“Making Ends Meat” Dark Fiction by Philip Finkelstein

"Making Ends Meat" Dark Fiction by Philip Finkelstein

I slide the knife downwards with force, the clean steel shining in the dim light before slicing through raw flesh. The kitchen has a distinct aroma—a fetor of composting vegetables and stale garbage. There’s a small linoleum counter with two wooden stools where my family eats dinner, and by family, I mean my father and I. Ambrosia such as this is hard to fathom in our hungry hovel. To have chicken, let alone beef, is a luxury not typically indulged upon by my kind. I don’t know how my father can afford steak on a janitor’s wage, but I’m not about to question the fact with my mouth salivating like a hyena’s over a carcass preordained to the lion pride. To put it in perspective, I still remember my father’s dismissive glare when I asked for a forty-dollar New York sirloin at the local steakhouse. He didn’t say anything, though the air around him was palpable with a gritty forbiddance; after all, the cost of that one strip would feed us for a week. We ended up only ordering appetizers and haven’t been back since. I wish I could dine out eating that exquisite shit like the rich pricks on television, but I wasn’t born into a privileged life.

My mother died giving birth to her only child. She was seventeen at the time, my father a year older. He tells me they were high school sweethearts to justify the early pregnancy. More likely, I was the result of a broken condom during a bathroom fuck between classes. I was raised by my father, and though I want to believe he loves me, there has always been a looming resentment for having killed his wife, to whom he proposed after learning she was with child. It’s for that reason I never dug too deep into the story of how I came to be. After her death, he dropped out of school his senior year and went to work at a gas station. He never remarried.

I go to the same high school that my parents went to, but unlike their love story there are no special girls in my life to knock up. Not many friends either. I have to admit, I kind of like it that way. Focusing on my school work helps keep my grades up so that in two years I can receive my diploma and make something of my life. If being a poor nobody has taught me anything, it’s how to work hard to one day not be. I know, pretty obvious; it just makes me frustrated when I see the kids from the affluent part of town slacking off without a worry in the world because their parents are doctors and lawyers with cars more expensive than my house. 

By the time my father gets home from his work shift at the town mall, supper is prepared and waiting on the counter with a can of cold beer. He feigns a smile, his tired face wrinkling with the expression, as he walks through the front door. His beard is dirty and disorganized, as is his hair, expected of a custodian. Planting himself on the empty stool, he sighs. The steak steams to the sound of a cracked ale. 

I turn to him with enthusiasm: “This is some kinda meal you got, Pa. Good day?”

He cuts into the bloody meat, seemingly annoyed or maybe just tired. “Thanks for makin’ chow…” He chews. “I’ve got the nightshift at your school in an hour.” 

“I thought you were done for the night? You worked all day.”

“They offered me some extra shifts down at the school and I took ’em. Better for us both so we can keep eatin’ this beef, which is goddamn delectable by the way.”

I chuckle uneasily. “Yeah alright, it is pretty good if I do say so myself.” 

“I’m lucky to have you ’round, ya know that?” 

His softheartedness catches me off guard, straining my ability to respond. “Thanks dad, I… I ‘preciate how hard you’ve been workin’ for us.”

He grunts while swigging his brew. “I won’t be back till close to mornin’. You have any plans tonight?”

“Not really, finished my homework so not much to do,” I say, hoping to earn a morsel of paternal praise. 

There’s a long pause as he devours his meal. He utters, “Atta boy,” and disappears into the bathroom. From behind the door he yells to me, “Keep on and have a cold one if you’d like,” which swells my chest with pride.

Before I even put the dishes in the sink, I hear my father’s pickup roll out of our decrepit driveway and into the rainy night. The plates are cleaned, a beer is humbly withdrawn from an otherwise barren fridge, and I settle onto the crumb-ridden sofa, only to skim through the low-class drivel customary of local programing. As my mind wanders so do my eyes, noticing the answering machine blinking on the cheap wooden desk along the wall.

“Hello there, this is the Reichmanns. Sorry for the late notice, but our flight back was delayed and we won’t be able to make it home tonight. If anyone is there, uh, we’d really appreciate it if you could go over and feed our cat. Our house sitter can’t make it tonight, but the food should just be on the kitchen table and there’s a key under the mat by the front door. Thanks so much and don’t worry if you can’t make it. Have a nice night.” 

Listening to the voicemail invokes an exciting prospect. I so rarely have the opportunity to visit my neighbor’s house, which is a palace compared to our little shack. I could see what they had to eat and watch some premium entertainment on their big flatscreen. This was the third time I had been invited to my neighbor’s; once before for dinner and once to feed their dumb cat. They gave me twenty bucks last time too, which was nice. 

I grab a jacket and head across the unlit street. Clouds cover the moon and pour torrential rain. By the time I get to their front porch, my jacket is soaked like a marinated roast. Inside, the house is clean and spacious. It makes me envious of the over-privileged cat that lives better than my father and I. I fill the feline’s dish with food, as well my own with all sorts of goodies from the fridge and cabinets. I lounge on the leather sofa in sweet delight and begin flicking through channels yet again, this time on a much larger and clearer screen.

After hours of watching high-definition action in surround sound, I’m ready to go home when the night sky flashes white and seconds later booms with thunder. The house rumbles and before I have a chance to ascend from my seat, everything goes black—power is lost. Clueless to my surroundings in the foreign abode, and already exhausted, the comforts of the couch overtake me. I can return to squalor in the early morning, I tell myself. Besides, this sofa is softer than my lousy mattress. The cat purrs from somewhere nearby, succoring me into a deep, cozy slumber.

I see a beautiful woman on the far side of a boulevard with long, straight, auburn hair. Her face resembles a picture of my mother’s, which sits on my father’s nightstand. She turns, beaming at me with lustrous affection. My toes tingle numbly with each step toward her alluring simper, my heart pounding frantically in excitement. The encompassing darkness births light from above, drawing me into the divide, when the silence is suddenly pierced by a girlish scream. My mouth clamps down, unaware if it was my own fearful holler that broke the quiet night. From a distance, car headlights draw nearer. The celestial glow evanesces, diminishing me to the pavement amid the vermin. I attempt to rise up, but the numbness has taken hold, paralyzing my body. My mind, however, races on, as does the car. “Oh my God,” I shout in deathly horror. I try to roll, my torso teetering back-and-forth like a half-empty bottle on the gutter’s edge. The vehicle is almost on me as I toss and turn in utter desperation. BAAANG!

My eyes open to an indistinct chamber, face on a soft rug. Lightning explodes outside, ephemerally displaying the Reichmann’s regal den. The sound of foot steps and an unusually cold breeze fill the room. Lying motionless, jammed into the crevice between the coffee table and sofa, I ponder my plummeted position, catching my breath. My heart pumps rapidly as if sensing impending doom. In the dimness, legs strut across the horizon of stacked magazines on the coffee table’s lower shelf. I hear pattering on the sofa’s leather, too afraid to turn around. Impact from above immobilizes me with fear, nails digging into my back through my wool sweater. The prickly sensation travels up my spine to my head, soft tail swiping my face on departure. Damn cat nearly scared me to death. From a different room, presumably the kitchen, rattling and clanking symphonies aloud with the storm. Sitting up timidly, peaking out over the couch, the room flashes bright again, followed by the roar of thunder. Rain blows in through a shattered sliding glass door. Shaking, I move cautiously to an alcove in the corner, avoiding the broken glass strewed about the carpet, and peer down the hallway. Coming from the entrance to the kitchen I can see a flashlight’s beam dancing in the shadows.

It’s not my responsibility to stop a burglar. This isn’t even my house—like there’s anything to steal from mine anyways. Having awaited visual adjustment to the gloom long enough, I tiptoe up the corridor. The kitchen is now quiet, so I enter, crouching low beneath the countertops. Remembering a knife set from earlier in the evening on the island next to the cat food, I sail across the sea of polished wood flooring. My hand reaches for the knife with the biggest handle: a steak knife. I hope not to use it, but grasp it tight just in case. Staying still for what seems like an eternity, my panting subsides, though the struggle remains in listening for signs of an intruder over the thumping of my own heart.

This is all in my head. A bad dream and stray tree branch in the wind can explain everything. What about the flashlight? No, it was my mind playing tricks—simply moonlight reflections. Regaining a sense clarity and composure, I step into the lengthy foyer. My newfound courage is fleeting as I begin lightly sprinting for the front door with the same urgency a child has when their imagination runs amuck with pursuant demons in the dark. Passed the bathroom and the office, I’ve almost made my escape. Without even putting on my shoes, I lunge for the doorknob. As my fingers land on the cold metal, a firm grip clasps down on my shoulder. This time I’m certain that it isn’t the cat. Unwilling to submit, I instinctively swing my arm around to break free, my hand still clutching the knife. The blade slices through raw flesh. My opponent grunts in agony and collapses to the ground. I crawl away from the assailant, trembling in disbelief.

My sobbing is interrupted by laughter from the television in the living room. The power has been restored. Slowly standing up with the help of the wall, I search for a light switch, finding one for the chandelier directly overhead. Under illumination, I observe a body in a crimson pool only feet from the front door. I make my way toward the lifeless figure, knife sticking straight out of its chest, to look upon a masked face.

Beside the slain, a sack of stollen goods has scattered the stage, some of the contents and bag soaking up the gore. The display disgusts me such that I gag repetitively and then vomit, falling to my knees aside the departed. I edge closer to the satchel, feeling a familiar numb tingle while scouring within. The mind does everything in its power to suppress the truth, but even the gravest distortion cannot deny my touch; a piece of packaged meat as tender as a mother’s love, alas not my own. A New York sirloin to be precise, similar to the one I’d made for dinner. My heart stops as if pierced by the very knife just wielded. As the veil is raised, a disheveled beard gives way to a wonted view: an empty gaze, aloof and unloving. I stare into the face of my own father.

Blood drips from the corner of his mouth as I ease my hand over his worn eyelids and lower my head to the floor. My cries rival the thunder of the passing storm. I wonder whether he was even a janitor, or if it was all just a lie to cover up stealing to feed his only son; a son that stabbed him in the heart long ago, finally finishing the job. Never a lion, undeserving of love, for I killed my mother and my father.


Philip Finkelstein is a freelance writer across political, technology, travel, culture, and fiction fields. Since graduating from the University of British Columbia in 2017 with a BA in political science, he has lived around the world while writing for online publications, news sites, political organizations, and businesses. Now based in NYC, Phil is in the process of publishing his debut novel—a dystopian thriller about American cultural polarization and geopolitical tensions with Russia and China. Read more of his work at philipfinkelstein.com.


“There but for the Beasts” Dark, Psychological Fiction by David Connor

"There but for the Beasts" Dark, Psychological Fiction by David Connor

He, Palmer Roth Hall, of the Halls of Newton, Massachusetts, trudged the cobblestones of Cambridge with a scuffing sound of his wellingtons.  Night settled around him like a funeral shroud.  To Dr. Rutherford’s office, by way of The Marigold Theatre, he was going, a route he took with a will dissimilar to that employed in the colonies’ revolution against England.  When this city was a wee bitty baby.  Palmer scrutinized The Marigold’s aged wooden steps, built in 1950.  Missing from behind plate glass were movie posters, ad expenditures a lost wish.  If working with more than its skeleton crew, then its managers, shift leaders and cashiers, as they performed their duties, would’ve cursed next year’s sales projections, growing as panicked as stuck pigs.  To recoup the theatre’s quite real losses, a backhoe readied itself by the side exit, kneeling on its front axles, bowing before a stovepipe-thin man in a black suit who sat in a nearby office, contracting the possible demolition.  The Marigold.  Its marquee lights blinked an SOS, pleading, in a last ditch attempt to stay afloat, that he buy a ticket for the revival of The Bestiary.  Had he already seen this movie?  Palmer couldn’t quite recall.

Continuing to scan the theatre as he walked, he glimpsed someone in the upraised ticket booth whose face was lit from within, and this being a second face.  He recognized it.  He somehow knew him, from a time when the power of recognition, due to his then limited years, had been itself limited, a poor tool for understanding the nature of what was surely an unnatural existence.  “Monsters,” Palmer muttered to himself, staring at the figure in the ticket booth, “roam the streets of Cambridge.”

And then blackness, after a period of time that grew longer each instance, blocked out the thought. 

Now at a full stop, he turned to face the theatre.  Somehow the sight of its beveled pine steps and halo of lit bulbs behind the concession counter, like an old-time makeup mirror, visible through the wrought-iron framed glass doors, cowed him.  Into a stoop he fell.  Time, with a clunking of flywheels, a shuddering of pistons, came to a stand-still.  The Marigold.  He was soon to move on from it, to pass over it with a nascent but familiar scorn, the old movie house sighing with a shuddering of its side beams like arms, its gabled eaves like a head drooping with the awkwardness of a sort of puberty–passed over, not picked.  Stooped like him, pathetic.  It had always been as such, the gangs of neighborhood kids having swarmed away from him on the sidelines of Newton’s baseball diamond, perennially choosing anyone else.  Satisfaction crossed Palmer’s face to see hurt come to the old place.  The air turned damp and heavy.  He imagined sticks of lit T-N-T rammed between its seats.  Why?  Didn’t he identify with it?  The mechanisms of his mind remained cloaked, tripwires concealed in dark rooms.  The streets luminesced from a rising blood moon, then pooled into shadow.  Any sliver of understanding lost itself as if sucked into an undertow.  He thought: Dr. Rutherford’s office looms near, the time for our appointment well-nigh; so from The Marigold he wheeled away, taking a left onto Brattle Street, down JFK.  

Cambridge spun past him like a running fan belt.

And now, inside the psychiatrist’s office, therapist and patient sat at an angle to each other in creaky wicker chairs.  Soft light emanated from the circular wall clock that ticked unobtrusively.

Palmer exhaled, inhaled and exhaled, trying to catch his breath, slow his pounding heart; in the process, he spied a folder on Dr. Rutherford’s lap.  “What’s that?” he barked.  “You said you wouldn’t take notes in our sessions.”

“Don’t worry.  I’m not breaking our agreement.”  Though it would go unreturned, the doctor smiled at him, continuing, “It’s your case history I got from The Erikson Center, you know, ‘The Coconut’.” 

At The Coconut, yesterday’s dose of Haldol had been, for Palmer, the final one.

“It details your history since you were twelve,” said the doctor.  “Many gaps are present, but it does reveal…”

The patient felt something banging against the inside of his skull.

“Yes…  History is vital, Palmer, personal history—story, your truth.  But in order to express it, we must first understand ourselves.”  His eyes brimming with avidity, the doctor stilled himself then breathed the words, “They’re real.”

Palmer fell back against his chair, seeing…

… a pearl-shaped face, crimson-tinged skin, narrowed eyes, razor sharp lips, stitches running along its circumference…

As if laboring up a staircase from a dark basement, Palmer heard himself breathlessly gasp, “D-D-Dim Brighton.”

The doctor said it again, “they’re real”, intent on hearing what else his patient might say, what else might emerge with twists and jerks of limbs like dancing skeletons: the secrets he’d theorized that lurked the dark halls, that smashed hinges and joists and drywall, ripped loose synaptic wiring.  So focused on extracting this, the core of their work together, Rutherford didn’t notice Palmer latchingonto an object in his pocket. 

What he gripped there: Wright’s .22 caliber handgun, loaded with hollow end shells.

In addition to the prying open of a life as if it was a safe full of treasures to be fenced in medical journals, Palmer knew that even when the clock would strike the end of the hour, he’d continue.  With this knowledge rising in his mind, he flexed his trigger finger.

                             *

“You can’t crack The Coconut,” Palmer Roth Hall muttered to himself, in memory of twenty minutes ago when the pasty-faced nurse, grinning at each of his winces, had scrubbed his wound with cleansing alcohol.  Until he’d started in this morning with half-milligrams contained in a small plastic bottle tucked into the waist of his blue paper pants, he’d been clear-headed–but they watched him closely anyway; he was far from out of the woods: the gunshot wound still bled and he still screamed in his sleep.  As a patient there, at The Erickson Center, of which Dr. Rutherford would mention when Palmer would work with him in Cambridge, whether bodily shaking inside its white-bricked building that squatted on a plot of secluded land in Western Massachusetts, or staring slack-jawed out of its darkened oval windows, in either extremis, in any extremis, Palmer could easily find himself the object of a boot-to-the-ass for taking them–not that benzos were so contemptible on their own, the psychiatrists would say with wine glasses raised, but Dr. Heckman had just ordered for him an initial round of Haldol, to which the half-milligram pills of clonazepam were contraindicated.  Palmer–sitting now on a satin-lined chair from West Elm, situated at the far end of a manicured lawn, the top notch staff busy with a take-down–Palmer breathed deep because, even if he was caught with his hand in the small little pill bottle, the hospital was funded by an oligarchy-like set of families, the Hall clan, Palmer’s clan, being one.  The primary one.

Caught. Right, well, he didn’t see them, the two men in trench coats, approaching.  Diffused grey light painted their eyes in a patina of quiet desperation, for over the years the case they’d let own them.

 “Mr. Hall?”

Slipping the pill bottle behind his back, Palmer turned, muttered, “Yes.”

Dubbed “Peanut” at Quantico for an unassuming semi-circle of hair around his skull, the agent flashed his badge, but to Palmer it just wavered like a mirage. 

“Being droll?”

“We’re from the Federal Bureau of Investigations,” said Peanut’s longtime partner he had dubbed “Rock” for possessing shoulders as wide as a walk-in closet.  “We’d like to discuss something with you.”

“Do I have to?”

“You don’t, Mr. Hall,” intoned Peanut.  “But I would, or you’ll be subpoenaed as a material witness, probably more–accessory, conspiracy.  We might be able to head that off at the pass if you talk to us now.”

“Off the record,” said Rock, smiling. 

This last bit of gentleness caused Palmer to harrumph, but he did sit up a little straighter.

Rock bowed his head before him, held it there like a penitent.  “We’re pursuing an old case we think you might be ‘involved’ in, for lack of a better way of putting it.  From when you were about twelve.”

Dim Brighton.  The thought shuttered his mind open, and source light ran across it.  Combined with the clonazepam, the Haldol twisted his memory, as if with zip-ties made of fog, until binding it.  Dim, Dim Brighton.  Palmer ground down on it, or tried to–but the thought’s thirst to party sucked his grey coils dry as if they were lemons.  “I don’t-” he valiantly insisted.

“You do remember,” interrupted Peanut, continuing, “a movie theatre in Cambridge.  The Marigold.  Around 1984.”

Palmer’s eyes went loose, and his mind took to lurching through the dark, crying out as it stumbled into things…

A pounding on a door.

Corpses split open, blood swamping the floor…

Pearl-shaped face, crimson-tinged skin, narrowed eyes, razor-sharp lips, stitches running around its circumference…

“He, he,” stammered Palmer.

“Tell us.”

“He had stitches around his face.  Outside the theatre, it was a second face, one within another.  But inside, he looked at me.  With hunger.  He was going to eat me, I think…” 

The diffused grey light had deepened into black storm clouds that, after a pause, thundered across the sky, shockwaves resounding all around them.  At memory’s end, Palmer ran a hand down his face as if wiping it free of sweat, and with the fading echoes of storm, his whimpering metamorphosed into an unsettled silence. 

The two agents gazed at him, his bottle of clonazepam gripped in his trembling hand, his eyes locked on a distant point.  No more answers were forthcoming, so they left him to his work: the placing on the tongue, the dry-swallowing.  When he’d slip several into his system in an hour, his eyes would glaze over, the benzos and antipsychotics combined alternately highlighting and muddying the things that lived in his mind, like rabid cheerleaders elbowing past each other during try-outs for squad.  He would discharge later in the day.  With a referral for Dr. Rutherford stuffed in his boot, he’d stumble to the bus depot, a noticeable lack of prescriptions in his wallet: the cheer that he would’ve heard–“Take them, take them, have a ball!  Sleepy, comatose, dead to all!”–would, in its bleakness, take his drug use to its inevitable conclusion.  The solution to the ravages of addiction would taste good, promising–albeit ominous, going drug free as he’d done with alcohol. 

But this breakthrough would come at a cost: anger, of which there existed more than enough. 

To wit: an urge within him kindled his imagination, to see the agents sauntering away from him, Peanut glancing over his shoulder and Rock just studying the ground, Palmer pulling the .22 free from his pants pocket and pointing the swaying barrel at them, their brains splattering all over the lawn.

                             *

After the clinking sounds of bottle neck against rim of glass had died a horrible death, there came to rage silent disarray in Palmer’s penthouse apartment in Berkeley as he overturned furniture, tossed cutlery to the floor, and strew towels and clothes all about, draping them like the banners of an ancient war.  Gaping at the clutter, the booze settling in his stomach and with time enough to calm down, he came to focus himself.  As he slid to the floor, he took up the impetus for the destruction, his journal, the one he’d carried with him since a boy.  The last entry, having been written while a New Hampshire rainstorm strafed his dorm, he read with a steady enough gaze and a strong enough will to confront what drove him to drink: “The theatre was so dark, but I could, like, feel him.  He had hunger in his eyes, and he just looked at me.  He was going to eat me, I think…  God, I don’t know, it was all so… so…

“He looked at me, and then the lights of the movie screen grew a bit brighter–”

From the journal Palmer pulled his gaze, drawing deep on Jim Beam like a cynical guffaw.

From the street below the coughing of a diesel motor cannoned across the deck of his home, shaking him until an impulse formed, like the head of a beer, to jump into his Aston Martin and pound down the road.  Gripping the journal, he the sloppily determined, stumbling down the building’s outer staircase, careening through the garage’s main door, Palmer scrambled into his car parked there all alone.  The running engine he heard as he focused on inserting the key into the ignition.  He cranked that old engine, fumes, whose very cells he just knew he could see, twirling about him like the snakes of Medusa.  If reality didn’t awaken from booze-fueled hallucination, real trouble would pry his jaw open and flood down his throat.  Punching the gas, peeling out of the driveway, he cranked onto Oxford Street, and it was then, veering left with a juddering of tires, that his Aston Martin smashed into a Mercedes, devouring its bumper with its own front end.  Upon smacking his head, blood flowed down his face in a scarlet mask.  It was real trouble he had now, as real it gets.

HePalmer, strapped mercilessly to the driver seat, his head swinging like a loose apple, mumbled, “Stitches…  It’s Dim Brighton.”  He pleaded with a god, any god, who deigned to listen.  “I don’t want to be him.”

Sirens of arriving cop cars dwindled until silence held the scene in a cat’s cradle of possible bullet trajectories, gun barrels pointing every which way.  A report came from within the Aston Martin, a bemused hollow end shell piercing the roof of his car, and Palmer’s shoulder jerked back as a beady-eyed cop shot him with a .38.  From a hole in his upper torso rushed blood, making him look, in his Polo shirt, as if he’d swum through a swamp.  Cuffed and transported to Alta Bates Hospital to be treated–the .22 stashed in his pocket confiscated but quickly handed back because his parents chummed around with Republican senators in whose beds the NRA slept; his journal, with its “drunken nonsense”, tossed into the back stacks of evidence, to be forgotten in the onslaught of new cases–soon after all of that, the gunshot wound he’d incurred would be alcohol-cleansed by a pasty-faced nurse who’d smirk every time Palmer would wince.  And there, at The Coconut, he would recover from his alcoholism, as well as, according to his mother, first to speak to the admitting psychiatrist, “his wild imagination.  Stitches around faces — ridiculous.”

                        *

At St. Patrick’s–a boarding school in New Hampshire that spread across two-hundred and fifty acres, with Georgian, colonial and gothic architectural shells around sturdy frames housing grades seven through twelve–an inexorable rain hammered.

Inside Harlan House’s red brick walls, Palmer, a clean mask of curiosity on his face, asked, “What’s smoked bourbon?” 

“Oh, well, just something that makes you loopy,” Wright quipped, grinning around teeth that reminded Palmer of slanted scarecrows.   

And in his flannel smoking jacket, Mr. Hargrove, the dorm master, rounded the corner of the first form wing and announced, “Lights out all, and to all, lights out!”

For a moment Palmer complied, but when he heard Hargrove’s footfalls receding down the hall, he jumped out of bed, flicked on his flashlight and leaned toward his trunk that served as a coffee table.  He withdrew from within a blank journal that, over the ruts in the road, along the suicide curves of his life, would become an omen that felt more to him then like a talisman.  In the charcoal-patterned book, he set about the task of recording last night’s terrifying foray into that movie, The Bestiary, to free himself from its grip, the brass knuckles of which had shoved him onto this perilous journey. 

While rain pounded his windows, he scrawled, “With my best friends from home, Archibald and Winslow…  Besides the guy, we were the only ones in the theatre.  The ticket-tearer, the candy guy, the guy–somehow both the same man, even though neither left their stations.  I don’t know, I just…  I don’t know.

“Inside, I focused.  The movie was horrendous.  In a good way.  Dead bodies, strange beasts.  The head beast–I loved him and feared him, as if I was split in two like the yin/yang.

“As we watched the film, the guy came to stand near me.  The theatre was so dark, but I could, like, feel him.  He had hunger in his eyes, and he just looked at me.  He was going to eat me, I think…  God, I don’t know, it was all so… so…

“He looked at me, and then the lights of the movie screen grew a bit brighter. 

“I felt his sweetly fetid breath on my neck, and he whispered to me, ‘They’re real.’  He said it again, louder.  And again, making sure I heard him.  ‘I would know,’ his voice, now a bellow, seemed to punch—no, actually punched the walls, as if to break itself out of confinement.  ‘I’m the filmmaker behind it.  I’m Dim Brighton.  And they are real.’

“This fact,” the prep school kid wrote in his journal, rain now starting to teem, buckets of it running down his dorm room window.  “This fact…”  But by God, he couldn’t do it, couldn’t break the bars of his cage, he couldn’t unclasp the steel trap around his leg.  Reeling from this realization, Palmer threw the pen at his trunk.  He’d told himself he needed to write it, to solve a mystery so it no longer compelled him.  But… he’d faltered.  He’d failed.  Falling onto his bed, he balled into the fetal position, praying that his soul, his lamb of a soul, be spared the imminent sacrifice.

Just as Palmer had, the rain grew timid.  Before his squinted eye, the storm parted like curtains, its two streams then dissipating into trickles.  His gaze caught the moon stroking the pitch-black night with beams of soft light, and he glimpsed that light halo his periphery.  The halo dissolved expeditiously, but, in its short life, it glowed like the movie screen.  Like the circular clock in his future doctor’s office.  Like the fire within him that sparked as if from a flame thrower.  Pausing, running a hand down his face, he took up his pen and returned to the scene:

“This fact…  Ok, ok, I’ll drown my fear of it in words.  Here goes…

“I know, really, when he said “they’re real” he was just talking about the dead bodies in the movie–that those were real.  Dim, the ticket-tearer, the candy guy, had used real body parts in the making of ‘The Bestiary’.  From some medical school?  I don’t know, I, I–

“Ok, so in the theatre, all the seats but Archie’s, Win’s and mine empty, I turned from the movie screen, from the main character with stitches around his face, I turned to peer at Dim standing next to me.  The unknown…  I guess I was curious about it.

“After a moment, the last shadows of the theatre dissolved, and I saw him fully for the first time.  He had stitches.  Dim Brighton was a beast like those on celluloid: pearl-shaped face, crimson-tinged skin, narrowed eyes, razor-sharp lips…

“I felt a fingernail–it was scraping me along my jaw, up my cheeks, along the outside of my face, etching into my skin a close approximation of a circle.  It hurt.  God did it hurt.  Archibald and Winslow exclaimed they saw a torrent of blood, but, as the fingernail completed its journey, I felt only warmth.  Warmth–maybe I did bleed that night.  Was it some sort of release? 

“‘Watch,’ Dim then urged, so I slid my eyes back to the screen.  My features blurry there, I did, in fact, recognize myself in the movie, in ‘The Bestiary’.  There in that rickety theatre seat I felt my arms, my legs, my chest to see if I still existed in any way I could understand…

“I was surrounded…  God no, surrounded by–“

Though Palmer needed to scrawl the rest of it, the guts of the scene expounded completely, flayed open, enwrapped his fingers, ripping loose the Bick.  His survival instinct bloomed, and with its army, he reached for the pen to see it done, to snap the pen in two.  The journal slipped from his lap as ink, like so much blood, spattered his pants and the mattress and the trunk and the rug.  Dark, dark was the jungle-like road he trod.  He’d thought in writing it down, he’d broker a peace treaty.  He would never try to write it again, the undertaker of booze and meds and time burying the memory of The Marigold in a shallow grave of the subconscious.  The rest of that moistness in his skull, what courage remained, would demand the journal accompany him, though, as if it was a guardian angel, M14 slung over its shoulder. 

And thus, as in the villages and rice fields of Vietnam, a battle of dark and light was born.

For now, though, he felt nothing but agony.  Just something that makes you loopy, Wright had said.  His crooked smile, formed around those mysterious words, had been convincing–a harbinger of relief?  Maybe.  Palmer took a deep breath, balled his hands into fists.  Standing, leaving his room, checking to see that Mr. Hargrove was cloistered away in his apartment, he stalked to his friend’s down the hall, soon to find out his friend had booze, plain and simple.    

Back to his quarters he’d sway about an hour later.  The two of them, he and Wright, would never speak again as Palmer would drink almost all of it, dribbling very little, licking up what did escape the seal of mouth and bottle–a booze-hound if ever there was one.  Once back in bed, he would curl up, hazy images of beasts cavorting on the screen in his mind.  Tears would pool at the corners of his eyes, and he’d raise Wright’s gun, the .22 he’d pilfer before exiting his room.  He’d fiddle with the trigger, squeezing it, releasing it, squeezing it, releasing, until unconsciousness would take him.

                        *  

In his office, Dr. Rutherford, placing his fingers in a steeple as his patient seemed to rouse from a place of some sort of sleep, said to him, “You’re ready.”  His eyes alight, the doctor declared, “Now it is time for you to dig even deeper, to understand yourself in totality.”

No!  Palmer pulled from his pocket the .22, its hollow end shells so primed for action they practically vibrated.  Against his skull he pushed the business end.  Baring his teeth, he gibbered to himself, “No more pain no more agony case closed!”

With a flinch, he pulled the trigger, 135 decibels of sound concussing the walls around them, echoing, fading and then vanishing.  A pause ensued, in which Palmer’s eyes fluttered open.  His breath hitched as he looked at himself then frantically searched his body.  There was no blood soaking his clothes, his heart continued to distantly beat, his mind continued to wheel round and round and the amazement of this inundated him with feelings: elation, disappointment, rage, confusion, regret, anxiety.  Inevitably, the feelings overwhelmed him.  Numbness took over, coating his nerves as if it was smoked bourbon.

Take them, take them, have a ball!  Sleepy, comatose, dead to all!

No, no, he thought, cringing—-no more runningRunning’s not, running is not working.

So with one last look at his therapist, he closed his eyes.  Fear dragged him into a cave by a hook that gouged into his mind, but he followed it, a wayward but obedient dog. 

Dr. Rutherford said softly, “They’re real, Palmer.  They are, and I want to explore what that really means.” 

And Palmer saw…

… Pearl-shaped faces, these being the only faces, crimson-tinged skin, narrowed eyes, razor-sharp lips, stitches…

Stitches running around their circumferences… 

Blood.  Blood swamping the floor…

His heart was beating harder, stronger now, like palms on a tom-tom drumming the dance of a war.  He wanted to declare a winner before any more pain was wrought.  A winner between his selves, between his mind and heart–one wanting denial, the other truth, respectively, of what he sensed were the events that had happened in that Cambridge movie theatre, what it meant for him and whether he could live with it or not.  Yes, launched when he was twelve, this war had torn him apart.  He’d strained against the ties of self-destruction, only to fray like loose thread time and again.

He’d done his part to block it, the memory of that childhood experience.  It was the damn doctor who kept bringing it up, sending him spiraling into madness. 

A counter tattoo his mind thrummed, what would be clinically termed: “a song of repression”.  Opening his eyes, seeing no other alternative, Palmer pointed the gun at Dr. Rutherford.

Clearing his throat, the psychiatrist murmured with fever in his voice, “You can be real, Palmer.  You can show to others what you secret away, a personal truth that might, you fear, be seen as a lie.”

The patient’s eyes widened, and through the veil of the past he saw it all, the event in question, the impossible truth that had so defined him.

A pounding on the door of The Marigold Theatre, wherein sat Archibald, Winslow, and Palmer.

Corpses split open, blood swamping the floor–the sound stage’s floor.  The set was made to look like a basement in the making of The Bestiary, which was the film now being screened before them.

Two FBI agents entered, wrapped in trench coats, their eyes dark where a desperate gleam hadn’t set in, for the case didn’t own them yet.

“Mr. Brighton?  Dim Brighton?” asked Rock. 

They approached the filmmaker, both coming to stand by a row of empty seats. 

“Where did you get the bodies in your movie?” barked Peanut.

“Why do you want to know?”

“We’ve heard,” elaborated the wide-shouldered agent, “that, well, they’re actual human body parts, Mr. Brighton.”

“And we demand to know how you procured them.”

“You’ll have to wait for the sequel, just like everybody else.”  Smiling, Dim’s teeth blazed white against the darkness.

Leaning up and into his personal space, tilting his soft chin, the diminutive Peanut took on the countenance of Ho Chi Minh.  Rock bowed his head in silence, trademark mousiness exuding from a henchmen’s frame.

Appraising them both, fearing arrest or worse, Dim exhaled, long and hard, and said, “They’re just modeling clay, fake blood, and string dipped in wax for ligaments, yarn for muscle—low budget.  They’re not actual body parts–not real.  They are convincing, though–accepted by the masses, you could say.  Even you.”  With a flourish of his hands, he finished, “It’s the magic of Hollywood.” 

In his therapist’s office, Palmer’s voice, a once lost radio signal, had found its transponder, now broadcasting across all bands.  He listened as his patient grew louder, growling that…

The two agents–unsatisfied by the filmmaker’s explanation but without an arrest warrant, convinced Dim was party to goings-on far more supernatural–grudgingly turned to one another then sauntered out of the theatre.

Around those remaining The Marigold started to change.  Accompanied by a rumbling, as if the whole of it were a throat expelling mucus, the walls extended outward, the roof stretched by curving its rafters until they looked like the glistening ribs of a massive animal.  Around Dim, Palmer and his friends the theatre had become some sort of ribcage.

And the heart within it: 

The heart was this: a circle.  From the light on the screen emerged the strange celluloid beasts.  Their flickering reached Palmer, spinning kaleidoscopically into bodies that huddled around him.  They began to shift in place, then began to move, then began to pick up the wellingtons on their feet and stomp them down with shuddering booms.  This, the dancing around Palmer, was done while nuzzling the halo of stitches on their faces.    

A mirror hanging on a wall shimmered, like a pool of water solidifying into bright white ice.  Through the spaces between the surrounding bestiary, Palmer caught his reflection.  He saw himself looking just like them, like Dim Brighton, with stitches around the circumference of his face.  The pain of those stitches was unbelievable, stretching the muscles above and underneath like taffy.  For solace and comfort, he turned to Archibald and Winslow.

His friends, though, they had already fled. 

Palmer was surrounded by beasts, and, in a sudden loneliness that gripped him, he saw he really was one of them.  How could he ever tell anyone of this?  They’d never believe it.  They’d accuse him of being crazy.  Worse, of lying.

They’d accuse him of being phony, inside and out.

Shaking in his chair, the barrel pointed at Rutherford, Palmer’s finger pulled on the trigger, tighter, tighter, while he shouted…

… That he then pushed aside the beasts and barreled out of the theatre’s door, into the pitch-black night. 

Silence took the reins in the office; the only possible sound would’ve come from the gun if it’d been unoiled, which it wasn’t.  Years of trauma crumpled Palmer’s face.  Dr. Rutherford watched his patient’s trigger finger, his own eyes hooded.  Taking a deep breath, he said, “It’s as if a long line of stitches snakes along your second face, the one within, the one that beats at the center of your being, and those stitches thread in and out of both faces, tying them off in elaborate knots, making the shape of a perfect, unbroken circle.”  The second hand of the circular wall clock swept along, ticking softly.  His doctor leaned in.  “The stitches glow, Palmer.  They glow.”

He snapped his fingers, and Palmer looked.

“It’s as if your stitches then unwind, their gossamer threads falling to the floor.  Arising in their stead is a scar, from a wound incurred when you were a kid, a traumatic experience that then drove all of you to the edge, worry and regret, loneliness and turmoil tearing you apart.  You, though, you are now stitched closed, and the scar is nothing but character.  It is proof.  Proof that you are whole. 

“Once held in the arms of a monstrous life, asleep and screaming, now you have awoken.”

Palmer’s tense facial muscles began to soften.

“All one need do is tell their truth to someone, the stories they keep secreted away, those they hold inside, like you’ve just done with me,” said Rutherford, continuing, “and a person heals.”

With an exhalation of breath, Palmer’s whole body loosened.  His whole body slackened until he slumped in his wicker chair.  Dr. Rutherford’s belief–the faith he had in him despite his diagnosis of PTSD, or perhaps because of it–was an extraction, a pipe yanked from a wall, his load-bearing nightmare collapsing.  Exhausted, Palmer let the gun slip to the floor, and he fell into his doctor’s arms, weeping.  Rutherford tightened around him, sighing, gently patting his shoulder. 

The circular wall clock ticked the hour, each of its hands glowing brighter and brighter, like the dawn.  Shoulders finally straightening, Palmer lifted his head, his wet eyes locking on his therapist.  With a smile inching up his cheeks, he murmured, “I have to…  I need to call Charles, my AA sponsor.  It’s been a while–a lot to tell him.”

A radiant glow filled the room.  Both men quietly assumed it to be the sun.  But what you dismissed, denied, or reasoned away could still exist, correct?  Even if you didn’t know it? “Yes,” said Dr. Rutherford.  “Let him in.  Tell him of your beasts.  Then tell anyone else who will listen.”


With degrees from UC Berkeley and BU’s College of Communication, David Connor has been publishing, here and there, since 1998.  His other available work can be found at Mystery Tribune, online edition.  Currently, he lives and writes in Maryland, and has a remote tutoring business.


“To Drive a Spirit In” Supernatural Dark Fiction by Aly Rusciano (USA)

"To Drive a Spirit In" by Aly Rusciano

I take a deep breath, letting the musty air from the dark parlor burn my lungs. There’s nothing pleasant about this place. If I thought it had looked bad on the outside, it was even worse on the inside. A beat-up air conditioning unit clunks away in the window in front of me. I wipe my hands on my equally sweaty thighs as I stare at the chipping paint caked on the top windowpane. “Fuck this” and “Brad was here” are etched into the black, along with several crude images. I couldn’t agree more with Brad, whether he wrote the former or not.

A blinking, bug-filled fluorescent light pulls my focus away from the screeching window. It dangles on a metal chain. It looks new. The old one probably snapped and smacked the last client in the head. Let’s hope I’m not so lucky.

I squint through the palpitating blink at the dingy ceiling tiles tinted yellow from decades of cigarette smoke. Stars spot my vision, and, for a moment, I second guess everything. How did I end up here, sitting on this torn vinyl table that’s sure to leave a heat rash on my legs? Was I really going to go through with it?

And it’s the silence under that God-forsaken howling air conditioner that reminds me why I’m here, what I need to do.

I take another deep breath, making myself savor the damp smell. I have to remember the plan. I’ve watched this tattoo parlor for months. I’d calculated the perfect time to waltz in, memorized what I would say, practiced how I would carry myself. I’d gotten this far. I couldn’t back out now.

An ear-piercing scream tears through me. Figures they’d show up now. They always show up when I have something important to do, or I’m using the bathroom, or I’m trying to pass an algebra exam.

The ghost wants me to flinch, to fall to the floor and cradle my head and scream for my mommy. Twelve years ago, I probably would’ve. But not today. All I do now is roll my eyes and put up another wall, taking my time with each invisible brick so they can watch and scream and beg. If they’re not the scream I’m looking for, they don’t deserve my time of day.

Before I place the final brick, I listen, waiting.

Nothing.

The familiar feeling of disappointment tugs on my heart as I place the final brick in front of the door.

And then the shift and squash of someone large plopping down on a chair brings me back to the physical world.

I blink to find Jeffery “Bear” Johnson sitting in front of me—legs splayed, tatted arms nearly reaching the floor, scraggly beard grazing a broad leather-coated chest. Even though I’d seen this boulder of a man enter and exit the building a thousand times, sitting across from him was an entirely different story. His reputation preceded him. Everyone in Stagnant Hill knew who Bear was, and although I’d lived in this washed-up town my entire life, I’d only ever heard rumors. And staring at him now, I wouldn’t doubt a single one.

“Yer sure about this, Madison?” the gorilla asks. His voice is strangely mellow considering his rough features. “I could add er few lines to even—”

I don’t give him a chance to finish. “No. That’s what I want. Exactly that.”

He shakes his head. “Teens,” he grumbles as he spins around to the stained table. “Some freedom and money and nothin’ changes yer minds. But at least I get er decent buck out er it.”

I hold my tongue. I wasn’t like the other 18-year-olds in Stagnant Hill, and not because I’m some cliché book trope—I highly doubt any of those characters could see ghosts. I haven’t been like other girls or boys or people for twelve years. But this was going to change that. This was going to set things right.

A small smile tugs on my lips at the thought of her being happy again. I search for her voice, but all I’m left with are flashbacks.

I watch as I point up at the tree to the cat only I can see.

I watch as we scale the branch. Her arms held out in a T.

I watch as I reach out, her shoulder blades warm in my palms.

I watch as her brains splatter across the pavement.

I watch as the light leaves her eyes and freezes her face in a silent scream.

I hear the utter silence as her spirit slides under the door without a sound. 

