Very few people used the bathroom backstage at the Plateau. Like most of the venue, it showed its age and misuse. The warped and moldy floorboards under the toilet made it an unacceptable risk for most and the bucket of tools in the corner suggested you needed basic plumbing skills before locking the door behind you.
Despite the rot, the room was a monument. More than any other part of the venue, it was a catalogue of its misspent punk rock youth. The messages written on the wall ranged from an astounding array of crude drawings to some of the most cutting lyric fragments that never got a chance to exist beyond its walls. It was easy to get lost in the history on offer and difficult not to want to add your own mark. If you entered it at all, you understood how the room fulfilled more than its intended use.
Lon gripped the sides of the sink like it might try to pull away from him, though in reality, he was so drunk, he held on to stop himself falling backwards. His band, Helium Pigs, was fifth up in a lineup of six for an all-night showcase at the Plateau. This was by far the best booking his band had ever gotten and now, eight pints of beer later, he was worried he had fucked his chances at making an impression. Their set was still two hours away.
The biggest challenge was going to be staying away from more drink.
In this private space, and probably only here, he could admit that if he stepped out, there was no telling how much more he would drink. Or worse, embarrass himself by having Elle, the bartender at the Plateau, cut him off for barely being able to stand before his band played.
Something about her he didn’t want to disappoint.
Lon thought to himself, nobody uses this bathroom anyways, I’ll just hide in here.
He would check the time, or they would come find him.
Lon stared at himself in the mirror above the sink. Most of its surface had faded to black so he could see little of his own reflection, even less in the light of the dangling single bulb. He stood up straight and tried to turn his look of incapacitation into one of disaffected nonchalance and although he thought he was pulling it off, he put so much focus into the look, he didn’t notice he was bending forward until he head-butted the mirror and cracked it down the middle, separating it into an upper and lower half.
Lon shook off the impact with a few choice expletives and rubbed his face hard with both hands. A perfect line of blood streamed down the narrow ridge of his nose before beading off the barbell in his septum, dripping into the sink, pooling in the flaky rust of the drain. When he opened his eyes, in the bottom half of the mirror, two people had appeared behind him, a woman sitting on top of the toilet tank, carving into the wall beside her as someone, what looked like a dark smudge in the desilvered mirror, had their hand down the front of her impossibly tight jeans, forcing her to arch her back. Lon was already shouting at them to fuck off as he turned around but when he looked over, the room was empty.
Not trusting his eyes, nor his depth perception, he swung his arm to see if it would catch on something but nothing. The momentum of his arm kept him spinning until he fell backwards onto the toilet. He could swear he had sunk several inches into the soft flooring. The room was empty. He looked beside him, squinting at what was scratched into the wall.
Growing antlers must feel like this.
As he read the words, a low drone rose up from the flooring. It sounded like the threat of inclement weather and made his spins worse. This wasn’t the other bands. The drone was then joined by the rhythmic banging of a kick drum, every blast seemingly shrinking the room a fraction until Lon was forced to stand again, falling against the sink. A human tongue snaked itself out of the drain, whipping around in circles, basting itself in the blood that had fallen moments earlier. It pulled itself back and a chorus of voices spilled from the drain. It was deafening, a harmony of held notes creating a new kind of vibration at Lon’s temples. He felt the skin stretch and grow thin. When he looked in the mirror, his reflection was not there but the woman was back, her heavy makeup smeared across her face and her 12-point spiked hair crushed against the far wall. She was now surrounded by several of the dark smudges, each standing over her, watching her writhe and curl into herself. Lon could only watch. The pain in his head was so intense, his vision narrowed to a singular point. When the woman opened her eyes, her scream was the last note required to bring the cacophony to a mind splitting resolution. Lon fell backwards into darkness.
Elle held Lon’s face in her hands as he woke from his brief coma. He was both happy and terrified that she was the one holding him. The look in her eye was one of calm and care. Sitting up in the narrow hallway, Elle asked if he felt well enough to play to a couple hundred semi-conscious punks in ten minutes.
The only answer was yes.
He stared back at the door of the bathroom. Elle took his face in her hands again, locked eyes with him and said not to worry about her, that he should just go make some noise.
Patrick Malka (he/him) is a high school science teacher from Montreal, Quebec, where he lives with his partner and two kids. His fiction can be found in Five South’s The Weekly, Nocturne magazine, The Raven Review, Sky Island Journal and most recently at On The Run. He can be found online @PatrickMalka on Twitter and @malkapatrick on Instagram.
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I’ve been here before. I’ll be here again. What city or suburb is this anyway? What state? Is this Grand Rapids? Green Bay? I think Rockford, maybe. Rockford feels right.
This one is an anime convention. Teenagers in schoolgirl costumes, monster costumes, ninja costumes, animal costumes… They squeal and giggle when they spot something that delights them: an art print from their favorite show, a particularly accurate costume prop, a toy they’d been searching for, another attendee dressed up as another character from the same cartoon as them. Sales aren’t going well. They’re too absorbed in their own fandoms.
And what do I sell exactly? I can’t tell you. Not just yet.
The other vendors put on good smiles. They engage. They recognize and complement the costumes. These small (tiny) business entrepreneurs do their best to meet these kids on their level. But… the kids in the pink and purple cutesy dog and fox outfit with the oversized paws and glossy eyes? Nobody is reaching them. Certainly, I’m not. Not with what I’m peddling.
“Alright. I give up,” the vendor in the next booth says to me. She’s selling knitted dolls she crocheted herself. Pop culture characters with heads and eyes like babies. I’ve heard her sales pitch a hundred times or more. As much as she’s heard my pitch. Hers are paying off more often than mine, but not by much. She’s young, energetic, and has a constant need to move and do and talk and shuffle. Whenever someone isn’t at her booth, she’s putting her crochet needles to work making another doll. She’s perpetually on the verge of boredom. So, she takes a chance on what I have to offer.
“It’s legit though, right?” she asks. The click and clack of her hooks are a constant background track to her words. “In Dubuque, I sat next to two guys at a fantasy con. They were selling magic dusts, potions, holy water, that sort of thing. The dusts were just sand and glitter. The potions were water and food coloring. I watched them fill the holy water from a bottle of Aquafina.”
A good salesperson doesn’t have to be crooked to be successful. Granted, many patrons wander into one of these events with no intention of making a purchase. It’s the smooth words of a salesman or the glitter of something not quite gold that changes their minds. They might leave the convention center happy, thrilled even, with their new treasure, but with no idea why they bought what they had. Not my customers. Not because they’re not happy with their purchase, and not because they have a firm understanding of why they made their purchase, but because they simply don’t wander back out into the daylight. I don’t know where they go, but I’m convinced it’s further away than the parking lot.
“No. This is legit. And if it’s not, well, we’ll both still be here, and you can get your money back,” I told her. There’s no scam in my game. If there were, it would become immediately apparent. But I’m an honest salesman, and I’ve never issued a refund.
Dubious and curious in equal parts, she sets down her crocheting. Uncharacteristically silent, she taps her credit card to my phone. Touchless payments are all the rage at these events. The payment goes through. Rather than a refund, I provide her a talisman.
“So…” she dragged out the word, holding the small object in her palm. “What now?”
I don’t answer. I don’t have to. She’s already fading from view.
I think this is Ann Arbor, or just outside of Ann Arbor. In a mall. A comic and toy convention this time. A more diverse crowd. Overweight forty year old fanboys intermingle with teenage cosplayers. Innocent and unsuspecting mall walkers squint at the stranger booths. Civilian mall shoppers ask, “What is all this?” Serious collectors rifle through long white cardboard boxes for specific issues missing from their collections. I don’t have to wait long to make the first sale.
I’m next to a pair of brothers who have written, drawn, inked, and printed their own comic book. They sell it as if they are carnival barkers, calling out random passers-by by the color of their clothes or what their t-shirts say. They’re handing out free stickers and buttons. Hard selling, you might call it. For the most part, I ignore them.
“So, what is it?” a big-bellied man with a gray ponytail asks me. “What does it do?”
“It’s escapism,” I select which question of his to answer.
If he bites, this man will be my second sale of the day and of the convention, as far as I can remember. After my first sale, I was certain I’d be gone as quickly as the customer. But I remained, although I had to lean against my table to keep from fainting. I think the first sale wanted to whisk me away, but I was able to stay put, grounding myself here in Ann Arbor by focusing on the feel of my table, the weight on my palms, the smells coming from the food court, and the sound of the brothers selling their comics.
“Escapism from what?”
He pays in cash. It’s a generational difference, I’ve found. The older ones either pay in cash or need you to swipe their card’s magnetic strip through a miniature card reader. Never Venmo or Cash App. Rarely with a tap touchless payment. The younger and hipper you are, the less likely you are to pay with cash, but as the old folks say, “Cash is king.” Before the bills are under the spring-loaded metal keeper in the cashbox, and before I can pull out his change, the man with the gray ponytail has received his token and is gone.
And then, so am I.
The thing about escaping is, if you do it too much, you’ll run out of things to escape from. And what you escape to becomes more and more empty. Nothing like that first high, right? If you’re anything like me, soon you’ll spend all your time and money chasing that Get-outta-Town dragon.
What is it I sell, you ask? Fine. I’ll tell you. Baubles. Trinkets. Tokens. Talisman of Escape. Does that answer your question? No?
In Davenport, it was Davenport, I was sure of it, the Sci-fi convention has the usual blend of obsessed and dedicated disciples who only leave their cupboards for events such as these, and the curious, casual onlookers who recognize prime people-watching opportunities. Who they are doesn’t particularly matter, in my case. Word of mouth travels fast, especially when the word you’re selling is “Travel.” But that’s how it is in Davenport. People come to my table, unbeckoned, unprompted, and they each get theirs. The whole line of them. And as quickly as they make their purchases, the line disappears.
I don’t mean it dispersed. It removed itself from the con and from Davenport altogether. Which begs the question, if a line begins in Davenport, where does it end?
Maybe they go to Des Moines, or Omaha, or perhaps Duluth. To another con? I don’t know where they go. They never follow me to my next stop. As good of business as I’ve been doing, I’ve never had a repeat customer.
I have to fix myself to the conference center floor in Davenport just to get through the queue of eager customers. I hold onto the table and sort of stamp my feet into the thin carpet as if I’m a sailor standing on the deck of a ship in bad weather. Because I have to make the sales. I have to export my own urge to retreat, to run away, to escape, to be anywhere but here. I welcome them. I’m greedy to take their tender, no matter the form, knowing each sale fulfills some internal need while simultaneously knowing that each transaction brings me closer to the edge. So I fix myself to this place because when I leave Davenport, and I’m beginning to doubt I’ll make it through the whole line before I do, I have no idea where I might appear next.
And who I will be when I get there.
When they come and make their purchases, and when they go, eventually, so do I. Early on the tour, it only took one bauble to send me away. To sell out, I call it, even though I have plenty more trinkets to trade. I hadn’t sold out of product. I sell myself out of the city. Out of one place and into another.
At the subsequent locations, it takes a little more. Two trinkets. Then three. Then half a dozen. Each time the other booths, other salesfolk, the attendees, the displays… they all get thinner as I approach that tipping point. Until they’re all gone. Or I’m gone. I imagine the convention continues without me, and without all those who have come and bought what I have to offer.
You know how they say in AA meetings, “If an addict gets on a bus in Boston bound for Chicago, an addict will get off that bus in Chicago”? That’s their way of saying a change in location doesn’t mean a change in the person.
I never imagined that the bus was so crucial to that chain of events. Because when I travel, sans bus, fading out of a civic center in Davenport and fading into a National Guard armory in Lansing, I’m not quite the same self I was in Davenport. I am myself. It’s just the person who was in Davenport isn’t quite me anymore. I am in Lansing. More so than I had been in Davenport. This is a bookseller’s convention. I am beset on all sides by independently published authors of varying degrees of talent, and I have no books to sell. Regardless, when I move a dozen of my talismans, clutching the lip of my table for the last handful of patrons, and I arrive in St. Paul, I am more in St. Paul than I had ever been in Lansing. My present always trumps my past. The here is always more concrete than the there. The moment is always stronger than memories. Consciousness is always more real than dreams.
In St. Paul, it’s a horror convention. There are movie screenings. There’s a costume contest. There’s a class on DIY practical effects for all the budding Tom Savinis standing on the plastic drop cloths the convention center staff rolled out to catch all the corn syrup and food coloring. There’s a “Scream Queen” contest to see which lady can belt out the best banshee wail. There are autographs and Q&As and meet and greets of men whose faces never touched the silver screen because they were always hidden behind the masks and make-up of the monsters they played.
I’m in the vendor’s hall. In artist’s alley. To my right is a taxidermist who takes dearly departed forest creatures and turns them into horror movie murderers. He has a Pinhead porcupine, a Freddy Krueger ferret, a Michael Meyers muskrat, and a skunk in a Friday the 13th hockey mask. The lack of alliteration between Jason Vorhees and the skunk stands out only because it’s so ubiquitous among the rest. Nevertheless, the artistry is impeccable. Not for everyone, but here at this convention? The taxidermist has found his target audience. To my left is a sweet old woman who is selling hand towels and dresses patterned in the Universal Studios classic monster line-up. Dracula. Frankenstein. The Invisible Man. The Mummy. The Invisible Man. The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Wolfman. She had a hip Elvis meets Elvira rockabilly style. Jet-black beehive hair. Over the top makeup. Thick-framed, winged spectacles. Platinum black flats with frilled white socks. Spiderweb patterned leggings. A poodle-skirt with a dancing skeleton instead of a dog at the end of the leash.
My table, in comparison, is as blank and boring as a white cotton bedsheet in an S&M boudoir. I have my cash box. I have a miniature card reader that plugs into my phone. I have a small music box in which I store my tokens. It plays Für Elise if I ever wound it up. I don’t. I have a small sign that reads “Escape for Sale,” and the prices, which I feel are very reasonable. Nothing more. No big banners or displays. Just me, the means of payment, and the product.
It was the third day of the con and both the rockabilly seamstress and the twisted but talented taxidermist act like we’ve already gotten to know each other. Somehow, I’ve already earned their trust. As if I’d been sitting next to them, pitching and hawking my wares, since the con began.
It makes sense in some ways. I don’t remember loading in and setting up. And I never tear down and load out. Wherever I go, my table is set up and ready for business. I appear at each venue as neatly and cleanly as I disappear. My customers come with no prelude, and I leave without epilogue. Nevertheless, my things are here before I arrive. Do they remain after I’m gone? Do I remain, in some outdated, no-longer-precisely-me version of who I had been? Is there already a version of who I will become getting to know the next pair of neighboring vendors at the next con?
My neighbors, all of them, from the restless doll maker in Rockford, to the comic book brothers in Ann Arbor, to the hack novelists in Lansing, to these two eccentric horror fiends, they have known me. And maybe I know them too. I know their products and their spiels. If I tried, if I plunge the memories I have no right to have, I suspect I might be able to conjure up a name or a hometown. That possibility scares me. It feels intrusive for me to try. Like trespassing. And that feeling, that sense that trying to remember things before I arrived here is an invasion of someone else’s land leaves me suspicious that someone else had been here before I arrived. Someone who those memories belonged to. Someone who wasn’t me. Not even a part of me. Until they were all of me. Or I was all of them. And then suddenly I am more them than they had ever been.
After all, the now always wins over the then.
As my customers slip away, into the ether or maybe to another con in Peoria, Kansas City, or Springfield, my neighbors never notice their absence. Even when a large pack of loud Twilight vampires come down the aisle, skip the dresses and hand towels, stop at my table, and never make it to see the Woodchuck Chucky on display at the next table over.
I’m selling more now, lasting longer and longer at each show. I’m remaining more me at each stop. I’m unloading more and more of my escapism on them.
And that leaves me with what? When I truly sell out of my baubles, trinkets, tokens, and talismans, what will I have left? The prices are, as I said, very reasonable, which means the touchless transfers and the cold hard cash in the metal box don’t add up to much. Enough for a few nights in a local hotel and a few meals. I haven’t used the money, not since starting out on tour. Money was never the point. So when I sell out, not out of the vendor’s hall in St. Paul, but sell out of escapes, what will I have to show for it? Persistence? Permanence? Imprisonment? Will I be able to pack up my things and walk out the backdoor like all the other dealers? They, no doubt, have vans and trailers to load up their tables and collections of comics, toys, props, and products to haul to the next stop. I’m unaware of any van or car waiting for me beyond the loading docks. Will I be stranded wherever I run out of inventory, be it here in St. Paul or at the next stop? Where will I go after the convention closes its doors? I don’t remember the last time I wasn’t at a con, when I wasn’t perfecting my pitching and hawking my wares for the tap of a card or a few more paper presidents. My last Monday felt like eons ago. Can I even exist outside of conference halls, strip malls, and community centers? Have I ever? In here, working my table, making sales, I am me. But out there? Suddenly, my dwindling supply becomes all the more valuable. Precious even. Priceless, as in whatever cash or card the next customer presents won’t come close to tipping the scales.
“You’ve slowed down,” the seamstress with the gaudy purple eyeshadow and violent red lipstick tells me. “For a while there, you didn’t have a break!”
“It’s Sunday,” The taxidermist interjects. “It always slows down on Sundays.”
“Clark Kent Day,” I say.
“Huh?” the seamstress says.
“On Friday and Saturday, they come in full regalia. Each one of them dressed as their own version of Superman,” I say. I don’t remember where I picked up on this notion. If I had to guess, I’d say in Ann Arbor at the comic and toy convention. “By the time Sunday rolls around, they’ve scrubbed away their make-up. The big costumes have been traded for sweatpants or pajamas. All the Supermen are gone. Only Clark Kents remain. Still, don’t count Clark Kent out. On Superman Days, Saturdays, or even Fridays if you’re lucky, you make your table back. On Clark Kent Days is when you make your profit.”
My neighbors nod and I know they’ll incorporate my vocabulary into theirs. Sundays will be Clark Kent Days for them for every future weekend spent at a con.
“Your table has been lively though,” the seamstress gestures to my spartan setup.
“Wouldn’t know anything about that,” Stan (Stan! The taxidermist’s name was Stan.) says. “I don’t work with the living.”
We laugh at that, having fun with the idea of this man only interacting with those who have passed on, and those who have passed on being small woodland critters.
I like these two. Quirky, but still relatable and real. Neither too full of themselves or too aggressive with the old hard sale. Amiable. Funny. Kind. I know, even though I’ve never stayed until the end, come the close of the convention, we’ll trade business cards and find each other on social media, and hope to run into each other at the next pit stop along the highway. After all, as Evelyn (The rockabilly dressmaker’s name is Evelyn, of course, it’s Evelyn, it has always been Evelyn,) says, “It’s a small world.”
Her question remains, unasked but waiting for an answer all the same. Why had my sales dropped off so sharply when the two of them were still doing, at least, moderate business?
I pull the unwound and silent music box close to me, away from any potential buyers. Not on display. Not anymore. I peek inside and count the small supply within.
“What is it again, exactly, you’re selling?” Evelyn asks. “I’ve heard you describe it, but I don’t think I quite understand.”
“Nothing,” I lie, too sharply. “Honestly, it’s a sort of participator placebo. A token with the imaginary power to assist the imagination. Snake oil for the overactive mind. Nothing of value.”
“I’ll take it,” Stan says with such affirmation he can’t be denied.
“No. I couldn’t. You guys are–”
“I insist,” Stan says and comes out from his booth to the front of mine. “A mental tool, imagined to help the imagination? How can I say no to something like that?”
“It is very intriguing,” says Evelyn. “Me too. I want one too.”
There were four left when I counted them. If I make this sale, there will only be two left. My fun, funny, quirky, honest, talented, and relatable neighbors will be gone. And will the remaining pair of talismans be enough to send me after them? Or will I be stuck here on the streets of St. Paul to face the dull and drab realities of a Monday morning with no neighbors, no products, no customers, no sales, and no convention? The thought sends my nerves shaking my bones.
Stan the taxidermist drops his cash on my table. Enough for two trinkets. The old school method of contactless payment. And as soon as the money lands on my table, my two new friends and two more of my talismans disappear.
I’m alone, and I’m in dire short supply of escapes.
“So… what are you selling?” a kid in zombie make-up asks. He shows no signs of noticing the empty booths flanking me, or my suddenly estranged previous customers. All he knows is that I have something people want. And if people want it, then he absolutely has to have it.
“Loneliness,” I tell him. “And I’m all out. Now beat it.”
Taken aback, no doubt unaccustomed to the eternally gregarious vendors eager for his weekly allowance, he fades into the crowd. Lost in the masses until I can’t see him anymore, but he’s not disappeared. Only paying customers earned the right to slip through the bars of this cell.
Checking up and down the row, and seeing that, indeed, Clark Kent Day had thinned the crowd, I ease my grasp on the music box. I surely can’t keep the last two baubles in my inventory forever. But I don’t know how to restock. I don’t know where I got my initial supply. My preparation for these conventions was as far away as the last Monday. Eau Claire, Fort Wayne, Cedar Rapids, Dayton, even Bismark are infinitely closer than wherever it was I had begun. Would it end here, in St. Paul? I let go of the music box and crack open the cash box. The tray to the far right, President Jackson’s tray, is moderately full, but not nearly as full as the far left tray where all the Washingtons make their home. And what about the online account? Is there enough in there to buy me a plane or a bus ticket back home? If I can even remember where back home is? I open the app.
Before I can see the balance, a bank card obscures my view. Blue stars like fireflies burst on the display. The tap transfer has gone through, adding a measly amount to the balance. Looking up, I see the already thinning visage of the boy in zombie garb, more ghost than undead now. If his wily smile wasn’t so bright, I don’t think I’d see him at all.
Then he is gone, and my second to last talisman is gone with him.
I all but tackle the music box, clamp it shut with the little hasp, and tuck it on my lap, under the table. I twist the key to the cash box, sealing it from further business. I close the app on my phone and then power it down altogether. Perhaps closing the app was enough. Certainly, airplane mode would have prevented any transfers from going through. But I can’t allow any more sales. Not today. Perhaps never again.
From down the aisle, a mother is calling out for her son. “Joe? Joe! Where’d you go?”
Did Joe arrive on Clark Kent Sunday in full zombie attire? If so, would he arrive on Superman Saturday somewhere else in the same get-up?
And what about me? If I sell my last item to the next enthusiastic patron who wanders up, will it be enough to send me away from this place? If it is, where will I land next? Lincoln? Sioux Falls? Waterloo? Columbus? Fargo? Akron?
There is only one way to find out. I never make any purchases at these conventions. Always been my mission to fill the cash box rather than take from it. The money isn’t really my money anyway. It’s the business’ money. Buying my last bauble with that money wouldn’t really be buying it at all. The few bills in my wallet on the other hand…
I cracked open my old, leather trifold. A single, worn-thin, dollar bill rests in the crevice. Usually, a talisman goes for much more than this, but I think the time is right for a Going Out of Business sale. I pluck the lone bill from my wallet and unlock the cash box. With Washington still clutched tightly in my fist, I lift the metal arm holding all the other singles in place.
Wherever my last token takes me, that is where I will stay. One final escape from which I can never escape again.
“Go ahead, buddy,” I speak to myself, or the person I will have been once I leave here. “Loneliness is on sale.” The dollar drops into the cash box, and I am gone.
Joe Prosit writes sci-fi, horror, and psychological fiction. He has previously been published in various magazines and podcasts, most notably, in 365Tomorrow, The NoSleep Podcast, Metaphorosis Magazine, and Kaidankai Podcast. If you’re an adept stalker, you can find him on one of the many lakes and rivers or lost deep inside the Great North Woods. Or you can just find him on the internet at JoeProsit.com.
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I unconsciously chop the carrots
My cat jumping on the counter
Hoping I will have something for it
But I stare deeply at the house
The overgrown brown and green creepers
Encaging the old brick walls
I couldn’t even tell you of what color those walls were
Maybe they were brown, or perhaps black
I knew not and quite frankly I cared not
In the daytime the place was okay
In the nighttime? Well the tiny yellow bottle that holds my pills
That knock me right out can tell you the story
Outside a green stream flows, the stench of it unbearable
I dare not look at its waters
I swear something sinister lives there
Or maybe it was my hallucination
Induced by the sleeping pills I was always dosed on
I have no idea why I even purchased the property
Maybe it’s because it reminds me of myself
Abandoned in my misery
Well, maybe we can keep each other company
As we fade out of existence to the world
With nothing much to offer
Nah Hannah, is a Kenyan-born poet who often expresses her worldview through writing. She graduated from Kenyatta University with a bachelor’s degree but found her passion in poetry. She seeks to make an impact in the world through her writing.
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“Hello, this is your Uncle D-. Look, there’s been some problems down here you should know about. I guess there’s been a bad situation existing for a long time and we weren’t aware of how bad it actually was.”
“So, what happened?”
“Well, BJ tried to kill Mama. She’s alright now. She’s pretty banged up: black and blue mostly. I don’t know how she survived it actually. The police have BJ and I guess they’re going to put her back at Pilgrim State depending upon the courts and so forth. It’s a real messy affair.”
“What did she do?”
“Well, I don’t understand exactly how it happened, Mama really doesn’t know either. It was all so sudden. I guess BJ came into her room, which was unusual to say the least, and began hitting Mama. I guess she was screaming something like-‘You’ve always said you lived too long. Well, you’re right and I’m here to help you along. If D- had any sense he would have done this a long time ago.’ At least, that’s what Mama thinks she said.”
“I guess Betty tried to strangle her with an electrical cord or something. Kicked her around quite a bit. It’s really amazing she didn’t kill her; it really is. You should have seen
Mama, it was terrible.”
“When was this?”
“A couple of days ago. I think you should come down here. There’s a court hearing on Monday. They say they’ll decide what they’re going to do with her then.”
“I guess you’re right. I should come. I’ll see you on Monday.”
“I can’t imagine what kind of life they’ve been living together the last few years…
Sleeping late the morning of the first assault, years before the one on Grandma, the morning that would be the last I saw of mother until she was back at Pilgrim State. I was sleeping late following another late night working in the bar. The images of the smoke-filled rooms, the music, the drinks, theirs and mine. floating on an unsteady sea of dreams. A crazy wind blowing the dream thickened night. A heavy, breaking storm-tossed ocean of white capped waves, of ships lost at sea, drinks spilled, smoke. The jagged edges of the grey shore rocks, the wild, black clouds filling the sky. The rain and the wind screaming, my wife screaming, “Help me, help me, please…”
“I’ll fix you, you bitch, leave that child alone. I told you never to touch that child. You’re unfit to have them. You let that so called Doctor touch him and he’ll never be able to hear anything again.”
Our children playing with their building blocks on the living room floor. The oldest adenoids swollen so thick he can barely hear out of either ear. Those four- and five-year-old boys playing on the floor watching as their grandmother and their mother wrestle in the hallway, playing some kind of grownup game.
“I won’t let you; I tell you. No Doctor will touch that child as long as I’m around, I—-“
I twist Mother’s hands away from my wife, my wife’s neck, freeing her from the strangle hold. I turn my mother around and stare into her rage contorted face. I don’t have to think: seems like old times again; it just is. I say, “Slow down, mother, calm it down—-“
But she is kicking out at me. Biting me, scratching at my eyes, pulling my shoulder length hair, gradually freeing herself from my grip. We stumble on alphabet blocks, step over children somehow, and I am trying desperately to hold her, slapping her as hard as I can, trying to stifle her rage saying, “Calm it down, calm it down…” But I am out of control myself, as outraged as she, as unhinged, hitting her as my children watch.
“Get those children out of here, anywhere.” I say to my wife, still wrestling with mother, flailing out, hitting harder now, uninhibited, letting it all go as if, somehow, I had always wished it would end this way, fighting to the death on the living room floor.
“You’re as bad as she is, “Mother says, “You’re going to ruin that child. I’m going to take them away. Take them some place safe where you can’t find them. I swear it, I swear…”
Somehow, I manage to bearhug her close to my body. I have immobilized her, slowed her down physically. I am as afraid as she is by what might happen next, whisper through clenched teeth…”Get out of my house. Pack up and leave and don’t come back. Don’t even think about coming back. You Understand: Get Out Now. Leave. OK…”
“You don’t mean that.”
“Just get the Fuck out now.”
Mother subdued. Crying, noiselessly. Maybe what happened was just a dream for her, maybe absolutely nothing happened for her, maybe she really didn’t mean anything by her outburst at all.
“You can’t throw me out.”
“Just watch me, Mother. I’ll pick you up physically and throw you out if I have to. By the seat of the pants and the back of your shirt. I can and I will. I mean it like I’ve never meant anything before.”
Mother packing her bags, trying to say something I won’t listen to or hear. Maybe she wants to apologize, make amends for everything awful she’s done in her life, maybe she wants me to somehow forget and forgive, to somehow, despite all of this, despite what will come, to love her.
“Mother, please, just get out, now and never come back.”
I never phoned or told anyone what happened after she left. Thought it could, would never happen again.
What was I thinking?
I swallowed two Valium dry, then pounded a couple of shots of white label and watched her drive out of my life, I thought for good.
What a fool I was.
What a fool I am.
