“Disobedience” Dark Short Story by Maria Wickens

Maria Wickens’ work has been published or is forthcoming in Allium,
Apricity Magazine, Cobalt Review, Press Pause Press, and Slab. She won
the 1993 Reed New Writers Fiction Award with her novel Left of Centre
(Secker & Warburg 1994). She lives in New Zealand with her husband and
two sons.

My older brother and I sit on the playground swings. It’s night and the icy wind shrieks, cutting through us. Tree branches rattle like bones, withered autumn leaves cling to twigs, rustling like dry skin.

Around us translucent children play.

Ghost children.

My brother and I sway to and fro in time with the rhythmic creaking of the swings’ rusted chains.

One ghost child wears a Luke Skywalker T-shirt. It is our brother, also called Luke, and my heart breaks when he weeps. I long to reach out to help him, but my older brother tells me to stay on the swings.

“We’re safe here. She won’t find us.”

And so I dream endlessly of my baby brother’s shuddering sobs.

* * *

The playground in my dream is the same raggedy playground I played in as a child in a large, depressed city a world away, living a less-than-idyllic childhood.

There is a park at the end of the street where I live now too, established on farmland gifted back to the city that grew up around it. The paintwork on the playground equipment is new. Soft artificial turf lines the areas around the climbing frames. Wood chips, rather than the gravel pits we grew up playing in, mark out the paths. Everything gleams new except for one out-of-place relic.

As a tribute to the park benefactor, Farmer Wilton, an old tractor is fixed in the corner of the playground. Children clamber on to it to twist levers and flick switches. There is a local petition to have it removed because of the danger it poses. The mothers in this suburb are not keen on old farm equipment scratching knees. Nor are they fans of tetanus vaccinations.

My ex-husband lives somewhere more tropical with his much more presentable new wife. Unburdened by children, their immaculate, architecturally designed house is nowhere near a playground. I am inclined to think that is in no way an accident.

His leaving unwound me into a tangled mess. He communicated his loathing and dissatisfaction not just for me but for the life he felt he’d been trapped into. When he was through I was fragmented and broken, without the resolve to glue myself back together.

We coped because my brother Jimmy moved in with us.

Jimmy’s rehab counselor was under the illusion we provided Jimmy with support, but all I gave him was a place to sleep and sank back into guilt and the panic that I was now alone with three children. Jimmy made sure we were fed and washed, and walked the boys to school. At night he would pad around the house with the baby, who echoed my grief at our abandonment, howling relentlessly. Jimmy patted her back and reassured the two of us that it would pass.

He looked after our basic needs, giving me time to duct-tape my psyche together again. We never discussed how long Jimmy would stay, but it was understood he would be there for as long as we needed him. Jimmy filled a chasm for my children, who felt their father fade away from their lives.

It is a lie that children are more resilient than adults. Jimmy understood that.

I’ve cheated Jimmy of his own family.

Or maybe he assumes it is safer not to invest in a family of his own. Advice I would have taken, had he shared it. Jimmy has taken care of me since he was a teenager and by now it is habit, and, regrettably, Jimmy tends to succumb to bad habits. Sadness woos him like a lover, so perhaps he has no room for anything else.

Survival is my suitor. That is why I accept my brother’s support without guilt at what he has given up.

If I was in a lighter mood, I could imagine this living arrangement as the bare bones of a hilarious sitcom. I kiss my sleeping children good night and whisper “sweet dreams” outside Jimmy’s room.

There is not much humor to be found in this material, but all the same I imagine a laugh track over my sad life. Pouring another shot of vodka to take to bed, I hide the bottle from Jimmy and hope for more restful sleep than the dream ghost children will allow.

* * *

Somebody told me once there’s nothing sadder than a beach resort in winter. Galveston excepted, I would argue a children’s playground at night is still more depressing.

During the day I have no issue walking past the playground on my way to work. Usually, at that early hour, there is just one boy at the playground, Oliver. He is severely autistic and the thing that brings him joy is to run barefoot from his house to the playground. He scrambles up the climbing frame with the grace of a cat, but his favorite piece of equipment is a spinning spike. He stands on a disc-like platform, spinning it in synchronicity with the Earth.

I raise my fist to the sky and Oliver whoops a greeting. More power to you, honey. It gives me a small jolt of happiness to watch this boy every day, disconnected to the world, oblivious to everything but the pleasure it gives him to reach the height of giddiness.

On my return journey I choose a different route, so I approach home in the opposite direction of the playground. I tell myself it is because my Fitbit counts more steps, not that I might be too scared to walk past a playground at night.

I am not the only person who senses tragedy haunts all playgrounds when darkness falls and the ghosts of children play. I sometimes hear Oliver’s mother calling him in at twilight to make sure he is safely inside by dark. I have also taken steps to ensure my children know better than to chance fate in the deserted space of a playground at night.

At least I thought they understood this. But no, Jimmy stands anxiously at the end of the driveway, waiting. My daughter stands next to him, dressed in her Wendy Darling nightdress, eyes sleepy, clutching a teddy bear in her other hand.

“The boys aren’t here.” Jimmy’s panic spreads to me. His fear is cold, freezing my being; my heart stops beating. “They downloaded an inappropriate movie, and when I wouldn’t let them watch it, Jayden got angry. He ran off and Conor followed. I’ve lost them.”

Jimmy searched all over the house and the yard. His guess is they are hiding out at the playground.

“They wouldn’t go there,” I say with such firm certainty, he could take it to the bank.

The bedtime tales I told Jayden and Conor when they were children usually involved tales of ghost children luring live children into playgrounds where the child catcher lay in wait.

In the best tradition of German fairy tales, I described in detail how the child catcher’s long, sharp fingernails clawed flesh from little bones. Arriving each night in a death-black carriage drawn by fire-breathing stallions, her carriage was filled with runaway children by dawn. The final destination for those lost boys and girls was most certainly not Neverland.

Jimmy has always been a little judgmental of my hands-off mothering, but he makes no effort to hide his disapproval when I explain why Conor and Jayden would never go to the playground at night.

“Jesus, you couldn’t just read them Winnie the Pooh?” His expression is aghast.

“Uncle Jimmy,” says Daisy very seriously, “you must never go to the playground at night. Everyone knows that.” She recites the poem I read them so often they know it by heart now:

You must never go down

to the end of the playground,

if you don’t go down with me.”

James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree,” says Jimmy, recognizing the A.A. Milne poem “Disobedience” because I copied it out for him when I was in grade school, thinking he was the James Dupree of the poem.

“Little Luca-Luke took great of his mother though he was only three,” I respond.

Although she took little care of him and even less of me.

Luke died when he was only three.

A.A. Milne is dark, no question. It’s not all about Pooh and Piglet and control-freak Rabbit. If you read carefully, you hear that the man is still in the trenches at Somme.

“Jayden’s not frightened by ghost stories,” says Jimmy.


“He should be,” says my clever girl, Daisy. “They are real.” She nods emphatically. “Yessir, you don’t want to mess with ghost children.”

“I’ll take her to a neighbor,” says Jimmy firmly. He uses the tone that big brothers get when they are bossing their little sisters around. “You go to the playground and I’ll catch you up.” I shake my head resolutely. “Go!” he says. “Jayden is nearly thirteen. The teenagers have secret drinking parties there.”

Jayden is nearly thirteen? He was nine when my husband left. Has it really been that long? That explains the surliness, I suppose.

“I’ll take Daisy to the neighbors. You go to the playground and I’ll meet you there.”

“You don’t know any of the neighbors,” says Jimmy. “And Jayden won’t listen to me. You have to be the one to go get him.”

“Of course I know my neighbors,” I snap. “Down that driveway is the lesbian couple with the dog. Jude and Liza.”

“They moved six months ago. Reuben and Natasha live there now. And incidentally, Jude was the dog’s name. Liza’s partner was Molly.”

He only knows this because he keeps a spreadsheet of the neighbors’ names so he can pretend to be a good neighbor and greet them by name.

“I’ll meet you at the playground,” Jimmy says. “Go. Jayden won’t do a damn thing I tell him these days.” He pauses. “It’s a different playground. You don’t need to be afraid.”

“Yes, she does,” murmurs Daisy as Jimmy leads her down the driveway to whoever lives next door to us now.

* * *

Oliver stands barefooted at the end of the street, waiting for me. He leaps onto a small retaining wall and recites:




It turns out Oliver is quite articulate when he chooses.

“Bad.” He jumps down from the wall. He hugs himself and sways back and forth. “Bad, bad, bad, bad.”

Yep, buddy. I am certainly picking up that vibe.

His mother calls him to come inside now. He cocks his head and scampers toward his house, pausing at the gate to let loose a yodel of encouragement.

The empty swings creak as the wind blows them to and fro. The spinning rod rotates against the Earth’s axis, turning, turning. Things are most definitely falling apart. A rumbling engine noise comes from the decaying tractor. The anti-vax mothers haven’t succeeded in having her towed from the playground yet, but as ghostly mist spreads from the antique exhaust pipe, I have half a mind to sign their petition tomorrow.

I call to Jayden and Conor. The wind whips through the trees on the hill behind the playground. The leaves rustle and fat black birds perch in the branches. An aroma of dead leaves—dead birds?—wafts downhill.

The playground is lifeless. Even the homeschooled teenagers who gather here to rebel have found an alternative location to spray-paint graffiti and drink cheap red wine. Nobody is foolish enough to go to the playground at night. Jimmy is wrong.

You ripped your shirt. You messed up again, you dumb ass.

The child catcher shouts and screams and bellows. Her rough hand heaps heavy blows upon small heads. Sometimes she uses a belt. Once she swung a baseball bat at me, but I hid under a neighbor’s house until Jimmy came home.

The knot in my stomach swells.

This is not my life now, I remind myself until the world comes back into focus.


“Mommy.” Jayden scrambles down the hill and flings himself toward me. His voice is deep. He really is nearly thirteen. His face is covered with dirt. Dirt. Not blood. My stomach knot twists tighter. He hasn’t called me “Mommy” for years.

“Where’s Conor?” I demand.

Jayden’s voice slides between boy and man. I cannot follow his words. My stomach churns with impatience. I grip his shoulders tightly.

“Whoa! Stop!”

Jimmy vaults the playground fence. Horrified, I step back from Jayden. What have I done to my baby?

“I’ve hurt him,” I stutter. “I’m just like her.”

“No, no,” Jimmy says. “You just squeezed a little tight, you didn’t harm him.”

But I might have. Jayden is trembling. I tentatively reach out to him, and he throws himself into my arms.

Jayden’s words finally take coherent form. “Ghost children. Look.” Still clinging to me, he points wildly. Twins sitting on the seesaw, solemnly soaring up and down. Their heads turn toward us as they continue seeing and sawing in metronomic precision. Another child sits at the top of the slide, watching us intently.

Luke is suddenly beside me. “Conor’s easily scared, like me,” he ghost-whispers.

Jimmy’s eyes bulge. He is looking right at Luke. He sees the long, ringleted hair and wide brown eyes with an expression of constant surprise that just when you think the world couldn’t get worse, it does. It’s unmistakably Luke, he’s just a little faded now. The ripped Star Wars T-shirt confirms it.

“You see that too?” I ask.

“No,” Jimmy says with the certain tone of somebody who has spent some time in rehab convincing themselves their demons do not really take form. Then he groans, “Yes,” because our mother appears.

A murder of crows caw a warning as she approaches from the woods, dragging Conor behind her. He is bruised and scratched and bleeding.

Jayden squeezes my hand fearfully but his voice is strong. “Leave my brother alone.”

The same words Jimmy used. Like an evil spell has been cast, we’re back in her vintage ’60s kitchen.

The room is a nightmare palette of lime-green countertops and saffron diamond floor tiles. Behind yellow frosted glass pantry doors, she stores fake crystal glasses and an ugly, heavy dinner set missing a couple of plates that she flung in my direction.

Luke stutters so badly sometimes he’s incoherent. He is frozen to his mark. His nonresponsiveness drives her to a state beyond anger. She grips his shoulders tightly and shakes him hard. Your teeth really do rattle if you are shaken hard enough. Seizing the chance to run, I sprint barefooted to the basketball court at the end of the block, yelling for Jimmy to help us.

“Leave my brother alone.” He bursts through the door.

Mother aims her wrath at Jimmy for disrespecting her as he shields Luke from her blows, shepherding him out of her reach.

I see it before he does. I try to warn them, I really try. Horror dries out my throat, and I can only manage a whimper. Mother snatches the knife, slashing at Jimmy’s face and arms until he finally retreats, bleeding from the cuts she inflicts.

She mutters about ungrateful piglets and hits Luke in the chest. He takes the blow silently, as he’s learned to do. Jimmy folds his bleeding arms across his chest and screams the kind of shriek that heralds the end of the world.

I can’t deny what my eyes are seeing but my brain won’t process. She stabs Luke again and again.

It’s our fault. Always our fault.

Jimmy picks me up and runs out of the house to the park, making for the area where kids have smashed the streetlights throwing rocks to relieve boredom. He shoves me under a bush and covers me with his body, telling me for God’s sake stay quiet.

I hear her calling to us, just like the other mothers in the neighborhood call to their kids to come in after dark. But she is not like other mothers. Jimmy’s breathing hard and I wonder how she doesn’t hear him as her footsteps pass right by us.

“We’re safe here. She won’t find us,” Jimmy whispers to me.

He tells me to close my eyes. Waiting to be sure she’s gone, we huddle together like stray kittens until dawn. By the time we venture out it’s too late for Luke, and Mother has gone.

We left Luke behind. I dream of our betrayal every night now.


Conor whimpers and the sound of his brother’s terror triggers Jayden into action. I try to hold him back, but he marches up to Mother and wrestles Conor away from her. Mother grabs him by the shoulders. She tries to shake him, but he stands his ground and shrugs her off.

“You are a bad boy.” It was always her words that wounded us with more lasting effect than any of the beatings. “No wonder your father ran away from you.” She stares at me, although her eyes are dead, devoid of light. “He ran away from you too. You two are no good for anyone.”

I burn with anger at the expression on Jayden’s face. I push her away from my boy. He runs to Conor and Jimmy. Jimmy puts his arms around their shoulders and pulls them close.

I summoned her with my relentless nightmares and resurfacing fear. This is my fight and I’ll deal with it.

She is unchanged. The same raspy voice, dripping with nicotine and vitriol. Her hair stretched into a tight bun, facelifting any wrinkles. Ageless.

I realize she looks the same because she is a bad memory. A nightmare taken form. She isn’t real and she doesn’t belong in my world. Her time is over.

“You have no power over me. Or my kids. Lady, they don’t even know who you are.” I gesture toward Jayden and Conor. Jayden stands tall, hands on his hips, backing up my claim that her words can’t hurt him as they did me. “You died years back, forgotten, and you deserve to suffer just like you hurt Luke.”

“And the others,” murmurs Jimmy.

The ghost children close in on her, and she releases a high-pitched wail. Long overdue.

“Time to melt, witch,” I tell her over my shoulder as I walk toward my family and home.

My home is furnished in warm colors, reds, browns. No imitation mahogany. Certainly no lime-green counters. Wooden floors, not saffron-yellow tiles. My crystal isn’t fake and we eat off plates the kids have painted in community art classes.

Jayden is too old to share a bed with his little brother, but he makes an exception for tonight, and they hug each other as they sleep in my bed. Daisy curls up in my lap as I watch over the three of them. Daisy purrs like a kitten when she snores.

Jimmy brings me my not-so-secret bottle of vodka.

“You know I’m in recovery, right?” he says. “You shouldn’t have this in the house.”

“I’m a bad sister as well as a bad mother.”

“You are a good mother.” His words warm me more than a slug of straight vodka. Perhaps tonight I will pass on the booze. Maybe I’ll pour it down the drain tomorrow.

“I thought I’d grow up to be our mother. I worried one day I would be her,” I tell him the secret I never told anyone. Not even my husband when we were married. In retrospect I am kind of glad I didn’t tell him. He would have only used it against me.

“She wasn’t our mother. She was our foster mother,” Jimmy says, although she was the only mother I knew. He had several by the time he was unfortunate to have his case assigned to her. “We were just three of I don’t know how many kids she took in. They lost count. Luke wasn’t the first kid who went missing.” He shrugs philosophically so I guess he’s had a while to process this. Maybe he researched it. I, on the other hand, turned my memory rock over and made sure never to turn it over again. The occasional nightmare still managed to crawl out from under it, but I would not revisit or research that time for anything.

“There were other kids who disappeared before Luke,” Jimmy says warily, as if he knows not to share too much.

The other children visited me night after night with Luke, so no surprise to learn that.

“You’re a good big brother,” I tell him, and I should tell him that more often. Jimmy was only sixteen but his birth certificate was lost, and he convinced the social workers he was old enough to look after me. Nobody argued because I was one less kid to worry about in an overburdened system. “Is she really gone?” I ask.

“Texas has the death penalty, and child killers aren’t treated so well in prison,” Jimmy shrugs. “You’re safe.” Just as he promised that night.

All the same, I plan to take the longer route home, avoiding the playground at night.

* * *

The others are still asleep when I leave for work the next morning. The sky is clear and the sun is too bright. Oliver is already in the playground. This morning he’s not scaling the climbing frame. Instead he is in the midst of a light-saber battle with another kid.

I squint into the sun and blink. It’s just Oliver galloping around the playground alone, barefooted, doing a hundred happy things before bedtime.

Just as children should.

Maria Wickens’ work has been published or is forthcoming in Allium,
Apricity Magazine, Cobalt Review, Press Pause Press, and Slab. She won
the 1993 Reed New Writers Fiction Award with her novel Left of Centre
(Secker & Warburg 1994). She lives in New Zealand with her husband and
two sons.

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“Hunting Bear” Dark Short Story by James Hanna

"Hunting Bear" Dark Fiction by James Hanna: James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, all of which have won awards, are available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/-/es/James-Hanna

Ryan O’Shaughnessy is standing in front of The Pink Panther, a strip club in downtown Sydney.  His gaze is narrow, like a cop’s, and complements his close-cropped hair and walnut-sized knuckles.  The fact that he is a street thug in no way belies his sense of proprietorship.  His mission is sacred, after all, for tonight he is hunting bear—not the grizzled variety, but a snitch who badly needs killing, a tall, bearded jerk who fingered him to the cops after selling him a bag of meth.  The cops had tried to make Ryan an informant as well but Ryan, a man of real character, had told them nothing.  And so he had been forced to spend another year in the city jail.  And a damn hard year it was.  Even buggering the Nancy boys had not kept the walls from crushing in on him.  It seemed as though the jail had swallowed him alive.

But tonight he is back to living in Hyde Park.  And tonight he is hunting for bear.

His gaze remains steady as a cop car rolls past him, its black body shivering in the bright lights of the strip.  This time Ryan refuses to flinch.  Fuck the cops—he has served his time and now has comeuppance to collect.  The fink he is going to kill is named Stork—if that’s what he’s still calling himself.  Street names are usually changed every month—if not, it’s too easy to get snitched out.  Ryan has had over fifty different street names and so he has gotten snitched out only once.  And tonight his name is Hunting Bear, kinda like the Indian brave in that movie he saw last night—the guy who apologized to a deer after killing it.  But Ryan is not going to apologize for wasting Stork.

What was the name of that little twitch—the cute little junkie he’s going to marry tomorrow at the Wayside Chapel?  Her street name is Miss Muffet, but what’s her real name?  Probably it’s Berta or Frieda or something god-awful.  She’s only marrying him for citizenship papers—so she won’t get deported if she’s caught shooting heroin—but what the hell: she has promised him fifty bucks and a bang.  And money is money—crotch is crotch.  That boy who was with her—probably her pimp-to-be—had told him she was a hard lay.  Hymen like leather.  “If you can bust her, you can have her,” he had joked, and Ryan had laughed heartily.  “I’ll bust her,” he said.  “Busted me a thousand cherries.”

And so his itinerary is set:  First ice that canary.  Then bust himself a cherry.

Another squad car rolls by, gliding to a halt when the street light changes to red.  The city is thick with cops tonight.  Ryan catches his reflection in the rearview mirror of the squad car: he is a broad-shouldered man with thick horn-rimmed glasses and a rather menacing harelip.  And his triceps, swollen from fifty daily pushups on the cell row, threaten to rip through his short-sleeved shirt.  Fifty-five years old and he can still lick his weight in wildcats.  Ryan doesn’t even need the pistol—the .44 Auto Mag that is hidden in his crotch.  He could strangle that canary with his bare hands.

Ryan studies the street as the cop car speeds off.  The hit should be easy—a piece of cake.  He has already killed off a hundred snitches—iced them just to keep in shape.  His life as an outlaw—his thirty years of breaking into cars, dropping meth, and getting into fights—has turned him into a rock-hard terminator.  Even the cops don’t intimidate him.  Only yesterday, after getting out of jail, he wrote eat shit on the back of a squad car.  Wrote it in his own shit just to press home the point.  That’s what they get for throwing him into the meat wagon every chance they get.  How many cops has he punched?—he’s not sure.   Maybe he’s got Alzheimer’s—that’s what the jail shrink told him.  Or maybe he just forgets things now and then.  But he hasn’t forgotten that crotch of a jail—the scurrying roaches, the stench of stale socks, and the pulsating racket.

The sidewalks are crowded with tourists and hippies, but Ryan is quick to identify the tall gaunt figure on the opposite side of the street.  Stork—it’s got to be Stork.  Only Stork could be so dumb — strutting around in a bright red jacket when he should know there’s a price on his head.  This is going to be even easier than he thought.  Ryan takes a deep drag on his cigarette—exhales a silvery stream.  With a flick of his finger, he fires the butt at a passing truck.  Bull’s eye.

Slowly, stealthily, Ryan eases himself into the stream of pedestrians.  He is forced to walk slowly since a bunch of Hari Krishnas are blocking his way—shoeless kids with tambourines and halfwit expressions.  What a way to end up: banging on tambourines, singing like sin.  And there’s not a real bang in the whole bunch.  He had attended one of their feasts only yesterday after getting out of jail.  Some feast—raisins and brown apples on a dirty tray.  There oughta be a law against serving that crap.  He had nibbled a piece of apple—politely—and then left.  Let them serve him pork chops if they want him back—and maybe some Bristol Cream Sherry.  And let them wash their feet.

Hunting Bear” somebody shouts—Ryan tenses.  It’s one of the fucking Krishnas: a sunken-chested boy with blazing acne.  One day out of jail and Ryan has already been recognized.  The boy slaps his tambourine.  “Rama,” he bleats.  “Rama Rama.”  Krishnas are all around him now, laughing and singing—praising him like he’s some kind of elephant god.  Ryan dances along with them, hoping that by doing so he will avoid greater scrutiny.  He is careful not to dislodge the gun.  Ryan dances the twist while the Krishnas leap about aimlessly.  When the dance is over, he slips back into the crowd.

Stork is still standing on the opposite side of the street.  Ryan pats the magnum-powered pistol in his pants.  The word is go.  Sooner or later we all gotta pay—and Stork’s gotta pay tonight.  But the job needs to be done in a vacant alley: there, Ryan can take his time about it—there, Stork can see the bore of the gun pointed leisurely at his chest.  Let him grovel a bit before taking the slug—otherwise, he won’t have paid enough.  Be a waste of a good hollow-point bullet to dust him on the street.

Ryan crosses the street—hops to the curb.  He pauses when Stork looks in his direction, but the boy’s wooly face remains calm, benign—kinda like the face of Jesus.  Clearly, Stork has not recognized him—probably he doesn’t even remember dropping the dime.  But just wait until he goes into an alley to make a drug deal.  Ryan will have a chat with him there—bring him up to speed.  Ryan laughs at his joke then ducks into a doorway.

Ten minutes pass and Stork does not budge.  Ryan decides to wait him out.  Can’t make it too obvious though.  Ryan glances at a flock of transsexual prostitutes who are also soliciting on the street.  He had better pretend that he’s one of their johns or Stork may start to get suspicious of him.  Ryan winks at one of the prostitutes—an invitation that sets his teeth on edge.  It is against his ethics to pay for ass.  Hell, woman ought to pay him.

The hooker hesitates before approaching.  She’s a willowy kid with wary eyes and she knows he’s not a regular.  Ryan pats the bulge created by the gun.  “I’m loaded for bear, sister,” he says.

She smiles thinly then bites her lower lip.  She is young, remarkably young, and her front teeth are smeared with lipstick.  She looks like an adolescent who has stolen her mother’s makeup kit.  “Do you really date?” she scoffs.

Ryan nods.  “I mean business, sister.”

“It’s twenty for head.”

Ryan opens his wallet and rummages about.  Thankfully, he still has his gate money from jail.  He makes a show out of handing her the twenty dollars.  “Dinner and a movie,” he jokes.

Ryan grimaces as she takes the money.  What a waste.  The only consolation is that she won’t bother him after the sex.  After sex, all women ought to turn into pool tables.

He follows her into an alley and waits patiently while she adjusts her dress.  When she kneels at his feet, he can only feign interest: her teeth are so small, her eyes so vacant, that she reminds him of a dead fish.  Ryan takes off his shirt and flexes his biceps.  Maybe this will get him a discount.  He needs to delay matters anyhow—bide his time until Stork comes into the alley.  A good Indian brave keeps his mind on the hunt.

The tranny stares up at him.  “Don’t take all night about it, mister.”

Ryan balls up his shirt then stuffs it into his rear pocket.  “Twenty minutes of your time—that’s all I want, sister.  I’m hunting for bear.”  He opens his wallet and hands her another ten dollars.  “Just keep outta sight.”

Her eyes flash.  “You ashamed to be seen with me, mister?”

“Gotta be careful.  Tomorrow, I’m getting married.”

She jumps to her feet and snatches the money from his hand.  She then crumples it up—throws it on the ground.  “Who’d marry you—weirdo?”

Indignant, she sashays to the back of the alley—probably to take a leak.  When she doesn’t return, Ryan lets the money lie.  A deal’s a deal.  He waits for twenty minutes, but Stork does not appear.  Nor does the tranny.

Loud voices force Ryan to peek from the alley.  The sidewalk is now crowded with demonstrators: a bunch of hippies, longhaired freaks, are yelling at a group of soldiers.  The hippies look young—the soldiers even younger; the exchange is tritely familiar.  Baby burner … I’m proud to have fought You’d fight for any cunt.

Ryan listens attentively.  If a fight should break out, he wants to be part of it.  Pop himself a few longhairs—maybe even a soldier or two.  He hopes the cops don’t show up too quickly.

The judge should have sent him to Nam instead of jail.  He’d have killed a thousand of those little gooks then chopped off their ears and used them for fish bait.  Hut two three four—dust a foe and look for more.  Plenty of good weed there too.


A cop car arrives.  The hippies scatter while the soldiers walk away.  Stork is no longer around, but Ryan is not worried.  The fucker will soon be back, and he can watch for him from the coffeehouse across the street.  Ryan needs to piss anyhow and only bums piss in alleys.

Ryan crosses the street and struts toward the coffeehouse.  A street urchin watches him approach—an elfin teenage girl who is panhandling in front of the glass doorway.  Her face is so thin that she looks supernatural—like maybe she’s a vision of some kind.   Ryan doesn’t like visions; he’s seen too many of the damn things.  But that doesn’t make him a schizo—or whatever that jail shrink called him.  Ryan just notices things.

To make sure she’s real, Ryan hands her five dollars.  She takes the money and pockets it in her jeans.  “Thank you, dear sir.”

Ryan thumps his naked chest.  “I’m hunting bear, Dolly.  You’d better get out of here.”

She titters.  “Then why are your pants still on?”

“Stork I mean.  I’m gonna plug Stork.”

She giggles again.  “Storks deliver babies.”

Ryan shakes his head.  Maybe she’s an angel.  He gives her another five dollars then pats her on the head.  Never know when you’re gonna need an angel on your side.

Ryan puts on his shirt and enters the coffeehouse.  A beak-nosed woman behind the counter watches him as he strides towards the john.  Once he has relieved himself, he returns and makes his purchase: a latté and two chocolate donuts.  The woman’s eyes remain fixed on him—even after he sits at a table and starts to sip his coffee.  Ryan watches for Stork through the glass doorway of the shop.  The girl is gone.

The coffeehouse is pleasant, the coffee sweet, and Ryan feels good for the first time in months.  What more could he wish for than a cool summer evening, a snitch to kill, and sprinkles on his donuts?  He does not bother with further reflection: his boyhood in that flea-pit orphanage, those bull dyke nuns that whipped him daily—catching their switches in their holy beads—and his many internments in jails and mental institutions.  Had he burned down that orphanage?—fuck it, who knows?  His memory is unreliable now—just like those freaks that keep popping up: dog-faced midgets, glowering mimes, hags with painted faces.  Only the gun, the hard press of metal in his crotch, can be counted on.

Stork is now back on the other side of the street.  He has changed into a denim jacket, probably to confuse off the cops.  Ryan nibbles a donut—slowly.  Dry Puss is still watching him from the counter.  If he greases Stork now, she’s gonna call the cops on him.  Big mistake—coming into the coffeehouse.  Ryan is still sitting at the table when Stork, accompanied by one of the trannies, ambles into the alley to make a sale.  It’s the same damn tranny he paid good money to.

“Ahem.”  The voice is calm, gentle—like water chuckling in a stream.  A gentleman is standing by his table—an elegant man in a gray pinstriped suit.  His eyes are soft, his hair silver white, and he is wearing a pink carnation in the lapel of his jacket.  He isn’t a cop—probably he isn’t even a ghost.  Probably, he’s just a tourist visiting the city.  Plenty of cruise ships in Sydney Harbor.  Plenty of easy pickings on those ships. “Ahem,” the man says.  “Who might your trainer be, sir?”

Ryan flexes his biceps.  “Got ’em hoisting beer bottles.”

The man smiles. “Would you like a bit of sherry?”

The gentleman sits down.  He places two mugs on the table—probably got them from Dry Puss.  He removes a slim bottle from inside his jacket and empties it into the mugs.

Ryan sips his sherry then glances toward the counter.  Dry Puss, preoccupied with another customer, is no longer eyeballing him.  Ryan looks back at the gentleman and winks.  He has decided to string him along; that way she’ll think he’s a hustler—not a hit man.  Anyhow, it’s against his principles not to roll a faggot.

The gentleman is now boring him with drivel about his family: a dog named Spook, a daughter in college, a wife from whom he’s estranged but still loves.   Ryan puts down his sherry.  “Don’t miss the boat, Pops.”

The gentleman nods profoundly.  His eyes are so soft that they look like poached eggs.  “You’re very astute, my good man.”

Ryan laughs heartily.  “That’s me, Pops.  I go deep.”

Microsoft Surface Book 3

Ryan takes the gentleman by the arm—guides him towards the door.  The man stumbles as he walks.  As they stroll along the street, Ryan keeps his eyes on Stork.  He is standing alone on the opposite sidewalk.  He is smoking a cigarette—his last damn cigarette—but, thanks to this faggot, he will have time to finish it.

Ryan walks in the direction of Hyde Park.  His shadow, emboldened by the streetlights, intermingles with the shadow of the gentleman.  The gentleman is singing.  “Hoo rah, hoo rah.  The Campbells are coming.  Hoo rah.”

The punch, when Ryan delivers it, is swift, scientific—the gentleman grabs his stomach.  “Ooof,” he says—his carnation pops off.  Ryan catches him as his knees begin to sag and sits him down in a doorway.  He searches the man’s pockets, finds his wallet, opens it up.  Only forty dollars—hardly worth his time.  But principle is principle.  Ryan pockets twenty dollars and leaves the rest in the wallet.  The coot will need money for a cab.  “Let that be a lesson to you, Pops.”  He tosses him the wallet.  “What would your wife think?”

Leaving the gentleman in the doorway, Ryan marches back towards the coffeehouse.  He knows from experience that the man won’t call the cops.  And he has bigger matters to worry about.  It is late—nearly midnight—and Stork is still alive.


Ryan lurks outside of the coffeehouse.  Stork is not around. While he waits, Ryan swallows a hit of meth—a capsule that he smuggled out of jail.  Twenty minutes pass, but Stork does not appear.  Fuck it—there’s no sense in hanging around all night just to kill off another snitch.  He may as well party instead—have himself a ball.  In case the cops get lucky enough to nab him.

Ryan walks two blocks downhill to the classiest nightclub in town.  The sign on the Marquee—Whiskey A-Go-Go—flashes then fades, flashes then fades.  Ryan sucks in his belly as he walks towards the doorway.  No sense in advertising the bulge from the gun.

A burly bouncer waves him in, and Ryan strolls into the club — unsearched.  The club, a cavernous place, is filled with servicemen, cigarette smoke, scantily dressed women serving drinks.  The lights from a chandelier force him to squint.  His pupils, dilated from the meth, are probably bigger than saucers now.

A hostess approaches him—a pencil-thin woman in her fifties with stiletto heels.  Her silvery dress clings like cellophane to her tits and spits back the light from the chandelier.  Her cheekbones have the windswept look of a bad facelift.  She is looking at him with exaggerated concern.  “Are you hungry, my dear?”

Ryan grins.  “I could eat.”

She points towards an empty booth at a far corner of the club.  “Have a seat, poor sir.  A waitress will bring you something.  It’s entirely on the house.”  The woman’s eyes are tender, her voice is softer than silk, but there is an unmistakable putdown to her offer.  Behave and we will feed you—just like a dog.

Insulted, Ryan takes a seat at the far end of the nightclub—a corner so dark that his eyes have to readjust.  A half-naked waitress brings him his bribe: a hamburger on a paper plate.  Ryan orders schnapps with a beer chaser and pays for it with his own money. 

Ryan takes a bite out of the burger.  It is soggy—practically raw.  What do they think he is—a vampire?  He spits the mouthful out and shoves the plate to one side.  He then downs the schnapps quickly to wash away the taste of the burger.  He finishes his beer in several gulps.

The room is now glittering like a diamond.  A faggot band is beginning to play.  A tight-butt woman is singing a Beatles song—something about Mother Mary and letting it be.  Ryan gets a hard on listening to the woman.  He’d nail her a good one if he wasn’t getting married tomorrow—show her what a real man can do.  And after he had her begging for more, he’d turn her into his squaw.  Ryan closes his eyes and listens to the beat of the ballad.  There’s nothing like a bit of music before icing yourself a snitch.  Helps put a man in the mood.

The music fades as Ryan begins to nod off.  He wakes up abruptly.  The room is now dotted with flashes of light.  They mingle with the band, the couples on the dance floor—even with the bouncers standing like sentinels near the doorway.

A towering nun, obscured by the jumping lights, is drifting from table to table.  She seems to hover like a bird of prey.  What the fuck is she up to—trying to pluck souls?  Nuns don’t belong here and that’s for sure.  It’s bad enough when they show up in jail.

Ryan slips from the booth and struts towards the dance floor.  Screw that skinny hostess.  Ryan came here to party and he’s going to party.  Time to show the women here his moves.  The band is now playing “I Shot The Sheriff”—which has put him in the mood for a war dance.

Standing in the middle of the dance floor, Ryan struts his stuff.  He hops nimbly from foot to foot while singing. “Hiii yah yah yah yah.”  The bouncers are watching him intently while the women are checking him out.  When the song is over, the room is spinning: an aggravation since Ryan needs to piss—badly.  His bladder has swollen to the size of a medicine ball.  Slowly, as though navigating a carousel, Ryan makes his way towards the men’s room.

The door to the men’s room is hard to find.  When he finally spots it, it seems as though an hour has passed.  Ryan enters the room judiciously as though walking into a church.  It is empty—thank god—and a shiny urinal sits before him like a shrine.

Ryan throws back his head as he urinates.  The relief is so great that he closes his eyes.  He sighs like a hound when he has finished and shakes himself for several seconds.  A good strong piss is better than sex.  Lasts longer too.

The door to the bathroom bangs open.

Instantly, Ryan crouches.  His shoulder is turned towards the door, his fists are balled and ready to strike.  A jailhouse stance.

His muscles relax when he sees the intruder—a beetle-browed man with a pork pie hat.  He couldn’t be more than five feet tall and he’s scuttling into the bathroom like a centipede.  The man halts when he sees Ryan.  He yelps and then scuttles back out.  That cocksucker better run.  He deserves a good ass whipping—just for looking like a bug.  And he might have knocked.

Ryan stumbles to the sink—turns on the faucet.  Time to wash up and get the hell out of here.  Time to get on with his mission.  When he presses the liquid soap dispenser, he pauses.   The soap is red and irresistibly glossy.  Ryan covers his fingers with the soap and then combs four streaks onto each of his cheeks—bear claw marks.  It looks like he’s wearing war paint now.  He admires his reflection in the mirror as he finishes washing up.

Ryan strolls back into the clubroom.  The lights are still jumping—popping all around him like flash bulbs—but he can still make out faces.  The women are watching him, mouths agape—the men are applauding him loudly.  Ryan bounces as he walks and chants, “Woo woo woo.”  It’s about time they paid homage to a true Indian brave.  Even the hostess is looking him over, her eyes growing wider than doorknobs.

The hostess is in front of him now and her tits are heaving with excitement.  Let her wait her turn—she’s a little too skinny for him to fuck first.  He should have brought a rubber hose just to beat off some of the women in here.  When she speaks to him, she is still gulping for breath—so much so that it sounds like she’s uttering a single word.  “Siryou’reindecent.”

Irritated, Ryan thumps his chest with his fist.  “I’m Hunting Bear, woman.  Show some respect.”

She is wringing her hands as though ridding them of ants, but her voice is now measured and stern.  “That’s just the problem, sir.  You’re a little too bare.”

Ryan bows his head, notices his exposed willie, and sighs.  It’s not a good day for meat.  Still, she didn’t have to call him indecent.  Twelve inches on the slack is pretty damn decent.

