If you enjoy what The Chamber has been doing, please take a moment to help us reach a larger audience by leaving a review on our Google business site. Leave a few stars and a brief comment, if you would. While you are at The Chamber’s Google business site, check out the reviews already there and see what people are saying about us.
If you enjoy what The Chamber has been doing, please take a moment to help us reach a larger audience by leaving a review on our Google business site. Leave a few stars and a brief comment, if you would. While you are at The Chamber’s Google business site, check out the reviews already there and see what people are saying about us.
In the spirit of the horror and true crime genres, over the next several weeks in its blog, The Chamber is remembering the horrific murder spree of the infamous Jack the Ripper during the late summer and early fall of 1888. At 10:00 a.m. (US Central Time) on the anniversary of each of the five “canonical” murders (August 31, September 8, September 30, and November 9) , The Chamber will run a documentary on Jack the Ripper from YouTube, so that you can compare the varying perspectives on the Ripper and see how widely the different theories on the Ripper’s identity vary. So grab the tea or coffee of you choice and a light breakfast and join us for should be four intense yet fascinating mornings.
What better way to remember Jack the Ripper’s last known murder than to visit a reconstruction of the crime scene? Be forewarned: this is not for the squeamish!
Finally, let me wrap up this series with an interesting thought that occurred to me awhile back and which I have never heard previously: what if the reason Jack the Ripper stopped killing was because his last would-be victim killed him first? It would not be surprising if many of the denizens of the Whitechapel, considering they lived in a dangerous area and knew Jack the Ripper was around, armed themselves. This opens up a wealth of new possibilities. Unfortunately, I have seen no evidence of this, but it is a nice theory.
In the spirit of the horror and true crime genres, over the next several weeks in its blog, The Chamber is remembering the horrific murder spree of the infamous Jack the Ripper during the late summer and early fall of 1888. At 10:00 a.m. (US Central Time) on the anniversary of each of the five “canonical” murders (August 31, September 8, September 30, and November 9) , The Chamber will run a documentary on Jack the Ripper from YouTube along with a few other esoteric tidbits of information. So grab the tea or coffee of you choice and a light breakfast and join us for should be four intense yet fascinating mornings.
The man hurrying through the streets shifted the serviette around his coffee.
He rubbed ineffectually at the spot where scalding liquid had landed on his suit. Alec had been up half the night with figures marching through his head and his eyes felt like someone had sandpapered them.
The first bars of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 were erupting from his pocket.
“Alec speaking,” said the accountant nearly dropping the handset as he tried to juggle his briefcase and paper cup at the same time. “But they… WHAT? Look, I’m nearly at the station. I’ll be as quick as I can.”
“’Scuse me fella. Got any… ,” said a figure sitting with his back to a wall.
Alec’s lips thinned.
“Terribly sorry, no I haven’t”
The executive who’d been responsible for removing as much of the city from public control as an air raid stabbed at the volume button.
“Tell the clients… ”
For a moment, all Alec cold do was stare at the dratted thing. The battery had died, and the offices of Pickaxe and Share were still forty minutes away.
“How about a drink then? One of those coffees would go down a treat.”
A tic spasmed at the corner of Alec’s eye.
“For God’s sake why don’t you people get jobs?”
“No need to be like that,” said the beggar. “I was just asking.”
As Alec stared at the youth’s scab pocked, needy, face he noticed the skin around his piercings were swollen and red.
“Just leave me alone,” said Alec trying to put as much distance between them as possible. But as he fled down the road toward the nearest metro, he stopped. It was unlike him to not know his route down to the last detail, and yet he was sure the alley hadn’t been on the app.
Alec peered at the unusual route marking bolted next to its entrance. It showed the outline of a hurrying man
He glanced at his gold watch.
Halfway down the passage that had quickly turned into a roofed over maw Alec began to shiver. The temperature had dropped by at least ten degrees and the intermittent lighting meant he could barely see where he was going.
“Should have taken an Uber,” he muttered as he fought the urge to break into a run. The last thing he needed to do was turn up at the meeting any more out of breath.
When the bulbs began to go out one by one Irvine’s grip on his temper lessened even more.
“Christ… why do we even pay taxes?”
He glanced up – only a single flickering bulb was left.
Glass rained around him.
In the darkness Alec felt his world shrink to the hammering in his chest, and when he realised the alley was closing around him like the coils of a snake his mouth dropped open.
“Help. Somebody? Anybody?” said Alec trying to brace his arms on either side. But it was no use. Soon he was caught so tight he could barely breathe. In the darkness Alec’s eyes darted from side to side as he waited for the gulp his mind screamed was coming next.
The first thing the figure lying outside the alley noticed was it was no longer morning, the next that he had a hugging a briefcase in his arms. He stared into space. He’d had a name but whatever it was every time he tried to grasp it it slipped out of sight. He was sure of one thing though: he felt like half the man he used to be.
With a hand that only shook a little he tapped the wall – nothing moved.
When he tried to recall how he’d got there all that surfaced was a feeling like he’d been chewed up and spat out. He picked a direction at random and followed the pavement as he struggled with a feeling like he wanted to run a bulldozer through his surroundings and start again with a better world full of numbers. If he could just remember what they were…
The next morning he woke outside the alley’s entrance again, and the morning after that, and the morning after that. By the end of the month his stubble had grown into a beard and the hole in his head was so large passers-by could see it in his eyes.
The tramp lying in the street tore his grey washed-out eyes, from the cracks of light leaking between the buildings.
A council worker with a litter picker was standing next to him.
“You alright?” said the stranger nudging him with its claw.
“I must have tripped.”
“’Course you did,” said the street cleaner. “I wouldn’t stay down there long if I were you. Do you want me to call someone? The name’s Ralph by the way. The emergency services all know me.”
The vagrant brushed ineffectually at the dirt on his threadbare suit and Ralph took note of the title deeds spilling from the case that seemed to be his only possession.
“People who it’s feeding on aren’t popular round here you know, mate.” Ralph shrugged. “The residents are afraid it will spread to them.”
The tramp sidled out of range. Whoever the lunatic was he might turn dangerous.
“I’ll be leaving then,” he said carefully.
“You do that, sir. Mind how you go.”
The vagrant did his best. He avoided the area around the alley as much as he could. But it never lasted long because he always ended up where he’d started, particularly after the street names stopped making sense. Soon when he looked at them it was like someone had tipped a scrabble board upside down.
When people began trying to walk through him he knew he didn’t have much time left.
“Please Miss? I need… ,”
The woman in skin-tight blue jeans with perfect calves turned her head but she might as well have been looking at a lamp post.
Night was drawing in by the time the man with footprints on his clothes found the stairs leading beneath a flyover that snaked through an area he vaguely remembered signing purchase orders for. He stepped through the rusty chain link fence that had been used to block access to the shelter underneath.
There was a caravan in there, and its door was open.
“Hallo?” he said trying to ignore the feeling that the walls were moving in as he stepped closer.
If there’d been anyone to watch they’d have noticed the way the lights went out inside after the door closed.
Ralph’s sleep had been disturbed. His dreams full of paperwork, numbers, and marching buildings that all seemed full of faceless yuppies. Dragging himself into work had been even more of a pain than usual.
“No change there then.”
He took in the mounds of filthy clothes and shoes with vanished owners.
“Getting worse round here isn’t it?” said a beggar with a face full of piercings sitting on a makeshift skate ramp. “They’ve sealed off access further in. Must think it’s dangerous.”
But Ralph didn’t bother replying. He was too busy examining the wall of polythene stretched between the pillars across his route. He shook his head – typical upper management behaviour. The part of the city hidden in its depths rarely showed itself where it could be seen but trying to contain it like that was never going to work. He paused and picked up a Rolex that looked like it had been dropped in a mangler and deposited it with the rest of the litter he’d been asked to remove.
Ralph shook his head.
“Always hungry, aren’t you?”
But if they were going to muck around with his itinerary he should have been informed. He was on the payroll, wasn’t he?
Plastic bulged by his head, and for a second Ralph saw nebulous suckers splay against the flimsy barrier.
“Thought that might happen. If it keeps feeding it’s bound to grow” he said only half aware he was speaking aloud.
“What was that?”
Ralph shut his mouth remembering he was supposed to stay schtum. The guidelines were very specific on investment.
“Nothing, they’ll be trying to give the place a deep clean I expect – remove any toxic materials they find.”
The beggar with the pierced face shook his head uninterested at this nugget of information, and Ralph relaxed. The city’s appetites were better left alone. Nobody wanted a panic.
“What are you supposed to be then?” said Ralph remembering his public service training. The kid reminded him of one of those dropouts. They were called Woke Ads, or New Age Alkies, something like that. He wasn’t local that was for sure.
“I don’t know, me I guess. What’s really in there?” answered the youth gesturing at the sealed off area.
Ralph stared at the distorted shape of a man behind the city council’s paltry barricade. As he watched it vanished.
“Looks to me like you’re not far from finding out.”
Kilmo started writing because mental health is a bitch and there didn’t seem to be much choice. He brought it from a squat in Bristol, to a car park, to appearing in various publications. He also has a story in the anthology One Hundred Voices entitled ‘Closest’.
He’d been waiting in line like everyone else, and next thing he knew he was the center of attention for a ring of bystanders, a pair of old ladies were rubbing his arms, and the bank manager was asking if he needed an ambulance.
The worst part, initially, was the embarrassment.
But on the drive home an icy fear crimped the back of his neck, made his shoulders lock and his elbows seize, made his hands sweat all over the wheel. What if it happened again? What if it happened while driving? He could be barreling along nicely, completely absorbed in the intricacies of lane surfing, and—BAM: dead man. Or find he’d unconsciously plowed through a crosswalk full of horrified lunchtime toddlers. Splattered innocence, crippled joy.
That image was so appalling Devon had a phantom episode, imagining, in one missed heartbeat, that he’d blacked out again, and was surfacing anew.
He pulled over with extreme caution; using only the rear-view mirror lest, in looking back for even a moment, some inexplicable mini-seizure should send him hurtling into a compound bloody fireball. Devon was marinated in his own sweat. He’d always been the healthiest of men; didn’t drink, didn’t touch drugs, didn’t over-exert. The tremors passed gradually, but not so the terror; it had become a vital shadow in the center of his skull. Devon called a cab and a tow truck. He sat slumped in the back of the cab, steadying his breathing. The driver was a talker; Devon let him roll on. All he could see was the cab’s windshield, streaked and spotted, a broken mosaic of shocked baby faces that never had a chance to grow.
* * *
“Your scans are clean,” Dr. Goodman beamed.
The big clipboard was tucked against his chest, hiding its secrets. “I think we can cheerfully write this off as one of those little anomalies that pop into our lives, shake us up a bit to give our egos some perspective, and then pop right back out as though nothing occurred. And who knows? Maybe nothing did. Sometimes nature just drops the ball for no apparent reason. I like to compare the body to a complex harp with one or more strings always out of tune, and hard work and healthful living as the elements that re-tune those—Mr. Devon?”
Devon blinked at him. A low hum had just passed through his brain like a train through a tunnel. There were things in there, moving around, clattering without sound. It was as if his thoughts were loose shingles on a roof, responding to a sudden high wind. Devon blew over.
He opened his eyes to another perspective. It was not his own; this was a skewed view of three vulnerable specimens frozen in a brightly lit box. The action resumed: staring receptionist slipping out of room, frowning doctor standing squarely before seated patient.
Goodman’s entire demeanor had changed. He tapped his pencil on the clipboard—thuda-thuda-thud—little alien heartbeats in rubber on pressed cork. “You’ve heard of narcolepsy, Mr. Devon? Once we’ve ruled out the obvious—epilepsy, tumor, arrhythmia—we have to rely on conjecture, which, in a modern, mature practice, always comes down to empiricism rather than guesswork.
“What I’m attempting to impart is this: symptoms are templates. Narcolepsy is a known condition, but it’s not a common one—though I’m reasonably sure there’re plenty of cases going misdiagnosed. I won’t beat around the bush here. In narcolepsy, the brain’s steady-state waking electrical activity is abruptly interrupted—the subject goes to sleep on the spot, rather than drifting away naturally. Why? The current’s been cut off, the lights shut down. Why? We don’t know yet; and there’s that dreadful non-answer which of course seems, to the anxious layperson, an evasion rather than a helpful response. But it’s all we’ve got. That, and a medication I’m prescribing. Although still in its trial stages, it shows tremendous promise in the short term. However, there’s a caveat: you must be prudent in your approach to everyday activities whenever a recurrence might prove injurious to yourself or to others, and you must curtail these activities any time you experience symptoms that are in any way out of the ordin—”
* * *
“Mr. Devon?” Goodman’s smile was frayed around the edges. “Are you feeling all right now? We were discussing your prescription when you appear to have relapsed momentarily. I’ve checked your vitals and you’re good as gold. The episode was quite brief, yet it absolutely confirms my immediate diagnosis of narcolepsy.”
He drummed his fingers on the clipboard. “Miss Aines is going to administer a single dose of your prescription, and you are thereafter not to approach the medication without my approval over the phone. Then I want you to go home and take a load off your mind as well as your feet. I’d prefer you walk rather than take a cab or bus. Moderate exercise is always a precursor to healthful recovery.”
He pulled open the door, hesitating halfway. “If you experience a recurrence, or become morbidly anxious, or entertain any weird, traumatic sense of alienation, I want you to give me a call right away. Miss Aines will produce my home and cell numbers as soon as you’ve received your medication and taken that single dose.”
He smiled genially while ushering Devon out. “You’re going to be just fine.”
* * *
How can a man know what’s going on around him, behind him, within him—when he can’t see or feel a thing?
Devon was unconscious. The vague electrical discharges were unlike anything he’d ever experienced, so he had no point of reference, but he absolutely knew his brainwaves were being scanned…somehow. His ideas, his dreams, his very identity were being manipulated by somebody or something. Devon was being violated, from somewhere bleak and far away—for reasons of cold research, for inhuman experiment, for purposes that made no sense whatever in regular terms. Only hatred and frustration crossed the ether connecting whoever he was with whatever they were…and he knew that if he let go for even a second they’d—
* * *
A thumb peeled back Devon’s eyelid.
Sensible impressions were returning. The sounds of traffic. The interior of a paramedics’ van. A man’s face; a face like any other. “Sir, can you feel the pressure of my hand on your arm?” A pinching above the elbow. “How about now?” The full-screen thumb splintered into five fingers on a rocking hand. “Follow my hand with your eyes, sir.” The face turned. “He’s receptive.” The face turned back. “You’re in an ambulance, sir. We’re bringing you to the emergency room at Mother Of Mercy Hospital. But we’ve determined this is no emergency; that’s why we’re not using the siren. So just relax; what’s going on is purely procedural. You appear to have blacked out while sitting on the bus bench at White and Lincoln, yet no one observed any evidence of seizure or foul play. There’s no indication of brain trauma, no signs of physical injury, and all your responses to outside stimuli are well within the normal range. Do you feel okay now?”
Devon’s voice phased in and out. “Yes, yes, I’m fine. I just need to—”
Two strong hands gripped his biceps.
It was the second paramedic, leaning over the first.
“You’ll have to remain quiet, sir. Until you’ve been thoroughly examined you’re under our supervision. It won’t be long. There’s the hospital now. We’re pulling up to emergency. Try to stay calm.”
“I can’t be strapped down. I…that’s what they want.” Devon’s mouth was too dry for more.
The paramedics exchanged looks. The first rattled a prescription bottle. “The label reads fifty. The count is forty-nine.” He looked back down at Devon. “I’d call yours a pretty extreme reaction. Now just relax.”
The van stopped with the gentlest jolt. A moment later the rear doors swung open. The second paramedic climbed out, and the first, hesitating, said loudly, “Sir, you’re under restraint only for your own safety, okay? We can’t have you blacking out and rolling off the gurney now, can we?”
The driver poked in his head. “What’s the hangup?”
“We’re fine back here. One of the straps is tangled. Just give me a second.”
The driver’s head disappeared. The paramedic brought his voice down to a patter. “Look, fighting only makes it worse. They’ll get in sooner or later, so unless you enjoy being flattened out of the blue, over and over and over, you’re just gonna have to play it cool. The more you resist, the worse it gets. And don’t listen to anybody telling you it’s all on account of medication, or that you have a condition, or that you’re losing your mind, or anything like that. Let them get what they want and they’ll go pick on somebody else. Take it from a guy who’s been there. Read my lips.” He strapped a small oxygen mask over Devon’s nose and mouth and said noiselessly, with exaggerated movements of the lips, “Stay down.”
A hydraulic whine, a rocking and settling. A voice came out of the floodlights: “Okay to roll.”
The bright assault of antiseptic fluorescence made Devon’s eyes burn.
Faces looked on curiously as he was wheeled by; faces just as indifferent as the paramedics, as indifferent as Dr. Goodman’s, as indifferent as that burned-out receptionist behind the glass, as—
* * *
The electrical activity, Devon realized, functioned incidentally as a conduit. They were getting into his head, and they were learning what it means to be human, but it was tough work. Through this connection he’d become electrically empathic—able to glean their drive and exasperation, to know that, through their resolution, they were going to learn what they needed, if they didn’t kill him in the process, or if he was unable to kill himself first. He was experiencing their excitement as well as their frustration, their urgency and their demand. He was losing hold, losing self-control. He knew it. He could feel it.
* * *
“Well, I’m taking him off the medication, at least for the present, and I don’t give a good holy crap what you or Lancet have to say on the matter, is that clear enough for you? As of right now he’s under our care. Your prescription arguably precipitated this patient’s arrival, and there’s absolutely no reason to believe it’s mitigating his condition in the least. Fine. Feel free to talk to the coordinator in the morning. I’m presently handling Mr. Devon, and this conversation is officially concluded. Now go back to sleep!”
Devon embraced the room’s hard white light like a lover. He kept his eyes fixed wide, afraid even to blink, as Dr. Grant replaced the receiver and turned, hands clasped behind his back.
“Mr. Devon, you’re doing great. You’ve been through a bit of a scare, but there’s no reason to worry. Your provider has authorized any necessary procedures, though I’m confident we’ve no cause for alarm.” He raised Devon’s prescription bottle like a dead lizard. “As of this moment you’re off these—and that bastard Goodman should be sued for malpractice. Don’t think he’s heard the last of me.”
“No,” Devon managed. “Not the medicine. Like I told you, this started before I was given the prescription.”
Grant leaned in grimly. “And, like you told me, you’ve been riding a roller coaster ever since. Okay? Voices in your head; that kind of nonsense. A misdiagnosis of narcolepsy from some predatory quack who will have his license suspended, mark my words. Delusions of channeling aliens or whatever—you’re a victim of too many horror movies, Mr. Devon, plain and simple. Now I want you to stop fighting it. Please. You’re only making things worse.”
“Not my imagination,” Devon stressed.
“Would you listen to yourself?”
Grant leaned back.
“Narcoleptic episodes, my friend, aren’t just muggings out of nowhere. Reports suggest transitory events that are only occasionally violent; analogous to, but not equivalent to, minor epileptic seizures.”
“Not narcolepsy,” Devon tried. “They’re knocking us out. They can only read us when we’re unconscious, the deeper the better.”
“And how,” Mr. Devon, “have you managed to divine all this?”
“We’re wide open to them once they’re in. I can tell what they’re thinking when I’m out. It’s like some kind of open line, but through…space, I guess.”
Grant could barely contain his disdain. “They think, or speak, inEnglish?”
“No, no, doctor. It’s a different kind of communication. Both sides are transmitters and receivers. And it’s not just me. It’s a whole lot of people.”
The room froze up. Dr. Grant leaned in.
“And you’re ready to point out these people? You’re prepared to corroborate your claims?”
Devon shrank into himself. “I think I’ve said all I want to say.” He clammed right up.
“You never should have been allowed on the street in the first place; not without a guardian, not without a complete examination. I’m going to give you a little injection here—it’s just something to help you relax—and then we’ll let the specialists have a go at you.”
Devon instinctively scooted in reverse. “I feel better now. I just want to go home.”
Grant again zoomed himself in. “I give you my word of honor it’ll be painless. These are some of the best men in their field, and they need to get a real good look at you right away. Now, I’d like you to just stretch out on the recliner, close your eyes, and make a fist. You’ll feel the tiniest pinprick.”
“No, please…give me something that’ll help me stay awake. They’re getting closer. If I fall asleep they’ll be right back in.”
Dr. Grant stepped to a wall intercom, his expression sour. His hand moved up to the call button. “Who’s getting closer?”
* * *
Facets of his identity were being shed like flakes of dandruff. Memories were being stripped, copied, filed—Devon’s humanness was being assaulted, weakness by weakness. The excitement was palpable—he was naked, he was down, he was road kill. His flaws were being recognized and categorized, in some universal way only a natural predator could understand. The meeker humans were easy; they were fait accompli. Devon could struggle all he wanted, but he was pinned and purpling, a pretty bruised butterfly. He thrashed, but didn’t budge, called, but didn’t peep, screamed, but didn’t—
* * *
“The harder you fight me,” the security guard snarled, “the harder I fight back. You got that?” He shoved Devon into a plastic chair, one of many lined against the wall.
“Listen to me!” Devon begged. “I can’t hold on any longer. Please. Something.”
The guard sneered over his shoulder. “I’ll give you something. Now for the last time: Do. Not. Fight it!” He pressed the intercom’s call button. “Security on floor one, east wing. I have a disturbed patient who somehow got out into the hall. Not a biggie, but Riley and Forbes, I’d like you to assist. Wills, call in a van and get straight back to me.”
* * *
The feelers were in. He was going. A great company was in his skull; a kind of delirious clamor and buzzing crescendo. Devon was a transparent display, every nerve-ending under intense scrutiny.
Ecstasy, comprehension, anticipation: his mind was being peeled open; his nightmares, his mistrust, his mortal horror.
* * *
Devon leaped from his chair, tore the guard’s gun from its holster, crammed the barrel in his mouth.
A bear hug and shattering of teeth. The gun went spinning across the floor.
A hard stomping down the hall, a flurry of shouts, the pulsing buzz of an alarm.
Devon hit the plate glass window like a bug smacking into a windshield. He blew out into the night, a mass of porcupine shards, blood spraying in his wake. He heard Dr. Grant puffing behind. “Mr. Devon! For the love of God! Don’t fight it! Somebody call the gate. Devon!”
* * *
His arms were shaking wildly, his eyes bursting in his skull—he was seizing—they had him by the cortex. Devon’s very consciousness was being eviscerated: through that real-time conduit, his thoughts were being pasted to an empathic helix, synapse by misfiring synapse. And they’d grown exasperated. Devon was about to learn the hard way that, no matter how grounded a body might be in reality, a mind is wide open to compromise:
Liquid fire tore through his frame, spewed from his mouth and nostrils, set his fraying hair ablaze. His head snapped back and his mouth ripped open at the corners, peeled off his face and blew away in shreds. Devon’s rib cage shattered from the sternum down. He was being zipped open, torn apart, dug into. With a shriek of bone his spine snapped free, his pelvis collapsed, his skull halved to expose the hysterical animal writhing within.
* * *
A number of men hit him in a compound flying tackle.
An orderly snarled in his face, “Stay down, damn you!”
Now Dr. Grant’s pulsing round head broke into a crazy wheel of arms and nightsticks. “Sedate him, for Christ’s sake! I don’t care if you have to use chloroform. Drag him over to the shack.”
* * *
Night sucked him up like a giant straw. Consciousness was a black wiggly thing, all-pervading, all—and a flashlight’s beam hit him right in the eyes. For a long hazy second he was dazzled by the badge on the gate guard’s cap. Devon was logy and going fast, his limbs uncooperative, his toes and fingers numb.
“I’ll tell you one more time, and then I’ll brain you if I have to—stop fighting it!”
The guard’s eyes became compassionate. Mentoring. “They’ll get what they want and be done with you. Then you can go back to whatever you’ve always been doing.”
He tried to mask his shame with a pretense of fellowship. “Look, friend, they’ve been at it forever—knocking us out and picking our brains, trying to figure out what makes us tick. But we’re tough nuts to crack. So now you’re finding out what’s it’s like to be psychologically raped—to be mentally dissected—in real time, just like the rest of us. And simultaneously you’re reading them back as they work, just like the rest of us. And pretty soon your identity will be appropriated, and you’ll be eating right out of their hands. Just like the rest of us.”
The guard gripped Devon’s shoulder.
“Listen, man, it can get really really bad, okay? And nobody, but nobody’ll ever take you seriously. So you gotta learn to kind of switch off when they get busy, and play it off as humbly as you can. But there’s no disgrace in obeying; not when you have to survive. I mean, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.” He looked around uneasily. “We’re just human beings, right? We’re not supermen.”
From outside came Dr. Grant’s familiar voice barking orders, followed by the gentle rumble of an approaching vehicle. The sound of doors swinging on their hinges. A new voice called out: “Okay to roll.”
The guard looked back. “Anyway, there’s not a damned thing you can do about it. So stop fighting—just let go and relax.”
He passed a hand back and forth over Devon’s eyes. “Is any of this getting through?”
“Yes,” Devon said thickly. “Hear you.”
The guard patted him on the shoulder. “It’s not the end of the world. Just another boss.”
Smudges of spirit stain the cotton swabs littering the white-tiled floor. Dried saliva and smears of desiccated phlegm on gloomy walls highlight the hospital administration’s callousness.
Wrinkles crease his nose as Sunil smells the scent of suffering that fills the humid air in the ward. He curses his brain for endowing him with the faculty of senses, making him alive to the realities of life; a part of him that enables him to know what pain feels like.
Invisible, the fumes traverse into his lungs and choke him. He looks at his wife, wonders whether she senses the smell as much as he does; recognizes its staleness. Does she suffocate as it pervades; a malignancy that corrupts the purity of the air she breathes?
Maybe, the malignancy in her brain will have caused cognitive dysfunction, rendering her less sensitive to its pungency. Maybe, the seizures make her oblivious to her surroundings; to the taste of food she eats, the humidity in the ward. But, no matter what damage the malignancy does to her cognition, the warmth of her smile and the radiance on her face, when she speaks to him, never die.
In a bed, away from hers, underneath soiled linen, a patient grunts in pain. Someone, may be, who cannot serve anyone’s purpose anymore. Otherwise, someone will have been there, by the bedside; in rapt attention, taking care of her needs and wants. In the three days that they have been there, he has seen no one attend to her, except the healthcare workers.
Sunil’s gaze returns to his wife. Her face appears serene, as if a cool breeze sweeps along amidst the sultriness in the ward. Her eyes roll beneath her dusky eyelids, calm and rhythmic movements, as if she’s adrift in the wings of a sweet dream; traversing the universe, wondering at the enigma, mysteries unfolding before her eyes.
What may be happening in the insides of her head? Will the seeds of the tumor be notching at her brain, like squirrels gnawing at the nuts in their hands? A play thing that they can twist and turn; to bite through the most vulnerable part, to savor the delicacy…
Chaotic clamors draw his attention. A gurney carries, wheels rolling in frantic rotation, a girl struggling, convulsions rocking her body. She twists and turns, fighting for breath, clutching the metallic bars as if to suppress her pain. An orderly shifts her to the nearby bed. Two men, accompanying her, place themselves on its sides. They hold her limbs down, in their effort to restrain her, but her body convulses in spasms as she utters a shrill cry.
“Shit,” the young man on Sunil’s side of the bed curses.
The other guy looks towards Sunil, notices him watching. He throws a glance at his companion, as if to warn him.
The man who cursed pats the girl’s cheek, an obvious gesture of pretence. “Easy baby, everything will be alright.”
Sunil yearns for a cigarette and takes a look at his wife, sees the clamor doesn’t wake her up. Is the malignancy clouding her acoustic sense also? The slight trace of a smile brightens her face even in slumber. It’s amazing, he thinks, how she sustains her smile in difficult times.
Last year, the doctors’ verdict has been ‘hardly twelve months’ but she’s coursed through fifteen almost. Now, how long will she be able to fight the menace that eats through her brain, the evil that feeds on its cells?
A few moments, Sunil thinks, a coward’s route to damnation; a momentary escape from realities… He gets up, walks out of the ward, and moves towards the veranda’s exit that leads to a garden.
“I can’t go near her, it brings her tantrums.”
Sunil hears a man in white dhoti and slacks, speak to a security guard, pulling out a five-hundred rupee note from his wallet. He watches; a means of escape.
“Two of my boys are there,” the man says, handing over the money to the guard. “They can handle the situation. But make sure, the girl doesn’t have any problems and my men should have access to her, around the clock. She must get what she needs, when she wants it.” He mops his face with a handkerchief.
It’s as if he doesn’t give a damn to the world around him, like he can do whatever he wants to do, no matter who watches or listens.
“Sure, sir…” The guard salutes the man.
Enough is enough. “Excuse me,” Sunil says.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the man in dhoti says, abruptly moving to a side. “In my tension, I didn’t realize I was blocking your way.”
Sunil nods at him, recognizes how the bleakness in his eyes betrays the hollowness of his words; a man adept in uttering apologies that he doesn’t mean… maybe, a politician who doesn’t stand up to his call.
Sunil crosses the small garden, goes onto the parking lot. He looks around for a security camera, finds none, and lights a cigarette. Even the first drag sends the coarseness of the tobacco against his palate, closes all routes to escape. The humid air, pungent with the scents of spirit and lotions, suffocates him. He stubs out the cigarette.