Claire’s been quiet for twelve years. Every other ghost in Stagnant Hill haunts me. Every one except Claire. I’ve tried everything to bring her back—rituals, chants, dark magic—but nothing works. My twin sister refuses to haunt me, to forgive me, and this is my last hope to fix what I’ve done.

“Any meanin’ behind er tattoo?” Bear’s question startles me, and I let the guilt shake away with my thoughts.

Not a chance in hell I’d tell him the truth. “Would you be disappointed if I said no?”

A faint smile tugs on his lips. “Nah. But it’s like nothin’ I er seen before.” He shrugs. “Thought it’d be some family thing er somethin’.”

“You’ve known about my family for years,” I say with a roll of my eyes. “Have you ever seen something like that around them?”

“It’s not fer Claire, is it?”

My throat catches. “No. It’s not.”

Bear grunts, eyeing the piece of scrap paper with my etched design. He opens his mouth to speak again, but I don’t let him. “Just do it already. I’m not paying you for conversation.”

This causes him to chuckle and shake his head. Guess not many 18-year-olds are willing to talk back to him. Add that to the “Ways Madison Isn’t Like Other Girls” list. 

I close my eyes as he begins to transfer the design to the inside of my forearm. A shrill of cries and shouts billow out as I open the door to the souls. Please, just answer me.

Nothing.

“How’s that?”

I open my eyes and glance down at my arm to see a blue crisscrossing of sharp angles. I’ve memorized every line of this rune—designed it myself after months and months of research and deep dives into the dark web. It’s the rune that’ll bring my sister back. “Perfect.”

Bear grunts again, obviously taking my need for no conversation seriously.

I slam the door to the spirit realm and ignore the distant shouts for help as I innocently ask, “You’re going to use my ink, right?” I reach into my back pocket and pull out a vial of a murky, dark substance. The edges glow a deep brown under the flickering yellow light.

He stares at the vial, utterly unreadable. “Madison, I—”

I toss a stack of bills onto the table. There’s nothing Bear wouldn’t do for a buck.

He flips through the wad with his thumb, the edges fanning out before him. A pleased smile stretches across his lips as he tucks the stack into his pocket. “It’s er pleasure doin’ business with er,” he says with a wink.

With no questions asked, Bear takes the vial. Its a good thing Im not planning on using my college savings, I think to myself. The thick, practically clumpy, liquid drips from the vial slowly, and I can feel Bear’s annoyance. I was lucky to snap off enough of Claire’s fingers and set her coffin back in the ground without getting thrown into jail. But I wasn’t about to buy a heavy-duty blender to whip up my concoction of bone, food coloring, and ancient herbs.

I lean back on the table as the final drop leaves the vial, close my eyes, and open the door once again. It’s now or never. 

I call out to her, racing past unfamiliar faces and mists of smoke. They cry and cry and cry. They beg me for help, but I’m not searching for them. I’ve never cared about them.

I feel the first prick drive into my skin, but I keep diving. The buzz of the gun is a distant whir. 

Each thrum of the needle sends me further and further until I’m the farthest I’ve ever been.

I suddenly stop, the phantom wind easing at my sides. It’s quiet. Too quiet. There’s nothing but gray. This is it. I’ve reached the gate, the final door to the spirit realm.

I sink to my knees, chanting the ancient words I’ve memorized into the chill expanse. Is this where Claire’s been trapped? In an endless pit of nothingness?

My body buzzes, and I can’t remember if that’s the feeling of the tattoo gun or something new.

The gray around me blurs. But it could’ve been that way before.

Forbidden words mumble out of my lips, but I can’t hear them.

Mady.

I’m saying my name.

Mady.

I’m singing.

Mady.

I’m taunting.

But I haven’t called myself that in years. Twelve, to be exact.

The gray thickens to a sludgy black until it’s covering my hands, filling my lungs, and coating my eyes. The gate is taking me too soon. I thought I’d have more time. I want to hear her voice. I want to see her. I want to say it should’ve been me all along. But the only thing here is my reflection. 

Except she has a dimple in her left cheek. 

Relief washes over me as the image fades. My sister is free, and so am I. I sink down and down until I fade away, becoming nothing more than a whisper in the dark.


Aly Rusciano is a Creative Writer based outside of Nashville, Tennessee. She graduated from The University of Tennessee at Martin in 2021 with a BA in English, focusing in Creative Writing. Aly’s publications can be found on her blog: https://alyrusciano.wordpress.com


“Truth Reigns in the Dark” Surreal Dark Flash Fiction by Marie-Louise McGuinness

"Truth Reigns in the Dark" Surreal Dark Flash Fiction by Marie-Louise McGuinness (Ireland)

When the crow-slick dark bloomed in the sky I did not cry, I did not weep. Instead, I allowed Death’s aphotic feathers to tickle long strokes on my porcelain skin, naked and begging for condescension. The sensation spurred a sharp toothed slash of content to cut red through my cheeks hewn to life-deadened marble.

I’ve always known that authenticity fades in the light, the truth bleached weak in sepia hued facade. It is in the nighttime that humanity bites their shackles loose, their muscled tongues looping thick chain links, savouring the iron-rich metal that brands their throats with the soft drip of wrong. For depravity spurs joy when judgement is blind in sleep.

So, as the primrose yellow glare of sun became dotted with ink from the master’s pen, I flooded with relief. I rejoiced as he drew a bumblebee sting of molten venom and released it to creep like mercury through sprawling tree roots and to thread in silver webs that turned solid in water, damming the rivers and streams. Sustenance altered for the new age.

Earthen sweat dripped tangy with fear and the humans crouched low in light of perceived strikes from a vengeful God. Their skin morphed to pallid parchment, cracked papyrus leeching pus sap to glisten upon stricken faces. Tear-choked wails of remorseful prayer thickened the air to a rich soup of torment, a fragrant siren call to rouse the beasts from slumber.

The forests became rambunctious in parliament and switch blade talons sprouted without shame from fur and feathers erect with sparking electricity. In formation, they marched upon the man-made towns; across deserted bridges and down machine-tarred black roads. Their glistening pin-teeth were bared and ready to bite.

The weak among us turned to bone, their flayed meat swallowed raw, but the feral were free to indulge. And in the blood shed of pain and pleasure we were returned to the animal state, civilization eradicated, we were able to live free.


Marie-Louise McGuinness comes from a wonderfully neurodiverse household in rural Northern Ireland. She has work published or forthcoming in Roi Faineant Press, Bending Genres, Intrepidus Ink, Flash Fiction Magazine and The Airgonaut amongst others. She enjoys writing from a sensory perspective.


“Frost” Horror by Dena Linn

I need a walk; my duplex neighbor’s cat howled all last night. It was not possible to read one of my favorites, Robert Frost. I shut the beast in our basement. It ate poison I’d laid for potential rats, and this morning the cat, copious blood from its nose and mouth, was quiet in a corner. As I approached, its gold eyes glared with menace. Cool under pressure, I took it up with a convenient rag and laid the animal on my neighbor’s step. What a relief. Now, I’ll be out the door and feel much better.

There’s that tiny voice, I’ve got to check— fleece lined canvas pants, yes, wool woven long underwear, alright. My pigeon gray Armani puffy coat is re-zipped, and I feel the slim, hard rectangle, phone in place. My Armani, purchased on vacation in Milan, is over a wool button-down shirt that is under my Dale zip-sweater, another classic. Through the entryway of the house, is a displayed possession I personally find very attractive: my Kastehelmi glass platter; the name is Finnish for dewdrop. My black, Gore-Tex gloved fingers bush, with purpose, the edge of its wooden stand, and my eyes catch in the mirror behind.

“Oh girl! You do help!—I nod at my reflection—“Whatever happens—never on you.” I am a natural helper—a social worker, licensed MSW.

It is by design—the mirror, the stand. Its stained surface brings to mind Mother’s dark paneled kitchen and my failed plot: to steal her wooden spoons.

At that time, my head was barely level with the silverware drawer, but I helped unload the dishwasher. As her prize crystal platter slipped from my hands and crashed into millions of pieces, Mother shrieked, biting her tongue. Her mouth burst with blood, and her fury spit red. I scampered through the glass shards, out of her grasp. My bloody toes left a trail. From under my bed, I heard her staccato rants, a growing storm and then, she was on me and cooed, smacking a wooden spoon behind her back, you’re my little helper, aren’t you? I eventually came out—I had to pee.

Even when I was older, she still called me a little helper. But, one day she pulled her hair screeching that I was a, it is a disparaging and obscene word, I now know, but I thought she said I was a ‘cut’ when she found me exploring the neighbor boy’s body. She whipped me again, hard, with the handiest wooden spoon and then sent me to my room—again, and again, my shoulders clenched, and I held my ears as she wailed in her room, evidence of her unrealized goal, my mind convinced, nothing short of locking me up and flinging the key in an ocean. I imagined her face swollen, hard. She’s dead now, yes, I know this for sure. I was veryhelpful.

Biting the fingertips of my Gore-Tex gloves, one by one, I undo my Armani coat and unsnap my fleece-lined canvas pants looking down. OK, good. While at it, I lift my Dale sweater and peek at my quality wool button-down shirt. Confirmation soothes—else my anxiety noses full into my brain and then—that twitch. . . fleece-lined canvas pants, check, wool long underwear, check. My hands clap up and down my body, my coat is zipped and tight, phone, as placed, is in my pocket. Yes, I am now ready.

Out the door, close it, lock it, pull the knob, jiggle to check, locked! Gloves on. The outdoor temperature is, my lips crack, minus 5C, crisp, dry. My tongue sweeps licking a bit of moisture, the taste a bloody tang.

The Norwegian saying, Ut på tur, aldri sur translates roughly as one will feel a hell of a lot better once one gets out and into nature on a walk. I can’t ingest any more meds; it’s exercise I need, to breathe.This is why I walk, knees bend, elbows pump to the rhythm of my mantra: smart and helpful, hoping to quell what they term my floating anxiety. I call things as I see them, when it suits me, and that earned me a lifetime of prescriptions—a cocktail of psychotropic drugs I carried around, neat as you please, bottles and packets, in a plastic box with a tight lid; they now live in a bottom desk drawer in my office, and I am fine.

I head towards the canal, dug around 1230 A.D. by some formidable, steely-eyed, icy-hearted Viking, and I tromp, tightened grip around my imaginary axe over the bridge to the island. It is all lovely quiet; I could have brought poetry to read. The air is transparent. The cold is piercing.

Focused, I push myself to the edge of the woods and cross onto a path, the one less traveled. The white birch, their naked black branches stretch, intersect and rub. I hear a susurrus of client voices. My attention snaps, I turn. The wind hisses.

I could have become a rocket scientist; I am that smart, but I went for a masters, clinically trained and licensed to help; top of my class, of course. There are people who cannot take care of themselves and need someone like me, capable.

My boots make a squishy sound. Patches of icy leaves caught by the sudden drop in temperature are now muddy black in my path and—eyes widen. I stare down, a suspicious notched branch, and then sludge color blends into the crimsons of impact and of broken blood twining round Inessa, my client’s throat, splashing across her cheek, encircling her eye.

I held tight around her wrist that day. Her breath sucked in, spewed out disconnected, then caught up as she sobbed. Under my skirt waistband and traveling to the top of my spine, my muscles knotted; I needed her to shut up. My boss could have passed my door and heard. My fingers clamped tighter.

“He beats me; I’m scared! I hate my life.” Snot dripped from her nostrils.

My eyebrows may have raised. I recognized the strong accusation. “I will help you.” I told her, my voice calm.

“I’d rather be dead. I can’t escape—to anywhere!” This I heard and had heard over countless times.

These women are silly and unaware. Into loveless unions, they are bought, a sum had passed to her parents in some distant country, and now she is here, captive, helpless. Overall, it’s inconsequential, their attempts to escape from one bad to another worse, one destitution to another poverty, one abuse to another violation.

However, yes, they are fortunate. It is a fact, I am their assigned agent and will help. Inessa is especially lucky to have me to sort out her sordid life. Never mind, I drink alcohol, red wine and eat healthy food. I’m drawn to poetry and am familiar with poetic emotions, and I’m in a stable relationship, now, as well.

Once police—it was that neighbor’s call—stood feigning control in my kitchen, hands nervous on holstered guns, their lips stiff. My then lover, with his six-pack abs, stood frantic, a slice on his arm dribbling blood. He stomped in front of the officers. Bitch’ll kill me! The kitchen knife dropped into the drawer, the rosy pearl scallion halves stared as witnesses. Then he shouted, Psycho pinched my Hasselblad. I’d borrowed the camera, just a few days, a little project, and then slipped it back, no harm done, into his drawer. I never get angry, whatever it was, was on him.His pointer finger shot out. Look, she’s crazy! It became a terrible scene. I started to explain, and one cop’s baton was right in my face. I shut down, looking away. That lover left, and left for the hospital.

The important is the present. I have a nice, mild, unopinionated person in my bed and drinking coffee next to me in the morning. They gifted me—I can be persuasive—my Armani puffy coat. I have a well-tended collection of poetry, a respected government job and my clients, my boss, and my lover, they all need me. I’m actually smarter than they think I am.

But out here in the coldness, the forest heaves under the weight of snow and I walk. I’ve never understood astronomers’ fascination with an endless sky. With a narrow gaze, I eye the moving clouds, noting some are long and thin, some fat. Then my body lurches, my arms flail, my feet hit something, and lose the ground under them.

There is my inner voice, like clockwork. Damn, you’re going down! That familiar jolt up through my elbows and to the base of my neck, as my palms smack the icy earth.

“Shit!”

My hands are covered in a Norwegian blend of wet leaves and cold muck. My nose is in the forest floor’s detritus, and there my eyes see a bluish swell blossoming. The problem was evident—drunken louts, beating on Inessa since she could cradle her own dolly— and so was the solution. I saved her. With that simple affirmation, my forehead nods and picks up a wet leaf. I ease back and get my legs under me. Ok, my right knee hit the ground hard, but nothing broke. My heart charges around my chest from my fall, not in the least from the memory of Inessa’s eyes.

My spine straightens. Before me, burnt green pine needles and frost. Tree noises or it’s a magpie, its black and whiteness hidden between the striped collection of tree trunks, although these sights are of no special interest—earth’s hues do nothing for me. In that moment, my nose crinkles and I gag, bile rising into my throat.

“Oh. Of course!”

My feet had found and tripped over a dead, rotting forest animal. I take a yogic breath but know I’m going to vomit breakfast. My head does ache, my vision swims. “Dizzy?” I ask the woods. No answer.

Shuffling to a nearby tree, eyes closed, coffee and crackers with paté make the reverse voyage. When my eyes open, the back of my glove is slimy, and the putrid smell is still there, mixed with coffee. Obviously, something is decaying.

My mind reaches for the sane and tolerable…A dead bear? Only 2 percent of all Scandinavian bears live in Norway.

The question fades as my gaze darts back to what tripped me, and I see bits of neon yellow plastic poking between slick leaves. That neon yellow is a kind of Norwegian fashion trend. This I know. The smell is fading, a good sign. But there is something in that reflective yellow under those twigs, then I’m distracted, my hands frisk my Armani.

“Ah, shit! Where’s my friggin’ phone?” My throat clenches and I hack up what was left in the pit of my stomach.

I mince-step forward; the grossness I’d fallen on is behind. Gore-Tex is known for its supreme breathability; my gloved hand clamps my nose and mouth. My boots roust through the stones, mossy sticks and leaves. My phone case is brown plastic. A sexist incoherent in the phone store had commented pink or yellow cases were ‘easier colors, better for the fairer sex.’ I almost punched him, daring a repetition of his statement and brandishing my recording phone that would sink his pitiful phone store career, but I knew he was a trifle, and a doctor told me do not engage. Now, it’s obvious how the brown camouflages with the leaves and dirt. My phone must be here; my smile tightens.

Gently, only two minutes pass, I recover it from beneath a pile of grey snow and moss. Battery fine, 83%. Then, something clicks, a rustle, a bird emits a drawn caw; my brow knits, processing and I see, on replay, a horrid neon color. I turn my head and shoulders to inspect. Then, I speak to the forest. “Yes, that’s it. Neon yellow—on the ground. Not natural at all. I’m calling an authority, the police. It’s their job; this I know.”

I stare around the path and think of my planned walk. Emergency services told me ETA was less than five minutes. I’m standing, concentrating, inhaling, my nose is now used to the odor. From somewhere above, a distant sound and I sense my heartbeat starting a race. There is a deep yet building wee-waar-wee-waar. It shakes from the trees down to my boots, my heart thumps under my Dale. Wee-waar- wee-e longer, louder, closing in. My leg muscles fire wanting to dart but I stand stiff and blink. Two burly police arrive, one with a collapsible gurney and one with a huge toolbox painted white. My lips press in a funny smile. These protectors of public peace walk up in neon yellow pants and jackets. They want to talk to me.

“What is the situation here?”

I show them the damage to my gloves. “I was walking and tripped.” Then, as my gaze travels past their shoulders, I point to the stinky pile of leaves that cover an outfit similar to what the police are wearing.

Down to a squat, one says, “We’ve a body here. Call HQ, get the bag and gurney set.”—then growls—“You stand back.”

Police are unpredictable; I know it is best to stay away and as I’ve learned, don’t engage. I take two wide steps and look around, smacking my gloves together in the cold. I taste tension, bitter, metallic; it rises up along the sides of my mouth, yet my body is calm, respiration deep. In between slimy leaves, icy earth and twigs, my gaze lights on something dirty, silver and round. Of course, the police are absorbed elsewhere, so I, of course, pick up the shiny object. My eyes squint, assessing, and then open wide as I turn it over, and then over again. I palm it surreptitiously and let it slide into my pocket.

It’s a pin, like a two-inch campaign button. On top of my meds box, I have another box full of these pins which proclaim I am learning Norwegian, talk with me, two exclamation points. I should give out more of them.

Another conversation with Inessa—for example—colors streaked out the sides of her sunglasses. It was overcast that day, sunglasses were quite inappropriate, especially inside. But I saw magenta rimmed with charred orange when Inessa removed them. There, the full spectacle, her body rocked, as tears squeezing through slitted eyes, drops trailed along the sides of her nose. The papers on my desk were getting wet. Oblivious, she sniffled and wept. I rearranged my skirt over my knees and squeezed them together. My foot adjusted my trash bin; my office door was closed for privacy. I insisted, taking a firm hold of Inessa’s hand, that she be quiet at once. It is not good when clients are hysterical. Best are quiet clients.

Utmost patience, I asked, “What do you need?” Words articulated slow, careful. “I am the only one, your case manager.” My follow-up—as always. “How can I help?”

She’d looked through wet eyes and I felt the importance, my chest raising. As an MSW, I maintain my position… above, in control. My boss compliments that regularly.

“He’ll kill me. I’m exhausted.”—a long sigh passed pouted lips—“no one understands!”

Confident my eyes actually conveyed understanding; I thought rampant feelings are never beneficial. My head moved to one side, displaying either interest or concern or both. She looked truly horrible, but I felt my brain tick along, and then the solution was apparent. Inessa needs me, and I can help, and did. She left with a Talk with me!! pin, and an Rx bottle, contents: thirty-one capsules; 150mg of a robust anti-panic/anti-anxiety med.

I sense a whir of sober birds— up from the tangle, that magpie again. My lips press tight in relief and my hands snake down the sides of my puffy coat. Brown cased phone, check—pin, check.

More officials have arrived, and the police want to talk with me—again—But is there really anything to say?


Dena Linn, ex-urban, thriver, commune child, not to be one of ‘those’ girls, diving into hate, loss, rage, heartbreak, and insanity. First-Place: “The Problem Is”, published by Reedsy.com. Also appearing in Down in the Dirt Magazine and Ariel Chart International Literary Journal, she’s a story judge for Reedsy.com and published six shorts in anthologies.


“The Rtist” Dark Fiction by Karris Rae

"The Rtist" Dark Fiction by Karris Rae

I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be touched. I don’t remember how a person feels. Soft? Peach fuzz-y? Raw, like a chicken breast? When I cook, I weigh the meat in my hand. This is flesh. If I hold it for long enough, it warms, loosens.

But it’s not flesh that wakes me up in a panic more nights than not—it’s teeth. Tonight, I stumble out of another nightmare, heart racing. I probe around with my tongue to make sure my teeth haven’t fallen out, that it isn’t just soft flesh where hard bone should be. I can never predict when I’ll have a nightmare, but I always know it’ll be about teeth.

My fingertips tingle with adrenaline as I lift my phone and navigate to my saved videos. “ASMR,” the folder is labeled. I choose a video featuring a girl named only “the Rtist.” She’s new to my playlist, but tonight I’m all hers.

My heartbeat slows as she adjusts imaginary dials on my face, all fluttering eyelashes and whispered consonant clusters. Her smile is sweet. All of her teeth are intact. As I watch and listen, warmth blooms over my body, collecting in a ring around my crown as if I’m submerged in a hot bath. Or as if she’s sitting on the edge of my bed, teasing the baby hair around my ears and neck with her long fingers, tweaking the dials until I become the kind of robot people want to touch. She’s close enough to count her freckles; in fact, I do. I count them like sheep until sleep comes.

As soon as I return to this world in the morning, I want to leave it again. It’s crunchy. Muddy. Harsh. Grainy. Noisy. Blurred.

Even before I open my eyes, I smell the dirty paper plates and greasy pillowcase. Overripe late-morning sunlight creeps in around the blackout curtain and illuminates dust motes. I always thought life would be better if I were on my own. Then everyone left, and the problems didn’t. I want to let the Rtist fill the silence, but she wouldn’t look right in the daytime; she’s a spirit of the night.

The garbage truck rumbles outside my single-pane bedroom window and I freeze. The sweet n’ sour stench of my kitchen trash hangs thick in the air. It’s too late. No communal dumpsters. I’ll have to bear it until Friday’s trash pickup. But then the knot in my gut pulls tighter. Friday’s a holiday. If I don’t catch that truck, I’ll have nightmares about not just broken and loose teeth, but also rotting pulp and gums for another week.

I thrash out of the bedclothes, pull dirty sweatpants over my boxer briefs, and run bare-chested into the kitchen. I fumble the knot once, twice as I struggle to remove the bag, and when the can topples, I don’t stop to right it. The asphalt sears the tender soles of my feet from the first step outside. Foul brownish liquid leaks out of the bag and drips down my leg. By the time I reach the street, the garbage truck is accelerating.

“Stop, for fuck’s sake!” I beseech the man hanging off the back of the truck, who watches dispassionately. Pressing his lips together, he signals to the driver and the truck slows. I catch up and thrust him the bag. He’s more careful not to touch me than he is the leaky garbage.

“Morning, sunshine,” he says. “Rooster didn’t wake ya up this morning, huh?”

All I can do is glare and pant, my scrawny, pale chest glowing in the sun like some deep-dwelling cave thing. The man hesitates, as if on the verge of asking why a boy my age isn’t at school, but then he looks away. Just as well; I wouldn’t know how to answer. The truck drives away with the rotting scraps of meat that felt almost alive in my palm a few nights ago.

I scrunch my head between my shoulders on the walk back, avoiding the eyes of my porchbound neighbors. But I mess up—I don’t notice my next door neighbor on the folding lawn chair on our shared porch until I’m staring her in the face.

She’s absent-mindedly chewing the straw of an empty smoothie cup, one leg slung over the arm of a chair that may have once been white. A bit older than I am, but chattier than a divorced retiree. Ruby, or something. Roxy. Definitely an R.

“Mornin’,” R says. This woman doesn’t blink enough.

“Good morning.” I look away and try my doorknob. It doesn’t budge. I blink incredulously, enough for both of us.

“D’ja lock yourself out?”

“No, why would I have locked it? I knew I was coming right back.”

The plastic cracks between her teeth and I wince. “Muscle memory can be a bitch.”

“Yeah.”

“Guess you’ll hafta go to the main office.”

“Yeah.” I turn.

“Hey . . .”

“Yeah?”

“D’you like ASMR?”

I have words, but they won’t hang together in a sentence.

R tilts her head. “Those videos with the whispering and stuff? Auto, sensory, meridian, response.” She lights her finger on each word as if it floats in the air between us. “A, S, M, R. Only like one in five people can feel it. You one of ‘em?”

My heart beats hard in my ears. Was she watching me? Are the walls that thin? Or did I fall victim to another unfortunate Bluetooth accident?

“Ne’er mind,” she says, returning to the phone in her hand.

“How’d you know?”

“Because I heard you listening to it in my dreams. Y’know the Rtist? Pretty lady, freckles. Looks kinda like my sister, but you’ve never met ‘er. Spooky voice.”

I vacillate, her logic not quite clicking into place.

“You do know who I’m talking about, don’tchu.” It’s a statement, not a question. Her smile is wide. She has all her teeth, but they’re too big for her face. If she ever got hit in the mouth by an errant baseball, it would be like a shotgun blast to the soft palate.

“I just started,” I confess. “Well, I’ve been watching ASMR for a while. But I only found the Rtist a few nights ago. I’m sorry if I kept you up last night. My headphones must not be working right.”

“I think they’re working fine,” she says. “And don’tchu worry, you didn’t bother me. Whatever the opposite of botherin’ is.”

My feet are insisting that we retreat inside, off the magmatic pavement. “Okay. Uh, it was nice talking to you, but I’ve got work to do.” I try the doorknob.

Goddammit.

“Yeah okay, nice talk.” Whatever R feels about my second crack at the doorknob, her face is neutral. “By the way, there’s a whole forum for the Rtist’s videos, if you haven’t checked it out yet. You seen it?”

I shake my head.

“Here, gimme your hand.”

I see no choice but to obey. She produces a ballpoint pen from the pocket of her denim cutoffs and writes a web address on my palm in red ink, pressing so hard I suspect I may have my first tattoo. Her nondominant hand holds mine still. It’s warm, the skin softer than it looks. The goosebumps prickling over my skin do weird things to my nipples and I cross my other arm over my naked chest.

Afterward, she eyes me. “You won’t like everything on that site. My advice? Don’t watch anything after the peach one. Not yet.”

I nod, recovering my hand. After I leave, after I hang around in the office waiting for a handyman, even after I crawl back between my fetid sheets, I still feel the warmth of her hand under mine.

My laptop autoplays true crime documentaries as I scroll on my phone, waiting for nightfall. I balance in this limbo—aware but not, awake but not, actual but not—for the next seven hours, until it’s time for the night spirits to come out.

I close the laptop, stretching and prodding my skin to make out the scratchy lettering. The website, found at comfortably-numb.online, is not what I expected; my phone would look dead but for the centered search box. No banner, no logo, only black. Much like the Rtist’s videos, which have never (to my knowledge) included ads or product placements. The items she tap tap taps her acrylic nails on are always nondescript, labels removed. She has her own brand to uphold. Correction: she is the brand.

My thumbs loom over the keyboard. There’s not even a navigation menu. I type “ASMR” and hit enter, but nothing happens. Next I try my usual YouTube query, “the Rtist,” but the cursor just blinks as if impatiently tapping its foot. I chew my lip. The Rtist should bring a proper web designer on board.

All I can think to try next is “peach.” As soon as I tap the “h,” the search box disappears. For a moment I think it’s bugged, but then I see the off-black loading circle in the center of the screen. The video opens. This is the face I know, but it’s different. She’s dyed her ginger hair, now black on one side of the center part, a lighter strawberry blonde on the other. Her smile isn’t so sweet now, it’s smoky, and the ring light behind the camera washes her blue eyes out to a hazy gray. She’s . . . potent.

Why is it always beautiful young girls in ASMR? My age, some of them. What brings them to make that first video? And who decides which of them ascends to goddesshood? Why her?

The Rtist interrupts my thoughts with the eponymous peach. She whispers her secrets to it, so quietly even the microphone can’t pick out the words. Drags her rose-colored nails over the peach’s surface. I imagine the skin rising in bumps to match my own. Her eyes are full of love for the little peach and I can’t breathe. She’s sitting on the edge of my bed, moonlight captured in her strawberry hair, the peach’s fragrant skin not just perfuming but purifying the air. I am warm and safe. She touches it to her lips and nuzzles its fuzzy flesh. I feel her against my neck, my flesh, everything warm and safe.

She bites. Her teeth shred through the delicate skin, slice through tender flesh. Juices flow down to her chin. Then she pulls away, snapping fibers and tearing tissue. I can’t help it—I cry out. Through the wall, in the unit next door, I hear a woman’s muffled laughter. The Rtist looks at the camera and smiles. Fibrous tatters are caught between her perfect teeth. She swallows—a wet gulp— and returns for another bite.

I fumble with my phone until it turns off. My face and neck are cool and bloodless, my breath jagged. I wait for my pulse to slow and blood to return to my head. I’m still safe and warm. Everything’s fine. It was a peach. But when I close my eyes to sleep—vainly thinking I might do it on my own—it’s not a peach I see her bite. It’s raw chicken.

Eventually I fall asleep to videos by other ASMRtists (lesser ones, I can’t help but acknowledge) but it takes two hours, and even then my rest is fitful. I’m dreaming about teeth, but not the rotten, broken, cracked, splintered, loose, missing, jagged, fused ones I usually do. Instead my teeth are strong. I pace out my daily routine, stopping to experimentally nibble objects. I bite through my toothbrush like a candy cane. Through electrical cord like laffy taffy. I even prize a satisfying chunk out of the metal street light outside my apartment and chew it like rock candy, scraping against my teeth, tearing up my insides as I swallow—a screeching gulp.

Now I’m brushing my teeth. Spit. Mouthwash. Spit. I inspect them in the mirror, using my phone flashlight to illuminate my mouth. My gums twinge from last night, as if I’d actually bitten household items. And there’s another pain, too. I crane my neck to see a mark similar to a hickey under my ear, shaped like a shark’s displayed jaw bones. I bruise easily. I don a sweatshirt and arrange the hood to cover the not-hickey, take a deep breath in the mirror, and step outside to confront R about her fucked-up video.

What even was that website? I rehearse. I know ASMR people are weirdos, but that was messed up. Fucked up? No, too aggressive . . . “Shit!” I’m startled by R sitting on the lawn chair outside her apartment.

She raises her eyebrows. “I live here, yanno. Not like this is a chance encounter.”

“I know, I just . . .” The surprise robs me of conviction. “Didn’t expect you to be    . . . so close.”

R doesn’t answer. Her attention flits back to her phone.

“I want to talk to you about the Rtist.”

She doesn’t look up. “Yeah? Heard you listening last night. Went straight for the peach video, huh? I say, ‘don’t watch anything after that one,’ so you go straight for it.”

“How can you watch stuff like that?”

“Like what?” Now she looks, eyebrows disappearing into her frizzy, blunt bangs.

“It was kinda fucked up.” Dammit, ‘messed up.’

“I’unno what to tell you, man. Don’t like it, don’t watch.”

“It had this weird, like, sexual energy.” Heat rises to my face. I’m beginning to feel stupid. “And then she bit into it and it was like biting into . . .”

“Sexual? Just cuz she’s pretty? Her face isn’t doing it specially for you, y’know.”

“Why do you watch, then?”

“Because she reminds me of my sister. Think I said that yesterday. Mama had a peach tree in the backyard and when me and my sister visited, we’d eat peaches.”

“Oh.” Who ‘visits’ their mom?

She giggles. I recognize the laugh as the one that jangled through my wall last night. “No matter what you’re looking for, it’s on that site. And everything you’re not lookin’ for, too. ” The mirth on her face evaporates. “So don’t come to me if you stumble on something not made for you.”

“How’d you find the site?”

“Friend at school showed me, ‘look how much this girl looks like Charlie.’ He was right. Then I kept watching as a joke . . . then I watched for real.”

Her story has an uncanny resemblance to my own. Watched as a joke, to see what bizarre thing the ASMRtist came up with next . . . then for real. The transition was imperceptible.

R goes on. “Back then she was just a shy girl with Walmart cameras and a dozen viewers. She’s grown into her stage name, hasn’t she?”

I nod.

“Now she has leagues of followers. She uses some of them in her livestreams now, actually.”

“Her followers?”

“Yeah. Every few weeks she picks a super fan and makes a video with them. I’m still working myself up to those, but wouldn’t that be somethin’?”

To be in a video with her . . . for those smoky eyes to see into mine for real. But . . . “What if she didn’t like me?” As soon as I say it, I’m horrified I did.

R pauses. “What if you didn’t like her?”

I frown. I know the Rtist; I’ve seen her every night for weeks. In my mind I watch her tuck her hair behind her right ear, pinky pulling delicately away from the other fingers. As soon as she does, her hair looses itself, commencing an endless cycle of tucking, untucking, tucking, untucking. Pinky, pinky, pinky.

Perfect, placid smile.

R’s back to checking her phone. Her own long nails clack against the screen and suddenly I’m less anxious to leave.

“How . . . if someone wanted to be in her videos, how would they do it?”

“Same way you pick up a girl at a bar.” My stomach clenches, overpowering the chills from her clacking nails.. “Get ‘er attention.”

I disentangle myself with some difficulty. So much, in fact, that now, safe in my apartment, I wonder whether she’s as starved for conversation as I am for touch.

I spend my day trawling the internet for glimpses of the Rtist outside her native site. She’s elusive, like a ghost in a windblown forest. I can’t tell between her and a puff of air. I reverse search every thumbnail from her YouTube channel. When that doesn’t work, I move to past profile pictures cropped from screenshots of that channel. Either she’s like me—removed from social media, practically dead in the eyes of society—or she’s savvy enough to separate her personal and professional (magical?) lives.

When the sun sets, it takes me by surprise. I could’ve been in a coma all day and I’d feel no different. Time is getting slippery on me. The darkness creeps into my apartment. With each blink my room gets a bit duskier. I still don’t turn on the lights; it’s as good an opportunity as ever to sleep, I suppose.

This has become the ebb and flow of my life. I spend my waking hours waiting for sleep, and then the nightmares rob me of whatever pleasure I’d get from that. But this space, this twilight between the sour, grainy day and the toothy night, is supposed to be mine. It’s not too late to reclaim this limbo from the Rtist. There are other ASMRtists. Better ones, even if I haven’t found them yet. Ones that don’t make videos that burrow under my skin like a botfly larva, squirming, swelling, gorging.

But if there are, I can’t find them. My old favorites seem amateurish now. My skin prickles not with goosebumps but with secondhand embarrassment for these women pretending to be what the Rtist is so effortlessly. Their voices are rasping; their microphones cheap and scratchy; their hands like pig’s hooves; their teeth yellowed. To my horror, the Rtist’s early work, the videos that have unerringly put me to sleep for weeks, aren’t much better. The botfly squirms.

I relocate the peach video, hoping my anticipation will dull the blow of the first bite. My wish comes too true—the effect is diluted to nothing. I need something new. After the peach video, another automatically queues up. The publication date shows that it was posted a scant three days after the peach video. I ignore R’s warning and hit ‘play.’

The camera is pitched vertically, looking down. A blonde wooden cutting board rests on a pink background, laden with kiwis, strawberries, and mangoes. A ceramic knife rests beside the board. I recognize the Rtist’s hands—pale, slim, decorated with many silver rings that clink as she flutters her fingers before the camera.

“Hello, hello, hello, my friend. It’s wonderful to see you again.” She grasps and tugs in the foreground as if pulling me into the screen by my ears.

But I can’t see her face. I’ve almost decided to skip to the next video when she suddenly drums her long nails against the wooden board. Wood sounds—my weakness. She taps teasingly, one at a time. Then faster . . . faster. Faster, faster.

She stops with a sigh, as if to say no-no, dinner before dessert. Next, she tinks along the knife blade, before dragging her finger smoothly, deliberately, along the edge. I clench my jaw as the thread of blood emerges, shocking against the white ceramic.

“Oops,” she whispers, a laugh hiding in her voice. She’s not sitting on the edge of my bed tonight, but lying behind me, hands around and before me, big spoon whispering into the little one’s ear. “Let’s start, then, darling. Shall we?”

Her whispers are indistinct now. The kiwi is first. The blade incises through the fruit’s skin as easily as hers, as if the fruit voluntarily yields to it. The knock of ceramic against wood goes to my head like a shot of hard liquor. A few short, bristly hairs stick to the knife. Sweet juices collect in the grooves of the polished board.

The fruit parts again for the blade. The Rtist’s finger is still bleeding, and scarlet droplets bloom in the puddles of juice. With every wet plunge, air hisses between my teeth. I feel the slice but I don’t want it to stop. I’m a teething baby, pained and relieved by each loving bite.

As she finishes the fruit, kiwi then strawberry then mango,  I wonder what else her archives hold, what more horrifying and beautiful things the enchantress can do. But then she pushes the neat cubes off the cutting board (into a pink sea) and replaces them with a chunk of meat. It’s bleeding onto the wood. The depressed channel around the perimeter turns deep red. I want to turn it off, but I can’t leave this warm place.

She arranges the meat tenderly. Red collects and deepens in the crannies around her fingernails. Her blood infuses with the animal’s, the being that was, until quite recently, alive. When she brings the knife down, it’s not the blade’s long edge that sinks into the flesh, but the point. Slow, serene stabbing. Like a skilled butcher slipping a knife between the jaw and neck bones of a pig, severing all the soft parts within, killing sweetly. She’s beautiful and gentle, a smile always plain in her voice. My vitality drips away.

I am gone.

I taste blood. So much fills my mouth, flowing from my wounded, glass-studded gums, that I can’t speak, can’t breathe. It doesn’t matter how much I drink, I can never keep up, until my belly is full of crunching glass shards and my lungs full of blood. I drown.

 A lawnmower growls outside. My room is too warm, and my sweatpants and chest are damp with sweat. I’ve slept for twelve hours, according to my phone’s clock, and my senses are blunted by lingering grogginess. There’s only a blank spot in my memory where my dreams should be.

I haven’t slept this deeply in years. I’d forgotten what it’s like to wake up with dried drool on my cheek and muscles stiff from disuse. As I blink the sleep out of my eyes, I feel like a drowsy baby bird in the Rtist’s hands—cherished now, but crushed to death in an instant if she so chooses. Yet every night, she chooses love. I suddenly need her to know how grateful I am for that.

I dress and brush my teeth. The sun outside bears down like an interrogation light: “Three days outside in a row?” it seems to ask, “What are you doing? Who put you up to this?”

At first, there’s no answer when I tap tap at R’s door. I shuffle my feet on our shared porch, feeling very dumb. A full minute after anyone else would have tried again, I bring my fist back to the door, louder. In the moment before R opens it, I sense her on the other side.

“Seriously?” she says. Her hair looks like a place wood mice would like to live. “It’s not even eight. Not everyone goes to sleep with the sun, y’know.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I wasn’t thinking. I can come back later. Or not at all.”

She shakes her head. “I’m already up, just spit it out.”

“So, I know I was put off by the first video, of the Rtist, I mean, but then I went back to make sure and . . .”

“You were listening to the Rtist again last night. Fine, let’s start there. What d’you want from me?”

I’m asking this woman for a favor before the sun has even properly risen. The least I can do is not waste her time. “I want to talk to her.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Uh-huh what?”

She leans against the doorframe, arms crossed. “You an’ everyone else who watches. Y’know there are thousands, prolly millions of people who feel the same way. She means the world to every, single, one of ‘em.”

“I want to tell her what she means to me. I want her to know my name.”

“Okay, so why are you talkin’ to me?”

This is a good question. One I probably should have considered before harassing her. “Because . . . you said you’ve been a fan for a while. You knew about the secret website and everything. And it’s not like I have anyone else to ask.”

R raises her eyebrow. Now she wants to be coy? R’s the one who (somehow) listened in on my ASMR sessions. She’s the one who ambushed me as I retreated into my home. Who set the Rtist loose in my head.

All of this, I swallow. “Please.”

R rolls her eyes. “Come on, d’you really think I’d fall for the whole puppy dog thing?”

Shame heats my ears as if sunburnt. I wasn’t trying to be endearing or cute, but polite. I’m vulnerable, not a puppy but a worm squirming on the sidewalk after the rain passes, slow-roasting to death under the interrogative sun. Not for the first time, I remind myself that this is why I don’t talk to people.

R watches this unfold as if my scalp and skull are made of clear plastic, revealing the thoughts as pink and gray gumballs rolling around inside. “Hey . . .” she says. Now her voice is almost as soft as the Rtist’s. “How old are you?”

“Uh,” I start, surprised. “Seventeen.”

“Where are your parents?”

My ears warm even more, if that’s possible. “Not here.”

“Are they coming back?”

“No.”

“What are those?” She points to my forearm, limp at my side. I inspect it with the same concern evident on her face. It’s hashed with cuts, deep and short, as if made with the point of a knife. As soon as I register this, it stings.

“I dunno.” I’m not sure what expression this elicits; I can’t tear my gaze from the crusted wounds.

R exhales. “Look, you’re young, so I’ll tell you somethin’ I’d expect a grown man to know. I get that y’aren’t gonna listen, but you’ll wish you did someday.” She pauses as if anticipating protest, but I’m still distracted by my arm. “Confessions never go the way they do in your head. No matter what happens, you’ll be disappointed. Besides, I’m not gonna to help you pester a woman just livin’ her life. Okay?”

“But I’m not—”

“You gonna do it anyway?”

“I don’t want to pester her. I just want to thank her. That’s it.”

R presses her lips together.

Back inside my nest, I wash my forearm with warm water and soap, wincing. Part of me is glad R let it go so easily; another part resents her negligence. Seems I could slit my belly open and the unhappiest person to hear the news would be whoever had to replace the carpet. I set my phone alarm to remind me to order delivery pizza when the place opens, and then I start my letter to the Rtist. With or without R, I am going to reach my goddess of sleep.