Reluctantly, Ryan shakes his head.  She has forcedhim to even the score.  Not that he wants to upset her, but honor is honor.  No one talks that way to Hunting Bear.  Especially, when he’s on the warpath.

Ryan grabs the front of the woman’s gown—yanks.  The fabric tears—her breasts spring free, wobbling about like water balloons.  Not a bad rack for so skinny a broad.  The woman gasps.  “The cleaners,” she says.  “This dress just came back from the cleaners, sir.”

Ryan takes off his wristwatch and hands it to her.  It’s gotta be worth thirty dollars to a pawnbroker.  “That oughta cover it, sister” he says.  “Save me the bill if it costs any more to fix.” 

She doesn’t accept the watch—instead, she clutches her dress to her breasts.  Her voice is now shriller than a police siren.  “Get this tramp out of hereWe fed him and look how he acts.”


Ryan shakes his head.  Some hostess she is—can’t handle a little tit for tat.  Hell, the bitch is lucky he didn’t spank her.

The bouncers are on him now: a hand grabs his collar, yanking him backwards—more hands pin his arms to his sides.  “Zip it,” a voice cries, but Ryan cannot move.  There’s got to be four of them, at least—that’s how many it takes to handle Hunting Bear.

WE EVEN FED HIM,” the hostess cries.  “We even fed himWe even fed that boar of a man … ”   Her voice grows fainter as the bouncers frog march him to the back door of the club.  Bouncers and cops—they’re all the same: too chicken shit to fight him one on one.  And they always take the woman’s side.

Although Ryan struggles mightily, they throw him into an alley behind the club.  His hands—quicker than a serpent’s tongue—break his fall as he hits the pavement.  The door to the club slams shut behind him.

Remarkably, Ryan can still feel the press of the pistol in his crotch.  He could have popped all four of them but fuck it.  The bouncers were just doing their job—even if they were gutless about it.  It’s that goddamn Stork who needs popping.

Ryan rises to his feet, dusts off his knees, and eases his tallywhacker back into his pants.  Oughta have a pulley to reel in that baby.  Zipping his pants up, he steps from the alley back onto the sidewalk.

A street clock reminds him that it’s two o’clock in the morning.  It may as well be noon, high noon, like that movie he saw a year ago with Gary Cooper as the sheriff.  Now there’s a real man: he popped off four bad guys who all needed dusting.  Slaughtered them like hogs.  Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’, on this our wedding daaay.  The theme song from the movie runs through his mind as he marches back to the coffeehouse.

The streetlights are floating like jellyfish; the storefronts sweep by him as though borne upon a current.  He has all but forgotten the incident in the nightclub; like a piece of flotsam, it will soon be lost in the swampland of his memory.  Ryan is grateful his memory is shot—the streets are no place for a cluttered mind.  Stick to the basics and the basics will take care of you.  And so hussies you hump, snitches you kill, faggots you roll, and angels you guard—that is if you can find an angel.  The streets are practically empty now.

That he still has the gun means his mission is sealed.  It is in the stars that he rid the world of scumbags.  And a man can’t be arguing with the stars.  The sanctity of his mission grows clearer still when he sees Stork standing alone at the top of the hill.  With his back pressed against a storefront wall, his eyes staring blandly ahead, he looks like a prisoner awaiting execution.  Stork turns his head slowly in Ryan’s direction.  He slowly looks away.

Ryan slaps the clip into the gun.  The clip has four rounds in it, but he will only need one.  Ryan, an expert marksman, can hit a dime at fifty yards.  Too bad for Stork that he had to go and drop one.

Since his mission cannot fail, there is no point in putting things off.  He will lure Stork into the alley himself.  He will use the pretense of making a buy.  Stork did not recognize him, after all.  He does not know that Ryan, heaven’s avenger, will be the last person he sees on earth.

Ryan pulls back the slide, chambers a round, and puts the gun back into his pants.  The time is now.


Stork’s face softens as Ryan approaches him.  His smile is warm, infectious, and utterly disarming, but it is a smile of solicitation—not recognition—much like the smile of a supermarket clerk.  Sample our cheesecake, the smile seems to say.  The first piece is free.  That asshole would need plugging even if he wasn’t a snitch.  It’s too bad he has to look like Jesus.

Stork keeps smiling as Ryan plants himself in front of him.  The fucker still doesn’t know who he is.  Ryan snaps his thick fingers.  “A buck’s worth of speed.”

Stork’s eyes crinkle warmly as he looks Ryan over.  He seems amused by the red soap streaks on Ryan’s face.  Obviously, Ryan is not a narc.  “Might I see the money, my friend?”

Ryan dips into his pocket and pulls out a wad—a roll of one-dollar bills wrapped up in a twenty.  Stork seems convinced that he is holding a hundred dollars.  “Come into my office, sir.”

Ryan follows Stork into the alley.  The alley is darker than he remembers and smells of piss.  When Stork turns to face him, Ryan is pointing the pistol at his chest. 

Stork shows no alarm—only benign interest.  His smile seems chiseled upon his face.  “Do you do hits?” he asks.

Ryan shakes his head.  The cocksucker still thinks he’s in charge.

“Do you do hits?” Stork repeats.  “I could use a man with courage.  Now you can rob me for chump change or you can earn some real money.  And I’ll give you that buck’s worth for free.”

Ryan extends his arm.  The gun is now six inches from Stork’s chest.  So the fucker wants him to kill for drugs and money?  That’s not a bad idea, but Ryan has justice to perform.  And Stork needs to know that his hour has come.

“I hittin’ you, asshole—let’s get that straight.  You dropped a dime.”

Stork’s smile remains frozen upon his face.  “My friend, I don’t know you from Adam.”

“Get a clue, asshole.  Adam wears a fig leaf.”

“I see,” Stork replies.  “That must be him behind you.”

Ryan looks over his shoulder—no one is there.  When he looks back at Stork, the cocksucker is fifty feet away and running.  The oldest damn trick in the book.

Ryan wraps both his hands around the pistol grip.  Anticipating the kick, he presses one hand against the other—the old push-pull.  Can’t ice a snitch if the gun isn’t steady.  He pulls the trigger—twice—and the gun starts bucking like a bitch in heat.

Ryan’s ears are humming—he should have put plugs in them.  He lowers the pistol to finish Stork off, but the fucker is still sprinting like a deer.  Impossible—he’s got to have two slugs in him.  Ryan fires again—the sound splits his eardrums.  Pavement explodes near Stork’s heels. 

Ryan kneels down to steady his aim.  The gun is kicking too much, and Stork wasn’t hit at all.  He raises the pistol.  “I’ll pay you,” Stork shouts, but his voice is practically buried by the ringing in Ryan’s ears.

Stork is zigzagging as he runs, throwing off Ryan’s aim.  That fucker’s been shot at before.  Ryan squeezes the trigger—g-r-a-d-u-a-l-l-yPOW.  Stork stumbles the instant he fires and falls down, but Ryan hears the slug ricochet off the alley wall.

Stork is back on his feet—running like a greyhound and not even wounded.  His footsteps echo hollowly as he disappears down the alley.  He should have taken his punishment like a man.  Now Ryan is really pissed.

Ryan rises to his feet.  He does a quick war dance.  No one gets the better of Hunting Bear—not even when his gun is empty.  He will track Stork down and beat him to death with his tallywhacker, if necessary.  Ryan can track an ant across a desert.

For now, Ryan needs to get out of here.  A police siren, wailing like a banshee, challenges the ringing in his ears.  Ryan picks up the shell casings, hotter than live coals, and shoves them into his pocket.  He plunges the gun back into his pants.

Ryan’s belt snags the trigger.

The gun bucks and roars.

A blow knocks his leg out from under him.

Ryan tries to run but can only stagger.  Hunting Bear is hit.  He must have miscounted the bullets.

Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, Ryan quickly wraps the wound.  The handkerchief reddens instantly—no matter.  Ryan has survived a dozen wounds.

Dragging his leg behind him, Ryan peeks from the alley.  The street is empty—he can make his escape.  If he can make it to Hyde Park, just a half mile away, the police will never find him.  Like a true Indian brave, he will vanish among the trees.

Ryan depresses the clip from the gun.  Catching the clip, he tosses it into a dumpster.  He throws the gun back into the alley.

Moving gingerly, Ryan hobbles in the direction of Hyde Park.  His leg feels transformed—it is now a dead log—but it is not the leg that is slowing him down.  A fat clown, juggling water balloons, is blocking the entire sidewalk.  The clown’s mouth is crimson, like an open wound, and he is calling cadence as he tosses the balloons.  “One, two, three, faw.  One, two, three faw.”  His concentration is so intense that he may as well be throwing up grenades.

Ryan veers too sharply to avoid the clown.  He falls to the ground—pain shoots through his knee.  Another damn rip in his pants.  Scrambling to his feet, Ryan continues to stagger toward the park.

That clown needs an ass whipping—hogging the entire sidewalk—but Ryan hasn’t got time to do it.  Hopefully, the circus will take care of him.

The police siren is growing louder, but the street is still empty.  Ryan limps on, his leg dragging with every step.  The wound starts to thaw as he approaches an intersection.  His thigh is now aching like a bad tooth.

The street light changes.  A towering mass, dumped in the center of the crosswalk, is bathed in a scarlet glow.  The mass takes shape as Ryan draws nearer.  It’s that fucking nun again.

The nun turns toward him and he can now make out her face.  Her lips are pursed, as though she is preparing to kiss him, and her jaw is moving mechanically.  She is holding a small pig, stroking it behind the ears.  The pig grunts affectionately, unaware that it has been stuck—that one of its intestines is dangling like a dick.

The nun nods as Ryan approaches her.  She is looking at him possessively, a dominion not born out of reverence—not even concern for his injury—but from the tacit understanding that he will be her next meal.

Ryan dashes past the nun and finishes crossing the street.  Fuck that bitch—she will have to catch him first.  And no one catches Hunting Bear.

The park is now only a block away.  The trees, the lamp posts, the bushes emerge—much like soldiers advancing through a fog.  Ryan staggers on—only fifty yards to go—but the siren is growing louder.

Distracted by the fog, Ryan practically trips over the elfin girl—the waif he gave money to earlier that night.  She is sitting upon the sidewalk, giggling loudly and polishing an apple.  Her feet are bare and her naked toes are wiggling like newborn mice.  She is wearing a pink dress.

Ryan stares at the girl.  “Beat it, Dolly.  I told you that once already.”

She laughs merrily.  “Storks deliver babies,” she chirps.

Ryan shakes his head.  He’s seen geese with better sense.  If she gets herself shot, she can’t say he didn’t warn her.  And the police are just about to close in on him.


Ryan staggers on—only thirty yards to go.  The park grows fainter with every step he takes, as though he is approaching a mirage.  It is not until he feels the grass beneath his shoes that he realizes how far he has come. 

The siren is deafening now but Ryan, crouched behind some bushes, knows he has made his escape.  His wound is now pounding like a war drum, a tribute to his triumph.  Ryan closes his eyes, stretches out on the grass, and allows the fog to deepen.


Ryan awakes to a popping sound.  It is morning, he is alive, and a bunch of Nancy boys are playing cricket.  Ryan hobbles to his feet, unimpressed by the contest.  He doesn’t have to worry about Nancy boys.  Dressed in white and scuttling around a green, they look like a bunch of geese.  The fuckers don’t know what real sport is.  Real sport is dodging cops, rolling drunks, and icing snitches.  If it wasn’t his wedding day, he’d go and have a talk with them.

Ryan rummages through the bushes, locates his backpack, and pulls out a change of clothing.  Kneeling behind the bushes, he peels off his ruined pants.  When he inspects the wound, he is pleasantly surprised.  Although his thigh is splotched with gray and yellow bruises, the bullet holes are scabbing over.  The slug went clean through his leg—didn’t even touch an artery.

Ryan tears up a tee shirt, rewraps the wound, and slips on a clean pair of pants.  He shaves by running a straight razor over his dry face.  Only Nancy boys need soap and water.

Ryan quickly puts on a fresh shirt and a tie.  A subtle joy has caught up with him—he is not in jail, his wound is only a scratch, and tonight he will finish off Stork.  And this morning he is getting married.

Ryan’s happiness grows as he limps from the park, rests upon the sidewalk, and then hops on an eastbound bus.  His heart remains full when he gets off the bus and hobbles the four remaining blocks to the Wayside Chapel.  Even when he spots Miss Muffet, a skanky little broad sitting on the chapel lawn, his chest can only swell.   Her greasy hair, her flinty eyes, the needle bruises on her forearms all seem endearing to him.

She looks at him impatiently.  “You ready, mister?”

He nods, accepts her hand, and follows her up the chapel steps.  He can feel his wound starting to bleed, but fuck it.  Get that blood into his pecker and he won’t have to worry about seepage.

At the chapel door, they are met by a plump minister with a lazy eye—a saint of a man who, after examining the forged blood tests, walks them to the altar and guides them through their vows.  Placing a ring on the girl’s dirty finger—a ring she had slipped into his pocket—Ryan repeats, “Until death do us part.”  Not much longevity there, Ryan chuckles.  How about until a better piece of ass comes along?

When the ceremony is over, Ryan accompanies the girl down the steps of the chapel.  A taxicab, paid for by her pimp, is waiting to take them to a suite at the Holiday Inn.  The girl hands him a package of rubbers—he smiles.  Nothing like a bit of cherry busting to get him into the mood for a hunt.

Following Miss Muffet to the taxicab, Ryan whoops like a rustler.  The day is young—the cops are nowhere in sight.  And his life, for all good purposes, has unfolded like a bouquet of roses.  Before him lie further adventures.  Behind him lie wanton red blots.

James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, all of which have won awards, are available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/-/es/James-Hanna

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“For Thirty Pieces of Silver” Dark Fantasy by Caroline Söderlund

"For Thirty Pieces of Silver" Dark Fantasy by Caroline Söderlund: Caroline Söderlund is a Swedish-Estonian writer currently in her third year of studying English and Creative Writing full time at Royal Holloway University of London. Her poetry has previously appeared in The Founder, and has recently focused on folktales, roots and displacement through the lens of multilingualism. She is a big fan of authors like Margaret Atwood and Peter S. Beagle and loves writing whimsical and dark fantasy fiction.  

The water was clear enough to see the skeletons lurking at the bottom. The boy, fifteen and skinny, did not look at them. His arms ached and his hands had begun to blister, but he rowed the little wooden boat on, facing the way it was going. The sound of the oars cutting through the water echoed between ancient sandstone buildings.
            “I wonder who lived in that window,” the little girl who sat in front of him said, pointing at the round balcony of a half-collapsed house, held up by a single remaining pillar. The gaping hole of what had presumably been the front door was almost entirely submerged in the water. “I bet it was someone with really long hair.”
            “Why would you think that?” the boy said.
            “I dunno, just seems like a waste of a balcony if you don’t have long hair.”
            The boy rowed on, and the sun shone mercilessly on them. They passed through a stone arch into an alleyway narrow enough for the oars to scrape against the mosaic-covered walls. The patterns were cracked and faded, and many pieces were missing, but you could still make out the figures of women heavy-laden with jewellery, winged beasts with horrifying faces and warriors holding spears and chains. The pictures continued below the water level, where long black strands of seaweed danced around a huge, decaying spine and got tangled up in the boy’s oars.
            “I wish we had things like this back home.”
            The boy glanced at the wall, then went back to rowing. “We have the temples.”
            “That’s not the same, they’re just old. It’d look so pretty on Miriam’s walls, can you imagine?” The girl leaned dangerously far out to touch the wall.
            “Hey, stop it!”
            The boy grabbed hold of the girl’s shirt to pull her back into the boat, but the girl leaned further out, until her fingers reached the mosaic and pried a piece loose. She sat back down in the boat, triumphantly holding up the faded green stone as the boat rocked from side to side.
            The boy dropped his oars into his lap and slapped the stone out of the girl’s hand. It disappeared into the water.
            “You can’t go around taking stuff!”
            The girl clutched her hand to her chest. “Why not?”
            “You just can’t.”
            The girl pursed her lips, crossed her arms and stared him down. The boy picked up his oars.
            “Well, if you’re not going to tell me…” She reached for the wall again.
            “Okay fine, fine! Look, it’s just not like the ruins back home. You and your little friends can do whatever you want there. Here, you have to give them something greater in return.
            The girl scoffed. “Who, the dragons?”
            But the boy refused to say anything else on the subject, and eventually the girl turned around to the front of the boat, to more exciting sights. The mosaics turned into narrow windows with glimpses of abandoned homes inside – a dusty goblet lying on the floor, a table with game pieces scattered across it, a silver hairbrush fading in a fireplace, rotting wooden cupboards with their doors hanging askew.
            The boat approached another archway, twin to the one they had passed through earlier, with bleak carvings of flowers, and crumbling dragon heads mounted on the walls on either side. Once, they might have held torches in their teeth. The arch was narrow, and the boy’s oars landed at an awkward angle so that he struggled to push the boat forward. Under the boy’s watchful eyes, the girl reached up and grabbed hold of the arch to pull them through.
            Beyond, the street was wider, and the water grew steadily deeper until the seaweed at the bottom became nothing but vague shadows. Half-collapsed rooftops with scorched tiles lined the street, a rusty red against the turquoise waters. The boy concentrated firmly on his rowing, but the girl gazed into the waters with a distant curiosity.
            “I think there are human skeletons too down there. Or maybe a baby dragon.” She turned to the boy. “Hey, did I ever tell you what me and Miriam found last time we went to the temples?” They passed by a row of scorched statues of owls perched on the edge of a roof. The girl reached out her hand as if to touch one, but then pulled it back. “She took me up to the roof of the really big one, you know, the one with the stairs on the side? I nearly fell into one of the cracks. I never thought I’d be allowed to go there but Miriam said I’m big enough now. Anyway, she caught me and just told me to be careful. Then on the roof she found this weird white stick, all prickly and yellowish, and guess what it was? A real-life bone, a thigh bone Miriam said. It’s in my room now.”
            The boy’s oar slipped and almost fell out of its socket. With an annoyed grunt, he secured it again. “How exciting.”
            “Miriam also told me this story about a lion who refused to eat little girls. It was really cool.”
            “Can we stop talking about Miriam?”
            “You’re just jealous. Miriam said so.”
            The boy shot her a murderous look.
            “She’s your mama,” the girl said.
            “I am aware.”
            The girl rolled her eyes and turned forward to look out over the waters, past the rooftops where mountains bordered the city to the East. Once, their sides would have been covered with flourishing grapevines, but now the vineyards were dead and long overgrown with weeds and thorns. “I’d give anything to have a mama like that.”
            “You practically do at this point.”
            The girl whirled around. “It’s not my fault she doesn’t like you anymore.”
            One of the oars banged against the side of the boat. The boy adjusted his grip while keeping his gaze firmly away from the girl.
            “You were fine with everything. Miriam asked you before I moved in and you were fine – you know what my father did –”
            “Yes, yes, we all know! You think you’re the only one who’s ever had problems?”
            The girl fell quiet. The boy rowed on furiously.
            “I don’t want to be here anymore,” the girl said finally, “turn around or I’ll swim back.”
            “What? No!”
            The girl shrugged, tied her hair back at her neck, and despite the boy’s protests, stood up and stepped over the side of the boat. The boy tried to grab at her, but she disappeared under the surface, the boat swaying violently above her. A moment passed, two, and the girl did not resurface, though the boy could see her moving around in the waters.
            She emerged a few feet away, gasping and sputtering and splashing water everywhere as she swam clumsily back to the boat. “There’s something in the water – I swear I saw, I felt it!” She grabbed hold of the side of the boat and tried to pull herself up.
            “You’re going to make the whole boat tip over!”
            “So, help me already! It’s coming after me, you’ve got to –” She pulled and kicked her legs and banged against the boat but could not haul herself up. The boy looked out over the water behind her. There was nothing there, only something softly disturbing the surface, but that could have been the girl. She struggled before him, lost her grip and fell back into the water, then reached back onto the boat ledge, wide-eyed and panicked. The boy hesitated.
            “What are you doing, just help me up!”
            A slight shadow, or the shadow of a shadow, moved closer underneath the surface.
            “Help me!”
            Stiffly, the boy grabbed the girl’s arm and pulled her, kicking, into the boat, where she fell panting onto the floor. The shadow departed into the depths and vanished. The boy watched it go.
            “What’s wrong with you? What was that?” the girl said, voice hoarse.
            “I’m – sorry, that was –” The boy tore his eyes away. “Let’s just keep going.”
            Slowly, the girl sat up on the bench opposite the boy. Her clothes were soaked with seawater, which dripped into a puddle at her feet. “Fine.”
            They rowed on in silence. The girl sat stiff with her hands tucked under her legs, watching the water warily. It grew shallower as the houses became more damaged. Only a few now had fragments of walls sticking up above the surface. Underneath the boat, great heads mocked the boat with their leering teeth. When some time had passed, and there seemed to be nothing more than sleeping skeletons in the water, the girl relaxed slightly. She turned forward to study the ruins as they passed, though she was careful not to lean too close to the water.
            A single intact house cast a long shadow over the little boat. The building was tall and square, with many windows climbing up from the water. Like the others, it was built of sandstone, but it had been painted an aggressive, albeit fading, shade of blue. Cracked paintings of colourful animals littered the walls and crawled around the windows.
            The boy let the boat drift for a moment, gazing at the building’s slanted roof, before asking if the girl wanted to go inside.
            The girl turned around. “Really?”
            “It’ll be fun,” the boy said.
            He rowed closer to the house and put his hand against the wall to stop the boat next to a window surrounded by bright green ferrets. Water spilled into the gloom inside, turning from bright blue to smoky brown.
            They climbed in through the window and tied the boat to a rusty nail in the wall with a tattered piece of rope from home. An inch-deep layer of dusty water covered the floor and lapped against their bare feet, and the ceiling was so low the boy could only just stand upright.
            The girl walked straight across the room to a carving of animals shaped into arrows. All of them pointed inwards, towards some unintelligible ancient letters. She ran her fingers over the stone, along what could have been a horse with horrific fangs.
            “Stop it!” The boy hurried over with water splashing about his legs.
            The girl snatched her hand back. “I wasn’t taking anything.”
            The boy rubbed his temples. “Just please, please don’t. You promised you’d do as I say if you came with me here.”
            “And you promised this was going to be fun. You’re the one who’s been here before.”
            The boy gave her an annoyed look. The girl ignored it.
            “How did you even come here last time? Didn’t anyone notice you weren’t on the fields?” she said.
            “I’m not on the fields every day.”
            “No, but then you’re off selling stuff and they couldn’t live without those coins.”
            The boy moved the water around with his feet. “I just snuck away. Baba’s not exactly the most observant.”
            “No, but you’re definitely not sneaky enough to get past Miriam.”
            The boy took a breath. “Do you want to go upstairs?”
            The boy nodded to the corner behind the girl, where there was a square hole in the ceiling. A ladder of blackened wood leaned against the wall underneath it.
            When the girl tried to step on the ladder, however, it collapsed underneath her, and she fell backwards onto the floor. The boy stifled a laugh at her sour look but helped her up without comment. The back of her already damp shirt and trousers were soaked with grey water. He cupped his hands and helped the girl clamber up through the hole, and then hauled himself up, wincing at the gravel and sand cutting into his blisters.
            It took a few moments for their eyes to adjust to the gloom. The only light came from cracks between the ceiling and walls, and from the hole in the floor. A persistent smell of dust and damp thickened the air – an old, stale odour.
            Figures appeared in the dark. A glimmering golden sceptre, extravagant necklaces with dusty gemstones, a half-destroyed sculpture of a dragon-headed beast. And everywhere, everywhere, human skeletons. Ribcages and skulls, arms and legs, some still wearing the remains of rotten burgundy robes. The girl swallowed.
            “This is so much cooler than the temples,” she breathed, walking tentatively closer to the skeletons. “I can’t believe you’ve never taken me here before.”
            A big rusty headpiece fell to the floor with a deafening clatter. The boy shrieked. One breathless moment, then the boy bolted for the hole in the floor and scrambled down. The girl followed close behind and clumsily dropped onto the floor below. By then the boy was already halfway out the house. He stumbled into the boat and would have completely forgotten about the rope had the girl not untied it as she climbed into the boat.
            The boy struggled to get the boat moving again, but the moment he did, they both burst out laughing. Wheezing, the girl pointed at the boy and tried to mimic his shriek, and her colossal failure resulted in even more eruptions of laughter. Whenever it died out, they’d catch each other’s eyes and start all over again.
            “How do you even know about this place?” the girl finally said.
            “Just…stories. Has seriously no one ever told you –”
            The girl raised her eyebrows. “What stories?”
            “No, of course not. Baba used to tell them. There was this guy with about nine children, and they were really poor. He was desperate and searched far and wide for a way to provide for his family, and he found this place.” He paused. “But he couldn’t find anything and finally he just turned back and told his children the story and they were happy.”
            “That’s a terrible story.”
            “It’s the way Baba told it.”
            “No, it’s not.”
            “Yes, it is.”
            “You’re a terrible liar. Miriam said so too.”
            The boy turned serious and put greater force into his rowing. Houses grew up out of the water again. Soon the streets were edged with buildings that must once have been marble exhibitions of wealth but were now yellowed and crumbling and overgrown with weeds and bird’s nests, although the birds stayed out of sight. The water turned shallower. Underneath the boat, fish nibbled at dragon teeth and cracked fountains.
            “Do you think there was a dancing hall in there?” the girl asked, looking into the marble entrance of a grand, pillared house.
            The boy smirked, though his eyes were somewhere behind the girl’s head. “Maybe. Do you want to take a look? Dance?”
            “I would rather die.”
            “It’d be good practice.”
            The girl scrunched up her nose. “I don’t know why they make us do it. It’s not like we’re ever getting near one.”
            The boy wiped the sweat out of his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. “But you have to become civilised people.”
            “You never had to.”
            “Ah, but they didn’t care about the sophistication of their children back then. We’re just the workforce.”
            “If you say so.”
            The girl groaned. “It’s just jumping around and flapping your arms and rolling around on the ground looking stupid! I’d rather play the drums.”
            “That’s for old people though.” The boy cast a glance ahead, where the end of the street was approaching.
            “You’re old.”
            The boy opened his mouth to retort, but then closed it again. The street opened up into a huge square, cobblestoned in faded nuances of yellow and red and blue which looked strange and distorted in the water. Dragon heads and wings cradled old market stands of stone. Grand houses in the same cracked colours, with many pillars and archways and balconies, loomed over the square. The girl ran her fingers through the water, her attention entirely consumed by the bones underneath.
            “Sarai,” the boy said, an edge of uneasiness in his voice. He wiped the sweat from his brow.
            The girl turned around and lifted her gaze. A little gasp escaped her lips. On the opposite end of the square stood the grandest building of them all, as cracked and decaying as the rest, but with a massive red dome and still-intricate patterns carved into its walls and pillars. A set of wide stairs led up from the water to its entrance, high and wide enough to dwarf kings and emperors, though the doors themselves had long ago fallen off its hinges and lay crooked and crumbling in their arches.
            “Is that it?”
            “Yes.” The boy sat still, gripping the oars tightly in his lap. They drifted.
            “Are we not going in? Is something wrong?”
            Stiffly, the boy came back to himself. He started rowing again, then picked up the pace.
            The little wooden boat hit the stairs with a thud. With some labour the boy and the girl dragged the boat up to a landing a couple of steps from the water edge. They worked in silence. Though the girl tried to catch the boy’s eyes, he would not speak or look at her. Above them, the sky was a blazing blue. Even in the shadow of the building the air was relentlessly hot. Both their shirts were damp, and the girl’s hair hung limp down her back.
            They ascended the stairs, leaving sloppy wet footsteps on the scorching stone, and paused a moment before the gaping entrance. Even though the doors lay on their sides, they were taller than both the girl and the boy. The girl reached for the boy’s hand. He shrugged it away. But when she reached for it a second time, he reluctantly took it, and they entered wordlessly into the gloom beyond, their bare feet hardly making any sound.
            Hand in hand, they walked through an echoing entrance hall, and then through silent marble corridors. One had arched windows looking across an alleyway to another building, another was lined with a series of shut or rotten doors. The girl tried to look into the rooms they passed, but the boy wouldn’t stop, and something in his demeanour made the girl hesitate to make him.
            They came into a high, domed chamber, littered with chests of varying sizes, some shut and some revealing dusty treasures of gold and silver. A round hole in the ceiling let in a tired beam of light. It landed on a pile of chains and a set of manacles rusting on the floor.
            The girl shook off the boy’s hand.
            “Don’t –” the boy began, but the girl approached the centre of the room without paying him any heed. She knelt before a chest full of faded silver coins, picked up a few and let them slip through her fingers. They clinked back into the chest. The sound echoed through the chamber.
            “Are these the same ones you brought home?” the girl said. Any trace of the childish inquisitiveness from earlier was gone from her voice.  
            “Sarai, listen –”
            “Did you take some before?”
            Slowly, the boy came nearer. Something wild came into the girl’s eyes.
            She dug her hands into the chest of silver, picked up handfuls of coins and threw them at the boy. He winced as he picked up the chains, rusty with old blood. Frantically, the girl threw a handful at his head, another at his chest, hitting the walls and floor as much as the boy. She got to her feet, but with a few quick steps, the boy grabbed hold of her hands above her head. Silver clattered to the floor. The girl shook her head and pulled against the boy’s grip, but the boy, though he was both weary and skinny, was determined. The manacles closed around her wrists.
            “What are you doing?” The girl yanked at the manacles, rattling the chains, but they held fast.
            “Look, I’m sorry,” the boy said, eyes down, “I only took a little at first, just thirty silver coins. It was for my family. You know – I had to – and it was fine at first but then they demanded blood.”
            “Who’s they?”
            The boy walked away.
            “Who’s they?” The girl ran after him, bent down to pick something up to throw at him, but tripped over a metal box of bejewelled necklaces and fell onto her elbows. The boy disappeared out the door. The girl pushed herself back onto her feet, gathered the chains as best she could and ran into the corridor, gasping and shouting after him, her voice shattering against the dry marble walls. The boy covered his ears and walked faster. The girl dragged the chains behind her as she ran and stumbled, falling and scraping her knees when they got stuck around corners. She paid her throbbing bones no heed, but threw herself through the corridors, tugging at the chains and screaming, lungs raw, hair in mouth, for the boy to stop.
            Underneath the grand entrance, the chains reached their limit, and the girl stumbled to the ground, squinting against the sun.
            The boy pushed the boat into the water. It was considerably easier than pulling up had been.
            “Don’t leave me!”
            The boy did not look back, did not hesitate in his steps when he climbed back into the boat, but his hands shook ever so slightly when he took up his oars. He rowed, facing the way he was going.
            “Luka!” the girl screamed, but the boy was already far away.
            In the water, the bones began to rattle and move.
            The boy rowed faster.

Caroline Söderlund is a Swedish-Estonian writer currently in her third year of studying English and Creative Writing full time at Royal Holloway University of London. Her poetry has previously appeared in The Founder, and has recently focused on folktales, roots and displacement through the lens of multilingualism. She is a big fan of authors like Margaret Atwood and Peter S. Beagle and loves writing whimsical and dark fantasy fiction.  

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“Salamander Brandy” Dark Speculative Fiction by Paul Stansbury

"Salamander Brandy" Dark Speculative Fiction by Paul Stansbury

“Anything you need?” asked the clerk.

“These any good?” asked Henry, holding up a package of brushes. I hope he doesn’t think I’m stupid.

“Oh yeah,” said the clerk. “That’s the 24-Piece Jon Ross Artist Paint Brush Set. Remember him? He was that guy on TV. This set has got your professional all-purpose synthetic brushes. Ain’t nothing you can’t paint with these babies.”

“How much?”

“You’re in luck. Everything here at Beale’s Bargain Art Supplies is fifty percent off.”

“How much?” Just answer the freakin’ question.

 The clerk picked up a calculator and punched in some numbers. “Ten bucks.”

“Deal. You take plastic?”


Henry fished his card out and tapped it on the card machine. While he waited for the authorization, he said, “Say, I’ve been looking for a small studio to rent. You know of any available?”

“Nah. Hit print or email for your receipt.”

The fewer who have my email, the better. Henry selected ‘print.’ A small slip of paper glided out of the machine.

“Need a bag?” asked the clerk.

“No thanks. Save a tree and all that crap.” Henry picked up his brushes. He turned, nearly running into a small man dressed in a gray, wrinkled suit. Unruly white hair peeked out from under his fedora. “Sorry,” blurted Henry. Where the hell did you come from? Why do idiots have to stand so close?

“Perhaps I can be of help, Mr. Faylen.” said the man with a mild eastern European accent. “My name is Josip Vouk.”

I didn’t ask who you are. Henry smiled, holding up his brushes. “I’m fine. Didn’t see you come up behind me. You okay?” He furrowed his brow. Wait, a minute. “Say, how’d you know my name? Have we met?”

“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I heard you ask about a studio. Perhaps I can help.” Vouk pulled a business card from his coat pocket and held it out to Henry. It read: Josip Vouk, Art. Underneath, a handwritten note was scrawled: Anything you need.

Henry wrinkled his brow. What kind of crap is this? “I’m not sure I understand.” He looked at the clerk. “You know this guy?” The clerk shrugged, raising his hands palm up.

Vouk continued. “I maintain a small art gallery in the old Nally factory building on Poydras Street. I also deal in special paints, brushes and canvases—anything you need to create the exceptional,” said Vouk.

“I have no doubt your stuff is exceptional,” said Henry. What the hell is your angle? “However, I can barely afford supplies on sale—starving artist, etcetera, etcetera.”

“I understand,” Vouk said. “I also have a studio which I would be willing to rent at a very reasonable rate. It has nice large windows with a northern exposure. And I will promise not to try to sell you anything.”

Yeah, I bet. Henry shrugged and took Vouk’s card. Time to blow this guy off. “Maybe I’ll come take a look, but mind you, I’m not agreeing to anything.”


Three weeks later, Henry was sitting in his studio above Vouk’s art gallery, staring at a canvas. How the hell did I let him rope me into renting this dump? A few dabs of paint stared back. I’m kidding myself. I’m no artist. Outside, the sun had fallen below the rooftops. The door buzzer rang. He swirled his brush in a jar of water and gently squeezed the excess out on a paper towel. The doorbell rang again. “Hold your horses,” he grumbled. Don’t people understand the principle of privacy? Trudging over to the door, he looked through the peephole. Crap. It was Vouk, looking like a cartoon character with a large head perched on a tiny body. The old man was wearing the same fedora and crumpled gray suit he always wore. He held what appeared to be a large canvas tucked under his arm. Leaning forward, Vouk stared back through the lens with a single, waggling eye. Henry winced. You’re the last person I want to see. He cracked open the door.

“Hello, Henry. I see you are working late this afternoon. I thought I would pay you a visit.”

Henry rubbed his forehead, drawing a deep breath. No, no, no. “I’m kinda busy right now.”

“Yes, of course, but I will only stay a minute. And no attempt to sell you anything as I promised.”

Henry sighed. You’re not going away, are you? “Okay.”

Vouk waited patiently for a few moments before saying, “May I come in?”

“Oh, of course,” said Henry, stepping aside.

Vouk walked over to the canvas, studying it for a moment. “I brought you something.” He leaned the blank canvas against Henry’s easel. Then he swung a large leather satchel from his shoulder and set it on a card table cluttered with painting supplies. A package, wrapped in craft paper and tied with twine, protruded from its side pouch.

Here it comes. Lowering his brows, Henry asked, “What’s all this? You said you wouldn’t try to sell me anything.”

Vouk smiled. “Of course not. These are a few small gifts.”

Gifts always come with strings. I hate strings. Henry shook his head. “Oh, I can’t accept this. It’s way too much.”

“Don’t worry, no strings attached. May I?” Vouk asked. Not waiting for an answer, he took the canvas from the easel and replaced it with the one he brought. “This linen,” he said, caressing its surface, “is the finest quality Belgian flax, made specially for me by an old craftsman in Holland. Such canvases will last hundreds of years. Already primed, it awaits only your imagination.”

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. “Really, Mr. Vouk, I can’t accept…”

Vouk bowed his head while holding up a hand to halt Henry mid-sentence. “Certainly you can. Please, humor an old man.” He withdrew the packet from the satchel’s side pouch.


“Now, these are cat’s tongue brushes. Not real cat tongues,” Vouk chortled, unwrapping the package carefully. “No, these are made of pure kolinsky red sable from the Tobol River region in Eastern Siberia. And, last but perhaps most important,” he whispered, reaching deep into his satchel, “are the oils, pigments ground by hand in stone and mixed with cold-pressed linseed oil.”

“I mostly do acrylic,” said Henry. I hate oils. They’re too hard to work with.

Vouk stepped back, looking at the canvas he had set aside. “I see you do. Perhaps it is time to try something new. Oh, I almost forgot, I have something else.” Reaching into his satchel, Vouk produced a bottle of liquor and two hobnail tumblers. “Come, let us have a drink. Shall we?” He walked across the room to a futon and sat down. He pushed a layer of magazines on the coffee table aside to make room for the bottle and glasses.

Henry eyed the green bottle. Finally, something I can use. He couldn’t read the foreign language on the faded label, but did detect the faint image of a dragon lurking under the lettering. But, I’m not too keen to drink anything I don’t have a clue about. “I got a couple of cold brews in the fridge,” he offered.

“That is very kind of you, but I would like you to try some of this,” Vouk said, uncorking the bottle and pouring the pale amber liquid. “This is Salamander Brandy. You will not find it on the shelves of local liquor stores in this country. It is privately distilled in parts of Slovenia. This comes from my hometown of Bevoc, located in the Julian Alps. He held out a tumbler.

The scent of lime flowers and anise filled Henry’s nostrils. “Well, maybe one,” he said, joining Vouk on the futon.

Vouk raised his glass. “Za novo življenje—it means: For a new life.”

