“The Thwarted Kingdom” Fiction by Titus Green

Major General Thomas Harrison, 1616-13 October 1660

He stirs, opening his crusty-lidded eyes, leaving reluctantly the dream of a parliament of saints which left him contented. He hears the distant church bells wistfully, knowing he will hear them chime just one last time. Their dense resonance deepens his sorrow, as they signify the church and the sermons he’ll never attend again. He groans and picks up the empty drinking vessel off a slimy, dank floor. Hadn’t he implored Christ to fill it with water as he whispered scripture with hands clasped and throat parched?

There is no furniture in this dark, fetid cell at Newgate Gaol. A narrow shaft of morning light, from the pitiful concession for a window, illuminates the jacket of his tattered Bible propped up against the wall. Seeing the amber radiance light up the face of God’s great volume cheers him with its hint of revelation. Could God be showing this as a sign not to give up his belief?  Did it support the stunning prophecy that Daniel saw in the Persian tyrant’s dream all those centuries ago? Fulfilment of this prophecy is his main concern now, as he prepares to be publicly eviscerated by order of the king.

His eyes widen as the sun’s ray settles on the gold thread of the intricate brocade pattern covering this 1640 edition of the Bible he has never, on principle, called the Bible of King James. His excitement grows as the book seems to glow brighter and brighter. There can be no doubt: “It is a sign! The coming of the days of our Lord is nigh and the Kingdom of Heaven is imminent at last! Oh, thank you Lord for not forsaking me in my darkest hour.” The euphoria numbs his senses, and he pays no attention to the faecal stench of the overflowing privy which is just yards away.  “Although I shall die, by shining your light you show me the path to the Kingdom of Heaven. A path that I will soon take without fear.”

He clasps his hands and mutters intense supplications to the mute god of the Testaments, praying more than anything to lose the sensation of pain when the hangmen take the red-hot blade to his belly.

“Lord, I beseech you to ready for me this last journey. Walk with me and guide me up your sublime steps to the door of Heaven I implore you.”

“That’s right. Say your prayers, Harrison. The Almighty’s the only one listening to you now.” He hears the hideous cackle of Ives, one of his gaolers, at the door and the rusty friction of the lock mechanism being operated. This is followed by the screech of the bolt that will reinforce his captivity for just one more bleak night. The oak door, reinforced by iron panels, creaks open, surprising a squat spider nestling in its hinges which scrambles for refuge in a wall nook.

Ives, a course, ugly man whose buck-toothed face is covered in sores, enters carrying a bowl of gruel and a cup of water.    

“Here’s yer breakfast. Eat it up heartily for it’s to be your last on this ere’ earth!”

He places the items on the freezing cold floor and grins at his shivering prisoner.

“What’s the matter Major General?” He says using the captive’s title sarcastically. “Are you shaking with eagerness to meet your master at Charing Cross tomorrow? I hear they’ve got a special hurdle to take you there in style!”

Harrison does not answer, considering conversation with the man to be sinful. He has treated Ives’ colleagues with the same reticence during the months of imprisonment, speaking only for the necessary transactions to gain him minimal comforts, such as not having to wear shackles and obtaining a couple of blankets. He refused their offers of ale for a couple of groats. For this snub, one of them spat on his Bible, and he suspects they have spat in his food, poisoning it with their loathing. He peers into the gruel and sees the maggots who remind him of the turncoats and traitors of the Levellers who dumped all their principles for pardons and personal enrichment. Where were these Judases now? How would they be able to look their children in the eyes, clasping their pieces of silver? Godless, avaricious sinners they were who would be scorched by hellfire in due time. His beliefs tell him to welcome his brutal death that is coming soon, as he is dying for the most glorious cause: the ending of carnal man’s world and the ushering in of God’s.

“I wonder where they’ll stick your head Harrison. I’d say it’ll be on the gates of Parliament.” Ives sneers, and Harrison recalls the day he and Cromwell stormed into the chamber and scattered the dithering rump parliament. Now a very different parliament was dismissing him, with a jury full of turncoats, opportunists and knaves sending him to death.

“Get away! Leave me to pray with what time I have left,” he tells Ives curtly.

“Ha! Don’t trouble yourself. No amount of prayers can save you from hell, Harrison, because that’s where God sends killers of kings.” Ives spits on the floor and then reaches for a bucket outside the cell. He throws the bucket of water diluted with pig offal and urine into the condemned man’s face. Harrison grimaces and retches several times, cursing Ives and wishing the Lord would hand him one of his favourite cavalry rapiers so that he could run the insolent dog through with one decisive thrust. He reckons Ives is abusing him for refusing to gift his gold ring to him on the morning he will be sent for. He is not going to gratify this sinner’s avarice.

“I’ll be back at dinner. We’ve got a little surprise meal prepared for you. You can call it your last supper.”

“Get out you blasphemous wretch!” cries the major general, and moments later he is alone, forlorn and reeking of piss. However, despite his wretchedness he resolves to do one last thing, ask one final question and find one critical answer: when will the Messiah rule in the Kingdom of Heaven?

***

Hours later, after the rotting pig’s head has been thrown into his cell­­––the last hideous insult of his captors––he doubles the concentration in his prayer as the light filtering through the narrow slit in the wall gradually fades. With the closure of the day comes his sombre understanding that his last day of life has passed. He has just one more morning to live and one central role to play in a horrific ritual of English justice. He will be killed on a scaffold and his death will be as gruesome as that suffered by the doomed, drugged victims of Aztec sacrifice pageants. The golden lion of royal vengeance was going to be set on him; he was  going to be the first of the regicides to feel its iron claws tear into him at Charing Cross. He was going to be their main example of maximum punishment after all. An example that spoke not in words but in disembowelment while conscious and said: shed royal blood and see what happens.  He’d been a ringleader and advocate for trying the king, strutting through corridors in his breeches, giving sanctimonious speeches and preaching the Fifth Monarchy’s coming to reluctant ears. He had grabbed the doubtful by the scruffs of their necks and drilled the Book of Daniel into their minds, leaving spittle on their cheeks. Then, in that January like no other, he’d picked up the tatty quill, dipped it in the ink and scribbled his signature in the third column of the grainy parchment that authorized the beheading of the king. Now eleven years later, that same document that condemned the king to die condemned him also; the smudged wax seals next to the regicide’s signatures sealed his doom in this grim parallel. He pictures the damning scroll, no longer mere material but the living agent of the Stuart bloodline’s revenge which refused to decay. It hovers in front of him, and its surface starts rippling and within seconds it has become a three-dimensional resemblance of the executed king’s face. King Charles’ eyes glow and his lips twitch into a grin and Harrison cries out. The vision vanishes.

More time escapes in the darkness and he groans in pain at the wounds from civil wars one, two and three that never properly healed. The cracked ribs on his left side caused during the Battle of Powick Bridge ache still. That day he saw Prince Rupert leading a cavalry charge in the distance with his sabre brandished like the Macedonian Alexander. He had been a formidable enemy, a foreign mercenary both virile and terrifying riding against the soldiers of England’s new constitution with his weapons brandished. 

He grips his Bible, his eyes straining in the meagre light of a solitary candle, reading for the thousandth time the passage in the Book of Daniel where the Hebrew soothsayer satisfies Nebuchadnezzar with his description and interpretation of the King of Babylon’s baffling dream:

In the days of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and this kingdom will not pass into the hands of another race: it will shatter and absorb all the previous kingdoms and itself last for ever.

As his eyes scan this Old Testament paragraph, he searches desperately for a deeper understanding of its import because he is now troubled by very serious doubts. Had they misinterpreted these ancient, obscure scribes? Was there contrary meaning buried in this cryptic prophecy? God forbid, had they been deceived? Did its future verbs describe the republic’s destiny, or the House of Stuart’s restored fortune? He steps into the text, becoming an invisible witness to the scene in the scripture, standing between Daniel with his boyish looks and flowing locks, and the stern, bearded king dressed in his shawl and covered in gold. “Tell me what I dreamt,” Nebuchadnezzar commands, and Daniel, speaking in a sonorous voice, obliges his master. He explains the statue of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream with its golden head, silver arms, bronze belly, iron legs and brittle clay feet about to be smashed into smithereens. Harrison is absorbed by this spectacle, this epic biblical dialogue taking place in his mind. His concentration increases when Daniel explains that the disintegration of the statue’s feet symbolized the end of the Babylonian King’s kingdom and its absorption into the greater and more glorious Kingdom of Heaven. The tyrant Charles was long dead, but instead of the Fifth Monarchy, the glorious republic of mankind that he and Hugh Peters had promised to the soldiers of parliament, there was this wicked, licentious hound with continental manners and a crown on his head; the whoreson of the tyrant returned to the throne!  

With shaking hands, he puts his Bible down. His furrowed face is cadaverous in the candlelight. Scurvy fills his body and yet he barely notices the physical pain with the greater spiritual trouble that preoccupies him. The crumbling feet were supposed to presage the end of Charles Stuart’s reign and the demise of all royal tyrants for eternity, but yet here was the perfidious noble bloodline restored!

“Was it not prophesied by Daniel that we were destined to be the Fifth Monarchy that ushers in the Kingdom of Christ? Oh God, have we gravely mistaken this message?”

The graffiti scoured onto the wall opposite, some of it centuries old and written in unreadable Middle English, refuses to answer. He has stared at it for hours during breaks in his prayer and reverie, only making out meaning in isolated Latin phrases. They are curses: vulgar, defiant messages from the doomed of the past to nameless captors now long since buried by the years. Now, here he was treading in these pitiful strangers’ condemned shoes. Was he destined to be just another obscure victim in history’s vast catalogue of tyrants, and how would Major General Thomas Harrison’s deeds be depicted in the pamphlets and conversations of posterity?

He starts at the sight of Oliver Cromwell, or more precisely his exhumed corpse, watching him from across the cell within the confinement of a gibbet with heavy corrosion on its bars. What remains of the former Lord Protector’s face looks like that of a melting wax dummy. The distended features are covered in muddy slime and the eyes have liquified. His decaying doublet is teeming with maggots which pour out of his collar and sleeves.

“Oliver!” he stammers.  “It is frightful to to see you in such a wretched condition, but I know this is merely your temporal body and that you are now surrounded by angels in Paradise.” Cromwell’s corpse is silent.  

“Has the Lord God given you a sign when the Kingdom of Heaven shall reign? Will it start in 1666 as the auguries say? Will the Fifth Monarchy rule for eternity as the scripture tells? I am desirous of an answer, for the Stuart bloodline now sits upon the throne of England again and I am beginning to dread that our time will never come to pass.”

The phantom fades gradually, blurring into translucence. Desperate for assurance he summons his past, delving into memory to seek signs of the destiny of the Fifth Monarchy, which he is certain will bring a thousand years of peace to Earth. He recalls various battles, with the deafening blasts of cannon, the fluttering standards engulfed in smoke and the cacophonies of cavalry charges still as vivid as the day he experienced them. He thinks of the Putney Debates of 1647 at which, jostling with powerbrokers and agitators of the New Model Army, he had to shout to make himself heard in the raucous din of the assembly rooms. That was when he called for the king, that ‘man of blood’, to be tried for treason and faced a barrage of haughty resistance from ruddy-cheeked, affluent landowners with agendas and mistresses across England. Carnal men who wished to maintain the sinful conditions of the world.

Then he recalls the time he was assigned to escort the captive King from Hurst Castle to face the extraordinary court in London. At one time the trial had seemed no more than a fantastic, idealistic dream. And then, God brought his fist of retribution down upon the table of England and demanded justice be done and it was. Praise be to the Lord, the most ancient and venerable judge!

He supervised the cavalry escort, making sure to select the most disciplined and vigilant horsemen to ensure the sly rogue would not escape on his watch. God had given him this vital mission, and he would not fail. He remembers his amazement at the diminutive, gently spoken man he had accompanied in the carriage; his fragile appearance and manner were so incongruous with the rampaging tyrant of his imagination that had cavorted across the country so destructively and flattened it with his hubris. He had bowed but refused to address him as your majesty when he introduced himself and led the prisoner to the carriage. Harrison was pleased by the look of pique on the face of the deposed monarch so accustomed to deference.

On the way to London, the rattling sound of the coach substituted for conversation as it made its way through the rutted roads and for most of the journey there was a wary silence between them. This was broken as they were approaching the capital city, when the king leaned forward and spoke:

“Colonel Harrison. They say you are plotting to do me harm. What say you? Is there substance in these rumours I hear?”

He looked at the haughty tyrant, determined not to show any fear. He responded with silence at first, but the king would not be denied.

“Well? Speak! What do you have to fear from me now that I am your prisoner?” Charles Stuart spoke the words with aristocratic scorn and Harrison recoiled at them. The snake! The treacherous serpent of sedition that sued for peace while mustering foreign armies! He was not about to disclose anything to him. As for nothing to fear, he was aware of the abstract threat of this traitor’s extant children, should their despicable throne ever be restored. However, he saw no harm in giving this criminal a hint of the justice coming to him. Harrison answered:

“You may put your mind at rest on this point, for the Lord has reserved you for a public example of justice. What is done will be open to the eyes of the world.”

The king expelled a mocking laugh. “And what, pray, will happen when this ‘divine justice’ you speak of has been served? Who is to rule England’s subjects? Who is to keep order? Or maintain the peace?

Keep order. Maintain peace. If only royalty was as rich with its appreciation of irony as its vaults of gold! Harrison hesitated, thinking it unwise to share his innermost convictions with the enemy. Then he answered:

“The God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and this kingdom will not pass into the hands of another race,” he said quoting the scripture, before adding: “And this will be Christ’s kingdom, not the Stuart’s, the Tudor’s or any other mortal despot’s. This kingdom will last for eternity, unspoiled by the arrogance and lust of men like you!”

“Is that so?” asked the king with an ironic smirk.

“It was Daniel’s prophecy in Babylon,” Harrison replied defiantly.

The king clasped his hands together, with his dainty fingers full of jewels encased in gold rings.

I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. We are the divinely ordained, Harrison. Don’t you understand? God requires us to exist and carry out his work. We will never be usurped!”

***

The autumn wind howls, like a final lamentation of his life as seconds dissolve, minutes escape and hours desert him. Soon the sun will make its final appearance on the horizon of his existence. The clock of the heavens will say time’s up with its bloody orange smile. He shivers and pulls the blanket closer, considering the futility of sleep on this night. There will, by god, be no reason to be wide awake on the morrow.

He relives the show-trial, seeing Pompous Pilate Judge Orlando Bridgeman stymie his attends to defend himself and shout him down at every turn while the calculating Solicitor General Heneage Finch destroys his reputation with sanctimonious rhetoric in the Old Bailey dock. Worst of all, he catches the smug faces of fellow regicides and signatories of Charles’ 1649 death warrant grinning at him from the safety of the public gallery.

Soon he hears the chiming of distant bells announcing the day of his slaughter. The sunlight peeks through the aperture, this time not illuminating anything profound except his filthy smock. He has spent the last hour praying desperately to God for an answer to the troubling question of the Fifth Monarchy’s future. Neither words nor cryptic epiphanies came. At seven o’clock there is the sound of a convoy of boots in the corridor. The rusty locks are worked, and instead of Ives a cluster of dragoons in lobster-tail helmets enters the cell.

“Thomas Harrison!”

Harrison needs effort to rise and the guards with a strict death schedule to keep are in no mood for delay. A soldier steps forward and pulls him to his feet. The former commander and favourite of Cromwell is so gaunt and weak that his execution seems unnecessary. Summoning his last traces of strength, Harrison composes himself for his escorts.

“So, I am to be crucified like the Son of God? Quartered like a pig?  But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter; And I did not know that they had devised plots against me.