Progress is unsteady. It feels, impossibly, like I’m deleting more than I’m writing—like a hateful little bird is pecking at the keyboard each time I bury my face in my hands, just so I have more bad, wrong, mortifying words to erase. As I write, I realize how lucky I’ll be if she only deletes it without reading, when she could publicly humiliate me for thinking I deserved a moment of her life. But she wouldn’t do that . . . right?

I order the pizza, charging it to a debit card linked to the trust account that supplies all my needs. Between bites, I steal glances at the Rtist, sitting on the couch beside me. Her eyelashes flutter and her cotton dress rustles against the upholstery. I speak to her in the language of clicking plastic keys, and I tell her everything. She nods along, whispering unintelligible words of sympathy, hope, and encouragement. Twice she scoots closer, until she’s all I see when I turn my head. Her lips graze my ear and her voice fills my head with warm fluff, which expands until the neurons are too far apart to converse.

It’s not the lawnmower today, but the weed whacker that wakes me up from the couch. My phone is dead on the coffee table and the screen of the open laptop is black. A fly washes its hands in the grease collected in a cup of pepperoni on the forgotten pizza. Digging goo out of the corners of my eyes, I sit up.

With a wiggle of the mouse I prod my laptop awake. It’s not my desktop or word processor but my email inbox that greets me. It’s full of the usual junk—bigger penis, ACLU, Ukrainian babes, Groupon for Seaworld—except for a single grayed-out email at the top. “Please don’t throw me away,” says the subject line. Dread constricts my throat. I read the initial email, sent from myself to rtist@comfortably-numb.online, which contains my letter. As my eyes stumble over the words, my head sinks deeper into my trembling hands. I didn’t use my usual signoff, the generic “Best,” but instead the melodramatic “Silently yours,” then my name. If I really try, maybe I can crush my skull and brain and all its dumb thoughts between my hands.

Below is her response. I scroll up and back down, squinting at the timestamps for each. It was sent barely a minute after I sent the letter, which is at least a few pages long. It says, “I see you. I’d like to put you in my newest video. I’ll come to your home soon.”

I click dropdowns at random, searching for missing, intermediate messages. As far as I can tell, I never asked to be in her video, or told her my address, or decided on a time to meet. I read my letter again, cringing. I can’t see this visit as anything but pitying. This isn’t how this was supposed to go, I wasn’t . . .

The doorbell rings.

#

Roslyn sighs as the hot water streams down her back. She hears whispering in the water and closes her eyes, savoring the suspended moment until the water turns cool. Afterward, she changes into pajamas, makes a cup of caffeine-free rose hip tea, and curls up on the couch, headphones ready.

Earlier, the Rtist announced another livestream with a superfan tonight, and for the first time, Roslyn will tune in. Maybe, by some miracle, the boy next door will have convinced the Rtist to feature him. That poor boy—lovesick for a chimera. But he’ll learn soon enough. If the woman behind the Rtist is half as sweet as her persona, she’ll set him straight without shattering him.

The lights are off; it’s beginning to rain outside. The heat from the teacup doesn’t quite burn Roslyn’s hand. She navigates to the website on her tablet (the bigger the screen, the better the tingles), turns on the blue light filter, and tunes the volume just so. “Livestream,” she searches, and today’s stream comes up as though the website knows just what she wants.

The stream hasn’t started yet. Roslyn prides herself on never being late for anything, even if she’s the only one who’ll know. She sips her tea and waits. Unlike others’ livestreamed events, the Rtist has disabled the live chat function. To each user, it feels as if they have the Rtist to themselves, that she’s speaking to them alone, right at this moment. Everyone knows the truth, but the lie is comforting. It is theater.

As always, the video opens with hands. Roslyn always hated hers, her triangular nail beds and warped fingers. By contrast, her sister’s are beautiful. She used them to teach Roslyn how to tie her shoes. The sound of fabric pulling tight still sends cool trickles over Rosyln’s scalp. Roslyn watches the Rtist’s hands now with sadness and love.

“Hello, Charlie,” Roslyn whispers. The intended recipient will never hear.

But she leans into frame with a mysterious smile. “Hello, hello, hello, my friend. It’s wonderful to see you again. Today I have something special to show you. Are you ready?”

“Yes,” murmurs Roslyn, eyes already half-closed.

Something tinkles, like porcelain beads gently shaken in a jar. It comes in a pattern: clinkclink clink. Clinkclink clink. The Rtist sings along, breathy and soft. Roslyn can’t make out the words—it may be nonsense—but she allows the ASMR current to creep from her scalp to her toes, pulsing with the rhythm.

“Let’s do something new tonight, okay? Something just for you.” Eyes still shut, Roslyn hears the Rtist unscrew the jar, the tink of the metal lid. She feels the cool, smooth glass in her hand, soothing like cold tile to a feverish forehead. There’s chaotic clinking as the objects are removed. Then a new sound—wet, crisp, puncturing.

This isn’t the hardcore experience Roslyn expected. The forums warned about the Rtist’s late work as if it were grotesque, but so far, this one’s tame. Subdued enough to put Roslyn to sleep, though it’s still early. A sleepy, relaxed, hypnotic session that doesn’t even expect her to keep her eyes open. But Roslyn does open them, because this is her first livestream and it would be rude to fall asleep five minutes in.

In the center of the frame is a length of lean meat, bloody but precisely cut. In the foreground are hands, and in the hands are makeshift jaws—two halves of an apple, round sides together. Each is studded with small, dingy-white teeth. The Rtist inserts the last few with the accuracy of an acupuncturist, each with a satisfying, penetrative crunch. Each making a spot along Roslyn’s spine tingle, then go numb. She finds she can’t move, that every insertion freezes another locus of her body. She finds she doesn’t care.

The Rtist clicks the teeth together like delicate castanets, interrupting the stream of murmurs to giggle. She places the bottom jaw on the tabletop, arranges the meat over it, then sets the other on top. Roslyn’s first pangs of anxiety come a half-second before the Rtist pushes down with both hands, leaning into the pressure with all her diminutive weight.

The teeth crackle wetly, as if a small animal were crushed under the Rtist’s hands. Teeth grind against apple, against gristle, against each other, a tight, tense sound as the animal turns to crunchy pulp. Again. Again. Roslyn tries to turn the tablet off but her arm is too heavy. Tries to look away but her neck is locked in place by the needles that aren’t in her back. In the morning, she will find tiny red pin pricks when she looks in the mirror.

The teeth bite, bite, bite through the meat until it’s all mangled, the fruit-gums bloodied, shreds of tissue wedged between the incisors. The Rtist’s whispers pause as if she’s preparing to say “the end.” And then she speaks, intelligibly, ending the letter she’s been reading throughout the stream: “Silently yours, Andrew.”


Karris Rae writes from Japan, where she lives in the “snowiest city in the world.” Her hobbies are collecting moments like pretty seaglass and making collages of her favorites in the form of fiction.


“The Integration of Noah Bloom” Horror by Lexie Garcia

"The Integration of Noah Bloom" Horror by Lexie Garcia

“You have to integrate it.”

Noah Bloom went to biweekly therapy on Thursdays and sometimes Tuesdays when she didn’t have to take an extra shift at the bookstore. She was twenty-seven and interested in self-improvement, and the only thing she genuinely hated was boredom. The incidents that brought her to therapy were both intrinsic and extrinsic, a menagerie of traumas melded with preternatural melancholia, which was a nice way to say she was fucked in the brain.

At least, she thought, she was doing something about it. There were plenty of people out there who refused to look inward and allowed their personal problems to fester like an open sore. They were like frightened animals of sensitive spirits and a severe lack of self-awareness, snapping at anyone who dared to get too close. Noah sometimes snapped, but she was not an animal about it. Or she tried not to be.

Her therapist was Dr. Armstrong, a man in his late middle-ages. He had a head of ashen hair and a mustache so thick and black it seemed to not get the memo that his head had decided to grey. His mouth was wide and wet. The eyes behind a pair of round glasses were very shiny like black marbles and Noah had always thought had he been born a century earlier, he’d probably be an opium-addicted dandy, but as it was, it was 2023 and he was a therapist.

“There’s no going back from it, so you must integrate it,” said Dr. Armstrong, that red, wet mouth splitting like an overripe plum. “Make it a part of you.”

Make it a part of you.

This was the statement Noah carried with her as she vacated Dr. Armstrong’s office that evening, blinking up at the hazy Chicago mid-winter sky.

For the length of her life, ever since her first memory of consciousness, Noah had felt empty. It seized the pit of her belly like a black hole, a constant, all-consuming void. She had experimented with many “solutions” (read: vices) in an ultimately vain attempt to fill up this hole, including drink, drugs, food, and sex, eventually arriving on therapy at the age of twenty-six. Therapy was by far her most constructive and viable strategy but the void had not gone away. She’d started to fear it was a permanent feature.

When Noah zoned out while taking public transit or watching television, she would rest a hand on her lower stomach, palm down like she was cradling her own steaming guts. It was the spot where the emptiness lived. When she looked down and noticed her hand, she’d immediately imagine the pale and trembling fingers slip inside her belly, passing through the flesh with no resistance. She was a bottomless well, she was hungry, she begged for more. More, more, more. She would continue reaching inside the hole of herself until she was completely sucked in, swallowed up. Satisfied. On the L train once, a nosy stranger noticed her hands position and asked if she was pregnant. She had said yes.

She had told Dr. Armstrong about these thoughts she’d been having in their first session together, and he’d explained to her that this was a common reaction to the trauma she’d endured as a child, and that in order to eradicate this feeling, she must accept what has happened to her.

Integrate it.

Make it a part of her.

She’d clearly not completed this neccessary integration, at least not to Dr Armstrong’s satisfaction, as he was still giving her this counsel a year later. He was arrogant and unyielding. She wasn’t sure why she kept seeing him. There was, she thought, something to be said about the concept of familiarity and how it made one complacent, willing to grow accustomed to just about anything. The idea of recounting, yet again, the worst instances of her life to a fresh – and potentially apathetic – face was harrowing enough to make her want to stay with Dr. Armstrong. It was quite possible that it was this same issue – this complacency – that perpetuated the cavernous emptiness within her, and prevented her from integrating. Although, on that latter point, she had quite thought she’d made some notable strides in recovering from and incorporating her emotional injury, but perhaps that was not the case. This realization made her feel like she was stuck and because she could not think of any workable methods of un-sticking herself, she went to a bar.

It was not a nice bar, but it wasn’t a total dive either. There was a bland sort of mediumness to it that disqueited Noah. She had picked it on a whim, and was now beginning to feel that she might’ve preferred something in either dramatic direction: too extravagant or overly shoddy.

She took to a stool at the bar. There was a man in the seat beside her, half his face cast in shadow. Noah ordered a whisky sour. This caught the man’s eye. “Unusual choice for a young lady.”

Her face contorted in displeasure. “Young lady? You barely look any older than me.”

Now that he was facing her, she could see the fullness of his features. They weren’t much to write home about – plain, unremarkable, a common-place sort of mediumness. That wasn’t to say he wasn’t handsome; he was, only that it was the kind of handsome that said nothing, had nothing to say. His was a face suffering from a severe lack of character.

“Sam,” he introduced, holding out his hand.

At first, Noah just looked down at it like it was some flacid deep sea cucumber. Then she noticed he had a perfectly round bruise on the palm, about the size of an eyeball.

“How did you get that?” She asked.

He inspected his own hand. “I fell.”

“It’s so round,” she said, “Kinda beautiful.”

“Thanks.”

Sam ordered a whisky sour so they could have something in common.

“How did you fall?”

“Huh?”

Noah sipped her drink. “When you got that bruise. You said you fell.”

“Oh,” he said, growing a little sheepish, “It’s kind of dumb.”

Noah kept her eyes on him, and after dredging his glass, he began to tell the story. “I was out for a walk. My long-time girlfriend had just broken up with me out of the blue and I needed to clear my head. We’d been together for two years and were talking about moving in together, so like… it was a huge blow.” He eyes fell to the rough wood of the bar. “Anyway, I was walking down Hoyne avenue and passed this huge Victorian style home. Purple slating, a skinny window facing the street. Well.” He paused, as if he didn’t trust himself to tell the rest. Or perhaps he didn’t trust her to hear it.

She nodded, encouraging him.

“I looked up at the window and saw this woman standing there.”

“What was she like?”

“Sad,” he said, flatly. “Like, terribly sad. She had these big, haunting eyes and I…” he laughed. “Haunting. Yeah, uh. That’s kind of the overall theme here, if you catch where I’m going with this.”

Noah’s eyes widened. “Are you suggesting this woman was… what? A ghost?”

He shrugged, trying to appear casual but it was evident that the memory chilled him. “Maybe. I don’t know. When I looked at her, my chest felt tight. I felt so sad that I thought I might die.”

“Well, you’re girlfriend had just broken up with you,” Noah offered. “It makes sense that you’d be sad.”

“I know, I know. I thought the same thing when I mulled it over later, but I don’t think that’s it. Not all of it, anyway. But I couldn’t look away from her. She didn’t seem to notice me at first, those huge eyes were focused on something else across the street, but then,” he ordered another whisky sour and waited for it to arrive before continuing. He cleared his throat. “But then she looked at me. Dead on. And it felt like I’d been gutted with a… with a… ice pick,” he snapped his fingers at the perfect accuracy of this description. “I felt torn apart and chilled to the bone. And then I blinked and she was gone. I guess there was an uneven notch in the sidewalk or whatever, because my foot caught it and that’s how I fell.”

Noah smiled sympathetically. “You could’ve just told me you tripped.”

“I know. But I wanted to tell someone what I saw. Do you believe me?”

“Yes.”

They went home together. He took her to his apartment on the other side of town, a narrow but beautiful brownstone that surely cost a fortune to inhabit. She had not pegged him as rich, and though money was of no interest to her, it did add some mystery to his otherwise bland aura.

She slipped out of her shoes in the foyer. The wood floor was cold under her stocking feet.

He set to work in the kitchen making them coffee while she paced the living room, reading the spines of the many books tucked in a tall wall-facing shelf. She was surprised to find that most of them were self-help books with titles like The Secrets of Happiness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Dummies.

“Did you get into self-help before or after your ghostly encounter?” She asked when he returned with two piping cups.

“Oh, that,” he said, handing her one. She cradled it between her palms like something alive and precious. “No, I’ve always been interested in self-improvement.”

“Me too.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, I see a therapist.”

He sat down on the brown leather sofa, and with the hand that wasn’t holding his cup (the one with the perfect bruise), he made a dismissive wave of his fingers. “Oh, I would never.”

“Why?”

“I think therapists are quacks.”

Noah’s brow furrowed. “Well, maybe some of them are quacks. But not all of them.”

“I don’t know,” he blew lightly on his coffee. Steam rolled off the top. “I just feel like they can’t do anything for me that I can’t do myself.”

“I don’t know about that,” she drank her coffee, the bitter heat coating her tongue. Though she wasn’t crazy about Dr. Armstrong, she wouldn’t go so far as to call him or his entire profession quakery.

He shrugged as if to say, let’s agree to disagree. Noah was not prepared to drop the subject. She sat beside him on the sofa, curling her legs beneath her.

“My therapist always tells me that I have to integrate my past trauma. That I can’t erase it so I ought to make it a part of me in a positive way.”

“Don’t you think that’s just common sense?” He asked.

“No,” she said, “Not to me. I haven’t been able to figure out how to do it properly.”

“I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” he said and placed his cup on the nearby table. He removed hers from her hands with an assumed familiarity that surprised her.

“I wasn’t finished.”

“I can make more later.” He set her cup out of the way.

He leaned in and kissed her. A hand – the one with the perfect bruise – snuck up under her blouse and cupped her breast. His lips traveled down her neck, working at a particular spot at the nape for a tiringly long time. He pushed her back onto the couch, hovering over her, mouth still attached to her throat. She stared blankly up at the ceiling.

“I just feel so empty all the time,” she said.

He tweaked her nipple. “Let me fill you.”

He led her to the darkened bedroom and laid her out on his unmade bed. He undressed. She made no moves to do the same, watching him with half-lidded eyes. He seemed to find this arousing, perhaps because he thought she was finding it arousing, and made a slow show of removing each article. His body was as unremarkable as his face. Again, it was a perfectly formed mass of skin. Everything was where it ought to be, and it was apparent by the definition in his biceps and abdominal muscles that he frequented the gym. And yet, Noah was bored by the sight. The emptiness grew within her.

He crawled on top of her and resumed kissing her. His hand snuck between them and undid the snap of her jeans with adept precision, pulled down the zipper. His lips and tongue worked their wet way to her collarbone. With the top of his head so near her nose, she inhaled his scent, a fusion of coffee grounds, whisky, and a whisper of shampoo. One of her own hands – a pale but steadfast thing – slipped between their warming bodies and rested on her lower stomach. The emptiness was calling attention to itself in that moment in a very pronounced way, making itself known when it was usually content to exist as it was with little fanfare. It twisted and seized. It begged to be filled.

Let me fill you, he had said. Let me fill you. Integrate it. Make it a part of you. Men had said a number of things to her today that seemingly amounted to the same thing. Maybe they all knew something she didn’t. Probably not.

Noah grabbed his hand and brought it up to her face, inspecting it in the shadowy light. The bruise looked back at her. It was remarkable indeed, a perfect eyeball shape, and not purple or green at all like a typical bruise – but black. Pure black, like the absence of color. It was the most endearing thing about him, and it would soon be healed, gone.

She kissed it and then put one of his fingers – long but unremarkable – in her mouth. And she did not realize what she had done until he screamed and she tasted iron. He reeled back and fell to the floor with a thump. He sobbed and clutched his hand to his chest. Blood gushed in a sputtering arc from a jagged knuckle.

His detached pointer finger poked at the plush of her inner cheek. She gnawed on the flesh like a chicken wing and spat out the bones. The emptiness was decreasing, she noted, it was becoming sated. Becoming. She slid from the bed and crawled on top of him, lips finding his neck. Teeth found his throat. She bit down.

She let him fill her.

When Noah was a child, she was always hungry. Her mother could never quite grasp that a girl of nine – one with such a rawboned frame – could eat so much. It was also quite the burden on their humble family, because if Noah ate too much that meant there wouldn’t be enough for her older brother John or for Ma or Pa, but John was the primary concern.

But John loved Noah (certainly more than their own parents did), and he’d buy her sweets with his allowence or let her have the rest of his mashed potatoes during dinner, despite the fact that Pa always told him he ought to eat every last morsel if he was going to bulk up and get that football scholarship and then – as if it was a thing divined by the Fates – go on to be drafted into the NFL.

Noah loved John. Her older brother made growing up in their small farming town in Nebraska a great deal of fun, even though by most kid’s standards, it was pretty Podunk.

One time John had told her that he loved her way more than other brothers loved their sisters, and when she’d asked him what he meant, he told her that he loved her double as much: like a lover and a sister. She didn’t understand – at least, not right away – and didn’t dare ask him to spell it out. She didn’t want John thinking she was too young and stupid to hang out with him.

It started a week later.

He came into her room late one night, which in itself wasn’t an unusual occurrence; sometimes they’d stay up late reading Goosebumps by the narrow beam of a flashlight. It would usually give her nightmares, but she found the series of dark tales to be thrilling. But this time, John did not come bearing books or flashlight.

He roused her from a dream; his boyishly handsome face swelling into view like a photograph in a dark room. He was smiling.

“What is it, Johnny?” Noah asked, rubbing the sleep from her eyes with a balled little fist.

“I’ve come up with a new game for us to play,” he told her, sounding excited. “Lay back down.”

He explained the rules of the game to her in plain English. She was to stay perfectly still and perfectly quiet, and if she did a really good job, she would be rewarded with salt water taffy. Noah was intent to show John that she could play his grown-up games. She laid back and was so still even when it was challenging, even when she wanted to bolt up or scream or ask him to stop. She squeezed her eyes shut and thought of chewy taffy and Saturday morning cartoons. Her Minnie Mouse clock said that only ten minutes had passed but it had felt like hours and hours.

“You were so good,” he said, ruffling her hair and kissing her forehead. He slipped a hand into the pocket of his pajama pants and procured three pieces of neon yellow banana taffy. “You’re such a good little girl, No-No.”

It went on like this for the next three months. Every night he would slip into her bedroom like a phantom, and they’d play the game. And then, to reward her for her good behavior, he would shower her in whatever candies he’d bought at the convenience store across the street from his – and later, her – high school. Taffy, chocolates, mints, Little Debbie’s cakes, lollipops with tacky tootsie rolls in the middle.

Noah drew deep into herself with every nightly visit, though her parents didn’t notice or didn’t care. She stopped eating so much, which pleasued Ma and her faux-leather pocketbook. Noah never refused John’s treats, but she began to hide them. They no longer tasted sweet, and in fact, when she tried to eat one, it seemed to burn her tongue. Most of the candies ended up in the rickety doll house she claimed she was much too old to play with but in actuality the idea of ‘playing house’ as she knew it was much too painful.

It was a somber day for the entire Bloom family when John graduated. He’d achieved that football scholarship just like their Pa had wanted and was going to the big state university. Noah was eleven. Though she didn’t allow it to surface, somewhere deep inside she was glad that John was going. She was glad that it was all coming to an end. But it wasn’t the end.

When John returned for winter break, he appeared in her bedroom late in the evening just like he used to do. It was Christmas eve.

“I’m too old to play that game now,” Noah said, trying to sound resolute and grown-up.

“I see,” said John, feigning disappointment. His thick brows dipped, and she hated seeing him like this, hated it so much that she almost gave in, but then he snapped his fingers. “I’ve got it. A new game. But it might be too mature for you… I learned it in college.”

Noah crumpled her sheets in her hands. “What is it?”

“Do you remember when I told you that I loved you twice as much?”

She nodded.

“Well, let me show you what I mean.”

And he showed her. It was painful and humiliating, but it was John. It was John and he loved her and she loved him. Even he could sense that he’d perhaps taken things too far, and after the deed was done, he laid beside her in bed and held her all night as she silently wept. She wept like an adult.

“You’re a woman now, No-No,” he said it like it was something to be proud of. He pet her hair.

If this is what it felt like to be a woman, Noah thought, I want no part of it. Being a woman was nothing but pain.

John went back to school and Noah tried to forget, but it was particularly hard because her body began acting strange. She started throwing up most mornings, which kept her home from school. It got bad enough that she called Johnny.

“Something’s really wrong,” she said, her voice quiet and quivering over the line.

“I’m coming. I’ll be there tonight.”

Noah was overjoyed when he arrived, and so were their parents. They delighted in a surprise visit from their most beloved, most accomplished, most wanted child. Ma had said it was such a bore around here without him. But he told them that he was here for little Noah, and that made her feel special. He said that he wanted to take her on a trip, wanted to show her his school’s big and beautiful campus. They’d only be gone for a couple of days. Ma and Pa acceded.

They departed that night. Noah watched as the stars and the few streetlamps that dotted the side of the roads blurred together as they raced by in his car. Squinting her eyes, nearly shut but not all the way, made it look like the stars were dancing.

She touched her stomach, the area right below her navel.

Noah had thought they would be going to the hospital but they ended up at an apartment building near his campus where a boy – apparently a year older than John and a close confidante of his – ushered them in all hush-hush. She watched as John and his friend talked to each other in low but urgent voices, and finally, the friend turned to her with an overly large smile. His cheeks still retained the baby fat of youth.

“He’s going to make you all better,” John explained in a soothing voice. He might’ve said the young man’s name but Noah no longer remembered it. “He’s studying to become a doctor.”

The almost doctor gave her a glass of water and a white pill barely any bigger than her pinky naill. He instructed her to swallow it. She did. He led her to a bedroom where she laid down on a bed that had been clumsily fitted with a plastic sheet, and even as her eyelids grew heavy and she bobbed in and out of consciousness, she remembered the way the crinkled plastic felt against the back of her neck. Her legs dangled off the edge of the bed, knees scraped and knobby. 

She was in pain when she awoke, groggy and misty-eyed, many hours later, but John’s cheery face and sweetly spoken words assured her that everything was okay. That she was okay. And she chose to believe him. He hugged her, and she could feel his moist breath on her skin.

“This is our secret, okay, No-No?” He said, and she noticed he was crying. “This is just between us. Promise me it’s just between us.”

She kept that promise – to not tell Ma or Pa or anybody what happened or what he did – for a long time, all the way through high school. She was in her senior year and considering college in an abstract sort of way, but because of her subpar grades, it seemed unlikely that she would be accepted anywhere. Although she did not find school challenging, Noah realized by her sophomore year that studying and homework was an onerous task and all meaningless. It bored her. It failed to fill the void. And every night, when she laid down to sleep in her childhood bed, her chest tightened, the emptiness within her growing in scale and demand.

John never touched her again after that night at the almost-doctor’s apartment. She presumed that he in his infinite elder brother wisdom had realized that what he’d done had towed the line, even though it had been an alleged act of love, the likes of which no brother and sister ever ought to indulge in. It wasn’t until much later that Noah realized this.

On the day of her eighteenth birthday, Noah broke her promise. She told Ma about John. She told her everything from beginning to end, recounting each incident with a forced degree of restrain and tonal distance that made the whole thing semi-tolerable to speak on. With every passing word, she watched as Ma’s face pinched with anger – righteous anger – the wrinkles on forehead becoming more pronounced. But when she finished speaking, Noah realized that this anger was not directed towards John, but at her.

Ma got real close to her then, grabbing the collar of her t-shirt and huffing sour air down her neck. There was something animal about it, like a dog who was so scared it made it angry. It made it snap. “You are not to breathe a word of this to anyone, you understand me?” She said. “Not a word. You take this to your grave.”

With wordless acceptance that this was the way it was going to be, Noah ascended the stairs and packed up her scant things in a duffle bag. She caught a Greyhound bus and left it behind.

It only seemed fitting that her journey back to Nebraska should be done by bus. She didn’t plan to stay in her home state for very long, packing only a pair of boots (which she wore on her feet), one wool pajama set, and three days worth of cold-weather daywear. After this whole sordid nonsense was resolved, she might even book a flight home. A red-eye. Noah had never been on a plane before.

The emptiness inside had lessened for the first time thanks to Sam and his perfect bruise. She was incredibly appreciative of him and what he had done for her, for what he had given her. He had become a part of her now and that was no small thing. She carried him with her, and she intended to make that mean something. 

Noah knew what had to be done – what would fill her once and for all – and that was the true gift of Sam’s sacrifice, as though eating his supple flesh had provided her with divine coherence. All along, it had been there, right in front of her eyes. Dr. Armstrong had been telling her precisely what she needed to do, but she had failed to recognize it.

It wasn’t difficult to determine where he lived. She only needed to Google his university to make the connection, and then the path unraveled before her in hyperlinks and social media. She was not shocked to find that his NFL aspirations had been abandoned following a disappointing collegiate season spent on the bench.

He now coached the varsity high school football team – the same high school they had both attended. He’d never left Nebraska. He’d returned to their small farming town. After searching him up on Facebook, she discovered that he had a wife – baby blonde, cinched waist in high-waisted capris, blinding white veneers. And two kids. Tow-headed daughters, both under ten.

She parked her rental car in the back near the well-manicured football field and the swimming pool where the water polo team practiced in the spring. There was one truck remaining in the lot and instinctually she knew it had to be his. It was nine PM.

It was strange and alienating to be back at her old school after all these years, but the strangeness only fueled her forward. She recalled, quite helplessly, how burdensome it had been to keep her and John’s terrible secret; it had made her gloomy and reserved, prevented her from participating in the sort of things her classmates had delighted in with youthful abandon: awkward first romances, sleepovers with friends, prom and pinned corsages. Everything she was owed as a teenager – as a young girl – had been taken from her. A parasite had been implanted in her belly at age nine, and it ate her right up, devoured her from the inside out. And she had been expected to just go on living like that, like she didn’t have these missing parts, these gaping holes.

It was evening and snow was falling in limp flakes. It was a lark that he should be at the school at all, at this hour on a Friday, but she knew John. After all this time, she knew her big brother.

It was miraculous that the building should be unlocked, as if someone had known she was coming. It didn’t take her long to traverse the narrow halls lined with high school sport awards in glass trophy cases and bright-colored flyers advertising an upcoming pep rally, and come upon his office. It was the only room with the lights on, glowing warm and amber through the thin slats of the closed Venetian blinds. A brass nameplate was nailed to the door. Coach John Bloom.

She knocked, heard a dampened ‘come in!’ When she entered, he did not gaze up right away – how strange, she would think later. How trusting of him. But that was her John – hunched over his desk and writing something on a yellow legal pad. He still looked like the John she remembered, give or take a decade. His face had thinned out and so did his hair, but the eyes were the same – that puppy-dog brown that struck a chord in her heart and made her want to hug him and apologize (for what? She had no idea). But her face hardened. So did her purpose.

“What can I do for -” he went silent when he saw her. And then in a quiet voice that regressed him in age: “No-No?” He had risen to his feet.

“Hi, John.”

“What are you -” he floundered, looking ill. “God, how long has it been?”

“A long time.”

“Wow,” he scrubbed a hand over his face. “How have you been?”

She shouldered off her coat and let it fall to an animal-hide heap on the cheap carpet. “Okay.”

He approached her, taking small steps like he wasn’t sure what the proper protocol was for a situation like this. And then he wrapped his arms around her, a hug that was awkward and unreciprocated. He pulled away. Cleared his throat.

“So, uh… what brings you back to Nebraska?” He asked. “I take it you must’ve heard about Pa. Well, maybe you hadn’t. Nobody knew how to get a hold of you.”

Noah knew nothing about Pa, but her purpose was singular and she could not be diverted by the fate of a man who had never wanted her, never loved her.

“I wanted to see you,” said Noah.

This made John smile. It favorably altered his appearance and brought back memories of that first night, the night when everything started and her girlhood ended. He now had lines around his eyes that he didn’t have before, but the smile was still the same.

For a long moment, neither of them said anything. They just looked at each other, as if instructions on how to rekindle this relationship might appear on her face – at least, this is what she presumed he must be thinking. His eyes scanned her features.

“How long are you going to be in town?” He asked at last. “You should come over for a late dinner. I’ll call my wife and see if -”

“No, that’s okay,” said Noah. “I’m not going to be here for long.”

He deflated at this. “Oh. Okay. That’s unfortunate.”

Another silence passed between them, and it was evident that John was growing more uncomfortable.

“I’m trying to become a better person,” said Noah, “I’m trying to move on with my life.”

John blinked at her, opened his mouth to say something, closed it.

“But it’s hard, you know, because of what happened.”

John winced. “You haven’t…?”

“Told anyone?” She finished. “No, not anyone that matters.”

“Oh… Okay.”

“But I’ve felt so empty,” Noah went on. She was remarkably composed. “Inside. I’ve never been able to figure out how to be whole again.”

He watched her intently. She paced the office like a caged tiger.

“But I guess you wouldn’t understand that.”

“That’s not true,” said John, going white as a ghost. “That’s not true. I’ve been… inconsolable. Ever since that day. I’ve just kept it,” he brought a closed fist to his chest, the knuckles chapped and red, “locked up. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t affected me.”

Noah’s own hands tightened into balls. “Then why’d you do it?”

“What?”

“Why,” Noah said, slowly, each word controlled, “did you fuck me?”

“I didn’t… I don’t think that I…” He stammered. “No-No, I don’t think this is the right time for this conversation. Maybe we can set aside some time in the future to-”

Noah slammed a fist down on his desk, rattling its contents and stunning John into silence. “I loved you,” she said in a hard, mournful voice. “I loved you so much.”

John’s eyes welled up with tears. He made to approach her, reached a hand out to brush her cheek, but she dodged his touch.

“No-No…”

“No.” Noah thundered. The void within her roared with the booming ferocity of a churning sea in a hurricane, and it rang in her ears so loud that it was almost hard to hear. “But now I know what I need to do. I need to integrate it. Make it a part of me.”  

He stared at her, red-eyed and uncomprehending, tears spilling down his cheeks.

“I was just a girl,” said Noah. “I was your little sister. And you emptied me out and fucked me over. You crawled in my bed and left me with this big hole. I never asked to be born. I never asked to be a part of this family. You were supposed to protect me, and instead you pretended to love me and then hallowed me the fuck out.”

“Why are you here?” He sounded afraid. Perhaps it was due to the increasing violence in the tone of her voice, or because she had picked up the scissors from his desk.

“To integrate,” she said and stabbed him in the juglar. It was another lesson – another wonderful gift – she had picked up from Sam: best to getting the killing out of the way lest he squirm and shout and make the next part (the most important part) more laborious than it needed to be.

John pawed at the scissors lodged deeply in his throat, blood pouring through his fingers and down his arm. He fell to his knees on the carpet, blood pooling around him. He made strangled gurgling sounds but didn’t scream, didn’t try to reach for his phone and call for help. He just continued to look up at her in wide-eyed horror. She looked back.

She waited until the light was just about to leave his eyes, the moment before he would blink out of earthly existence, to lift his arm to her mouth and bite down. He wheezed. She wanted him to know precisely what was going to happen before he was gone forever.

He died. She integrated. And when thick strips of her brother’s flesh were caught between her teeth and his blood reddened her hungry mouth, she paused and took stock. A hand rested on her lower stomach. The room was quiet, and she noticed a peculiar feeling within, an alien feeling – wholeness.

“Frankly, I’m impressed,” said Dr. Armstrong, tapping the back of his pen against his notepad in a steady beat, “that you’ve made a stark improvement in such a short amount of time. In fact, you’ve shown more improvement in the past week alone than I’ve seen from you in a year.”

Noah had to keep from beaming – it felt improper to be so smug, so proud, in therapy, but perhaps therapy was the last true place where such a thing was tolerable.

“I finally got it,” said Noah. “It all clicked into place. Everything you’ve been saying about accepting the past, and making it a part of me -”

“ – in a positive way.”

“Right. Of course. About accepting the past and making it a part of me in a positive way. I didn’t get it before but now I do.” Her eyes shined. “There was this hunger in me – I think it’s been there my whole life. I think I might’ve even been born with some kind of congenital case of shit luck. And I was getting ready to accept that this was just how life was going to be for me. But it isn’t. It doesn’t have to be like that.”

He nodded, thick, black mustache twitching like a harry maggot on his upper lip.

“It never had to be that way at all.”

Dr. Armstrong clicked his pen shut in a very pronounced and elaborate way, the signal that they were nearing the end of their session. “So how are you feeling now? All of this considered? Do you feel like you’ve taken the inescabability of your past and transmuted it into something positive?”

“Yes,” said Noah. “For the first time in my life, I’m finally satisfied.”


 Lexie Garcia is a writer, horror movie devotee, and lover of the color pink. She is currently based in Florida but is liable to wander.


“Lover” Dark Flash Horror by Alan Caldwell

"Lover" Dark, Supernatural Fiction by Alan Caldwell

It doesn’t happen often, and then only in the fall or winter, but never seemingly connected to any specific celestial event or lunar phase. I never subscribed to the notion that the stars or moon influence our personality or behavior in any substantial way.

It always occurs in exactly the same manner. I begin to first feel a bit queasy, a wave of vague sickness, as if I might vomit, then a mild dizziness, and then I invariably awake somewhere in a forest, or in a field, generally naked, and always besmirched with blood.

I still recall the first time it occurred. I was a young man, a college student. I awoke bewildered, and followed the stars till I found a familiar setting.  I made my way back to my dorm room just as the sun broke over the horizon. I had been drinking, but no more than many college boys do. Surely the alcohol explains the blackout, I thought. Since I couldn’t identify its source, I tried to ignore the mysterious blood on my hands and face . The next time it happened, almost two months after the first, I had no ready-made excuse. I had retired, sober, and at a reasonable hour. I enjoyed a dreamless slumber, and then awoke just before sunrise in a muddy livestock pen not far from the village limits. In close proximity to my muddy bed, I discovered seven white goats of various ages, all dead, their throats torn as if bitten by a beast with immense teeth and jaws.

The next morning, I collected the remainder of my tuition money from the strongbox at the foot of my bed, bought a tall black gelding and left my school and my town. So as to preserve those I loved, I wrote no letters home and set out on the road alone. That was just over a century ago. I have not since aged in either body or countenance. I still roam from town to town, faster now by car than gelding. I find work and lodging and remain till I can no longer do so. It always happens again, that aforementioned pattern. Sometimes it will not appear for many months and I pray to the God who made me that I might, at last, be released from my fate.

Then once more I will feel the sickening wave and know I am anything but free. When It’s over, I search the local newspapers and recoil at the tales of the horrid and unaccountable slaughter of pets, and livestock, and yes, even people, many people, more people than beasts now. And again, I must take to the road.

I had a lover many years ago. I should have known better, but my loneliness clouded my judgment.  She served sodas and milkshakes. She was very beautiful. She smelled of cinnamon and vanilla. I am thankful that I can’t remember what I did to her.


Alan Caldwell has been teaching in Georgia since 1994 but only began submitting writing in May 2022. He has since been published in Southern Gothic Creations, Level: Deepsouth, oc87 Recovery Diaries, Black Poppy Review, The Backwoodsman, You Might Need To Hear This, The Chamber, Biostories, Heartwood Literary Journal, American Diversity Report, and Rural Fiction Magazine.


“Unknown Worlds” Horror by Patrick McEvoy

"Unknown Worlds" Horror by Patrick McEvoy

Wyl wanted to cry, he wanted to scream. The frustration level had reached a point where he needed to release the turbulent emotions that had begun bubbling up within his very self. Except to do so, to release those emotions in that way, would prove to be quite difficult if not impossible. That would require going back, and, well, he didn’t know how that exactly would work, except to say that would entail solidifying his presence in the world which he would call reality.

The world that didn’t seem to exist anymore.

Remember that popular spot a couple blocks away? Where the hotspot not only attracted many people but low-key and cool? Or maybe consider how nice a stroll through a park could be during an autumn day. Finding the latest release of a video game to be as captivating as the previous version, if not better. Chomping into a nice hot snack.

Wyl recalled. That was what he was doing over the past several … moments? Hours? Days? He didn’t know how to define time anymore. Didn’t know if he existed in such a concept.                                                                       

Whether he simply existed beyond such a construct after, after, well, his little navigation exercise involving his mind. A journey that pushed beyond the typical physical and mental barriers. He pictured his life to get himself back to where the word familiar would be given meaning. He pictured …

The time when he reached out to Val in the supermarket just as she was tripping, falling, his right hand grabbing her left arm, pulling her to himself, their sudden closeness stirring feelings within them.  

Muscle stretching and contracting underneath flesh…

Envisioning when he joined the softball team, standing at the plate feeling doubts, yet connecting with the ball in a way to create a feeling within himself, not to mention how he then ran with such a gusto around the bases, getting just a little bit of confidence when he needed it…

Hamstrings and tendons churning the body forward…

Even a simple act – no, the chittering – the chittering again! Wyl wanted to scream, call attention, say something, anything. Except no one would hear. No, he seriously doubted that anyone would hear anything he had to say. Maybe never again.

But – a simple act. Akin to bursting for the subway just before the doors closed…

Blood running through veins…

Taking the sip of a fine wine during a cold night outside…                                                           

Synapses firing in the brain…

Tasting that slice of pizza right out of the oven…

Eyes processing the information being called in the by the light provided from many miles away …

Lips meeting that lover thought about, yearned for…

All that resided in another existence. Another world. The world he had lived in before being compelled to experiment with his mind. Driven by more than the science, the chance for magic. The chance to go somewhere no one else had ever visited. Oh, this place couldn’t be put on a search map, this wouldn’t be quantified and be inserted into the system as just another place.

“But aren’t you worried?”

“Who knows what you might access?”

Wyl had been sitting with his friends Renee and Kollan in a near empty restaurant the night before he went on his venture. Most patrons had already cleared out after devouring their meals. He let his friends know he will not be communicating anytime over the next couple days. They responded with skepticism about the method in which he would walk pathways in his mind, the mix of tech, self-invented at that, and chemicals used.                                                          

“I think I have a trick to ensure that will not happen. That I’ll be able to call myself back.”

Renee sat back and shifted in her latex pants, picking at whatever was left of her tofu and curry. Kollan swirled the scotch in his glass. They both seemed alarmed and interested, if only at the moment. The moment that keeps appearing, then vanishing. One of the few sights Wyl could still see.

“But you think you’ll really – what now?” Renee said.

“Find a part of the brain that might strengthen me, open up something. Or…?” His voice trailed away. Words unspoken. Though perhaps simply not remembered.   

“Or what?” Kollan said, sitting back in his appraising manner, as if gauging the right texture to use with his sculpture.

“Or gain access to…somewhere else. Being able to shift locale merely by mind. Visit other worlds.”

“And even if you do this amazing feat, can’t you … get trapped?”

An answer came. He had an answer. THE answer. The answer to tether him to reality like an astronaut doing work outside the space station. Except gone now. Wyl went through a part of his mind, one that may be accessible anywhere. A spot that opened up into different worlds, far away, so far away, almost unrecognizable. Stopping time, enabled to interrupt the flow of the universe. Except, there was a world, a world in the many places he ventured …

That did not want him there.

And Wyl had trapped himself. Sitting now, not being able to move. His sight, his senses, subjugated beneath another realm.

One in which he heard the creatures stirring…

Coming ever and ever closer to him…

They sounded ever so angry…


A former writer and editor for several sports publications, Patrick McEvoy has had stories included in various comic book anthologies such as Emanata, Continental Cryptid, Uncanny Adventures, Indie Comics Quarterly, and GuruKitty’s Once Upon a Time and Gateway to Beyond. Illustrated stories have also appeared on Slippery Elm’s website, Murder Park After Dark Vol. 3 and in New Plains Review. A short story has also appeared on Akashic Books’ website. In addition, short plays he wrote were chosen to be performed at the Players Theatre in New York as part of their various festivals (Sex, NYC and BOO) in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2019. And he wrote and directed short plays for Emerging Artists Theatre’s New Works series in 2021 and 2022. A play anthology called What May Arise was also streamed June 30-July 6th 2022 as part of the Rogue Theater Festival. He also wrote and directed Directions, which appeared in the 2022 Dream Up Festival. Photography has also been exhibited with the Greenpoint Gallery, Tiny Seed Literary Journal, Molecule, riverSedge and Good Works Review.


