to meet Marcella, that she would be waiting for them, we packed them overnight bags and sandwiches. We thought it was good that they were seeing more of the world.
And when the victims’ families appear on the news, begging anyone who knows anything to come forward, to do right, to bring the monsters who did this to justice, we change the channel, back to re-runs of that old singing show, that old star, what was her name again? Marcy? Marsha? Marcella— that’s it. Whatever happened to her, anyway?
Watching her sing feels like recalling a dream we had, a long time ago. She reminds us of something so familiar, like a word we can’t place, or a nostalgic scent from a childhood memory that always seems just out of reach. We’d always dreamed of having daughters one day, and if we had, wouldn’t we want them to be just like her? Modestly dressed, talented, and so naturally beautiful.
Mali Schaeffer is a student of the UCLA Writers’ Program. She lives and writes in San Francisco, although she spends most of her time imagining other worlds entirely. Her work has been nominated for the James Kirkwood Literary Prize.
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The guidance counselor is a prisoner of conscience, his sentence—self-imposed and open-ended—began last Sunday, hours after Father S- admonished him during mass for trying to put the Body of Christ in the back pocket of his corduroys.
The counselor’s wife was at home in bed with a fever, and he wanted to give her the sacrament, so why not take a communion wafer home with him? The priest wasn’t having it, and in the days since their very public argument, the counselor has refused to leave his office at the regional high school.
Seated at his desk (a utilitarian rectangle comprised of particle board encased in a laminate surface designed to resemble the smooth grain of a deciduous tree), he is compiling a list of advice for his favorite students (item three: if your skin is breaking out, take a swim in saltwater; item six: never listen to anyone who says that crocheting and knitting are similar; item eleven: don’t try chewing wintergreen tobacco, not even once, because it’s delicious and you’ll be instantly addicted).
He is doodling, mainly pictures of housecats, most of which are wearing pince-nez; all are clutching garden shears.
He is thinking about the shelf in the home where he grew up, which held his late father’s three books—life-advice titles purportedly written by professional football coaches—and several dozen jars of his mother’s homemade blackberry jam, each with a red-and-white plaid skirt, three-eighths of an inch in width, affixed to its lid.
His recent actions notwithstanding, he does not consider himself rash or melodramatic.
He has not told anyone yet, but he’s going home soon. He has a plan. He will arrive after dusk and fetch a shovel from the tool shed.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Cineaste, Bookforum and other publications.
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Arthur Thorpe murdered his girlfriend Kitty Check by cutting out her heart and eating it raw. No one knows this, no one was ever supposed to know any of this, but Kitty knew it all instinctively when she found herself without a heartbeat one morning, alone in her bedroom, lying in her own blood. She had bled through the sheets, damaging the mattress beyond repair. She was confused at first, dizzy and lightheaded. She felt awful, tried to remember if she blacked out last night, if she had been drinking. It was only when she ran her fingertips across the deep wound in her chest that she was certain of what had happened. It felt like a tooth suddenly gone missing.
It occurred to Kitty that she ought to be dead, and that there was no real reason to stay alive, but here she was. She figured that he must have wavered, that he must not have had the guts to see it through. But Arthur was always hanging in and out of commitments like a pedestrian loitering around, kicking rocks, waiting for his ride to come pick him up. A carelessness that was present even in his absence. She saw it in the bloody fingerprints on the headboard and the splatter on the bedside table. She saw it in the red, crusted streaks on the doorknobs and on the newly painted walls. The sink, too. Red fingerprint smudges on a crystal whisky glass from the set he had gifted her for Christmas. He had a drink before leaving and couldn’t even rinse the glass. Did he think he wouldn’t get caught? That no one would notice, that no one would hold him accountable?
In many ways, Arthur Thorpe felt very bad for what he had done, but he also felt that Kitty had it coming. She must have known somewhere deep down that this wasn’t going to work. Arthur had been wanting to break up for a long, long time. He kept trying to cut things off with her, but they somehow always ended up together again. They were drawn together like a knot being untied and tied again; the memory of the rope remained. But he had outgrown her. Or they had outgrown each other. Either way, their relationship felt like living in the past, and Arthur was a man who wanted the future. He believed that it was not an inherently selfish thing to want different things, to end a relationship. Even if it was selfish, he didn’t mind that very much. People, he thought, have the erroneous tendency of viewing selflessness as a virtue. The right amount of selfishness is almost always perfectly reasonable and, to be perfectly honest, often preferable.
And she needed him so much, all of the time. She needed him to come home, to call regularly, to do all of this willingly and gladly all of the time. But he couldn’t do it, he always failed to be what she needed. Her tears were always coming. It was as if he inspired some deep ocean pit of grief inside of her, had been the sole maker of every pain she felt, and was also consequently responsible for the repair of every following rupture. It was unfair. He needed to go, and he needed it to be absolute, because he needed to be himself. There was no way he could live up to the romantic ideal that Kitty had created and still retain his own identity. The image of what he ought to be, in her eyes, drained him.
He knew she wouldn’t see things from his perspective. He could see it now, that face of hers hovering before him. Her scowl, that disdain, her sighs and pleading to make him see reason. Rolling eyes, scoffs. It always made it harder for him to speak, to express how he felt, because no matter what, no matter the situation, it was Arthur who had done something wrong. There was only one way with Kitty, and it was her way. She had a very firm and unwavering way of thinking about the world, about people, and Arthur could barely breathe with her. The bottom line, Arthur felt, was that the relationship had long been a burden to them both, and maybe they would be better off alone or with other people. The only way he ever saw it ending was by making sure it really ended. He didn’t mean to hurt her; it was never his intention. No, death severs all emotion. It was an attempt at humanity.
That was the story Arthur hummed to himself as he tried to floss out the bits of heart-flesh stuck between his molars. He knew it would be hard to eat a heart, but this was downright absurd. He wished he hadn’t tried to chew it so much. It might have been easier to just swallow some of the bits whole. Faster, too. Maybe he could have used a steak knife. Or a blender? Any other man would have cooked it on the stovetop. Maybe with a bit of rosemary, garlic, salt and a sinful chunk of butter. Butter sizzling away on a cast iron skillet.
He tried pulling the engagement ring off her finger before he left. It wasn’t because it had been expensive, though it had indeed been the entirety of his first big paycheck. He didn’t need the money anymore. Now it only came down to the principle of the thing. It was over between them; no use dwelling on symbols of the past. He hadn’t expected the finger to pop off with the ring, but it did, so he pocketed her finger with the engagement ring still on it and decided to sort the rest of it out later. He would come back for her body, or his assistant would, or someone else entirely would figure it out. Arthur was now grateful for Kitty’s scattering of distant relationships. No one would suspect her missing for days, maybe even weeks. The air was cold and crisp that morning. It felt good to breathe in. It smelled like a fresh start.
Kitty stayed in bed for hours. The hours extended into days and the days uncoiled into weeks. Time was a ridiculous thing. Grief was concrete and stable. She rotted away in her bed, stinking and crying. She tried anger, reasoning, denial. She tried sitcoms, she tried working out. She tried staples to keep her toenails in place, tried soaking her body in ice baths to preserve it. She knew nothing about dying, had not prepared, and now she was alone and in decay and could not cope. She watched his social media like a vulture.
One morning, as Kitty was soaking in an ice bath, she noticed that she was missing her ring finger. Arthur. She imagined him pulling at her finger, then twisting, then using his teeth to bite it off. And he must have disposed of it in some careless way, her finger now tumbling around in a coat pocket along with loose change and old receipts. She could see it happening, the image looping in her head again and again. She could also see him, sometime next year, uncovering his old winter jacket and pulling out her shrunken finger. He wouldn’t know what it was, he would have forgotten all. He’d toss it. How silly she was for expecting this to end in any other way than Arthur cutting and running.
Kitty went to the wooden chest at the foot of their bed. Her body felt unstable. Every limb felt loose; she needed something to keep her together. At the bottom of the chest she had found a dusted, old jewelry box. It was mostly filled with worthless charms and costume jewelry, and then the necklace. She unclipped the back and draped it on herself, the crimson beads warm against her skin, little glass buds of spring. It started as a choker, tight and strangling, strands of red looped into one another and draped down her chest in chains of intricate designs, the beads chiming with movement, the longest strands touching the top of her breasts. There was something remarkably comforting about this necklace, she felt that it contained her emotion and gave her dignity.
She went to the mirror to see herself, which she had avoided this whole time. She was still ugly, still dead, still cold. Her hair hung in wormy strands. Her fingernails were discolored blue and green. She looked like a body that had been fished out of a river. She thought about calling her mother, who wouldn’t pick up. She could get a cab and go somewhere rural, lie down by a river and die there, or she could go and fuck a necrophiliac and try and make herself feel better that way. She also wanted to call Arthur and beg him to take her back and to please bring the heart, please can we work this out, any adult relationship is characterized by partners’ ability to repair conflict, has this all been for nothing?
And then she went to their closet, where his clothes still hung. His cologne, his leather shoes, his suitcase. That ugly sweater he insisted on wearing. She dressed herself and left the apartment. She was glad it was November so she could reasonably wear mittens to disguise her missing finger. That open, dark wound.
There he was.
And there again.
She saw him everywhere she went. Posing for a new cologne campaign, some high-end brand only found in department stores. He made the scent look like it’d be musky and sophisticated, like the smell of rainy weather when you stood in the doorway. It smelled like ash, ash, ash from the fire that burned inside. And there he was again, the star in a new action flick, or drama, or maybe trying his hand at comedy. How distant he felt from her, like a caricature of himself. And how sad it was that this was not a new feeling.
No one asks about her, just as he knew they wouldn’t. Wait, no, his hair stylist does. What was his name again?
“Kitty’s doing alright, then?” The man asks, hardly listening and hardly there, oily fingers digging into Thorpe’s scalp.
“Yeah.” And that’s the end of it. And he says something else to Thorpe, who starts to reply but there’s this thump thump thump thumping that keeps pounding in his ears. And then the hands push him that way, and then the other, and he tries to go along as best he can. But that thump thump thump thumping keeps getting louder, keeps drowning out everything else. And again, his tongue catches onto a piece of heart-flesh, a piece still stuck between two molars. He holds his tongue there, feeling the resistance of that heart piece. And he swears that it’s got a pulse; it’s faint, but it’s certainly there. That little piece of meat in his teeth, he digs around with a finger after it, he tries to spot it in the mirror. He can’t get rid of it, that little piece of meat stuck somewhere inside him.
Arthur has work to do, people to meet, places to go. He has every manner of business imaginable and he cannot concentrate on a thing. He can feel the specter of his ex pulsing between his teeth, in the very flesh of his gums, sometimes even as white-hot pain at the center of a molar. His agent asks him a question, to which he replies something, no clue what. Probably nonsense. His assistant schedules an appointment with the dentist tomorrow morning, no appointments available sooner. He thinks about going to the ER. He gets desperate. There is a manuscript on the table in front of him, but he can’t make out the words.
Kitty held her fingertips to the warmth of the necklace as she followed the beating of her own heart towards Arthur. She could walk without tiring now, but not without little pieces of her breaking and flaking off her body with every step. She would retrieve the heart. She would demand answers. There would be a grand confrontation and he would cower before her. He misses her, he needs her, he must be living in regret. Or maybe he doesn’t care, or she never really knew him, or he is a psycho, or he is the cruelest living thing in all things past, present and future. Thinking in terms of extremity was satisfying to Kitty; it gave her something to walk towards.
The necklace seemed to guide her, too, now her only reliable companion. Heartbreak necklace had long been with her, had started only as a single string and a handful of beads. Kitty remembered each one, could feel their memories hot beneath her touch. Each little glass seed held painful memories, anger and contempt that Kitty couldn’t quite work through. Whenever she and Arthur argued, she added a bead to the chain. The chain turned into a collar and the collar turned into a necklace and the necklace turned into something that was nothing less than a wearable chandelier. Every step she took sounded the voices of hurt, arguments past, tears and injury.
And then the heartbeat changes directions. It is a sudden change and Kitty feels something drop within her. She halts in her path and listens for it. She stands there for seconds, minutes, hours. Rain pours and dries again, passersby ask if she is alright, and then they hurry along once they catch a whiff of her. She is concentrating on Arthur and his journey, her heart with him still.
She smells ocean waves, hears their crashing and the spray against the rocks. This is where her heart is, then. He is at the beach house, the little cottage they bought together. She stands still a while longer, remembering. She remembers what it was like to be human, to be alive, to feel the sea of love and be lost in it. She remembers their first night there, no sex, he just lifted up her shirt and kissed her on her waist, and they fell asleep next to one another, not touching because it was too hot. She remembers sitting beachside the next day with a paperback, its broken spine and thin pages, not reading but being only very, completely, supremely happy. Arthur had gone inside because it was too hot and he could never handle it for very long. Time was fast and sweet, a perfectly paced film. Seagull shrieks sounded like bells.
She thinks about Arthur a while longer. She thinks about the way he looked at her. His weird, long limbs around her. The reflection of them both in the window of a shop as they walk by. Her thin soul could be passing through heaven and still, she would rather be on earth, dead earth, wherever he is, as he thinks of all the things that are not Kitty. The necklace burned hot against her skin. She turned to walk in the new direction of her beating, crazed, broken heart.
Arthur stood at the edge of the cabin, right where the patio met the white sand, which now was gray and charmless without the light of day. The breeze was cold, the waves relentless. The constant push and pull, fatiguing to even look at, the churning of the ocean’s body like intestines in the full swing of digestion. His assistant left an hour ago, maybe two. He had gone outside to watch the sun dissolve into dark, the splitting of the day, when the sky’s ablaze. He was only miserable. He could not truly appreciate it. His mind was preoccupied, his body tight and anxious. There was an ache in his lower back from standing. His neck was stiff. He had not been sleeping well lately. His assistant scheduled an appointment with a masseuse for the following day. She would be back in the morning to fetch him.
The dark, twinkling sky began its glow and the moon made her arrival, a half-moon, both luminous and hidden. He felt very sorry for himself and he felt very small. The heart had been beating madly all the while but he had grown used to it, and although he knew he would not sleep that night it was almost tolerable. As he stood looking to the sea and, for a moment, the beating even began to dampen into background noise until it was gone entirely. This place held good memories. The waves slapped against the worn sand. Everything would be alright, everything would work out in the end. He tried to think of Kitty but he found that he already could not remember her face so clearly anymore. It was indistinct to him now, and at least half missing.
He turned to go inside, but there was something that caught his eye as he turned to go. Between the peaks of the waves, far off in the distance: a body, upright, as if standing. He could see it from the hips and up. It was pale and glowing. He looked closer, getting a better impression with every wave that revealed its figure. Was it a buoy, or a pelican? Was it a small fishing boat, or had he finally gone really, truly insane? But there was a strange something about this figure in the distance, it seemed to be anchored into its position, far off in the distance, unaffected by the movement of the sea. And it seemed to be looking directly at him, studying him as he was studying it.
It seemed now to be coming towards him. As it came closer, he could make out the body: nude, slick, wet. He began to make out the swell of a belly, of hips, of breasts that were firm and high and with dark nipples. Her wet hair was plastered down her back, her eyes were fixed on him. The closer she came, the more certain he was that she was coming directly for him. Something sparkled inside of him, a feeling he had not felt in many years. He was not afraid. It was something new and good. The woman came closer and closer, the waves revealing more with every swell and fall. He was aroused, almost painfully so, and as she neared the shore he saw also her tail and its glittering scales that reflected moony light.
She swam up to the sands like an ocean snake, holding his eyes in hers. He was totally transfixed by this creature, as if under a spell, completely lost in the possibilities of the night. When she met the sand, she began to crawl across it with her long body towards him. She struggled on the sand, graceless and desperate, and as her tail slapped against the sand with every movement towards him he felt a bud of regret and fear motivating him to turn and run the other way. But there was something so magnetic about this body of hers, naked and coming towards him with complete wanting. He could hear her belabored breathing as she came closer, and he saw the steam that came from her warm body in the cold of night. She was close, until she was almost directly in front of him. She stopped and looked up, her body flat against the sand, but she craned her neck up high and propped herself up on her hands and gave her face to him. It was round and pale and glowing, perfectly shaped and immediately in front of him. Her lips were shaped like rosebuds, her eyes were narrow and intense and searching for something in him. He wanted to give her what she was looking for. As if knowing his thoughts, she opened her mouth.
Kitty was falling apart. Soon there would be nothing left of her. She was close now. Soon she would be reunited with herself, soon it would be over. She was close now. There it was, the cabin in the distance, a glowing little thing like a postcard picture. The winds were wild that evening, the waves even wilder. The world was so loud that night, so full of chaos and disgust, that she could not hear the wailing from the beach.
Arthur was nearly rendered senseless, blinded and the air pounded out of his chest. The shrieking that came from that creature’s mouth struck him down, the waves of it upon him like a natural disaster. When the shrieking stopped, he found himself flat on his ass on his patio, arms wrapped around himself in a pathetic attempt at self-soothing. The creature was still there, watching him expectantly. She was no longer beautiful. Even in the dark, he could see its cataract eyes, saw that its mouth was only a slit, a rotten wound, plastered across its animal face. It began to crawl closer to him, a frantic and wormy movement, a low groan, a gargling, coming from its mouth. Its tail also seemed to be decaying in real time, the scales popping off and leaving little open pockets of flesh.
The closer it came, the less of it remained. Its skin seemed to ripple and detach itself from the body. It seemed unaware, or perhaps indifferent, to its own end. It kept going towards him, even when its fingers had fallen off and lay in the sand, even when the tail was left behind like a gecko, and it was only left pulling a lump of an upper body towards him. It kept coming until it could not. But Arthur found he could not stop himself from looking. There was something there, something he had not seen before. He saw it in her face, in her eyes especially; there was something about this creature that bore a remarkable resemblance to his ex-girlfriend, Kitty. It opened its mouth and spent its last breath howling at Arthur as he disappeared indoors.
It was exactly how she remembered it. It had the same smell, the same warmth, the same old lighting fixtures that they never got around to replacing. It had been a long time since they’d visited together, even before the breakup. She didn’t linger for long; she could sense that the warmth and nostalgia was no good for the body. She knew where he was, exactly where he was, by the sound of his crying and the little drops of blood on the floor leading to the guest bathroom.
She found him hunched over the sink with pliers in hand. Blood was sloshed around the room and on every surface. He was groaning and she could see that his left eye had popped a vessel. This was not at all what she expected. She expected to find him on the couch with his busty assistant, smug and unsurprised that Kitty had come to confront him. She expected him to laugh at her, to ask why on earth she thought to come. She didn’t expect this, to see Arthur tearing himself apart, to find him with pliers dug into his mouth and his molars pulled out and clinking on the porcelain counter. She felt sad for him. She then felt embarrassed on his behalf when he finally noticed that she was there. Upon seeing her, he stepped back, screamed, tripped over the bathroom rug and fell and bashed his head into the side of the claw-footed tub. He lay unconscious, blood from his mouth dribbling out into the floor and pooling there.