Not exactly knowing the horror show of Grandma and Mother’s lives. The lives we couldn’t imagine goes something like this, maybe exactly like this…
Mother sits at the dining room table scratching the open sore at the back of her head. Peeling the layers of clotted scab as she scratches. Feeling the blood and the dead skin coming loose between her fingers. Grinding her teeth as she thinks. Kneading her right-hand knuckles in her thighs as she scratches with her left hand. Organizing her thoughts, always organizing—–
A car backfires on Ocean Avenue. Grandma awakens with a start. Shakes herself to clear her head. Thinks 82 years old and not enough sense to sleep in her bed. She sees the lamp shining on the antique end table. Sees the television glaring, sound down so soft she can barely hear it. Soft so as not to disturb her daughter. She thinks she would like a glass of water before climbing the stairs to her bedroom…
Mother sits in the darkness. Sees her mother moving toward her sitting room. Sees herself grown old, sees all of Them that are out to get her, embodied in that old woman. Sees all the dread arms and hands and dead faces of her life leaping out at her from the walls, the ceiling, from beyond the refracting window glass reaching for her, screaming for her louder than this night, this screaming inside…
Grandma sees the dining room table. The lace cloth draped and hanging as it should. As always. Sees the crystal chandelier, the Currier and Ives lithograph hanging above the dining room mahogany linen chest. Sees her daughter, as always, scratching her head, silent, unknowable, absorbed…
Mother sees the dread beast scattering the strange clutter of her life, hears an air raid siren going off outside, inside, sees the wings of a huge blackbird fluttering before her face, sees a knife in the night, a talon, a terrible, real, death threat…
Grandma sees her daughter. Sees the China cabinet and the gold rimmed plates, the China, the crystal inside. Sees her daughter’s eyes following her as she walks into the kitchen. Feels them inside her as she walks. Every night, every day like this, for years… Mother sits, thinking about getting organized. What to do first? Kill the beast, she thinks, kill it now.
Alan Catlin has published dozens of chapbooks and full-length books of poetry and prose. Among his more recent books is Asylum Garden: after Van Gogh (Dos Madres) and Exterminating Angles (Kelsay Books. Forthcoming this summer is a book based on the life and work of Diane Arbus, How Will the Heart Endure (Kelsay Boks) and Listening to Moonlight Sonata (Impspired)
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Danny Pearl sat in the dentist’s waiting room beside his mother, one leg bouncing up and down as he nibbled on the fingernails of one hand. He anxiously listened to the drilling sounds drifting from a few of the back rooms and the cries of pain from at least one.
Danny hated the dentist.
“Stop that, Danior.” His mother caught his wrist and pulled his hand away from his mouth. “Don’t be so nervous. You have naturally beautiful, healthy teeth. You always have.”
He hated it even more when his mother called him Danior. Sure, he did have beautiful teeth and he’d heard the stories many times before. His mother never let him forget that he had nipped her as a newborn on numerous occasions when she’d breastfed him, not just with his strong gums, but with actual teeth. The entire family, except for his mother, had been calling him Drac since he was little. She had given him a good sturdy name and refused to use anything else.
His heartbeat picked up its pace, pounding so hard it sounded like Phil Collins’ famous In The Air Tonight drum riff playing in his ears when the receptionist called his name.
“Don’t worry, Danior. It’s just a cleaning.” Mom patted his hand before he stood to follow the assistant to one of the back rooms.
The place was clean and well-maintained, yet the familiar antiseptic smells and the sounds of scattered groans convinced Danny he was walking down the hall to a medieval torture chamber and his certain demise.
He couldn’t account for his paranoia.
Aside an impacted wisdom tooth that had to be extracted a year ago when he’d been sixteen, he hadn’t lost any teeth as a young adult. And the extraction had been unremarkable and painless since he’d had IV sedation.
The dentist had been extremely surprised and seemed almost annoyed that his teeth and gums were in such great shape—no cavities, no gingivitis, teeth as white as a Klan member’s sheet and straight as a Republican’s tie. Suffice to say he was an entrepreneurial dentist’s worst nightmare.
The assistant fixed the familiar blue bib around his neck and neatly arranged the evil-looking dental tools on the instrument tray for use. “The dentist will be with you shortly.”
“But I’m only here for a cle—” She was gone before Danny could finish.
He sat back in the reclining chair, took several deep breaths and tried to relax. When this didn’t work, he craned his head to watch the large flat screen above where a daytime talk show
was playing. At least it wasn’t Little Shop of Horrors or Marathon Man. His last dentist had had a wicked sense of humor.
“Danior, how are we today?”
Danny glanced at the masked man with a start, gaze following him around the room as he examined Danny’s most recent X-rays. “I-I’m okay.”
The dentist sat down on the stool and rolled close. “Head back.”
Reluctantly, Danny obeyed, staring at the dentist’s strangely familiar gray eyes. He lowered his gaze to the man’s name tag—J. Alvaro, DDS—then raised them back to the man’s intense expression.
“I tried to tell your assistant, I’m only getting a cleaning.” If he didn’t know better, he’d have said J. Alvaro smiled behind his mask. There was definitely a twinkle in his smoky-gray eyes as he leaned forward.
“That’s what you think.” Then J. Alvaro, DDS raised one hand and blew colorful sparkling dust from his palm right into Danny’s face.
“Wha—” He couldn’t even get the entire word out before his whole world went black.
* * *
Five Years Later
“Over here, please!”
“Can we get your autograph?”
Danny smiled as various items and body parts were shoved in his face.
Paparazzi’s flashbulbs blinded him and fans’ cheers were deafening.
His agent would tell him this was what he had signed up for.
Danny wanted to tell his agent to kiss his ass.
“Over here, Danior!”
He’d gone with the more unique name in deference to his mother but also because it sounded more Hollywood and his agent said it had a catchy cool ring to it. Hearing the still unfamiliar moniker screamed and shouted, however, made him cringe.
Danny signed as many items as he could, smiling all the way to the limousine at the curb and only let out a breath once the door slammed behind Eleanor Blackwell, his publicist.
He leaned back, closed his eyes and sighed.
“You did well, Danny.” She squeezed his thigh then pushed a glass into his hand.
Even after all the Hollywood parties and events he’d attended in the last year, Danny hadn’t acquired a taste for alcohol. Part of his appeal to his fans and his fans’ parents was his clean-cut image, starting with his first gig in a toothpaste commercial, of all things, an image that his agent and publicist had helped him hone as his career took off.
Not that they’d needed to do much honing. Danny wouldn’t know how not to be clean-cut if he tried.
Except for that one slip-up with Ariel shortly after he arrived in California—an act of which he hadn’t been too proud and for which he had been trying to repent ever since—there were no real skeletons in his closet.
He raised the glass to his mouth without sniffing and took a big gulp, pleased that it was only club soda. His people knew him well.
“So, we still have Fallon later tonight, and tomorrow you’re scheduled for The View.”
Danny grinned at the latter. He had interesting memories of that show. It had been playing during his last dental visit. The one he could remember nothing about except sitting in the waiting room with his mother. He’d gone for a cleaning, but could remember nothing after J. Alvaro blew sparkling dust into his face.
As mistrustful as he was of the dentist, he’d never had to be put to sleep for a cleaning and he’d most certainly never been put to sleep in such an unconventional, whimsical manner.
After J. Alvaro he’d stopped going to the dentist. He knew it was self-destructive but since he routinely did all the right things on his own—flossed, brushed, used a Waterpik and had a healthy diet conducive to good dental health—he didn’t think he was doing too much damage.
His parents hadn’t been able to change his mind and once he’d reached his eighteenth birthday soon after that infamous visit, he’d left their home and headed to California, ostensibly to become a working actor, though movie star was a twinkling in his eyes.
From his first appearance on stage in Miss Roddendrum’s second grade class version of Excalibur, Danny had been hooked on performing. Playing Robin Goodfellow for his junior
high’s annual talent contest cinched his passion.
Now he was a regular on one of television’s hottest new hospital drama’s, weekly spouting medical jargon while cutting into dummy chest cavities and having fake blood spurt on him in a manner realistic enough to make him dry heave.
He’d had to get over his aversion to blood quickly, however, once he’d landed the part of medical student Marco Hayes on Mercy Medical.
The press junket today was as much about his co-starring role in an upcoming buddy cop movie with a seasoned and older A-lister as it was about his TV gig. The movie was being touted his big break. It was definitely a breakout role where he shined.
Danny had never expected to hit it this big so soon—what the press called his meteoric rise—especially not since he hadn’t come up through the Disney or Nickelodeon talent mills. He’d succeeded in spite of them.
His first three years in California he’d spent waiting tables and going to auditions. Then he’d landed the toothpaste spot and the rest as they say was history.
Now that he had hit it big, he didn’t know what he was supposed to do with himself besides go along for the ride and become more successful. Yippee.
“Are you listening to me, Danny?”
He nodded and took another gulp of his soda water. “Fallon and The View.”
“Are you feeling okay? We have been running non-stop for weeks now.” Eleanor put her palm on his forehead, reminding him of his mother with her worrying and concern.
His mother whom he had been doing all this for. Sure, passion for the craft had initially lured him in, given him something for which to strive other than a regular nine-to-five, but in the back of his mind he’d always wanted to be able to take care of his parents the way they had always taken care of and sacrificed for him. What was all this for, if not that?
“I’m fine.” Not really. He had a hell of a headache and he had a sneaking suspicion it was caused by a rare toothache and not all the stress from the recent press junket.
Maybe ceasing his regular dental visits hadn’t been such a bright idea.
That’s what you think.
The only thing missing behind that statement had been the evil scientist’s maniacal laugh—Mwah-ah-ah.
Danny searched his mind for that missing gap of time. What had happened to him between that sparkly dust in his face and the assistant tapping his hand to tell him “All done!” with a cheery-assed attitude thirty minutes later? A cheery-assed attitude that had not suited his mood at all, by the way.
What had they done to him besides a cleaning?
Would he know if he had been violated? He hadn’t felt any different and he knew his mother had done her due diligence before bringing him to that particular practice. If there had been any dirt to be found on any of the dental professionals there, she would have found it.
Had he imagined J. Alvaro’s words and the sparkly dust?
“We’re here, sweetie.”
He wasn’t a sweetie. Far from it. He no longer knew if Hollywood had changed him or if he had always had it in him to be…not so sweet.
Someone who would deny a bond that was so clearly what he wanted, it hurt to remember he’d willingly walked away.
A memory of intense smoky-gray eyes in the dim light of his bedroom flashed in his mind. It was a bedroom in the first crappy apartment he’d shared with three roommates, all would-be actors with stars in their eyes like him, and he didn’t think he’d ever forget that gray gaze—strange yet familiar.
It was the first time he had brought someone home, though his roommates had had no such compunctions and brought home friends and lovers all the time.
Not him. Not until Ariel. His person for a short time. Someone just for him. Something. Not someone or something to please his mom and dad who would have surely lost their shit to know their one and only baby boy was gay.
He’d needed the outlet though, needed Ariel. He’d never taken anything for himself, not like that, never claimed his sexuality since he’d become sexually active as a fifteen year old. He’d been too worried about hurting his parents, disappointing them. It was bad enough that he wanted to leave home and be an actor, but for him to be gay, one of “those people”, would have been just too much for them to take.
He couldn’t do that to them.
Danny opened his eyes to glance out the tinted limousine’s window and saw that they had
arrived at his modest brownstone. No more crappy apartments. No more roommates. No more intense gray eyes either. He’d fucked that up.
“We’ll be back for you in a few hours.”
Danny nodded and opened the door, beating the driver to the punch and stepping out onto the curb as he noticed someone standing in the shadows near his front steps.
His heartbeat skipped then sped, thudding painfully hard in his chest. In that moment he wondered why he hadn’t taken Eleanor and his agent’s advice to get a security detail. Not a big one. One bodyguard would have done. He’d, however, thought it a waste of time and money.
What would happen if he became more famous? What would happen if he came out?
The limousine pulled away from the curb, taking all his questions with it as the shadow approached, lowering its hoody to reveal a light-brown ageless face. A familiar face.
“Ari.” The name slipped from his lips in a whisper.
Had he conjured his first boyfriend—or at least the closest thing he’d had to a boyfriend—with his earlier nostalgic thoughts? Was Ariel really standing there before him, smoky eyes as intense as ever and seeming to glimmer beneath the ambient glow of the streetlight?
“Surprise,” Ariel said, a smile creeping up the side of his unearthly pretty face.
Fear suddenly suffused Danny at the sight. Fear and guilt.
“It’s time, Danior.”
It all flooded back to him then and he didn’t need any sparkly dust blown in his face for the many images of Ariel—aka J. Alvaro aka Danny’s own personal tooth fairy—to flash before his mind’s eye and coalesce. From the time Danny had lost his first baby tooth, Ariel had been there—different bodies, different sizes—but he’d been there, shapeshifting and easing his way in and out of Danny’s life like a possessive stalker.
Or was he something even more sinister?
“You didn’t think your good fortune would last forever, did you?”
“Enchantment. Charmed. We have many names for what you’ve been given. But they all come with a price. Free ride is over.”
“Is this because I ghosted you?”
Ariel didn’t even flinch, just smirked, his extra sharp canines seeming to grow as Danny stared. “Don’t insult me. We aren’t affected by petty human emotions. No hard feelings.”
Human? Then what did that make Ariel? “It was all a lie?”
“Oh Danior, your fate was sealed long before I was ever assigned to you. Neither of us had a choice.” Ariel’s eerie smile grew and he proffered his hand.
Danny took a step back. “I have choices.”
Danny frowned, shaking his head as he stayed put. He understood if he went anywhere
with Ariel, his life as he knew it would be over. But that was the point, wasn’t it?
“Come.” Ariel took a step forward, canines glinting.
The low-level headache Danny had experienced in the car swelled, like all his teeth
decided to throb at once. Danny stepped forward, chin-first as if compelled, unable to stop himself until he was standing an inch in front of Ariel, close enough to notice the necklace he was wearing—a graduating row of pristine teeth on a leather cord.
Danny wondered if any were his.
Ariel wrapped his arm around Danny and drew him closed. “It won’t hurt,” he whispered.
Danny shuddered, body beginning to change, shrinking with Ariel’s.
Variegated wings sprouted from Ariel’s back. They looked so delicate, Danny doubted they had the power to hoist them. But they did, fluttering hummingbird-fast as they lifted Ariel and Danny up over the brownstone, toward the moonlit sky. As Danny faded, continuing to transform, Ariel bent his head and finally sank his ravenous teeth into Danny’s throat, drinking deeply and taking them both home
Native New Yorker, Gracie C. McKeever (http://www.graciecmckeever.com) has authored several novels, novellas and series most of which can be found at Siren Publishing under multiple sub-genres beneath the erotic romance umbrella. Her work has also appeared in the anthologies Sensuality: Caramel Flava II and Bold Strokes Books’ In Our Words.
Please share this to give it maximum distribution. Our contributors’ only pay is exposure.
How many times have I stood here? How many beautiful spring mornings, with gentle sunshine caressing my face? How many hot July nights, in the urgent embrace of a desirable young woman? Even in the icy depths of winter I have come to this place, cloak wrapped tightly about me, to ruminate on the silent falling snow. But now, as the chill of October in the year of Our Lord 1862 settles on this most magnificent of metropolises, I turn from the grandeur of Notre Dame, my soul finding there no solace in its vaulting spires illumined in the hour before dawn. No! My peace now lies only beneath this petit pont, in the swirling darkness of the Seine.
Away on the Rue de la Bucherie, I hear a horse’s insistent hooves and the clatter of a caleche over the cobblestones. Behind me, muffled laughter as a young couple, heady with wine and romance, moves with unsteady gait over the bridge. I am aware of these sounds, so familiar a part of life in the city, yet to me now alien, as if echoing from a distant land. The wind rises and moans fitfully. In my torment it mocks me — I know it!
Soon enough, I will end the taunting and its cruel power over me.
But first, I must recount what has brought me to this fateful moment, not as a memorial to myself but as a cautionary tale, a warning that in my hubris I took too cavalierly.
You ask, “Who is it who comes before me so deep in melancholia, pleading to be heeded?” My name is unimportant. It is the tale I tell that bears remembering.
I am two years past completing my studies at the Sorbonne. After initially enrolling in a progrsm that would have led to a medical degree, I changed my focus to literature. This was much to the dismay of my parents, who had taken the greatest pleasure in boasting that the family was to include a promising young physician. They spoke with no such pride about the prospect of counting their son a penniless writer. Yet, I knew I must chart my own course, and so I left the healing arts behind. Would that I could have foreseen the terrible path ahead!
In my early days at the university, I became fast friends with another medical student. I will call him Gerárd in order to spare him any taint from the story I am about to tell. He and I were opposites in many ways — he, outgoing and adventurous; I, more introspective and timid. His personality was such that it drew people to him, like moths to the flame. He was the center of gaiety, surrounded by friends, especially beautiful girls. Why he took such a liking to me I do not know, but by degrees he drew me out of my shell and into his world. Before long, I found myself reveling in the perquisites of being within his orbit. It was a time demarcated by nightlife, debauchery fueled by la fée verte in the bistros of the Rive Gauche. I should add that Gerárd was a brilliant student whose life of dissolution affected his academic achievements not in the slightest. I, on the other hand, struggled, barely completing the required courses of study to be granted a degree — a further failure in the eyes of my mother and father.
I will be the first to admit that fresh from academe my prospects were not good. But after several months of making inquiries all over the city, I was finally granted a position at small weekly paper devoted to the arts. My assignments were neither very exciting nor challenging — a gallery opening here, a chamber music recital there. Still, I did the best I could to put some zest into my prose. For a time, I was content to hone my skills with the pen; but sadly, the financial fortunes of the paper sank, and it shuttered its doors within six months of my being taken on. It was a truly a jarring development, leaving me with no steady income. I was in precarious straits; yet, though my parents were well enough off, the last thing I wished to do was to go to them hat in hand and plead for money.
That is the moment when Gerárd rode to my rescue. He came from an aristocratic line, a family of great means which he freely drew upon to support his lifestyle. And, when he saw my state of affairs, he immediately took it upon himself to become my benefactor.
“It is a trifling thing, mon ami. What’s important is to keep the wolf from your door,” he declared to me over coffees at Café Lutèce. Then, dropping his voice and smiling conspiritorially, he continued, leaning in. “And I have an ulterior motive.” I narrowed my eyes and looked at him intently.
“And dare I ask what it might be?”
“But of course! Let me explain. What I have is a proposition. You know I have long admired your writing. I believe you are destined for great things — perhaps to become the heir to Dumas, to Hugo.”
“Really, Gerárd!” I exclaimed, laughing.
“And why not?” he declared, genuinely shocked at my demurral. “What is required is a suitable subject for your talent, not recording the meaningless soirées of the sort hosted by my parents. That is where my proposition enters.”
“You know of my keen interest in the medicinal properties of certain exotic flora?
“Well, that interest extends to their hallucinogenic effects. My own modest experimentation in the laboratory has shown that they can be quite pronounced.” This was interesting enough, but I was in an impatient mood.
“But what has this to do with me?” I interjected.
“Patience,” he answered. “I come to that directly.” He paused long enough to relight his pipe before continuing. “I know a man, let us call him the associate of a friend of a friend, if you catch my meaning. This man deals with trade from Africa — curios, exotica of one sort or another. But he has also supplied me with samples of rare plants, some of them proscribed, that he has obtained from native tribes. Of late, he has returned from the Congo — you must consult your atlas to know its precise location — with word of what I believe to be a heretofore unknown species of fungus that has properties unlike any other in the world.”
“What properties?” I asked, my interest now piqued. Gerárd was finding it difficult to keep his enthusiasm in check.
“As it was told to me, ingesting this spore induced all manner of phenomena, including — and you may take this as you like — a complete unfolding of the very universe.” I was taken aback by such an outlandish claim.
“And you believe this?
“Naturally, I am skeptical, and that’s where you enter in, mon ami. I am making arrangements to travel to the region of Africa where this tribe exists and find out for myself. I propose that you accompany me, both to check the legitimacy of these claims and to document the journey in a book. Such a tale of mystery — from Paris to the heart of darkest Africa and back again. Think of it! I could establish my reputation as a pre-eminent ethnobotanist, and you would be hailed for your artistry with words. What do you say?”
“Well, I –“
“Just say yes.”
“But, Gerárd, such an undertaking — do you not fear the risk? In the journey? The drug?”
“There is risk, but of course. What in life that is worthwhile lacks some element of risk? The journey represents a challenge, but one that is manageable.” Here, he paused. I detected a hint of shadow that passed across his face.
“And the drug presents no peril?”
“My friend has recounted certain . . . anecdotes that have made their way out of the jungle.”
“Anecdotes? Of what sort”
“Well, like all the stories surrounding the effects of this plant, you may take these tales with a grain of salt.”
“Go on,” I pressed.
“They warn of grave consequences if the drug is misused.” I looked hard at my friend.
“Such admonitions should not be ignored, should they, Gerárd? Why pursue this quest?”
“Science, mon ami,” he answered swiftly. “Besides,” he continued, leaning across the table and effecting a jocular tone, “Dark sides are important. They should be nourished like nasty black orchids.”
“Not a flower for which I’ve had much affinity, I’m afraid,” I responded. He threw his head back and laughed.
“Now, let’s get down to the specifics,” he said. “The trip should consume no more than three months. You no longer have the ties of employment to bind you here.”
“And not a sou to my name.”
“I have already told you that you are not to worry about money. That is my concern. Your expenses for the journey will be covered, and I will pay you an ample stipend for your time. It is a fair proposition, impossible to reject, n’est-ce pas?” I cannot say that by nature I was an impulsive person, and I had given voice to my misgivings; but at that moment they were brushed aside. What had I to lose that would not be worth the enticing prospect of an exciting tale with which to display my talents as a writer?
“Alright, I shall do it — and damn the consequences!”
So, the die was cast; and, despite my initial apprehension, I found I was suffused with exhilaration. The quest before me, I reasoned, could be opening a fresh chapter in my life that I so desperately yearned for. But there was little time to lose, so I hastily packed a small trunk that evening and joined Gerárd the next morning at the Gare du Nord to board the early train to Le Havre.
By noon, we had arrived and were met at the quay by Gerárd’s trader, introduced to me as Raoul, who saw us to our cramped quarters aboard his two-masted coaster. My seagoing experience was effectively nil, but even to my unpracticed eye, neither the vessel nor her rough-looking crew inspired great confidence as we set off. But whatever their appearance, they seemed to know their business, and we made our way south, past Gibraltar and around the bulge of Africa, smoothly enough.
Gerárd and I kept to ourselves, and, at length, we arrived at the mouth of the great Congo River. Navigating a few miles upstream, we reached the first settlement of any consequence at Boma.
“We go our separate ways here,” Raoul said. “You are on your own. I have ventured where you are going but once; I doubt that any other white man has dared to follow.” He looked hard at Gerárd. “I have told you what the locals say. You have been warned, monsieur. I have made arrangements for a pirogue and a guide to take you upriver. I am assured he is a good man, one who expects a handsome payment for taking on the risk.”
“And he shall receive it,” insisted Gerárd. Raoul went on:
“Here is what you must remember if nothing else: I sail for home on the 17th whether you are on board or not. Do not mistake me. I will not wait.”
With that stark admonition, we parted company with Raoul. It was late in the day, so we secured lodging for the night at a ramshackle inn not far from the dock. We took supper in our room. It was a local dish comprised of what we could not precisely discern and thought best not to inquire about too deeply. And though fatigued from the trip, both of us smoked our pipes and talked long into the night, such was our heightened anticipation over what lay ahead of us.
Early the next morning, with the equatorial heat already throwing its oppressive blanket down upon us, we met our man squatting outside the inn. He introduced himself as Ingare, as angular as a heron and blacker than obsidian. He spoke in broken French, but it was passable enough to communicate. More importantly, he was fluent in the Bantu tongue that would be required once we reached our destination.
“We go soon,” Ingare announced after we had exchanged pleasantries. Raoul had seen to provisioning for our journey, so with the pirogue laden with supplies, we set out.
As foreign as the outpost at Boma was to me, I was hardly prepared for the vast and untamed world we confronted with each mile we progressed upriver. Any semblance of civilization soon enough receded into the distance, leaving us upon a ribbon of dark water, enveloped by jungle and suffocating heat. Ingare’s long, rhythmic strokes at the pole were accompanied by the shrieks of all manner of birds in the canopy above and the grunts and cries of wild things below. I felt as if we had entered a living organism that was defiled by our presence.
And something else, undefined, began to creep into my consciousness. Perhaps it was the completely alien environment, or my conversation with Gerard in Paris, or Raoul’s manner, but I could not banish the feeling.
My apprehensions grew with the setting of the sun. In the late afternoon, Ingare choose a suitable clearing on the river bank, and we made camp for the night. Ingare built a small fire, fed by the dead limbs he gathered at the jungle’s edge, and we ate a meager supper from our provisions. Afterward, Gerárd and I smoked and talked while Ingare sat apart, rocking to and fro while tightly gripping a small, carved figurine and chanting to himself.
“What the devil is he going on about? I asked Gerárd at length.
Que dites vous, Ingare? Gerárd called out. Our guide paused and gazed upon us with the most profound aspect of seriousness.
Protéger les mauvais esprits, bwana. He turned away and resumed his mournful droning.
“Evil spirits?” I said with a slight shudder. My companion laughed, drawing on his pipe.
“Superstition,” he said, “nothing more.” But there was something in his visage, illumined by the writhing firelight, that gave me reason to believe he harbored a flicker of doubt. My sleep that night was fitful.
Two-and-half days into our journey, Ingare poled toward the west bank of the river, to a spot that appeared no different from the rest of the jungle. In fact, after brushing through a curtain of thick, low-hanging branches, we found ourselves at the mouth of another stream. Ingare gesticulated excitedly and began chattering in his native tongue.
“It exists, just as Raoul promised!” exulted Gerárd. “We are nearly there, mon ami.” My response was more muted. I could not dispel the shadow of foreboding that had fallen across me and grown more pronounced the deeper our journey took us into the heart of the Congo.
Another day’s travel brought us to a collection of grass huts barely visible from the waters of the tributary. As our pirogue neared the bank, several men appeared from the jungle, each possessing a fierce countenance and brandishing a long spear. They said not a word, and the usual cacauphony of the jungle seemed to have completely fallen away, save for the piercing shriek of a single chimpanzee. It was odd, indeed, and, I could not help feeling, ominous.
“Inshuti. Turi inshuti,” Ingare called out and repeated.
“What’s he saying, Gerárd?” As if anticipating my query, Ingare turned to us.
“I tell them we friend.” Then he took up again with the natives. “Inshuti. Bwana Raoul inshuti.”
The invocation of Raoul’s name seemed to carry substational weight with the spearmen. Their posture relaxed, and two of them came to the river’s edge to help drag the pirogue up onto the bank. We disembarked, and were greeted by an imposing figure who had stepped from the background. Rather than the crude codpieces worn by our welcoming committee, this older man was attired in an elaborate loincloth, beaded breastplate and ornate headdress fashioned from the plumage of brightly colored birds. He was accorded great deference by the others, and moved with an air of hautiness befitting his station as the tribal monarch.
Ingare showed his respect — and we immediately followed — by bowing low. Wordlessly, the chieftain bade our guide to come forward, which Ingare did, and the two began a palaver. We understood none of what was said save an occasional mention of Raoul’s name.
But after a short time, Ingare broke off the conversation and went to the pirogue. He returned with a small wooden chest, set it before the king and drew open the lid. Inside, the box was filled to the brim with a gaudy array of beads and large faux gemstones, dazzling to the eye, but in point of fact little more than cheap trinkets. Their intrinsic value notwithstanding, the effect on the natives was immediate, generating excited chatter. The tribal elder’s reaction, while not so extreme, was nonetheless visible pleasure. He signaled one of his underlings to remove the chest. Then, with a slight nod to Ingare, the king and his retinue withdrew.
“Well, Ingare?” Gerárd asked with eagerness.
“It good, bwana. Chief, him say Raoul grand ami. Now, we big friends, too.”
“And what of the rest?”
“Him say you meet with tribe umuganga — special medicine priest — tonight.”
The sun was was well along on its transit to the western horizon, so we busied ourselves settling in to one of the huts that had been readied for us. Once completed, we were invited to take part in a feast in our honor prepared by the women of the tribe. There was plentiful food — fish roasted in palm leaves served with a vegetable root ground to the consistency of porridge — and, afterward, a great fire and much dancing and singing. I note these details but only in passing, for I found myself gripped by anxiety as the evening turned to night and we were ushered to a special hut reserved for the tribal shaman. Ingare agreed to accompany us to act as our interpreter but made it clear he would participate no further.
The interior of the hut was unremarkable, plain save for a small altar containing several clay figurines and a small fire at the center of the hut. Directly opposite the altar, the shaman sat in cross-legged fashion on a woven reed mat. To his right, there were three identical matts, and he bade us to join him.
Once seated, Ingare began an earnest conversation with the medicine man, whose mien was somber, made the more so by the whorls upon his face rendered in a chalky white paint. As I studied him, with the firelight dancing in the shadowy confines of the hut, his visage seemed to come alive in a way that set my nerves on edge. I could see that Gerárd had noticed as well, yet, as was his wont, he put on a brave front, no doubt the better to reassure me.
At length, the shaman ended his colloquy with Ingare, who shifted his attention to us.
“Him say big spirits in this place. Many bad. Very strong. Him say bwanas can go back now. After this, no go back.” Gerárd looked at me as if to ask whether my nerves would fail me at this moment. It was clear that the hunger was upon him, and I was not prepared to surrender to fear and cowardice. Gerárd nodded to Ingare.
With a few words to the medicine chief, the proceedings commenced. The shaman arose and began chanting and gesticulating, waving a feathered rattle in the air. He stepped to the fire and threw upon it a handful of granules which sent a burst of smoke and flame into the upper reaches of the hut. Whatever the substance, it gave off a heavy, sweet aroma not unlike that which I associated with frankincense. Next, he placed about the necks of each of us, a necklace of leather ending in a small rough-hewn clay disk. In the dim light I could see they were identically inscribed with the figure of a dancing man. The shaman muttered, and Ingare translated:
“He say these protect us from imyuka mibi — evil spirits.” It was clear that Ingare was becoming more troubled, but to the man’s credit, he did not desert us. “Medicine priest say he give you special powder. Very small powder. Under tongue,” Ingare said, demonstrating by squeezing his thumb and forefinger together. “Then you close eyes. Wait.”