“Legacy” Dark, Supernatural Fiction by Evan Kaiser

"Legacy" Horror by Evan Kaiser

A hundred years old, this house!

What in the hell was a single, middle-aged man of modest means doing, buying such a house? Such a monstrosity?

I must be out of my mind.

Self-doubt notwithstanding, Eddie had his reasons.

For one thing, his girlfriend had a thing for retro art and architecture.

When she actually sees this behemoth ¾ this castle ¾ she’ll throw herself into my arms, forever. I’m sure of it.

For another, he needed the space. Eddie had endured life in a miserable, one-bedroom apartment on the other side of town for twenty-five years. Over that time, he had seen one neighbor after another move on and up to roomier digs, and his cramped, dingy flat had turned into a prison.

I swear that pad had steadily shrunk since the day I moved in.  Enough! Don’t I deserve a studio, after all these years? I’m sick of stacking my paintings like trash. And can’t I have a real kitchen before I die? I make a decent living. Don’t single guys get to have TV rooms, home gyms, and the rest? What am I waiting for? To be carted away in a box?

Decent living or no, appearances would have suggested the ancient neighborhood was out of his range. But the charming two-story residence came up as an insane bargain on zillow.com.  

The old lady’s relatives should’ve done their homework. Did they think the outdated wiring and water stains lowered the value that much? Dummies. Their problem, not to know the market. Totally their problem.

It was Sunday ¾ moving-in day. The sky was densely overcast, the interior of the house cavernous and gloomy. Eddie’s own furniture barely made a dent in the house’s bare ambiance, and he brought only a single lamp of his own, powered by a forty-watt bulb.

Reading glasses teetering on the bridge of his nose, Eddie labored to identify and sort books and bottles, cables and earphones, weird gizmos, and framed photos. He organized the stuff into piles on the splotchy, wooden floor. Minutes stretched to hours.

I can’t see a thing. Christ. Put lamps at the top of the shopping list, Eddie. Lots of lamps.

Before the move, Eddie had discarded almost everything useless, broken, obsolete, or ugly. Still, here was a residual mound of repulsive and embarrassing items to which he just couldn’t say goodbye.

For example, a fuzzy old knit blanket that was a gift from his mother, God rest her soul. It smelled of lavender.

Absolutely hideous.

I’d be struck dead to lose it, much less chuck it.

Attic-bait for sure.

 And then there were his childhood drawing books. He had found them at the bottom of the hallway closet in his apartment, and would never consider parting with them.

The archivists five hundred years from now will want to see those! Haha.

He sat now with his back against the window and held the books aloft to catch the dim light, smiling wistfully. After a long while, he buried them all in a box beneath a heap of weather-beaten rock concert t-shirts, then deposited that box atop four others, similarly laden with all sorts of precious junk, in the upstairs hallway below the trapdoor to the attic. 

Eddie clicked the attic light switch, and lowered the door with the pull rope.

Perfect darkness greeted him. 

“Shit.” 

He padded back downstairs. After rummaging without luck for a new bulb, he found his way to the kitchen for a flashlight. The kitchen, sizeable and modern, was a major attraction of the home.

Though recent history offset that appeal to a considerable extent.

It is a little creepy thinking of that old woman lying on this very floor, dying over the course of three days. Must’ve made for quite a clean-up. Guess I’ll skip that bit when I give Sally the tour! Lol.

 Flashlight in hand, Eddie trudged back up to the second-floor hallway. After schlepping all five boxes up the ladder and depositing them by the trapdoor opening, he turned the flashlight on, climbed into the sub-roof space — watching his head — and swung the light in a circle. 

There was more room than he had imagined. But, as with all attics, the space was constrained by the slope of the roof. Unfinished 4x4s provided the framing, and slabs of plywood served as a floor. Thick dust floated all around. Eddie sneezed and wiped his nose on his sleeve. 

There’s mold up here for sure. You can feel it ¾ more than a smell. Disgusting.

He poked about. A profusion of old newspapers, luggage, and old paintings was stuffed in the westward corner. 

Paintings! Waddaya know.

“A hidden talent, perhaps?” he murmured with a smirk.

In reality, Eddie anticipated mediocrity, and was unbothered. He had learned long ago to enjoy the ego boost of a real stinker ¾  the satisfaction of finding yet another fool he could better.

It’s amazing how bad most people’s basic drawing skills are. Hmm. To be fair, these ones on top aren’t terrible. 

He bent over in the corner to avoid banging his noggin and rooted through the rest of the compositions. Landscapes, still lifes, portraits — all acrylics on store-bought canvases. Some indisputably horrible, some arguably better than mediocre.

All by the same hand, even if the signatures are illegible. Dates easy to read, though, and all within the last three decades. I believe they said she lived here her whole adult life. Could all of these be presents from some artist friend? How likely is that? Nope. All hers, for sure. I should look for supplies up here. Acrylic keeps if it’s stored tight. Any brushes would be useless, but who knows what else I might find? Maybe even a decent palette.

As for the old lady’s paintings themselves ¾ nothing worth hanging, nor anything her next of kin would be interested in, by Eddie’s estimation.

A garage sale, perhaps? Someone always shows up to shell out cash for the worst tripe at those things — depend on it.

But despite his low opinion of the compositions, Eddie didn’t move on in search of paints and palettes. Instead, he lingered — over second-rate, even childish canvases he was ready to dispose of at a rummage sale. Why?

I’ve got to admit, some of these are interesting. I mean, not much talent on display, but these few here, these are pretty wild! 

He sneezed.

It was then he heard, for the first time, the terrible creaking.

Behind him.

He swung his flashlight around, to be greeted only by the bare wood of the inner roof and an empty plywood floor.

Then he heard it again ¾ in the opposite direction.

Flashlight beam duly swung. Again, nothing.

And then, finally ¾ a sound like a twig being extracted from a bucket of sap, in yet a third direction. 

He jerked the flashlight once more. And there, in the opposite corner against the inside of the roof, sat a pulsing, gelatinous mass of slime. It was half as high as Eddie but two meters or more across.

Breathing. Oozing.

Alive.

There was a “head,” there were “arms,” but there weren’t anything remotely resembling legs.  The main body of the thing emerged broadly from the plywood. Zig-zagging, woody branches ran out of it at random intervals, adhering to the roof’s wooden beams. Its glutinous body sparkled gray and brown and green in the flashlight’s LED rays. Eddie’s clear impression was that its back was turned, its ‘face’ just inches from the roof frame. It was busy with something. With its hands. 

Some half-dead animal that got in through a hole in the roof? What else?

Eddie’s heart skipped a beat, and he lowered the flashlight. He inched toward the ladder. But his every step was answered by an oily slithering in the darkness. 

He froze. It froze.

What now? Despite his terror, he dared to turn his head and lift the flashlight at the creature for another look. 

It faced him. 

A hole parted the middle of its’ ‘head,’ as if a ‘mouth’ opening to speak. 

Eddie flew to the ladder and half climbed, half tumbled to the hallway floor. He flicked the trapdoor rope, the ladder and door snapping back up with a thud. Then he shot down the stairs and out the front door.

With trembling hands, he fished out his phone and called the cops.

#

“Mr. Frieder, there’s nobody in the attic or anywhere else in that house.” 

“It’s not a person! I told you it was some kind of….” 

The officer removed his cap and wiped his bald head. “Yes, of course. You told us. ‘Something disgusting, frightening’ you said, ‘decaying’ or something. Well, when I say ‘nobody,’ I mean anything like that, too. Nothing in the house, nothing in the attic, monstrous or otherwise. No animals. No people. No gas leaks. No explosive devices. Nothing. And no sign of anyone or anything having been in there anytime recent, either.”

 The cop waited for Eddie to say something. 

“She must be hiding,” Eddie finally blurted.

“She?” 

“Oh. I don’t really know. But it could be, I think….” 

“Mr. Frieder, there’s no one in your house. Take a nap. Take a vacation. Don’t call us again unless….” The cop got word on his radio and turned to answer briefly. His partner emerged from around a corner of the house, signaling all clear. “Like I say, Mr. Frieder, you should certainly call us if something alarming turns up, but try to be pretty sure about it. ‘kay?” 

“Sure officer. Thanks.” 

Eddie wore a sour expression as the police drove away. A few neighbors who had been watching from their yards avoided eye contact as they returned to their lives. Show over. 

A meticulous investigation of his own was called for. Eddie reentered the premises with a sigh and explored every corner, closet, and cabinet. His head swiveling like an owl’s, his eyes darting left and right, he took in every nook and cranny on the first floor. Then, timorously, laboriously, every crevice, every potential hiding spot, on the second.

The attic he put off. 

It’s getting dark. The flashlight helps only so much. It’ll have to wait.

He knew he’d have to head up there again eventually — just to prove to himself he wasn’t crazy. But he’d have to work up the nerve.

There’s nothing up there.  It was a trick of the light. Or maybe something I ate.

And to give himself time to lose the jitters, he’d take care of it after the sun was up high in the morning and his head was cleared by a good night’s sleep and a ginormous, sunrise coffee.

Tomorrow.

 For now, the sun was close to setting in the still heavily overcast sky, and the house was enmeshed in a deepening  miasma of shadows. Eddie searched out the large, south-facing window where he sat earlier in the day. There — where he could still catch some light — he opened a folding chair, cracked open a beer, and pulled up one packing carton for a side table and another for an ottoman.  

He chuckled nervously.

It could have been a decomposing animal like I thought to begin with. Cops could have missed something like that. Squirrels and raccoons get into attics all the time. Or maybe a pile of the old lady’s painting materials leaked and deteriorated. It was super dark! And it’s an attic. So disorienting! All those roof angles and stuff. And on top of that, look how tired I am! This moving business. It drains the shit out of you. That can’t help, either, can it?

He gulped some beer and closed his eyes.

He fell asleep by the window and awoke with a cottonmouth two hours later, the sky black. Not fully alert, he wobbled into the kitchen and shoveled a can of tuna down his gullet before heading upstairs to change. His plan for the evening was to read an old magazine in bed until he conked out. Eddie figured that wouldn’t take long, and he could use the extra couple of hours of sleep.

Before he could climb into bed, his phone jingled.

The text read: “how’d it go with move?” It was Sally.

He texted back: “no prob. boxes mostly empty. house gr8.”

“wall space for my pic?”

She loves that little portrait I did of her. It is great. But what she’s really reminding me to do is paint another, since she gained back the weight and her hair grew back in. Always a hidden message. Like everyone else, I guess. 

“lol. plenty.”

“sorry cldn’t be there. u still need help? shld I come now?”

I’d love to bounce this stuff off her. After all, I don’t really believe there’s a monster up there, do I? I’m pretty much as sensible as she is, ain’t I? Actually, right now, I guess not.

Eddie imagined various ways to tell his girlfriend what had happened that crazy day, but in the end, decided to wait. It wasn’t so much concern that something awful really lived in his attic, as that he still couldn’t be sure he wasn’t nuts.

I gotta search up there first before she comes over. Girl doesn’t deserve to be burdened with my ridiculous shit here after what she just went through. She doesn’t need me for that.

Afterward. When they could both have a good laugh over a late dinner. He could get it done before he drove in for the day shift at the department.

Funny how when I met her, she was the one getting the MRI. And now, look at me. I’m the one who needs his brain examined. Go figure.

“nn. let’s hook up tomw for dinner. hitting the sack early. :)”

“ok. tpm. text me. h&k.”

OK, so not Sally, let her be. But it would have been nice to talk to someone. Mom and Dad would’ve been nice. Really miss ’em.  Louis? Forget him.  That sonuvabitch brother of mine is like he’s on another planet.  Who do I have right now to turn to? Not a soul.

Eddie sighed, placed the phone on the pillow beside him, and crawled into bed. He stared at the ceiling.

The plan’s supposed to start with a  good night’s sleep. This isn’t good.

The incessant serenade of millions of crickets bore through his skull. The snapping and sputtering of pipes in the walls filled out the ensemble. Wide awake, Eddie obsessed over every single pop or bang of the plumbing.

Just pipes. Old house, hot water pipes. Right?

Then a bang of a different order.

Eddie sat bolt upright. Directly overhead, something loud and sudden, slammed

 His heart pounded like a locomotive in overdrive.

No way I’m going up there again. Not now. Not at night!

But the bang was followed by the weirdest gurgling. In the very same spot.

Gotta be the pipes! Pipes, pipes, pipes! Old, fucking houses. Calm down Eddie!

 Every muscle tense, Eddie drew his feet up to his butt and wrapped his fists tight around the edge of the bedcover. His eyes tracked the alternating thumping and slurping as something that was no hot water pipe slithered around above the ceiling until, finally, it moved to the intersection of ceiling and wall.

A shadow formed there, opposite the bed.

The apparition then dripped down the wall ¾ a black blob against the grays of the windows and other angles in the half-moon-lit, mostly unfurnished bedroom. Eddie pushed himself back in the bed as far as he could go.

“What the fuck are you?” He said shakily, opening his eyes wide but afraid to turn on the light.

The blob reached the floor, out of sight. Seconds later, it reappeared at the foot of the mattress.

It oozed like tar and overspread his lower legs, which went numb. Twisting from the hip, Eddie strained over his shoulder for the light switch, flipping it just as the umbral phenomenon flowed to his groin.

He turned. He cried out.

A half-decomposed face hovered above his crotch, empty orbs staring straight at him.

Then, gone. 

Eddie found himself quite alone ¾ in a brightly lit bedroom, soaked with sweat, cold as ice, and sprawled sideways. The comforter was bunched up over his legs and belly.

He sat at the edge of the bed. Dropped his face in his hands. Sobbed a bit. Eventually, with some deep breathing, he gathered himself together. Went to the bathroom to blow his nose and wipe his eyes. Changed into a new t-shirt and shorts. 

A nightmare. That’s all. Use your brain, Eddie. You work at a hospital. You’ve read about stuff like this. Be clinical. Night terrors, they call it. Really bad nightmares, something like that. Obviously, a reaction to the attic. Normal anxiety response. Anxiety, night terrors ¾ happens to people all the time.

But Eddie didn’t want nightmares ‘all the time.’ 

If I don’t flush out the attic and nail down, not nothing, but something that explains what I saw, I’ll go completely batshit bonkers. But I will nail it. I will. Just like they do in the department. It’s mysterious, scary, only until the MR gets done. Then, whatever it is, is there, and it’s something everyone has seen before and knows all about. Like it was with Sally. Tomorrow, I’ll figure it out. It’ll be like doing an MRI on the attic. And that’ll be the end of it.

He went back to bed. Though the sounds above the ceiling had gone, sleep was fleeting. He managed a few minutes, here and there, before his alarm rang at eight. 

He cleaned up, ate breakfast and bathed in the shimmering sunlight filling the house. There’d never be a better time, but his fear was difficult to surmount. He cast his eyes up the stairs, to the attic door, wondering what precautions he had failed to take.

A weapon. I know it’s no ghost. But still, could be an animal, and skunks and raccoons can be rabid. 

He didn’t trust himself with a knife and ended up latching onto a heavy wrench from his box of tools. Then, after retrieving the flashlight, he found his way to the attic door and pulled it open. The door and ladder dropped with a woeful groan.

He climbed only high enough to stick his head through the ingang and tentatively peered about with the flashlight.

First, the east corner, where last he saw the thing.

Shadows of the roof framing. Nothing alive, or even vaguely humanoid. Eddie took another couple of steps up, bringing his waist to trapdoor level, and searched in an expanded arc. Everything was otherwise as he had left it, other than some overturned canvases. Eddie guessed the cops had messed with them. 

He relaxed a smidgen. Then he climbed all the way up and continued his inspection. Morning light diffused up through the trap door, brightening the attic considerably compared to the prior, dreary afternoon. Eddie walked over to that east corner and examined it up close. He ran his fingers over the rough roof framing. There was no residue, no liquid, no stain.

Nothing.

At his feet lay a scattered set of oil paints and brushes. The brushes were frayed and dusty, thick with cobwebs. He picked one up, lifted his head, and was taken by surprise.

Isn’t that crazy, to almost miss something like that. Blends right in with the wood.

Crammed flat in the corner between roof and floorboards lay a folded, wooden easel.

“Huh. Pretty decent, really,” Eddie quietly said to himself, as he set the easel upright where there was room up top and locked it into place. “Maybe I’ll bring this down and use it.” He grabbed it by the lower, front horizontal member and gave it a gentle shake, establishing its stability. “Absolutely. Better than mine. Would not lose this.” 

He sighed, drew a finger along the beams of the easel. Dust floated in the diffracted sunbeams from below.

Relaxing up here. Quiet. Maybe I should convert this to a studio. I could install a skylight.

His paramount concern had been that he’d find nothing at all up here, and remain plagued by an terrifying mystery. So when the creaking reoccurred behind him, before he turned, he was more hopeful than scared.

Melting paints? A big old raccoon and its pile of stinking garbage?

But then he looked. And there it was. The being.

Next to the old canvases, a shadow, gaining substance, sprouting from the plywood floor. Again, the singular, bulbous mass, budding something like a head, followed by an arm at either side. Cut off at the waist. Facing away from him.

Browsing the canvases.

Eddie sidled as quietly as he could toward the trapdoor opening, wrench at the ready. He got halfway there. But a floorboard creaked underfoot.

The thing twisted ’round. Its face pulsated. It moaned. 

 The tone was wavering, alien, nauseating. Weakened by the sound, Eddie let go the wrench — but the tool flew straight through the monster’s midriff.

It screamed.

Get me out of here!

Eddie reached toward the exit. Strained. Ever more frantically. 

But he couldn’t move.

The being suddenly stopped its screaming. Its head extended toward Eddie in pseudopodial fashion, within three feet of his face. 

Damn thing is angry. God. What does it want?

The smell of acetone was overwhelming. Eddie’s head swam.

He cowered for a minute. When he finally braved a look up, he found the thing was back in the corner, combing through the pictures again. Its jelly body sparkled colorfully in the refracted light.

Not angry anymore. Why doesn’t it just let me go, then?

The specter lifted one of the paintings and turned. It held the painting close to its body.

And spoke

Distinct from the moaning, its voice was a high-pitched whine, like a siren on ancient seas, filtered through madness. The hole in its face widened as the wailing poured forth, and Eddie understood. He understood everything.

The being held a full-length portrait of a young girl in a straightforward, impressionist style. The paint was fresh, the image new. Eddie did not need to be told who the girl was, but the creature told him anyway.

Then Eddie melted. 

The hard borders of his body softened. Features disappeared. He tried to shout out, to protest, but instead, an unsteady, dying tone issued from his throat. No actual words could rise anymore to his vanishing lips. Yet, still, vestigial thoughts.

I must get out!

Alas, impossible without legs. And struggle only brought pain.

So he relented.

In what remained of his hands rested a brush and palette. Upon the easel before him sat a new canvas. He drew breath. He could see. No longer human, he was still alive. 

Wind whistled behind him — the being had fled. He was alone. The trapdoor closed of its own accord. No matter; before him sat an empty canvas, clear as day, glowing, in the dark. Time for a self-portrait.


Evan Kaiser is a retired physician who practiced primary care medicine in southeastern New England for over twenty-five years. He currently lives with his wife in the Providence, RI area and enjoys painting, reading, cooking, and birding.


“The Face in the Mirror” Horror by Z.F. Douglas

"The Face in the Mirror" Horror by Z.F. Douglas

John rolls out from under his sheets as the creak of his bed frame echoes through the sparse apartment bedroom, cutting through the silence of the early morning. He wipes the sleep out of his eyes on the way to the bathroom, stumbling a bit over the clothes he dropped in front of the dresser the night before. Frankly, John doesn’t even know why he bothers getting up at 6am anymore, it’s not like there’s a job he needs to get to or someone there to spend the morning with, at least not anymore. Not that there’s nothing to do, technically he’s a professor who should be writing, but being on an unproductive sabbatical makes it feel more like a lay off with paychecks. Which is not something to complain about, really, but doesn’t exactly light a fire under his ass.

            The lack of someone else in the room though, that is the reality of his situation right now and it hasn’t been getting any easier. This time last year Sarah would have been lying in the bed, looking up at him with a sleepy smile on her face while he got ready for class. But it turns out sleepy smiles and lazy mornings aren’t enough to keep a relationship alive.

            The bathroom lights flicked on, John wincing as his eyes adjust, not an easy task given that the bathroom was virtually all white, from the tiles to the walls and cabinets, making for a rather luminous start to the day. Probably he wouldn’t have picked the color scheme, or lack there of, himself, but he was in a sort of “take what you can get” part of his life right now. And truthfully, the place he’d ended up in was not bad at all, especially for the prices you see nowadays. So all in all he shouldn’t be bitching about the circumstances he put himself in. Easier said than done though.

            John gazed into the mirror as he mindlessly brushed his teeth, which these days took all his willpower to get through. Just as he switched to scrub the left side of his mouth something caught his eye. Or rather, it was his eye. Now John always felt he had a bit of a shoddy memory, he could hardly remember the names of his own cousins half the time, but he was damn sure that he had brown eyes! I mean, who forgets their own damn eye color? But as John stared into the mirror, and his reflection back to him, there he saw, clear as day, a green tinge to the colored part of his eye.

            “What the hell?” muttered John, a bit slack-jawed, as he pulled apart his eyelids with his fingertips to get a better look.

            There was no doubt though, John’s right eye was green. Or at least some hue of green. Like someone added a dab of dark green into a palette of brown paint. If it wasn’t his own eye, which he still had to assume was the case after all, he likely wouldn’t have even noticed. John inspected the left eye, stretching the eyelid up and down, tilting his head to catch different slants of the blanching bathroom light, but saw no indication of anything other than a dark, coffee brown eye. His eye. The one he’d had plastered to his skull since he was born. How could it be any other way? And yet, a look on the other side of his face told a different story.

            Ok, ok. Maybe this shit can happen? John thought, After all, some dogs have those mottled up eyes. And…yeah, yeah some people say their eyes can change in the sunlight, right?! Ok, sure this is weird but that’s it, something like that.

            After a little panic session John settled down and decided a quick internet search would pretty much settle the remainder of his nerves.

“Too early for this crap,” John laughed.

            He groaned and plodded out of the bathroom, feeling slightly silly. Really what is there to worry about anyway, it’s not like his eye was hurting or blurry or anything like that. And who knows, maybe his eye was always that color! Not like he spent much time dreamily staring into his own face. A slow meander to the kitchen and John put the coffee on, drank some water, half forgetting about the existential crisis that he just went through over the bathroom sink.

            Eventually John lost himself in the remainder of his morning routine, catching up on the news while he drank his coffee. Another day of eye-catching headlines ushering in the end times, but ultimately filled with little to no detail, their bark worse than their bite. John couldn’t really judge the journalists, insincere as they may be, it’s not like he was any shining example of practicing what you preach. Once he downed the last of his coffee it was on to a quick morning yoga, frankly something he was still getting used to. He had decided that he needed to add something at least moderately physical to his routines and he had to admit, yoga put him in a decent head-space for the morning. John rolled out the mat and got started, trying to focus on his breathing while his buckram tendons and joints creaked with the rhythm of his sun salutation. Despite the creaking of his body, these minutes were some of the few his mind wasn’t running amok, and he cherished that. After the last few years he’d take peace of mind in whatever form he could find it.

#

            John rolled into the parking lot Sue’s Diner around 8am. Once he’d got his blood pumping the day seemed much brighter and he looked forward to breakfast with Craig, which was a weekly ritual for the two of them. John had met Craig a few years back during a group camping trip for a food bank where he volunteered. The trip itself was mostly a bust, John didn’t really get on with most of the attendants, but neither did Craig and the two ended up shooting the shit around the campfire for the night. Since then Craig has been a steady rock for John during unsteady times. When Sarah left him last year, Craig was the one listening to John blubbering through his self pity. He was also the one to check John on his shit once grief time was over, reminding him that he happened to be the one who stepped out on her and what did he think was going to happen?

            “Howdy partna!,” Craig yelled in a terrible impression of a Texas accent as he walked toward John. Craig seemed to always be a wealth of energy, which was generally good but could be verge on grating at the wrong time.

            “Hey man! How’s it going?” John responded. He gave him a quick wave and met him at the middle of the parking lot before they turned towards the silver facade of Sue’s.

            “Can’t complain,” said Craig, “Say what you want about this city but there’s no shortage of construction!”

            Craig was a foreman for a construction company but he’d spent plenty of years doing the grunt work. He was a notoriously hard worker, something John admired about him but frankly wasn’t all that envious of, he was more of the mind that life shouldn’t be consumed by work. Although look where that got him. The academic world is, perhaps to the surprise of those on the outside of it, fairly competitive. If you didn’t publish enough, or publish something important enough at the very least, you were at serious risk of never obtaining the ever sought tenure position. But, at the end of the day, he enjoyed teaching the students and the occasional one who developed an actual passion made it worth doing.

            John and Craig walked through the doors of Sue’s Diner, the hinges in desperate need of lubrication, and immediately nodded at the blonde haired waitress who was rushing some coffee to a couple of groggy looking truckers.

            “Hey boys!” shouted the waitress, “Take a seat wherever you like!”

            The two of them fell into the valley of the booth seats, the white threads making their appearance through cracks in the red vinyl, eroded from the friction of years of well-fed customer bottoms. The waitress, her shiny badge reading her name in bold font, Jessica, was already on her way over with two steaming mugs of coffee and laminated menus choc-full of overexposed, glossy photos of the food they offered.

            “Hows the morning treating you Jess?” Craig asked with a big grin, his everlasting cheeriness on full display.

            “Ugh, don’t get me started,” Jessica sighed, “Just got rid of some kids still out from last night. Took everything I had to keep them contained to their booth.” Jessica laughed a bit as she pulled out her pad.

            “God bless ‘em!” laughed Craig “Been a solid decade since I could pull off an all-nighter like that.”

            “Well, don’t worry Jess,” John said with a smirk, truthfully he had a thing for Jessica, not that he was in the head-space for anything approaching a relationship, “We’re here to take care of any hooligans that drop in now.”

            “Ha! I appreciate that,” Jessica said with a wink, “Anyway, anything I can get for you two?”

            “Just the usual,” John responded. Two eggs over easy with sourdough toast for John and country ham with scrambled eggs for Craig. Jessica nodded with and gave a quick, ironic salute and walked back to the kitchen.

            As John watched her walk away he found his thoughts drifting back to the events earlier this morning. Surely if there was anything really different about him Craig would have noticed and said something. Or Jessica for that matter, she was never shy about commenting on his appearance. After Sarah had left him last year she had been the first one to start giving him shit when he was unshaven, overslept, and moody. Not to be hurtful, he knew, just in a matter-of-a-fact, “pull yourself together”, type of way. And he appreciated it, truly. If there weren’t people in his life to call him back when he stepped too close to the edge he’d probably still be looking for solutions in a bottle and a pizza box.

            “Hey,” Craig’s voice broke through the fog of John’s thoughts, “You alright? Looking a little forlorn my man.”

            “Oh, yeah,” John said a little more wearily than he meant to, “Just trying to remember a dream I had last night. It was a weird one, kinda stuck with me.”

            The two of them ended up talking mostly about a new worker Craig had hired that ended up skipping out of work only to end up at the local beer garden. Craig had a minor savior complex, he’d look past a lot of baggage that most employers wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot poll. All in all it usually worked out and those he hired were grateful for a second chance and worked hard for him. But occasionally there would be someone that tried even the tried and true patience of Craig, which was the camp this new worker fell into.

            John let him vent for a bit before they changed topics to some mundane “what shows are you watching?” chatter. John considered trying to ask Craig if he noticed anything different about him but he couldn’t figure out a way without sounding more crazy than he wanted to. So after a they both felt adequately caught up they paid and left Jessica her usual big tip for dealing with the two of them so often.

            “Oh, before I forget!,” Craig said, just before they went their separate ways in the parking lot, “I’m having a little get together this Saturday, as sashee if you will.” Craig wiggled his pinky in the air as he said the last bit. “You should definitely come! It’ll be pretty relaxed, just some friends from work and this new gal I’ve been seeing,” he said with a wink.

            “Alright man, consider me there,” John regretted saying this immediately but figured he had a week to figure out an excuse. It wasn’t that he was a total antisocial or anything, just that the idea of a party with new people to navigate sounded pretty exhausting. Although it was probably a good idea to get out of his head every once in a while, so he’d mull it over at least.

#

            Back at his apartment John flicked on the television to some mindless reality cooking show and opened his laptop to start writing, or at least attempt to. He liked having the TV on in the background while he worked, although it was really more of a distraction than anything else, but he supposed it made it feel a little less lonely.

            That’s some pretty sad shit right there. Needing a TV to keep you company, John thought as he clicked the manuscript he was writing and saw it load on the screen.

            He glanced at the word count and couldn’t help but feel a little more depressed than he already was, he was unable to get going on this thing. John was a biologist and was studying the local movements of a species of lizard. It was fairly straightforward work, tagging and counting through the field seasons, but when it came time to pull it all together, he was struggling. There was a particular skill when it came to spinning your work as important to the broader world, a kind of Academic Bullshitting, that he just seemed to lack.

            After an hour or so John found himself paying much more attention to the clang of pots and pans on the TV than the words on his computer screen. With a sigh of resignation, and, truthfully, a touch of relief to be quitting, he closed the lid of his laptop and moved to the couch.

#

            John woke with a start and felt the remnants of drool still on the side of his mouth, he must of dozed off as soon as he plopped down. His head was groggy and tight, like a balloon that had been filled with too much hot air. Sounds about right, he thought to himself.

Staring around the room, John wasn’t quick to get up. Really he wished that his body would just stay asleep. Asleep until when he couldn’t say, no immediate date came to mind. But after a minute or so John rose to his feet and glanced at the clock across the other side of the room which read 5:45pm.

            “Jesus!,” John groaned as he rolled himself up off the couch.

            Welp, another fucking day is gone, he thought while he wandered across the living room and back into the white void of the bathroom. He took particular care not to catch a glance of himself in the mirror. Even though the logical part of his mind told him that there would be nothing else in the reflection other than his own face there was still an undercurrent of unease. Some feeling like an invisible hand softly directing his head down and away from the space above the sink, instead forcing his eyes to stay fixed only on the toilet and then, after he squatted down, to the floor below. His knees flanked the edge of his vision, facing each other, identical, just as his face must be to his reflection. There’s no other way for it to be. But what was the other option? His features changed overnight? Or maybe some slow build-up of green overtook his eye over time, like a skin of algae atop a river stone, and he’s just noticing?

            John finished his business, got up, and stood hunched over the sink, letting the water from the faucet run over his hands. Staring down at the water pooling in his palms he realized just how scared he was to actually look up at the mirror. Scared to see what he saw that morning. Scared to see if anything else on his face had changed.

            “Fuck it,” John exhaled as he lifted his head up to meet his own gaze coming back at him.

            And…that was it. His own gaze, nothing more and nothing less. John stared into his eyes for a long moment, suddenly becoming conscious of the tension he was holding. His jaw was set, as if his body was readying itself for some fight that didn’t come. Hasn’t come yet?, John wondered to himself, annoyed at his own naivety. For thinking that this was anything other than some bullshit derived from his own anxieties.

#

            The next morning found John in a surprisingly upbeat mood, considering the events, perceived or otherwise, of the previous day. He hummed along as he brushed his teeth and made his morning coffee, some tune that he couldn’t quite place but that seemed familiar at the same time. Usually such a discrepancy would bother him, dig into his mind until he was able to place artist with art, but not this morning. This morning John was happy to take the mood of the song unattributed, perhaps even better because of its missing authorship, more satisfying to play along with the idea that the tune was his own, that the humor of he and the space around him was the product of some innate energy within, something he could always tap into if he made the right moves and choices.

            Finishing his ritual of morning coffee, allowing the day to settle into view around him as the warm caffeine rolled into his system, John steeled himself for the errands of the day, mulling over each task and the potential emotions associated with each, which of course just make them kinetic emotions related to the now. This process is something he imagined others may or may not have to do, depending on whether he was an average person, which one never could say, really. Regardless, given the general demeanor of the morning, that is to say, positive, John quickly felt the confidence to meet the day, which really only meant a trip to the office to pick up some books he needed and then a quick foray to the store for tomatoes, bread, and perhaps an avocado. As simple as this may sound, it took a lot out of him to actually follow through with it all and not end up weighing down the couch instead.

            John grabbed his bag, a brown leather mailbag, darkened from the years of dutiful trips alongside him, the deepened tone an account of the bounces off of his hip and the weight its held through the years. He swung it over his shoulder and bounded through the kitchen and out the side door. As the door slammed behind his mind was on anything but the nature of his identity. Instead, he climbed into his car, turned on some music, and drove out of the driveway and into the sunlit street.

#

            John’s office occupied a corner space in the building and it was brightly lit thanks to the large windows which took up most of the walls actively reflecting off the white built-in bookshelves. The shelves themselves were a bit wanting, a by product of the digital-era assault of physical papers and journals. Alongside the remaining textbooks were a few paintings by a local artist depicting a generic setting of rolling mountains and forest, a sense of banality that John found comforting these days. He figured he’d gone through enough changes these past couple years and having something boring and consistent around was just fine.

            Snatching what he needed from his desk John turned to leave but nearly walked right into Gretchen, another member of the department, as he walked into the hallway.

            “Oh, hey!” Gretchen exclaimed, “I didn’t realize you were here. How’s it going?”

            “Hi! Ah, alright I suppose. Just had to grab a couple things. How about you?” John feigned interest. In fact, he like Gretchen but he kind of wanted to be in and out. Work wasn’t exactly on his mind and he didn’t need to soil his good mood with thoughts of how behind he was getting.

            “Doing OK, can’t complain!” Gretchen said cheerily. John nodded with a smile and turned to walk away.

            “Did you get a haircut or something?” she said to his back and he came to a halt, feeling his stomach drop.

            “Uh, no. Why?” John muttered, his eyes searching Gretchen’s face for some clue to what she noticed. Hoping it was nothing at all.

            “Hmmph. I don’t know. Just thought something was different,” Gretchen looked at his face for a moment more, shrugged, “Guess it was nothing!”

#

            John burst through his front door, he had gone straight home after his conversation with Gretchen, skipping out on the rest of the errands, because he just had to look. Had to see if there was anything…different again. He had thought about checking right there in the department restroom but he really wasn’t sure he could hold it together if he saw what he feared he would.

In the bathroom John swallowed his fear, looked up at the mirror, and gasped as he stared into a deep green pair of eyes.

            After steadying himself with a tall glass of whiskey and a few deep breaths John was able to stave off the immediate panic. When he first saw his reflection he’d thrown him self backward, a wild and impulsive move that saw him fall into and pull away the shower curtain before spinning off through the door and into the next room.

            “Fuck. What the fuck?” he breathed out as he paced around in the kitchen, “What is going on?”

            Not knowing what to do and feeling himself coming undone a bit, he pulled out his phone and called Craig. Without telling him too much he was able to convince Craig to cut out of work early and come over. John didn’t know how this was going to seem, presumably a bit crazy, but he really needed to get some outside confirmation that either he was right in seeing these changes or he was losing his mind.

#

            Craig sat patiently as John laid out what had happened, careful not to get overly hysterical as he described his confident take that he had, in fact, been born with brown eyes and this green ones here were not those.

            “Well, I agree that your eyes are green,” Craig smirked a bit, trying to be playful and lighten the mood, “and I’ll take your word that they used to be brown.” He shrugged, “But I’m not sure there’s anything to it, I mean, it must happen, right?”

            “Nothing to it?,” John frowned.

            “Oh, I don’t mean you’re overreacting or anything like that! Fuck, I’d be feeling pretty anxious myself if it happened to me,” Craig put his hand on his shoulder and gave his friend a big smile. “All I mean is that you seem physically healthy and, even though it seems pretty weird, maybe it’s more common than we think?”

            “Yeah, probably you’re right,” John sighed, “I guess I’ve just been unable to shake this feeling that, oh, I don’t know, it goes deeper? Somehow.” He avoided eye contact as he said this and felt like he was being foolish to even admit how badly this was shaking him.

            “Listen man, I’m glad you called me. Why not call a doctor and see what they say?” Craig said, trying his best to be reassuring. “I’m sure it’s going to be nothing to worry about.”

            John conceded that point and said he’d call his doctor tomorrow. Afterwards they shot the shit about work before John said that he had to get going.

            “I’ll see you at my party?” Craig asked.

            “Oh. Yeah, for sure,” John had forgotten all about that but decided agreeing was still easier than coming up with an excuse on the spot.

#

            The next morning John woke up on the couch, he had a bad habit of staying up late and watching TV when he was anxious. Which ultimately led to less sleep and more anxiety, a pattern he was conscious of and yet still actively participated in. When he got to the bathroom mirror all he could do was stare. He felt his pulse rise as he brought his hands to his face. His face? The face that stared back at him shared some features that he knew, however, the nose, once long and sharp, was now much flatter and nearly upturned, and his chin contained a minor cleft that was not there before. His fingers pushed against these new features, testing their reality with the hope that they might fall away, a trick of prosthetics played on him during the night. But there they sat, unmoving as he pushed and pulled at them, tears building up as he turned from the mirror, his breath ragged with fear and panic.

            His mind racing, John pulled on yesterdays clothes, still on the floor, and walked out the door. It was Saturday so no one would be at the department so he walked, after a moment nearly trotting, down the street and to the coffee shop he frequented.

            But then…where was that coffee shop? He knew it was right at the corner he was now standing at but there was only a bus stop and a vintage clothing store, closed until the afternoon.

            “God, you’re kidding me,” John was simultaneously near laughter and tears as he mumbled to himself, hands akimbo, looking skyward as if expecting the coffee shop in question to be there.

            He decided then to go back to his place, get the car, and swing by Gretchen’s. He was hoping beyond everything that her house would be where it should be and that maybe, just maybe, she would be able to recognize and make sense of what was happening to him.

            John swung into Gretchen’s driveway, or what he supposed was her driveway, and barely shut the engine off before spilling out of the car door and making his way up to the front door. Once he was staring at the door he realized that the beating sound of his heart had overtaken every other noise and felt like he hadn’t taken a breath since he left the corner where that coffee shop wasn’t. John took a breath and knocked.

            “Hey John!”, Gretchen exclaimed with a slightly confused tone but accompanied by a warm smile, “What’s up?”

            “H-hi…”, John barely sputtered out a weak greeting.

            He had nearly broke down at the recognition he saw in her eyes, a breath of fresh air for a drowning man. Deep down he probably wasn’t even expecting her to know him anymore, resigned to his fear. After he stood slack-jawed for a moment he blathered out something about having her give him a lift next week, his car needed some work, and she said it’d be fine, clearly unsure of what exactly he was doing there but before she could ask anything he was waving her off and back in his car.

            John started off back towards his house, smiling and singing along with the radio. He felt at least some relief and had, for some reason, an overwhelming feeling that everything was going to be alright.

#

            The man was driving around in his car, he was unsure of exactly where he was going but still driving with an unearned sense of confidence as if to steel himself from that feeling. It was just getting dark and he hummed to himself, squinting to see the street signs temporarily illuminated by the headlights. Even though the man couldn’t put a finger on it, something told him to turn on the next street. He drove along until he parked in the street in front of a house that looked somehow familiar.

            A few people walked ahead of him as he made his way up the driveway and music poured out onto the street from inside. The man caught the door from those ahead and walked inside to a full room of people chatting amongst themselves and a clear view to more outside. From the other side of the room a man started to walk towards him with a big smile and his hand outstretched.

            “Howdy, I’m Craig”, the man from across the room said and then, scrunching his brow, “Do I know you from somewhere?”


Z.F. Douglas is an academic and professor who works in STEM, currently residing in the piney woods of east Texas, with a fascination for strange tales and stories that make us hesitate to turn off the lights.


“The Tap Room” Dark Fiction by James W. Morris

"The Tap Room" Dark Fiction by James W. Morris

Yeah, I’d have to agree that that’s a pretty disturbing story. But not as creepy as what happened to Tommy, huh? Remember when…oh, you didn’t know about that? No, now that I think about it, I guess Tommy was gone before you started coming in here. I’m surprised the other guys never told you. On the other hand, maybe not.

As a matter of fact, Tommy—the guy I’m talking about—used to sit right where you’re sitting. Back here in the corner, away from the rest of the bar. Just looking things over. I should mention that I only know so much about what happened to him because I’ve got special hearing. I can tune into a conversation occurring anywhere in the bar, shut all other sounds out. They teach us that in Bartending School. Specialized Listening 101, I believe it was called, but don’t quote me. Not to be nosy, you understand. It’s just that it’s profitable for a barkeep to know everything that’s going on in his or her bar. Who’s going to run out on his tab, who is planning to kick whose ass, that sort of thing.

So, about Tommy. I don’t remember his last name. Hmmm—maybe I never knew it. Anyway, Tommy was just a regular guy. Chubby, red hair. Bud bottles. He was, as they say, down on his luck, lost his job probably, but so have half the guys that come in here, right? I mean, what are you doing here in the middle of a Thursday, not that it’s any of my business?

Okay. So, Tommy is sitting here, just like you on a Thursday late in the afternoon, and

this man walks into the bar. What’s that? Sounds like the beginning of a joke? Yeah, it does, doesn’t it? Anyway. This was an older guy, a gentleman, distinguished-looking, too well-dressed for this neighborhood. A beautiful black suit. Not my usual clientele, no offense. His first impression of the place—well, let’s face it, it’s a working-class bar. It’s narrow, dark. A little shabby. I mean, I think we just painted the bathrooms that year, but he wouldn’t have known that, would he?

