“Last Call at the Divina Comedia” Dark, Hyper-Real Fiction by Alan Catlin

Virgil stopped and spoke, “Where we’re going is a drinking man’s ultimate dream: a bar where it’s always happy hour, where the drinks are free, and there is no closing time.  I’ll bet you didn’t think such a place actually existed.”

“Not in this life.” I said.

I thought I heard him laugh, but I couldn’t be sure.  Maybe he was simply clearing his throat; taking a deep breath for the final push into the darkness.

“Make sure you stay close, now.  We’re almost there.  I wouldn’t want to lose you now.”

“I suppose I shouldn’t look back either.”

“Sure, you can, if you want to.  No point in it, though.  There’s nothing to see.”

Nothing to see.  Truer words have never been spoken.

He pushed against something in the darkness.  A door gave way from the wall, and he ushered me inside.

“Watch your step.” He said.

And I stepped inside.  The door closed behind me without a sound.  I looked back where the entrance should have been, but I could not see anything resembling a door.  It was as if the wall had sealed itself, the way a wound would, without leaving the slightest trace of scab or scar.

“So, what do you think?” Virgil asked. 

“It’s tough to tell.  The light in here is very strange.”  And indeed, it was.  A strobe light flashed on and off at regular intervals. It was a kind of black light and its source was from somewhere behind the bar.  Consequently, the place seemed colorless and featureless at first.  Like a black and white movie image that had failed to fully clarify.

“Don’t you be worrying about that none. ” He was saying.

“Careless and trouble free, is that it?”

“That’s the spirit.”

“Ever it be so humble…”

“Something like that.”

“So, what’s this place called?”

“I call it the Divina Comedia but it really doesn’t have a name.  Doesn’t really need one.  Call it whatever you like.  Grab a drink.  Don’t be shy.  See, there’s one on the bar for you waiting to go.”

I looked, and I saw that he was right.  It was my brand.  The right mix and it burned all the way down when I took a good, long swallow.  It could be worse than this. A whole hell of a lot worse.

“Take a look around.  Make yourself at home.  We’re all friends here.”

I certainly hope so, I thought, as I slugged about half of my tall drink down, and placed it on the bar.  There didn’t seem to be anyone back there making drinks, but there must have been.  The next time I looked at my drink it was filled to where it has been before I had taken my first long swallows.

“What’s with the flashing neon?” I asked.


“I hope you don’t have too many epileptics among the regulars.  That constant flashing would have them on the floor rock and rolling like an old-time revival band.”

“They will do that for you.”

“The constant flashing doesn’t get on your nerves?” 

“Nope. You get used to it.”

“Nothing gets on your nerves, is that it?”

“Pretty much.”

“I don’t see how I could get used to something like that.”

“Don’t trouble yourself.  You’d be surprised what you can get used to when you try.  Put your mind at ease and enjoy the sights, and sounds, and, the free drinks.  Take a look around.  Make yourself at home.”

If this was to be my home away from home, I thought, it was going to be a long, strange, drawn-out affair.  At first, focusing was difficult due to the nature of the interior lighting.  Although the bar was oddly quiet, you couldn’t help but sense the presence of the other drinkers; the other patrons along the long expanse of the wood.  I wondered who had designed this magnificent hand planed surface, who maintained the surface, and kept it waxed, oiled, and hopefully, free of permanent damage from distracted smokers, graffiti carvers; the careless, and the bereft.

The first person I saw was a small, aged man, almost completely bald, wisps of greasy hair lying askew across his bald spot.  It was difficult to see his face in the haphazard light.  His shadowy form was enveloped in a haze of smoke and dust, as if the light source were from a projectionist’s booth, and the life illuminated, was a flickering form disrupted as soon as it assumed a shape. 

What was clear was, his back was permanently stooped, hunched around the shoulders as he sat before a jukebox selector. The cards indicating the song selections were laminated in yellowed plastic stained so badly the hand typed words could not be read.  Each card contained eight selections, both A&B sides. The pages could be turned by flipping the selections, one after the other, using small metal rods affixed to the bottom of each page. The whole card assembly was encased inside a small, glass cage smudged, dirty, and greasy with an accumulation of filth only an untold amount of human contact could bring. 