Now the shaman drew close, first to Gerárd, increasing the pitch and pace of his incantations while shaking the rattle above my friend’s head. After a moment, he reached into a small leather pouch cinched about his waist and brought forth a tiny pinch of greyish powder, motioned for Gerárd to open his mouth and slipped the substance beneath his tongue. With a quick sidelong glance at me, Gerárd closed his eyes. The shaman repeated his ritual with me, depositing a bit of the powder in my mouth. I let my eyelids flutter down, noting the acrid taste, and I waited.
I cannot say how long it was before I experienced my first realization that space was shifting within me, becoming elastic, elongating, folding around on itself. And I . . . I became as a bead of mercury, vibrating and gliding over the surface of this shimmering indigo Möbius strip until I reached the place where I had begun and then began again.
Soon, the landscape commenced melting, as if formed from the wax of candle, and the color, by degrees, metamorphosed through the hues of the rainbow to rise and fall in pulsating cascades of crimson. And I had undergone a transformation as well, no longer an object to be observed. Instead, I was the observed and observer alike, inseperable from the color flowing around and through me. At length, as I floated, mesmerized, there came to my ears the music of a dozen flutes, a melody indefinable yet wholly alluring combined with the murmur of mellifluous female voices, how many I could not say. And, as with the music of the flutes, I could not discern the language they spoke nor comprehend the meaning. But it was of little concern, for the import of their message came in the manner of their speech. Each susurration caressed me, seduced me, body and soul. It came in waves that lifted me up and caused my breath to catch in my breast so that I feared I would swoon, only to ebb and then be pushed to a fresh peak of ecstasy, again and again.
I returned to consciousness by degrees, fully regaining my senses to find myself lying upon my back. It must have been quite late, though from what illumination entered the hut from without, I knew dawn had not yet broken. As my senses came to their fullness, I pushed myself up onto an elbow and looked about me. The medicine priest was just as he had been before. My friend was sitting erect, head down as if studying the floor with great intensity. Nearby, Ingare squatted. All about, shadows from the flickering firelight darted across the walls of the hut.
When the shaman took note of my revival, he stirred and spoke a few words in a low tone.
“Him say we go now,” Ingare began. “Keep these,” he continued, lifting the amulet around his neck. “No evil spirit come.” Raising his head, Gerárd said to Ingare:
“Tell him we want powder to take with us.” This Ingare did, bringing an immediate protest..
“Him say no. Bad spirits, evil spirits go from this place.” Gerárd had prepared for this resistence. He had brought with him a small leather pouch. He reached inside of it and produced a diadem comprised of gold leaves surrounding a large opal in the center. I say “gold” and “opal” only as descriptives, for in truth they were of no more value than the trinkets showered on the tribal chieftain. However, the crown looked quite impressive in the dancing firelight. And the effect was just as Gerárd had intended. The shaman’s eyes widened as he gazed with open lust upon the diadem.
Ingare was instructed to tell the shaman that the crown was his in return for a measure of the powder. It took but a moment for the medicine priest to reconsider, and the transaction was complete.
Six weeks have passed since our return to Paris. We did not linger after that first night. In truth, Gerard seemed more eager to depart than he had been to arrive, so we returned to Boma with all due speed. It was not solely Gerárd’s desire to leave the village but the fear that we might somehow be delayed and Raoul would sail without us.
There was little discussion of our experience. Gerárd seemed quite reluctant to talk about it, a veil descending over his countenance whenever I raised the subject. I felt constrained to prod him on the matter, so I confined my ruminations to the journal I had been keeping since the beginning of our trip. The following passage is illustrative of the tenor of my thoughts:
As each day passes that we are upon the sea — nay, as every hour of the clock ticks by — I feel the urge to enter the realm of the mysterious drug again growing more insistent. It is a hunger that gnaws at my insides with no less ferocity than if I were starving for lack of nourishment. I yearn again for the surrender to an unparalleled sensuousness, pleasure unrivaled, made the more thrilling by its enwrapment in the gauze of the forbidden.
These feelings I kept to myself, asking Gerárd in a casual manner only once if he was prepared to grant me a small portion of the few grams of the powder given him by the shaman. His refusal was immediate.
“Certainly not,” he said casting me a look of near-disbelief. “This compound is far too potent for mere recreation. I am restricting it to my scientific research with the macaca mulatta.”
His manner was so brusque and carried such finality that I pursued my request no further. Yet, the desire for the powder did not abate but only grew, troubling my nights and preoccupying my days.
At length, I contrived a plan to obtain that which so obsessed me. On the pretext of completing my writing project about our Congo journey, Gerárd agreed to my request that I be allowed to observe his researches first-hand.
His laboratory was located in the basement of a building that was part of the Sorbonne medical college on Rue Santeuil. I arrived in the late afternoon to find Gerárd focused intently on his work. Our contact since returning had been limited, but he greeted me with a measure of his usual bonhommie.
“Ahh — come in, come in,” he said, inviting me into a sparsely furnished space containing little save a desk, bookshelf and cabinet. In a room beyond, I heard the hooting of one of the rhesus monkeys upon which he was performing his experimentation. “You’re well?”
“Indeed, yes,” I replied,”consumed with preparing the manuscript of our singular adventure.” In this I bent the truth, since I had been able to concentrate on little else save my hunger for the powder. “I am grateful you have spared time from your own work to permit my interruption.” At this his countenance took on a somber character.
“You have come at a most opportune moment, for I am preparing to administer the largest dose of the shaman’s powder yet to one of my primates. What my experiments have revealed thus far is of the gravest import.”
“That the old medicine priest was correct to warn us about the dangers of the drug, its power — if I may be so bold to say — power to seize the very souls of men, so that even while I conduct my researches here, I am never without this. ” He reached beneath the open collar of his shirt and drew forth the leather necklace to which was appended the amulet given us by the shaman. “You are wearing yours, as I instructed?”
“Yes, though I confess I find it a bit extreme”
“It is not, of that I can assure you.”
“May I ask a question, Gerárd?” He nodded his assent. “You and I — we have never spoken fully about our experiences that night in the hut, and — “
“And we never shall!” His retort was of such sharpness that my head recoiled as if I had been slapped across the face. With some effort, he tamped down his anger. “Forgive me. I — “
“Please,” I replied, “there is no need.” He responded with a tight smile and said:
“Now, you’re here to observe my resesrches, so come.” He turned and led me into the inner room of his laboratory.
Along a side wall there was a bench covered in an array of equipment — test tubes, beakers, microscopes and the like. At the back, stacked upon a wooden table were four cages, each containing a monkey. At the sight of us, they launched a chorus of screeching and leaped around inside the cages in a state of what I took to be profound agitation. I expected Gerárd to quiet them with a volley of curses and shouts, but instead spoke in the most soothing tone, going from one cage to the next until the cacauphony ceased.
Having subdued his charges, he lifted one of the cages and brought it to a work table in the center of the room.
“I will now carry out my experiment utilizing a full dose of the powder, and you may judge for yourself the appalling transformation it wreaks upon this creature.” From a cabinet above the laboratory bench, my friend retrieved a small clay container I instantly recognized as the very vessel the shaman had given to us containing the ground fungus. It was all I could do to tear my gaze away, such was my lust for the substance the jar held. Carefully, Gerárd removed the lid, which was secured by two short leather thongs. He next took up a thumb-sized piece of banana and, with a scalpel, made an incision in the fruit. Using a small spoon, with infinite care, he dipped up a tiny portion of the powder and deposited it within the incision, closing the slit with thumb and forefinger.
I had come prepared to implore Gerárd with the greatest urgency to give me a small amount of the powder, though I believed the odds were against me. I waited but a moment for Gerárd to slip the banana between the bars of the cage and into the paw of the monkey, who devoured the fruit without hesitation.
“While we wait for the drug’s fullest effects to manifest themselves,” he said,”I will let you review the notes of my early experimentation.” He began looking around him, growing increasingly agitated. “I was certain I brought the papers in here,” he said. “You’ll forgive me; it seems I’ve left them in my desk.” He moved quickly toward the door, and I seized my glimmer of a chance. From the pocket of my jacket, I removed a small phial, uncorked it —
“Ah, here they are,” I heard Gerárd exclaim.
— and spooned into it what I judged to be approximately one-half gram of the drug. I had barely enough time to return the spoon to its place and the phial to my pocket before Gerárd emerged from his office and placed before me a bound volume of foolscap. “You may peruse this while you are here. I believe you will find evidence that fully supports my belief, made the more fervent by my own encounter with the drug in the jungle and the shaman’s admonition, that this substance, for all of the efficaciousness it may possess, is never to be used without the protection of such as this,” he said solemnly, again touching the talisman he wore. “Behold!” he then declared, gesturing in the direction of the monkey.
Upon my initial glance, the animal appeared frozen, stiff, as if in a state of catatonia. Gradually, I discerned movement, slight at first, then more pronounced, as the monkey came fully to life, reeling about his cage drunkenly, swinging his arms to and fro. These gesticulations became more extreme as the creature staggered and fell repeatedly. After a time, the monkey began to emit a series of whining, chattering, grunt-like sounds and commenced to grabbing his head in both hands and banging it against the bars of the cage. It was quite a pitiable sight, and I implored Gerárd to halt the experiment.
“It cannot be stopped now,” he answered with finality. “There is but one outcome.” This I was soon to observe, as the poor creature suddenly seized up, cried out with a prolonged screech of what I can only describe as utter agony and collapsed, dead. Gerárd looked at me intently. “There, you have observed for yourself. I hope it has convinced you to abandon any thought of ingesting this fungus ever again.”
This scene had left me shaken, to be sure; but the horror of it all was swiftly superseded by an overwhelming desire to return to my lodgings and partake of the powder that was now mine. Nevertheless, for the sake of appearances, I took some time to page through Gerárd’s laboratory journal, going through the motions of jotting a few a notes of my own.
At length, I offered my thanks, explaining that it was necessary for me to take my leave for another engagement. He bade me Godspeed, and I departed.
By the time I had regained my rooms, the autumn evening shadows had begun to nestle upon the city, the descending sun slanting across the majesty of Notre Dame. I made haste to draw the thick drapery over my windows, barring all light from the outside. What illumination there was I provided with a single waxen taper.
Then, with trembling fingers, I removed from my jacket that which I had come to regard as my Holy Grail. I sought a comfortable posture upon the leather chaise longue near the fireplace, carefully removed the cork from the phial and tapped a tiny amount of the ground fungus onto the tip of my right forefinger. Without hesitation, I deposited the powder beneath my tongue, took pains to secure the cork in the phial and, as final preparatory step, touched the talisman, resting securely on my breast.
Next, I reclined my head and closed my eyes.
Again, as I had with my initial experience in the Congo, I sensed a cessation of the flow of time as a process apart from myself as an entity. From deep within me welled up the sensation of a surging torrent that rose with great speed and force to burst through the crown of my head in an exhilarating geyser of rainbow colors. My whole being was transformed into molten scarlet, flowing like thick rivulets of lava. And there came, very faintly at first but with increasing intensity, the thrum of female voices, whispering as if within me, repeating phrases in no language I had ever encountered. But upon these voices I was soothed, titillated and transported beyond my ability to describe in mere words.
I emerged from my altered state slowly.. I knew not what time had passed, though the new candle I had lit was guttering in its holder. And when I drew back the drapery from my window, I saw that dawn was in the first stages of breaking.
Now my tale accelerates.
Time began to collapse in on itself as the life I had led became inconsequential in the face of the fresh imperative I felt to consume more of the powder and with greater frequency. This I did, the experience heightened with every repetition.
Very little of the drug was required to produce its hallucinogenic effects, and I took great pains to apportion what I had purloined from Gerárd’s laboratory carefully. But each time I partook of the powder, I found myself, by increments, using a greater amount on subsequent occasions. This I accepted with a growing nonchalance, even eagerness, such were the effects it achieved.
After a time — I judged it to be approximately a fortnight — what remained of the drug was enough for but two more excursions. Yet by that juncture, I yearned for a more pronounced experience, so I resolved to take all of the powder at once. My judgment was clouded; I gave no thought either to what might be the consequence of such a step or how I would address exhausting my supply of the fungus.
The day I planned for my sojourn seemed well-suited to the occasion. Great banks of clouds had gathered as a shroud over the sprawling precincts of Paris. It was a match for my mood, which was tinged with an unexpected hint of anxiety; I knew not why. So, as daylight waned, I made ready, drawing the drapery, lighting a fresh candle and taking my place upon the chaise longue. Then, the final step before administering the drug, I placed my hand upon the talisman to make certain it was where it should be.
As I did, there came unbidden to my consciousness melodic female voices of unsurpassed gentleness and allure, the very same Sirens who so enthralled me, heightening my passion while under the drug’s influence. But unlike those encounters during which they spoke in a language unknown to me, now they communicated in French of the greatest clarity, bidding me to abandon the protective amulet and come unencumbered into their world. This I initially resisted as the inchoate unease that had hung about me through the day gave way to a more well-defined fear of inner darkness. But my resolve was tested with each reassuring caress and the hypnotic chorus —
“Dark sides are important . . . “
A chorus that kept repeating —
“They should be nourished like nasty black orchids.”
In the end, my resistence was futile, for I was like the man dangling by his fingertips from an escarpment, strength ebbing, until the instant when the inexorable force of gravity triumphs. And at that moment, I seized the talisman, violently ripped it from around my neck and hurled it across the room. That done, I immediately took up what remained of the gray powder and placed it beneath my tongue, closing my eyes and reclining upon the settee.
Swiftly, darkness descended, and the voices hitherto as mellifluous as a brook meandering through a forest glade, underwent a chilling metamorphosis, assuming the evil sibilance of the serpent. Their words again were unintelligible, but instead of the soothing quality they had possessed, now they assailed me as shards of glass needling at my skin, transforming into tiny thread-like worms, wriggling hideously as if dancing and mocking me before burrowing into my flesh. It was torment beyond comprehension! I tried to recoil but felt myself immobilized, frozen in place. I attempted in vain to cry out for help, yet when my lips parted their erupted from my mouth a torrent of black bile.
As the hissing grew louder and I was on the verge of swooning, I became aware of a new and more horrible sensation. It came from below, from the viscous liquid in which I found myself. It was the distinct knowledge and unbearable agony of being eaten alive! By inches, jaws worked at my legs, at last emerging from the depths of the mire, a ghastly mouth ringed with jagged teeth that rent my muscle and bone. And it did not stop, grinding on — higher and higher! I was watching myself disappear into the maw, assailed by a stench indescribable. Again, I made to scream . . .
I sank beneath the cloak of unconsciousness.
Of when next light came into my eyes I cannot say. My rooms remained shrouded, the candle spent and cold upon the table. When I drew back the drapes, the autumn sunshine slanted in, causing me to raise a hand reflexively to shield my eyes. How long had I been absent the world of my fellow beings who crowded the street below me?
I shuddered at the recollection of the horrors I had endured, using the greatest force of will to push the memories from my mind. In the next moment, it occurred to me that I should — must! — find the talisman I had flung from me with such terrible consequence. Nevermore, I vowed, would I be without its protective power. I searched with great diligence, combing the shadowy recesses of the room until, at length, I found it. Or, more precisely, what there was of it. For what remained was the leather necklace that had held it and the clay amulet shattered beyond repair. It curdled my soul, for at that moment I felt entirely at the mercy of the forces unleashed by the fungus.
In a state of profound despair, I again darkened the room and took to the divan, hoping rest would bring surcease. I fell into a fitful sleep, clouded by the presence of formless phantoms in a hellish landscape choked with acrid smoke. I felt myself weighed down, unable to flee, to hide . . . and suffocating.
I awoke, my head pounding, my clothes soaked as if perspiration had sprung from every pore. Rather than the measure of peace I had hoped for, I found myself more fatigued and gripped by anxiety than ever. As I cast about for any alleviation of my circumstances, I decided to leave the oppressiveness of my rooms. But even after bathing and donning a fresh suit of clothes, I realized little relief as I ventured forth into the late Parisian afternoon. The air was bracing to be sure, but the gentle breeze and the quotidian bustle of the city could not dispel my gloom.
For two or three days my life continued in this manner — sleep impossible and wakefullness haunted by unending fatigue. I could find no oasis. I had long since withdrawn from regular intercourse with my family and friends. Gerárd remained immersed in his work and had not contacted me since my visit to his laboratory. In desperation, I weighed whether I should go to him seeking a way out of my purgatory but cast the notion from my mind at last, not wanting to reveal that my state was of my own doing, the result of stealing a quantity of the powder.
And then there opened a grotesque new chapter, the one that has led me to this, my last confession of the soul. As I have said, my nights were no longer hours of refuge. Instead, I fought sleep knowing the terrors it would bring. But three days ago, at first with brevity, then growing longer and more pronounced, there came fresh sensations and periods of hallucinatory delirium during my waking hours such that I can barely any longer distinguish dream from what passes for reality.
I sit alone, quaking upon the chaise longue, the slither and hissing as if from a hundred vipers assailing me. They swarm upon the floor as a roiling, hideous sea. The room itself distorts in dimension, the ceiling pressing down, down, down until I am forced to brace an arm against it. My flesh crawls — I see the hellish tracks of what wriggles beneath but can do nothing to relieve my suffering. And I can cry out to no one for help, for I am rendered devoid of the power of speech.
Oh, for the mercy of God!
And so I take these last, precious moments of lucidity to relate my tale, my cavalier and foolish choices, my abject ignorance and the price I have paid. It is a warning. I pray you do not let it go unheeded!
Now, I feel the awful terror rise within me anew — each sensation more horrifying than the last. A life of utter torment and madness is all that remains.
I cannot let it be so. I cannot!
Liberté . . . !
“Descent” was originally published by Little Death Lit.
Nick Young is a retired award-winning CBS News Correspondent. His writing has appeared in more than twenty publications including the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Bookends Review, the Nonconformist Magazine, Backchannels Review, Sandpiper, the San Antonio Review, Flyover Magazine, Pigeon Review, The Best of CaféLit 11 and Vols. I and II of the Writer Shed Stories anthologies. His short story “Portrait” appeared in The Chamber Magazine last November. He lives outside Chicago.
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David, who, unobserved, is listening to the two old ladies from a secluded part of the adjacent garden smiles. Nice. He lets the word drift through his mind. Nice. ‘Nice’ is a nice word. His smile has a mild, distant quality. Nice. For a moment or so he dwells on the idea of old ladies regarding him as nice.
“When Tims, lovely Tims went missing, he was SO supportive,” Alice, his neighbour continues. “He printed off posters with my favourite picture of poor Tims on it and stuck them up on lamp posts. He spent SO much time looking for him in places where he might be.”
She paused. David imagines her composing herself, as she represses a tear. Did she dab a small silly handkerchief to her eye, he wonders. It would have been good to check. Checking even in small matters is part of his evolving method – comparing predictions about people’s behaviour against the facts. But, for the moment he accepts that it is better to remain out of sight.
The old lady is talking again. “Cats sometimes seek a solitary place to die – when they feel the end is coming. I imagine him lying down under a bush somewhere… lonely and alone, peacefully drifting away.”
Another female voice – soothing – breaks the momentary silence. “But Tims had such a good life.”
But anything but a good death, David thinks, smiling again as he replays the scene of Tim’s final moments, as it struggled, its head submerged in the tub of water, straining every atom of its cat being against its fate.
David takes a deep breath as, second by second, he replays the joy of destroying Tim.A new thought: Fate had decided that Tims should die. Fate? He decides that he will have to give more thought to ‘fate’.
He re-focuses on the voices in the neighbouring garden.
“You could get another cat,” the visitor suggests.
“David suggested that. Another cat just like Tims. I thought about a kitten, but he said that I should get a cat from a shelter. What do you think?”
“You would give it a good home.”
For a little while! David thinks.
“The pain of losing another cat would be too much to bear,” the neighbour says after a moment.
New possibilities,David thinks. A pain that is too much to bear.
The conversation in the adjacent garden draws to a close and now sure that he would be unobserved David emerges from his place of concealment.
As he sets out on his Saturday walk he reflects again on the need for careful planning. No detail is unimportant. Luring Tims to the tub of water, the execution, concealment of the body, the follow-up – all visualised, rehearsed, refined, again and again. He takes pleasure in knowing that he can plan well.
A new thought emerges. Images and memories are important, his memory of the moments of Tims’ final struggle – so good! But what about the image of the dead Tims? In his mind’s eye he sees the old neighbour surveying the mouldering body and the look of horror and of grief on her face. The image would stay with her for months to come. Perhaps it would be too painful to bear. He quickens his pace, astonished by the speed of his mind as fresh possibilities role into his consciousness.
The following morning, just as the old neighbour is about to go to church, he gravely announces the discovery of Tims’ carcass.
“Oh…oh…oh…” is all that she manages to wail as she almost falls onto a kitchen chair.
“I could bury him, while you’re at church,” David says, putting on what he thinks of as his ‘sympathy’ face. He has endeavoured to perfect that look for many months.
The old lady draws a handkerchief and dabs her eyes. “No,” she says, her voice faint but firm. “I want to be there.” She pauses and looks at David. “Where was he, where did you find him?”
“Well hidden under a laurel bush at the far corner of the garden. I only saw him because the tip of his tale was sticking out. He must have been moved. He was badly … well rats or something.” He observes the look of horror on the old lady’s face.
“I have heard that cats like to go away and hide when they feel that they are about to die,” he adds.
The old lady nods. “That’s often true.”
David retrieves the body and drapes it in the large white sheet which the neighbour provides. He reverently takes it to the designated burial spot, acquires a spade and digs a cat sized hole. In a move, carefully rehearsed he appears to stumble as he starts to lay Tims to rest. Now fully exposed to view, the partially decomposed body rolls unceremoniously into the grave.
“Oh dear, oh dear,” the neighbour wails and sways next to the hole.
Muttering apologies David tenderly covers the body with the sheet, rapidly fills the hole and helps the old lady back to her kitchen where she sits, her breathing laboured, her eyes shutting and opening as though she is battling against sleep.
“I will never forget the sight of Tims,” she whispers. “Never. Not as long as I live.”
Good, David thinks behind his sympathy mask.
Some months later, David, now approaching his fifteenth birthday, is discussing the future course of his studies with the school careers teacher. He nods. “Your grades are excellent.”
“I really like to help people,” David says, smiling his well-rehearsed smile.
The teachermakes a note in his file.
“I thought about becoming a vet,” David adds. “I like animals.” The image of the neighbour being taken to the ambulance drifts in front of his inner eye. “But I think I would like to be a doctor.”
Author is an old chap living in St Andrews, Scotland. He likes to explore themes of ‘limits and longings’.
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A brilliant summer’s morning and David, an introspective, but ever curious, thirteen-year-old child, is walking alone as he often does in the countryside near his home. His preference for his own company sometimes worries his parents as does his remarkable capacity to accept and tolerate pain. Though small for his age he is at school seldom picked on due to his ferocious persistence in a fight despite injury. He is, however, a clever if distant child, and, overall, his parents are content enough with their sole offspring.
David often concludes his excursions in a nearby farmyard, sometimes being given a bite to eat, a scone or a small slice of newly baked cake, by the farmer’s wife who has had her nurturing instincts energised by this strange, solitary, uncommunicative little boy.
Today David is immediately transfixed by the scene. The farmer, perched precariously on a small stool, is drowning kittens in a bucket of water. David quickly, eagerly, begins to anticipate the steps in the procedure: the farmer’s hand searching in a sack, a kitten withdrawn, its head protruding from the farmer’s brown fist, in and out of the bucket the kitten goes, now alive, a pause, now dead; and all the time the mother cat is circling around sometimes pawing frantically at the sack before being brushed away.
The last kitten is out of the sack and is held up with its yellow and white face pointing towards David. The farmer smiles, ‘Do you want it?’
Nice kitten, David thinks, but in the moment of his decision he is engulfed by an exhilarating tidal pulse flooding his body. Life or death. Death, he is immediately certain, will provide the far greater joy.He shakes his head, then mouth slightly open and holding his breath he watches the kitten vanish into the bucket, to emerge moments later, transformed, as it feels to him by his will, into a small limp, sodden patch of fur. As David turns to leave, he sees the mother cat hovering, sniffing at her unwanted contributions to life now lying side by side on the wet cobblestones.
The pulse begins to fade, but David knows he has experienced something new and vividly exciting in his life; and as he heads for home, he repeatedly re-lives and cherishes the instant of his choice.
Tims is a huge, neutered, overfed tom cat much loved by his owner, the next-door neighbour Alice, a frail, single lady well advanced in years. Seeing David back in the adjacent garden, Tims jumps from its vantage point on the garden hut and, tail held high, ambles towards him expecting the fondling and chin tickling that it likes so much. David gently strokes the Tims’ broad head and the cat’s purring quickly deepens to a loud, contented rumble.
Alice, seated by the living room window, looks across the low garden fence at the scene and smiles. “Such a nice boy,” she murmurs. David, who seldom smiles, is also smiling as he briefly tightens his grip at the back of Tims’ head.
“This will take planning,” he thinks.
This story previously appeared in “Dreaming in Fiction” (2020).
A sequel to this story, “Nice David”, follows tomorrow, October 4 at 10:00 US central time (4:00 p.m. in Scotland).
Author is an old chap living in St Andrews, Scotland. Like to explore themes of ‘limits and longings’.
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Marisa Jade is an independent writer that aspires to be a published author. Her works have appeared in the Heart of Flesh, where she wrote her testimony, and The Chamber Magazine, where she did her first book review. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, where she supports authors all over the world.
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At precisely 9:35 am on March 21st a blue and white ZipEx van parked in the loading zone of the Mutual Tower on Pine Street. Leaving the flashers on, the driver, dressed in a blue and white jumpsuit and visored cap, passed through security and took the elevator to Grayson, Paulson, and Klein on the seventh floor and handed a slim blue and white mailer to Jason McGiver who was on his way to a budget meeting.
McGiver retraced his steps to his cubicle and unsealed the mailer. After reading the contents, he removed his Employee of the Year Rolex and placed it on the center of his desk. Walking past his colleagues filing into the conference room, he took the elevator to the top floor, pushed through the fire exit, crossed the graveled roof to the parapet overlooking Wall Street, glanced at Trinity Church, then went over the edge.
At ten-thirty the blue and white van parked outside Pace University. The secretary in the business department directed the messenger to the faculty lounge where Amy Tanaka was finishing a snack of carrot sticks and Diet Coke. Smiling, he handed her a blue and white mailer, tipped his cap and left.
After reading the contents, Assistant Professor Tanaka opened her laptop and posted a Blackboard announcement cancelling her eleven o’clock class and reminding students to review chapters 8-12 of Lewison and Harp’s Principles of Marketing for next week’s quiz.
She went to her office, retrieved her coat, and left the building. Flagging a taxi on Park Row, she cabbed it over the Brooklyn Bridge to her flat in DUMBO. She checked the mail, removing her utility bills and a pizza coupon, which she left on the kitchen counter. She opened a bottle of chardonnay, placing the twist off cap next to her mail. She disrobed in the bedroom, folded her blouse and skirt over a chair, then drew a bath. She swallowed twenty-two sleeping pills, consumed the wine, and climbed into the tub. She turned off the water and slashed her left wrist with three deep deliberate cuts. Her right wrist showed no injuries, perhaps, the medical examiner speculated, because she had already lost consciousness.
Half an hour later the blue and white uniformed driver was seen entering a building on Wooster Street. He pressed the buzzer to apartment 3C. Marian Newhouse, who had just washed her hair, wrapped a New York Giants bath towel around her head, and asked the caller to identify himself. She buzzed him in but did not open the door. Security cams showed the driver sliding the mailer under her door and leaving.
After reading the contents, Marian put on a light jacket and called her neighbor to watch her eight-year-old son Gerald who was, as always, watching a science fiction movie on his laptop.
Mrs. Klein in 3F, as always, answered on the first ring. Marian explained she had a family emergency and had to leave immediately. Could she, possibly, watch Gerald? Mrs. Klein quickly agreed. A widow whose children had moved out of state, she was always glad to babysit Gerald. She was convinced the boy was not autistic at all, but just a withdrawn genius who probably would find fame editing music videos for Madonna or that new girl Lady Go Go. She had a key to 3C and let herself in. Marian was already gone. Mrs. Klein made tea and was playing Wordle on her phone when two policemen arrived to inform her that Marian Newhouse had killed herself in a nearby playground. They were puzzled why she hanged herself with a Giants towel.
By that time the ZipEx driver had parked on Ludlow and left a mailer with Luis Castro who had just finished his weekly podcast. A back injury had limited him to working part time at Le Bistro, but his YouTube channel Eating in Apple had picked up ads and sponsors. What had started as a hobby had become a lucrative sideline. After reading the contents of the mailer, he filled his cat’s dish with organic dry food, topped off her bowl with Fiji water, then took the Luger his grandfather brought back from the Bulge, hobbled downstairs to the laundry room and shot himself. Mr. Kim of Madame Choy’s told the police he briefly spoke with Castro that morning about doing a promo for his restaurant. Castro, he said, sounded cheerful and confident as always. He recalled they both discussed the events in Ukraine. He remembered someone saying that he couldn’t watch CNN anymore, but Mr. Kim could not recall whether he or Castro had said it.
Booker Thomas was manning the desk of New Hope Halfway House when the blue and white uniformed driver delivered a mailer for Frank Cassidy. Thomas checked the board and informed the messenger that Cassidy was in group therapy for another hour. He accepted the blue and white envelope and assured the driver that Cassidy would receive it. Mailers were special events in a halfway house, often signaling good news from attorneys, checks from friends, or drugs. Booker signaled the supervisor. Any mailings had to be inspected in front of the recipient.