“Okay then. For a new life.” Or death. Henry took a tenuous sip. The sweet, earthy fluid tingled his mouth and throat. “What’s in this stuff?” he asked, downing the rest.

“Oh many things,” said Vouk. “There is a basic recipe. However, each distiller will add his own special ingredients.”

“I think I’ll have another, if that’s all right.”


“Of course,” said Vouk, pouring another glass. “In my country, we say the best way to get the full experience is to sip it slowly with good conversation.”

They spent the evening with Vouk speaking of his youth in Slovenia, his emigration to America, and painting. Henry listened as he sipped. He barely finished his third glass before falling asleep.


…he found himself in a wooded glen, sitting by a meandering creek, among the sedges, cattails and occasional flowers that lined its shore. Beyond those on either side grew thickets of trees. An iridescent aura enveloped everything—every flower—every leaf—every blade of grass. It even enveloped the ripples of syrupy water flowing over the creek stones. Vibrant globs of yellow sunlight seeped through the treetops, coating each leaf before drooling off to find the next. Everything he saw—the grass, the insects, the birds hovering in an iridescent sky—absolutely everything seemed new and strange. Yet, deep inside, his ever present state of apprehension lurked. For what seemed an eternity, he stayed at the water’s edge, watching the flora and fauna.

Finally, far upstream, a sailboat appeared from the rushes. It was manned by two black salamanders, dappled with yellow spots, as if the globs of sunlight had finally found their destination. Henry watched them tack back and forth, catching the breeze and avoiding the rocks as they sailed toward him. They were singing sea shanties. As they sang, misty green swirls flowed from their mouths and drifted up, evaporating in the sunlight. Soon, the amphibian sailors were close enough for Henry to see tiny iridescent blue orbs emerge from the green mist. They flitted about the glen, finally swarming around his head before bursting like soap bubbles. The salamanders watched Henry with interest for some time before calling out, “And what manner of being are you, for you are surely no salamander…”


Morning light poured in the studio windows, waking Henry from his dreams. He stared at the bottle which Vouk had left, while the remnants of his dream meandered through his mind. Looking up, he saw the white rectangle of canvas Vouk had placed on the easel. He tore across the room and grabbed his palette, brushes, and oils.

Late in the afternoon, Henry collapsed on the futon. Having worked nonstop through the day, he rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, then assessed the painting. A sylvan setting had materialized on the canvas. A brook bracketed by lush vegetation flowed through the foreground. Dense woods crawled up either side of the canvas and a brilliant blue sky floated overhead. He focused on the composition. Stunned, he realized it was the setting of his dream—down to the last detail except for the salamanders and their boat.

An annoying bzzzz broke Henry’s concentration. Dragging himself off the futon, he trudged to the door and peered through the peephole. Vouk. Not you again. Can’t you leave me in peace? Henry swung the door open.

“I see you have finished painting for the day,” said Vouk. “Perhaps you would let an old man see what you have accomplished?”

A knot grew in Henry’s stomach. Why? Like everyone else, you’ll only criticize me. “I don’t usually let folks see my works in progress.”

“I understand, I just thought…” Vouk let the words trail off with a heavy sigh.

Henry’s stomach remained tight. You won’t give up, will you? “Sure. Come in.” Stepping back, he motioned for Vouk to enter.

Henry’s neck stiffened as Volk made a beeline for the canvas. Now it starts.

Vouk studied it for a long time before saying, “You have made a good start. Tell me, did you leave the salamanders out intentionally?”

“What did you say?”

“It’s just that salamanders like wet or damp environments. It seems reasonable to expect one or two to be found around a creek. But I’m sure you have much more work to do before this work is complete.”

Henry glared at Vouk. I knew it. Nothing I do is ever good enough. “What do you mean by that? I think it’s pretty good as it is.”

“I meant no criticism. What is here is done well, but it is in no way complete. What is it but some rocks and trees? You might as well have gone to the park and snapped a photo. What is here that captures your soul?” Vouk paused. “I will tell you. Nothing… yet. To complete the painting, you must put yourself into it. Not until then will you be finished.”

How dare you say that, you old bastard, even if it is true? I ought to kick your ass out of here. “I’ll admit there may be a few finishing touches needed before it’s done,” Henry growled. “But, I also want it made clear I poured a lot into that painting, and I think it’s pretty damn good as it stands,”

“Ah, I apologize,” Vouk said. “I have upset you. Let me make it up. There is a nice restaurant around the corner. You’ll feel better after eating something. My treat.”

After what you said, do you really think I want to eat with you? “No, I don’t want anything to eat. I’m tired.”

“As you wish. But please, I would like to come back once you complete those finishing touches.”

You’ll come no matter what I say. “Yeah sure. Look, no hard feelings. You prying old bastard. I’m just worn out.”

Kidrobot x Bobs Burgers Toys at Kidrobot.com

“Of course, I will…see myself out.” With that, Vouk left.

Henry studied the canvas for a few moments, then grabbed the Salamander Brandy.


…he found himself once again sitting in the glen, everything aglow, listening to the pleasant commotion of the insects and birds. His eyes searched the wooded glen. So intense was his search that he failed to notice the same two salamanders, wearing backpacks and carrying walking sticks, had climbed up on a stone next to him. They were sharing an ornately appointed hookah shisha. One spoke. “I am Bor and my companion is Blaz.” Pale cyan-tinted smoke curlicued from his mouth as he spoke.

Bor’s voice startled Henry. Regaining his composure, he took a calming breath before he asked, “Weren’t you in the sailboat yesterday?”

“Indeed,” said Blaz.

Henry scanned the shore. “Where’s your ship?”

“Yesterday was sailing day,” said Bor, holding out a silver clad flask. “Today we are hiking. Care for a drink?”

“What is it?” asked Henry.

“What else? Salamander Brandy,” said Blaz.

“I don’t know,” said Henry. “I think drinking that stuff is how I got here.”

“Is that a bad thing?” asked Bor.

Henry shrugged and took a sip. A warm sensation swirled around inside his head. It lingered a bit, then passed. “Not bad, but no more. I want to keep my wits about me.”

“Why is that?” asked Blaz.

“I’m waiting.”

“Waiting for what?” asked Bor.

“I don’t know for sure, but I know something is coming—something beautiful, yet terrifying. I yearn for it and fear it in the same instant. I have no idea what I’ll do if—no—when it comes, but…” The ground shivered beneath him, interrupting his train of thought. All activity in the glen froze. On the opposite bank, a curtain of fog drifted out from trees. It stopped a few feet from the water’s edge.

“Ahh…, that would be for you,” said Blaz. He and Bor slipped off the rock and disappeared in the rushes taking their hookah shisha with them.

“Cowards,” Henry whispered, taking a raspy breath. His chest tightened.

Everything remained silent and still until a small rift materialized in the fog. Within the rift, glowing tendrils began to coalesce. A face, dazzling and unnerving, took shape. The sight of it made Henry tremble. Struggling to his feet, he tried to move his legs—to run into the safe darkness of the forest—to flee until he was hopelessly lost, completely hidden. However, he remained rooted to the earth. Then, fog welled up around him in a black, suffocating oubliette…


Late in the afternoon, Henry awoke, head reeling. He looked at the canvas, cursing under his breath. Globs of paint smeared on a bit of cloth stared back at him. Damn your smug ass, Vouk! No passion, nothing to touch the soul. That describes me to a tee. Images from his dream crawled through his thoughts. A face in the rift came into focus. Forcing himself over to the canvas, he picked up his pallet and a brush. Please, please let me get this one thing right.

The sun was fading as Henry lay down his palette. Exhausted, he stepped back and eyed the canvas.

“She is quite beautiful.”

Henry’s knees buckled at the sound of Vouk’s voice. Goddamn. He turned around to find Volk behind him. “How the hell did you get in here?”

“I apologize. I came up to check on you and found the door open. You were standing here, so I came in.”

Prying jerk wad. “You could’ve knocked. It’s only polite.”

“Yes, of course, you are correct. But as long as I am here, may I see?”

Don’t play dumb. You’ve already looked. “Yeah, go ahead,” said Henry, stepping aside.

Vouk studied the canvas. “You have made progress, indeed. Her face stirs something within me. Does she do the same for you? No need to answer. The answer is in your painting. Yet, I believe you have more to discover.”

“Everyone’s got an opinion.” Henry rubbed the back of his neck. Jerk. You have no idea what I’m doing.

“Perhaps. None-the-less Henry, you look tired… and lost. Get some rest.”

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Microsoft365 for Business

The last residue of Henry’s angst melted away. It’s no use. “As much as I hate to admit it, maybe you’re right. I am…” His voice trailed off as he picked up the Salamander Brandy. He studied it for a moment. “You know, the salamanders had some of this in a silver flask. I know this ain’t polite, but…” He snickered, then drained the bottle with a single swig.

Vouk smiled. “Those two are indeed tricky fellows.”

How’d he know about them? Forget it. The old bastard is pulling my chain. “You got that right,” said Henry, sagging to the futon. The bottle fell to the floor, rolling to Vouk’s feet. He picked it up and set it on the card table.

“Well, shall I leave you to it?” asked Vouk. Henry, already asleep, didn’t answer.


…he found himself standing at the edge of the creek. Waiting. The gray fogbank loomed at the treeline. The rift cracked open. His pulse raced. A woman stepped out. The sight of her scorched his soul. There was an aura of malevolence about her, yet he was inexorably drawn to her beauty. Long flaxen hair flowed to her waist in a cascade of soft curls. Smoky quartz eyes called to him. Smiling persimmon lips stoked his desire. She remained motionless for the longest time. Then she held her arms out, beckoning him.

Henry, abandoning all his fear, ran headlong into her embrace…


The cop looked at the ripped canvas on the easel. “What would make Faylen punch a hole in his painting?’ He reached out and touched its surface. Drawing his hand back, he studied his finger tips. “You know, he was covered head to toe with this stuff. How could that happen?” He picked up the empty bottle from the card table, examining the label. “Do you know what this is?”

“Oh, that is Salamander Brandy,” said Vouk. “I think Mr. Faylen was fond of it. Perhaps too fond for his own good.”

 The cop walked over to the smashed window and looked down at the body sprawled on the sidewalk, surrounded by shards of glass. “Looks like he ran right through it. Why you think he did that?”

“He did seem like a troubled man.”

 “Well, I guess I’ve seen all I want. We may ask you to make a formal statement, Mr. Vouk.” “Oh, certainly, officer. Anything you need.”

Paul Stansbury is a lifelong native of Kentucky. He is the author of the four volume Inversion Anthology Series; and Down By the Creek – Ripples and Reflections. His speculative fiction stories have appeared in a number of print anthologies as well as a variety of online publications. Website: http://www.paulstansbury.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/paulstansbury


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“A Dream of Perpetual Embrace” Horror by Saz

"A Dream of Perpetual Embrace" Horror by Saz

They’re called Venus Rings. They were supposed to fix us.

It was his idea for us to wear them together. How could I say no to something like that? How could I say no to anything he asked of me? That was the problem. Usually what he asked me for was forgiveness. Forgiveness for this thing or that. I don’t feel the need to sit here and spell out every lie and cover-up.

For once it seemed like Sam was asking something of me for the benefit of me. Of us. It felt so sincere this time. How could I say no?

“This isn’t for sex, it’s for the feeling of your breath on my neck in the morning,” he said to me as his body sent comforting heat into mine one chilly February morning, “It’s for you to know when I jump in the water, and how deep I’ve gone, and the moment I come back to the surface. That’s why we want this.”

Some days, when he would call full of excuses for being late or explanations for the days he’d disappeared, I would listen to him, mumble in agreement, and hang up always humming the same song to myself. Christine McVie begs for a break from the inevitable over classic ‘80s synth chords and one of her ex-husband’s melodic basslines. It wasn’t my favorite song before my 6-year relationship, but Sam made it my favorite song. “Tell me lies,” I ask him, and he never fails to deliver. He sings them so sweetly. How could I say no?

So I don’t deny him, and a day later there’s a box on the coffee table with a slogan on the side in a seductively cursive font reading “To be dirty at any distance…”

It’s gaudy and feels like something we would make fun of other people for doing, with dressing like a porno back when they could still be rented on VHS.

The rings are pitch black and surprisingly slim considering what they can do. Each contains two opal stones that poke out of the top like eyes, or maybe antennae sending information to the matching stones on the other hand. Both opals are like a war of color, with hundreds of hues fighting in spots and stripes for dominance as it turns in the hand. One had black at the center and the other was more of a golden yellow. That’s the one Sam took. He knew I was barely up for this plan and having to wear the more conspicuous of rings to top things off would have made me want to take it off in public. One of his whimpering attempts at coming off as considerate following all of his previous actions that proved the contrary.

From then on he could have me whenever he wanted me. From then on we played and teased like we were still the 20-somethings who met at a crowded pub in Krakow during coincidentally shared semesters abroad. I had to begrudgingly admit my ring had grown on me after some time.

The Venus Rings combine the sense of touch from two individuals into one. The manufacturer calls any set of two rings a “couple”, and any two people wearing connected rings will feel every physical sensation their partner feels. I could be watching a movie at home and feel the water running over Sam’s hands in the bathroom sink at his office, followed by the heat from the air dryer blowing them off. Most importantly, I could feel if he was being touched by someone else, or by himself.

The rings are marketed for pleasure, if it wasn’t obvious from the slogan, although a Google search reveals some conspiratorial social media posts accusing the original technology of being invented by the US military as a torture and interrogation device. The marketing for the rings makes it very clear that the only physical sensation not communicated through them is pain, so if they were ever used for such things, it’s long since been removed. I’d just as soon save some of the more intense details of how Sam and I used them for the sake of sparing my story from coming across as one written by a hot-and-bothered housewife with an eye for the pool boy.

The first day of having the ring curled around my hand left me with particularly uneasy feelings and sudden sensations from all around with no visible reference for why they were happening. There was a natural panic at first, followed by a gradual familiarity that came with interesting experimentation, like when we tried to figure out how to send messages to each other using just touch. We learned We could pat our bellies to tell one another we’re hungry and I would hold my thumb and pinky to my head in the shape of a phone to say “Call me.”

It became like a game as much as it was like a toy. A random cold on my right arm could be Sam leaning on the metallic Metro pole during his commute to Union Square, or maybe leaning on a streetlight outside while waiting for his morning coffee. Every feeling is a new question and a slew of guesses. Of course, the more titillating feelings weren’t so much a guessing game. They were a sign that he was thinking about me.

Naturally, I’d return the favor when I was thinking about him.

I was content with that. I was content to pack the dirty laundry, still rank and begging to be washed, into tight suitcases with broken latches and focus on playing in this new world Sam had created purely from desire and an ad he found on the internet. It felt like the future and the past, like something I could have and something we once had.

It was a dream of perpetual embrace. The moment when his arms are around you in pitch-black darkness, and the feeling right then like nothing could pierce those sheets or that hold you have on each other, stretched to every moment of the day. No one is between you and him in that embrace. You are together in the purest possible sense. Of course I was willing to deny the well of emotions I sat on top of, the betrayal and the woeful dread knowing Sam couldn’t help himself but to return to his previous ways again, to live in this dream for a time.

April 29th is the date of the dream’s abrupt end. April 29th is the day an earthquake struck San Francisco that came just shy of outdoing the infamous 1906 quake on the Richter scale. Sam’s office building didn’t just collapse, it fell into the earth. I’m terrified of the idea that the Earth can open up and swallow a building with floor after floor of people going about their day. The people aren’t even the point, the Earth just wants to swallow the building, and the people happen to be inside. Sam happened to be inside. To this day, he’s still listed as one of the “82 missing/unrecovered” of the nearly 400 casualties from his office building alone.

We buried an empty casket at his funeral, right next to the plots that already held his father and mother. I remember, in a way that made me feel sick, wondering why we even bothered burying anything at all. He was already in the ground, just not the way most people end up there.

I escaped the earthquake with just a concussion courtesy of hitting my head on the pavement while out for a run. Everything felt like mush in the heat of the moment. The ground rumbled, my head spun, and my skin tingled. There’s no way to know which feelings were my own and which, if any, were the last that Sam felt as he tumbled into dust and fate, discarded like waste. Concussions strip memories away and throw layers of ambiguity over the ones that remain. It’s hard to remember what exactly I felt in those moments.

I woke up on the pavement with an ambulance medic overhead asking me questions that I answered in a fog of slurred words. Everything happened in sporadic and loosely-knit moments I could barely connect. Questions followed confusion followed someone rubbing cloth over my face which touched my skin blue and came away red. It took me a long time to realize that all of my senses were singularly my own again.

Nothing came from the other end of the Venus Ring. I waited to feel even something simple, like Sam adjusting in his office chair, or the heat of warm coffee touching his lips, or the way he rubs his fingers together when he’s nervous. Nothing came.

I do remember feeling his hand rub over my stomach in the final moments before everything began to shake. I told him early on, way back in Poland, that I loved the feeling. His fingers running softly along the tender skin on my torso, tracing imaginary lines and filling me with goosebumps. It was the final genuine communication we had. From wherever he was sitting, at his desk, or in the foyer where he liked to eat during his break, he said with no words that he was thinking about me, and about those times when we would tell each other the things we enjoyed.

In the moment, though, it made me think about January 10th. Four weeks before we’d decided to get the Venus Rings. The day I got a text from a mutual friend saying things like “It’s none of my business” and “I’m sorry if I’m misreading the situation” but that she thought I should know, with the attached picture of Sam alongside a girl he told me he has a class with at the gym. Only they weren’t at the gym together, they were at the Hightower, a bar down the street from the gym. Sam wasn’t wearing his ring then, either. Not the Venus Ring, of course, or the other ring that was supposed to mean something more significant to partners.

Sam’s last touch came across my belly and I thought about the reason we were doing this all over again. The fact that those were only the latest pictures in a recurring series I’d received of him with somebody else. The fact that when I got those last pictures I wasn’t even surprised, just so, so ready for everything to be over.

It was the show that could never be canceled, and every time somebody told me they finally put an end to that piece of shit program, more episodes magically appeared on my phone, or in my e-mail, or they just walked up to my door and said, “He told me the relationship was open.”

So my last memory of his touch isn’t a happy one. It was a reminder of what he’d done to bring us to that point. All of his touches felt like apologies, even if I enjoyed them. All of his sweet words felt like they were in constant expectation of the day I would finally say “I forgive you and I’ve forgotten it ever happened.”

I don’t think that day was ever going to come, but I was clinging to the idea that maybe it would just as much as him.

My last memory of his touch isn’t a happy one, and I don’t need to feel guilty for that, because he did it to himself. But I do. Every day.

For the first couple of days after the earthquake, I never took off my Venus Ring. The rescue crews searched around the destruction for anything, dead or alive, and I kept the ring on in hopes that I would eventually connect with sensations that weren’t my own again. I sat completely still in the middle of the living room where I’d cleared a large space, trying to touch as little as possible, trying to get any sign of a feeling from the other end of the ring. I could use it to find him somehow, no matter how deep he’d fallen. All he needed to do was feel something, to make any movement.


Once the denial phase was over, I just kept the ring on as a tribute. It was a strange tribute, of course. Some people saw the ring and knew what it was, and what it was typically used for. I didn’t care. It was a memory of embrace. A memory of a good dream.

Nine days after the earthquake, a feeling began to come through the Venus Ring again.

I sprang up in the dead of night throwing the covers off of myself as quickly as I could manage. Something was on my body, slithering and writhing all over my skin. I ran over to the light switch, sloppy and barely awake, to see what could have possibly gotten into my apartment and worked its way into my bed in the darkness. Only, the light revealed nothing but my naked body on the edge of my bedroom. I was alone. But still, the feeling remained.

There is no more accurate way to describe it that I’m aware of. It was a slithering, in thousands of places all at once. It covered me from head to toe and felt like it was trying to drag me in all directions.

It felt alive, moving from side to side, like the inside of a serpent’s throat, but I struggle to get more specific as I grow more certain it’s a feeling not meant to be experienced by the living.

It stopped when I removed the Venus Ring. I couldn’t believe it was the source of that feeling, but I didn’t dare to put it back on for certainty in that moment. The feeling was repulsive and alien. It was unnatural in every way.

I left the ring on the floor by the light switch, and then picked it up the next morning imagining to myself that the feeling from the night before must have been some grief-induced nightmare. I slipped the ring back on and once again felt the embrace, not Sam’s embrace, I was surrounded by the slithers and its pulls. This time when I took the ring off, it was with such a force that it clattered down beneath Sam’s old dresser in the opposite corner of the room.

It’s still down there, too. It’s been 50 days. It’s still down there. I stew on its meaning more than I stew on my grief at this point. Maybe this is my grief. Maybe it’s impossible for the two not to intersect. Maybe it doesn’t fucking matter.

What matters is what I felt. The feeling from the other end of the ring. I sent e-mails to the manufacturers, I posted anonymous threads in message boards, I tried to find anybody talking about a feeling coming from the other end of a Venus Ring worn by a dead loved one. I got excuses in return. Explanations of malfunction and placebo and whatever other things I’m frankly not interested in reading anymore. I don’t want to keep running through possibilities and options. Theories have been keeping me from sleep for weeks since I threw that ring under the dresser.

I don’t dare approach it. I don’t understand what the feeling means. I’m scared if I touch it I may feel all of that again, or maybe worse, I may feel something else, something even further from any sensation living beings were meant to feel. What else could be transmitted from the other side? The other side of what? Is that where you are, Sam? Does it hurt? The ring doesn’t transmit pain, so I can’t tell if it hurts, only that it slithers, and that Sam may be pushed and pulled by those feelings forever. I could put the ring back on and find out, but I’m not sure I will.


I may have to feel it again one day. When the earth swallows me, like it does everyone, I may feel it just as Sam does, with the sights, sounds, and pains that complete the picture of exactly what’s on the other side.

I hope I can find him there. Maybe I’m stupid for feeling that way after everything, but I’d love to feel his embrace again wherever he is, among what slithers. If he reached out his hand to me and offered me to take it, I think I’d be with him again there. How could I say no?

Saz is a writer and musician from Asheville, North Carolina currently situated in Brno, Czechia. He has multiple options to escape but spends too much of his focus on the way the road splits. He can be found @sazbeats on Instagram.

“Rugged Cherry Pie” Suspense by Edward N. McConnell

"Rugged Cherry Pie" Suspense by Edward N. McConnell

Pop Alston’s death was pending, so pending in fact, it was impending. Norm Swanson, Pop’s son-in-law was sitting vigil. His wife, Connie, Pop’s daughter, was nowhere to be found and she wasn’t answering Norm’s calls. Finally, he left a message, “Pop won’t last much longer; you better get down here.”

As Norm hung up, Pop stirred a little, causing Norm to reach for the cup of ice chips. “Here Pop take a couple of these, but only a couple.” Pressing the button to elevate the hospital bed, he held the cup to his father-in-law’s lips. The old man sucked in a couple of chips. Norm wondered if Pop would last long enough for Connie to arrive.

The hospice nurse had warned him, “He may get physical or say some crazy things. It’s a sign the end is near.” So, when Pop grabbed Norm’s arm saying, “There is something you need to know about Connie and your garden,” Norm, while not surprised, was curious. He leaned in closer to the old man.

“Take it easy, Pop. I’m here. Do you want more ice chips?”

With a negative shake of his head, the old man, his voice barely a whisper, repeated, “Listen, it’s important. Connie is like my Grandma; you have to be careful.”

Norm knew Connie and Pop didn’t get along. The old man always sensed there was a darkness about her. When Norm tried to find out the source of the problem between them, all Pop would say is, “She’s not my kind of people.”

Now, Norm had a chance to find out. “What does your grandmother have to do with Connie or our garden?” He had heard stories that the grandmother was “odd” but that’s all he knew about it.

“Look in the garden. That’s where you’ll find them.”

“Find who?” Pop didn’t say.

Norm and Connie lived in the house once owned by Pop’s parents. It was an older, well maintained, two-story, situated in a quiet neighborhood. Its most prominent feature was the large, raised garden space in the backyard.

Accessible by a crushed stone path from the patio, a tall wooden fence surrounded the garden. It was short enough that sun got in to warm the soil during the summer months, yet high enough to keep out prying eyes. Each season it produced a fine crop of vegetables and sunflowers.

Connie never told Norm why she didn’t want people to see inside the garden. Only she had the keys to the double locked wooden gate. Being particular about who entered that space, not even Norm got in unless she wanted him there. That never bothered him though since he preferred not to be out in the summer heat and humidity. If asked, he would help her move things to the garden, but what went on in there was up to her.

Pop started to speak again, “When I was a boy, Connie’s great grandma ran a tourist house where you now live. Back then, the neighborhood was rundown. Your house was close to rail yards and the wallpaper factory, in the High Bank area, next to the Niagara Gorge. Now that the factories and trains are gone, your neighborhood is much nicer.

 “Grandma took in the transients who ‘rode the rails.’ They weren’t tourists and didn’t come to see the wonders of Niagara Falls. They were bums, hobos and drifters.”

Even this little bit of talking exhausted Pop and was causing him pain. Norm said, “Pop, hit the morphine button.”

As the drug took effect, Pop was quiet for a few minutes. Once rested, he said, “My grandfather was one of the bosses at the wallpaper factory until he died. That left Grandma with a big house and no money. That’s why she decided to run the tourist house, to make ends meet.

“She always had borders. No one knew how she made any money from these guys. They were broke, but she always seemed to have clothes and small items of theirs to sell once a border moved on.”

In-between coughing jags, Pop said, “Grandma was a killer, I’m sure of it. The borders made perfect victims. They had no family or connections, no real friends, they were not missed. When they left stuff behind she claimed she was selling it to cover the unpaid rent for the rooms. Nobody asked any questions.

“She didn’t kill them all, just the ones that got on her nerves and it seemed like a lot of them did.”

Norm thought, “That morphine button must work pretty well. Poor Pop, this is crazy talk, just like the nurse said.”

Starting to speak again, Pop said, “From time to time, my mother left me with Grandma while she ran errands. I loved playing in her garden. I used to dig in it, until one day, Grandma caught me. She didn’t raise her voice; she lowered her glasses and bathed me in her icy stare. It was unnerving. She made it very clear I couldn’t play in there.

“Worried I’d keep going back, she had one of the borders build a sandbox for me. She could be nice to me like that, but when it came to the garden, it was off limits. Grandma was very strict about that, and you didn’t cross her.

“She didn’t get many new things, but I remember when she had new linoleum put down in the kitchen. She was so proud of the selection she made. The pattern looked like little rectangular mosaic tiles of different sizes. They were off white, light brown, and orange. There were these blue-green lines running between the rectangles. They looked like the leading in the stained glass windows at church.” Pop took a moment, then continued.

“Not too long after the floor went down, the guy who built the sandbox dropped a cigarette and melted a hole in the linoleum. The fool thought it funny, Grandma didn’t.

“The next time I came over, he didn’t live there anymore. All Grandma said was, ‘He left, wanted to see the red clay in Georgia.’ Back then, I didn’t know dirt came in different colors.

“Later that day, Grandma was standing in the kitchen, exhaling the smoke from the last puffs on her Lucky Strike, waiting for the timer to count down to zero. I remember the kitchen being hot, but soon she took a cherry pie out of the oven. I never saw such a funny looking thing.

“Instead of the normal crisscross lattice crust on the top, it had rounded pieces of crust floating on the surface of the pie filling. The crust almost looked like parts of fingers.”

I asked her, “How come it looks like that?”

“She told me she laid the fluted crust dough on the pie filling to give it a different look. Grandma broke off a small piece of crust and let me have it. She said the pie was for the borders only and I was not to eat any of it.

“I remember saying, ‘That pie looks rugged.’ From that time forward she called each of those pies, Rugged Cherry Pie.    

“She didn’t make them often, only whipping up one when a border left who hadn’t paid his rent. When one of them took off, it was a sure bet Grandma was gonna make one of those pies. Each time she did, she buried something among the sunflowers out back in the garden, but I don’t know what.”

Pop’s pain returned. He labored to form words and to speak. Reaching out a bony hand, he grabbed Norm’s arm, “I’ve always worried Connie’s like my Grandma.”

Now Norm was sure the old man was delusional and close to death. As Pop tried to keep talking, laboring with each breath, Norm listened but he didn’t want to hear anything bad about his wife. He tried to change the subject.

“Pop everything’s fine. You’re worrying about nothing.”

As Norm said those words, Connie showed up at the hospital carrying a bag. She walked over to Pop’s bedside, leaned down and kissed his forehead. Connie’s presence seemed to upset him.

“Hi, Dad. How are you?” Pop mustered a weak smile.

Norm asked, “What’s in the bag?”

“I’ll get to that, but first, I need you to move a large black garbage bag out to the garden when you get home. It’s in the kitchen. I’m going to put some scraps from baking in my compost pile. All you have to do is get the bag out there by the gate. I’ll handle everything else.”

Since he often moved heavy things to the garden for her, he said, “Sure.”

Connie lowered her glasses and cast an icy stare toward Norm. A little surprised, he figured she was on edge with her father this close to death. Since Connie could get into “a mood”, he was always careful not to provoke her. At the same time he resented walking on eggshells around her, something he seemed to be doing more of lately.

“Okay, I’ll do it when I get home.”

When Pop heard this he became agitated again. Norm thought about what Pop told him. He then looked over at Connie. She said, “So, tell me, what did you two talk about?”

Thinking, “I can’t tell her Pop thinks she’s a killer”, Norm dodged the question. “Connie, he’s been in and out, not making much sense.”

Smiling at Pop, she said, “Guess what I found, Dad, your Grandma’s old recipe card file. She used to make something called Rugged Cherry Pie, so I made one last night to bring to you.”

Norm’s eyes widened. He read an article in the morning paper about a person that had gone missing in their neighborhood the day before last.

 “Where’d you get the ingredients? We don’t have any cherries; they aren’t in season, and I didn’t see any cherry pie filling in the pantry.”

“I was able to whip up something from what I scrounged from around the house. It’s an interesting recipe. I brought the pie in for Pop, but it doesn’t look like he’ll be eating any. Since Dad can’t eat, I expect you’ll have a piece. You won’t believe how hard this was to make. Here Norm, try some.”

American National Standards Institute Inc.

Having placed the bag containing the pie on the table next to Pop’s bed, as she went to lift the cherry pie from the bag, the old man reached out and with the last of his strength, knocked the pie to the floor. It was the last thing he ever did.

Startled, Connie said, “What the hell, Dad.” Connie yelled for the nurse who came in and checked the old man’s pulse. He was dead.

Connie flashed another angry look at Norm. He tried to deflect things by saying, “I’m sure it was an accident. He’s been out of his head for a while now.” But Norm knew the old man was trying to protect him.

Looking at the mess on the floor, Connie said, “It figures Dad would ruin it. He always ruined everything. Now I have to find the ingredients again to make another pie. Damn.”

As Norm looked at her, then to Pop’s lifeless body, for the first time since he married Connie, he felt unsafe. Suspecting the old man was right about his wife, he thought, “Maybe Pop’s the luckiest person in this room, he’ll never have to find out what’s really in a Rugged Cherry Pie.”

“A Sense of Closure” Body Horror by Ken Foxe

"A Sense of Closure" Body Horror by Ken Foxe:  Ken Foxe is a freelance writer and transparency campaigner in Ireland. He has written two non-fiction books based on his journalism and when not working, or hanging out with his kids, enjoys writing short stories and speculative fiction.

It’s fortunate I learned to type when I was young because I can write these notes even since my eyes closed over. I cannot hear the faint clicking of the keys on my laptop. But I can still feel them subtly rebounding in a way you would hardly notice unless you needed to.

You will have to forgive me if I make spelling mistakes. I have no way to double check what I have written. I can’t hear a sound, can’t smell a thing, can’t even see my own hands. Four weeks ago, I could do all three.

I think I know what comes next; the only remaining opening in my head will close over. Why this is happening I do not know. Did I walk upon a fairy grave, get cursed by an old wretch, or upset the wrong god? All I know is it’s happening and I think suffocation is a terrible way to die. Especially when you know it is coming.

If it would only stop now, I could still live. What kind of a life would it be without sight, sound and smell? Perhaps it would be no life at all, but it would be life.

I told the doctors I wanted to come home to die. Weeks of being prodded, pricked, incised, and injected was enough for me. They tried every surgical technique they could think of to reopen the closed orifices. Yet within an hour, sometimes much less time, they would seal over again, each time more thickly than the last.

I think they would have loved for me to have become a permanent laboratory rat. Doctors had already come from all over Ireland to see me. Consultants in other countries watched the procedures over live-streams, proffering advice. Each had their own idea about what was wrong with me, myriad suggestions on how to fix me but none of them were right.

It began not even a month ago when I awoke one morning with a feeling as if one of my ears was blocked. I had been swimming the night before in my local pool so that seemed the obvious explanation. I used the knuckle of my right index finger, rotating it on the tragus, to try and dislodge the water but nothing would come. In the shower, I used the palm of my hand like a plunger to see if that would clear it. That didn’t work either.

I assumed it would resolve itself during the day and as I sat at my desk in an office block looking across to the Custom House, it was just a mild nuisance. The familiar sound of my workplace was a little muted, at times seemed to dully echo. I remember too that after sitting for long periods, standing up would throw my equilibrium ever so slightly off kilter.

My colleague Sinéad saw me rubbing at my ear, asked me if I was OK. She suggested I tilt my head to the side, gently tap at it, then try to cup my hand over it. But that failed too and I wondered if I might need to get it syringed.

On the train home to Maynooth that evening, the blockage seemed to be getting even worse. I remembered the words of my late mother telling me how you should never put anything in your ear. But I couldn’t help myself, inserting my finger into one ear first, then the other. And even just by touch, it seemed as if the unhearing one was swollen.

One thing I should confess up front, I’m a hypochondriac, have been since my early teens, even worse since my both parents died of cancer. Any time something goes awry with my body, my first instinct is to think the worst – usually a malignant tumour of one sort or other. Nonetheless, I slept soundly, hoping at some point during the night, the water that blocked my ear might drain harmlessly on to my pillow.

It was worse in the morning. I suppose when your ear is blocked, you assume you cannot hear. But really, it’s more that your hearing has been diminished. This was different, as if the switch for my right ear had been powered off. I took some cotton buds, rooted around to see if I could dislodge the obstruction. And that’s when I felt a sort of pop. It was a little like if you closed your nostrils and breathed out sharply through your nose on a climbing airplane. But much sharper and much more intense.

There was an ache in my ear now, a dull throbbing. Now my health anxiety got the kickstart it required. I’d never heard of an ear cancer, didn’t even know if there was such a thing. There must be, I thought, there are cancers for every other part of the human body. And that slight swelling I had felt the evening before, it was much more apparent now.

I briefly considered calling my doctor’s office but I had a little bit of a complex about it. I was a regular visitor there; too regular. Sometimes, the receptionist would recognise my voice even though it was a busy surgery. I could almost see Dr McCarthy sitting there, ever patient but ever so slightly exasperated: ‘Neil, I promise you it’s nothing to worry about. See how you feel in a week and maybe we can have a look at your anxiety meds again.’

I got off the train at Tara Street as normal, stopping at a nearby chemist shop. I bought some Cerumol and in the toilets of our Liffey-side offices, I gently allowed five drops of the oil fall inside the affected ear. The instructions said to leave your head tilted to the side for a few minutes, before wiping it clean with a tissue. But when I straightened up again, the oil, with its clinical pungent odour, just ran back out like a tap.

I tried the drops again at lunch-time, and again that evening when I got home. Each time, the liquid came streaming out, stopped by some insurmountable obstacle. The pain had worn off at least, and there was no more dizziness, as if my body had already grown accustomed to having only a single working ear. My mind did not adjust so rapidly however, and I began to fear the worst. No matter what, I would be calling the doctor’s office in the morning.

I phoned at 9am on the dot but a pre-recorded message said the surgery was not open yet. I dialled again immediately, and got through. The voice that answered was unfamiliar and I was, in truth, a little relieved. The normal secretary must have been off sick or on holidays. Better again, there was a single appointment still available, just after lunch-time. But when the receptionist told me the time, I had to ask her to repeat it, because I could not properly hear her through my left ear.

I tried to reassure myself, kept repeating in my mind that I was imagining things, gently berated myself for letting my thoughts get the better of me. There was nothing wrong with my left ear; how could there be? Maybe the receptionist had mumbled the appointment time, or the phone line had momentarily crackled. I had nothing worse than a bad infection that antibiotics would clear. Perhaps I could talk to Dr McCarthy about adjusting my anti-depressant as well while I was there.

In the doctor’s waiting room, I tried to distract myself with a game on my mobile phone but I could not get my mind to settle. I fidgeted with my watch and my glasses, wondered why doctors always gave you an appointment time they could never meet. I picked up a copy of National Geographic, flicked through the pages, but I read nothing. There were two people still to be seen before me, one coughing vigorously. As my panic rose, I half-contemplated leaving.

Dr McCarthy came to call me at last. “Neil, how are you?” he said, with a smile intended to reassure. As I stepped into his office, he told me to take a seat. “And what do you want to talk to me about today?” he asked. His gentle voice and quiet authority settled me down a little.

“OK,” he said. “Let me take a look at that ear of yours.” He took the otoscope, and gently placed the instrument inside. “Mmmm,” he whispered softly to himself. He took the device out, replaced the speculum, and tried it again. “Hmmmm.”

“All right, Neil,” he said, and there was a slight but obvious hesitation as he spoke. I won’t lie; the pause frightened me. I began to fear the worst with no idea of what it might be. “Did you get a bang on the ear, or anything like that?”

“I was swimming,” I said, “I thought maybe it just got blocked; that happened to me before. But normally it would just work itself out.”

“Well, to be honest,” replied Dr McCarthy, and I immediately thought that ‘to be honest’ wasn’t something you wanted to hear from your doctor. “There’s no obvious sign of infection, but it does appear as if there was some kind of trauma, and there is swelling of some sort there. I think really this calls for an ENT consultant.”