He looks around. Who was here? Just your hardcore drinkers, I guess. Tommy, Pat, Carlos, Fred, Deke, the usual suspects.

His eyes stop on Tommy. Maybe he sensed something about him. A need, you know? Desperation, whatever. Some people give off a smell or something. Me, I’m immune. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The old gent gives me a nod, almost a bow, then sits down next to Tommy. “Hello,” he says. Tommy looks him up and down, says a quiet hello back. The old guy offers to buy him a drink. Tommy’s wary, but nods Yes. Down on his luck, as I say. “Barkeep!” the old guy says, and snaps his fingers. Now, I was only standing a foot away. And him snapping his fingers like I’m in the next county. Meanwhile this bar is what, twenty feet long? Anyway.

“What are you having?” the old guy asks Tommy. By the way, this gent had a beautiful speaking voice—a weird accent though, not from around here, that’s for sure. Not quite English, not quite American. Mid-Atlantic, I think they call it. Like in the old movies.

“Shot and a beer,” Tommy says.

Now, Tommy wasn’t drinking shots. Not in his budget. But he gives me a look out of the side of his eye and I don’t say anything. They teach us to shut up in Bartender School, too.

The old man’s eyes flicker to the bar in front of Tommy and back, and I could see by the old man’s face that he knew Tommy was lying. But the lie seemed to please him—he smiled, showing a beautiful set of teeth, too nice to be real—and he orders a shot of whiskey and a beer for Tommy and straight gin for himself. He slaps a hundred on the bar. I know what you’re thinking, but it was real. I checked it, held it up to the light right in front of him, even used one of those counterfeit detection pens. I had to walk away to make change—there was barely enough in the till—but I kept tuned in to the conversation. Truth is, I thought the old man might be a scam artist, or worse yet, an insurance salesman.

So, after the drinks are served, the old guy says to Tommy, “Your troubles show on your face, son.”

Tommy looks at him for a second then turns around to see if the other guys in the bar had heard—most of them were sitting at the tables over there. They didn’t seem to be listening, though. As I remember, they were re-hashing that old argument over who would win in a fight—Samantha from “Bewitched” or Jeannie from “I Dream of Jeannie.” I think Pat was saying that their powers were about equal, but that Jeannie would be quicker on the draw since it takes a person less time to blink than to wiggle her nose. Carlos disagreed, and he and Pat were blinking and twitching at each other like they were having a shootout. Looked like a Tourettes convention. Funny the things you remember, isn’t it? Anyway.

“I’d like to make you a proposition, son,” the man says. Uh oh, I thought, listening with my special hearing. Here we go. “I’d like you to sell me something you own, but don’t consider valuable,” he says.

Tommy raises an eyebrow. “Oh, yeah? What’s that?” he says.

“Your reflection.”

Now, the bar gets considerably quieter. I guess the other guys were listening. In fact, I guess it was the definition of what you’d call a kind of “stunned silence.” For a few seconds, only. Tommy is the first to laugh. Then everybody else joins in, including me. Even the old man laughed a little, I think.

“C’mon,” says Tommy, like he knows his leg’s being pulled. He sips his beer. The others are still laughing.

“I understand your reluctance,” the old man says. “But I am willing to pay cash.”

He pulls out a wad of bills. Hundreds. Now, there’s no better way to call attention to yourself in a bar like this than to pull out a pile of money, and all the other guys come rushing over and surround Tommy. I decide it’s time to intervene. “Whoa,” I say. “Put your money away, Mister. These guys are villains and cutthroats. Why, Pat here”—I reach across the bar and grab Pat by the neck— “once killed a convent full of nuns for seven cents.”

Pat plays along. “Yeah,” he says (after I let go of his neck), “they deserved it. Wouldn’t come across. Had to use my machete.”

But the old man is still holding his money in front of him. And Tommy is eyeing it. “Thank you for your interest,” the old man says, “but this is a simple, private business transaction. It should not be of interest to anyone else here.”

Now a few seconds pass during which nobody says anything. Finally, Tommy says, “How much?”

Before the old man can answer, Fred steps forward. He’s our local wise man, you know. Okay, stop laughing. This time he had a good idea. He pulls Tommy aside and he says, “Look here, Tom. Probably this old guy has got lots of money and he obviously wants to give it away to people in need, like you. No offense. I could use a little help myself. He knows some people won’t take charity on account of their pride, am I right? So—he has them sell him something that doesn’t cost anything. That way they can keep their dignity, get it?”

Tommy thinks it over. He turns back to the old man. “Hey, I appreciate the offer, Mister, but—”

“It is not charity, Son,” the old man says. “I intend to keep your reflection for my permanent use.”

“My reflection, like a reflection in a mirror, right?” Tommy says. “You can’t take someone else’s reflection. They’re not—what’s the word? — transferable.” He laughs.

“Let me worry about that. One thousand dollars is the price. It’s non-negotiable, I’m afraid.”

He peels off ten bills and puts them in front of Tommy. Okay, so now the whole bar is involved. Everyone is looking at Tommy looking at the money. “Take it,” says Pat. “Take it,” says Carlos. “Take it,” says everyone else. Except me. I don’t say anything.

“Okay, Mister, if you want to give your money away,” says Tommy, and he grabs it.

The old man smiles. “Very well,” he says. “Please take my hand.” He and Tommy shake hands. The old man chugs back his remaining gin with everybody’s eyes on him. Then he climbs down off his stool and looks at his watch. “Let’s say that the transaction will officially occur at—half past nine then, shall we?” he says. We all look at our watches. Those of us that have watches. It’s a little after six.

“Sure,” says Tommy. “Is that it?”

“Yes. Our business is concluded,” says the old man. He makes his way toward the door.

“Wait a minute!” says Pat. “I want to sell my reflection, too!”

The old man stops, looks Pat up and down. “No thank you,” he says, and walks out. Everybody laughs. Pat’s sort of insulted, you know, but he laughs, too. He looks like he’s about to follow the old guy out, but just then Tommy throws a hundred on the bar and says, “Drinks for the house!” and Pat stops in his tracks. A cheer goes up. Tommy is slapped on the back, and everybody is shouting orders.

“Tommy, I don’t have change for this,” I say.

“Keep them coming till it’s all used up,” he says.

Okay, I’m gonna try and finish this story before it gets too busy. Remind me of where I was. Oh, yeah. Right. Well, it was quite an evening. Those guys were half in the tank already, and now free drinks are flowing. Pat was standing on a table at one point, I remember, exhorting his brother union members to kidnap the CEO’s of all the Fortune 500 companies and give the ransom money to animal rights groups. And Carlos was singing the Honduran national anthem. I always thought he was from Mexico, didn’t you? Anyway.

Everybody is drunk, and I’m trying to keep the place under control. Still, in a way I was glad to see them having a good time. I can’t stand mopey drunks—they make me want to shoot myself. Tommy had switched to brandy, which I didn’t even know he drank, and he looked happy and all, but he wasn’t really joining in.

Before you know it, it’s nine-thirty. Fred is the one who notices. He taps his glass. “Gentlemen,” he says, “I believe it is time.” He says it with a weird accent, and I realize he’s trying to sound like the old gent who bought Tommy’s reflection. A whoop goes up. All the guys run over to Tommy, who’s still at the bar. Now, you see that wall over there? The one with the poster of the girls in bikinis posed in front of an igloo? Well, there used to be a big mirror there that covered practically that whole wall. A fancy gold—well, gold-colored—frame. A mirror makes a small place like this look bigger, more open. That’s a little decorating tip for you. But, it’s beside the point.

So, they pull Tommy right off his stool and drag him over there to see if he still reflects. He’s struggling a little, not too much. Everybody’s laughing. I yell for them to take it easy, but they ignore me. Who was there? Well, Pat, Deke, Carlos and Fred for sure. A couple of other guys too, probably. I was watching Tommy, making sure they didn’t hurt him. So, here’s what happens. They drag him over, like I said, and hold him in front of the mirror. Of course, they’re all looking in the mirror as they do it. And they can see Tommy’s reflection fine, of course, what did you expect? Then, in a second, they all notice the look on his face—in the reflection—and they turn, one by one, to see if it’s there in real life. Which it is.

Well, how can I say this? I did two tours in Afghanistan. I was a cop for twelve years. I never saw any man with a look like that. He is astounded. No, I don’t know—appalled? But mostly, yeah, mostly he is afraid. Extraordinarily afraid. And then his face, well, it sort of—crumples in on itself. He makes a little noise. Like a peep. And then he dies.

Yeah, we all knew it right away. There was no mistake. Nobody says anything. The guys, they lay him down on the floor in front of the mirror, like they want to let go of him as soon as possible. We call the ambulance. And Fred is trying CPR, but we know it’s too late. I put a towel—a clean towel—over Tommy’s face. I couldn’t stand to look at it. After the ambulance takes him away—I think Carlos went with him—the rest of us stand around looking at each other for a while. Then Pat goes to the bar and picks up something, a bottle or something, and heaves it at the mirror, which explodes in a million pieces. After that, I tell everyone to get the hell out. Which they do. Without protest. I clean up and go home. What else was there I could have done?

The next day, the theories are flying. The consensus is that the old guy had hypnotized Tommy to see something horrible when he looked at himself in the mirror, and that Tommy couldn’t take it, that he had a bad heart or something that nobody knew about. Me, I kept my own counsel, as they say. But just between us—well, let’s put it this way: I think I actually know what Tommy saw when he looked in the mirror. He saw the worst thing a person could possibly see when looking at themselves—nothing.

You know, I’m not a philosopher, but it seems to me that being alive is more than just breathing and eating and stuff. There’s an element of willpower. The will to keep living. In other words, you have to believe in the fact of your existence. When Tommy looked in that mirror, he had just a little bit of doubt, and the nothingness rushed in.

Okay. Anyway. That’s it. You want another drink, or what?


James W. Morris has published dozens of short stories, humor pieces, essays, and poems in various literary magazines, and worked for a time as a joke writer for Jay Leno. His first novel, RUDE BABY, was recently published, and is available worldwide. More info at www.jameswmorris.com.


Shopping

“The Flat Share” Dark, Supernatural Fiction by J.L. Corbett

"The Flat Share" Dark, Supernatural Fiction by J.L. Corbett

“You’re having a laugh, mate! How was I supposed to know my bank account was about to go into default? I was in Thailand! Absolute con artists, you lot are, slapping on charges whenever you fancy it!”

“I understand your frustration, sir. Did you notify the bank of your change of address so that they could redirect your letters?”

“What do you mean, “change of address”? I didn’t move to Thailand, ya numpty, I was only there for six months! I had loads of letters when I got home!”

Working in a call-centre is hell.

“…so you can go back to the bank and tell ’em I’m not paying a penny! It’s not right, sticking on all these charges when I wasn’t even in the country! And you know what? If you won’t help me, I’ll go to the ombudsman! I’m not being funny, but I’m gonna stand up for my rights and I…”

The digital clock in the bottom-right corner of Oscar’s computer screen ticked over from 19:29 to 19:30. His shift was finally over, only not really.

Not only is working in a call-centre boring, it’s also bad for your health. The rotating shifts obliterate any chance at a work-life balance, and for what? Most shift-based jobs are designed that way because the work is so important that it can’t ever stop – nurses, firemen, suicide hotliners – but that’s not the case with call-centres. The only reason they open so early and close so late is because British culture is built upon complaining, and there always needs to be a faceless drone clocked in to eat shit.

All too often, Oscar had left the call-centre at nine o’clock at night only to drag himself, bleary-eyed, back into the grey building at eight o’clock the following morning, wondering if he should have perhaps just slept at his desk.

The digital clock on his computer screen now read 19:45 and Oscar’s customer was beginning to run out of steam. Oscar began to gather his belongings whilst reeling off a dull paragraph about the collections process that he could probably now recite in his sleep.

Minutes later, Oscar had raced down five flights of stairs (the lift was tiny and packed full of other tired drones) and was striding out of The Maltings business park. It was Friday evening, he had a whole sixteen hours until he needed to be back at work, and he was going to spend as many of those hours as possible away from his silent, empty flat. He and the lads were going to get absolutely wankered.

The Lion and Key pub in Old Town was alive with the excitement of the weekend. Drunk patrons were crammed into every inch of space in the small pub, most of them getting rowdy in a benign sort of way. Ordinarily it would be quite difficult to find one’s friends in such a dense crowd, but Oscar moved through the revellers with purpose. His friends would be sat at the same corner table they’d been at for the past decade.

“Alright, boys?” Oscar took a swig from the lukewarm pint of beer that had been left in his vacant space at the table. The beer had been there so long that a wet ring was soaked into the cardboard coaster beneath it and the glass was sweating water droplets.

“Oh, now he decides to show up!” Mankey grinned. “I was just about to neck ya pint, mate.”

“Cheers, boys. I’ll get the next round in,” Oscar said. His friends laughed and waved their empty glasses in his face, to which he grinned and downed his beer in a few seconds flat. As he jostled his way through the Friday evening crowd to the bar, a memory whispered into his mind – Izzy’s face of concern, telling him that he needed to slow down his drinking.

“It’s getting bad, Ozzy…”

Nope. Not thinking about that tonight.

As the night wore on, talk turned to the weeks they’d each had. Josh regaled the group with dodgy stories of how he and the other solicitors on Parliament Street had been hazing their new apprentices. Luke, who was exhausted, described the tiring week he’d had at Hull Royal Infirmary’s A&E department, where they’d had to deal with a slew of hypochondriacs. Even Mankey had a few interesting anecdotes from his life as a secondary school teacher.

If there had been a moment in which Oscar could take his turn to talk about his job, he’d intentionally let it pass by, unspoken. When he had started working at the call-centre four years ago, he had delighted in telling his friends funny stories about weird callers and the insane things that they would complain about. But now that he was nearing the end of his twenties, he no longer enjoyed telling these stories. Far from being funny, the stories were markers of an adult stuck in a juvenile job. Everybody he had started with had long since left the company, moved onto brighter prospects.

All week long, he had been looking forward to being in the pub with his mates, but now that he was there, he felt stale and awkward.

#

It was almost one o’clock in the morning by the time Oscar fell through his front door after struggling to slot his key into the lock. He found himself face down in the grey carpet of his hallway, his ears ringing with pub noise and his eyes blurring with alcohol. He suddenly became aware that his bladder was about to burst, and so he used all his concentration to flop onto his back and relieve the pressure.

Don’t piss on the floor again!

Thankfully, this turned out to be one of the nights where he managed to make it to the bathroom without defiling the carpet along the way.

As he was relieving himself, he became dimly aware of an irritating noise; the soft, rhythmic sound of water dropping against ceramic. The shower head was dripping. That was strange, because whilst it was an ancient shower head that always dripped for about an hour after use, it hadn’t been used since Oscar’s rushed shower that morning. There was nobody else in the house – Izzy was long gone.

He flushed the toilet and staggered to the sink, where he found that the mirror was fogged up.

Oscar staggered to bed, too drunk to pay any notice to the sense of unease buried deep within him.

#

Over the next few days, the atmosphere in Oscar’s flat grew increasingly strange as the sensation of unseen, unwanted companionship persisted. On Sunday evening, he walked into the kitchen to find that one of his mugs (the one with the cartoon pig) was sitting next to the sink – he knew that he hadn’t put it there, and there certainly hadn’t been anybody else in his flat that could’ve done it. Stranger still, there were tea dregs in the mug. Oscar didn’t even drink tea – the dusty box of PG Tips had been bought out of obligation for guests.

On Tuesday morning, before his late shift at the call-centre, he drew back the curtains in the living room and was hit with the acrid stench of old cigarette smoke. Confused, he rubbed the curtains between his thumb and forefinger and found that they were grimy with smoke, as though somebody had been smoking indoors for decades. Oscar only smoked when he was out with the lads and certainly never indoors.

About an hour later he stepped outside to drop a full bin liner into the communal waste bin, only to be accosted by Maeve Doherty, the elderly lady who lived below Oscar in the lower half of the maisonette. She was furious and accused him of having his music too loud the night before.

“I don’t want to be listening to that racket, all guitars and high-pitched nonsense!” she had yelled from her doorstep, before slamming her front door shut.

Her complaint struck Oscar as strange, because not only did he not tend to listen to the sort of music she was describing, but he had been working so late the night before that he had simply come home, eaten a Pot Noodle and fallen asleep before being woken by his alarm early the next morning for work.

She’s old. Must be losing it.

#

It didn’t take long for Oscar to see the man for the first time. It was a gloomy night with an unusually heavy amount of rainfall. Oscar had crashed into the flat, soaked and frozen to the bone, shaking the rain off his broken umbrella and tracking mud into the hallway carpet. He had ripped off his sodden jacket and kicked off his waterlogged trainers only to find that his socks were also soaked through. He’d peeled them off, intending to put them in for a wash.

He trudged into his sitting room and found an older gentleman sitting on the sofa, smoking a cigarette and watching what looked like a World War Two documentary on the television. A beagle was curled up at his feet, asleep, and the pig mug was balanced on the arm of the sofa.

Oscar stood in the doorway, frozen in fear and confusion, and dripping rain onto the carpet.

Suddenly, the man noticed Oscar. He leapt from the sofa, knocking the half-full mug to the floor, tea splattering everywhere, including onto the beagle. The dog awoke with a start and began yapping and darting about the room in an attempt to understand why her master was yelling, why she was covered in lukewarm tea and who the stranger in the doorway was.

“Who the flaming heck are you?” the man shouted.

“What? I’m… this is… I live here!” Oscar spluttered. “Who the hell are you, pal?”

For a moment, the two men stood opposite one another utter confusion, both too flabbergasted to know what to do. The man looked like he was a few decades older than Oscar. His face was weathered with a lifetime of hard work, and what was left of his hair was wispy and grey. His outdated clothes were slightly oversized, old, like he had lost some weight and not updated his wardrobe. There was something about him – perhaps his stance, or his pattern of speech, or even just the way he looked – that gave Oscar the anxious feeling that he was from a different time.

The dog was now crouching behind her master and growling at Oscar.

“I dunno who you think you are, ya jumped up little idiot, but I’ve lived in this bloody house for longer than you’ve been alive!” The old man began to stride towards Oscar, pulling back an arm as if to strike a blow. Incensed at the man’s audacity, Oscar threw his sodden socks to the floor and raised his fists to his face, ready for a fight. The man threw a fist, only just before the moment of impact he abruptly vanished into a puff of grey smoke, taking his noisy dog with him. The cigarette that he’d been holding between his fingers dropped onto the carpet. Oscar stayed where he was with his fists raised and his eyes squeezed shut. Eventually, he dropped his fists and opened his eyes.

He was alone again.

Did that really just happen?

The cigarette was burning a hole through the carpet. Oscar instinctively tried to stamp it out but yelped in pain – he was barefoot. He quickly picked up the cigarette and stubbed it out on the coffee table (Izzy definitely would’ve moaned about that, the wood would never look the same again). He glanced at the television, which was still playing The History Channel. Oscar hadn’t even known he got that channel.

Yeah, that really just happened.

#

Over the next few weeks, the old man kept popping up at odd and inconvenient times. Sometimes several days would pass without him making an appearance, but then he’d appear again, watching television or staring out the sitting room window at the street below. As soon as he noticed Oscar watching him, he would always start shouting at him, which always set his dog off too.

One time, the old man particularly full of rage. He was yelling at Oscar to “get the flaming ’eck outtuv my ’ouse!”, when he worked himself into such a heightened state of ire that he stomped into the spare bedroom, where he slammed the door behind him like a teenager having a tantrum. When Oscar wrenched the door to the spare room open, he found the room was empty, but that familiar cigarette stench hung in the air.

Oscar decided that he needed to get to the bottom of the issue. What was the alternative? Become reluctant flatmates with an angry ghost bloke in his sixties?

He had the following Wednesday off work, so he made time that afternoon to sit down with his laptop and research the history of his flat. It was surprisingly difficult to find much information in this age of technology, but after almost an hour of varying his search terms and falling down a rabbit hole of old Hull news stories, he found the obituary.

In loving memory of Fred Welton, who sadly passed away at home on 9th January 1963, aged 68, at the side of his beloved dog, Clover. Loving husband of Maggie Welton, he is now reunited with her once more.

The sad little paragraph was accompanied by a grainy, black and white photo of the angry ghost man, before he became a ghost. He still looked rather angry.

Oscar closed his laptop and stared at the wall for a long time.

He’s not been reunited with her though, has he?

#

The following evening, Oscar slumped face down onto the sofa after a long day of customers screaming at him (his ears were still ringing, which was sadly not unusual). On evenings like this one, he used to text Izzy during the bus ride home and by the time he got in, she’d be waiting for him with a heated up ready meal and a cold bottle of San Miguel, and she would sit opposite him at the table and listen intently whilst he unloaded his troubles.

He wondered what she was doing at that moment.

“Din’t I tell you ta sling yer hook, kid?”

Oscar groaned and yelled into the sofa cushion, “For god’s sake! Not today, Fred!”

He whipped up into a seated position and saw Fred staring back at him blankly.

“You know my name.”

“Yeah. I Googled you.”

“You did what to me, kid?”

“Oh, I, uh… I looked you up.”

“Hmmm.”

This revelation seemed to have completely disarmed Fred, who had sunk into the armchair by the window and seemed to be contemplating something. Oscar stared at his feet and felt extremely awkward. The air in the room had shifted.

“You go so many years without hearing it,” Fred said, suddenly. “Your name, I mean. You go that long without hearing your own bloody name, and then one day, out of nowhere…”

Alarmingly, he appeared to be tearing up. Oscar froze in horror. Was he supposed to comfort his poltergeist now?

Luckily, Fred straightened up, took a deep breath, and pushed the emotion back down. Slowly, he took in the room. It was as if he was only now noticing how different it looked – realising that Oscar’s belongings had replaced his own. When he next addressed Oscar, his voice was less combative.

“How long’ve you lived here, pal?”

“Couple of years. I moved in with my girlfriend. She doesn’t live here anymore.”

Fred nodded gravely. “I know that feeling.”

“Yeah, I read about that online. Uh, when I was researching you. I’m really sorry.”

Fred smiled into his lap. “She was… my light.”

“I wish I knew that feeling,” Oscar muttered. He was still staring at his feet, and so he didn’t notice the intensity with which Fred was studying him, taking in his waxen complexion, his greasy hair, his trembling hands. He didn’t notice that for a brief moment, Fred’s face broke with the realisation of what he was seeing. 

Empty beer cans were everywhere – on the coffee table, strewn across the floor, there was even one on the end of mantlepiece like an ornament. Full beer cans were in the fridge in place of food.

A shiver ran though Fred’s entire, dead body as he realised what he had stumbled upon.

He and Maggie had always longed for children. He imagined that this was the feeling of which parents spoke, that intense feeling of being innately protective of another person. He hadn’t meant to haunt this poor young man. But perhaps in doing so, their souls had become linked somehow?

Subconsciously, Fred gently passed his thumbs over the thick, raised scars on his wrists.

He rose out of the armchair and marched into the kitchen. Oscar sensed this but didn’t bother to look up. All the energy in his body had been gradually sapped over the past few weeks. He could feel tears welling in his eyes, but he didn’t want Fred to see him cry. Fred was from the 1960s, he’d probably deck him and tell him to stop being a stupid poofter.

“’ere y’are.”

Oscar looked up, blinking away tears that Fred pretended not to see. He smiled weakly and took the cup of tea that he was being offered.

“So, tell me, pal. What do you do for a living?” Fred asked, easing himself back into the armchair and setting the steaming pig mug onto the armrest.

“Nothing interesting. I work in a call-centre.”

“A what, now?”

Oscar laughed despite himself. “Oh Fred, we’ve got a lot to talk about.”

#

It was a strange sort of relationship. As the years passed, Oscar came to view Fred as an older friend, not a father, simply a strange companion of whom he had become very fond. Fred remained protective of Oscar and fancied himself a guardian angel from beyond the grave (he wasn’t religious, just in need of a sense of purpose). Deep down, they both knew they were living in a sort of purgatory, a comfortable stage of life (or death?) that would not last forever.


J.L. Corbett is the editor of Idle Ink, an online publisher of all things curious. Her stories have been published in The Daily Drunk, The Cabinet of Heed, STORGY Magazine and others. She owns more books than she can ever possibly read and doesn’t get out much. To read more of her work, visit www.jlcorbett.org. Twitter: @JL_Corbett


Shopping

“Drive-By Mourning” Dark Fiction by Patricia Ann Bowen

“There’s always the urge to see somebody dead that isn’t you.” Stephen King

I drove into Sacre Coeur Cemetery that rainy Saturday morning, relieved it wasn’t me in that box, going down into that hole, buried under a personalized marble monument. I could never understand the hubris of elaborately marking where bodies are buried, reinforcing people’s misguided hopes for immortality. Gone now to heaven, they say. But my agnostic definition of hell is where one is placed in a coffin, then inside a concrete grave liner – to prevent the ground and the funeral directors’ income from sinking – then covered with tons of dirt so even a single atom can’t be freed, that it might escape and unite with other forms in the universe.

I parked my car in the visitors’ lot and strode a path through a well-tended lawn, not a blade out of place. Orderly rows of headstones were backed in the distance by the opulent statuary of the wealthier inhabitants, denoting their final places of residence, and it was there I headed toward the black canopy sheltering her mourners.

Family and friends avoided gaping at the deep hole behind her packaged body, ready to be interred and, eventually, one day forgotten. She hadn’t wanted this kind of sendoff, but her family defaulted to their own wishes, she no longer being in a position to argue her preference. Take a lesson, friend: Make your wants known widely, loudly. Those I’ve chosen will cremate me and spread my ashes in the sea. Simple, low-cost, and my cremains will be released to roam, even more than I have in life.

I probably sound like a morbid voyeur, gathering converts along my way through life, toward death. I’m not, though I’ve had my moments. She gave me one of them. Until hers, I’d never before witnessed an actual human death.

I exchanged glances and serious nods with those around the gravesite that I recognized from her descriptions of them. I was just in time to hear the minister drone her platitudes, expecting her worn words to make the mourners on the sidelines feel better, when in fact they likely fell on numb ears. “She’s in a better place” made it sound like she’s comfy and cozy, instead of trapped in that container poised before us. “It was God’s will” might remind them that their deity designed the process of life to close on a dreaded dead-end path for all. A verbal sendoff, poorly designed to console the grieving, but death leaves a space nothing can fill, especially not with cliches. 

As for me, I find such rituals a form of entertainment. I stood there observing how we dance around death, with or without a dirge, or to one of the dear departed’s favorite tunes. Hers was any of the chant-like melodies by Beirut, an unconventional gypsy sort of band that reflected her style. I smiled faintly, imagining the reactions of the sedate black-clad mourners if one of their songs suddenly blared through speakers in the damp cemetery air.

We went around the circle, and those who wished to said a few words about her. Most were as stale as the minister’s: 

“She gave so much to others, and took so little in return.” 

“Her love gave me strength.”

“She lived like there was no tomorrow.”

Only the last echoed what I knew of her.

~

They didn’t know her as I did. I was sure they saw only her exterior, her long thin black braids with beaded ends, tied back to show off inquisitive eyes set in her seriously attractive honey-brown face, her thoroughbred gait, her drab but artful bohemian wardrobe accompanied by the worn leather messenger bag she toted everywhere. They must have feared secret jealousy to be like her, lest they come to the same end. But we can only be ourselves, and she was a unique self. I know. I was her last confidant, her final confessor, her psychiatrist. 

She came to me hurting, physically and emotionally, seeking to distance herself not merely from her pain, but from life itself.

“You must help me end it,” she said, spilling out her words, not long into our first session. “Everyone else I’ve approached has turned me down, and I’m not brave enough to bring about my own demise. I’ve read their books, and their online chats, and their advice springs only from professional observations. I don’t trust them.”

“So why are you here? How, why, do you think I differ?”

“I’ve read your columns and papers on death and dying, and you profess to be a truth seeker on the afterlife, even if only to prove its nonexistence. You have the clinical skills, and you didn’t pack away your curiosity with your diploma. Those were the things I chose you for in seeking a doctor who might help me.”

So, she’d discovered reams of my commentary on the rituals of dying and death. I’d read Agee’s A Death in the Family when I was in my early teens, and it gave me a life-long hunger for minutiae on the topic. I’ve given talks on Mitford’s The American Way of Death – where even the poor can take their last ride in a Cadillac hearse – and shared the resolve it inspired in me to opt-out of a conventional burial. In my spare time I’ve consoled bereavement groups, helping the ones left behind explore their own meanings of life and death, and furthering my own. I’ve prowled burial grounds from Monument Valley to Savannah, Boston to Paris, and even roamed the infamous Coon Dog Cemetery near Huntsville, Alabama, seeking ephemeral clues, finding, as always, only mortal shrines. She’d read that I sought the link between life and death, a metaphorical death canal, the correspondent to birth. 

Her gaze roamed around my office, taking in my framed credentials and book-bound interests. Few patients took such an interest in me beyond my questions and guarded remarks, remaining absorbed in their own reasons for visiting a shrink. I was pleased.

“I believe you’re asking me to break the law, to ignore my own professional code,” I replied. Not that I hadn’t before, but it was the proper thing to say. “I understand your need, and your reluctance to fulfill it yourself,” I went on, trained to rephrase her words, “and I’m prepared to help you move beyond your pain. We can plan a course of treatment that serves that end, and you can decide if it meets your purpose.”

“An interesting comeback, Doctor. You didn’t say yes, and you didn’t say no.” She paused and smiled. I became aware of her musky scent, like that of a free-range animal. “Perhaps together we can bend some rules,” she said. “Let’s give each other a try.”

Her response surprised me with its playfulness, with her willingness to put her desperation for death at arm’s length, even for a moment. My immediate reaction was even more so. I began to feel like Moliere’s Tartuffe, ready to rectify an evil action with the purity of our mutual intentions.

She related the backstory of her pain. She’d been in a horrible road accident this past year, and while most of the physical damage to her body was not visible to others, she assured me it had been extensive. She’d had multiple surgeries and saw no end to those still to come. She wore a flesh-colored glove on her right hand, hardly noticeable while she kept it resting on her lap, and during our second session she pulled it off to reveal the hand had only two digits, thumb and index, grayish, rigid. 

“They saved what they could,” she said, watching my reaction, which remained passive, as she held it up. “I preserved the others. If only they could have saved my child as well.”

Now we were getting somewhere. With each session I learned more about her and her tragedies – and about myself as well, in responding to them. She was a chameleon, revealing different skins at different moments. I got to touch her pinkish feminine layer, which could turn purple and then black in a blink. Not literally of course, but I regularly imagined it happening as her moods changed in my presence. I wondered which she donned when contemplating her own looking-glass. 

She’d researched many ways to exit this world. Pills, jumping, drowning, others. I was impressed by her thoroughness, her courage, but it made me wonder if she was going down a speculative rabbit hole. She made me realize that until then I’d explored death from a limited perspective, from that of one who wanted to live. Her drive for release seemed immediate, shoving her from the inside with a need she could not suppress, eager to leave this world, hoping against hope she might join her child in what might be the next. She sought my aid from the perspective of one who wanted to die. 

How was I to help her without killing her, or rather helping her kill herself? And were the actions, the motives, not one and the same?

I saw her weekly at first, Mondays at 2 pm. She sat across from me in the comfortable rose-colored wing chair for the entire hour, instead of the usual fifty minutes. I immediately rearranged the standing appointment following hers for 3:30 so I could allow my time with her to run over, and then have a few minutes to reflect after she departed. Following her second visit, I realized she’d left behind a set of keys in the wing chair. When I phoned to tell her, assuming she’d need them, she said they were the keys to the car she’d demolished. She’d left them as relics of her pain and didn’t want to see them ever again. Were they a gift? Proof? Why had she held on to them until now? 

~

She told me she was a freelance writer, said she earned her living in the marketplace of words, and she was in fact a most articulate patient. I suggested she try to write her way through her pain. I asked her to keep a daily diary and share it with me, to capture her thoughts and dreams to further our discussions.

“No, it’s too much to ask. I don’t want to go there, and neither do you.”

“I do. The more you share with me, the more I can …”

“I have no need to write about this drama for myself or for others, even for you. My soul has died. Yet it’s still trapped in my living body. The two are in such conflict. At night I dream of running through the streets screaming and throwing myself in front of a bus, of ingesting one pill after another with one shot of booze after another, until I am no more. But then I wake up, unsuccessful, sad that I have to force myself through the motions of another day.”

I sat across from her, the prop of a pad and pen resting in my lap. My interest in her was like that of any patient, but my curiosity about her path drew me closer to her dramatic plight. Dare I use my resources to fulfill her desperate request? If I steered her one way, would she willfully take the other fork on that road? We took several detours into her past, to times when life seemed worth living, but those memories only strengthened her resolve. 

She became impatient with our slow progress, accepting it was due to her own lack of complicity. After a month of sessions we added Thursday visits to her calendar. Her time was her own, she was losing interest in her work, so she welcomed a deeper dive into her misery. But the cost of her accelerated treatment was becoming another matter. I had my own criteria for doing pro bono work, and she did not meet them. Open about her finances, she approached me with a fairly standard offer.

“I’m spending down my modest means, Doctor. It’s fueling my sense of urgency, forcing me to make a move. But I’m not there yet.”

“And?”

“And, I wonder if you’d be willing to barter for further services.” 

Her face presented no clues to her intent. Did she want to trade sex, or was she offering to update the pages on my website for me? Bartering is still practiced in the medical profession these days, even if most of it stays between doctor, patient, and accountant. I suppose some rural doctors still trade chicken casseroles for their treatments, and city doctors are not immune to their patients’ financial plights either. How far would I go to help her?

“What do you have in mind? You do understand we have no definitive end to your psychiatric treatment and, more importantly, I’m not able to put a price on where or when your life is saved or ended.”

“My body for your time. Until you or I decide the ‘when’. I think you might find it interesting.”

Well I might, I thought, but I had other interests in her treatment, personal and clinical. To comprehend her desire for death, I had to understand far more about her life. She was asking me to cross yet another line, and I decided to keep us on the course that most interested me. Besides, if I took advantage of every patient who made that proposition, I’d be oversexed and underfunded. 

“I’m not making light of your offer. But since your life has so little value to you, how do you think I should value it? I mean… as a professional, not as a lover. You are not a whore, and I am not your client. What does interest me is how we can get you past your pain. What I do value is your willingness to explore your intentions and your options, seeing whether you will go on living your life, or end it.”

“Thank you for your candor, Doctor. Have you any recommendations for how I can go on financing your services? Or should I just drive my car into a wall on my way home? Or, perhaps, you might prescribe the magic pill that will give me the sleep of angels?”

“You’ve already survived one tragic accident. I would not advise believing another would provide your desired outcome. You might lose more than some nonvital organs and a few fingers, and still have enough functioning parts left to survive.” I chose my next words carefully. “As for magic pills, I can provide a sleep aid for you but, taken as directed, it will only send you to bed, not to heaven. Is that what you’d like?”

“Are you suggesting I might choose to overdo the sleeping pills before I run out of money?”

“Absolutely not! I suggest nothing of the kind. A series of sound sleeps will calm and clear your mind, improve your receptiveness to treatment. We can work out a financing plan for your office visits. And I can cut my rate for the next several months, let’s say six months. Will that work for you?”

“I suppose so. For now.” I couldn’t tell if she was pleased or disappointed. 

I scrawled out the prescription and handed it to her. “These work rather quickly, so only take them when you have nothing else to do the rest of the day. Don’t drive, or spend time over the stove. Do not consume any alcohol for four to six hours before a dose, and even then, if you must, sparingly. 

We both knew she’d finally gotten what she came for.

That visit she left behind an envelope with my name on it, propped up on the sink in the restroom next to my office. It contained a gruesome 8” x 10” black and white photo of a wrecked sports car, too damaged to identify the make and model. Was she shedding her past, and transferring it to me? I was relieved I found the piece, and not my next patient. I put the envelope in the file with the car’s keys.

~

Having given her access to pharmaceuticals, I feared I might not see her again. I sign up for a google alert on all my patients, right after their first visits, and the service forwards a link to any online mention of their names. I’ve gotten good news and bad news over the years, even long after one of them has moved on from my practice. I checked each morning for her name, and finding nothing on her was good news.

On her next visit she was almost radiant, more animated, loosely gesturing as she spoke, and she sat back as though molded into the comfortable wing chair, seeming relaxed and relieved. “Sound sleep was just what the doctor ordered,” she said.

She was exhibiting a classic sign of coming to peace with suicide. After emotionally and psychologically struggling with the decision, once it’s been made, either way, the internal struggle is over and relief sets in.

“You do look well rested,” I said, alert to every nuance of her speech and movement. “More than I’ve ever seen you. Tell me, does it mirror how you feel?”

“What an odd way to put it – mirror how I feel. I did sit before a mirror yesterday for quite some time, having my braids redone by my hairdresser. It was a long process, and expensive, too. I justified it as part of my therapy. It was so relaxing to watch someone undo my messy grown-out hair, feel them massage my scalp, take such care to make me look clean and neat.”

“Special occasion coming up?”

“I used to go to the salon more regularly, but I’ve let myself go since… well, no, I just thought it was time to take better care of myself again, get back in the groove, as they say. I even submitted a piece of work for publication this morning, the first one in ages. I have you to thank for that, Doctor.”

I sometimes, as now, moved into a zone of professional uncertainty, between satisfaction that I may have helped a patient tremendously or fear that I’ve failed them miserably. There’s no knowing which is true until time and the patient have revealed the result, one way or the other. I had no sense yet which way this would go.

Before she left we confirmed her next appointment. Afterward, I sat at my desk and updated my notes in her file. We’d mutually agreed not to record her treatment sessions, but now I wished I’d pressed her for permission. I’d said nothing incriminating, and I would’ve liked to hear her actual words again, the inflections in her voice, any clues that would help me be a better therapist, employ those clues the next time I get a similar patient, if there ever is a next time.

~

It was me the first responders called because she’d listed me as the ICE contact on her phone, In Case of Emergency. She’d driven her car into a bridge abutment on I64, not far from the picturesque Gateway Arch. Apparently at very high speed. They told me some kind of gypsy music was still blaring from the car’s CD player when they found her. Again she’d survived, as I’d warned. Badly damaged, as I’d predicted. 

I spent her final couple of hours at her bedside. It wasn’t the visible process I’d hoped to see while watching someone depart from life. I hovered over her bruised face and tangled braids, whispering questions I’d harbored for decades about the path toward the end, but they went unanswered. Heavily sedated, her breath slowed, became intermittent as my eyes moved from her face to the heart monitor and back, then stopped. Her death was a disappointing moment for me. A triumph for her. She’d owned it, gotten control over it, given it a date and a time and a place.

The next day I paid a service to do a complete background check on her. She’d never had a child, but possibly been pregnant. I’ll never know. But the first auto crash really did damage her body, and perhaps her mind. I also learned she’d published a large body of acclaimed fiction under a pseudonym. I didn’t recognize the name, but you might. She’d been quite good at fictionalizing her life, too. I’m professionally ashamed to admit I hadn’t caught her in any of her lies. She’d left me still in that zone of uncertainty. Had I helped her? Or failed her?

~

I’ll probably miss her visits for a little while. The fullness of her mortal absence hadn’t yet sunk in and yet there I was, at her grave, spending precious minutes of my life on someone I’ll never again see or hear or smell or engage with. I’d tried to make her office visits about her, and not about what I wanted to learn from her. Death has ended those possibilities, leaving me still with a gaping hole in my knowledge of its abstract mysteries.

Anyway, the real reason I came here was to return one of the final mementos she left for me. As I pulled the shriveled article from my pocket, my hand relaxed after gripping it so tightly during the graveside service. While everyone was praying their last words, eyes closed, I dropped it into the gaping hole. It was one of her fingers, only one, preserved from her first auto accident. I found all three of the digits wrapped in black tissue in a small gift box, on the floor under the wing chair after her last visit. I’ve decided to keep the other two.


Patricia Ann Bowen is the author of a medical time travel series about a cure for Alzheimer’s, and Unintended Consequences, a collection of short stories about strong women of all ages in challenging circumstances. Her stories have also appeared in the Table for Two and Stories of Southern Humor and Southern Crime anthologies. She has taught short story writing, and she leads a critique group of short story writers for the Atlanta Writer’s Club. You can connect with her at www.patriciabowen.com.


“On the Corner of Cedar and Washington” Dark Fiction by Diane Lee

"On the Corner of Cedar and Washington" Dark Fiction by Diane Lee

In seventh grade, Emma Bridges tells me I have to change my name. There can’t be two Emmas in our class, she says. I nod, and from then on I am Em, to my classmates, to my family, and to my coworkers, the two letters neatly handwritten next to a smiley face on my nametag as I welcome customers to the bookstore. 

Today I am Em to the blonde-haired, red-faced woman who angrily takes down my name because store policy doesn’t allow returns past fourteen days. I am Em to my manager, who can’t quite hide a smirk when I hesitantly bring up this year’s promotion cycle. I am Em to my daughter Mia in the backseat, who knows she can get her way with a well-placed tantrum and veiled threat. 

Even the pedestrian in front of me refuses to budge, thinking I will give in and swerve out of his way. No longer. Emma Donovan keeps her foot pressed firmly to the gas pedal and her name is — 

Janet Fuller, and soon everyone is going to know it. As long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a reporter. I spent four grueling years studying journalism in school and staffing the university paper, inking my blood, sweat, and tears into the broadsheet. Then another seven hopping from paper to paper, each job only impressing further into me that my stories were worth a dime a dozen, if that. 