As he leaves the cell, a sense of being watched forces him to turn around. Where he lay, Nebuchadnezzar’s dream statue stands. To his dismay, all parts of its anatomy from its bulging biceps, chunky pectorals and chiselled abdominals glitter brilliantly in gold. Suddenly, rays of sun shine through the narrow aperture in the wall and strike its torso, causing a dazzling starburst. As the light passes across Nebuchadnezzar’s face, it morphs  into the features of Charles I and then into the nearly identical visage of his son who was restored to the throne.

“Lord help me! Royalty is immortal,” cries Harrison as he is led out.


Titus Green was born in Canada but grew up in the UK. His short fiction has appeared in numerous online and print magazines, including The Collidescope, Adelaide Literary Magazine, HORLA, Literally Stories, Sediments Literary Arts, Stag Hill Literary Journal, Sediments Literary Arts and others. He teaches English as a foreign language for a living. His published writing can be found at http://www.titusgreenfiction.com.


“Before the Zero” New Weird Horror by Glenn Dungan

It is the smell that Dachery notices first. A sour odor, not quite spoiled but rather acidic, wafts through the air. It joins the thick artificial popcorn butter and the sucrose of cotton candy to make a nauseating maelstrom of humidity which permeates through the Florida marsh. The colors come second; baby blue orchids and ruby red roses poke out from the specimen’s flesh, crawling to the sun as if to scream repentance. The stalk of a sunflower sprouts in the center of the creature’s brows, bursting upwards and opening great yellow leaves to hug the world. That is what Dachery calls it: a creature or specimen. The words are interchangeable. But it had hopes and dreams, however small and limited it would be to be found living in a muggy and dragonfly patrolled town carnival in some forgotten Floridian town. 

The flowers sprouting from its body stretch into a rotting bed that is approximately 8 feet long. The creature has been pulled apart, perhaps from the vines that cling to its separated torso and waist, like the strings of a marionette. Or perhaps the vines came separately. The skeleton has long since decomposed beyond recognition of even gender; even its clothes have been absorbed by the moss and brought into the marsh. What remains of its jaw hangs off on a hinge with the opening of the mouth filled with dirt occupied by fungi that is not native to this humid climate. The hollows of its eyes are covered in moss, like a double eyepatch.

Dachery takes out a hankie and wipes his brows of sweat. He rolls up his sleeves and reaches into his pocket for a cigarette. He loosens his tie, ignites the tobacco in between thin lips, and walks away from the creature to survey the open marsh that expands into a full square mile. Lichen and frogs swim to the surface, and in the deep, probably a crocodile. Or an alligator. Dachery always gets them confused. He hears the crunching of his partner’s boots before she announces himself. Dachery already has a cigarette waiting for her.

“No thanks. I promised Sophia I’d stop,” Margot said.

“Cutting out bourbon too?”

Margot smirked, “How do you think we met?”

Dachery looks out to the marsh, stifles a smile at his partner. “Small towns like this give me the creeps.”

“Says a detective in a state with mainly marshland.”

He closes his eyes and forces the strange specimen’s presence out of his mind. A lemonade mixer buzzes for no one. Hamburger wrappers and plastic hotdog containers move like tumbleweed in the muggy wind. The rickety Ferris Wheel peeks from over the trees, carriages dangling in the sky like forgotten Christmas ornaments. Figures dangle out of the bars; limbs hang at odd angles. Dachery cannot make details, but he does recognize the difference between long arms and short ones. He wonders if any bodies are slumped against the base of the wheel, and if any have skulls broken from impact during a botched attempt to escape from the highest carriage. He wonders if these people even knew that death was upon them. For some reason, the alternative makes him more anxious. He fears that whatever force has befallen the faire is invisible, illusive. That the people did not understand the madness or could not comprehend it. Maybe, Dachery counters to himself, maybe that is more of a blessing. 

Margot looks over her shoulder. Her thick black hair is matted against her forehead, shiny with sweat. Her hair is put up in a knot that had once looked professional, but now was as unkempt as Dachery’s own five-o-clock shadow. She is smarter than Dachery in the temperature department; she keeps her blazer in the car and rolls up her sleeves. Dachery slings his blazer over his forearm. He is getting tired holding it. 

“I’d try to find some water, but I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she says.

“I’d rather drink the marsh,” Dachery says. He flicked the cigarette into the dirt and crushes it with the heel of his boot.  

They walk through a cluster of empty tents and stalls. Stuffed animals cling to the wall behind a stacked row of bottles, never to be claimed by a child who can knock each bottle down with a slingshot. Grills of burnt sausages hold a collection of burnt hotdogs that look like scabbed fingers. Ice boxes containing beer have lost all its ice and became pools of warm, muggy water, the paper labels long since peeled and floated to the top. The counters are sticky with spilled lemonade and cola. 

The two detectives approach a strength test with the meter broken. 

Dachery bends down and examines the mallet. He looks up at the meter and wonders if he could ever pass the test and ring the bell. He never could. He nudges the mallet with the butt of his pistol, afraid to touch it. The moss is dark red, the color of blood, and covers a portion of the face of the mallet. It looks almost like the point of impact, like it had been used as a weapon. A bead of sweat trails down the bridge of his nose and fall on the moss, erupting a froth of gurgling foam. It sizzles like a chemical burn before receding back into the moss, leaving a sweat drop sized mark of black against the red.

“Dachery,” Margot calls from around the corner, “you’ve got to check this out.”

He follows her voice and rounds to a dunk tank. The water is dark green with a layer of algae clinging to the sides and skimming to the top. Dandelions and tulips pop out like ribbons. The platform above the tank has collapsed. In the briny water a silhouette lay in stasis, suspended in the ichor, arms outstretched. The algae creeps over the edge of the still water, moving like clawing fingers over the metal bolted rim of the tank. The sign above is blanketed by a thin layer of sediment and scum and hangs diagonally. Words written in algae with as much precision as a marker to a whiteboard grows from the splintered wood:

Rejoice, repent, revive. 

The world accepts, palms up to the sun, the hands of the Moss Prophet.

Dachery notices that Margot is holding her pistol before he notices that he has instinctively gotten his out as well. He sets his coat on one of the red and white draped picnic tables. The dunk tank stretches away from them, the shadowy figure floating blissfully in its moss blanketed womb. Beyond, near the edge of the marsh and the entrance to the carnival, the specimen lay succumbed to the Earth. 

They strafe along the paths, hearing the crunching of sand underneath their boots. Empty stalls box them in; cash registers and tip jars with soggy bills. Scabs of algae start on corners and creeps onto folding plastic chairs. Dandelions pop up from random spots in the ground, without any dirt or fertilization. Purple orchids and azure tulips cling to the tops of torn tents like barnacles. 

The porto-johns are covered almost entirely with a thin layer of algae that creeps from the ground. Blue and orange petals line over green fuzz. The doors are welded shut with spongy ichor, and occasionally their heels give into some surrendering of the land, as if softened by invisible rainfall. The Ferris Wheel looms above the trees, the carriages swinging vacantly in some higher wind. The slumped figures are still shadowed with distance, but Dachery can now make out details of arms hanging limp through metal barriers, of foreheads pressed in between the gaps. 

“I don’t like this place, Dachery,” Margot says, her eyes darting from the fuzzy porto-johns. 

“Me neither.” He put his back to hers, keeps his fingers on his gun. 

Beads of sweat trail down Dachery’s back. Beyond them, the wind rustles. He feels the eyes of the dunk tank drifting towards him, bobbing in some contaminated womb. The specimen is far away now. He wants to submit to the psychic, unexplainable sense that the flowers sprouting from the creature’s brows, thighs, forearms, follow him as they would the sun. He wants to. It will be easier. 

“The Moss Prophet,” Margot says. She repeats: “The Moss Prophet.”

“Sounds like a cult,” Dachery says. 

He does not know why they stopped here, in the middle of the designated porto-john zone, but they did. He kicks away a baseball cap. Empty plastic cans of lemonade and hamburger wrappers litter the grounds, each their own biome of infectious moss that wiggle all its fibers in the beating sun. The trashcans, previously over flowed, have been absorbed entirely by the land, and now stick up like totems of seamless carpet; rounded lumps threatening to pierce from the mud like a zit. The Ferris Wheel reaches into the sky-

A door opens with the sound of shredding paper. A figure flops out like a fallen broom. Margot aims, fires. Birds escape from the trees and into the clouds. Dachery swears he notices their feathers dipped in what appear to be dark green tar. Margot gestures to Dachery and they walked across the court. She takes position next to an over-turned trashcan that is blanketed by wriggling algae, switching gaze to the other doors. The figure is in Dachery’s iron sights, and he knows from the sudden hissing of gas akin to a deflating balloon and the pungent, sour smell of rotting vegetables that whatever this creature is seems to be either a mannequin or halfway to becoming a specimen. He knows for certain that it is not human. Not anymore.

It slumps into the foliage; its nose pressed into the dirt. Its skull is half caved in with an indent from the bullet. It looks like a stone pierced a rotting pumpkin. It is hairless and green, and in the shine of the Floridian sun it seems to glisten with a caked layer of sweat. Its features, half buried, are either absent or transformed. The dimensions of a normal nose have been reduced to something upturned and skeletal, the eyes poking out purple and yellow orchids in full bloom. Moss creeps from the darkness of its lungs and lines the roof of its mouth, clawing upwards into some reverse mustache. Lady bugs traverse on its limp tongue.The interior of the porto-john emits the impression of some infinite, cosmic void.

“Do you see anything?” Margot calls from across the lot. 

Dachery bends down, ignores the bead of sweat trailing down the bridge of his nose to his upper lip. “No,” he says, “just a body.”

“A don’t trust that explanation, Dachery.”

Dachery looks into the flowers that occupy the creature’s eyes. They are beautiful. A ladybug crawls from the inside of its cheek and nestles on the layer of moss underneath its nose. Its shell is pink, and what Dachery has originally perceived to be dots are instead strange stars, as if the dots had “bled out” its ink. He takes the pistol and uses it to nudge the skull. A plume of rotting vegetable smell almost knocks Dachery backwards. He closes his mouth, stops his breathing. The flesh is soft. He felt like he was pushing into a cake. The air around him becomes thick, amplified by the muggy humidity. Dachery grits his teeth and pressed the .22  into the creature’s elbow. It offers no resistance, the flesh squishy and receding into an even spongier, swollen bone. He swallows in a fist of rotting vegetable.

Margot comes to check on Dachery ten minutes later. He hunches over, one hand on his knee, the other on a sun heated bench. Orange vomit cascades onto the dirt next to discarded hotdog wrappers and containers of chili. 

“Mint?” She holds out a white capsule.

He takes one, chews, swallows. 

“You’re supposed to suck on them. They aren’t gum,” she says.

He pulls out a cigarette and cups the flame away from a warm gust of wind. “I took it as a courtesy.”

Margot looks back. They are forty feet from the porto-john lot. The Ferris Wheel looms to their left, glittering from the sun.

“How much light do we have left?” Dachery asks.

“Couple of hours.”

“Did you call for backup?”

“I needed to do something while you were tasting your breakfast sausages again.”

Dachery inhales, taking long drags to eradicate the sour taste of vomit that cakes on his tongue. “’Rejoice, repent, revive. The world accepts, palms up to the sun, the hands of the Moss Prophet’. Spooky.”

“I’ll say,” Margot says, Margot shields her eyes from the sun. She faces the collection of porto-johns, standing stagnant like old relics. Her shoulder perks upwards, turning her away from the looming Ferris Wheel. Dachery wonders if this is conscious or if he is over thinking it. “What do you think happened?”

Dachery shrugs. “Could be anyone’s guess.”

“The Moss Prophet,” she says, turning to him.

“Either something religious happened here, or it sure as hell tried to.”

“Nothing here makes any sense, Dachery. Nothing at all.”

“It’s bizarre. Gives me the creeps.”

“I could use a bourbon right about now.”

“Me too.”

“Let’s head back before dark. I don’t want to be here without my flashlight.”

Dachery squashes out the butt of the cigarette with the heel of his boot. “Then let’s stop wasting time.” 

They started their advance once Margot’s nerves and Dachery’s stomach settles. They skirt the edges of the porto-john collective and wade in between the stalls once more. Moss has advanced on the sticky picnic benches and little bulbs litter along patches of green like festering zits. The moss on tops of the tents inch closer to one another, bridging the empty space. It spears out, ignorant of gravity, like fingers yearning to touch. Their speed slows when they approach the dunk tank, and they skirt the perimeter as if it is a wild animal. The figure remains in stasis, shadowed in the murky, algae infested waters. Strings of kelp now loft from the bottom, trailing from its thighs and forearms. A crema of algae bobs in the sun beaten wind. The sign, written in a thriving, wriggling ecosystem of moss, now features deep purple orchids and scarlet roses. The moss has become more vibrant, turning the words into bulging, wriggling, blistering masses. Strange lady bugs crawl along the rim of the tank.

“This is impossible,” Dachery says. “How can the greenery grow so fast here?”

Margot shakes her head, looking up at the sign, her eyes fixated on Moss Prophet. “The only thing that grows this fast is cancer.”

Dachery grunts. He goes to the picnic table to retrieve his jacket but discovers it is blanketed in its entirety by moss. The furry bristles move like seaweed underneath a river, feeling the air with tiny fingers. A beetle trots along the picnic table and Dachery sees the formation of a miniature ecosystem. Mushrooms sprout from the layer of grass that carpeted the once red-and-white checkered cover. Invitro bulbs pulse and shine. The beetle roams, poking its horn into pustules of glowering bulbs. It is the color of ivory. He was wanted to shoot it, shoot the whole damn jacket.

“Leave it,” Margot says, “it’s too hot anyway.” 

She has not yet surrendered to total urgency, but Dachery knows she is getting anxious; he is too. On patrols around town, she is more likely to explode in fits of frustration over the smallest things…too much grease on her fingertips, the light taking too long at an intersection. She is a slow releasing, and thus regulating, valve of emotional turmoil. Yet throughout she is known to keep her temper, and Dachery know that he will mentally break before she did. But when she does, Dachery might as well be alone. They joked at the precinct that the two of them are a perfect pair if the objective is to maintain an endurable state of collective frustration throughout the day. It is only a matter of time before one of them would snap. The weeds are getting to them both.

They walk along the way they came, turning a corner on the foot path that leads to the sea of towering sunflowers connecting the main entrance of the faire to the rest of it. The stalks stretch to the sun at just above seven feet, forming almost an alleyway. It must have been beautiful, a reminder of summer and celebration. Still, the sunflower heads ignore the carnage and corruption that has swept over the faire like a noxious cloud. Bright yellow leaves sway in the breeze. The stalks interlace and form a wall with the sheer thickness of the clusters. The dirt path looks like a tightrope among a sea of sunshine. 

They stop at the threshold, looking down the warping path. Dachery and Margot hold their pistols with both hands, their palms slippery. Their armpits are damp with sweat, and the back of their forearms glisten in the sun from wiping perspiration from their brows. The sun crawls closer to the horizon, just below the pine trees. It disappears behind the Ferris Wheel. From this distance and behind the prism of humidity it seemed to pulse like an idle jellyfish. 

Dachery goes first, looking over his shoulder to make sure Margot’s footsteps are real and she is indeed following him. He did not believe in ghosts, but as of today he knows that he is not sure to believe in anything anymore. They walk along the path single file, Margot walking backwards to cover their flank. The path dipped at the sides, creating a clear distinction that the dirt to their right and left belongs to sunflowers. It is impossible to see past three, four rows of stalks, and even in the depths of their cluster they swayed in the wind. Dachery focuses ahead of him with a tunnel vision approach. In his peripheries he catches a glimpse of the yellow petals, of the white seeds in the middle. He only focuses on the exit. Anything that steps in front, even if it was the specimen reanimated, is subject to shooting. 

“The sunflowers,” Margot says.

“Shut up,” Dachery speaks through gritted teeth.

Margot’s voice croaked, almost a sob. “The sunflowers.”

“Almost there, Margot.”

“The sunflowers have teeth! The seeds are teeth! They are salivating!”

Dachery fights against his curiosity. He is taking short breaths now. His body shakes.