Kitty stepped over his body and kneeled down beside him. She opened his mouth and reached inside. There, the last piece of her heart. She pulled it out and saw it in her hand. It was the last living piece of her, and as she held it in her hand it finally shriveled and died. It turned into dust and that was it. That was all. The chase was over. Kitty looked at Arthur one last time, and turned his body to the side so that he would not choke on the blood. He would find himself in incredible pain tomorrow morning.
Just as she expected, she found her finger in the outside pocket of his jacket. She took her finger and left the ring. She left out the backdoor, past the patio, and went to the shoreline. She unclasped her heartbreak necklace and let it fall to the sand. She felt the water with her feet and found the cold water welcoming, knew instinctively there was some sort of rest there, and she was thankful for it, so she waded out until her head disappeared beneath the surface.
Amanda Minkkinen is a sociologist and writer who lives in Copenhagen. She has work published in Mycelia, Odd Magazine, among others. You can find her on Twitter as @aljminkkinen.
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Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger was the last of his kind, the sole survivor of an isolated culture inhabiting a wasteland of a planet.
He lived in the barren ruins of a dead civilization, scavenging what little food he could find.
Here, nothing else moved or breathed.
Everything left was covered in fungal growth and rot. Particle clouds filled the atmosphere. The jagged silhouettes of decommissioned ore harvesters towered high in the distance.
Two Blue flashes of an Index Finger dropped to his knees in front of a dugout crater. An interconnected root system writhed just below the surface. Spores drifted within a blue liquid inside.
Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger ripped a cluster free with long, boneless fingers. A skin flap, stretched cheek to cheek, retracted down exposing a small mouth filled with bone straws for teeth.
As he fed, a doll made from his brother’s corpse watched with mirrors placed within its eye sockets. The cracks in its skull whistled in the early morning breeze.
Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger gestured back with limp fingers twisting and flashing various colors.
A turquoise pinky twist paired with blinking red thumbs meant “good morning.”
This was an adaptation bred into his kind as way to communicate over deafening sound of countless ore harvesters screaming in unison back when they were at peak production.
Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger laughed at a joke his brother’s fingers never told, and when back to chewing on fungal roots, never noticing the drone overhead scanning then planet below.
Pretending was a coping mechanism.
Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger didn’t know how to be alone.
He was nineteen when the last of the ore harvesters shut down. Colonists across the planet started dying soon after without warnings or goodbyes.
Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger could only watch in horror and confusion as friends and neighbors dropped dead all around him without cause.
Thirty generations of clones generally altered to inhabit and mine this specific planet wiped out in hours.
Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger’s brother was one of the last to die.
Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger held his remains for days after, waiting and praying for a death of his very own, one that would never come.
The following years would be ones of silence and remorse.
Everyday Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger hoped it would be his last.
His kind wasn’t allowed to kill themselves.
The sphere appeared at dawn.
It started with a flash. A crackle of energy. An expanding singularity.
Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger woke in a daze. Limp. Naked. Spores dripped from the skin flap covering his mouth. His brother’s corpse was close, its eye mirrors reflecting the dull glow of a spacecraft.
A silent signal was emitted.
Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger approached against his will, mindlessly reaching out. A single finger grazed the surface.
A blink and he was inside.
The sphere interior was bright. Smooth. There were consoles and lights inside, all set at a forty-five-degree angle.
But something was off. A tone knocked inside Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger’s head. It was hard to move; hard to think.
He dropped to his knees, scratching at his ears. It was more discomfort than pain. A soft pressure that throbbed in sync with forbidden vibrations.
The tone was steady and relentless. Like water torture.
Suddenly, a hologram of a woman appeared.
Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger froze. She was a color he’d never seen. Large flaps protruded from either side of her head. Two plum sacks surrounded her mouth slit.
Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger bowed nervously, his boneless fingers rapidly flashing and forming various shapes.
A purple thumb in the shape of a square meant “hello.”
Yellow middle fingers steepled together meant “what do you want?”
The woman cut him off with a gesture and spoke sounds he’d never heard but was engineered to understand.
She said he was a loose end she was there to correct. A witness. A genetic disease.
A beam shot from the wall.
Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger was paralyzed within. A tiny drone tipped with a needle emerged from the center console and floated towards him.
A blood sample was taken. The woman thanked two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger for his contribution. She promised him what was next would be quick.
A looped ring finger with orange thumbs meant he knew he was fucked.
The hologram clicked off. A lullaby of atonal bells softly played from somewhere unseen.
Now that the planet’s resources were depleted, his existence no longer served the company any benefit.
Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger pounded on the walls. Panicked. Defiant. There were no cracks. No escape.
The song filled the room, a cacophony echoing loudly from all directions slowly lulling him into submission.
Above his head a light flashed a countdown.
Two Flashes of an Index Finger’s eyes became heavy. The lullaby’s vibrations were all consuming. It calmed him. It convinced him this was where he belonged. It reminded him this was exactly wanted.
That gas filling the sphere made sure he wouldn’t feel a thing.
Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger took a final breath and slipped into a painless void. He’d never know about the mutation that allowed him to survive the purge. Or how his genetic sample would be used to prevent the possibility of a similar adaptations in future batches of cloned harvest workers.
The ignition went off without a hitch.
Outside the ship, his brother’s eye mirrors reflected a spacecraft on fire seconds before collapsing back into a singularity.
The company would make sure no one would ever know the atrocities and sacrifices they committed to keep their investors happy.
This was just one defunct resource planet among thousands.
Profits had never been higher.
Joe writes out of Charlotte, NC. His work has been published in around 60 markets including Fiction on the Web, Literally Stories, and Liquid Imagination, as well as being twice nominated for the pushcart prize. You can check out his blog at jablonskijoe.blogspot.com.
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Jeremiah came up over the hillside. Jeremiah came up the middle of the road because there were no cars this early. Jeremiah came through the new estate because he wanted to see the McAllan house.
The McAllan house had become essential to his routine. First, he stopped at the base of the hill and looked up beyond the first rise, the rise that led to the new estate, to the second and third rises beyond. That was where Jeremiah would do his logging that day, cutting down the pine and birch that had inspired local minor poets, so that the second new estate could be built. Then, when he got done looking and ascended to the crest and went along Blackmore Drive, across Swift Terrace and down Walpole Avenue, he came to the McAllan house on Defoe Street.
The sun was burning holes in his shirt, the shirt that itched like it was stitched from hair. The early morning was muggy, promising sweat to come, promising dehydration, promising passing out after a couple of beers that evening. He didn’t mind; the remnants of his thinning quiff stuck to his forehead, the tongue of his boot rubbed at his skin, the remnants of his teeth clenched as he pulled himself further on, muscles already aching, muscles already knotting. He put his aviators on, he rolled his flannel sleeves up to the elbow, he ran a damp hand through his greasy locks. His boots clumped on the pavement, sent little dust clouds and pine needles scattering. He would get there and hear the banging.
Dogs barked on Swift Terrace; ironically, the swifts screamed on Walpole Avenue, as they red-arrowed in formation around the right angles of the dumpy square houses with their front four windows and their back four windows, all-in-a-line. Jeremiah thought they should have added portholes for novelty. Novelty told you where you were. Right now, you couldn’t be sure.
Once the streets had been ricocheting footpaths, breaking off tangentially from the road and disappearing in the growth. Now the forest had shrunk back to the higher eminences and would keep going back, back, back, until the trees went backwards over the edge and toppled down to rest in the valley, never to be seen no more. McAllan’s was an old haunt, maybe: old forest spirits laying down new roots in the little boxes colonising their land. Banging about, letting you know- I’m still here, can’t be rid of me so easy; I won’t go walking in that lonesome valley.
Defoe Street had thirty-four squares, sub-divided in places so that there were forty-eight homes. They had back gardens, long back gardens, but a tiny patch of front. Land wasn’t wide enough for more, not for broad American roads, not on the hillside where the forest used to be. Had to sacrifice somewhere. All curtains were still closed, very few stirred except for a man in a leather jacket getting into a Ford at the top of the street and staring wearily at the dashboard, thinking and thinking before going. Maybe the banging kept him awake at night. Maybe the banging echoed down here.
The McAllan house was number fourteen. It was not sub-divided, fully detached not semi. The front garden was paved with pink slabs. A wooden gate, somehow mildewed already, sat in front. Jeremiah lent himself against it, his bent elbow resting on the top. No-one looked from the windows at him; no-one appeared in the doorway to shoo him off; no-one ever noticed his morning appointments.
He breathed as well as he could in the mugginess; he lit a ciggie. His empty stomach was set alight by the warmth. He liked to walk on no food, liked the way the weakness went through him, hit him in the solar plexus after awhile. Let him faint if he had to.
The banging came after a few minutes; inside, he could hear it, like a fist hitting against an old boiler coated in scrap iron, a thudding sound with no centre, with a gap in it. Then it was like feet against a plastered wall, making holes, crumbling the hard work. Then the palm of a hand flat against the window; the window rattled. Little Marie turned on the light in her bedroom. Her silhouette in her nightdress appeared against the curtain, then her head jerked down violently. Distant sounding of a scream. The phantom, as it sometimes did, had pushed her or slapped her, not hurt her, but made her feel the force all the same. The parents’ bedroom light came on. Peter McAllan, the joiner, appeared in shadow against the curtain, then went to carry crying Marie away. The banging went downstairs, started sounding like the drummer of Tedworth, whacking away ahead of battle, calling in the troops. Marie wept in her mother’s arms. The drummer-boy went through the living room, into the spartan kitchen, out into the back-garden and then away, no more noise, no more sound. Scotty McAllan hadn’t stirred, rarely stirred. Psychokinesis, one professor had said, direct from the resentful boy. The reporters who came occasionally harkened back to the Civil War battles, harkened back to a physical reality for the drummer, a distant relation, an old story about a bog and no-one about to rescue the child drowning. Just stories though, just stories the lot of it.
Jeremiah withdrew his arms from the gate, smiled to himself, clenched his teeth and carried on towards the second rise. No wood cuts itself, no wood is enchanted like that. The foreman would be scanning the horizon for him; the foreman could go to hell or down to the valley. One little push, all it takes-
– in the house, Marie kept crying and an hour later, the drummer came in from the garden and started banging on the boiler again.
Billy Stanton is a London-based working-class writer and film-maker, originally from Portsmouth. His short fiction has appeared in Wyldblood, The Chamber, Horla, The Rumen, Rural Fiction Magazine, Literally Stories, Tigershark and the ‘New Towns’ anthology. He co-runs the ‘Noli Me Tangere Short Film Festival’. His blog is: steelcathedrals.wordpress.com
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“I thought the forest murders were a cold case. Didn’t the lead detective commit suicide?”
“That was a long time ago. I can’t remember.”
“I wanted to have a look at the transcript, the last interview with the man who admitted to the killings. Do you suppose all the records have been put into storage?”
“They’re probably in the basement. They’ve been filed away for years. I don’t know for sure. I can’t remember. It really doesn’t matter. That man got away. They threw out the confession. There was psychiatric testimony. They said that man was delusional. Psychotic. I think the diagnosis was that he suffered from multiple personality disorder. I’m not an expert but that’s supposed to be a very rare condition. Anyway the dominant opinion held that the confession was coerced, phony, suspect, tainted. There was no trial. He was never convicted. I haven’t spoken to anyone about the forest murders for years.”
“You seem a little touchy about all this. I’m sorry because I’m new. I know I haven’t been in the department as long as you. It’s a famous case and I guess I’m just curious. Didn’t you play a big role in it, too?”
“It’s not your fault. I was engaged to one of the victims. She was the woman they found near the resort lodge. The one he clubbed to death with the chunk of marble from the fireplace. I had been on the case for six months. We couldn’t find any real leads. They gave me medical leave for a short period when my fiancé was murdered. I was so deeply in love. I wasn’t thinking very clearly after that. I used to stare at things all the time. I examined and studied the evidence countless times. The hammer. The shotguns. The hunting boots. The rabbit traps. The red jogging suit. The child’s plastic identity card with the metal clasp. I examined the car over and over again. I went back to the resort lodge hundreds of times. The apartment, too. Everything. At one point we thought there might be several killers. The logical examination of an illogical event can withstand only so much contradiction. Things were duplicated, events overlapped. How could so many different victims get killed in an identical way in the same place? The whole timeline of the murders began to get confused, but somehow all the evidence always pointed to the forest. Everything led to the forest.”
What’s the point of keeping this goddamn journal if I don’t have a smoke when I want one?! I need a smoke. I knew it wasn’t an ordinary case. I didn’t need a crystal ball to figure that out. Murder for profit or revenge or passion made sense. There’s simplicity and logic to it. Like an engine, like a fire. If a husband blows his wife’s brains out because he catches her with another guy, it isn’t pretty but it certainly isn’t surprising. But these forest murders just didn’t make sense. Why would a man plan a killing in a place that would be swarming with kids from a field trip? Why would a perfectly responsible woman let a stranger into her apartment, especially when she had to prepare for a hunting trip with her father? Why would a jogger run along a path that was frequently littered with broken glass? Why would a murderer use a hunting knife, a garrote, and a shotgun when any one could have sufficed? This case was a bad one, all right. People don’t like hearing about murders that don’tmake sense. Especially when it’s gory and illogical and the victims are all young women and the only clear thing is that there’s some deranged creature out there who’s going to do it again and again until he’s stopped. The more I looked at this case, the less I understood. The forest murders began after they transferred me from vice to homicide. I remember when I was in vice and you’d get some poor old junkie. For them old was around forty. Sometimes I’d find a poor bastard gazing at the sink or the wall or the floor with that weird transfixed look, like Bernadette’s frozen stare, as if the stains of their own shit and puke and blood on the filthy floor were some kind of beatific road map revealing the secrets of the universe or something. The thing that always spooked me was that little fart of choked laughter you’d hear when you put the cuffs on. You’d have to carefully walk them down the cracked wooden steps because bythis point the only thing holding them up was wishful thinking. I’d always look away when they’d turn around and gaze up at me with those empty eyes. Sometimes their voices were so raspy from years of junk that the words sounded like twigs snapping in a fire. I hated that. No, this certainly wasn’t an ordinary case. That’s the goods, all right. I started this journal to keep track of the questions, all the damn questions about the forest murders. The questions without answers; the questions that won’t go away. Did the murderer plan the whole thing so it would look like the killing in the book we found near the car? Did the killer disguise himself as a hunter so he could move through the forest undetected? Was he the father of one of the boys on the school trip? I’m not convinced that the Law can help anymore. What about those tape recordings of all those poor kids screaming? It was that husband and wife abduction case. They used pliers on the children and recorded the torture sessions. Bitch chewed gum during the trial, filed her nails like a proud animal licking bloodfrom its fur. I couldn’t let it pass. I’m not supposed to stick around after I deliver the groceries. Why am I wasting my time with this? What’s the use of writing this down when the words won’t mean the same thing tomorrow? I’ve got a case to solve. I have to get out there.
Why did you commit the murder in the woods?
I always wanted to kill her in the forest. It had to be there. The thought never left my mind. I wanted it to be violent. Nature’s violence. Plant life devoured by insects, insects eaten by rodents, rodents captured by birds, birds shot by humans. I wanted to become a link in this chain of natural bloodshed. Lush surroundings. Ghostly trees. Tall. Very gaunt; very gnarled. Maze of paths choked with leaves. Chips of bark snagged in her hair as I rolled her limp body through the grass. Sharp twig ends were sucked into her nostrils. Blood mixed with mud. Blood sprayed across my hunting boots. Did I tell you that I was an experienced hunter? I was quite a sportsman. Deer; rabbit; duck especially. There was plenty of legal game in that forest, depending on the season.
Please stick to the questions. You were talking about her blood…
Blood in a fine spray speckled the last page of the book I had with me. Smooth and cold pebbles covered with warm blood. Not too far from my resort lodge. Then I could drag her back without too much bother. Never mind about the kids playing. My son was with the group. I wasn’t expected for hours. I could find a way around that difficulty. Those field trips usually took up the entire school day. The forest is limitless.
Did you hear anything unusual when you killed her?
No. The kids from the school trip played wildly but I couldn’t hear the metal clasps that connected the plastic identity cards to the elastic bands they wore around their necks. The clasps shook fitfully, every time the ball was thrown, every time the blindfold was fastened, but I couldn’t see them, either. I did hear her gurgling throat. Desperate gasps for air. Her body shook like stones rattling in a metal box as she struggled to breathe.
When you were arrested, why did they find you thrusting your hands into the sky, as if you were trying to grab one of the birds flying above the resort lodge?
It was part of my overall sense of murderousness, the brute force I wanted to create and luxuriate in. I projected my arm with abruptness, the way I stabbed her, the way I shredded the soles of her feet with glass shards, the way I tightened the ligature made of rabbit trap nylon across her throat. I imagined the clatter of the shaking clasps, a clatter that was chaotic and unnerving.
What happened to the book you had with you?
I don’t remember. It was covered with blood, smeared with mud. Nothing could remove the stains. I lost my place so many times that day. I know when I looked away from the birds it was that same page, it was always that same page, the one with the candid language of a detective writing in his diary, making a daily account of the case he was on. There was a gruesome description of a woman receiving a merciless, fatal beating. The detective knew she was already unconscious. He, in fact, was the killer. The book kept you guessing at it for a long time. The detective was insane; he used his knowledge and power to make the evidence point in all directions. He killed women who loved him. He was very cruel. His last victim had very slender arms, like stalks, like branches. Pure white skin splashed with blood from his fierce, continuous blows. He beat her with the hot brutality of an animal: savage, persistent, thorough. A chunk of the mantelpiece rested across her skull. He clubbed her with the marble after breaking it with his hammer. Her father stood with several friends in the photograph taken by the pond. Her blood spiraled down the glossy black and white picture, as though it dripped from the tips of the shotgun barrels.
The medical report revealed that your victim had been dead approximately ten hours by the time of your arrest. Do you recall at what time she lost consciousness?