While returning to the ward, he notices an open jeep speed by. A man, with the barrel of a shot gun resting inside the crook of his arm, sits in the front with the driver. The man in white relaxes in the back seat, propped against the leather upholstery, smoking a pipe.
A man who trusts the money he leaves behind, to take care of a patient’s problems, Sunil thinks. A man who doesn’t feel the need to console the suffering person; maybe, a loved one…
The girl lets out a sharp cry, as if awoken by a nightmare, as Sunil enters the ward. His wife has woken up.
He sits by her side. “How do you feel now, Latha?”
“Better,” she winces as she speaks. “The giddiness has subsided. I’m having a headache.”
“Where are those thugs?” Sunil gestures toward the girl. A young doctor is giving her an injection.
“The doctor asked them to leave, and they made a big fuss about it.”
“There’s something fishy about the whole thing.”
“I thought so too,” Latha says. “They wouldn’t even allow the doctor to talk to the girl. Whenever she tried to say something, they stopped her and spoke on her behalf. Finally, he sent them away.”
“What’s it with the girl?”
“Should be a serious psychiatric problem; I think, PTSD. The poor girl is hardly fifteen.” Latha takes in a deep breath. “They’ve done something horribly wrong to her.”
“It is okay, Latha, she’ll be fine.” Why are you so unique? Sunil thinks, I try to hide behind the shroud of a cigarette’s smoke, and you’re so awaken to the reality.
“You know, Sunil, my only regret is that I can’t do anything for her at this stage. But then, aren’t we sometimes destined to carry the burden of guilt into our graves?”
“Latha, don’t stretch things too far.” Sunil hopes she believes what he says. “It may be some minor problem.”
“I know, Sunil. You’re one who goes by the books. You’ll never want to create a scene in a hospital, doing something about it, especially when I’m a patient there.”
After the doctor leaves, the girl relaxes. Her chest rises and falls as she breathes.
“Did the doctor say anything about your discharge?” Sunil asks.
“A couple of days, maybe; he doesn’t specify. The consultant will come for the evening rounds at four. He’ll see me. They don’t expect any problems; just want him to review my case.”
Taints of lie, Sunil knows, just like the one he told her, layer her words. But, he’ll pretend he believes her. “Well, that leaves us enough time to see how the girl fares. I know you care.”
“Yes, you’re right.” Latha closes her eyes. “I feel tired.”
Sunil runs his fingers through her hair. Luster gone, her curly locks feel coarse against his hand. Her lack of attention in recent days reflects on her pale skin too, now rid of its usual glaze, except when she smiles. Weariness makes his eyelids droop.
Latha isn’t worried about the malignancy of the evil that eats up her brains, or at least she doesn’t want to appear so. It bothers Sunil that he’s had to place her in discomfort, because the hospital’s pay wards are under renovation. They’ve had to make do with the lack of amenities of the general ward. She’s had constant seizures in recent days and she loathes the idea of others observing her suffering in the ward, where there’s no privacy.
Her desire to attend her father’s death anniversary, a wish he cannot deny her, brings them to this town of hers. She has told him, here the kings still rule in the guise of white-clad politicians, and basic facilities like good hospitals are absent while bars thrive in plenty.
Sounds of a groan wake him up as he begins to fall asleep. He looks at his wife and finds her still in slumber, the trace of a smile vibrant on her face.
Again, the girl groans and grits her teeth as she rolls, one leg thrown over the bed’s edge. Another move may risk a fall.
Sunil approaches her bed and straightens her leg. She doesn’t resist. He shifts her to the middle. Suddenly she flays her arms, and her body rocks in convulsions.
“It’s okay, just relax.” Sunil pats her arm. What Latha can’t do now, he wants to.
She opens her eyes and Sunil notices the fear flashing through the slight wetness in their depths. Then, as she regains orientation, she becomes relaxed. “They…”
“Don’t worry. You’ll be all right. It’s my wife on the other bed. She’s also a doctor. If you have any problems, you can tell her.”
As Sunil withdraws his hand, she holds onto it. “Your wife told me you’re a good man; a very, very good man.” The emotion she’s held back now begins to flow. Tears rolling down her eyes shine even in the ward’s dim light. “Your hand is so warm, doesn’t have that chillness.”
Perplexed, Sunil discerns a raw feeling of dread generating from the pit of his stomach, the primordial fear for the unexplained.
“What’s your name?” he asks, unable to think of a better way to respond. “And, do you need anything?”
She shakes her head. “Amy…” Her grip around his wrist tightens, and her hand grows warmer as if she has fever.
“Should I call the doctor, Amy?”
“No, are…” She gasps. “Are they gone?”
For a moment Sunil doesn’t understand what she means. Then it dawns on him. “Yes, the doctor chased them away.”
“Your wife…” Amy says. “She’s good too; very, very good… she told the doctor to send them away.”
“Well, yes, she is.” Sunil says. “You can ask us anything you want.” He starts to go back to his wife’s bed.
“I wish you were my parents… and I know you don’t have children. I’ve seen it in her eyes; yours too…”
Amy won’t leave his hand. Sunil again feels the raw chill of dread in his guts, that primal fear, which momentarily paralyzes his brain; then, it sends a rush of blood through his veins, a shiver along his spine.
“You know, I’ve magic in me,” Amy says, holding onto Sunil’s hand. “I think your wife has some of it too. She’d just lain there, looking at me, I staring back. And she knew, all I wanted to tell her.”
Yeah, magic in her brain, Sunil thinks, the malignancy that desensitizes her to the pain she suffers. “I know, women are like that… It’s a gift, perhaps. You understand one another, without having to use words carrying lesser meanings.”
“Yes, we understand the hand, the torment…” Amy looks at the ceiling. “Do you see it crawl…?” She gasps, taking in breaths of air through her mouth, her budding breasts rising and falling in rapid heaves. Pausing, she resumes, “The spider; the hand resembles it, feels like it’s crawling along my flesh.”
“What hands? There’s nobody here, other than you and me,” Sunil says.
“I’ve felt it, since mother left me a year ago…” Amy pants. “Left me alone, went to dwell among the stars… maybe, home wasn’t any good to her just like it isn’t to me.
“There aren’t any hands here, Amy, except yours and mine.”
“You can’t see it. Even I can’t… but, in the darkness I feel its chill…” Her grip on his wrist tightens. “The hands waken me up… tear apart the sleep in my eyes; with fingers thick like a tarantula’s legs, black like a widow’s taint.”
Amy carries on with her monologue, as if Sunil doesn’t exist anymore. “My father wears veils; white khadi clothes to mask the darkness of his heart, a painted smile to hide the evil…”
“The man in white…”
For Amy, Sunil still doesn’t exist.
“You know, I’ve felt the slugs creep on my skin after the spiders are done,” Amy says. “For a moment, I’ll think their bellies are warm. But when the filth trickles down my inner thighs or buttocks, I feel the chillness, drops of the cold and sticky substance trailing down…”
Sunil puts a hand to her cheek, pats her, hoping his palm’s warmth will soothe her. The sound of her mumblings slowly drops to the hum of a lullaby.
Sunil watches in terror, as Latha’s hair lashes along the white bedspread, like waves of a turbulent ocean. Then he observes those spiders, an array of species, tarantulas, black widows; camel, tiger, scorpion, crab, and huntsman spiders… creating the chaos among the strands of her hair, now in full luster.
The creepers suddenly leave, each filing into a group comprising their own species, and scrambles down the bed, as his stare sends waves of heat through her curly locks.
Latha’s lustrous hair melts, flows onto the pillow, in a black smelly mass of lava. Then, as he watches, it becomes a golden halo around her head.
Sunil then notices a school of slugs crawling along her exposed skull. The mollusks sneak into the pores in her head; maybe, forged by the malignant evil inside.
He sits transfixed. His craft only allows him to work on dots; draw lines, and to calculate angles, then to construct, not to toil with an existing creation. He sweats.
She’s always been the better one, Sunil thinks, she pierces the creations, can operate from the outside, rather than working from dots and lines, the insides.
She keeps a smile on, no matter what evil forages the insides of her skull. The vibrancy of her spirit never lost, it doesn’t matter how dull her hair looks.
“I won’t allow you, Latha…” Sunil murmurs, “I won’t allow you to go to your grave with the burden of guilt.”
Sunil feels the warmth of a drop of Amy’s tears on the skin of his palm. As it trails down, it turns cold. He recognizes its chillness on his flesh.
Amy’s fingers around his wrist still remain warm.
“Won’t you ever, Sunil, cast away your reservations,” Amy asks, “and start working from the outside?”
She sounds like Latha. Sunil knows that he has nothing left to live for, once his wife is gone. “Yes, it will keep the smile on her face, no matter what evil notches her insides; something I do for you will rid her of her feeling of guilt.”
“Will you, then, come with me?”
“Where…” As soon as Sunil asks the question, he receives the answer, without Amy having to speak a word.
“I knew you’d understand.”
“Will you lead the way, Amy?”
“I’ll,” she says. “They scraped something out of my belly; maybe, a seed my father had sown, a slug to him. But, to me it was a precious gem.”
“You have to overcome the nightmares, Amy.”
“I know, but since then, I’ve had these convulsions, maybe, my delusions.” Amy gets up, and prepares to climb down the bed.
I look at Latha. The smile, even in the dim-lit ward, remains vibrant. I hear her whisper; maybe, thanking me for lessening her burden.
“Amy, do you have something I can use… something quick and easy?”
“Of course, Sunil…” Amy stands straight. “You know, fear is something that my father respects most. He used to tell me, it’s the basic instinct of humans.” She takes a deep breath. “He values that primary emotion, which helps us survive. So, he keeps many weapons at home, and I know where he hides each.”
“Good.” Sunil holds Amy’s hand.
Latha’s face continues to carry the glint of her smile.
The story has already appeared in Vol.12 Issue 1 [Spring 2020] of the Pennsylvania Literary Journal.
Hareendran Kallinkeel writes from Kerala, India, after a stint of 15 years in a police organization and five years in the Special Forces. His fiction usually tends to be dark and fantastical with some magic realism elements. His recent publications include Pennsylvania Literary Journal, BryantLiterary Review of Bryant University, and El Portal of Eastern New Mexico University, among others. His fiction is forthcoming in the Fall 2022 Issue of Cardinal Sins Journal of Saginaw Valley State University, and 34 Orchard Journal. He has been nominated for Pushcart Prize and he is also a finalist of the Best of the Net-2020.
You must have forgotten
how many holes you have,
those unguarded doors
leading to dark wet places
you can’t reach to itch
if something sinister crawls
up in there, while you sleep.
That pesky stray eyelash
you keep trying to flick away, rinse out,
is not an eyelash after all.
It’s me: that spider you barely missed,
now decorating your eye socket
with tiny eggs by the dozen,
using your eyelid for a blanket
and dangling out just one leg, to stay cool.
I learned that trick from you.
Just wait till I teach my children.
Mike Lavine is a lawyer, biker, and writer of fiction somewhere between horror and comedy. A native of Barbados who now lives in San Francisco, Mike spends his spare time eavesdropping on other people’s conversations for dialogue ideas as he walks to the office.
It was the feeling of the cold metal needle piercing his nose that woke him. The roaring burning in his throat was the next sensation he was aware of, and the iron warmth of his blood dripping into his mouth was the third. Douglas tried to move, tried to scream, but the stitching was completed quickly. He could not tear his face away from the tight sour dampness of the canvas that formed his traditional makeshift sarcophagus and which swallowed his encrusted cries.
There were murmurings above and around him. Even in the depths of his shock, he could identify some of the voices. Gunther, one of the Swedes or whatever they were, whispered devout and passionate prayers over him that seemed to carry a solemn and flinty echo from the middle pews of an ancient and deserted Scandinavian chapel. Douglas tried to reach out to him, but the material holding him was too strong, too weighty for his limbs that had so recently spent countless minutes struggling against the vicious tides and howling squalls forcing him again and again beneath the tossed foam. Cracked Thomas was, in his usual way, less charitable to the supposed corpse than Gunther. He brusquely pushed the kinder man aside and berated him in the near-unintelligible accent that took influence from every corner of his known world. Where once he had sounded absurd, now he had the voice of all the Earth’s ghoul.
“‘E went ova fivveteen minutes agow. Ya poot the steetch en ‘im ta tie ‘im in. Naw Jack Tar gost is gunna tek him. Wat’s the good en yer prayin’? Threw ‘im ova bevore ‘e teks the rast of us to ‘is fate.”
Gunther, getting the necessary gist of his meaning, stepped away. Douglas tried to squirm, tried to give some signal that Atlantis had not claimed him, that he had come back to them to paint and haul again, but his body was not ready after its previous exertions. He was almost completely paralysed, the blood still dripping steadily- not gushing- around and between his gritted teeth. Douglas noticed he was sweating now too, and the sweat from his forehead was mingling with the blood. He could only taste the latter and not the former; his mouth was still too full of the remains of the waves to notice any fresh salty addition.
“Lads! Lads! ‘Eave ‘ooooooo! ‘Eave ‘oooooo!”
Men who had been keeping a respectful, mournful distance stepped uncertainly forwards in response to Cracked Thomas’ cries, all of them hoping that another would arrive before himself to be forced into that duty which they could not fortify their own stomach enough to perform. An even greater fear flooded through Douglas, but it did nothing to revive his flagging physicality. His form stayed so unwillingly rigid on the deck that, had he had a mind to it, he would have wondered if he was not truly already dead and only granted some post-mortem purgatorial awareness of unhappy life going on without him as a fitting punishment for his multitude of sins.
He felt rough hands lifting him. This was it. Cracked Thomas was directing the doings with the same heave-ho cries he had already given to spur the action, and the crew eventually joined in with his bellowing. Douglas tried to summon something, anything, from somewhere, but he could not. As he was carried towards the side of the boat, time didn’t slow, as one might expect, but rather sped up. Before he knew it, before he could contemplate the full horror of the inevitable fate he was meeting head-on, he was ensconced in the same cold and the same wild sound and the same fury that had ravaged and pummelled him only minutes before.
There was little that Douglas could do but submit; his body gratefully rose to meet the intentions of his spirit, and the customary thrashings, struggles and strivings of the drowning- had he even able to achieve them in his exhausted state- were not to be witnessed by his old fellows on the timber behemoth of a ship above. A large wave sent him spinning towards the depths as if he was caught in the riptides of his adolescent memories of Corryvreckan, that kelpie-strewn maelstrom with its hungry heart that insatiably devoured the fragile boats of fishermen. Once down beneath, he did not rise again for a long time. Instead, he floated so seamlessly and slowly beneath the waves that it was as if he was lying- resting- on the seabed with the whole burden of the ocean around him as his vast sepulchre. He was settling into this sleep and letting the drowsiness fill his aching limbs when he suddenly felt himself flying upwards with tremendous velocity. He knew he had surfaced when the light of the brightest, bluest afternoon showed through even the thickness of the embracing canvas.
A seagull swooped down and sat on his stomach.
“I could ‘ave sworn to God hisself that Cracked Thomas woulda been the first to come to us from that vessel.”
The seagull laughed once it had finished speaking. Another came and plopped itself down on his legs.
“It should ‘ave been. Our lad ‘ere was a victim of pure carelessness. ‘Alf of sailors don’t know they’re bloody born. Too much of a rush, too much a-fearing of the skipper to even check proper if one of their fellows ‘as got the blood still pumping in ‘im. He did, you know. And fer his glory, they gave ‘im a collop of the old brutality to see him out. HEAVE-HO.”
The second seagull laughed now as it imitated the onboard chorus. Douglas tried to speak to these strange creatures, these seabirds that communicated with voices and words so familiar and so friendly in the glittering dark.
“Don’t try, son. Don’t try. We know what you’ve got to say.”
It was a third gull who had spoken as it perched on his forehead and started picking at the stitching on the canvas hammock.
A herring gull joined his friends, perching on a knee. He was followed swiftly by an oystercatcher, its orange beak gleaming proudly in the sun, which took up position on the opposite leg. It ruffled its slender monochromatic wings and called out to the heavens. The song was met by an albatross, which did not descend and take up position on Douglas’ now-crowded waterlogged frame, but instead hovered a few feet above him.
“‘ave you been to Greece?”
The oystercatcher asked the question and moved up to assist the third gull with its work at the unstitching. Douglas, still not able to speak, faintly shook his head.
“Shame. An experienced boy like you, as young as you are- would’ve thought you’d managed it.”
Half of the canvas covering Douglas’ face flopped open; his head filled with sweltering white light and burned. The oystercatcher continued its monologue.
“The most beautiful girls in the world live there. Of course, all sailors ‘ave got their favourites. I’m sure you did. I ‘ad a love there; she used to bring me great big plates of fried octopus when the ship came in. I ‘ated it at first, loathed the stuff, but what’d she give me in return for finishing that plate- I’d ‘ave slurped down a w’ole Kraken. Shame we can’t talk to you in life as we do in death- I’d ‘ave asked you to pass on my fondest regards if you ever made it over.”
“The first thing ‘e hears on entering the afterlife is your dusty old lusty memories. What a welcome!”
The herring gull, having put his fellow to silent shame, untangled the final threads. After finally adjusting to the sun, Douglas found himself staring into the eyes of the albatross.
“Figures of eight on the top deck, dirty songs with no meaning and the sacred ones to hold. Goodbye, fare thee well, in the lowlands low, by the ivory castle glittering beside the streams of lovely Nancy. Carved puppets, elephants and kings, inscrutable and silent, bare or wrapped in silk; presents from the Indians. Quickly inked tattoos, leering faces and hearts redder than blood. Muscles broken, falling in the muck and shit below, stumbling to bed, to not sleep, to not sleep again. Circles of ice and the sun burning layers of skin from your back. Bubbling wounds, loose black teeth thrown overboard. Forcing down dry bread and flat beer more like sludge. The stink of the tar always everywhere, inescapable, locked in your nose. An itch below the trousers, an itch that drives you to the point of madness after stopping at Ratcliffe. Maps that can’t be read anymore and stars that can’t be trusted. Mermaids winking below the waves when the summer turns the seas warm. Hot springs in the snow, rivers frozen and no way down. The stink of old clothes and flower garlands around the neck. Dark flags on the horizon, the cannons taking what little’s left of your hearing, if not your legs. ‘My son John was tall and slim, and he had a leg for every limb…’ Was the bulging pouch at the end of it all worth it? Never, but always.”
The albatross stopped reminiscing and came and sat on his chest. The rest of the respectful seabirds went soaring back up into the distant blue, screeching and screaming joyfully to each other.
“All that’s over now. Good riddance and bad luck. But all drowned sailors have got to go somewhere. We don’t belong on land, not anymore. That’s why they bury us at sea. What else can we do but keep an eye on our friends, and fly alongside ‘em, follow ‘em, and live off their scraps? Was it any different when we was living? When we go out the first time, as boys, we swear off other ways of life for good- even in death. We might not know it- or accept it- at the time, but it’s true. This is our belonging. Eternal.”
Douglas spoke for the first time.
“I’ve heard it before. Old hands would talk about it sometimes, late at night, just before the candles went out. The birds of the dead.”
“The birds of the dead. More blessed than the living- just.”
The albatross took off and hovered above, waiting. The last of the canvas fell from Douglas’ body, and then he too was hovering, beating his wings against the finest, the thinnest of breezes. Below, his ship continued on its course, far from coming in, pounded by hail and rolling with the thunder. But this high- this high- the going was clear and clean and safe and shining. Tears filled his eyes.
Billy Stanton is a young working-class writer and filmmaker based in London, and originally from Portsmouth. His story ‘Screwfix’ was recently published in ‘New Towns’ (Wild Pressed Books). His short fiction has also appeared in Horla and The Chamber magazines. His latest short film ‘Noli is currently in post-production. His blog can be found at: steelcathedrals.wordpress.com
The mother’s eyes widened when she saw her son fornicating with a dishonourable woman. Fajar’s chest, covered in sweat, moved in unison with the swing of his pelvis. His lust was boiling, triggered by the sighs of Ambar’s breath. The woman, lying on her back on the passenger seat, stretched her neck, whispering Fajar’s name every now and then as if every jolt of the man’s body brought her infinite pleasure. Ambar really understood how to intoxicate her lover. It didn’t matter if Ambar didn’t actually feel the same joy. Fajar wasn’t adept at making love, but Ambar thought he had the right to taste what it felt like to be a stud. After all, Fajar had been good to her.
“This belongs to my mother,” Fajar said as he wrapped a gold chain necklace around Ambar’s neck just before they shuffled into the passenger seat. Having never had luxurious jewellery before, Ambar’s eyes were stunned by the gleam emanating from every tiny link that formed the piece. However, what caught her attention was the bulging eye – or at least that was her first impression – which was hanging from the end of the necklace chain. White diamond shards clustered around the emerald piece, holding it hostage in the middle, forcing the eye to see it all.
“Are you sure your mother would want you to give this to me?”
“Of course,” Fajar assured her. There was no doubt on his face, “in fact, she specifically asked me to give it to you.”
Ambar raised her eyebrow in disbelief. Considering their relationship wasn’t exactly the type that a Javanese traditionalist mother would approve of, this unexpected gift came as a pleasant surprise to Ambar.
I guess I am welcome to the family after all,Ambar thought. But then again, she supposed Fajar’s mother just had no choice in the matter.
Ambar’s attention shifted back to the present, where Fajar, now moving faster above her, grunted in pleasure as he climaxed. Out of breath, Fajar collapsed on Ambar’s shoulder, feeling worthy of an embrace even after only satisfying himself.
Ambar stroked Fajar’s hair as if she was lulling a child to sleep, while her mind wandered, contemplating everything that had brought her here.
“Ambar, are there no single men in your office?” Ambar remembered her mother had asked a few weeks ago during dinner.
Careful not to rise to her mother’s taunt, Ambar chose to take a piece of tofu that was laid out on the table. But as expected, her mother never waited for an answer.
“Not one man has approached you at work? Or maybe you scare them away?”
Ambar didn’t have enough patience that day. “Mom, would they hire me as their secretary if they thought I would scare people away? And my priority there is not to find a husband.”
“Just remember, you’ll only get older,” the mother replied, always scapegoating time as the enemy, “you’ll be in your thirties this year. If you don’t start looking for a husband now, when will you get one?”
“I just got a job, Mom,” Ambar stressed every word as if talking to a child, “can I focus on that first?”
But her mother didn’t relent, “I’m not telling you to quit your job. I’m just saying that, while working, you can also search for a husband. Your fortune will only grow after you get married. Didn’t you read the hadith book I gave you?”
Ambar’s face heated up. If getting married can make you rich, why were we always poor when Dad was still alive? Ambar was about to respond but chose to clear the plates from the table and withdraw from the battlefield. In her mind, she wished to get enough money fast to afford her own place, so she would no longer be trapped with her mother, although this thought made her feel like an ungrateful daughter. It wouldn’t matter anyway. Ambar knew that her salary as a secretary in a small law firm wouldn’t be able to buy the freedom that she longed for.
However, that night, as she lay on her bed, considering her options, Ambar thought that maybe it could be helpful for her to have a boyfriend. She wouldn’t give a rat’s ass if she fancied the guy. At least his presence could, for a time, stop her mother’s nagging comments every night.
Hence, in her first few weeks at work, Ambar began to look for a potential mate. It was clear to her that Fajar stood out from the rest, and it wasn’t because of his position. Well, not entirely anyway. Because even though Fajar was the owner and partner of the law office she worked in, he was different from most other young entrepreneurs in similar positions, in that he wasn’t an entitled jerk. If anything, Ambar saw that Fajar was too naive to use his power. He could only make decisions after getting validation from others, including his subordinates. Ambar could often hear Fajar’s questions to the associate lawyers in his office: Could you check the law, have we quoted them right? What is the name of the law again? So we’ve quoted the correct one, right? Does this report look good enough to you?
It was clear to Ambar that Fajar was her “in”. While physically, Fajar was definitely not her type, Ambar found his habit of always asking for others’ opinions refreshing. Ambar imagined it must be nice to be with someone who cared about what she had to say. She wanted to know more about him, but in the two weeks she had been working there, Ambar had only been trusted with filing and scanning documents. The rest, the man did himself. Accustomed to fighting to get what she wanted, Ambar knew that she had to be proactive.
One afternoon at work, when all the other secretaries had gone home, Ambar knocked on Fajar’s office and stepped inside. From behind the pile of documents on the desk, he looked up.
“Excuse me, Mas Fajar. Is there anything I can help you with?” Ambar’s voice sounded sweet, surprising even herself, “is it okay if I call you ‘Mas’? You’re still quite young, so I thought…”
Fajar didn’t answer right away; he just stared at her. Ambar panicked. Was I too forward? Perhaps he would like me more if I just acted pretty and cute like all the other secretaries here?
For a moment, Ambar suspected that maybe there was something wrong with the way she dressed. But that day, she was wearing a blazer, white shirt, and black pleated skirt. An ensemble that was very common in a workplace, if not boring.
Ambar was about to apologize and shuffle out of the room before Fajar asked, “It’s already late; you don’t want to go home instead?”
“I don’t have anything to do at home anyways,” Ambar said.
Fajar smiled awkwardly. His previous secretary had never been this straightforward. He motioned for Ambar to sit down, with Fajar’s desk stretched between them like a barricade. He handed a document to Ambar and commented that the format therein wasn’t up to the firm’s standard. Fajar had asked a junior lawyer to fix it, but the young man had to go home early due to a family emergency.
“I have to send this out to our client tonight,” Fajar tried to sound calm, though Ambar could see the nervous twitch on his face. Fajar asked Ambar to tidy up the formatting on the executive summary while Fajar would check on the regulatory references.
“If I may, can I just bring my laptop here?” Ambar asked, which prompted a doubtful look from her superior. Ambar quickly gave her justification, “So that if I have any questions, I can just discuss them with you here instead of having to go back and forth into the room.”
Fajar thought her reasoning was quite sensible. In the hours that followed, Ambar worked across the table from Fajar in his office, typing away on the laptop in front of her. Every now and then, Ambar would read a series of paragraphs from the file to him, making sure her revisions were in accordance with his wishes. From the spelling of terminologies that were foreign to her (juncto, lex specialis, and pacta sunt servanda, to name a few), cross-references to things that piqued her curiosity (“Why is the law changed so many times? How can they expect us to keep up?” “Why can’t the regulations use a simpler language?” “So lawyers are basically just copying off of the law with a little bit of paraphrasing?”). At first, Fajar just answered dismissively, as if he thought that Ambar would eventually lose interest. However, as the secretary’s questions became more and more probing, Fajar’s answers became more detailed. There was no longer any hesitation in his voice. Ambar saw, to her delight, that Fajar had started to enjoy conversing with her. She suspected that his confidence emerged after he was sure that Ambar wouldn’t doubt his words. She began to think that, like herself, perhaps Fajar just wanted somebody to act as a sounding board.
Ambar found other similarities with Fajar when they had dinner together at a cafe after working until late at night for the umpteenth time.
“Even after I opened my own law office, my mother still complained, ‘Why don’t you try working for a bona fide company first to build your resume?’, ‘My friends’ kids work in oil and gas companies offshore, and they got good benefits and everything,’” Fajar tried to sound humorous. Still, Ambar knew, even in the dim light of the cafe, that these comments had been bothering him for a long time.
“My mother is the same way, Mas,” Ambar said, “I thought she would be happy when she found out I got a job. But her complaints just shift to ‘When are you getting married?’ and so on.”
Both of them laughed, relieved to know that they belonged to the same clan: grown humans who only functioned as extensions of their parents.
Fajar said that his mother also often tried to set him up with her friends’ daughters. “She asked me to have dinner with her friend’s daughter tomorrow. Her father is a director of a state-owned company,” Fajar said.
Not knowing what to say, Ambar just nodded at first. However, when she caught the tired look on Fajar’s face, Ambar asked, “If you don’t feel like it, why don’t you just refuse to go?”
Fajar stared at Ambar as if she had just said something ridiculous. A defeated smile spread across his face, “Even if we refuse, do you think our mothers would stay silent?”
Ambar recalled her mother’s complaints whenever they argued about her future: “I know this is none of my business. But is it wrong for a mother to want the best for her daughter?” “Have I ever asked anything from you? Why can’t you just listen to what I say for once?”, “Remember the hadith, Ambar. Children must make their parents happy.”
Ambar returned Fajar’s smile, raised her glass, and toasted, “May your matchmaking dinner go splendidly tomorrow.”
Ambar thought her humour was too grim for most people, but Fajar laughed out loud at her direct remarks. She realized that she liked seeing him laugh.
But it wouldn’t change a thing anyway since Ambar realized that her chances of winning her lottery were slim. She knew that there was no way a devout prince could defy the mandate of his queen mother.
Which was why Ambar was surprised when she saw Fajar the next day, still in his office at 8 p.m. From her cubicle, Ambar could see him in his room, which was entirely framed by glass partitions. He was sitting in the chair; his eyes were glued to the monitor. But Ambar knew the man wasn’t paying attention to anything. His mind was lost in the ether, which Ambar had often caught him doing whenever he thought nobody was watching. Triggered by curiosity, Ambar stepped into Fajar’s office, but not before taking a document from her desk to make her visit look more official.
Fajar’s gaze shifted to Ambar as she entered. Ambar could see his face beamed at the sight of her – which she thought was cute.