Margot moans. “Human teeth, Dachery! What has been unleashed here?”

“Margot!” Dachery stops, lets her bump into him. 

He reaches behind him and takes her wrist, half leading, half pulling through the path. He keeps his focus narrow, refusing to look at the ivory teeth that pull at him, refusing to examine the glimpses of torn flannel and wife-beaters at the edges of the dirt, tangled in between sunflower stalks. He keeps his focus exclusively on the yellow, the familiar color of sunlight. It anchors him, assures him that whatever lurks at the precipice of his vision has not yet claimed everything. Margot kicks her heels into the dirt path. She twists her wrist to free from Dachery’s grasp, but he holds her harder. She swears, spits, weeps, even head butts Dachery’s shoulder from behind. She swings the pistol around like extension of her fist, and Dachery thought that she has forgotten she was holding it. She had cracked. The sunflowers have broken her. 

They make it to the edge, and Dachery uses the last of his strength to pull her with him as he lunges into the dirt. They tumble atop of plastic cups sticky with cola and dropped hotdogs already infested with maggots. Margot’s face falls on a candy wrapper, smearing sun beat chocolate on her cheek, looking like an apostrophe of shit. Her face is red and blotchy, her eyes glassy with tears. Her lower lip balloons to one side, purple and lacerated from her own biting down. She looks at the clouds with a dumb, tired expression. 

Dachery rolls over onto his buttocks, sitting on some gravel. Patches of dirt scrape along his knees and his chest. He pushes a moss claimed plastic hot dog canoe away with the nozzle of the .22. The sunflowers loomed behind him, taunting his curiosity. Smiling. Smiling at him with a thousand little molars, dry and chalky from the sun. The two of them wait a bit until Dachery is sure Margot reclaimed her faculties. She looks away from him, and for a second in the coming twilight of the day she looks almost like a child, ashamed to be afraid of the dark. 

“It’s fine,” Dachery says, so she did not have to apologize, “we made it.”

“Don’t tell anyone, okay?”

“They wouldn’t believe you about this place anyway,” he chews the inside of his cheek, “Come on, you need to follow me.”

“Let’s stay at the car.”

“No. I need to see the creature.”

Margot’s brows furrow. Her face returns to her normal self. “You can’t even call it human, Dachery?”

“Is it?”

“It was.”

“Was it?”

Margot looks away, at the setting sun. She says, “Why? What solace would it give you?”

“I need to know it’s still there. The prospect of the alternative is more frightening. But I can’t do it alone.”

“Dachery, come on now. This is stupid. Why?”

Dachery looks at her. “Because I’m afraid, Margot. But I’d rather be afraid and know than be afraid and not know.”

Margot looks back at the sunflowers, then trailed to the Ferris Wheel across the open waters. She seems hardened, but not much more than Dachery. Touching insanity allowed her some immunity to it. She looks at him and gestures with her head to start moving.

The marsh glitters and ripples before them. Behind the trees the Ferris Wheel is cast in shadow. Dachery takes Margot’s hand and helps her up. Together they walked along the marsh shore, keeping their eyes on the car to ensure that they could really leave and abandon their station. It crosses both of their minds. 

Water flies skated across the water, leaving little curves of their wake. Daffodils and lotuses pierce the water in droves, anchoring onto something deep into the ichor. Lily pads gather along the shore like lazy bumper cars. The fairgrounds no longer smell of stale funnel cake and burnt meat. Now a weak acidic odor of rotting vegetable burps from the marsh. The air turns from beating hot to chilly, and breeze hits their sweat stained skin with icy kisses. 

They come upon the creature, but it, like Dachery has predicted, is not quite what it looked like when they left it. The flowers which sprout from its forearms, thighs, and brows had spread to its joints. Its dislodged jaw is covered with the mossy fur of pulsing algae. The sunflower, fortunately not mutated with teeth, seems to flap in the still air. Layers of moss stuck to the limbs of the creature and adhere it to the marsh. It looks like it was melting. Lady bugs crawl in and out of vacant eye sockets. Some move along the vines that push what had remained of its sternum and waist to a length of nine feet. Flower buds blossom underneath cracked fingernails. 

“There,” Margot says, “are you happy?”

“Let’s get back to the car,” Dachery says, thinking of lighting another cigarette to get rid of the smell.

The sun is just beyond the crest of the trees now, casting the marsh with a purple and orange glow. Their backup is set to arrive in the next thirty minutes, and of what little words were exchanged between the two, they agreed that it could not pass fast enough. Empty stalls lingered on the grounds, flapping vine laced tarp. Splotches of shining algae engulf tossed plastic cups and foldout chairs. They looked like scabs. Both Dachery and Margot keep to themselves, looking out to the marsh and the Ferris Wheel beyond. Dachery is not sure what Margot feels, but he knows that he wants to keep an eye on that creaking wheel. He smokes two cigarettes and leans on the hood of the car, his pistol within arm’s reach. Margot sits on the hood, looking up at the orange clouds. 

Dandelions peek from the pines, like the light of an angler fish. Green claws wrap disjointed and flower fingers along bark, not to pull the tree down, but to push itself up. A dislodged jawbone swing from the end of a cheekbone. The torso appears from the twilight shaded trees, clawing at the neighboring branches to gain purchase. The vines stretch and tether along its spinal cord and disappear into the depth of the forest, like the marionette strings of a hidden puppeteer. Spots of moss cling to the dried bone like scabs. The skull of the specimen rattles, goes limp, picks itself up again. 

Margot appears next to Dachery, her .22 locked. Dachery assumes his position, keeping his back to hers, glancing around the perimeter of the faire for other intruders. 

“Put your hands up!” Margot yells, “We’ll shoot!”

The creature ignores her. It digs its fingers into the bark. Miniature petals of yellow and blue fall to the dirt like torn butterfly wings. It puffs out its chest, revealing mossy algae that falls from its ribs like drapes. Dachery is not sure what the creature was and refuses to attempt to conceptualize its existence. 

“Last warning!” Margot yells.

The specimen twitches again. Its jaw hangs limp, tethered by a brittle tendon corroded by algae. Lady bugs trail along its face, its spongy limbs. The leaves rustle the water pressed against the marshy shore. Vibrations sweep, almost like an ambush, from the edges of the woods and the abandoned stalls to their vehicle. The specimen looks on, dumbly, blankly, a sunflower dangling like a broken limb. 

The vibrations form words.

Herein lies the Moss Prophet.”

It bounces from the leaves and through the blades of grass, over the stalks of the sunflowers and the canopy of moss that tethers each abandoned tent. It does not come from the specimen, although the vines extending from its spinal cord are now taut and attach to something in the dark ether behind the trees. The ropes vibrate with the words, like the twanging of an instrument.

“Wherever you are, come out. We have backup arriving any minute,” Margot verges on trembling. 

“It’s not talking to us,” Dachery says, goosebumps popping up along his arms, “it’s talking at us.”

Accept, palms up to the sun, and rejoice.”

The vibrations turn into pulses of sound, pushing his sweat matted hair on end through an invisible wave of static electricity. A low murmur travels along the grounds, moving in and out, in and out. Like a heartbeat. The sunflower stands on end, inflated. The specimen adjusts its hold on the trees. 

Terra incognita. The Moss Prophet will show the way.”

“Margot,” Dachery says.

His attention shifted from left to right. Each creaking branch and twirl of leaves becoming a threat. He feels the forest watching him. More so, he feels the Ferris Wheel looming in the distance, now a giant ebon spoke against an orange sky. The electric pulses swirl around them. Energy is focusing here, encroaching from the limits of the fairgrounds, crawling with moss gloved skeletal hands up the marshy banks. Their vehicle turns into an island.

“Should I shoot?” Margot says. 

Rejoice.”

“Yes,” Dachery affirms, afraid to look away. 

Sounds explodes to his left, dispersing the thick cloud of noise that had invaded and violated the air. The petals on the sunflower fall at once, untethered to the skull. The jawbone plummets back in the abyss. Its torso goes limp, held up by the vine replaced tendons of the forearms. It adjusts itself, headless, clawing the bark for purchase. The vibrations end like the abrupt cease of rain. The echoes fade, morphing into a guttural sound projected at the ends of the specimen’s marionette strings. The voice is high pitched and pluralist; it sounds like the organized effort of a hundred voices, speaking in harmonic timbre from the precipice of the dark.

This is the correct path. The Moss Prophet knows the way.” 

The skeleton loses balance and falls onto the ground. Candy wrappers and cups crinkle under its weight. Beyond the foliage the vines become slack, taught, and slack again. Dachery senses something breathing at the end of those vines. Some primordial force, some beastly evil. It permeates a psychic prodding of dread, and powerful eyes staring at him from the blackness. It is not angry eyes. He was being judged. Dachery starts to make his way across the grounds.

“No,” Margot said, “hell no.”

“Margot, we need to see it.”

“Not with two .22s we don’t,” she stares at Dachery, her brows creases. “I feel it too. That force. Whatever it is. I’m not talking about the surround sound vibrations.”

“Something beyond the trees.”

“Yes. You’re being stupid.” She pulls at his wrist.

“I need to find out,” Dachery says, “that’s why we were called here.”

“We were not called to die. This is bigger than us.”

Dachery unlatches himself. The skeleton emitted a sour smell even from this distance. It is both the scent of rotting vegetables and of decaying flesh. The vines look like umbilical cords. Whatever force that once stares at them and speaks from the undersides of the foliage is no longer there; Dachery is certain that it no longer watches them because of how intense its absence. He needs to find out, to venture across the crumbling skeleton, to step along the dead leaves and wade through the steady heart beats of the chirping crickets. He needs to know something, anything about the Moss Prophet. He needs to stand where the force is, to know that it is true, that it was not some cosmic entity or God. Because what if it is?. 

He stops at the click of the .22’s safety. Dachery looks over his shoulder and down the barrel of Margot’s gun. Her hands tremble, eyes red. “If you take another step forward, I will kill you.”

“Margot,” Dachery resists a smile; the situation is so surreal it is sobering. “What are you doing?”

“Do you want to become one of those creatures? Do you want to let whatever monster takes you so the next agents come by can find you popping out of a porto-john? Do you want to be the creature that you were keen on investigating in the first place? Do you want to be a fucking sunflower?” 

Dachery bites his lip. He looks over to the darkness, to the crumbling skeleton. Crickets chirp and greenhead flies skate along the marsh. The Ferris Wheel loom, watching them as if it with some great eye. A wind carries along the water, bringing with it the smell of the marsh and mud, sweeping the rotting carcass stench back into the forest. 

He stares back at Margot, at the darkness of the pistol. He shakes his head, swears under his breath, and brushes past her, fumbling for a cigarette as he makes his way back to the car. He opens the door and rolls down the window, staring at Margot as she returns the pistol to its holster, breathing with relief. Smoke trails from Dachery’s fingers. The pyre leans, almost limp, over the open window. They stared at one another from across the grounds, separated by the windshield. He gestures for Margot to join him in the car. She chews on the inside of her lip and walked along…

at once a thrush of vines whip like tentacles from the darkness. Like Cthullu, like the Kraken, a great and evil force wraps pensile and thorned vines around Margot, constricting her like a boa. Gunshot sounds as ribs crack, the movements so swift that she does not cry out, only her eyes realizing that she is being lifted off the ground and turned into mush. A vines slithers over her neck, twists, pulls, and Margot goes limp, crucified against the bark of a gnarled tree, a marionette just like the specimen

Dachery pulls his pistol out of its holster, readies to get out of the car. The forest vibrates again.

Follow, follow.”

The vines tear Margot to pieces, her limbs separating in fireworks of blood and bone. Her body, now fragments of meat, disappears into the darkness of the trees, into the gurgling mess of the Moss Prophet’s abode. 

Dachery closes the door, his hands shaking as the marsh creeps to the vehicle. A green silhouette of something humanoid but not human is visible behind a thicket of intertwined branches. Something with one yellow and one purple eye. Not Margot. 

A bit of ash from the cigarette falls onto his shirt, snapping him to attention. He starts the car, reverses, speeds through the muddy marsh that looks different from when he came. He travels, alone, underneath the banner for the town faire which is not crusted with splotches of moss. Parked cars looked aged through desolation, furry with writhing lichen and dotted with speckles of yellow and red flowers in full bloom. Already bodies have begun their transformation into the botanical collective; eyes rattle, listless, a content primordial bliss. 

Tears sting Dachery’s eyes but he does not wipe them away. His cigarette cradles between his lips, his tongue occasionally lapping against the papery, acrid butt, hardly puffing. He drives onward through the town, aiming to get back to the precinct and warn the others that something, someone is coming. Evacuate the town, evacuate the country. Evacuate Florida! 

At the other end of the road, right before town, there is a cavalcade of large, tank-like vehicles. Men in jump suits and gas masks peak out of the backs of these iron hulks, looking around at the marsh, the muggy sky. Sunshine reflects sabers of light from their ruby goggles like they are blinking at Dachery. Police tape has cordoned off the road. Dachery stops at their command. 

Someone with a flame thrower and a gas tank strapped to their bag comes over. He asks for Dachery’s ID and Dachery shows him his badge. This relaxes the guard a bit. 

“What is going on here?” Dachery asks.

“Some sort of virus,” the man says, his breathing electronic and labored by the mask, “still looking for patient zero.”

Dachery nods. Without a second thought drives past the check points, smashes through the police tape and wooden barriers, burns tire past all the sanitation vehicles that have been set up like little carnival games. There is a crowd of people standing on the sides of the road, dressed in robes, shouting Moss Prophet Cometh, Moss Prophet Cometh, palms up and REJOICE! 

And Dachery drives, thinking of the Specimen, thinking of the sunflowers and the Ferris Wheel and the dunk tank. He pulls over on the side of the road, lightheaded and hot, and begins to weep for Margot’s last moments of life. 

Twenty minutes later he reaches into his pocket for another cigarette. His wrist turns upward as he flicks the lighter, notices a little dandelion sprouted from his forearm.


Glenn Dungan is currently based in Brooklyn, NYC. He exists within a Venn-diagram of urban design, sociology, and good stories. When not obsessing about one of those three, he can be found at a park drinking black coffee and listening to podcasts about murder.


“Timeshare” Horror by Mark Jabaut

After two days of searching, we found Klein’s body. He lay on his back in a nest of leaves beneath a huge, ancient oak. His eyes had been gouged out; the sockets scraped clean. Little puffball fungi had been dropped into the hollow openings. His teeth had been removed – every last one — his nose and ears had been hacked off, and bright green moss had been stuffed into the recesses of each. His body looked deflated.

Brunson said we should bury him. None of us moved. I didn’t want to say it, but I was afraid to touch Klein. I thought that if I did, somehow the person or animal or monster that had done this would become aware of me and track me down to do the same thing to me. We stood and stared at the defiled body, then we walked on. Burial was not mentioned again.

Poole was ahead of me and seemed to be muttering. I couldn’t make out any words, but the sounds were enough. He was clearly in shock. Or, more likely, he was going crazy. He kept pulling at his right ear, and had developed an odd hop to his gait, where every fifth or sixth step he would kind of skitter. Every time he did it I would cringe.

I noticed that Poole was no longer carrying his rifle. I thought he had probably left it back at our sleeping spot. It didn’t seem important.

We walked single file. This made it easier for us not to talk to each other. Brunson went first, then Poole, then me. The forest was thick with trees grown so tight at the top that you couldn’t see the sky. Ambient light just kind of filtered through the canopy of leaves. The ground was covered with brown leaves and pine needles. The smell was like a combination of autumn and Christmas, and if we hadn’t just left Klein’s mangled body behind us the scent would have been calming.

The four of us – Klein, Brunson, Poole, and I – had been dropped off at a beautiful new cabin in the Appalachian Mountains by a salesman from some timeshare company. We had the use of the cabin for the whole week, completely free. We had no intention of buying the timeshare, we were using the free week as a cheap vacation – some hunting, some drinking, the usual guy bullshit. We had already sat through one two-hour sales pitch and would be required to sit through another when we returned from the cabin. It felt like a reasonable price to pay for a week in the woods.