The birds distracted me. They were frightened. They were too close to the pond, they could sense the danger of the raised guns. I didn’t notice but I know she fainted at some point. Probably just after the mantelpiece shattered. A chip of marble lodged in her eye. The shock of the impact and the realization of what the detective planned to do must have been too much for her. The birds’ departure startled me, a rapid movement of flapping wings. Like thunder claps, like faucets turned on full blast. I could see this. Just as I propelled my arms to grab the metal clasps, to stop them from shaking. But I had already looked away from the sky. I lowered my eyes from the birds to the page of the book where the clatter of the clasps was described, the clatter that couldn’t be heard. I projected my arm with jerky energy, with a clenched bloody fist that descended upon her slender white arms already bloodied by my fierce blows. A knock at the door?! Was she expecting visitors? I must wash out the blood. I must leave quickly.
What about the jogger?
Somebody was out there running. He was testing his endurance, trying to cover the whole forest. The sound of his loud footfalls blended into the din produced by the jangling clasps. He saw dark blurry forms, like shafts, like trees. As he ran, these forms passed in rapid succession, lined in rows on his left and right. They must have been trees. Hundreds of noisy sparrows perched among the branches. Their chirping drowned out the remote dissonance of the hunters’ duck calls in the distance. The combination of artificial and natural bird noise almost obliterated the police sirens that prompted me to leave the blood-splattered apartment. He was wearing a bright red jogging suit. The deep red glowed with sunshine, with fall colors, as if it were burning, as if he were incandescent, luminous, it was as if the sturdy, straight pine trees wobbled and swayed, affected by the burning, by the brightness. There were slivers of glass strewn throughout the road. An angry hunter had spitefully shattered some camp lanterns. The jogger ran at a measured pace. Occasionally tiny pieces of glass became embedded in the rubber soles of his running shoes.
Do you think the jogger or the hunter saw you at any point?
It’s possible. Anything is possible in the forest. My furious movements, my nervous gestures, snapping my arm out suddenly, screaming at the top of my lungs: none of this drowned out the sound of the approaching man, so I continued to beat the woman. I knew the jogger was still deep in the forest and couldn’t interfere with the crime. The silent shaking clasps had become a blur, a confusion of dizzying motion. There was a vertical row of buttons on each child’s jacket. Some were on the left, some on the right, like shafts, like trees. I had an image of running feet, swift movements, glass splinters imbedded in the intact, firm trees, hundreds of startled, chirping sparrows. The bright red jogging suit was extremely tight, excessively tight, a stinging tightness which cut into the jogger’s flesh.
Your feet were bleeding too, weren’t they? Hadn’t they been cut in some unusual way?
Yes. They were in very bad shape by that point. In spite of this I had reached the top of a steep hill. When I looked down I saw all the red leaves stuck to the razor-edged Black Needle Rush points lining the slope on both sides. And I know on that day of hunting in that very forest her father must have realized how easily these leaves could be pierced by the plants’ dry thorns: the moment before the photograph was taken, a flock of birds pierced the sky with equal precision, equal sharpness, the leather-thick flapping of their wings heard by all but not included by the lens. The shock of wing noise almost made me lose balance and fall from the hill. All the cuts I received made me lose a great deal of blood. When I lowered my arm I noticed several drops of my blood falling past. The dripping blood partially obscured the image of the white birds. I heard shotgun fire as I stabbed her. Distant, muffled, like faraway thunder, faraway waterfalls. The hot blood, the driving blade hitting bone, the racing ants showered with intestinal fluids, the severity of the barrels, the red metal of the guns, the overlapping knots of the tree roots, the frenzy of nature’s energy: I slung out my arm, fiercely directing it toward one of the white, convulsing, blood stained forms.
It must have been quite a struggle to reach the top of the hill.
More than a struggle. It was a feat of endurance. An exhibition of stamina. And when the jogger finally reached the peak, he glanced back. Black Needle Rush (Juncus roemerianus) plants lined the slope. Their inflexible projections had shredded his feet. The tight running suit would not stretch against the movement of his body. The bright garment, glowing in the golden autumn sunlight, was speckled with sticky red leaves. Trying to stand at the top of the hill, his balance was disturbed by the shocking flap of multiple bird wings. Dizziness accompanied his blood loss, and the numerous cuts which caused the bleeding made him understand that the Black Needle Rush points were like tiny spears, allowing the plants to harpoon objects such as leaves which might somehow come into contact with them. He heard multiple shotgun fire in the distance, a muffled volley of shots which must certainly kill several white birds, causing blood drops to fall past those white forms. The red metal of the barrels, the explosions they produced: the fury of it all made him whip out his arm, in the manner of a very precise callisthenic gesture, muscles tightened and overlapping like tree knots, like marble veins. He fiercely projected his arm. He wanted to become part of the destructiveness of the shotguns. The long guns were lifted suddenly, swung to the right, and fired. They created explosions that penetrated the distance, reverberating beyond the targets. He focused on this extraordinary violence from afar. He saw the savage redness of the barrels. The hunter searched the nearby bushes, hoping to find a number of dead birds. He had promised his daughter an early start on their weekend camping trip, and he would like to make a good showing in the hunt in order not to be embarrassed when the group photograph was taken. He was very annoyed: his fire brought down only one bird. He squatted beside the limp, bloodied form. His anger mounted over having shot so poorly all day. In frustration he thrust out his arm in a quick, impatient manner, picking up the bird and hastily flinging it into the bag. He raised his eyes from the spot where he had retrieved his game. He looked at the darkening sky where many other birds continued flying, as if in mockery of his inferior marksmanship. He found it unusual to see so much of the flock still in the area, in spite of the casualties already inflicted by the gunfire. I closed my book and prepared to leave. The approaching hunters and the swift accumulation of rain clouds convinced me that this afternoon of reading was about to come to an end.
Were you still reading that same page?
I must have been. It was always the same page, the one with the impassioned description of the red gun barrels smoking in the distance, producing noise that penetrated far into the forest, creating vibrations that shook nearby bushes in which I hoped to find some dead birds. I was always searching for something in the forest. I would never leave the forest. I searched the apartment, looking for the shotguns that had been recklessly fired. I was distressed to discover that my hammer cracked the marble in one place only. I wanted several pieces to beat her with and my anger mounted over having overlooked so many bloodstains. I squatted beside her bloody form, lying at my feet in the final moments before death. I sharply extended my arm towards the bird, picking it up and angrily flinging it into my game bag. I found it unusual that the doors to the neighboring apartments remained shut in spite of her horrific screams moments before, not to mention the darkening sky where many birds continued to fly. So I closed my book and prepared to leave: the spot previously occupied by the shot animal, and the sudden accumulation of rain clouds, convinced me that the hunter’s fire brought down only one bird. The business of this afternoon was about to be concluded.
What happened after you finished the last page?
Some of the words were the same, they were repeated from paragraph to paragraph, but many of the words were different. I didn’t notice the flecks of mud on the sleeve of my khaki jacket. I raised my eyes from the bloody corpse and glanced at the clock on the nearby desk. Seeing the time, I realized I must leave very soon: the dead woman had expected visitors and someone might knock at the door at any moment. First I washed the blood from my hands, and then I changed into the fresh clothes I had brought. I nervously scoured my hands in the sink. The hot water gushed from the faucet with great force. When the shotgun fire subsided, the jogger looked up at the sky, watching the flock of frightened birds. Returning to my book, I glanced at my sleeve and became annoyed when I saw the mud. I knew very well it would not wash out. I raised my eyes from the bloodied corpse, turning to the last page of the book. Seeing the time, I realized that a few flecks of mud were on the left sleeve of my khaki jacket. After the shotgun fire subsided, the hunter became annoyed at the clock on the marble mantelpiece. He must leave very soon because the sink had not been washed clean. Water shot from the faucet as he looked at the woman who was certainly dead by now. At any moment someone might enter the apartment and change into the fresh clothes he had brought with him. Before that happened, he would wash the blood from his sleeve. He was expecting visitors, and he was quite annoyed to see the flock of frightened birds. I decided to spend that afternoon jogging in the forest. I was in no mood to entertain guests. Totally inconsiderate of those who expected to find me home, I left early in the morning without notifying anyone of my change in plans.
“Sorry to hear that. It must have been tough for you, losing the woman you loved. You were able to work on the case, though. That must have given you a little satisfaction. Was it tough holding on to some hope that you could catch him?”
“The thought never left my mind. I tracked down everybody. The hunter, the jogger, the group of children, the resort lodge owner, even the author of the book that was found. None of it ever led anywhere. Most of the bodies were discovered during the summer months, when there were lots of hunting parties in the forest. We detained and questioned everybody. The Captain was worried about me. Officially I had been taken off the case, for obvious personal reasons. The Captain let me do my own interviews, my own investigation, off the record, so to speak. He knew I was losing my perspective, though. I would go maybe four or five days without sleep. I had nightmares when I slept so I drank coffee all the time. I remember the nightmares very clearly. I was running through the forest. It began to rain suddenly. The rain hurt. It was heavy and cold and the sheets of water cut into me. I was being flayed as I ran because the water was sharp and it sliced off parts of my body. I was drenched in blood but I kept going. I could see myself running from across the road. I could see myself from the vantage point of the many trees that lined the road. Finally I became a skeleton, a fleshless thing charging through the forest, like something out of an old ghost story. After my fiancée was murdered, I lost my way. I don’t remember sleeping at all. I spent weeks looking at photographs of her. Places we had been. I used to kid her about a photograph she had taken with her father. She was a hunter, like her old man. I told her she looked cute in her hunting outfit, the camouflage gear, floppy hat like Elmer Fudd.”
It’s almost 10pm. Somehow we got a lead that the killer might be making films of the girls. Snuff movies, torture movies, sick shit. A pal of mine in vice did a raid and wound up with some films like that. Some of our victims were mature women, but some were younger, a few runaways, too. There were two who fit the age and description of the runaways who disappeared and wound up on those god-forsaken films. I found the bastard who trafficked in those movies and left him standing on a stack of wobbly phone books with the noose around his neck and his handstied behind his back. If he didn’t choke himself by the time I get back down there, maybe he’ll have a different story to tell me about some of the new girls. It started to rain while I drove across town to get something to eat. I thought it was funny how I could almost see his hands wriggling as the wipers swept the rain off the windshield. I like storms. They give me a weird energy, in spite of the gloom. The questions won’t go away. Are the killings cult inspired? Why are so many things red? The jogging suit, the car, the shotguns. Whoever heard of red shotgun barrels? How does a man beat a woman to death, then stab her dozens of times, then strangle her, then blow her apart with a shotgun, and remain undetected for an entire afternoon in a place where joggers and hunters and school children are all less than a couple of hundred yards from one another? Got to find out what’s behind this. I don’t plan on disappointing anybody. I spent enough time in the butcher clinic with the coroner. I saw enough of what this psycho did to the two other girls. I don’t like counting unrecognizable bodies. I don’tlike having to tell the parents that we need DNA to make a positive I. D. because the bodies don’t have faces anymore. I got a few ideas about this case. I know what to do. I trust my instincts. Better that way. No reason to explain anything until the time comes. I’ll keep things to myself for now.
So, no one knew you would be in the forest?
Of course not. I had planned to kill her that day. I quickened my pace from time to time, darting off in a sprint for about two hundred yards. I felt good. I knew my plan was sound. I made a rapid mental inventory as I ran. I remembered everything. I remembered a recent dream in which I passed some children from a field trip playing blind man’s bluff at the bottom of a valley, but for the most part I ran on the main road, lined on both sides with dark oak trees. As I passed the children, one of them looked up. He must have seen me. Because of the distance and the speed of my movements, one of the children saw me only for an instant. I was no more than a blur which quickly lost its hold on the child’s attention. The road was littered with broken glass and other debris. It was useless for the hunter to continue searching that area: he knew his fire brought down no other birds. So with complete disregard for those who expected to spend an afternoon jogging, the hunter spontaneously increased his pace, darting off in a sprint for several hundred yards. He ran on the main road, lined on both sides with groups of playing children. He decided that one of the children saw him only for an instant. And he left quite early, without even bothering to tell the others that he would be at the bottom of a valley. But as he passed the children one of them happened to look up and find him home. Because he was in no mood to entertain guests, he was no more than a blur. It was useless to continue searching the area, mainly because of the distance and the speed with which I ran through the forest. My gunfire lost its hold on the child’s attention. No other birds caught a glimpse of me, running on the main road littered with broken glass.
Was the hunter very bitter that day?
Uncontrollably. Scowling at the empty game bag, he hastily wiped the blood from his hands as he contemplated the now impossible timetable he must follow in order to pick up his daughter at the appointed hour. Droplets of rain were already falling, adding to the disgust and frustration he felt over this day of fruitless hunting which was about to end. The last page of his book had become a little soggy. He ignored this for the moment: he was anxious to finish the story, and he didn’t think the rain would come down too heavily just then. The book was meant as a birthday gift for his daughter, a popular murder mystery. The steady beads of rain had moistened the mud spots on his sleeve. The dry earth dissolved into thin lines which streamed down the khaki fabric. The jogger dried his hands, he washed out the sink with hot water, he wiped the blood from the burglar tools, he listened for footsteps in the hallway. Gradually the blood disappeared from the sink, the last red traces obliterated by the steady splashes of very hot water. He thought of everything. Yet in spite of his preparedness he was foolish to ignore what appeared to be only superficial wounds: he was unable to run any farther, in fact he could barely walk. He sat down at the top of a hill and tried to summon new strength. Meanwhile the children grew impatient with the distracted behavior of one particular boy: they wanted him to return to their game, to exhibit the same enthusiasm he had manifested earlier in the day. The boy lowered his eyes from the top of the hill and gazed at his friends who were so anxiously concerned with his participation in their fun.
Did the hunter manage to keep his appointment?
I’m not sure. I was in the final stage of the murder and my mind was elsewhere. I had a huge combat knife with a very wide blade. Little reflected pieces of the scene flitted across the shiny metal. The shotgun blasts shattered the marble into a thousand pieces. As I dragged her body I heard the birds overhead. They flew above her corpse, casting waves of shadow over her nude bloody form, like rippling nets, like swaying leaves. I was very angry when I glanced at the empty game bag. I ignored the soggy last page of the book. Drops of cold rain made me regard my muddy sleeve with disgust. My hands were moistened by the light but steady beads of rain, so I wiped off the remains of the blood. I was anxious to conclude that ridiculous day of hunting. I didn’t think the rain would stream in thin lines along the khaki fabric of my jacket. I dried my hands. I washed out the superficial wounds. Lowering my eyes from the top of the hill, I could see the splashing, extremely hot water. Gradually the blood disappeared down the drain, although traces of it remained upon the thorny plants lining the hill. And I was foolish to ignore my friends. I was unable to run any farther, I couldn’t even walk. My distracted behavior was about to end. It was time to think about the resort lodge, the best path to use in dragging her body there, the timetable I needed in order to meet my daughter on schedule, the plastic sheets I had left in the backseat of my car, the sheets I would use to wrap her body, the excuse I planned to give my daughter, to explain my lateness. The field trip playmates, previously so concerned with the boy’s participation in their fun, seemed oblivious to his exhaustion. They ran about in the sunlight while he stood in shadow. He had perspired from running around so much, and with the air becoming chilly he decided to button his jacket. The gradual accumulation of large, dark clouds blotted out the sun, and he realized that it would rain very soon. His playmates were engaged in their game and, unlike him, they had not buttoned their jackets; they seemed unaffected by the cool air. I don’t think they had perspired as profusely as I, and therefore they did not feel the least bit chilled. Raising my eyes, I looked at the sky. I saw several birds flying away from the trees. Then I looked from the sky to the little spots of dried blood on the palm of my right hand. Earlier a rude jogger accidentally shoved me and I scraped my hand against the ground. The burning pain of that injury in addition to the clear sign of a furious rainstorm convinced me that I should leave the forest.
Was it very cloudy and dark by the time you killed her?
A jumble of leaf shadows surrounded the boy because he remained under a large tree. The air had turned cool and his young friends ran about in the sunlight. The accumulating rain clouds gradually blotted out the sun. The boy realized that it would rain very soon but, unlike himself, his playmates had perspired. And for a moment he thought about raising his eyes from their jackets and looking up at the sky. He buttoned his own jacket while several birds were peacefully floating across the sky. However, the birds did not move as quickly as the trickle of blood across his right hand. Lowering his eyes from the little spots of blood on his playmates, he looked at the burning pain received from a downpour. Earlier, one of his friends had lacerated the ground. He did not wish to remain in the area because of this irritation.
What about the words on the last page of the book?
I read them with feverish anticipation. This was the denouement, where, many years after the murders, the detective broke down for some inexplicable reason and let a newcomer see the truth. It must have been the cumulative effect of the detective’s questionable emotional state, his derangement. It was finally revealed that, by assuming the identities of some of the key figures from the case who were questioned, the detective hoped to cast suspicion elsewhere. But before I turned to the last page, I stopped for a moment to try to remember where I had parked my car. The unforeseen noise of the shotguns made me think of the location of the red automobile. Instantly I recalled that I had parked just off the main road, approximately two hundred yards to the right of the resort lodge. There was no cause for alarm. Even in the event of rain, indicated by the darkening sky, it was not difficult to locate the vehicle. My only concern was that the dark clouds and the late hour might impede my progress, perhaps making me lose my way. Remembering that some time long ago I had gotten lost in this forest under similar circumstances, I naturally didn’t want a repetition of that situation. I continued reading, thinking that I heard the distant sound of someone running, but at that point I was much too absorbed in the ending of the book to pay any attention to such a vague sound.
Did you hear voices when you killed her? Did you hear or smell strange things that day? Can you hear me? Do you want to take a break?
I read feverishly for only a moment or two, desperately trying to remember where I parked my car. The shock of the shotgun blasts made me think of the last page of my book. Before I turned to that page, I stopped the bright red automobile. I decided there was no cause for alarm: I could park just off the main road. The clouds hovered to the right of the resort lodge. And the spot I was in wouldn’t be difficult to locate, even in the event of rain, a factor which under similar circumstances would make me lose my way. But the more I read the more I thought that some time long ago I had been totally absorbed by the sound of someone running, and that the runner’s concern was whether or not his sounds would impede my progress. I paid no attention to the darkening sky. I was so exasperated by the small number of birds I had shot, I completely lost track of my friends, still busy retrieving their own game. I stood up and removed my long hunting knife from its sheath. I wanted to inspect the ground. The blade was very sharp and I nearly cut myself as I held it in my hand. I laid down my shotgun. I cut loose all the empty rabbit traps I had set earlier in the day. My impatience and frustration made me careless. Most of the stab wounds were too deep: I could not catch the blood and I deprived myself of the pleasure of watching her die slowly. I thought of the agony of the trapped rabbits, the shot birds, the captured insects, the hunted mice. The traps were now useless; I had cut them out of the bush too hastily. This didn’t concern me at all. My only desire at that point was to leave the forest as soon as possible. And with good reason. I was so completely annoyed by the poor number of birds I had shot that I stood up and removed my long hunting knife from its sheath. And before I examined the ground, I lost track of my friends still busy retrieving their own game. The blade was very sharp. I cut myself. I held the empty rabbit traps in my hands. My shotgun rendered them useless. Earlier in the day I laid down my impatience, my exasperation. By this point my only desire was to leave the forest as soon as possible.