“Don’t you have a dinner date tonight?” Ambar immediately retorted.
Hearing Ambar’s question, Fajar’s brow furrowed, “I have an online meeting tonight with a Panamanian company.”
For a moment, a sense of panic hit Ambar. How could I forget that he has a work meeting tonight? Ambar had always prided herself on being good at keeping track of things. This carelessness made Ambar curse at herself in her head, in a voice identical to her mother’s. But then she remembered something.
“I don’t recall us having a client from Panama, Mas.”
Fajar’s smile slowly grew, “If you ask my mother and my date now, they think we have.”
Ambar couldn’t hold back her laughter. It was endearing to her to see the changes in Fajar’s demeanour over the last few weeks. Like herself, the man was twisting and turning, trying to free himself from his shackles. However, Ambar knew that any struggle was futile. They were lifetime debtors to their mothers, and pursuing desires other than their matriarch’s wishes would constitute a default.
Ambar and Fajar had dinner together again that night and the night after that. And the night after that. Their conversations always lasted until the café was closed, and Fajar always drove her home afterward. She knew that they had become the subject of gossip throughout the office, from secretaries to employees to the partners’ level. Everybody must have noticed that Ambar was the only secretary who was still in her cubicle after five o’clock in the afternoon and that she would only leave the office when Fajar finished working.
“Maybe I should just wait for you on the ground floor,” Ambar suggested one afternoon.
Fajar refused and asked her not to care about what other people said. “I have learned not to bother anymore, Ambar. And you should too. It’s liberating.”
Ambar reminded him that as the owner and the management in the office, he might remain safe from any consequences, at least for now, but not for a secretary who only had been working there for a month. And she was not planning to lose her job.
“I’m the founding partner in this office, Ambar. If anyone has to worry about their position in this office, it’s them.”
Ambar raised her eyebrows, surprised. If someone had said to her that the timid man she knew a month ago was the same person as the man who now sat in Fajar’s office, Ambar would never have believed them. However, she felt a sense of pride, like a mother’s, seeing the burgeoning man she had created.
Fajar drove Ambar home again that night, stopping just outside the alley where her house was. She didn’t want her mother to know that her boss drove her home every night. Ambar knew that even though her mother always wanted her to find a mate, making sure her only daughter avoided adultery and especially being the subject of nasty gossiping by the neighbours was paramount. Regarding why she often came home late, Ambar always reasoned to her mother that working overtime was something common in a law office, even for the secretaries. Her mother never once questioned Ambar’s excuses, at least for now.
“I told my mother about us,” Fajar said. His gaze fell on their intertwined hands, “I hope that’s okay.”
Ambar was disappointed that Fajar did this without asking her first. The old Fajar, Ambar was sure, would have asked for her opinion first before telling anyone else about their relationship.
Now that the queen mother had been made aware that her young prince had secretly been getting intimate with a peasant woman, Ambar could only guess which one of them would be called a whore. Bitterness permeated her mind, so thick that she could taste it on her tongue.
“What did you say to her?” Ambar asked, preparing for the worst.
“I showed her your picture. She said that you’re beautiful and wanted to meet you,” Fajar said.
“What else did you not tell me?”
Fajar seemed stunned by Ambar’s reaction, “What do you mean?”
At that moment, Ambar found his naïveté exasperating. “Even if your mother wants to see me, it’s definitely not because she likes me. She probably wants to prove how unworthy I am.”
Despite her protest, Ambar knew that meeting the queen mother was something she couldn’t avoid, especially if she wanted their relationship to attain legitimacy. As of now, she knew that she was already floating on her space shuttle, halfway to escaping her prison. She just hoped that she would not be denied permission to land.
Fajar whispered, as if able to read her mind, “Ambar, you don’t have to worry. Even if my mother doesn’t like you, she won’t be able to do much.”
Ambar looked at Fajar, waiting for him to make his point.
“My mother is very sick.”
Fajar’s voice broke as if shards of glass were puncturing his throat. He told Ambar that his mother had stage four colon cancer. Her condition had deteriorated rapidly since she was first diagnosed with the disease two months ago. Even though she had undergone resection surgery, doctors still found cancer cells left in her body, so she had to continue with a series of chemotherapy.
Fajar said that his mother didn’t respond well to the drugs. On the doctor’s advice, Fajar decided that his mother be treated palliatively at home with the help of a nurse. Ambar knew exactly what this meant: Only divine intervention could save the queen from death. Unfortunately, Ambar knew from her own experience with her late father, that the man in the heavens could be pretty unforgiving.
“But my mother is a fighter,” Fajar continued, “the doctor said that she only had weeks to live, but it’s been two months now, and she’s still hanging on.” Fajar’s gaze was lost in the past. He then closed his eyes and took a breath as if trying to keep his soul from escaping. When he opened his eyes again, Ambar could see tears welling up inside.
“At this point, I know she must be exhausted, Ambar. I just want her to know that I will be okay… because now I have you by my side.”
Ambar suddenly felt as if her stomach was filled with rocks.
He thinks that by parading me in front of his dying mother, she can die more peacefully, and he can feel less like a failure to her. Ambar thought. She was unsure if she was interested in being made a Messiah for Fajar and his mother. She realized that she enjoyed spending time with this man simply because he gave her an excuse to avoid being at home with her own queen lioness. On the other hand, she relished the possibility of being the last woman that the queen saw before she passed. After all, she had to pay respect to the previous ruler before she could ascend the throne herself.
It was then that Fajar produced a small bronze box from inside his suit that he hung behind the driver’s seat. The sight of the antique-looking item immediately grabbed Ambar’s attention. Even under the pale moonlight that shone through the windshield, she could see the intricate snake-like carvings slither through the box’s surface. Traditional Javanese scripts, Ambar realized. The hanacaraka. She remembered her mother had tried to teach her to write and read the letters when she was in elementary school, but she would always find a way to avoid the lessons (“Why should I learn all of this stuff? Even my teacher at school doesn’t know how to read this,” little Ambar would argue). But if her mother kept pressing, Ambar would make a fuss and cry. She discovered early on that if she cried long enough, her father would eventually swoop in and save her – like the valiant prince that he was – believing that her mother was being too hard on her. Ambar realized that she had always wanted to escape her mother’s unwavering and critical gaze for as long as she could remember.
However, Ambar was surprised to find that she could understand the meaning of the ancient texts engraved on the top of the bronze box. It looked and sounded mystical; Ambar swore that it could have been a mantra.
Through my pain and misery,
that was how you came to be.
By the moon and the sun, I swore to thee.
From now to eternity, my heirloom, you’ll be.
Ambar saw Fajar open the box’s lid and lifted a golden chain necklace with a large green emerald glistening at its end, swarmed by hundreds of white diamonds, making it look like a staring, unblinking eye.
“This belongs to my mother,” he said as he laid it on her palm, “and I want you to have it.”
Ambar couldn’t take her eyes off the gemstone. So arresting yet intimidating its power was that she felt like challenging it.
“Are you sure your mother would want you to give this to me?” Ambar asked, even though she couldn’t have cared less.
“Of course,” Fajar assured her, “In fact, she specifically asked me to give it to you.”
Ambar smiled. She suddenly remembered her father, who had always spoiled her with gifts, from dolls, toys, to a minibike. It didn’t matter to her that he had bought those items from a secondhand market by the roadside – every time her father brought something home for her, Ambar felt like a royal daughter.
Fajar wrapped the necklace around Ambar’s neck and kissed her forehead. “You look beautiful,” he whispered. It was as if Ambar’s father had come back to life, making sure that his daughter was treated like the empress that she was.
“Please come to my house with me tomorrow; it would mean so much to me,” Fajar said. The way he looked reminded Ambar of a stray kitten begging for scraps, and Ambar could not help but give in.
“Of course I will,” Ambar squeezed his hand gently. She could see that her response gave him relief. Locking his gaze with hers, Fajar shifted closer and planted his lips on Ambar’s. His hands cupped her face as if he was gulping from it. Ambar pulled her knees onto the seat and rested them on the cushion, driving herself closer, letting him savour the nectar of her lips. He earned every lipstick-tinged drop. After all, he had just invited Ambar to her very own royal coronation – neither wicked stepmother nor fairy godmother necessary. This was better than any fairy tale Ambar could ever dream of.
Scrambling to the back seat, Ambar and Fajar mauled each other as if they lusted for blood. Squirming and writhing like snakes in a cave, they felt freer than ever. Not one drop of light shone on them, and they preferred it that way. Under the shadows, they could be feral animals, not anybody’s pets.
Because the light held you captive while the darkness set you free.
What they didn’t realize was that a mother’s gaze could penetrate through even the darkest of nights. After all, she had seen a glimpse of hell and lived to tell the tale.
So relentlessly unwavering and unflinching were her eyes that shadows folded onto themselves in fear, allowing her a better sight of the abominable act that was splayed on the passenger seat just beyond the rear window.
Her eyes reddened and trembled as she saw her son fornicating with a dishonourable woman.
Ambar planted a parting kiss on Fajar’s lips before she stepped out of the car several minutes later. Upon alighting on the gravel, she self-consciously pulled at her blouse and skirt, as if afraid that people would know what she had done just by looking at the creases.
Ambar glanced sideways and saw Fajar’s car starting up. The beam from the headlight and the rumbling sound from the engine disrupted the quiet night as if alerting every house in the neighborhood that Ambar, the daughter of a pious and God-fearing single mother, was once again being dropped off late at night by a man, like a dirty secret.
As Fajar drove away, Ambar raised her hands to wave at him, hoping to get a wave back or a smile. However, Ambar could see from the window that Fajar’s attention was fixed on the road; his face was devoid of any of the joy that had earlier oozed from his every pore.
He’s probably tired. It’s after midnight, and we have a big day tomorrow, Ambar reasoned to herself.
But in a split second that followed, Ambar realized that she had seen that look before. It was the look that Fajar had whenever he was alone and thought that nobody was watching.
It was as if his soul was only loaned to him, and someone – or something else – had decided to take it back.
“It looks good on you,” Fajar complimented Ambar when he saw his mother’s necklace encircling her neck.
It was the day after, and Ambar was back in Fajar’s car, which looked and smelled the same as it had the night before. However, unlike the gloomy man that Ambar had seen through the window last night, today, Fajar looked as chipper as ever. He kept saying how stunning Ambar was in her long-sleeved white dress and blood-red shoes. Ambar quite liked the look herself as she based it on her favorite fairy tale, Swan Lake, where the prince professed his love and released the princess from her curse, making her a true royal in the end. Her whole ensemble was her way of manifesting her destiny.
However, her mood just couldn’t align with her sunny get-up this evening, all thanks to snippy comments made by her mother just before she was about to head out.
“They must pay you a lot of money, don’t they?”
Ambar, who was just putting on her crimson shoes, stopped in her tracks and stared at her mother. Her insinuating tone was palpable; she might as well cut Ambar’s jugular with a knife.
“Do you know what people in our neighborhood have been talking about?” her mother stood in the living room, a good four feet from where Ambar sat. Wrapped in her oversized black dress, she leaned her shoulder against the wall, her arms folded across her chest as if assessing a shameful object from afar.
Ambar didn’t have time for this. She rose from her chair and headed for the front door.
“They said, ‘Look at Mrs. Endang’s daughter; she’s always being taken home late by someone. I wonder what she does for a living’,” her mother continued. Rage shook her voice.
As if rotten eggs had just been thrown at her back, Ambar turned to face her aggressor. Her eyes were burning coals.
“I don’t give a fuck what they think.”
The mother hen winced as if Ambar just spat acid on her, “Have you no shame?”
The more her mother threw heinous accusations at her, the more she wanted to mess with her mother’s head. After all, she had decided that her daughter was a whore. Why bother correcting her now?
“I thought this is what you want, Mother? Me finding a husband? I’m just doing what you told me to.”
“Not by disgracing our family in front of everybody!” her mother barked.
“You want to talk about family, Mother? Am I not your family?”
Both women breathed heavily; each was a distorted reflection of the other – arch Nemeses bound by blood.
“You are my daughter,” her mother reminded Ambar’s position in this household, “and as your mother, it’s my duty to guide you through life so you don’t do things that you’ll regret.”
“No, you want me under your thumb,” Ambar retorted, “and you think your duty is to point out the things that I lack.” Ambar could feel her pent-up anger rolling like a storm.
“When I had to refuse the job offer in Malaysia a couple of years ago because you didn’t want to be alone, you belittled me every day for not having a job. When I finally got this job, you asked me when will I have a boyfriend,” Ambar’s voice cracked, “and now that I have done exactly as you asked, you called me a whore.”
Her mother just stared at her, dumbfounded, unable to refute Ambar’s tirade. Ambar believed there was nothing her mother could do other than admit defeat. But she forgot the fundamental law in this household: Ambar was the daughter, and she was the mother. And her mother would rather chew on shards of glass than apologize.
“Don’t twist my words, Ambar. I have never said such a thing. I’m just telling you what other people have said,” her mother’s voice trembled, “remember the Quran and the hadith, Ambar. Respect and honour your parents. Especially your – .”
“You can cite the Quran and the hadith all you want, Mother,” Ambar snapped, “I’m done feeling guilty for you.”
Ambar turned her back on her grief-stricken mother and walked out. In between the sound of her pounding heart, she vowed to move out of her mother’s house tonight – never to return.
Ambar let her fingers play with the golden necklace on her neck. The gleam of the gemstone at its center shone as brightly as ever, casting specks of light throughout the sprawling living room where she sat.
Ambar marveled at the lavish items and adornments that lay before her eyes. There was a large painting on the wall across from her, stretched from one corner to the next, depicting a traditional shadow puppet show watched by a smattering of locals. Ambar felt as if she was part of them.
As she observed the painting from where she sat, Ambar could see the hand of the puppeteer protruding from behind the white cloth, unnoticed by the rest of the audience. The yellowish glow from the chandelier in the living room made the puppeteer’s hands seem to move ever so slightly.
Annoyed by what her mind had conjured up, Ambar shifted her sight to the closed door across the living room, beyond the reach of the chandelier’s light. That was where Fajar had disappeared to moments ago. He told Ambar that he wanted to check with the live-in nurse whether his mother was in a good enough condition for a visit. “She seemed well enough this morning. But I better check since her condition fluctuates by the hour.”
Ambar glanced at the watch on her wrist – 8 p.m. It had been ten minutes since Fajar had left her in the living room, but it felt like hours. She was getting anxious, and knowing that she was sitting there alone, surrounded by antiques and relics with no one else in sight, made her uncomfortable. Determined to shake off her jitters, Ambar rose from the chair and decided to look around.
As she walked across the hall from the living room, her eyes were drawn to her right, where a massive stone carving stretched along the walls. There was a sculpture of a woman wearing a traditional robe, standing in the middle of a forest. She was extending her arms to a sickly-looking old man, offering him a bowl of water. While the woman’s eyes brimmed with care and generosity, the old man’s visage looked cunning and malicious. It didn’t take long for Ambar to realize that she recognized the scene: it was from the Javanese version of the Ramayana, the story that her father used to read to her every night.
The woman depicted on the wall was Sita, who, at that particular part of the tale, was tricked by the calculating Rahwana – who disguised himself as an old man – into giving him water. As Sita’s arms extended beyond the protective circle made by her prince, the ferocious Rahwana snatched her away and held her hostage in his castle.
The devious glint in Rahwana’s eyes sent a shiver down Ambar’s spine, yet at the same time, she couldn’t look away. The frail man on the wall, with his apparent harmlessness, drew her in, just like he did poor Sita.
Ambar thought that it was understandable why Sita didn’t suspect the man’s true intention. Carved in broad, expressive strokes, the old man seemed to have the most friendly laugh. She couldn’t only identify with Sita, but also feared for her. Ambar realized that she had also been drawn by that very laugh many weeks ago when she thought that her humour was too grim for most people.
A voice as thin as air jolted Ambar out of her thoughts. Her gaze immediately swerved to where she believed the voice was coming from.
The closed black door.
Thinking that Fajar would emerge from behind the door and invite her in at any moment, Ambar made a last-minute attempt to smooth out her hair and dress. After all, she only had one chance to impress the dying queen.
However, after minutes passed without any sign of the black door opening, Ambar began to feel annoyed.
How hard is it for him to ask whether his mother is in good enough condition for a visit? Ambar thought impatiently. Surely the nurse can give him a quick answer?
Ambar’s questions floated aimlessly in the air without any answers to keep them earthbound. She turned her head to the living room, contemplating whether to just return there and wait like an uncomplaining little girl, when she, once again, saw a glimpse of the Ramayana carvings across the wall. The scheming Rahwana now seemed to be laughing ather.
Ambar quickly turned her sight back to the coal-black door. There was no way that she would spend another minute waiting there under the encroaching gaze of those relics.
Ambar drew a deep breath. She knew that she just had to walk through the door and ask nicely whether there was something she could do to help. After all, she was Fajar’s secretary.
As she clasped her hand on the door handle, she could see a faint red gleam cast onto the door’s surface. She noticed that it came from the gemstone in her necklace. Has it always been red? Ambar didn’t care enough to remember, as her focus was to make sure she made an impressive entrance.
The door was heavier than she had anticipated when Ambar pushed it open. A long creaking sound filled the air as the door swung inwards, revealing – to Ambar’s surprise – not a well-lit bedroom fit for a queen but a dark cavern.
Ambar stood, statue-like, in the doorway, trying to adjust her eyes to the gaping darkness in front of her. There were cobbled stairs ahead, leading down to an even darker abyss. She was about to call out Fajar’s name, but something in her head told her not to. She knew something was wrong, but she didn’t want to turn back before getting some answers. She needed to find Fajar and asked him what the hell was going on. And if she had to walk down that flight of stairs to get her answers, so be it.
Ambar took out her cellphone from her handbag and turned on the flashlight app. The white beam emanating from the device gave her enough sense of what lay ahead. Unfortunately, the light was still too weak to reveal what was in store for her at the end of the pit.
Ambar inhaled deeply before started descending the cobblestone stairs. She could feel the door behind her being swung shut by the wind, engulfing her in suffocating darkness.
As she treaded deeper into the womb of the cavern, Ambar was greeted by a chilling breeze – and with it, a distant but unmistakable voice.
“I’ll fetch her, Mother.”
It was Fajar’s voice, which sounded both adoring and fearful. Every word he said bounced off the stone wall into Ambar’s ears, creating an overlapping squawk that looped endlessly.
“I’ll I’ll fetch fetch her her, Mother Mother.
I’ll I’ll fetch fetch her her, Mother Mother.
I’ll I’ll fetch fetch her her, Mother Mother.”
Ambar stopped in her tracks, realizing that she was almost at the foot of the stairs. In front of her was a landing that led to a low archway on the right, where Fajar’s voice resounded.
The hair on Ambar’s neck stood up when she heard the sound of the walls breathing, resulting in a cacophony of whispery chants from hell. Only moments later did she realize that the panting sound was coming from her own mouth.
“You wait here, Mother. I’ll be right back,” Fajar’s voice continued to undulate in the darkness, but now it sounded closer than before.
Ambar’s heart sank when she saw a man’s shadow appear on the cobbled floor, approaching the mouth of the archway. Fajar was coming for her.
Ambar turned back to the stairs and started climbing to the black door. At this moment, she wanted nothing more than to make her legs move faster, but the blinding darkness and her godforsaken stiletto heels made her attempt at running more like a light jog than a dash.
Ambar screamed in frustration as she hobbled her way towards the upper landing, where the black door was. Her escape was now in sight. A few more steps and she would be able to ditch her shoes and sprint as fast as she could – or fight.
“Ambaaaaar!” Fajar’s bestial roar followed her from several steps below. The thumping of his feet sounded more and more frantic as he got closer.
Skipping over the last two steps, Ambar reached the upper landing and swung open the obsidian door. Without even blinking to adjust her eyes to the piercing light, she kicked off her crimson shoes and ran for her life.
As she ran past the living room where Rahwana’s smile taunted her from the wall, Ambar felt a tightening grip around her neck. Thinking that she must be hyperventilating, she desperately pleaded for her lungs to hold on just a little longer. The main front door was right there in front of her, ready to grant her an escape. All she had to do was pay no mind to her heaving lungs and aching body and keep pushing. She was sure that she would be out in the front yard in no time, free to scream and yell to anyone who would listen.
But the tightness around her neck intensified the closer she got to the front door. Now, barely an iota of air could enter her lungs. Ambar’s run regressed into a blundering shamble. Her mouth agape, she gasped for air. As her fingers clawed violently at her neck, she felt chain loops coil tightly around her throat. She wasn’t hyperventilating; she was being strangled by her own necklace.
Ambar’s body slumped to the floor. Devoid of oxygen, her head felt like it would topple to the ground. The front door, which before had looked ridiculously near, now seemed miles away.
From behind, she could hear Fajar’s footsteps approaching, steady and triumphant, eager to claim his prey.
“It will choke you to death if you keep running away,” Fajar spoke calmly as if he was explaining the laws of physics. Ambar could feel Fajar’s hand resting on her shoulders. He then pulled her backward, letting her rest in his arms as he knelt.
“I need your body to be well, Ambar. It’s the only way I can have my mom back,” Fajar said; his tone was as loving as ever, “but you don’t need to be scared. Everything’s going to be all right. I promise you. You won’t feel a thing.”
That was the last thing Ambar heard before her whole world turned black.
At least Fajar kept part of his promise. Minutes later, when Ambar regained consciousness, she didn’t feel any pain. She found herself sitting on a chair in a dingy chamber. The only light source in the room was a chain bulb that hung from the ceiling. Ambar could taste the pungent smell of rats’ droppings that permeated the air, making her gag. Tears, snot, and spit dripped down her face like melting wax, wreaking havoc with her make-up.
As she examined her own situation, Ambar could see that her hands were lying idly on her thigh, and her bare feet were resting on the cold stone floor. There was no rope tying her to the chair. Nothing that could keep her from fighting back and making a run for it. However, when she tried to lift her hands, it was as if there were iron cuffs that held them in place. Her feet, too, felt like they were weighed down by a heavy-duty ball and chain.
As her eyes darted in panic, trying to make sense of what was happening, she caught the sight of the necklace with a dangling emerald eye on its end, still coiling around her neck like a greedy snake. The previously green gemstone that formed its pupil now took on a reddish hue, making it look like a gaping, throbbing wound. Recalling what had occurred minutes ago when she tried to escape, Ambar suspected that, as unbelievable as it might sound, this life-like necklace was somehow responsible for her currently paralyzed state.
“Hi,” seemingly out of nowhere, Fajar’s face filled her whole view. Ambar opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out. She was as silent and defenseless as a carcass.
Fajar kept staring at her for a moment. So close was his face to hers that Ambar could see every bead of sweat leaking from the pores of his skin.
“You’re fine. You’re not hurt,” Fajar cupped Ambar’s tear-stained face and moved it around in his hands as if checking for a defect. There was a worried glint in his eyes; Ambar was unsure whether his remark was supposed to soothe her or himself.
“I love you, Ambar,” Fajar whispered as he caressed Ambar’s trembling face, “and I love my mother. I need to have you both.”
Ambar stared at Fajar in confusion. But as he moved away from her sight, Ambar was able to look ahead and got her answer. What she saw in front of her made her eyes bulge in fear.
Sitting right across from her were skeletal remains of a human, covered in filth and dirt. Its big hollow eyes were emotionless and bare, while its lipless mouth was forever grinning. Ambar couldn’t comprehend how something devoid of a soul could look so cunning.
“That horrible disease took her months ago,” Fajar lamented as he rested his hands on the bony shoulder of what once was his mother’s, “before she died, she promised that she would always be with me… that she would always watch over me.”
Fajar’s voice cracked as emotions overtook him, “But I don’t want just her presence or her memory. I want her here. I want her alive, healthy, and well.”
“And then I met you,” the man smiled that deceptively warm smile, “you’re fierce, funny, and intelligent, just like she was. Right then, I knew….”
Fajar’s voice petered out as if losing its transmitter. Ambar could see his hands move to his mother’s collarbone, where a familiar object lay bare and loose: the emerald necklace, identical to the one twisting around her own neck.
“I knew that you two would get along. Two of my favorite women, in the same body.”
Ambar managed to let out a muffled scream. Her whole body jerked and trembled, trying to free herself from the spell that rendered her immobile. But those invisible chains just would not give.
Fajar turned his attention to the dark corner of the room and said giddily, “Isn’t she perfect, Mother?”
With growing horror, Ambar’s eyes followed his gaze to the shadowy wall. There was only a deep blackness there. But Fajar kept going.
“Did I do right by you, Mother?” Fajar, ever the approval-seeking man-boy, clung to the dead woman who was pulling his strings.
Trying to make sense of it all, Ambar stared deep into the dark corner of the wall, searching for something that wasn’t there. The more she frowned, the more she felt like darkness was closing in on her, forcing her to look deeper.
And then she saw her, hiding behind the ink-black shadows. The queen of the house. Her face was as pale as the moonlight. Her body looked frail and spindly, as if the disease was still eating her away, even after she died. But there was something burning in her eyes. An untamed desire to protect what was hers. Ambar knew those eyes well. She had tried to escape those eyes all her life. They were the eyes of a mother.
Ambar could only scream and wail in silence. In the moments before darkness engulfed her, Ambar prayed that her mother could think of her, forgive her, and eventually look for her.
It was then that Fajar began to recite a passage that sounded familiar to Ambar. Every word seemed to multiply and gnaw over one another like rats, burrowing a chamber into her mind. So ethereal and mystical were those verses; she could swear they could have been a mantra.
“Through my pain and misery,
that was how you came to be.
By the moon and the sun, I swore to thee.From now to eternity, my heirloom, you’ll be.”
 A record of the Islamic prophet Muhammad’s words, actions, and approval.
 A Javanese prefix used to address older brothers or other men of unknown age to show respect; it is also commonly used to convey a youthful impression of adult men.
Dimas Rio is an Indonesian-born dark fiction writer. He published his first novel, “Dinner with Saucer,” in 2007, which was shortlisted for Indonesia’s Khatulistiwa Literary Award.
In 2022, his self-published short story collection “Who’s There? A Collection of Stories” was re-published by a US-based publisher, Velox Books. Kirkus Reviews calls the book “Entrancing and unnerving” and included it as one of the notable indie books by international authors in 2022
Dimas can be contacted on his Instagram account @dimas_riyo
Their hands kept slipping while they lashed the bodies to the stakes driven into the iron-grey silt. The ocean- an even deeper shade of grey but subtly alive, foaming and bubbling- held back its fury and waited. One of the men, stuffing his hand between a captive’s black teeth to put an end to her godforsaken screeching, felt as if the sea was observing them through the prism of many melancholy eyes and lamenting what would come of their work.
Cnut stood overlooking the tenuous plot of half-land, this gloomy island that existed only in certain stretches of the blighted day, with his closest men. It was a supposedly wise one, foolishly emboldened by his position, who whispered to him.
“It’s the third tide here already at Hamtun today. Begging your pardon, my Lord, but what other reason could there be to explain this?”
Cnut said nothing at first, but mounted his horse to gain a better aspect and rest his wearied legs. When he eventually spoke he was neither imperious nor definitive but slow, quiet, contemplative. He, like the sea, was already in mourning.
“If you still, after all, refuse to accept that there is but one true power, and not many middling and earthbound ones, then look and see now.”
The captors, their work done, came slouching up to the road dropping stinking clods of mud and leaking saltwater. They were as dark and unknowable now as they often were in battle and just as displeased with their lot. In this dreary landscape drained of colour, where the sea could not be made separate from the sky, where people were shadows and day was perpetual twilight, there was no nobility amongst any, and Cnut would have tied himself to one of the stakes below if the last solitary glint of light shining in his heart at that moment had been any feebler.
“Curse this land. Curse what they make us do to them.”
He adjusted his crown and turned his head away. His men were shivering; the rope-bearers were smearing the dirt from their clothes in the long grass. Little puddles were drying on the cracked brown earth where they had wrung out all they could wring out.
Time crawled by as Cnut preoccupied himself with thoughts of Wareham. He saw the piles of bodies, inkless and bloodless, their throats slashed by the heathens. Only the scale, only the numbers moved him. Individual bodies, dead and defiled: he had seen enough of those, and seen what his men did to them. There always arrives a time, he thought, when a King becomes blind to individuality in either living or dead subjects; when a person becomes but a vague thing, and the kingdom- once even vaguer than that- clear and defined and strong. The latter vision, he knew however, was usually a false one: a dream to pass on, to lull one to sleep, to turn scarlet in sacred premonitions that demanded the swiftest action. The people on the stakes before him, his men succumbing to their native beliefs, their distance from him now on this bank- that was proof enough that nothing is ever really united, everything is blurred and all is always on the point of collapse.
The sea was flowing in and was almost up to the knees of the savages below.
“Do you see them commanding their ranks of white horses?”
Cnut turned to his men, but they shrunk back, refusing his gaze. He had tried to force fire through his weariness; tried to put black in his eyes, a sharp edge on his words, unlike the last time he had spoken.
He returned to watching. The bound figures were absolutely still and silent now. If he were not afraid to admit it, Cnut would almost have thought them holy in their pose and manner. They had bowed their heads to watch the water rise upon them, to see white salt marks climbing up their clothes, filling their wounds with stinging. They did not scream, protest or squirm any longer. They seemed to accept their dual fate as martyrs to disproof and unwitting confirmers of beliefs that were not theirs.