He began to tap on his keyboard, typing up a referral letter. “I’m going to get this expedited,” he said, “it’s a little bit unusual. I don’t think it’s anything to be too worried about but let’s just stay on the safe side.”

I couldn’t find the words to formulate a question, to ask exactly what he had seen. Panic was simmering so strongly within me that the only thing I really wanted was to be anywhere but that room.

“Is there anything else you need to ask me?” he said.

I moved my head from side to side indicating no, and rose from my seat. The sudden movement left me a touch light-headed, and with a perceptible ringing in what was now my good ear.

“If anything changes for the worse,” said Dr McCarthy, “don’t hesitate to call us here, or the night doctor service.”

I paid my bill at the front desk, but my mind was elsewhere – on hospital rooms and operating tables, on chemotherapy ports and linear accelerators. The dizziness was more acute, and the ringing was now a clanging in my brain.

Back home, laid out on my l-shaped sofa, I tried to listen to a meditation on my phone’s app Calm. A kind voice was telling me to slow my breathing, to clear my mind, to let my muscles relax. It almost always worked. Not that day though. For I could feel that my left ear was closing over too.

Even in the worst moments of my hypochondria, I never had to ring 999. Now, I found myself on the phone to a dispatcher, frantic, disjointed: “I can’t hear anything, my ears are after sealing over.” When I look back now, I wonder if they thought me insane. Whatever words they said back to me, I did not hear. But the frenzy in my voice was enough to see an ambulance at my front door about twenty minutes later.

The days that followed passed in a tranquilised haze. Doctors came and went with their otoscopes and auditory equipment. Much of the time, it felt like I was in a film, with the volume muted. Events happened around me without noise. I would see people move but hear no footsteps while the TV in the corner played in a never-ending silence. There were machines around me, which I am sure must have beeped, while the mouths of nurses and porters opened and closed soundlessly.

I spoke through notepad and pen as tentative plans were made for a sign language interpreter to come teach me to understand again. On my iPad, in my wakeful moments, I would watch instructional videos on YouTube so I could start to pick up the most basic signs. It felt like something to focus my mind, to challenge me, to take me away from pitch black thoughts. I won’t pretend it was easy, but the sedation eased me, and one Zolpidem each night was enough to ensure some sleep. I think I found a courage too – at least while it was just my ears that had closed.

I was in hospital three, or maybe four days when I remember waking one morning with what felt like a head cold. It was the tail-end of the Covid era, and I panicked a little that I might have contracted it again. My mouth was bone-dry like I’d been breathing through it all night. My nose felt bunged up. But the peculiar thing was the blockage was in a single nostril. I put one finger up just to see, and it was as before. I met the resistance earlier on one side, like there was an obstruction there.

Except that I was already in hospital, I might not have mentioned it. But I was at a point where even the most minor of physical sensations unsettled me. I scribbled some words in my notepad, showed it to the nurse. She seemed disinterested, or more likely just busy, in a ward where she had more patients than she had time for.

A doctor came that evening to look inside my ears yet again as if anything was going to change. I pointed to my nose, jabbing my index finger up and down, hoping he would understand. He gestured to me to tilt my head back so that he could examine it. I could see the perplexity in his eyes, almost hear the ‘hmmmm’.

The morning after, I was taken for my first surgical procedure. They were going to try and restore the hearing in my right ear, to remove the growth that had completely closed off my auditory canal. I sat slightly reclined in a chair reminiscent of a dentist’s office. They gave me enough local anaesthetic so that I could only feel the pressure of the scalpel but no pain. The sedative drugs I was already getting to relieve my now extreme anxiety made the operation itself pass almost dreamlike.

For perhaps two hours afterwards, I could hear noise again, albeit muffled as though I was wearing a particularly effective ear plug. It was almost overwhelming to again experience the sound of reassuring words, bleeping machines, and the hum of a busy hospital.

Back in my ward, I must have dozed a little. I could feel a hand gently tapping me on the shoulder – it was the surgeon come to check on me. As my eyes adjusted to the light of the room, I could see his lips moving but only in a chilling silence. I had to reach for my pen and pad, and I could see the mystification on his face. As they peeled back the dressing that covered my ear, the surgeon put his otoscope inside. It was immediately apparent that my ear had sealed shut once more.

They tried again two days later on my left ear. By that stage, my second nostril had closed over so that sleep became more difficult. I’d find myself waking frequently, as if struggling for air, before nodding off again. There was a constant bone-deep tiredness, as I drifted through each day. The second surgery was no more successful than the first. There was an even briefer interval of dampened sound, before I returned to the silent world.

I grew weary of the endless stream of people that came to look inside my ears and up my nose. There were bruises in the pit of my elbow from blood tests and cannulation. An infection had developed in my sinuses and I was on strong antibiotics, which made me feel nauseous. In my increasingly rare energetic moments, I would pace the corridor. A nurse’s aide kept close watch on me, as if I was a zoo animal that might escape.

I was frightened in a way that’s very hard to articulate. There were moments of sheer terror about what would come next but also an unsettling resignation, like I no longer had enough energy to be petrified. I would try to look at the sign language videos but my mind retained nothing. Ten minutes of watching could pass and I would not have absorbed a single thing. My appetite vanished. And without a sense of smell, the bland hospital food became even more tasteless.

The morning my right eye closed over, they moved me to a room on my own. I had awoken with a peculiar feeling like the walls of the four-bay ward were closing in on me. It took me a moment to realise what had happened. I put my trembling hand up to my face, ran my fingers across where my eye should have been. It felt like toughened skin, like on the sole of your foot. And if I tried to blink, it was as if my eyelid was stuck with glue. I took my mobile phone from the bedside table. I switched it to selfie mode to see what I looked like, and immediately vomited all across the floor.

Day by day, I grew weaker. I was in a windowed room of the intensive care unit, a set of caring eyes never far away. I found it ever harder to eat, to keep anything down. The infection in my sinuses had spread to my throat and lungs, and I coughed from sunrise to sunset. I had a permanent line for fluids and intravenous antibiotics as doctors debated the best way to treat me. I was almost a bystander to my own care now; they couldn’t answer my questions and I couldn’t bring myself to ask them.

Gradually, the infection began to subside. I regained some of my strength, so that sitting up was no longer tiring. I could even take the few steps to and from the bathroom without feeling I might collapse. It was at least a week since there had been any further complications. Perhaps this was the end of my torture. Losing the sight of one eye was devastating but I tried to convince myself I would manage. I could still see after all. I asked for a laptop so that I could make my own account of what had happened, just in case this ever happened to someone else.

It was a Sunday morning, that much I know, even as days and dates seemed to have shed all meaning. I awoke in total blackness. For a moment, I wondered if I was dreaming, a horribly vivid nightmare of absence. But the seconds passed and I woke no further. I could move my arms and legs, managed to raise a quivering hand up to my left eye. There was that same calloused skin across the surface, hard and rough like the thumb of a seamstress. I began to scream, and scream. I didn’t stop until the nurse came and sedated me.

It’s been four days now and I want to go home. But I can do nothing for myself and I understand I will never leave this room. The respiratory infection has returned, and the awful thick sputum that gets spat out of my lungs is, I’m told, tinged with blood. I have to be handfed, but every spoonful feels as if it will make me retch.

My remaining solace are the plastic keys of this laptop, the almost imperceptible bounce they give beneath my fingers with every stroke. I cannot see these words but I know they appear on screen as if by magic. These sentences are all I leave behind. I don’t fear death, but I am terrified of suffocation.

Ken Foxe is a freelance writer and transparency campaigner in Ireland. He has written two non-fiction books based on his journalism and when not working, or hanging out with his kids, enjoys writing short stories and speculative fiction.

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“The Rib” Horror by Jadidsa Perez

"The Rib" Horror by Jadidsa Perez: Jay Perez is a first time author from Puerto Rico. She currently works as an editorial production assistant for the National Board of Medical Examiners. When not working or reading, she's watching period pieces with her cat and dog.

There can be boiling, burning days in December. It’s the Georgia anomaly, seen in the turgid pastors’ wet handkerchief and the dust floating around my mother’s fidgeting fan.. In the suffocating heat, a daze surrounded the day. Words melted off paintings, from the canvas, and puddled into swirls of screams and reds and greens…

“-and you are a promising set of young men. It’s a barn burner out here, and yet, you choose to come here. Now, I’d like to tell you a story. You might think that this is all a fallacy, maybe, a myth. Maybe you came here because you heard someone somewhere say somethin’, and you couldn’t resist. You’re a good man, not living in cotton, but you work hard. No matter what, though, you strike out. They don’t notice you, they don’t care. But they will, after today. It’s what you deserve.”

I’ve grown up hearing my father say that same exact speech, every Sunday, at the same time. He’d wear the same suit, tie, shoes and cobble in our basement in front of these promising young men. Years ago, in the beginning, it was local boys who were odd, erratic, and felt like they had no future. Now, they travel here in droves, all under the allure of the promises my father gave. They all felt owed something, by the universe and God, and they were here to claim it.

In the beginning, I wasn’t allowed to observe alone. Instead, I dutifully waited with my mother, swallowing down prepubescent impatience. Every Sunday, my mother and I would welcome all the young men in, escort them down the narrowing, mildewed stairwell, and stand to the side. In the early years, the basement was furnished with a large fraying dresser, two old dresser-knobs missing, mold infested,holding up a singular item. A trinket box, too small to look appropriation the dresser, yet demanding all the allure.

It was otherwise filled with chairs, of all sorts, some rocking, some not, and it was always exactly five. Five promising young men, screened by my father into the exclusivity of Sundays. It was a different group each time, no man ever allowed in twice–and no women, except my mother and me, ever.

The furniture hardly changed, even when my father began charging obscene amounts. There was something special, he’d justify, about the humbleness of it all. He was the poor man’s king, the messiah to all the lonely young boys. The ones who scorned their mothers, the pretty girls at school, and their sisters for not respecting them, not wanting them. There were some that would go on to gut their girlfriends, scream at their wives, destroy the things they wanted. They would become barons in the kingdom of male entitlement. My father, the reigning monarch.

“This generation uses a lot of words I don’t understand, incel, those kinds of things,” At this point in his monologue, the young men would perk up at the word, but my father would nonchalantly wipe his mouth with his sleeve, the crisp white cloth eclipsing his mouth completely for a moment. I’ve grown to understand the tactics; the detail-oriented way my father moved. For a short man, he’d pace like the room couldn’t contain him. “And I see the way they dismiss you, disregard all of you. They want these wimpy, good for nothing liberal men who say they’re feminists, who– who let women run things. I don’t allow that in my house.” His white suit would ride up here, as his arms stretched out to indicate his complete control over the space. “It’s nature for the man to lead. To choose. Have you ever seen a lion not take what he wants? That’s nature. Not the bullshit they’re telling you in the media!”

Despite my father’s booming voice, I could always hear my mother’s whisper to me. “You’re lucky you’re a woman.” Despite my father beating me into my place in this world, my mother was my first initiator in the mindset that life was carved for me and I was simply a submissive passenger. I’m lucky I’m a woman; I’m lucky to be prey. Predators have to learn to hunt.

“It’s not your fault. The world turns and changes and spits you out.But not anymore. Not after today.”

Like a white five-headed creature, the promising young men would begin to stomp, yell back, and excite themselves into a frenzy. As a child, I’d flinch, once cry. As a fresh adult, I’m expected to keep face, silent.

It was almost time for the catalyst, anyway. The real reason they were all here, the spoil of the war waged against hedonistic, soul sucking turn of the century female empowerment. The age of man was to come, and they’d siphon every morsel from every small crack.

My father turns ceremonially, fluttering around in the natural light that sneaks into the basement from the rectangular windows. Unintentionally, it envelopes him and his luminous robe in a soft, afternoon glow. In our early years, I’d respect my father like no other; any semblance of attention to me away from my mother felt arcadian. I’d follow his rules piously; covered, stiff, subordinate.

I was seeking approval from a beast with two heads, promising false miracles in return for worship and idolization. Who would gnaw into the flesh and blood of women and melt down their skeletal insides into a pool of sin and seduction. He was never going to love me, I said to myself at the age of thirteen. He was going to eat me.

“Now, it’s time to take back what’s yours. This artifact here,” With his back turned, he carefully grasped the glass case, no fingerprints or dust thanks to my mother’s eagle eye. The theatrics are all his, the clandestine operations are all ours. “It’s been preserved carefully for centuries. The rib of King James V, an heirloom of our family. Meant only to be passed down to my sons. All of you.”

The rib, a curved, yellowed brittle bone, looked rotten and sulfuric. It began as a wild fable when found by an ancestor, a doctor, in a trunk when coming to the New World, and perpetuated throughout the years. At some point, it’s clear that it’d been replaced whenever it decomposed beyond repair. It wasn’t the metaphysical that mattered, it was the belief from men. Every man in my family, from the patriarchal line, received the inheritance when they matured. I’d never even touched it, never felt the rot plague my skin.

There was never going to be a biological son, a real son. So instead, my father invited lots of young boys, every Sunday, and gorged on their pitched fevers and anger instead.

“I’m going to pass this to every one of you. I want you to really feel all of it. Breath it in. It will change your life.”

I’ve heard it once that caterpillars turn mostly to liquid in their cocoons before being born again as a butterfly. My father liked them at this age so they would melt in his hand. That’s when the poison could mix in.

The white monster moved as one, passing the bone for each of its hands to examine, feeling the curve, the density, the rot. In some cases, a bit of the decomposition powder left behind a stain that they would rub harder into their skin. I’d imagine it’d function like cordyceps infection. Burrow into the skin, traverse through the adrenaline-pumping heart, the organs jostling about, into the cancerous mass of a brain. Control their every move, make foam in the mouth whenever they’d capture a prey, then die after finishing what it was controlled to do: champion phallic, violent virility.

After the touching, the rib was returned to its rightful place, underneath the glass case. The glass case itself was hardly a security measure; any of them could come up and take it if they wished, but it remained underneath the case due to the respect they had for my father andfor what the little traditionalistic bell jar represented–the ability to enclose, deoxygenate, and groom.

“You have all been blessed today. God will always bless his most devout followers.” Outside, the afternoon was rotting into the night. The Southern breeze became sweet and the stars blinked in and out of my view. Even now, older,  I still find myself self-soothing by looking at them. They meant another day was done and one day I will be free. That as soon as I began sneaking away, learning from the library when I could, stealing when I could not…that knowledge would set me free.

The night welcomed the blob of young men, who sneered my way after revering my father. Checking that my modest clothing of high collars and long skirts was to their approval and to their fantasies of clawing it all away, my clothes, myself.

I baited my time and took care of my chores, cleaning away the sweat and passion from the basement. My father stomped away into his study and locked himself into scripture reading. My mother gently pressed her hand into my shoulder and stowed away into the rest of our home, to be seen but not heard.

I initially wanted to kill my mother, too. In a way, she was always the confirmation to what my father said. The visualization of my defects as a woman. She always woke up, perfect and compliant, and lived that way. She’d hiss into my head all the ways that I would be alone, deteriorating in a glass case of despondency and become nothing–not a mother, not a wife, but a biological anomaly that needed to be snuffed.

The violence of living without my father, in a way, would be enough. I’d give her what she wanted to shield me from. The breaking of the tether to the man. Opening her head and shredding her brain, taking the matter and squeezing it into a slime texture. I wanted her to think of nothing but my pain. My anger.

It wasn’t hard to sneak into my parent’s room, especially in the night where only nefarious creatures lurked about. I’d initially planned to end it quickly, and swiftly, but belated myself. Tip-toed down into the basement to take the rib. It was now firmly held in my left hand while my right held my father’s butchering knife.

My mother and father were both in deep sleep. The bed was stuck firmly in the center of the opposing wall to the door. Their room was always neat and lacked personal things–it only held a nightstand with a shade darker than the dresser. In the dark, though, it was all painted black. Their bed was disproportionately large, to hold the conceivement and hope of a son that never came. It was high off the ground with strong, wooden legs. The headboard was simple, with only a cross to mark it.

I walked to the side my father always slept on, the left, and heard his nimble breathing. It was soft and full, not one to sleep in fear or anguish, unlike me.

I gripped the cleaver, the leather handle now staining my hand. Standing before him, I swung.

For a full life, death comes quite fast. It struck the middle of his Adam’s apple, once, and I heard him begin to gargle. The blood pooled out of his throat so quickly that it painted his entire torso. It didn’t decapitate his head entirely, but parted parts of his flesh like the Red Sea and exposed all the beautiful color that he kept inside. His body panicked, convulsed, but I wasn’t done.

Removing the cleaver was difficult with my strength, as it made home into my father’s neck. It was now nestled and nested. I managed to pry it loose, and replace it.

With the rib. And this time, I loved the feeling. The squish of the blood and the flesh made the most wonderful sound so I kept digging into it. I turned and twisted and heard gloshes, saw the pink and the red like a sunset. I did not wrestle with the flesh and blood but made it into a canvas, marked with a symphony of color in the black night. I took a step back to admire my work.

My mother never stirred, not even when I left.

Jay Perez is a first time author from Puerto Rico. She currently works as an editorial production assistant for the National Board of Medical Examiners. When not working or reading, she’s watching period pieces with her cat and dog.

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If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine


“What I Saw at My First Show at The Plateau” Psychological Horror by Patrick Malka

Patrick Malka (he/him) is a high school science teacher from Montreal, Quebec, where he lives with his partner and two kids. His fiction can be found in Five South's The Weekly, Nocturne magazine, The Raven Review, Sky Island Journal and most recently at On The Run. He can be found online @PatrickMalka on Twitter and @malkapatrick on Instagram.

I was sixteen years old. The show was all ages though that was questionable. I was going with two friends, Joannie and Finnigan. Finnigan insisted on being called Flix for whatever reason, but I could never bring myself to call him that, so it was Finnigan to his mother and me. The three of us were looking forward to this and it took careful negotiations with all of our parents, especially Joannie’s who so desperately wanted to be the model permissive liberal parents. They had their limits with trusting others around their daughter. That’s why we all left home looking like your average skaters. Before getting on the bus downtown, the makeup and accessories came out. Finnigan hogged the eyeliner while I applied a burgundy lip. Joannie went for a dark shade of purple. Then came the abundance of rings, silver claw earrings for me, a spiked choker for Joannie and chains all around. My favorite part, the memory that runs clearest through my mind, was when Finnegan took his denim shirt off revealing his tight strikethrough cross Bad Religion t-shirt that looked like it had been treated with a sandblaster. Joannie kissed him below his left eye leaving a perfect bruise of her full lips which he never even attempted to wipe off. That moment always happens in slow motion in my mind. They were fucking beautiful.


You can always spot the kids at these shows. They manage to appear the most disinterested while being the most obsessed about being right up to the stage. The venue was not what I expected even though I had read a handful of descriptions and been told what to expect by the older punks at school. As soon as you step into The Plateau, the smell of beer, stale cigarette smoke, sweat and mold along with a low persistent hum of amplifiers overpowers any other information delivered to the senses. The place is all sounds and smells. Somehow it manages to mix the wet, organic flavours of October decomposition with a warm and unsanitary humanity. One part closed-in neglect, two parts ionized air. It’s oppressively sensual.

When you get passed the narrow hallway and the mandatory coat check operated by an older punk with grey roots to his slicked-back green and pink mohawk, the room opens into an uncanny configuration for a music venue. The shallow stage lines the entire left-hand side of the room. The floor is all open space in front of the stage and the floorboards curl up and bounce from years of moshing and spilled beverages. I’ve been here on nights where the cigarette ash, sweat and beer were so abundant it created a tacky paste, coating the floor. I imagined little silver fish travelling the cracks in the wood, trapped in their own Pompei. The two extra floors above are all standing room balconies with their own bars and look as if the exterior wall of an apartment building was flipped inwards. Moshing is strictly forbidden on the balconies. There’s no telling how much they could take before turning the place into a newsworthy disaster with a death toll. You want to join in the chaos, you go to the ground floor.


We were there before the doors opened. We made a bee line for the stage immediately after proving that we were only carrying makeup and extra layers of clothes in our bags. My asthma inhaler got a strange look from the crusty punk doing bag checks, so I had to spend an extra minute proving it wasn’t some kind of one hitter she’d never seen before. Joannie and Finnegan were leaning their backs against the stage, and I was facing them. We were arguing over which books we wanted to read from the AP English summer reading list. I remember Finnigan wanting to read Crime and Punishment. I don’t know if he ever did. As genuine as Finnigan was, there was also a character he wished to present to the world. He had this innate guilt about being white and middle class and honestly, really comfortable with himself. Ditto for Joannie but she more sensibly looked to Beloved for instruction on how to check her privilege. I had no idea, but I knew I would survey the group and pick whatever hadn’t been touched by the others. I’m still like that. It’s not a purity thing, I just don’t want other people’s ideas in my head before I’ve had a chance to formulate my own.

Over the course of an hour, the place filled up, but we defended our territory fiercely. The crowd first gathered at the bar then shifted and grew outward from the stage. Anticipation for loud music started building through the audience and every time the music from the PA system ended, a moment of silence was observed to see if this was it. We were deep in self important conversation when Joannie and Finnegan abruptly stopped talking and stared directly above my head. I turned to see that right behind me was a guy, at least 6’5”, with a shaved head, chin beard, and a Black Flag shirt the size of a bed sheet. Probably as heavy as the three of us combined. He was staring intently at us, lost in thought but with this toothy smile, completely oblivious to the piano key pattern of grime between his teeth. It was unnerving.

“This your first show?” he said to all three of us but looking me in the eye.

“Yeah” Joannie responded with maybe a bit more edge than she needed to, but she must have also sensed what I had, that his question, while perfectly normal had a tone of warning.

“As soon as they step on stage, this whole place is gonna start spinning.”

“What do you mean spinning? Like people are going to mosh?” I asked.

“Yeah, this whole place is gonna start spinning. Won’t be standing still for long. We’ll take care of you. Everything stops if somebody goes down. Nobody stays down for long.”

Just as he finished that strangely kind bit of instruction, the lights went off and the first band came out. I can’t remember their name. No one does. There was a crush of bodies towards the stage. So much so that Joannie and Finnigan had to bend their torsos over the edge of it and I couldn’t raise my arms without shoving the people next to me.

“Onetwothreefour, onetwothreefour!”

The sound of those first distorted power chords galloped across the air and I felt this wave of warmth in their wake. I made the mistake of closing my eyes in an attempt to record the sensation. If I hadn’t maybe I would have seen the body of that first kid plow into my right side, immediately followed by a push back from the person now in front of me. I managed to stay on my feet and even in that initial unexpected chaos, a recent lesson on actions having equal and opposite reactions came to mind. I turned back around to the stage and saw I was now a good fifteen feet back from my friends and as I continued to drift across the room with the movement of the crowd, I understood what that guy meant when he said that the room would be spinning. He meant everyone in the room would drag me into an inescapable vortex I was not prepared for. The band was relentless. They didn’t pause between songs, just continuously hammering away on their instruments, creating the low-pressure system that fed the hurricane of bodies I couldn’t step out of. The only lights were the static foot lights on stage and three roaming spotlights that travelled the entire room. I could only see a portion of the faces of the people around me at any given time and even then, they moved so fast, I only registered a smear of features.

About halfway through the set the band finally paused and gave the crowd a chance to stop and cheer. Everyone around me was gasping for air which had now turned into a fog of sweat and exhaled alcoholic vapour. I looked around trying to take in what was happening around me. I spotted the sides of Joannie and Finnegan’s faces, still crushed against the stage, kissing, really making out in that desperate, life support kind of way. It was bound to happen sooner or later, I guess that was as good a time as any. I didn’t want to interrupt so I decided not to rejoin them, not that that was an option because as soon as I heard four fast hits on the hi-hat, the floor beneath me bounced and I was being pummeled again. I didn’t have enough mass to make any difference, I was at the mercy of the kinetics of the room.

The next time I tried looking at the stage, something in the crowd directly across from me caught my attention. Something was reflecting light and for a moment it shined directly into my eyes. When I caught what had flashed in the darkness, a girl’s silver claw shaped earrings, I made a mental note that maybe it was time to retire mine. I scanned the crowd as best I could to see her again and spotted the left side of her face just as the roaming spotlight hit her, ten feet from where she was a moment ago. I noticed the side of her hair was shaved in exactly the same place as mine and the shade of her lipstick was identical. Unbelievable I thought to myself. I spun in place twice, narrowly avoiding several elbows, only trying to face the stage. It was too much. It wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to see the band. I was there to see them, but I couldn’t escape the pit.

When I managed to turn back around, I saw the girl who looked like me. I don’t know how she managed it, but she was in the middle of the action standing perfectly still. And she was looking straight at me. When the spotlight hit her, I could see her smile. The resemblance was so shocking I inhaled fast and coughed. She was still there the next time the spotlight came around, perfectly still, only this time no longer smiling. The claw earing had been torn out of her left ear. Her left ear was gone, and blood was flowing down her neck, draining down the sloping angles of her chest.

I started to make my way to her. If for no other reason than she seemed to be in the eye of it all, a static location in all this movement. Maybe I could save her from further harm. I lost track until the spotlight hit her again. The skin on the right side of her face was no longer there. Ripples of wet, frowning muscle glinted in the spotlight, weeping more blood, dripping down, soaking through her shirt.

Every step I took led to the next tackle. Every step toward her led to two steps back. I was having difficulty breathing. I realized that in my fear and confusion at what I was witnessing, I was having an attack. My inhaler was in my bag, at Joannie’s feet. Still, I was trying to push my way to the girl being torn apart rather than to my inhaler.

Finally, I found a space where someone had pushed through with way more force than I could. Before it filled in, I moved across, closing the gap between us. My chest was tight, not only from difficulty breathing, I hadn’t taken a proper breath in minutes, but also from anticipation of what I would see next. The next time the spotlight came around to where I expected to see her, what I saw finally took what was left of my breath away. The big guy from before, the one who warned me about the whole place spinning, was holding her above the heads of cascading moshers. His bulbous, stubbled cheeks were wet with sweat and tears and smeared with blood from right temple to chin. His lips were shaking. Her left arm was torn off, tendrils of skin and muscle hung around a spike of broken bone. Bloody punctures ran through her exposed mid-section like cores removed to study the layers. A chunk of one thigh was gone along with that section of her ripped black jeans, the same ones I was wearing. I thought I could see through to her femur. Hands of moshers were reaching up, trying to grab more of her. Poking their fingers in the holes in her flesh, coming away with bloodied fingertips and bits of gore. Translucent hands, far too many of them. There weren’t that many people below her. All the while the big guy was crying and shouting down the disembodied hands. Doing his best to protect her. Why was I the only one seeing this? My vision darkened and with the sudden end of a song and the freezing of the crowd, I fell to the ground.

I passed out.


I was on the sidewalk outside breathing in warm, humid night air. The music was still coming through in explosive bursts whenever the door to the Plateau swung open, letting out a fresh group of kids needing a smoke. I was actually taking in air, though it required too much effort. Joannie was standing over me with my inhaler and Finnigan was right behind her, telling some punks to stand back and give me space to come to.

American National Standards Institute Inc.

Joannie actually let out a squeak when I made clear eye contact with her and after hesitating for just a moment, took me in her arms. Combination relief and anger at having been made to feel so scared. Finnigan’s eyes were watering.

They got me on the bus and told me what happened. It wasn’t much of a story. Right after the last song of the opening band, the big guy picked me up from the floor, carried me over to my friends, signaled them to follow him and brought me outside. He gently placed me on the ground and walked down the street. He never said a word to Joannie or Finnigan. Luckily, Joannie realized what was happening and reached for my bag which she had thought to grab right before leaving, removing the inhaler, and doing the best she could to get some of it down my airways.

I was exhausted and nauseous. My head filled with images and questions. None of it made sense but I never doubted it. I still don’t. We decided not to tell our parents what actually happened. I never told Joannie and Finnigan what happened to me. They had their own memory of the evening with its enormous highs and lows and thinking that was the night their friend lost her mind did not need to be part of it. We were close at school, in that context it was easy, but once they started dating, they faded out of the scene within a year. Despite our best intentions, I don’t see them often.

Because I never left.

I bartend at the Plateau now. It was a disaster at first, but I had a drive to get better.

I never saw the girl again. The girl who looked exactly like me, being torn apart. I never saw the big guy either, the one who attempted to save her, who actually saved me. I’ve been to thousands of shows over the years, plowing my way through as many mosh pits. I’ve done every drug, seeing if that would help. It didn’t.

I’ve made some friends but alienated too many to count.

I’ve met a few others who have their own stories about the Plateau, but none match what I experienced. Maybe there’s something to that as well. I document what happened to them. I show them care and kindness. We tend to be those who need it.

Some would steer clear after what I saw, but I’ve never done things like other people.

I can’t recreate the exact circumstances no matter how hard I try and maybe that’s the only way to do it.

I still want to know though.

What did I see?

Patrick Malka (he/him) is a high school science teacher from Montreal, Quebec, where he lives with his partner and two kids. His fiction can be found in Five South’s The Weekly, Nocturne magazine, The Raven Review, Sky Island Journal and most recently at On The Run. He can be found online @PatrickMalka on Twitter and @malkapatrick on Instagram.

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“Counsel” Dark Micro Fiction by Kevin Canfield

Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Cineaste, Bookforum and other publications. 

The guidance counselor is a prisoner of conscience, his sentence—self-imposed and open-ended—began last Sunday, hours after Father S- admonished him during mass for trying to put the Body of Christ in the back pocket of his corduroys. 

The counselor’s wife was at home in bed with a fever, and he wanted to give her the sacrament, so why not take a communion wafer home with him? The priest wasn’t having it, and in the days since their very public argument, the counselor has refused to leave his office at the regional high school. 

Seated at his desk (a utilitarian rectangle comprised of particle board encased in a laminate surface designed to resemble the smooth grain of a deciduous tree), he is compiling a list of advice for his favorite students (item three: if your skin is breaking out, take a swim in saltwater; item six: never listen to anyone who says that crocheting and knitting are similar; item eleven: don’t try chewing wintergreen tobacco, not even once, because it’s delicious and you’ll be instantly addicted).

He is doodling, mainly pictures of housecats, most of which are wearing pince-nez; all are clutching garden shears. 

He is thinking about the shelf in the home where he grew up, which held his late father’s three books—life-advice titles purportedly written by professional football coaches—and several dozen jars of his mother’s homemade blackberry jam, each with a red-and-white plaid skirt, three-eighths of an inch in width, affixed to its lid. 

His recent actions notwithstanding, he does not consider himself rash or melodramatic. 

He has not told anyone yet, but he’s going home soon. He has a plan. He will arrive after dusk and fetch a shovel from the tool shed.

Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Cineaste, Bookforum and other publications. 

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“Heartbreak Necklace” Horror by Amanda Minkkinen

"Heartbreak Necklace" Horror by Amanda Minkkinen: Amanda Minkkinen is a sociologist and writer who lives in Copenhagen. She has work published in Mycelia, Odd Magazine, among others. You can find her on Twitter as @aljminkkinen.

Arthur Thorpe murdered his girlfriend Kitty Check by cutting out her heart and eating it raw. No one knows this, no one was ever supposed to know any of this, but Kitty knew it all instinctively when she found herself without a heartbeat one morning, alone in her bedroom, lying in her own blood. She had bled through the sheets, damaging the mattress beyond repair. She was confused at first, dizzy and lightheaded. She felt awful, tried to remember if she blacked out last night, if she had been drinking. It was only when she ran her fingertips across the deep wound in her chest that she was certain of what had happened. It felt like a tooth suddenly gone missing.

It occurred to Kitty that she ought to be dead, and that there was no real reason to stay alive, but here she was. She figured that he must have wavered, that he must not have had the guts to see it through. But Arthur was always hanging in and out of commitments like a pedestrian loitering around, kicking rocks, waiting for his ride to come pick him up. A carelessness that was present even in his absence. She saw it in the bloody fingerprints on the headboard and the splatter on the bedside table. She saw it in the red, crusted streaks on the doorknobs and on the newly painted walls. The sink, too. Red fingerprint smudges on a crystal whisky glass from the set he had gifted her for Christmas. He had a drink before leaving and couldn’t even rinse the glass. Did he think he wouldn’t get caught? That no one would notice, that no one would hold him accountable?

In many ways, Arthur Thorpe felt very bad for what he had done, but he also felt that Kitty had it coming. She must have known somewhere deep down that this wasn’t going to work. Arthur had been wanting to break up for a long, long time. He kept trying to cut things off with her, but they somehow always ended up together again. They were drawn together like a knot being untied and tied again; the memory of the rope remained. But he had outgrown her. Or they had outgrown each other. Either way, their relationship felt like living in the past, and Arthur was a man who wanted the future. He believed that it was not an inherently selfish thing to want different things, to end a relationship. Even if it was selfish, he didn’t mind that very much. People, he thought, have the erroneous tendency of viewing selflessness as a virtue. The right amount of selfishness is almost always perfectly reasonable and, to be perfectly honest, often preferable.

And she needed him so much, all of the time. She needed him to come home, to call regularly, to do all of this willingly and gladly all of the time. But he couldn’t do it, he always failed to be what she needed. Her tears were always coming. It was as if he inspired some deep ocean pit of grief inside of her, had been the sole maker of every pain she felt, and was also consequently responsible for the repair of every following rupture. It was unfair. He needed to go, and he needed it to be absolute, because he needed to be himself. There was no way he could live up to the romantic ideal that Kitty had created and still retain his own identity. The image of what he ought to be, in her eyes, drained him.

He knew she wouldn’t see things from his perspective. He could see it now, that face of hers hovering before him. Her scowl, that disdain, her sighs and pleading to make him see reason. Rolling eyes, scoffs. It always made it harder for him to speak, to express how he felt, because no matter what, no matter the situation, it was Arthur who had done something wrong. There was only one way with Kitty, and it was her way. She had a very firm and unwavering way of thinking about the world, about people, and Arthur could barely breathe with her. The bottom line, Arthur felt, was that the relationship had long been a burden to them both, and maybe they would be better off alone or with other people. The only way he ever saw it ending was by making sure it really ended. He didn’t mean to hurt her; it was never his intention. No, death severs all emotion. It was an attempt at humanity.

That was the story Arthur hummed to himself as he tried to floss out the bits of heart-flesh stuck between his molars. He knew it would be hard to eat a heart, but this was downright absurd. He wished he hadn’t tried to chew it so much. It might have been easier to just swallow some of the bits whole. Faster, too. Maybe he could have used a steak knife. Or a blender? Any other man would have cooked it on the stovetop. Maybe with a bit of rosemary, garlic, salt and a sinful chunk of butter. Butter sizzling away on a cast iron skillet.

He tried pulling the engagement ring off her finger before he left. It wasn’t because it had been expensive, though it had indeed been the entirety of his first big paycheck. He didn’t need the money anymore. Now it only came down to the principle of the thing. It was over between them; no use dwelling on symbols of the past. He hadn’t expected the finger to pop off with the ring, but it did, so he pocketed her finger with the engagement ring still on it and decided to sort the rest of it out later. He would come back for her body, or his assistant would, or someone else entirely would figure it out. Arthur was now grateful for Kitty’s scattering of distant relationships. No one would suspect her missing for days, maybe even weeks. The air was cold and crisp that morning. It felt good to breathe in. It smelled like a fresh start.

Kitty stayed in bed for hours. The hours extended into days and the days uncoiled into weeks. Time was a ridiculous thing. Grief was concrete and stable. She rotted away in her bed, stinking and crying. She tried anger, reasoning, denial. She tried sitcoms, she tried working out. She tried staples to keep her toenails in place, tried soaking her body in ice baths to preserve it. She knew nothing about dying, had not prepared, and now she was alone and in decay and could not cope. She watched his social media like a vulture.

One morning, as Kitty was soaking in an ice bath, she noticed that she was missing her ring finger. Arthur. She imagined him pulling at her finger, then twisting, then using his teeth to bite it off. And he must have disposed of it in some careless way, her finger now tumbling around in a coat pocket along with loose change and old receipts. She could see it happening, the image looping in her head again and again. She could also see him, sometime next year, uncovering his old winter jacket and pulling out her shrunken finger. He wouldn’t know what it was, he would have forgotten all. He’d toss it. How silly she was for expecting this to end in any other way than Arthur cutting and running.

Kitty went to the wooden chest at the foot of their bed. Her body felt unstable. Every limb felt loose; she needed something to keep her together. At the bottom of the chest she had found a dusted, old jewelry box. It was mostly filled with worthless charms and costume jewelry, and then the necklace. She unclipped the back and draped it on herself, the crimson beads warm against her skin, little glass buds of spring. It started as a choker, tight and strangling, strands of red looped into one another and draped down her chest in chains of intricate designs, the beads chiming with movement, the longest strands touching the top of her breasts. There was something remarkably comforting about this necklace, she felt that it contained her emotion and gave her dignity.

She went to the mirror to see herself, which she had avoided this whole time. She was still ugly, still dead, still cold. Her hair hung in wormy strands. Her fingernails were discolored blue and green. She looked like a body that had been fished out of a river. She thought about calling her mother, who wouldn’t pick up. She could get a cab and go somewhere rural, lie down by a river and die there, or she could go and fuck a necrophiliac and try and make herself feel better that way. She also wanted to call Arthur and beg him to take her back and to please bring the heart, please can we work this out, any adult relationship is characterized by partners’ ability to repair conflict, has this all been for nothing?

American National Standards Institute Inc.

And then she went to their closet, where his clothes still hung. His cologne, his leather shoes, his suitcase. That ugly sweater he insisted on wearing. She dressed herself and left the apartment. She was glad it was November so she could reasonably wear mittens to disguise her missing finger. That open, dark wound.

There he was.

And there again.