 We had been friends for many years. Klein and Brunson were fairly normal sorts, although Klein was rarely serious, and Brunson tended toward being bossy. Poole was a nice guy but fragile. You never knew what would upset him. He had spent a few months in a hospital for a nervous breakdown but seemed completely recovered.

The first morning at the cabin, we had eaten breakfast and then gone out to the front porch to appreciate the wilderness. The sun was shining, and a light breeze swept through the trees. Suddenly there came a kind of screeching, crying sound – part human, part not – from the woods. It didn’t sound very far away. All four of us had been hunters for years, we were used to the forest and everything that lived in it. None of us had ever heard a sound like that before.

Klein suggested that maybe it was Bigfoot and we all laughed. We decided to investigate so we put on our coats, grabbed our rifles, and began walking toward the sound. After twenty minutes of walking, we had not found the sound’s origin, nor any animals at all. The forest seemed deserted. We turned around to go back to the cabin, but after retracing our steps for half an hour, we couldn’t find it. The cabin was not there. Everything looked familiar but everything looked the same. There just was no cabin.

We wandered around the woods for another hour or two hoping to stumble upon the cabin but had no luck. The strange cry was not heard again. Eventually we stopped and held an impromptu meeting in a small glade between five towering pines. Brunson wanted to start over, and work in concentric circles outward from where we currently stood until we finally came across the cabin. Poole was against this idea, he felt we would waste too much energy going in larger and larger circles and wanted to strike out in one direction. Klein and I didn’t have any ideas to contribute, we were already exhausted and couldn’t form an opinion. Breakfast had long ago been digested. I looked around unsuccessfully at the forest floor for something to eat.

 After a while of Brunson and Poole going back and forth, Klein said we could stand here all day but we weren’t getting anywhere, so we decided to hold a vote. Klein and I voted with Poole to take the straight-line approach, not because we had any insight into what would work best, but because Brunson had been getting bitchy about his concentric circle plan and we had had enough. Since it was his idea we let Poole choose a direction and we started out.

We walked for what must have been several miles. My calves ached and I felt sweaty and sticky despite the cool breeze. The forest appeared the same whatever direction you looked. Klein began calling me Hansel and Poole Gretel and joking about breadcrumbs, but we were all hungry by that time and told him to shut up because the thought of breadcrumbs was making us drool. Klein was miffed but he shut up.

The forest began to get dark, or darker anyway, and we realized we would soon have to stop for the night. We couldn’t understand why we hadn’t come across the cabin, or a dirt road, or anything. We were clearly not going in the right direction, but no one wanted to point this out and give Brunson the satisfaction of being right.

We found a small place where we felt we would be able to sleep. The forest was eerily silent, not a squeak or bird call. It felt as if the trees or something behind the trees were watching, but we had seen no movement all day. Despite the fact that the temperature was dropping we decided against a fire – the thought of a fire made us feel more able to be observed. We had not brought any food with us, not even a candy bar, and so sipped water from our bottles for dinner.

We silently chose places to lie down and sleep, fluffing up leaves and pine needles into impromptu mattresses. We propped our rifles against a tree, then wrapped our coats around us and tried to sleep.

I must have been exhausted from the hike, hunger, and fear of being lost as I fell asleep almost immediately. When I awoke it was light, and Klein was gone. I nudged Brunson with my boot to wake him. He sat up and looked around, and then stared at the spot where Klein had been sleeping. He frowned and bit his lower lip. I woke Poole and told him Klein was gone, but he didn’t understand, and I had a hard time trying to explain it. We lurched about the sleeping area for a while shouting Klein’s name but there was no response. Not knowing what else to do, we began walking again, yelling for Klein every few hundred yards.

Like I said, we found him after two days.

The night after we discovered Klein’s body, we lost Poole. It happened just like with Klein. We woke up in the morning and Poole was gone.

It was maybe a little less of a surprise this time. Poole had been losing it, and the thought of him wandering off didn’t seem quite so strange, but it still was unsettling. Brunson and I wanted to search for him, but getting out of the forest alive was quickly becoming more of a priority due to our lack of food and our water running out. We just started walking along the same general direction we had started.

We walked all day. We took lots of breaks this time as we were both tired and hungry. I felt jittery with fear. We were lost in the wilderness, Klein was dead, Poole had somehow wandered off, and no one would think to begin searching for us at least until the weekend when the salesman was supposed to pick us up.

We stumbled across Poole’s body that afternoon. We were revolted but not necessarily surprised. His face looked ravaged, like Klein’s but with minor differences. His eyes, like Klein’s, had been removed and the sockets abraded, but instead of puffballs his eyes were stuffed with the green moss. His mouth was open in a silent scream – his jaw must have been broken at the hinge because no normal mouth could open that wide. Again, the teeth had all been removed and the ears cut off, but the nose was intact. Instead, two twigs had been stuck into Poole’s nostrils. The mutilations were horrible enough but sticking twigs in his nose seemed even more of an affront, like kids were messing with him or something. I touched one of the twigs, expecting it to leap out alive and attack me, but of course nothing happened. I grabbed it and pulled it out with some difficulty. It was longer than I had imagined – perhaps eight or ten inches long – and it slid out finally with a sudden slickness. It was coated with blood and slime, and at the end was some matter that could have been brain. Brunson turned away to puke.

We walked a few yards away until we couldn’t see Poole anymore and sat down with our backs to a couple of trees, facing each other. We looked at each other silently. After a while Brunson began to cry quietly. Tears ran down his cheeks and snot dripped from his nose, but he didn’t seem to notice. Eventually the crying wound down and he sighed.

It’s okay, I told him

How is it okay?, he said to me. I had no answer. We were lost in an immeasurable forest, unable to find a cabin that should have been close by, two of our friends had been killed and grossly disfigured, and we were out of water and without food of any kind. And we had no idea who or what was doing this to us.

We sat quietly for a little longer, and then Brunson stood up and started walking again. I got up and followed him. We moved with a great slowness. I felt like we were walking through jello, like I carried a backpack filled with stones. We did not speak. Toward the end of the day Brunson just sat down against a tree and started making his nightly leaf bed. I watched for a while and then made my own. There no longer seemed to be any point in avoiding a fire, but we were both too exhausted to try to gather wood and try to start one. We laid down in the cold, hugging ourselves, both needing sleep and fearing it.

I watched Brunson from the corner of my eye. He was lethargic, seemed barely able to shift his body in the leaves. I was shaking with terror. What monster was doing this? Would I wake tomorrow to find Brunson gone and perhaps come across his ravaged body later, if I even had the strength to continue walking? Or would I not wake at all? Instead, would Brunson discover I had gone missing, carried or dragged off to my death? I almost didn’t care which way it went. I only knew that one of the two possibilities would happen. I was sure of it.

As I watched Brunson drift off into a fitful sleep, I wondered if, perhaps, he was the monster. Did he have it in him to perform these inhuman acts of violence? I had known Brunson for about twenty years, and while he was sometimes difficult, he had never displayed tendencies to make me think he was capable of this kind of thing. But one never knew, I told myself. Brunson had a wife and two kids, a normal if boring job, and was not the asocial loner that serial killers frequently turned out to be. Everyone has a hidden self, I thought.

But maybe this was something other than human depravity. Maybe the serial killer theory was far too mainstream, too pedestrian for what was happening here. Perhaps the origin of this behavior was something mystical, magical, not human desire but actual evil incarnate. Something off the charts of normal life.

For that matter, maybe I was the monster, carrying out these killings without remembering. Some subconscious impulse to murder my friends that returned to the recesses of my brain when I awoke.

I am laying here now, in my leaf bed, wondering what the morning will bring. I’m pretty sure at least one of us will be dead, Brunson or I. Or if neither of us is the monster, perhaps neither of us will wake, but instead our bodies will be lost in the forest, carved into parodies of humanity. I hope, that, of the potential results tomorrow morning brings, I don’t wake up alone.


Mark Jabaut is a playwright and author in Webster NY.  His fiction has appeared in The Ozone Park Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, Uproar, The Corvus Review, Defenestration, and more. Visit www.markjabaut.com.


“Manny” Dark, Supernatural Suspense by Jacob Moon

I guess you could say it all happened because of the pothole.  

I’m referring to the same one that went un-repaired for months, requiring those walking down the busy uptown street to make wide detours around it to avoid potentially snapping an ankle or breaking a heel. On the day that changed my life forever, the city had finally chosen to repair the pothole—resulting in the cordoning off of the entire corner of sidewalk behind it.  Pedestrians had to either cross to the other side of the street or detour down a block and go around. For some reason, maybe because I’d had a bad day at work and needed to be away from people, I chose to take the longer but less-traveled detour. Halfway down the side street, and for reasons I couldn’t say, I decided to cut through the alley to get back on track. It was just a whim, I suppose. Even by day, that part of the city can be a bit sketchy, but when you’ve already had a miserable day at work, coupled with a splitting headache, thoughts of homeless men huddled in refrigerator boxes or groups of shady-looking characters seem a bit less intimidating. 

I’d just entered the alley when I saw him in a garbage dumpster. Well, a part of him anyway. One leg. It was sticking up at an unnatural angle, the waxy skin and joined toes foretelling of anything but someone taking a late-afternoon dinner dive. I froze in my tracks, staring at it for a full minute without knowing what to do. I considered going back the way I’d come; the street with its safety net of pedestrians was only half a block to the right, with the less traveled but much safer detour street the same distance to the left. Standing there in my knee-length business skirt and high heels, I didn’t fit the picture of an investigator. Yet, as I stared at the leg, transfixed almost, I couldn’t help but wonder who it belonged to.   

A bum, his luck having run out? A murder victim hastily stashed?  

Those little hairs on the back of my neck stood on end—a vestige of some primal instinct that told me to either get the hell out of there or call the police. I did neither. Instead, I removed my heels (they’d been bothering me since lunch anyway, being a new pair that rubbed the outside of my toes in a weird way), and I planted a bare foot in a recessed notch halfway up the side of the dumpster. Grasping the top edge, I hoisted myself up so that I could see directly inside. I can’t really say what I’d expected to find. Eyes open or closed? Body bloodied or in pristine condition? I’d assumed the leg belonged to a female due to the lack of hair covering it, but I was surprised to find the opposite. Two other things surprised me, too—the guy was completely naked, and the guy wasn’t really a guy at all. 

Confusing, I know. Imagine how I felt at the time, balanced on bare feet on the side of a filthy dumpster, looking down at the upturned face of what appeared to be a man—quite a handsome one, at that—with a perfectly bald head and large, expressive eyes that stared up into the late-afternoon sky. With a physique so chiseled that the lines separating his abdominal muscles seemed carved into the flesh, he could have been a triathlete or a professional model.  With his other leg extended slightly behind him and half-buried in the mound of trash, he had the appearance of being in the process of either walking or running up the side of the dumpster.  Frowning, I looked closer and was shocked to find that he lacked genitals of any kind.   

Only after staring hard for another few seconds did it hit me. 

A dummy. Or mannequin, whichever you prefer. I suppose the word ‘dummy’ constitutes a denigration of sorts. Political incorrectness and all that. Either way, I breathed a sigh of relief and hopped down to put my heels back on. I’d taken three steps when a strange feeling made me stop. Like that sense you get when inspiration hits you out of nowhere, commanding you to take a course you haven’t yet considered. It seemed crazy to me then, just as it does now. Why a young woman, alone in that situation, would fish a mannequin out of a dumpster, wrap it in a discarded roll of carpet, and carry it home like some prized find in a garage sale, I cannot explain. 

But that’s exactly what I did. 

Twenty minutes later, I stood in my apartment’s living room, hands on hips and biting my lip. I’d set him up on the near living room wall, positioning his left hand up near his collarbone, his right arm at his side, and canting his head in a way that had him looking out the window. An urban David. Deciding it gaudy to leave him naked, I threw one of my oversized t-shirts over him, figuring I’d find something more appropriate later. That done, I took a hot bath and then plopped down on the couch to watch one of my favorite Netflix shows. My headache had worsened since I’d gotten home, but it was something the bath and half a bottle of leftover Rose helped ease. I turned in early and woke the next day feeling refreshed and newly energized. 

It being the weekend, I slid down to my favorite coffee shop around the corner and then bought some fresh veggies from a nearby farmer’s stand. On my way home, I passed an old consignment shop, which reminded me to grab some guy clothes for the mannequin. It felt fun shopping for a man who had no choice but to wear whatever I bought him. As I perused the racks, I was reminded of an ex of mine who I’d once bought an expensive shirt for. I remembered it taking me an hour to choose between several options, finally deciding on his favorite color (blue) and fabric (Egyptian cotton). Pulling it from the gift bag, he’d frowned and cast it aside without so much as a thank you. I’d never bought him another article of clothing again. And I’d promised myself to consider—very carefully—the prospect of buying clothes for a man in the future. 

Technically speaking, this didn’t count.   

I settled on a Hawaiian button-down and a pair of khakis. I decided to leave him bald and barefooted. I liked the casual flair that sort of look gave him, as if he’d be ready to step into a beach-side eatery and order the calamari and a beer. Seeing as how my apartment’s austere look hadn’t changed much since I’d moved in six months before, the addition of the mannequin gave it instant personality. A conversation piece if nothing else.  

Standing there looking him over, inspiration struck me again. He needed a name.  Searching my mind for something appropriate, I settled on the obvious—Manny. It suited him.  Chiseled, high cheek bones. A prominent jawline. The muscles in his arms forever flexed and the relation of his upper body to his waist retaining that perfect V-shape. I sighed. If only real men came this way. I thought back to my list of exes and fought to recall if any of them had even remotely resembled Manny. Adding to this wish, I attributed all their best attributes into him, from sweetness, to being a good listener, to possessing a great sense of humor. But that only made me realize I was being guilty of what many people do at some point of their lives—putting into practice the useless exercise of expecting perfection.   

The following day, my mother came over to visit. As soon as she saw Manny, she laid into me good. 

“What on earth is that?” she asked before even sitting down. Rolling my eyes, I told her the story. 

“Well, I don’t like it,” she said, giving Manny a wary eye as she set her purse down on the kitchen table. “It’s creepy. Why don’t you try bringing a real man in here for once? I doubt that thing will be giving you any orgasms.” 

There it was. Always one to take her shots, she apparently hadn’t needed her usual warm-up today. 

“If you must know, I’m talking to someone,” I lied. “Not that I need to report my love life to you.” I could already feel my anxiety creeping in, bringing out the hives over my arms.  “Besides, it’s harmless. It’s like art.” 

Mom scoffed. “I’m telling you, it’s creepy. It gives you the impression it’s always looking at you. I can only imagine standing with my back to it, alone in here! God.” 

I made us some tea and sat down on the couch beside her. Sipping the soothing liquid, I changed the subject. Soon, however, she brought up my love life again, and I was forced into my usual self-defense stance. Arms and legs crossed as I slumped into the couch cushions, face set, my foot fidgeting in an unconscious attempt to deflate my own rising aggravation. “Why are you so interested in who’s sharing my bed?” I asked her, already knowing her answer. 

“Life is short. I won’t be around forever,” she said, placing a hand on my knee. “It’s not like you have to get married. Times are different. I married your father—Lord rest his soul—because society said I had to. If I’d been born into your generation, I’d have asked him to impregnate me on our first date and then never talked to him again!” She laughed at her own joke, giving off that high-pitched, staccato cackle that sounded more animal than human.  Rolling my eyes again, I wondered why I hadn’t told her I was busy all weekend washing my hair, or plucking my eyebrows, or even getting a Brazilian wax.

Mothers.