When the sea finally came and filled their lungs and buried them, without treasure or comfort for the afterlife, in its great grey tomb, they continued to stay as motionless as they had for almost the whole period of waiting once the men had left them and ascended the path. They did not thrash about in whatever pathetic way their binds would allow them; they offered no reproach or remonstrance. The unfortunates on their primitive crucifixes were swept out of existence so utterly and so brutally that it was as if they had never existed at all. Neither the ancient and near barren fields of their recent workaday pasts or this stark and frigid harbour appeared prepared to remember them.
Cnut’s men were almost as silent as the drowned at the end. There was no call of triumph, no jubilations, no apologies to God or King. If Cnut had not present perhaps there would have been weeping. His words were brief. There was no need for anything more.
“They control no tide. They have no powers. Sack the rest of them. No fear. Take them for all they have. Our truth is the only truth. Those who accept it, follow to Wintanceaster.”
Cnut led his horse off. The men followed, not looking over the bank at the water where the silt and coarse bunches of seagrass had been. The wind whistled a ballad, no heroic poetry, no sword-bearing parody. Seabirds filled the dark cavern of the sky, waiting for the third tide to subside and the carcasses to become uncovered. What was known- really known, truly known, but hidden until the end- was carried away on the white horses. No more would have it, as they shouldn’t, and it would dissolve to nothing as it was spread around the great expanse of the world.
Billy Stanton is a young working-class writer and filmmaker based in London, and originally from Portsmouth. His story ‘Screwfix’ was recently published in ‘New Towns’ (Wild Pressed Books). His short fiction has also appeared in Horla and The Chamber magazines. His latest short film ‘Noli is currently in post-production. His blog can be found at: steelcathedrals.wordpress.com
Three times in a week, Henry had been late for dinner. Wren noticed. Henry Jr. noticed. Elmo, the family mutt, noticed. Even two-year-old Rosie noticed as she played in the living room that third night.
“Mommy. Where daddy?”
Henry ought to know that Wren was not a fan of tardiness; he was twenty minutes late for their first date and she never let him forget it. For fifteen years they’ve known each other and not once after that first date was Henry ever late. Not until now.
The first night, Henry was full of regrets. He kissed Wren over and over, apologizing more than he needed to.
“Wren, my darling, I’m so sorry, I know how you hate it when I’m late. We had a meeting run long and I didn’t get the chance to call. I’m here now, it won’t happen again, I promise. I have Melissa sending you a cake from Oswald’s Bakery tomorrow, okay? Chocolate, your favorite. I’m so sorry.”
Chocolate’s not Wren’s favorite, but she figured she ought not to complain about a free cake. Melissa, Henry’s sixty-some-odd-year-old secretary, never did send a chocolate cake. Or any cake. She didn’t even answer the phone when Wren called her to ask about it.
Henry was late coming home again the next day. And again on Friday. That time the apology was less sincere but offered the same sorry excuse. A month or so rolled by and he wasn’t late again, but he wasn’t exactly present, either. He would often take his dinner into the office, lock the door, and wouldn’t come out again before Wren would retire to the bedroom. Henry had always kept the office locked, and Wren had respected that; Henry Jr. could be rather nosy. But it bothered her that she wasn’t allowed in there, either. She knew it was a pigsty without her to clean it.
A few weeks in to the new habits, she waited in the living room, determined to stay awake until she saw her husband again.
“What’s got you so busy, dear?” Wren had asked the moment he came out of the hall. “I hardly ever see you anymore. Henry J and Rosie miss you, you know.”
“It’s just a busy time of year for me. It won’t last much longer. Work stuff, you understand.”
Wren, in fact, did not understand.
“Who’s answering sales calls in the middle of the evening? Shouldn’t those people be spending time with their families, too?”
Henry cut a glare at Wren for her remark but didn’t entertain it as he mumbled into the dim room, “go to bed, Wren.”
She sat for a second in the stiff silence of the house. Henry let out a harsh sigh.
“Look, Wren, work’s getting a little more complicated than just making sales calls, okay? It’s been hard to keep up. When everything’s done and over, I’ll tell you all about it, okay? You wouldn’t understand it right now, anyway, and I don’t have the time it takes to explain it all to you yet. I just need you to trust me.”
Wren trusted him. She thought she did, anyway. He had never given her a reason not to. She continued to trust him even as the weeks went on and she saw less and less of him. She had grown weary of isolation and silent meals. At least he would always get the mail and take the trash out.
Weekends were fine. Fine during the day, anyway. He wasn’t home at night. They both played the roles of happy couple in public, masquerading perfection. But never any warmth. That wasn’t new; Henry had never been a fan of being affectionate in public. But he stopped touching her at home, too. The days they would spend together, Wren found herself constantly craving even just a pinky to hold.
She had started to suspect a mistress in the beginning. It would explain why they hadn’t slept together in months. But Henry had always expressed deep disgust when discussing friend’s affairs, giving Wren no reason to believe he would ever consider doing it himself. Right?
* * *
The nights got colder, and the sun set sooner. Wren no longer delayed dinnertime for her husband. Time had started to lose meaning for her, anyway. She took a long drag off her cigarette and blew it out the bathroom window. It was a new habit. She hated smoking, but she hated drinking more, and she needed something to calm her nerves. There was a knock on the door and Wren flung the cigarette into the toilet in a panic.
“Mama?” Henry Jr. knocked again and rattled the knob.
“One second, Henry J, I’m using the potty!” She flushed the toilet and mourned the half-smoked stick as it disappeared.
“Mama, when’s daddy getting home? I got a math question for him.”
Wren opened the door to her nine-year-old tossing a baseball up in the air and failing to catch it as it came back to him. She pushed past him with a heavy sigh and a discouraging, “I don’t know, J. And no throwing in the house, we’ve talked about this.”
“Is he ever gonna hang out with me again?”
Wren bit her lip and tried to soften her tone.
“Of course, he will. He’s just been really busy these past few months.”
“Well, can you help me with it, Mama?”
Wren turned to look at her eager son. She probably could help him, but her husband was a lot better at explaining things to him than she was. When she did try, he would often swoop in later and tell his wife she did it all wrong.
Wren rubbed her forehead and caught a whiff of the lingering smell of smoke on her fingertips. The timer went off for the lasagna and she decided her next break would be once the salad was prepared. She could feel her husband’s thirty-fourth tardy looming.
“I’m sure daddy will be home soon, kid, just ask him when he gets here. Go set the table, dinner’s almost ready.”
So, he did. Henry Jr. was a model child, there was no denying that. Hardworking, good listener, a heart bigger than Texas. He was born exactly nine months after Wren and Henry Sr. got married. Wren would always boast that he was the spitting image of her husband. Same brown eyes, same unusually small toes, same stupid, big head, only Henry Jr. still had the dark curls on top.
She had envied those curls since she first met Henry in high school; it’s what drew her to him in the first place. But it wasn’t just his good looks that caught her eye, or even that he excelled in sports. He was the star of their high school’s mathletes, and there was something so sexy to Wren about a man who was good at something she wasn’t. Back then, Wren was better at a lot of things. There were paintings and gymnastics medals hiding inside their garage to prove it.
Wren’s memories clouded her focus. Her knife had missed the tomato. She stared at the blood coming out of her thumb for a long time before she processed what had happened. It pooled around the tomato slices, picking up loose seeds like boats ready to set sail. She saw herself aboard a seed, arms wrapped up in the ropes of the sail, peering beyond the dark red horizon and bracing herself for the ride over the edge of the cutting board. Her vision started to spin.
All at once the pain hit her and she screeched. She grabbed the nearest rag and wrapped it around her thumb. It continued to throb underneath the cover, and tears fell from her cheeks before she even realized she was crying. She let out a whisper of a curse and the pain subsided just a little. Looking up from her wound, she saw Rosie in the highchair, eyes wide and curious. She asked her mother, “Okay, mommy? You okay?” over and over and over again. Her voice bounced around in Wren’s head, and she slammed her injured fist on the counter in a panicked attempt to shut her daughter up.
Both children froze in the dining room and stared at Wren, white with fear of the stranger claiming to be their mother. Her chest tightened with immediate remorse, and she apologized profusely. But the kids didn’t respond. Wren mumbled something about the bathroom and grabbed a loose cigarette from her purse as she exited. Henry Jr. stopped setting the table after two seats and picked up the sippy cup his sister had dropped.
It was another dinner without her husband. But this one was worse than the others. She had never reacted to her kids in such a violent way, she could tell they were still shaken from it. Rosie had quickly exonerated her, or just simply already forgotten, as toddlers do, but Henry Jr. wasn’t so quick to forgive. When she sent him to bed, he refused their nightly routine of butterfly, cheek, and forehead kisses. Wren’s chest continued to hurt until she went to bed.
She pretended to be asleep when Henry Sr. came home, hoping he would come to bed sooner. Her finger had been stitched up by the retired nurse next door, and she made sure to leave the wounded hand visible over the blankets. Henry didn’t even touch it. Or her. More tears fell onto Wren’s pillow as Henry clicked his lamp off and turned away from her.
Wren didn’t sleep. Well, admittedly she nodded off around two or three, but woke back up before the sunrise, so she didn’t count it. She’d never woken up before the rest of the house until about a month prior, and she’d grown to enjoy it. It was like a dream, watching the sky turn from red to orange to yellow to bright blue. The sunrise was a lot more beautiful than the sunset, she had decided, especially when she could have a cigarette with her coffee as she watched from the front porch.
The baby monitor lit up as she finished a second smoke; her morning of peace was over. She hung her coat up by the door and stared at the keys on the hooks. Wren and Henry had bought the minivan together when they found out about Rosie. It was a little on the expensive side as they bought it new, so they both gave up their smaller cars in exchange. They agreed that one car was sensible since Wren would be home most of the day with a new baby, anyway. But after going stir crazy for two years, she was beyond thrilled when Henry decided to buy another car a few months back. Although, she didn’t understand why it had to be a brand new, bright red, expensive sports car. She didn’t think they could afford it, but she’d always trusted Henry, and she assured her they could. She didn’t trust him anymore. She stuffed the keys to Henry’s car in her pocket and went to get Rosie ready for daycare.
Wren was just finishing her eggs when her husband walked into the kitchen. She made sure she took longer than usual this morning so that she would catch him. She watched as he poured his coffee into a travel mug. A scarlet tie sat over his belly and Wren didn’t recognize the pants he had on. When did he have time to shop for himself? She wasn’t sure if he was ignoring her or just hadn’t noticed her yet, so she decided to announce herself.
Henry almost dropped his coffee at her voice, then turned to her with a plastered smile.
“Hey, hey, morning. Didn’t see you.” He looked past his wife at his daughter in the highchair, having a battle with a Cheerio on her tray. “Hey, good morning, sugarplum! Oh, you are such a beautiful little girl.” Rosie cooed in response and wriggled her tiny fingers at him. “What are y’all still doing here, Wren? Where’s Junior?”
“He takes the bus now, remember? So that he can ride with his little Sarah friend. He’s been doing that for quite a few weeks, now.”
“Oh, right, right, right.” Henry tossed a bagel into the toaster and the house was silent again.
“Listen,” Wren finally said, “I need you to take Rosie to daycare this morning. I’ve got some things to do and—”
“What? No, Wren, I don’t have time for that now, I’m running late. Why didn’t you ask me this sooner? I could’ve made sure I was up earlier.”
“Well, I was going to ask you at dinner, but you weren’t there.”
Henry’s eyes narrowed, and Wren matched it. The bagels popped out and Henry flinched. “Look, I’m late, Wren. Use that brain of yours and text me next time. Or call me. Or email me. I got you that PDA for a reason. Why are you even still here if you’ve got so many things to do?”
“Because I never see my husband anymore and was hoping he’d be happy to see me, too.”
“Look, Wren, we talked about this. Work is… a lot right now. I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
“Right, and I’m at the bottom of the list, aren’t I?”
“Is that what I said?”
“That’s what you implied.”
Henry rubbed his neck and took a breath. “You don’t understand.”
Wren stood up.
“Wren, I’m already running late—”
“Marriage doesn’t work without communication, Henry.”
“I know, but now is not a good time—”
“Will there ever be a good time? It’s been months!”
“Yes, I know it has, Wren! Jesus, I know how time works. Like right now, if you look at a clock, you’ll see that I’m running late—”
“I don’t care. I don’t care! I want to know who and what is keeping my husband away from the family that he helped create.”
Henry slapped Wren across the cheek. He’d never done that.
“Don’t you dare use my kids against me,” Henry snarled, “and stop talking over me. It doesn’t make you sound any smarter. Work is busy. I am late. That’s all you need to know, got it?”
Wren nodded and watched as he approached the front door. Her cheek throbbed underneath her hand.
“Wren, where are my keys?”
Her pulse quickened and a rock formed in her stomach.
“I don’t know, honey, I haven’t seen them. You didn’t put them on the hook?”
“Of course, I put them on the hook, I always put them on the hook, but now they’re not on the damn hook. Where are they?”
Wren pretended to look in the kitchen, then pulled them out of her pocket while Henry’s back was turned.
“Look, Henry, they’re right here on the counter. You must’ve left them there last night.” He went to snatch them out of his wife’s hand, but she held on to them. Rosie was whimpering behind them. Wren’s voice went soft. “Kiss your daughter goodbye so she’s not scared of you.”
Henry rubbed the top of his head as if something had magically grown there overnight, but he complied. Rosie giggled as he dried her tears and smothered her with kisses. Then he went for the keys again, but Wren couldn’t let go yet.
“And your wife.” She paused. She couldn’t look at him. “Please.”
Henry huffed and reluctantly kissed her injured cheek before darting out the door. Wren rubbed the remaining key in her pocket. The tears came back. She thought the kiss would fill the hole he’d dug inside her. It only tunneled deeper. She didn’t recognize him anymore.
There was once a time when Henry couldn’t keep his hands off Wren. They were just young, little idiots, madly in love with the idea of being in love. They made it through high school together and getting married was just what high school couples in their little Southern town did if they survived that long. That’s what Wren’s parents did; “full of love until forever,” they would say. Wren thought she would last forever with Henry, too. She wondered if he ever really loved her in the first place.
Wren hated her PDA. The screen was too small and the little pen that came with it hardly ever worked right. But she used it that day. She waited impatiently for Melissa to pick up her call.
“Washburn Inc., this is Angie, how can I help you?”
“Angie? I thought this was Melissa’s number.”
“Sorry, ma’am, Melissa doesn’t work here anymore.”
“What? Henry didn’t tell me he hired a new assistant.”
There was a pause on the other end.
“Yes, he’s my husband.”
“I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you this, miss, but Mr. Wilson was let go.”
Earth stopped spinning.
“What did you just say?”
“Henry Wilson was let go quite a few months ago. He didn’t tell you?”
“No. No, he didn’t tell me.”
Wren hung up and threw the stupid PDA across the room. She broke into a sob and melted against the wall. Everything inside her body shattered, every fear in her brain conjured, every ounce of love tainted. She pulled a cigarette out from her back pocket and lit it right in the middle of the living room. The house would stink but she didn’t care anymore.
Halfway through the cigarette, the landline rang. Wren let the voicemail take it, thinking it was her friend, Lisa, calling to ask why she missed Mother’s Day Out for the third week in a row. But when Henry Jr.’s recorded voice instructed the caller to leave a message, there wasn’t one. The phone rang again almost immediately.
“Hello?” she shouted into the receiver. No response. “Hello? Who is this? This is Wren!”
There was a quick gasp on the other end. The phone clicked and the dial tone purred. Wren threw that phone, too. It was a woman’s gasp.
She stood in front of Henry’s office for a long time. She wasn’t sure how long, but she knew it was long enough for Elmo to fall asleep beside her. Her hands were balled up tight. She knew whatever else Henry was hiding would be on the other side of that door. She knew everything would change once she found out what he’d been doing all this time. But she needed to know. She was tired of waiting on her husband for answers. Her stomach turned and she was nauseous.
She stuck the key in the door and pushed it just barely ajar. Elmo, likely thinking that Henry was in there, pushed past Wren, his little stub of a tail wriggling.
The office hadn’t changed much since Wren had last been allowed inside, just a little messier. The chairs were all stained and mismatched. No lights except for an ugly lamp they got as a wedding present and a small saucer light on the ceiling. The air felt wet and thick. Wren’s chest tightened more with every inhale. He had clearly not been using the vacuum she gave him to clean the carpet. She opened a window.
There were no pictures on the walls, or anywhere. There used to be a framed picture of the family on the desk but had since disappeared. She caught a glimpse of herself in a stained mirror she had hung up when they first moved in; the lighting made her look old and sick. No wonder she was becoming invisible. She touched at her face and ran her hand down her braid. She’d always been a natural blonde, but she had just dyed it the week before. Rosie called her Ariel. Henry still hadn’t said anything about it. Her eyes went glassy, and the blue in her irises lost their shine.
Wren focused herself and went to the desk, rummaging through papers and any drawer she could open. All the documents looked like gibberish to her, obviously things to do with his job—or, what used to be his job. But there was one drawer that wouldn’t open. She pulled at it a few times, but it barely budged. The only other key that she saw on his keyring was to the house, so he had to have this one hidden somewhere. She threw papers around frantically. She ran her hand underneath the desk and around the open drawers. She checked inside a couple of books. She checked every possible spot she had seen people search on TV, but still couldn’t find anything. She plopped her little body into the giant desk chair and rubbed her forehead. She needed a cigarette.
Elmo nudged her free hand for attention, and she gave him a halfhearted scratch. He moved his head around her hand, and she went under his collar; that was his favorite spot. She moved to his chest and noticed he had something she’d never seen before stuck in between his rabies and ID tags. It was a small tag, long and thin, rectangular. How could she have never noticed this before now? Was it new? She took his collar off to examine it closer and realized there was a latch to open it. Inside was a very small key.
It was a perfect fit.
The drawer was full of mail. Mail? Why would he lock mail away? She pulled them out and noticed one from the bank. Two from the bank. Three. One with a big red “FINAL NOTICE” stamped across it. Two more from a loan company. An envelope tucked away in the bottom of the stack, handwritten and addressed to Wren. It had been opened, but Wren had no memory of ever reading it. So, she decided she would.
* * *
Wren made meatloaf, carrots, and mashed potatoes that night. It was both the Henry’s favorites. She made sure to text Henry Sr. in hopes that he would come home early. It wasn’t the best meatloaf she’d ever made. She wasn’t even sure she remembered all the ingredients. She had been preoccupied ever since she left the office, planning and plotting how she would handle the evening. Henry’s office keys sat on the counter, ready for the big reveal. Every time Wren looked at them, her heart rate would go up and she would get a craving. She took about four, maybe five smoke breaks during her meal prep. She was beyond nauseous. The bathroom reeked of cigarettes.
Both children were already in bed when Henry finally made it home. But not Wren. Wren sat in the faint light of the dining room, staring blankly at her husband’s dinner plate. There was a butt extinguished in his potatoes. Wren was on her second bottle of wine.
Henry tried to be as quiet as possible coming in the dining room, giving her a little smile as he went to grab his plate. Wren grabbed the other side. He wasn’t getting away this time.
“I know,” she said into the silence. Henry wrinkled his brow.
“You know? You know what?”
“I know your secret,” she sang, wagging her finger at him.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about; are you drunk? You hate drinking.”
“Who cares?” she grinned. Her teeth were stained red, and her breath smelled burnt. “I hated it in high school, too, but that didn’t stop you from forcing me to get drunk all the time.”
Henry tried to back out of the room. “Okay, we’ll talk in the morning when you’re sober. I’ve got some work to do.”
Wren roared a sarcastic laugh.
“Oh, do you? You’ve got some work to do? With your job that you don’t have anymore?”
“How drunk are you, Wren? What are you talking about?” His voice had just a bit of a quiver. He was nervous and Wren knew it. Her eyes burned into his.
“I know, Henry.” She stood up and pointed at the keys on the counter. Henry’s face went snow white. “You can try and try to avoid me, to avoid telling me, but I am your wife, and we don’t keep secrets from each other. I called Melissa. Only it wasn’t Melissa, it was Angie. And Angie was kind enough to tell me all about how you got fired five months ago. I thought, ‘surely that’s not true, surely my husband who exchanged vows with me wouldn’t keep this huge, huge thing a secret from me for this long. Surely, he wouldn’t.’ So, I decided to confirm it myself. I didn’t have to look very far.” She pulled the mail out from under her chair and threw it at him.
“What the hell is all of this? Are you out of your mind?”
“Things have never been clearer. I know that you got fired, I know that our house is on the brink of foreclosure, I know that you bought that stupid car with Henry J’s college fund.” She picked up the handwritten letter. “And this? Are you serious? I’m getting letters from, what is she, a prostitute? Telling me my husband owes her money for her ‘services’? Why does she know where we live? Why is she contacting me?”
“She’s not a prostitute, Wren, Jesus. I would never cheat on you, okay? Just listen—”
“Right, right. You wouldn’t cheat on me, but you would keep your unemployment and our potential homelessness a secret from me.”
“Listen, will you? Look, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, okay?” Henry went to hold his wife, but she shook him away.
“Oh, you’re sorry, are you? Oh boy, my husband’s sorry! That fixes it! That’ll save our house. That’ll un-fuck the prostitute.”
“She’s not a prostitute!” Henry was shouting now.
“Then who the hell is she?” Wren matched his volume.
“She was my… business partner. Alright? I had this big plan to open a business of my own, you know, like a store where I could sell watches or sinks or whatever, and she was going to help me.”
“Yes, a business. But I got in over my head and I… reached out for help. I’m not proud of it.”
“You reached out to another woman for help?”
“Not like that, Wren.” Henry threw his hand over his head and groaned. “Look, God, she sells drugs, okay?”
“Yes, Wren, drugs. Cocaine. Marijuana. Whatever else. I bought the car before I got fired, a little something for myself for once, then I got fired, then I couldn’t afford the car anymore, so I was trying to find ways to pay it back. I was losing money taking out loans for my business, so that’s when I—”
“When you stole money from your own family?”
“It wasn’t like that!”
“That’s exactly what it was!”
“I had to pay for the car.”
“Then sell it.”
“It wasn’t that easy.”
“Then give it to the drug woman.”
“She doesn’t want a car, Wren.” Henry’s tone was sharpening.
“You don’t get it!”
“I think I’m catching on.” She crumpled up a drink receipt from Southside Casino and threw it at him. “You gambled with our money.” She threw another receipt at him. “Treated yourself to nice meals.” The letter was next. “Secretly got our family involved with selling drugs.”
“I wasn’t selling drugs!”
“What were you doing, then?”
“My store was going to be her front.”
Wren took a moment to comprehend what he just disclosed.
“You don’t understand. You don’t understand any of this!”
“Well, I certainly understand that laundering money is extremely illegal! Money laundering and gambling? Are you serious? That was your plan? How could you keep this from me? How are we going to pay her back? Pay any of this? All that money from your parents, all of that was in Henry J’s college fund. And the savings. And in this house! And you’ve spent it all on a fake business you can’t even afford to open. I didn’t go to college. I married you and had your babies instead because I trusted that you would provide. That’s what you told me you would do for me. I can’t do anything to help this. I have no skills, no degrees, no experience. Without you bringing in an income, we have no money. If we don’t pay our mortgage by next week, we’re going to be homeless. Homeless. Do you understand what that means? Do you understand what you’re putting your family through?”
“Wren, I wanted to tell you it just… it kept getting worse and worse and I didn’t even know where to start.”
Wren was sobbing. She slammed her fists on the table. The light above flickered.
“Start here, Henry. You could’ve started at any one of these letters. We could’ve fixed this.”
“I’m gonna fix this, you just have to trust me.” Henry approached her, his tone flirting with the line between calm and fuming.
“Trust you? You want me to trust you? You’ve been secretly unemployed and draining every penny we had into a business that doesn’t exist, and you want me to trust you? We owe over a hundred grand and counting to some drug lord I’ve never even heard of, and you want me to trust you? You’ve ruined our children’s futures. I did trust you. I’ve trusted you for years. Years! And I thought I was doing the right thing by trusting you.”
“You’re my wife, you’re supposed to trust me! For better or for worse. Remember those vows?”
“You want to bring up vows? Vows? Let’s talk about how you broke the vow of always being honest. And faithful.”
Henry slapped her, harder than he did that morning.
“I was faithful. Don’t you dare say I wasn’t.”
Wren was seething. She didn’t deserve to be hit. Months of not being touched and the only contact she received was violent.
“Apologize,” she said.
“No. It’s the only way to shut you up.”
She rushed at him and shoved. The dinner plate fell but he didn’t budge.
“You don’t get to hit me!” Wren shouted.
“You don’t get to accuse me of untrue things.”
“You weren’t faithful, Henry. You lied to me. Every day. For months.”
“It’s not my fault!”
Wren froze. Her version was red and slanted.
“Not your fault? Not your fault? This is all your fault. You’re ruining this family. Everything. Everything is your fault.” She threw a book at him. “See? That’s your fault. You made me so mad I had to throw a book. Look at what you’ve done to me! Look at who I’ve become because of you! You didn’t think. You never do. You’re just as stupid as me! This affects all of us. Not just you.”
She shoved him again.
“Your baby daughter.”
“Your fucking wife!”
She tried to shove him over the couch, but he was too heavy for her. She punched his gut over and over and over again until he grabbed her fists.
“Let me go,” she barked.
Henry slapped her for a third time and Wren spit in his face.
“Wren that’s enough. You’re acting like a child. Let’s calm down and talk.”
His voice was composed and unsettling, exactly how it sounded when he would scold Henry Jr. It only made her angrier. Wren didn’t want to calm down. Wren wanted her husband to pay for what he put her through. She squirmed in his grip and continued to scream. Her knee shot up to his crotch and he let her go. She slapped him across the face this time, again and again and again. He went to grab her arms again, but she shoved him against the couch. He tried to regain his balance and she saw an opportunity. Wren pushed her teetering husband as hard as she possibly could against the back of the sofa they bought together. He toppled over backwards.
She heard a thud, and the room was silent. She stood frozen. Everything was spinning. She wasn’t sure if it was from the wine anymore. The couch was miles away from her and she couldn’t move.
“Henry?” she whispered. She forced a foot forward. “Henry?”
Her stomach was churning with acid and regret. Her throat tightened. Another foot forward. She could see blood on the coffee table and Henry’s legs in the air. She wanted to act faster, wanted to undo the entire day. She gripped the couch and leaned forward.
His head was bent over his neck and blood was spilling out all around him. Elmo was scratching at the back door. Rosie was crying from her crib. She waited and waited and waited for her husband’s chest to rise and fall. But it never did. All the anger left her body and she fell to floor as if the strings keeping her up had been cut. Her cheeks were wet, but she couldn’t remember when she started crying. She crawled to her husband and held his face, blood now soaking into her shirt and hair. She didn’t care. She wanted to be a part of him. Set sail in the ocean streaming out of him. Dock her boat on his island and claim it as her own. Then he couldn’t get away from her. Then he couldn’t keep secrets from her. Then they’d be together forever.
Her son’s sobs shook the living room.
The boat sank.
The island crumbled.
Maggie Hall is a creative writing student at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She’s loved to write for as long as she can remember, though her earlier works were less about death and more about foxes and ducks playing computer games together. She hopes her work will one day gain the approval of her cats, Bob Elvis and Dolly. They’re very tough critics.
Maybe it didn’t happen the way you think. That’s what my friend Billy keeps saying, over and over, looking down at me, giving me his nervous, sideways look.
But it did happen. We were both there; we saweverything. I keep trying to tell him but he doesn’t seem to hear me. And for the sake of human race, for the slightest chance of saving the world, I need find a way to remember all of it.
My stomach still clenches when I think of it.
It happened without warning, cloaked in a summer heatwave, each silver-bright day the same as the one before it; it scorched all the lawns orange, turned our gentle curve of Little River into a stony ditch.
Even the crows complained about the heat, in their funny crow way, making guttural sounds, stamping their clawed feet on the parched grass, demanding the worms stop tunneling so deep; performing their stomping dance to conjure even the thinnest mist of rain.
I’d just turned fifteen that August, still decompressing after a stressful freshman year.
I was tired of being stuck in an air-conditioned house in North Branch, New Hampshire, in a neighborhood that was pretty much what you might expect: several neat rows of nearly-identical houses, most of them split-entry style, built in the late 90’s, planted like well-tended crops on the site of a once-thriving horse farm.
It was the kind of town that gets crazy full of skiers in the winter, with Waterville Valley not far away. It was the kind of town that attracts swarms of people in the fall, all googly-eyed over the foliage even after all the leaves have turned to rust.
In other words, it was a pretty freaking awesome place to live. Far from where anyone expects anything bad to happen.
Especially here, in our little neighborhood, complete with its fiber optic Internet and a million-dollar view. Behind our landscaped yards, above the tree line on a clear day, you can see Mount Washington and most of the Franconia Ridge in the distance. And sometimes, at night, me and Billy watch the stars. And we’ve seen really cool things, too, like the Starlink slipping like a diamond bracelet across the night sky, and other satellites, but we’ve also seen some things we can’t explain. Tiny specks of light that move in impossible directions at unbelievable speeds.
But it had been something like forever since I’d seen any clear view. With clouds flung like loose bones and teeth across a white canvas for so long, I was beginning to forget what our mountains and sky even looked like.