Can you hear me? Do you want me to call for the doctor?
Everybody was in a weakened state. No one wanted to remain in the forest after dark. It was idiotic of us not to tell anyone we would be here. We had already lost a great deal of blood. Now we weren’t sure if we could make it back to the main road. Certainly it was too late to expect other joggers and hunters who, like ourselves, might’ve ventured this far into the woods. We managed to stand up, walking feebly but steadily ahead. If we continued at this pace, we might reach the road in about two hours (if we were lucky). But we were foolish to remain in the forest after dark. We were too weak; we didn’t want to tell anyone. Other joggers had already lost a great deal of blood. They didn’t know if I would make it. Certainly it was too late to expect to walk steadily ahead. I managed to stand up. I had ventured far into the woods. If I continued at that pace, I would proceed only feebly. At that moment my leg started to act up again. I knew I had to get out of that apartment as quickly as possible. Having committed the murder, my confidence swiftly evaporated. Now I leapt across the bloodstained corpse, running as fast as possible. My footsteps echoed loudly in the long empty hallway as I cursed the slow elevator. And with my leg ablaze with pain, my confidence was shaken. Having completed my crime, I knew I had to leave the apartment as quickly as possible. I cursed the slowness of my footsteps. The elevator seemed to take forever to reach the blood stained corpse. The hallway echoed loudly as I leapt across the bloody blanket of sparrows and rabbits. The boy rejoined his friends, already climbing the hill, eager to return home. The rain clouds had finally burst, and the water streamed down heavily. He knew they could all run for cover to a nearby resort lodge, owned by the father of one of his friends. He realized he would be the last to leave; his own father was not supposed to come for him until much later. But in the meantime he could join his friends, already climbing the hill. Eager to return home, the rain streamed down heavily. The boys’ playmates realized that they would be the last to leave. They knew that their fathers were not supposed to run to a nearby resort lodge. I saw my car as I rushed through the pouring rain. Not intending to wander off when I did, I had left the motor running, and I heard the car’s vibrating body. I could see the car. I ran towards it in the pouring rain. I hadn’t expected to wander through the forest, and I had left the motor running. I could see the car’s vibrating body. I found the bloody hunting knife next to the fender, sandwiched between the pages of the book. I withdrew the knife and wiped the blood from the blade. I could see another forest reflected on the bright metal. In that forest was another book, and another bloody knife between its pages.
“No wonder this case got so much publicity. The strain on you guys must have been horrible. Your partner must have had it pretty bad, the guy who killed himself. Pardon me for asking, but did he kill himself when the suspect was released?”
“I didn’t have a partner. I was the only one assigned to this case. It was my case. It belonged to me. It would always be my case. There can’t be any doubt about that. I suppose they think that if they keep playing their little game and constantly put people like you in my path, I’ll finally give in and admit that there’s nothing left to solve. I know better. I am not going to give up. I visit her grave every night. I loved her so. She’s buried somewhere in the forest. There’s a cemetery. It is very old. I know where the headstone is but I need markers to guide myself. I can always ask one of the hunters if I lose my way. Maybe the people in the resort lodge will let me stop and rest for a little bit. I’m very tired these days.I think I need to sleep. I’ve been working too hard. I shouldn’t overtax myself with all that exercise. Running is supposed to be good for the cardiovascular system. I think shooting defenseless birds should not be a sport. It is a sick amusement for those who do not value the preciousness of life. I know how important life is. I would not harm a bird. I gave up that wretched hobby long ago when I had a bad dream about all the birds dying simultaneously. I could not find my game bag and the image of the dying birds filled my mind and I ran away in shame. I do like movies. I saw a documentary about the underworld and how murders are often filmed for huge profits.”
I know about that. I have to talk to that guy who we suspect. He gets films like that. I put it in my journal last night so I wouldn’t forget. It’s on page… I forgot the page but I know I wrote it down. So this morning we hauled in Flicker Frankie for some routine ball breaking. Runs a porno parlor downtown but we know he gets the young stuff. It’s always timing that screws things up because he’s a clever bastard. He knows what to hide and when to hide it, like a worm burrowing into fresh mud. He’s a human sore. If they’d let me I’d kill him so slowly you’d need time elapse photography to figure out how his body got like that.There’s information out there and I have to get it before another woman dies. Confident prick sits there arranging his lard-slick hair with a stainless steel comb. I don’t deal no under age stuff, he says. I ain’t about to let nobody search nothin’ without a warrant, he says. You got probable cause? You got a charge? I got a business to run. Yeah he’s got a business, all right. The wretched lives of some abused runaway kids get knocked down into the slime a few more notches when they do a little of Frankie’s business on a stained mattress in front of a few cameras. Just some warm-ups before the street life kicks into high gear. Right there in the middle of the interrogation room I wanted to cut him open. Right there I wanted to pluck his eyes out of his head and stuff them down his wretched throat. I don’t suppose they’d let me include it in the report. I heard the old stairway creak under Frankie’s fat ass as he walked out of the station. Plenty of stories that won’t go away about some kind of a cult that imports women for weird sex rites and I’m convinced that ton of shit is a middle-man for the trade. FBI boys “volunteered” one of their cute asspsycho profiles and they’re into the idea of a lone hunter. That could be, too. Hunter and prey, ancient stuff, it’s burned into our genes and we’re trained through life to discard the urges but deep down the original impulse is still alive. I’ve been going through a few things on anthropology. The Egyptian stuff in particular, plenty of rites of the dead, that weird resurrection symbol. Who knows? Maybe there’s a lead here, something I’ve been missing…I don’t want to miss anything…I have to be thorough…where’s the journal?…time to write it all down…don’t want to forget anything…very important…who knows forsure who’s killing these women?…got to find out…write it all down…write it all down…there’s always a certainty of some kind when you write something down…I saw the film…there was a killing…some kind of strange ritual…I was wearing a hunter’s outfit…they gave me the large knife…I heard stones rattling…it was all very hypnotic…like water falling…they made the film in the forest…the jogger was a rich businessman…he owned a resort lodge there…they told me to do it…I liked the way she gurgled on her blood…let me alone…let me alone…
CRIME SCENE EVIDENCE [ITEM NO. 30]
LAST PAGE OF NOVEL FOUND NEXT TO VEHICLE IN THE FOREST
His insanity had been growing all the time, like a stubborn weed, and the papers and the media had feasted off it. He had fooled everyone. Now it was over. He was glad. The murders in his mind were like being sick on a case of bad scotch while you stumble through a funhouse. It was like being rolled inside a blood soaked rug while you scream in a nightmare. No matter what angle he used to look at it, everything turned into another mirrored box, another secret room, nothing that was for sure, like shadows on the walls of an opium parlor. It was like fog sneaking into corners, bending its milky fingers, circling every tree in the forest, leading you nowhere all the time. A Merry-Go-Round of hooded figures pointing the way and everything just keeps going in circles. On some magical island paradise the Law does its exotic, perfumed dance, but from where he sat the Law was a scarecrow flying into your bloodstream, brandishing hatchets and poison darts; a chunk of raw meat riddled with maggots, spitting up bile, insane, savage. A nightmare sucking oxygen out of the air. A disfigured pancreas floating through Hell. No. There was no Law for him. There was only the need to kill women. They confiscated his gun and his badge. He was under arrest. His lips formed a twisted smirk like a deranged Halloween pumpkin. He knew there would always be something to harvest in the forest.
Peter J. Dellolio was born in New York City in 1956. He went to Nazareth High School and New York University. Graduated 1978: BA Cinema Studies; BFA Film Production. Poetry collections “A Box Of Crazy Toys” published 2018 by Xenos Books/Chelsea Editions. “Bloodstream Is An Illusion Of Rubies Counting Fireplaces” published February 2023 Cyberwit/Rochak Publishing.
A woman makes eye contact
and breaks a dinner plate
from the set her grandmother gave her at her wedding shower
making eye contact
with a screaming cat
that was hit by an oncoming pickup truck
that roared past with a honky grin
and she lifted her foot off the brake
and she leaned forward into the breaking wave of it.
Which was when she remembered
being a teenager who
made breakfast for her grandfather every Sunday
and made him breakfast an hour late
and took a long time watching a cartoon
before waiting for a commercial and walking upstairs
and finding him in bed, too late, too cold, far too cold.
Being a teenager who remembered
the broken arm of riding a bicycle between parked cars
into traffic; not as pain, but as the expression on her mother’s face
when she looked at the curb and knelt down to triage,
and a dizzy tumbling beneath that face, open mouthed.
The same arm now
holding the shard of the plate
in a unique, for her,
Six months. Joy tried to wrap her mind around that. Six months since the day she came home to find her husband Scott dead of a stroke on the kitchen floor, in a pool of melted ice from the open freezer. They had been married just over two years.
“Keep it together,” she whispered. She had been saying that since even before Scott died. The phrase had been their mantra, during the lean times when one or both of them had been out of work, during the darkest days of the pandemic; whenever everything seemed on the verge of falling apart, which had not been infrequent. Just keep it together.
She had gone alone to the cemetery earlier, to place flowers. Friends had offered to join her, but she preferred to be alone. Today was private, the culmination of the dread that had been building the last few weeks.
Dates were triggers for her. When she had flipped the page of the wall calendar to August and saw today circled, it reopened the wound and brought all the pain rushing back, crushing the breath from her chest. Without thinking she had reached for her phone and dialed his cell number, to hear his voice. She knew the short message by heart, she must have called it more than a hundred times in that first devastating month without him. To hear the message, it was like he wasn’t gone forever, maybe just on a business trip. He used to take those all the time.
It hadn’t been intentional, but he had been buried with his phone. It was just left there in the pocket of his suit pants. No one thought about looking for it until well after it was too late. She imagined it glowing faintly and vibrating against his body, even now – a visual somehow equally upsetting and reassuring.
Late afternoon was giving way to dusk. She was parked just down the hill from the cemetery at Overlook Park, where they used to come to look out at the city. Sometimes they had picnics together sitting on the hood of the car. Sometimes they had just stayed in the car, made out, made love. That vehicle belonged to another life now, a short, shared life. She had traded it in for the silver 4Runner she sat in now.
She took out her phone to hear his voice again. When it came to life under her touch, she noticed an unread text message. From Scott’s number. The blood froze in her veins.
Did you call?
She had, just a few hours ago. Who would know that? Had someone been there watching her? Or hacked the phone line? Could that be done? Someone playing a cruel prank? She took the bait.
Who is this?
Time stood still until the reply came.
Babs, it’s me. It’s Scott.
Sick. This is sick, she shivered. Who hated her enough to do this?
No, it’s not. Who is this?
The reply came slowly.
Really, it’s me. Not sure how. Not in good shape here. Need help. Starving.
Her mind was numb. She watched from the rear-view window as some unseen animal caused the foliage from the park behind her to rustle. Racoon maybe. Coyote perhaps. It was her turn to reply and she was stalling. Just trying to keep it together. That tiny, distant part of her that still made a wish when the clock turned 11:11 asked wordlessly, was there any possibility that this wasn’t some sort of hoax? Rationality rushed to the defense of her sore heart.
The silence stretched out like the clouds over the city, reflecting the wanning light in pink, orange, and fiery red.
You wanted to buy the pink house on the corner of the block. You have a thing about wearing socks at night, even when its cold. You love to watch our dog twitch her hind leg when she dreams.
Her jaw hung open in disbelief. All of that was true. Intimate details. Still, could someone who knew her well enough have known that? Could someone observing her without her noticing, over a long enough period of time, have learned any or all of this? It seemed unlikely.
One last test then.
What’s my dad’s middle name.
The response was quick this time.
He doesn’t have one.
She was reeling now. Head throbbing, heart racing. Alive with an insane hope. She reminded herself to breathe. Was it somehow possible? No, she’d found him, she’d seen them take his body away. Still, could this really, somehow, impossibly be Scott?
As if reading her thoughts, another text arrived.
Think I’m sick. I’m not. Hole.
Hole? Did he mean whole?
He responded as the streetlights flickered to life one by one.
Some of me is gone. Tried to get something to eat from a trashcan, couldn’t keep it down. There was a squirrel there. A dead squirrel.
So embarrassed. I tried to eat it.
I’m not ok.
The thought of him picking up a dead animal and taking a bite of it made her gag. She wiped her face and realized she was crying. Then something thumped against the underside of the car, and Joy jumped in her seat, dropping the phone. The lifeline to her no longer dead husband. She fished around under the seat and found it.
This was real. This was actually real and happening.
Where are you?
Her hear was pounding now. She would find him and get him help and somehow the last six months would turn out to have been some terrible mistake. They would figure it out. They could fix this. The last of sunlight was draining from the sky now, blood red giving way to dark bruised purple and black beyond that. Lights glittered in the windows of the towers out before her.
I’m at the park we used to go to. The one that looks out on the skyline.
A chill started at the back of her neck and passed throughout the rest of her body.
Yeah. I’m under something. Hard to see – my eyes aren’t right. Under a Jeep I think.
Joy turned her head slowly and glanced first out the driver side and then the passenger side window, confirming what she already knew.
Hers was the only vehicle parked in sight.
Another thump from under her feet. And a text.
I’m stuck. Need help. Kind of wrapped up in the bottom of the car.
He was under the SUV. In need of help. Dazed, she opened the door, which brought on the interior lights and a steady electronic binging, like a pulse. She swung her legs over the seat and stepped out onto the asphalt, crouching with her cellphone as a flashlight to look under the vehicle.
There was… something… clinging to the underside of the 4Runner. A human form, shadow black with caked soil, dimly lit from a cracked cellphone beneath it. It was Scott! but something was wrong with it. With him. Oh god, she gasped. His lower half vanished under the ribbons of his torn clothing, what was that? Was that dirty, ropelike thing, she choked, was that part of his insides?
She recoiled and stood up straight, took a deep breath of cool evening air.
Hold yourself together, she ordered, the phrase cutting clear through the malestrom within. Keep! It! Together!
She looked back under the SUV and saw him jabbing two fleshless phalanges at the phone. He turned to her and what should have been his eyes were just two hollow pits. He tried to move his mouth, but his jaws seemed stuck.
Wired shut, she thought. They do that. When someone dies.
The smell wafting out from under the vehicle, of earth and rot, nearly overpowered her. Expending every ounce of will she had, Joy won out over the urge to run, or collapse into a sobbing mess, to fall apart.
She reached out for him and saw now that parts of him, one of his arms, and part of what she took to be his intestines, had become wrapped around the axel.
Half under the car, she tried to brush away some of the dirt and pull out a few of the roots that had become intertwined with what was left of Scott’s body. The soil was damp, but beneath it was a layer of desiccated, brittle skin. Like a layer cake, she thought crazily. Under that, deeper inside of him, things that felt alternately hard and spongy, bones and organs, which crumbled at her touch.
Clumps of dirt, and Scott, came away in her hands. She felt things she couldn’t see, didn’t want to see, wriggling against her palms.
“No.” He was slipping through her fingers again, and not just metaphorically this time, as she tried desperately to unknot and detach him from the vehicle without destroying him in the process. “Nononononono!”
Scott, shook his head sadly. He knew what Joy wouldn’t accept, that his situation couldn’t be salvaged. Accepting this, he seemed to deflate as the animating force left him. He came loose in a heap, milky bluish light poking through in places from the cell phone he collapsed on.
Joy tried to wipe her face, smearing it with mud and Scott, her tears carving channels through it –the inverse of mascara running down her cheeks. She sifted through the pile of what had just been quasi-living Scott and took his cellphone in her hand.
She read his last, unsent message.
Sry babs. I just can’t keep it together.
Joshua Ginsberg is the author of Secret Tampa Bay: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure (2020), Tampa Bay Scavenger (2021), Oldest Tampa Bay (2022), and co-author of Secret Orland: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure (2023). His work has appeared in numerous print and online publications including The City Key, 365 Tomorrows, Atlas Obscura, Travel After Five, and on his own blog, Terra Incognita Americanus. He currently lives in the Town n’ Country neighborhood of Tampa with his wife, Jen, and their Shih Tzu, Tinker Bell.
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The crickets chirruped their summer song as Pablo walked down the main road out of town, down to the olive tree fields. Olive oil was the lifeblood of all the small towns in this Northeastern area of Andalusia. Chiclana, like the other towns, lacked the sounds of playing children in the streets, Pedro’s school bus would travel through 8 towns before reaching school, gathering up what little children remained. But it was the harvest, so school was closed.
Nobody in his town or in his class had ever seen a cricket, everyone knew they rubbed their wings when they were warm, crying out in the late afternoon until the moon was well above the olive trees. Nobody cared about never seeing the source of the chirrups. Perhaps understandably so, the yearly disappearances of random children from the surrounding area remained unsolved, there was much unrest among the remaining families. Pablo had lost his best friend Paco two years ago, but he was tired of the fear routine, he was going out on his own this evening, and he was going to catch one of those damn crickets.
The crickets were going strong after the day’s heat. Pablo wiped the sweat from his face with the bottom of his muddy T-shirt, leaving him dryer but dirtier. He paused under the shade of the oldest tree and took a licorice stick out of his pocket. The chirping seemed to come from behind the unfarmable hill terrain on the edge of the Peseta plot. Pablo’s father worked that plot this season, he made his way to the top of the hill.
This was the loudest Pablo had ever heard it. The other side of the hill was deceptively steep, the dry grass was too weak to hang on to. The way down shamed the way up in its tediousness, it had to be descended belly-up on all fours. The droning crickets engulfed the atmosphere when Pablo reached a small level area surrounded by dead, thorned, impenetrable thicket. He stood before a man-made cave in the hillside. The size and look of the megaliths carrying the load from the earth above them hinted at a time long before his. The chirrups ceased immediately as Pablo stepped into the cool darkness. His eyes slowly recalibrated to the light coming in from behind him, stretching his shadow before him into a circular cavern within the cave.
Hand-carved wooden cages were scattered at different heights around the concave walls of this inner cavern. Their tiny shadows dancing in different directions as they dangled from their intricate wooden chains. Pablo looked into a brightened cage by the entrance. Two nervous antennae reached up to him from the small head of what looked like a smaller, stubbier, shorter-legged version of a grasshopper. Large circular onyx eyes investigated his, two brown wings unfolded from the top of its bulbous, dual-spiked abdomen.