The man was transfixed by the device, and was driven to continually place the same quarter in the coin slot at the very top of the machine. The coin traveled the length of the machine, clanging as it went, until it settled noisily into the coin return where it was retrieved, then dropped into the coin slot, and the whole process began anew.  Time after time after time.

“It’s what he does.” Virgil said, as if he were reading my mind. “No point in trying to change things you can’t control.”

No point at all, I thought.

A few stools down from the old man, sat a fat woman of indeterminate age, dressed in a filthy, hopelessly out-of-date house dress.  The woman was crying noiselessly, not crying so much as weeping, with an intensity so complete, I wondered what it could be she was hearing from the two skinny men sitting on either side of her. Their hands were cupped to an ear on either side of her head, whispering loudly, but inaudibly to everyone but her.  The tears rolling down the fat of her cheeks, onto the wattles of her neck, sliding further down to stain the fabric of her faded dress.  And the whispering.  Always the whispering.

I turned to face the bar, cradling my tall drink between my hands.  I noticed a circular, slightly raised platform to the left of the back bar mirrors, on which a cage was placed.  Inside the cage was a young female dancer swathed in white bandages as if she were a burn patient, or a mummy whose exposed skin had been covered by white baby powder. Except for her face; that impassive face, coated with black grease paint. And false eyelashes teased unnaturally long; her unnaturally red lips, and her all too white teeth filed to a point. 

I couldn’t say for sure if what her body was doing could be called dance.  Movement yes, but dance?   Whatever it was she was hearing, came from within; a silent inner music, dissonant and mournful, slowly transferred from her brain to her outer limbs.  Limbs that slowly translated the cranial impulses into a sluggish, mechanical movement.  The pediment she stood upon seemed to give off a kind of damp, dank effusion, a soft glow that served no real purpose, neither illuminating her body, nor emphasizing what it might be doing.

Reflexively, I looked in the back bar mirrors to see what had made a noise behind me in the darker corners removed from the bar.  What I saw there disturbed me more than a sudden noise in an unfamiliar place did; the mirrors were alternately concave, convex panels, horribly distorting, and absorbing all the objects that fell within their purview.  The glass oxidized, and unclear in places, crowded with smoke, and, shadows, and the unfiltered dust.

Beside the bottles, an ancient, hand crank, ornately designed cash register.  A NO SALE ticket prominently displayed inside the glass fronted space for the recorded transactions.  A hand lettered sign on either side of the cash machine that said HAPPY HOUR PRICES IN EFFECT: FREE FROM NOW UNTIL…?

Now Until….?, seemed suitably vague.  As vague as the indefinable shape behind the wood.  I tried to focus on what the unmoving form might have been, but it remained immobile, fixed as a cigar store Indian. I saw a human figure, cloaked in a long-sleeved white shirt with a black garter around the sleeves to keep the cuffs stationery.  And then I saw carved wooden cigars in its out-thrust hands.  The fake, faded headdress and the folds of the tribal gear made from animal pelts covering the body. 

I drank deeply, closed my eyes, and tried to clear my head. 

When I opened my eyes, the vision was gone, replaced by a small fun house clown rotating on a metal axis that rocked back and forth, laughing at something so unimaginably funny, nothing could stop the laughter.  The silent, wild laughter.

I hoped that if I drank enough, closed my eyes, and, looked again, this vision too would no longer be there.  I might think that, might temporarily be relieved of seeing them before me, but the relief would be temporary. I knew that anything I imagined seeing was sure to remain, and fixed in my memory and subject to recall without notice.

Even the young, thin woman dressed in a clinging black evening dress, hunched over the bar, sipping a frothy white drink through a long, plastic straw.  Her unnaturally pale skin, sepia tainted by the light, when there was light, oddly present as an after-image, when there was not.  I felt drawn to her, but I couldn’t say why, couldn’t begin to imagine what would happen if I acted on my impulsive attraction.  All things here being equal and opposed, black as white, white as the black foam of her drink; the strange evanescence of her skin in the encapsulating dark.