Any journalist knows how to write a good story. We’ve worked our beats, interviewing countless sources and tracking down the routine paper fillers. But what they don’t tell you in journalism school is that the best stories, the ones that headline above the fold, those come and go in as short as three seconds. 

One. I see a man start to cross the street. 

Two. I see a red SUV racing down the road, showing no signs of stopping. 

Three. Janet keeps her mouth shut and brings up her phone camera. Click — 

Clack, go my new dress shoes as I step off the sidewalk. They’re perfectly polished, black oxfords with a cap toe. He kept them that way, my father. You can always tell a man’s character by his shoes, he used to say. 

That was how I found him in the kitchen that night, shining the blood off his shoes next to my mother’s body. You keep your shoes clean, boy, he told me, before they dragged him away and sentenced him to life imprisonment. 

I tried to fight the urge of course. Visions of the knife sticking out of my mother’s pale throat haunted me every time I picked up a shoe rag. But his voice always echoed in my head. A man keeps his shoes clean. 

The car is speeding towards me, and I know I have enough time to dive back to safety. But that would scuff my shoes. 

A man keeps his shoes clean. 

I see a little girl in the backseat, about six or seven years old. Maybe this time, it’ll be my face and voice that keeps her awake at night. Peter locks eyes with the girl and gives her — 

A smile breaks across my face from where it rests against the cool metal door. I am in the backseat of my mother’s car, watching as she readies herself to run over a pedestrian. I wonder what he’ll look like, after. I suppose I’ll see it on the nine-o-clock news, courtesy of that wannabe journalist on the other side of the street. 

They always say to try imagining things from others’ perspectives. Me, I don’t have to. 

It first happened when I was three and my mother brought home a dog from the pound. She called it Rover, or Roger, or something else generic and unmemorable. He yapped and yapped all day until my nerves reached a peak, and the next thing I knew I had four paws and could see my own human body slumped over on the couch. 

Rover’s memories flashed through my mind like a whirlwind. I found myself fixating on his tragic past, overjoyed when it finally simmered his barking down into whimpering instead. To my pleasant surprise, he took off out of the house and ran as far as he could until even I didn’t know the way home anymore. Soon I was back in my own body and trying to look concerned as my parents ran around frantically looking for the dog. 

You see, it doesn’t give me control of others’ actions. I have to make them want to do it with the thoughts and memories that already exist in their heads. You might think this fairly limiting, but with the right motivation, I can make people do just about anything. 

Take this scene I’ve engineered, for example. The woman who decides she will murder someone just to feel an ounce of control over her everyday life. The journalist who in this moment can only think of her own languishing career, at the expense of others’ lives. The man whose recollection of past trauma forces him to stand still in front of an oncoming car. 

All in the few seconds I’ve flitted between their minds. Brilliant, don’t you think? I smile back at Peter and brace for the impact. 

On the corner of Cedar and Washington, a red SUV barrels through a pedestrian and peels away. I am sprawled across the asphalt, feeling the life drain crimson from my veins — onto the same road that blurs by in the rearview mirror, my knuckles white on the steering wheel and my foot pressed tightly against the gas. I slowly pan across the scene of the accident that is going to make me famous, making sure to keep my phone steady — the same phone I hold up to my face from the safety of my bedroom, squinting in the dim glow as I scroll through the virtual pages of The Chamber Magazine

Mia smiles and — 


Bio pending.


“Fall Aesthetic” Horror Flash Fiction by Claire Bernay

"Fall Aesthetic" Horror Flash Fiction by Claire Bernay

Images of my surroundings fluttered through my half-closed eyes; orange leaves, rich dark dirt, the roots of a maple tree. An indie pop song, upbeat with a down-in-the-mouth message, don’t get me started, played through the amp between his legs. Jeans and a flannel, with his back to me, he danced to the beat. He turned, shuffling the leaves, making a crisp crunch. The leaves, the outfit, the music, a picturesque fall picnic, the pull of the rope that tied my hands behind my back.

I saw the saw.


Claire Bernay is a creator. She loves writing, pottery, poetry, crocheting, and painting. Claire wants to do everything but mostly make meaningful and compelling art. Her experiences bleed into her art and inspire her to create.


“Salem” Horror/Thriller by Amanda Eiden

"Salem" Horror/Thriller by Amanda Eiden

I am only a cat. So they say.

But my mother was a witch. And so am I.

You see, I was born to the street with my eyes shut. Full fangs on display. Screaming. Infant claws stuck out.

Mother recited spells when my siblings and I nursed. She wanted a better life for us.

Though I was grateful for what I was given. The plastic shelter of the dumpster above us. A warm spot against Mother’s belly. Curious mice that tried to sneak by us. 

But I must admit I begged for a real home. Endlessly. Used my powers selfishly.

For one night, heels clicked down the alleyway. And that woman stumbled upon a lovely black stray.

I always wondered whether I used my powers for good or evil. But now I must know.

This all has a purpose I cannot yet admit.

But let me tell you a story about how Joey died.

And from there may you decide.

Picture it, the evening of a full moon. Me, laying on the cool leather sofa sprinkled with cat hair. My dinner floating like a cloud in my stomach. Pretty, delectable birds fly from tree to tree. My pink toes trace their flights on the window before me.

At sunset, a knock comes at the front door. I jump from the couch as Alice moves to answer it.

Except this time something is different.

Alice hugs Paige and Gracie and invites them inside. Each of them has a cat carrier in hand. My heart beats faster.

“We have a surprise for Salem,” Gracie says, with a black lipstick covered smile.

“You hear that, Mister?” Alice says as she looks down to me.

They move to open the carriers and I bolt to the bedroom. Their laughs quickly approach me so I duck under the bed.

“Salem, I promise we aren’t going to the vet.”

I don’t believe her; she says this all the time.

“Paige and Gracie have something special for you.”

Alice’s eyes meet mine as she looks under the bed. Her long black hair touches the wooden floor, stained with incense burns and candle wax. She reaches a hand out, black fingernails gracing the top of my fur, to gently pull me into her arms.

When we get back to the living room, the carriers are open on the coffee table. Two cats lay on the rug. My rug! Alice sets me down.

I raise my back in a hunch and hiss. The girls chuckle and the cats watch me. Their pupils dilate. Both cats are black, like me, but they have a touch of gray to their faces and whiskers. One of them is chubby, the other skinny. I relax my posture.

“Excuse my manners,” I say, sitting on the rug.

“No offense taken,” the skinny one says. “You have a lovely home.”

“I’m Salem,” I say.

I move closer.

They introduce themselves as Fred, the skinny one, and Goose, the plump one. I show them around the small house that became my home many years ago. The girls light candles and read spells. Enchanting music plays from the stereo. I lead the cats back to the living room before we miss too much.

The girls sit in a circle, legs crossed. Candles blow around them like a ring of fire. They wait for me to lay in Alice’s lap before holding hands. They recite another line of spells.

“And with that—we ask of you to give us what we desire!” Alice says, her voice vibrating through her lap and into my bones. “I want Joey to love me.”

Gracie opens her eyes and looks at me as she says her wish.

“I want the editor job at the newspaper.”

I flick my tail up and down.

“I want first place at the pageant,” Paige says.

“And I wish the best for everyone, especially my new friends,” I say, though my words come out as meows to the girls.

Fred and Goose watch me with wide eyes. I ask them to join us. The girls sit in silence.

“What the hell is this?” Goose says.

“It’s the full moon,” I say, “we get to ask what we want of the higher power.”

“Oh! But we do not worship the devil, young one,” Fred says.

The girls turn to face Fred and Goose, standing ten feet away from the circle. They make kissy noises toward the cats but they don’t move.

“Salem, why don’t you show your new friends what you can do,” Alice says.

I strut to the center of the circle. I sit and shut my eyes, concentrating on the levitation chant. The girls join me. Our voices merge together before a certain kind of energy fills the air around us.

I slowly rise into the air. I get to the ceiling and hover like a bird of prey. I look down to Fred and Goose and a smirk comes to my cheeks. I let myself float down to the ground. The cats turn away from me.

The girls pour glasses of wine and turn on a scary movie. I wander into the kitchen to scavenge for fallen crumbs. I hear the soft patter of paws as Fred and Goose join me.

“Where we come from, witches are burned at the stake,” Goose says.

“Excuse me?”

“They hurt our kind,” Fred says. “Especially us black cats. We are not safe around them.”

“That’s a myth,” I say. “I will not tolerate this kind of disrespect in my house.”

“We’re so out of here anyway,” Goose says.

“It was nice to meet you, Salem,” Fred says. “But I hope we will not cross paths again.”

I lead them out the back door. They wander into the night, under the full moon.

At midnight, Paige and Gracie call for Fred and Goose. I watch them search the house. They cry when they realize the back door was left open.

The next evening, as I’m eating dinner, a harsh knock comes from the front door. I’m expecting a delivery of catnip toys, so I join Alice as she opens it.

A six-foot tall man with platinum blonde hair and bright, blue eyes stands on the other side. He smiles and holds out a flower bouquet for Alice.

“Joey. What are you doing here?”

“I’m sorry to just drop by. But I can’t stop thinking about you, Alice. I don’t know what it is. I woke up this morning and needed to see you.”

“Thank you for these,” Alice says as she takes the flowers. “Would you like to come in?”

Joey steps inside and follows Alice to the kitchen. I return to my dinner.

“You let him eat in the kitchen?”

“Yeah,” Alice laughs. “Where else?”


“I don’t know. Somewhere away from where you eat.”

“C’mon. He’s only a cat.”

I lick my bowl clean, feeling his stark blue eyes boring into the back of my head. I turn and see his hand reaching down to pet me. I cringe at the contact of his large hand, rough against my back. But I allow a few pets.

“See, he likes you,” Alice says.

I raise my paw, claws out, and swat at his hand. It’s a quick swipe, nothing deep.

“Salem! I’m sorry. He’s never done that before.”

“That’s why I hate cats.”

I run to the bedroom. Their voices waft down the hall. They talk about work, sports, I don’t even know what else.

Hours later, I awake to them walking into the room. Their arms are wrapped around each other, lips locked together. Alice turns around, breaking away from Joey, to shoo me off the bed.

The door slams shut behind me.

Joey’s visits quickly become regular. A lot more often than I prefer. But he buys me new toys and treats. My new favorite toy is a red octopus on a stick that chirps like a bird when it bounces.

And Alice really seems to like him. That’s why I tolerate him showing up with a bunch of moving boxes one day.

After Joey moves in, I never see the witches. They call, leave messages. They ask if we’ve seen Fred or Goose. They update us on their spells, Gracie got the editor job; Paige won the pageant. Alice never calls them back.

Weeks pass. Then months. We miss several full moons. I try to make my own tradition, a nightly walk under each one. Then I sit under an elm tree and recite spells. But none of them seem to work when I’m alone.

Some of those nights, I cry out to my mother.

On others, I wish, and cast spells, for Joey to disappear.

Because he yells. Deletes her phone messages. Stops her from seeing friends. He complains she doesn’t cook dinner or pack his lunch. There’s not enough groceries in the fridge. She leaves her slippers around the house. Her cat meows all night and keeps him up. There’s cat hair on his clothes. Litter all over the bathroom floor and embedded into the fibers of the carpet.

Alice can’t do anything right.

One night the fight is worse than all the rest. Alice’s sobs muffle through the bedroom door. I lay on the other side, pressing my nose up against the wood.

“It was one time, Alice. ONE TIME!

“No. I want you out of here. GO!

“You won’t make it without me.”

“Me and Salem were getting by just fine without you.”

“You and that fucking cat.”

“Please. You don’t even try to like him.”

“He hates me!”

“You push him off the couch. You make him eat and sleep alone. No wonder he hates you! Sometimes I do too.”

A mirror shatters. Crystals fly against the wall; they shatter and fall to the ground.

I paw at the door.

“Now that stupid cat is scratching at the door!”

Joey throws the door open and grabs me by the scruff of my neck. He walks me to the front door. I squirm under his grasp, but my claws can’t reach his arm.

“You little shit,” he says.

He opens the door and throws me onto the porch step like a sack of garbage. I land on my feet, of course. I cower and pull my ears back as I look up at him.

“All you ever do is get in the way. Don’t come back.”

Joey slams the door and locks it.

I walk around outside, pass under the elm tree, and sit by the trunk. A full moon shines above me and I’m surprised I forgot. If only I could summon the higher power on my own to protect Alice from that monster. I lay in a ball and tuck my head under my tail. I say my protection spells over and over.

Leaves rustle. Twigs snap. I perk up, hoping it’s Alice.

Instead, I see two black cats, one thin and the other even thinner, walking toward me.

“You’re not welcome here,” I say as they near me.

“We heard what that man said,” Goose says. “Wowza.”

I curl back up into a ball and use my paw to cover my eyes.

“He kick you out, boy?” Fred says.

“Just leave me alone.”

Fred and Goose clear their throats.

“Any way we could help?” Fred says.

I sit up. Goose thinned out. And Fred is nearly skin and bones.

“I thought you wanted to burn me at the stake.”

“We’ve had a change of heart,” Fred says. “Life on the street isn’t what we remembered.”

“What do you want?”

“Those nice girls we ran from? We’d like to go back.”

“Well, I don’t know.” I pace back and forth in front of them. I stop, make eye contact with them, and lick the top of my paw. “That’s gonna cost you.”

“We’ll do anything,” Goose says, nodding his head rapidly.

“Yes, anything young one,” Fred says.

“I need that monster gone. And the only way I can do that is by casting a spell. But I need more manpower. I need you two to join me.”

“Oh no, my boy,” Fred says. “We won’t perform witchcraft. That’s absurd!”

I turn and pretend to walk away from them, flicking my tail. I get a few paces away before they eagerly agree. I send them after a few props, some twigs, berries, whatever they can find for a makeshift circle. We spend an hour forming it under the moonlight.

I look to the house every few minutes. The bedroom light shines brighter than the moon. Voices muffle through the walls. My heart races. I think of my mother, how she wanted a better life for me. And how desperately I want a better life for Alice.

“We need to do this now,” I say. “There’s no more time.”

Our three bodies form the circle. We shut our eyes and I recite the spell.

“And with that—we ask of you to give us what we desire!” I say. “I want Joey to disappear from Alice and I’s lives.”

“Joey needs to go bye-bye,” Goose says.

“I wish for Joey to go away, far away, and never come back,” Fred says.

The energy we drew hangs above us. We let it rest for a moment before releasing our concentration. I take a deep breath.

“Well, now what?” Goose says.

“We wait.”

“What about our homes?” Fred says.

“After the monster’s gone, hopefully soon, I’ll find a way to let you inside. Stick around.”

We lay together under my elm tree and fall asleep. When I wake, the sun is up and I panic. I run to the front door.

“Oh, Salem,” Alice says as she swings the door open. “There you are. I was so worried.”

Alice bends down and scoops me into her arms. I nestle my head into her warm chest and purr. She sets me down by my bowl in the living room, filled with a can of food. Her long fingernails gently scratch through my black hair and I purr. She sniffles.

“I’m sorry, Salem,” she says in a whisper. “I know he threw you out last night. He’s gone now. And he’s not coming back.”

I finish my food as Alice paces around the house. She whispers to herself. She carries empty boxes in from the garage and starts throwing things around in the bedroom. She shoves clothes and other items into the boxes.

Alice carries the boxes to the curb. When she’s done, her face is covered with sweat instead of tears. She sits beside me on the couch and pets me.

“When he gets home, I’m going to tell him he has to leave. It will all be over soon.”

I look into her eyes and meow.

“I’m going to let you outside. Just in case. That way you’ll be safe.”

When I get outside, I join Fred and Goose under my elm tree. I snuggle beside them. I’m glad to not be alone. I take a long nap, only waking to the sound of Joey’s car pulling into the driveway.

I peer around the tree, watching his face turn confused when he notices his belongings on the curb. He marches up to the house. My heart pounds in my chest in the same rhythm as his fist rapping on the door.

Muffled voices quickly turn into shouting. The front door slams. Alice screams. She walks toward him, slapping him in the chest and yelling in his face as he walks toward the curb.

“You’re leaving or I’m calling the police.”

“You need me!”

“I never needed you.”

“Alice, please. Let’s just talk this through.”

A loud, thundering engine noise comes from the end of the street. It grows louder. They don’t notice.

NO!

“Just give me one more chance, Alice. One more.”

“I’ve given you a hundred chances!”

“I’ll be better. I promise, Alice. I love you.”

“You’ve never loved me. I—I, never wanted it to be like this.”

“What do you mean?”

The engine noise becomes so loud I have to cover my ears with my paws. It only makes them shout louder.

“I put a spell on you!” Alice says. “And it was the biggest—,” she pushes him a little closer to the curb. His heels meet his cardboard belongings. “Mistake—,” Joey’s foot catches on a box. The engine grows louder. I can see a sports car now. Just a block away. It’s coming at full force. “Of my life—,” Alice gives Joey one last shove and his body topples over the boxes, falling onto the road.

Before either of them could acknowledge the car coming toward him, it plows over his rigid body. The wheels skid and sputter as they crawl over him. The frame of the car smacks back down onto the pavement, like it simply went over a speed bump. The tires smear what’s left of Joey across Sunshine Ave, like a butterknife spreading strawberry jam over toast. Pieces of him trail behind the car as it continues its wild chase through the suburb.

Alice screams. She drops to her knees and covers her mouth. Tears fall from her eyes and she steps out into the street, toward his smeared body. She tries to scoop it back together. I turn away at the sight.

After that, people from all over town bring over casseroles and trays of dessert for Alice. Some even bring me treats and toys. They always have something profound to say about the accident and give Alice a hug. Everyone pretends like it was some huge loss. But I could see a little gleam in Alice’s eye. Something that assures me I did the right thing.

At the next full moon, the first circle in over six months takes place in the living room.

I sneak Fred and Goose inside and they wait for the right moment to rejoin Paige and Gracie.

“We need to be more careful with what we do,” Alice says.

“Which spell do you think caused it?” Paige asks, reaching an arm out to rest on Alice’s.

“I wanted him to love me. Remember? But look what happened. I killed him. It’s terrible.”

“So was the way he treated you.”

“And Salem. That should’ve been my first warning.”

“You can never trust a man who doesn’t like cats,” Gracie says. “That’s one of the biggest red flags. I wrote about it for the paper.”

“Salem,” Alice says. “He saved me. Again.”

They all turn to look at me.

I meow.

“The night I first brought him home, I knew he was special. It was like he was waiting for me. Weren’t you?”

I walk over to Alice and lay in her lap. I meow again, my signal to Fred and Goose to come out. The girls gasp and scoop the cats into their arms. They cry. I almost do.

Alice brings me into her arms. She buries her nose in my fur and takes in a deep breath.

“Thank you,” she says.

And so was the beginning of the rest of our lives.

Have you come to a decision?

You see, I am about to leave this world the same way I came to it.

I have already parted with my dear friends. Sometimes they come fast, those ends.

So I must know whether I have been good or evil.

Have I abused my powers, through these small hours?

Or if my practice was holy, perhaps, could I die slowly?

Spend my last minutes with my Alice.

Maybe one night, see my mother again.

Know the real answer. But not to cry.

For I am only a cat.

As they say.


 Amanda Eiden is a writer and artist from rural Minnesota. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Concordia University, St. Paul. Her work has appeared in Mystery Tribune and Five on the Fifth, and is forthcoming in White Wall Review. When she’s not writing or drawing, she loves to spend time outdoors watching birds and playing with her dog and cats.


“Slim to None” Dark Flash Fiction by Rhema Sayers

"Slim to None" Dark Flash Fiction by Rhema Sayers

Anderson sat in one of the remaining seats, looking out at the snow. “It’s coming down pretty heavy.” he remarked.  

Three men sat around the fire, huddled under blankets. A blanket grunted.

Polanski came in, bringing in a gust of freezing air and snowflakes as he ducked under the tarp stretched over the hole in the forward half of the fuselage. “Looks like it’s getting heavier. Temperature’s droppin’.” 

“See anything?” asked another huddled form. 

“Nothin’ but white.” Polanski replied. 

No one spoke for a while. The howling of the wild northern wind outside made up for the silence inside.

Anderson heard voices in the wind, demons or wolves or ghosts. Indian ghosts? This was their land up here in the far North. His grandmother had been Cherokee and had taught him about ghosts and the old ways. 

Byrnes started a poker game, the murmurs of the players filling the void.  

There had been more players in the first weeks. Ten had survived, although two of those had died the first week. 

Then there were eight. Dupres had sat in a seat just in front of Anderson’s, listening to the wind. His wife and daughter had died in the crash. After three weeks, he had gotten up and walked outside and had never come back.  

A week later, Mendoza left. They tried to stop him. He fought. They asked him why and he never spoke. They tied him to a seat, but he had a fingernail clipper in his pocket, and he chewed at the ropes with it until he got free. He left while the rest slept. 

No one but Anderson listened to the wind. No one else wanted to know what it said. 

Marcetti was sorting through the stack of boxes at the far end of the plane, moving each box with care. He looked up and called out “How about pork and beans for dinner?” 


Byrnes snorted “Amani’s gonna fart all night.” 

A big, black man with kinky hair cut close to the scalp grinned and farted loudly. That got a laugh out of them.  

Except from Anderson. Staring out at the dark, he wished the others would be quiet. He wanted to hear what the voices said.  

The ones who died in the crash were lying just outside. He could see the small mounds they made in the snow. A little more time and snow and you wouldn’t be able to see them at all. One hundred fifteen bodies. Maybe those were their voices he almost heard. Maybe they were angry that some had survived. Anderson shuddered at the thought. He got up and went back to help Marcetti with dinner. 

Marcetti was whistling softly, something familiar, but Anderson couldn’t place it. Marcetti was a small man, quick and agile, always cheerful. He smiled as Anderson joined him. “How’s it goin’, big guy?” he asked.

Anderson shook his head. “Why are you so cheerful? We’re a thousand miles from civilization in a crashed jet liner in a blizzard with a hundred dead bodies lying just outside?”

 Marcetti grinned. “Beats crying. Besides, I was thinking about my girlfriend. You should see her. This girl has got the…..”


Laughter from the poker players interrupted him as Byrnes raked in the pot. “You’re going to have to wait ‘til we get home for your money!” one man said.  

Amani stood up, stretching. “You know what I’m gonna do when we get home? I’m goin’ down to Ozzie’s Steak House and get me the biggest goddam’ T-bone you ever saw with a gigantic baked potato with all the…..” 

Anderson tuned out the rest of the talk, staring at Marcetti. Marcetti had been whistling “Amazing Grace”.  

For long moments, Anderson stood still, eyes focused an eternity away. He could hear the voices more clearly now. His son’s little boy voice was calling with the rest of them: his grandmother, his mother, his little sister, his first wife, even his father. 

Marcetti tried to get him to move, but the big man was like a statue. Marcetti finally just worked around him. 

When dinner was ready, Anderson was still unmoving. The other five men ate their tiny ration of pork and beans and watched him.  

Byrnes said “He’s gonna walk.” 

Amani replied, “Twenty says he doesn’t.” 

As they were licking their bowls, Anderson sighed. He straightened up. Without looking at any of the others, he walked forward, ducked under the tarp, and disappeared into the storm. 

Five pairs of eyes remained focused on the tarp for several long minutes. Then Byrnes said, “How about a game of gin rummy for a change?” 

Marcetti said “I don’t think so.” still looking at the tarp. He could hear the wind howling outside. 

Amani said “I’m in.” 

Polanski said “Me, too.” 

The muttering and laughter of the players helped to keep the voices in the wind at bay. 


Rhema Sayers is a retired ER doctor. She took up writing as a second career to keep busy. Along with two dogs and one husband, she lives in the desert near Tucson, Arizona, visited occasionally by other writers, friends, and their three adopted daughters. 


“Doppelganger” Dark Fantasy by Jon Wesick

"Doppelganger" Dark Fantasy by Jon Wesick

I placed shrimp shumai and baked brie on a paper plate and grabbed a plastic fork. It was another company party at the same park and I had no one to talk to except the bird of paradise’s broad leaves. Couples in formal wear mingled under the lights strung over the buffet, grateful to live in a climate of balmy evenings while the rest of the country was buried in snow.

“Enough shop talk,” Jessica Hamming said. “How about breaking up your cliques with a little cha-cha?” The boss’ wife must have been twenty years younger than him. While Ed Hamming had stooped shoulders and a combover that failed to disguise his bald spot, she was tall, blonde, stunning. Her sky-blue gown’s open back revealed tanned shoulders that were strong as a rower’s.

When the music started, I stepped into the melee of swirling couples to look for a partner. Hoping not to embarrass myself, I tried to remember the steps from a ballroom class years ago. All the women the women chose other partners leaving me stranded and looking like an idiot. My face felt hot and I wanted to slip away when no one was looking. Jessica came to my rescue.

“Shall we?” She held out her arms.

I took her left hand and placed my right on the small of her back. Pressing her warm body close to mine, she followed my basic step: left, right, left, right to the side, and feet together with grace.

“What do you do when you’re not at company parties?” Her hair smelled of night jasmine.

“Travel when I get the chance.”

“Where have you been recently?”

“Egypt. I liked the Temple of Horus at Edfu. You?”

“Haven’t been recently but I spent six months in Tombos in northern Sudan digging at a Nubian site when I was studying archaeology at Princeton.”

I did a half turn, danced backwards, and went back to normal.

“That was the woman’s step,” Jessica said.

“In honor of the Nubians. They’re matrilineal. Aren’t they?”

She nodded.

“Much use for matrilineal culture in high tech?”

“I’m working on it. Can I show you something?” She took my hand and led me like an eager lover across the lawn and to a dirt path.

I followed her through the pines for a hundred yards until we arrived at a clearing. A shovel stuck blade first into a dirt pile beside a hole. We stepped forward to look inside. My body lay in the shallow grave with a bullet hole in my white tuxedo jacket. I touched my chest to feel my heartbeat. It didn’t make sense.

“I don’t understand.”

“No time to explain. You need to hide it.” Jessica started back to the party. “I’ll keep them distracted while you get it out of here.”

I climbed into the grave and grabbed my doppelganger under the arms. I had no reason to believe Jessica but somehow, I did. I strained to lift and pull but lost my footing, slipped, and landed on my rear end getting dirt on my pants. I tried again and got the body out of the depression. As I dragged him down the path toward the parking lot, his feet made furrows in the dirt. I had no clue what I was going to do with him beyond getting him in my car’s trunk.

I stopped to catch my breath. Sweat had drenched my shirt and jacket. My doppelganger had lost a shoe. He’d have to make do with a sock that had a hole in its toe because I wasn’t going back. After more effort, I left him in the bushes by the parking lot so I could move my Camry closer. As I put the key in the door, Art Feigenbaum and his wife walked by.

“Gee Jake, if I’d know you were building a fort out of dirt, I would have joined you,” Feigenbaum said.

“Last time I wear leather-soled shoes,” I replied.

“You okay?” His wife asked. “Need to go to urgent care?”

“No, just a bruise.” I pointed to my rear end. “I’ll take an aspirin and put some ice on it.”

The body didn’t fit in my trunk until I bent its neck at an extreme angle. Tucking its knees to chest caused a wallet to slip out of its hip pocket. I took it, closed the trunk, and noticed blood had stained my shirt. I drove north on I-5 and exited on Manchester. On a deserted stretch approaching the San Elijo Lagoon Nature Center, I saw a police car’s red-and-blue flashing lights in the rearview mirror. I pulled over in the shadows and buttoned my jacket to hide the blood.

 “Evening officer.”

“License and registration.”

The patrolman shone his flashlight in my eyes making it hard to see his face. All I could tell was that he was pale and had a scar on his cheek. Maybe this was only a routine traffic stop. I didn’t want to think of what would happen if it wasn’t. The officer took my documents back to his car. He returned moments later.

“Step out of the car, please.”

I was screwed. I had no way to explain the body in the trunk. Even if I told the police everything, they wouldn’t believe me. My best bet would be to demand a lawyer and hope that he could contact Jessica. Keeping my hands in view, I stepped out of the car.

“Turn around and place your hands on the roof,” the officer said.

A pickup truck rounded the corner with its high beams on. When I turned to look, the officer and police car had vanished. I got back in my car, did a U-turn, and swept the area with my lights but didn’t see my license and registration. It was too risky to stick around so I hurried home, soaked my bloodstained clothes in bleach, and fell into a narcotic sleep.

***

 I woke with a sore neck and raging fever. I needed to talk to Jessica but didn’t have her number. After downing two Advil, I phoned my boss.

“Hi Ed. I just wanted to thank your wife for the excellent party.”

“You left a little early,” Hamming said.

“Sorry, I’m coming down with a cold or something.”

“I’ll pass your thanks on to Jessica. She had to head up to Santa Cruz. Her mother’s ill.”

“Send me the mother’s address and I’ll send a sympathy card. I lost mine last year and know how tough that can be.” I wrote down the address. “Thanks. See you Monday.”

I mailed a thankyou card to the Hamming’s home and a sympathy card to the mother’s place. Both had my return address. I included my cell number in the sympathy card along with the phrase, “If you need to talk,” in hopes that Jessica would get in touch.  

I fished the corpse’s wallet out of my pocket. It was a Montblanc bifold. Inside I found a black American Express card issued by a bank in Dubai to Cyrus Fulani. My face stared back at me from the driver’s license. It listed an address in La Jolla. If I could return the corpse to its home, it would get it off my hands. Maybe the keys were still in its pocket. I slipped the drivers license into my wallet and took the credit card, too.

In the parking lot, I pretended interest in my smart phone until a couple walked past. Once the coast was clear, I opened the trunk and the stink of decay hit me. Even at 9:00 AM, the sun had made the interior hot enough to warm a leftover pizza. The blood had dried and the corpse’s face had turned the color of a pork chop. I had to get rid of him. I fished the keys out of its pants pocket and stopped at a convenience store to buy some ice to cool my guest before hitting the freeway.

I always got lost on the way to La Jolla. This time was no exception. I took a wrong turn and ended up in UCSD. I turned around, got on Torrey Pines Road, and parked at a tennis club not far from his house.

***

Responding to a silent alarm, the patrolman entered the office building and swept his flashlight over rows of gray cubicles. He glimpsed a moving shadow and turned on the light switch. The overhead light was dim but still bright enough to make the world outside the third-story windows appear black. He spotted something.

An intruder stood forty paces away. He was skinny and wore thick glassed held together at their bridge with white tape. The patrolman didn’t call for backup. He had fifty pounds on the guy and lifted weight every day at the police gym. The intruder closed the distance between them in the time a hummingbird takes to beat its wings. He lifted the patrolman with one hand and tossed him through the window.

The patrolman fell onto a steel railing. Its post penetrated his sternum. A shadow approached and looked on in amusement as the patrolman lay supine wiggling his arms and legs like a butterfly impaled on a pin.

“You had one job.” Mr. Seth pulled the patrolman off the post. “If you fail again, I won’t give you another chance.”

***

I walked through the neighborhood of stucco houses with tile roofs. The yards were bigger than I could afford. Hell, I couldn’t even afford enough ground to support my size-nine shoes in this neighborhood. My plan was to walk past the house and return with the body if the coast was clear. I needed to keep moving before someone decided to charge me rent. I smelled the exhaust before I rounded a corner and saw a police car parked with its motor running. It was a black-and-white SUV. The cop in the passenger’s seat had shoulder-length hair and a ring in his ear. I nodded, kept walking, and passed a pickup truck also with its motor running. A police car came down the street from the other direction. Something was definitely up and I didn’t want to find out what it was. I continued to the end of the block and circled back to the tennis club.

I took the dead man’s keys from my pocket. The remote-entry fob sported the three-bladed Mercedes symbol. If I returned to the park that hosted Friday night’s party, I might dump the body inside his car. I started my Camry and returned to the I-5.  Even with the air rushing past, I still smelled the corruption of death. I changed plans around Mission Bay. Until Jessica got in touch with me, I didn’t know whether the body needed to be found or remain hidden. I used the black card to get a fifty-thousand-dollar advance and paid cash to rent a storage facility for a year. Getting a freezer delivered that day cost extra but I had plenty. I waited until after dark to move the corpse to its new home. I packed the freezer with baking soda to absorb the smell. As long as the power stayed on, the body wouldn’t decay further.

***

I knocking on my door woke me at 5:00 AM. I put on my pants and looked through the peep hole. It was the patrolman who’d stopped me the night of the party.

“Open up, Jake. We need to talk.”

I crept back to the bedroom looking for a weapon. The best I could come up with was a steel flashlight.

“Jake, I can’t help you unless you open up.”

I stood by the door, trying to keep my breathing quiet until the first rays of dawn shone through the blinds. I looked out the peephole. The patrolman was gone. It wasn’t safe to stay at home so I packed, drove to the office, and parked in the underground lot. The area was deserted on Sunday morning. This made it easy to notice anyone taking an interest in me as I waited for my rideshare. The driver was a middle-aged woman who had a habit of laughing at her own jokes. It took fifteen minutes to get to the park. Even though she took an indirect route, I gave her a hefty tip.

Clicking the button on Cyrus’s key fob, I eventually found a silver-gray Mercedes E Type with a handful of parking tickets under its windshield wipers. I got in, opened the glove box, and found a pistol. It was square, black, and had a spare fifteen-round magazine, the kind that was illegal in this state. At this point, this no longer surprised me. I checked into a nondescript, family-run motel called La Posada Rosa using Cyrus’s ID. It was the kind of place that didn’t ask questions especially when you paid for the room in cash. The clerk was a grandmotherly woman with extra pounds, gray-streaked hair, and a kind smile. I found my room, tossed my bag on the king bed, and turned on a telenovela on Univision. I hoped Jessica would call soon.

***

After a weekend of intrigue, it was a relief to be back in my office cubicle on Monday morning. The beige-fabric walls, photo of me with two taiaha-wielding Māori in Rotorua, and spreadsheet with a logistics plan for the Constellation-class frigate. You know what they say about logisticians. They’re like accountants without the personality. They also say amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk logistics. I went to the break room to get some hot water to refresh my Dragon Well tea and bumped into Ed Hamming.

“Jake, join me in the conference room. There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

 A thin man with ashen skin was sitting at the table when I arrived. He wore a three-piece suit and had curly, salt-and-pepper hair.

“Pleased to meet you. I’m Donald Seth.” His hand felt cold as marble when he shook mine.

“Mr. Seth is hiring us to plan logistics support for a foreign military sale,” Hamming said.

“Who’s the customer?” I asked.

“I’m not at liberty to tell you. Let’s just say it’s a middle eastern nation.” Seth touched his goatee with his little finger.

“What’s the weapons system?” I asked.

“I’m not at liberty to tell you that either.”

“I don’t see how I can help you,” I said. “Without knowing the weapon, I don’t know how to base it, what skills the maintainers need, or what kind of spares are required.”

“Here is a list of spare parts.” Seth took document out of a leather-covered notebook and handed it to me.

I scanned the list. It contained high-tech components like optical filters, CCDs, GaAs transistors, deformable mirrors, tunable lasers, and refrigerators to make liquid helium.

“Anyway, I look forward to working together.” Seth stood and shook our hands. “I’ll expect a POA&M by Friday.”

After Seth left, I told Hamming, “Are you sure this guy’s on the up and up? These components have to ITAR controlled.”

“Somebody else is working problem,” Hamming said. “This contract could be a big thing for us. I’m taking you off the Constellation project. Show me what you come up with on Thursday.”

I got to work on the plan of action. With all the high-tech parts, I assumed the contractor would perform maintenance at the depot level. I could probably hack together some safety procedures but with no knowledge of how the parts went together, engineers couldn’t estimate reliability and I wouldn’t know how many spares to keep on hand. My cell phone rang.

“Jake, it’s Jessica. Get out of there, now!”

“Jessica, you need to tell me what’s going on.”

“Just go!”

I took the elevator to the garage. Even in the middle of the day, the fluorescent lights and gray concrete made it resemble dusk. As I unlocked Cyrus’s Mercedes, a voice spoke from behind.

“Leaving so soon?”

I turned. I was Mr. Seth.

“Yeah, I need to run a few errands over lunch. If you have any reliability data, it would sure help with the logistics…”

Someone shoved a black bag over my head before I could finish my sentence. I heard tires squealing and they shoved me into a trunk. After twenty minutes, the car parked, I heard a garage door open, and the car drove inside. The trunk opened, someone lifted me out, marched me to a chair, and shackled my wrists to the armrests. The hood came off. Seth and the patrolman stood before me. I flinched as Seth approached.

“You think I’m going to torture you for information? I already know everything.” Seth removed a hypodermic needle from a crocodile-skin case and filled it with yellow fluid from a vial. “I have other plans for you.” He injected the drug into my arm.

I got dizzy. The sound of thousands of ball bearings hitting sheet metal came from inside my ears. The reality of Seth, the patrolman, and the garage parted like a curtain leaving me in interplanetary blackness. The sun gave off white light that grew brighter as I approached. I covered my eyes with a hand against the glare but the light went through showing me my bones. Closer and closer, I feared I was going to burn alive. I plunged into the nuclear furnace and felt cold.

It was damp and dark. The vehicle I sat on rocked and bumped around obstacles. A being with a man’s body and head of an animal I’d never seen before stood with its back to me. A drop of water dripped onto my forehead. There was a snake large as a semi. It exhaled acid that burned my face but I could not move or utter a sound. The half-man thrust a spear at the snake but the cold made me too tired to watch.

***

I hung onto the naked woman laying on top of me like a life raft. Her heat, her breath pulled me from the shadowy world. It was Jessica rocking her hips as she made love to me while I lay in the freezer inside to storage room. My mind was sluggish as my pulse. I had not thought of how I’d gotten there or what it meant. Only the animal part of me remained.

“Cyrus, I looked so hard for you.” She kissed me.

“Not Cyrus,” I croaked. “Jake.”

“You fool!” She slapped me so hard it loosened three teeth. “Do you know what you’ve done?”

***

The pain in my jaw woke me. I sat up and probed the loose teeth with my tongue. The familiar alarm clock, bookshelf, and dresser of my bedroom surrounded me. I stumbled to the bathroom and saw my cheek had turned purple. I downed a few ibuprofens and chased it with a glass of milk from the kitchen. My license and registration lay on the dining room table. After making a dentist appointment, I drove my Camry to work. An emailed layoff notice greeted me when I logged onto my computer. Hamming had sold the company and the new owners wanted to make a clean start. I didn’t bother to take my things. I had enough of Cyrus’s money to tide me over.

I never found out what the affair was all about though I heard the Hammings divorced and moved away. Intuition tells me that I’d stumbled into something too big to handle. If I stay quiet, forces larger than me might just let me alone.


Jon says about himself: “I am an editor of the San Diego Poetry Annual and have written novels (most recently The Prague Deception) as well as story and poetry collections (most recently The Shaman in the Library). I’ve published hundreds of poems and stories in journals such as Atlanta Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, New Verse News, Paterson Literary Review, Pearl, Pirene’s Fountain, Slipstream, Space and Time, and Tales of the Talisman. The editors of Knot Magazine nominated my stories “The Visitor” and “A Story for the Rest of Us” for Pushcart Prizes. My poem “Meditation Instruction” won the Editor’s Choice Award in the 2016 Spirit First Contest. Another poem “Bread and Circuses” won second place in the 2007 African American Writers and Artists Contest. “Richard Feynman’s Commute” shared third place in the 2017 Rhysling Award’s short poem category.”


“Dark Encounter” Horror by Jan Cronos

Pale sunlight lanced through opaque shades, spearing Jade’s lovely face and slashing it with ugly streaks of yellow. The day after is always a drag, she thought, blinking eyes as dark as mourning. Pink and white afterimages were naked dancers tweaking on her retina. She smelled the pungent alcohol on her breath, felt a tickle in her throat and sneezed. She shouldn’t have gone off the wagon. The sudden movement was a stab of pain, as agonizing as a glass shard piercing the pulpy center of her pupil.

Groaning, Jade squeezed her brown eyes tightly shut. Her brow wrinkled and the expression “hammered” rang true- her skull was a wooden anvil that a muscular blond Thor was pounding with his mighty iron mallet. She got up slowly, teetered for a second, recovered and quickly gulped down a handful of Advil and stumbled into the bathroom. What a night it had been!

Carefully, Jade removed her bra and lace panties, stepped into the shower, and turned the cold water on full force. The spray felt good, squirting and slohsing over her dry skin like liquid honey, the watery droplets icy pins driving deep into her body. Her flesh, rather than shrink from the frigid wetness, relished it, like arid soil welcomes a liquid downpour. She took a deep breath and stood for a long time under the flow, letting it permeate the pores of her skin.

Shaking off the dampness like a slippery minx, Jade toweled dry, rubbing her skin until it was as smooth as fur, as polished as shellacked wenge. She began to feel almost human again.

Jade was parched. She giggled. Those salty margaritas she had downed had desiccated her. She slurped down four or five glasses of sparkling water, letting it dribble out the sides of her mouth. Shaking her thick hair, she let it fall over her face, and combed it to unsnarl the knots. Then she brushed it vigorously, the metal tines harsh against her scalp, almost self-punitive. Jade grinned. She deserved it. She’d been a bad girl.

Laughing, Jade tossed her head. Her hair was a come-on to men. And that gorgeous man last night was no exception. Splashing cold water over her cheeks and forehead, she tried to dull the headache. Rinsing her mouth, she spat out something foul and gummy.

The late-night encounter with the albino at the bar was a first. Jade frowned. For most of her life, she had stuck with her own kind. Her granny had warned her to stay away from white men. After three marriages, she moved up north, yearning for something different. The bitter-sweet chocolate of her last husband’s loving had paled on her, the joy bleached out by his tomcatting. But she had remained resolutely sober. Still sometimes she needed a shot to dull the pain and loneliness.