Everything was silver.
Oh, hell. I just can’t do it today. I’m going back inside.
The morning that the whole world changed, it was too hot even for bugs. I was in the backyard doing some chores, soaked in sweat, pulling some dead weeds from the garden, thinking about a ride I’d taken in Manny’s truck not that long ago. I’m trying to remember what day that was, because all the days seemed to blur together lately. And time seems different now; it doesn’t always move in straight lines; it unfurls like a threadbare flag in the hot wind. But this memory is a good one; it has some weight to it. And it feels so recent; it feels like it happened an eyeblink ago.
The sky cracked open like a hollow, dusty skull.
Sorry. That’s all I got right now.
Me and Billy were hanging out at Whistle Rock but on the way back we decided to go a different way home, down an old logging trail that led to Route 11. It was a short-cut of sorts, but it was really steep and dusty with a couple of narrow turns and you even had to clear one sharp elbow at the steepest spot.
And that’s why we liked it.
Right at that spot is where my back tire snared on a chunk of broken glass. Billy was in front of me; when I yelled to warn him, he slowed down to turn back to look at me, and I drove right into him. Both of us got tangled in the bikes, in the dust. I slammed down pretty hard, with Billy on top of me.
Billy was quiet. Like he was holding his breath.
I got off my bike and looked around. We were still a good four miles from home; that was a lot of walking in this heat.
I saw it first. It was like waking from a dream, and looking up to see two huge blue eyes opening wide. And then those eyes blinked and I saw an old blue truck bearing down on us.
With Manny Fuentes behind the wheel.
Manny killed the engine and jumped out. “Hey, you guys okay?”
He told us both to get in to his completely restored, aquamarine and white 1966 Ford F100. So cool. I’d never seen a truck like it. He’d even rebuilt the engine himself.
I couldn’t believe our luck. Manny Fuentes, a senior, captain on our football team, and a really great person, a kind person, a guy who would literally give you his shirt if you told him that you needed a shirt; that guy just happened to be driving down this logging road at the exact right moment that we needed him.
What were the chances of that?
I didn’t hesitate to jump up into the cab. But Billy seemed upset all of a sudden, pouting. He hung his head and I could see he was upset. He scuffed his feet against the ground, kicking up a spray of dust. I wasn’t sure why; it was so broiling hot; the two of us couldn’t ride back together on his small bike.
He said he wanted to ride back alone.
Manny wouldn’t hear it. “Easy, Billy, you’ll get heat stroke out here.” He lifted both bikes into the bed, taking such care with them, then got into the driver’s seat and popped the clutch to ease the truck down the twisting mountain road.
And out of the corner of my eye, I saw a white tail fly out the cab window with Billy trying to grab it. And then my vision was interrupted, suddenly, by something bright and silver and so high-pitched in frequency! So loud! It was a like an electric bolt to my body.
It threw me flat off my feet.
Or as my mom says, it knocked the stuffing right out of you.
The pain was excruciating. From my head right down to my tailbone.
For a moment, it felt like I had lifted right out of my body. I was weightless. Defying the laws of gravity. Then everything went dead quiet.
What happened was this: a ragged slit formed high in the clouds, ripping across the sky like a torn sheet. Then thousands–maybe a million–terrible, dark things tumbled out of the tear, thrumming their silver wings like angry moths, semi-obscured by the clouds.
Some kind of…spaceships!
I froze. My mind tried to reconcile what I was seeing.
I tried to take a photo with my iPhone but I was shaking too much; besides, I knew it would come out looking like an overexposed legion of ants.
Because what I was seeing was far more sinister.
Wobbly, I climbed to my feet. The ground wasn’t quite solid. I glanced across to our neighbor’s yard, and there was Mrs. Rosa. She was sitting in the middle of her lawn, her skinny legs sticking straight out in front of her. She held something round in her lap. I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.
She looked lost, dumbfounded.
“Don’t you see?” I yelled, pointing at the sky. My tongue felt like sandpaper.
She blinked her unfocused eyes. I saw the shudder in her face. “Was that an earthquake?”
I wanted to scream that what just happened came from above, not below. When I looked up again, a sharp pain blasted into my skull. But I could see that the sky had put up a serious fight — the clouds were completely shredded.
I realized my hands and feet had gone numb. The air had an electrical smell to it.
A few seconds later, the silence ended and a humming noise began. It was a deep, metallic hum, but it made the whole neighborhood feel secure again, because our private army of whole-house generators were faithfully defending our insatiable need for electricity.
It must have been the grid, everyone said.
Just a little blip in the grid. Of course! It had to be that. After all, we’d been warned that something like that might happen after so many days of extreme usage.
But no one else experienced The Event like I did. They were all so happy to be connected to the Internet again after not having it for at least five minutes; completely oblivious to the fact that life as we knew it had just come to an abrupt end.
Okay, so that was a lot to unpack. But some of it really did happen that way, I’m convinced of it.
And so it was that even after The Event, I was always trying to get outside, even though it felt safer inside. At least you could see what was coming at you. And despite what you might think, ninety-five degrees really isn’t so bad for a kid like me, especially in the mornings, when there is still a slight breeze, when I could still smell the pungent mix of pine and balsam like it was a sachet pressed beneath my pillow.
And beneath it, I could still hear the pervasive hum.
Even through my closed bedroom window.
I was taking my time making my bed that morning, because doing simple things like that, mundane things, almost makes you feel that everything’s still normal.
But it’s not. Ever since The Event, I don’t even want to eat anymore.
And it takes so much energy to even try to get myself to move; all those little sharp needles of pain.
Hold on. I need to rewind. I wish I could think in a straight line.
I hear Billy’s voice again. A whisper this time, near my right ear.
“There was so much blood.”
Blood? What are you talking about, blood? I don’t remember any blood!
I do remember looking at a poster.
It was tacked onto on one of the pine trees, on a trail up near Whistle Rock. There are lots of posters up there, and they’re all black with faded orange letters, ragged around the edges and hard to read, but if you squint, they all say the same thing:
But this said something different.
That beeping again. My phone?
A text from Billy.
Whistle Rock. Let’s go look.
Whistle Rock was our secret place, a cool stone formation in the woods that we discovered years ago when we went off-trail one day; it sort-of resembled a turtle. Billy said it was probably made by native peoples. Behind the rocks, in some dense brush, we also found a small stone chamber built into the hill. We named it Whistle Rock because when the wind started to pick up, there was a subtle whistle sound that came out of the rocks.
There was something special about that spot. Something magic. Before the Event, we spent every moment we could up here, alive and free beneath a canopy of pines, listening to the soft whistle of the wind. Digging in the cool dirt, looking for treasure. Finding a few arrowheads, pieces of old bottles.
But it just wasn’t the same now. We had always felt safe there. But not anymore.
Thunderstorms and flying saucers.
I went to let my dad know I was going to ride my bike; he was busy finalizing his latest work project, or as he put it “shortlisting the right candidates,” and didn’t appreciate the interruption. Frowning, he nodded, without even turning to look at me. Even with the shades drawn, I could see his bald spot; it seemed to be spreading daily. And what was left of his hair was damp and plastered to his head. I could smell cigarette smoke, too–no doubt he had snuck yet another one; the window was cracked open an inch. But the air was so dense outside, it pushed tentacles of smoke back into the room.
I wanted to explain something to him. But Dad, he’s only afraid of two things.
I hovered around the doorway, hesitating. Waiting for him to ask me, “What things?”
But he never did. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d had a long talk, or a short talk, or had done anything together as a family for that matter, really, although I do still have vague memories of doing outdoor things with my parents, like going up the lake, fishing with my dad, taking mountain hikes with my mom.
For the past few years, though, both of them had pretty much lived indoors—even our groceries got delivered – and they only left the house for absolute necessities.
They were closed in, closed up. Covid started it, for sure. We all stayed snug and safe inside. Thinking nothing bad could ever reach us in our homes.
But then, The Event.
I was convinced my dad didn’t fully grasp the enormity of the situation.
I didn’t want to bother him when he was so busy with his work, but I felt a sense of urgency. He looked over at me, then pushed out a long sigh as squinted at the screen — at a section highlighted with a blinking yellow cursor. The yellow was so bright in the otherwise dark room, like a tiny pulsating sun; I could feel the warmth of it even though it hurt my eyes.
Dad saw me staring and clicked back to his wallpaper screen. His eyes were muddy. And his skin was so pale and brittle-looking, I almost expected paper-thin slices of it to start sloughing off his cheeks.
I knew that look. His insomnia was back, big time. When he got this bad, he fought sleep, he said it was too much likely slipping away from everything he knows, slipping the bonds of his bones and skin into something he had no control over.
I knew how he felt. None of us had control anymore.
Pushing back disappointment, I turned to leave. Dad’s voice trailed behind me. “Come back anytime, Ethan. I miss our talks.”
As I drifted down the stairs, I could hear my mom yelling from the kitchen, “Ethan! I talked to the doctor.”
Oh, right. She must mean Dr. Karo, who was supposedly trying to help me with my “coping mechanisms.” Last session he wanted to work on “compartmentalization” techniques with me, but I kept insisting his time would be better spent helping my parents overcome their own agoraphobic tendencies.
He didn’t find that amusing, hiding behind his glowing monitor, in his locked office, in his sprawling house, complete with a ten-foot-high fence and a monitored security system.
To me, the thought of spending another minute online with Dr. Karo was even more reason to flee. Besides, I’ve been coping way better than my parents have (and better than most people I know, for that matter) ever since The Event.
I feel a change in the air. My palms are throbbing, just like they do when weather is coming in. And I hear a distant rumbling sound, like the mountain is clearing its throat.
Oh! My mom’s here. Hi, Mom! Missed you!
She always triggers me. I can feel a stream of water slipping from my eyes. Maybe, if we’re all lucky, I can cry enough to fill up Little River.
Mom caught me at the back door that day, a bit out of breath. Dressed in her steel-gray bathrobe, she glanced fearfully at the sky, then down at me, a perpetual worried look creasing her face. I noticed her bangs looked straggly lately, streaked with gray.
A visual reminder of how hard The Event had been on her.
On all of us.
Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll be back soon. I just have to keep looking.
“I know, honey.” Her voice had a catch in it. She wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her robe and steadied her gray eyes on my face. “I know how hard you’re trying. You’re doing great. It’s just that I–I wish our world hadn’t…completely turned upside down.”
I know. Everything’s different now. But we’re all still here, right? We’re all survivors.
I gave her a quick, urgent hug, then pushed opened the door to a sharp slap of heat.
I jumped on my trail bike – a Schwinn Sidewinder – got it from a neighbor in trade for my MP3 player—and flew up the trail, ducking the low hanging branches, pushing my calves to near-spasm, feeling my pulse throbbing in my throat.
Took me about ten minutes to get there. When I did, Billy was in the middle of the trail, hunched over, clutching his stomach.
“What’s wrong?” I skidded to a stop, jumped off the bike and ran over to him. I could smell the puke from ten feet away. And a worse smell underneath.
Putrid. Like something decomposing.
Billy’s face was completely drained of color. His skin looked waxy. He pointed to the chamber. His lips twitched; he was about to cry. “I didn’t know what it was, at first,” his voice croaked. “I just knew…it was bad.”
I put my arm around his shoulder and led him through the scrub brush and down to the entrance to the chamber.
That’s when I saw it. My eyes clicked on it and went in close.
You couldn’t miss it – sun-yellow with a large, custom black patch in the shape of a flying saucer.
Something furry was stuffed into the backpack, and something dark had leaked out.
I felt dizzy, disoriented. My breath pushed high in into my chest, finding all the tight spaces. My mind hit the rewind button. I could hear Manny yelling, stop, stop, STOP!
I could see his thick fingers gripping the steering wheel, his knuckles bone-white.
I shook my head to erase the memory and turned back to Billy.
Are these dreams? Or memories? I’m not sure.
“You pull it out of there?” “No. It was…laying right there. Just…just like it is. I haven’t touched it.”
I was trying to breathe from my mouth, to keep from gagging.
Billy was shaking, his eyes were shut tight; trying to draw the blinds in his mind.
“What are we going to do?” He pushed his hands together, hard, trying to pray.
I wasn’t sure what to tell him. “It’s gonna be okay.” But when I lifted my hand from his shoulder, the trembling got even worse; I could literally hear his teeth rattling. (Billy’s smaller than me, even though we’re almost the same age. He’s thin and wiry; I’m taller and heavier set).
I led him away from the backpack, back up to the trail, where the smell was less overwhelming. “Try to slow your breathing, so you don’t hyperventilate.”
Billy nodded, then sat on a rock and put his head between his knees. I told him to take a few deep breaths and try to visualize something nice.
But I couldn’t think of anything nice.
I gave him a few minutes to compose himself. Then: “Did you look?” Billy nodded, gravely.
“Is it –”
“—yeah. I think it is.”
I kicked a stone with my sneaker. “Fuck.”
“Yeah.” The air was so heavy. Suffocating. Why wouldn’t it rain? Even just a few drops, even if it was black and oily and had a chemical smell or felt greasy. It would just feel so good on my face; it would feel like hope.
I had to do it. I had to go look for myself.
The backpack gleams like sunlight against the black earth. It reminds me of Manny’s smile, lighting up the gray day.
I want a happy ending. Who doesn’t? All those other scenes played themselves out in my mind, rolling like free movie previews. But I can tell the real movie is starting now, and after a such a long wait, here it is: – the feature presentation – but I’m afraid — I want to stop it; I really want to go back to a white screen again; I have way more control that way…but its already starting.
My arms and legs are itching with a million pinpricks and I realize that I have no choice but to watch the whole thing right from the beginning, until it pushes deep into the middle and spreads out to all the twisted edges.
I hope you’re proud of me. I think I got most of the edges right.
It was a bruised and broken sky. That’s what was different. There were black clouds on the horizon that morning, heavy and low-slung, threatening to rupture. The crows were doing their little stomping dance on the grass, celebrating the first fat plops of rain.
I’m pulling dead flowers from in the garden when I get the text from Billy. Whistle Rock. Let’s go look. I text back: On my way. Bring water and food–just in case.
And then I text Manny to let him know.
I’m up near Whistle Rock. My legs are cramping from the long bike ride. I can see the poster clearly now. Same as the ones plastered all over town, taped to all the glass storefronts, even curled around the streetlights and so many tree trunks. It was a really clever way to get the word out, too: people stopped to read every word.
This one is taped to a tall pine. I can see it now in full laser mega-pixel. I remember I even have another one folded up in my jeans pocket. It’s printed on a bright silver-colored paper, shaped like a flying saucer. A fluffy white dog’s face pokes out from the escape hatch of the craft.
LOST DOG: JASPER
(Possible Alien Abduction)
Lost while hiking August 7th
North Bend at trail near junction at Route 11.
Jasper’s only 8 pounds and afraid of only two things:
Thunderstorms and Flying Saucers. If seen, please text Manny Fuentes 603-555-2252
We’ve been searching for Jasper every day for a week now. He’s Manny’s whole world; Manny even camped out a few nights hoping to lure Jasper back to him. We’ve been leaving water bowls in different spots on the trail, tucked into the brush. And a full bowl of dog food in the stone chamber. We told Manny to leave his backpack in there, because scent is everything to a dog, and we thought Jasper might pick up the scent and find his way to it.
I’m almost at Whistle Rock when the sky tears open. It had been holding back for so long; it just lets it all go, all at once. The rain comes down so hard and so black, hammering at the earth, washing away the dirt, the rocks. Racing down the culverts. It feels like needles blasting my skin with a million pinpricks.
I run to the chamber to get out of the rain. The food bowl is empty! My eyes fall across Manny’s backpack gleaming like sunlight against the black earth. And it’s moving! I hear a whimper. “Jasper!”
There’s a frantic thumping. Jasper’s tail. I think he got himself caught in the straps. I take a step forward and reach out, but Billy pushes me roughly aside and lifts the backpack. Jasper’s little white head pokes out and licks Billy’s face.
“Jasper! I got you!”
We’re over the moon excited. Billy keeps hugging Jasper, you’re safe, you’re safe, who squirms in the backpack, trying to wriggle out.
I pick up my phone, but Billy slaps it away. It makes a loud cracking sound against the stones. Billy backs away from me, his eyes full of fear.
“Maybe it didn’t happen the way you think.”
“What are you talking about?” I’ve never seen him like this. He’s jumpy, nervous. Scared. Jasper begins to whimper. Billy’s eyes are puddling with tears.
“Hey, hey, let’s get him on this leash first so we can get him to settle down.”
“I’m keeping him, Ethan. He’s my dog.”
“He’s Manny’s. You can’t possibly think you have some kind of right to him just because you found him.”
“We need to save him.”
“We just did.”
“No, you don’t understand! It wasn’t like that. Manny never wanted us to find him. Manny’s the one who tossed him out the truck window to begin with!” Billy bends over suddenly, clutching the backpack against his belly, and projectile vomits against the wall. I duck, but some of it still splatters on me.
My friend Billy. I feel bad for him. He’s so mixed up. I think he’s lost it. Dr. Karo would say, he’s in a bad place. As we stand in this hollow space inside the chamber, he’s been telling me these horrible stories, about alien abduction. He says he remembers things; they keep coming at him like knives thrown from bad dreams. He thinks Manny has been seeded by the aliens, and he’s now using Jasper as bait.
Honestly, he’s kind of scaring me. Billy rubs at his eyes, then he whips his own phone against the wall, and crushes it under his heel.
“So that’s why he threw Jasper out the truck window?”
“That was before. He knew the aliens were coming for him, so he wanted to save him.”
It sounds pretty messed up. And maybe even crazy. But…he’s my best friend.
“There’s…something you should know.”
“What?” Billy looks at me, his eyes huge.
“I already texted Manny.”
We scramble into action. Billy tucks Jasper securely into the backpack and zips it shut, leaving Jasper plenty of room for air. We rush from the chamber. Beneath the rattle of the rain, there’s a deeper sound now, it’s guttural, like a growl. We grab our bikes and start pushing down the trail. Water is pouring over us; I can barely keep my eyes open, it’s so hard to see. The trail is so slippery I have to go slow to stay upright.
Billy’s getting farther ahead of me; he’s just a dark smudge against the gray. I can see him take a sharp right. He’s taking the short cut. That’s the old logging road; there are fewer trees, but the road is wider and a lot steeper.
I take the turn, too wide and wobbly, trying to avoid the right side of the road that is now a raging river. I almost go down, but am able to correct at the last minute. I start to accelerate down the hill, and then I see Billy, right in front of me! I brake, but it’s too late. I crash into him and we both fall, a silver roar of rain and stones and steel. My right leg crunches beneath my bike and I hear a loud crack when my shoulder hits the ground.
For a few moments, everything is silent, except for the rain, which is starting to slow. Billy is quiet, as if he’s holding his breath. Adrenaline kicks in and I wrench myself up, and pull both bikes off him. He’s squinting to keep the rain out of his eyes, but it’s not working.
“You okay?” By sheer luck, the backpack ended up in his lap, and Jasper is whining, wrestling to get out. Billy nods, let’s out a breath. “I think Jasper’s okay too.”
“Great. Make sure he’s got enough air.”
I think my shoulder is dislocated. But I can put some weight on my right leg. Good. It’s not broken. I drag the bikes off the road with my left arm.
And that’s when two halogen eyes blink above the crest of the hill.
An old blue truck. Manny’s. But…it’s all rusted, the bumper is dented, and the windshield is spider-webbed with cracks. Billy shrinks back, clutching Jasper.
The truck coughs and sputters. Manny pushes open the door; there’s a squeak of rusted hinges. He shakes the rain out of his face and ambles over to us. He cracks a smile, but it’s not the dazzling smile I remember. It’s gray and greasy and specked with tiny black dots. And the dots are crawling like hungry ants all over his slimy teeth.
There’s an awful smell on his breath, like something decomposing. It smells like rotting fish, but worse. Way worse. I have to hold my breath to keep from gagging.
Manny says, “Get in the truck, now, or you’re all dead.”
We’re in the truck, Billy’s in the middle holding onto the backpack. He’s shaking so hard. I feel bad for him. We should have put up a fight, we should have run, but I couldn’t run. The truck jostles and pops down the steep road, parts of it have washed away, so Manny is trying to steer carefully.
We hit a huge bump and the truck lurches forward. I hit my head on the windshield.
We’re on the steepest part of the road now, and Manny starts braking. But nothing happens. He pumps the brakes but the truck keeps accelerating down the hill. We’re heading right for Route 11, there’s no way to stop!
Manny yells. “Fuck!”
Billy bolts that very moment, sliding open the cab window and heaving himself out, pulling the backpack behind him.
Manny turns his head around to look back at Billy, No no no!
And out of the corner of my left eye, I see a white tail fly past before my vision is stolen by something bright and silver and so high-pitched in frequency! So loud! It’s like an electric bolt to my body.
I’m so dizzy. The ground doesn’t feel solid. My tongue feels like a piece of torn sandpaper. I look down, and I’m covered in glass. And blood. There’s so much blood! I’m outside of the truck, sitting in a puddle of it. Where’s Billy?
I blink my unfocused eyes. Ahead of me, a car crushed like a tin can. There’s woman on the ground, her legs shattered into pulp, her hands still holding onto a steering wheel. It’s my neighbor, Mrs. Rosa, and she’s dead as stone.
The pain hits like lightning, flashing red and blue, blasting into my skull.
I hear a voice, somewhere above me. Weak pulse. Thready. This one needs immediate transport.
There’s a soft pressure on my chest. I feel something licking my face. The tickle of soft whiskers. I know it’s Jasper, and I know he’s alive. Liquid joy fills my veins, but I still can’t lift my arms to hold him.
Beneath the hum, I can hear my dad speaking in somber tones, “Doctor, what should we expect?” There’s a pause and then another male voice says, “The accident caused a traumatic brain event. We’ve been slowly bringing him out of the medically induced coma, and he’s already showing some promising signs of awareness. But–we need to keep monitoring his vital signs and brain activity before we’ll know the full extent of any permanent damage.”
Mom’s here again! I hear her say: Omygod…Omygod…Omygod. Her voice is so muffled, I can tell she has her hands pressed over her mouth.Then: “Ethan! Oh my God! You’re awake!”
I open my eyes – really open them this time.
And everything is silver.
Kate Bergquist has an MA in Writing and Literature from Rivier University in New Hampshire. Insurance agent by day, dark fiction writer by night, her short fiction has appeared in The Chamber Magazine and other periodicals. She finds inspiration along the Maine coast, where she lives with her husband and several old rescue dogs.
“A moving shadow means more to us than a body at rest. We are no longer taken in by a fixed grin. We know only death has a rictus.” –Joseph Roth
“God made time; he made a dreadful lot of it.” –Patrick O’Keefe
Five o’clock in the morning, watching the storm leaving a slick jacket of ice on Western Avenue. Nothing moving at all, except the sagging phone lines, the overburdened barren tree limbs, icicles forming as I watched. I wasn’t going anywhere. Not for a long time.
When I was in college, a hundred million years ago, my friends and I used to fantasize about being snowed in for the duration at our favorite bar, drinking, and carrying on, until we were beyond comatose. What we were planning to use for money all that time, why we thought the owner and staff would abide our presence for a long siege, in a bar, for an Upstate winter, escapes me now. As did, what we planned to do once we reached the gibbering stage, once we reached the point of severe alcohol poisoning, and the end of consciousness. I suppose, we felt that if something abstract, like actual death happened, our passage into that other place would be a happy one; we’d be drunk and presumably that would be a good thing, in that world, as it was in this one.
Presuming there was another world. Presuming we woke up in it, and it would be a better place than where we currently were. And that this better place would have endless Happy Hours and theme Beer Blasts for us to while away eternity drinking, telling raunchy jokes, and reciting obscene limericks, making up new ones when the old supply had been exhausted, pausing in our revelry occasionally to get laid, or, stoned, as the occasion arose.
We’d always be twenty-one in those days, and there would be no threat of being drafted into a foreign war no one in their right mind agreed with. The company would always be agreeable, and there would be no finals, at least, not the kind we couldn’t handle. The weather might be awful, but with time, this too would pass, and there would be variations on a theme to enliven the routine. Variations involving outdoor recreations, loosely organized sporting events, and an endless supply of beer, hard whiskey, and drugs.
Best of all there, would be no killer hangovers, or nothing that some hair-of-the-dog-that-bit me, couldn’t cure. Perpetually wasted, or working on becoming so, seemed like nirvana. In real life, basically being drunk and stoned, perpetually, for twenty years or more, had its downside that got worse with age. Some of us had never completely given up on the idea that this was the ultimate desirable state of being.
Even after we were hooked, and, had no other choice, and a million excuses for why we were not hooked, and how being hooked and able to feed the beast, was a strange comfort offered by profession. That the profession chose us, instead of the other way around, was not readily apparent. Especially not at an unseemly hour in the morning, marooned after hours in a bar, with no way out, and home an impossible distance away from where you were.
The only sensible thing to do seemed to be, settle in and wait it out, beer in one hand, a large, very large, scotch on ice, with a splash of water nearby for creature comfort. Especially, once the power lines snapped under the burden of the storm’s leavings, and the supply of palatable stuff for drinks, would eventually be exhausted. The last weather advisory suggested a stalled front, untold inches of ice, followed by extreme cold and then. Then the darkness.
Ice on the phone lines. Just a matter of time before they went as well. Who would you call anyway? No one was going anywhere until the weather allowed them to. Just my luck: first a freak snowstorm in October that crippled the region, and now a February ice storm. Only on my shift. The shift of doom. Fate’s three ring circus, the freak parade, as the stoners used to call it, as they’d settle onto stools in the far corner of the bar, where the best view would be. For the inevitable show that would take place, where they could clearly observe whatever weirdness I had brought with me. No one else did that as well as I did. I was the best. Everyone said so. I had a strange kind of glow, a weirdness magnet that drew stuff to me the way no one else could.
“How does it feel to that weirdness magnet? Isn’t it like completely fucked up?” Stoners asked, not really expecting an answer.
“Hang around and find out.”
Oh, they hung around all right. All the time. Though the fuckers never offered me a stick of anything worthwhile. Not once. But they tipped well, which was something. I guess it was a kind of sympathy thing. Sort of like the most beautiful girl in your high school class fucking an awkward, harmless, loner kid, who couldn’t buy a date, out of the goodness of her heart; a mercy fuck. There are limits to kindness, whereas evil is boundless.
Or, so it seemed to me as I worked through the endless panels of a Bosch surreality that was my life in bars, that was working at my unchosen profession. Working, while keeping myself well lubricated, so that I would blend in with the rest of the demons, devils, and plagued semi-human forms, romping through a world of untold pestilence, pain and deprivation. Living in this manner, was like giving a guided tour of Dante in your own head, sort of a “Fantastic Voyage” gone wrong, where the base pay was insultingly bad, but the tips were decent, and you got to see stuff no one else did outside of a locked-in ward, or a state prison for the criminally insane. The more you drank though, the more that journey through the body became, a Voyage in the Dark and then, one day, without you knowing, instead of being the person giving the tour, you become one of the freaks.
I can’t say when I had become aware of what my life had become untenable. And what was I doing about it? Drinking. Drinking as if my life depended upon it. Drinking as if there were no tomorrow.
It was already tomorrow, and I was exhausted. Every minute spent working in a bar, tensed and at a heightened state of awareness, is time spent multiplied by ten. It would be difficult to say what is more tiring: the physical workout of hours spent relentlessly busting tail, without a break, working a full house of screaming banshees, or enduring ten hours of abject boredom, watching reruns of dreadful movies, cop dramas or classic sports reruns, carefully managing your alcohol intake so as not to become totally inebriated and non-functioning, before the eleven o’clock news. Both a challenge to be sure.
The ice. Melting. In the sink wells and in the machines. Water dripping, taps leaking, the spray of the ice on the picture window and on the glaze of blacktop outside. Ice in my mind. Melting.
And how many miles to go before I sleep?
Now. As I sit, think, maybe if I just close my eyes for a while. Lie back in the plush booth far away from the prying eyes of the picture windows. The eyes.
Ice on the windows like fingernails on glass. Fingernails tapping lightly on glass. Trying to get inside.
And the distant sound of low voices. A chatter of conversation in the dark. And the sound of the jukebox cycling tunes. Choosing most played, random numbers, leftover tunes on someone’s dollars from the night before. Sometimes the jukebox plays itself for hours when no one can hear. When no one is listening. Like now.
The voices more distinct. Not arguing, not imparting news, not conveying messages from the world beyond. The world beyond the glass. Or, the world inside.
As my senses sharpen, as the realization becomes clearer: discovering that I am locked inside the bar, after hours, presumably alone, the idea of voices, any voicing, becomes a frightening one. Who belongs to these voices? Where do they come from? How did they get inside? In here?
Cautiously, I ease my way from the booth I had been resting in, careful not to upend the glasses on the table. I can see no one reflected, sitting or standing, in the side mirrors along the walls opposite the bar. The mirrors are situated in such a way that all the space in the front room may be seen from the back without being observed. That is depending upon where you are standing.
Where I am, there is a dark space by the front picture windows where the room juts out toward the street, and two eight top tables are arranged with their chairs resting legs facing up toward the fake tin ceiling. Vinyl over wood, painted to look like tin and stained by a million cigarettes, to give that lived-in, authentic look. Stained, as the wall is stained, by chicken wing sauce, dried ketchup, thousands of spilled beers, and left-overs from disgusting shots. Atmosphere shaded by darkness; a black hole in the sight line.