She saw him everywhere she went. Posing for a new cologne campaign, some high-end brand only found in department stores. He made the scent look like it’d be musky and sophisticated, like the smell of rainy weather when you stood in the doorway. It smelled like ash, ash, ash from the fire that burned inside. And there he was again, the star in a new action flick, or drama, or maybe trying his hand at comedy. How distant he felt from her, like a caricature of himself. And how sad it was that this was not a new feeling.

No one asks about her, just as he knew they wouldn’t. Wait, no, his hair stylist does. What was his name again?

“Kitty’s doing alright, then?” The man asks, hardly listening and hardly there, oily fingers digging into Thorpe’s scalp.

“Yeah.” And that’s the end of it. And he says something else to Thorpe, who starts to reply but there’s this thump thump thump thumping that keeps pounding in his ears. And then the hands push him that way, and then the other, and he tries to go along as best he can. But that thump thump thump thumping keeps getting louder, keeps drowning out everything else. And again, his tongue catches onto a piece of heart-flesh, a piece still stuck between two molars. He holds his tongue there, feeling the resistance of that heart piece. And he swears that it’s got a pulse; it’s faint, but it’s certainly there. That little piece of meat in his teeth, he digs around with a finger after it, he tries to spot it in the mirror. He can’t get rid of it, that little piece of meat stuck somewhere inside him.

Arthur has work to do, people to meet, places to go. He has every manner of business imaginable and he cannot concentrate on a thing. He can feel the specter of his ex pulsing between his teeth, in the very flesh of his gums, sometimes even as white-hot pain at the center of a molar. His agent asks him a question, to which he replies something, no clue what. Probably nonsense. His assistant schedules an appointment with the dentist tomorrow morning, no appointments available sooner. He thinks about going to the ER. He gets desperate. There is a manuscript on the table in front of him, but he can’t make out the words.

Kitty held her fingertips to the warmth of the necklace as she followed the beating of her own heart towards Arthur. She could walk without tiring now, but not without little pieces of her breaking and flaking off her body with every step. She would retrieve the heart. She would demand answers. There would be a grand confrontation and he would cower before her. He misses her, he needs her, he must be living in regret. Or maybe he doesn’t care, or she never really knew him, or he is a psycho, or he is the cruelest living thing in all things past, present and future. Thinking in terms of extremity was satisfying to Kitty; it gave her something to walk towards.

The necklace seemed to guide her, too, now her only reliable companion. Heartbreak necklace had long been with her, had started only as a single string and a handful of beads. Kitty remembered each one, could feel their memories hot beneath her touch. Each little glass seed held painful memories, anger and contempt that Kitty couldn’t quite work through. Whenever she and Arthur argued, she added a bead to the chain. The chain turned into a collar and the collar turned into a necklace and the necklace turned into something that was nothing less than a wearable chandelier. Every step she took sounded the voices of hurt, arguments past, tears and injury.

And then the heartbeat changes directions. It is a sudden change and Kitty feels something drop within her. She halts in her path and listens for it. She stands there for seconds, minutes, hours. Rain pours and dries again, passersby ask if she is alright, and then they hurry along once they catch a whiff of her. She is concentrating on Arthur and his journey, her heart with him still.

She smells ocean waves, hears their crashing and the spray against the rocks. This is where her heart is, then. He is at the beach house, the little cottage they bought together. She stands still a while longer, remembering. She remembers what it was like to be human, to be alive, to feel the sea of love and be lost in it. She remembers their first night there, no sex, he just lifted up her shirt and kissed her on her waist, and they fell asleep next to one another, not touching because it was too hot. She remembers sitting beachside the next day with a paperback, its broken spine and thin pages, not reading but being only very, completely, supremely happy. Arthur had gone inside because it was too hot and he could never handle it for very long. Time was fast and sweet, a perfectly paced film. Seagull shrieks sounded like bells.

She thinks about Arthur a while longer. She thinks about the way he looked at her. His weird, long limbs around her. The reflection of them both in the window of a shop as they walk by. Her thin soul could be passing through heaven and still, she would rather be on earth, dead earth, wherever he is, as he thinks of all the things that are not Kitty. The necklace burned hot against her skin. She turned to walk in the new direction of her beating, crazed, broken heart.

Arthur stood at the edge of the cabin, right where the patio met the white sand, which now was gray and charmless without the light of day. The breeze was cold, the waves relentless. The constant push and pull, fatiguing to even look at, the churning of the ocean’s body like intestines in the full swing of digestion. His assistant left an hour ago, maybe two. He had gone outside to watch the sun dissolve into dark, the splitting of the day, when the sky’s ablaze. He was only miserable. He could not truly appreciate it. His mind was preoccupied, his body tight and anxious. There was an ache in his lower back from standing. His neck was stiff. He had not been sleeping well lately. His assistant scheduled an appointment with a masseuse for the following day. She would be back in the morning to fetch him.

The dark, twinkling sky began its glow and the moon made her arrival, a half-moon, both luminous and hidden. He felt very sorry for himself and he felt very small. The heart had been beating madly all the while but he had grown used to it, and although he knew he would not sleep that night it was almost tolerable. As he stood looking to the sea and, for a moment, the beating even began to dampen into background noise until it was gone entirely. This place held good memories. The waves slapped against the worn sand. Everything would be alright, everything would work out in the end. He tried to think of Kitty but he found that he already could not remember her face so clearly anymore. It was indistinct to him now, and at least half missing.

He turned to go inside, but there was something that caught his eye as he turned to go. Between the peaks of the waves, far off in the distance: a body, upright, as if standing. He could see it from the hips and up. It was pale and glowing. He looked closer, getting a better impression with every wave that revealed its figure. Was it a buoy, or a pelican? Was it a small fishing boat, or had he finally gone really, truly insane? But there was a strange something about this figure in the distance, it seemed to be anchored into its position, far off in the distance, unaffected by the movement of the sea. And it seemed to be looking directly at him, studying him as he was studying it.

It seemed now to be coming towards him. As it came closer, he could make out the body: nude, slick, wet. He began to make out the swell of a belly, of hips, of breasts that were firm and high and with dark nipples. Her wet hair was plastered down her back, her eyes were fixed on him. The closer she came, the more certain he was that she was coming directly for him. Something sparkled inside of him, a feeling he had not felt in many years. He was not afraid. It was something new and good. The woman came closer and closer, the waves revealing more with every swell and fall. He was aroused, almost painfully so, and as she neared the shore he saw also her tail and its glittering scales that reflected moony light.


She swam up to the sands like an ocean snake, holding his eyes in hers. He was totally transfixed by this creature, as if under a spell, completely lost in the possibilities of the night. When she met the sand, she began to crawl across it with her long body towards him. She struggled on the sand, graceless and desperate, and as her tail slapped against the sand with every movement towards him he felt a bud of regret and fear motivating him to turn and run the other way. But there was something so magnetic about this body of hers, naked and coming towards him with complete wanting. He could hear her belabored breathing as she came closer, and he saw the steam that came from her warm body in the cold of night. She was close, until she was almost directly in front of him. She stopped and looked up, her body flat against the sand, but she craned her neck up high and propped herself up on her hands and gave her face to him. It was round and pale and glowing, perfectly shaped and immediately in front of him. Her lips were shaped like rosebuds, her eyes were narrow and intense and searching for something in him. He wanted to give her what she was looking for. As if knowing his thoughts, she opened her mouth.

Kitty was falling apart. Soon there would be nothing left of her. She was close now. Soon she would be reunited with herself, soon it would be over. She was close now. There it was, the cabin in the distance, a glowing little thing like a postcard picture. The winds were wild that evening, the waves even wilder. The world was so loud that night, so full of chaos and disgust, that she could not hear the wailing from the beach.

Arthur was nearly rendered senseless, blinded and the air pounded out of his chest. The shrieking that came from that creature’s mouth struck him down, the waves of it upon him like a natural disaster. When the shrieking stopped, he found himself flat on his ass on his patio, arms wrapped around himself in a pathetic attempt at self-soothing. The creature was still there, watching him expectantly. She was no longer beautiful. Even in the dark, he could see its cataract eyes, saw that its mouth was only a slit, a rotten wound, plastered across its animal face. It began to crawl closer to him, a frantic and wormy movement, a low groan, a gargling, coming from its mouth. Its tail also seemed to be decaying in real time, the scales popping off and leaving little open pockets of flesh.

The closer it came, the less of it remained. Its skin seemed to ripple and detach itself from the body. It seemed unaware, or perhaps indifferent, to its own end. It kept going towards him, even when its fingers had fallen off and lay in the sand, even when the tail was left behind like a gecko, and it was only left pulling a lump of an upper body towards him. It kept coming until it could not. But Arthur found he could not stop himself from looking. There was something there, something he had not seen before. He saw it in her face, in her eyes especially; there was something about this creature that bore a remarkable resemblance to his ex-girlfriend, Kitty. It opened its mouth and spent its last breath howling at Arthur as he disappeared indoors.

It was exactly how she remembered it. It had the same smell, the same warmth, the same old lighting fixtures that they never got around to replacing. It had been a long time since they’d visited together, even before the breakup. She didn’t linger for long; she could sense that the warmth and nostalgia was no good for the body. She knew where he was, exactly where he was, by the sound of his crying and the little drops of blood on the floor leading to the guest bathroom.

She found him hunched over the sink with pliers in hand. Blood was sloshed around the room and on every surface. He was groaning and she could see that his left eye had popped a vessel. This was not at all what she expected. She expected to find him on the couch with his busty assistant, smug and unsurprised that Kitty had come to confront him. She expected him to laugh at her, to ask why on earth she thought to come. She didn’t expect this, to see Arthur tearing himself apart, to find him with pliers dug into his mouth and his molars pulled out and clinking on the porcelain counter. She felt sad for him. She then felt embarrassed on his behalf when he finally noticed that she was there. Upon seeing her, he stepped back, screamed, tripped over the bathroom rug and fell and bashed his head into the side of the claw-footed tub. He lay unconscious, blood from his mouth dribbling out into the floor and pooling there.


Kitty stepped over his body and kneeled down beside him. She opened his mouth and reached inside. There, the last piece of her heart. She pulled it out and saw it in her hand. It was the last living piece of her, and as she held it in her hand it finally shriveled and died. It turned into dust and that was it. That was all. The chase was over. Kitty looked at Arthur one last time, and turned his body to the side so that he would not choke on the blood. He would find himself in incredible pain tomorrow morning.

Just as she expected, she found her finger in the outside pocket of his jacket. She took her finger and left the ring. She left out the backdoor, past the patio, and went to the shoreline. She unclasped her heartbreak necklace and let it fall to the sand. She felt the water with her feet and found the cold water welcoming, knew instinctively there was some sort of rest there, and she was thankful for it, so she waded out until her head disappeared beneath the surface.

Amanda Minkkinen is a sociologist and writer who lives in Copenhagen. She has work published in Mycelia, Odd Magazine, among others. You can find her on Twitter as @aljminkkinen.

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“The Ore Harvester” Dark Science Fiction by Joe Jablonski

Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger was the last of his kind, the sole survivor of an isolated culture inhabiting a wasteland of a planet.

He lived in the barren ruins of a dead civilization, scavenging what little food he could find.

Here, nothing else moved or breathed.

Everything left was covered in fungal growth and rot. Particle clouds filled the atmosphere. The jagged silhouettes of decommissioned ore harvesters towered high in the distance.

Two Blue flashes of an Index Finger dropped to his knees in front of a dugout crater. An interconnected root system writhed just below the surface. Spores drifted within a blue liquid inside.

Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger ripped a cluster free with long, boneless fingers. A skin flap, stretched cheek to cheek, retracted down exposing a small mouth filled with bone straws for teeth.

As he fed, a doll made from his brother’s corpse watched with mirrors placed within its eye sockets. The cracks in its skull whistled in the early morning breeze.

Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger gestured back with limp fingers twisting and flashing various colors.

A turquoise pinky twist paired with blinking red thumbs meant “good morning.”

This was an adaptation bred into his kind as way to communicate over deafening sound of countless ore harvesters screaming in unison back when they were at peak production.

Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger laughed at a joke his brother’s fingers never told, and when back to chewing on fungal roots, never noticing the drone overhead scanning then planet below.

Pretending was a coping mechanism.

Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger didn’t know how to be alone.

He was nineteen when the last of the ore harvesters shut down. Colonists across the planet started dying soon after without warnings or goodbyes.

Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger could only watch in horror and confusion as friends and neighbors dropped dead all around him without cause.

Thirty generations of clones generally altered to inhabit and mine this specific planet wiped out in hours.

Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger’s brother was one of the last to die.

Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger held his remains for days after, waiting and praying for a death of his very own, one that would never come.

The following years would be ones of silence and remorse.

Everyday Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger hoped it would be his last.

His kind wasn’t allowed to kill themselves.


The sphere appeared at dawn.

It started with a flash. A crackle of energy. An expanding singularity.

Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger woke in a daze. Limp. Naked. Spores dripped from the skin flap covering his mouth. His brother’s corpse was close, its eye mirrors reflecting the dull glow of a spacecraft.

A silent signal was emitted.

Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger approached against his will, mindlessly reaching out. A single finger grazed the surface.

A blink and he was inside.

The sphere interior was bright. Smooth. There were consoles and lights inside, all set at a forty-five-degree angle.

But something was off. A tone knocked inside Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger’s head. It was hard to move; hard to think.

He dropped to his knees, scratching at his ears. It was more discomfort than pain. A soft pressure that throbbed in sync with forbidden vibrations.

The tone was steady and relentless. Like water torture.

Suddenly, a hologram of a woman appeared.

Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger froze. She was a color he’d never seen. Large flaps protruded from either side of her head. Two plum sacks surrounded her mouth slit.

Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger bowed nervously, his boneless fingers rapidly flashing and forming various shapes.

A purple thumb in the shape of a square meant “hello.”

Yellow middle fingers steepled together meant “what do you want?”

The woman cut him off with a gesture and spoke sounds he’d never heard but was engineered to understand.

She said he was a loose end she was there to correct. A witness. A genetic disease.

A beam shot from the wall.

Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger was paralyzed within. A tiny drone tipped with a needle emerged from the center console and floated towards him.

A blood sample was taken. The woman thanked two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger for his contribution. She promised him what was next would be quick.

A looped ring finger with orange thumbs meant he knew he was fucked.

The hologram clicked off. A lullaby of atonal bells softly played from somewhere unseen.

Now that the planet’s resources were depleted, his existence no longer served the company any benefit.

Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger pounded on the walls. Panicked. Defiant. There were no cracks. No escape.

The song filled the room, a cacophony echoing loudly from all directions slowly lulling him into submission.

Above his head a light flashed a countdown.

Two Flashes of an Index Finger’s eyes became heavy. The lullaby’s vibrations were all consuming. It calmed him. It convinced him this was where he belonged. It reminded him this was exactly wanted.

That gas filling the sphere made sure he wouldn’t feel a thing.

Two Blue Flashes of an Index Finger took a final breath and slipped into a painless void. He’d never know about the mutation that allowed him to survive the purge. Or how his genetic sample would be used to prevent the possibility of a similar adaptations in future batches of cloned harvest workers.

The ignition went off without a hitch.

Outside the ship, his brother’s eye mirrors reflected a spacecraft on fire seconds before collapsing back into a singularity.

The company would make sure no one would ever know the atrocities and sacrifices they committed to keep their investors happy.

This was just one defunct resource planet among thousands.

Profits had never been higher.

Joe writes out of Charlotte, NC. His work has been published in around 60 markets including Fiction on the Web, Literally Stories, and Liquid Imagination, as well as being twice nominated for the pushcart prize. You can check out his blog at jablonskijoe.blogspot.com.

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“Ghost of the Morning Shift” Supernatural Short Story by Billy Stanton

Old roads lead to new haunts.

Old roads lead to new haunts.

New roads lead to old haunts.

Jeremiah came up over the hillside. Jeremiah came up the middle of the road because there were no cars this early. Jeremiah came through the new estate because he wanted to see the McAllan house.

The McAllan house had become essential to his routine. First, he stopped at the base of the hill and looked up beyond the first rise, the rise that led to the new estate, to the second and third rises beyond. That was where Jeremiah would do his logging that day, cutting down the pine and birch that had inspired local minor poets, so that the second new estate could be built. Then, when he got done looking and ascended to the crest and went along Blackmore Drive, across Swift Terrace and down Walpole Avenue, he came to the McAllan house on Defoe Street.

The sun was burning holes in his shirt, the shirt that itched like it was stitched from hair. The early morning was muggy, promising sweat to come, promising dehydration, promising passing out after a couple of beers that evening. He didn’t mind; the remnants of his thinning quiff stuck to his forehead, the tongue of his boot rubbed at his skin, the remnants of his teeth clenched as he pulled himself further on, muscles already aching, muscles already knotting. He put his aviators on, he rolled his flannel sleeves up to the elbow, he ran a damp hand through his greasy locks. His boots clumped on the pavement, sent little dust clouds and pine needles scattering. He would get there and hear the banging.        

Dogs barked on Swift Terrace; ironically, the swifts screamed on Walpole Avenue, as they red-arrowed in formation around the right angles of the dumpy square houses with their front four windows and their back four windows, all-in-a-line. Jeremiah thought they should have added portholes for novelty. Novelty told you where you were. Right now, you couldn’t be sure.

Once the streets had been ricocheting footpaths, breaking off tangentially from the road and disappearing in the growth. Now the forest had shrunk back to the higher eminences and would keep going back, back, back, until the trees went backwards over the edge and toppled down to rest in the valley, never to be seen no more. McAllan’s was an old haunt, maybe: old forest spirits laying down new roots in the little boxes colonising their land. Banging about, letting you know- I’m still here, can’t be rid of me so easy; I won’t go walking in that lonesome valley.

Defoe Street had thirty-four squares, sub-divided in places so that there were forty-eight homes. They had back gardens, long back gardens, but a tiny patch of front. Land wasn’t wide enough for more, not for broad American roads, not on the hillside where the forest used to be. Had to sacrifice somewhere. All curtains were still closed, very few stirred except for a man in a leather jacket getting into a Ford at the top of the street and staring wearily at the dashboard, thinking and thinking before going. Maybe the banging kept him awake at night. Maybe the banging echoed down here.

The McAllan house was number fourteen. It was not sub-divided, fully detached not semi. The front garden was paved with pink slabs. A wooden gate, somehow mildewed already, sat in front. Jeremiah lent himself against it, his bent elbow resting on the top. No-one looked from the windows at him; no-one appeared in the doorway to shoo him off; no-one ever noticed his morning appointments.

He breathed as well as he could in the mugginess; he lit a ciggie. His empty stomach was set alight by the warmth. He liked to walk on no food, liked the way the weakness went through him, hit him in the solar plexus after awhile. Let him faint if he had to.

The banging came after a few minutes; inside, he could hear it, like a fist hitting against an old boiler coated in scrap iron, a thudding sound with no centre, with a gap in it. Then it was like feet against a plastered wall, making holes, crumbling the hard work. Then the palm of a hand flat against the window; the window rattled. Little Marie turned on the light in her bedroom. Her silhouette in her nightdress appeared against the curtain, then her head jerked down violently. Distant sounding of a scream. The phantom, as it sometimes did, had pushed her or slapped her, not hurt her, but made her feel the force all the same. The parents’ bedroom light came on. Peter McAllan, the joiner, appeared in shadow against the curtain, then went to carry crying Marie away. The banging went downstairs, started sounding like the drummer of Tedworth, whacking away ahead of battle, calling in the troops. Marie wept in her mother’s arms. The drummer-boy went through the living room, into the spartan kitchen, out into the back-garden and then away, no more noise, no more sound. Scotty McAllan hadn’t stirred, rarely stirred. Psychokinesis, one professor had said, direct from the resentful boy. The reporters who came occasionally harkened back to the Civil War battles, harkened back to a physical reality for the drummer, a distant relation, an old story about a bog and no-one about to rescue the child drowning. Just stories though, just stories the lot of it. 

Jeremiah withdrew his arms from the gate, smiled to himself, clenched his teeth and carried on towards the second rise. No wood cuts itself, no wood is enchanted like that. The foreman would be scanning the horizon for him; the foreman could go to hell or down to the valley. One little push, all it takes-

– in the house, Marie kept crying and an hour later, the drummer came in from the garden and started banging on the boiler again.

Billy Stanton is a London-based working-class writer and film-maker, originally from Portsmouth. His short fiction has appeared in Wyldblood, The Chamber, Horla, The Rumen, Rural Fiction Magazine, Literally Stories, Tigershark and the ‘New Towns’ anthology. He co-runs the ‘Noli Me Tangere Short Film Festival’. His blog is: steelcathedrals.wordpress.com

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“In the Forest” Noir Thriller by Peter J. Dellolio

Peter J. Dellolio was born in New York City in 1956.  He went to Nazareth High School and New York University.  Graduated 1978: BA Cinema Studies; BFA Film Production.  Poetry collections “A Box Of Crazy Toys” published 2018 by Xenos Books/Chelsea Editions.  “Bloodstream Is An Illusion Of Rubies Counting Fireplaces” published February 2023 Cyberwit/Rochak Publishing.

“I thought the forest murders were a cold case.  Didn’t the lead detective commit suicide?”

“That was a long time ago.  I can’t remember.”

“I wanted to have a look at the transcript, the last interview with the man who admitted to the killings.  Do you suppose all the records have been put into storage?”

“They’re probably in the basement.  They’ve been filed away for years.  I don’t know for sure.  I can’t remember.  It really doesn’t matter.  That man got away.  They threw out the confession.  There was psychiatric testimony.  They said that man was delusional.  Psychotic.  I think the diagnosis was that he suffered from multiple personality disorder.  I’m not an expert but that’s supposed to be a very rare condition.  Anyway the dominant opinion held that the confession was coerced, phony, suspect, tainted.  There was no trial.  He was never convicted.  I haven’t spoken to anyone about the forest murders for years.”

“You seem a little touchy about all this.  I’m sorry because I’m new.  I know I haven’t been in the department as long as you.  It’s a famous case and I guess I’m just curious.  Didn’t you play a big role in it, too?”

“It’s not your fault.  I was engaged to one of the victims.  She was the woman they found near the resort lodge.  The one he clubbed to death with the chunk of marble from the fireplace.  I had been on the case for six months.  We couldn’t find any real leads.  They gave me medical leave for a short period when my fiancé was murdered.  I was so deeply in love.  I wasn’t thinking very clearly after that.  I used to stare at things all the time.  I examined and studied the evidence countless times.  The hammer.  The shotguns.  The hunting boots.  The rabbit traps.  The red jogging suit.  The child’s plastic identity card with the metal clasp.  I examined the car over and over again.  I went back to the resort lodge hundreds of times.  The apartment, too.   Everything. At one point we thought there might be several killers.    The logical examination of an illogical event can withstand only so much contradiction.  Things were duplicated, events overlapped.  How could so many different victims get killed in an identical way in the same place?  The whole timeline of the murders began to get confused, but somehow all the evidence always pointed to the forest.  Everything led to the forest.”

What’s the point of keeping this goddamn journal if I don’t have a smoke when I want one?!  I need a smoke.  I knew it wasn’t an ordinary case.  I didn’t need a crystal ball to figure that out.  Murder for profit or revenge or passion made sense.  There’s simplicity and logic to it.  Like an engine, like a fire.  If a husband blows his wife’s brains out because he catches her with another guy, it isn’t pretty but it certainly isn’t surprising.  But these forest murders just didn’t make sense.  Why would a man plan a killing in a place that would be swarming with kids from a field trip?  Why would a perfectly responsible woman let a stranger into her apartment, especially when she had to prepare for a hunting trip with her father?  Why would a jogger run along a path that was frequently littered with broken glass?  Why would a murderer use a hunting knife, a garrote, and a shotgun when any one could have sufficed?  This case was a bad one, all right.  People don’t like hearing about murders that don’t make sense.  Especially when it’s gory and illogical and the victims are all young women and the only clear thing is that there’s some deranged creature out there who’s going to do it again and again until he’s stopped.  The more I looked at this case, the less I understood.  The forest murders began after they transferred me from vice to homicide.  I remember when I was in vice and you’d get some poor old junkie.  For them old was around forty.  Sometimes I’d find a poor bastard gazing at the sink or the wall or the floor with that weird transfixed look, like Bernadette’s frozen stare, as if the stains of their own shit and puke and blood on the filthy floor were some kind of beatific road map revealing the secrets of the universe or something.  The thing that always spooked me was that little fart of choked laughter you’d hear when you put the cuffs on.  You’d have to carefully walk them down the cracked wooden steps because by this point the only thing holding them up was wishful thinking.  I’d always look away when they’d turn around and gaze up at me with those empty eyes.  Sometimes their voices were so raspy from years of junk that the words sounded like twigs snapping in a fire.   I hated that.  No, this certainly wasn’t an ordinary case.  That’s the goods, all right.   I started this journal to keep track of the questions, all the damn questions about the forest murders. The questions without answers; the questions that won’t go away.  Did the murderer plan the whole thing so it would look like the killing in the book we found near the car?  Did the killer disguise himself as a hunter so he could move through the forest undetected?  Was he the father of one of the boys on the school trip?  I’m not convinced that the Law can help anymore.  What about those tape recordings of all those poor kids screaming?  It was that husband and wife abduction case.  They used pliers on the children and recorded the torture sessions.  Bitch chewed gum during the trial, filed her nails like a proud animal licking blood from its fur.  I couldn’t let it pass.  I’m not supposed to stick around after I deliver the groceries.  Why am I wasting my time with this?  What’s the use of writing this down when the words won’t mean the same thing tomorrow?  I’ve got a case to solve.  I have to get out there.

Why did you commit the murder in the woods?

I always wanted to kill her in the forest.  It had to be there.  The thought never left my mind.  I wanted it to be violent.  Nature’s violence.  Plant life devoured by insects, insects eaten by rodents, rodents captured by birds, birds shot by humans.  I wanted to become a link in this chain of natural bloodshed.  Lush surroundings.  Ghostly trees. Tall. Very gaunt; very gnarled.  Maze of paths choked with leaves.  Chips of bark snagged in her hair as I rolled her limp body through the grass.  Sharp twig ends were sucked into her nostrils.  Blood mixed with mud.  Blood sprayed across my hunting boots.  Did I tell you that I was an experienced hunter?  I was quite a sportsman.  Deer; rabbit; duck especially.  There was plenty of legal game in that forest, depending on the season. 

Please stick to the questions.  You were talking about her blood…

Blood in a fine spray speckled the last page of the book I had with me.  Smooth and cold pebbles covered with warm blood.  Not too far from my resort lodge.  Then I could drag her back without too much bother.  Never mind about the kids playing.  My son was with the group.  I wasn’t expected for hours.  I could find a way around that difficulty.  Those field trips usually took up the entire school day.  The forest is limitless.

Did you hear anything unusual when you killed her?

No.  The kids from the school trip played wildly but I couldn’t hear the metal clasps that connected the plastic identity cards to the elastic bands they wore around their necks.  The clasps shook fitfully, every time the ball was thrown, every time the blindfold was fastened, but I couldn’t see them, either.  I did hear her gurgling throat.  Desperate gasps for air.  Her body shook like stones rattling in a metal box as she struggled to breathe.

When you were arrested, why did they find you thrusting your hands into the sky, as if you were trying to grab one of the birds flying above the resort lodge?

It was part of my overall sense of murderousness, the brute force I wanted to create and luxuriate in.  I projected my arm with abruptness, the way I stabbed her, the way I shredded the soles of her feet with glass shards, the way I tightened the ligature made of rabbit trap nylon across her throat. I imagined the clatter of the shaking clasps, a clatter that was chaotic and unnerving.


What happened to the book you had with you?

I don’t remember.  It was covered with blood, smeared with mud.  Nothing could remove the stains.  I lost my place so many times that day.  I know when I looked away from the birds it was that same page, it was always that same page, the one with the candid language of a detective writing in his diary, making a daily account of the case he was on.  There was a gruesome description of a woman receiving a merciless, fatal beating.  The detective knew she was already unconscious. He, in fact, was the killer.  The book kept you guessing at it for a long time.  The detective was insane; he used his knowledge and power to make the evidence point in all directions.  He killed women who loved him.  He was very cruel.  His last victim had very slender arms, like stalks, like branches.  Pure white skin splashed with blood from his fierce, continuous blows.  He beat her with the hot brutality of an animal: savage, persistent, thorough.  A chunk of the mantelpiece rested across her skull.  He clubbed her with the marble after breaking it with his hammer.  Her father stood with several friends in the photograph taken by the pond.  Her blood spiraled down the glossy black and white picture, as though it dripped from the tips of the shotgun barrels.

The medical report revealed that your victim had been dead approximately ten hours by the time of your arrest.  Do you recall at what time she lost consciousness?

The birds distracted me.  They were frightened.  They were too close to the pond, they could sense the danger of the raised guns.  I didn’t notice but I know she fainted at some point.  Probably just after the mantelpiece shattered.  A chip of marble lodged in her eye.  The shock of the impact and the realization of what the detective planned to do must have been too much for her.  The birds’ departure startled me, a rapid movement of flapping wings.  Like thunder claps, like faucets turned on full blast.  I could see this.  Just as I propelled my arms to grab the metal clasps, to stop them from shaking.  But I had already looked away from the sky.  I lowered my eyes from the birds to the page of the book where the clatter of the clasps was described, the clatter that couldn’t be heard.  I projected my arm with jerky energy, with a clenched bloody fist that descended upon her slender white arms already bloodied by my fierce blows.  A knock at the door?!  Was she expecting visitors?  I must wash out the blood.  I must leave quickly.

What about the jogger?


Somebody was out there running.  He was testing his endurance, trying to cover the whole forest.  The sound of his loud footfalls blended into the din produced by the jangling clasps.  He saw dark blurry forms, like shafts, like trees.  As he ran, these forms passed in rapid succession, lined in rows on his left and right.  They must have been trees.  Hundreds of noisy sparrows perched among the branches.  Their chirping drowned out the remote dissonance of the hunters’ duck calls in the distance.  The combination of artificial and natural bird noise almost obliterated the police sirens that prompted me to leave the blood-splattered apartment.  He was wearing a bright red jogging suit.  The deep red glowed with sunshine, with fall colors, as if it were burning, as if he were incandescent, luminous, it was as if the sturdy, straight pine trees wobbled and swayed, affected by the burning, by the brightness.  There were slivers of glass strewn throughout the road.  An angry hunter had spitefully shattered some camp lanterns.  The jogger ran at a measured pace.  Occasionally tiny pieces of glass became embedded in the rubber soles of his running shoes.

Do you think the jogger or the hunter saw you at any point?

It’s possible.  Anything is possible in the forest.  My furious movements, my nervous gestures, snapping my arm out suddenly, screaming at the top of my lungs: none of this drowned out the sound of the approaching man, so I continued to beat the woman.  I knew the jogger was still deep in the forest and couldn’t interfere with the crime.  The silent shaking clasps had become a blur, a confusion of dizzying motion.  There was a vertical row of buttons on each child’s jacket.  Some were on the left, some on the right, like shafts, like trees.  I had an image of running feet, swift movements, glass splinters imbedded in the intact, firm trees, hundreds of startled, chirping sparrows.  The bright red jogging suit was extremely tight, excessively tight, a stinging tightness which cut into the jogger’s flesh.

Your feet were bleeding too, weren’t they?  Hadn’t they been cut in some unusual way?

Yes.  They were in very bad shape by that point.  In spite of this I had reached the top of a steep hill.  When I looked down I saw all the red leaves stuck to the razor-edged Black Needle Rush points lining the slope on both sides.  And I know on that day of hunting in that very forest her father must have realized how easily these leaves could be pierced by the plants’ dry thorns: the moment before the photograph was taken, a flock of birds pierced the sky with equal precision, equal sharpness, the leather-thick flapping of their wings heard by all but not included by the lens.  The shock of wing noise almost made me lose balance and fall from the hill.  All the cuts I received made me lose a great deal of blood.  When I lowered my arm I noticed several drops of my blood falling past. The dripping blood partially obscured the image of the white birds.  I heard shotgun fire as I stabbed her.  Distant, muffled, like faraway thunder, faraway waterfalls.  The hot blood, the driving blade hitting bone, the racing ants showered with intestinal fluids, the severity of the barrels, the red metal of the guns, the overlapping knots of the tree roots, the frenzy of nature’s energy: I slung out my arm, fiercely directing it toward one of the white, convulsing, blood stained forms.

It must have been quite a struggle to reach the top of the hill.


More than a struggle.  It was a feat of endurance.  An exhibition of stamina.  And when the jogger finally reached the peak, he glanced back.  Black Needle Rush (Juncus roemerianus) plants lined the slope.  Their inflexible projections had shredded his feet.  The tight running suit would not stretch against the movement of his body.  The bright garment, glowing in the golden autumn sunlight, was speckled with sticky red leaves.  Trying to stand at the top of the hill, his balance was disturbed by the shocking flap of multiple bird wings.  Dizziness accompanied his blood loss, and the numerous cuts which caused the bleeding made him understand that the Black Needle Rush points were like tiny spears, allowing the plants to harpoon objects such as leaves which might somehow come into contact with them.  He heard multiple shotgun fire in the distance, a muffled volley of shots which must certainly kill several white birds, causing blood drops to fall past those white forms.  The red metal of the barrels, the explosions they produced: the fury of it all made him whip out his arm, in the manner of a very precise callisthenic gesture, muscles tightened and overlapping like tree knots, like marble veins.  He fiercely projected his arm.  He wanted to become part of the destructiveness of the shotguns.  The long guns were lifted suddenly, swung to the right, and fired. They created explosions that penetrated the distance, reverberating beyond the targets. He focused on this extraordinary violence from afar. He saw the savage redness of the barrels.  The hunter searched the nearby bushes, hoping to find a number of dead birds.  He had promised his daughter an early start on their weekend camping trip, and he would like to make a good showing in the hunt in order not to be embarrassed when the group photograph was taken.  He was very annoyed: his fire brought down only one bird.  He squatted beside the limp, bloodied form. His anger mounted over having shot so poorly all day.  In frustration he thrust out his arm in a quick, impatient manner, picking up the bird and hastily flinging it into the bag.  He raised his eyes from the spot where he had retrieved his game.  He looked at the darkening sky where many other birds continued flying, as if in mockery of his inferior marksmanship.  He found it unusual to see so much of the flock still in the area, in spite of the casualties already inflicted by the gunfire.  I closed my book and prepared to leave.  The approaching hunters and the swift accumulation of rain clouds convinced me that this afternoon of reading was about to come to an end.

Were you still reading that same page?

I must have been.  It was always the same page, the one with the impassioned description of the red gun barrels smoking in the distance, producing noise that penetrated far into the forest, creating vibrations that shook nearby bushes in which I hoped to find some dead birds.  I was always searching for something in the forest. I would never leave the forest.  I searched the apartment, looking for the shotguns that had been recklessly fired.  I was distressed to discover that my hammer cracked the marble in one place only. I wanted several pieces to beat her with and my anger mounted over having overlooked so many bloodstains.  I squatted beside her bloody form, lying at my feet in the final moments before death.  I sharply extended my arm towards the bird, picking it up and angrily flinging it into my game bag.  I found it unusual that the doors to the neighboring apartments remained shut in spite of her horrific screams moments before, not to mention the darkening sky where many birds continued to fly.  So I closed my book and prepared to leave: the spot previously occupied by the shot animal, and the sudden accumulation of rain clouds, convinced me that the hunter’s fire brought down only one bird.  The business of this afternoon was about to be concluded.

What happened after you finished the last page?


Some of the words were the same, they were repeated from paragraph to paragraph, but many of the words were different.  I didn’t notice the flecks of mud on the sleeve of my khaki jacket.  I raised my eyes from the bloody corpse and glanced at the clock on the nearby desk.  Seeing the time, I realized I must leave very soon: the dead woman had expected visitors and someone might knock at the door at any moment.  First I washed the blood from my hands, and then I changed into the fresh clothes I had brought.  I nervously scoured my hands in the sink. The hot water gushed from the faucet with great force.  When the shotgun fire subsided, the jogger looked up at the sky, watching the flock of frightened birds.  Returning to my book, I glanced at my sleeve and became annoyed when I saw the mud.  I knew very well it would not wash out.  I raised my eyes from the bloodied corpse, turning to the last page of the book.  Seeing the time, I realized that a few flecks of mud were on the left sleeve of my khaki jacket.  After the shotgun fire subsided, the hunter became annoyed at the clock on the marble mantelpiece.  He must leave very soon because the sink had not been washed clean.  Water shot from the faucet as he looked at the woman who was certainly dead by now.  At any moment someone might enter the apartment and change into the fresh clothes he had brought with him.  Before that happened, he would wash the blood from his sleeve.  He was expecting visitors, and he was quite annoyed to see the flock of frightened birds.  I decided to spend that afternoon jogging in the forest.  I was in no mood to entertain guests.  Totally inconsiderate of those who expected to find me home, I left early in the morning without notifying anyone of my change in plans.    

“Sorry to hear that.  It must have been tough for you, losing the woman you loved.  You were able to work on the case, though.  That must have given you a little satisfaction.  Was it tough holding on to some hope that you could catch him?”