I turn from the solitary woman, to look at the other patrons sitting at randomly spaced intervals along the bar.  Collectively, they look like Dust Bowl pioneers, refugees from a Steinbeck novel like Grapes of Wrath; their shabby clothes, thin cotton jackets, and pants losing threads, torn and tattered from years of traveling, hard work and abuse.  All their shoes were careworn, lost soles, holes where their feet showed through what remained of the leather.  I thought of the Dust Bowl poet and how she saw, with unflinching eyes, the hordes of the hopeless struggling against the wind, the dust storms, the heat and privation, struggling Westward to a promised land that became just like where they left only with grass and clear skies, instead of dust and infertile plains. 

I thought of how they would discover more unrewarding, back breaking work, for insufficient wages, they would piss away in a place like this, hunched over a bar.  A bar that would stink to high heaven of human sweat, rancid beer, and defeat.  I thought of the last their few nickels rubbed together, as if somehow there might be luck in it, but all that ever happened was a faceless man behind a bar removed them one after the other in exchange for another, not-cold-enough, tasteless beer. A beer that increased the despair they felt, that hung about them as an extra layer of skin.  

They no longer possessed the ability to dream of a better place. Their posture, their demeanor, everything about what they did and did not do, was reflected in their slow, determined, dedicated-to-a-cause-like-no-other, drinking.  If they had been drinking for free, the way I had been, it certainly did not show in their mannerisms, the way they turned to look at me as one; their tired, dead eyes inset amid darkened shadows in the leanness of their face and bones.  A look that was so far beyond life, even death wouldn’t qualify it. 

If I were capable of feeling horror, and, of showing it, I would have done so then.  Instead, I turned toward an odd, disruptive noise that came from a pinball machine. The way it was working was oddly fascinating. Despite not having someone to work the push buttons, the flippers and levers, the metal ball traveled the intricate gridwork of the machine on its own, triggering flashing lights, and toting scores as it went.  The face of the machine briefly lit, and flared, revealing the face of a laughing carnival clown in a setting that suggested a Coney Island funhouse.

Just as I began to have a sense of the machine, it would stop dead and the steel ball would roll unmolested through the board maze. TILT would register in large capital letters on the board.  Just as abruptly the machine self-started and the lights would begin flashing again, a dizzying momentary glowing that would fizzle out in mid-turn. It was as if a crazy, unseen spirit, had been playing. There was no doubt in my mind that he was winning whatever game this was.  

Then I hear the hollow sound of heavy, wooden darts sinking into the pitted cork of the boards the players threw their missiles at.  They were keeping score with chalk on a board that squeaked as they drew the odd shaped numbers on it. Their uncut nails slide across the skin of the chalk, and the board, and the face of the dart board, as they played, and threw, and watched. Boldly, they drew concentric circles in the false black lights of these neon dreams, and sudden alcoholic reveries of places like this one. Places thrust open, to admit a ravening crowd, the native sons and daughters of the night game players, mole people and worm runners, fully blood lusted and raring to go wherever the next cocktail will take them; even if where they are going is well past the point of no return. 

That’s where they’ll find me now. Now that I’ve seen the contents of the self-portrait in oiled cloth on the barroom wall. That painted visage framed in spoiled wood, stained with blood, and alcohol, and tears, gold flecked, in places, to contain the perfect image of the penitents’ bearing torches down the side of a volcanic mountain at near-dusk.  The procession leading the unseen spirits from their graves to walk again, on hollowed grounds, inside the sulfuric tainted mists that cling to the blue blackened sky; the red sun sunken into itself behind the black mass of volcanic stone.  Those torches borne, as weights, that can never be successfully removed from the chained hands of the living and the dead, chanting as they come and go. The seen and the unseen, animated as I watch, as I try to read the caption inscribed in gold plate that says Los Dias de los Muertos.

What else could it say?

Nada, hermano.