And, I think, as I inch forward toward the bar, am I visible among the upturned chairs on tables in the back room? Visible to those people by the bar. Of course, I am. What can be observed from the back, can be observed from the front. That’s the whole point of the mirrors, isn’t it? That is, if anyone cares to observe. Have a need to look.
By the jukebox glare, I pause, close my eyes, take a deep breath, and, prepare to face the unknown. What I see, when my eyes reopen, is not shocking, no longer surprising. Still, I wonder how stools had been turned down without my hearing, or noticing. Or, how the all-the-way-down dimmed lights, have been brightened. Or, how these people at the bar seemed not only not surprised to see me, but kind of glad. At least, that’s how I interpret the warmth in their eyes, the mostly, hidden mirth; anticipation, somehow, realized by my being here, behind the bar, as I was meant to be, was the last piece missing from the puzzle.
I am wondering not so much about their being here, they seem to have always been here, are as regular, and as natural as the furniture they sit on, but how they had been served.
The small bald guy in the corner bar seat, bending his sipper straw in folds, answers the unstated question for them all, “The day guy is in the shitter. Once he gets in there forget it. Could be hours. Days. Weeks. That boy’s insides are bad. I wouldn’t go in there if I were you. Not for a good while anyway. “
“You know, you guys really ought to put an outside, overhead, circulating fan in there. Clear the air but good. I can get you one through my contacts at the school. Just say the word.”
“We served ourselves. Not to worry, though, I’m keeping track. We pay at the end.
We always do. All of us.”
“So, what numbers do you want?”
I watched the old guy holding a pencil in one shaking hand, and, a pocket pad with numbers written on the top sheet, in the other.
“Daily numbers. What’s wrong with you? You just wake up or something? When the day guy said a new man was coming on, I thought he meant one who could speak English.”
I looked closer at the old man. He looked like some kind of unwell, test crash dummy, who had been in one hit too many walls for his own good. There was something about his complexion, the sallow skin that sagged, where it should have been firm, the too obvious bones in his face and hands, the sunken pits of his eyes, the few remaining teeth that suggested unwell, not long for this world.
“Don’t pay any attention to him. He’s just an old crank. I’ve been giving him money for numbers for twenty years and I haven’t won a dime. I haven’t even seen a ticket from him.”
The dissenting voice came from another old man, one stool over. He was wearing a baseball style adjustable cap that said GOLF NUT on it.
The first old man replied, testily. “You have to play every day. You want to see the tickets, fine, come over the house. I have them all filed, by day, per year, all the way back as far as the daily numbers go. You should have seen those guys at State Tax when they tried to call me on the gambling thing the year, we hit for twenty-one grand. Handed him twelve boxes of losing tickets, indexed by month, and day, and told him to go to town, if he didn’t believe me. They owed me money.”
“Good, then you can buy me a beer.” Golf Nut said.
“You see what the hat says. Don’t believe it. He’s just plan Nut for short. Because he can’t play golf worth shit, and, he’s only got one ball.”
“I’d like to see you play golf. You probably never set foot on a golf course in your life.”
“You’re right. I never have. Stupidest fucking game ever invented. One thing you have to remember if you’re going to work here is, Mr. Nut will do anything to get a free beer.”
“Even talk to you. That’s about as desperate and as low as a person could go. I should go over to Hall and drink for half of what it costs here.”
“Except they wouldn’t let you in. You can’t go anywhere else, and that’s all there is to it. So, get used to it, and quit whining. Give the pain-in-the-ass a beer. I hate to listen to a grown man whine.”
I reach into the cooler for a frosty Molson’s Golden and pop the twist off. I don’t even think twice about what I am doing. Somehow, I know this is why I am here.
“Don’t let that old fart fool you, “Golf Nut says, “his name is pain-in-the-ass. Everyone who comes here knows that.”
“I see it says Senior Night happy hour. I’m a senior, are you giving me the special senior discount?”
“That’s for college seniors only. Graduation is coming up. There’s a whole week of specials for the graduating seniors.”
“I never went to college. But I graduated from high school. Does that count?”
“Not really. Now if you had a college ID that says you were a graduating senior, I could help you with happy hour prices.”
“I have an AARP card. Says I’ve been a senior for fifteen years.”
“That’s how long it took him to graduate from high school too.” Pain-in-the-ass says.
“And fuck you very much too. He should talk, he never got past the third grade.”
“Did to, and you know it. We were in the same class. Last one before the War.”
“And then you got drafted.”
“So did you.”
“The hell, I did. I enlisted.”
“So, did I. Or did you forget? We were in the same unit.”
“He’s so full of shit. I was in the Marines, and he was in the Army. Same unit, my ass. If you don’t feel like calling him pain-in-the-ass, shit-for-brains will do. He’ll answer to either one. Most people call me Boomer. Or Mister Lynch.”
Shaking his hand, I ask, “Which do you prefer?”
I don’t know what to think as old Baldy chimes in,” Don’t let him kid you, son. He’s actually older than I am.”
“Older than him, right. What, by three weeks?”
“Almost four. My name is Willy.” Baldy says, holding his shaking hand out to me.
“Yeah, Willy. Like Dick. Limp Dick. Why don’t you and your pain in the ass go get laid?”
“I can’t. Not since they started me on that new treatment program, I can’t get it up anymore.”
“Didn’t you ever hear about Viagra?”
“Heard about it. But they don’t advise it for someone with my condition.”
“I’ll bet all the old ladies over at the Anne Lee Home were glad to hear that.”
“They were. So was your wife. You should really stay home more and take care of business. A woman gets lonely.”
“What do you mean by a ‘woman gets lonely’?”
“For male companionship. You know, a little kindness, lovey dovey stuff. Intimacy they call it now.”
“She’s 76 years old.”
“Never too late to start.”
“Let me ask you this, were you drinking before you came out today? I want to know because you sure are acting drunk.”
“Of course, I was. I can’t eat anymore. Can’t screw around. Can’t do much of anything I used to be able to do, so I might as well drink.”
“Might as well. That’s what you’re good at.”
“Damn straight. So, what’s your numbers. I’ll bet you thought I forgot.”
I looked at Baldy. Now that I knew something about him, could see the gleam in his eyes, and the wretched attempt at a smile through all the pain he must have been feeling. I saw a sort of elf in decline, a man trying to salvage a few laughs at the end of the road he was on.
“I had thought you might have forgotten.”
“Don’t think that. I never forget.”
“He’s like an elephant that way. If you get down wind of him, you’ll notice another way he’s like an elephant. You should really bathe once in a while, Willy.”
“Fuck you, Lynch. And the golf cart you rode into town on. Did you got to mass today?”
“Of course, I went to mass. I go to mass every day.”
“Did you confess?”
“Maybe. What’s it to you?”
“Nothing. I hate to think of you as not having gone to confession. Your mortal soul is in danger. Drinking and swearing and carrying on the way that you do.”
“And you’re a saint, I suppose?”
“Saint Willy of the Divine. Has a kind of ring to it.”
“Yeah, like Peter Piper Pecker Eater.”
“Was that a joke, Mr. Lynch? If it was that was pretty clever. Almost like a riddle. Can you say that fast five times? While he’s busy screwing that up, why don’t you give me a couple of numbers. Buck each. If you win, I’ll bring in the ticket tomorrow. Otherwise, I keep the losers.”
“For the box.”
“Yep, that’s how it works.”
And so it goes.
On and on and on
Alan Catlin is primarily known for poetry but that doesn’t prevent him for mixing and matching prose and poetry as the subject allows. He has published dozens of full length book and chapbooks, mostly poetry, over the years. Although he is not a genre writer he has somehow managed three Rhysling Prize nominations and a Bram Stoker Award nomination He didn’t win either award.
Mary was proud of her garden: it was lush, green, and magnificent. Mary had more than just a green thumb; she had an almost magical power to grow anything she planted and this power would be put to the test in a most unusual way.
She lived with her husband Elliot and they were both retired. Mary spent most of her time in the garden while Elliot liked to watch her from the front porch. They lived in the town as far back as people could remember and they kept to themselves. Their only regular visitor was their doctor, Mark Thompson, who came to treat Elliot for cancer. His condition was getting worse and worse.
Mary and Elliot went on daily walks through the town, usually in the evening. Mary liked finding plants that other people threw away. She had a knack for bringing plants back to life, and she could even just break off a stem or leaf from a plant and grow a whole new one in her garden.
Mary’s neighbors told others that they could hear Elliot groaning in pain at night while Mary tried to comfort him. They wouldn’t talk about it but the rumor was that Elliot didn’t have long to live.
One day, Mary went to the hardware store and bought a large chainsaw. When the manager asked her what she planned to do with it, she told him to mind his own business. People speculated that she would probably cut trees on her property, but they couldn’t see how a woman her age could do that on her own.
Sometime later, there was a terrible commotion of noise in Mary’s garage at night. Her neighbor heard that she was using the chainsaw, and Elliot was screaming. He called the police, but Mary would not let them on her property. She told them that she was cutting up fish heads to fertilize her garden and it was none of their business. After she agreed to keep the noise down, the police left.
Doctor Thompson came to check on Elliot the following day, but Mary stopped him at the gate. She told him that Elliot wouldn’t need him anymore. He pleaded with her to let him inside, but Mary assured him that Elliot was resting and comfortable. The doctor left with the promise that he would return in a few days.
Curiosity grew about what was really happening at Mary’s house. People saw her digging in her garden in the middle of the night, planting something. It was not unusual for Mary to be working in her garden, but why do work at night? And where was Elliot? Usually, he watched her from the front porch but he hadn’t been seen for days.
Doctor Thompson became increasingly concerned that he needed to see Elliot in person to check on his condition and he even threatened to take the police with him if Mary would not let him into their house. Rumors spread that Mary had done something to Elliot or that Elliot had died and Mary buried his body in their garden.
When Doctor Thompson arrived at Mary’s gate, a crowd of people had already gathered to see whether Elliot was alive or not. Mary came to the gate, and even though she was upset by the group of onlookers, she let them enter anyway, explaining that Elliot was resting comfortably in the garden. She led them across her front lawn and through the side gate of her backyard.
In the middle of the garden, there sat Elliot on a wooden bench seemingly alive and well, although a bit pale and dirty. Doctor Thompson was astonished to find him in good health, the cancer had gone away. The neighbors and people from the town were surprised as well. Some even felt embarrassed about their own thoughts about Mary and what she might have done.
As the small crowd huddled over Elliot, Mary quietly raked the last remaining piles of dirt into the hole she buried Elliot’s arm in just a few nights ago, happy for her green thumb, her new husband, and her garden of magic.
Tom is a freelance writer from Southern California. His most recent work appeared in ’50-Word Stories’, ‘Half Hour to Kill’ and ‘Three Line Poetry’. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Daybreak is dry. There’s no drip from brewed coffee or slurp from cereal bowl, those luxuries long ago evaporated. It’s my business to sniff out every drop. My ears attuned from years of training to follow any trail of moisture to the sated end.
Despite the droughts, dawn is a Puddler’s favorite time of day. Moisture gathers overnight even in an arid climate, and in the dawn, goldmines, precious drops perched on blades of grass.
It is for this reason that I have spent the night on a peeling park bench, surrounded by the incessant creaking of parched insects. One alights on my chest, and although his hind legs are faltering, I can’t bring myself to end his suffering. When the sun appears from behind the high rise, the chirping quiets, I resume my search.
The battery on my vac pack says 70 percent. Perfect. Means I have the juice to bring in a haul, should I find one. The tank is heavy when I slide it on, but with any luck, it will be heavier when I trudge it in at the end of my shift.
“Morning, sir, care for a coffee patch?” A thin-skinned lady in black and white loafers works a stand near the edge of the park. She’s to remind us of happier times, but I can only think of how her lips are dried around the edges and her voice rasps when she speaks.
“Perk me right up, thank you, kindly.” I extend my arm and she rolls up the sleeve to apply the patch on the optimum ingestion site. Then, she salutes–thumb, index, and middle finger, the wave given to heroes.
“Happy hunting, Puddler.”
“Many thanks, and a damp day to you as well!” I force my face to smile. So much rests on keeping up appearances. I imagine the pour of a steaming cup of coffee, the caffeine enters my system, clears my mind so I can focus on finding some real liquid.
It all comes down to H2O. That knowledge and perhaps the coffee patch give me the boost I need to begin my search and find the water that my moisture meter tracked to this location the day before.
“Dried pumpkin bites, sir?” A man in a bowling shirt scoops from a cart.
“Why yes, don’t mind if I do. And when the man refuses my bills, I give him a doubly wide grin.
He raises the salute. “Hauls us in some, sir.”
“Will do, my good man. Got a drip lead going right now.” I am blessed in my line of work with an abundance of gratitude. It is, after all, my kind that keeps the rest of the world alive. But with each passing season, the water is scarcer, the sweetness of the mission evaporates. Dehydrated pumpkin tastes more stale than sweet, and I walk away with a full belly, but the guilt of an empty pack.
Of course, the rivalry doesn’t help.
When Aquaprima and Dezani announced they’d be sending out separate Puddlers, it forced everyone to pick sides. Both companies usually keep to their own territories, but you never know when a rival might be slurping at the same puddle.
Dezani loyalists use the three-finger salute seen here in the park, and their workers carry blue packs, a stripe added for each year of service. Mine looks zebra-like from my time chasing liquid.
Aquaprimians carry red packs, salute with their last three fingers. Usually, both companies keep to their own neighborhoods, but you never know when a rival might be slurping in your same puddle. I scan the lawn but don’t spot any red flags. Means I’ve still got time to take in my load.
The geese in park are waddling this way and that as if dizzy. When I see them head for a place off the path, I take a hunch and follow their lead. These natives may know something we don’t, and I stop to vacuum up a few precious drops dotting the grass along the way.
As if sensing a tail, the waddlers pick up their pace, making their way down a steep ravine. I scoot downwards on my bottom, the pack too heavy for steep inclines, and I would likely topple if I lost my footing.
Midway down, I find a small treasure: a plastic water bottle, a relic from the before, but this one has a small sacred puddle trapped inside. I pause to vacuum the tiny pool, thinking of my sweet granddaughter, Ella Mae. Her freckled face. I imagine her swimming, submerged in liquid, like we all did, in the olden days. I can picture her running over to me dripping wet in her lavender swimsuit.
“Don’t you dare,” I’d hold up my hand, but Ella Mae would squish down on my lap and plant a drippy kiss on my cheek. Wetness would expand on my shirt. Dampness will never feel that good again.
There is wetness along my brow and back. I use a small nozzle to capture the drops on my forehead. Nothing can be wasted now. Stabbing pain ascends from my sciatic nerve as I slide almost vertical, gripping tree branches and terrain to make it the last few feet of the descent.
At the bottom of the ditch, there is moisture. It hits you square on the face, the way a sauna used to do, and even though the weeds down here are almost as tall as me, I stoop down and press my hand into the ground.
It sinks. Incredible. It’s muddy. My fingers drip as they rise, cool and coated.
Above my dirty fingertips, square in the middle, the most glorious thing: my own reflection in a six, no eight-foot puddle. Small snags are visible in my uniform from the descent, but what I notice most is the branching red lines of dry eyes.
I reach down and touch the surface, sensing the motion of a ripple. It’s the first ripple I’ve seen in years and it’s harmonious, a suite of instruments playing in the same key. Part of me wants to wade in, submerge. Paddle, float on my back, even. But I pause, thinking of Ella Mae. This one’s for you, baby girl.
Readying the hose with my widest nozzle, I spot it. A rebellious red, out of place at the bottom of the ravine. I hear a familiar sound. A vacuum starts.
“Hey, Puddler! Stop, this instant. This one’s mine!”
The vacuum stops. “What’s that, old man?” The Puddler shouts. Maybe because his earbuds are still in. The Aquaprimian’s half my age; his loud metal music drifts over the puddle. Moving toward him with long strides, I reach out a hand, smack a bud free from his ear.
“YOU tracked me here. This is my guzzle, young chap!”
“All’s fair in wet and war, Benjamin. Oh, and by way of thanks,” the boy winks, “I’ll let you take a slurp.” His bud back in, he restarts the vacuum before I have a chance to respond.
Carl? Could it be? All these years playing cat and mouse, he’s been my shadow. I trained him a decade ago, let him date my daughter, only to watch him jump ship taking Aquaprima’s sign-on gallon and stealing my sweet girl’s heart in the process.
The raging red vac sweeps left to right.
“No so fast, Carl.” I smack his earbud lose again; it dangles from his uniform. “This is my puddle, you bastard.” I push him, but he barely budges. “This…this is outrageous.”
Carl turns his vac off to speak to me again, but not without swallowing a huge gulp of air.
“Smart following those geese, Benjamin. You know, if you sniff an old dog long enough, you can still learn some new tricks.” He lifts his nozzle. “Tell Ella Mae daddy says ‘hi.’ And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got clearing to do.”
Over my dried-out body!” I yell, and without thinking, I grab my legs and jump, straight into the puddle, water droplets fly around me like geese taking to the air. It’s enough of a mess to upset Carl, and soon he is stepping into the pool to try and stop me from ruining the haul.
“That’s what we call a cannonball, son. Doubt you’ve ever done one. Now, a final lesson. I’m gonna teach you how to swim, either that or how to sink.”
From this angle, it’s easy to drag Carl down into the water beside me. “First,” I whisper in his earbud-less ear, “you gotta get on your belly.”
I sweep his legs and watch as he falls face first. I hit the eject button on his pack releasing his stash.
“Next, you gotta spread your arms and legs. But oh, I forgot the most important part. You gotta put your face underwater.” I hold the back of his head underwater, watch as his legs and arms start to flail.
“That’s it. You’re getting it.”
I hold firm. Think of his arrogance, of my daughter heartbroken, left to raise Ella Mae alone. Maybe with this haul, we can finally afford to give Ella Mae her first swim.
“There, now that wasn’t too bad, was it? You’re floating fine now, young chap.” And I let go of Carl’s collar, his corpse floats freely across the surface.
There isn’t time to say any words. No, simply no time for pleasantries. I start the vacuum and get to work. When my vac pack fills, I use the Aquaprima pack to capture the rest, including the special hose for corpse extraction. The geese stand around the edges as I extract their watering hole, occasionally honking a weak protest.
With both packs full, I claw my way out of the ravine. Lifting one pack, moving slowly, going back for the other, but it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Water is more valuable than gold.
I’m saving humanity, I tell myself. Besides, one should always respect one’s elders, even in times of crisis.
K.Hartless is a free spirited fiction writer, educator and word trapeze artist. She’s been recently published in 365tomorrows, Luna Station Quarterly, and Last Girl’s Club. Check out her Yardsale of Thoughts at khartless.com or follow her healthy haiku habit on Twitter @hartless_k.
Something has given the horses a startle. Their shrieks carry from the stables to the great room. Perhaps it was the young rider, whom I have just sent off with the last of the commissions. Lord willing he can navigate the dark and muddy streets at this late hour. No less than the future of our Federalist system hangs in the balance.
The full moon’s glow has vanished, blanketed by an angry squall approaching from the East. A damp, cold chill slices through the air. The servants are outside doing battle with the elements, calming the horses, making preparations for tomorrow’s damned inauguration.
And here I find myself alone. An old, defeated man, scribing with trembling hands, squinting with watery eyes, flinching with aching teeth. Alone, yes.
All I have for company is a meek fire and a thimble’s worth of Madeira. The flames do little to warm this room, nor the other twelve fireplaces across this empty sarcophagus they call a Palace. Some Palace, indeed, with its barren walls and stacks of dusty crates. If not for the clothesline you left behind, there would be no trace of civilization whatsoever in our Nation’s illustrious new capital. Oh! Curse the day I agreed to leave Philadelphia for this place. The 4 o’clock stage cannot come soon enough.
I believe it is time for rum.
One bottle remains in the kitchen. I intend to finish it. Better to drink myself into a reunion with our poor Charles than live to see Thomas Jefferson enjoy a single drop of spirit left behind.
Oh Abigail, curse me for thinking such things. I do not know what has become of me, or why I write to you now. Surely, I will arrive home long before its delivery.
Perhaps a moment to vent is all I need, to scribble my thoughts on paper lest I go to sleep with a crowded mind. I already feel better, as is always the case when I think of you. But I fear sleep is not in store for me tonight. There is so much work to be done. I have packing to attend to and am running out of time to waste.
The sky has come to life with rolling thunder and harsh lightning. There is something else, too. A queer noise, one of a peculiar cadence. Distant, yet close. Disagreeable, yet enchanting. Foreign, yet familiar. I cannot place it. Some type of animal, no doubt. Lord only knows what creatures lurk in the vast, foul swamp.
No matter. My procrastination must come to an end. I cannot wait to be home, for good, forever more. Losing this election may well have been for the best. I shall see you soon, but not soon enough.
Most affectionately yours,
March 3 1801. Tuesday. 10 O’clock.
The rum suits me well. Each sip gets smoother, more refreshing. It will serve as the fuel I need to make it through the evening. Most importantly, it will keep my thoughts from Charles.
I cannot recall the last time I recorded a journal entry, but tonight seems a fitting return. In years past, I could fill pages and pages with the day’s accomplishments. But alas, on my final night as President, I have nothing but the mundane to report.
Writing and packing. Packing and writing. That is what remains for me.
Walking, too. Less a vigorous walk of exercise and more an aimless wander, stalking the halls of this empty palace like a spirit, candelabra in hand, the flames clinging to life through every whistle of wind. I am less a President and more an echo of the past, a footprint left in muddy sand, waiting for time to erase me from existence.
Judging by the rumbling walls and blinding white flashes, the worst of the storm will be here soon. The brightest strike occurred mere moments ago, as I wandered into the great room. It brought forth the cobwebs on the ceiling, the soot along the walls, the garments hanging across the clothesline.
And it brought forth Him.
His portrait, fixed atop the fireplace, perfectly centered, with its regal gold frame and glossed finish. There he stands, the conquering hero, the father of the nation, in his finest blue-and-buff uniform, watching over me. Always watching.
Of all the things this blasted palace exists without – proper plumbing, furnishings, ventilation, finished windows – they made damn sure not to forget Him. Will there be a portrait of me, someday, I wonder? Doubtful. And if one should ever exist, it will be half the size and tucked away in a powder room.
Ay, President Washington, I see you now. I stoked the fire so we can sit face to face, like our days in the continental congress, two young revolutionaries with grand ambition and little sense.
Tell me, do you remember who convinced you to lead our newly formed army? Do you remember who provided you the men, the muskets, the powder, the blankets, the linen, the bandages? Do you remember who spoke on your behalf when your stoic face could not be bothered to move but an inch? Where are the songs about me, then? Where is my grand portrait? Nay, sir, you are the hero and I am but the man who followed the hero.
Of all the challenges of my Presidency, there were none greater than living under your shadow. And here you are, still, on my last night, to see me away. Here you–
That strange noise again. A scream? No, more of a wail. A howl. One of the servants, perhaps? They should all come inside. The storm is upon us. I shall call for them at once. The company would be most welcome anyhow.
The servants have gone! Lost to the wilderness, to the twisted trees and moss-covered ground, the knee-high brush and icy marsh. I remained outside as long as I could bear it. There were footprints in the muck, leading into the swamp, scattered like an aimless stampede. I followed them as deep as I dared go, until the trees swallowed me whole and the grime caked my boots.
That is when I saw it.
A set of men’s clothes. A very tall man, by the looks of them. Wide in the shoulder and long in the leg. A suit of brown Hartford broadcloth with metal buttons in the shape of Eagles. Shoes with silver buckles and mud-stained stockings. But, what is most striking is the sword. Not a typical dress sword, no. Long and sharp, made from the finest steel I have ever felt. It left a cut on my right index finger with a simple touch.
Who would leave such an impressive uniform behind? Am I to believe a naked man is frolicking about in this weather? Braving the unknown swamp? Might that have been the source of the mysterious noise? Does a man lay dying at the footsteps of the Presidential Palace?
I have brought the clothes inside and locked the doors. The sky has unleashed a fierce tempest. I pity anyone outside in this weather. They are in for a wicked evening, without the comfort of rum.
I am beginning to suspect something frightened the servants away. What could cause twenty able-bodied souls to run off in such a manner, I do not know, but I shall not venture outside again to find out.
As the skies have opened, so too, have the noises. Oh! These damnable noises! For every clap of thunder, every strike of lightning, every rush of rainfall, there is a scream, a wail, a guttural snarl, sounding less human with every passing minute.
The noises are all around me, echoing in this dark labyrinth of plaster and smoke. I swear, too, that I have seen a pair of eyes, orange and glowing, burning bright, roaming from window to window. As if they are watching me. As if something circles its prey.
Alas, there is a good chance this is only the rum speaking. I find myself a quarter into the bottle not one hour since opening it.
As I think more on the matter, I am reminded of a story, one I heard aboard the Boston during my first voyage to France.
I recorded the tale in one of my prior entries. I shall go search for it now. The details could be of great assistance. Oh! The loudest crack of lightning yet. I must hurry. This night grows harsher.
My hands are thick with dust. Cobwebs cover my fingers. I have inhaled enough indoor contaminants to make Benjamin Franklin wheeze in his grave. But I have found it. The journal entry from all those years ago. It is more striking than I remember and fills me with grave concern. Could this be what lurks beyond the walls?
I have included the entry below:
February 19 1778. Thursday.
The Heavens blessed us with strong winds today. Captain Tucker advises that we are back on course after that minor squabble with our British adversaries. But the seas remain rough, unforgiving. I do not know which is worse, the constant rocking or the stench of stagnant water. My stomach remains in a fragile state.
I write under a dripping wooden ceiling. It creaks and groans in slow, measured breaths. John Quincy is fast asleep beside me. I must admit, the boy’s bravery has surprised everyone onboard, his father most of all. I am so happy I brought him.
I am not certain how Charles would fare out here. He is younger, to be sure, but I do not think he has the disposition, nor the fortitude, to withstand a journey like this. I pray he is behaving himself while I am away.
Despite the perils that lie ahead, I must admit to fearing very little. There is a peculiar French seaman on board who keeps us entertained, distracted. He will not share his full birth name and insists we refer to him only as “Henri.” His hair remains drenched with seawater, always, and what few teeth he has left are black and rotting.
But the man has a penchant for storytelling. He gathers the passengers below deck every evening and regales us with tales from his homeland. Tonight, he told the most fascinating tale yet, and though I had to cover John Quincey’s ears at parts, I will be damned if I should lose such a story to time and old age…
There once was a great French knight, handsome and noble, save for one curious flaw. Whenever the moon was full, he would vanish into the woods, never telling a soul of his whereabouts, or what kept drawing him in. He would return home days later, naked as Adam, soiled clothes at his side.
As the years pass, his wife grows incensed by his behavior. One night, she confronts him upon his return. The knight tells her:
My lady, I turn Bisclavret;
I plunge into that great forest.
In thick woods I like it best.
I live on what prey I can get.
The knight hides his clothes near an old chapel, for if they should disappear, he will become Bisclavret for eternity. Horrified by what she hears, his wife devises a plan to escape his wicked curse. She enlists the help of another knight, one with a keen eye for her, and steals her husband’s clothes during the next full moon, damning him to live out his days as the monster Bisclavret.
One year later, while the King is hunting in the woods, he comes across Bisclavret. The King is alarmed at first, but calms when Bisclavret drops to a knee and kisses his feet. The King spares his life and takes Bisclavret in his court.
All does not end well, however. Soon after, the King hosts a grand feast, and Bisclavret’s devious wife and new husband attend. Blinded by a feral rage, Bisclavret attacks, sinking his teeth into the knight’s throat, tearing his wife’s nose from her face.
The King sentences Bisclavret to death, but his wife confesses her misdeeds and returns his clothes. Horrified, Bisclavret refuses to dress in public. He waits until he is alone, ashamed now of his true form, damned to a life from public view, in absolute solitude…
When I inquired with Henri as to how Bisclavret translates to English, he paused, thought for many moments, touched a finger to his rugged chin. Finally, his lips pursed and curled, as if forcing the words from his mouth.
Werewolf. Bisclavret means Werewolf.
Washington March 3, 1801
Dear “Mr. President”
I must admit, good sir (and I use that term in the loosest possible sense), that you have taken me for a ride. Here you have me, at thirty minutes to midnight, locked in my study, scouring through old journal entries, jumping like a small child at the slightest bit of noise, drinking rum at a torrid pace, and working myself into a frenzied state.
Bravo, Thomas. Bravo.
It all makes perfect sense. How did I not arrive at this conclusion earlier? This is all your doing. Yet another Republican scheme to drive me to madness. You think you have me fooled, but you do not. It has always been you behind the scenes, has it not? The ultimate puppet master, twirling the strings of your Southern cronies while they do your putrid bidding. You might have fooled the Nation, but you will never fool John Adams!
It was your idea to have the capital moved to this godforsaken swamp. You insisted I move in before the end of my term, before the damned thing was even finished. Why? So you could torment me. How many of you are outside right now? How many Republicans dance around this house? Risking all manner of illness on this wet and frozen night, just so they can run back to you like dogs and get a pat on the head.
I remember the names, my old friend, every last one of them. I do not recall any protest from you when your Southern colleagues dubbed me, “His Rotundity.” I am all but certain you snickered under your breath.