“The thought never left my mind.  I tracked down everybody.  The hunter, the jogger, the group of children, the resort lodge owner, even the author of the book that was found.  None of it ever led anywhere.  Most of the bodies were discovered during the summer months, when there were lots of hunting parties in the forest.  We detained and questioned everybody.  The Captain was worried about me.  Officially I had been taken off the case, for obvious personal reasons.  The Captain let me do my own interviews, my own investigation, off the record, so to speak.  He knew I was losing my perspective, though.  I would go maybe four or five days without sleep.  I had nightmares when I slept so I drank coffee all the time.  I remember the nightmares very clearly.  I was running through the forest.  It began to rain suddenly.  The rain hurt.  It was heavy and cold and the sheets of water cut into me.  I was being flayed as I ran because the water was sharp and it sliced off parts of my body.  I was drenched in blood but I kept going.  I could see myself running from across the road.  I could see myself from the vantage point of the many trees that lined the road.  Finally I became a skeleton, a fleshless thing charging through the forest, like something out of an old ghost story.  After my fiancée was murdered, I lost my way.  I don’t remember sleeping at all.   I spent weeks looking at photographs of her.  Places we had been.  I used to kid her about a photograph she had taken with her father.  She was a hunter, like her old man.  I told her she looked cute in her hunting outfit, the camouflage gear, floppy hat like Elmer Fudd.”

It’s almost 10pm.  Somehow we got a lead that the killer might be making films of the girls.  Snuff movies, torture movies, sick shit.  A pal of mine in vice did a raid and wound up with some films like that.  Some of our victims were mature women, but some were younger, a few runaways, too.  There were two who fit the age and description of the runaways who disappeared and wound up on those god-forsaken films.  I found the bastard who trafficked in those movies and left him standing on a stack of wobbly phone books with the noose around his neck and his hands tied behind his back.  If he didn’t choke himself by the time I get back down there, maybe he’ll have a different story to tell me about some of the new girls.  It started to rain while I drove across town to get something to eat. I thought it was funny how I could almost see his hands wriggling as the wipers swept the rain off the windshield.  I like storms.  They give me a weird energy, in spite of the gloom.   The questions won’t go away.  Are the killings cult inspired?  Why are so many things red?  The jogging suit, the car, the shotguns.  Whoever heard of red shotgun barrels?  How does a man beat a woman to death, then stab her dozens of times, then strangle her, then blow her apart with a shotgun, and remain undetected for an entire afternoon in a place where joggers and hunters and school children are all less than a couple of hundred yards from one another?  Got to find out what’s behind this.  I don’t plan on disappointing anybody.  I spent enough time in the butcher clinic with the coroner.  I saw enough of what this psycho did to the two other girls.  I don’t like counting unrecognizable bodies.  I don’t like having to tell the parents that we need DNA to make a positive I. D. because the bodies don’t have faces anymore.  I got a few ideas about this case.  I know what to do.  I trust my instincts.  Better that way.  No reason to explain anything until the time comes.  I’ll keep things to myself for now.       

So, no one knew you would be in the forest?

Of course not.  I had planned to kill her that day.  I quickened my pace from time to time, darting off in a sprint for about two hundred yards.  I felt good.  I knew my plan was sound.  I made a rapid mental inventory as I ran.  I remembered everything.  I remembered a recent dream in which I passed some children from a field trip playing blind man’s bluff at the bottom of a valley, but for the most part I ran on the main road, lined on both sides with dark oak trees.  As I passed the children, one of them looked up. He must have seen me.  Because of the distance and the speed of my movements, one of the children saw me only for an instant.  I was no more than a blur which quickly lost its hold on the child’s attention.  The road was littered with broken glass and other debris.  It was useless for the hunter to continue searching that area: he knew his fire brought down no other birds.  So with complete disregard for those who expected to spend an afternoon jogging, the hunter spontaneously increased his pace, darting off in a sprint for several hundred yards.  He ran on the main road, lined on both sides with groups of playing children.  He decided that one of the children saw him only for an instant.  And he left quite early, without even bothering to tell the others that he would be at the bottom of a valley.  But as he passed the children one of them happened to look up and find him home.  Because he was in no mood to entertain guests, he was no more than a blur.  It was useless to continue searching the area, mainly because of the distance and the speed with which I ran through the forest.  My gunfire lost its hold on the child’s attention.  No other birds caught a glimpse of me, running on the main road littered with broken glass.

Was the hunter very bitter that day?

American National Standards Institute Inc.

Uncontrollably.  Scowling at the empty game bag, he hastily wiped the blood from his hands as he contemplated the now impossible timetable he must follow in order to pick up his daughter at the appointed hour.  Droplets of rain were already falling, adding to the disgust and frustration he felt over this day of fruitless hunting which was about to end.  The last page of his book had become a little soggy.  He ignored this for the moment: he was anxious to finish the story, and he didn’t think the rain would come down too heavily just then.  The book was meant as a birthday gift for his daughter, a popular murder mystery.  The steady beads of rain had moistened the mud spots on his sleeve.  The dry earth dissolved into thin lines which streamed down the khaki fabric.  The jogger dried his hands, he washed out the sink with hot water, he wiped the blood from the burglar tools, he listened for footsteps in the hallway.  Gradually the blood disappeared from the sink, the last red traces obliterated by the steady splashes of very hot water.  He thought of everything.  Yet in spite of his preparedness he was foolish to ignore what appeared to be only superficial wounds: he was unable to run any farther, in fact he could barely walk.  He sat down at the top of a hill and tried to summon new strength.  Meanwhile the children grew impatient with the distracted behavior of one particular boy: they wanted him to return to their game, to exhibit the same enthusiasm he had manifested earlier in the day.  The boy lowered his eyes from the top of the hill and gazed at his friends who were so anxiously concerned with his participation in their fun.

Did the hunter manage to keep his appointment?

I’m not sure.  I was in the final stage of the murder and my mind was elsewhere.  I had a huge combat knife with a very wide blade.  Little reflected pieces of the scene flitted across the shiny metal.  The shotgun blasts shattered the marble into a thousand pieces.  As I dragged her body I heard the birds overhead.  They flew above her corpse, casting waves of shadow over her nude bloody form, like rippling nets, like swaying leaves.  I was very angry when I glanced at the empty game bag.  I ignored the soggy last page of the book.  Drops of cold rain made me regard my muddy sleeve with disgust.  My hands were moistened by the light but steady beads of rain, so I wiped off the remains of the blood.  I was anxious to conclude that ridiculous day of hunting.  I didn’t think the rain would stream in thin lines along the khaki fabric of my jacket.  I dried my hands.  I washed out the superficial wounds.  Lowering my eyes from the top of the hill, I could see the splashing, extremely hot water.  Gradually the blood disappeared down the drain, although traces of it remained upon the thorny plants lining the hill.  And I was foolish to ignore my friends.  I was unable to run any farther, I couldn’t even walk.  My distracted behavior was about to end.  It was time to think about the resort lodge, the best path to use in dragging her body there, the timetable I needed in order to meet my daughter on schedule, the plastic sheets I had left in the backseat of my car, the sheets I would use to wrap her body, the excuse I planned to give my daughter, to explain my lateness.  The field trip playmates, previously so concerned with the boy’s participation in their fun, seemed oblivious to his exhaustion.  They ran about in the sunlight while he stood in shadow.  He had perspired from running around so much, and with the air becoming chilly he decided to button his jacket.  The gradual accumulation of large, dark clouds blotted out the sun, and he realized that it would rain very soon.  His playmates were engaged in their game and, unlike him, they had not buttoned their jackets; they seemed unaffected by the cool air.  I don’t think they had perspired as profusely as I, and therefore they did not feel the least bit chilled.  Raising my eyes, I looked at the sky. I saw several birds flying away from the trees.  Then I looked from the sky to the little spots of dried blood on the palm of my right hand.  Earlier a rude jogger accidentally shoved me and I scraped my hand against the ground.  The burning pain of that injury in addition to the clear sign of a furious rainstorm convinced me that I should leave the forest.

Was it very cloudy and dark by the time you killed her?   


A jumble of leaf shadows surrounded the boy because he remained under a large tree. The air had turned cool and his young friends ran about in the sunlight.  The accumulating rain clouds gradually blotted out the sun.  The boy realized that it would rain very soon but, unlike himself, his playmates had perspired.  And for a moment he thought about raising his eyes from their jackets and looking up at the sky.  He buttoned his own jacket while several birds were peacefully floating across the sky.  However, the birds did not move as quickly as the trickle of blood across his right hand.  Lowering his eyes from the little spots of blood on his playmates, he looked at the burning pain received from a downpour.  Earlier, one of his friends had lacerated the ground.  He did not wish to remain in the area because of this irritation.

What about the words on the last page of the book?

I read them with feverish anticipation. This was the denouement, where, many years after the murders, the detective broke down for some inexplicable reason and let a newcomer see the truth.  It must have been the cumulative effect of the detective’s questionable emotional state, his derangement. It was finally revealed that, by assuming the identities of some of the key figures from the case who were questioned, the detective hoped to cast suspicion elsewhere.  But before I turned to the last page, I stopped for a moment to try to remember where I had parked my car.  The unforeseen noise of the shotguns made me think of the location of the red automobile.  Instantly I recalled that I had parked just off the main road, approximately two hundred yards to the right of the resort lodge.  There was no cause for alarm.  Even in the event of rain, indicated by the darkening sky, it was not difficult to locate the vehicle.  My only concern was that the dark clouds and the late hour might impede my progress, perhaps making me lose my way.  Remembering that some time long ago I had gotten lost in this forest under similar circumstances, I naturally didn’t want a repetition of that situation.  I continued reading, thinking that I heard the distant sound of someone running, but at that point I was much too absorbed in the ending of the book to pay any attention to such a vague sound.

Did you hear voices when you killed her?  Did you hear or smell strange things that day?  Can you hear me?  Do you want to take a break? 

I read feverishly for only a moment or two, desperately trying to remember where I parked my car.  The shock of the shotgun blasts made me think of the last page of my book.  Before I turned to that page, I stopped the bright red automobile.  I decided there was no cause for alarm: I could park just off the main road.  The clouds hovered to the right of the resort lodge.  And the spot I was in wouldn’t be difficult to locate, even in the event of rain, a factor which under similar circumstances would make me lose my way.  But the more I read the more I thought that some time long ago I had been totally absorbed by the sound of someone running, and that the runner’s concern was whether or not his sounds would impede my progress.  I paid no attention to the darkening sky.  I was so exasperated by the small number of birds I had shot, I completely lost track of my friends, still busy retrieving their own game.  I stood up and removed my long hunting knife from its sheath.  I wanted to inspect the ground.  The blade was very sharp and I nearly cut myself as I held it in my hand.  I laid down my shotgun.  I cut loose all the empty rabbit traps I had set earlier in the day.  My impatience and frustration made me careless.  Most of the stab wounds were too deep: I could not catch the blood and I deprived myself of the pleasure of watching her die slowly.  I thought of the agony of the trapped rabbits, the shot birds, the captured insects, the hunted mice.  The traps were now useless; I had cut them out of the bush too hastily.  This didn’t concern me at all.  My only desire at that point was to leave the forest as soon as possible.  And with good reason.  I was so completely annoyed by the poor number of birds I had shot that I stood up and removed my long hunting knife from its sheath.  And before I examined the ground, I lost track of my friends still busy retrieving their own game.  The blade was very sharp.  I cut myself.  I held the empty rabbit traps in my hands.  My shotgun rendered them useless.  Earlier in the day I laid down my impatience, my exasperation.  By this point my only desire was to leave the forest as soon as possible.

Can you hear me?  Do you want me to call for the doctor?

Everybody was in a weakened state.  No one wanted to remain in the forest after dark.  It was idiotic of us not to tell anyone we would be here.  We had already lost a great deal of blood.  Now we weren’t sure if we could make it back to the main road.  Certainly it was too late to expect other joggers and hunters who, like ourselves, might’ve ventured this far into the woods.  We managed to stand up, walking feebly but steadily ahead.  If we continued at this pace, we might reach the road in about two hours (if we were lucky).  But we were foolish to remain in the forest after dark.  We were too weak; we didn’t want to tell anyone.  Other joggers had already lost a great deal of blood.  They didn’t know if I would make it.  Certainly it was too late to expect to walk steadily ahead.  I managed to stand up.  I had ventured far into the woods.  If I continued at that pace, I would proceed only feebly.  At that moment my leg started to act up again.  I knew I had to get out of that apartment as quickly as possible.  Having committed the murder, my confidence swiftly evaporated.  Now I leapt across the bloodstained corpse, running as fast as possible.  My footsteps echoed loudly in the long empty hallway as I cursed the slow elevator.  And with my leg ablaze with pain, my confidence was shaken.  Having completed my crime, I knew I had to leave the apartment as quickly as possible.  I cursed the slowness of my footsteps.  The elevator seemed to take forever to reach the blood stained corpse.  The hallway echoed loudly as I leapt across the bloody blanket of sparrows and rabbits.  The boy rejoined his friends, already climbing the hill, eager to return home.  The rain clouds had finally burst, and the water streamed down heavily.  He knew they could all run for cover to a nearby resort lodge, owned by the father of one of his friends.  He realized he would be the last to leave; his own father was not supposed to come for him until much later.  But in the meantime he could join his friends, already climbing the hill.  Eager to return home, the rain streamed down heavily.  The boys’ playmates realized that they would be the last to leave.  They knew that their fathers were not supposed to run to a nearby resort lodge.  I saw my car as I rushed through the pouring rain.  Not intending to wander off when I did, I had left the motor running, and I heard the car’s vibrating body.  I could see the car.  I ran towards it in the pouring rain.  I hadn’t expected to wander through the forest, and I had left the motor running.  I could see the car’s vibrating body.  I found the bloody hunting knife next to the fender, sandwiched between the pages of the book.  I withdrew the knife and wiped the blood from the blade.  I could see another forest reflected on the bright metal.  In that forest was another book, and another bloody knife between its pages.  

“No wonder this case got so much publicity.  The strain on you guys must have been horrible.  Your partner must have had it pretty bad, the guy who killed himself.  Pardon me for asking, but did he kill himself when the suspect was released?”

“I didn’t have a partner.  I was the only one assigned to this case.  It was my case.  It belonged to me.  It would always be my case.  There can’t be any doubt about that.  I suppose they think that if they keep playing their little game and constantly put people like you in my path, I’ll finally give in and admit that there’s nothing left to solve.  I know better.  I am not going to give up.  I visit her grave every night.  I loved her so.  She’s buried somewhere in the forest.  There’s a cemetery.  It is very old.  I know where the headstone is but I need markers to guide myself.  I can always ask one of the hunters if I lose my way.  Maybe the people in the resort lodge will let me stop and rest for a little bit.  I’m very tired these days.  I think I need to sleep.  I’ve been working too hard.  I shouldn’t overtax myself with all that exercise.  Running is supposed to be good for the cardiovascular system.  I think shooting defenseless birds should not be a sport.  It is a sick amusement for those who do not value the preciousness of life.  I know how important life is.  I would not harm a bird.  I gave up that wretched hobby long ago when I had a bad dream about all the birds dying simultaneously.  I could not find my game bag and the image of the dying birds filled my mind and I ran away in shame.  I do like movies.  I saw a documentary about the underworld and how murders are often filmed for huge profits.”

I know about that.  I have to talk to that guy who we suspect.  He gets films like that.  I put it in my journal last night so I wouldn’t forget.  It’s on page…  I forgot the page but I know I wrote it down.  So this morning we hauled in Flicker Frankie for some routine ball breaking.  Runs a porno parlor downtown but we know he gets the young stuff.  It’s always timing that screws things up because he’s a clever bastard.  He knows what to hide and when to hide it, like a worm burrowing into fresh mud.  He’s a human sore.  If they’d let me I’d kill him so slowly you’d need time elapse photography to figure out how his body got like that.  There’s information out there and I have to get it before another woman dies.  Confident prick sits there arranging his lard-slick hair with a stainless steel comb.  I don’t deal no under age stuff, he says.  I ain’t about to let nobody search nothin’ without a warrant, he says.  You got probable cause?  You got a charge?  I got a business to run.  Yeah he’s got a business, all right.  The wretched lives of some abused runaway kids get knocked down into the slime a few more notches when they do a little of Frankie’s business on a stained mattress in front of a few cameras.  Just some warm-ups before the street life kicks into high gear.  Right there in the middle of the interrogation room I wanted to cut him open.  Right there I wanted to pluck his eyes out of his head and stuff them down his wretched throat.  I don’t suppose they’d let me include it in the report.  I heard the old stairway creak under Frankie’s fat ass as he walked out of the station.  Plenty of stories that won’t go away about some kind of a cult that imports women for weird sex rites and I’m convinced that ton of shit is a middle-man for the trade.  FBI boys “volunteered” one of their cute ass psycho profiles and they’re into the idea of a lone hunter.  That could be, too.  Hunter and prey, ancient stuff, it’s burned into our genes and we’re trained through life to discard the urges but deep down the original impulse is still alive.  I’ve been going through a few things on anthropology.  The Egyptian stuff in particular, plenty of rites of the dead, that weird resurrection symbol.  Who knows?  Maybe there’s a lead here, something I’ve been missing…I don’t want to miss anything…I have to be thorough…where’s the journal?…time to write it all down…don’t want to forget anything…very important…who knows for sure who’s killing these women?…got to find out…write it all down…write it all down…there’s always a certainty of some kind when you write something down…I saw the film…there was a killing…some kind of strange ritual…I was wearing a hunter’s outfit…they gave me the large knife…I heard stones rattling…it was all very hypnotic…like water falling…they made the film in the forest…the jogger was a rich businessman…he owned a resort lodge there…they told me to do it…I liked the way she gurgled on her blood…let me alone…let me alone…





His insanity had been growing all the time, like a stubborn weed, and the papers and the media had feasted off it. He had fooled everyone.  Now it was over.  He was glad.  The murders in his mind were like being sick on a case of bad scotch while you stumble through a funhouse.   It was like being rolled inside a blood soaked rug while you scream in a nightmare.  No matter what angle he used to look at it, everything turned into another mirrored box, another secret room, nothing that was for sure, like shadows on the walls of an opium parlor. It was like fog sneaking into corners, bending its milky fingers, circling every tree in the forest, leading you nowhere all the time.  A Merry-Go-Round of hooded figures pointing the way and everything just keeps going in circles. On some magical island paradise the Law does its exotic, perfumed dance, but from where he sat the Law was a scarecrow flying into your bloodstream, brandishing hatchets and poison darts; a chunk of raw meat riddled with maggots, spitting up bile, insane, savage.  A nightmare sucking oxygen out of the air. A disfigured pancreas floating through Hell.  No.  There was no Law for him.  There was only the need to kill women. They confiscated his gun and his badge.  He was under arrest. His lips formed a twisted smirk like a deranged Halloween pumpkin.  He knew there would always be something to harvest in the forest.

Peter J. Dellolio was born in New York City in 1956.  He went to Nazareth High School and New York University.  Graduated 1978: BA Cinema Studies; BFA Film Production.  Poetry collections “A Box Of Crazy Toys” published 2018 by Xenos Books/Chelsea Editions.  “Bloodstream Is An Illusion Of Rubies Counting Fireplaces” published February 2023 Cyberwit/Rochak Publishing.

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“Overlook Park” Horror by Joshua Ginsberg

Joshua Ginsberg is the author of Secret Tampa Bay: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure (2020), Tampa Bay Scavenger (2021), Oldest Tampa Bay (2022), and co-author of Secret Orland: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure (2023). His work has appeared in numerous print and online publications including The City Key, 365 Tomorrows, Atlas Obscura, Travel After Five, and on his own blog, Terra Incognita Americanus. He currently lives in the Town n’ Country neighborhood of Tampa with his wife, Jen, and their Shih Tzu, Tinker Bell.

Six months. Joy tried to wrap her mind around that. Six months since the day she came home to find her husband Scott dead of a stroke on the kitchen floor, in a pool of melted ice from the open freezer. They had been married just over two years.

“Keep it together,” she whispered. She had been saying that since even before Scott died. The phrase had been their mantra, during the lean times when one or both of them had been out of work, during the darkest days of the pandemic; whenever everything seemed on the verge of falling apart, which had not been infrequent. Just keep it together.

She had gone alone to the cemetery earlier, to place flowers. Friends had offered to join her, but she preferred to be alone. Today was private, the culmination of the dread that had been building the last few weeks.

Dates were triggers for her. When she had flipped the page of the wall calendar to August and saw today circled, it reopened the wound and brought all the pain rushing back, crushing the breath from her chest. Without thinking she had reached for her phone and dialed his cell number, to hear his voice. She knew the short message by heart, she must have called it more than a hundred times in that first devastating month without him. To hear the message, it was like he wasn’t gone forever, maybe just on a business trip. He used to take those all the time.

It hadn’t been intentional, but he had been buried with his phone. It was just left there in the pocket of his suit pants. No one thought about looking for it until well after it was too late. She imagined it glowing faintly and vibrating against his body, even now – a visual somehow equally upsetting and reassuring.

Late afternoon was giving way to dusk. She was parked just down the hill from the cemetery at Overlook Park, where they used to come to look out at the city. Sometimes they had picnics together sitting on the hood of the car. Sometimes they had just stayed in the car, made out, made love. That vehicle belonged to another life now, a short, shared life. She had traded it in for the silver 4Runner she sat in now.

She took out her phone to hear his voice again. When it came to life under her touch, she noticed an unread text message. From Scott’s number. The blood froze in her veins.

Did you call?

She had, just a few hours ago. Who would know that? Had someone been there watching her? Or hacked the phone line? Could that be done? Someone playing a cruel prank? She took the bait.

Who is this?

Time stood still until the reply came.

Babs, it’s me. It’s Scott.

Sick. This is sick, she shivered. Who hated her enough to do this?

No, it’s not. Who is this?

The reply came slowly.

Really, it’s me. Not sure how. Not in good shape here. Need help. Starving.

Her mind was numb. She watched from the rear-view window as some unseen animal caused the foliage from the park behind her to rustle. Racoon maybe. Coyote perhaps. It was her turn to reply and she was stalling. Just trying to keep it together. That tiny, distant part of her that still made a wish when the clock turned 11:11 asked wordlessly, was there any possibility that this wasn’t some sort of hoax? Rationality rushed to the defense of her sore heart.

Prove it.

The silence stretched out like the clouds over the city, reflecting the wanning light in pink, orange, and fiery red.

You wanted to buy the pink house on the corner of the block. You have a thing about wearing socks at night, even when its cold. You love to watch our dog twitch her hind leg when she dreams.

Her jaw hung open in disbelief. All of that was true. Intimate details. Still, could someone who knew her well enough have known that? Could someone observing her without her noticing, over a long enough period of time, have learned any or all of this? It seemed unlikely.

One last test then.

What’s my dad’s middle name.

The response was quick this time.

He doesn’t have one.

She was reeling now. Head throbbing, heart racing. Alive with an insane hope. She reminded herself to breathe. Was it somehow possible? No, she’d found him, she’d seen them take his body away. Still, could this really, somehow, impossibly be Scott?

As if reading her thoughts, another text arrived.

Think I’m sick. I’m not. Hole.

Hole? Did he mean whole?


He responded as the streetlights flickered to life one by one.

Some of me is gone. Tried to get something to eat from a trashcan, couldn’t keep it down. There was a squirrel there. A dead squirrel.

So embarrassed. I tried to eat it.

I’m not ok.

The thought of him picking up a dead animal and taking a bite of it made her gag. She wiped her face and realized she was crying. Then something thumped against the underside of the car, and Joy jumped in her seat, dropping the phone. The lifeline to her no longer dead husband. She fished around under the seat and found it.

This was real. This was actually real and happening.

Where are you?


Her hear was pounding now. She would find him and get him help and somehow the last six months would turn out to have been some terrible mistake. They would figure it out. They could fix this. The last of sunlight was draining from the sky now, blood red giving way to dark bruised purple and black beyond that. Lights glittered in the windows of the towers out before her.

I’m at the park we used to go to. The one that looks out on the skyline.

She paused.

Overlook Park?

A chill started at the back of her neck and passed throughout the rest of her body.

Yeah. I’m under something. Hard to see – my eyes aren’t right. Under a Jeep I think.

Joy turned her head slowly and glanced first out the driver side and then the passenger side window, confirming what she already knew.

Hers was the only vehicle parked in sight.

Another thump from under her feet. And a text.

I’m stuck. Need help.
Kind of wrapped up in the bottom of the car.

He was under the SUV. In need of help. Dazed, she opened the door, which brought on the interior lights and a steady electronic binging, like a pulse. She swung her legs over the seat and stepped out onto the asphalt, crouching with her cellphone as a flashlight to look under the vehicle.

There was… something… clinging to the underside of the 4Runner. A human form, shadow black with caked soil, dimly lit from a cracked cellphone beneath it. It was Scott! but something was wrong with it. With him. Oh god, she gasped. His lower half vanished under the ribbons of his torn clothing, what was that? Was that dirty, ropelike thing, she choked, was that part of his insides?

She recoiled and stood up straight, took a deep breath of cool evening air.

Hold yourself together, she ordered, the phrase cutting clear through the malestrom within. Keep! It! Together!

She looked back under the SUV and saw him jabbing two fleshless phalanges at the phone. He turned to her and what should have been his eyes were just two hollow pits. He tried to move his mouth, but his jaws seemed stuck.

Wired shut, she thought. They do that. When someone dies.

The smell wafting out from under the vehicle, of earth and rot, nearly overpowered her. Expending every ounce of will she had, Joy won out over the urge to run, or collapse into a sobbing mess, to fall apart.

She reached out for him and saw now that parts of him, one of his arms, and part of what she took to be his intestines, had become wrapped around the axel.

Half under the car, she tried to brush away some of the dirt and pull out a few of the roots that had become intertwined with what was left of Scott’s body. The soil was damp, but beneath it was a layer of desiccated, brittle skin. Like a layer cake, she thought crazily. Under that, deeper inside of him, things that felt alternately hard and spongy, bones and organs, which crumbled at her touch.

Clumps of dirt, and Scott, came away in her hands. She felt things she couldn’t see, didn’t want to see, wriggling against her palms.

American National Standards Institute Inc.

“No.” He was slipping through her fingers again, and not just metaphorically this time, as she tried desperately to unknot and detach him from the vehicle without destroying him in the process. “Nononononono!”

Scott, shook his head sadly. He knew what Joy wouldn’t accept, that his situation couldn’t be salvaged. Accepting this, he seemed to deflate as the animating force left him. He came loose in a heap, milky bluish light poking through in places from the cell phone he collapsed on.

Joy tried to wipe her face, smearing it with mud and Scott, her tears carving channels through it –the inverse of mascara running down her cheeks. She sifted through the pile of what had just been quasi-living Scott and took his cellphone in her hand.

She read his last, unsent message.

Sry babs. I just can’t keep it together.

Joshua Ginsberg is the author of Secret Tampa Bay: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure (2020), Tampa Bay Scavenger (2021), Oldest Tampa Bay (2022), and co-author of Secret Orland: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure (2023). His work has appeared in numerous print and online publications including The City Key, 365 Tomorrows, Atlas Obscura, Travel After Five, and on his own blog, Terra Incognita Americanus. He currently lives in the Town n’ Country neighborhood of Tampa with his wife, Jen, and their Shih Tzu, Tinker Bell.

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“I Dream of Jamie” Dark Short Story by Joshua Jay Henry

"I Dream of Jamie" Dark Fiction by Joshua Jay Henry: Joshua Jay Henry works as a goldsmith by day and wordsmith by night. He graduated from The Columbus College of Art & Design with a BFA in illustration and continuously skulks the streets of Central Ohio, on a never-ending search for great stories.

The beginning is still pretty hazy to me, like trying to remember a dream. A lot of the first few months only comes in flashes. The beeping of hospital equipment, overhead fluorescents bleeding through my closed eyelids, the smell of antiseptics, someone using the phrase ‘covert consciousness’. Occasionally I dreamt, sometimes I was aware of what was going on around me, but mostly it was just nothingness. I now fear that death might be like that. Just unknowing, unthinking, darkness.

I had no real way of telling the passage of time, but sometimes I could pick up little hints. A running heater told me that it was cold outside, maybe winter. An opened window? Maybe spring. One time two people talked about an election, so that might have been around November.

So, yeah. A lot of stuff after the accident is blurry, but the accident is still perfectly clear to me. I was trying to leave Jamie.

We had been dating for almost two years, and I don’t think I was happy for a single moment during those last eight months. Their lease was ending after about six months of dating and they started pressuring me about moving in. I had plenty of space at my place, our relationship was going really well, and the idea of rent being cut in half was very tempting. So, I agreed. It didn’t take long for things to change after that. Jamie always wanted to know where I was. Always wanted to go through my phone. It was the outbursts that really scared me though. If I ever tried to speak up for myself or tried to tell them that they were crossing a line, they would blow up. I mean, red in the face screaming kind of blowing up. I never actually told anyone that Jamie was like that behind closed doors. I was too embarrassed that I had let things get that bad.

Finally, I reached my breaking point. I packed a suitcase as Jamie alternated between sobbing and screaming. Looking back, I’m so proud of how stern and strong I was. I walked out of the apartment and they followed me, continuing their tirade, but I just remained silent and determined to leave. I reached the stairwell, we lived on the third floor you see, and I had only made it down a couple steps when I felt hands smack into my shoulders.

The world spun around me like I was trapped in a washing machine and sharp pain burst from my limbs as they bent the wrong ways. Then the whole ordeal starts to bleed into my dark dream world.

Things are very broken and scattered after that, but I remember the first extended period where I was aware of things happening around me. It was thanks to my friend Ryan.

“Well I just want to talk to them,” Ryan spoke at a normal volume, but just the sound of my friend’s voice felt like a rope tied around my waist had been yanked. I was suddenly jerked out of the darkness. I heard the beeping of my EKG, the distant sound of a PA system calling for a certain doctor, the shuffling of feet. Lastly, I heard Jamie.

“The doctor told me that I should limit their visitors,” Jamie said, flatly and firmly.

“It might do some good, you know? Like, the sound of a familiar voice. I mean, we’ve been friends since high school so maybe-”

“Ryan,” Jamie began to speak softly, “I would if I could, really, but I’m just doing what the doctor thinks is best. It will all be worth it when they wake up.”

“But you’re allowed to be here all the time? I just don’t-”

“I’m sorry.”

A heavy door clicked into place and footsteps moved to my bedside. Warm, but dry, lips pressed against my forehead.

I’m not sure when that happened, but things were different after that. I started having longer stretches of awareness, and they were beginning to happen more frequently. To be honest, I think I started having more moments of clarity because I was more on edge. It’s like when you think someone might be trying to break into your house so every strange sound wakes you up a little. When you hear something that you think might be dangerous, you become more alert. So, I started becoming more alert every time I heard Jamie’s voice.


“I thought the realtor group that owned the apartment was paying for everything?” asked a voice that didn’t sound familiar to me. “Since they had that wobbly handrail that threw off their balance. Aren’t they paying for all the medical bills?”

“Yeah,” Jamie answered, so close to my side that I would have jumped if my body allowed it, “but there’s like tons of other stuff too. Like, um, the soap I have to get to wash them with or, you know, I have to pick up a lot of food. Since I have to be here all the time and… don’t have time to cook.”

“Alright, well, I’m good to start recording.”

“Great, let’s start.” There was a pause before Jamie spoke again, far more perky and upbeat. “Hello Patreons! As you all know, today is a very somber day for us. It’s been a full year now since the day that the love of my life-” they paused and sniffled. “Sorry, it’s just been so hard.” Another, louder sniffling sound before Jamie let out a breath and continued as if nothing had happened. “Today is the anniversary of when I found my sweetie here at the bottom of our apartment stairwell. I just wanted to record a little thank you video for everyone.” I felt Jamie’s hand slip into my limp fingers and a wave of repulsion crawled over my skin. “It’s only thanks to all of your kind donations that I’m able to keep up with the bills. But things are still very tight for our little family of two, so please send as many of your friends and family as you can to our Patreon or GoFundMe to help us out. And if you’re able to, even going up one tier on your monthly subscription could greatly help us. God bless all of you, and please pray for the both of us… Did that look good?”

“Yeah,” the cameraperson spoke, “it looked good. So…we heading back to my place now?”

“No,” Jamie said flatly, as if in a business meeting, “ABC news will be here shortly to film a segment about us so I have to get ready for that, but I’ll be over later tonight.”


I could kind of tell when it was night and day. The light through my eyelids dimmed, the bustle of the hospital quieted, and the room around me grew still. After I started having better moments of clarity, I would try to force my body to move when I was alone. In my mind I shouted at the top of my lungs and flailed my limbs, but outwardly my lips only pursed slightly and a couple fingers twitched. I had experienced sleep paralysis a few times prior to my ‘accident’, but what I experienced in that hospital was far worse.

American National Standards Institute Inc.

Sometimes whole nights passed with me concentrating entirely on just opening my eyelids or clenching a fist. I doubt neurosurgeons concentrate as hard as I did on those nights. Eventually I gained the ability to slightly extend my main index finger. In total it was less than an inch’s worth of movement., but it was the most I had accomplished in over a year, and just gaining that much freedom was enough to send tears streaming down my cheeks.


I felt the familiar pull to consciousness when the sound of my mother’s voice broke the silence that had settled in the room.

“How are you holding up?” my mother asked gently.

“I’m hanging in there,” answered Jamie, doing their best to add plenty of emotion to their voice.

Feet shuffled and dull patting sounded. It dawned on me that they were hugging.

“I’m so thankful to have you taking care of my baby,” mom said into Jamie’s neck. They must have pulled away, because when my mother spoke again it was unmuffled. “Will you be coming to the Fourth of July? It’ll be at my place.”

“Of course! I wouldn’t miss it for the world, mom!”

As they spoke, my heart began thumping almost as loud as the synchronized beeping of the monitor hooked up to my chest.

“That’s been happening a lot recently, should we get a nurse?”

“No,” Jamie soothed. “That just means they’re having a bad dream.”


Over time, I gained more control over my finger. It became easier to tap it or extend and curl it. It still required more focus than just lifting a finger is supposed to, but it was something. As sad as it is to say, I became quite proud of it.

An opportunity came one day when some whistling brought my mind up from the abyss. Someone was in the room, maybe male? I couldn’t tell, but it certainly wasn’t Jamie. Besides the whistler, it felt like the room was empty, so I decided to try out my new found ability.

My hands were placed palms down on the bed at my sides, like usual, so I began tapping my finger. I knew that I couldn’t tap too rhythmically, like I was listening to music, or the person might dismiss it as some kind of subliminal movement. Now, I know practically nothing about morse code, but I know that SOS is either dash dash dash dot dot dot dash dash dash or dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot. With that in mind I just began tapping in a constant stream. Taptaptap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Taptaptap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Taptaptap.

At first I kept it steady, but I started getting too excited at the idea of someone noticing me, so I began tapping faster and faster. When the whistling stopped, I thought I had finally caught their attention.

Then a hand held my tapping finger and I could have squealed from glee, until my finger was bent backwards with a muffled pop. The pain and shock made my whole body spasm. The bed sheet was being pulled up to my chin and over my hands when the whistler finally spoke from across the room.

“Got any trash for me Jamie?”

“No,” Jamie cheerfully answered, right beside me, “I emptied the bin yesterday. You’re all good.”

“Okay,” the man chuckled, “Well I see you’re tucking your sweetheart in for the night so I’ll get out of your hair.”

“Thanks. Goodnight.”

Tears welled up in my eyes as my mind fought to control the pain in my hand, but just as I was calming down, the finger was pushed back into place with a sucking clicking sound. The tears flowed freely as my breathing audibly grew louder.

“You better be careful,” Jamie whispered in the same cheery tone they had just used on the janitor. “If I see you trying to talk to anyone like that again, I just might have to snap off all your fingers.”

I knew Jamie meant it. If they were unstable before my coma then they had completely jumped off the deep end by now. They were constantly in my room, watching over me. They had control over my family, my friends, maybe even my medical decisions. I was Jamie’s plaything and nothing was going to change. I couldn’t do anything but lay there, silently watching as my life was piloted by someone else. I had been devolved into a pet that could be dressed up any way its owner wanted. And sadly? I just accepted that.


Things grew stagnant for a while. Any time I drifted to consciousness, I tried to go back into the void as soon as possible. I was content to wait patiently for my death. That changed one evening as a voice jarred me awake.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!” called out a chipper voice. “My name is Andrea and I will be your caretaker for the foreseeable future. If any of you have an issue with that then just raise your hand.”

My chest heaved slightly as something like a laugh tried to escape me. It had been so long since I last laughed, and the realization of what I was doing made my heart grow a little warmer.

There had always been some kind of caretaker that had made rounds at night to read and record our vitals. I’ve sensed them, but they typically breezed in and out without uttering a single word. This young woman was the first breath of life this whole place had breathed in the time I had been there.

“Was it my imagination, or did you laugh at my joke?” Andrea asked from beside my bed. I had been so caught off guard by her entrance that I hadn’t even sensed her approaching. For the first time in ages, someone was actually seeing me. For once, I wasn’t an ornament for Jamie, I was a person. Despite this, I hesitated to answer. Almost everything I had tried to do to escape ended in failure, so why would this be any different? But I figured ‘what the hell’. I began tapping my left index finger. It was covered by the bed sheet, like always, but I could feel the fabric russling against my digit.

My heart skipped a beat when Andrea lifted the sheet off my hand.

“Sweetie,” she spoke in a shaky voice that was attempting to stay calm, “tap your finger once for yes and twice for no… Can you hear me?”


“Oh. My. God. Can you- ah- do you have purple skin?”

Tap tap.

“Do you know that you are in a coma?”


“Have you been awake this whole time?!”

Tap. Tap tap.

“Yes no? Um, have you been awake for some of this time?”


“This is amazing! I’ll go notify the doctor and be ri-”


“What’s wrong? You don’t want me to notify the doctor?”

The last question was the only one to make me pause. I wasn’t sure what I wanted. I knew the doctors monitored my brain activity, so to some degree they were aware of how conscious I was and that obviously hadn’t done anything to help me get control of my body. If it came down to some kind of medical procedure, then Jamie had probably obstructed them in the past and would probably do it again.

Ultimately, I had decided on ‘no’ and conveyed that to my very kind, very confused, nurse. It took her a while to calm down enough that I could convince her to finish her rounds. After she left I wasn’t quite sure what would come of Andrea knowing about me, but honestly it just felt good talking to someone again.