‘’A cricket’’ Pablo whispered. There was something carved on the side of the cage’s base. Pablo turned that side to the light. It read Jose. A knot formed in his stomach. He checked the next cage, Manuel. A drop of cold sweat ran down his spine as the hair on the back of his neck stood to attention. Maria…Ana…Paco…they were all names of children that had disappeared over the years. Pablo stood petrified staring at the last name…Paco. The crickets all stood in silence, watching Pablo.
He turned his attention to the center of the cavern. A carpenter’s workbench and a wooden stool. Alone on the workbench, a carving blade, and an empty cage. He slowly approached the brand-new cage and held it up against the light…Pablo. The cage fell to the ground as something blocked off the light from the entrance.
Luis P. Verhelle was born in 1983 to a Spanish mother and Belgian expatriate father. His youth was spent living in multiple countries. With a master’s degree in banking and corporate finance, he works as an accountant out of Barcelona, but his mind always drifts to the most nightmarish landscapes.
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The beginning is still pretty hazy to me, like trying to remember a dream. A lot of the first few months only comes in flashes. The beeping of hospital equipment, overhead fluorescents bleeding through my closed eyelids, the smell of antiseptics, someone using the phrase ‘covert consciousness’. Occasionally I dreamt, sometimes I was aware of what was going on around me, but mostly it was just nothingness. I now fear that death might be like that. Just unknowing, unthinking, darkness.
I had no real way of telling the passage of time, but sometimes I could pick up little hints. A running heater told me that it was cold outside, maybe winter. An opened window? Maybe spring. One time two people talked about an election, so that might have been around November.
So, yeah. A lot of stuff after the accident is blurry, but the accident is still perfectly clear to me. I was trying to leave Jamie.
We had been dating for almost two years, and I don’t think I was happy for a single moment during those last eight months. Their lease was ending after about six months of dating and they started pressuring me about moving in. I had plenty of space at my place, our relationship was going really well, and the idea of rent being cut in half was very tempting. So, I agreed. It didn’t take long for things to change after that. Jamie always wanted to know where I was. Always wanted to go through my phone. It was the outbursts that really scared me though. If I ever tried to speak up for myself or tried to tell them that they were crossing a line, they would blow up. I mean, red in the face screaming kind of blowing up. I never actually told anyone that Jamie was like that behind closed doors. I was too embarrassed that I had let things get that bad.
Finally, I reached my breaking point. I packed a suitcase as Jamie alternated between sobbing and screaming. Looking back, I’m so proud of how stern and strong I was. I walked out of the apartment and they followed me, continuing their tirade, but I just remained silent and determined to leave. I reached the stairwell, we lived on the third floor you see, and I had only made it down a couple steps when I felt hands smack into my shoulders.
The world spun around me like I was trapped in a washing machine and sharp pain burst from my limbs as they bent the wrong ways. Then the whole ordeal starts to bleed into my dark dream world.
Things are very broken and scattered after that, but I remember the first extended period where I was aware of things happening around me. It was thanks to my friend Ryan.
“Well I just want to talk to them,” Ryan spoke at a normal volume, but just the sound of my friend’s voice felt like a rope tied around my waist had been yanked. I was suddenly jerked out of the darkness. I heard the beeping of my EKG, the distant sound of a PA system calling for a certain doctor, the shuffling of feet. Lastly, I heard Jamie.
“The doctor told me that I should limit their visitors,” Jamie said, flatly and firmly.
“It might do some good, you know? Like, the sound of a familiar voice. I mean, we’ve been friends since high school so maybe-”
“Ryan,” Jamie began to speak softly, “I would if I could, really, but I’m just doing what the doctor thinks is best. It will all be worth it when they wake up.”
“But you’re allowed to be here all the time? I just don’t-”
A heavy door clicked into place and footsteps moved to my bedside. Warm, but dry, lips pressed against my forehead.
I’m not sure when that happened, but things were different after that. I started having longer stretches of awareness, and they were beginning to happen more frequently. To be honest, I think I started having more moments of clarity because I was more on edge. It’s like when you think someone might be trying to break into your house so every strange sound wakes you up a little. When you hear something that you think might be dangerous, you become more alert. So, I started becoming more alert every time I heard Jamie’s voice.
“I thought the realtor group that owned the apartment was paying for everything?” asked a voice that didn’t sound familiar to me. “Since they had that wobbly handrail that threw off their balance. Aren’t they paying for all the medical bills?”
“Yeah,” Jamie answered, so close to my side that I would have jumped if my body allowed it, “but there’s like tons of other stuff too. Like, um, the soap I have to get to wash them with or, you know, I have to pick up a lot of food. Since I have to be here all the time and… don’t have time to cook.”
“Alright, well, I’m good to start recording.”
“Great, let’s start.” There was a pause before Jamie spoke again, far more perky and upbeat. “Hello Patreons! As you all know, today is a very somber day for us. It’s been a full year now since the day that the love of my life-” they paused and sniffled. “Sorry, it’s just been so hard.” Another, louder sniffling sound before Jamie let out a breath and continued as if nothing had happened. “Today is the anniversary of when I found my sweetie here at the bottom of our apartment stairwell. I just wanted to record a little thank you video for everyone.” I felt Jamie’s hand slip into my limp fingers and a wave of repulsion crawled over my skin. “It’s only thanks to all of your kind donations that I’m able to keep up with the bills. But things are still very tight for our little family of two, so please send as many of your friends and family as you can to our Patreon or GoFundMe to help us out. And if you’re able to, even going up one tier on your monthly subscription could greatly help us. God bless all of you, and please pray for the both of us… Did that look good?”
“Yeah,” the cameraperson spoke, “it looked good. So…we heading back to my place now?”
“No,” Jamie said flatly, as if in a business meeting, “ABC news will be here shortly to film a segment about us so I have to get ready for that, but I’ll be over later tonight.”
I could kind of tell when it was night and day. The light through my eyelids dimmed, the bustle of the hospital quieted, and the room around me grew still. After I started having better moments of clarity, I would try to force my body to move when I was alone. In my mind I shouted at the top of my lungs and flailed my limbs, but outwardly my lips only pursed slightly and a couple fingers twitched. I had experienced sleep paralysis a few times prior to my ‘accident’, but what I experienced in that hospital was far worse.
Sometimes whole nights passed with me concentrating entirely on just opening my eyelids or clenching a fist. I doubt neurosurgeons concentrate as hard as I did on those nights. Eventually I gained the ability to slightly extend my main index finger. In total it was less than an inch’s worth of movement., but it was the most I had accomplished in over a year, and just gaining that much freedom was enough to send tears streaming down my cheeks.
I felt the familiar pull to consciousness when the sound of my mother’s voice broke the silence that had settled in the room.
“How are you holding up?” my mother asked gently.
“I’m hanging in there,” answered Jamie, doing their best to add plenty of emotion to their voice.
Feet shuffled and dull patting sounded. It dawned on me that they were hugging.
“I’m so thankful to have you taking care of my baby,” mom said into Jamie’s neck. They must have pulled away, because when my mother spoke again it was unmuffled. “Will you be coming to the Fourth of July? It’ll be at my place.”
“Of course! I wouldn’t miss it for the world, mom!”
As they spoke, my heart began thumping almost as loud as the synchronized beeping of the monitor hooked up to my chest.
“That’s been happening a lot recently, should we get a nurse?”
“No,” Jamie soothed. “That just means they’re having a bad dream.”
Over time, I gained more control over my finger. It became easier to tap it or extend and curl it. It still required more focus than just lifting a finger is supposed to, but it was something. As sad as it is to say, I became quite proud of it.
An opportunity came one day when some whistling brought my mind up from the abyss. Someone was in the room, maybe male? I couldn’t tell, but it certainly wasn’t Jamie. Besides the whistler, it felt like the room was empty, so I decided to try out my new found ability.
My hands were placed palms down on the bed at my sides, like usual, so I began tapping my finger. I knew that I couldn’t tap too rhythmically, like I was listening to music, or the person might dismiss it as some kind of subliminal movement. Now, I know practically nothing about morse code, but I know that SOS is either dash dash dash dot dot dot dash dash dash or dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot. With that in mind I just began tapping in a constant stream. Taptaptap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Taptaptap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Taptaptap.
At first I kept it steady, but I started getting too excited at the idea of someone noticing me, so I began tapping faster and faster. When the whistling stopped, I thought I had finally caught their attention.
Then a hand held my tapping finger and I could have squealed from glee, until my finger was bent backwards with a muffled pop. The pain and shock made my whole body spasm. The bed sheet was being pulled up to my chin and over my hands when the whistler finally spoke from across the room.
“Got any trash for me Jamie?”
“No,” Jamie cheerfully answered, right beside me, “I emptied the bin yesterday. You’re all good.”
“Okay,” the man chuckled, “Well I see you’re tucking your sweetheart in for the night so I’ll get out of your hair.”
Tears welled up in my eyes as my mind fought to control the pain in my hand, but just as I was calming down, the finger was pushed back into place with a sucking clicking sound. The tears flowed freely as my breathing audibly grew louder.
“You better be careful,” Jamie whispered in the same cheery tone they had just used on the janitor. “If I see you trying to talk to anyone like that again, I just might have to snap off all your fingers.”
I knew Jamie meant it. If they were unstable before my coma then they had completely jumped off the deep end by now. They were constantly in my room, watching over me. They had control over my family, my friends, maybe even my medical decisions. I was Jamie’s plaything and nothing was going to change. I couldn’t do anything but lay there, silently watching as my life was piloted by someone else. I had been devolved into a pet that could be dressed up any way its owner wanted. And sadly? I just accepted that.
Things grew stagnant for a while. Any time I drifted to consciousness, I tried to go back into the void as soon as possible. I was content to wait patiently for my death. That changed one evening as a voice jarred me awake.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!” called out a chipper voice. “My name is Andrea and I will be your caretaker for the foreseeable future. If any of you have an issue with that then just raise your hand.”
My chest heaved slightly as something like a laugh tried to escape me. It had been so long since I last laughed, and the realization of what I was doing made my heart grow a little warmer.
There had always been some kind of caretaker that had made rounds at night to read and record our vitals. I’ve sensed them, but they typically breezed in and out without uttering a single word. This young woman was the first breath of life this whole place had breathed in the time I had been there.
“Was it my imagination, or did you laugh at my joke?” Andrea asked from beside my bed. I had been so caught off guard by her entrance that I hadn’t even sensed her approaching. For the first time in ages, someone was actually seeing me. For once, I wasn’t an ornament for Jamie, I was a person. Despite this, I hesitated to answer. Almost everything I had tried to do to escape ended in failure, so why would this be any different? But I figured ‘what the hell’. I began tapping my left index finger. It was covered by the bed sheet, like always, but I could feel the fabric russling against my digit.
My heart skipped a beat when Andrea lifted the sheet off my hand.
“Sweetie,” she spoke in a shaky voice that was attempting to stay calm, “tap your finger once for yes and twice for no… Can you hear me?”
“Oh. My. God. Can you- ah- do you have purple skin?”
“Do you know that you are in a coma?”
“Have you been awake this whole time?!”
Tap. Tap tap.
“Yes no? Um, have you been awake for some of this time?”
“This is amazing! I’ll go notify the doctor and be ri-”
“What’s wrong? You don’t want me to notify the doctor?”
The last question was the only one to make me pause. I wasn’t sure what I wanted. I knew the doctors monitored my brain activity, so to some degree they were aware of how conscious I was and that obviously hadn’t done anything to help me get control of my body. If it came down to some kind of medical procedure, then Jamie had probably obstructed them in the past and would probably do it again.
Ultimately, I had decided on ‘no’ and conveyed that to my very kind, very confused, nurse. It took her a while to calm down enough that I could convince her to finish her rounds. After she left I wasn’t quite sure what would come of Andrea knowing about me, but honestly it just felt good talking to someone again.
I didn’t have to wonder long about Andrea. I think it was just the next night when she pulled a chair up to my bed and had a real conversation with me.
“Hey sweetie,” she greeted me as kindly as she would any other patient. “Are you feeling good tonight?”
“Great! Were you awake all day today?”
“Part of the day?”
And it was true. I had been so eager to talk to someone that my consciousness kept bubbling up every time I heard a voice.
“Do you know how long you’ve been here?”
“Would you like to know?”
I hesitated again, but figured it would be best to rip the band aid off. I told her yes.
“You’ve been comatose for three years and nine months, sweetie.”
My finger dropped onto the hospital bed when I heard that. I had pieced together that it had been a few years, but having it confirmed was like… was like glass shattering. I was crying before I even knew it and Andrea just held my hand for the rest of the night.
After that, I began looking forward to nights. Andrea had plenty of responsibilities, of course, but she always made time to have a little chat with me. We even made a system where I could write messages by her doing the ABC’s and I tap my finger when she got to the letter I wanted. Believe me, it was just as painfully slow as it sounds, but it was worth it to tell her something more personal than just yes or no.
Since it was kind of exhausting for me to talk in much detail, Andrea did most of the talking. I was perfectly fine with that. Just having someone speak to me directly made me giddy. She could have read the dictionary to me and I would have loved it.
“Have I told you about my grandpa?” Andrea asked one night. I double tapped my ‘no’ and she continued.
“Well, he’s the whole reason I became a nurse! My parents fought a lot when I was little, so I got carted off to my grandparents often to be out of the battlezone. He had a small corn farm, I know, how typical for a small Ohio town, right? But I think he sold his corn as feed. Anyway, he always dragged me along and I would ‘help’ him tend to the farm.
“When I was in my young teens though, he began deteriorating. Alzheimer’s runs in my family and he started getting it bad. He even began to forget who I was, or who his own children were. Eventually he was put on hospice. I did all I could to take care of him and help out his nurse. I even moved in with my grandma to help take care of him. Thankfully this was during summer break, so I didn’t have to worry about school.
“He had been such a hard working and proud man in his life, but during that summer I was giving him sponge baths while he cried.”
Andrea fell silent for a bit, getting lost in the memory.
“After that,” she continued, “I knew I wanted to help people. Maybe in some strange way, I thought that if I can help others I could somehow go back in time and save him.
“Obviously that’s impossible, but” she patted me on my hand, “maybe I can help you.”
It took a little more effort, but I managed to raise my finger and sort of stroke her hand. That was the best way I could think to say ‘thank you’ to her.
Despite months of bedside conversations, Andrea didn’t dig much into why I wanted to keep our communications a secret. I was thankful for that, but she figured it out one night when Jamie stayed late to record a video.
“There!” Jamie exclaimed. “I got the hair perfect! Don’t you guys think they look cute?!”
With the amount of product glopped in my hair I can guarantee you that I looked anything besides ‘cute’.
“Now, let’s add some of this blush to liven up those cheeks of-”
“What are you doing here?” Andrea’s voice rang out, more authoritative and hash than I had ever heard it. It was certainly enough to rattle Jamie.
“Oh, um, I’m Jamie. I guess you’re new here. I’m their-”
“I know who you are, but visiting hours ended forty minutes ago.”
“I’ll leave soon, just need to finish up this video I’m shooting.”
I could hear Andrea’s padded soles stomp over to where a camera must have been mounted, because I heard a beeping sound just as Jamie began to object.
“This person has a right to privacy as every individual does. Filming their unconscious body for profit is disgusting and immoral and it will not be happening during my shifts.”
My skin could have blistered from the heat of Jamie’s growing rage, but they managed to sound calm when they spoke.
“Well I know for a fact that they would be fine with me filming videos.”
Andrea scoffed. “Until they sit up and say that for themselves you are not permitted to film anything, and I will make sure day staff know to stop you as well. Now, please exit the hospital for the night.”
“Stupid fucking bitch,” grumbled Jamie as they packed up their camera. The last thing they said as they stomped past Andrea was: “And that fucking lipstick makes you look like a whore!”
“Are you fine with them filming?” Andrea asked as soon as Jamie was gone.
I tapped my finger twice, and Andrea remained silent for a few moments.
“Sweetie… is Jamie the reason you don’t want me to notify a doctor about you?”
I tapped my finger and nothing was said for a long time. In that silence, I made a very grave error. I drummed my finger to let Andrea know that I had a message to write. She sniffled before reciting the alphabet.
“A. B. C. D. E. F. G. H. I. J-”
I listened to her write the letter down on a piece of paper. As soon as she started again, I stopped her on the first letter and she wrote that down as well. We kept going till we got to the last letter.
“-M. N. O. P. Q. R. S-”
I tapped my finger three times to let her know that this was the final letter of my note and she read it back to me.
“Okay, so you wrote, ‘Jamie did this’?”
“Jamie did what, sweetie? What did they do?”
My finger stroked the bed as I tried to think of a better way to explain, but I didn’t need to.
“Oh my god,” she whispered to herself a split second before her chair skidded back. “You didn’t fall down those stairs, you were pushed.”
She stated it as a fact, but I tapped in the affirmative anyway. I wanted to tell her to keep it a secret, to do nothing. I wanted to tell her that I just wanted someone else to know, but she shot out of the room before I could do anything. And now that she knew the truth, both of our fates were sealed.
“I know you told her,” Jamie hissed, sharp and harshly in my ear. The proximity and anger jolted my mind into awareness and I immediately felt dread squeeze my heart. “That bitch thinks that she can keep us apart, that she can spread lies and take you away from me, but she fucked with the wrong person!”
In an instant, my gown was jerked up and lips began caressing me from sternum to groin. I couldn’t even twitch my finger as the repulsion and fear overcame me. I just tried to not be there, to go away mentally. Thankfully, kissing is all that happened and my gown was neatly pulled back into place.
Jamie spoke as they wiped something off their mouth. “Good, let’s see her explain her way out of this.” Jamie shot up and stormed out of the room as they screamed: “Why is there lipstick all over my love!”
Andrea was gone after that. A couple weeks of silence would have been enough for me to know about what happened, but Jamie made sure to gloat about Andrea being fired to me every single day. Once Jamie started talking about suing Andrea and pressing charges, I completely lost it. Any time I was awake, I felt tears streaming down my temples.
Once again, all hope was lost. Andrea happening into my life was a one in a million chance, and I blew it. I was trapped. Forever. And ever.
I just wanted to die.
To get away.
To be free, if only in an asomatous sense.
“You think just because I was fired that this is over?” Andrea announced from the doorway, and never in my life has a sentence brought me more boundless joy.
That joy ended abruptly though when Jamie scoffed.
“How’d you sneak back in?”
“I still have friends here,” Andrea quipped.
“Whatever, doesn’t matter. You really think anyones going to believe you over me?”
“I don’t care. What you’ve done is monstrous and I’m not going to stand by while you ruin my patient’s life. I’ll tell anyone who cares what you did. I’ll tell everyone who doesn’t care what you did. I won’t stop until you’re not allowed within a mile of this hospital!”