*  *  *

The next week went by uneventfully. Cramps that found me right on time retreated for their three-week sabbatical, and work got better. I’d been stressed over getting prepared for an important marketing meeting to be held that Friday, and once it was finished without a hitch, I gladly accepted an invite from a group of co-workers to go out for cocktails at a hip new bar I’d been wanting to try. Our group included three girls and a pair of guys, one of whom worked in a different department than us. As we all talked, I noticed the guy I didn’t know making eye contact with me. Not creepily, but in a way that spoke of quiet confidence—and suggested that he probably knew how to fuck. I considered myself just this side of pretty, had my shit together, and owned the opinion that my personality was fairly normal. I took tremendous pride in my sense of humor. Always one to joke and not be offended easily, I laughed as the group and I enjoyed a conversation that had become increasingly lubricated by alcohol. One of the girls joked that our boss was secretly a cross-dresser, eliciting guffaws all around. The guy I knew well added his own joke, saying he was currently wearing a pair of crotchless panties that allowed his balls to breathe easier. The table exploded into laughter. The whole time, the other guy kept glancing at me above the rim of his beer glass.  

Later, as we all left the bar, he took me aside and asked if he could call me sometime.  Not text or DM  Call. It was refreshing to be hit on by a normal guy who didn’t seem averse to regular conversation. I said ‘sure’ and gave him my number. What the hell—maybe my mom had been right for a change. 

He called me five minutes later. Normally, I’d have seen that as a red flag. Too needy or too horny. But I hadn’t gotten that impression. When I picked up the call, he had me laughing right away, and before I knew it, I was at a different bar with him having another drink. As we left, he pulled me close and kissed me. Later, I’d remember the taste of scotch and bubblegum on his mouth. He was a great kisser, which was no surprise since I can usually tell those things just from looking at a guy. He asked to come back to my place, but I told him no. That normally would have been a red flag also, a guy asking that so soon, but not this time and not this guy.  My place was a mess, and I hadn’t shaved in several days. It wasn’t as if I planned on screwing him, but two people alone in an apartment while under the influence of alcohol have been known to knock the boots once or twice before. I did agree, however, to lunch the following day, and then I floated back to my apartment on a cloud. 

As soon as I locked the door behind me, I collapsed on the couch and found myself staring at Manny. I’d adjusted his arms and head the day before, just to change things up. Light from the hallway cast him in partial shadow, giving him a slightly eerie appearance. Standing to turn on the overhead light, I paused in front of him and looked into his glassy, darkly large eyes.  “I kissed someone tonight,” I confessed, and was surprised to feel better at having articulated it.  Like he could be the personification of a diary. I sat back down and began speaking to him about my entire week. Before I knew it, an hour had gone by and I’d recounted most everything that had happened during that time. And I went to bed feeling emotionally recharged, as if I’d just spoken to a good friend who listened more than they spoke. As long as I had Manny, I wondered if I would ever need counseling. 

The calendar turned, and life went by as normal. I went on a few more dates with the new guy. Eric. He didn’t over-pursue, which I liked. We learned more and more about each other, including our similar backgrounds and many shared passions. After each date, I came home and told Manny about it. With a glass of wine in hand, I would sprawl on the couch and talk to him, recounting where Eric and I had gone and what we’d done. It didn’t seem weird at all. People often talked to themselves, I figured, just like they talked to their plants and pets. I didn’t have a large collection of friends, and the ones I did have were largely superficial or preferred to communicate with their smartphone keyboards. Among the guy friends I had, most either wanted to sleep with me or couldn’t hold a conversation for longer than five minutes. But as I’d begun to realize, talking with Manny about my life was cathartic. He’d become my sounding board, my never-complaining confidant.  

One evening, after I’d just ended an exasperating phone conversation with my mother, I turned to Manny and said, “You’re the only one who really understands me.”  I felt shocked saying the words. Here I was, a grown woman with a college degree, confiding in a doll. If anyone else had been present, I may have been embarrassed. But I felt good saying it and discovered a level of comfort I hadn’t known in quite some time. Standing there resolutely, frozen in his own masculinity, Manny projected everything I sought in a man…save for his lack of a brain, heartbeat, and most importantly, a dick. I found it maddening in a way to constantly pass this model of my perfect guy, one who listened without fail and never judged me, but not being able to actually have him in flesh and blood. But I soon resigned myself to the fact that, although it felt nice to be around a breathing male sometimes, the unalienable truth remained that no man had ever made me feel the way Manny did. As I turned in for the night, I warned myself against becoming too idealistic. I did that a lot. It was easily my worst flaw. 

Two nights later, I finally brought Eric back to my place after having dinner at a nice place by the river. Plopping onto the couch, we began to kiss heavily. I’d even let him finger me beneath my dress—something that had driven me wild with passion and challenged my resolve to wait to sleep with him. Neither of us owed anything to the other, of course, and I don’t think either of us had any expectations other than having fun together in an increasingly insane world. It reminded me of a story I’d recently read about the Battle of Britain, when the Germans had indiscriminately bombed London and relative strangers had engaged in spontaneous love affairs in the underground shelters. But for my own reasons, mostly because I really liked him, I’d set the decision in my mind to take a bit longer with him. Looking for the slow burn versus the quick fuse. 

As we sat together on the couch, I quickly realized Eric expected more. With a movie playing on the TV and our second bottle of wine empty, things started to heat up. I’d let him wander to second base, but when he rounded toward third, I put on the brakes.   

“Is it me?” he asked with a wounded look in his eye. 

I told him no, that it was just my wish to proceed more slowly. I reassured him that I liked him a lot, but that sex wasn’t on the forefront of my mind that night. 

“Is it because that thing is looking at us?” he asked, indicating Manny standing on the opposite side of the room. 

I laughed. “The mannequin? Of course not. I told you, it’s just a personal thing with me.” I suggested we get back to the movie, but he didn’t seem interested. His mood had changed. He seemed perturbed, almost pouty. I felt the air becoming heavy with an oncoming argument. 

“How about we go into the bedroom where it’s not looking at us?” he suggested. “It’s sort of weirding me out.” 

I smiled in the way a woman smiles at a man who just doesn’t get it. “Maybe we should just—” 

And then, he was on me like a maniac. He laid across me, pinning me against the couch while pawing at the snap of my jeans with one hand and pulling up my shirt with the other. He kissed me so hard our teeth clinked together, and when I tasted blood, I wasn’t sure if it was his or mine. Struggling beneath him, I fought to push him off me, but he outweighed me by at least seventy pounds. He worked out a lot, he’d said, and it showed. 

“Get the fuck off me!” I yelled, still struggling to squeeze out from beneath him. He’d managed to unsnap my jeans and was busy with the zipper when he whispered drunkenly in my ear, “Relax, it’s just sex.” 

I’d played sports in high school and currently worked out at a local gym. Even though I’d grown a bit softer than I would have liked, I felt confident that, in a pinch, I could hold my own.  Feeling the situation approaching desperate, I summoned every bit of strength I had and pushed upward with both my knees and elbows. An involuntary grunt escaped him as he rolled off me, striking the coffee table and then crashing to the floor. I wasted no time in getting to my feet and snapping up my jeans. Glaring down at him, I extended one finger toward the door and told him to get out of my apartment. He looked up at me with an amused look on his face. I wasn’t sure what infuriated me more—what he’d tried to do, or the look he was giving me.

“Whatever,” he said, standing and re-tucking his shirt. He bumped me on purpose on his way out, telling me to have fun fucking my doll.   

Good riddance. 

*  *  *

The next day, I paid for two security cameras to be installed, each one showing the interior of my apartment from opposing angles. My apartment manager refused to allow me to install them outside my front door, citing ownership rules, but allowed me to have them inside. It made me feel better knowing I’d have a record of what went on inside my place in case something like this ever happened again. The installer taught me how to download the app so that I could review the cameras on my phone. It cost me five hundred bucks and half a day of missed work, but even though things were a bit tense when I eventually did show up to work and saw Eric, I resolved to stay as professional as I could. I felt okay with not reporting him to the police since I felt I’d handled it, promising myself to confront him if he as much as looked cross-eyed at me.  

As I was getting ready for work the next morning, I heard a knock at my apartment door.  Opening it, I saw a stern-looking police detective standing in the hall. He asked if he could speak with me about a case he was working, and because I knew I hadn’t done anything to be concerned about, I invited him in. As he sat down on the couch, he eyed Manny with a mixed expression of humor and pity. 

A murder. Eric’s. A couple taking a midnight stroll had found his body about five blocks from my place just after midnight. My jaw hit the floor. 

“We got a warrant for his cell phone records,” the detective said. “That’s how we found you. Text messages indicate he came here the night before he was killed. You two communicated right up until he got here, and then there’s nothing afterward. Care to elaborate?” 

I didn’t like the insinuation, but told him the whole story truthfully, from start to finish.  When I stopped talking, he gave me a look that said this was probably not the last time he’d ask to speak with me. 

“Can I ask how he died?” I asked, feeling somehow guilty for having thrown Eric out the way I had.  

“Not nicely,” the detective said, stone-faced. 

It wasn’t until a week later, when I came home to find a bunch of freshly picked flowers on the kitchen table, that I knew someone had broken in. I’d noticed strange things before, but nothing to arouse hard suspicion. Just an item here or there being in a different place than where I remembered leaving it. Once, I’d left for the gym and turned around upon realizing I’d forgotten my towel. Walking back inside my apartment, I’d been surprised to find it on the floor at Manny’s feet, instead of on the foyer credenza where I remembered leaving it. 

On a different day, I’d come home from having drinks with a girlfriend and drawn myself a bath, thinking to relax in my scented bubbles while listening to Pandora. I always left my bubble bath in the same place; this time should have been no different. Except, when I’d opened the vanity, the bottle had been nowhere to be seen. Looking everywhere for it, I’d happened upon it sitting on, of all places, the kitchen counter. Rewinding time, I’d tried to remember if I’d misplaced it by accident, perhaps while chatting on the phone or engaged in one of my usual talk-out-loud sessions. But I was sure I hadn’t misplaced it. Adding to this certainty was the fact that I’d found the bottle open, the cap set beside it as if someone had smelled it and forgotten to screw the lid back on.  

I also remembered coming home one day to find my underwear drawer open, feeling sure someone had entered my apartment to rummage through my things. I recalled the apartment maintenance man recently stopping by to fix a clogged sink, and while leaning over to show him the problem I’d caught him leering at me. This last episode with the flowers sealed the deal, obviously. But without solid proof, I’d be shooting in the dark. That’s when it hit me.  

My cameras. 

I began from the beginning—the day after Eric had tried to force himself on me.  Uncorking a bottle of merlot, I poured myself a glass and sat down to watch the first day on fast-forward. Nothing other than me coming and going as usual… until I turned in for the night. The installer had told me the cameras had special night filters that illuminated my living room in low light. He wasn’t kidding—on video, my place lit up like a Christmas tree at night. As the time counter sped toward midnight, I poured myself another glass of wine and prepared for an uneventful viewing session, knowing I’d slept solidly until the following morning. At just after midnight, though, I saw something that nearly made me choke on my wine. Not believing what I’d seen, I rewound the footage and watched it three more times, amazement and confusion swimming through me.  

There it was—direct, irrefutable evidence proving someone had indeed been rummaging through my apartment. 

Manny.   

Let me explain. 

At 12:03 a.m. that night, while I was fast asleep in bed, Manny walked across the living room and quietly let himself out the front door. Fifty-four minutes later, he re-entered, locking the door behind him and assuming his previous position against the wall. The detective had said Eric had been killed sometime between midnight and 1 a.m. Each time I re-watched the footage, I pinched myself to ensure I hadn’t been dreaming. But there it was in black and white. The mannequin I’d hauled out of a garbage dumpster and carried home, the same one I had cheekily bought clothes for and divulged my deepest thoughts to on numerous occasions, had miraculously and inexplicably moved on his own, out then back into my apartment while I’d slept unaware in the next room. 

I went over the next several days’ worth of tape and confirmed what I already suspected.  Manny had moved my gym towel, ostensibly to wipe himself down in a similar manner how I did after doing yoga in my living room. As I’d reentered the apartment, he’d hastily dropped it at his feet, not having time to put it back where I’d left it. As the video footage kept going, I saw him move several other things around, as well. Watching him, it seemed as though he was merely been curious—sniffing this, touching that—until I saw something that both touched my heart and terrified me. While I’d been at work just that day, he’d slipped out of the apartment again, only to return shortly thereafter with the flowers. Transfixed, I watched him glide effortlessly across the tiled floor, dancing with the flowers extended in his outstretched arm as he went, until he placed them atop the kitchen table, exactly where I’d found them. So much for my creepy maintenance man theory. Then, Manny had done something else, something that caused a chill to run down my spine. He’d stood in front of the blown-up photo of my father and me—the one my father had framed for me just a week before he’d died—and raised one hand to my portrait-face and held it there, lovingly almost, except I knew that to be crazy because he was a fucking doll, for Christ’s sake, and I wasn’t playing around anymore.  

Slamming the lid to my laptop closed, I stormed over to where Manny stood and faced him toe-to-toe. 

“Did you kill him?” I demanded, surprised at the evenness in my voice. 

Nothing in response. Only his steadfast stillness. And my pounding heart. 

“I saw you moving around. I saw you touching my things.” 

Still nothing. I stood there staring into his soulless eyes for a full five minutes. I had it in my mind not to move until he did, deciding that the first one of us to break would lose this little battle which had formed between us. But I knew he would outlast me. I could stand there for a week and he wouldn’t move. He had that on me. I would grow weary, thirsty, and would need to go to the bathroom. He, on the other hand, could stand there until I’d turned to dust, were it necessary. But it wasn’t, because I threw my hands up and stormed my way to the kitchen, yanking open the squeaky drawer where I kept the corkscrew and assorted knife ware, and then proceeding to open another bottle of wine. I chugged a full glass to get my courage up and then went back to where Manny stood. 

“I know it was you. Nod if I’m right.” 

Nothing. 

“You owe me, dammit. I saved you.” 

His eyes stared black and vacant toward the twinkling city beyond the window. 

“Fine!” I said, and stomped to my bedroom, slamming the door and locking it. I was tired, and it had already been a long enough day. I wasn’t in the mood to argue with anyone, much less a doll.  

I awoke the next morning nursing a cruel hangover. I shuffled to Manny and cupped the rigid contour of his chin in one hand. “I’m sorry I yelled at you,” I said, meaning it. Then, I drank the leftover wine for breakfast. 

*  *  *

Winter came and went, and Spring budded anew. My talk with Manny seemed to have stemmed his indiscretions. At least from what I could tell. If he slipped away while I was at work or out with friends, I was never the wiser. I’d told him I would trust him and never look at the cameras again, but part of that promise had been due to my uncertainty if my sanity could withstand any more unexpected shenanigans. But after an initial period of coolness where we existed as distant roommates, we slowly became close again. When I got promoted at work (a senior marketer!), I burst through the front door and told him right away. Once, the detective who had told me about Eric’s murder dropped by to tell me they were moving the case over to being considered a cold file. No leads. If I had any further information to give them, he asked that I please drop them a line. I never would, of course.   

My mother kept up her weekly visits, passing Manny and giving him an indignant look each time, as if his continued presence somehow reduced her own importance. She’d long given up the suggestion of me disposing of him. I wouldn’t have it, and she knew it. I suppose some deep-seeded sympathy for me having lost my father (hers was still alive) at such a young age must have kept her from browbeating me too harshly. Who cared anyway? In her mind, I’m sure Manny was relegated to being a harmless adornment of sorts. A novelty. I even think his presence helped reduce her ceaseless nagging on my relationship status. I’d gone out on a handful of dates since Eric, but there’d been nothing serious to speak of—and certainly nothing that necessitated informing my mother about it.  

But that all changed on the day I met Michael. 