And what about the others? Did you snicker at them, too? John Adams the warmonger, the monarchist, the repulsive pendant, the gross hypocrite, the egregious fool. And, my personal favorite, the hideous hermaphrodite. If my Harvard education is of any value, I do believe that a hermaphrodite possesses the sex organs of both male and female. And if that be the case, then I cannot think of a more apt description of you, good sir, as your flaccid demeanor and aversion to public opinion make it impossible to determine which side of any issue you stand!
Some Vice President, you have been. You spent the last four years so effectively separating yourself from my administration, and the duties of governing, that you could not be held accountable for anything that has disappointed, displeased, or infuriated anyone. Leave me to take all the arrows. Perhaps my memory fails me again, but I do not recall your private objection to the taxes, the standing army, the Alien act, the Sedition act, or anything else for that matter.
But perhaps the greatest ruse of your career was to convince a majority of delegates, and the citizens at large, that you are a champion of the people. Nay, a man of the people. Ha! I dare say there will never be another pied piper as effective as you, fooling the poor and working class that a wealthy land baron has their best interests at heart.
This is the same Thomas Jefferson who hails from a southern mansion, is it not? The same Thomas Jefferson who wears blue frock coats, abhors city life, and prefers to spend his days reading literature in his robust library while an army of slaves tends to his every want and need? No need left unfulfilled, right Thomas?
Perhaps that is where the servants have run off to. Did you round them up and herd them straight to Monticello to build yet another wing? Could you stand the sight of servants doing the bidding of anyone but yourself?
I shall leave you with this lovely poem from your dear southern friend, John Page, another insult I committed to memory that I have no doubt you endorsed:
I’ll tell in a trice–
‘Tis old Daddy Vice
Who carries of pride an ass-load;
Who turns up his nose,
Wherever he goes
With vanity swelled like a toad.
Well I, good sir, much prefer to be a toad than a swine.
P.S. – Oh! And one more thing, with reg–
I am shaken to my very soul. How do I describe what has transpired? Best to lay out the facts, only the facts, state my case and let the jury decide – as I have done (quite well, I might add) throughout my career.
As I was finishing my formal welcome letter to our Nation’s new President, the great and admirable Thomas Jefferson of Montezillo Monticello, there was a loud, sudden noise. A grand thud, striking over and over, as if the Royal Army had landed again on our shores and taken a battering ram to the entrance.
I dropped my quill and, on unsteady legs, hurried over to investigate, forgetting for a moment about the creature that may or may not be roaming the grounds. I propelled my feet forward, one in front of the other, down the dark hallways of this unfinished monstrosity, the flickering light of the candelabra proving a questionable guide. The rain fell all around me, cascading from the roof, like a giant wave was preparing to sweep me away.
As I approached the great doors, the thudding continued, but weaker in strength. I paused for a moment, took a quick breath through my nostrils and out my aching mouth. Bang! One final blow sent the doors rattling.
That is when I heard it.
A scream. Not the same scream as before, no, this one more… human. Yes, I thought to myself, that scream belongs to a man. An ailing man.
I broached a timid step toward the great doors. A lightning strike charged the sky, its glow bathing through the windows. Time ceased to move.
“Who goes there?” I asked, perhaps louder than I needed. There may have been a crack in my voice, so I asked again. “Who goes there?”
Another scream. This one, worse than before. I leapt forward and reached for the handle, but another burst of lightning sent me stumbling backwards. The windows glowed in unison, a widening set of tarantula eyes.
And there he was.
The young rider from earlier, his bloody cheek pressed against the glass. He tried to speak, tried so hard, but nothing sensible came out.
“Good heavens!” I said, or something to that effect. With a rush of bravery, I gripped the door handles with all my might, pulled the blasted things open. A blast of wind, of cold air, of stabbing rain overtook me and almost knocked me off my feet. A lesser man (like Thomas Jefferson, for example) would have fallen, but I held my ground.
“Hurry,” I yelled. “Come inside at once!”
I do not know if the rider heard me, the storm was so loud, but he staggered forward and fell inside all the same. I tried to bring him to his feet, but at my advanced age, my strength is not what it used to be.
The poor boy, I thought. For that’s what he was, a boy. Fresh-faced. Clean shaven. Curly, brown hair. For a moment, with the glow of the candles at my side, I dare say the rider resembled Charles. My dear, departed Charles.
But I could not dwell on that thought. I bent over and dragged the ailing rider across the parlor and into the great room, the large fireplace roaring. The rider’s body left a crimson trail in its wake.
“Stay with me, son,” I kept saying, “stay with me!”
This next part, I admit, is difficult to write.
His throat was torn from chin to chest, the muscles visible when he tried to speak, pulling and tightening like splintered rope. I held my finger to his lips, tried to keep him quiet, so that he did not strain himself. I tried to reassure him. I tried to tell him everything would be fine.
My dear Charles. My sweet boy.
His clothes clung to him in ribbons. I moved him close to the fireplace, propped him up against the wall, told him to wait for a moment, to try and breathe. Surely, I could have repurposed some of the hanging garments to stop the bleeding. I had enough rum left to dull his pain. There were other things I could have done, too. If he could just hold out until the morning, when the stage arrived, when the storm had passed, I could get him to the nearest town, get him proper medical care.
But it was all for naught.
He died in my arms.
I was too late. If only I had come to the door sooner, perhaps I could have saved him. If only my Presidential duties had not interfered. Why had I sent the rider out with such weather approaching? I saw the warning signs, but chose to ignore them.
Charles was dead. Killed by a horrible beast, a horrible beast that still roamed the Presidential Palace. I held him against my chest, his blood soaking my clothes There was nothing more to be done.
A rumble of thunder gave the roof a shake. The rain lightened, stopped, started all over again. I do not know what came over me, but I reared back my head and screamed. I cursed the beast, this palace, God himself, Thomas Jefferson, Republicans, Federalists, the lot of them. And myself. Myself, most of all. I screamed and screamed until I could scream no longer. Until my lungs set ablaze.
Then the clock struck midnight, and I wept.
I still do.
I never stopped.
Washington March 4, 1801
My son, I am so sorry. I have failed you again. I have wasted so much of my life fathering an ungrateful nation that I neglected my duties as a real father. And look what it did to you.
I learned of your death the morning of December 3, the day the electors convened. It is not as if the news did not strike me, but I admit to feeling a certain numbness. I took those feelings and buried them deep in my stomach, somewhere unseen, unfeeling, and carried on about my day. Channeling all that sorrow into the election. Channeling all that rage.
The rage that comes when a father knows he is to blame, for everything. For I knew the drink had grabbed hold of you, squeezing your life with every drop. I remember the last time I saw you, your constitution was so shaken, every movement a dreadful, painful chore. Your mind seemed so deranged. The vibrant, young boy I once knew was gone. A lost, pained man now stood in his place.
The pressures of being the son of John Adams, the younger brother of John Quincey, the heir apparent to the political throne, must have weighed on you so. And yet, I said nothing. You were a boy of many interests, a child so tender and amiable, yet I forced you to follow in my footsteps – to farm, to practice law, to be a statesman. It was all so natural for John Quincey, but not so for you. Rather than embrace your unique spirit, I ignored it, forced you down a path you did not wish to travel. And for that, I am ashamed.
What is worse, I saw the toll this life took on you, yet I demanded you get on with it, toughen up, as if I am one to speak on such things. There is too much of my own father, Deacon John, in me. God rest his soul.
When I learned that you had disappeared, gone bankrupt, lost your faith, and turned to the drink, I said such horrible things, thought such horrible things. I would do anything to take them back. I would do anything to see you again.
And now, as darkness settles over this horrid land, and the fireplace dampens in this horrid room, and the beast continues its horrid dance around this horrid palace, waiting for the moment to burst through the walls and finish what it started, I shall wait.
I shall wait for it to put me out of my misery. I shall wait for it to reunite us in eternity, where I will be in your debt, begging for forgiveness.
Your tender father
March 4 1801. Wednesday. 12:30.
I have retreated to one of the guestrooms for the remainder of the night. I feel safer here. The fireplace provides good warmth in close quarters. I am writing on the floor, tucked away in the corner, with a small candle to my left and the rum to my right.
I fixed the bed against the door and pushed the wooden dresser in front of the window. My clothes have been stripped and tossed into the fire. If I should die, be ripped limb from limb, I would rather it be in my natural state than in clothes stained with the blood of my dead son.
Outside, the rain has calmed, but the lightning and thunder continue, trading blows like two towering knights in and endless joust. The beast is circling the grounds. Always circling. Always howling. Whatever pleasure it got from killing Charles has not quenched its bloodlust.
I shall see what happens first. Daybreak, or the beast gaining access to the palace. I fear the latter is far more possible.
The great grandfather clock ticks away, echoing down the mighty halls. That is how I am keeping time. An exact science, it is not. But it is helping to keep me sane. That and the rum, this sweet sweet rum that has numbed me to the point of total indifference. If the beast is to come inside, let it. I am ready.
My mind has begun a tournament of cruel tricks. Across the room, a pulpit rose from the ground. Deacon John emerged, dressed in his finest cloth, arms raised to the sky. From under the bed came the pained tears of an infant. I would swear on my mother’s life that Susanna, our poor little girl, was suffering through her fatal illness all over again. Abigail appeared, too, weeping tears of blood, pointing at me, her arm a quivering arrow.
On and on these visions have come. I cannot stand this much longer.
Oh! The sound of shattering glass, somewhere in the house. The beast is inside. It has come for me.
Footsteps, marching along the floorboards. Two long shadows appeared beneath the door, moved away. Perhaps it has not heard me. Perhaps it is confused. Perhaps I am safe after all.
Something has angered the beast. It is ripping open doors, one after the other, clawing at the walls, frothing at the mouth, howling its terrible howl. It is only a matter of time before it arrives again at my door. God be with me.
It is here. God have mercy, it is here! Outside the door, the shadowed feet have returned.
I cannot believe it.The beast laughed. In place of its animalistic howl, a deep belly laugh rang through the halls. Then, the beast continued on, resuming its destruction in the next room, tearing through the Presidential Palace like some kind of manic storm.
If only Thomas Jefferson could see me now. He and all his Republican cohorts. Alexander Hamilton, too, that damnable villain with the devil’s eyes, and all the Federalist minions he bamboozled. If all of my enemies could see me, they would undoubtedly join with laughter of their own. Perhaps louder than the beast!
Here sits President John Adams, cowering in fear, a naked old fool of a man, counting down the minutes until his inevitable demise. A mere boil on the hindquarters of George Washington. Just like they all suspected. I have become the myth they made me out to be.
But no longer.
While I still remain in the Presidential Palace, I intend to act like the President. I will not sit idly by while some abominable beast runs amuck, destroying the People’s property, waiting to be killed like some ailing pig!
I shall avenge Charles’s death. Or I shall die trying.
Washington March 4, 1801
My Fellow Americans
When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one person to dissolve a ruthless monster from its own head, so it must be done. For we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights (Benjamin Franklin’s idea, it should be noted), that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
Anything that stands in the way of these rights, be it of earthly or supernatural origin, shall be dealt with in the most absolute manner, using the full power of the Presidency. And until Thomas Jefferson rides up from his sprawling estate at Montezillo Monticello, I am still the President, and I will do my duty.
Yes, I, John Adams, having never fought in battle, having never donned a uniform of war, having never fired a musket at the enemy nor manned a cannon, will lead the charge. For even though I lack the experience (and youth) of a soldier, I have served this nation with something far greater. My mind.
Though I was not granted a second term, I am filled with Pride. I am prideful of the new navy of more than 50 ships and 5,000 officers, prideful of our peace with France, prideful of an administration without a hint of scandal or corruption (my eyes to you, Mr. Hamilton), prideful to have staved off the warmongers who would lead us to ruin, prideful to have secured the backing of powerful allies during the Revolutionary War, prideful of the part I played in the first Continental Congress, the second Continental Congress, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the founding of this very nation.
I accept the decision of the electors, of the American people, and will take my defeat with grace. The American people do not deserve a broken and bitter President, incessantly airing their grievances and blaming others for their misgivings. For that is the ultimate sign of weakness. And I am done being weak.
As I write this, a beast runs rampant through the Presidential Palace. It wishes to destroy me and wreak untold havoc across our lands. But I shall not stand for it. I will march out of this room with my shoulders back and my chin high. I will take up arms against it. I will defend this land, as I have done throughout my life. I will defend my people.
I, therefore, President John Adams of the United States of America, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of my intentions, do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these United States, solemnly publish and declare, that I will kill the beast.
My body is covered in all manner of blood, viscera, brains, the messy coating of a man who has been reborn. I will describe what has transpired in real time, exactly as it happened:
Rum splashes across my lips, the last drops trickling from an empty bottle. I toss it on the floor but the glass does not break. I will need to show more strength than that in my duel with the beast.
I clear my throat, swallowing back a lump, another lump, my body protesting what is about to transpire. On wobbly knees and aching feet, I march forward. The fireplace crackles behind me, washing the walls in shadowed flame, breathing against my naked back. I inch forward, closing and opening my fists, knuckles cracking with the flames.
The bed is easy to move, easier than I thought, for it was not as secure against the door as I intended. The beast could have breached it, gained access to the room, and killed me in an instant. But that was before, when courage evaded me. Now, it is firmly in my grasp.
I crack the door ajar and peer into the hallway. Darkness shrouds my view, but the Palace is alive with noise. Howls, heavy footsteps, scratching along the walls, froth and drool swirling inside a cauldron-like mouth. The beast is close, yes, somewhere in the black abyss. I have a small window to act. And act, I shall.
The floor is cold against my feet. I walk with a measured pace, careful not to slip and fall, which would all but seal my fate. My skin comes alive with gooseflesh.
Deep scratches run along the walls. The floor is rife with holes. Sharp gusts of wind whip down the hallway from every direction. The windows have been shattered.
The weather worsens, but it is not unwelcome. The lightning guides me forward. The thunder steadies my heart. Raindrops run down my back, keeping me alert.
The bedroom door seems so far away now. I think of turning back, of locking myself away again. This was a horrible mistake, the ludicrous idea of an old, drunken fool. Yes, I must turn back.
But something emerges in the distance. Two glowing orbs at the end of the hall, close together, narrowing. A flash of lightning reveals the lupine creature, crouching on four legs, thick with black fur, baring talons for teeth.
I have reached the point of no return. My mission shall proceed.
I turn back towards the great room and press forward, my pace quickening. A gallop starts behind me, gaining in speed. But this is the Presidential Palace, and I know it as well as the farms of Braintree. I can throw the beast off my tail.
I bank hard to the right, through the kitchen, past the servants’ quarters, feeling my way through a blackened fog. My sudden movements have confused the beast, taken it by surprise, just as intended. It crashes from wall to wall, its large body struggling through unfamiliar terrain. The woods are its natural element. But it is in my element now.
With the time I have afforded myself, I hurry into the great room, the fireplace still alive, the portrait of George Washington watching over me. The clothes are right where I left them, the only thing in the house the beast has not disturbed. It howls, somewhere in a nearby room. I must be quick.
The sword is awash with red flame, glistening near the fire. I raise it from the ground, the handle hot to the touch. I hold it high in the air, studying the blade, attempting to stab at the electric sky.
I think of Abigail, the children, the grandchildren. I think of plunging my hands into fresh tilled soil. I think of the mosquito-filled days of Summer in Philadelphia, spending countless hours in cramped quarters with wig-clad statesmen, forming this nation which we are fortunate to now reside. I smile. Perhaps my first of the night. Perhaps my first in ages. I close my eyes tight, imagining it all.
Then I hear it.
The approaching footsteps, fast at first, but slowing. Slowing until they come to a full stop. There is a deep breathing, a few inches from my face, pouring out of wicked nostrils. A foul odor fills the room.
I open my eyes to the beast, so close we stand nose-to-snout. It sits back on its hind legs, straightening its back, until it towers over me, blotting out the room. The fireplace, the clothes, George Washington, all of it gone.
We stare at each other, our unspoken game, neither backing down. No clap of thunder, no strike of lightning, no whisk of wind, nothing will break our concentration. Not even the tick of the grandfather clock. The hour turns to three.
The beast stands tall, proudly, blood coating its mouth. It has the body of a bloated wolf, stretched to unimaginable limits, the physique of a fierce Hessian mercenary. Its face, a terrible face, with burning eyes and a serpentine tongue, curling its mouth into a demented smile, no doubt waiting for me to attempt the first blow.
“You do not scare me,” I say, as if it speaks American English. “I have faced worse enemies than you.” I tighten my grip on the sword. “In fact, one will be here tomorrow. And he is much uglier.”
The beast cocks its head, trying to understand. It drops its claws for a moment.
That is when I strike.
Sparks erupt, the sword’s blade colliding with raised claws. The beast blocks my first swing, but I do not give in. I strike again, harder, but the beast follows the blade with its paw. Strike and block, strike and block, two great fencing partners engaged in a delicate dance. The beast roars after another block, lowering its face towards mine. I roar back, not giving an inch.
We go back and forth like this for an eternity, working our way around the room. I am fatigued, but I try to push through it. My form is looser now, sloppy, as the strength in my arm recedes. My shoulder wails in pain with each strike. I stab at the beast, straight ahead, wildly, but it jumps backwards, causing me to stumble.
This is my fatal error, for the beast strikes a crushing blow, cutting me from wrist to elbow. The sword falls to the ground. I reach for it, but the beast digs its claws into my chest and, with a swift, upward motion, sends me hurling across the room.
I hit the floor knees first, wrapped in a painful cocoon. I tumble against the wall. The portrait of George Washington rattles above me.
My thoughts again turn to Abigail as the beast approaches, its long shadow working across the floor, climbing up the wall. Oh Abigail, how I wish to have seen you one last time. How I regret to leave you in such a manner. Perhaps you will rest easy knowing your husband fought until the bitter end. That he died defending his country.
The beast plants its monstrous feet in front of me, claws plunging into the floor. It crouches back again on its hind legs, mouth wide open. The laughter returns, rattling the walls. The portrait swings back and forth, bringing George Washington to life, like he is ready to burst through the brushstrokes and charge into battle. An idea strikes me.
As the beast rears back its foul head one last time, I summon whatever strength I have left and spring to my feet. I bring my fists back against the wall as hard as I can. The portrait falls, loosened by a night of commotion. I catch it on its way to the ground, the great frame heavier than I anticipated, but I cannot let that stop me. I raise the portrait in the air, leap off the balls of my feet, and smash it on top of the creature’s head.
By the sounds that come from its mouth, the beast does not appreciate the warm embrace from General Washington. I sympathize. Its arms are fixed at its sides, struggling to break free from the golden frame. I do not have much time. I must make my move.
The sword glistens in the distance, showing me the way, leading me to it. I maneuver around the beast and pick it off the ground. I return, weapon in tow.
The beast howls, shrieks. Dare I say, a look of panic crosses its face. I have it now.
I lose count of the strikes to its neck. More than ten. Less than fifty. Blood splatters along the walls, coats the floor, covers my face, dampens the fire, but I do not stop. I think of all my enemies, standing in front of me, with one collective neck. I strike and strike and strike until a severed head hits my feet and the monstrous body follows suit.
My shoulders slump. I take in measured gulps of cool, night air until the flames on my lungs are extinguished. I holster the sword in an invisible sheath.
I lean forward, hands fixed to my knees, and wretch. It all comes out of me, the Madeira, the rum, this morning’s hard cider, all of it. With the contents of my stomach empty, I catch my breath.
The severed head has the size and girth of a young bull. It begins to shrink, to change form. The black fur peels off, the eyes expand, the snout disintegrates. The face of a beast washes away. The face of a human emerges.
My face. By God, it is my own face! It stares back at me with dead, lifeless eyes. The head of John Adams. Bidding one final adieu to the Presidential Palace.
And then it melts away, until it is nothing more than a festering puddle of muck. The night is over. The beast is dead.
Washington March 4, 1801
My Dearest Friend
Though it is still too early for sunrise, I feel the day beginning anew. I am writing as a man ready to embrace the next chapter of my life, ready to leave the past where it belongs, and to let historians be my judge. Most of all, I am ready to be the husband, father, and grandfather that my family deserves. It is what Charles would want.
The crates are packed, but please do not be disappointed if I have forgotten a thing or two. I am an aging man, after all. So much so, that I had a minor fall in the wilderness which left me with many cuts and bruises. Do not be alarmed, I shall recover. And as for my loose-fitting clothing, well, that is a long affair to recount.
I bid farewell to the Presidential Palace with a smile across my face. This is a residence more suited for a man like Thomas Jefferson anyway. I made sure to leave behind a letter congratulating him on a hard-earned victory. I also left him a special gift in the main bedroom. It is sure to give him a frightful surprise.
The stage is approaching now, emerging from the rain-soaked swamp, clearing the fog as it goes. Despite tonight’s turbulent weather, it appears I shall be leaving on time. I cannot wait to be with you again. I cannot wait to tend the land, to read, to be amongst my countrymen as a citizen of this great Nation. Oh Abigail, I am ready to be home.
Most affectionately yours,
Kevin Johnson is a Product Manager by day and a writer of creepy tales by night. He grew up in the horror aisles of Blockbuster Video and lives by the creed, “what if you added a monster?” You can find him on Twitter @KevinDGJohnson.
‘Nice got an iPhone. Got enough for my weed.’ Jess polishes a cracked iPhone screen in her hands.
‘Great, you rob phones now?’ I try grabbing the phone, but she shoves it into her blazer pocket. Why does she put me through this? My heart palpitates, dreading one of her park victims confronting us. ‘Why are you trying to get us in trouble?’ I hope she notices the frustration in my tone.
‘Oh, shut it, will you? If you won’t pay for my blunts, I’ve got to get money somewhere.’ She goes back to admiring her steal of the day. Why does she still do this? We are back to square one with two weeks of peace and no bitter weed coming off her clothes. To think Mum thought she was responsible. Wasting money on death sticks isn’t what I’d call responsible.
I glance at the blue lapis lazuli around her neck. The gold spots gleam in the spring sunlight like they did around Mum’s neck. I can tell by how she rubs the stone she still misses her. She thinks I don’t understand, but how couldn’t I? I lost her too.
I doubt Mum would approve of what she’s doing now. Luckily, I am not Jess. The foul bleach taste of alcohol and head throbbing numbness that comes from weed makes my stomach churn. What’s the point? You have to face reality the next day. Still, I wish Mum looked at me like she did with Jess. I swallow the brimming envy in my throat, noticing some dried cuts peeking out of her sleeve. I can’t remember the last time she smiled, not since before Mum’s mammogram. I miss who she used to be when her giggles and silly dances brightened up the house. Now she is an aimless moth, a shell of herself, longing for a light that has long died.
‘Can’t believe my luck, Rose,’ she jingles the coins around her palms. ‘Got a five and a tenner.’ Her pockets are a clinking orchestra for school kids’ loose change. I pray the police don’t catch onto what she’s done. But how couldn’t they? I don’t know one school kid who doesn’t keep their distance from her in lunch lines.
I realise what’s left of our sisterly bond is a withered shoelace. Thin and ready to snap. But I am pulled back before taking the first step, knowing we both share the gaping holes eating at our hearts. Glancing out our windows at the silent stars, wondering if Mum is out there. I imagine Mum’s soft bony hand rubbing my fingers. ‘Please, Rose, she needs you.’ Her words haunt my dreams and daily thoughts. But she was right. Jess is all I have, and time is running out.
‘I know you miss Mum, but stealing isn’t going to solve anything.’ Jess pauses on the path. I feel her left-hand clench around my jumper.
‘I don’t give one,’ she lets go, excessively scratching at her neck. ‘Mum’s not here anymore.’ I feel queasy seeing the moist rashes and fingernail marks across her flesh. I’m sick of giving her reality checks, but mentioning Mum is the only thing that gets through to her. I slide my arm into hers.
‘Sorry Jess, I’m just worried about you,’ she raises an eyebrow at me. ‘Mum wanted me to take care of you.’ Her face turns sour.
‘Worry about yourself. I can look after myself.’ Her comment sticks with me for a bit. How can she enjoy something so toxic?
We reach the end of our path, surrounded by sweet smelly yellow daffodils near an old park bench. I feel Jess’ elbow nudge into me as a sunbeam illuminates a woman in a purple dress. She doesn’t notice us, but she’s wearing a long indigo veil with a violet niqab around her face. My heart sinks, realising what Jess has in mind. She wouldn’t steal from an old woman, right?
‘Come on, she might have something for us,’ of course. Before I can protest, I already feel Jess’s grip around my sleeve. We sit down on the damp bench, hearing the coo of Pigeons flocking around us. The woman is tossing bits of breadcrumbs to the birds pecking at the pavement. She glances at us, her eyes almost hypnotic.
‘Lovely day, isn’t it?’ She says in a sweet elderly tone. I give her a brief smile trying to conceal my shame.
‘Yeah, it is. How are you doing?’ Says Jess, cupping her hands together like an innocent toddler. My teeth grind as she puts on a sweet, oblivious accent whenever she butters up her victims.
‘I’m good young lady, just feeding the birdies,’ she tosses more crumbs to the scattering Pigeons.
‘Aw, that’s nice. I love your sunglasses.’ Jess points at the folded red sunglasses on her lap.
‘Thank you, love, but they’re not mine. They’re not for wearing.’ Jess’s eyes shoot open from her comment. Damnit, old woman, she’ll want them more now.
‘Oh, why is that?’ The woman looks over both her shoulders, lowering the indigo cloth so that we can see her glittering lips.
‘I shouldn’t say anything. Why don’t you girls go play and have fun?’ Jess clasps her hands.
‘Please, Miss, I’d love it if you told me.’
‘Well, if you’re sure,’ she unfolds the sunglasses, sliding her index across strange, dotted symbols across the temples. ‘You might think I’m nuts, but they have mystical energy. I can’t say more than that, I’m afraid.’ She twiddles the frames between her crystal ringed fingers. Something about the curved plastic horns on either side of the lenses makes my heart race. Why are my hands shaking?
‘Jess, Maccie’s will close soon—’ I feel her shoe sharply kick into my shin.
‘It doesn’t close, stupid,’ she looks back at the woman. ‘So, you like spiritual stuff then?’ Jess quickly tries to slide her hand into the woman’s pocket, failing as she looks up.
‘Well, spirituality is a hobby of mine, you see. I like to collect all magical things, good or bad.’ She folds the glasses, putting them into her long robe. ‘Oh, you must think I’m a right old fool. Talking about this silly nonsense.’ Jess interrupts her, putting her hand over her shoulder.
‘Of course not. I think it’s cool you do that,’ Jess glances at the old oak tree near us. ‘So, is everything magic?’
‘Well, some things more than others.’ The woman pats the glasses in her robe.
‘Do you think that tree behind you is magic?’ The moment the woman cranes her neck, Jess swipes the sunglasses from her robe. I restrain the urge to stop her as I don’t want to be guilty by association. God, what would Mum think?
‘Well, all things have souls, dear—’ Jess yanks my hand.
‘Aw, thanks for all of that, bye,’ we are already halfway down the path when we’re far enough from the woman. ‘My God, what a moron. Falling for the oldest trick in the book.’ She laughs, yanking the glasses out of her pocket. I can’t refrain from smacking her shoulder.
‘That was well low.’ She ignores me, staring at the shiny red texture reflecting the evening sun. She stares at them. Of course, she’d love something with Devil horns and blackout shades. ‘Put them tacky things down. I’m not getting bad karma because of you.’ I try to reach for them, but she suddenly smacks my hand away.
‘Leave them!’ She clutches them to Mum’s necklace. I hold back, laughing as her arms fold over them like Gollum with his precious. But I keep it down, not wanting another smack. ‘Well, come on, swat, let’s go.’ She walks me back through the park but doesn’t say anything.
We are already out the gates when amber sunset ripples stretch across our faces. My scalp starts sweating, wishing I didn’t have to see her fondling a pair of sunglasses. She slides her deviant stumps across the lenses and pushes the bridge over her flushed nose. The edges of her lips widen so much that I can see her inner gums. I don’t know if I should be happy or creeped out. I can’t remember the last time she’s grinned. I try to ignore her until she exhales out of nowhere.
‘Rose, you’re gonna think I’m mad, but I think I’m high,’ I can’t help looking at her weirdly. ‘I don’t know, but I feel great since I put these on. I feel like I’m flying.’ She exhales in pleasure again. A silver gleam shines across her scalp. I pick at it. ‘Ouch, the hell did you do that for?’ I dangle three white hairs in front of her.
‘You always had these?’ She yanks them out of my hand.
‘Don’t know. Probably stress from last year.’ I gnaw my gums for the next twenty minutes, forced to listen about how much time she wasted inhaling weed when she could have felt this ‘natural high’ from a pair of sunglasses. I think back to what that woman said on the bench. From what she’s saying, she must be higher than a kite. But since when has she had grey hairs? Magical energy? Na, surely not. But my stomach starts knotting at how silent she is. I expected her to keep rambling about the glasses until she suddenly yanks Mum’s necklace off. She pulls the stone off and throws it onto the pavement.
‘Why did you do that for?’ I pick the stone up.
‘What? Me’ glasses need the string,’
‘But Mum gave it to you.’ I swallow the ball of emotions in my throat, wondering how she could casually throw this away.