When Frank Cassidy left group, Booker beckoned him to the front desk. Davina Brown, the supervisor, led him to her small office where he opened the mailer. Glancing inside and seeing a single sheet of paper, she directed him to extract it, shake it, and show it to her upside down. Smiling with approval, she motioned Cassidy to leave. She recalled chuckling. Cassidy was a recovering alcoholic and highly unlikely to consume anything that could be smuggled in an envelope.
She was shocked when his body was found in the second-floor bathroom that evening. He had died of a massive heroin overdose. His arms bore no previous needle marks.
The afternoon bartender at Hooligans on 54th glanced up as the blue and white uniformed messenger entered. Feeling drained from his recent dialysis treatment at the VA, the barman rose slowly from his stool and took the blue and white mailer from the smiling messenger. He fumbled with the pull tap a few times before opening the envelop. After reading the contents, he told the barmaid he was feeling ill and leaving early. She could tend bar until his relief showed up at six.
Two days later police divers recovered his body from the East River. He had weighted himself down with a pair of bowling balls, looping his belt through the handles of their bags. The Purple Heart he had received in Desert Storm was pinned to the collar of his jacket.
An hour later the blue and white van appeared on West 125th Street. The messenger slipped through the revolving door to the Academy of African Dance and ascended the wide staircase to the rehearsal hall where Diane Jackson was carefully stretching. Still recovering from recent knee surgery, she was testing her right leg carefully when she was handed the blue and white mailer. She read the contents, nodded to the driver, and left the room without a word. Not bothering to change, she donned slacks and a sweater over her Danskins, slipped on her shoes and left the building.
Returning home by bus, she took the elevator to her fifth-floor apartment, emptied a bottle of pain pills, washing the capsules down with a pomegranate energy drink. Feeling cold, she crawled under her comforter and quickly fell asleep. She breathed deeply for more than two hours before her heart finally stopped.
Helen Bowman had dozed off watching an afternoon movie when the buzzer rang in her Castle Village apartment. She sat up, muttering. A neighbor’s loud party had disturbed her sleep the night before. She shook her head to rouse herself and waddled to the door. Pressing the button, she told the messenger she would meet him in the lobby. She wanted to check her mail. After fluffing her hair in place, she opened the door, and took the elevator to the first floor.
She accepted the mailer, squinting in the afternoon sun. Opening the envelope, she walked to the mailboxes. But after reading the contents, she froze. She blinked several times, then sighed. Leaving her keys dangling in the mailbox, she went outside and made her way to Henry Hudson Parkway. Noticing an orange construction truck speeding toward her, she ran in front of it before the driver could stop.
Each body was discovered and reported separately. It took some time before the police, operating from different precinct houses, pieced together the chain of events. Eight suicides in a single day was a record for Manhattan. A special team of investigators was assembled, collecting evidence and reaching out to the FBI and Homeland Security for assistance.
Witnesses agreed the messenger wore a blue and white uniform and sunglasses. The Mutual Tower security guard estimated that he was in his early twenties. The Pace secretary remembered him as being a bit older and recalled that he had a moustache. Both stated he was of medium height and build with blond hair. Booker Thomas did not remember the driver having a moustache and estimated his age to be twenty-five. He had a nice smile, Thomas told detectives.
Two of the mailers were recovered, the others having been discarded or recycled. Jason McGiver’s bore only his fingerprints. Frank Cassidy’s mailer retained his fingerprints and those of Booker Thomas and Davina Brown. The mailers themselves were standard, as were the labels bearing the names and addresses of the dead. Both mailers had barcodes and ribbons containing matching combinations of numbers and letters. Unable to make sense of the numbers and letters, the police forwarded them to the FBI for further analysis.
Extensive searches failed to produce a surviving copy of the contents. Davina Brown was interviewed by city, state, and federal authorities. She repeatedly stated the mailer contained a single sheet of paper. She had examined the mailer carefully, looking for contraband. Having no interest in the message itself, she directed Cassidy to hold the sheet upside down and shake it. Scanning the paper for signs of powder, Scotch taped pills, or lines of coke embedded between sheets, she did not recall if the paper contained a letterhead. Holding it up to light, she detected nothing hidden and told Cassidy he could leave.
A blank sheet of paper was found on Cassidy’s night table, leading some to speculate that the message had been printed in disappearing ink. But the blank sheet’s watermark matched that of a tablet in the drawer.
Albany informed the investigators that no messenger service named ZipEx was registered in the State of New York. The license plate, clearly visible in the Mutual Tower surveillance video, was counterfeit. The van itself provided a further puzzle. It was determined to be a 2020 Skåpbil Eco 200 manufactured by Svenska Motors in Malmö, Sweden. The model had proven unpopular and had been discontinued after a three-year production run and was never exported to the United States. Shipping records failed to show any deliveries of a 2020 Skåpbil Eco 200 to North America. License plate cams and surveillance videos only produced additional images of the van’s Monday route. Examinations of bridge and tunnel videos did not show the vehicle entering or leaving Manhattan for the previous three months. Homeland Security, after prompting by the Mayor’s Office, shared the results of its study, supplying high resolution videos and static shots of the van on March 21st. The van apparently appeared on the streets of Manhattan that Monday for eight hours and vanished. Investigations of car dealers, trucking companies, repair shops, garages, parking structures, custom shops, and chop shops revealed no trace of the Swedish van. Asked to assist, the public became fascinated. The white and blue van became the great white whale. Bar owners, tailors, music stores, hat shops, and retirees reviewed their surveillance and doorbell cams for images of the mysterious Eco 200. Bored parking lot attendants and gas station jockeys replayed hours of unseen recordings without luck.
The van’s appearance and disappearance remained a mystery. Some suggested it must have rolled out of and returned to a larger truck. But photos and videos of large trucks in Manhattan that day revealed no evidence of the blue and white Eco 200. Supernationalists discussed shapeshifting, black holes, and alien teleportations. The host of a History Channel car show racked up five million hits on YouTube demonstrating how quickly a van could be disguised. Alighting from a mockup of the Eco 200, he smiled, then peeled off the vehicle’s adhesive outer layer, revealing the truck underneath to be a green and gold airport shuttle bus with passengers waving from the windows. The Eco 200’s distinctive snub nosed hood with its slanted chrome Trapezium grille and diamond logo was nothing but a plastic cover hooked to the front of a Chevy Express. The “mystery van,” he declared, was probably back at work carrying passengers or delivering pizzas. If nothing else it could have easily escaped detection and been driven out of state to be sold, chopped, or dumped in a lake.
A Harlem podcaster branded the mysterious van and uniformed messenger a hoax. He was convinced the police had simply woven together a string of unrelated suicides with photoshopped pictures to divert attention from the systematic oppression of people of color. He was about to announce a demonstration in Columbus Circle when a black Muslim cabdriver called in, claiming he bumped into the van on 186th just before it disappeared. He had just dropped off a fare and was checking his phone. Letting his foot slip off the brake, the car rolled forward into the ZipEx van waiting at the stop sign. Both drivers got out to check for damage. Finding no dents and scratches, they both shrugged. “No harm, no foul,” the cabbie remembered the van driver saying. Asked if he recalled anything else, the cabbie noted that the messenger said it had been a long day and that his shift was almost over. Pressed further on the encounter, the cab driver remembered the messenger said something about it being a Monday.
The elusive blue and white van drew national attention. A St. Louis nonprofit contacted General Motors to change the paint scheme for the fleet of step vans intended for Elder Care to green and yellow. Federated Foods in Dallas added a red stripe to its blue and white trucks. The lines “the van blue and white/is coming tonight” were spraypainted in scores of high schools on the West Coast. DJ’s in Chicago, Milwaukee, Boston, Atlanta, and San Diego offered cash awards to anyone who could verify seeing the van in their town. People joking about killing themselves told friends they were ready to “take a Zip trip” or simply “Zip it.” The suicides themselves were dubbed Zippers.
A team of investigators, psychologists, and researchers was assigned to each of the eight suicides. The departed were of different races, ages, incomes, occupations, and lifestyles. Phone and email logs showed no contact between them. Photos and home videos were studied for faces of the other eight. Friends, neighbors, and coworkers were interviewed. The public was asked if they had ever seen two or more of them together. Searches of government, corporate, and personal files yielded a single thin connection. Frank Cassidy and Helen Bowman had attended the same high school but had graduated two decades apart.
Suicide experts examined their lives for the usual clues. Friends, coworkers, neighbors, and family members reported no mood changes, despondency, depression, withdrawal, or mentions of “ending it all.” None had records of previous suicide attempts. Those with underlying medical issues were in stable condition. None were in financial distress. Two, in fact, had reported elevated income from side hustles and Covid checks. None were in legal trouble. No one had outstanding warrants. Several misdemeanor charges against Frank Cassidy had been dropped when he agreed to treatment.
Speculation fueled suggestions of conspiracies, cults, alien abductions, and mass hysteria. Radio hosts fielded calls. Tip lines were flooded with messages. The van driver, someone suggested, hypnotized his victims. But Marian Newhouse and Frank Cassidy never saw the driver. A following caller suggested the mailer contained some kind of suicide drug. When the mailer was opened a powder or gas was released that drove them crazy. But Frank Cassidy opened his mailer under the nose of Davina Brown who inspected it closely and was not affected. A podcaster in Newark was boycotted after reminding viewers that the death van was blue and white, like the Israeli flag. Apologizing profusely the following day, she claimed she was only sharing what her hairdresser had told her. Numerologists weighed in, noting that Monday’s date was 3-2-1. Speaking from his megachurch, a Dallas televangelist pointed out that by adding the first three digits of their Social Security numbers and dividing by eight, you arrived at the Demonic 666. QAnon referred to the eight as “The Taken.” Psychologists and sociologists appeared on cable; psychics and astrologers appeared on podcasts. Everyone had questions. No one had answers.
Interest in that Monday tapered off before the month ended. Dr. Phil reminded Joe Rogan that families of homicide victims want action. They seek justice and demand the truth. Their grief turns to anger. They press the police to find the killer, they offer rewards, and hire private investigators. They arm themselves. They want revenge. They don’t want people to forget what happened to their loved ones. Families of suicide victims want peace. There is a shame to suicide. Their grief turns to denial, regret, and sometimes guilt. They don’t want to know the truth, fearing that investigations might reveal something untoward about the deceased. They want people remember their loved one’s life not their end.
As the weather warmed, attention turned to baseball and other important matters. The van was never seen again. The messenger was never found. The names of the eight faded from the airwaves. Investigators ran out of clues, and podcasters ran out of conspiracies. There was simply nothing left to say about that Monday in March, so like the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the last school shooting, it was soon forgotten.
Mark Connelly’s fiction has appeared in Indiana Review, Milwaukee Magazine, Cream City Review, The Ledge, The Great American Literary Magazine, Home Planet News, Smoky Blue Arts and Literary Magazine, Change Seven, Light and Dark, 34th Parallel, and Digital Papercut. He received an Editor’s Choice Award in Carve Magazine’s Raymond Carver Short Story Contest in 2014; in 2015 he received Third Place in Red Savina Review’s Albert Camus Prize for Short Fiction. In 2005 Texas Review Press published his novella Fifteen Minutes, which received the Clay Reynolds Prize.
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My older brother and I sit on the playground swings. It’s night and the icy wind shrieks, cutting through us. Tree branches rattle like bones, withered autumn leaves cling to twigs, rustling like dry skin.
Around us translucent children play.
My brother and I sway to and fro in time with the rhythmic creaking of the swings’ rusted chains.
One ghost child wears a Luke Skywalker T-shirt. It is our brother, also called Luke, and my heart breaks when he weeps. I long to reach out to help him, but my older brother tells me to stay on the swings.
“We’re safe here. She won’t find us.”
And so I dream endlessly of my baby brother’s shuddering sobs.
* * *
The playground in my dream is the same raggedy playground I played in as a child in a large, depressed city a world away, living a less-than-idyllic childhood.
There is a park at the end of the street where I live now too, established on farmland gifted back to the city that grew up around it. The paintwork on the playground equipment is new. Soft artificial turf lines the areas around the climbing frames. Wood chips, rather than the gravel pits we grew up playing in, mark out the paths. Everything gleams new except for one out-of-place relic.
As a tribute to the park benefactor, Farmer Wilton, an old tractor is fixed in the corner of the playground. Children clamber on to it to twist levers and flick switches. There is a local petition to have it removed because of the danger it poses. The mothers in this suburb are not keen on old farm equipment scratching knees. Nor are they fans of tetanus vaccinations.
My ex-husband lives somewhere more tropical with his much more presentable new wife. Unburdened by children, their immaculate, architecturally designed house is nowhere near a playground. I am inclined to think that is in no way an accident.
His leaving unwound me into a tangled mess. He communicated his loathing and dissatisfaction not just for me but for the life he felt he’d been trapped into. When he was through I was fragmented and broken, without the resolve to glue myself back together.
We coped because my brother Jimmy moved in with us.
Jimmy’s rehab counselor was under the illusion we provided Jimmy with support, but all I gave him was a place to sleep and sank back into guilt and the panic that I was now alone with three children. Jimmy made sure we were fed and washed, and walked the boys to school. At night he would pad around the house with the baby, who echoed my grief at our abandonment, howling relentlessly. Jimmy patted her back and reassured the two of us that it would pass.
He looked after our basic needs, giving me time to duct-tape my psyche together again. We never discussed how long Jimmy would stay, but it was understood he would be there for as long as we needed him. Jimmy filled a chasm for my children, who felt their father fade away from their lives.
It is a lie that children are more resilient than adults. Jimmy understood that.
I’ve cheated Jimmy of his own family.
Or maybe he assumes it is safer not to invest in a family of his own. Advice I would have taken, had he shared it. Jimmy has taken care of me since he was a teenager and by now it is habit, and, regrettably, Jimmy tends to succumb to bad habits. Sadness woos him like a lover, so perhaps he has no room for anything else.
Survival is my suitor. That is why I accept my brother’s support without guilt at what he has given up.
If I was in a lighter mood, I could imagine this living arrangement as the bare bones of a hilarious sitcom. I kiss my sleeping children good night and whisper “sweet dreams” outside Jimmy’s room.
There is not much humor to be found in this material, but all the same I imagine a laugh track over my sad life. Pouring another shot of vodka to take to bed, I hide the bottle from Jimmy and hope for more restful sleep than the dream ghost children will allow.
* * *
Somebody told me once there’s nothing sadder than a beach resort in winter. Galveston excepted, I would argue a children’s playground at night is still more depressing.
During the day I have no issue walking past the playground on my way to work. Usually, at that early hour, there is just one boy at the playground, Oliver. He is severely autistic and the thing that brings him joy is to run barefoot from his house to the playground. He scrambles up the climbing frame with the grace of a cat, but his favorite piece of equipment is a spinning spike. He stands on a disc-like platform, spinning it in synchronicity with the Earth.
I raise my fist to the sky and Oliver whoops a greeting. More power to you, honey. It gives me a small jolt of happiness to watch this boy every day, disconnected to the world, oblivious to everything but the pleasure it gives him to reach the height of giddiness.
On my return journey I choose a different route, so I approach home in the opposite direction of the playground. I tell myself it is because my Fitbit counts more steps, not that I might be too scared to walk past a playground at night.
I am not the only person who senses tragedy haunts all playgrounds when darkness falls and the ghosts of children play. I sometimes hear Oliver’s mother calling him in at twilight to make sure he is safely inside by dark. I have also taken steps to ensure my children know better than to chance fate in the deserted space of a playground at night.
At least I thought they understood this. But no, Jimmy stands anxiously at the end of the driveway, waiting. My daughter stands next to him, dressed in her Wendy Darling nightdress, eyes sleepy, clutching a teddy bear in her other hand.
“The boys aren’t here.” Jimmy’s panic spreads to me. His fear is cold, freezing my being; my heart stops beating. “They downloaded an inappropriate movie, and when I wouldn’t let them watch it, Jayden got angry. He ran off and Conor followed. I’ve lost them.”
Jimmy searched all over the house and the yard. His guess is they are hiding out at the playground.
“They wouldn’t go there,” I say with such firm certainty, he could take it to the bank.
The bedtime tales I told Jayden and Conor when they were children usually involved tales of ghost children luring live children into playgrounds where the child catcher lay in wait.
In the best tradition of German fairy tales, I described in detail how the child catcher’s long, sharp fingernails clawed flesh from little bones. Arriving each night in a death-black carriage drawn by fire-breathing stallions, her carriage was filled with runaway children by dawn. The final destination for those lost boys and girls was most certainly not Neverland.
Jimmy has always been a little judgmental of my hands-off mothering, but he makes no effort to hide his disapproval when I explain why Conor and Jayden would never go to the playground at night.
“Jesus, you couldn’t just read them Winnie the Pooh?” His expression is aghast.
“Uncle Jimmy,” says Daisy very seriously, “you must never go to the playground at night. Everyone knows that.” She recites the poem I read them so often they know it by heart now:
“You must never go down
to the end of the playground,
if you don’t go down with me.”
“James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree,” says Jimmy, recognizing the A.A. Milne poem “Disobedience” because I copied it out for him when I was in grade school, thinking he was the James Dupree of the poem.
“Little Luca-Luke took great of his mother though he was only three,” I respond.
Although she took little care of him and even less of me.
Luke died when he was only three.
A.A. Milne is dark, no question. It’s not all about Pooh and Piglet and control-freak Rabbit. If you read carefully, you hear that the man is still in the trenches at Somme.
“Jayden’s not frightened by ghost stories,” says Jimmy.
“He should be,” says my clever girl, Daisy. “They are real.” She nods emphatically. “Yessir, you don’t want to mess with ghost children.”
“I’ll take her to a neighbor,” says Jimmy firmly. He uses the tone that big brothers get when they are bossing their little sisters around. “You go to the playground and I’ll catch you up.” I shake my head resolutely. “Go!” he says. “Jayden is nearly thirteen. The teenagers have secret drinking parties there.”
Jayden is nearly thirteen? He was nine when my husband left. Has it really been that long? That explains the surliness, I suppose.
“I’ll take Daisy to the neighbors. You go to the playground and I’ll meet you there.”
“You don’t know any of the neighbors,” says Jimmy. “And Jayden won’t listen to me. You have to be the one to go get him.”
“Of course I know my neighbors,” I snap. “Down that driveway is the lesbian couple with the dog. Jude and Liza.”
“They moved six months ago. Reuben and Natasha live there now. And incidentally, Jude was the dog’s name. Liza’s partner was Molly.”
He only knows this because he keeps a spreadsheet of the neighbors’ names so he can pretend to be a good neighbor and greet them by name.
“I’ll meet you at the playground,” Jimmy says. “Go. Jayden won’t do a damn thing I tell him these days.” He pauses. “It’s a different playground. You don’t need to be afraid.”
“Yes, she does,” murmurs Daisy as Jimmy leads her down the driveway to whoever lives next door to us now.
* * *
Oliver stands barefooted at the end of the street, waiting for me. He leaps onto a small retaining wall and recites:
“LOST or STOLEN or STRAYED!
JAMES JAMES MORRISON’S MOTHER
SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN MISLAID.”
It turns out Oliver is quite articulate when he chooses.
“Bad.” He jumps down from the wall. He hugs himself and sways back and forth. “Bad, bad, bad, bad.”
Yep, buddy. I am certainly picking up that vibe.
His mother calls him to come inside now. He cocks his head and scampers toward his house, pausing at the gate to let loose a yodel of encouragement.
The empty swings creak as the wind blows them to and fro. The spinning rod rotates against the Earth’s axis, turning, turning. Things are most definitely falling apart. A rumbling engine noise comes from the decaying tractor. The anti-vax mothers haven’t succeeded in having her towed from the playground yet, but as ghostly mist spreads from the antique exhaust pipe, I have half a mind to sign their petition tomorrow.
I call to Jayden and Conor. The wind whips through the trees on the hill behind the playground. The leaves rustle and fat black birds perch in the branches. An aroma of dead leaves—dead birds?—wafts downhill.
The playground is lifeless. Even the homeschooled teenagers who gather here to rebel have found an alternative location to spray-paint graffiti and drink cheap red wine. Nobody is foolish enough to go to the playground at night. Jimmy is wrong.
You ripped your shirt. You messed up again, you dumb ass.
The child catcher shouts and screams and bellows. Her rough hand heaps heavy blows upon small heads. Sometimes she uses a belt. Once she swung a baseball bat at me, but I hid under a neighbor’s house until Jimmy came home.
The knot in my stomach swells.
This is not my life now, I remind myself until the world comes back into focus.
“Mommy.” Jayden scrambles down the hill and flings himself toward me. His voice is deep. He really is nearly thirteen. His face is covered with dirt. Dirt. Not blood. My stomach knot twists tighter. He hasn’t called me “Mommy” for years.
“Where’s Conor?” I demand.
Jayden’s voice slides between boy and man. I cannot follow his words. My stomach churns with impatience. I grip his shoulders tightly.
Jimmy vaults the playground fence. Horrified, I step back from Jayden. What have I done to my baby?
“I’ve hurt him,” I stutter. “I’m just like her.”
“No, no,” Jimmy says. “You just squeezed a little tight, you didn’t harm him.”
But I might have. Jayden is trembling. I tentatively reach out to him, and he throws himself into my arms.
Jayden’s words finally take coherent form. “Ghost children. Look.” Still clinging to me, he points wildly. Twins sitting on the seesaw, solemnly soaring up and down. Their heads turn toward us as they continue seeing and sawing in metronomic precision. Another child sits at the top of the slide, watching us intently.
Luke is suddenly beside me. “Conor’s easily scared, like me,” he ghost-whispers.
Jimmy’s eyes bulge. He is looking right at Luke. He sees the long, ringleted hair and wide brown eyes with an expression of constant surprise that just when you think the world couldn’t get worse, it does. It’s unmistakably Luke, he’s just a little faded now. The ripped Star Wars T-shirt confirms it.
“You see that too?” I ask.
“No,” Jimmy says with the certain tone of somebody who has spent some time in rehab convincing themselves their demons do not really take form. Then he groans, “Yes,” because our mother appears.
A murder of crows caw a warning as she approaches from the woods, dragging Conor behind her. He is bruised and scratched and bleeding.
Jayden squeezes my hand fearfully but his voice is strong. “Leave my brother alone.”
The same words Jimmy used. Like an evil spell has been cast, we’re back in her vintage ’60s kitchen.
The room is a nightmare palette of lime-green countertops and saffron diamond floor tiles. Behind yellow frosted glass pantry doors, she stores fake crystal glasses and an ugly, heavy dinner set missing a couple of plates that she flung in my direction.
Luke stutters so badly sometimes he’s incoherent. He is frozen to his mark. His nonresponsiveness drives her to a state beyond anger. She grips his shoulders tightly and shakes him hard. Your teeth really do rattle if you are shaken hard enough. Seizing the chance to run, I sprint barefooted to the basketball court at the end of the block, yelling for Jimmy to help us.
“Leave my brother alone.” He bursts through the door.
Mother aims her wrath at Jimmy for disrespecting her as he shields Luke from her blows, shepherding him out of her reach.
I see it before he does. I try to warn them, I really try. Horror dries out my throat, and I can only manage a whimper. Mother snatches the knife, slashing at Jimmy’s face and arms until he finally retreats, bleeding from the cuts she inflicts.
She mutters about ungrateful piglets and hits Luke in the chest. He takes the blow silently, as he’s learned to do. Jimmy folds his bleeding arms across his chest and screams the kind of shriek that heralds the end of the world.
I can’t deny what my eyes are seeing but my brain won’t process. She stabs Luke again and again.
It’s our fault. Always our fault.
Jimmy picks me up and runs out of the house to the park, making for the area where kids have smashed the streetlights throwing rocks to relieve boredom. He shoves me under a bush and covers me with his body, telling me for God’s sake stay quiet.
I hear her calling to us, just like the other mothers in the neighborhood call to their kids to come in after dark. But she is not like other mothers. Jimmy’s breathing hard and I wonder how she doesn’t hear him as her footsteps pass right by us.
“We’re safe here. She won’t find us,” Jimmy whispers to me.
He tells me to close my eyes. Waiting to be sure she’s gone, we huddle together like stray kittens until dawn. By the time we venture out it’s too late for Luke, and Mother has gone.
We left Luke behind. I dream of our betrayal every night now.
Conor whimpers and the sound of his brother’s terror triggers Jayden into action. I try to hold him back, but he marches up to Mother and wrestles Conor away from her. Mother grabs him by the shoulders. She tries to shake him, but he stands his ground and shrugs her off.
“You are a bad boy.” It was always her words that wounded us with more lasting effect than any of the beatings. “No wonder your father ran away from you.” She stares at me, although her eyes are dead, devoid of light. “He ran away from you too. You two are no good for anyone.”
I burn with anger at the expression on Jayden’s face. I push her away from my boy. He runs to Conor and Jimmy. Jimmy puts his arms around their shoulders and pulls them close.
I summoned her with my relentless nightmares and resurfacing fear. This is my fight and I’ll deal with it.
She is unchanged. The same raspy voice, dripping with nicotine and vitriol. Her hair stretched into a tight bun, facelifting any wrinkles. Ageless.
I realize she looks the same because she is a bad memory. A nightmare taken form. She isn’t real and she doesn’t belong in my world. Her time is over.
“You have no power over me. Or my kids. Lady, they don’t even know who you are.” I gesture toward Jayden and Conor. Jayden stands tall, hands on his hips, backing up my claim that her words can’t hurt him as they did me. “You died years back, forgotten, and you deserve to suffer just like you hurt Luke.”
“And the others,” murmurs Jimmy.
The ghost children close in on her, and she releases a high-pitched wail. Long overdue.
“Time to melt, witch,” I tell her over my shoulder as I walk toward my family and home.
My home is furnished in warm colors, reds, browns. No imitation mahogany. Certainly no lime-green counters. Wooden floors, not saffron-yellow tiles. My crystal isn’t fake and we eat off plates the kids have painted in community art classes.
Jayden is too old to share a bed with his little brother, but he makes an exception for tonight, and they hug each other as they sleep in my bed. Daisy curls up in my lap as I watch over the three of them. Daisy purrs like a kitten when she snores.
Jimmy brings me my not-so-secret bottle of vodka.
“You know I’m in recovery, right?” he says. “You shouldn’t have this in the house.”
“I’m a bad sister as well as a bad mother.”
“You are a good mother.” His words warm me more than a slug of straight vodka. Perhaps tonight I will pass on the booze. Maybe I’ll pour it down the drain tomorrow.
“I thought I’d grow up to be our mother. I worried one day I would be her,” I tell him the secret I never told anyone. Not even my husband when we were married. In retrospect I am kind of glad I didn’t tell him. He would have only used it against me.
“She wasn’t our mother. She was our foster mother,” Jimmy says, although she was the only mother I knew. He had several by the time he was unfortunate to have his case assigned to her. “We were just three of I don’t know how many kids she took in. They lost count. Luke wasn’t the first kid who went missing.” He shrugs philosophically so I guess he’s had a while to process this. Maybe he researched it. I, on the other hand, turned my memory rock over and made sure never to turn it over again. The occasional nightmare still managed to crawl out from under it, but I would not revisit or research that time for anything.
“There were other kids who disappeared before Luke,” Jimmy says warily, as if he knows not to share too much.
The other children visited me night after night with Luke, so no surprise to learn that.
“You’re a good big brother,” I tell him, and I should tell him that more often. Jimmy was only sixteen but his birth certificate was lost, and he convinced the social workers he was old enough to look after me. Nobody argued because I was one less kid to worry about in an overburdened system. “Is she really gone?” I ask.
“Texas has the death penalty, and child killers aren’t treated so well in prison,” Jimmy shrugs. “You’re safe.” Just as he promised that night.
All the same, I plan to take the longer route home, avoiding the playground at night.
* * *
The others are still asleep when I leave for work the next morning. The sky is clear and the sun is too bright. Oliver is already in the playground. This morning he’s not scaling the climbing frame. Instead he is in the midst of a light-saber battle with another kid.
I squint into the sun and blink. It’s just Oliver galloping around the playground alone, barefooted, doing a hundred happy things before bedtime.
Just as children should.
Maria Wickens’ work has been published or is forthcoming in Allium, Apricity Magazine, Cobalt Review, Press Pause Press, and Slab. She won the 1993 Reed New Writers Fiction Award with her novel Left of Centre (Secker & Warburg 1994). She lives in New Zealand with her husband and two sons.
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Ryan O’Shaughnessy is standing in front of The Pink Panther, a strip club in downtown Sydney. His gaze is narrow, like a cop’s, and complements his close-cropped hair and walnut-sized knuckles. The fact that he is a street thug in no way belies his sense of proprietorship. His mission is sacred, after all, for tonight he is hunting bear—not the grizzled variety, but a snitch who badly needs killing, a tall, bearded jerk who fingered him to the cops after selling him a bag of meth. The cops had tried to make Ryan an informant as well but Ryan, a man of real character, had told them nothing. And so he had been forced to spend another year in the city jail. And a damn hard year it was.Even buggering the Nancy boys had not kept the walls from crushing in on him. It seemed as though the jail had swallowed him alive.
But tonight he is back to living in Hyde Park. And tonight he is hunting for bear.
His gaze remains steady as a cop car rolls past him, its black body shivering in the bright lights of the strip. This time Ryan refuses to flinch. Fuck the cops—he has served his time and now has comeuppance to collect. The fink he is going to kill is named Stork—if that’s what he’s still calling himself. Street names are usually changed every month—if not, it’s too easy to get snitched out. Ryan has had over fifty different street names and so he has gotten snitched out only once. And tonight his name is Hunting Bear, kinda like the Indian brave in that movie he saw last night—the guy who apologized to a deer after killing it. But Ryan is not going to apologize for wasting Stork.