If you’ve ever fallen in love at first sight, maybe you know what I mean. I’d been picking out zucchinis at my local produce stand when a bunch of them tumbled from their pyramid stack. Seemingly out of nowhere, a pair of hands appeared and caught them before they hit the floor. The hands’ owner straightened and smiled, a vegetable knight in shining armor. Six-three, well-built, and with a smile that could melt the polar ice caps. “They say if you save a zucchini, you have to eat it that day or you’ll have bad luck,” he said with a smirk. Laughing, I watched him place all five of them into my basket. 

“That’s a lot of zucchinis to eat in one day,” I said, blushing.   

“Not if you’re sharing them,” he said. 

On impulse, I invited him over for dinner that night. 

*  *  *

I made my homemade Bolognese, incorporating shaved zucchini lengths as the pasta equivalent for a lasagna dish. Delicious, if I say so myself. Michael brought a caprese salad and a bottle of cabernet that tasted of oak and berries. We talked over candlelight about everything and nothing. I quickly became lost in a dream-like state; never had I bonded so effortlessly with another person, let alone a man. He was a teacher at a local private school and dreamed of becoming a painter. Divorced with no kids. I could tell he was the type of guy who didn’t have a problem getting dates, and yet he managed to come across as never needing a woman’s attention.  I felt completely comfortable in my skin around him, but the sexual tension was palpable. At one point, I dripped some wine on my finger while pouring us fresh glasses, and imagined him taking my finger into his mouth and sucking it clean. Jesus. I wasn’t myself. I had to excuse myself to the bathroom just to stare at myself in the mirror and calm down.  

Hold it together, now. Act like you’ve done this before.  

After dinner, we retired to the couch. I hadn’t had a man of any sort sit there since Eric, but that had already been four months past, so I figured it was about time I got over the shock of what had happened. Michael reminded me of what it meant to be alive. My nerve endings were electrified. The air sizzled, and even my feet seemed to float above the floor as I breezed barefoot across the kitchen tile. At one point, I passed by Manny and thought for a moment that I’d detected movement from his eyes, as if he’d been watching my progress across the floor.  Having recently consigned our relationship to one of muted friendship, I’d failed to discern anything amiss from him until that moment. Something seemed different with him then. Even Michael commented on the undercurrent of tension in the room. 

“Tell me about the mannequin.” 

So, I did. The entire story, save for what I’d seen on the videotape. He listened with genuine interest, nodding here and there, giving an occasional uh-huh in all the right places. He mentioned that he owned a shirt much like the one I’d dressed Manny in (I’d since given him a new wardrobe with the changing seasons—it was a trendy, V-neck t-shirt worn with linen shorts), and never once questioned my sanity for having fished him from the dumpster. It was nice to just talk to a real man and receive an organic response. Which is probably why I leaned over while he was in mid-sentence and did something even I hadn’t expected. 

Taking his face in my hands, I kissed him hard on the mouth. It had all been so much lately, with everything having taken place in my life over the past year. A move from the suburban home I’d grown up in into the city, a demanding new job, the death of my father, and finally the drama with Eric all hanging over me. There we were, Michael and I, two human beings brought together in a moment in time, and it was a moment that would never be re-produced because, just like snowflakes, moments were special, unique. The culmination of my hardest year yet and the undeniable sexual electricity between us resulted in the inevitable, I suppose. Recovering from the unexpected advance, he stood and hoisted me up. Like a gymnast, I wrapped my legs around his toned mid-section, my arms around his neck. Our faces still locked together, he carried me into the bedroom. I’d already lit a candle there, by some forethought or hope that the night would go just as it had. Laying me down atop the bedcovers, he kissed down my neck to the swell of my breasts, removing my shirt and unhooking my bra with one hand. I watched the shadows dance on the ceiling and wondered how long it had been since I had felt this way. How many nights alone I had spent recalling a collection of failed relationships, my father’s death, even questioning my move here into the city? It was all just so heavy, so much so that as Michael undid my jeans and slid them free of me, a new thought entered my mind. I thought about how exhilarating it was to be alive. To finally be free of that heaviness. Our snowflake moment in time, never before seen and never to be repeated. He kissed down the length of my body, and then he was inside me, suddenly, eye-openingly, and we threw our bodies together with abandon. 

Afterward, we slept like gods. 

*  *  * 

I woke sometime later to the sound of Michael leaving the bed for the hallway bathroom.  Rolling over in the sheets, I had just begun to doze off again when I heard what sounded like a commotion in the living room. Michael had probably become lost in the dark and tripped over the ottoman, as I had done countless times myself. The sound of footsteps could be heard then, going into the kitchen. He must have been in search of something to drink. Half-awake, I waited for the sound of the refrigerator opening. But instead of the recognizable noise of the door seals separating, I heard something else altogether. Something curious. 

The sound of the squeaky kitchen drawer opening, followed by metal being drawn across metal. 

Frowning, I turned my head so that I had use of both ears. Had I heard a groan coming from the living room, from where I’d heard the commotion? Then those same footsteps sounded again, followed by what sounded like someone choking—or being choked—before I heard the sound of something heavy being dragged from the hallway into the bathroom. The casting aside of the shower curtain; those metal clasps raking against the likewise metal rod. My curiosity rising, I lifted myself to my elbows and turned my head in the direction of the partially open bedroom door. Had I really heard that same heavy object being lifted and dropped into the tub?  Nothing could be heard for several moments, until my heart thudded still in my chest as the worst sound of all came.   

The sound of cutting.  

It went on for minutes—hours, it seemed. Hacking and sawing, pausing now and then for the dropping of slightly less-heavy objects into doubled plastic garbage bags that must have been fished from beneath the sink. When it was over, there was the rinsing of the tub, followed by the shower and the sound of someone stepping inside of it to wash themselves off. I listened to all this while biting the corner of my pillow, and watching the last bit of candle burn away, its light creating dancing ghosts on the ceiling until finally it fizzled out in one final gasp. 

I laid there in the dark, my heart in my throat, waiting for what would come next. And then it did, the other side of the bed depressing as a figure laid down beside me, drawing its plastic fingers across the skin of by bare back in a way that both thrilled and chilled me all at once.


Jacob Moon lives, works and writes out of Clearwater, Florida. He is an insufferable sports fan of teams that both thrill and depress him, and he enjoys good food and cold beer equally. His first novel, ‘Furlough,’ was self-published in December 2020. Learn more at writerjake.com


“The Haunting of Piedras Blancas” Dark Supernatural Fiction by DC Diamondopolous

There is no end to my love for Jemjasee. I pace the ragged cliffs, searching the sea for her ship. My longing will not cease until I am entwined in her marble wash of lavender and green arms. 

It’s dawn. The sunlight’s red varnish stretches across the Santa Lucia Mountains. The mist from the sea floats through the Monterey Cypress. Backlit in pink stands the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse.  

The waves caress my vestige feet. The foam licks my revenant face. The damp never  seeps into my gossamer bones. My long silk robe opens, my breasts exposed to the witless wind. It hisses, jeers, but I am invincible, adrift in my chariot of grief. 

The gulls perch in conference on the white rock. Beyond is the blue empty sky, the vast sea without sails, no horizon. Blue. Come, Jemjasee. Am I to roam this rugged coastline for eternity, this journey without distance? I feel doomed, my struggle invisible. You must come, Jemjasee. Save me from my weariness. 

I skim the jagged bluff. The elephant seals raise their massive heads when they see me then fall back to sleep.           

Along the winding path, I float unnoticed by gardeners and groundskeepers. I glide over the pebbled lane, past stone cottages, a gift shop, the bell and tower. 

Slipping through the walls of the lighthouse, I float to the stairs. Tourists gasp when I appear. “The website didn’t say anything about a magic show,” someone says. “It’s like Disneyland!” cries a child. Their zeal echos around the cylindrical walls. I nod, playing along with the charade. It’s not always like this. Some days, people are thick with fear. They flee from my presence. When the sun shines, I’m an act. If the fog veils the coast, I’m a phantom. Most days, they don’t see me at all.

“Ah, that’s my wench.”  I recognize the guide’s garbled, liquored voice, his gnarled laugh. A salty ex-sailor, he sometimes comes alone, drinking, running after me, catching air. 

On the step, I look into his weather-beaten face. His sunken eyes leer. 

Damn foolish scoundrel.

Turning, gliding over the wrought-iron stairs to the deck, I let my robe fall. Naked. “This isn’t for kids!” Offended, parents usher their children outside, then turn for one last glimpse at my beautiful body.

I continue. Invulnerable. My feet sail over spiral wrought-iron stairs, my fingers sweep above the narrow curving rail. 

Everyone has gone, except for the guide, who looks up at me and says, “You elusive lass, I relish the day I grab your long red hair and make you mine.” 

He’ll  never get the chance. 

Inside the lantern room, the beacon has no purpose. Still, it shines for those who live along the coast and the tourists driving by. I glide outside to the widow’s walk. From the empty skies to the ocean’s bed, nothing rises or descends. 

Jemjasee, if you love me, come.  

Not long past, her ship rose out of the sea, and beams of lights pranced above the waves. Particles rearranged themselves, silver, glittered. The mirage shimmied into form. A shape malleable to Jemjasee’s thoughts, horizontal, then vertical, a kaleidoscope of color reflecting the terrain, the craft visible only when she wanted. 

Jemjasee was too good for me, too advanced. Not only did I fall in love with her, but the idea of what I, too, might become. She couldn’t suffer the stench of violence that infused my planet. If exposed too long, her breath ceased. I had to go with her, or not.  

But how could I journey outside of my own world? Fear ransacked my mind. It stuffed my schooling, programming, upbringing into a box that, god forbid, I break out and beyond until I’m unfettered by the lies I’ve been taught—crammed it down my cranium, and just to be sure, set a lid, a square hat with a tassel on top, to keep it all in. 

My decision to leave Earth was as ragged and split as the cliffs of my homeland.

After anguishing in my cottage, gazing on memories, touching knickknacks, holding friendships in picture frames, I pondered all I would lose. The future—too elusive, too great a change, my past—something I clung to. 

I can’t leave.

Jemjasee held me, the feeling of sadness so great no words would comfort. My heart was shrouded in sorrow. She walked the waters as her ship ascended from the sea.

The vessel hovered above the waves, a silver triangle. Sleek, like Jemjasee. It rolled on its side, morphed into a vertical tower, with a fissure, and she entered. A thousand lights, curved and colored, sparked, flashed, then disappeared. 

The instant she left, I knew my mistake. 

And so it began, the tears of regret and self-loathing. I missed the woman who was so full of love, that she knew nothing of its opposite. 

One day, while my mind slipped down around my ankles, I sat in my cottage, staring at a collage of empty food cartons, magazines, dust bunnies, paint chips, shattered wine glasses, a broken window from where the wind whispered, Go ahead. Do it.

On that day, I chose to end my suffering. With clarity restored and a mission in sight, I tossed a rope over the living room beam and tied a hoop large enough for my head, but small enough for my neck. From the kitchen, I dragged a chair and placed it underneath the shaft. 

I climbed on the seat, put the noose over my neck, and kicked out the chair. 

I dangled. Minutes went by, and still I was alive. Then my neck broke and life ebbed. Somewhere I drifted, first as a dark cloud, then into a gauzy realm where I was still—me. Oh, my outrage to discover that I could kill my body but never my Self!

A shadowy reflection of the woman Jemjasee loved, I roamed the rim of the bluff for another chance to leave, hoping she’d return.

I saw her. In my rapture I wailed, Jemjasee!

She walked the shore, shouting,  Astrid! I’m here for the last time. Come, before your planet strikes back for the harm done to it.

I ran down the cliff. My kisses lingered deep in her neck. My hands seized her stalks of short black hair. 

Jemjasee looked through me even as my mouth covered hers, my fingertips drunk from the touch of her. 

Nothing, not my cries or kisses could rouse her.

Sobbing, I screamed, Can’t you see me—don’t you know I’m here! 

Then she saw me and backed away. I saw the horror there in her golden eyes. Her shock pierced my translucent heart.

Please forgive me.

Her kind never sheds tears. Jemjasee had told me that on her island in the universe, there were no reasons to cry, but looking into her perfect lavender and green marble colored face, I saw a tear on the threshold of falling.

I was ashamed.

She left by way of the ocean as her ship rose out of the sea.

Condemned, I pace the ragged cliffs, the gulls in flight, the lighthouse behind me, on an endless quest to be with my beloved, forever adrift, because I hadn’t the daring to journey past my sphere.


“The Haunting of Piedras Blancas” was previously published by Coffin Bell Press


DC Diamondopolous is an award-winning short story, and flash fiction writer with hundreds of stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, and anthologies. DC’s short story collection Stepping Up is published by Impspired. She lives on the California coast with her wife and animals. dcdiamondopolous.com


“Gaps” Dark, Speculative Fiction by Ethan Maiden

For the longest time I have contemplated the reality we find ourselves in.

A peculiar notion of course, that’s how my mind works, watching and observing this world as it continues to move forward at rapid pacing.

Throughout days and nights, I find myself glaring up at the stars, dumfounded by the infinite abyss that we shall never be able to fully explore or even begin to comprehend, it’s both exciting and the terrifying in equal measure.

My mother always said: ‘Katherine, you’re so caught up in tomorrow that you’re not living today.’

I guess mother was right. I’d never married or had any kids of my own. Instead I’d ploughed myself into an existence of solitude. I’d never have to be hurt by a doomed relationship, never have to worry about anyone else; I’d not have to live by anyone else’s timetable.

I was free to do what I wanted.

‘But one day all that we will recall are those memories we hang onto for dear life.’

Another one of mother’s thoughtful lines, only this one was near the end of her time. The illness consuming her mind had now become too powerful to fight, a monster of monumental evil that cannot be seen. Its purpose was to destroy a once gleeful soul.

Heartbreakingly, mother died not remembering my name or face.

As I sat there watching the last intakes of breath pass from her withered mouth, I understood that none of the hurtful things she said or did towards the end was her fault, it was just a disease that prayed on the old; prayed on the weak. 

It is to that understanding that brings me to the age-old conundrum – what happens when we leave this consciousness, and what lies beyond?

It’s this question that is ingrained in our primitive nature. We search for answers in this amazing existence of ours. Unfortunately we shall never know the answer until our time is up. 

And then to the point of processing reality and those things that fall outside what we perceive as normal.

And the reasoning behind me debating such reality is because of what happened on the Monday of last week.

As any other day, I’d woken to the familiar sight of the sun peeking through my half-drawn curtains. As the smell of the sea ventured its salty fragrance through the house, I showered and got ready for another day at the office. 

Per normal routine, I made coffee and put on the morning national news. I’d tuned in mid-story as a shaking camera followed the pretty reporter, who scurried down the tight city alley-side street. 

The reporter was approaching a large group of people in the distance, gathering and yelling as they would seeing a celebrity. 

Attempting to keep her composure as she spoke, the reporter said: ‘At dawn this morning, the report came in about the strange find here in the city.’ 

Barging her way through the spectators, the reporter continued as the camera rocked and blurred around the scene. 

‘The crowds have been gathering as soon as this was discovered.’

I was anticipating some fantastic wall art or perhaps a bucket of treasure.

Finally, the reporter reached it.

It was a single door stood in the middle of the alleyway. 

Why was a door so newsworthy?

Well …

The simple door stood perfectly upright in the middle of the street with nothing else on either side. There were no hinges or frame I could make out, nothing to hold it up. 

A freestanding door perfectly out of place.

‘Here it is, the door to nowhere.’

The reporter and cameraman moved behind the door and as she said – it went nowhere, to the back of the door was just the continuous murky and dank street.

The bystanders of the large crowd stood filming the door on their mobile phones in tandem.

‘As we can see, there is nothing supporting the door. It can’t be moved by physical force and ….’

The reporter pulled on the silver handle, which didn’t move.

‘It’s locked.’

The reporter moved away from the door, focussing on the large crowd of people that

appeared to be growing by the second.

‘The crowds of people have been gathering all morning to try and open the door. We’ve had axes and sledgehammers trying their luck, but nothing has made a dint or scratch.’ 

Shaking my head, I turned the TV off. I must have tuned in to some prank show by mistake.