I didn’t have to wonder long about Andrea. I think it was just the next night when she pulled a chair up to my bed and had a real conversation with me.

“Hey sweetie,” she greeted me as kindly as she would any other patient. “Are you feeling good tonight?”


“Great! Were you awake all day today?”

Tap tap.

“Part of the day?”


And it was true. I had been so eager to talk to someone that my consciousness kept bubbling up every time I heard a voice.

“Do you know how long you’ve been here?”

Tap tap.

“Would you like to know?”

I hesitated again, but figured it would be best to rip the band aid off. I told her yes.

“You’ve been comatose for three years and nine months, sweetie.”

My finger dropped onto the hospital bed when I heard that. I had pieced together that it had been a few years, but having it confirmed was like… was like glass shattering. I was crying before I even knew it and Andrea just held my hand for the rest of the night.


After that, I began looking forward to nights. Andrea had plenty of responsibilities, of course, but she always made time to have a little chat with me. We even made a system where I could write messages by her doing the ABC’s and I tap my finger when she got to the letter I wanted. Believe me, it was just as painfully slow as it sounds, but it was worth it to tell her something more personal than just yes or no.

Since it was kind of exhausting for me to talk in much detail, Andrea did most of the talking. I was perfectly fine with that. Just having someone speak to me directly made me giddy. She could have read the dictionary to me and I would have loved it.

“Have I told you about my grandpa?” Andrea asked one night. I double tapped my ‘no’ and she continued.

“Well, he’s the whole reason I became a nurse! My parents fought a lot when I was little, so I got carted off to my grandparents often to be out of the battlezone. He had a small corn farm, I know, how typical for a small Ohio town, right? But I think he sold his corn as feed. Anyway, he always dragged me along and I would ‘help’ him tend to the farm.

American National Standards Institute Inc.
American National Standards Institute Inc.

“When I was in my young teens though, he began deteriorating. Alzheimer’s runs in my family and he started getting it bad. He even began to forget who I was, or who his own children were. Eventually he was put on hospice. I did all I could to take care of him and help out his nurse. I even moved in with my grandma to help take care of him. Thankfully this was during summer break, so I didn’t have to worry about school.

“He had been such a hard working and proud man in his life, but during that summer I was giving him sponge baths while he cried.”

Andrea fell silent for a bit, getting lost in the memory.

“After that,” she continued, “I knew I wanted to help people. Maybe in some strange way, I thought that if I can help others I could somehow go back in time and save him.

“Obviously that’s impossible, but” she patted me on my hand, “maybe I can help you.”

It took a little more effort, but I managed to raise my finger and sort of stroke her hand. That was the best way I could think to say ‘thank you’ to her.


Despite months of bedside conversations, Andrea didn’t dig much into why I wanted to keep our communications a secret. I was thankful for that, but she figured it out one night when Jamie stayed late to record a video.

“There!” Jamie exclaimed. “I got the hair perfect! Don’t you guys think they look cute?!”

With the amount of product glopped in my hair I can guarantee you that I looked anything besides ‘cute’.

“Now, let’s add some of this blush to liven up those cheeks of-”

“What are you doing here?” Andrea’s voice rang out, more authoritative and hash than I had ever heard it. It was certainly enough to rattle Jamie.

“Oh, um, I’m Jamie. I guess you’re new here. I’m their-”

“I know who you are, but visiting hours ended forty minutes ago.”

“I’ll leave soon, just need to finish up this video I’m shooting.”

I could hear Andrea’s padded soles stomp over to where a camera must have been mounted, because I heard a beeping sound just as Jamie began to object.

“This person has a right to privacy as every individual does. Filming their unconscious body for profit is disgusting and immoral and it will not be happening during my shifts.”

My skin could have blistered from the heat of Jamie’s growing rage, but they managed to sound calm when they spoke.

“Well I know for a fact that they would be fine with me filming videos.”

Andrea scoffed. “Until they sit up and say that for themselves you are not permitted to film anything, and I will make sure day staff know to stop you as well. Now, please exit the hospital for the night.”

“Stupid fucking bitch,” grumbled Jamie as they packed up their camera. The last thing they said as they stomped past Andrea was: “And that fucking lipstick makes you look like a whore!”


“Are you fine with them filming?” Andrea asked as soon as Jamie was gone.

I tapped my finger twice, and Andrea remained silent for a few moments.

“Sweetie… is Jamie the reason you don’t want me to notify a doctor about you?”

I tapped my finger and nothing was said for a long time. In that silence, I made a very grave error. I drummed my finger to let Andrea know that I had a message to write. She sniffled before reciting the alphabet.

“A. B. C. D. E. F. G. H. I. J-”




I listened to her write the letter down on a piece of paper. As soon as she started again, I stopped her on the first letter and she wrote that down as well. We kept going till we got to the last letter.

“-M. N. O. P. Q. R. S-”

I tapped my finger three times to let her know that this was the final letter of my note and she read it back to me.

“Okay, so you wrote, ‘Jamie did this’?”


“Jamie did what, sweetie? What did they do?”

My finger stroked the bed as I tried to think of a better way to explain, but I didn’t need to.

“Oh my god,” she whispered to herself a split second before her chair skidded back. “You didn’t fall down those stairs, you were pushed.”

She stated it as a fact, but I tapped in the affirmative anyway. I wanted to tell her to keep it a secret, to do nothing. I wanted to tell her that I just wanted someone else to know, but she shot out of the room before I could do anything. And now that she knew the truth, both of our fates were sealed.


“I know you told her,” Jamie hissed, sharp and harshly in my ear. The proximity and anger jolted my mind into awareness and I immediately felt dread squeeze my heart. “That bitch thinks that she can keep us apart, that she can spread lies and take you away from me, but she fucked with the wrong person!”

In an instant, my gown was jerked up and lips began caressing me from sternum to groin. I couldn’t even twitch my finger as the repulsion and fear overcame me. I just tried to not be there, to go away mentally. Thankfully, kissing is all that happened and my gown was neatly pulled back into place.

Jamie spoke as they wiped something off their mouth. “Good, let’s see her explain her way out of this.” Jamie shot up and stormed out of the room as they screamed: “Why is there lipstick all over my love!”


Andrea was gone after that. A couple weeks of silence would have been enough for me to know about what happened, but Jamie made sure to gloat about Andrea being fired to me every single day. Once Jamie started talking about suing Andrea and pressing charges, I completely lost it. Any time I was awake, I felt tears streaming down my temples.

Once again, all hope was lost. Andrea happening into my life was a one in a million chance, and I blew it. I was trapped. Forever. And ever.

I just wanted to die.

To get away.

To be free, if only in an asomatous sense.


“You think just because I was fired that this is over?” Andrea announced from the doorway, and never in my life has a sentence brought me more boundless joy.

That joy ended abruptly though when Jamie scoffed.

“How’d you sneak back in?”

“I still have friends here,” Andrea quipped.

“Whatever, doesn’t matter. You really think anyones going to believe you over me?”

“I don’t care. What you’ve done is monstrous and I’m not going to stand by while you ruin my patient’s life. I’ll tell anyone who cares what you did. I’ll tell everyone who doesn’t care what you did. I won’t stop until you’re not allowed within a mile of this hospital!”

Andrea panted, as if being furious at Jamie was draining their breath.

“You know, I kind of thought you might come back,” Jamie said as they rummaged around in something, “so I snatched this a few days ago.”

“A scalpel? Sure. Stab me. That will definitely help make your case.”

“Stab you?” Jamie asked, their wide grin audible in their words. “I never said I would stab you.”

An instant later, I felt a punch to the side of my thigh and all sound in the hospital ceased. Andrea must have been shocked, because she didn’t say anything as Jamie ran out of the room screaming: “Get away! Put it down! Jesus! You stabbed them!”

That’s when chaos took command of the coma ward.


Andrea was screaming at Jamie. Jamie and half a dozen other voices were screaming at Andrea. Someone else screamed that they were going to get a doctor and a cart for me. All while this was all happening, my body slowly started telling me just how much pain I was in. It was like a hot poker had been pressed into me and the skin around the wound felt like bugs were crawling all over it. My fingers started growing sticky from the pooling blood. Andrea’s voice grew fainter as she was dragged away by the mob. There was a lot for me to take in, but the only thing I could really focus on was how my leg jumped when Jamie stabbed it.

“Nothing to get between us now,” Jamie whispered in my ear with a chuckle before running after the crowd.

Now, I wish I could say that I was thinking about how much I hated Jamie at that moment. Or that I was sick and tired of feeling helpless and trapped. Maybe in a weird way I was subconsciously thinking about those things, but truthly, I was just scared that Andrea was in danger. So, I started running on pure instinct.

I raised my index finger, probing for the scalpel’s handle, and as soon as I bumped it, a fresh wave of hot pain pulsed through me. But also, my leg jumped again. Without even really thinking about it, I raised my finger as much as I could and looped it over the handle. Then, I pulled down.

The blade sliced through my muscles, pain spread like an electrical storm across my nerves, and my whole body began to rattle. As the knife twisted, a muffled sound began to rise in the back of my own throat. It sounded like a quiet whimper, but internally I was screaming with everything I had. Then, I managed to raise my middle finger and got that around the handle as well. The more pain I was in, the easier it became to move. My eyes cracked open. My whole hand clutched and dragged the scalpel. I began leaning forward in bed.

Finally, after years of being trapped in a nightmare, I woke up.

My voice was hoarse and ancient from disuse, but I still screamed a guttural sound like conjoined pain and euphoria as I shot up. I commanded my legs to lift over the side rails on my bed, but they ignored me. So I just threw my whole body over and crashed onto the floor. My head hit the tiles hard enough to blacken the room and make me see sparks of color, but I began crawling a second later as my vision slowly started to refocus.

It may have been on my hands and elbows, and I left a trail of smearing blood behind me, but for the first time in over four years, I left the coma ward.


So…that’s just about all of it, officer. If I think of anything else I’ll make sure to give you a call. Now, if you don’t mind, could you push my chair to the main lobby? Andrea should be there by now and we plan on going to a coffee shop together.

Joshua Jay Henry works as a goldsmith by day and wordsmith by night. He graduated from The Columbus College of Art & Design with a BFA in illustration and continuously skulks the streets of Central Ohio, on a never-ending search for great stories.

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If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine

“Story” Dark Supernatural Fiction by Alan Caldwell

"Story" Dark Supernatural Fiction by Alan Caldwell:  Alan Caldwell has been teaching in Georgia since 1994 but only began submitting writing in May 2022. He has since been published in over two dozen journals and magazines. He is being nominated for the Pushcart this year.

I heard about him when I was a boy, all his stories. My daddy spoke of him, so did my papa. In fact, if you lingered about the courthouse, or the feed and seed, or anywhere old men sat around whittling big sticks into smaller ones, you were likely to hear about him. As time passed, and the old men passed, so too did his legend. Many forgot about him, and though I didn’t really believe the stories, I didn’t forget them.

His oral biographers claimed that he was a lone specter, part man, part animal, but mostly demon, or maybe even the high Satan himself, who thrived in the vast cloistered valley that lay north of Rockhouse mountain in the southern terminus of the Appalachians just west of the Georgia border in northeastern Alabama.  Most white settlers called him “Old Scratch” or simply “Scratch.” The aboriginal Cherokee and the Creeks called him “A-sgi-na,” the evil one. Sometimes, according to legend, he assumed the form of a small, bent, feeble old man of apocryphal ancestry, dressed in rags or skins, who would approach homes or encampments seeking sustenance, speaking a convoluted tongue reminiscent of old English peppered with flat Indian hill dialect, only barely able to make himself understood in any language. The accounts varied but little. The gaunt, gray, bent, and humble vagabond would show up at a door or gate and beg for bread.  Later, in the small hours, a clamorous commotion would erupt during the night and the resident would emerge with his weapon of choice, hurrying to guard his stock only to find that all, or most, of them were dead, their throats torn open and their blood drained. When frolicking children and venturing hunters disappeared without a trace, locals would proclaim, “Old Scratch got him another one.”

Occasionally, a terrified rural denizen, out and about in the fading gloam after sunset, might observe a beast, resembling a lion, or panther, or a wolf, depending on the teller, but running on two legs, like a man, an immense man with dark gray or black fur, standing seven or eight feet tall. Many frightened men sent many charges of buck and ball, and even stone tipped arrows, his way but none found their mark, or perhaps, he was immune to such paltry armaments.


By the 1930s, much of the low-lying land in the region was denuded, stripped of its trees and soil, and abandoned. Progress-minded men harvested every accessible stand of old-grown forest. Only those stands cloistered by steep ridges remained, like those stands that thrived in the vast cloistered valley that lay north of Rockhouse mountain. The federal government soon purchased a half million acres of these lands. and within two decades, the new growth pine silviculture served as an evergreen moat further isolating the already isolated ridges and valleys at its core. If Old A-sgi-na was alive, he was alone, completely alone, just as I was alone.

Many lonely nights after my wife passed, I lay awake, missing her, and thinking about the stories of my childhood, stories about hunting and farming, stories about dogs and men, and stories about the land that held their bones. It was one of those nights, last October, that I decided to study my maps, and locate, and search the vast cloistered valley that lay north of Rockhouse mountain. I didn’t expect to find a devil. I had long since stopped believing in any devil, or any  deity, or any myth of any sort. In retrospect, perhaps belief is what I sought. I’m not sure. I had become an old man of forgotten stories, an old man who longed to linger with other old men of stories, but there were no longer old men of stories. I was solitary in the otherwise forgotten stories of my mind just as surely as Old Scratch, or his apocryphal legend, was solitary in his sheltered valley.

The next morning, I prepared and consumed a cold breakfast, readied my pack for travel, loaded my Winchester with 6 slender brass cartridges, drove my rusty Ford to the closest access point in the national forest, checked my geographical position and compass, and set about in the direction of Rockhouse mountain. By maintaining constant attention to topography, I selected a circuitous route which would avoid as many strenuous ascents as possible, though I knew the final climb would be a treacherous one. I hoped my aged muscle, bone, sinew, and cartilage might be sufficient, but I wasn’t sure.

After twelve hours of intermittent hiking, I found myself at the base of my mountain, his mountain. I cleared a section of the forest floor for my campfire and my wool blanket, gathered wood, and then warmed a cup of thick beef stew and a cup of strong black coffee. After my minimalist meal, I wrapped myself in my covers and, being too tired to resist slumber, I quickly fell asleep under a canopy of fierce stars. I dreamed of stories, always of stories.

The next morning, I drank yet another cup of bitter brew, ate an apple and a sleeve of salty crackers, filled my canteen with cool spring water and began scaling my personal Everest.

And though I don’t think it necessary to recount specific details of my climb, it was treacherous and exhausting. I reached the summit just after noon, six full hours after I began. From my lofty perspective, I surveyed the valley below, a view only a Bierstadt or Cole could have depicted. I could easily imagine the valley as a home to gnomes, or cryptids, or demons.

The remainder of the afternoon, I examined the rock formations along the western face of the prominence. I unearthed many interesting stones and minerals but nothing demonic or even unusual. I made my camp in the valley below, with the same comfort and sustenance as the previous night.  The firelight cast eerie shadows on the earth and trees, more so than usual I decided, though the legendary accounts of this valley may have colored my perceptions. Sleep came slowly. Dreams followed shortly thereafter, dreams, at first, of pleasant times with my wife and our children, of my own idyllic childhood, and then my dreams grew dark and I found myself alongside my wife’s deathbed once again and then in my own silk-lined coffin as the lid closed and then something, some sound, or some premonition, quickened me. And there he was, just as I had imagined it, standing at the edge of my fire’s circle of light, as tall, as terrible, and as dark as those long-gone men of stories had described.

Old Scratch was so near that I could hear his breathing. He circled in the dancing shadows just at the edge of the light, obviously repelled by the fire. I had earlier unearthed a rich and resinous pitch pine stump to rouse the campfire quickly if necessary. I tossed this fuel into the coals and the flames soon blazed six or eight feet high. I don’t believe the demon expected this conflagration, and in the new light I could see him clearly, clearly enough to see his red demon eyes, his grotesque form, his ivory teeth, pointed like daggers, and as long as a man’s longest fingers. I could also discern the brass bead at the end of my rifle’s barrel. I drew this bead on the creature’s broad chest, thumbed back the hammer and pulled the trigger. At the reverberant clap of the rifle, the beast roared, a roar that would have shamed the most vocal black-maned lion on the African savanna. 

The wounded A-sgi-na turned and melted into the night. I contemplated constructing a torch and identifying a blood trail. I knew I couldn’t have missed and I knew he carried my slug deep in his breast. I contemplated pursuing my injured quarry only briefly. If a man of six decades has acquired no wisdom, he is incapable of doing so. I decided to wait the two or three hours till daylight. Here in such a valley, the autumn sun’s rays do not reach the forest floor till almost noon, but the general ambient light would be sufficient.

I made a mental note of where the creature had been standing when I fired. I immediately located where he had turned and fled, the leaves and soil disturbed as if tilled. I followed the spoor but found no blood for the first hundred or so feet, but then a drop, and then a few more drops, and then a steady stream of bright red arterial gore. I was certain that an animal so wounded could not go far. I was wrong. I followed the flow all morning. Having hunted my entire life, I knew that a little blood can look like a lot of blood on a forest floor, but this stream was wide, and constant. I followed along the edge of the mountain, across a fast-flowing stream, and then up a gray granite outcropping. All along the path, I discovered an ever-increasing number of bleached bones and skulls, deer mostly, but also bear and smaller bones like those of possums and racoons. I paused and examined what looked like what must have been the femur of a man, a tall man. I held the bone up to my waist and determined that the man had been as tall as me. I dropped the bone and continued following the blood.

About halfway up the rocky face, I spotted the opening of a cave, and I knew that was where he, and I, were headed. I expected to find him there, dead from the loss of blood.

I ascended slowly and approached the cave’s mouth with no little trepidation. The cave was shallow and faced the now risen sun. I expected to find a stiff, huge, hirsute form, but what I found was a small, naked, emaciated man, an old man. He was unconscious and breathing raggedly, but he wasn’t dead. I nudged him with my rifle barrel. He startled, and then tried to crawl beneath a low stone shelf. He shivered as if with chill, and auge, and fear. I saw then that his skin was as pale as cold ash, his eyes clouded with cataracts. He began to speak, and though I could discern a few words from various languages and dialects, I could make no sense of any of it. He clutched his bony left hand against his chest. I pulled it away. I had to know. It was there, just as I expected it would be, a small round hole just about where a man’s heart should be. The edges were already beginning to heal, and the dried blood was already forming a scabbed seal.

I suppose it is here that I should tell you that I put that man, that remnant of a man, that demon, out of his misery, that I saved the life of some future lost traveler who happened to find his way to this valley, but I didn’t. I simply left him in his place, left him to heal. I left the valley, his valley, and brought back only his story, and my faith.

Alan Caldwell has been teaching in Georgia since 1994 but only began submitting writing in May 2022. He has since been published in over two dozen journals and magazines. He is being nominated for the Pushcart this year. 

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine

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“Mom Hood” Dark Short Story by LB Sedlacek

"Mom Hood" Dark Fiction by LB Sedlacek: LB Sedlacek has had poems and stories appear in a variety of journals and zines. Her poetry has been nominated for Best of the Net. Poetry books include "Swim," "The Poet Next Door," "Happy Little Clouds," and "Words and Bones." Her latest fiction book is "The Jackalope Committee and Other Tales" published by Alien Buddha Press. Her fiction books include the award nominated mystery "The Glass River" and "Four Thieves of Vinegar & Other Short Stories."  Her short stories
"Backwards Wink" and "Sight Unseen" both won 1st Place Prose for different issues of "Branches" literary magazine in 2022. LB also enjoys swimming and reading.

She asks first about the rest rooms. Then the stage. Both were over in the corner.

She navigated the crowd spaced out here and there in the brightly colored chairs. The walls were just as bright – all yellow. The stage was also bright, but in orange and pink.

This was her first gig. Her middle-aged dream. Just her, some sheet music, a mic, and the ancient acoustic guitar her mom had given her when she was a child.

Thirty plus years later, she’d learned to play it. A last-minute act cancellation at the restaurant next door to her day job selling mattresses and now she was taping her set list to the floor.

It was written in blue ink on cream paper. Construction paper was all she could find to write it out on.

She was supposed to play for an hour in exchange for tips and a free meal and drinks. She had nothing else to do on Friday nights, so why not?

She started by playing her favorite childhood song: “Saturday Night” by the Bay City Rollers. It translated to acoustic guitar with a female voice well. Anyway, she liked it.

She followed it with covers of songs by The Mamas and the Papas, and other 70’s rock bands or singers. Her cup was full of tips when her hour was done. She ate at the bar and thought nothing of a grinning neighborhood kid who’d sat through her set and who she’d used to babysit except how could he be old enough to be in a bar now?

“Mrs. Jenkins?”


“Yeah. Saw your set.” He plopped down on a stool beside her. “Didn’t know you could sing like that.”

“I’m a novelty act. A mom with an acoustic guitar.”

He grinned. Slid a tanned hand through his dark hair. “Yeah, you are.” He held up his phone. “Look here. I uploaded a video of you playing – it’s gone viral. You’re good. I remember Mason telling me his mom, uh you, had gone to college for music but then you got pregnant and married or maybe the other way around after college and so you traded in music for mom-hood.”

“Yeah. Mom-hood. That sums it up.” She finished her drink and stood. “Good to see you again, Joe.”

Joe turned out to be more than a former baby-sitting job reconnect. His viral video got her texts, DMs, request for dates (she wasn’t responding to any of that), digital downloads of the one song she liked the best on Joe’s video channels and oh yeah, a small-time gig touring all around the US. Her husband told her to go, that the kids are off at college and that he had his job and he could, read, cook and do laundry, so go live your dream for a little while. And so she did. With Joe as her mobile manager. Joe gave her a cell phone and a credit card. Her new producer emailed both of them her circuit schedule. She’d play an hour at each gig. The clubs paid her producer and she and Joe got a cut. Plus, a free hotel room for the night, and free meals. Joe arranged for ride shares to each venue and back and forth to the hotels. She had to use the phone to live stream to her new social media channels Joe set up.

This was her mom dream – to play guitar and sing and be Jodi Jenkins for an hour or so. And so she was.

All she had was a backpack with her clothes, shoes, and toiletries, her favorite pillow, a small purse with her essentials such as cleaning wipes, lip gloss, tissues, aspirin, and a pair of sunglasses plus her wallet. She also carried her gun kit with holster and ammo.

There were long hours in the hotel rooms. The set up for her gigs was minimal, same with the take-down. So, she found herself like a character in a gritty movie, camped out near airports with a wad of cash, and no rules.

What were the rules of revenge anyway? What were the Mom-hood rules?

  • Act the same day you’re leaving town
  • Wear gloves
  • Don’t write, type or store your list anywhere, especially the cloud
  • Carry 2 guitars
  • Hide what you need in your spare guitar, not the case but the guitar

And of course, never leave a trace: pay cash for everything, use a disposable phone, no public computers, and don’t divulge too much to strangers. When you play bars, it’s easy to let your guard down. Jodi also added a Bonus Rule: Don’t let your guard down.

It’s not surprising how long a mom’s list can be for justice. There’s the bully – mine and my kids. The evil relatives who stole and much worse. The wicked neighbors. The lying teachers. The backstabbing volunteers. The absent friend. The evil boss. The co-worker snakes. The __________________ (you name it).

There is not a right way or wrong way to serve up revenge or one mom’s vigilante form of karma. Illegal. Legal. Not to worry. She chose the punishment based on the crime.

At first, she did it so she could fight back some of the times when she wasn’t able to stand up for herself or kids. Then it became amusing to while away the tour time. She only talked to her husband once a day in the morning. The kids were both graduated, in college, moved on and supportive! Flowers in the dressing room and positive texts in every town!

There was no one looking for her. There was no one smart enough to put any of it together.

Start simple. Keep it simple. Finish simple.

For the bullies, she told the truth (at their new jobs, to their new spouses – anonymously of course.) For the friend’s dad who tried to have his way with her, she told his grandkids about it (in a note). The relatives who were thieves, that was harder but also easy cause when you owe money to the wrong people they often want it back. The people who spread ugly gossip – that was simple too she just made up a newsletter with plenty of made-up stories (printed up copies at an all night copy service) and left them on the cars in the parking lot of the most popular big box store in town.

She limited herself to 3-5, total. She figured she could buy and dispose of that many weapons without being caught. But who would the lucky recipients of her vengeance be?

  • An arrow was her first choice. She liked it cause you can be like Hawkeye or the Green Arrow and take your shot from a distance then break down and dispose of the bow in a flurry. Goodbye you sleazebag lawyer that caused me to lose my house,
  • She found a knife to be the most fun but unlike Crocodile Dundee it was also the hardest to use. She didn’t want to leave any prints. She passed it around for show and tell after one of her sets asking for a sharpener to get it covered with innocent prints. The two women who stuck themselves into her business during her first marriage and ultimate divorce didn’t care how their behavior affected her kids. She reasoned they deserved what they got cause they ended up going after each other when the married one thought the single one wanted her hubby. She had left the knife, wiped clean of her prints, in the perfect place and read later it was a bloody scene with body parts everywhere. There were no suspects, only two friends who turned on one another.
  • Jodi didn’t care for the Stun Gun. It was difficult to use because she wasn’t super strong and she worried someone could get ahold of it and use it on her. She used it on the ladies who told lies about her and her family thinking now they get to experience the same thrill of having stories told on them because everyone wondered and still talked about it to this day as to why they were together, stunned, in the same room! No one would speak to them afterwards and both their husbands left them.
  • She saved the best for last. She grabbed the dirt bag up in West Virginia where he’d lived pretending to be a lawyer, married and also a financial wiz even though he was none of the above. There’s a lack of cell service and lot of people minding their own business in West Virginia. He was good target practice and later bear food for Yogi and his buddies. Not one soul missed him.

Jodi spent a few minutes sitting in her dressing room, such that it was, after each gig. She wrote a song about each act of vengeance. Soon, she had an album and record deal. The venues for her tour vaulted from clubs to performing arts centers. Her kids came to some of her shows. Her second husband did, too.

She sings for a living now. Her justice served up in song lyrics – killing someone in a song is a whole lot easier to get away with and you don’t ever have to worry about anyone finding the body.

LB Sedlacek has had poems and stories appear in a variety of journals and zines. Her poetry has been nominated for Best of the Net. Poetry books include “Swim,” “The Poet Next Door,” “Happy Little Clouds,” and “Words and Bones.” Her latest fiction book is “The Jackalope Committee and Other Tales” published by Alien Buddha Press. Her fiction books include the award nominated mystery “The Glass River” and “Four Thieves of Vinegar & Other Short Stories.”  Her short stories
“Backwards Wink” and “Sight Unseen” both won 1st Place Prose for different issues of “Branches” literary magazine in 2022. LB also enjoys swimming and reading.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine

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“Cracks” Uncanny Short Story by Gianluca Cinelli

"Cracks" Uncanny Fiction by Gianluca Cinelli: Gianluca Cinelli lives in Italy and is a scholar in Italian and Comparative Literature, editor of the Close Encounters in War Journal, and author of fiction with a taste for the weird, the spooky, and the uncanny. When not writing, he loves building wooden ship models and playing the bass guitar.

Old Witchmare is a small village perched on the side of a hill, where a wide valley opens. They call it the Witches’ Cauldron because of its shape of a semicircle east and west of Mount Crescent. The river Slithe once sprang from the mountain and carved the valley with its many streams, digging deep gorges and caves. Since the 1790s, hundreds of mills multiplied in the valley, making its inhabitants wealthy and its textiles admired all over Europe. However, the river mysteriously dried up around 1880, all the channels turned into stony ditches and the mills were shut. Their wheels still hang today over the empty canals like huge, broken toys. Old Witchmare is picturesque, with its crooked, old buildings made of timber and chalk, of two or three floors, with large bow windows, projecting dormers, and fantastic faces carved on the projecting beams. The locals are friendly, and the oldest pub in the village, Stork & Lamb, always spreads a delicious smell of stew. Like every other place, though, this lovely village has its specks, the first of which is precisely its name. When the hamlet was founded in 1625, the plague had emptied London, and rumour spread that witches and wizards roamed the land unchecked, anointing the walls with venomous concoctions. In the county of B., it was known to everyone that the valley of the Slithe was haunted by witches. Thus, to avert a wave of collective violence, the government authorized the foundation of a military outpost at the mouth of the valley. Within weeks, a square, fortress-looking settlement had been built, with wooden barracks for troops all around the central courtyard and a few shabby buildings made of brick and timber for the officers of the Health Tribunal, the jail, and the canteen. There is no record of what happened there in those years because Old Witchmare was sieged and destroyed by Cromwell’s army during the Civil War when the archive was lost in a fire. What we know about the dark origins of the village is the matter of folktales and gloomy legends of massacres, torture, and executions of many unfortunate people who had found refuge from the plague in the valley, only to be arrested and burned alive as worshippers of the devil. The anonymous chroniclers report that the flames of the stakes were visible every night from the main road that connected London to Bristol. However, those creepy stories have permitted the village to get back on its feet because it is thanks to them that tourists visit the Witches’ Cauldron year-round.

Some years ago, I read about Old Witchmare in the book Witchcraft Legends and Folktales, published in 1948 by celebrated ethnologist Waldo Percival Barnstormer. More interestingly, though, I stumbled once again on the name of this village a few weeks ago as I was attending a geology conference in Lancaster where Dr Brian Jackson delivered a fascinating paper about sinkholes in the Witches’ Cauldron. After the talk, I asked Brian to tell me the rest of his story, which he agreed to do at dinner. Never the saying “curiosity killed the cat” was more appropriate to the context, albeit tragically, as I eventually found out.

The visitors were lucky to explore the Witches’ Cauldron with Jacob Forsyth. He had explored nearly every gorge and cave in the valley and knew all the dark stories about the witch hunt. At the end of every tour, he enjoyed telling one or two anecdotes he rearranged following the inspiration. In his fifties, solitary and shy, he lived alone with his beloved cat Horatio in his house built for a wealthy family of pharmacists in 1670, of which he took care with devotion and for good reasons too. Ancient as it was, it required attention as an elderly lady, the beams creaked and groaned from time to time, and the wooden frames of the windows felt the weight of the centuries. Jacob’s secret refuge was the back garden with its mossy stones, roses, lilies, hydrangeas and daffodils. When evening came, Jacob would sit on the porch with Horatio on his knees, admiring that small corner of peace.

And there he was, at the beginning of this story, sitting in the breeze of a mid-summer evening, smoking his pipe, his heart at peace and his mind clear, for he felt that everything around him was just right. He was smoking lazily with his eyes closed, and when he opened them, he caught in the dim light a small, dark spot on the kitchen floor. Horatio looked half asleep, but his wagging tail revealed that he had noticed the thing too.

“What is it, my love?” Jacob asked.

The thing in the kitchen sprang forward and stopped again. Now it was perfectly in sight.

“What the hell is that? Horatio, won’t you go have a look-see?”

The cat didn’t move. When the dark thingy zoomed and vanished under the cupboard, Horatio jumped off Jacob’s lap and trotted into the kitchen. Jacob stood up, the daydreaming was gone, and a feeling of irritation remained. Horatio had slipped under the cupboard, and only the tip of his tail stuck out.

“Did you find it, darling? What was that?” Jacob asked. Then, he moved the cupboard enough to look behind it but saw just a little dirt. At a closer look, he noticed a small, barely visible crack. It started from the floor, crawled upwards for a few inches, and was just one millimetre wide. Jacob didn’t like that some roach came out of the wall and planned to plaster the crack tomorrow. For now, he just stuck some paper in the gap, but no sooner had he touched the wall than the plaster crumbled all around, revealing a much larger cavity. Jacob quickly withdrew his fingers. He immediately prepared some stucco and closed the hole as if treating a wound. When the work was done, he pushed the sideboard back against the wall and thought no more about it.

The rest of the week passed as usual, but on Sunday, while he was making breakfast and listening to the news on the radio, Jacob saw the black spot on the floor again. Even before the word formed in his mind, his full attention was on the intruder. He stopped scrambling the eggs and slowly turned his head. Horatio, too, was sitting motionless next to the insect, looking down at it. Jacob expected to see his fat cat catch its prey any moment now, and he thought that he could crush the roach under his foot, for it was only a step away. But that thing was big and dark. Jacob looked at the antennae waving in the air and wondered how he had made it through the plaster. Yeah, cockroaches can dig, but that stopper was thick. He stood there with the bowl in one hand and the spoon in the other and watched in horror at the insect. Suddenly, he could see its head as if magnified and its great pincers clacking as if trying to reach some prey. The vision faded and left Jacob paralysed, for he knew the stucco dam could not resist those crushers. Suddenly, the roach zoomed and disappeared under the cupboard.

“You fat bugger”, Jacob whimpered, “why did you stand there like a sucker and do nothing? You must have grown a little too picky. I’m cutting your food, let’s see if another time you’ll eat that lousy roach. Actually no, it ain’t gonna happen again, this thing stops now.”

He moved the cupboard and froze. Feeling as if a heavy, cold ball had descended into his belly, he stared at the wide crack that crawled along the wall up to his chest. The plaster was spread in crumbles.

“What the hell?” Jacob exclaimed in a panic. His heart was pounding, and his throat was dry. It was like looking at the marks of a hideous disease on a friend’s face. A friend, of course! It was then that he called me. He sounded upset, so I told him there was nothing to worry about, for old houses play such nasty tricks. However, I popped by and had a look at the damage. I have seen much worse in old buildings, so I prepared a bucket of cement, and after half an hour later, we were looking with satisfaction at the filled crack. I wouldn’t say it was a fine job, for the line was still visible as a grey, ugly scar. Anyway, the cupboard hid the wound. I left Jacob, who went out for his usual Sunday walk, but despite the sunshine and the warm summer breeze, he could not relax. As he roamed the fields, he thought, for the first time in his life, that the absence of water in the Cauldron was disturbing. He looked at the marks the water had left everywhere, scarring the hills. Jacob stopped suddenly, for a crazy image had formed in his mind. He could see the Cauldron from above as if he was a bird – so he told me – and a complicated web of cracks crisscrossed it. He got back to reality, amazed and scared. Above his head, he could see the branches of a dead tree that drew an intricate pattern of cracks against the blue sky. Cracks, cracks everywhere! He thought about his living room, but even that peaceful image came with disturbing background noise, like a feeble crunch. With the eyes of his mind, he saw the floor move and wriggle as thousands of roaches were vomited from a large crack in the wall.

He looked around, sweating and feeling dizzy. The walk was ruined, and the weather was getting sulky, so he made up his mind to go home. When he arrived, he flung the door open and stood on the threshold listening. Without taking off his boots, he went into the kitchen holding his breath. Everything was silent and still. He even moved the cupboard and saw with relief that the cement was dry and solid. After lunch, the rain began to pour down. Jacob was sitting in the living room with a book, but the dull light entering from the window made him uncomfortable. Not even Horatio was there to comfort him. Despite the rain, the sucker was hanging around. Maybe, he was now sheltering in someone else’s house, the traitor. Jacob decided to go to the pub, where he could at least chitchat with the bartender and me, for I usually spend my Sunday afternoons there. Before leaving, he only glanced into the backyard, in case Horatio was there, but nothing. Instead, she noticed that the rain had formed a large puddle in the corner of the garden between the roses and the hydrangea.

Horatio did not come home that night. Jacob stayed up late waiting for him and left his bowl on the porch, but nothing: apparently, the cat was gone. When the hours got small, he began to worry seriously, although he knew there was nothing to do but wait – cats are like that, especially in spring. They smell a female in heat and take off. “He’ll come home – he said to himself – he’s not that stupid.” And to bed did he go.

The following morning, he got up early for work. He immediately ran downstairs and opened the kitchen window. Horatio was in the garden! Happy as ever, Jacob stepped onto the porch to welcome his friend but stopped with wide-open eyes. Horatio was sitting in the same corner of the garden where the rain had formed the big puddle the day before. Now, the water was gone, and the cat was staring at a wide crack in the ground. Jacob couldn’t take his eyes off it, as if that crevice had swallowed every other thought. The cat lifted its head and meowed softly. The air was still and silent, and not a bird was heard. The whole village seemed fast asleep. Jacob didn’t know what to do with that crack, but it was already late, he really had to go to work. He decided to lock Horatio inside, but as he tried to grab him, the beast leapt and disappeared over the fence. Jacob cursed and stopped looking at the crack. He picked up a twig, and when he scraped the dirt on the edges, some clods disappeared in the dark with a muffled sound. Jacob thought of moles or something like a hedgehog or even a badger, but he knew they wouldn’t crack the ground like that. He wondered if the heavy rain had maybe carved that ditch. Yes! That explained why the water had disappeared so quickly and why the hydrangea and the rose bush seemed slightly lower than usual. The water had formed a stream of great power, and God knows how much damage it could have done if it had not stopped.

That night Jacob returned home quite late after an endless dinner with his colleagues, and on his way back he had found the only road leading to the Cauldron blocked. The cops said that someone had gone off the road and died. When the police finally lifted the blockade, the line of cars moved slowly and like a funeral procession passed by a car smashed in a ditch. The lights illuminated a trace of oil that crossed the carriage like a long crack in the asphalt. Jacob shivered and began to brood and mumble that cracks were opening everywhere, the world itself was cracking, and someone should have done something with that. Suddenly he felt the need to check behind the cupboard again. So he parked his car, got inside, rushed into the kitchen and moved the heavy furniture. The cement was there, an ugly grey scar. He opened the back door and called for Horatio. The garden was quiet, and the moon shed a pale light. With a shiver of horror, Jacob saw a dark shape crouching in the garden that resembled, he told me later, a child. The thing sat on its heels beside the crack in the cold, damp darkness. And then the most terrifying of metamorphoses occurred. Two small lights shone in the centre of the head, and then the being stretched slowly and began crawling rapidly across the courtyard. Jacob nearly screamed in terror as he recoiled and fell on the porch steps when the creature entered the cone of light meowing.