What was the name of that little twitch—the cute little junkie he’s going to marry tomorrow at the Wayside Chapel? Her street name is Miss Muffet, but what’s her real name? Probably it’s Berta or Frieda or something god-awful. She’s only marrying him for citizenship papers—so she won’t get deported if she’s caught shooting heroin—but what the hell: she has promised him fifty bucks and a bang. And money is money—crotch is crotch. That boy who was with her—probably her pimp-to-be—had told him she was a hard lay. Hymen like leather. “If you can bust her, you can have her,” he had joked, and Ryan had laughed heartily. “I’ll bust her,” he said. “Busted me a thousand cherries.”
And so his itinerary is set: First ice that canary. Then bust himself a cherry.
Another squad car rolls by, gliding to a halt when the street light changes to red. The city is thick with cops tonight. Ryan catches his reflection in the rearview mirror of the squad car: he is a broad-shouldered man with thick horn-rimmed glasses and a rather menacing harelip. And his triceps, swollen from fifty daily pushups on the cell row, threaten to rip through his short-sleeved shirt. Fifty-five years old and he can still lick his weight in wildcats. Ryan doesn’t even need the pistol—the .44 Auto Mag that is hidden in his crotch. He could strangle that canary with his bare hands.
Ryan studies the street as the cop car speeds off. The hit should be easy—a piece of cake. He has already killed off a hundred snitches—iced them just to keep in shape. His life as an outlaw—his thirty years of breaking into cars, dropping meth, and getting into fights—has turned him into a rock-hard terminator. Even the cops don’t intimidate him. Only yesterday, after getting out of jail, he wrote eat shit on the back of a squad car. Wrote it in his own shit just to press home the point. That’s what they get for throwing him into the meat wagon every chance they get. How many cops has he punched?—he’s not sure. Maybe he’s got Alzheimer’s—that’s what the jail shrink told him. Or maybe he just forgets things now and then. But he hasn’t forgotten that crotch of a jail—the scurrying roaches, the stench of stale socks, and the pulsating racket.
The sidewalks are crowded with tourists and hippies, but Ryan is quick to identify the tall gaunt figure on the opposite side of the street. Stork—it’s got to be Stork. Only Stork could be so dumb — strutting around in a bright red jacket when he should know there’s a price on his head. This is going to be even easier than he thought. Ryan takes a deep drag on his cigarette—exhales a silvery stream. With a flick of his finger, he fires the butt at a passing truck. Bull’s eye.
Slowly, stealthily, Ryan eases himself into the stream of pedestrians. He is forced to walk slowly since a bunch of Hari Krishnas are blocking his way—shoeless kids with tambourines and halfwit expressions. What a way to end up: banging on tambourines, singing like sin. And there’s not a real bang in the whole bunch. He had attended one of their feasts only yesterday after getting out of jail. Some feast—raisins and brown apples on a dirty tray. There oughta be a law against serving that crap. He had nibbled a piece of apple—politely—and then left. Let them serve him pork chops if they want him back—and maybe some Bristol Cream Sherry. And let them wash their feet.
“Hunting Bear” somebody shouts—Ryan tenses. It’s one of the fucking Krishnas: a sunken-chested boy with blazing acne. One day out of jail and Ryan has already been recognized. The boy slaps his tambourine. “Rama,” he bleats. “Rama Rama.” Krishnas are all around him now, laughing and singing—praising him like he’s some kind of elephant god. Ryan dances along with them, hoping that by doing so he will avoid greater scrutiny. He is careful not to dislodge the gun. Ryan dances the twist while the Krishnas leap about aimlessly. When the dance is over, he slips back into the crowd.
Stork is still standing on the opposite side of the street. Ryan pats the magnum-powered pistol in his pants. The word is go. Sooner or later we all gotta pay—and Stork’s gotta pay tonight. But the job needs to be done in a vacant alley: there, Ryan can take his time about it—there, Stork can see the bore of the gun pointed leisurely at his chest. Let him grovel a bit before taking the slug—otherwise, he won’t have paid enough. Be a waste of a good hollow-point bullet to dust him on the street.
Ryan crosses the street—hops to the curb. He pauses when Stork looks in his direction, but the boy’s wooly face remains calm, benign—kinda like the face of Jesus. Clearly, Stork has not recognized him—probably he doesn’t even remember dropping the dime. But just wait until he goes into an alley to make a drug deal. Ryan will have a chat with him there—bring him up to speed. Ryan laughs at his joke then ducks into a doorway.
Ten minutes pass and Stork does not budge. Ryan decides to wait him out. Can’t make it too obvious though. Ryan glances at a flock of transsexual prostitutes who are also soliciting on the street. He had better pretend that he’s one of their johns or Stork may start to get suspicious of him. Ryan winks at one of the prostitutes—an invitation that sets his teeth on edge. It is against his ethics to pay for ass. Hell, woman ought to pay him.
The hooker hesitates before approaching. She’s a willowy kid with wary eyes and she knows he’s not a regular. Ryan pats the bulge created by the gun. “I’m loaded for bear, sister,” he says.
She smiles thinly then bites her lower lip. She is young, remarkably young, and her front teeth are smeared with lipstick. She looks like an adolescent who has stolen her mother’s makeup kit. “Do you really date?” she scoffs.
Ryan nods. “I mean business, sister.”
“It’s twenty for head.”
Ryan opens his wallet and rummages about. Thankfully, he still has his gate money from jail. He makes a show out of handing her the twenty dollars. “Dinner and a movie,” he jokes.
Ryan grimaces as she takes the money. What a waste. The only consolation is that she won’t bother him after the sex. After sex, all women ought to turn into pool tables.
He follows her into an alley and waits patiently while she adjusts her dress. When she kneels at his feet, he can only feign interest: her teeth are so small, her eyes so vacant, that she reminds him of a dead fish. Ryan takes off his shirt and flexes his biceps. Maybe this will get him a discount. He needs to delay matters anyhow—bide his time until Stork comes into the alley. A good Indian brave keeps his mind on the hunt.
The tranny stares up at him. “Don’t take all night about it, mister.”
Ryan balls up his shirt then stuffs it into his rear pocket. “Twenty minutes of your time—that’s all I want, sister. I’m hunting for bear.” He opens his wallet and hands her another ten dollars. “Just keep outta sight.”
Her eyes flash. “You ashamed to be seen with me, mister?”
“Gotta be careful. Tomorrow, I’m getting married.”
She jumps to her feet and snatches the money from his hand. She then crumples it up—throws it on the ground. “Who’d marry you—weirdo?”
Indignant, she sashays to the back of the alley—probably to take a leak. When she doesn’t return, Ryan lets the money lie. A deal’s a deal. He waits for twenty minutes, but Stork does not appear. Nor does the tranny.
Loud voices force Ryan to peek from the alley. The sidewalk is now crowded with demonstrators: a bunch of hippies, longhaired freaks, are yelling at a group of soldiers. The hippies look young—the soldiers even younger; the exchange is tritely familiar. Baby burner … I’m proud to have fought … You’d fight for any cunt.
Ryan listens attentively. If a fight should break out, he wants to be part of it. Pop himself a few longhairs—maybe even a soldier or two. He hopes the cops don’t show up too quickly.
The judge should have sent him to Nam instead of jail. He’d have killed a thousand of those little gooks then chopped off their ears and used them for fish bait. Hut two three four—dust a foe and look for more. Plenty of good weed there too.
A cop car arrives. The hippies scatter while the soldiers walk away. Stork is no longer around, but Ryan is not worried. The fucker will soon be back, and he can watch for him from the coffeehouse across the street. Ryan needs to piss anyhow and only bums piss in alleys.
Ryan crosses the street and struts toward the coffeehouse. A street urchin watches him approach—an elfin teenage girl who is panhandling in front of the glass doorway. Her face is so thin that she looks supernatural—like maybe she’s a vision of some kind. Ryan doesn’t like visions; he’s seen too many of the damn things. But that doesn’t make him a schizo—or whatever that jail shrink called him. Ryan just notices things.
To make sure she’s real, Ryan hands her five dollars. She takes the money and pockets it in her jeans. “Thank you, dear sir.”
Ryan thumps his naked chest. “I’m hunting bear, Dolly. You’d better get out of here.”
She titters. “Then why are your pants still on?”
“Stork I mean. I’m gonna plug Stork.”
She giggles again. “Storks deliver babies.”
Ryan shakes his head. Maybe she’s an angel. He gives her another five dollars then pats her on the head. Never know when you’re gonna need an angel on your side.
Ryan puts on his shirt and enters the coffeehouse. A beak-nosed woman behind the counter watches him as he strides towards the john. Once he has relieved himself, he returns and makes his purchase: a latté and two chocolate donuts. The woman’s eyes remain fixed on him—even after he sits at a table and starts to sip his coffee. Ryan watches for Stork through the glass doorway of the shop. The girl is gone.
The coffeehouse is pleasant, the coffee sweet, and Ryan feels good for the first time in months. What more could he wish for than a cool summer evening, a snitch to kill, and sprinkles on his donuts? He does not bother with further reflection: his boyhood in that flea-pit orphanage, those bull dyke nuns that whipped him daily—catching their switches in their holy beads—and his many internments in jails and mental institutions. Had he burned down that orphanage?—fuck it, who knows? His memory is unreliable now—just like those freaks that keep popping up: dog-faced midgets, glowering mimes, hags with painted faces. Only the gun, the hard press of metal in his crotch, can be counted on.
Stork is now back on the other side of the street. He has changed into a denim jacket, probably to confuse off the cops. Ryan nibbles a donut—slowly. Dry Puss is still watching him from the counter. If he greases Stork now, she’s gonna call the cops on him. Big mistake—coming into the coffeehouse. Ryan is still sitting at the table when Stork, accompanied by one of the trannies, ambles into the alley to make a sale. It’s the same damn tranny he paid good money to.
“Ahem.” The voice is calm, gentle—like water chuckling in a stream. A gentleman is standing by his table—an elegant man in a gray pinstriped suit. His eyes are soft, his hair silver white, and he is wearing a pink carnation in the lapel of his jacket. He isn’t a cop—probably he isn’t even a ghost. Probably, he’s just a tourist visiting the city. Plenty of cruise ships in Sydney Harbor. Plenty of easy pickings on those ships. “Ahem,” the man says. “Who might your trainer be, sir?”
Ryan flexes his biceps. “Got ’em hoisting beer bottles.”
The man smiles. “Would you like a bit of sherry?”
The gentleman sits down. He places two mugs on the table—probably got them from Dry Puss. He removes a slim bottle from inside his jacket and empties it into the mugs.
Ryan sips his sherry then glances toward the counter. Dry Puss, preoccupied with another customer, is no longer eyeballing him. Ryan looks back at the gentleman and winks. He has decided to string him along; that way she’ll think he’s a hustler—not a hit man. Anyhow, it’s against his principles not to roll a faggot.
The gentleman is now boring him with drivel about his family: a dog named Spook, a daughter in college, a wife from whom he’s estranged but still loves. Ryan puts down his sherry. “Don’t miss the boat, Pops.”
The gentleman nods profoundly. His eyes are so soft that they look like poached eggs. “You’re very astute, my good man.”
Ryan laughs heartily. “That’s me, Pops. I go deep.”
Ryan takes the gentleman by the arm—guides him towards the door. The man stumbles as he walks. As they stroll along the street, Ryan keeps his eyes on Stork. He is standing alone on the opposite sidewalk. He is smoking a cigarette—his last damn cigarette—but, thanks to this faggot, he will have time to finish it.
Ryan walks in the direction of Hyde Park. His shadow, emboldened by the streetlights, intermingles with the shadow of the gentleman. The gentleman is singing. “Hoo rah, hoo rah. The Campbells are coming. Hoo rah.”
The punch, when Ryan delivers it, is swift, scientific—the gentleman grabs his stomach. “Ooof,” he says—his carnation pops off. Ryan catches him as his knees begin to sag and sits him down in a doorway. He searches the man’s pockets, finds his wallet, opens it up. Only forty dollars—hardly worth his time. But principle is principle. Ryan pockets twenty dollars and leaves the rest in the wallet. The coot will need money for a cab. “Let that be a lesson to you, Pops.” He tosses him the wallet. “What would your wife think?”
Leaving the gentleman in the doorway, Ryan marches back towards the coffeehouse. He knows from experience that the man won’t call the cops. And he has bigger matters to worry about. It is late—nearly midnight—and Stork is still alive.
Ryan lurks outside of the coffeehouse. Stork is not around. While he waits, Ryan swallows a hit of meth—a capsule that he smuggled out of jail. Twenty minutes pass, but Stork does not appear. Fuck it—there’s no sense in hanging around all night just to kill off another snitch. He may as well party instead—have himself a ball. In case the cops get lucky enough to nab him.
Ryan walks two blocks downhill to the classiest nightclub in town. The sign on the Marquee—Whiskey A-Go-Go—flashes then fades, flashes then fades. Ryan sucks in his belly as he walks towards the doorway. No sense in advertising the bulge from the gun.
A burly bouncer waves him in, and Ryan strolls into the club — unsearched. The club, a cavernous place, is filled with servicemen, cigarette smoke, scantily dressed women serving drinks. The lights from a chandelier force him to squint. His pupils, dilated from the meth, are probably bigger than saucers now.
A hostess approaches him—a pencil-thin woman in her fifties with stiletto heels. Her silvery dress clings like cellophane to her tits and spits back the light from the chandelier. Her cheekbones have the windswept look of a bad facelift. She is looking at him with exaggerated concern. “Are you hungry, my dear?”
Ryan grins. “I could eat.”
She points towards an empty booth at a far corner of the club. “Have a seat, poor sir. A waitress will bring you something. It’s entirely on the house.” The woman’s eyes are tender, her voice is softer than silk, but there is an unmistakable putdown to her offer. Behave and we will feed you—just like a dog.
Insulted, Ryan takes a seat at the far end of the nightclub—a corner so dark that his eyes have to readjust. A half-naked waitress brings him his bribe: a hamburger on a paper plate. Ryan orders schnapps with a beer chaser and pays for it with his own money.
Ryan takes a bite out of the burger. It is soggy—practically raw. What do they think he is—a vampire? He spits the mouthful out and shoves the plate to one side. He then downs the schnapps quickly to wash away the taste of the burger. He finishes his beer in several gulps.
The room is now glittering like a diamond. A faggot band is beginning to play. A tight-butt woman is singing a Beatles song—something about Mother Mary and letting it be. Ryan gets a hard on listening to the woman. He’d nail her a good one if he wasn’t getting married tomorrow—show her what a real man can do. And after he had her begging for more, he’d turn her into his squaw. Ryan closes his eyes and listens to the beat of the ballad. There’s nothing like a bit of music before icing yourself a snitch. Helps put a man in the mood.
The music fades as Ryan begins to nod off. He wakes up abruptly. The room is now dotted with flashes of light. They mingle with the band, the couples on the dance floor—even with the bouncers standing like sentinels near the doorway.
A towering nun, obscured by the jumping lights, is drifting from table to table. She seems to hover like a bird of prey. What the fuck is she up to—trying to pluck souls? Nuns don’t belong here and that’s for sure. It’s bad enough when they show up in jail.
Ryan slips from the booth and struts towards the dance floor. Screw that skinny hostess. Ryan came here to party and he’s going to party. Time to show the women here his moves. The band is now playing “I Shot The Sheriff”—which has put him in the mood for a war dance.
Standing in the middle of the dance floor, Ryan struts his stuff. He hops nimbly from foot to foot while singing. “Hiii yah yah yah yah.” The bouncers are watching him intently while the women are checking him out. When the song is over, the room is spinning: an aggravation since Ryan needs to piss—badly. His bladder has swollen to the size of a medicine ball. Slowly, as though navigating a carousel, Ryan makes his way towards the men’s room.
The door to the men’s room is hard to find. When he finally spots it, it seems as though an hour has passed. Ryan enters the room judiciously as though walking into a church. It is empty—thank god—and a shiny urinal sits before him like a shrine.
Ryan throws back his head as he urinates. The relief is so great that he closes his eyes. He sighs like a hound when he has finished and shakes himself for several seconds. A good strong piss is better than sex. Lasts longer too.
The door to the bathroom bangs open.
Instantly, Ryan crouches. His shoulder is turned towards the door, his fists are balled and ready to strike. A jailhouse stance.
His muscles relax when he sees the intruder—a beetle-browed man with a pork pie hat. He couldn’t be more than five feet tall and he’s scuttling into the bathroom like a centipede. The man halts when he sees Ryan. He yelps and then scuttles back out. That cocksucker better run. He deserves a good ass whipping—just for looking like a bug. And he might have knocked.
Ryan stumbles to the sink—turns on the faucet. Time to wash up and get the hell out of here. Time to get on with his mission. When he presses the liquid soap dispenser, he pauses. The soap is red and irresistibly glossy. Ryan covers his fingers with the soap and then combs four streaks onto each of his cheeks—bear claw marks. It looks like he’s wearing war paint now. He admires his reflection in the mirror as he finishes washing up.
Ryan strolls back into the clubroom. The lights are still jumping—popping all around him like flash bulbs—but he can still make out faces. The women are watching him, mouths agape—the men are applauding him loudly. Ryan bounces as he walks and chants, “Woo woo woo.” It’s about time they paid homage to a true Indian brave. Even the hostess is looking him over, her eyes growing wider than doorknobs.
The hostess is in front of him now and her tits are heaving with excitement. Let her wait her turn—she’s a little too skinny for him to fuck first. He should have brought a rubber hose just to beat off some of the women in here. When she speaks to him, she is still gulping for breath—so much so that it sounds like she’s uttering a single word. “Siryou’reindecent.”
Irritated, Ryan thumps his chest with his fist. “I’m Hunting Bear, woman. Show some respect.”
She is wringing her hands as though ridding them of ants, but her voice is now measured and stern. “That’s just the problem, sir. You’re a little too bare.”
Ryan bows his head, notices his exposed willie, and sighs. It’s not a good day for meat. Still, she didn’t have to call him indecent. Twelve inches on the slack is pretty damn decent.
Reluctantly, Ryan shakes his head. She has forcedhim to even the score. Not that he wants to upset her, but honor is honor. No one talks that way to Hunting Bear. Especially, when he’s on the warpath.
Ryan grabs the front of the woman’s gown—yanks. The fabric tears—her breasts spring free, wobbling about like water balloons. Not a bad rack for so skinny a broad. The woman gasps. “The cleaners,” she says. “This dress just came back from the cleaners, sir.”
Ryan takes off his wristwatch and hands it to her. It’s gotta be worth thirty dollars to a pawnbroker. “That oughta cover it, sister” he says. “Save me the bill if it costs any more to fix.”
She doesn’t accept the watch—instead, she clutches her dress to her breasts. Her voice is now shriller than a police siren. “Get this tramp out of here. We fed him and look how he acts.”
Ryan shakes his head. Some hostess she is—can’t handle a little tit for tat. Hell, the bitch is lucky he didn’t spank her.
The bouncers are on him now: a hand grabs his collar, yanking him backwards—more hands pin his arms to his sides. “Zip it,” a voice cries, but Ryan cannot move. There’s got to be four of them, at least—that’s how many it takes to handle Hunting Bear.
‘WE EVEN FED HIM,” the hostess cries. “We even fed him. We even fed that boar of a man … ” Her voice grows fainter as the bouncers frog march him to the back door of the club. Bouncers and cops—they’re all the same: too chicken shit to fight him one on one. And they always take the woman’s side.
Although Ryan struggles mightily, they throw him into an alley behind the club. His hands—quicker than a serpent’s tongue—break his fall as he hits the pavement. The door to the club slams shut behind him.
Remarkably, Ryan can still feel the press of the pistol in his crotch. He could have popped all four of them but fuck it. The bouncers were just doing their job—even if they were gutless about it. It’s that goddamn Stork who needs popping.
Ryan rises to his feet, dusts off his knees, and eases his tallywhacker back into his pants. Oughta have a pulley to reel in that baby. Zipping his pants up, he steps from the alley back onto the sidewalk.
A street clock reminds him that it’s two o’clock in the morning. It may as well be noon, high noon, like that movie he saw a year ago with Gary Cooper as the sheriff. Now there’s a real man: he popped off four bad guys who all needed dusting. Slaughtered them like hogs. Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’, on this our wedding daaay. The theme song from the movie runs through his mind as he marches back to the coffeehouse.
The streetlights are floating like jellyfish; the storefronts sweep by him as though borne upon a current. He has all but forgotten the incident in the nightclub; like a piece of flotsam, it will soon be lost in the swampland of his memory. Ryan is grateful his memory is shot—the streets are no place for a cluttered mind. Stick to the basics and the basics will take care of you. And so hussies you hump, snitches you kill, faggots you roll, and angels you guard—that is if you can find an angel. The streets are practically empty now.
That he still has the gun means his mission is sealed. It is in the stars that he rid the world of scumbags. And a man can’t be arguing with the stars. The sanctity of his mission grows clearer still when he sees Stork standing alone at the top of the hill. With his back pressed against a storefront wall, his eyes staring blandly ahead, he looks like a prisoner awaiting execution. Stork turns his head slowly in Ryan’s direction. He slowly looks away.
Ryan slaps the clip into the gun. The clip has four rounds in it, but he will only need one. Ryan, an expert marksman, can hit a dime at fifty yards. Too bad for Stork that he had to go and drop one.
Since his mission cannot fail, there is no point in putting things off. He will lure Stork into the alley himself. He will use the pretense of making a buy. Stork did not recognize him, after all. He does not know that Ryan, heaven’s avenger, will be the last person he sees on earth.
Ryan pulls back the slide, chambers a round, and puts the gun back into his pants. The time is now.
Stork’s face softens as Ryan approaches him. His smile is warm, infectious, and utterly disarming, but it is a smile of solicitation—not recognition—much like the smile of a supermarket clerk. Sample our cheesecake, the smile seems to say. The first piece is free. That asshole would need plugging even if he wasn’t a snitch. It’s too bad he has to look like Jesus.
Stork keeps smiling as Ryan plants himself in front of him. The fucker still doesn’t know who he is. Ryan snaps his thick fingers. “A buck’s worth of speed.”
Stork’s eyes crinkle warmly as he looks Ryan over. He seems amused by the red soap streaks on Ryan’s face. Obviously, Ryan is not a narc. “Might I see the money, my friend?”
Ryan dips into his pocket and pulls out a wad—a roll of one-dollar bills wrapped up in a twenty. Stork seems convinced that he is holding a hundred dollars. “Come into my office, sir.”
Ryan follows Stork into the alley. The alley is darker than he remembers and smells of piss. When Stork turns to face him, Ryan is pointing the pistol at his chest.
Stork shows no alarm—only benign interest. His smile seems chiseled upon his face. “Do you do hits?” he asks.
Ryan shakes his head. The cocksucker still thinks he’s in charge.
“Do you do hits?” Stork repeats. “I could use a man with courage. Now you can rob me for chump change or you can earn some real money. And I’ll give you that buck’s worth for free.”
Ryan extends his arm. The gun is now six inches from Stork’s chest. So the fucker wants him to kill for drugs and money? That’s not a bad idea, but Ryan has justice to perform. And Stork needs to know that his hour has come.
“I hittin’ you, asshole—let’s get that straight. You dropped a dime.”
Stork’s smile remains frozen upon his face. “My friend, I don’t know you from Adam.”
“Get a clue, asshole. Adam wears a fig leaf.”
“I see,” Stork replies. “That must be him behind you.”
Ryan looks over his shoulder—no one is there. When he looks back at Stork, the cocksucker is fifty feet away and running. The oldest damn trick in the book.
Ryan wraps both his hands around the pistol grip. Anticipating the kick, he presses one hand against the other—the old push-pull. Can’t ice a snitch if the gun isn’t steady. He pulls the trigger—twice—and the gun starts bucking like a bitch in heat.
Ryan’s ears are humming—he should have put plugs in them. He lowers the pistol to finish Stork off, but the fucker is still sprinting like a deer. Impossible—he’s got to have two slugs in him. Ryan fires again—the sound splits his eardrums. Pavement explodes near Stork’s heels.
Ryan kneels down to steady his aim. The gun is kicking too much, and Stork wasn’t hit at all. He raises the pistol. “I’ll pay you,” Stork shouts, but his voice is practically buried by the ringing in Ryan’s ears.
Stork is zigzagging as he runs, throwing off Ryan’s aim. That fucker’s been shot at before. Ryan squeezes the trigger—g-r-a-d-u-a-l-l-y. POW. Stork stumbles the instant he fires and falls down, but Ryan hears the slug ricochet off the alley wall.
Stork is back on his feet—running like a greyhound and not even wounded. His footsteps echo hollowly as he disappears down the alley. He should have taken his punishment like a man. Now Ryan is really pissed.
Ryan rises to his feet. He does a quick war dance. No one gets the better of Hunting Bear—not even when his gun is empty. He will track Stork down and beat him to death with his tallywhacker, if necessary. Ryan can track an ant across a desert.
For now, Ryan needs to get out of here. A police siren, wailing like a banshee, challenges the ringing in his ears. Ryan picks up the shell casings, hotter than live coals, and shoves them into his pocket. He plunges the gun back into his pants.
Ryan’s belt snags the trigger.
The gun bucks and roars.
A blow knocks his leg out from under him.
Ryan tries to run but can only stagger. Hunting Bear is hit. He must have miscounted the bullets.
Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, Ryan quickly wraps the wound. The handkerchief reddens instantly—no matter. Ryan has survived a dozen wounds.
Dragging his leg behind him, Ryan peeks from the alley. The street is empty—he can make his escape. If he can make it to Hyde Park, just a half mile away, the police will never find him. Like a true Indian brave, he will vanish among the trees.
Ryan depresses the clip from the gun. Catching the clip, he tosses it into a dumpster. He throws the gun back into the alley.
Moving gingerly, Ryan hobbles in the direction of Hyde Park. His leg feels transformed—it is now a dead log—but it is not the leg that is slowing him down. A fat clown, juggling water balloons, is blocking the entire sidewalk. The clown’s mouth is crimson, like an open wound, and he is calling cadence as he tosses the balloons. “One, two, three, faw. One, two, three faw.” His concentration is so intense that he may as well be throwing up grenades.
Ryan veers too sharply to avoid the clown. He falls to the ground—pain shoots through his knee. Another damn rip in his pants. Scrambling to his feet, Ryan continues to stagger toward the park.
That clown needs an ass whipping—hogging the entire sidewalk—but Ryan hasn’t got time to do it. Hopefully, the circus will take care of him.
The police siren is growing louder, but the street is still empty. Ryan limps on, his leg dragging with every step. The wound starts to thaw as he approaches an intersection. His thigh is now aching like a bad tooth.
The street light changes. A towering mass, dumped in the center of the crosswalk, is bathed in a scarlet glow. The mass takes shape as Ryan draws nearer. It’s that fucking nun again.
The nun turns toward him and he can now make out her face. Her lips are pursed, as though she is preparing to kiss him, and her jaw is moving mechanically. She is holding a small pig, stroking it behind the ears. The pig grunts affectionately, unaware that it has been stuck—that one of its intestines is dangling like a dick.
The nun nods as Ryan approaches her. She is looking at him possessively, a dominion not born out of reverence—not even concern for his injury—but from the tacit understanding that he will be her next meal.
Ryan dashes past the nun and finishes crossing the street. Fuck that bitch—she will have to catch him first. And no one catches Hunting Bear.
The park is now only a block away. The trees, the lamp posts, the bushes emerge—much like soldiers advancing through a fog. Ryan staggers on—only fifty yards to go—but the siren is growing louder.
Distracted by the fog, Ryan practically trips over the elfin girl—the waif he gave money to earlier that night. She is sitting upon the sidewalk, giggling loudly and polishing an apple. Her feet are bare and her naked toes are wiggling like newborn mice. She is wearing a pink dress.
Ryan stares at the girl. “Beat it, Dolly. I told you that once already.”
She laughs merrily. “Storks deliver babies,” she chirps.
Ryan shakes his head. He’s seen geese with better sense. If she gets herself shot, she can’t say he didn’t warn her. And the police are just about to close in on him.
Ryan staggers on—only thirty yards to go. The park grows fainter with every step he takes, as though he is approaching a mirage. It is not until he feels the grass beneath his shoes that he realizes how far he has come.
The siren is deafening now but Ryan, crouched behind some bushes, knows he has made his escape. His wound is now pounding like a war drum, a tribute to his triumph. Ryan closes his eyes, stretches out on the grass, and allows the fog to deepen.
Ryan awakes to a popping sound. It is morning, he is alive, and a bunch of Nancy boys are playing cricket. Ryan hobbles to his feet, unimpressed by the contest. He doesn’t have to worry about Nancy boys. Dressed in white and scuttling around a green, they look like a bunch of geese. The fuckers don’t know what real sport is. Real sport is dodging cops, rolling drunks, and icing snitches. If it wasn’t his wedding day, he’d go and have a talk with them.
Ryan rummages through the bushes, locates his backpack, and pulls out a change of clothing. Kneeling behind the bushes, he peels off his ruined pants. When he inspects the wound, he is pleasantly surprised. Although his thigh is splotched with gray and yellow bruises, the bullet holes are scabbing over. The slug went clean through his leg—didn’t even touch an artery.
Ryan tears up a tee shirt, rewraps the wound, and slips on a clean pair of pants. He shaves by running a straight razor over his dry face. Only Nancy boys need soap and water.
Ryan quickly puts on a fresh shirt and a tie. A subtle joy has caught up with him—he is not in jail, his wound is only a scratch, and tonight he will finish off Stork. And this morning he is getting married.
Ryan’s happiness grows as he limps from the park, rests upon the sidewalk, and then hops on an eastbound bus. His heart remains full when he gets off the bus and hobbles the four remaining blocks to the Wayside Chapel. Even when he spots Miss Muffet, a skanky little broad sitting on the chapel lawn, his chest can only swell. Her greasy hair, her flinty eyes, the needle bruises on her forearms all seem endearing to him.