Andrea panted, as if being furious at Jamie was draining their breath.
“You know, I kind of thought you might come back,” Jamie said as they rummaged around in something, “so I snatched this a few days ago.”
“A scalpel? Sure. Stab me. That will definitely help make your case.”
“Stab you?” Jamie asked, their wide grin audible in their words. “I never said I would stab you.”
An instant later, I felt a punch to the side of my thigh and all sound in the hospital ceased. Andrea must have been shocked, because she didn’t say anything as Jamie ran out of the room screaming: “Get away! Put it down! Jesus! You stabbed them!”
That’s when chaos took command of the coma ward.
Andrea was screaming at Jamie. Jamie and half a dozen other voices were screaming at Andrea. Someone else screamed that they were going to get a doctor and a cart for me. All while this was all happening, my body slowly started telling me just how much pain I was in. It was like a hot poker had been pressed into me and the skin around the wound felt like bugs were crawling all over it. My fingers started growing sticky from the pooling blood. Andrea’s voice grew fainter as she was dragged away by the mob. There was a lot for me to take in, but the only thing I could really focus on was how my leg jumped when Jamie stabbed it.
“Nothing to get between us now,” Jamie whispered in my ear with a chuckle before running after the crowd.
Now, I wish I could say that I was thinking about how much I hated Jamie at that moment. Or that I was sick and tired of feeling helpless and trapped. Maybe in a weird way I was subconsciously thinking about those things, but truthly, I was just scared that Andrea was in danger. So, I started running on pure instinct.
I raised my index finger, probing for the scalpel’s handle, and as soon as I bumped it, a fresh wave of hot pain pulsed through me. But also, my leg jumped again. Without even really thinking about it, I raised my finger as much as I could and looped it over the handle. Then, I pulled down.
The blade sliced through my muscles, pain spread like an electrical storm across my nerves, and my whole body began to rattle. As the knife twisted, a muffled sound began to rise in the back of my own throat. It sounded like a quiet whimper, but internally I was screaming with everything I had. Then, I managed to raise my middle finger and got that around the handle as well. The more pain I was in, the easier it became to move. My eyes cracked open. My whole hand clutched and dragged the scalpel. I began leaning forward in bed.
Finally, after years of being trapped in a nightmare, I woke up.
My voice was hoarse and ancient from disuse, but I still screamed a guttural sound like conjoined pain and euphoria as I shot up. I commanded my legs to lift over the side rails on my bed, but they ignored me. So I just threw my whole body over and crashed onto the floor. My head hit the tiles hard enough to blacken the room and make me see sparks of color, but I began crawling a second later as my vision slowly started to refocus.
It may have been on my hands and elbows, and I left a trail of smearing blood behind me, but for the first time in over four years, I left the coma ward.
So…that’s just about all of it, officer. If I think of anything else I’ll make sure to give you a call. Now, if you don’t mind, could you push my chair to the main lobby? Andrea should be there by now and we plan on going to a coffee shop together.
Joshua Jay Henry works as a goldsmith by day and wordsmith by night. He graduated from The Columbus College of Art & Design with a BFA in illustration and continuously skulks the streets of Central Ohio, on a never-ending search for great stories.
Please repost this to give it maximum distribution.
I heard about him when I was a boy, all his stories. My daddy spoke of him, so did my papa. In fact, if you lingered about the courthouse, or the feed and seed, or anywhere old men sat around whittling big sticks into smaller ones, you were likely to hear about him. As time passed, and the old men passed, so too did his legend. Many forgot about him, and though I didn’t really believe the stories, I didn’t forget them.
His oral biographers claimed that he was a lone specter, part man, part animal, but mostly demon, or maybe even the high Satan himself, who thrived in the vast cloistered valley that lay north of Rockhouse mountain in the southern terminus of the Appalachians just west of the Georgia border in northeastern Alabama. Most white settlers called him “Old Scratch” or simply “Scratch.” The aboriginal Cherokee and the Creeks called him “A-sgi-na,” the evil one. Sometimes, according to legend, he assumed the form of a small, bent, feeble old man of apocryphal ancestry, dressed in rags or skins, who would approach homes or encampments seeking sustenance, speaking a convoluted tongue reminiscent of old English peppered with flat Indian hill dialect, only barely able to make himself understood in any language. The accounts varied but little. The gaunt, gray, bent, and humble vagabond would show up at a door or gate and beg for bread. Later, in the small hours, a clamorous commotion would erupt during the night and the resident would emerge with his weapon of choice, hurrying to guard his stock only to find that all, or most, of them were dead, their throats torn open and their blood drained. When frolicking children and venturing hunters disappeared without a trace, locals would proclaim, “Old Scratch got him another one.”
Occasionally, a terrified rural denizen, out and about in the fading gloam after sunset, might observe a beast, resembling a lion, or panther, or a wolf, depending on the teller, but running on two legs, like a man, an immense man with dark gray or black fur, standing seven or eight feet tall. Many frightened men sent many charges of buck and ball, and even stone tipped arrows, his way but none found their mark, or perhaps, he was immune to such paltry armaments.
By the 1930s, much of the low-lying land in the region was denuded, stripped of its trees and soil, and abandoned. Progress-minded men harvested every accessible stand of old-grown forest. Only those stands cloistered by steep ridges remained, like those stands that thrived in the vast cloistered valley that lay north of Rockhouse mountain. The federal government soon purchased a half million acres of these lands. and within two decades, the new growth pine silviculture served as an evergreen moat further isolating the already isolated ridges and valleys at its core. If Old A-sgi-na was alive, he was alone, completely alone, just as I was alone.
Many lonely nights after my wife passed, I lay awake, missing her, and thinking about the stories of my childhood, stories about hunting and farming, stories about dogs and men, and stories about the land that held their bones. It was one of those nights, last October, that I decided to study my maps, and locate, and search the vast cloistered valley that lay north of Rockhouse mountain. I didn’t expect to find a devil. I had long since stopped believing in any devil, or any deity, or any myth of any sort. In retrospect, perhaps belief is what I sought. I’m not sure. I had become an old man of forgotten stories, an old man who longed to linger with other old men of stories, but there were no longer old men of stories. I was solitary in the otherwise forgotten stories of my mind just as surely as Old Scratch, or his apocryphal legend, was solitary in his sheltered valley.
The next morning, I prepared and consumed a cold breakfast, readied my pack for travel, loaded my Winchester with 6 slender brass cartridges, drove my rusty Ford to the closest access point in the national forest, checked my geographical position and compass, and set about in the direction of Rockhouse mountain. By maintaining constant attention to topography, I selected a circuitous route which would avoid as many strenuous ascents as possible, though I knew the final climb would be a treacherous one. I hoped my aged muscle, bone, sinew, and cartilage might be sufficient, but I wasn’t sure.
After twelve hours of intermittent hiking, I found myself at the base of my mountain, his mountain. I cleared a section of the forest floor for my campfire and my wool blanket, gathered wood, and then warmed a cup of thick beef stew and a cup of strong black coffee. After my minimalist meal, I wrapped myself in my covers and, being too tired to resist slumber, I quickly fell asleep under a canopy of fierce stars. I dreamed of stories, always of stories.
The next morning, I drank yet another cup of bitter brew, ate an apple and a sleeve of salty crackers, filled my canteen with cool spring water and began scaling my personal Everest.
And though I don’t think it necessary to recount specific details of my climb, it was treacherous and exhausting. I reached the summit just after noon, six full hours after I began. From my lofty perspective, I surveyed the valley below, a view only a Bierstadt or Cole could have depicted. I could easily imagine the valley as a home to gnomes, or cryptids, or demons.
The remainder of the afternoon, I examined the rock formations along the western face of the prominence. I unearthed many interesting stones and minerals but nothing demonic or even unusual. I made my camp in the valley below, with the same comfort and sustenance as the previous night. The firelight cast eerie shadows on the earth and trees, more so than usual I decided, though the legendary accounts of this valley may have colored my perceptions. Sleep came slowly. Dreams followed shortly thereafter, dreams, at first, of pleasant times with my wife and our children, of my own idyllic childhood, and then my dreams grew dark and I found myself alongside my wife’s deathbed once again and then in my own silk-lined coffin as the lid closed and then something, some sound, or some premonition, quickened me. And there he was, just as I had imagined it, standing at the edge of my fire’s circle of light, as tall, as terrible, and as dark as those long-gone men of stories had described.
Old Scratch was so near that I could hear his breathing. He circled in the dancing shadows just at the edge of the light, obviously repelled by the fire. I had earlier unearthed a rich and resinous pitch pine stump to rouse the campfire quickly if necessary. I tossed this fuel into the coals and the flames soon blazed six or eight feet high. I don’t believe the demon expected this conflagration, and in the new light I could see him clearly, clearly enough to see his red demon eyes, his grotesque form, his ivory teeth, pointed like daggers, and as long as a man’s longest fingers. I could also discern the brass bead at the end of my rifle’s barrel. I drew this bead on the creature’s broad chest, thumbed back the hammer and pulled the trigger. At the reverberant clap of the rifle, the beast roared, a roar that would have shamed the most vocal black-maned lion on the African savanna.
The wounded A-sgi-na turned and melted into the night. I contemplated constructing a torch and identifying a blood trail. I knew I couldn’t have missed and I knew he carried my slug deep in his breast. I contemplated pursuing my injured quarry only briefly. If a man of six decades has acquired no wisdom, he is incapable of doing so. I decided to wait the two or three hours till daylight. Here in such a valley, the autumn sun’s rays do not reach the forest floor till almost noon, but the general ambient light would be sufficient.
I made a mental note of where the creature had been standing when I fired. I immediately located where he had turned and fled, the leaves and soil disturbed as if tilled. I followed the spoor but found no blood for the first hundred or so feet, but then a drop, and then a few more drops, and then a steady stream of bright red arterial gore. I was certain that an animal so wounded could not go far. I was wrong. I followed the flow all morning. Having hunted my entire life, I knew that a little blood can look like a lot of blood on a forest floor, but this stream was wide, and constant. I followed along the edge of the mountain, across a fast-flowing stream, and then up a gray granite outcropping. All along the path, I discovered an ever-increasing number of bleached bones and skulls, deer mostly, but also bear and smaller bones like those of possums and racoons. I paused and examined what looked like what must have been the femur of a man, a tall man. I held the bone up to my waist and determined that the man had been as tall as me. I dropped the bone and continued following the blood.
About halfway up the rocky face, I spotted the opening of a cave, and I knew that was where he, and I, were headed. I expected to find him there, dead from the loss of blood.
I ascended slowly and approached the cave’s mouth with no little trepidation. The cave was shallow and faced the now risen sun. I expected to find a stiff, huge, hirsute form, but what I found was a small, naked, emaciated man, an old man. He was unconscious and breathing raggedly, but he wasn’t dead. I nudged him with my rifle barrel. He startled, and then tried to crawl beneath a low stone shelf. He shivered as if with chill, and auge, and fear. I saw then that his skin was as pale as cold ash, his eyes clouded with cataracts. He began to speak, and though I could discern a few words from various languages and dialects, I could make no sense of any of it. He clutched his bony left hand against his chest. I pulled it away. I had to know. It was there, just as I expected it would be, a small round hole just about where a man’s heart should be. The edges were already beginning to heal, and the dried blood was already forming a scabbed seal.
I suppose it is here that I should tell you that I put that man, that remnant of a man, that demon, out of his misery, that I saved the life of some future lost traveler who happened to find his way to this valley, but I didn’t. I simply left him in his place, left him to heal. I left the valley, his valley, and brought back only his story, and my faith.
Alan Caldwell has been teaching in Georgia since 1994 but only began submitting writing in May 2022. He has since been published in over two dozen journals and magazines. He is being nominated for the Pushcart this year.
She asks first about the rest rooms. Then the stage. Both were over in the corner.
She navigated the crowd spaced out here and there in the brightly colored chairs. The walls were just as bright – all yellow. The stage was also bright, but in orange and pink.
This was her first gig. Her middle-aged dream. Just her, some sheet music, a mic, and the ancient acoustic guitar her mom had given her when she was a child.
Thirty plus years later, she’d learned to play it. A last-minute act cancellation at the restaurant next door to her day job selling mattresses and now she was taping her set list to the floor.
It was written in blue ink on cream paper. Construction paper was all she could find to write it out on.
She was supposed to play for an hour in exchange for tips and a free meal and drinks. She had nothing else to do on Friday nights, so why not?
She started by playing her favorite childhood song: “Saturday Night” by the Bay City Rollers. It translated to acoustic guitar with a female voice well. Anyway, she liked it.
She followed it with covers of songs by The Mamas and the Papas, and other 70’s rock bands or singers. Her cup was full of tips when her hour was done. She ate at the bar and thought nothing of a grinning neighborhood kid who’d sat through her set and who she’d used to babysit except how could he be old enough to be in a bar now?
“Yeah. Saw your set.” He plopped down on a stool beside her. “Didn’t know you could sing like that.”
“I’m a novelty act. A mom with an acoustic guitar.”
He grinned. Slid a tanned hand through his dark hair. “Yeah, you are.” He held up his phone. “Look here. I uploaded a video of you playing – it’s gone viral. You’re good. I remember Mason telling me his mom, uh you, had gone to college for music but then you got pregnant and married or maybe the other way around after college and so you traded in music for mom-hood.”
“Yeah. Mom-hood. That sums it up.” She finished her drink and stood. “Good to see you again, Joe.”
Joe turned out to be more than a former baby-sitting job reconnect. His viral video got her texts, DMs, request for dates (she wasn’t responding to any of that), digital downloads of the one song she liked the best on Joe’s video channels and oh yeah, a small-time gig touring all around the US. Her husband told her to go, that the kids are off at college and that he had his job and he could, read, cook and do laundry, so go live your dream for a little while. And so she did. With Joe as her mobile manager. Joe gave her a cell phone and a credit card. Her new producer emailed both of them her circuit schedule. She’d play an hour at each gig. The clubs paid her producer and she and Joe got a cut. Plus, a free hotel room for the night, and free meals. Joe arranged for ride shares to each venue and back and forth to the hotels. She had to use the phone to live stream to her new social media channels Joe set up.
This was her mom dream – to play guitar and sing and be Jodi Jenkins for an hour or so. And so she was.
All she had was a backpack with her clothes, shoes, and toiletries, her favorite pillow, a small purse with her essentials such as cleaning wipes, lip gloss, tissues, aspirin, and a pair of sunglasses plus her wallet. She also carried her gun kit with holster and ammo.
There were long hours in the hotel rooms. The set up for her gigs was minimal, same with the take-down. So, she found herself like a character in a gritty movie, camped out near airports with a wad of cash, and no rules.
What were the rules of revenge anyway? What were the Mom-hood rules?
Act the same day you’re leaving town
Don’t write, type or store your list anywhere, especially the cloud
Carry 2 guitars
Hide what you need in your spare guitar, not the case but the guitar
And of course, never leave a trace: pay cash for everything, use a disposable phone, no public computers, and don’t divulge too much to strangers. When you play bars, it’s easy to let your guard down. Jodi also added a Bonus Rule: Don’t let your guard down.
It’s not surprising how long a mom’s list can be for justice. There’s the bully – mine and my kids. The evil relatives who stole and much worse. The wicked neighbors. The lying teachers. The backstabbing volunteers. The absent friend. The evil boss. The co-worker snakes. The __________________ (you name it).
There is not a right way or wrong way to serve up revenge or one mom’s vigilante form of karma. Illegal. Legal. Not to worry. She chose the punishment based on the crime.
At first, she did it so she could fight back some of the times when she wasn’t able to stand up for herself or kids. Then it became amusing to while away the tour time. She only talked to her husband once a day in the morning. The kids were both graduated, in college, moved on and supportive! Flowers in the dressing room and positive texts in every town!
There was no one looking for her. There was no one smart enough to put any of it together.
Start simple. Keep it simple. Finish simple.
For the bullies, she told the truth (at their new jobs, to their new spouses – anonymously of course.) For the friend’s dad who tried to have his way with her, she told his grandkids about it (in a note). The relatives who were thieves, that was harder but also easy cause when you owe money to the wrong people they often want it back. The people who spread ugly gossip – that was simple too she just made up a newsletter with plenty of made-up stories (printed up copies at an all night copy service) and left them on the cars in the parking lot of the most popular big box store in town.
She limited herself to 3-5, total. She figured she could buy and dispose of that many weapons without being caught. But who would the lucky recipients of her vengeance be?
An arrow was her first choice. She liked it cause you can be like Hawkeye or the Green Arrow and take your shot from a distance then break down and dispose of the bow in a flurry. Goodbye you sleazebag lawyer that caused me to lose my house,
She found a knife to be the most fun but unlike Crocodile Dundee it was also the hardest to use. She didn’t want to leave any prints. She passed it around for show and tell after one of her sets asking for a sharpener to get it covered with innocent prints. The two women who stuck themselves into her business during her first marriage and ultimate divorce didn’t care how their behavior affected her kids. She reasoned they deserved what they got cause they ended up going after each other when the married one thought the single one wanted her hubby. She had left the knife, wiped clean of her prints, in the perfect place and read later it was a bloody scene with body parts everywhere. There were no suspects, only two friends who turned on one another.
Jodi didn’t care for the Stun Gun. It was difficult to use because she wasn’t super strong and she worried someone could get ahold of it and use it on her. She used it on the ladies who told lies about her and her family thinking now they get to experience the same thrill of having stories told on them because everyone wondered and still talked about it to this day as to why they were together, stunned, in the same room! No one would speak to them afterwards and both their husbands left them.
She saved the best for last. She grabbed the dirt bag up in West Virginia where he’d lived pretending to be a lawyer, married and also a financial wiz even though he was none of the above. There’s a lack of cell service and lot of people minding their own business in West Virginia. He was good target practice and later bear food for Yogi and his buddies. Not one soul missed him.
Jodi spent a few minutes sitting in her dressing room, such that it was, after each gig. She wrote a song about each act of vengeance. Soon, she had an album and record deal. The venues for her tour vaulted from clubs to performing arts centers. Her kids came to some of her shows. Her second husband did, too.
She sings for a living now. Her justice served up in song lyrics – killing someone in a song is a whole lot easier to get away with and you don’t ever have to worry about anyone finding the body.
LB Sedlacek has had poems and stories appear in a variety of journals and zines. Her poetry has been nominated for Best of the Net. Poetry books include “Swim,” “The Poet Next Door,” “Happy Little Clouds,” and “Words and Bones.” Her latest fiction book is “The Jackalope Committee and Other Tales” published by Alien Buddha Press. Her fiction books include the award nominated mystery “The Glass River” and “Four Thieves of Vinegar & Other Short Stories.” Her short stories “Backwards Wink” and “Sight Unseen” both won 1st Place Prose for different issues of “Branches” literary magazine in 2022. LB also enjoys swimming and reading.