Last night was the anniversary of her divorce and she decided to celebrate by boozing at an uptown bar, rather than a downtown honkytonk. Maybe, after three losing black Jacks, it was time to bid on a King of Diamonds.

After her third or fourth or maybe fifth margarita, she noticed him, alone, sitting at a small table in the corner. He fit the description perfectly, slender and a bit withered, with skin so

translucent he was a sculpture of marble. It was as if this gorgeous guy was there waiting for her. Their eyes met across the room, just like in fairy tales. His pupils were pale moons that brightened the midnight sky of Jade’s face. She sashayed over to him, swinging her hips and pursing her lips.

At first, they made small talk, downed a few glasses of Scotch, letting the ice tinkle in the glasses as they held them half empty, their knuckles grazing each other, as her pulse quickened, as heat rose in her skin. When he offered to pay for the next round, his voice soft, a deep, resonant baritone. She accepted- it made her feel desirable, valued.

And she could tell he had money by the cut of his suit, the platinum of his watch. His occupation? “I’m a gardener”, he whispered, his mouth brushing her ear. Taking a small lily he had in his lapel, he placed it in her hair, as if planting a flower. They laughed together at the joke. Their connection was genuine. For a moment, Jade felt love, pure and nourishing, which did not undercut the hot acid of desire.

His face was unusual, whipped cream, the eyes a washed-out pastel. His eyebrows were sugar or talcum. The nose was distinctive, broad and flat, as if he had Cherokee blood. She yearned to nibble the cauliflowers of his ears, whorls of milky growth. And his face glittered.

Jade sighed and sat down on her couch. The memory was vivid, overwhelming, and her body throbbed with desire. She retired with him to a back room and downed a few doubles. When he began fondling her, his hands smooth wraiths that slipped under her garments, she let him. And his kisses—Jade inhaled and touched her chest. His tongue dipped into her soft, eager mouth extending like a vine, rooting itself, drawing forth her sweet liqueur. She had never been kissed that way.

Jade licked her lips. They were chapped now but last night the trickle of his saliva moistened them. And she returned to the well of his mouth again and again for more. As a young girl, she believed that kissing could make you pregnant. Kids are so naïve, she thought. Still, Christian guilt hit her. Jade stiffened and touched her belly gently. She sighed. It was as flat and as taut as ever.

Getting up, she went to the sink and drank more water. It had never tasted so delicious. She hadn’t gone to an AA meeting in years, hadn’t needed to, until now. Maybe it was time. She burped. She had drunk too much alcohol. Going to the fridge, Jade took a large bottle of Avion and put it to her mouth, quaffed, and kept on until she had emptied the entire pint. Wiping her mouth with her hand, she cursed. Jesus, she was still thirsty. And her mouth tasted funny. Jade spat into the sink. Her spittle sprayed out, splashing over the porcelain. Brown guck coated the basin like moist coal dust.

Jade checked the bottle, but it was clean. She opened another one, drank more water. Incredibly, she downed it as if it was the first, as if she had an empty fuel tank that needed filling. Her gums were slimy, oily. She spat again. If anything, the saliva was darker this time. The sight nauseated her; she wretched, vomited. Her vision blurred as blackness poured out of her mouth like dark vomit, a torrent of tarry liquid. Jade’s brain whirled, spilled into a chasm of charcoal. Losing consciousness, she blacked out.

When her vision returned, the pinwheel of fuzziness resolved into the kitchen linoleum’s shadowy whiteness. She was face down on the floor, her nose pressed against its hard coldness. She was dizzy, and a bruise rose up on her knee. Her mouth was sandpaper and foul-tasting. Raising herself off the ground, she stood up, went to the sink.

The porcelain was ugly, black and grainy, as if someone had emptied dank soil from a large flowerpot into it. It smelled like loam or fertilizer. Jade remembered vomiting. Did this stuff come out of her? Her hands trembled, the fingers stiffening into wooden sticks.

Then, she noticed. What happened to her fingers? Their deep, rich ebony had lightened, was russet. Or was she imagining this? Jade rubbed her eyes, then examined her hands again. No doubt about it, they were several shades lighter. Or was she hallucinating?

Rolling up her sleeves, Jade compared her hands to her upper arms. Above the elbows, the skin was smoky, jet; but below, it was cocoa, as if cream had been poured into a pot of black coffee.

As she stared, Jade saw the lighter line begin to shift, ease further up her wrist, like the first rays of dawn brightening the night shadows. Soon her skin literally blanched, turning from deep pitch to dark brown, then to tan. She blinked, as memories churned. She pictured the wheat field on grandma’s farm down south, when virulent, pallid weeds invaded, leaching the rich loam and nutritious minerals from the soil. The parasitic growth changed the fertile, dark ground to lifeless beige as they drained its nutrients, bloating until they were obscene tubers.

Sweet Jesus, she groaned. An unknow power was leaching the melanin from her skin, sucking the vital life force out of her body. No, that was impossible. A voice chuckled in her brain, the tone deep, baritone. She cried out.

Jade recalled the man’s handsome face; the weird pallor as if the color had leached out of grainy bark, evaporated to leave only a frosty residue. She recoiled, pressing her hand to her mouth. She imagined she still felt the powerful draw of his kisses, as if he sucked the juice from

her body, drained it, and then poured something else down her throat. She gasped. What had he done to her?

Jade screamed. Running to the bathroom, she hunted for the stash of vals she kept in the medicine cabinet for emergencies. Her face stared back at her from the mirror, nilky and ghoulish, as if she had vitiligo, as if her essential pigmentation was missing. Her ears were growing, becoming flowery like huge, spiral Carnations. Creamy shoots sprouted out of them, blossomed, as if feeding on rich earth.

Panicky, Jade stripped off her blouse, then her bra. Her torso was as pale as the full moon, as creamy as snow, her breasts vanilla pears, with tiny, frost-colored daisies budding from their oozing tips.

Trembling, she took off her skirt, the panties. She bloomed from every crevice, lush and wild– her body a garden of whiteness. Then, like a one-day hibiscus, she wilted.

*****

The tall, handsome black man sat alone at the bar, sipping a martini. His skin glowed and he was brimming with vitality, his complexion dark as ripe Mahogany, his face pitch. His chest was broad, hard and sturdy as a wild chestnut tree.

The pretty blond woman who stepped into the bar was drawn to him, a pale flower spreading its petals towards a bright, dark sun. Hesitant, she smiled, and when he smiled back, she sat down next to him. Soon, they chatted. When he delicately touched her hand, she trembled.

They made small talk. Enchanted but curious, she asked him what he did for a living. His voice was deep and resonant. “I’m a gardener,” he said, and smiled. Then he placed a black rose in her golden hair.


Author lives and writers in NYC.


“Myrtle” Dark Fiction by Austin J. Fowler

"Myrtle" Dark Fiction by Austin J. Fowler

Myrtle admitted there was a problem when she hadn’t seen another person for one hundred days.

Distracted by pressing matters at home, it had taken her several weeks to notice anything had changed. The dolls needed dusting and combing. The stacks of magazines needed straightening and cataloguing. And the quilt for her beloved dog Juffers would never get done if she didn’t get the pattern worked out. So it’s not like she had spare time to keep track of the happenings outside her window.

Eventually, though, one couldn’t help but take note. Week after week of no people is hard to miss. Not that Myrtle blamed anyone for staying inside. Society was a cruel bitch that she’d sworn off years ago. Wandering around in the world was just plain foolery. She chalked it up to people wising up and following her lead.

After two full months, she stood at her street-facing window with pudgy fingers gripping fat hips. A heavy, brown cotton dress hung from thick and sloped shoulders, the same one she wore every single day. A mane of coarse gray hair caped her shoulders. She chewed on cracked lips and frowned as she scanned the empty street.

“Much more of this, Juffers, and we’ll have to turn on the radio. Not yet though.” She pulled the curtains shut and moved toward the kitchen, large insects skittering across the floor as she walked. She bent to grab two cans from their middling supply, opened them, and poured the soup into a bowl for herself and the wet, gray slop into another for the dog. She sat at the kitchen table and ate slowly, staring at the peeling papered wall beside the unused fridge. When finished, she looked and saw that Juffers had not eaten his food.

“Still not eating, my love?”

She got rid of the dog’s food and entered the living room. She grabbed a notebook of lined paper titled Magazine Directory and observed the two dozen stacks that rose from floor to ceiling. She approached one, laid gentle fingers on the edges, and stared into the stack for a long, long while. Finally she yawned, set the notebook down, and plodded to the bedroom.

“Here Juffers,” she rasped. She laid down and was soon snoring. Bulky chunks of sour breath escaped chaotically. The dog did not come.

Two weeks later, the electricity stopped working. The fans stopped turning and the house grew hot. Myrtle’s skin became slick and her dress dampened with sour sweat. She tried the handheld radio, but the batteries had corroded. She filled every container she had with drinking water, including the never-used bathtub. A few days later the water stopped too.

After another two weeks, it had been ninety days. She looked to the small remaining stack of cans.

“Ten more days, Juffers. Then I go out.”

She poked at a large, reddening growth on her neck and winced. Then she served Juffers his slop and ate her soup. Later, when she went to throw away the cans, she saw again that he had not touched his food. She frowned and licked her lower lip.

Soon after, she wove through stacks of magazines and sat at the sewing table. She stared, unmoving, at an incomplete sketch of the quilt until the sun was set. Then she stood and wobbled to the bed, brushing clusters of little red bugs from the sheets. Sinking into the mattress, she called again for Juffers, but he did not come.

When day one hundred arrived, Myrtle grabbed her keys, unbolted the door, and stood with her hand on the knob.

“Be back soon, Juffers. Don’t you go thinking I’m nervous or anything. Just need to get more food.”

She sighed hoarsely and opened the door, stepping into the muggy heat of the day.

Apart from her tri-annual outings to the market, and a rare trip to the fabric store, Myrtle didn’t bother step one foot outside. What was the point in canoodling with the evils of society? She saw those young sluts who worked at the market. They cupped hands over their faces when she walked by, definitely snickering at her while she filled one cart with soup, another with dog food, and a third with toilet paper and magazines. They watched her wrestle with the carts and whispered to one another like she was a folk tale come to life. Whoever checked her out always seemed on the verge of being sick. Those whores could burn for all she cared.

Now, driving the streets, she saw no signs of human life. A few starving cats wandered the roads and observed her car with great interest. But the people were gone. All of them.

She drove for half an hour, checking every major area in her small town. Parking lots sat empty, businesses stood locked up. Only trash occupied the streets and walkways.

Several blocks at the center of town had been taped off, and she turned the car around and hurried away. The air tasted sour there. A shiver of curiosity crawled down her sweaty thighs.

This was a problem, all right. Would the store have any food? How would she heat the house in the winter? Who would she go see when the growth on her neck got too big?

Myrtle steered the station wagon to the market and parked. When she approached the automatic doors, they didn’t open. She stood, slowly waving her arms up and down, but they wouldn’t trigger.

A line of grocery carts sat off to the left. She pulled one from its row and rammed it into the glass door several times, grunting with effort. Nothing.

“Damned sluts locked this place up tight.”

She looked for anything to throw. Her eyes settled on a loose brick near the base of the outside wall. She snatched it and returned to the entry. She held the brick above her head with both hands, great sacks of flesh swaying below her elbows. She gritted her teeth and threw it, shattered glass cascading to the ground.

Well-pleased, she nodded and stepped carefully into the store. She filled three carts: one with soup, another with dog food, and a third with jugs of water and some trash bags. She sacrificed the magazines for trash bags with great regret, purely out of necessity now that the toilet wouldn’t flush. She balanced toilet paper on top of each cart, but not as much as she would need. Something had to give, the car only had so much space. 

By the time Myrtle loaded the station wagon and drove home, she was plain bushed. Unloading herself from the car, she saw a piece of paper tacked to the front door that she hadn’t noticed when she left. She staggered to the door and ripped the handwritten note from its pin.

We knocked and yelled but you didn’t answer. There’s been an event – we don’t really know what it was – at the center of town, and the air is poisoned. DO NOT go into town. Wear a mask if you have one and get away from here as soon as you can.

It was dated for a hundred and one days prior.

A memory bubbled to the surface: Loud knocks on the door which sent her scurrying into the bedroom. When they started yelling for her to answer, she laid down and pulled pillows over her ears. She dozed off after they left. When she awoke, she exorcised the memory and banished it, maintaining the brittle foundation of ignorance on which her life precariously balanced.

“Oh dear oh dear oh dear,” she said now. She entered the house and stood in the landing. Panic descended.

“Juffers!? What should I do!?” She paced around the living room, fists clenched and long, chipped fingernails cutting into her palms. Her vision landed on the plans for Juffer’s quilt that hadn’t progressed for many months, and humiliation stung her like a bee.

“Oh! You worthless bitch!” She grabbed at her hair and pulled. She scrunched her eyes shut and gnashed her teeth. Her chest shook with sobs. In a state of hysteria, she bumped into a stack of magazines with her full force.

“No!” she cried, watching it slowly tip. It leaned and fell, crashing into another stack, which crashed into another and another. The cacophony of tumbling magazines roared through the house.

“Juffers! Watch out!” She buried her face in her hands, rooted in place.

When the noise stopped, she raised her gaze, mouth agape. The floor was covered with fallen stacks. Several cases of dolls had been smashed and scattered.

Suddenly the growth on her neck burned and cramped. She brought fingers to her throat and was horrified that it had grown two-fold. She laid a palm on it and found that it was warm, almost hot.

Her eyes found a new red welt on her forearm. Extending her arm, she saw another in the crook of her elbow and another on her wrist. She looked closer and swore she could see them growing, the red swollen circles grabbing more chunks of skin with each passing second. Frightened, she looked to her other arm and saw several more. Frantic breaths heaved in and out and she unbuttoned her dress with trembling fingers. She stripped it off and looked down at her expansive flesh. Dozens of new, red lumps swelled all over her skin. Fresh pain throbbed from each.

Her breaths quickened into a rapid, hyperventilating pace. She thumped down onto her knees. “Nononono,” she groaned, eyes frantic. She clawed at her cheeks and called for the dog again and again.

Then, abruptly, her breath caught. The tears stopped. The finality of her situation landed with a heavy internal thud. She stared into empty space.

“Oh.”

In a way, this was what she’d always wanted. To be relieved of the world. But another, deeper part of her felt something else. Something crushing. Something dreadful. The waste and filth of her life settled upon her.

She crawled, nearly naked, over the piles of magazines to the kitchen.

“One more supper, Juffers.” She grabbed the last remaining cans of food – the others remained in the car – and set out their meals on the floor. She sat and ate. When finished, she looked to the dog’s bowl. Then, as she had twice per day for the last two years, she grabbed the bowl and gulped down the dog’s slop as well. Her lips were sticky with gravy and her cheeks wet with tears when she finished.

She paused and pressed her hand to her neck again. It was growing unthinkably fast. The pain bore deeply into her and seemed to touch her spine. Her head felt like it would split. The other welts across her body grew and joined together. The skin around her eyes swelled.

She looked at the rubber bin under the sink where Juffers had been sealed since his death. She screamed and kicked at it. She kicked again, and again. She jarred the lid loose, and it slid off and onto the floor.

The sharp, infecting smell of Juffers invaded her senses. She smelled him, tasted him. Her eyes burned. She rose to her feet and clapped a hand over her nose and mouth.

Gagging, she looked at the front door, but what lay beyond was not an option. She considered the living room but couldn’t bear the shame of it all. She opened the door to the garage and lumbered inside. Something on the floor tripped her. She pitched forward and landed in a massive pile of opened cans, each lined with moldy resin, each tossed into the garage over the course of several years. Dozens of rats flurried around her, under her, on her. She turned over with massive effort and lay on the pile, rats exploring their new offering. She stared through swollen slits at the cobwebbed rafters above.

The bulge on her neck was now engulfing her jaw and collarbone, expanding like a balloon. A searing pain shot down her spine and she could barely move. Her fingers twitched and her shallow breaths slowed to a crawl. She could feel her body swelling, pulsing, warming, leaving.

“Juffers,” she croaked. “Here boy.”

Myrtle’s departure was well attended to, but the dog did not come.


Austin J. Fowler is an aspiring writer from Seattle, WA. He began writing on his couch in 2020, and quickly fell in love. He appreciates dark fiction of all sorts, and aspires to evoke an array of emotions in his work. “Myrtle” is his first published piece. He is a nonprofit manager and a proud husband and father.


“Devouring” Horror by Patrick McEvoy

"Devouring" Horror by Patrick McEvoy

His eyes opened and captured the characteristics of the carcass lying before him.

That was the first time he knew his world had changed forever.

Lying naked amidst leaves, feeling the chill of the breeze, Alan bolted up from the ground and took a step back. His right hand touched his face, lingered there for a moment or two. When he looked at the red in his palm, he shook his head, closed his eyes. Yes, things were different now for him. He had changed physically. He could even feel it, how his senses had become sharper, his nose picking up a myriad of scents, his ears hearing leaves rustle from far away.

He opened his eyes and gazed at the dead deer before him. Its neck had been snapped. Its stomach was torn open, bones sticking out, blood and intestines flooding the land between the deer and Alan. A leg was missing, torn right off. Such a savage sight. Brutal.

So Alan had transformed into a werewolf.

And here he was in the woods, a mile from home, dealing with the consequences.  

He thought back briefly to the time he spent getting stitches in his arm. How afterward his eyes seemed ever more compelled to drift up to the moon. How passing stores selling meat made him nearly drool, filling him with an almost uncontrollable urge. All a little ironic considering how he had been a fairly cerebral person, almost a stereotypical accountant, fixated on numbers and math, a little dry personality. Outside of hiking, he had never been all that adventurous. Of course, a happenstance encounter with a wolf one brisk evening was that one thing that led to this.

This.

His new condition.

Alan shuffled his feet, listened for the stream that ran through this area. He started jogging, then running faster and faster. Adjustments would have to be made. There was a way to deal with this. There had to be. All he had to do was think. And plan. And find a way. Find a way to adjust. But first … water. He needed to dive in. He needed the waves to the wash over his body, cleanse everything away from his skin.

Once he arrived, Alan dove right in. The currents felt wonderful. Feeling the coolness press against his body in a constant flow served as meditation in a way. Every second a new force pushed to a certain point, pushing against him and around him. He stayed still, then moved his arms in a circular motion before splashing some water on his face.

A symbolic awakening, he thought as he climbed out of the stream several minutes later. Though, to be quite honest, he wasn’t sure what he had awakened to exactly, and whether it could be considered a good thing. Business was his specialty in school, not literature.

So that was, in essence, the first time Alan realized his world had changed.

And the second time occurred not too long ago.

Alan sat for eons in his office on that day. Numbers dominated his vision, a constant stream. He had a big lunch since he knew he’d be working late and he would probably not have the chance to cook or go to one of his favorite restaurants. But on the way home, that fast food sign just teased his vision. His instinct was to just go home and grab a snack, but the thought of a burger shoved such a notion aside. He turned into the parking lot, and practically gassed it into a parking spot.

Why go to the drive-through and sit in the car eating? Or maybe have it be cold before going home? Alan turned the key, and left the car. He strolled into the restaurant with his eyes fixated on the board above the counter. All the various meals and combinations reverberated through his math-soaked brain. With fries or without. The works or plain. Side orders. Oh, such delightful quandaries to consider. Even the growling hardly penetrated his contemplation. Until he realized it wasn’t his stomach. That the growling emanated from somewhere within the restaurant. He blinked his eyes. Then he slowly turned to look over the surroundings. A dog surely wasn’t loose on the premises, he thought.

And he was indeed correct with that guess.

A sudden noise burst from behind the counter.

“Stay back!”

Alan turned, looked at a panic stricken service worker holding a gun, young, maybe a college student. His head swiveled towards the tables and back again.

“Stay back I said!”

Alan’s eyes bulged. He raised his arms.

“I didn’t do anything!”

“I’ve seen some of  — of – those movies!”

Whaaaat?

Alan snuck another peek then. And it was right then that he knew what the worker was talking about. A body laid underneath a table to the left of the ordering area. And two zombies, a man and a woman, seemed to be chomping away at him. Or her. Well, he didn’t know who that was, didn’t know who they were, didn’t know a damn thing apparently. Except the fact … the fact that something bad was happening. And the movies the kid was referring to was zombie movies. Apocalyptic movies. He felt a deep sadness rising. As dour as he could be sometimes Alan liked the world. He really didn’t want it to end.  Try to think, he told himself.

That’s when his college tuition kicked in. That’s when his day job sprang into action.

2 Zombies + 1 Dead Person Being Eaten – Gun-toting Fast Food Worker % Unsure of Minimum Wage Increase is Good Enough = T.R.O.U.B.L.E.

Which wasn’t an equation that solved anything, really. But there were other options. He tried to channel his new werewolfishness, find a way to release that newfound power. Really though, his eyes kept bouncing from the gun to the zombies. A growl emanated from them every now and then, but they were preoccupied. Only for a short while, he surmised. So his big thing was to get this youngster to point the gun in the right direction, which would be away from him. Damn, did he hate guns.

Alan motioned with his hands for the kid to calm down.

“Right, zombies,” Alan said. “I am not one of them, ok? Hear me? I am talking in a fairly intelligent manner right now even though you are pointing a gun at me. Do you understand?”

The worker looked towards the zombies and back at Alan.

“I think I do need to defend myself.”

“Agreed. But not from me. I’m really not a part of, uh, this. I like eating cows, not people.”

                                                                       

“Have you been bitten?”

“By a zombie?” Alan shook his head. “No.”

They both turned their heads to the zombies. The zombies looked up, flesh falling from their teeth. They saw, yet didn’t really see. It was the first time, Alan thought, that he was looked at as if he was a meal. Unfortunately, it was hardly the last time.

“I think we should run,” Alan said. “Bolt out the door.”

The worker nodded. “Agreed.”

They ran and burst through the doors. Alan ran for his car, looked over his shoulder.

“My ride’s over here,” the worker said, pointing to the opposite lot. “Sorry I pointed the gun at you …”

Alan stood by the driver’s side door, looking at the kid run. He considered shouting an invitation, a suggestion that they stay together. Yet he really didn’t know the exact situation at all. What he saw could be isolated. And there were others he probably should check in on as well. Though that would have to be a few days later after the full moon had passed.

Now Alan was sitting in the car before a traffic light. A couple weeks had passed by since he first entered the fast food joint, now living in an entirely new world again. The traffic light above blinked yellow. Ha, caution. More math popped up in his mind.

??????????#Zombies – Infrastructure – Communication = GO SOMEWHERE ELSE AS FAST AS POSSIBLE.

Yet he lingered. Kept the car at the intersection, looking ahead, looking right. Sitting and wondering where to go in the immediate future, though knowing exactly where he wanted to be in a few days when the full moon arose once again in the sky. He had plenty of provisions packed, enough to keep him going for a while. After they were gone, well, the then after that would be defined when it actually happened. For really, who knew where the zombies would be going and what they were doing? He thought of his old friend Jason. He thought of his ex-girlfriend Leslie. Both lived to the right of this intersection, a few blocks separating them. He tried calling, tried e-mails, but everything collapsed so quickly. Once people in the “right places” were zombified, which stunningly, perhaps, happened very quickly, communication and the digital structure no longer connected people to each other.

The days after the encounter at the fast food encounter filled Alan with terror, even at a safer distance. Once he got back into his apartment, he turned on every device he had: the television, the radio, the internet. Chatter that had begun as bewildered queries had transformed  into outright panic, with some suggestions thrown in. Minute by minute, hour by hour, services vanished, disappeared. Before long, the digital world did not serve as any tether whatsoever between him and the world, between anyone and the world. What Alan heard of the outside world was growls and screams, mainly from the street, possibly from the building as well. When the day of the impending full moon arrived Alan sweated profusely as he eyed the creatures lingering on the street outside. No way would he take a chance that he’d make it to his car. He would have to undergo the transformation inside. Lock everything up, hope for the best.

Somehow he found a way out.

Only snippets of memories linger from his time as a werewolf. Mostly, he remembers flashes, quick visions that come and go. Usually the faces of his prey become embedded deep within, as if a conscience wants to do battle with the wolf’s primal instincts. For some reason, he remembers his time as a wolf in the building very well. Once he got past the locked doors, he slowly trudged through the hallway. And while he may be incorrectly recalling the wolf’s reaction, Alan remembered cringing. The wolf stopped in the hall, went down on all fours. He gave a whimpering sound, laid his head down on the carpet. Whatever the werewolf’s scents picked up, it turned the snarling beast into a fearful creature.

Footsteps caught its attention. The wolf sprung up, bared its teeth. It looked up at the ceiling, trying to discern where the steps originated from. The patter seemed to echo throughout the building, up staircases, down hallways. The wolf heard it all. The wolf did not want to move. He turned to a door down the hallway. The knob was jiggling. Rattle, rattle, twist and turn, as if someone was having a problem with the doorknob. Those someones soon opened the door and stepped out into the hall.

That was the first time Alan as the werewolf encountered zombies. They looked in the direction away from the werewolf first. The wolf stepped back. A low growling sound escaped its teeth. The zombies turned to the wolf. They were his neighbors, Martha and Edward, two upper middle class people who usually offered nice pleasantries and were often very welcoming with their invites to their various parties. Now their clothes hung tattered from their frames, much like the flesh which had now turned into a ghastly pallor. Bones could be seen, what remained of muscles. A few seconds passed, a minute. No one moved. These supernatural creatures simply gazed at each other with something bordering incomprehension.

The zombies took a step forward to the werewolf.

The werewolf leapt.   

Having its primal self-defense nature kick in, the werewolf did not hold back in the least. Maybe even a little bit of Alan had something to do with its ferocity, the repulsion at seeing his neighbors transformed into something so hideous. Whatever it was the werewolf swiped and clawed and ripped through the zombies’ bodies. The claws tore through flesh, shredded the zombies’ limbs from their bodies before finally tearing their heads clean off.

It was swift and brutal. Once finished, the werewolf raised its head and released the saddest howl one may ever hear. The wolf lingered there a moment, sniffing. Then the wolf slowly walked down the hall. Its eyes glanced left and right. The wolf’s eyes took in the doors. The walls. The wolf’s nose inhaled the fetid stench that arose from many places in the building. The wolf felt something it rarely felt – wary. Claws traipsed over carpet. The concrete stairwell. Listening to the growls. The screams. And a couple times, when the wolf crossed paths with roaming zombies, the wolf lashed out with the claws, tearing the rotting flesh away from the people that walked without life.

Alan sat in the car looking at the blinking traffic light. Life. When he had transformed back into his human self, after somehow finding his way back to his apartment, he knew that term’s concept had changed. He locked himself in for who knows how long before realizing that staying sedentary would do no one good. So he hunted for provisions, gathered up as much as he could, then made a plan to make a trip back to the preserve. And hopefully timing it right for when he would become a werewolf.

But he wanted to make a couple stops first. The question that nagged him relentlessly as he looked at the traffic light was: should he? He had led a bit of solitary life. He had been an only child and his parents both died when he was in college. His personality did not lend to him making friends easily. So he thought that, yes, he probably should see how his old friend Jason is doing. And yes, he should check in on Leslie, even if they had broken up a couple months ago.

Alan turned the steering wheel, driving the car down the street to the right. They only lived a few blocks from each other, thankfully, so the excursion wouldn’t have to be necessarily all that time consuming. He drove past some high end real estate that no longer looked so high, thinking that his clients Don and Mary wouldn’t be so happy about that. If they still had brains left to think about it anyway. Other places weren’t as bad as he thought they might be, many still looking the same as if just closed overnight or something like that. He parked his car by Jason’s building with a little hope.

The silence in his building really jangled his nerves. The door was open so he didn’t have to ring a buzzer. And since he thought using the elevator might be a bad idea, he climbed the stairs to the fourth floor where Jason lived.

He walked down the hall quite deliberately. The blood on the walls told him to run. But he persisted forward … in case. In case he might be needed. In case Jason was indeed still Jason. Jason’s door was open. Alan knocked, listened. The floor was quiet. Alan knocked again and when no one responded Alan moved slowly inside.

“Hey Jason!” Alan said. “You here?”

Alan cringed at the sound of his own voice. It practically made him think he was bleeding in shark-infested waters. Which, in a way, he was.

Alan stepped forward, looked around. Unless Jason was asleep or unconscious … or dead … or walking dead … he was not in his apartment. He moved with half his mind on Jason, the rest on the possibilities of zombies. Due to their busy schedules, it had been a while since he had walked in this apartment. But his eyes glanced over the familiar cds, the posters (damn, did he love Westerns), the books, the films, the color scheme, the laptop  — he walked to the kitchen, his eye dancing, taking in the cabinets, all doors shut, the frying pan on the burner — opened the fridge, viewed the beer bottles,  the containers holding food, the juices, many organic, guess he got into environmental causes, huh, always had a nature streak, he guessed …  

CD COLLECTION + FURNISHINGS + CLOTHES % VIOLENT SCENARIO  = NOSTALGIA

Everything seemed neat. Nothing smelled. He inhaled deeply, tried to find a trace of Jason’s presence. Nothing registered, no sweat, no colognes, aftershave or hairspray. Maybe Jason went on a trip before the zombies arose. That would have been nice. Having a chance to reunite at some point would be some cause for optimism.

Alan felt his pulse racing a bit. A bead of sweat trickled down his brow. He picked up the pace and instead of leisurely walking through Jason’s various rooms, he moved briskly around, bouncing from the bedroom to bathroom and back again to the living room. Now was not the time to linger. He felt strongly about that. And since Jason did not seem anywhere on the premises it was time to move on.

Alan moved to the door, looked around. For some reason he felt he was missing something, but that probably had more to do with the fact that he felt unsatisfied with the lack of answers to where Jason was and what he might be doing. Alan sighed, opened the door and shut it behind him.

LOCKING THE DOOR + EMPTY APARTMENT – COMMUNICATION OPPORTUNITIES % ZOMBIES = CHANGE OF LIFE

 Life had changed drastically. What the future held would be decided elsewhere.

                                                                       

But there was one more stop he wanted to make. And he hoped that this had a different result. He walked out the apartment building, and almost instantly he wanted to keel over. A rancid scent assaulted his senses and it took all his willpower just to stay upright. Alan, tottering a bit, looked around. A few seconds passed by as he thought about different possibilities, but really only one thing came to mind: zombies were nearby. He looked down the block at his car. Then he looked over his shoulder. Zombies. A few of them were shambling his way.

Alan bolted for his car. Just as he was thinking he was glad the zombies were at least coming from the opposite direction, he was grabbed and tackled. Somehow a zombie had been hiding between cars and jumped out at him. Alan looked up at that hideous decaying face and pushed with his arms, using all the might he could be muster. He was surprised to see the zombie flew off him and landed on top of a car a few feet away. Alan scrambled to his feet, looked behind at the approaching zombies, and once again bolted.

When he reached his car, he went into the trunk and grabbed a baseball bat. Then he jumped in and drove off as fast as possible. Thankfully Leslie’s place wasn’t far away, and he got there fairly quickly.

He brought the bat out with him and approached Leslie’s building. Please be home, Alan thought. Though they hadn’t necessarily parted in good terms, he did love Leslie. Maybe they didn’t have enough to be compatible for a true long-term relationship, but they were good together.

Alan stood in front of the buzzer. He held the bat tightly, and pressed the buzzer with his free hand. Alan shuffled his feet, looked across the street. No one lingered, not much could be heard. Wherever did everyone go? He really wanted to know where.

Alan pressed down on the buzzer once again. And he smiled when he heard a voice arise from the intercom.

“Who is it?” Leslie asked.

Alan paused a moment, closed his eyes.

“It’s me.”

He waited a second. Then another.

“Alan.”

He paused another second.

“Hello?”

“Alan?”

Alan nodded, opened his eyes a bit. Leslie! Oh, thank …

“Oh great, a zombie!”

Alan leaned his head against the speaker. Well, he knew the situation hadn’t ended on the best note, yet, well, at least she answered.

“Are you going to let me in?”

The buzzer boomed loudly, almost resonating like a bomb. Alan looked around sharply, put his hand on the door. He heard the words he had been yearning to hear.

“Come on up.”

Alan raced up to the third floor. And it was there he paid attention, listening intently, letting the aromas waft through his nostrils. Alas, not much resembled the finest in the world, nothing like a simmering meal, more like a stench of piss and – and bad things – but at the same time, no danger seemed imminent.

He walked quickly to her door. Each moment felt like it would last eternally. His fist gently knocked on her door once, twice, three times. A moment later her voice soared through the wooden barrier.

“That you Alan? You’re not really a zombie now are you?”

“It’s me. I don’t think I’m a zombie, no”

“Step back from the door so I can look at you.”

Alan stepped back. He looked down both ends of the hall. A click sounded in front of him. Thankfully the locks were being turned, and the door opened. Leslie appeared and waved furiously for Alan to hurry on inside.

“Don’t loiter! Come on in!”

Alan rushed in, and closed the door behind him. After he was done locking the doors, he heard another click. He turned and looked at Leslie pointing a gun straight at him.

“Why do you have a gun?” Alan said. “When did you even get a gun? I hate guns.”

“You would since you have one pointed right at you.”

Alan sighed, turned his head slightly to the wall.

 “Fair point. But I’m not a zombie. I’m not here for any dark reason or anything.”

“Why are you here?”

Alan spread his arms out. “I missed you. I wanted to see if you were okay, if you were still around.”

He paused, tried to expound on what he felt.

“The world out there seems so empty now. I was going to run, well, I am going to get out, but I wanted to check in on you and Jason.”

Leslie nodded, lowered the gun. “How is Jason?”

“I don’t know. He wasn’t in his apartment.” Alan pointed at the gun. “Seriously, when did you get a gun? You never –“

“Huh! How are you going to defend yourself from zombies?”

Alan raised the baseball bat. “This. If I start using a gun, then they would really win.”

Leslie looked up at the ceiling.

“They’re not terrorists Alan! They’re zombies! ZOMBIES!”

Alan nodded. Leslie sighed. They stared at each other, then embraced. Differences aside, it was comforting for both to hold each other. To be in each other’s lives again. Seconds passed. Minutes. Days. The physical embrace returned at times, becoming sexual again. Their words also served as tethers, cords that tied one’s hearts for a while. Little snippets could provide a jumping off point for a memory.

“Remember when …”

“That’s where …”

“How is …”

“Oh, we watched …”

“We heard …”

Only a few words, a phrase, yet they barreled forth a tumult of memories and feelings. Places seemed to spring up around them, if only in their mind. Time was spent in their favorite cafes, all their cherished locations. Small quirks became charming reminders. Like how one coffee shop always put a board out in front with a quote of the day.  Their minds became embedded with some other visuals, a message written in concrete, a glass window featuring charming signs. The way the sunset sometimes immersed certain areas with a radiant glow.

But yes, time passed. With that passage also comes a new era. When discussing Alan’s possible escape, that’s when their roads diverged once more. Though she didn’t own a car, and was anxious to leave, she simply rejected Alan’s attempt to get her to go the woods with him. No matter how bad it was, that was the last thing to do, especially given his newfound feral nature.

ALAN BEING A WEREWOLF + LESLIE’S UNCERTAINTY OF BEING IN WOODS = REJECTION OF ALAN’S PLAN A.

REJECTION OF PLAN A – NO CURRENT VIABLE PLAN B = SEPARATION

There was no way around it. Alan just had to accept that as much as it would have been nice to be together again, even the end of the world couldn’t reasonably bring them back together. They just were on different paths. Alan knew he had to get on that path very quickly. He said his goodbye to Leslie. They kissed softly, then hugged. She looked up at him, apologized for calling him a zombie. He apologized for, well, being emotionally distant at times when they were together. Seconds passed. A minute. Time going by. Time gone by. Then he was gone. He closed the door behind him, heard it click shut. Tears trickled down his face. He raced to the car, turned the ignition as fast as he could. The car jolted forward. No going back. Leslie stated her intentions clearly and firmly. You know what? He thought she was right. Roaming in the woods with a man who turns into a werewolf did not make a dangerous situation all that safer. Sure, she could hide during the time he was a wolf, but it just didn’t make a lot of sense. She was much better off finding a way here and then hope to reconnect with Alan in the future.

Alan slammed on the brakes. Was that —? No, he thought, it couldn’t be, but, yes, two of his clients, Don and Mary were waving their hands on the side of the road. He opened his driver’s side window and they scampered over.

“Oh my goodness, Alan!” Mary said. “Unbelievable! We really need help …”

Alan jerked his thumb to the backseat.

“Get in the back,” he said.

They did. They looked red, their clothes a little haggard, Don’s polo shirt slightly torn, Mary’s jumpsuit a little shredded as well. Their disheveled hair also added to their discombobulated appearance. Leslie – he sighed internally – looked much the same as she did when they were going out, petite but healthy frame, same crooked smile and nice short black hair. She mentioned he had lost weight, didn’t sport as much a belly, and he thought that might have been one more side effect from the bite.

He couldn’t help but think about her as Don and Mary discussed their zombie attacks, how they tried to scrounge for supplies. With each block they passed, Alan became amazed at how much they did own. So much territory were held their hands. They remarked upon some destroyed buildings, glass strewn onto the pavement while fires incinerated whatever was inside. Alan just kept driving, told them he was going to the park. They said anywhere would be good. That’s the thing he thought, anywhere was good until it became nowhere.

Soon. Soon he would become a werewolf. The sun was setting. He looked in the rearview mirror, and cringed. Both Don and Mary featured bite marks. He didn’t comment on it, really had no idea what that might mean. But he had a pretty good guess.

“I’m going for a run when I get to the woods,” he said. “Scout for some … safe spots. I would hide if I were you, and then I’ll come find you in a day or two.”

“A day or two?” Don asked.

Alan said yes. They didn’t like it, but seemed ok to them as long as they were away from the city.

It didn’t take long after Alan parked in the lot. Don and Mary complained of headaches, then of muscle stiffness. Alan ran ahead, said he’d be back. He did come back, but only after the full moon had appeared. The memories come in flashes. How he looked down from a tree branch and spotted their zombie-like forms. How they came across a delirious young man and sunk their teeth into his flesh. How he kept his distance, looking, until getting closer … and closer … and then pouncing, tearing away at their vestiges of humanity, shredding the flesh and muscle that had become infected. Standing over their bodies that no longer were in one piece. Then waking up in the morning light with blood all over him.

ZOMBIE CLIENTS + WEREWOLF HUNGER%CURRENCY MATTERS, UNCERTAINTY+ END OF CAREER=?

Yes, his life no longer resembled his life. Alan stood up, gazed at the blood on his body. He listened to the flowing water in the distance. At that moment, he stood alone and felt alone. All the numbers he had worked with over his career almost seemed irrelevant now. All he really wanted to know now was the numbers that mattered, meaning the number of regular humans left in the world. Hopefully there were a few, and that those numbers would give him some comfort.

Even though he knew he couldn’t count himself among them.

But the sun still shined.

The moon and stars still existed in space.

Wildlife still grew and roamed.

All it takes is a step forward … and then another step … and then another step …

And before he knew it, he was back in the water washing off the blood.


A former writer and editor for several sports publications, Patrick McEvoy has had stories included in various comic book anthologies such as Emanata, Continental Cryptid, Uncanny Adventures, Indie Comics Quarterly, and GuruKitty’s Once Upon a Time and Gateway to Beyond. Illustrated stories have also appeared on Slippery Elm’s website, Murder Park After Dark Vol. 3 and in New Plains Review. A short story has also appeared on Akashic Books’ website. In addition, short plays he wrote were chosen to be performed at the Players Theatre in New York as part of their various festivals (Sex, NYC and BOO) in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2019. And he wrote and directed short plays for Emerging Artists Theatre’s New Works series in 2021 and 2022. A play anthology called What May Arise was also streamed June 30-July 6th 2022 as part of the Rogue Theater Festival. He also wrote and directed Directions, which appeared in the 2022 Dream Up Festival. Photography has also been exhibited with the Greenpoint Gallery, Tiny Seed Literary Journal, Molecule, riverSedge and Good Works Review.


“Face of an Angel” Horror by Kate Bergquist

The lights flickered a few times inside the log cabin before the power finally went out. The sudden darkness felt inevitable to Nella; she had expected a storm of this magnitude to rip away tree branches and blow them into the power lines. 

She held her breath and starting counting. After five seconds of silence, Nella reassured herself there was enough wood to keep the stove cranking all night to keep the animals warm. She had plenty of batteries and kerosene, at least a dozen gallons of water. And she could always boil water and heat soup on the woodstove. Then, at the count of twelve, the backup generator reluctantly chugged to life, coughing and sputtering like an old diesel truck that hadn’t been started in a while. 

    Nella breathed a sigh of relief and continued on with her chores. She moved the squirrel cages from the unheated barn into the mudroom, where she kept an interior enclosure, and set up their nest box. She put down soft blankets, fresh newspaper, piles of leaves and twigs, a bowl of clean water and some nuts and greens. Then she lugged a few heavy tree branches that she had previously trimmed into the cage. Both squirrels were Eastern grays — they tittered at her as she lifted them into their new lodging; she could feel their warm rodent bodies squirming in her hands, their heartbeats speeding like tiny trains. They were both recovering well from puncture wounds. She would release them soon, perhaps in another week or so if the weather broke.

She had just finished feeding the feral kittens when she heard a vehicle fishtailing up her steep driveway. Odd that someone would drive all the way out here in these conditions, at this time of night. To her snug little cabin, perched on a pine-covered hill beneath an acre of black sky. Two below and blowing snow. Wind gusts to sixty. The kind of cold that burrows deep into your bones and stays, even when you’re inside, standing in front of a crackling fire, dressed in a bulky sweater, fleece-lined jeans and steel-toe boots. 