She looks at him impatiently. “You ready, mister?”
He nods, accepts her hand, and follows her up the chapel steps. He can feel his wound starting to bleed, but fuck it. Get that blood into his pecker and he won’t have to worry about seepage.
At the chapel door, they are met by a plump minister with a lazy eye—a saint of a man who, after examining the forged blood tests, walks them to the altar and guides them through their vows. Placing a ring on the girl’s dirty finger—a ring she had slipped into his pocket—Ryan repeats, “Until death do us part.” Not much longevity there, Ryan chuckles. How about until a better piece of ass comes along?
When the ceremony is over, Ryan accompanies the girl down the steps of the chapel. A taxicab, paid for by her pimp, is waiting to take them to a suite at the Holiday Inn. The girl hands him a package of rubbers—he smiles. Nothing like a bit of cherry busting to get him into the mood for a hunt.
Following Miss Muffet to the taxicab, Ryan whoops like a rustler. The day is young—the cops are nowhere in sight. And his life, for all good purposes, has unfolded like a bouquet of roses. Before him lie further adventures. Behind him lie wanton red blots.
James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, all of which have won awards, are available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/-/es/James-Hanna
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The water was clear enough to see the skeletons lurking at the bottom. The boy, fifteen and skinny, did not look at them. His arms ached and his hands had begun to blister, but he rowed the little wooden boat on, facing the way it was going. The sound of the oars cutting through the water echoed between ancient sandstone buildings. “I wonder who lived in that window,” the little girl who sat in front of him said, pointing at the round balcony of a half-collapsed house, held up by a single remaining pillar. The gaping hole of what had presumably been the front door was almost entirely submerged in the water. “I bet it was someone with really long hair.” “Why would you think that?” the boy said. “I dunno, just seems like a waste of a balcony if you don’t have long hair.” The boy rowed on, and the sun shone mercilessly on them. They passed through a stone arch into an alleyway narrow enough for the oars to scrape against the mosaic-covered walls. The patterns were cracked and faded, and many pieces were missing, but you could still make out the figures of women heavy-laden with jewellery, winged beasts with horrifying faces and warriors holding spears and chains. The pictures continued below the water level, where long black strands of seaweed danced around a huge, decaying spine and got tangled up in the boy’s oars. “I wish we had things like this back home.” The boy glanced at the wall, then went back to rowing. “We have the temples.” “That’s not the same, they’re just old. It’d look so pretty on Miriam’s walls, can you imagine?” The girl leaned dangerously far out to touch the wall. “Hey, stop it!” The boy grabbed hold of the girl’s shirt to pull her back into the boat, but the girl leaned further out, until her fingers reached the mosaic and pried a piece loose. She sat back down in the boat, triumphantly holding up the faded green stone as the boat rocked from side to side. The boy dropped his oars into his lap and slapped the stone out of the girl’s hand. It disappeared into the water. “You can’t go around taking stuff!” The girl clutched her hand to her chest. “Why not?” “You just can’t.” The girl pursed her lips, crossed her arms and stared him down. The boy picked up his oars. “Well, if you’re not going to tell me…” She reached for the wall again. “Okay fine, fine! Look, it’s just not like the ruins back home. You and your little friends can do whatever you want there. Here, you have to give them something greater in return. The girl scoffed. “Who, the dragons?” But the boy refused to say anything else on the subject, and eventually the girl turned around to the front of the boat, to more exciting sights. The mosaics turned into narrow windows with glimpses of abandoned homes inside – a dusty goblet lying on the floor, a table with game pieces scattered across it, a silver hairbrush fading in a fireplace, rotting wooden cupboards with their doors hanging askew. The boat approached another archway, twin to the one they had passed through earlier, with bleak carvings of flowers, and crumbling dragon heads mounted on the walls on either side. Once, they might have held torches in their teeth. The arch was narrow, and the boy’s oars landed at an awkward angle so that he struggled to push the boat forward. Under the boy’s watchful eyes, the girl reached up and grabbed hold of the arch to pull them through. Beyond, the street was wider, and the water grew steadily deeper until the seaweed at the bottom became nothing but vague shadows. Half-collapsed rooftops with scorched tiles lined the street, a rusty red against the turquoise waters. The boy concentrated firmly on his rowing, but the girl gazed into the waters with a distant curiosity. “I think there are human skeletons too down there. Or maybe a baby dragon.” She turned to the boy. “Hey, did I ever tell you what me and Miriam found last time we went to the temples?” They passed by a row of scorched statues of owls perched on the edge of a roof. The girl reached out her hand as if to touch one, but then pulled it back. “She took me up to the roof of the really big one, you know, the one with the stairs on the side? I nearly fell into one of the cracks. I never thought I’d be allowed to go there but Miriam said I’m big enough now. Anyway, she caught me and just told me to be careful. Then on the roof she found this weird white stick, all prickly and yellowish, and guess what it was? A real-life bone, a thigh bone Miriam said. It’s in my room now.” The boy’s oar slipped and almost fell out of its socket. With an annoyed grunt, he secured it again. “How exciting.” “Miriam also told me this story about a lion who refused to eat little girls. It was really cool.” “Can we stop talking about Miriam?” “You’re just jealous. Miriam said so.” The boy shot her a murderous look. “She’s your mama,” the girl said. “I am aware.” The girl rolled her eyes and turned forward to look out over the waters, past the rooftops where mountains bordered the city to the East. Once, their sides would have been covered with flourishing grapevines, but now the vineyards were dead and long overgrown with weeds and thorns. “I’d give anything to have a mama like that.” “You practically do at this point.” The girl whirled around. “It’s not my fault she doesn’t like you anymore.” One of the oars banged against the side of the boat. The boy adjusted his grip while keeping his gaze firmly away from the girl. “You were fine with everything. Miriam asked you before I moved in and you were fine – you know what my father did –” “Yes, yes, we all know! You think you’re the only one who’s ever had problems?” The girl fell quiet. The boy rowed on furiously. “I don’t want to be here anymore,” the girl said finally, “turn around or I’ll swim back.” “What? No!” The girl shrugged, tied her hair back at her neck, and despite the boy’s protests, stood up and stepped over the side of the boat. The boy tried to grab at her, but she disappeared under the surface, the boat swaying violently above her. A moment passed, two, and the girl did not resurface, though the boy could see her moving around in the waters. She emerged a few feet away, gasping and sputtering and splashing water everywhere as she swam clumsily back to the boat. “There’s something in the water – I swear I saw, I felt it!” She grabbed hold of the side of the boat and tried to pull herself up. “You’re going to make the whole boat tip over!” “So, help me already! It’s coming after me, you’ve got to –” She pulled and kicked her legs and banged against the boat but could not haul herself up. The boy looked out over the water behind her. There was nothing there, only something softly disturbing the surface, but that could have been the girl. She struggled before him, lost her grip and fell back into the water, then reached back onto the boat ledge, wide-eyed and panicked. The boy hesitated. “What are you doing, just help me up!” A slight shadow, or the shadow of a shadow, moved closer underneath the surface. “Help me!” Stiffly, the boy grabbed the girl’s arm and pulled her, kicking, into the boat, where she fell panting onto the floor. The shadow departed into the depths and vanished. The boy watched it go. “What’s wrong with you? What was that?” the girl said, voice hoarse. “I’m – sorry, that was –” The boy tore his eyes away. “Let’s just keep going.” Slowly, the girl sat up on the bench opposite the boy. Her clothes were soaked with seawater, which dripped into a puddle at her feet. “Fine.” They rowed on in silence. The girl sat stiff with her hands tucked under her legs, watching the water warily. It grew shallower as the houses became more damaged. Only a few now had fragments of walls sticking up above the surface. Underneath the boat, great heads mocked the boat with their leering teeth. When some time had passed, and there seemed to be nothing more than sleeping skeletons in the water, the girl relaxed slightly. She turned forward to study the ruins as they passed, though she was careful not to lean too close to the water. A single intact house cast a long shadow over the little boat. The building was tall and square, with many windows climbing up from the water. Like the others, it was built of sandstone, but it had been painted an aggressive, albeit fading, shade of blue. Cracked paintings of colourful animals littered the walls and crawled around the windows. The boy let the boat drift for a moment, gazing at the building’s slanted roof, before asking if the girl wanted to go inside. The girl turned around. “Really?” “It’ll be fun,” the boy said. He rowed closer to the house and put his hand against the wall to stop the boat next to a window surrounded by bright green ferrets. Water spilled into the gloom inside, turning from bright blue to smoky brown. They climbed in through the window and tied the boat to a rusty nail in the wall with a tattered piece of rope from home. An inch-deep layer of dusty water covered the floor and lapped against their bare feet, and the ceiling was so low the boy could only just stand upright. The girl walked straight across the room to a carving of animals shaped into arrows. All of them pointed inwards, towards some unintelligible ancient letters. She ran her fingers over the stone, along what could have been a horse with horrific fangs. “Stop it!” The boy hurried over with water splashing about his legs. The girl snatched her hand back. “I wasn’t taking anything.” The boy rubbed his temples. “Just please, please don’t. You promised you’d do as I say if you came with me here.” “And you promised this was going to be fun. You’re the one who’s been here before.” The boy gave her an annoyed look. The girl ignored it. “How did you even come here last time? Didn’t anyone notice you weren’t on the fields?” she said. “I’m not on the fields every day.” “No, but then you’re off selling stuff and they couldn’t live without those coins.” The boy moved the water around with his feet. “I just snuck away. Baba’s not exactly the most observant.” “No, but you’re definitely not sneaky enough to get past Miriam.” The boy took a breath. “Do you want to go upstairs?” “Upstairs?” The boy nodded to the corner behind the girl, where there was a square hole in the ceiling. A ladder of blackened wood leaned against the wall underneath it. When the girl tried to step on the ladder, however, it collapsed underneath her, and she fell backwards onto the floor. The boy stifled a laugh at her sour look but helped her up without comment. The back of her already damp shirt and trousers were soaked with grey water. He cupped his hands and helped the girl clamber up through the hole, and then hauled himself up, wincing at the gravel and sand cutting into his blisters. It took a few moments for their eyes to adjust to the gloom. The only light came from cracks between the ceiling and walls, and from the hole in the floor. A persistent smell of dust and damp thickened the air – an old, stale odour. Figures appeared in the dark. A glimmering golden sceptre, extravagant necklaces with dusty gemstones, a half-destroyed sculpture of a dragon-headed beast. And everywhere, everywhere, human skeletons. Ribcages and skulls, arms and legs, some still wearing the remains of rotten burgundy robes. The girl swallowed. “This is so much cooler than the temples,” she breathed, walking tentatively closer to the skeletons. “I can’t believe you’ve never taken me here before.” A big rusty headpiece fell to the floor with a deafening clatter. The boy shrieked. One breathless moment, then the boy bolted for the hole in the floor and scrambled down. The girl followed close behind and clumsily dropped onto the floor below. By then the boy was already halfway out the house. He stumbled into the boat and would have completely forgotten about the rope had the girl not untied it as she climbed into the boat. The boy struggled to get the boat moving again, but the moment he did, they both burst out laughing. Wheezing, the girl pointed at the boy and tried to mimic his shriek, and her colossal failure resulted in even more eruptions of laughter. Whenever it died out, they’d catch each other’s eyes and start all over again. “How do you even know about this place?” the girl finally said. “Just…stories. Has seriously no one ever told you –” The girl raised her eyebrows. “What stories?” “No, of course not. Baba used to tell them. There was this guy with about nine children, and they were really poor. He was desperate and searched far and wide for a way to provide for his family, and he found this place.” He paused. “But he couldn’t find anything and finally he just turned back and told his children the story and they were happy.” “That’s a terrible story.” “It’s the way Baba told it.” “No, it’s not.” “Yes, it is.” “You’re a terrible liar. Miriam said so too.” The boy turned serious and put greater force into his rowing. Houses grew up out of the water again. Soon the streets were edged with buildings that must once have been marble exhibitions of wealth but were now yellowed and crumbling and overgrown with weeds and bird’s nests, although the birds stayed out of sight. The water turned shallower. Underneath the boat, fish nibbled at dragon teeth and cracked fountains. “Do you think there was a dancing hall in there?” the girl asked, looking into the marble entrance of a grand, pillared house. The boy smirked, though his eyes were somewhere behind the girl’s head. “Maybe. Do you want to take a look? Dance?” “I would rather die.” “It’d be good practice.” The girl scrunched up her nose. “I don’t know why they make us do it. It’s not like we’re ever getting near one.” The boy wiped the sweat out of his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. “But you have to become civilised people.” “You never had to.” “Ah, but they didn’t care about the sophistication of their children back then. We’re just the workforce.” “Lucky.” “If you say so.” The girl groaned. “It’s just jumping around and flapping your arms and rolling around on the ground looking stupid! I’d rather play the drums.” “That’s for old people though.” The boy cast a glance ahead, where the end of the street was approaching. “You’re old.” The boy opened his mouth to retort, but then closed it again. The street opened up into a huge square, cobblestoned in faded nuances of yellow and red and blue which looked strange and distorted in the water. Dragon heads and wings cradled old market stands of stone. Grand houses in the same cracked colours, with many pillars and archways and balconies, loomed over the square. The girl ran her fingers through the water, her attention entirely consumed by the bones underneath. “Sarai,” the boy said, an edge of uneasiness in his voice. He wiped the sweat from his brow. The girl turned around and lifted her gaze. A little gasp escaped her lips. On the opposite end of the square stood the grandest building of them all, as cracked and decaying as the rest, but with a massive red dome and still-intricate patterns carved into its walls and pillars. A set of wide stairs led up from the water to its entrance, high and wide enough to dwarf kings and emperors, though the doors themselves had long ago fallen off its hinges and lay crooked and crumbling in their arches. “Is that it?” “Yes.” The boy sat still, gripping the oars tightly in his lap. They drifted. “Are we not going in? Is something wrong?” Stiffly, the boy came back to himself. He started rowing again, then picked up the pace. The little wooden boat hit the stairs with a thud. With some labour the boy and the girl dragged the boat up to a landing a couple of steps from the water edge. They worked in silence. Though the girl tried to catch the boy’s eyes, he would not speak or look at her. Above them, the sky was a blazing blue. Even in the shadow of the building the air was relentlessly hot. Both their shirts were damp, and the girl’s hair hung limp down her back. They ascended the stairs, leaving sloppy wet footsteps on the scorching stone, and paused a moment before the gaping entrance. Even though the doors lay on their sides, they were taller than both the girl and the boy. The girl reached for the boy’s hand. He shrugged it away. But when she reached for it a second time, he reluctantly took it, and they entered wordlessly into the gloom beyond, their bare feet hardly making any sound. Hand in hand, they walked through an echoing entrance hall, and then through silent marble corridors. One had arched windows looking across an alleyway to another building, another was lined with a series of shut or rotten doors. The girl tried to look into the rooms they passed, but the boy wouldn’t stop, and something in his demeanour made the girl hesitate to make him. They came into a high, domed chamber, littered with chests of varying sizes, some shut and some revealing dusty treasures of gold and silver. A round hole in the ceiling let in a tired beam of light. It landed on a pile of chains and a set of manacles rusting on the floor. The girl shook off the boy’s hand. “Don’t –” the boy began, but the girl approached the centre of the room without paying him any heed. She knelt before a chest full of faded silver coins, picked up a few and let them slip through her fingers. They clinked back into the chest. The sound echoed through the chamber. “Are these the same ones you brought home?” the girl said. Any trace of the childish inquisitiveness from earlier was gone from her voice. “Sarai, listen –” “Did you take some before?” Slowly, the boy came nearer. Something wild came into the girl’s eyes. She dug her hands into the chest of silver, picked up handfuls of coins and threw them at the boy. He winced as he picked up the chains, rusty with old blood. Frantically, the girl threw a handful at his head, another at his chest, hitting the walls and floor as much as the boy. She got to her feet, but with a few quick steps, the boy grabbed hold of her hands above her head. Silver clattered to the floor. The girl shook her head and pulled against the boy’s grip, but the boy, though he was both weary and skinny, was determined. The manacles closed around her wrists. “What are you doing?” The girl yanked at the manacles, rattling the chains, but they held fast. “Look, I’m sorry,” the boy said, eyes down, “I only took a little at first, just thirty silver coins. It was for my family. You know – I had to – and it was fine at first but then they demanded blood.” “Who’s they?” The boy walked away. “Who’s they?” The girl ran after him, bent down to pick something up to throw at him, but tripped over a metal box of bejewelled necklaces and fell onto her elbows. The boy disappeared out the door. The girl pushed herself back onto her feet, gathered the chains as best she could and ran into the corridor, gasping and shouting after him, her voice shattering against the dry marble walls. The boy covered his ears and walked faster. The girl dragged the chains behind her as she ran and stumbled, falling and scraping her knees when they got stuck around corners. She paid her throbbing bones no heed, but threw herself through the corridors, tugging at the chains and screaming, lungs raw, hair in mouth, for the boy to stop. Underneath the grand entrance, the chains reached their limit, and the girl stumbled to the ground, squinting against the sun. The boy pushed the boat into the water. It was considerably easier than pulling up had been. “Don’t leave me!” The boy did not look back, did not hesitate in his steps when he climbed back into the boat, but his hands shook ever so slightly when he took up his oars. He rowed, facing the way he was going. “Luka!” the girl screamed, but the boy was already far away. In the water, the bones began to rattle and move. The boy rowed faster.
Caroline Söderlund is a Swedish-Estonian writer currently in her third year of studying English and Creative Writing full time at Royal Holloway University of London. Her poetry has previously appeared in The Founder, and has recently focused on folktales, roots and displacement through the lens of multilingualism. She is a big fan of authors like Margaret Atwood and Peter S. Beagle and loves writing whimsical and dark fantasy fiction.
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“These any good?” asked Henry, holding up a package of brushes. I hope he doesn’t think I’m stupid.
“Oh yeah,” said the clerk. “That’s the 24-Piece Jon Ross Artist Paint Brush Set. Remember him? He was that guy on TV. This set has got your professional all-purpose synthetic brushes. Ain’t nothing you can’t paint with these babies.”
“You’re in luck. Everything here at Beale’s Bargain Art Supplies is fifty percent off.”
“How much?” Just answer the freakin’ question.
The clerk picked up a calculator and punched in some numbers. “Ten bucks.”
“Deal. You take plastic?”
Henry fished his card out and tapped it on the card machine. While he waited for the authorization, he said, “Say, I’ve been looking for a small studio to rent. You know of any available?”
The fewer who have my email, the better. Henry selected ‘print.’ A small slip of paper glided out of the machine.
“Need a bag?” asked the clerk.
“No thanks. Save a tree and all that crap.” Henry picked up his brushes. He turned, nearly running into a small man dressed in a gray, wrinkled suit. Unruly white hair peeked out from under his fedora. “Sorry,” blurted Henry. Where the hell did you come from? Why do idiots have to stand so close?
“Perhaps I can be of help, Mr. Faylen.” said the man with a mild eastern European accent. “My name is Josip Vouk.”
I didn’t ask who you are. Henry smiled, holding up his brushes. “I’m fine. Didn’t see you come up behind me. You okay?” He furrowed his brow. Wait, a minute. “Say, how’d you know my name? Have we met?”
“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I heard you ask about a studio. Perhaps I can help.” Vouk pulled a business card from his coat pocket and held it out to Henry. It read: Josip Vouk, Art. Underneath, a handwritten note was scrawled: Anything you need.
Henry wrinkled his brow. What kind of crap is this? “I’m not sure I understand.” He looked at the clerk. “You know this guy?” The clerk shrugged, raising his hands palm up.
Vouk continued. “I maintain a small art gallery in the old Nally factory building on Poydras Street. I also deal in special paints, brushes and canvases—anything you need to create the exceptional,” said Vouk.
“I have no doubt your stuff is exceptional,” said Henry. What the hell is your angle? “However, I can barely afford supplies on sale—starving artist, etcetera, etcetera.”
“I understand,” Vouk said. “I also have a studio which I would be willing to rent at a very reasonable rate. It has nice large windows with a northern exposure. And I will promise not to try to sell you anything.”
Yeah, I bet. Henry shrugged and took Vouk’s card. Time to blow this guy off. “Maybe I’ll come take a look, but mind you, I’m not agreeing to anything.”
Three weeks later, Henry was sitting in his studio above Vouk’s art gallery, staring at a canvas. How the hell did I let him rope me into renting this dump? A few dabs of paint stared back. I’m kidding myself. I’m no artist. Outside, the sun had fallen below the rooftops. The door buzzer rang. He swirled his brush in a jar of water and gently squeezed the excess out on a paper towel. The doorbell rang again. “Hold your horses,” he grumbled. Don’t people understand the principle of privacy? Trudging over to the door, he looked through the peephole. Crap. It was Vouk, looking like a cartoon character with a large head perched on a tiny body. The old man was wearing the same fedora and crumpled gray suit he always wore. He held what appeared to be a large canvas tucked under his arm. Leaning forward, Vouk stared back through the lens with a single, waggling eye. Henry winced. You’re the last person I want to see. He cracked open the door.
“Hello, Henry. I see you are working late this afternoon. I thought I would pay you a visit.”
Henry rubbed his forehead, drawing a deep breath. No, no, no. “I’m kinda busy right now.”
“Yes, of course, but I will only stay a minute. And no attempt to sell you anything as I promised.”
Henry sighed. You’re not going away, are you? “Okay.”
Vouk waited patiently for a few moments before saying, “May I come in?”
“Oh, of course,” said Henry, stepping aside.
Vouk walked over to the canvas, studying it for a moment. “I brought you something.” He leaned the blank canvas against Henry’s easel. Then he swung a large leather satchel from his shoulder and set it on a card table cluttered with painting supplies. A package, wrapped in craft paper and tied with twine, protruded from its side pouch.
Here it comes. Lowering his brows, Henry asked, “What’s all this? You said you wouldn’t try to sell me anything.”
Vouk smiled. “Of course not. These are a few small gifts.”
Gifts always come with strings. I hate strings. Henry shook his head. “Oh, I can’t accept this. It’s way too much.”
“Don’t worry, no strings attached. May I?” Vouk asked. Not waiting for an answer, he took the canvas from the easel and replaced it with the one he brought. “This linen,” he said, caressing its surface, “is the finest quality Belgian flax, made specially for me by an old craftsman in Holland. Such canvases will last hundreds of years. Already primed, it awaits only your imagination.”
Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. “Really, Mr. Vouk, I can’t accept…”
Vouk bowed his head while holding up a hand to halt Henry mid-sentence. “Certainly you can. Please, humor an old man.” He withdrew the packet from the satchel’s side pouch.
“Now, these are cat’s tongue brushes. Not real cat tongues,” Vouk chortled, unwrapping the package carefully. “No, these are made of pure kolinsky red sable from the Tobol River region in Eastern Siberia. And, last but perhaps most important,” he whispered, reaching deep into his satchel, “are the oils, pigments ground by hand in stone and mixed with cold-pressed linseed oil.”
“I mostly do acrylic,” said Henry. I hate oils. They’re too hard to work with.
Vouk stepped back, looking at the canvas he had set aside. “I see you do. Perhaps it is time to try something new. Oh, I almost forgot, I have something else.” Reaching into his satchel, Vouk produced a bottle of liquor and two hobnail tumblers. “Come, let us have a drink. Shall we?” He walked across the room to a futon and sat down. He pushed a layer of magazines on the coffee table aside to make room for the bottle and glasses.
Henry eyed the green bottle. Finally, something I can use. He couldn’t read the foreign language on the faded label, but did detect the faint image of a dragon lurking under the lettering. But, I’m not too keen to drink anything I don’t have a clue about. “I got a couple of cold brews in the fridge,” he offered.
“That is very kind of you, but I would like you to try some of this,” Vouk said, uncorking the bottle and pouring the pale amber liquid. “This is Salamander Brandy. You will not find it on the shelves of local liquor stores in this country. It is privately distilled in parts of Slovenia. This comes from my hometown of Bevoc, located in the Julian Alps. He held out a tumbler.
The scent of lime flowers and anise filled Henry’s nostrils. “Well, maybe one,” he said, joining Vouk on the futon.
Vouk raised his glass. “Za novo življenje—it means: For a new life.”
“Okay then. For a new life.” Or death. Henry took a tenuous sip. The sweet, earthy fluid tingled his mouth and throat. “What’s in this stuff?” he asked, downing the rest.
“Oh many things,” said Vouk. “There is a basic recipe. However, each distiller will add his own special ingredients.”
“I think I’ll have another, if that’s all right.”
“Of course,” said Vouk, pouring another glass. “In my country, we say the best way to get the full experience is to sip it slowly with good conversation.”
They spent the evening with Vouk speaking of his youth in Slovenia, his emigration to America, and painting. Henry listened as he sipped. He barely finished his third glass before falling asleep.
…he found himself in a wooded glen, sitting by a meandering creek, among the sedges, cattails and occasional flowers that lined its shore. Beyond those on either side grew thickets of trees. An iridescent aura enveloped everything—every flower—every leaf—every blade of grass. It even enveloped the ripples of syrupy water flowing over the creek stones. Vibrant globs of yellow sunlight seeped through the treetops, coating each leaf before drooling off to find the next. Everything he saw—the grass, the insects, the birds hovering in an iridescent sky—absolutely everything seemed new and strange. Yet, deep inside, his ever present state of apprehension lurked. For what seemed an eternity, he stayed at the water’s edge, watching the flora and fauna.
Finally, far upstream, a sailboat appeared from the rushes. It was manned by two black salamanders, dappled with yellow spots, as if the globs of sunlight had finally found their destination. Henry watched them tack back and forth, catching the breeze and avoiding the rocks as they sailed toward him. They were singing sea shanties. As they sang, misty green swirls flowed from their mouths and drifted up, evaporating in the sunlight. Soon, the amphibian sailors were close enough for Henry to see tiny iridescent blue orbs emerge from the green mist. They flitted about the glen, finally swarming around his head before bursting like soap bubbles. The salamanders watched Henry with interest for some time before calling out, “And what manner of being are you, for you are surely no salamander…”
Morning light poured in the studio windows, waking Henry from his dreams. He stared at the bottle which Vouk had left, while the remnants of his dream meandered through his mind. Looking up, he saw the white rectangle of canvas Vouk had placed on the easel. He tore across the room and grabbed his palette, brushes, and oils.
Late in the afternoon, Henry collapsed on the futon. Having worked nonstop through the day, he rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, then assessed the painting. A sylvan setting had materialized on the canvas. A brook bracketed by lush vegetation flowed through the foreground. Dense woods crawled up either side of the canvas and a brilliant blue sky floated overhead. He focused on the composition. Stunned, he realized it was the setting of his dream—down to the last detail except for the salamanders and their boat.
An annoying bzzzz broke Henry’s concentration. Dragging himself off the futon, he trudged to the door and peered through the peephole. Vouk. Not you again. Can’t you leave me in peace? Henry swung the door open.
“I see you have finished painting for the day,” said Vouk. “Perhaps you would let an old man see what you have accomplished?”
A knot grew in Henry’s stomach. Why? Like everyone else, you’ll only criticize me. “I don’t usually let folks see my works in progress.”
“I understand, I just thought…” Vouk let the words trail off with a heavy sigh.
Henry’s stomach remained tight. You won’t give up, will you? “Sure. Come in.” Stepping back, he motioned for Vouk to enter.
Henry’s neck stiffened as Volk made a beeline for the canvas. Now it starts.
Vouk studied it for a long time before saying, “You have made a good start. Tell me, did you leave the salamanders out intentionally?”
“What did you say?”
“It’s just that salamanders like wet or damp environments. It seems reasonable to expect one or two to be found around a creek. But I’m sure you have much more work to do before this work is complete.”
Henry glared at Vouk. I knew it. Nothing I do is ever good enough. “What do you mean by that? I think it’s pretty good as it is.”
“I meant no criticism. What is here is done well, but it is in no way complete. What is it but some rocks and trees? You might as well have gone to the park and snapped a photo. What is here that captures your soul?” Vouk paused. “I will tell you. Nothing… yet. To complete the painting, you must put yourself into it. Not until then will you be finished.”
How dare you say that, you old bastard, even if it is true? I ought to kick your ass out of here. “I’ll admit there may be a few finishing touches needed before it’s done,” Henry growled. “But, I also want it made clear I poured a lot into that painting, and I think it’s pretty damn good as it stands,”
“Ah, I apologize,” Vouk said. “I have upset you. Let me make it up. There is a nice restaurant around the corner. You’ll feel better after eating something. My treat.”
After what you said, do you really think I want to eat with you? “No, I don’t want anything to eat. I’m tired.”
“As you wish. But please, I would like to come back once you complete those finishing touches.”
You’ll come no matter what I say. “Yeah sure. Look, no hard feelings. You prying old bastard. I’m just worn out.”
“Of course, I will…see myself out.” With that, Vouk left.
Henry studied the canvas for a few moments, then grabbed the Salamander Brandy.
…he found himself once again sitting in the glen, everything aglow, listening to the pleasant commotion of the insects and birds. His eyes searched the wooded glen. So intense was his search that he failed to notice the same two salamanders, wearing backpacks and carrying walking sticks, had climbed up on a stone next to him. They were sharing an ornately appointed hookah shisha. One spoke. “I am Bor and my companion is Blaz.” Pale cyan-tinted smoke curlicued from his mouth as he spoke.
Bor’s voice startled Henry. Regaining his composure, he took a calming breath before he asked, “Weren’t you in the sailboat yesterday?”
“Indeed,” said Blaz.
Henry scanned the shore. “Where’s your ship?”
“Yesterday was sailing day,” said Bor, holding out a silver clad flask. “Today we are hiking. Care for a drink?”