She glares down a dark alley next to us. A robust herbal stench penetrates the street air. A far away streetlamp reveals a figure leaning on a fence. Please, God, don’t let it be weed.
‘Hey, you!’ A bright flashlight of a phone illuminates the shadows. A small Indian boy with a tied black bun looks over at us. ‘Give us’ the cig.’ Jess holds out her palm out, those ridiculous glasses covering her eyes. Before he can walk away, Jess rushes him, grabbing the front of his school shirt.
‘You mad? Get off.’ He tries to push her back, but his light hand smacks do little to her.
‘What are you doing? Stop!’ I try yanking her arm back, but she effortlessly pushes me back. The power in her shove winds me slightly. Since when is she this strong? She tugs the boy’s collar.
‘The fucking cigarette….’ Before I can do anything, she pulls out something from her pocket. The nearby lamp reflects a sharp sliver gleam in her hand. I want to do something, but what? I yank her arm back, wrestling the blade out of her hand. The red glasses fall off her face as the boy crawls away, a bitter urine stench filling the area.
‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ She stands up, her face blank, rubbing her eyelids.
‘I don’t know,’ she scratches at her bloodshot cheeks. ‘I’ve never been that desperate for a cig.’
‘You, feeling all right?’
‘Wait, where are they?’ She pats all over her blazer pockets, picking the glasses off the pavement. I don’t dare go near her, though. Why did she attack that boy? What happens if another innocent person passes us with something she wants? These thoughts spread goosebumps across me.
We near a bright McDonald’s sign in the distance, but I can’t keep ignoring the knot in my naval. I don’t know if I’m crazy, but a weird heat is coming off her arm.
‘Jess, you’re scaring me,’
‘What you on about?’
‘You’re freaking me out! You attacked a lad.’ her still expression does little to soothe me.
‘So? I wanted a smoke. He had one, and I got one.’ A brunette teenage girl passes us. I immediately know what will happen when Jess sees a triple camera iPhone 13 Pro in her hand.
‘Jess, no!’ I feel a sharp prick as I try to grab her. Her fingernails are pointed and curved, lemon-yellow claws protruding out of her fingers. She wraps her hand around the girl’s neck as the McDonald’s light reveals the whites of Jess’s eyes completely engulfed in inky blackness.
‘What are you doing?’ The brunette girl shrieks, piercing my eardrums, but Jess shakes her like a bobblehead.
‘Give it to me, you little—’ I gasp as she lifts the girl up with one arm.
‘Put her down!’ I wrap my left arm around her slimy neck, hoping the chokeholds she taught me work. But her strength is suddenly greater, her beefy shoulders flinging me off. The back of my skull slams against the pavement.
‘I swear I’ll kill you.’ Jess growls, her ginger hair turning ghostly white, her square teeth crumbling away into Pennywise fangs. She deepens her claws into the girl’s neck, judging by how much she is thrashing.
‘For God’s sake, stop.’ The girl gasps for breath as I yank Mum’s gem necklace out of my pocket. Hot tears flood my cheeks as I wrap my arms tightly around Jess’s bony chest. I take the chance to shove the stone into her palm. ‘Look at yourself. What you’re doing,’ I stumble as my throat swells up again. ‘Would Mum want this?’
Only now do I see her state. The rims around her eyes are dark, the outlines of her skull appearing through her leathery skin and ball joints like an elderly woman. No, a hag. ‘Jess, please come back. Please?’ I sob on her back, feeling her withered ribcage in my arms. ‘I need you.’ I feel her tremble, her black tears dripping down her strawberry skin.
Those glasses… Those damned evil glasses. They’ve done this. ‘Take them off.’ I cautiously reach for the sunglasses, feeling Jess’ scolding body temperature lowering. She lets me slide them off her long nose, dropping the blue-faced girl to her knees.
‘What, me, done?’ She claws at her elongated cheekbones as the brunette gags and splutters.
‘Jess?’ I caress her scaly skin. She looks up at me.
‘Yes?’ Before I answer, I slam the glasses onto the road.
‘This is for your own good.’ I stomp my body weight into the frames, my heel barely grazing it.
‘Thief!’ I feel my spine knock against the curb as she digs her hot claws into my wrists. ‘Give me,’ she yanks the glasses off the road, sliding them back over her pointy ears.
She sighs in a pitiful pleasure.
‘I need them.’ Her lips tremble. My heart sinks at the sight of her. They’re clearly doing more harm than good. I snatch the glasses off her, remembering the fun times with Mum, and with all my arm strength, the bridge snaps in half. She howls out, scrounging for the broken pieces. Have I failed her? Should I have done more to help? But no matter what I tell myself, her pitiful whimpers are still unbearable to hear. ‘You hurt me too? Like Mama.’ She buries her crooked red nose into my chest. I place my hand around the lazuli stone still tightly clutched in her right claw. I stroke her white straw hair.
‘No. I promised Mum I’d look after you, and I will.’ A year’s worth of bottled grief gushes from her as I delicately stroke circles onto her cheeks like Mum used to.
I look up into the cloudy night sky, looking for a brief twinkle of a star in the thick darkness. I feel Mum’s love emanating from my fingers as I place a delicate kiss on her sickly head. This isn’t the end. Maybe it’s a new beginning for both of us.
Callum McGee is a passionate, creative writing student at Edge Hill University. His short horror story was published in the EHU magazine/newspaper, the Quack’s blog. Callum is a neurodivergent writer who writes poetry tackling societal issues such as pollution, class discrimination, bullying, and inequality toward neurodiverse people. He believes poetry is an expression of one’s feelings and should be used to help people who are discriminated against in overall society.
She slept late again, and they fired her. With a text. Fired her by text. Not even official, but personal phone to personal phone, no disclaimer from lawyer or form from HR.
She slept late this morning and didn’t care. She had enough saved up for a week’s worth of groceries, insurance paid up, car paid off, but there was Shelley. And there was Shelley.
She could never figure out Shelley, asset or liability?, but Shelley always there. Shelley’s bank account always flush, never a negative word from the body, and always a good time. They had fun last night, and both still asleep, well she was pretending to be.
She had roused too many times during the night, too much beer five nights in a row catching up with her thirty-four-year-old bladder that felt to be two. She didn’t know how Shelley managed, could go weeks without a piss. Shelley always complained of constipation, though. She hoped the child wouldn’t get stones, kidney or gall or any of those. The child needed to drink more, more from the faucet.
“Did your Dad get outta prison last month like he was supposed?” Shelley asked without a rollover, words spit into yellow pillow. She could tell Shelley feared bringing up the subject even then.
“Dunno. He didn’t call. I didn’t call. No one else either. I don’t care.”
“You don’t care about your father’s release? The man old.” More spit into pillow.
“How many relatives of yours you helped after prison?” she asked Shelley.
“See my point.”
“None of my relatives ever been in the slammer. They pay their taxes and don’t hit women or kids.”
“No one in the South can say such and mean it for God’s truth.”
“None in my family.” Shelley’s face still in the pillow.
“You obviously don’t know your second-cousins’ in-laws.”
I replayed the scene in my head all morning long. Shelley long gone before Dad came over that night many months later. The child knew I was joking, I hoped. Dad had gotten out five weeks prior. First, he wanted a dental check. I told him I would buy him a nice steak dinner that first night out. “Trust me, dentist first,” he said, “then steak.” It took me a minute before I understood what he’d meant. Tonight was the night. I’d be paying for teeth longer than steak, but this wasn’t cheap either. Best cut in the store, I had it all out on the table, seasoned like I remembered he ate, salt and pepper dead center. He already had some girlfriend, said they’d met in prison.
“What?” My nerves rattled with that sentence end.
“She has this craze for inmates.” He ate fast, then slow. “Some charity case forwarded me her letter.” He asked for more pepper. “Needed another man in stripes, yeah she out in the car.”
“Yeah, just two stones’ throws away, look if ya don’t believe me.”
No need. Where was Shelley when needed in the worst way of all? A big woman, she warmed me every January, would’ve known what to do here and now. I looked at my father. I didn’t know who was sitting in my driveway, much less who sat at my table. Too many years.
“No worry,” he said. “All her family like ours been in jail, prison, halfway places. She a’ight.”
I stopped talking and listening at this point, my hairs at attention.
“Good steak.” He thanked me. “Good steak, good job, better than that steakhouse El Slammer.” He winked.
I said he was welcome, before asking about the dentist.
“Teeth not so good, but they work.”
Food stuck gross around his yellow canine teeth and dark gums. I asked if he needed a sharper knife.
“I have toothpicks, I forget where, but think in the cupboard.”
“No needa worry, girl,” he said without looking this time.
Then he swallowed the gristle hard and looked around the room like he sought someone to kill. He held the steak knife up real close to my face. Something about toothpick had triggered a memory. I wished for Shelley. I wondered if Mom had really gone missing back when I was two and Dad came home late and drunk with lipstick and money, or so I was told by some other kin fresh out of prison. He laughed and chomped on the meat, but I felt like he was chewing on something else and wanted to stomp on something more still.
R. P. Singletary is a lifelong writer from the southeastern United States, with work appearing or forthcoming in Bumble Jacket Miscellany, CafeLit, Ariel Chart, Syncopation Literary Journal, Last Leaves, Stone of Madness, Wingless Dreamer, The Journal, and elsewhere.
Please be advised that while this content is entirely fictional, it contains graphic references to topics that some readers may find disturbing.
Our father runs a candy store. Ever since we were little, sister and I would leave our house, as ordinary as any other, to come back in the evening to a dazzling confectionary, instead. Nobody knew of this, except for us. It was our secret. Everything a child could dream of, far as the eye can see. Rows upon rows of polka striped candy canes, lollipops swirled in all colours of the rainbow, daintily sealed chocolates in small plastic bags, tied with a red or yellow ribbon. There’s even a cotton candy machine, tirelessly weaving pink clouds through the night. But most fantastical of all, must surely be the life-sized grandfather clock standing proudly in the very centre of the store, made purely out of confections, and sealed behind thick glass so as not to be ruined by a child’s curious hands. Another one of papa’s candy store secrets, is how it manages to tick just as a normal grandfather clock would. Does it have gears made of candy, too?
When papa was our age, his father ran the candy store, and prior to that, his father. It’s a family tradition, father explains, that must be kept a secret to the rest of the world in order for its magic to persist. A paradise loses its wonder once everybody finds out about it, he’d conclude, and sister and I would nod in understanding unison.
When night falls and the confectionary’s lights flare to life, the two of us, two peas in a pod, sneak in as papa locks the door, and as per family tradition, become candy, too.
Like lollipops, father unwraps us to get a taste of our sugar. Sister and I, identical since birth, must have pretty much the same flavour. Her always being mistaken for a boy and I for a girl, under his tongue, we fully become one and the same, and forget our names. The grandfather clock ticks on through the feast. Sister and I, too, fill our cheeks with candy, growing cloyingly sweet as the night goes on, growing hot, burning, syrup oozing down our throats into our sugar-filled bellies, and with thick honey marinating our bodies from father’s porcelain canteen swirling over us, its shadow jumping from her body to mine. When the sweetness burns so sickly it becomes bitter, he slurps away our tears, too. Wasting not a single part of us, papa eats us with kisses that leave sugary marks, his lips traveling from the whites of our eyes to the vertebrae between our spines. Love fills every cell just to the brink of explosion. But, if they did explode, father would surely fill us all up again. Lucky there’s two of us, sister had whispered once, or we’d already have burst like a balloon. Yet, if it’s affection that breaks you, is that really such a bad thing?
When father wraps us up at last, rolling plastic round our heads, we’ve grown thinner again. Eating us without eating us, papa then puts us to sleep. The grandfather clock stops its ticking, and the wonderfully dazzling candy store, filled with everything a child could dream of far as the eye can see, closes for another night.
Hanna states: “I am a Swedish university student with a passion for art and writing. I find it interesting to explore the clash between morbidity and sweetness, which most of my works focus on. My Instagram for dark poetry is @depressedkid.exe and I also am a member of Cosmofunnel, another place where I share my poetry, and go by the pseudonym Sad Girl. “
a halo of blood
frames her head
her outstretched hands
clutching roses -
their red petals hemorrhaging
at her sandaled feet-
black husks- withered
to be swept away
with unanswered prayers
of burnt out votive candles
to empty benedictions
the danger in reading words in darkness alone
succumbing to social media
voices constant texting
- multi windowed messages
in your darkened room
door locked -
no one aware
they will all
you showed no outward signs
just a lingering love
of dead poets
and their dead words.
the serpentine river
coils its path
kissing the mold covered rocks
weathered and torn
by night's wicked waves
gulls gibber mournful
a garbaged sigh
beneath the arch of whispering lies
where words of love intently die
etched in lace
brown and rotted
hung in rooms, lighted
by TV sets
shining the cruel light
that man cannot live by
while practicing joy
of hair oil and grease
between the late movie
that offers no peace
and stale crumpled linen
of his unmade bed
where day break shall find him
Joseph A Farina is a retired lawyer in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. An internationaly award winning poet. Several of his poems have been published in Quills Canadian Poetry Magazine,The Wild Word,The Chamber Magazine, Lothlorian Poetry Journal,Ascent ,Subterranean Blue and in The Tower Poetry Magazine, Inscribed, The Windsor Review, Boxcar Poetry Revue , and appears in many anthologies including: Sweet Lemons: Writings with a Sicilian Accent, Canadian Italians at Table, Witness from Serengeti Press and Tamaracks: Canadian Poetry for the 21st Century . He has had poems published in the U.S. magazines Mobius, Pyramid Arts, Arabesques, Fiele-Festa, and Philedelphia Poets . He has had two books of poetry published— The Cancer Chronicles and The Ghosts of Water Street .
The archway stood firm under the shroud of night, its heart spelled in dripping letters: Hallowed Cliff Cemetery. He could still discern the entrance atop the sodden hill despite the starless sky, through the rain and sweeping winds. The image had been blistered into his unconscious. He marched on through the marshy soil as if he could rid himself of it by way of physical exertion; or perhaps cleanse his spirit with heaven’s baptismal waters. He dared not stop for fear of sinking through the earth and residing himself to an unceremonious yet eternal tomb. Though the world would not make it easy. Several times he lost his footing and slid upon the mud before slamming the shovel head into the ground and forcing himself up, carrying on with stubborn consternation.
He wiped the muck on his pants as he passed under the arch and trudged forward among the aisles. Over the fresh and dying roses, the pink and purple larkspurs. Past endless processions of graves. Stones of granite. Stones of marble. Sandstone and slate. Some brandishing themselves to the eye, almost arrogant in their novelty. Others having been neglected for centuries, their texts gone as if washed away by Mother Nature for some unutterable slight against her. He eyed the years as he went, capricious, interchangeable; like philosophical tauntings from beyond, calling to him, demanding he decipher their unanswerable ponderings.
The shovel struck into the ground as he removed a pewter flask from the inside of his shirt, then took a swig and stepped to the grave before him. He looked upon the head with bloodshot eyes, compelled to take in the marking over and over again by light of Zeus and Selene; inconstant; uncertain.
Eva Meridian Mara
February 21st, 1981 — July 8th, 2021
Rest in Peace
Could’ve thought of better.
He drank, then replaced the flask and stepped to the grave opposite. He unbuckled his belt and pissed into the sloshy soil.
“Apologies, miss — errr — mister.”
He flicked his member clean and redid the front of his jeans, then took the shovel in hand and returned to the opposite grave. With a last look at the stone, he stabbed the shovelhead into the mud and lifted a mound of green and black muck from the earth, tossing it to the side and splattering little balls on the opposing marker. Shovelful after shovelful. Foot after foot. He spent an hour laboring deeper and deeper into the earth, stopping at several points to pour water from his shoes. Finally he was done, breath unsteady, a salty sweat amongst the rain on his brow.
A great hole sat before him, four by eight in dimension with a depth of six feet, the lid of a dark red casket peeking out the bottom. He lowered himself in and dug along the side until he found the latch. A light hiss escaped as he undid it, like a snake warning him from its burrow. It drew his thoughts toward the darkness within. Toward the all-knowing nothing entrapping the poor soul inside. It struck him with what he felt was an unnatural reverence. A connection and understanding unique to him and him alone.
He’d always found an allure to such things. A morbid, yet uncompromising curiousness for the shadows — of both sight and mind. For the implications they presented. The universal and contradictory lessons that fed him without frame left him frozen in place, unable to comprehend what lay before him, regardless what his conscious mind would admit. The horror. The humor. The eternal void just below the surface of all.
He lifted the lid by a foot and shined his phone inside. He saw an arm veiled by a wispy white dress, stiff and pale like a cheap manikin. Spitting onto the earth wall opposite, he slid his phone in and let the lid drop, removing the flask and downing what remained. He washed what mud he could from his hands, limbs, and torso, then rubbed his hands across his face and put his head back to run them through his hair. With a final breath, he gave a glance toward the waning moon in the east and crawled inside.
He set the still shining phone on the cadaver’s stomach and burrowed his way next to it, snuggling close with his arm under the neck. His hands grasped the rigor, the penetrating cold. His eyes traced up and down the ghostly vessel. He imagined her origins, physical and ethereal. Tried to unweave the mysteries and intricacies of her being as well as those who’ve come before and will come long after. The marks of his existence and what it all amounted to. The incalculable sum rendered indistinguishable from its antecedents.
Rubbing his fingers across her cheek, he stared at the unflinching eyelids, decorated with red and black eyeshadow. At the plush raven hair, the light reflecting off it like stars in the vacuum of space, ever expanding, shifting further and further away. His body began to shake. He smashed his eyes shut and swallowed the snot creeping down the back of his throat. Tears of regret leaked onto his cheeks. A great breath entered his lungs and returned as if unsure of the vitality of its own purpose.
He reopened his gaze to the eyelids. He reached with trembling hands and placed them directly under. He moved to lift the lids from their perch, but shot back upon touch, reeling as if scorched by some invisible spark. His head hung, he cried harder than he’d ever done. His eyes, half drowned in tears, stared past the light into the darkness and beyond. It stared back. He clutched the body close, burying his head into the bosom as his weeps filled the tomb, echoing back into his shattered sense of self.
They Did It for their Freedom
The sun rose as they moved the slaves young and old through the gates of Cathartra. Off the hardened pozzolana and onto the crude, unkempt path towards the Anglo River. The slaves in their thin, ebony rags amongst the Cathartrans in their flowing, ivory robes. Two days prior, the former had taken captive three of the most powerful families in the land, raiding their property and moving them to the valerian fields in the dead of night. Just before dawn, they allowed one of the captives to flee, instructing him to inform the Council of Six of what had occurred.
The child dashed through the streets in his soil stained garments until he came to the council building, a band of warriors stationed at the front. Flamed with righteous indignation, the Council rushed to conduct an emergency session. Noon came and the slaves approached with the three families in their grasp. They did it for their freedom, they said. They wished to speak with the council and negotiate a peaceful resolution between their people. To raise the land as equals under Cathartran law.
The eldest seven were invited to discuss terms. For hours the soldiers stayed planted outside, watching the slaves with distrustful stares that were readily reciprocated. The tension pranced amongst them like a phantomed, temptress mare, urging them toward bloodshed until the negotiators reemerged.
The slaves were promised full rights under the courts as well as a mule per person and land at the outskirts of town; roughly forty acres per family. Men were granted entrance within the military and the group as a whole would no longer remain responsible for the trades previously forced upon them. Rather, tasks would be split evenly between them and the Cathartrans and training was to begin immediately so that all could become educated on such matters. Upon graduating from this instructional period, the two groups would come together as a single labor force.
The last promise was, to symbolize their status as true citizens, each slave would be taken to engage in the Rite of Till at the Temple of Kings. In two days time, a party of Cathartrans would lead half the slaves to conduct the ritual while the rest would attend the morning after. This latter group would remain in Cathartra to commence preparations as they awaited the others’ return. Once these terms were announced, the slaves released the families and took camp in the valerian fields while the Council called the soldiers in for the night.
It was noon when the first party marched onto the boats. Cries from the infants had been audible since they left, resounding through the ranks and vexing the Cathartrans’ ears the further they traveled. They docked on the opposite shore and continued on through the Fifteen Fields. Soon the slaves began to sing songs of torment and sorrow. At first, but a single child recited the tunes, though, within the hour, the entire party had joined, rousing a powerful chorus that resounded through the land. Though they spoke in tongues foreign to the Cathartrans, the emotions touched deep within their marrow.
The vocals continued as they entered Brown’s Forest at evening’s dawn, sentiments still rocking like great, granite swings from the gods. From there, the Temple would not be far. As they trudged forward, the grass and trees grew thick and tangled, blocking sunlight from their struggling forms. It didn’t take long for the singing to diminish and eventually die within the darkness, giving once more to cries of infants.
The Temple was dilapidated, overrun with vines and other forms of wildlife. A screech sounded in the distance as an unrelenting stench sauntered about. The Cathartrans looked to the building with a familiar air while the slaves gaped with mixed emotions. Even the children fell silent upon arrival. The Cathartrans led them inside, the lone source of light now the torches in hand. Hordes of cobwebs were scattered about the place, all coated in a clean sheet of dust, including the aged, yet dominant obelisk at the center. It reached near the very top of the Temple, inscribed with pre-Cathartran text.
The Cathartrans rested their torches upon bronze sconces as the slaves gathered around the obelisk, vying for proper views. The eldest of the negotiators shuffled to the front and roamed once around the pillar, sliding his fingers across the text in a slow, gentle stroke, pondering as if caught in a profound, yet forgotten memory. He crouched to examine the base, then rose and whispered in a vernacular unrecognizable to anyone. It was as he did this the Cathartrans unsheathed their swords.
Evidence was taken of their deed as a warning for those left in Cathartra; menial objects such as clothing, necklaces, and bracelets. Some then graduated to thieving sections of the slaves themselves. Eyes, scalps, tongues — even severed legs of the children. The survivors gathered their torches and trudged out of the Temple. The return journey through the Forest was cruel and arduous on account of their labor and the blood-soaked robes holding them down.
When they maneuvered their way into the Fields, there was but a single ray of sunshine glistening over the horizon. The last image one could see as it disappeared and gave way to night was that of their demented figures, united in a call to slaughter. Crimson shapes in the dark. Hellish protectors of their way of life. They stepped forward and left the Forest behind them, marching backward through the night. On toward Cathartra, the glorious polis they loved without condition.
Dylan Thomas Lewis is a writer and musician from Kirksville, Missouri. He graduated from Central Methodist University in May of 2019 after serving as co-editor of the college’s literary magazine for two years. He writes screenplays, short stories, and music, playing guitar for Electronic Rock band Secular Era. His favorite writer is Cormac McCarthy. His favorite filmmaker is Stanley Kubrick.
His first submission “Hallowed Cliff”* can be classified as Southern Gothic. The second submission “They Did It For Their Freedom” is an experimental piece loosely based on a story from ancient Sparta, mixing elements of Horror, Fantasy, and Historical Fiction.
“I can prove it to you, if you like,” I told Sandford that night. “I can absolutely prove it to you. Would you like me to do that?”
# # #
John Sandford was the closest thing I had to a neighbor, and I sensed that I owed him something for what he’d done for me over the years. I’d been less than candid, quite a bit less, but I felt it was safe enough to tell him now.
Not that, in Sandford’s opinion, he’d done much. Despite being blind, he’d steered away the occasional stranger who came to his door asking too many questions about the area. I’m not sociable, and living in the woods suits me fine, but it’s been useful to have someone like Sandford living fairly close—half an hour’s walk, in this case—to provide just the right amount of misdirection when necessary. He understood how I felt, or thought he did, and I owed him something, especially at this point. His sight had faded away years ago, before I arrived here, and I could tell that the rest of his body was fading away too. He knew it, of course, and had told me that his children were making arrangements to move him to a “home”—a word he spat out angrily and a little sadly. He’d gotten along quite a while with having frozen meals delivered every week, but I knew from an occasional remark that he’d been having some sort of trouble with them lately.
We both had phones, but I never bothered to call. He always heard me on the path, long before I reached his door, and always seemed glad to have the company—and someone to share a drink or two with, although I declined as gracefully as I could every time.
As usual, I took a careful look around before I sat down, and as usual, everything was in its place. There was a bottle and a squat glass, half-full, on a table on one side of his chair and a radio on a rolling cart on the other. Through the kitchen door I could see a sleek K-cup brewer on a counter. He didn’t need eyes to pour a drink or make coffee. Beyond those few things, there was nothing else of note aside from a wall full of books. I wondered whether he sometimes ran his fingers over the spines, recognizing them from their width or the texture of the binding.
Over the years, Sandford and I had talked about dozens of different things, or rather he’d told me—history (he’d been a professor at a nearby community college), politics, even sasquatch and the like. He’d once been fascinated by the creatures, he’d told me—this was the Pacific Northwest, after all—but had given up hopes of anyone’s ever finding one. “You can’t find what’s not there,” he’d concluded. But UFOs were something else, and naturally I paid attention to what he had to say. He’d mentioned early on that his parents had known Kenneth Arnold, and that’s what had led to his interest. He couldn’t read any more, of course, but he kept up on the subject thanks to what he heard on the radio. He knew that most of what he heard was nonsense, he assured me—”crazy stuff”— but he could filter that out, leaving what he was pretty sure was the truth.
It was a very odd coincidence. I could tell him things about UFOs myself, although I’d been careful not to. But now it was time to make good on my debt. And there was no longer any danger. As he’d pointed out more than once, he’d gone from being an old fool to being a blind old fool. I was in a position to tell him things that I knew he’d find meaningful, but no one would ever believe him if he were to repeat them.
# # #
“Years ago,” I explained, after we’d chatted a few minutes, “I was involved unofficially with some scientists who were looking at the things pretty carefully. And what they were doing was unofficial too. I don’t know whether you’ve heard of the study group called the Invisible College—Hynek, Vallée, those people—but this was even more invisible.”
At the mention of the names, Sandford smiled and nodded vigorously.
“Over time, and after looking at quite a bit of material, this group I’m talking about—they never gave themselves a name—became convinced that UFOs were real. UFOs or UAPs, or whatever they’ll be called tomorrow. Like you’ve pointed out once, most reports were nonsense, or so fragmentary as to be useless. Or outright hoaxes, like those early airship sightings. But “most” is a relative term, and the remainder added up to a large number, given the resources these people could draw on. And that remainder formed a kind of pattern. Or patterns, really.”
I told Sandford that he’d be disappointed to hear that the scientists couldn’t make up their minds about the “flying saucers” Arnold had seen in Washington State in”47, although I was pretty sure they were alien craft. “But the odd thing is that ten days later—July 4—the crew of a United Airlines plane flying over a little town in Idaho sighted what the group felt sure were real. The crew and the passengers watched them, five of them, for several minutes.
“Then Roswell came along a few days after that. This group I’m talking about decided that the Roswell event was real, too, that a UFO really had crashed, and I’m sure they were right. If the ship’s trajectory had been a little flatter, it would have ended up in the Pacific. Given the fact that 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered with water, it was their guess that over the centuries quite a few had disappeared like that. Of course, the government covered things up, and by the time the truth started coming out, the facts were hopelessly muddled.”
We both knew that “muddled” was just fine, from the government’s point of view.
I explained that the group started looking back farther, a lot farther, and the patterns became clearer. There was the “Wheel of Ezekiel” in the Bible, for instance, and tantalizing reports by Plutarch and Pliny. And so on and so on, for more than an hour, until the light had faded from the windows and Sandford’s attention had begun to flag.
I cleared my throat.
“Anyway, this group came to the conclusion that the earth had been visited regularly, that maybe the planet had been “seeded” with life in the first place, although of course there’s no way to be sure. And they thought the visits were of all kinds. Some were military surveillance, some simply seemed to be visits by the curious, some seemed to be hunters, some were scientists, and some were damaged craft that had flown wildly off-course and crashed. Quite a few were engaged in things beyond the group’s comprehension, bizarre things. They were all kinds, and they came from all over. And they were common. Are common.
“Now, I’ve talked a lot tonight, John. But— I can prove it to you, if you like. I owe you that. I can absolutely prove it to you. Would you like me to do that?”
He nodded, but started to remind me that there was no way he could see whatever I was going to show him.
I told him it didn’t matter, so he sat there, waiting expectantly, alert, his sightless eyes wide. But as I began pulling off the mask, he flinched. He was dismayed by the sound, I could tell. In any case, Sandford suddenly looked like a frightened old man.
“I’m going to pull my chair up closer now,” I told him, and I did, the wicker creaking and groaning as I got up and moved the chair and then sat down again.
“Now hold your hand out.” He hesitated again before he finally did so.
“It’s all right,” I assured him. “I’m just going to take your hand in mine.”
I did, and then I leaned forward and guided his hand to my face. He flinched at the first touch and pulled away, his face even paler in the pale light, his sightless eyes wide, his mouth stretched open. But then he raised the hand back toward my face, tentatively, and I let him touch me again, feel my face, one side to the other.
“John,” I said, “It’s been a long evening. Take care.”
I got up, moved the chair back, and walked out the door. There was no moon that night, and the sky was overcast, so it was dark beneath the pines. But “dark” is a relative term, of course, and I could see perfectly well.
Grove Koger is the author of When the Going Was Good: A Guide to the 99 Best Narratives of Travel, Exploration, and Adventure, Assistant Editor of Deus Loci: The Lawrence Durrell Journal, and former Assistant Editor ofArt Patron.