I look back toward the bar, and there I am behind it, raising my carved hands in a  toast to the drinkers here, there, and everywhere else.  And here I am in the dark of the barroom, returning the gesture, touching glass to glass with others, I have known, or, will come to know. Tilting the one that matters, the one that holds my flavor that I must drink; drink, and drink, and drink from until I can drink no more. 

Alan Catlin is primarily known for poetry but that doesn’t prevent him for mixing and matching prose and poetry as the subject allows.  He has published dozens of full length book and chapbooks, mostly poetry, over the years. Although he is not a genre writer he has somehow managed three Rhysling Prize nominations and a Bram Stoker Award nomination He didn’t win either award.

“Flowers in the Woods” Dark Sudden Fiction by Anita Joy Balraj

“Forget-Me-Nots” Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

I went to the woods to meet Henry and Gertrude, then… Someone is at the door of my room. Mummy had painted flowers on the door to match with the floral pattern on the floor. I do love flowers, so pretty and delicate! Oh, it’s Mummy, she’s crying now on the floor. She is hugging my bridesmaid gown, how I love the way it glitters! I just wanted to see the pretty blue flowers deep in the woods and maybe see some birds, then… Daddy just ran in and held her, he seems to be crying too. Oh, he is so close to the jewelry box on my dresser! I do hope he doesn’t find the love letters from Henry, I have there. Rob just came in panting, with tears. He always makes me wonder if I really am the oldest. He is telling Daddy that they found me. I had finally found the blue flowers when someone called out my name, then… As soon as Rob spoke, Mummy fainted on my bed. He said I was found in the woods, at the bottom of the lake; I was dead.

Anita is a business analyst by profession and a poet by choice. She started writing when she was six, and has no plans to stop. 

Four Works of Flash Fiction by Jane Ayres

Leaving Home

Her gimlet eyes are sooty diamonds. ‘You treat this place like a hotel.’

I laugh.  It sounds hollow, even to me. ‘You want payment?’ Of course, I had paid already, in more ways than one. Time to go. Time to find a nicer hotel – an exotic marigold, preferably.  Far away from here. Somewhere the rooms have locks on the doors, where you don’t get wriggling red ants dropped on your face while you’re sleeping.

‘You’ll regret this!’ Mother’s voice has become uglier.

‘I won’t.’

‘You will.’

‘I won’t.’

‘Listen to me. You need to listen.  That’s the problem.’ She is whisky-slurred again.

‘What are you talking about?’

‘What are you talking about? You crossed a line’

‘Don’t throw it back at me.  You always throw it back.’ Words catch like barbed wire in my throat.

‘You push too far.  You keep pushing.’

‘So, it’s my fault? You’re blaming me? You’ve totally lost it.’

‘Get out, then. Don’t come crying to me when it all falls apart, because I won’t take you back.  No-one will want you, not now, not ever.’

‘Well, you made sure of that, didn’t you?’

‘Monster!’ Her skull-splitting scream contorts a face I once considered beautiful. My stomach lurches.

I’m two, maybe three, steps away from reaching the door, clutching the rucksack I’d packed the night before and hidden inside the foul-smelling, blood-stained wardrobe. 

‘Pot. Kettle. Black.’ My voice barely a whisper, I walk away, the sharpened blade still warm in my pocket.

Last Kiss

“So, you cheated on me.” Mel almost choked on the words, salty tears spilling from her baby-blue eyes, and I quickly regretted confessing my deceit.

“How could you?” Her soft voice was heavy and sad. “Who was she?”

I hesitated. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Someone I knew, then.” 

I couldn’t argue. Memories of her younger sister and I rolling naked on the sand dunes, arms and legs entwined, passionate tongues exploring, probing, were still vivid, fresh. Had it really been worth it? 

Mel started to walk towards the door. I panicked. “Don’t go,” I heard myself say. I began to cry. Images of what had been, what would no longer be, flooded my brain and I realised I didn’t want it to end like this. “I’m sorry. It didn’t mean anything.”

Mel turned and stared, unmoved, the hurt in her eyes replaced with contempt. “You betrayed my trust.”   