When I arrived at work, my boss – Mark, was pacing the office floor. Sitting at the desk I asked Lisa: ‘What’s with him?’

Lisa leaned forward, ‘didn’t you see the news this morning?’

‘I saw some prank about a door.’

‘You mean doors?’ Lisa said emphasising on the s. ‘They’ve appeared all over the world, Kat. All of them locked, not supported by anything and in the most random of places.’

Scrunching my mouth, I asked: ‘What do you mean, all over the world?’

‘They’re everywhere … even here.’

‘Here?’

Lisa nodded, ‘at the beach.’

Laughing I held my hand on my forehead, ‘the beach?’

Again, Lisa nodded.

‘Mark wants to go down there, to take a look.’

‘It’s a door,’ I whispered. ‘Nothing special, just a door.’

With that, Mark came over to our desk. His mop of brown hair was beaded with sweat and to be honest, he looked like shit.

‘So, works cancelled today girls. I’m going down to the beach to see what’s going on with these doors.’

‘Are you serious?’ I asked.

He was.

‘Listen, I’ll give you a full day’s pay for the inconvenience, under one condition.’

‘What’s that?’ Lisa asked.

‘You come to the beach with me.’

‘Sold,’ Lisa said without hesitation.

  As feelings go, the only thing I could recall is trepidation, there was an underlying reluctance to go. 

‘I’m not interested,’ I said.

Lisa rolled her eyes, ‘oh c’mon, Kat. Isn’t there something inside you that isn’t just a little curious?’

For all my sins, everyone knew that I would be curious, and Inquisitiveness can be quite the bitch when you’re a person like me.

It still didn’t stop me from being fearful and I kept telling myself that there would be a rational explanation behind this prank.

As we arrived at the beach, it was to no surprise that the whole town there. The entire coastal community had congregated on the sands and under the view of the ocean to look at the door.

And there it was, stood in what I would say the direct centre of the beach with the tide sweeping past, curling back and forth around the bottom of the wood before retreating with haste.

Everyone was here, the shopkeepers, the police and emergency services, the old, the young. Everyone.

We made our way to the commotion. And laying eyes on the door made my legs weak. How was it stood so perfectly? Who put it there? And if these doors have appeared all over the world then … what was their purpose?

As I watched everyone open-mouthed and shocked regarding this new phenomenon, a sound came hurtling from behind.

A cry of sorts.

It was a woman moving through the crowd.

‘Please, let me through … it’s mine … it’s my door. Please, let me through.’

It was Mrs Harkness from the town. She was small, frail with grey hair and wrinkled skin. I’d known her for a while as she always could be found amongst the shops on a daily basis talking scandal and gossip.

The police officers parted the crowd to allow Mrs Harkness to come to the front.

‘What did you say, ma’am?’ the officer asked.

Reaching the front, Mrs Harkness said: ‘That door, it’s mine!’

‘What do you mean, it’s yours?’

The crowd quietened as Mrs Harkness softly said: ‘It’s … it’s identical to my home. The white colour, the silver handle … it’s exactly the same.’

The police officer scratched his head and sighed. ‘I think you’re mistaken; this is just some prank-,’

‘I’m telling you it’s mine!’

‘Well, it doesn’t matter anyway ma’am, as you can see …’ The officer walked over and tried pulling down on the handle. ‘It’s locked.’

‘Let me try,’ Mrs Harkness said.

The officer along with some of the crowd sniggered and laughed.

‘Be my guest,’ the officer said standing aside.

I watched the frail old woman move to the door. She placed her shaking hand on the handle, pulled down with minimal effort and to everyone’s amazement, it opened.

Now, as I retrace what was beyond the door in my mind, I must admit that at the time I thought that I must have been dreaming.  

Perhaps I was partaking in one long lucid trip of the subconscious, in a world where everything is vivid and feels so real, but it couldn’t be.

You see, me along with everyone else expected to see the sea behind the door in all its waving and crashing beauty. 

Instead, what we saw was just a black canvas. 

The police officer rushed to investigate the abyss and Mrs Harkness stood mesmerised. 

Everyone in the crowd had been stunned to silence, questioning what their eyes and brains were attempting to compute.

It was a Salvador Dali picturesque view. A simple door in the middle of a beach, leading to literal nothing.

Mrs Harkness stepped forward. 

‘Ma’am, what are you doing?’ the officer said. ‘If you think I’m letting you go in there, then you’re mistaken.’

‘I’m not scared,’ Mrs Harkness said. ‘Look, he’s waiting for me,’ she pointed.

The officer walked to the door, looked in, frowned and attempted to close it. It didn’t move. He tried again and again without success, even asking others to help with the same result. 

Standing in front of the door, the officer took a deep breath and moved his palm to reach inside. 

His hand flattened against the solid wall of blackness, unable to progress or protrude.

‘See, nothing more than a dead end,’ the officer said. ‘A trick, made by some imbecile.’

Mrs Harkness moved side by side to the officer. The old woman reached in, but this time her hand pierced the blackness and went straight through.

‘Impossible!’ the police officer said. He ran round the back of the door and saw no hand protruding, nothing but a blank white canvass. ‘This can’t be … it can’t be!’

As the crowd and I gasped in shock, Mrs Harkness stepped fully into the void, vanishing instantly. The door swung shut without assistance. 

A few of the spectators from the front of the group joined the police officer yanking on the door, which again wouldn’t budge.

Mrs Harkness was gone.

Safe to say I didn’t get any sleep that night. Anyone who saw that old lady walk into a black nothingness would have to be induced with copious amounts of narcotics to forget. 

As I laid in bed listening to the faint sound of traffic and wildlife, I asked myself one question.

How does anything go back to the way it was now?

As the sun rose the following day, I tried my best to stick to routine. Everything but the news, as I didn’t want to see any of that today.

Heading to the office, the streets were silent, no soul in sight; it didn’t take a genius to figure out where everyone was.

When I arrived at the office, I found the building locked. It was never locked. Mark had worked six, sometimes seven days a week to keep his business surviving.

As I knocked on the door, my phone chimed in the back pocket of my trousers. Taking it out I saw a message from Lisa – Come Beach.

Rolling my eyes, I set off.

As per yesterday, the entire town was stood before the door. Only I had to second glance noticing the change of colour. It was now painted red with a different looking silver handle. There was a silver letter box and small square window at the top.

For a moment I stood motionless trying to fathom how all this was happening.

‘Kat!’ Lisa cried from the beach. 

I walked over and said: ‘What’s happening?’

‘It … it has changed this morning. You see the news? It’s happening everywhere. The doors … they’ve all changed. And it gets weirder. Someone from every town and village stepped in those doors yesterday, disappearing into thin air, just like Mrs Harkness.’

‘Jesus Christ, what’s happening?’

Lisa pointed to a middle-aged man and woman, standing next to the door.

‘See that couple? Apparently, they say this is their door, they’ve tried the handle but it won’t open. Which means their talking bullshit.’

Suddenly the door opened on its own and out stepped Mrs Harkness. Well I thought it was Mrs Harkness. She wore the same clothes, had the same hair and walked with that same frail tenacity. Only her face … it was different.

I was used to seeing the old woman with the sort of look that maybe she had a chip on her shoulder, a bee in her bonnet, that kind of look.

But out she came with the broadest smile and distant look in her eyes.

The same police officer who watched her enter came and took her warmly by the shoulders.

‘Are you all right? Where have you been?’ he asked. ‘What’s in there?’

‘I’ve seen the gaps,’ she said ecstatically. ‘He showed them me and now I can see all the gaps.’

‘What does that mean?’ the officer asked.

Without noticing, the middle-aged couple walked through their door and it closed behind them.

Mrs Harkness, totally oblivious to anyone else skipped off down the beach laughing uncontrollably

‘Kat … what the hell is going on?’ Lisa asked.

The same routine happened the following day. I met with Lisa at the beach and the door had changed again, now it was black with copper handle. A family of four waited outside the door. The mum and dad stood hand in hand with the toddler children waiting patiently as though in some queue for a rollercoaster. 

When the door opened, the young middle-aged couple exited with the same brimming smiles as Mrs Harkness.

Again, without any logical answer they strolled up the beach distant and laughing.

As the young family entered with the door closing firmly, there was a piercing scream to my right. My neck jolted round to see three or four people running toward the sea. Floating face down was a body … Mrs Harkness’ body.

The townsfolk dragged her out and laid her on the sand. Her face was blue as ice, her body limp like that of a dead fish.

It became apparent that this was no coincidence. Around the globe, the first people to enter the doors had all been found dead. Some had leapt from buildings, others stepping in front of traffic. Stories emerged of people taking a gunshot to the head, some had washed a bottle of pills down with liquor.

In every case they had committed suicide one way or another.

For the remainder of the day, the town searched for the young couple without success. I even joined in the search, helping check their house and work. The family members called their mobiles, which were now turned off. They’d disappeared.

Then the next day, the family of four stepped out of the door as another entered. The door now white again with huge crack down its right-hand side. 

And then, in came the lifeless floating bodies of the middle-aged couple, washing up on the beach face down.

The crowd stopped the young family from leaving the beach. 

‘You’re not going anywhere!’ the officer said. ‘We’re going to keep you safe.’

I don’t think in all my days on this earth have I been more freaked out than seeing those two young children with huge otherworldly grins spread across their faces.

‘We’re going to keep you safe,’ the police officer reiterated. ‘Don’t let them leave!’

‘We see the gaps,’ the father said. ‘Those beautiful gaps.’

It was agreed that the police would keep the family company at their house, making sure they were never left out of sight. Suffice to say that everyone in town had become quite concerned for their own safety, because who knew when their door would be waiting in the morning. 

I decided to stay home the following day. Last thing I needed was going back to the beach to see someone else enter the black void. 

Retracing the mundane life I used to have, I actually craved it back, the inquisitiveness in me had drained away.

When the phone rang, I knew instantly it was Lisa. 

‘Kat, you’re not at the beach?’

‘No, I decided to stay home.’

Lisa was stumbling with her breathing, stammering as she tried to release her words.

‘T … the family … they washed up this morning,’ Lisa said.

‘Oh Christ,’ I said holding my head.

The smiles of those two boys, a haunting vision I’d struggle to shake.

‘But the police were watching them, how did all four of them leave without being seen?’ I asked.

Lisa sighed: ‘I … I don’t know. The same thing is happening everywhere, the same cycle over and over again. Kat, there’s something else …’

I sat up sensing the tone, ‘Lisa, what is it?’

‘The door … today it’s Mark’s,’ Lisa said.

‘He went in?’ I asked, fearing the worst.

‘With Charlotte,’ Lisa confirmed.

I didn’t know what to do but hang up and head down to Lisa. When I arrived, she was sat on the stone situated at the entrance to the sand. The crowds had dwindled to maybe a dozen or so, people either losing interest or scared witless over this otherworldly event. I surmised it was the latter.

Sitting next to Lisa, I looked at the door in the distance, which indeed was Mark’s, painted in a grey colour with diamond shaped window. 

‘We’ll stay with him when he gets back,’ I said.

Lisa huffed, ‘it won’t make a difference, Kat. We’re all going to suffer the same fate, when our door arrives, it’s our time to depart.’

‘Don’t talk like that!’ I said. ‘We make our own decisions, and no one has to walk through that door.’

Lisa glanced up at me with those big deep brown eyes of hers and said: ‘But aren’t you curious what’s in there?’

‘No,’ I lied. ‘I tell you what, let’s go for a drink.’

‘But I wanna stay.’

Standing, I reached out my hand, which Lisa gracefully took, and I heaved her up.

The bar on the beachfront was quiet. We sat sipping our cocktails as Lisa couldn’t help but keep looking out the window at the door.

‘Is this how we’re supposed to act during something like this?’ Lisa said. ‘Sitting here drinking, waiting for our turn?’

Something like this?’ I questioned. ‘When has this ever happened? Is there a manual on how were supposed to act? Lisa, I said that none of us have to go in that door, we’re masters of our own destiny,’ I said with a sly smile.

‘And like I asked, are you not curious?’

I sipped the mojito through the straw and scrunched my lips deep in thought. ‘A little,’ I finally said. ‘But I’m more curious about what happens if someone doesn’t go in.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean that if someone restrains and chooses not to enter then I don’t know, it might break the cycle.’

Lisa pondered.

‘So, I have no idea what we’re supposed to do in this situation,’ I said raising the glass.

And then came the bright morning, along with an alcohol induced headache. 

I’d agreed to meet Lisa at the beach for when Mark and his wife came out the door. Lisa was waiting at the gate which led to the beach steps. 

‘Why haven’t you been answering your phone?’ she asked, shaking.

‘Because I was meeting you here, what’s wrong?’

‘Nothing … nothing, let’s get out of here,’ Lisa said, grabbing my arm.

I yelped, ‘hey, what’s wrong with you?’

From above Lisa’s head, I glanced to the sands and saw what had freaked her out. The door. It was composite, black with silver handle. The window above was a small square with silver trimming.

It wasn’t just any door.

It was my door.

Yanking free from Lisa’s grasp I headed down to the beach. Lisa followed in pursuit and calling for me to stop. The crowd on the beach was now less than double figures, most of which were made up of the police.

‘Is this your door maam?’ the officer asked exhausted.

I nodded.

I’d be lying if I wasn’t scared. But I was also determined to end this cycle.

The officer scratched his head and said: ‘Now, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. I can’t watch anymore good people go in there and end up like that.’ The officer pointed to the sea where the bodies were floating. ‘You see, if you go in there, that’s where you’re gonna end up, face down in the water.’

‘I understand. But I have no intention of going in there.’

The door suddenly creaked open and out walked Mark and Charlotte, both with those wide grins on their faces. 

‘Mark … Mark,’ I said. ‘Are you all right?’ 

His eyes looked distantly out to the sea. ‘We’re great, we’ve seen the gaps. They showed us them and now we get to see them over and over again.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘Look,’ Mark whispered.

In the door, the blackness had gone, replaced with something I found much more homely. It was my mother smiling, stood before our old family home. Her face was warm, young and vibrant, the face I remembered before she passed away. 

Of course, I knew that this vision could not be real, it was something the door had manifested, somehow breaking into my subconscious memories.

But the fear washed away.

‘Are you coming, Katherine?’

Only mother called me Katherine.

As I stepped forward, I heard distant voices and cries, somehow blocked out by the silent drawing of mother’s face. My feet moved forward with overpowering acquiesce as I felt some hands grab hold of my shoulders and body. Even they couldn’t restrain me as I burst through them like old rusty shackles.

Entering through the door I heard it slam shut behind. When I looked it had vanished all together and I was stood in the sunshine outside our old home.

‘Katherine, I asked if you are coming?’ mother shouted.

Just as I was about to reply, I saw a little girl no older than ten-years-old run past my legs and into the gate. It was me, all those years ago when life had been nothing but picking flowers and chasing butterflies. Memories that were locked in a safe, deep within a mature mind now. 

I followed the path down to my old front door and pushed it open.

Suddenly everything switched to black as though a light had been turned off. Bright flickers and flashes like having a full body X-ray hit my eyes. There were quick flashes of images, I saw myself as a baby, a child, a teenager … I felt like I was being scanned. 

Then came the bright light of the house.

Inside, the walls were infested with mould. The wallpaper was fraying, dust particles danced in the sunlight and echoes bounced from the interior. 

The house was derelict, abandoned like a discarded piece of scrap. 

‘Mum?’ I called out.

I walked through the murk of the kitchen and into the old living room where I saw Mother sat in her old armchair. She looked asleep, just as frail as she did when she had died, her young vibrant energy evaporated, being replaced by nothing but an empty shell. Her clothes were woollen to keep the cold from her skin, her lips tired and crusty. 

In front, the TV was static. 

‘Hello, Katherine,’ mother suddenly spoke.

I jolted, ‘mum?’

‘You came.’

‘What is this place?’ I asked.