Nella kissed the moist nose of the female orange tabby, her favorite, who was also the runt, as it latched onto her pinky finger and eagerly suckled it. 

“Aw, so sweet. Such a sweet little boo.” 

Nella gently pried her loose. Feral kittens sometimes exhibited this kind of suckling behavior, and she believed it was due to their early, abrupt weaning. A mother cat with warm, full teats, bursting with milk, suddenly and irrevocably gone. Nella’s fingers were a poor substitute. She tucked the kitten into the soft little bed with the others, petted them gently, and closed the door to the wire cage. Thankfully, they were a solid month old now and could eat on their own. 

It wasn’t exactly kitten season. Not this late in December. Almost January. Winter litters were rare, but not unheard of. Nella knew that feral cats cycled year-round and could have litters any time of year. Not long ago, she had clambered into a restaurant dumpster after someone called to report the mother cat had been struck by a car. Nella tracked cat prints in the snow and followed the kittens’ frantic mewing beneath pizza boxes, stinking bags of garbage and a bent bicycle tire to rescue them.

Nella moved to the front room, parted the thermal curtains and rubbed her right palm against the frosted windowpane. Timmy stirred from a drooling sleep and jumped down stiffly from the couch. Fourteen and blind, old for a Lab, but his hearing was still decent, and he thumped his tail in anticipation of company. He shook his head, whipping strings of saliva into the air. A thin rope of drool draped across his nose.

A Jeep, with a headlight out. That meant it must be Stacia Withers, who was exactly one half of the entire police force for their tiny town. She knew Stacia loved that old Jeep, despite the windows that leaked no matter how hard she tried to seal them. It had belonged to Stacia’s late father, and she wouldn’t part with it. Even now, with all the rust on the undercarriage, its value was more than just sentimental – it was safer than her patrol car in this kind of weather. 

    Nella glanced at the grandfather’s clock in the corner of the room. Well past nine at the height of a raging Nor’easter. 

Something was definitely up.

    Nella waited until she saw Stacia’s imposing figure looming at the front door before pulling it open. Behind the freezing blast, Nella noticed she’d left the Jeep running.
    “Geez, Hedges. Don’t you ever answer your damn phone?” She glanced down at Timmy, who was whining, and patted his gray head. “Hey, boy, remember me?” 

    “Not much signal up here, even on a good day. And the land line’s out.”

    “But your generator’s purring like a kitten.” Stacia bustled past Nella and shook the snow off her coat. Unbuttoned the top buttons. She was still wearing her uniform. So, this was business, then. Timmy sniffed Stacia’s legs and started to bark.  

“Hey! Enough, Timmy.” Nella shrugged at Stacia. “He’s getting old. Little senile.”

“Aren’t we all. Nose still works, though.” 

When his whining became incessant, Nella led Timmy to the bathroom and softly closed the door behind her.

“Get you something? Tea?”

“Got anything stronger?” Nella searched her friend’s face and saw she wasn’t kidding. All nerved up. A quiver on her lips. Glassy eyes, spiderwebbed with red, like a windshield about to shatter. Nella recognized the look. Stacia had been pumping adrenaline for a while now, and was headed for a crash. Her fingers trembled as she pulled off her cap and unwound her Irish plaid lambswool scarf. Nella had rarely seen her like this. Stacia had a reputation in town as being a genuine bad-ass. Hard as granite bedrock. 

But it seemed that something had shifted deep beneath her tough façade.

“What’s happened?”

Stacia teared up. Shadows beneath her eyes, dark as trenches. “Bad one. Accident. Out on Route 10, by the rest area.” 

Nella caught a whiff of something coming off Stacia’s clothes. A wet, metallic smell, like rusted pipes, with an undertone of darkly sweet, overripe fruit. She grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniels from the oak liquor cabinet, poured some into a glass. Handed it to Stacia, who downed the shot. “Another?”

Stacia shook her head. “Can’t.” She paced about the room, looking for something else to steady her nerves, to order the chaos. She studied Nella’s framed antique map of the Upper Valley, traced a shaky finger from the Vermont border, across the Connecticut River, through the forest, over the mountain range and then all the way down to the upper tip of Lake Sunapee, where the bottom of the frame forced a hard stop. She looked back, let her gaze drop to Nella’s scuffed work boots. “Real bad.”

“Tell me.”  

Stacia’s whole body shuddered. “I was parked at the rest area. Saw it happen. They just… came out of nowhere. Flew right across the road. Then…skidded on ice. Slammed into the curb and flipped. Twice. Even though we’ve got…fucking plows and sand trucks everywhere.” 

“But if they didn’t have four-wheel drive –”

“–they didn’t.” Stacia sucked in a breath. Held it. Let it out in quick little huffs, as if she was exhaling cigarette smoke. “Could barely tell from the wreckage it was silver. Front of it…was engulfed. A trucker stopped. Had a fire extinguisher with him and put the flames out. But it was too late. The operator looked to be…male, deceased at the scene. Passenger was observed to be…possibly female, she died as we tried to resuscitate her. Both of them looked to be…somewhat young. And the little one –”

“—shit.”

“Yeah, well, that’s the thing. See, the little one…she was in the back. Strapped into a seat.  Somehow, she survived it, all of it, the crash, the skid, the flipping over, the fire, just a little bit of a thing, not a scratch on her. A bloody miracle, if you ask me.” 

“Oh, wow!” Nella felt her heart accelerate with this sudden good news. 

“Yeah.” Stacia’s smile looked disjointed in the low light. She turned and peered out the window for a long moment, as if to check to make sure the Jeep was still there. Her breath melted the frost into glistening tears.

“Thank God, she made it. Poor thing, though, she must be inconsolable.” Nella said.

“Andy Nicoloro. He was there. He checked her over good. Said he didn’t see a mark on her, near as he could tell.” Andy. Another graduate of Stanbury High. Nella recalled his dark good looks, jet black ponytail that trailed down his back. Guitar player, talented. A year ahead of them, Class of ’99. Her first crush back way back in fifth grade. She hadn’t seen Andy in years, but she’d heard he’d recently become a paramedic and joined the fire department. 

“Did he transport her? Dartmouth-Hitchcock?”

“No.” Stacia went silent for a moment. “There was no reason to. Like I said, she was completely…untouched.” She stared at Nella. “Anyway, the Staties arrived and shut it all down. North and Southbound traffic. It’s nuts out there. Quite the scene. And so much snow. Plows can barely keep up.”

“Were they locals?” 

Stacia shook her head, sighed. “Not even close.”

Nella thought about her younger brother, Stephen, stuck in a hotel in Denver. She had been irritable with him when he had called her last night to tell her his flight had been cancelled and he wouldn’t be home in time for New Year’s. But now she was glad he was somewhere safe. Those poor young people, with their little girl. Out driving in a blizzard, trying to make it home to be with family. Maybe they had driven a long distance and weren’t very far from their destination. Perhaps they got lost in the storm. Perhaps they were simply unprepared for the treacherous conditions on slick, mountain roads. 

So tragic. She shivered and wrapped her arms around her sweater.

“So – where…did he take her?” 

Stacia’s guilty look gave away the answer. “Oh, no—”

“–didn’t know where else to go.”

“Grafton County must have some kind of shelter? Social services?”

“It’s New Year’s Eve. And with the storm, everything’s closed.”

“Hospital isn’t.”

“No, but the beds are full from all the flu and RSV. And she’s not…sick. Besides, I told Andy where I was bringing her and he agreed. Said you’d know what to do.”

“Why don’t you just keep her with you? It’s warm in your Jeep, right? I take care of animals; I don’t know the first thing about child trauma.” 

But really, she did. Back when Stephen was four, that terrible night Aunt Jenny tearfully told them that their parents froze to death while hiking up the summit of Mount Lafayette. At eleven, Nella barely understood what death was, at that point had only seen a neighbor’s dog that died; one day it was alive and breathing and catching sticks and the next day it was laying on the ground, stiff as cement, with empty, staring eyes. But Stephen was way too young to understand. That heartbreaking mix of fear and confusion on his face was still imprinted in her memory, as he rocked back and forth in the driver’s seat of his pink and purple Little Tikes Princess ride-on truck, the one that had been hers before she outgrew it; it still had the shiny gold crown on the roof, the smiley-face eyes on the grille; Stephen’s chubby hands fiercely gripped the steering wheel, and he sobbed uncontrollably as Nella tried to comfort him. Warm them up, Nell-nell. Warm them up. Melt the ice. Make them warm. The image of Stephen’s face, his bulbous tears, his innocent pleas, it still triggered her, even today, three decades later.  Her little baby brother, so proud of him, though, her pride and joy, all grown up now, Stephen M. Hedges, M.D.  

“Sure, you do. Kids are kids no matter what they kind they are. Look. My shift is over in a couple hours. I’ll come back to help.” Stacia backed away with her hands up. “Thanks, Hedgie. I’ll repay you for this. Somehow.” With one hand on the door handle, Stacia paused. “Wait till you see her, though. Beautiful. Face of an angel.”

“I’ll help you bring her in.” 

“Nah, I got it.”

Nella took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She thought of all the lost and injured animals she cared for, every day. She was licensed to rehabilitate wildlife and small mammals. But she also served as local animal control. She’d fed the kittens with a dropper every two hours in the daytime for the first several days. Besides the squirrels, she was also tending to an injured porcupine, and a raccoon with a broken leg. Plus, her own Timmy. He needed a lot more care now that he was an elderly dog. She didn’t do it for the money – heck, no one ever got rich in her line of work. It was a calling. Something she had always done. So really, she told herself, providing a warm bed and some comfort to a traumatized child couldn’t be much different than helping a lost or injured animal, could it?  

Nella groaned and shoved a couple extra logs into the woodstove.     

                    #

    The door opened to a scream of wind. Nella turned to see Stacia stooping with the weight of the child in her arms. She moved to help her, but Stacia scowled, clasped her closer, suddenly protective. “I’ve got her. She seems heavier than before, though.” 

    Nella nodded. The waning adrenaline was probably causing muscle fatigue. Under the heavy blanket, Nella sized the child at about twenty-five pounds, maybe two years old. 

    Still a baby, poor thing.

    But so still. She should be squirming, crying. “Why’s she so quiet?”

    Stacia shifted the bundle to a more comfortable position as she awkwardly removed her coat. Sat down in one of the chairs, started rocking the child softly in her arms. “Sound asleep.” 

    “Are you sure, Stace? ‘Cause what if it’s concussion, that wouldn’t be good for her to fall asleep–”

    “—she’s fine. Relax. Look, I’ll show you.”   

    Stacia gently lowered the blanket and let it fall to the floor. 

    Nella gasped. Her eyes froze on the dark, fur-like sheen covering the child’s entire back and its two rounded, furry ears at the top of its head that reminded her of Batman and her mind screeched wait! not a child! not a child! as she stared at its muscular, sinewy back and the strange, motherly way Stacia was clutching it, looking down at it with such adoration in her eyes, her face flushed with love, such pure, unadulterated emotion — but it’s not a child! — what could Stacia be thinking, had she lost her mind, it was a—

    “–Bear! You need to…call Fish and Game! I’m not licensed for bear! You need to…to bring the cub down the road to Ben Kilham’s place, he’s the expert on them, not me.” 

    Something just didn’t add up, though. The young couple had a bear cub with them? Strapped into a seat? And it really didn’t look like any of the other bear cubs she’d seen, and over the years she’d seen a lot of them in this part of New Hampshire; they looked so darned cute and cuddly, but not this thing; the fur on its back was really long, with a silvery tint, more like badger fur, and it had a thin, hairless neck. And its pear-shaped head seemed too big for its body.  

    What the –? Was this a child wearing some kind of costume? 

    Nella fought a wave of dizziness and sat down heavily. She grabbed the bottle of Jack and pulled a long swig. Wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. I am overtired. I am hallucinating. She forced herself to take a deep breath. Rubbed her eyes. 

    Looked again.

    “Oh, God. Stace…”

    Stacia was gently bouncing the creature on her lap, making cooing noises at it. The rotten prune scent was even stronger now. A distinct, overwhelming stench. Nella breathed through her mouth to keep from gagging. She could see some kind of clear substance bubbling from the creature’s ears and sliding in rivulets down the back of its head. Snot? Saliva? Cerebrospinal fluid? Something worse? Oh fuck!

    Stacia seemed oblivious to it; her face was lit up, enraptured. “Who’s the sweetie pie? You’re my sweetie pie. My giggly-wiggly little Boopsie. Such a silly little willy head.” 

    “Stacia! That’s not…that isn’t…a child.”   

    As if in protest, a strange growl issued from the creature, deep and wet and guttural. Nella jumped in her seat. She heard Timmy’s scratching against the bathroom door becoming more insistent, his nervous whine increasing in pitch. 

    “There, there now, my sweet baby goo! Was that your widdle belly? Baby’s tum-tum must be hung-gwee.”

    “You said it was a car accident. With people.”

    “Such a wootie patootie!” Stacia kept bouncing the creature as she glanced over, squinted her eyes at Nella. “Never said people. Never said car. Said it flew across the road. Nope, didn’t look like a car to me, nohsiree, not one bit.” She beamed at the creature, who was becoming more animated now, moving its head up and down and sideways, wiggling like a bobble head. It looked like the fur was only on its back and ears. Its head was smooth. Nella could see it had long, wiry arms, thin wrists. Its skin was a dusky gun-metal gray, mixed with green and blue. A blend of hues; it reminded her of the colors of the ocean. It began exploring Stacia’s chest with very elongated fingers, leaving a trail of mucus-like discharge on her dark navy shirt.  

    “Heard a clap of thunder. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see something flung from the blizzard, like a shiny, flat rock being skimmed across the road at a low angle.”

    Nella felt a buzzing in her ears. If she stood up, she knew she would faint. Stacia sighed with pleasure, enjoying the touch of the creature. It reached one finger up to Stacia’s lips and draped a string of ooze there. 

    Stacia licked her lips. “Damn, she’s beautiful.” 

    Nella cleared her throat. “You need to leave. Both of you.”

    “I only came here because I thought you’d know what to do. You, with all your experience taking care of…living things. I thought you’d feel a twinge in your heart for this little one, who lost both her parents, orphaned so young, just like you were. But clearly, I’m the one doing all the work here while you just sit there all prissy.” 

    A heavy gust of wind slammed against the windows. Timmy let out an extended howl, followed by a fit of barking. The creature’s ears started to vibrate. 

    Stacia’s glassy eyes went wide in a look of exaggerated surprise. “Dog-gee? You hear the dog-gee? Wanna see the widdle pooch?”

    The creature held onto Stacia’s chest as it turned its head toward the barking. Nella caught a side glimpse of a narrow, aquiline nose covered with shimmery blue hair. It made another growling noise, but this time it sounded oddly like “Gheee.”

    Nella jumped to her feet. “No!” Timmy would stay in the bathroom, he was safe there, he was her baby and she wouldn’t let the creature get anywhere near him. As she took a couple of deliberate steps forward, it suddenly craned its neck, as if it had finally just sensed that Nella was there, and it slowly started to turn, twisting its large head on its ropy neck, and just before it presented its full face to her, Nella braced herself for the revulsion, but the incredible jolt she felt instead was so totally unexpected, a completely overwhelming burst of  joy! as she finally saw the shimmering gray-green scales on its face, its enormous, glistening onyx eyes, moist and dewy-soft, and its delicate gray lips, as soft as fruit, she was certain she had never seen anything so beautiful; it all made sense now. All at once, everything in her life made sense. Nella felt her heartbeat racing, her face flushing. She stood there, in utter rapture, watching as the precious little creature turned back to Stacia, used its long fingers to deftly pluck the buttons from her shirt, watching transfixed as it moved aside the cotton fabric to expose Stacia’s bare flesh, its movements so beautiful, so tender, watching as it firmly latched on and sweetly began to suckle. 

    Nella continued to watch. She couldn’t possibly bring herself to look away.

    It was all just so natural.     


Kate Bergquist holds an MA in Writing and Literature from Rivier College in New Hampshire. Insurance agent by day, dark fiction writer by night, Kate’s work was nominated for Best New American Voices. An original dark thriller screenplay NO FORCIBLE ENTRY (co-written with Patricia Thorpe) was honored by Showtime, nominated for a Tony Cox award and won top honors at Scream Fest and Reel Women. She finds inspiration along the craggy Maine coast, where she lives with her husband and several old rescue dogs.


“Night Shift” Dark, Psychological Fiction by Lori Lamothe

On the other side of the plate glass windows, the parking lot lights flickered out. There were tinsel Christmas-tree hoops near the top of each of the lights and they looked about as cheap as you’d expect them to in a town like Lansdale. The lot was empty, the sky overcast.  It was 3 a.m. on the dot and Liv hadn’t had a break yet. 

By the look of things, she wasn’t going to get one, even though there were two of them. The bake was huge and Vi was as slow as she was. Which, Liv supposed, was why the company had scheduled the two of them that night. Normally, they were too cheap to pay for more than one baker per cafe. 

Vi slid the last of the bagel dough trays onto the 12-tier cart and rolled it into the proof box. It wasn’t really a box at all but a miniature room that felt like a sauna. The pale rings of dough were perfectly spaced on the trays, perfectly shaped, which explained why it had taken Vi an hour to complete that one task. Every slot on the tall, metal rack was filled and it took her a minute to maneuver it into the box, which was already crowded with other racks of rising bread. 

“You probably noticed the temp’s set high,” Vi said.   

Their boss always warned them against setting the proof box above a certain temperature. It made the bread rise really fast, he said. Which was the whole point—otherwise, they’d still be baking when the morning manager showed up. 

“I set it high too.” Liv didn’t say so, but she set the proof box at her home cafe at the exact same temperature. 

Vi closed the proof box doors and returned to her work table, where she started on the baguettes. The dough came pre-made and all she had to do was stretch each piece to the proper length, lay it out on the baking screen, then slice it down the middle with her knife. Three baguettes to a screen, 12 screens to a rack. The pan-up called for 120 baguettes, which meant multiple racks. It would probably take her three hours. 

Liv was definitely not getting a break. 

Well, there was nothing to be done about it so there was no point thinking about it. She kept working on the pastry rings. It was two days before Christmas and the pan-up listed 14, which was ridiculous because the only ones who bought them were little old ladies. She finished shaping the dough and began scooping cherry filling into every third circle. 

“You’re a lefty.” Vi stopped scoring a baguette to watch her. “I’m a lefty too.” 

Liv glanced at the small, sharp knife in Vi’s left hand, then at her tattoo sleeves. A lot of bakers had them. Still, it was weird that they both had the same pattern—a series of skulls topped by the grim reaper across their upper arms. An occasional black rose where an eye would have been. 

“Cool sleeve,” Liv said, the corner of her mouth tugging upward. 

“Same,” said Vi, returning her grin. 

Outside, the wind had picked up. It rattled the glass and whined across the lot. Liv remembered it was supposed to snow at some point but couldn’t remember how many inches they were going to get.  She donned a new pair of rubber gloves—cherries were so damn messy—and went back to work. Liv had gotten used to third shift. She was a loner and preferred the quiet to the drama of working the registers. Still, the quiet could get a little creepy, especially when it was just her. 

“Ever get creeped out,” Vi asked, “when it’s just you?”

Liv’s spine tingled. She scooped some cherries into the pastry ring on her own baker’s table. It had just struck her that the two of them had the exact same shade of dark brown hair. Almost raven black, worn pulled back into a bun. Minus the regulation hat because the CCTV cameras in the cafe were broken. Something to do with the feed. 

Liv threw the cherry scoop into the bin for dirty utensils and started with the cream cheese filling. “Who wouldn’t?” 

“You get used to it,” Vi said. “The quiet.” 

“Eventually,” Liv agreed. 

“I almost miss the camera,” Vi said. “How weird is that?”

“I know, right?” Liv missed it too. At her home cafe, she hated the way the CCTV cameras recorded her every move but their presence gave her a certain peace of mind.    

For a while, they worked in silence. Vi loaded a tray of prepped baguette dough onto a rack, started in on another. “What did you do,” she asked, “. . . before?”

Nobody worked third shift at the “fast casual” cafe on purpose. If you were a baker, you were there because you got laid off from a real bakery or were looking for a job in one. Others were illegal or had their reasons for not wanting to work days. 

“Not much.” Liv tried to infuse some humor into her voice. “What about you?”

“I was an aide,” she said over her shoulder. “In a school.” 

Liv didn’t know why that surprised her. There was no reason it should. “That must have been fun.” 

Vi snorted. “Not really, for what they paid us. But I love kids.” 

“Why’d you leave?”

A slight hesitation. “I got fired.” 

Now it was Liv’s turn to hesitate. 

Vi set down a piece of baguette dough and wiped her gloved hands on her apron. A nervous gesture. “They said I was scaring them. The kids. It was an elementary school and I mostly worked with first graders,” she said. “I wasn’t scaring them. Well, except for this one girl who—well—it doesn’t matter.”  

Liv pressed the edges of the pastry ring inward so the filling wouldn’t spill over the side when it baked. She could see Vi out of the corner of her eye. “They’re pretty impressionable. At that age.”

“Yeah they are. At least this one girl was.” Vi sighed. “But that’s what I love about them, you know?” 

Liv didn’t know and she was more relieved than she should have been about it. The similarities between her and Vi were starting to pile up and that bothered her, though she couldn’t say why. Normally she felt guilty about not liking kids all that much. Like something was wrong with her. Whenever she told guys she didn’t want kids they always gave her a strange look. As if she weren’t sus enough already, with no friends (unless you counted books) and no desire to be part of the ordinary world. Sure, the nights could be scary but she couldn’t imagine herself ever going back to crowds, traffic, sunlight so bright it exposed your every flaw. People thought of night as a whole cloth, an unending blackness without boundaries, but it wasn’t like that. It was as alive, as full of subtle variations, as any landscape.

“To be honest, I’m not a fan of kids,” Liv confessed. It felt good to say it, freeing even. “Maybe because I grew up as an only child.” 

“Me too.” 

Liv resisted the urge to scream. Was Vi lying? What did she really know about Vi, anyway? They’d only met that night, when Liv’s boss told her to drive out to Lansdale for her shift. Had Duncan been messing with her? But Vi wasn’t lying about being left-handed and even if she dyed her hair, it was still the same shade of black as Liv’s. Then there was the similarity between their names—Liv, Vi. Both variations on Olivia. And the sleeves. Her stomach tightened. 

Vi laid down the dough she was stretching and walked over to Liv’s table. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Even Liv could hear the stiffness in her voice. Her mother would have called it a tone. She wasn’t even attempting to look like she was working anymore. The pastry ring sat finished on the table, its red and white fillings staring up at her. Perfectly symmetrical, perfectly shaped. 13 more to go. She needed to get moving.  

Vi pushed a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “You look kind of . . . weird. . .rattled. Do you want me to take over with the pastries?”

“I’m not rattled.” Liv pasted a smile onto her face. As if Vi wasn’t already behind with the baguettes. And she was going to take over the pastries too? They’d be there until lunchtime. “Just a little tired. I think maybe I’ll go to the freezer. If you want, you can take over.”

What the hell?  

A flicker of surprise crossed Vi’s face. Freezer runs were the worst task of all. Not only did they have to climb a ladder to reach the boxes of frozen cookies and muffins, but they had to do it with the freezer door shut. The temperature couldn’t rise above 32 degrees. Last month a baker up north had fallen off the ladder and hit her head on the way down. They found her sprawled across the steel floor the next morning, half frozen to death. She’d never gone back. Somehow the idea of ice cold air seemed like a comfort to Liv though. That’s what she needed to clear her head. 

“Are you sure you don’t mind?” Vi asked. She had already returned to her station and sliced the last piece of dough on the screen. “It’s fucking freezing in there.” 

“Hence the name freezer.” As she spoke, Liv realized the entire baguette rack was full, that somehow Vi had finished prepping all 120 baguettes. How was that possible? Meanwhile, 13 uncut strips of pastry ring dough sat thawing on her table. Another 20 minutes and the dough would be too warm to work with. 

Vi pressed her lips together as she wheeled the baguette racks into the proof box. She pulled the twin bagel racks out and transferred them to the walk-in oven. Steamed wafted out of the crack at the top of the door and dissolved into the ceiling. Behind the glass door, the racks began rotating. 

“What happened with the girl at the school,” Liv burst out before she could stop herself. “What did you do that scared her so much you got fired?”

Vi fastened her gaze onto Liv. Her eyes were sapphire blue. Just like Liv’s. Of course. “I didn’t do anything to her.”

Liv wasn’t buying it. “So they fired you for nothing.”

“They fired me because I made the mistake of telling her I saw things sometimes. People. That when I don’t take my meds, sometimes my sense of what’s real. . .gets a little shaky.” Vi said in a rush, her voice rising as she went on. “There’s this one guy, a recurring hallucination, I guess you’d call it. He kept showing up at the school. With a gun. Or so I believed at the time. He was right there, in the hallway, when I was taking Kaylee to the bathroom. I stepped aside. I mean I knew he wasn’t there but I grabbed her hand and pulled her to one side so we wouldn’t walk into him. So we wouldn’t upset him. I was trying to protect her, to save her. It was stupid, I understood that at the time, but I did it anyway. It’s just instinct, you know? He looked so real. They all do.”

“So you. . .told the girl–Kaylee? That there was a guy with a gun in the hallway? Or a . . . hallucination. . .with a gun?”

    Vi nodded. “I don’t know why I did that. It was stupid. But I don’t get why it scared her so much. Kids see ghosts all the time. They love that shit. But Kaylee freaked out. And she told some of her friends when we got back to the classroom. And they told the teacher, only it got all messed up—like with Telephone—and some of the kids thought there really was a guy with a gun in the school. We ended up going into lockdown. The police showed up. People were. . .panicking.”

    The oven timer started buzzing. The bagel racks need to be switched so the outside faced inward. Some of the bakers didn’t bother but Liv liked the way the bagels came out perfectly golden on all sides. Apparently Vi did too. She grabbed the oven mitts, walked over to the oven and pulled the heavy door open. When Vi got back to the baker’s station, Liv had swept the 13 unmade pastry rings into the trash. They were too warm to shape now. She’d have to get more from the freezer for Vi. They were way, way behind now. Under other circumstances, she’d be stressed about it. Now it seemed almost trivial.

    Vi eyed the trash barrel but didn’t comment on the ruined dough. Instead she lifted the one perfect pastry ring off the table and moved it into the walk-in refrigerator. “We can bake this with the others later.”

    Liv watched the ring disappear into the fridge. She grabbed an empty cart to take to the freezer and pushed it a few feet toward the other end of the back room. Then she stopped. She couldn’t let it go: the lockdown, the girl, the imaginary guy with the gun. 

“So they fired you after the lockdown?” she asked, keeping her voice casual.

    “Not right away.” Vi said with a little laugh. “Her parents were both professors at the college. One of them was chair of the psychology department as it turned out. So Kaylee goes home and she tells them the whole story. I mean, of course they’d already heard about the lockdown on social media but not the whole story. And later, when Kaylee tells them about me, they freak out that their kid was alone with a schizo. From the way they told it to the principal, it was like I was the one who would bring a gun to the school. Like I was a psychopath or something. A danger to others. Supposedly.”

    Liv studied Vi. On the surface, she looked perfectly normal. Goth, but still normal. Not like someone who saw stuff that wasn’t really there. Not like someone who would tell little kids about men bringing guns to their school. “The girl did get you fired,” she said, “in a way.”

    “I don’t hold it against her or anything.” Vi grabbed a cloth and started wiping down Liv’s table. “Do you believe in ghosts?”

    “No,” Liv said firmly. Was Vi going to try to convince her the hallucinations were real? Please, God, no. She’d had enough of that with her mom. “Not at all.”

    “Me either.”

    Liv felt a little better, but only a little. At least Vi knew what reality was. Sort of. “Do you hear voices too?”

    A beat. “When I’m not on my meds.”

    Another beat. “Are you on your meds now?”

    Vi focused on the table. She wiped some crumbs into her gloved hand and dropped them into the trash on top of the dough. Jesus. Here she was working with a psycho with a knife and no cameras. It was a small knife but it was still sharp as hell. Liv’s knife was too. At least there was that.

    “Do you see anybody here, when you’re working?” Liv asked. If Vi was hallucinating, she needed to know. She needed to know what she was dealing with. Should she call Duncan? No. That would make her seem like she was afraid. She’d be no better than the girl at the school. Plus she’d have to get her phone out of her backpack without Vi noticing. “Like in the cafe?”

“You mean in general?” Vi finished wiping the table and threw the wipe into the trash. She peeled off her gloves and added them to the pile. 

    “Yeah.” That wasn’t what she meant but it would have to do. For some reason, Liv didn’t want to ask Vi outright if she was hallucinating right now.

    “Sometimes.” Vi’s voice was neutral as she reached for a new pair of gloves. She pulled them over her crimson nails, wiped both hands on her apron. 

    Had Vi’s nails always been red? Liv hadn’t noticed them before. They weren’t supposed to wear fake nails. “Is it . . the same guy? The one with the gun?”

    “Sometimes.”

    “What does he look like?”

    “What does it matter?” Color seeped into Vi’s pale face. For the first time that night, she looked angry. “He’s not real.

    “I just want to know,” Liv said. “I’m just curious. It’s not a big deal.” Vi was right, it didn’t matter. But for some reason she really did want to know.

    Vi’s gaze turned inward. “He’s tall. Big. Not fat, more like he works out. Broad shoulders.  He always wears the same plaid flannel shirt, jeans, work boots, a black knitted cap. He’s got a beard. Sometimes he wears a jacket.”

    “What about the gun?”

    Her sapphire eyes came back into focus. “I forgot about the gun. Yeah, he has a gun. A handgun. In a holster under his shoulder.”

    “Does he always have it?

    “Most of the time. Not always.”

    “And you never saw this guy before. In real life.”

    “Never,” Vi said. “At least I don’t think so. I don’t remember ever seeing him.”

    “Does he ever say anything?”

    Vi shook her head. “No. Nothing.” Then, in a tone, “Are you done?”

    Liv tightened her grip on the cart. Vi’s warmth had disappeared entirely and she couldn’t blame her. It wasn’t Vi’s fault she saw people who weren’t really there. Who was Liv to make her feel bad about it? On the other hand, it was Vi who had quit taking her meds. Vi who had traumatized a six-year-old and sent an elementary school into Code Red. 

“It’s not my fault I see people who aren’t there,” said Vi. “Who are you to judge?”

Liv’s head started to throb. Suddenly, she wanted to get as far away from Vi as possible. She wished the shift was over. She wished she could quit. But she couldn’t, she needed the money. “I’m going to head to the freezer. We’re pretty behind. Which is my fault for asking you so many questions.”

    The oven timer went off. Vi grabbed the oven mitts and hurried to take the bagels out of the oven. “We’d better focus on the bake from now on.” Her voice was flat. 

    Liv shut her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. It didn’t help. “Good idea.”

    She grabbed her coat off the hook behind the baker’s station then took the cart and headed for the freezer. When she got there she used a chair to prop open the door and pushed the cart inside. The last thing she wanted to do was spend time in the freezer with the door shut and Vi roaming free through the cafe. If only she’d been able to grab her phone when Vi wasn’t looking. 

    Liv pulled on a pair of wool gloves and climbed onto the first rung of the ladder. On the other side of the open door, the light seemed brighter than usual. Almost blinding. It took her longer than usual to pull the frozen cookie batter and the uncooked muffins off the shelves, partly because she didn’t know where anything was and partly because her headache was getting worse. It was taking so long the temp had to have shot up to 40 degrees. Thank God the cameras were broken because Duncan would definitely have written her up for that. Still, she had to keep stopping to rub her hands together. As she worked, she tried to listen for the oven timer, for Vi’s movements, but even with the door open she couldn’t hear a thing.

    When the cart was full, she dragged it out of the freezer. She moved the chair back to the manager’s office and started toward the baker’s station. Up ahead, Vi was pushing the bread rack into the oven. She pressed a crimson fingertip to the timer as Liv approached. The smell of fresh bread filled the air. Liv felt nauseous. 

    “I’m back,” she said brightly. A little too brightly, but maybe Vi wouldn’t notice.

    Vi eyed the cart. “I don’t see the pastry rings,” she said. “Are they underneath the cookies or something?”

    “Shit.” Liv had forgotten all about the pastry rings. She had crossed them off the pan-up earlier that night and must have skipped over them when she went back to the freezer. “I’m sorry. I’ll run back and grab them.”

    Before Vi could answer, Liv turned and jogged back toward the freezer. Which was when she realized she was on the verge of passing out. She’d been working nonstop since 8 p.m. without so much as a drink of water. What a disaster this night had been. She couldn’t wait to drive home at dawn and collapse into bed. She reached out and braced herself against the wall. If she could just splash some water onto her face she’d be fine. She would pop into the restroom out front and head straight to the freezer. Vi wouldn’t even realize she’d made a detour.

    Outside, it was snowing. Thick flakes swirled out of the darkness and settled onto the pavement. A lone car sat parked beneath one of the unlit streetlamps, coated with a dusting of white. Liv edged closer to the plate glass windows, skirting around the empty tables and chairs until she reached the front of the cafe. Behind her, computerized menu boards cast a faint glow onto the countertops. She could hear Vi in the back room pulling a rack out of the proof box. The wheels clacked reassuringly across the tiles. 

Liv lurched a few steps forward and braced herself against the glass with both hands. It was so cold it burned her palms. She realized she was sweating.  

    The car looked like an older model, American made. Kind of boxy with four doors. Not that different from the car Liv had “inherited” from her mother a few years back. She couldn’t tell what color the vehicle was but it looked as if nobody was inside. It probably belonged to Vi, but then why hadn’t Liv noticed it before? She was sure it hadn’t been there at the beginning of the shift. Liv scanned the ground around the car for footprints. There were none. 

    The wind howled as it lifted the snow and pushed it up against the building. Liv heard footsteps behind her. She whirled her head around to see Vi standing in the doorway between the cafe and the backroom. Wisps of dark hair framed her shadowed face.

    “What’s taking you—” she started to ask then broke off. Her eyes flicked past Liv, fixed on something beyond her.

    When Liv turned back to the window, he was there, his palms pressed up against the glass to mirror her own. Black cap on his head, snow melting in his beard, jacket open to reveal his gun.


Lori Lamothe has published four poetry collections, with Aldrich Press, FutureCycle Press and Kelsay Books. She also writes fiction and articles; her prose has appeared in Cleaver Magazine, The South Florida Sun Sentinel, History of YesterdayThe Writing Cooperative and elsewhere.


“Wolf Trap” Horror by Carl Peters

"Wolf Trap" Horror by Carl Peters

David woke up, stretched, vigorously scratched behind his ear, squinted at the rising sun, and then, seeing at the frightened and shaken man still pointing a pistol at him, he smiled.

David yawned and stretched again. “You’re convinced now, right?” he said to Malloy, who was wide-eyed and trembling. He posed it as a question but it was a statement, a firm statement, and they both knew it. Malloy was indeed convinced.

“You, you … you … I can’t believe it,” Malloy said.

“You have to believe it,” David said, a bit curtly. “I told you and now you’ve seen it. You have to believe it. I turn into a wolf. I’m a werewolf. A real werewolf, a werewolf with fur and teeth and all that scary stuff. You can put your gun down now.”

“You’re a werewolf,” Malloy said stupidly.

Frank stood up and released himself from the collar and rope that was tied to a tree. Then he walked over to Malloy and gently took the gun from his hand. “I have a confession to make,” he said. “There are no silver bullets in this gun I gave you. I just told you that to make you feel better. I knew you wouldn’t need it, and I was right, wasn’t I?” He put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger several times. Click, click, click.  

“You fed me the hamburgers and I was quite a happy pup, wasn’t I? Not dangerous at all,” he continued. “Animals, well, I’m not an expert even if one under the full moon, but most animals aren’t a threat unless they feel threatened, or hungry.” Then he added, “Not like people.”

“You’re a werewolf,” Malloy said again. 

David noticed the empty wine bottle in the leaves next to where Malloy was sitting. “How about another drink?” he said. He pulled another bottle of cheap wine out of his knapsack, unscrewed the cap, and handed the bottle to Malloy. Malloy quickly took several big gulps and then started talking.Babbling really. 

Frank didn’t bother listening. He knew ahead of time what Malloy would be saying, the same things anyone else would be saying if someone gave them $150 and a bottle of wine to spend the night in the woods with him, and told them to make sure that when he turned into a wolf he didn’t run off and kill someone. They’d say they almost didn’t come because it was nutty, and they didn’t believe it, and when they did come they almost left because it creeped them out to tie him up to a tree. It was nuts and it was creepy. And they worried something really scary was behind it all, but not scary like a werewolf. Just creepy people scary. But they could really use $150, and the drinks David kept buying him at dinner … well. And since they met David months ago, he’d been so nice and helpful. Etc.

It was what they all said.

“And,” Malloy was still going on, “you, you like a wolf, were just standing there staring at me, so I threw the hamburgers at you, like you said I should, and you ate them.” David rolled his eyes. “And then you just laid down there. Just like my cocker spaniel did when I was a kid. Just like that!”

“Well,” David said, “can you imagine if we hadn’t brought those hamburgers and I wasn’t tied up? I would have run off and eaten a rabbit or a squirrel or something. Now can you imagine if I’d done that — eaten a rodent, maybe even some of the little bones — can you imagine how I’d feel now? A human stomach isn’t made to digest raw meat. I know from experience, I’d be really really sick, and it’s not like I can go to a doctor. What am I going to say? That I chased down a raccoon and chewed it up, fur and all?”

David looked Malloy in the eyes. “Now can you see why I needed your help? I know you were reluctant to come. But thank you.”

Malloy had almost emptied the wine bottle. Still talking, he had moved on to the next stage. The questions. How did David become a werewolf? When? What was it like? How did it feel to have a tail? Could he smell better? Blah, blah, blah.

“Those things, they’re really not important,” David said. “But now you’ve experienced something. Something extraordinary. And there’s more important things to learn from it than how and why it happens.”

He looked Malloy in the eye and smiled. “Let me explain.”

“I … I … I … never saw anything like that,” Malloy said, his speech suddenly betraying the effect of the wine as well as his astonishment. “I wouldna’ believed it.”

“That’s it,” David said with a tinge of excitement. “Why do we believe what we believe? You never saw a werewolf so you didn’t think they exist. But there could be werewolves all over the world, transforming quietly each full moon in the privacy of their homes, afraid to tell anyone because, like you, people would assume they’re dangerous.

“Yeah, animals can be dangerous, but unless you poke them with a stick, most of them aren’t going to come after you. They don’t kill for the sake of killing. They don’t hunt for sport. They don’t enjoy watching people die or take pride in their cunning. Only people do that.”

“You’re right,” Malloy said. “I known some mean people. Real mean people. Not like you who been so good to me these past few weeks. Helping me out. Giving me a few dollars here and there.”

“Yes, that’s right,” said David, more animated now. “Now that we’ve  been friends for a few weeks, if you found out something bad about me, if you, for example, found out I had killed someone, you’d think it was because I was a werewolf, right? Even though, as you now know, I’m no more dangerous as a wolf than a little old lady’s pet poodle. Maybe you’d even think of me as a victim, not a murderer.”

Malloy tipped the wine bottle to his mouth, but it was already empty. Drunk and feeling tired from being awake all night, he tried to keep his eyes open.

“Hey, are you listening to me?” David snapped his fingers in Malloy’s face, startling him. “This is important and we don’t have much time. It’s important to see how wrong you can be about things. Like a saint could be a werewolf as well as the most evil person in the world, right? But the saint would still be a saint, and the evil person would still be evil, right? You get it? We call people animals when they act terrible, but all that means is they’re acting like humans.”

“I do, David, I get it. It’s just so much, uh, I mean I never … my head is spinning a little. Now that you’re human again, whoa, you know?”

David frowned. “Let me make this quick,” he said. “Look, the question is, why do we believe what we believe. For instance. Take this very spot. Imagine someone finds a dead body here, maybe tomorrow, maybe weeks from now, after animals and maggots have been working on it — not to get a thrill but because that’s what animals and maggots do. So someone finds the body and they call the police, you with me?”

“Uh, yea, David. With you,” Malloy said, trying his best to be attentive. “Maybe before we walk back I can lay down, just for a few minutes?”

David laughed. “You can, you certainly can lay down afterwards — but pay attention to what I’m telling you first, because this is a rare opportunity, and it won’t come around again. I promise. So, you listening?”

“OK,” Malloy said. He stood up and slapped his own cheeks with his hands. “OK, I’m listening. You’re a smart guy and you been good to me. I’m listenin’”

“Good,” David said. “So this dead body, with the maggots, right? It has a bullet in the head. So the police see this, what are they going to think? They find out who the guy is — and let’s say, just for instance, that he’s someone like you. He a guy with no family, he drinks too much, doesn’t have much money, eats at soup kitchens — like where we met. So the cops are going to see this body, alone, some empty wine bottles, not much to live for, and they’re going to think he killed himself. 

“But you,” David said, “you would never kill yourself, right?”

Malloy rubbed his reddened eyes. “No,” he said weakly.

David took a single bullet out of his shirt pocket and put it in the chamber of the pistol. “This isn’t silver,” he said. “It doesn’t need to be. It’s just a bullet.”

“I don’t understand,” Malloy said.

“You’re not my first,” David said. “I’ve doing this a long time. I enjoy doing it, and I enjoy getting away with it. I like tricking people. I like seeing their fear. I like seeing their blood. It’s the kind of feeling only a human can have.”

He picked up part of a half-eaten hamburger and held it up to Malloy’s face. “Last meal?” he said. Malloy whimpered like a dog that had been kicked, as David put the gun against his temple.


Carl Peters lives in New Jersey.