Old Witchmare is a small village perched on the side of a hill, where a wide valley opens. They call it the Witches’ Cauldron because of its shape of a semicircle east and west of Mount Crescent. The river Slithe once sprang from the mountain and carved the valley with its many streams, digging deep gorges and caves. Since the 1790s, hundreds of mills multiplied in the valley, making its inhabitants wealthy and its textiles admired all over Europe. However, the river mysteriously dried up around 1880, all the channels turned into stony ditches and the mills were shut. Their wheels still hang today over the empty canals like huge, broken toys. Old Witchmare is picturesque, with its crooked, old buildings made of timber and chalk, of two or three floors, with large bow windows, projecting dormers, and fantastic faces carved on the projecting beams. The locals are friendly, and the oldest pub in the village, Stork & Lamb, always spreads a delicious smell of stew. Like every other place, though, this lovely village has its specks, the first of which is precisely its name. When the hamlet was founded in 1625, the plague had emptied London, and rumour spread that witches and wizards roamed the land unchecked, anointing the walls with venomous concoctions. In the county of B., it was known to everyone that the valley of the Slithe was haunted by witches. Thus, to avert a wave of collective violence, the government authorized the foundation of a military outpost at the mouth of the valley. Within weeks, a square, fortress-looking settlement had been built, with wooden barracks for troops all around the central courtyard and a few shabby buildings made of brick and timber for the officers of the Health Tribunal, the jail, and the canteen. There is no record of what happened there in those years because Old Witchmare was sieged and destroyed by Cromwell’s army during the Civil War when the archive was lost in a fire. What we know about the dark origins of the village is the matter of folktales and gloomy legends of massacres, torture, and executions of many unfortunate people who had found refuge from the plague in the valley, only to be arrested and burned alive as worshippers of the devil. The anonymous chroniclers report that the flames of the stakes were visible every night from the main road that connected London to Bristol. However, those creepy stories have permitted the village to get back on its feet because it is thanks to them that tourists visit the Witches’ Cauldron year-round.
Some years ago, I read about Old Witchmare in the book Witchcraft Legends and Folktales, published in 1948 by celebrated ethnologist Waldo Percival Barnstormer. More interestingly, though, I stumbled once again on the name of this village a few weeks ago as I was attending a geology conference in Lancaster where Dr Brian Jackson delivered a fascinating paper about sinkholes in the Witches’ Cauldron. After the talk, I asked Brian to tell me the rest of his story, which he agreed to do at dinner. Never the saying “curiosity killed the cat” was more appropriate to the context, albeit tragically, as I eventually found out.
The visitors were lucky to explore the Witches’ Cauldron with Jacob Forsyth. He had explored nearly every gorge and cave in the valley and knew all the dark stories about the witch hunt. At the end of every tour, he enjoyed telling one or two anecdotes he rearranged following the inspiration. In his fifties, solitary and shy, he lived alone with his beloved cat Horatio in his house built for a wealthy family of pharmacists in 1670, of which he took care with devotion and for good reasons too. Ancient as it was, it required attention as an elderly lady, the beams creaked and groaned from time to time, and the wooden frames of the windows felt the weight of the centuries. Jacob’s secret refuge was the back garden with its mossy stones, roses, lilies, hydrangeas and daffodils. When evening came, Jacob would sit on the porch with Horatio on his knees, admiring that small corner of peace.
And there he was, at the beginning of this story, sitting in the breeze of a mid-summer evening, smoking his pipe, his heart at peace and his mind clear, for he felt that everything around him was just right. He was smoking lazily with his eyes closed, and when he opened them, he caught in the dim light a small, dark spot on the kitchen floor. Horatio looked half asleep, but his wagging tail revealed that he had noticed the thing too.
“What is it, my love?” Jacob asked.
The thing in the kitchen sprang forward and stopped again. Now it was perfectly in sight.
“What the hell is that? Horatio, won’t you go have a look-see?”
The cat didn’t move. When the dark thingy zoomed and vanished under the cupboard, Horatio jumped off Jacob’s lap and trotted into the kitchen. Jacob stood up, the daydreaming was gone, and a feeling of irritation remained. Horatio had slipped under the cupboard, and only the tip of his tail stuck out.
“Did you find it, darling? What was that?” Jacob asked. Then, he moved the cupboard enough to look behind it but saw just a little dirt. At a closer look, he noticed a small, barely visible crack. It started from the floor, crawled upwards for a few inches, and was just one millimetre wide. Jacob didn’t like that some roach came out of the wall and planned to plaster the crack tomorrow. For now, he just stuck some paper in the gap, but no sooner had he touched the wall than the plaster crumbled all around, revealing a much larger cavity. Jacob quickly withdrew his fingers. He immediately prepared some stucco and closed the hole as if treating a wound. When the work was done, he pushed the sideboard back against the wall and thought no more about it.
The rest of the week passed as usual, but on Sunday, while he was making breakfast and listening to the news on the radio, Jacob saw the black spot on the floor again. Even before the word formed in his mind, his full attention was on the intruder. He stopped scrambling the eggs and slowly turned his head. Horatio, too, was sitting motionless next to the insect, looking down at it. Jacob expected to see his fat cat catch its prey any moment now, and he thought that he could crush the roach under his foot, for it was only a step away. But that thing was big and dark. Jacob looked at the antennae waving in the air and wondered how he had made it through the plaster. Yeah, cockroaches can dig, but that stopper was thick. He stood there with the bowl in one hand and the spoon in the other and watched in horror at the insect. Suddenly, he could see its head as if magnified and its great pincers clacking as if trying to reach some prey. The vision faded and left Jacob paralysed, for he knew the stucco dam could not resist those crushers. Suddenly, the roach zoomed and disappeared under the cupboard.
“You fat bugger”, Jacob whimpered, “why did you stand there like a sucker and do nothing? You must have grown a little too picky. I’m cutting your food, let’s see if another time you’ll eat that lousy roach. Actually no, it ain’t gonna happen again, this thing stops now.”
He moved the cupboard and froze. Feeling as if a heavy, cold ball had descended into his belly, he stared at the wide crack that crawled along the wall up to his chest. The plaster was spread in crumbles.
“What the hell?” Jacob exclaimed in a panic. His heart was pounding, and his throat was dry. It was like looking at the marks of a hideous disease on a friend’s face. A friend, of course! It was then that he called me. He sounded upset, so I told him there was nothing to worry about, for old houses play such nasty tricks. However, I popped by and had a look at the damage. I have seen much worse in old buildings, so I prepared a bucket of cement, and after half an hour later, we were looking with satisfaction at the filled crack. I wouldn’t say it was a fine job, for the line was still visible as a grey, ugly scar. Anyway, the cupboard hid the wound. I left Jacob, who went out for his usual Sunday walk, but despite the sunshine and the warm summer breeze, he could not relax. As he roamed the fields, he thought, for the first time in his life, that the absence of water in the Cauldron was disturbing. He looked at the marks the water had left everywhere, scarring the hills. Jacob stopped suddenly, for a crazy image had formed in his mind. He could see the Cauldron from above as if he was a bird – so he told me – and a complicated web of cracks crisscrossed it. He got back to reality, amazed and scared. Above his head, he could see the branches of a dead tree that drew an intricate pattern of cracks against the blue sky. Cracks, cracks everywhere! He thought about his living room, but even that peaceful image came with disturbing background noise, like a feeble crunch. With the eyes of his mind, he saw the floor move and wriggle as thousands of roaches were vomited from a large crack in the wall.
He looked around, sweating and feeling dizzy. The walk was ruined, and the weather was getting sulky, so he made up his mind to go home. When he arrived, he flung the door open and stood on the threshold listening. Without taking off his boots, he went into the kitchen holding his breath. Everything was silent and still. He even moved the cupboard and saw with relief that the cement was dry and solid. After lunch, the rain began to pour down. Jacob was sitting in the living room with a book, but the dull light entering from the window made him uncomfortable. Not even Horatio was there to comfort him. Despite the rain, the sucker was hanging around. Maybe, he was now sheltering in someone else’s house, the traitor. Jacob decided to go to the pub, where he could at least chitchat with the bartender and me, for I usually spend my Sunday afternoons there. Before leaving, he only glanced into the backyard, in case Horatio was there, but nothing. Instead, she noticed that the rain had formed a large puddle in the corner of the garden between the roses and the hydrangea.
Horatio did not come home that night. Jacob stayed up late waiting for him and left his bowl on the porch, but nothing: apparently, the cat was gone. When the hours got small, he began to worry seriously, although he knew there was nothing to do but wait – cats are like that, especially in spring. They smell a female in heat and take off. “He’ll come home – he said to himself – he’s not that stupid.” And to bed did he go.
The following morning, he got up early for work. He immediately ran downstairs and opened the kitchen window. Horatio was in the garden! Happy as ever, Jacob stepped onto the porch to welcome his friend but stopped with wide-open eyes. Horatio was sitting in the same corner of the garden where the rain had formed the big puddle the day before. Now, the water was gone, and the cat was staring at a wide crack in the ground. Jacob couldn’t take his eyes off it, as if that crevice had swallowed every other thought. The cat lifted its head and meowed softly. The air was still and silent, and not a bird was heard. The whole village seemed fast asleep. Jacob didn’t know what to do with that crack, but it was already late, he really had to go to work. He decided to lock Horatio inside, but as he tried to grab him, the beast leapt and disappeared over the fence. Jacob cursed and stopped looking at the crack. He picked up a twig, and when he scraped the dirt on the edges, some clods disappeared in the dark with a muffled sound. Jacob thought of moles or something like a hedgehog or even a badger, but he knew they wouldn’t crack the ground like that. He wondered if the heavy rain had maybe carved that ditch. Yes! That explained why the water had disappeared so quickly and why the hydrangea and the rose bush seemed slightly lower than usual. The water had formed a stream of great power, and God knows how much damage it could have done if it had not stopped.
That night Jacob returned home quite late after an endless dinner with his colleagues, and on his way back he had found the only road leading to the Cauldron blocked. The cops said that someone had gone off the road and died. When the police finally lifted the blockade, the line of cars moved slowly and like a funeral procession passed by a car smashed in a ditch. The lights illuminated a trace of oil that crossed the carriage like a long crack in the asphalt. Jacob shivered and began to brood and mumble that cracks were opening everywhere, the world itself was cracking, and someone should have done something with that. Suddenly he felt the need to check behind the cupboard again. So he parked his car, got inside, rushed into the kitchen and moved the heavy furniture. The cement was there, an ugly grey scar. He opened the back door and called for Horatio. The garden was quiet, and the moon shed a pale light. With a shiver of horror, Jacob saw a dark shape crouching in the garden that resembled, he told me later, a child. The thing sat on its heels beside the crack in the cold, damp darkness. And then the most terrifying of metamorphoses occurred. Two small lights shone in the centre of the head, and then the being stretched slowly and began crawling rapidly across the courtyard. Jacob nearly screamed in terror as he recoiled and fell on the porch steps when the creature entered the cone of light meowing.
“Horatio! You scoundrel, bloody traitor! D’you wanna see me dead? Nice way to say hello to daddy, you bum!”
The cat seemed in a good mood, but when Jacob stroked him on his back, he noticed that the fur was all caked with mud.
“Where the hell have you been?”, he said again, but Horatio leapt into the night and disappeared again.
The next day Jacob called work to say he was sick and would not be going. He had had a restless night and felt like lying in bed a little longer than usual. However, morning laziness is a joy one can appreciate only with a free mind and a light heart. Jacob didn’t like changes, let alone surprises. Since he had started seeing those incomprehensible cracks everywhere, an unpleasant feeling had built in his guts. Now he could hear them run from the roof down to the bottom of the house. Half asleep, he thought he could catch some ominous creaking in the silence. Then, he fell asleep again and dreamed that the crack in the garden was opening into a chasm, out of which monstrous creatures with flat, long, pale faces and hollow eyes emerged. Jacob woke up very frightened only to discover that the ceiling of his room was crossed by a long crack. He leapt to his feet and gave a high-pitched scream that echoed through the house. His neighbours told me later on that it was awful to hear. I think that the worst crack opened right then in the head of my poor friend, as it were, one that couldn’t be filled.
When he went to the kitchen, Jacob tripped over an uneven tile. He looked more closely and saw in amazement that the floor was oddly wavy, and a long crack ran up the wall to the ceiling. The fissure started from behind the cupboard, and Jacob knew all too well that whatever was pushing from the other side, there was nothing he could do to hold it back. It was only a matter of time before those things would come out. He dialed my number and told me everything, as I accounted for. He still sounded lucid but there was a note of excruciating tension in his voice, as if something in him was about to snap. I was out of town for work and could go to him only in the early afternoon, unfortunately too late. Jacob welcomed me with feverish eyes, wearing his pyjamas. Almost stuttering, he kept telling me that some creatures living under his garden had kidnapped Horatio. He was convinced that those things were trying to bring his house down. I tried to cheer him up and checked out the cracks in the kitchen, and I told him that the damage could be fixed but that we had to act immediately. I promised him that I would send someone to check the hole in his garden, but I dared not suggest that he should send for a doctor too.
The following morning, the County Council sent an engineer to inspect the site, but Jacob insulted him and rudely sent him away. He reported that some madman was barricading himself in a crumbling house, and the matter passed directly into the hands of the police. The house, meanwhile, had begun to lean dangerously towards the backyard, where the crack had spread. I begged Jacob to let in the engineers and firefighters, but he refused to open the door. Everyone in Old Witchmare said that Jacob had lost his wits, and that was no surprise after all, for everyone knew about his sudden episodes of daydreaming when he zoned out only to return some moments later as one who has been abducted by the aliens. His head was full of cracks, everyone said, just like his old house.
While the police chief argued with the firefighters and the prosecutor about whether to break the door and drag Jacob out, I climbed over the fence and immediately noticed that the chasm was literally sucking down the garden. I could see the plants slowly move towards the hole and I had to run away not to be swallowed. In a few minutes, the house fell apart and sank into the hole without leaving a single nail behind. The news spread, journalists came and the lawyers with the insurance agents. Some geologists appeared too, who climbed down a well not far from the village. Their report left us speechless. The underground of the Cauldron is a gigantic anthill, an incredible labyrinth of caves and galleries that has grown over the millennia. The leader of the expedition explained to me that the cavity that had engulfed the house had opened up due to a larger and deeper landslide, which had set off a chain reaction. He said that the water of the Slithe and all the streams of the Witches’ Cauldron must have been sucked into the depth of the earth after some catastrophic collapse. They found the water, deep down, streaming dark and cold. And so, the mystery was explained. The ground was then consolidated and the other houses were declared sound and safe.
The empty space left by Jacob’s house makes me melancholy. What bothers me is thinking that Jacob was inside when it happened. And there’s something more. The geologist who had signed the report called me a week after the collapse. He had sent for a solicitor and wanted me to see something too.
“I’m glad you came”, he told me when I arrived. “We were about to close the well, when we found something that might be worth seeing. You know, you’re an expert and I could use your qualified opinion about that.”
“Ok, let’s see it then”, I said, both curious and reluctant.
He took me to the well and down into a side gallery. Below us, the hole was dark and deep, and the sound of distant water came from the depth. As we entered a half-collapsed chamber, the man explained that this was the epicentre of the collapse. With his lamp, he showed me two dozen skeletons wrapped in rags and stretched out in two parallel rows. Perhaps, this chamber had once been a tomb where they hurriedly buried those bodies. I believe there is some truth to the witch hunt legends for which the Cauldron is famous. In fact, all the bones of the limbs and necks were broken. Those poor devils were broken on the wheel and hanged, maybe as anointers or witches, who will ever know? When we emerged to the light, the solicitor ordered to seal the well and no one objected. Maybe, one day, someone will come and dig into its secrets. For now, it’s best to leave the past and its mysteries alone because the population is still quite shaken and doesn’t need any more scares. Besides, there is something that makes me wonder. In a remote corner of the chamber that I explored on my own, the debris formed a niche, and a white speck attracted me. It was Horatio, lying there, with his neck broken. Have you ever heard of any cat breaking its neck for falling down a well? I did not, but one never knows.
Gianluca Cinelli lives in Italy and is a scholar in Italian and Comparative Literature, editor of the Close Encounters in War Journal, and author of fiction with a taste for the weird, the spooky, and the uncanny. When not writing, he loves building wooden ship models and playing the bass guitar.
Dark dreams, black silk
woven from shadows
and born of fire,
soon to be caressed
by the words
of a lonely martyr.
Kneel within the ashes
of a crime gone by,
and in silence pray,
as you listen to
Jeanne d' Arc cry.
Alan O’Brien is a retired construction manager and lives in London, England. He enjoys writing dark poetry and flash fiction. This is his first published poem and he hopes more will follow.
“Billy,” said Joshua McIntyre. “Why don’t you get yerself a girlfriend steada watchin’ all that DVD porn?”
Billy Babbitt and Joshua McIntyre, friends since their college days, were sitting in Flakey Jake’s, a dive bar near Putnamville. Both were lifelong inhabitants of the small Indiana farm town, and the two of them met most evenings in Flakey Jake’s. Now in their forties, they lamented the course of their unexceptional lives. Joshua, once a high school gym teacher, had been fired from his job when a CNN video showed him vandalizing the Capital building during the January 6 insurrection. Billy, once an aspiring novelist, had shelved his manuscript years ago when a book publisher dismissed him as a third-rate, James Joyce wannabe. Now a reporter for the Putnamville Gazette, Billy devoted his literary skills to covering local bake sales and high school football games.
“Well, why don’t ya?” Joshua said. “Women in the flesh are a lot more entertaining than women in porno flicks.”
“Tell that to yer wife,” Billy said. “I’m sure she’ll be flattered to hear it.”
“Naw, I don’t wanna spoil her,” said Joshua. “But I will admit to this. Without Stella’s loving touch, I’d just be a bum in a bar.”
“You’re a bum in a bar just the same,” Billy said. “I can’t see where yer wife’s made a difference.”
Joshua shook his head and took a long swallow of beer. “Women keep home fires burning,” he said. “That makes one hellava difference. Wouldn’t ya like to go home to a honey instead of a stack of DVD porn?”
“Women want nothing to do with me,” Billy snapped. “They think I’m a literary nerd. If I had to pick between women and porn, I’d just as soon settle for porn.”
“Maybe ya haven’t tried hard enough.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Get rid of those polyester bell bottoms you’re wearing. Replace ’em with designer jeans. And get yerself a decent haircut ’cause your cowlick’s all over the place.”