“What is it?” asked Henry.
“What else? Salamander Brandy,” said Blaz.
“I don’t know,” said Henry. “I think drinking that stuff is how I got here.”
“Is that a bad thing?” asked Bor.
Henry shrugged and took a sip. A warm sensation swirled around inside his head. It lingered a bit, then passed. “Not bad, but no more. I want to keep my wits about me.”
“Why is that?” asked Blaz.
“Waiting for what?” asked Bor.
“I don’t know for sure, but I know something is coming—something beautiful, yet terrifying. I yearn for it and fear it in the same instant. I have no idea what I’ll do if—no—when it comes, but…” The ground shivered beneath him, interrupting his train of thought. All activity in the glen froze. On the opposite bank, a curtain of fog drifted out from trees. It stopped a few feet from the water’s edge.
“Ahh…, that would be for you,” said Blaz. He and Bor slipped off the rock and disappeared in the rushes taking their hookah shisha with them.
“Cowards,” Henry whispered, taking a raspy breath. His chest tightened.
Everything remained silent and still until a small rift materialized in the fog. Within the rift, glowing tendrils began to coalesce. A face, dazzling and unnerving, took shape. The sight of it made Henry tremble. Struggling to his feet, he tried to move his legs—to run into the safe darkness of the forest—to flee until he was hopelessly lost, completely hidden. However, he remained rooted to the earth. Then, fog welled up around him in a black, suffocating oubliette…
Late in the afternoon, Henry awoke, head reeling. He looked at the canvas, cursing under his breath. Globs of paint smeared on a bit of cloth stared back at him. Damn your smug ass, Vouk! No passion, nothing to touch the soul. That describes me to a tee. Images from his dream crawled through his thoughts. A face in the rift came into focus. Forcing himself over to the canvas, he picked up his pallet and a brush. Please, please let me get this one thing right.
The sun was fading as Henry lay down his palette. Exhausted, he stepped back and eyed the canvas.
“She is quite beautiful.”
Henry’s knees buckled at the sound of Vouk’s voice. Goddamn. He turned around to find Volk behind him. “How the hell did you get in here?”
“I apologize. I came up to check on you and found the door open. You were standing here, so I came in.”
Prying jerk wad. “You could’ve knocked. It’s only polite.”
“Yes, of course, you are correct. But as long as I am here, may I see?”
Don’t play dumb. You’ve already looked. “Yeah, go ahead,” said Henry, stepping aside.
Vouk studied the canvas. “You have made progress, indeed. Her face stirs something within me. Does she do the same for you? No need to answer. The answer is in your painting. Yet, I believe you have more to discover.”
“Everyone’s got an opinion.” Henry rubbed the back of his neck. Jerk. You have no idea what I’m doing.
“Perhaps. None-the-less Henry, you look tired… and lost. Get some rest.”
The last residue of Henry’s angst melted away. It’s no use. “As much as I hate to admit it, maybe you’re right. I am…” His voice trailed off as he picked up the Salamander Brandy. He studied it for a moment. “You know, the salamanders had some of this in a silver flask. I know this ain’t polite, but…” He snickered, then drained the bottle with a single swig.
Vouk smiled. “Those two are indeed tricky fellows.”
How’d he know about them? Forget it. The old bastard is pulling my chain. “You got that right,” said Henry, sagging to the futon. The bottle fell to the floor, rolling to Vouk’s feet. He picked it up and set it on the card table.
“Well, shall I leave you to it?” asked Vouk. Henry, already asleep, didn’t answer.
…he found himself standing at the edge of the creek. Waiting. The gray fogbank loomed at the treeline. The rift cracked open. His pulse raced. A woman stepped out. The sight of her scorched his soul. There was an aura of malevolence about her, yet he was inexorably drawn to her beauty. Long flaxen hair flowed to her waist in a cascade of soft curls. Smoky quartz eyes called to him. Smiling persimmon lips stoked his desire. She remained motionless for the longest time. Then she held her arms out, beckoning him.
Henry, abandoning all his fear, ran headlong into her embrace…
The cop looked at the ripped canvas on the easel. “What would make Faylen punch a hole in his painting?’ He reached out and touched its surface. Drawing his hand back, he studied his finger tips. “You know, he was covered head to toe with this stuff. How could that happen?” He picked up the empty bottle from the card table, examining the label. “Do you know what this is?”
“Oh, that is Salamander Brandy,” said Vouk. “I think Mr. Faylen was fond of it. Perhaps too fond for his own good.”
The cop walked over to the smashed window and looked down at the body sprawled on the sidewalk, surrounded by shards of glass. “Looks like he ran right through it. Why you think he did that?”
“He did seem like a troubled man.”
“Well, I guess I’ve seen all I want. We may ask you to make a formal statement, Mr. Vouk.” “Oh, certainly, officer. Anything you need.”
Paul Stansbury is a lifelong native of Kentucky. He is the author of the four volume Inversion Anthology Series; and Down By the Creek – Ripples and Reflections. His speculative fiction stories have appeared in a number of print anthologies as well as a variety of online publications. Website: http://www.paulstansbury.com
They’re called Venus Rings. They were supposed to fix us.
It was his idea for us to wear them together. How could I say no to something like that? How could I say no to anything he asked of me? That was the problem. Usually what he asked me for was forgiveness. Forgiveness for this thing or that. I don’t feel the need to sit here and spell out every lie and cover-up.
For once it seemed like Sam was asking something of me for the benefit of me. Of us. It felt so sincere this time. How could I say no?
“This isn’t for sex, it’s for the feeling of your breath on my neck in the morning,” he said to me as his body sent comforting heat into mine one chilly February morning, “It’s for you to know when I jump in the water, and how deep I’ve gone, and the moment I come back to the surface. That’s why we want this.”
Some days, when he would call full of excuses for being late or explanations for the days he’d disappeared, I would listen to him, mumble in agreement, and hang up always humming the same song to myself. Christine McVie begs for a break from the inevitable over classic ‘80s synth chords and one of her ex-husband’s melodic basslines. It wasn’t my favorite song before my 6-year relationship, but Sam made it my favorite song. “Tell me lies,” I ask him, and he never fails to deliver. He sings them so sweetly. How could I say no?
So I don’t deny him, and a day later there’s a box on the coffee table with a slogan on the side in a seductively cursive font reading “To be dirty at any distance…”
It’s gaudy and feels like something we would make fun of other people for doing, with dressing like a porno back when they could still be rented on VHS.
The rings are pitch black and surprisingly slim considering what they can do. Each contains two opal stones that poke out of the top like eyes, or maybe antennae sending information to the matching stones on the other hand. Both opals are like a war of color, with hundreds of hues fighting in spots and stripes for dominance as it turns in the hand. One had black at the center and the other was more of a golden yellow. That’s the one Sam took. He knew I was barely up for this plan and having to wear the more conspicuous of rings to top things off would have made me want to take it off in public. One of his whimpering attempts at coming off as considerate following all of his previous actions that proved the contrary.
From then on he could have me whenever he wanted me. From then on we played and teased like we were still the 20-somethings who met at a crowded pub in Krakow during coincidentally shared semesters abroad. I had to begrudgingly admit my ring had grown on me after some time.
The Venus Rings combine the sense of touch from two individuals into one. The manufacturer calls any set of two rings a “couple”, and any two people wearing connected rings will feel every physical sensation their partner feels. I could be watching a movie at home and feel the water running over Sam’s hands in the bathroom sink at his office, followed by the heat from the air dryer blowing them off. Most importantly, I could feel if he was being touched by someone else, or by himself.
The rings are marketed for pleasure, if it wasn’t obvious from the slogan, although a Google search reveals some conspiratorial social media posts accusing the original technology of being invented by the US military as a torture and interrogation device. The marketing for the rings makes it very clear that the only physical sensation not communicated through them is pain, so if they were ever used for such things, it’s long since been removed. I’d just as soon save some of the more intense details of how Sam and I used them for the sake of sparing my story from coming across as one written by a hot-and-bothered housewife with an eye for the pool boy.
The first day of having the ring curled around my hand left me with particularly uneasy feelings and sudden sensations from all around with no visible reference for why they were happening. There was a natural panic at first, followed by a gradual familiarity that came with interesting experimentation, like when we tried to figure out how to send messages to each other using just touch. We learned We could pat our bellies to tell one another we’re hungry and I would hold my thumb and pinky to my head in the shape of a phone to say “Call me.”
It became like a game as much as it was like a toy. A random cold on my right arm could be Sam leaning on the metallic Metro pole during his commute to Union Square, or maybe leaning on a streetlight outside while waiting for his morning coffee. Every feeling is a new question and a slew of guesses. Of course, the more titillating feelings weren’t so much a guessing game. They were a sign that he was thinking about me.
Naturally, I’d return the favor when I was thinking about him.
I was content with that. I was content to pack the dirty laundry, still rank and begging to be washed, into tight suitcases with broken latches and focus on playing in this new world Sam had created purely from desire and an ad he found on the internet. It felt like the future and the past, like something I could have and something we once had.
It was a dream of perpetual embrace. The moment when his arms are around you in pitch-black darkness, and the feeling right then like nothing could pierce those sheets or that hold you have on each other, stretched to every moment of the day. No one is between you and him in that embrace. You are together in the purest possible sense. Of course I was willing to deny the well of emotions I sat on top of, the betrayal and the woeful dread knowing Sam couldn’t help himself but to return to his previous ways again, to live in this dream for a time.
April 29th is the date of the dream’s abrupt end. April 29th is the day an earthquake struck San Francisco that came just shy of outdoing the infamous 1906 quake on the Richter scale. Sam’s office building didn’t just collapse, it fell into the earth. I’m terrified of the idea that the Earth can open up and swallow a building with floor after floor of people going about their day. The people aren’t even the point, the Earth just wants to swallow the building, and the people happen to be inside. Sam happened to be inside. To this day, he’s still listed as one of the “82 missing/unrecovered” of the nearly 400 casualties from his office building alone.
We buried an empty casket at his funeral, right next to the plots that already held his father and mother. I remember, in a way that made me feel sick, wondering why we even bothered burying anything at all. He was already in the ground, just not the way most people end up there.
I escaped the earthquake with just a concussion courtesy of hitting my head on the pavement while out for a run. Everything felt like mush in the heat of the moment. The ground rumbled, my head spun, and my skin tingled. There’s no way to know which feelings were my own and which, if any, were the last that Sam felt as he tumbled into dust and fate, discarded like waste. Concussions strip memories away and throw layers of ambiguity over the ones that remain. It’s hard to remember what exactly I felt in those moments.
I woke up on the pavement with an ambulance medic overhead asking me questions that I answered in a fog of slurred words. Everything happened in sporadic and loosely-knit moments I could barely connect. Questions followed confusion followed someone rubbing cloth over my face which touched my skin blue and came away red. It took me a long time to realize that all of my senses were singularly my own again.
Nothing came from the other end of the Venus Ring. I waited to feel even something simple, like Sam adjusting in his office chair, or the heat of warm coffee touching his lips, or the way he rubs his fingers together when he’s nervous. Nothing came.
I do remember feeling his hand rub over my stomach in the final moments before everything began to shake. I told him early on, way back in Poland, that I loved the feeling. His fingers running softly along the tender skin on my torso, tracing imaginary lines and filling me with goosebumps. It was the final genuine communication we had. From wherever he was sitting, at his desk, or in the foyer where he liked to eat during his break, he said with no words that he was thinking about me, and about those times when we would tell each other the things we enjoyed.
In the moment, though, it made me think about January 10th. Four weeks before we’d decided to get the Venus Rings. The day I got a text from a mutual friend saying things like “It’s none of my business” and “I’m sorry if I’m misreading the situation” but that she thought I should know, with the attached picture of Sam alongside a girl he told me he has a class with at the gym. Only they weren’t at the gym together, they were at the Hightower, a bar down the street from the gym. Sam wasn’t wearing his ring then, either. Not the Venus Ring, of course, or the other ring that was supposed to mean something more significant to partners.
Sam’s last touch came across my belly and I thought about the reason we were doing this all over again. The fact that those were only the latest pictures in a recurring series I’d received of him with somebody else. The fact that when I got those last pictures I wasn’t even surprised, just so, so ready for everything to be over.
It was the show that could never be canceled, and every time somebody told me they finally put an end to that piece of shit program, more episodes magically appeared on my phone, or in my e-mail, or they just walked up to my door and said, “He told me the relationship was open.”
So my last memory of his touch isn’t a happy one. It was a reminder of what he’d done to bring us to that point. All of his touches felt like apologies, even if I enjoyed them. All of his sweet words felt like they were in constant expectation of the day I would finally say “I forgive you and I’ve forgotten it ever happened.”
I don’t think that day was ever going to come, but I was clinging to the idea that maybe it would just as much as him.
My last memory of his touch isn’t a happy one, and I don’t need to feel guilty for that, because he did it to himself. But I do. Every day.
For the first couple of days after the earthquake, I never took off my Venus Ring. The rescue crews searched around the destruction for anything, dead or alive, and I kept the ring on in hopes that I would eventually connect with sensations that weren’t my own again. I sat completely still in the middle of the living room where I’d cleared a large space, trying to touch as little as possible, trying to get any sign of a feeling from the other end of the ring. I could use it to find him somehow, no matter how deep he’d fallen. All he needed to do was feel something, to make any movement.
Once the denial phase was over, I just kept the ring on as a tribute. It was a strange tribute, of course. Some people saw the ring and knew what it was, and what it was typically used for. I didn’t care. It was a memory of embrace. A memory of a good dream.
Nine days after the earthquake, a feeling began to come through the Venus Ring again.
I sprang up in the dead of night throwing the covers off of myself as quickly as I could manage. Something was on my body, slithering and writhing all over my skin. I ran over to the light switch, sloppy and barely awake, to see what could have possibly gotten into my apartment and worked its way into my bed in the darkness. Only, the light revealed nothing but my naked body on the edge of my bedroom. I was alone. But still, the feeling remained.
There is no more accurate way to describe it that I’m aware of. It was a slithering, in thousands of places all at once. It covered me from head to toe and felt like it was trying to drag me in all directions.
It felt alive, moving from side to side, like the inside of a serpent’s throat, but I struggle to get more specific as I grow more certain it’s a feeling not meant to be experienced by the living.
It stopped when I removed the Venus Ring. I couldn’t believe it was the source of that feeling, but I didn’t dare to put it back on for certainty in that moment. The feeling was repulsive and alien. It was unnatural in every way.
I left the ring on the floor by the light switch, and then picked it up the next morning imagining to myself that the feeling from the night before must have been some grief-induced nightmare. I slipped the ring back on and once again felt the embrace, not Sam’s embrace, I was surrounded by the slithers and its pulls. This time when I took the ring off, it was with such a force that it clattered down beneath Sam’s old dresser in the opposite corner of the room.
It’s still down there, too. It’s been 50 days. It’s still down there. I stew on its meaning more than I stew on my grief at this point. Maybe this is my grief. Maybe it’s impossible for the two not to intersect. Maybe it doesn’t fucking matter.
What matters is what I felt. The feeling from the other end of the ring. I sent e-mails to the manufacturers, I posted anonymous threads in message boards, I tried to find anybody talking about a feeling coming from the other end of a Venus Ring worn by a dead loved one. I got excuses in return. Explanations of malfunction and placebo and whatever other things I’m frankly not interested in reading anymore. I don’t want to keep running through possibilities and options. Theories have been keeping me from sleep for weeks since I threw that ring under the dresser.
I don’t dare approach it. I don’t understand what the feeling means. I’m scared if I touch it I may feel all of that again, or maybe worse, I may feel something else, something even further from any sensation living beings were meant to feel. What else could be transmitted from the other side? The other side of what? Is that where you are, Sam? Does it hurt? The ring doesn’t transmit pain, so I can’t tell if it hurts, only that it slithers, and that Sam may be pushed and pulled by those feelings forever. I could put the ring back on and find out, but I’m not sure I will.
I may have to feel it again one day. When the earth swallows me, like it does everyone, I may feel it just as Sam does, with the sights, sounds, and pains that complete the picture of exactly what’s on the other side.
I hope I can find him there. Maybe I’m stupid for feeling that way after everything, but I’d love to feel his embrace again wherever he is, among what slithers. If he reached out his hand to me and offered me to take it, I think I’d be with him again there. How could I say no?
Saz is a writer and musician from Asheville, North Carolina currently situated in Brno, Czechia. He has multiple options to escape but spends too much of his focus on the way the road splits. He can be found @sazbeats on Instagram.
Once more the maestro
mounts the stage, his ivory baton
a splurge in loops. My obsidian
rook again threads soft bullets of fog
into wealthy heads. A low purring
train of ebony wind, I fall oblong
into a first repeat. My octave
valve resolves us into intervals
of dementia, and gulls slide
over my cracked facets. Curved
rows of violins cloud shapes
in my double-reed mouth
as it dissolves women into air.
The cellos respond precisely
and I solo. The concertmaster,
tuxedoed fugue behind black metal
music stand, eyes me. I leave.
Heads haunt this lantern, warm
arrangements of fatalities
in each new piece of Beethoven.
My bassoon stands disastrous, exacting
on my lap, a crisis in solitude. I play
seldom. Now, almost never. Insomnia
of notes fixed, skeletal. Will I expose
my self again? My face can be sudden—
my absence a collapse. Inside, angels
burble phlegm into a symphonic
soup, while scales on my bassoon’s body
peel, splash, and sink like scabs into
a toxic broth. Archaic eels electrocute
schisms of marionettes, whip ribbons
in a pottage of vomit. Contrapuntal
borscht— gelatinous chunks mimicking
love, lark’s tongue in aspic spread
thick on sarcastic dressing-room toast.
Late-night at the 24-Hour Walgreens
Regaining consciousness, I find everyone
smoothed into another timeframe. But if
my sutures stretch me oblong, I can still
do mantras for breakfast. When the people
upstairs meditate, roots from the soles
of their feet branch down through our place
like octopus’ tentacles. We tweak them
into centerpieces for our various displays,
but the chewy suction cups don't fit in
with our virtual furniture. The sadness
of our insomnia splashes tax forms
on our sunny plutonium toys. So I disillusion
this torrent of barefoot Hare Krishna’s clanging
finger cymbals. Or maybe our slow-death
memories don't wait at the door ringing, but barge
in with guns, aggressive species of genitalia
who tickle aloft our hysteria's migraine. I find
myself in a condo full of emptiness. I know,
right? We keep our cynicism shut up tight in jars
for the unlikely event of mushroom embolism.
While the woman behind the drug counter
says, "a pomegranate the size of a baby's head
is not exactly something you can pass by
at the grocery," I focus my wandering thoughts
on each raindrop as it plops on the warm sill
outside the pharmacy window in mercury-vapor
snow-globe implosion. But then, how many
funerals can there be in a raindrop? The woman
behind the counter grimaces, jaw clenching
behind her makeup mask, pretending to care how
she might medicate our late-night symptoms.
Bobby Parrott holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University. His poems appear in Tilted House, RHINO, Phantom Kangaroo, Atticus Review, Collidescope, Neologism, and elsewhere. He sometimes gets the impression his poems are writing him as he dreams himself out of formlessness in the chartreuse meditation capsule of Fort Collins, Colorado.
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Pop Alston’s death was pending, so pending in fact, it was impending. Norm Swanson, Pop’s son-in-law was sitting vigil. His wife, Connie, Pop’s daughter, was nowhere to be found and she wasn’t answering Norm’s calls. Finally, he left a message, “Pop won’t last much longer; you better get down here.”
As Norm hung up, Pop stirred a little, causing Norm to reach for the cup of ice chips. “Here Pop take a couple of these, but only a couple.” Pressing the button to elevate the hospital bed, he held the cup to his father-in-law’s lips. The old man sucked in a couple of chips. Norm wondered if Pop would last long enough for Connie to arrive.
The hospice nurse had warned him, “He may get physical or say some crazy things. It’s a sign the end is near.” So, when Pop grabbed Norm’s arm saying, “There is something you need to know about Connie and your garden,” Norm, while not surprised, was curious. He leaned in closer to the old man.
“Take it easy, Pop. I’m here. Do you want more ice chips?”
With a negative shake of his head, the old man, his voice barely a whisper, repeated, “Listen, it’s important. Connie is like my Grandma; you have to be careful.”
Norm knew Connie and Pop didn’t get along. The old man always sensed there was a darkness about her. When Norm tried to find out the source of the problem between them, all Pop would say is, “She’s not my kind of people.”
Now, Norm had a chance to find out. “What does your grandmother have to do with Connie or our garden?” He had heard stories that the grandmother was “odd” but that’s all he knew about it.
“Look in the garden. That’s where you’ll find them.”
“Find who?” Pop didn’t say.
Norm and Connie lived in the house once owned by Pop’s parents. It was an older, well maintained, two-story, situated in a quiet neighborhood. Its most prominent feature was the large, raised garden space in the backyard.
Accessible by a crushed stone path from the patio, a tall wooden fence surrounded the garden. It was short enough that sun got in to warm the soil during the summer months, yet high enough to keep out prying eyes. Each season it produced a fine crop of vegetables and sunflowers.
Connie never told Norm why she didn’t want people to see inside the garden. Only she had the keys to the double locked wooden gate. Being particular about who entered that space, not even Norm got in unless she wanted him there. That never bothered him though since he preferred not to be out in the summer heat and humidity. If asked, he would help her move things to the garden, but what went on in there was up to her.
Pop started to speak again, “When I was a boy, Connie’s great grandma ran a tourist house where you now live. Back then, the neighborhood was rundown. Your house was close to rail yards and the wallpaper factory, in the High Bank area, next to the Niagara Gorge. Now that the factories and trains are gone, your neighborhood is much nicer.
“Grandma took in the transients who ‘rode the rails.’ They weren’t tourists and didn’t come to see the wonders of Niagara Falls. They were bums, hobos and drifters.”
Even this little bit of talking exhausted Pop and was causing him pain. Norm said, “Pop, hit the morphine button.”
As the drug took effect, Pop was quiet for a few minutes. Once rested, he said, “My grandfather was one of the bosses at the wallpaper factory until he died. That left Grandma with a big house and no money. That’s why she decided to run the tourist house, to make ends meet.
“She always had borders. No one knew how she made any money from these guys. They were broke, but she always seemed to have clothes and small items of theirs to sell once a border moved on.”
In-between coughing jags, Pop said, “Grandma was a killer, I’m sure of it. The borders made perfect victims. They had no family or connections, no real friends, they were not missed. When they left stuff behind she claimed she was selling it to cover the unpaid rent for the rooms. Nobody asked any questions.
“She didn’t kill them all, just the ones that got on her nerves and it seemed like a lot of them did.”
Norm thought, “That morphine button must work pretty well. Poor Pop, this is crazy talk, just like the nurse said.”
Starting to speak again, Pop said, “From time to time, my mother left me with Grandma while she ran errands. I loved playing in her garden. I used to dig in it, until one day, Grandma caught me. She didn’t raise her voice; she lowered her glasses and bathed me in her icy stare. It was unnerving. She made it very clear I couldn’t play in there.
“Worried I’d keep going back, she had one of the borders build a sandbox for me. She could be nice to me like that, but when it came to the garden, it was off limits. Grandma was very strict about that, and you didn’t cross her.
“She didn’t get many new things, but I remember when she had new linoleum put down in the kitchen. She was so proud of the selection she made. The pattern looked like little rectangular mosaic tiles of different sizes. They were off white, light brown, and orange. There were these blue-green lines running between the rectangles. They looked like the leading in the stained glass windows at church.” Pop took a moment, then continued.
“Not too long after the floor went down, the guy who built the sandbox dropped a cigarette and melted a hole in the linoleum. The fool thought it funny, Grandma didn’t.
“The next time I came over, he didn’t live there anymore. All Grandma said was, ‘He left, wanted to see the red clay in Georgia.’ Back then, I didn’t know dirt came in different colors.
“Later that day, Grandma was standing in the kitchen, exhaling the smoke from the last puffs on her Lucky Strike, waiting for the timer to count down to zero. I remember the kitchen being hot, but soon she took a cherry pie out of the oven. I never saw such a funny looking thing.
“Instead of the normal crisscross lattice crust on the top, it had rounded pieces of crust floating on the surface of the pie filling. The crust almost looked like parts of fingers.”
I asked her, “How come it looks like that?”
“She told me she laid the fluted crust dough on the pie filling to give it a different look. Grandma broke off a small piece of crust and let me have it. She said the pie was for the borders only and I was not to eat any of it.
“I remember saying, ‘That pie looks rugged.’ From that time forward she called each of those pies, Rugged Cherry Pie.
“She didn’t make them often, only whipping up one when a border left who hadn’t paid his rent. When one of them took off, it was a sure bet Grandma was gonna make one of those pies. Each time she did, she buried something among the sunflowers out back in the garden, but I don’t know what.”
Pop’s pain returned. He labored to form words and to speak. Reaching out a bony hand, he grabbed Norm’s arm, “I’ve always worried Connie’s like my Grandma.”
Now Norm was sure the old man was delusional and close to death. As Pop tried to keep talking, laboring with each breath, Norm listened but he didn’t want to hear anything bad about his wife. He tried to change the subject.
“Pop everything’s fine. You’re worrying about nothing.”
As Norm said those words, Connie showed up at the hospital carrying a bag. She walked over to Pop’s bedside, leaned down and kissed his forehead. Connie’s presence seemed to upset him.
“Hi, Dad. How are you?” Pop mustered a weak smile.
Norm asked, “What’s in the bag?”
“I’ll get to that, but first, I need you to move a large black garbage bag out to the garden when you get home. It’s in the kitchen. I’m going to put some scraps from baking in my compost pile. All you have to do is get the bag out there by the gate. I’ll handle everything else.”
Since he often moved heavy things to the garden for her, he said, “Sure.”
Connie lowered her glasses and cast an icy stare toward Norm. A little surprised, he figured she was on edge with her father this close to death. Since Connie could get into “a mood”, he was always careful not to provoke her. At the same time he resented walking on eggshells around her, something he seemed to be doing more of lately.
“Okay, I’ll do it when I get home.”
When Pop heard this he became agitated again. Norm thought about what Pop told him. He then looked over at Connie. She said, “So, tell me, what did you two talk about?”
Thinking, “I can’t tell her Pop thinks she’s a killer”, Norm dodged the question. “Connie, he’s been in and out, not making much sense.”
Smiling at Pop, she said, “Guess what I found, Dad, your Grandma’s old recipe card file. She used to make something called Rugged Cherry Pie, so I made one last night to bring to you.”
Norm’s eyes widened. He read an article in the morning paper about a person that had gone missing in their neighborhood the day before last.
“Where’d you get the ingredients? We don’t have any cherries; they aren’t in season, and I didn’t see any cherry pie filling in the pantry.”
“I was able to whip up something from what I scrounged from around the house. It’s an interesting recipe. I brought the pie in for Pop, but it doesn’t look like he’ll be eating any. Since Dad can’t eat, I expect you’ll have a piece. You won’t believe how hard this was to make. Here Norm, try some.”
Having placed the bag containing the pie on the table next to Pop’s bed, as she went to lift the cherry pie from the bag, the old man reached out and with the last of his strength, knocked the pie to the floor. It was the last thing he ever did.
Startled, Connie said, “What the hell, Dad.” Connie yelled for the nurse who came in and checked the old man’s pulse. He was dead.
Connie flashed another angry look at Norm. He tried to deflect things by saying, “I’m sure it was an accident. He’s been out of his head for a while now.” But Norm knew the old man was trying to protect him.
Looking at the mess on the floor, Connie said, “It figures Dad would ruin it. He always ruined everything. Now I have to find the ingredients again to make another pie. Damn.”
As Norm looked at her, then to Pop’s lifeless body, for the first time since he married Connie, he felt unsafe. Suspecting the old man was right about his wife, he thought, “Maybe Pop’s the luckiest person in this room, he’ll never have to find out what’s really in a Rugged Cherry Pie.”
Crouched behind the flickering light of loneliness, he became data driven, his right hand red-badged by a wireless mouse. Unable to roar her to attention in a laundromat or the local dive bar, he clawed his way in, scrutinizing her browser history, pawing her passwords, mauling her emails, grooming her apps with malware.
Now anytime she brushes him off in the elevator, pretending to be hypnotized by her shiny shoes, he can snort-laugh, aware that she overpaid, that she’s being catfished on Hinge, that her vulnerability is his gateway portal, his kingdom, where his silent strokes rule her memory disk.
Tomorrow, on her birthday, photographs she thought deleted will go viral — — raw meat to satisfy the bandwidth of his grudge, the slaughter smooth and neat.
When a dead battery halts the finale, he’s forced to stretch his haunches while rubbing his eyes, dry and itchy from the screen’s wide savannah. Fur on his neck stiffens as he exhales a tawny dream of mastery, emptiness caging everything together. Night gauzes the windows, glamorizing souvenired pizza boxes, empty six packs, and encrusted plastic food trays stacked like cairns, waymarks of the dead.
Native New Yorker LindaAnn LoSchiavo (she/her), a four-time nominee for The Pushcart Prize, is a member of SFPA, British Fantasy Society, and Dramatists Guild. Her books include: “Women Who Were Warned,” “Messengers of the Macabre,” “Apprenticed to the Night,” and “Vampire Ventures” (Alien Buddha Press). Forthcoming in 2024: “Cancer Courts My Mother.”
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It’s fortunate I learned to type when I was young because I can write these notes even since my eyes closed over. I cannot hear the faint clicking of the keys on my laptop. But I can still feel them subtly rebounding in a way you would hardly notice unless you needed to.
You will have to forgive me if I make spelling mistakes. I have no way to double check what I have written. I can’t hear a sound, can’t smell a thing, can’t even see my own hands. Four weeks ago, I could do all three.