“I’m sorry,” I repeated. Needles of moonlight poked through the bedroom blinds, casting an eerie glow. Mel paused for a moment, as if considering what to do next. Then she said, “Before I leave you, Kat, before I leave us, I want one last kiss.” Cradling my face in her slender fingers, she brushed her lips gently across my forehead, moving down, until her mouth covered mine. My head started swimming while familiar delicious sensations surged through my veins as the tip of her tongue touched my teeth. I felt the magnetic force of Mel’s desire as she pushed me against the wall and in that moment, I was confident she could never leave. Not when we still had this, our two bodies fused, as if time had been frozen. After a few moments, I tried to pull away to get some air, but Mel held me so tightly I was unable to move. She’d sealed her lips to mine, draining me, and I suddenly realised this kiss would not end until finally, triumphantly, she’d drawn all the breath from my body.

Something Wicked

“Hey, big brother, your turn to see to Mum,” Faith murmured.

Alec yawned but nestled further into the well-worn armchair in the corner of the draughty living room.

“Her glass of milk is on the kitchen table,” Faith reminded him.  “Semi-skimmed, of course. And don’t forget her medication.”

Cursing profusely, Alec finally got up, rubbing his bleary eyes. Faith knew his patience was wearing thin. 

“When you think of the word ‘mother’ what adjectives spring to mind?” he muttered. “How about cantankerous, vindictive, demanding, selfish -”

“Stop it, Alec. She’s our mum,” interrupted Faith.

“Exactly,” he replied. “If anything, old age has made her even more intolerable.”

“This is her home.  If she wants to recuperate on the top floor, she can. Have some compassion.”

“Like she did, when we were kids?” His voice cut like an ice pick piercing a skull. “Besides, it’s only a broken ankle. Which she brought on herself.”

“How can you be so mean? She tripped on the doorstep.”

“Yes, pursuing her latest care assistant with a meat cleaver, after wrongfully accusing the poor girl of stealing one of her hideous china ornaments. I’m not surprised the agency refused to find a replacement this time. She’s a bloody nightmare, and I swear her temper outbursts are getting worse.”

“In the meantime, we can sort things out. We can, Alec. She’s our mum.”

“So you keep saying. When we were growing up, I kept hoping there was some mistake, that she wasn’t really our mum, that we’d been adopted, and one day we’d be rescued by someone who really loved us. At the very least, a normal human being. No such luck.”  He disappeared into the kitchen and returned holding a wipe-clean plastic tray. Hovering in the doorway, he said, “You forgive too easily, Faith.”

Avoiding his gaze, she continued, “Try again to persuade her she’ll be better off down here.” 

“Fat chance,” he replied, his voice fading as he disappeared into the gloom of the forbidding oak staircase.

“We could make up a bed for her in the living room,” Faith mumbled to herself, as she snuggled into the sagging sofa, pulling a fleecy blanket over her shoulders. Minutes later, she had drifted into an uneasy sleep.

Alec was panting by the time he reached the second flight of stairs. The house was too big too old, menacing shadows lurking in every dark corner. Alec had always been convinced the place was haunted.  In a way it was. After their softly-spoken father’s shocking departure when they were still toddlers, both siblings had frequently been at the receiving end of their mother’s volatile rages and spiteful manipulation. Alec could never understand why, despite everything, Faith had tried desperately to win her monstrous mother’s affection.  

As he stopped on the landing, at the very spot where their father had fallen to his death, Alec looked forward to the day he and Faith could sell this dreadful, crumbling shell of a building, and try to escape all the memories locked inside. Perhaps then they could get on with their lives. Having to be here now was putting a strain on his already unstable marriage, not to mention the disruption it was causing his property development business. And he knew things were just as difficult for Faith, who was missing her beloved Danoodle, Ivan, temporarily entrusted to a friend’s care, since their mother loathed animals and had never allowed them to keep pets.

Taking a deep breath, Alec opened the door to the bedroom and quietly entered the stifling, foul, cluttered space. Even his mother’s harsh snoring sounded belligerent.  For a moment, seeing her pasty, puffy face he felt a pinprick of conscience.  He reached out and tentatively shook her shoulder to wake her.