“Designer jeans are expensive,” said Billy.
“Well, go sell your porn collection—ya gotta be sick of it by now. That’ll probably net you a fortune, and it wouldn’t be no great loss.”
Billy was unwilling to admit it, but Joshua was right. He had long been bored with his pile of porn and longed for a real female’s touch. But the tyranny of habit still gripped his guarded soul. “Do I gotta sell Deep Throat?” he said.
Joshua sighed like a kettle. “Billy, ya gotta ditch yer distractions. That starts with yer smut collection. You’re not a bad-lookin’ fella, ya know? You just gotta tidy up.”
“So where do I look for a babe in the flesh?”
“Try a singles dance at the Holiday Inn, and practice your line a bit first. Hell, it shouldn’t be long ’til a fella like you is beatin’ ’em off with a stick.”
The thought of beating off love-starved nymphs was more than Billy could resist. “All right,” he said. “I’ll sell my porn, but I’m hanging on to Deep Throat.”
After setting aside his favorite DVDs—Deep Throat and Lesbian Lunch—Billy took his depleted collection to Jaybird, the local porn shop. He sold his collection for only a fraction of what he had paid for it, but the hundred dollars he netted was enough to buy some designer jeans.
A week later, wearing his fancy-new jeans, Billy showed up at a singles dance at a nearby Holiday Inn. He walked into the ballroom confidently, his cowlick slicked into place, but the women were chatting among themselves and none looked in his direction. His confidence suffered further when he asked one of them to dance—a leathery blonde who stifled a yawn as she texted on her cell phone. “I don’t like the band, little man,” she drawled.
“How ’bout I buy you a drink?” Billy countered, “That oughta even things up.”
“How about you don’t,” the woman replied, “and we’ll call it even at that.”
Billy approached several more women and met with equal results—not one of them accepted his invitation to dance. “Hey, don’t I know you?” one said. “Don’t you report for the local paper.”
“I’m really a budding author,” Billy said. “Some call me the Renaissance Man.”
The woman cackled and rolled her eyes. “Is that what they call you, hon? I didn’t know Renaissance men wrote for the Putnamville Gazette.”
After a fruitless hour, Billy abandoned the Holiday Inn. If he had hoped to beat off babes with a stick, he had come to an unlikely place. The ballroom was not filled with wanton belles, as Joshua had suggested, but matrons in their fifties who had led concentrated lives. Lives that enabled them to see Billy for what he was—an underachiever whose desperate baggage was more than they cared to pick up.
Adding to Billy’s disappointment was the all-to-sobering thought that singles dances were no less stale than the porn he had given up. “Stuck-up bitches,” he muttered as he slipped into his car, and he cursed himself for the cash he had blown on a pair of designer jeans.
The following afternoon, Billy pawned his Mac for a hundred and fifty dollars, and then he returned to Jaybird hoping to buy back some of his porn. He realized that renewing his vice would afford him nothing more than the sterile embrace of his television and a change of solitude. But his soul felt so impoverished, so gravelly and bare, that nothing green seemed likely to ever take root in it.
Billy had not expected to meet the love of his life in Jaybird. He had not expected his heart to leap like a rabbit trapped in his chest. But sitting high on one of the shelves, as though watching for his arrival, was a stunning, life-sized brunette so appealing that Billy could not catch his breath. Her eyes were aglow with yearning; her cheeks were flushed with excitement; her pale, slender arms reached toward him in a permanent embrace. And her open, oval-shaped mouth bore the innocence of Eve in Paradise Lost—a naïf who had gasped when first she saw her reflection in a pond. She was wearing a short, frizzy nightie, which did her no justice at all—her perfect, hourglass figure belonged in an elegant evening gown.
“How much for the toy?” Billy asked the sales clerk, a greasy kid with acne. Billy kept his voice condescending as though he were pricing a used car. It would never do for that kid to suspect that he had suddenly fallen in love.
“You’re in luck,” said the kid. “We’re letting her go for a hundred and thirty dollars. She was made in Tijuana. Only the best dolls come out of there.”
“Has she a name?” Billy asked the kid. He knew his question was foolish, but he asked it anyway. It would be presumptuous of him not to know the doll’s name before he escorted her home.
“We call her Blow-Up Bertha,” the kid said, “but name her whatever you like.”
As he paid for the doll, Billy felt proud for the first time in his life. He felt as though he rescued a damsel entombed in a pirates’ cave. The kid winked as he handed Billy the doll, along with his receipt, and Billy was pleased to discover that she was uncommonly light.
After placing the doll in his car and fastening a seat belt over her chest, Billy drove her to the boarding house where he lived in a rented room. A few of the tenants stared at him as he lugged her into the house, but Billy was too excited to care about what they might think of him. Reaching his room, Billy opened the door and carried the doll over the threshold, and then he sat her ceremoniously on the bed and began to take off his pants. It did seem as though he was rushing things, since they had met just met an hour ago, and when a gentle voice admonished him, he felt like a dog caught raiding a cookie jar.
“What are you doing?” the voice purred. “Are you taking liberties with me, sir?”
The tone was sweeter than honey, softer than a summer rain, and the heavy Spanish accent made Billy’s underpants swell. The remarks had come from the doll even though her oval-shaped mouth had not moved, but her eyes were locked upon him as though he had escaped from a cage.
Billy zipped his pants up and hung his head in shame. Since the voice carried the weight of karma, it did not seem out of place. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Don’t think badly of me.”
The doll did not drop her stare. “Have you not kidnapped me, señor, and thrown me on your bed? And is it not your intention to have your way with me? Señor, you give me no choice but to have bad thoughts of you.”
“I’m n-no rapist!” Billy sputtered.
The doll looked at him more appraisingly, and the alarm went out of her voice. “So what are you then? A sad little man who lives in a messy room?”
“I’m a budding author,” said Billy. “They call me the Renaissance Man.”
“Yes, I’m sure they do,” said the doll. “But have you a proper name?”
“My name is Billy Babbitt, and I paid good money for you.”
“Good money does not buy slaves, Meester Babbitt. What a pig you are. And what might my name be, or did you bother to find out”
“I think it’s Blow-Up Bertha,” said Billy. “It says that on my receipt.”
“Dios mio!” the doll exclaimed. “Some stupid boy must have named me. Please address me as Bella Blanco, or I will be very cross with you.”
They looked at each other strategically. Billy struggled for something to say.
After a minute, the doll broke the silence. “So tell me Billy Babbitt,” she teased. “have you greater ambitions, sir? Or is it your calling to grab señoritas and ravage them in this room?”
“Can’t we think of this as seduction?” asked Billy.
“Seduction? Pah!” the doll snapped. “Does seduction not have stages, señior? Should you not date a woman first?”
“I’m out of practice with dating,” said Billy.
“Que pena!” the doll replied. “Have you ever dated a woman, at all? I doubt that, Billy Babbitt.”
“I’ve tried,” Billy said, “but women don’t like me.”
The doll gasped like a broken pump. “Why should women like you. You’re a skinny hombre who lives in a sty, and you probably watch naughty movies. What makes you think any woman would want to waste time on you?”
Billy grew redder than a plum, and his palms began to sweat. “W-would you like to go out to dinner?” he stammered.
The doll gazed at him with pity and sternness. “Dinner?” she spat as though scolding a child. “You want to take me to dinner? All right, I accept your offer, señor. At least, that might give us a start.”
After dressing Bella in a black, evening gown, which he bought in a Goodwill store, Billy took her to Hot Tamales, a Mexican restaurant in Putnamville. The proprietor, perhaps thinking that Bella was a prop for some local play, expressed no objection as Billy seated her at one of the corner tables. Fortunately, the evening was young and the restaurant had no other diners, but Billy still took the precaution of sitting Bella with her back to the door.
Billy ordered a platter of arroz con pollo and a plate for each of them. After heaping both plates with chicken and rice, he said, “Bon appetite.”
Bella did not touch her food, but she seemed pleased by the restaurant’s décor. She was clearly glad to be somewhere other than Billy’s dirty room, and her voice bore a note of approval as she renewed their conversation. “So tell me, Billy, what do you do when you’re not kidnapping innocent women?”
“I write for the Putnamville Gazette.”
“How interesting. Tell me all about it.”
“There’s not much to tell,” Billy shrugged.
“Well, what are your hobbies, señor.”
“I go to the movies a lot, Miss Blanco, but what’s there to say about that?”
Bella chuckled politely, but her tone of voice grew bored. “Billy, it seems I have more questions than you have answers to give me.”
“I’m not much of a talker,” Billy confessed.
“Please make more of an effort, señor. Perhaps you could tell me the reason you are called the Renaissance Man.”
Billy needed no prompting to expound on his pet peeve: the indifference of the corporate-run publishing houses to scribes out of step with the times. He described, in painful detail, the progress he’d made on his book: a dreamscape of poetic allusions that he titled The Sweat of the Sun. Of course, this made him a throwback to an age of literary giants, writers whose towering efforts would never be published today. If he had only lived in Paris, during the 1920s, Billy would have dined with Gertrude Stein and gotten drunk with Hemingway.
Bella listened intently and sighed when Billy was done. “For this, they call you the Renaissance Man, or is that what you call yourself?”
Since his pose had failed to impress her, Billy decided to change his act. Perhaps the role of a paramour would bring him better results. “I’ve given up writing,” he proudly announced. “My passions belong to you. I even pawned my Mac, so I could rescue you.”
“How simpatico,” Bella huffed. “But tell me something, señor. What makes you think I wanted a bobo to take me out of that store?”
“A pervert may have bought you if I hadn’t shown up first.”
“Since you quit your writing to buy me, señor, I am no better off with you.”
“I was hoping you might be grateful,” groused Billy.
A sob crept into her voice. “Grateful for what, Meester Babbitt? A man who buys me cheap dresses and insists he was born too late? Señor, I believe you’ll soon blame me for not finishing your book.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because, Meester Babbitt, you are much too fond of complaining. It is bad enough being your captive without becoming your whipping girl too.”
Stunned by Bella’s bluntness, Billy averted her eyes. “L-let’s talk about something else,” he pleaded.
“Let’s end this date,” Bella snapped. “I appreciate your effort, but I’ve lost my appetite.”
As Billy lugged Bella back to his room, his heart began to pound. After all, they had had their first quarrel, so he expected some makeup sex. But his hopes for compensation were dashed when he set Bella back on his bed. She told him not to touch her and went into a lingering sulk.
Bella’s depression continued for days, and Billy felt miserable. Compounding his grief were the tearful laments she would mutter to herself. “Why oh why,” she moaned, “do I not have a loving home. Mother Mary, what have I done to be trapped in this terrible room?” She seemed like a modern-day Emma Bovary, a woman doomed by her dreams, and his was the role of Emma’s drab husband who richly deserved her contempt.
After several days, Billy tried to improve Bella’s opinion of him. He acquired a loan from a local bank, took his computer out of hock, and emailed the first chapter of his manuscript to several small publishers. A week later, a publisher emailed him back and said his chapter showed merit. She liked his stream-of-conscious technique, and she asked him to send her the book. When he told this news to Bella, she practically swooned. “Do send her the book!” she cried. “I want you to be a real author, señor. I want to have good thoughts about you.”
Billy emailed his book to the publisher. She accepted it the next day, describing it as a Proustian gem that did not need much polishing. She promised she would get back to him in two weeks with the edits and cover design, and she said she hoped he would use the time to come up with a marketing plan.
Flushed by the specter of future success, Billy was jubilant, particularly since this wonderful news pulled Bella out of her funk. “Billy, I feel like dancing,” she gushed. “Forgive me for doubting you, sir. Dios mio, I’m glad it was you and not a pervert that bought me.”
Since a celebration seemed in order to keep Bella’s spirits high, Billy took out another loan and booked them a carnival cruise.
Billy was so elated by Bella’s festive mood that he did notice the stares of the passengers as he carried her aboard a plane to Miami. Nor did he hear their laughter as he fastened Bella into her seat or turn his head when a woman cried out, “What kind of airline is this?” A flight attendant suggested that Bella be placed in a carry-on rack, but Billy showed her his extra ticket and she let Bella stay in her seat.
Bella drew even more attention at the cruise terminal in Miami. A child shouted, “Mommy, I want that balloon,” a security guard called for backup, and several people raised their iPhones and took videos of her. But a check-in agent grinned good-naturedly and gave Billy two boarding passes. “Is that prop for the Mardi Graz party?” he asked, and Billy stopped holding his breath. When the security guard waved the couple aboard, Billy squeezed Bella’s hand reassuringly then he clutched her as though she were a life preserver and rushed her onto the ship.
Billy had hoped that a carnival cruise would bring Bella to amorous heights but Bella, a lady of breeding, had no use for the noisy boat. The costume balls did not interest her, the stage shows made her yawn, and she certainly had no desire to be force-fed six times a day. “Billy,” she said, “who are these people who party all day long? Their drunkenness and gluttony are depressing me, señor.”
“How about that sunset?” said Billy as they stood on the promenade deck.
“The sunset is beautiful, mi amor, but must we share it with fools?”
At Bella’s insistence, they deserted the cruise when the ship docked in Nassau, and her mood improved considerably as they explored the island together. The tropical gardens enthralled her, the waterfalls made her gasp, and the flamingos in the nature center took away her breath. She particularly enjoyed snorkeling with dolphins because she had no trouble staying afloat, and she laughed like a child when one of the dolphins nudged her with its nose.
They consummated their relationship in a hotel overlooking a bay, but Billy’s joy turned to panic when Bella sprang a leak. The leak hissed like an angry snake, accelerating Billy’s fear as he cupped his hand over a shriveling breast and lugged her to the front desk. “Help her! Help her!” he shouted. “She’s going into shock!” The clerk summoned the hotel limousine driver who drove the couple to a garage where an attendant glued a tire patch onto Bella’s wheezing breast. A couple of blasts from an air hose restored Bella to her full size, and Billy wept with gratitude as he took her back to their room.
Perhaps Bella considered the patch to be a blot on her beauty, or perhaps their constant sightseeing had sapped her energy. In any case, she had no desire to renew their connubial bliss. “Later, mi amor,” she snapped when he reached for her in bed. “If you start treating me like a plaything, I will not think well of you.”
“You’re the joy of my life,” Billy protested.
“I’m a balloon,” Bella replied. “The joy of your life should not be a balloon You need to complete your book.”
A day after they returned to Putnamville, Billy’s publisher sent him an email with some attachments, and Billy realized that completing his book would prove a daunting task. The edits seemed excessive, the cover image looked trite, and Billy was irked that she’d sent him a contract to split the promotional costs.
“Damn,” Billy grumbled as he scanned the edits. “She’s mending my book with an axe. On top of that, she wants me to pay for butchering my voice.”
“Well, pay her,” said Bella. “Can you not see she has given you a chance? Are you too pigheaded, mi amor, not to bet on yourself?”
Billy took out a third loan and sent the publisher a check, and then he grudgingly read through the edits and tried to revise his book. But his manuscript was suffering the death of a thousand cuts—a torture so cruel and calculated that Billy could not witness it. After deleting the publisher’s emails, Billy cursed his damnable luck, and Bella, unable to cope with him, retreated into herself. She did not need to say anything, her stiffness said it all, and in a matter of days, their common-law marriage had grown intolerable.
Hoping to salvage some vestige of the happiness they had known, Billy contacted a therapist and booked them for couple’s counseling. But Bella refused to open up when Billy took her to their first session, and the therapist took Billy aside and gave him a piece of advice. “Mister Babbitt,” he said. “You’re much too fond of your psychotic break. If you decide to return to normality, you will have to get rid of the doll.”
Since normality meant only rejection and a new pile of DVD porn, Billy refused further treatment and carted Bella home. But Bella, who continued to assault him with silence, seemed increasingly like a balloon, and one afternoon, Billy decided that he would be no worse off on his own.
When he took Bella back to Jaybird, the greasy kid shook his head. “I ain’t paying for damaged goods,” he snapped.
“You can have her for free,” Billy said.
Billy stood as though shackled after handing Bella back to the kid. Her gaze was so dispirited, when the kid put her back on the shelf, that she seemed like a trusting dog who had been surrendered to a pound. He agonized over something to say to her, a tribute to cushion his grief. “At least, we had Nassau,” he blurted, but Bella just stared into space.
That afternoon, Billy yielded to habit and returned to Flakey Jake’s, but the barroom now looked so gloomy, so prohibitive and dark, that he felt as though he had ducked into a cave to evade the judgment of God. Joshua was sitting at their usual table, nursing a glass of beer, but even the sight of his lifelong friend did not cheer Billy up.
After buying them a full pitcher, Billy topped off Joshua’s beer.
“Where ya been all month?” Joshua said. “Did ya get lucky at the dance?”
Billy mentioned the heavenly woman with whom he had broken up. Of course, he did not tell Joshua that she was an inflatable doll; instead, he described her ethereal beauty and her generous resolve to support him when he called himself an elevated soul.
“You make her sound like an angel,” said Joshua as Billy started to fill his own glass. “But if she tried to change ya, it was wrong of her to do that.”
Billy remembered how lost Bella looked when he left her in the shop, how her frozen arms stretched toward him, how she gaped as though calling him back. The memory was so enduring, and so beyond repair, that his hands shook as though they were palsied and he overpoured his beer.
“Let’s talk no more about her,” he griped as the puddle soaked his pants. “At least, she was right about one thing. I like to complain too much.”
“Blow Up Bella” was previously published in the journal “A Thin Slice of Anxiety”.
I’ve lit cathedral candles
so you can find your way
down gargoyle aisles of stone
to where naked ghosts are sitting,
cold, and shivering,
waiting there for you.
I’ve lit the forest campfires
for when you’re called to go
beyond your quiet village
to where the elves are laughing,
about what they’re going to do.
I’ve lit the bedroom lanterns
so you can freely make
to shadowed room,
where witches sit
crocheting baby blankets,
little blankets soft and blue.
I’ve turned the neon lights up bright
so you can find this bar
and miles away,
to stumble in the door.
And all the wolves will stop,
and begin to move toward you.
When you’ve reached at last for naked ghosts,
heard the shrill of elfin laughter,
watched the witches slowly stand,
and felt wolf fur on your skin,
then we’ll go back to the darkness,
past the useless light of reason,
to a place where darkness started...
...and it all begins again.
David Hutto has been a featured poet at the Callanwolde Arts Center in Atlanta. From the Georgia Poetry Society he won first place in the Byron Herbert Reece award for 2020, as well as first place for the Alabama State Poetry Society Award for 2021. He currently lives in Gainesville, Georgia, where he keeps the lights on.
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