I think I know what comes next; the only remaining opening in my head will close over. Why this is happening I do not know. Did I walk upon a fairy grave, get cursed by an old wretch, or upset the wrong god? All I know is it’s happening and I think suffocation is a terrible way to die. Especially when you know it is coming.
If it would only stop now, I could still live. What kind of a life would it be without sight, sound and smell? Perhaps it would be no life at all, but it would be life.
I told the doctors I wanted to come home to die. Weeks of being prodded, pricked, incised, and injected was enough for me. They tried every surgical technique they could think of to reopen the closed orifices. Yet within an hour, sometimes much less time, they would seal over again, each time more thickly than the last.
I think they would have loved for me to have become a permanent laboratory rat. Doctors had already come from all over Ireland to see me. Consultants in other countries watched the procedures over live-streams, proffering advice. Each had their own idea about what was wrong with me, myriad suggestions on how to fix me but none of them were right.
It began not even a month ago when I awoke one morning with a feeling as if one of my ears was blocked. I had been swimming the night before in my local pool so that seemed the obvious explanation. I used the knuckle of my right index finger, rotating it on the tragus, to try and dislodge the water but nothing would come. In the shower, I used the palm of my hand like a plunger to see if that would clear it. That didn’t work either.
I assumed it would resolve itself during the day and as I sat at my desk in an office block looking across to the Custom House, it was just a mild nuisance. The familiar sound of my workplace was a little muted, at times seemed to dully echo. I remember too that after sitting for long periods, standing up would throw my equilibrium ever so slightly off kilter.
My colleague Sinéad saw me rubbing at my ear, asked me if I was OK. She suggested I tilt my head to the side, gently tap at it, then try to cup my hand over it. But that failed too and I wondered if I might need to get it syringed.
On the train home to Maynooth that evening, the blockage seemed to be getting even worse. I remembered the words of my late mother telling me how you should never put anything in your ear. But I couldn’t help myself, inserting my finger into one ear first, then the other. And even just by touch, it seemed as if the unhearing one was swollen.
One thing I should confess up front, I’m a hypochondriac, have been since my early teens, even worse since my both parents died of cancer. Any time something goes awry with my body, my first instinct is to think the worst – usually a malignant tumour of one sort or other. Nonetheless, I slept soundly, hoping at some point during the night, the water that blocked my ear might drain harmlessly on to my pillow.
It was worse in the morning. I suppose when your ear is blocked, you assume you cannot hear. But really, it’s more that your hearing has been diminished. This was different, as if the switch for my right ear had been powered off. I took some cotton buds, rooted around to see if I could dislodge the obstruction. And that’s when I felt a sort of pop. It was a little like if you closed your nostrils and breathed out sharply through your nose on a climbing airplane. But much sharper and much more intense.
There was an ache in my ear now, a dull throbbing. Now my health anxiety got the kickstart it required. I’d never heard of an ear cancer, didn’t even know if there was such a thing. There must be, I thought, there are cancers for every other part of the human body. And that slight swelling I had felt the evening before, it was much more apparent now.
I briefly considered calling my doctor’s office but I had a little bit of a complex about it. I was a regular visitor there; too regular. Sometimes, the receptionist would recognise my voice even though it was a busy surgery. I could almost see Dr McCarthy sitting there, ever patient but ever so slightly exasperated: ‘Neil, I promise you it’s nothing to worry about. See how you feel in a week and maybe we can have a look at your anxiety meds again.’
I got off the train at Tara Street as normal, stopping at a nearby chemist shop. I bought some Cerumol and in the toilets of our Liffey-side offices, I gently allowed five drops of the oil fall inside the affected ear. The instructions said to leave your head tilted to the side for a few minutes, before wiping it clean with a tissue. But when I straightened up again, the oil, with its clinical pungent odour, just ran back out like a tap.
I tried the drops again at lunch-time, and again that evening when I got home. Each time, the liquid came streaming out, stopped by some insurmountable obstacle. The pain had worn off at least, and there was no more dizziness, as if my body had already grown accustomed to having only a single working ear. My mind did not adjust so rapidly however, and I began to fear the worst. No matter what, I would be calling the doctor’s office in the morning.
I phoned at 9am on the dot but a pre-recorded message said the surgery was not open yet. I dialled again immediately, and got through. The voice that answered was unfamiliar and I was, in truth, a little relieved. The normal secretary must have been off sick or on holidays. Better again, there was a single appointment still available, just after lunch-time. But when the receptionist told me the time, I had to ask her to repeat it, because I could not properly hear her through my left ear.
I tried to reassure myself, kept repeating in my mind that I was imagining things, gently berated myself for letting my thoughts get the better of me. There was nothing wrong with my left ear; how could there be? Maybe the receptionist had mumbled the appointment time, or the phone line had momentarily crackled. I had nothing worse than a bad infection that antibiotics would clear. Perhaps I could talk to Dr McCarthy about adjusting my anti-depressant as well while I was there.
In the doctor’s waiting room, I tried to distract myself with a game on my mobile phone but I could not get my mind to settle. I fidgeted with my watch and my glasses, wondered why doctors always gave you an appointment time they could never meet. I picked up a copy of National Geographic, flicked through the pages, but I read nothing. There were two people still to be seen before me, one coughing vigorously. As my panic rose, I half-contemplated leaving.
Dr McCarthy came to call me at last. “Neil, how are you?” he said, with a smile intended to reassure. As I stepped into his office, he told me to take a seat. “And what do you want to talk to me about today?” he asked. His gentle voice and quiet authority settled me down a little.
“OK,” he said. “Let me take a look at that ear of yours.” He took the otoscope, and gently placed the instrument inside. “Mmmm,” he whispered softly to himself. He took the device out, replaced the speculum, and tried it again. “Hmmmm.”
“All right, Neil,” he said, and there was a slight but obvious hesitation as he spoke. I won’t lie; the pause frightened me. I began to fear the worst with no idea of what it might be. “Did you get a bang on the ear, or anything like that?”
“I was swimming,” I said, “I thought maybe it just got blocked; that happened to me before. But normally it would just work itself out.”
“Well, to be honest,” replied Dr McCarthy, and I immediately thought that ‘to be honest’ wasn’t something you wanted to hear from your doctor. “There’s no obvious sign of infection, but it does appear as if there was some kind of trauma, and there is swelling of some sort there. I think really this calls for an ENT consultant.”
He began to tap on his keyboard, typing up a referral letter. “I’m going to get this expedited,” he said, “it’s a little bit unusual. I don’t think it’s anything to be too worried about but let’s just stay on the safe side.”
I couldn’t find the words to formulate a question, to ask exactly what he had seen. Panic was simmering so strongly within me that the only thing I really wanted was to be anywhere but that room.
“Is there anything else you need to ask me?” he said.
I moved my head from side to side indicating no, and rose from my seat. The sudden movement left me a touch light-headed, and with a perceptible ringing in what was now my good ear.
“If anything changes for the worse,” said Dr McCarthy, “don’t hesitate to call us here, or the night doctor service.”
I paid my bill at the front desk, but my mind was elsewhere – on hospital rooms and operating tables, on chemotherapy ports and linear accelerators. The dizziness was more acute, and the ringing was now a clanging in my brain.
Back home, laid out on my l-shaped sofa, I tried to listen to a meditation on my phone’s app Calm. A kind voice was telling me to slow my breathing, to clear my mind, to let my muscles relax. It almost always worked. Not that day though. For I could feel that my left ear was closing over too.
Even in the worst moments of my hypochondria, I never had to ring 999. Now, I found myself on the phone to a dispatcher, frantic, disjointed: “I can’t hear anything, my ears are after sealing over.” When I look back now, I wonder if they thought me insane. Whatever words they said back to me, I did not hear. But the frenzy in my voice was enough to see an ambulance at my front door about twenty minutes later.
The days that followed passed in a tranquilised haze. Doctors came and went with their otoscopes and auditory equipment. Much of the time, it felt like I was in a film, with the volume muted. Events happened around me without noise. I would see people move but hear no footsteps while the TV in the corner played in a never-ending silence. There were machines around me, which I am sure must have beeped, while the mouths of nurses and porters opened and closed soundlessly.
I spoke through notepad and pen as tentative plans were made for a sign language interpreter to come teach me to understand again. On my iPad, in my wakeful moments, I would watch instructional videos on YouTube so I could start to pick up the most basic signs. It felt like something to focus my mind, to challenge me, to take me away from pitch black thoughts. I won’t pretend it was easy, but the sedation eased me, and one Zolpidem each night was enough to ensure some sleep. I think I found a courage too – at least while it was just my ears that had closed.
I was in hospital three, or maybe four days when I remember waking one morning with what felt like a head cold. It was the tail-end of the Covid era, and I panicked a little that I might have contracted it again. My mouth was bone-dry like I’d been breathing through it all night. My nose felt bunged up. But the peculiar thing was the blockage was in a single nostril. I put one finger up just to see, and it was as before. I met the resistance earlier on one side, like there was an obstruction there.
Except that I was already in hospital, I might not have mentioned it. But I was at a point where even the most minor of physical sensations unsettled me. I scribbled some words in my notepad, showed it to the nurse. She seemed disinterested, or more likely just busy, in a ward where she had more patients than she had time for.
A doctor came that evening to look inside my ears yet again as if anything was going to change. I pointed to my nose, jabbing my index finger up and down, hoping he would understand. He gestured to me to tilt my head back so that he could examine it. I could see the perplexity in his eyes, almost hear the ‘hmmmm’.
The morning after, I was taken for my first surgical procedure. They were going to try and restore the hearing in my right ear, to remove the growth that had completely closed off my auditory canal. I sat slightly reclined in a chair reminiscent of a dentist’s office. They gave me enough local anaesthetic so that I could only feel the pressure of the scalpel but no pain. The sedative drugs I was already getting to relieve my now extreme anxiety made the operation itself pass almost dreamlike.
For perhaps two hours afterwards, I could hear noise again, albeit muffled as though I was wearing a particularly effective ear plug. It was almost overwhelming to again experience the sound of reassuring words, bleeping machines, and the hum of a busy hospital.
Back in my ward, I must have dozed a little. I could feel a hand gently tapping me on the shoulder – it was the surgeon come to check on me. As my eyes adjusted to the light of the room, I could see his lips moving but only in a chilling silence. I had to reach for my pen and pad, and I could see the mystification on his face. As they peeled back the dressing that covered my ear, the surgeon put his otoscope inside. It was immediately apparent that my ear had sealed shut once more.
They tried again two days later on my left ear. By that stage, my second nostril had closed over so that sleep became more difficult. I’d find myself waking frequently, as if struggling for air, before nodding off again. There was a constant bone-deep tiredness, as I drifted through each day. The second surgery was no more successful than the first. There was an even briefer interval of dampened sound, before I returned to the silent world.
I grew weary of the endless stream of people that came to look inside my ears and up my nose. There were bruises in the pit of my elbow from blood tests and cannulation. An infection had developed in my sinuses and I was on strong antibiotics, which made me feel nauseous. In my increasingly rare energetic moments, I would pace the corridor. A nurse’s aide kept close watch on me, as if I was a zoo animal that might escape.
I was frightened in a way that’s very hard to articulate. There were moments of sheer terror about what would come next but also an unsettling resignation, like I no longer had enough energy to be petrified. I would try to look at the sign language videos but my mind retained nothing. Ten minutes of watching could pass and I would not have absorbed a single thing. My appetite vanished. And without a sense of smell, the bland hospital food became even more tasteless.
The morning my right eye closed over, they moved me to a room on my own. I had awoken with a peculiar feeling like the walls of the four-bay ward were closing in on me. It took me a moment to realise what had happened. I put my trembling hand up to my face, ran my fingers across where my eye should have been. It felt like toughened skin, like on the sole of your foot. And if I tried to blink, it was as if my eyelid was stuck with glue. I took my mobile phone from the bedside table. I switched it to selfie mode to see what I looked like, and immediately vomited all across the floor.
Day by day, I grew weaker. I was in a windowed room of the intensive care unit, a set of caring eyes never far away. I found it ever harder to eat, to keep anything down. The infection in my sinuses had spread to my throat and lungs, and I coughed from sunrise to sunset. I had a permanent line for fluids and intravenous antibiotics as doctors debated the best way to treat me. I was almost a bystander to my own care now; they couldn’t answer my questions and I couldn’t bring myself to ask them.
Gradually, the infection began to subside. I regained some of my strength, so that sitting up was no longer tiring. I could even take the few steps to and from the bathroom without feeling I might collapse. It was at least a week since there had been any further complications. Perhaps this was the end of my torture. Losing the sight of one eye was devastating but I tried to convince myself I would manage. I could still see after all. I asked for a laptop so that I could make my own account of what had happened, just in case this ever happened to someone else.
It was a Sunday morning, that much I know, even as days and dates seemed to have shed all meaning. I awoke in total blackness. For a moment, I wondered if I was dreaming, a horribly vivid nightmare of absence. But the seconds passed and I woke no further. I could move my arms and legs, managed to raise a quivering hand up to my left eye. There was that same calloused skin across the surface, hard and rough like the thumb of a seamstress. I began to scream, and scream. I didn’t stop until the nurse came and sedated me.
It’s been four days now and I want to go home. But I can do nothing for myself and I understand I will never leave this room. The respiratory infection has returned, and the awful thick sputum that gets spat out of my lungs is, I’m told, tinged with blood. I have to be handfed, but every spoonful feels as if it will make me retch.
My remaining solace are the plastic keys of this laptop, the almost imperceptible bounce they give beneath my fingers with every stroke. I cannot see these words but I know they appear on screen as if by magic. These sentences are all I leave behind. I don’t fear death, but I am terrified of suffocation.
Ken Foxe is a freelance writer and transparency campaigner in Ireland. He has written two non-fiction books based on his journalism and when not working, or hanging out with his kids, enjoys writing short stories and speculative fiction.
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There can be boiling, burning days in December. It’s the Georgia anomaly, seen in the turgid pastors’ wet handkerchief and the dust floating around my mother’s fidgeting fan.. In the suffocating heat, a daze surrounded the day. Words melted off paintings, from the canvas, and puddled into swirls of screams and reds and greens…
“-and you are a promising set of young men. It’s a barn burner out here, and yet, you choose to come here. Now, I’d like to tell you a story. You might think that this is all a fallacy, maybe, a myth. Maybe you came here because you heard someone somewhere say somethin’, and you couldn’t resist. You’re a good man, not living in cotton, but you work hard. No matter what, though, you strike out. They don’t notice you, they don’t care. But they will, after today. It’s what you deserve.”
I’ve grown up hearing my father say that same exact speech, every Sunday, at the same time. He’d wear the same suit, tie, shoes and cobble in our basement in front of these promising young men. Years ago, in the beginning, it was local boys who were odd, erratic, and felt like they had no future. Now, they travel here in droves, all under the allure of the promises my father gave. They all felt owed something, by the universe and God, and they were here to claim it.
In the beginning, I wasn’t allowed to observe alone. Instead, I dutifully waited with my mother, swallowing down prepubescent impatience. Every Sunday, my mother and I would welcome all the young men in, escort them down the narrowing, mildewed stairwell, and stand to the side. In the early years, the basement was furnished with a large fraying dresser, two old dresser-knobs missing, mold infested,holding up a singular item. A trinket box, too small to look appropriation the dresser, yet demanding all the allure.
It was otherwise filled with chairs, of all sorts, some rocking, some not, and it was always exactly five. Five promising young men, screened by my father into the exclusivity of Sundays. It was a different group each time, no man ever allowed in twice–and no women, except my mother and me, ever.
The furniture hardly changed, even when my father began charging obscene amounts. There was something special, he’d justify, about the humbleness of it all. He was the poor man’s king, the messiah to all the lonely young boys. The ones who scorned their mothers, the pretty girls at school, and their sisters for not respecting them, not wanting them. There were some that would go on to gut their girlfriends, scream at their wives, destroy the things they wanted. They would become barons in the kingdom of male entitlement. My father, the reigning monarch.
“This generation uses a lot of words I don’t understand, incel, those kinds of things,” At this point in his monologue, the young men would perk up at the word, but my father would nonchalantly wipe his mouth with his sleeve, the crisp white cloth eclipsing his mouth completely for a moment. I’ve grown to understand the tactics; the detail-oriented way my father moved. For a short man, he’d pace like the room couldn’t contain him. “And I see the way they dismiss you, disregard all of you. They want these wimpy, good for nothing liberal men who say they’re feminists, who– who let women run things. I don’t allow that in my house.” His white suit would ride up here, as his arms stretched out to indicate his complete control over the space. “It’s nature for the man to lead. To choose. Have you ever seen a lion not take what he wants? That’s nature. Not the bullshit they’re telling you in the media!”
Despite my father’s booming voice, I could always hear my mother’s whisper to me. “You’re lucky you’re a woman.” Despite my father beating me into my place in this world, my mother was my first initiator in the mindset that life was carved for me and I was simply a submissive passenger. I’m lucky I’m a woman; I’m lucky to be prey. Predators have to learn to hunt.
“It’s not your fault. The world turns and changes and spits you out.But not anymore. Not after today.”
Like a white five-headed creature, the promising young men would begin to stomp, yell back, and excite themselves into a frenzy. As a child, I’d flinch, once cry. As a fresh adult, I’m expected to keep face, silent.
It was almost time for the catalyst, anyway. The real reason they were all here, the spoil of the war waged against hedonistic, soul sucking turn of the century female empowerment. The age of man was to come, and they’d siphon every morsel from every small crack.
My father turns ceremonially, fluttering around in the natural light that sneaks into the basement from the rectangular windows. Unintentionally, it envelopes him and his luminous robe in a soft, afternoon glow. In our early years, I’d respect my father like no other; any semblance of attention to me away from my mother felt arcadian. I’d follow his rules piously; covered, stiff, subordinate.
I was seeking approval from a beast with two heads, promising false miracles in return for worship and idolization. Who would gnaw into the flesh and blood of women and melt down their skeletal insides into a pool of sin and seduction. He was never going to love me, I said to myself at the age of thirteen. He was going to eat me.
“Now, it’s time to take back what’s yours. This artifact here,” With his back turned, he carefully grasped the glass case, no fingerprints or dust thanks to my mother’s eagle eye. The theatrics are all his, the clandestine operations are all ours. “It’s been preserved carefully for centuries. The rib of King James V, an heirloom of our family. Meant only to be passed down to my sons. All of you.”
The rib, a curved, yellowed brittle bone, looked rotten and sulfuric. It began as a wild fable when found by an ancestor, a doctor, in a trunk when coming to the New World, and perpetuated throughout the years. At some point, it’s clear that it’d been replaced whenever it decomposed beyond repair. It wasn’t the metaphysical that mattered, it was the belief from men. Every man in my family, from the patriarchal line, received the inheritance when they matured. I’d never even touched it, never felt the rot plague my skin.
There was never going to be a biological son, a real son. So instead, my father invited lots of young boys, every Sunday, and gorged on their pitched fevers and anger instead.
“I’m going to pass this to every one of you. I want you to really feel all of it. Breath it in. It will change your life.”
I’ve heard it once that caterpillars turn mostly to liquid in their cocoons before being born again as a butterfly. My father liked them at this age so they would melt in his hand. That’s when the poison could mix in.
The white monster moved as one, passing the bone for each of its hands to examine, feeling the curve, the density, the rot. In some cases, a bit of the decomposition powder left behind a stain that they would rub harder into their skin. I’d imagine it’d function like cordyceps infection. Burrow into the skin, traverse through the adrenaline-pumping heart, the organs jostling about, into the cancerous mass of a brain. Control their every move, make foam in the mouth whenever they’d capture a prey, then die after finishing what it was controlled to do: champion phallic, violent virility.
After the touching, the rib was returned to its rightful place, underneath the glass case. The glass case itself was hardly a security measure; any of them could come up and take it if they wished, but it remained underneath the case due to the respect they had for my father andfor what the little traditionalistic bell jar represented–the ability to enclose, deoxygenate, and groom.
“You have all been blessed today. God will always bless his most devout followers.” Outside, the afternoon was rotting into the night. The Southern breeze became sweet and the stars blinked in and out of my view. Even now, older, I still find myself self-soothing by looking at them. They meant another day was done and one day I will be free. That as soon as I began sneaking away, learning from the library when I could, stealing when I could not…that knowledge would set me free.
The night welcomed the blob of young men, who sneered my way after revering my father. Checking that my modest clothing of high collars and long skirts was to their approval and to their fantasies of clawing it all away, my clothes, myself.
I baited my time and took care of my chores, cleaning away the sweat and passion from the basement. My father stomped away into his study and locked himself into scripture reading. My mother gently pressed her hand into my shoulder and stowed away into the rest of our home, to be seen but not heard.
I initially wanted to kill my mother, too. In a way, she was always the confirmation to what my father said. The visualization of my defects as a woman. She always woke up, perfect and compliant, and lived that way. She’d hiss into my head all the ways that I would be alone, deteriorating in a glass case of despondency and become nothing–not a mother, not a wife, but a biological anomaly that needed to be snuffed.
The violence of living without my father, in a way, would be enough. I’d give her what she wanted to shield me from. The breaking of the tether to the man. Opening her head and shredding her brain, taking the matter and squeezing it into a slime texture. I wanted her to think of nothing but my pain. My anger.
It wasn’t hard to sneak into my parent’s room, especially in the night where only nefarious creatures lurked about. I’d initially planned to end it quickly, and swiftly, but belated myself. Tip-toed down into the basement to take the rib. It was now firmly held in my left hand while my right held my father’s butchering knife.
My mother and father were both in deep sleep. The bed was stuck firmly in the center of the opposing wall to the door. Their room was always neat and lacked personal things–it only held a nightstand with a shade darker than the dresser. In the dark, though, it was all painted black. Their bed was disproportionately large, to hold the conceivement and hope of a son that never came. It was high off the ground with strong, wooden legs. The headboard was simple, with only a cross to mark it.
I walked to the side my father always slept on, the left, and heard his nimble breathing. It was soft and full, not one to sleep in fear or anguish, unlike me.
I gripped the cleaver, the leather handle now staining my hand. Standing before him, I swung.
For a full life, death comes quite fast. It struck the middle of his Adam’s apple, once, and I heard him begin to gargle. The blood pooled out of his throat so quickly that it painted his entire torso. It didn’t decapitate his head entirely, but parted parts of his flesh like the Red Sea and exposed all the beautiful color that he kept inside. His body panicked, convulsed, but I wasn’t done.
Removing the cleaver was difficult with my strength, as it made home into my father’s neck. It was now nestled and nested. I managed to pry it loose, and replace it.
With the rib. And this time, I loved the feeling. The squish of the blood and the flesh made the most wonderful sound so I kept digging into it. I turned and twisted and heard gloshes, saw the pink and the red like a sunset. I did not wrestle with the flesh and blood but made it into a canvas, marked with a symphony of color in the black night. I took a step back to admire my work.
My mother never stirred, not even when I left.
Jay Perez is a first time author from Puerto Rico. She currently works as an editorial production assistant for the National Board of Medical Examiners. When not working or reading, she’s watching period pieces with her cat and dog.
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Quiet child, strain your ears and listen for the sound of her
Though I know you will not hear
For soon she will come on dark and silent wings to cloak the land in quiet shadow
When the sun grows weary and can no longer stay afloat, she will come
Then the wrens that sing in the willows will hush their songs and grow quiet and still
The frogs and the katydids, will summon her, singing her praises
And the evening breeze will whisper her name
The moon may rise in the heavens and struggle against her
But she will not be defeated nor relent
For some, she will bring the chance to dream, to reflect, and rest in peaceful slumber
While others dread her coming, cursed to once again wander through mazes of nightmare and regret
Quiet child, strain your ears and listen for the sound of her
Though I know, you will not hear
Rory Keene Hopkins is a writer and poet who resides in the backwoods of Kentucky. He is currently working on a collection of stories titled, “Tales From the Dark Cabin.”
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They were woven with tasteful white lace. You could tell they were new because the bands were still taut and springy. The crotch covered with brightly coloured butterflies, wings outspread, floating over a baby blue field.
I found the panties in the back pocket of James’s work khakis, crumpled up inside the laundry hamper. It was a Sunday. He was out day-drinking at some microbrewery.
So, this is your special project. The one that’s been keeping you at the office so late.
I was irate. I wanted to hammer his watches into bits. Pour all his fancy whisky down the toilet. Set his Audi on fire.
I’d given all my best years to James. Spending Christmas with his alcoholic mom and politically stunted brothers. Doing his laundry and nursing his hangovers. I’d been a loyal girlfriend, fiancée, wife. Soon to be mother.
It’s not like I’d never been tempted, either. Like I haven’t had my opportunities over the years, ones I’d passed by with the nonchalance of passing a street busker. At this point, who knows what opportunities I’d get? Now that I was six months pregnant there was hardly any choice. Like it not, I was tethered to James for life.
Still, I wanted him to suffer. After careful contemplation I threw the panties into my bedside drawer. Then I loaded up the washing machine with the rest of our dirty clothes. I pictured them spinning around and around as I lounged on top of the bedcovers, listening to Nina Simone.
It was dark when James stumbled back home, perfumed with IPAs and menthol cigarettes.
“In here,” I yelled from the bedroom. “How was your day?” “Hoppy. So much beer.”
I could hear him in the hallway, struggling to take off his boots. The telltale thrashing and swearing.
When he appeared in the doorway I was laying there on the bed – wrapped in my silk nightgown like a piece of candy – and as he took me in his eyes sparkled with desire.
“Still thirsty?” I said.
“Could do another.”
James unbuttoned his shirt with surprising dexterity. Next went his belt, then his underwear – completely oblivious to how unattractive he looked wearing nothing but socks.
He mounted the bed and slid his body towards me like a seal. Immediately he went for my breasts, then he began to migrate down to my belly, his beard prickling its way past my navel to deliver some half-hearted foreplay.
Eventually he found his way on top and initiated his awkward, drunken collisions – undoubtedly thinking of that girl from work. I did my best to feign engagement, even reciprocation, to which he seemed innately oblivious. The inebriated aloofness which I used to find so endearing now just came off like blatant solipsism. I felt like a corpse he was trying to bring back to life.
While James was out I went to the cemetery and stole flowers from the grave of a child. Afterwards, I headed to the market and bought chicken feet, mug wort, and cat’s claw. I had remnants of wormwood at home. There was just one more ingredient I needed for this to work.
The next moment I grabbed James’s back – pulling his body towards mine – and as I did I dug my fingernails deep into his white skin.
Hope you like it rough baby.
Numbed by lust and beer James barely reacted to the blood I drew, continuing his incessant crusade towards orgasm. Thankfully, it wasn’t long until he collapsed, and without missing a beat James rolled over on his side, surrendering to the sleep of the drunk.
After I was sure he’d passed out, I opened my bedside drawer and fished out the panties. Then I lowered the covers and wiped the crotch against the fresh scratches on his back, smearing the butterflies in James’s blood.
This should be enough, I thought as I rose out of bed. Careful not to disturb my sleeping husband.
The next day I read the local paper cover to cover. A young woman who plummeted down an empty elevator shaft in the middle of the night. Another one who drowned in the river. A building that went up in flames. Freak accidents – meaningless and unforeseeable. The Devil worked in mysterious ways.
James came home at six o’clock that day, quiet and dismal.
“Hey there. Thought you said you were working late tonight.”
“Change of plans,” he said, avoiding eye contact.
“I made your favourite. Lamb stew.”
We ate in silence, James looking downcast, eating practically nothing. I devoured the meal and got up to rinse my bowl before he’d even taken his second bite.
“Honey, could you take the clean laundry out when you’re done eating? I complete forgot about it last night.”
He glanced up at me then, and as he did, I thought I saw a tear shimmer in the corner of his eye.
“Alright,” he said, coughing to clear the lump in his throat. “You got it.”
George Oleksandrovych was born in Kiev, Ukraine, but has lived in Vancouver, Canada for most of his life. He has previously been published in East of the Web, Rejection Letters, Idle Ink, Fairlight Books, and others. He does his best writing after everyone else has gone to sleep. Check out his work at georgenev.blogspot.com.
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though you know most of your own craziness
inside and out
only now and then do you get to see the fears, worries, demons
and how, sometimes, sadness overwhelms them,
madness hits its head against the wall
produces a big knot on the forehead
the animate meeting the inanimate head on
you understand the tunnels in which our emotions thrive
and how a mind runs its hands over a wall
while carefully stepping
no abyss to step into
palms of the hands like suction cups in the dark
you rub sensitive palms
over whatever is rough or smooth
I see you try to keep yourself upright
though I know you see nothing but the dark
you’re ready for a crack of light
I see you
hope you make it through your mind
hope you can squeeze out
into a more beautiful
world and cry
Another Incident in the History of the World
in the street
and the black jeep roars off
drives over her
the now nameless officer
just a second
life axed down
an army of police blanket the area
but the perps slip through the net
oily eels they are
evil slinks away
away from a helicopter's eyes
they escape for now
family, community do not
grief comes like a storm
doing her duty
a casket, a flag, an elegy
the job remains
good and evil remain
the sun is both light and fire
Affirmation and Negation All in One
it can't be done
the galaxy has spun
beyond that time and space
the faces are gone
the dawns have dropped like confetti
and though you want so much
nostalgic golden sun
movement of eyelashes
sugar dropping into black coffee
unlacing of crystals
drop of gossamer gown
violins plucking rhythm
a chorus of katydids
and you learning the German word Zeit
no, not to be
the echoes, the silhouettes
mist, fog, steam
Dan Cuddy is currently an editor of the Loch Raven Review. 2003,. Most recently he has had poems published in the End of 83, Broadkill Review, , the Pangolin Review, Madness Muse Press, Horror Sleaze Trash, the Rats’s Ass Review, Roanoke Review, the Amethyst Review, Synchronized Chaos and, Gargoyle.
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