“I’ve got your milk, Mum.”

She rolled over, ignoring him. “I’m not thirsty.  Take it away.”

“Don’t be silly. You must drink something, or you’ll get dehydrated.”

She muttered ungraciously, eyes half closed, and suddenly all the years of resentment and fear that seethed and fermented inside him rose up like bitter, red-hot lava. In an impulse, Alec opened the bottle of pills and tipped the entire contents into his mother’s milk.  He would forge a suicide note and no-one need ever know what had really happened.  Then he and Faith would be free. Finally.

“Come on Mum, drink up.”

 “I don’t want it,” she spat.

“I don’t want to be here looking after an ungrateful cow but do you see me complaining?” Sighing, he placed the tray carefully on the bedside table. If he couldn’t persuade her to drink it, maybe he would have to force her. Glancing at the sweat-stained pillow leaning against the laundry basket, Alec picked it up with a look of grim determination. Perhaps there was another way, quicker and simpler.

Downstairs in the dining room, Faith woke with a jolt.  Shivering violently, she glanced at the clock.  Nearly midnight.  Where was Alec? Shuddering, she remembered her nightmare.  It was only a dream, she told herself, but she couldn’t shake the feeling of unease.  Something was wrong.  Panicking, heart pounding, she ran up the stairs.  As she flung open the bedroom door, she saw Alec bent over their mother, trying to smother her with a pillow.

“What the hell are you doing?” she screamed, leaping forward and knocking her startled brother to the floor.  “Mum!  Mum are you okay?”

Sprawled across the bed, the terrified woman was coughing and spluttering for breath. Between gasps, in a tight, rasping voice she muttered, “Thank you.”

Tears pricked Faith’s eyes.  It was the first time she could ever recall her mother uttering those two simple words. Still shaking, Faith said, “Let’s get you sitting up. Your voice sounds croaky. Here, this will help.” Alec watched with a mixture of horror and surprised delight as Faith gave their mother the glass of milk, sip by sip by sip. “Yes, drink up, Mum,” he said, standing beside his sister, unable to stop the grim smile that had hijacked his face. “It will make us all feel much better. Sweet dreams.”

Mother Love

“How could you? My own daughter committing such a vile, disgusting -”

“Sorry, Mum. It won’t happen again.”

“Promise me.”

“I promise.”

She watched me cowering in the corner of the cellar, the stench of urine overpowering. “I’ve tried to bring you up properly,” she continued, unfastening my chains and helping me to my feet. “I couldn’t believe it when the neighbours started complaining, told them they’d got it all wrong. That my daughter hadn’t got a sadistic bone in her body.  But after all you put us through last week, well…”

“I won’t do it again,” I insisted, trembling beneath her stony glare.

“Too right you won’t do it again,” she growled, her gnarled fingers still gripping the bloodstained tin-opener. Unaccountably, her tone softened. “Your old Mum believes you. This time.” She held out her hand. Cautiously, I tiptoed out of the shadows.

“Do you forgive me, Mum?”

She smiled. “I forgive you. Come to Mummy.” She threw her arms around me and gripped my rake-thin body with her familiar powerful embrace. Sobbing like a baby, I buried my head into the soft folds of her maternal breasts, breathing in the smell of stale biscuits and nicotine.

“There, there,” she crooned, rocking gently. 

My stomach rumbled loudly, a reminder food hadn’t passed my lips for days. Shut away in the darkness, it’s easy to lose all sense of time. To lose all sense.

“Is my precious hungry?” she murmured. “Doesn’t Mummy feed you properly?” I was vaguely aware of her screams as I sank my teeth into the warmth of her flesh and began to eat.              

UK based neurodivergent writer Jane Ayres completed a Creative Writing MA at the University of Kent in 2019 aged 57. She is fascinated by hybrid poetry/prose experimental forms and has work in Sledgehammer, Punk Noir Magazine, Versification, Streetcake, The North, Crow & Cross Keys, Door is a Jar, Kissing Dynamite and The Forge.  @workingwords50