Mother never moved, keeping her face on the TV as though intrigued by some intense drama series.

‘The gaps,’ she said

‘The gaps?’

‘A place where you can remember all those memories you have lost, Katherine. I lost them, but now I can relive them … look.’

The television tuned in to an old family holiday. My father was building sandcastles with me patting along as a baby, mother was sunbathing next to us. I could smell the sea, the fish and chip stalls and the candyfloss. 

The television again changed as though flicking through channels and it was now my first day at school. Mother had dressed me in my uniform and was holding my face with a warm palm, pride bursting from her face.

I felt it, the warm feel of her touch.

Mother picked up the remote from her armchair and switched off the television.

‘Is there more?’ I asked, a tear dripping down my cheek.

‘There’s everything,’ mother replied. ‘Every single moment of your life … the gaps of memory. But now, you have to go back.’

I shook my head, ‘but I just got here.’

I thought I saw a faint smile across mother’s mouth. 

‘My dear Katherine; my sweet Katherine, you’re still trying to analyse everything. Time isn’t what you think it is. You’ll go back with these memories … all the memories, these gaps … they’ll make you happy, you’ll be able to run these in your mind at will … the good times.’

‘And the bad times?’ I asked, thinking about mother on her deathbed not knowing my name anymore, the way her warmth had turned to cold cruelty, the stranger I’d come to care for. ‘What about all the bad times?’ 

Mother never answered.

‘Why did those doors appear?’ I asked.

‘Our lives are endless corridors, sweet Katherine, doors to our endless memories. Relive those moments, be happy and smile.’

‘What about the bad times, mum?’

The front door opened behind me. I saw the beach, saw Lisa waiting in the distance.

‘Mum, what about the bad times?! Will I see them? will it make me-’

Kill yourself?

The old family home started to collapse on itself like paper being folded. 

Mum was folded away with the rest of it as I stepped back, retreating from the shadows.

Everything was turning black behind me as I walked back onto the beach.

Euphoria suddenly hit me. Mum was telling the truth, I could somehow instantly playback those sweet family moments in my head. It was like rewinding a favourite show to the best bits. 

I could remember everything.

I could see the gaps at will.

‘Kat … Kat!’ Lisa shouted. ‘Kat, are you all right?’

For once in a long time I did feel all right, in fact I felt great as I sat with dad on the beach building that sandcastle.

What about the bad times?

I’ll push them away, no need to focus on the bad, just think about the happy times. 

‘I can see the gaps,’ I said to Lisa. 

I think she started to cry, but I didn’t care, I was reliving the best times of my life, they were flashing before my eyes.

I can see the gaps and to be honest, I can’t stop smiling.


Ethan Maiden works for a utilities company in South Yorkshire. Currently he is editing his first novel that he hopes to be completed this year. The works of Stephen King and H.P Lovecraft are influences behind his fiction.


“Little Darling” Dark, Supernatural Fiction by James Hanna

When I saw the ghost sitting on my living room couch, I blindly overreacted. My palms dampened, my breathing grew shallow, my skin crawled as though covered with ants. The ghost, a dark-haired woman in her thirties, did not really merit dramatics. Her stature was small, her skin was parlor pale, and her hair was drawn up in a neat unobtrusive bun. She was pretty, in her black hooped dress, but her sunless demeanor and lack of makeup suggested that she was a lonely spinster. 

For a moment, I wondered if she were really a ghost. She was not transparent, as I imagined ghosts to be, and her face wore a shy intelligence—not the insularity of an earthbound soul. But she clearly was not of this century, so she had to be a phantom. She looked like a governess from Victorian England, a governess with a tale of pathos.

She stared at me and gaped, as though I—not she—were the intruder in my home.  She then covered her mouth with her hand, blocking a silent scream. The sight of me terrified her—why, I wasn’t sure. Was I following in the footsteps of Dorian Gray, that classic rogue whose monsterdom was discernable only on an esoteric plain? The terror in her face suggested this was so. Hiking her dress above her ankles, she scurried from the room. I could hear the soles of her laced boots tap-tapping as she trotted down the hallway.

I chose not to follow her—I had a more pressing concern. What was it about my appearance that had caused her to dash from the room? Had I grown fangs and horns, had my skin become scaly? Given the extent of her terror, this notion did not seem far-fetched.

I stepped into my bathroom, hit the light switch, and studied my reflection in the mirror. It was the face of a sensual man of forty—a face that was rather attractive in a Hugh Hefner sort of way. But, unlike Hugh, I had my limits. I had not built a shrine to hedonism nor did I view women as disposable pleasures. Rather, it was they who disposed of me, citing my self-absorption as sufficient reason to cast me adrift. And I mourned the end of every affair as though I were attending a wake.  

No, I did not have the face of a predator. My eyes were not cruel but exacting, as though straining the world through that rose-colored hue that had roused the romantic scribes. Had I been born in the nineteenth century, I would have surely been a Byronesque poet. The life of Lord Byron would have suited me well: slapdash affairs, mercenary adventures, lavish living on borrowed wealth. “Where the bee sucks, there suck I.” Ponder this quote from Shakespeare before deeming me a rogue.

Were it not for that flowery filter, how cloying the world would be. How crushing the darkness that stalks us, how scentless the poppies and trees. Better to suck like the bee sucks and let it go at that.

*

I live in a midwestern city where I work as a music promoter. And on Saturday, I go to the singles dance at the local Holiday Inn. But the ghost, whom I shall call Little Darling, had distracted me from this sport. I wanted to plead my case to her and wean her from her fears. But, if her terror was any indication, I may never see her again. I thought things over for three entire days. In the end, I decided to go to the dance. When the otherworldly leaks into your life, there is consolation in old habits.

As I entered the ballroom of the Holiday Inn, I drew a consoling breath. Dim lighting, soft rock tunes, and cocktails—these are the things that endure. Even the most draining of unions begins with a honeymoon. And a honeymoon is ever available for the price of a couple of drinks.

I ordered a Tequila Sunrise at the bar then surveyed the half-empty room. Whatever my deficiencies, I did have a remarkable line. “Madam,” I would quip, upon choosing a prospect. “Might you share a dance with this ignoble Caliban?” If she gasped and rolled her eyes, I knew I had saved precious time. A woman with no sense of humor would too soon prove a tiresome commodity. But if she laughed and accepted my offer, my heart would race like a sprinter’s. Only a true adventuress can cope with a Renaissance man.

Perching myself on a barstool, I continued to scan the room. I had picked out my target—a tall leggy blonde—when I spotted Little Darling. She was sitting alone at one of the tables, still wearing that black floor-length dress. She was weeping uncontrollably, her face buried in her hands.

I wanted to keep my distance; I wanted to dash to my car. I have no use for histrionics and hate a woman’s tears. But since we had struck up an acquaintance of sorts, I could not abandon her. An unfamiliar chivalry was stirring within my soul.

She wiped her eyes as I approached her then folded her hands neatly in her lap. What took you so long? her face seemed to say as though I had stood her up. Although she had deemed me a monster, she was not without expectations.

 Hoping that no one would notice, I sat in the chair beside her. “Miss, might I be of assistance?” I offered. She looked at me coolly, shrugged, and touched my cheek with her hand. Stymied by this gesture, I could only revert to form. “Would you spare this ignoble brute a dance?” I muttered charitably.

Her smile was wry and dismissive. Is that the best you can do? it said. Sadly, it was so I said nothing more. I just gave her a plastic grin.  

Although I had tried to be generous, the charity was hers. Had I escorted a specter onto the dance floor, I’d have seemed like a consummate narcissist—a man so self-protective he was content to dance with himself. Thank god, she had not blown my cover. Thank god, she saw fit to be kind.

As she rose from the table, she wrinkled her nose, a gesture both cute and disarming. Had I forgotten to wear my deodorant? Was she trying to stifle a sneeze? Was she perking up like a rabbit about to bolt from a wolf?

She looked at me, her face now flushed, and I felt an untimely arousal. What an ingrate I was—what a barbarous hound. The esoteric was hardly a sheath for the hard-on in my pants.

Hoping to gain her forgiveness, I bowed my head like a servant. But my rod was as tall as a sentinel as I watched her leave the room.

*

There is nothing like a whiff of mortality to give a man pause to reflect. By what designation of karma had this shade come into my world? Was she kin to Jacob Marley—a self-righteous prig contemptuous of all who do not lead sanctimonious lives? Or was she the pariah and was I haunting her? The notion did not seem absurd.

Not eager for a third encounter, I stopped going to the singles dance. I did not wish to seek common ground with her whatever the heavens decreed. But I started to cruise the nightclubs and bars where my charms might yet prove productive. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” had never sounded truer.

I also decided to get some religion. Not a lethal dose but enough to make me repellant to lonely haunts. The Catholic church in my neighborhood seemed perfect for my salvation. I had only to endure a prepackaged sermon, then drop a few bills into a collection plate, to buy myself a spiritual shield that would thwart less hallowed souls. There was even the chance I might qualify for a little divine intervention. Sow your wild oats on Saturday night, I reflected. On Sunday, go to church and pray for crop failure.    

Six months passed and my romp with religion appeared to have done the job. I saw not the slightest sign of her. My line scored plenty of ass. And I felt so elated that one Sunday morning I joined in singing a hymn. “Eternal Father strong to saaave whose arm has bound the restless waaave, who biddeth the mighty ocean deep its own appointed limits keep.” My voice boomed like a foghorn as I belted out these lines.

A woman kneeling in front of me turned around and stared. I had almost given up waiting for you, her expression seemed to say. She was holding a tiny gold cross in her hand and she pressed the cross to her lips. When she hung the cross around her neck, it glowed like a firefly.

I could practically feel the heat from the cross, and I cringed like Count Dracula. But by deigning to become a vampire, I had cleansed her of her fear. Are vampires not the most humane of monsters? Handsome, well-spoken, and vulnerable, don’t they belong in a class of their own? As I looked at Little Darling, I knew I had risen in her esteem.

Her eyes were not fearful but bold. Her mouth had a trace of a smile.  She knew a few drops of holy water would turn me into dust. And so the hymn now mocked me as it thundered throughout the church. “Hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea.”

As though rushing back to my coffin, I hurried down the aisle. Behind me, I heard her footsteps tap-tapping like a hammer burying a stake. As I pushed through the chapel doorway, her hand slipped into mine. It was as cold and smooth as a mackerel. “This time remember the wine,” she purred. Her voice was as chilling as frost.

I clutched her hand and looked at her. I now noticed her clear blue eyes, her high sculptured forehead, the hint of blush on her cheeks. I also appraised her long slim neck and the rose tucked in her hair. She looked like a Renoir portrait that had somehow come to life.

What did she mean by Remember the wine? Did she want me to take communion? Did she want to me to sample her blood? Or did she want us to have a picnic lunch beneath a sheltering bough?

Her hand squeezed mine like a reptile as I walked her to my car. Her face was as tense as that of an adulteress about to be placed in the stocks. When I let go of her hand and groped for my car keys, her agitation grew. Her head jerked up like the skull of a marionette, and she closed her eyes tightly.

 “Take it,” she hissed. “Take it now.” With her head held high, she resembled a blackbird drinking from a pond.

*

We drove in silence. My hands clutched the steering wheel as though it were a life preserver. Although not a word passed between us, an intimacy bound us together. It was not the closeness of lovers, but something more elemental, like the bond of a pair of cave dwellers huddling from a storm.

I stopped at a convenience store to buy a bottle of wine. I decided to pick up some Falcon Ridge Chardonnay, a label that suited her aura. Hunched in a corner of the passenger seat, taking ragged breaths, she made me think of a bandit bird that had washed up on a beach. I rolled down a window to give her some air and went into the store for the wine.

When I returned to the car and saw that she was gone, I did not breathe a sigh of relief. There was unfinished business between us, which I had hoped to get out of the way. Now my anticipation would linger like a crow upon a fence. Unless, of course, I could come up with a plan that would turn her off completely.

 I decided on self-parody. Religion had not worked. Compassion had not worked. But if I turned myself into a genuine pig, perhaps that would do the job. After all, it is only the conscience-stricken that specters choose to haunt. If one is content to wallow in muck, the spooks will leave him alone.

I bought myself a dick mobile: a cherry red Mustang convertible with leather bucket seats. I put a license plate on the car that said, Ibrake4ass. And I fitted my bedroom with ceiling mirrors and a well-stocked mini-bar. Since my image was now that of an aging rake, I was unlikely to score much tail. But I was willing to make the sacrifice if it kept Little Darling away.

Was I doing this for her sake? I wondered. If she saw me as the means of her ravagement, was I hoping to spare her the ordeal? I suspected that this was probably so, and I knew she had touched me too deeply. In the stately glacier of my soul, a dangerous spring was bubbling.

But streams that begin in heaven end up in the vilest of swamps. The thought that my valor would soon dissipate curbed my uneasiness. Does she really need a hero? I wondered. Does she really need lofty intentions? Had she not spoken desperately when she told me to take it now? No, I would not be a hero to her—not if she wanted a beast. The cruelest encroachments of all are founded on noble intentions.

Although our coupling seemed imminent, I still wanted to be a pig. I wanted no magnanimous guilt to contaminate the act. So, I continued to drive my dick mobile, I continued to brake for ass, and I started to hit on chicks with lines like, “Oye, baby, your place or mine?”

I think Little Darling must have known that my debasement was not yet complete. A month went by then another, and she failed to reappear.

*

The crux of seduction is timing—finding the perfect moment. But time had no meaning to Little Darling; she was content to leave me bereft. Wasn’t I pig enough for her? Wasn’t I shallow and gross? Hadn’t I rivaled Hugh Hefner in trivializing my lust? I finally grew weary of waiting for her, and I chose to take a vacation. If I could not ravage her, why not outrun her? It would not be that hard. Ghosts are territorial, after all, creatures too earthbound for flight.

I took the most vulgar of holidays: a carnival cruise to the Bahamas. No museums in Paris for me. No Great Wall of China for me. Nothing to cultivate my soul and make me a person of merit. When she came to me—if ever she did—I wanted to be a brute. I wanted to make our coupling so base it would free her from this earth. So, I contented myself with dozing in deckchairs and being force-fed six times a day. And I sat by a poolside so crowded with bodies I could barely draw a breath. For all cultural purposes, I may as well have been a boar on a factory farm.

One evening, when I returned to my stateroom, a woman was lying in my bed. She was wearing a long black nightgown that barely hid her breasts. She looked at me reproachfully, like a heretic tied to a stake. 

Not wishing to break the silence, I did not say a word. I just hung my clothes in the closet then slipped into the bed beside her. Unwilling to stir, I lay like a log; the first move would have to be hers.

She leaned on an elbow and gazed at me, her face a mask of despair. Her hair was undone, and it tickled my chest as she wearily shook her head. “You’re all I have,” she whispered. “You’re all I’ll ever have.”

 I felt a deep pity for her when she kissed me on the mouth. The kiss was not tender but tentative, as though she were sampling a meal. Her breath was cool, musty, and hinted of the grave.    

When she mounted me, she mewed like a kitten. Her eyes were like sinking stones. She clung to me as though fighting a current. She slipped her tongue into my ear.

 We climaxed together. She wept like a child then snuggled into my arms. As though guarding a statue of infinite worth, I held her through the night.

*

Hugh Hefner has nothing on me when it comes to exalting lust. I had actually thought that by sleeping with her I would free her of this world. I had truly believed she might walk among angels when her carnality was spent. Maybe if I had remembered the wine, my scheme would actually have worked.

 She comes to see me regularly now—once or twice a year. And although I instinctually dread her, I ache for her as well. I have never felt such a tenderness, I have never felt so alone. Our couplings are quick, like summer storms, and afterwards she weeps. “You’re all I have,” she tells me each time. “You’re all I will ever have.” 


This story originally appeared Trampset and is also included in James Hanna’s anthology, Shackles and More Gripping Tales.


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, four of which have won awards, are available on Amazon