“Horatio! You scoundrel, bloody traitor! D’you wanna see me dead? Nice way to say hello to daddy, you bum!”

The cat seemed in a good mood, but when Jacob stroked him on his back, he noticed that the fur was all caked with mud.

“Where the hell have you been?”, he said again, but Horatio leapt into the night and disappeared again.

The next day Jacob called work to say he was sick and would not be going. He had had a restless night and felt like lying in bed a little longer than usual. However, morning laziness is a joy one can appreciate only with a free mind and a light heart. Jacob didn’t like changes, let alone surprises. Since he had started seeing those incomprehensible cracks everywhere, an unpleasant feeling had built in his guts. Now he could hear them run from the roof down to the bottom of the house. Half asleep, he thought he could catch some ominous creaking in the silence. Then, he fell asleep again and dreamed that the crack in the garden was opening into a chasm, out of which monstrous creatures with flat, long, pale faces and hollow eyes emerged. Jacob woke up very frightened only to discover that the ceiling of his room was crossed by a long crack. He leapt to his feet and gave a high-pitched scream that echoed through the house. His neighbours told me later on that it was awful to hear. I think that the worst crack opened right then in the head of my poor friend, as it were, one that couldn’t be filled.

When he went to the kitchen, Jacob tripped over an uneven tile. He looked more closely and saw in amazement that the floor was oddly wavy, and a long crack ran up the wall to the ceiling. The fissure started from behind the cupboard, and Jacob knew all too well that whatever was pushing from the other side, there was nothing he could do to hold it back. It was only a matter of time before those things would come out. He dialed my number and told me everything, as I accounted for. He still sounded lucid but there was a note of excruciating tension in his voice, as if something in him was about to snap. I was out of town for work and could go to him only in the early afternoon, unfortunately too late. Jacob welcomed me with feverish eyes, wearing his pyjamas. Almost stuttering, he kept telling me that some creatures living under his garden had kidnapped Horatio. He was convinced that those things were trying to bring his house down. I tried to cheer him up and checked out the cracks in the kitchen, and I told him that the damage could be fixed but that we had to act immediately. I promised him that I would send someone to check the hole in his garden, but I dared not suggest that he should send for a doctor too.

The following morning, the County Council sent an engineer to inspect the site, but Jacob insulted him and rudely sent him away. He reported that some madman was barricading himself in a crumbling house, and the matter passed directly into the hands of the police. The house, meanwhile, had begun to lean dangerously towards the backyard, where the crack had spread. I begged Jacob to let in the engineers and firefighters, but he refused to open the door. Everyone in Old Witchmare said that Jacob had lost his wits, and that was no surprise after all, for everyone knew about his sudden episodes of daydreaming when he zoned out only to return some moments later as one who has been abducted by the aliens. His head was full of cracks, everyone said, just like his old house.

While the police chief argued with the firefighters and the prosecutor about whether to break the door and drag Jacob out, I climbed over the fence and immediately noticed that the chasm was literally sucking down the garden. I could see the plants slowly move towards the hole and I had to run away not to be swallowed. In a few minutes, the house fell apart and sank into the hole without leaving a single nail behind. The news spread, journalists came and the lawyers with the insurance agents. Some geologists appeared too, who climbed down a well not far from the village. Their report left us speechless. The underground of the Cauldron is a gigantic anthill, an incredible labyrinth of caves and galleries that has grown over the millennia. The leader of the expedition explained to me that the cavity that had engulfed the house had opened up due to a larger and deeper landslide, which had set off a chain reaction. He said that the water of the Slithe and all the streams of the Witches’ Cauldron must have been sucked into the depth of the earth after some catastrophic collapse. They found the water, deep down, streaming dark and cold. And so, the mystery was explained. The ground was then consolidated and the other houses were declared sound and safe.

The empty space left by Jacob’s house makes me melancholy. What bothers me is thinking that Jacob was inside when it happened. And there’s something more. The geologist who had signed the report called me a week after the collapse. He had sent for a solicitor and wanted me to see something too.

“I’m glad you came”, he told me when I arrived. “We were about to close the well, when we found something that might be worth seeing. You know, you’re an expert and I could use your qualified opinion about that.”

“Ok, let’s see it then”, I said, both curious and reluctant.

He took me to the well and down into a side gallery. Below us, the hole was dark and deep, and the sound of distant water came from the depth. As we entered a half-collapsed chamber, the man explained that this was the epicentre of the collapse. With his lamp, he showed me two dozen skeletons wrapped in rags and stretched out in two parallel rows. Perhaps, this chamber had once been a tomb where they hurriedly buried those bodies. I believe there is some truth to the witch hunt legends for which the Cauldron is famous. In fact, all the bones of the limbs and necks were broken. Those poor devils were broken on the wheel and hanged, maybe as anointers or witches, who will ever know? When we emerged to the light, the solicitor ordered to seal the well and no one objected. Maybe, one day, someone will come and dig into its secrets. For now, it’s best to leave the past and its mysteries alone because the population is still quite shaken and doesn’t need any more scares. Besides, there is something that makes me wonder. In a remote corner of the chamber that I explored on my own, the debris formed a niche, and a white speck attracted me. It was Horatio, lying there, with his neck broken. Have you ever heard of any cat breaking its neck for falling down a well? I did not, but one never knows.

Gianluca Cinelli lives in Italy and is a scholar in Italian and Comparative Literature, editor of the Close Encounters in War Journal, and author of fiction with a taste for the weird, the spooky, and the uncanny. When not writing, he loves building wooden ship models and playing the bass guitar.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine

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“Blow Up Bella” Dark Short Story by James Hanna

"Blow Up Bella" Dark Fiction by James Hanna: James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, all of which have won awards, are available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/-/es/James-Hanna/e/B00WNH356Y?ref_=dbs_p_ebk_r00_abau_000000

“Billy,” said Joshua McIntyre. “Why don’t you get yerself a girlfriend steada watchin’ all that DVD porn?”

Billy Babbitt and Joshua McIntyre, friends since their college days, were sitting in Flakey Jake’s, a dive bar near Putnamville. Both were lifelong inhabitants of the small Indiana farm town, and the two of them met most evenings in Flakey Jake’s. Now in their forties, they lamented the course of their unexceptional lives. Joshua, once a high school gym teacher, had been fired from his job when a CNN video showed him vandalizing the Capital building during the January 6 insurrection. Billy, once an aspiring novelist, had shelved his manuscript years ago when a book publisher dismissed him as a third-rate, James Joyce wannabe. Now a reporter for the Putnamville Gazette, Billy devoted his literary skills to covering local bake sales and high school football games.  

“Well, why don’t ya?” Joshua said. “Women in the flesh are a lot more entertaining than women in porno flicks.”

“Tell that to yer wife,” Billy said. “I’m sure she’ll be flattered to hear it.”

“Naw, I don’t wanna spoil her,” said Joshua. “But I will admit to this. Without Stella’s loving touch, I’d just be a bum in a bar.”

“You’re a bum in a bar just the same,” Billy said. “I can’t see where yer wife’s made a difference.”

Joshua shook his head and took a long swallow of beer. “Women keep home fires burning,” he said. “That makes one hellava difference. Wouldn’t ya like to go home to a honey instead of a stack of DVD porn?” 

“Women want nothing to do with me,” Billy snapped. “They think I’m a literary nerd. If I had to pick between women and porn, I’d just as soon settle for porn.”

“Maybe ya haven’t tried hard enough.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Get rid of those polyester bell bottoms you’re wearing. Replace ’em with designer jeans. And get yerself a decent haircut ’cause your cowlick’s all over the place.”

“Designer jeans are expensive,” said Billy.

“Well, go sell your porn collection—ya gotta be sick of it by now. That’ll probably net you a fortune, and it wouldn’t be no great loss.”

Billy was unwilling to admit it, but Joshua was right. He had long been bored with his pile of porn and longed for a real female’s touch. But the tyranny of habit still gripped his guarded soul. “Do I gotta sell Deep Throat?” he said.

Joshua sighed like a kettle. “Billy, ya gotta ditch yer distractions. That starts with yer smut collection. You’re not a bad-lookin’ fella, ya know? You just gotta tidy up.”

“So where do I look for a babe in the flesh?”

“Try a singles dance at the Holiday Inn, and practice your line a bit first. Hell, it shouldn’t be long ’til a fella like you is beatin’ ’em off with a stick.”

The thought of beating off love-starved nymphs was more than Billy could resist. “All right,” he said. “I’ll sell my porn, but I’m hanging on to Deep Throat.”


After setting aside his favorite DVDs—Deep Throat and Lesbian Lunch—Billy took his depleted collection to Jaybird, the local porn shop. He sold his collection for only a fraction of what he had paid for it, but the hundred dollars he netted was enough to buy some designer jeans.

A week later, wearing his fancy-new jeans, Billy showed up at a singles dance at a nearby Holiday Inn. He walked into the ballroom confidently, his cowlick slicked into place, but the women were chatting among themselves and none looked in his direction. His confidence suffered further when he asked one of them to dance—a leathery blonde who stifled a yawn as she texted on her cell phone. “I don’t like the band, little man,” she drawled.

“How ’bout I buy you a drink?” Billy countered, “That oughta even things up.”

“How about you don’t,” the woman replied, “and we’ll call it even at that.”

Billy approached several more women and met with equal results—not one of them accepted his invitation to dance. “Hey, don’t I know you?” one said. “Don’t you report for the local paper.”

“I’m really a budding author,” Billy said. “Some call me the Renaissance Man.”

The woman cackled and rolled her eyes. “Is that what they call you, hon? I didn’t know Renaissance men wrote for the Putnamville Gazette.”

After a fruitless hour, Billy abandoned the Holiday Inn. If he had hoped to beat off babes with a stick, he had come to an unlikely place. The ballroom was not filled with wanton belles, as Joshua had suggested, but matrons in their fifties who had led concentrated lives. Lives that enabled them to see Billy for what he was—an underachiever whose desperate baggage was more than they cared to pick up.

Adding to Billy’s disappointment was the all-to-sobering thought that singles dances were no less stale than the porn he had given up. “Stuck-up bitches,” he muttered as he slipped into his car, and he cursed himself for the cash he had blown on a pair of designer jeans.


The following afternoon, Billy pawned his Mac for a hundred and fifty dollars, and then he returned to Jaybird hoping to buy back some of his porn. He realized that renewing his vice would afford him nothing more than the sterile embrace of his television and a change of solitude. But his soul felt so impoverished, so gravelly and bare, that nothing green seemed likely to ever take root in it.

Billy had not expected to meet the love of his life in Jaybird. He had not expected his heart to leap like a rabbit trapped in his chest. But sitting high on one of the shelves, as though watching for his arrival, was a stunning, life-sized brunette so appealing that Billy could not catch his breath. Her eyes were aglow with yearning; her cheeks were flushed with excitement; her pale, slender arms reached toward him in a permanent embrace. And her open, oval-shaped mouth bore the innocence of Eve in Paradise Lost—a naïf who had gasped when first she saw her reflection in a pond. She was wearing a short, frizzy nightie, which did her no justice at all—her perfect, hourglass figure belonged in an elegant evening gown.

“How much for the toy?” Billy asked the sales clerk, a greasy kid with acne. Billy kept his voice condescending as though he were pricing a used car. It would never do for that kid to suspect that he had suddenly fallen in love.

“You’re in luck,” said the kid. “We’re letting her go for a hundred and thirty dollars. She was made in Tijuana. Only the best dolls come out of there.”

“Has she a name?” Billy asked the kid. He knew his question was foolish, but he asked it anyway. It would be presumptuous of him not to know the doll’s name before he escorted her home.

“We call her Blow-Up Bertha,” the kid said, “but name her whatever you like.”

As he paid for the doll, Billy felt proud for the first time in his life. He felt as though he rescued a damsel entombed in a pirates’ cave. The kid winked as he handed Billy the doll, along with his receipt, and Billy was pleased to discover that she was uncommonly light.


After placing the doll in his car and fastening a seat belt over her chest, Billy drove her to the boarding house where he lived in a rented room. A few of the tenants stared at him as he lugged her into the house, but Billy was too excited to care about what they might think of him. Reaching his room, Billy opened the door and carried the doll over the threshold, and then he sat her ceremoniously on the bed and began to take off his pants. It did seem as though he was rushing things, since they had met just met an hour ago, and when a gentle voice admonished him, he felt like a dog caught raiding a cookie jar.

“What are you doing?” the voice purred. “Are you taking liberties with me, sir?”

The tone was sweeter than honey, softer than a summer rain, and the heavy Spanish accent made Billy’s underpants swell. The remarks had come from the doll even though her oval-shaped mouth had not moved, but her eyes were locked upon him as though he had escaped from a cage.

Billy zipped his pants up and hung his head in shame. Since the voice carried the weight of karma, it did not seem out of place. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Don’t think badly of me.”

The doll did not drop her stare. “Have you not kidnapped me, señor, and thrown me on your bed? And is it not your intention to have your way with me? Señor, you give me no choice but to have bad thoughts of you.”

“I’m n-no rapist!” Billy sputtered.

The doll looked at him more appraisingly, and the alarm went out of her voice. “So what are you then? A sad little man who lives in a messy room?”

“I’m a budding author,” said Billy. “They call me the Renaissance Man.”

“Yes, I’m sure they do,” said the doll. “But have you a proper name?”

“My name is Billy Babbitt, and I paid good money for you.”

“Good money does not buy slaves, Meester Babbitt. What a pig you are. And what might my name be, or did you bother to find out”

“I think it’s Blow-Up Bertha,” said Billy. “It says that on my receipt.”

“Dios mio!” the doll exclaimed. “Some stupid boy must have named me. Please address me as Bella Blanco, or I will be very cross with you.”

They looked at each other strategically. Billy struggled for something to say.

After a minute, the doll broke the silence. “So tell me Billy Babbitt,” she teased. “have you greater ambitions, sir? Or is it your calling to grab señoritas and ravage them in this room?”

“Can’t we think of this as seduction?” asked Billy.

“Seduction? Pah!” the doll snapped. “Does seduction not have stages, señior? Should you not date a woman first?”

“I’m out of practice with dating,” said Billy.

“Que pena!” the doll replied. “Have you ever dated a woman, at all? I doubt that, Billy Babbitt.”

“I’ve tried,” Billy said, “but women don’t like me.”

The doll gasped like a broken pump. “Why should women like you. You’re a skinny hombre who lives in a sty, and you probably watch naughty movies. What makes you think any woman would want to waste time on you?”

Billy grew redder than a plum, and his palms began to sweat. “W-would you like to go out to dinner?” he stammered.

The doll gazed at him with pity and sternness. “Dinner?” she spat as though scolding a child. “You want to take me to dinner? All right, I accept your offer, señor. At least, that might give us a start.”


After dressing Bella in a black, evening gown, which he bought in a Goodwill store, Billy took her to Hot Tamales, a Mexican restaurant in Putnamville. The proprietor, perhaps thinking that Bella was a prop for some local play, expressed no objection as Billy seated her at one of the corner tables. Fortunately, the evening was young and the restaurant had no other diners, but Billy still took the precaution of sitting Bella with her back to the door.

Billy ordered a platter of arroz con pollo and a plate for each of them. After heaping both plates with chicken and rice, he said, “Bon appetite.”

Bella did not touch her food, but she seemed pleased by the restaurant’s décor. She was clearly glad to be somewhere other than Billy’s dirty room, and her voice bore a note of approval as she renewed their conversation. “So tell me, Billy, what do you do when you’re not kidnapping innocent women?”

“I write for the Putnamville Gazette.”

“How interesting. Tell me all about it.”

“There’s not much to tell,” Billy shrugged.

“Well, what are your hobbies, señor.”

“I go to the movies a lot, Miss Blanco, but what’s there to say about that?”

Bella chuckled politely, but her tone of voice grew bored. “Billy, it seems I have more questions than you have answers to give me.”

“I’m not much of a talker,” Billy confessed.

“Please make more of an effort, señor. Perhaps you could tell me the reason you are called the Renaissance Man.”

Billy needed no prompting to expound on his pet peeve: the indifference of the corporate-run publishing houses to scribes out of step with the times. He described, in painful detail, the progress he’d made on his book: a dreamscape of poetic allusions that he titled The Sweat of the Sun. Of course, this made him a throwback to an age of literary giants, writers whose towering efforts would never be published today. If he had only lived in Paris, during the 1920s, Billy would have dined with Gertrude Stein and gotten drunk with Hemingway.

Bella listened intently and sighed when Billy was done. “For this, they call you the Renaissance Man, or is that what you call yourself?”

Since his pose had failed to impress her, Billy decided to change his act. Perhaps the role of a paramour would bring him better results. “I’ve given up writing,” he proudly announced. “My passions belong to you. I even pawned my Mac, so I could rescue you.”

“How simpatico,” Bella huffed. “But tell me something, señor. What makes you think I wanted a bobo to take me out of that store?”

“A pervert may have bought you if I hadn’t shown up first.”

“Since you quit your writing to buy me, señor, I am no better off with you.”

“I was hoping you might be grateful,” groused Billy.

A sob crept into her voice. “Grateful for what, Meester Babbitt? A man who buys me cheap dresses and insists he was born too late? Señor, I believe you’ll soon blame me for not finishing your book.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because, Meester Babbitt, you are much too fond of complaining. It is bad enough being your captive without becoming your whipping girl too.”

Stunned by Bella’s bluntness, Billy averted her eyes. “L-let’s talk about something else,” he pleaded.

“Let’s end this date,” Bella snapped. “I appreciate your effort, but I’ve lost my appetite.”


As Billy lugged Bella back to his room, his heart began to pound. After all, they had had their first quarrel, so he expected some makeup sex. But his hopes for compensation were dashed when he set Bella back on his bed. She told him not to touch her and went into a lingering sulk.

Bella’s depression continued for days, and Billy felt miserable. Compounding his grief were the tearful laments she would mutter to herself. “Why oh why,” she moaned, “do I not have a loving home. Mother Mary, what have I done to be trapped in this terrible room?” She seemed like a modern-day Emma Bovary, a woman doomed by her dreams, and his was the role of Emma’s drab husband who richly deserved her contempt.

After several days, Billy tried to improve Bella’s opinion of him. He acquired a loan from a local bank, took his computer out of hock, and emailed the first chapter of his manuscript to several small publishers. A week later, a publisher emailed him back and said his chapter showed merit. She liked his stream-of-conscious technique, and she asked him to send her the book. When he told this news to Bella, she practically swooned. “Do send her the book!” she cried. “I want you to be a real author, señor. I want to have good thoughts about you.”

Billy emailed his book to the publisher. She accepted it the next day, describing it as a Proustian gem that did not need much polishing. She promised she would get back to him in two weeks with the edits and cover design, and she said she hoped he would use the time to come up with a marketing plan.

Flushed by the specter of future success, Billy was jubilant, particularly since this wonderful news pulled Bella out of her funk. “Billy, I feel like dancing,” she gushed. “Forgive me for doubting you, sir. Dios mio, I’m glad it was you and not a pervert that bought me.”

Since a celebration seemed in order to keep Bella’s spirits high, Billy took out another loan and booked them a carnival cruise.


Billy was so elated by Bella’s festive mood that he did notice the stares of the passengers as he carried her aboard a plane to Miami. Nor did he hear their laughter as he fastened Bella into her seat or turn his head when a woman cried out, “What kind of airline is this?” A flight attendant suggested that Bella be placed in a carry-on rack, but Billy showed her his extra ticket and she let Bella stay in her seat.

Bella drew even more attention at the cruise terminal in Miami. A child shouted, “Mommy, I want that balloon,” a security guard called for backup, and several people raised their iPhones and took videos of her. But a check-in agent grinned good-naturedly and gave Billy two boarding passes. “Is that prop for the Mardi Graz party?” he asked, and Billy stopped holding his breath. When the security guard waved the couple aboard, Billy squeezed Bella’s hand reassuringly then he clutched her as though she were a life preserver and rushed her onto the ship.

Billy had hoped that a carnival cruise would bring Bella to amorous heights but Bella, a lady of breeding, had no use for the noisy boat. The costume balls did not interest her, the stage shows made her yawn, and she certainly had no desire to be force-fed six times a day. “Billy,” she said, “who are these people who party all day long? Their drunkenness and gluttony are depressing me, señor.”

“How about that sunset?” said Billy as they stood on the promenade deck.

“The sunset is beautiful, mi amor, but must we share it with fools?”

At Bella’s insistence, they deserted the cruise when the ship docked in Nassau, and her mood improved considerably as they explored the island together. The tropical gardens enthralled her, the waterfalls made her gasp, and the flamingos in the nature center took away her breath. She particularly enjoyed snorkeling with dolphins because she had no trouble staying afloat, and she laughed like a child when one of the dolphins nudged her with its nose.

They consummated their relationship in a hotel overlooking a bay, but Billy’s joy turned to panic when Bella sprang a leak. The leak hissed like an angry snake, accelerating Billy’s fear as he cupped his hand over a shriveling breast and lugged her to the front desk. “Help her! Help her!” he shouted. “She’s going into shock!” The clerk summoned the hotel limousine driver who drove the couple to a garage where an attendant glued a tire patch onto Bella’s wheezing breast. A couple of blasts from an air hose restored Bella to her full size, and Billy wept with gratitude as he took her back to their room.

Perhaps Bella considered the patch to be a blot on her beauty, or perhaps their constant sightseeing had sapped her energy. In any case, she had no desire to renew their connubial bliss. “Later, mi amor,” she snapped when he reached for her in bed. “If you start treating me like a plaything, I will not think well of you.”

“You’re the joy of my life,” Billy protested.

“I’m a balloon,” Bella replied. “The joy of your life should not be a balloon You need to complete your book.”


A day after they returned to Putnamville, Billy’s publisher sent him an email with some attachments, and Billy realized that completing his book would prove a daunting task. The edits seemed excessive, the cover image looked trite, and Billy was irked that she’d sent him a contract to split the promotional costs.

“Damn,” Billy grumbled as he scanned the edits. “She’s mending my book with an axe. On top of that, she wants me to pay for butchering my voice.”

“Well, pay her,” said Bella. “Can you not see she has given you a chance? Are you too pigheaded, mi amor, not to bet on yourself?”

Billy took out a third loan and sent the publisher a check, and then he grudgingly read through the edits and tried to revise his book. But his manuscript was suffering the death of a thousand cuts—a torture so cruel and calculated that Billy could not witness it. After deleting the publisher’s emails, Billy cursed his damnable luck, and Bella, unable to cope with him, retreated into herself. She did not need to say anything, her stiffness said it all, and in a matter of days, their common-law marriage had grown intolerable.

 Hoping to salvage some vestige of the happiness they had known, Billy contacted a therapist and booked them for couple’s counseling. But Bella refused to open up when Billy took her to their first session, and the therapist took Billy aside and gave him a piece of advice. “Mister Babbitt,” he said. “You’re much too fond of your psychotic break. If you decide to return to normality, you will have to get rid of the doll.”

Since normality meant only rejection and a new pile of DVD porn, Billy refused further treatment and carted Bella home. But Bella, who continued to assault him with silence, seemed increasingly like a balloon, and one afternoon, Billy decided that he would be no worse off on his own.

When he took Bella back to Jaybird, the greasy kid shook his head. “I ain’t paying for damaged goods,” he snapped.

“You can have her for free,” Billy said.

Billy stood as though shackled after handing Bella back to the kid. Her gaze was so dispirited, when the kid put her back on the shelf, that she seemed like a trusting dog who had been surrendered to a pound. He agonized over something to say to her, a tribute to cushion his grief. “At least, we had Nassau,” he blurted, but Bella just stared into space.


That afternoon, Billy yielded to habit and returned to Flakey Jake’s, but the barroom now looked so gloomy, so prohibitive and dark, that he felt as though he had ducked into a cave to evade the judgment of God. Joshua was sitting at their usual table, nursing a glass of beer, but even the sight of his lifelong friend did not cheer Billy up.

After buying them a full pitcher, Billy topped off Joshua’s beer.

“Where ya been all month?” Joshua said. “Did ya get lucky at the dance?”

Billy mentioned the heavenly woman with whom he had broken up. Of course, he did not tell Joshua that she was an inflatable doll; instead, he described her ethereal beauty and her generous resolve to support him when he called himself an elevated soul.

“You make her sound like an angel,” said Joshua as Billy started to fill his own glass. “But if she tried to change ya, it was wrong of her to do that.”

Billy remembered how lost Bella looked when he left her in the shop, how her frozen arms stretched toward him, how she gaped as though calling him back. The memory was so enduring, and so beyond repair, that his hands shook as though they were palsied and he overpoured his beer.

“Let’s talk no more about her,” he griped as the puddle soaked his pants. “At least, she was right about one thing. I like to complain too much.”

“Blow Up Bella” was previously published in the journal “A Thin Slice of Anxiety”.

James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, all of which have won awards, are available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/-/es/James-Hanna/e/B00WNH356Y?ref_=dbs_p_ebk_r00_abau_000000

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine

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“An Account of Six Poisonings” Dark Humour by Nicolas Ridley

"An Account of Six Poisonings" Dark Humour by Nicolas Ridley: Nicolas Ridley lives in Bath (UK) where he writes fiction, non-fiction, flash fiction, and stage plays under different names. A prize-winner and three times a Pushcart Prize nominee, his short stories have been widely published in anthologies, literary magazines and journals in the UK, Ireland, Canada and the USA.

,My sign was the pestle and mortar. My knowledge was roots and seeds, vines and leaves, bulbs and berries. I was a grinder, a blender, a crusher, a mulcher; I was a master of tubers. I mixed the tinctures and measured the powders that might cure or kill. (A single grain may be the difference between health and death.) Mine was a calling. A position of trust. I was the court’s poisoner.

No more. My poisons are at hand, but they are seldom employed. What I was, I was. What I am, I am. I snore in warm corners. I slumber in a feather bed. I shuffle between here and there. If someone speaks, I cock my ear and pretend to deafness. If someone points, I squint and shake my head. My sign is a bent back, an elder stick, an idiot grin. Why do I play the ancient pantaloon? Why do you think? A poisoner has many enemies.

Ladies. Gentlemen. You have asked me for an account of the six poisonings. I will tell you the story but you must know that it is a dangerous tale which never can be spoken of or shared. Have you taken my meaning? Then I will proceed …


—Their father was a loathsome toad.

Queen Utrica had an earthy way with words. The high-born have no fear of low speech while we who serve them search for gracious phrases or sweet ornaments. But I will try to emulate my mistress and speak as plainly as I may.

—He was a brute. As a husband he had nothing to commend him, she said. Nothing except his manliness. His great manliness. His considerable and undeniable manliness.

Queen Utrica sat for a moment, lost in her memories of amatory battle.

—Yes, I wept at his death, she continued. A tear or two. No more. The wonder is that he died peacefully in his bed.

Here I will confess that I loved Queen Utrica. Humbly, wholly and devotedly. As the loam loves the trowel. As the worm loves the rose. As the living love the dead.

—Life was less beastly without him, said Queen Utrica. Much less beastly. I hoped my sons might be better men than their father, but I found I didn’t like either of them.

The Queen sighed deeply.

—I wasn’t made for motherhood, she said.

How I adored her.

—Hector and Cyril! What foolishly mistaken names we gave them. Hector was to have been a hero but he was as limp as a wilting lily. Pale, frail and feeble.

Although, it should be noted, something of a scholar. He excelled at poetry and music. (Mathematics was too vigorous for him.) At a young age, he retired to a single tower in a far corner of the castle grounds. There he wrote verses and played a zither while standing at a high window that overlooked a rose garden.

Hector was never seen with a sword in his hand while his younger brother, Cyril, was seldom seen without one.

Cyril was a roaring child. Fury-filled and certainly no scholar. His tutors were too terrorised to teach him either to read or write. Pain was Cyril’s music; oaths were his verses. A horrid boy. But his father may have loved him.

When the King expired, it might have been argued that Hector, as the first-born, should have succeeded to his throne. But it was an argument no one was willing to pursue. Cyril had spent so much of his youth cutting things off (arms, heads, legs and the like) and running things through (mostly guts and gizzards) that it was wise never to disagree with him.

King Cyril’s coronation should have been a grand affair but it ended abruptly when the King felt it had gone on long enough. He had business to attend to, he said.

After slaughtering his rivals at home, he cast about for enemies abroad. The neighbouring kingdoms of Indium, Gallium and Thulium were conquered and despoiled in quick succession. Hugo Hairshirt, Edgar the Improbable and the Margrave Elector of Shining Badgers all surrendered their territories. (They were, of course, beheaded.) As was a catholic collection of chamberlains and chancellors. (Their heads were set on poles.)

Prince Hector escaped his brother’s savage ministrations and stayed untroubled in his tower; playing his zither, composing his verses and looking down from his high window on the rose garden below.

—I wonder, Queen Utrica sometimes asked, if I should have liked daughters any better.

I will permit myself to suggest that the Queen’s opinion of her daughter-in-law, Rosalind, provides the answer.

—A slight, simpering creature, said Queen Utrica. I don’t know where Cyril found her. Cowering in the cellar of some smouldering castle, I suppose.

No matter. Rosalind adored him. I can only speculate that he must have inherited his father’s great manliness. After the perfunctory nuptials that united King Cyril and sweet Rosalind, there was a discomfiting lull. Indium, Gallium and Thulium had been reduced to rubble and there was no one left to fight. Thank God, then — if this isn’t impious — for the Great Turk’s blasphemy and the Pope’s crusade to save the Holy Kidney. If he had known about him, King Cyril would have set out to fight the Great Turk on his own, but his geography was shaky and it was handy to have the Papal map-reader to guide him to Constantinople, Aleppo and beyond. Thus it was that King Cyril left his kingdom for — as it transpired — seven years.

Queen Rosalind was distraught

—A weepy, willowy girl, said Queen Utrica. I should have liked to snap her in two.

Rosalind took to walking in the rose garden, tearful, wretched, inconsolable. And, from his high window, Prince Hector watched her.

Despatches from King Cyril received at court told of battles, massacres, marches, sieges, trophies taken, prisoners slaughtered. Glorious triumphs in the cause of the Holy Kidney. We all hoped — although we did not admit it — that the Great Turk would continue his stubborn resistance. What we did not want — with the exception of Queen Rosalind, naturally — was King Cyril’s return. Nor did we want him dead. Were King Cyril to be killed, chaos might be unleashed. A hundred clans and factions would twitch to life and — like reattached limbs — writhe and wrestle to take his lands. No, we needed King Cyril to be living. But not here.

Is not God good? This was our thought when first we heard the news that King Cyril had been captured by the Great Turk. It seemed an answer to our prayers. He lived — but far away in a deep dungeon. If we had known that the Great Turk — a chivalrous gentleman — had not in fact confined his prisoner in darkness but permitted him to wander through the luscious foliage and sweet fountains of his courtyard, it might not have troubled us. Although it should have done.

For a period, life was blissful. Harvests were good. Taxes were collected. Our lives at court could be enjoyed to the full. Rosalind, it is true, remained in her state of misery but now she was joined in her walks around the rose garden by Prince Hector who had descended from his tower to commune with her.

And then disaster. News reached us that King Cyril had escaped. Or — as we were later to learn — his escape had been effected by Fatima, the daughter of the Great Turk. She, it seems, had spied the prisoner walking day after day in her father’s gardens and fallen in love with him. It was an unlucky turn of events. In a month or two King Cyril – accompanied by Fatima who, naturally, was now his lover – returned to his kingdom.

If you have read the chronicle, you will know what happened next. The official history is most touching. Fatima, the Great Turk’s daughter, loved King Cyril as much as any woman could, while Rosalind’s joy at her lord’s return was such that she happily forgave her husband’s love for his saviour. She, too, loved Fatima, and Cyril loved them both. He had no wish to choose between them. And so he sought a dispensation from the Pope to take a second wife which — in recognition of his service in the matter of the Holy Kidney — was granted. Cyril and Fatima were joined in holy matrimony and shared their bed with Rosalind. A loving trinity.

Ladies. Gentlemen. You must know that what one reads should not always be believed.

Nonetheless, King Cyril was a much-changed man. Whether he had been chastened by captivity or civilised by the Great Turk, is not for us to judge. And although he didn’t learn to read or play himself, King Cyril could now be seen with his head in Fatima’s lap while Rosalind sang sweetly or read verses of her own composition.

(Prince Hector had returned to his tower.)

If Rosalind frowned, King Cyril, resting beneath fragrant Fatima’s soft bosom, saw nothing.


When Rosalind approached me, I sought Queen Utrica’s counsel.

—Matrimony is a sacrament, said the Queen. It is your duty to restore propriety.

The stems of powdered monk-eye, picked at dawn, served Rosalind well; and Fatima died in frightful agony.

King Cyril, it seems, had favoured the Great Turk’s daughter above adoring Rosalind and, although much reformed, his course was clear.

When King Cyril approached me, I sought Queen Utrica’s counsel.

—The King is the agent of the Almighty, said the Queen. It is your duty to serve him faithfully.

The rind of ground angel-toe, picked at noon, served King Cyril well; and Rosalind died in frightful agony.

 Prince Hector, from his high tower, saw all. The murder of beloved Rosalind was more than he could bear.

When Prince Hector approached me, I sought Queen Utrica’s counsel.

—The heart’s cause is sacred, said the Queen. It is your duty to worship at love’s shrine.

The bark of crushed hermit-nose, picked at dusk, served Prince Hector well; and King Cyril died in frightful agony.

There was an interlude when it seemed Prince Hector might now descend from his tower in order to ascend the throne. This was, of course, unthinkable.

—Regicide and fratricide are offences against Nature, said Queen Utrica. It is your duty to ensure justice is done.

The crust of sliced virgin-spleen, picked at night, served Queen Utrica well; and Prince Hector died in frightful agony.

Queen Utrica’s rule was harsh but fair — well, harsh — and all was well. But then — as if for the first time — Queen Utrica seemed to see me. Her loyal servant. Her devoted slave. The court’s poisoner. And I sensed that she was troubled.

I spied her walking in the rose garden, surveying roots and seeds, vines and leaves, bulbs and berries, and I, too, was troubled.

The husk of sieved poet-brain, picked day or night, has always served me well; and Queen Utrica — it pains me to confess — died in frightful agony.


This is an account of the six poisonings. Ladies, Gentlemen, I ask you to raise your glasses to poisoners and their melancholy profession. Drink deep. Drink long. That is good. Ah. You have been counting? The fragrant Fatima. Love-lost Rosalind. Cyril. Hector. And my beloved Queen. That’s five poisonings, you say. Drink deep. Drink long. Flakes of baked Phoenix-tripe are odourless and tasteless in a cup of wine or ale. Drink deep. Drink long. Did I not tell you that this was a dangerous tale that can never be spoken of or shared?

Nicolas Ridley lives in Bath (UK) where he writes fiction, non-fiction, flash fiction, and stage plays under different names. A prize-winner and three times a Pushcart Prize nominee, his short stories have been widely published in anthologies, literary magazines and journals in the UK, Ireland, Canada and the USA.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine


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“This Time, Surely” Dark Short Story by Neolatry

"This Time, Surely" Dark Fiction by Neolatry

He’s outside my window again. I had thought that if I ignored him, then surely, he would move on to ruin someone else’s night instead. Yet every day I’ve heard crying, right outside my bedroom. It hurts. The constant noise hurts my ears, and the sounds of a child in pain hurts my heart. I know he’s not really human, he’s only what’s left of one; the real boy lost to time and the dangers of youth. Still, he comes to my window and wails, and I cannot tune him out. 

A week of restless sleep leads me to ask my mother for advice. She suggests I talk to him. Surely, the boy will leave if I ask him to, if I explain the trouble he’s causing. So when he next comes to my window I call out to him. I ask him to spend his nights somewhere else because he’s keeping me awake. He cries. He does not leave, and I go to bed defeated. I dream of dead children. The next night I ask him again to find somewhere else to go. I tell him that he’s hurting me, but the next night he is crying at my window like I never said a word.

After that, I ask my friends for advice. He just won’t leave. He won’t stay away and I can’t hear myself think anymore. My friends suggest he might be hungry. They say I should lead him away with a trail of snacks, and surely he’ll be out of my hair in no time. So, I gather the scraps of my courage, and I open my windows as I cook dinner to entice him. Even monsters must have preferences. I will find his. Every night, a different dish, each a myriad of flavors, and I carefully keep track of which he seems to take notice of and which he leaves be. I don’t sleep a wink for days, stuck watching, and all the while listening to the endless echoes.

Eventually, I feel confident in my knowledge of him. Weaving a trail of offerings along the house feels like hope. Into the backyard, down to the creek, through the trees that shelter the neighborhood to the other side of the wood. Safely out of earshot. By the time I make it back home, it’s nearly night already… yet I hear nothing but birdsong. Maybe tonight, I’ll finally be able to get some real sleep. I hold my breath as I take off my shoes, but the only cries belong to a wren. I check every window before putting my tea kettle on the stove, and all I see are trees. The sky darkens further. I tell myself the only sound I’m listening for is a whistle from the kitchen. 

Not even a moment later, no further away than before, anguished sounds fill the room. My heart sinks into my stomach. He’s still at my window, and tonight I’m crying too.

Another week goes by, and I’ve started hearing him during the day. He’s not really there. Most of the time I remember that, but the cries that come from my own mind startle me either way. My mother is worried about me; I’m not sure how to reassure her when I know she’s right to be. She calls my grandparents as I nap on her couch. My grandfather suggests I pray for the ghost, as The Lord will surely help a lost soul. So, I pray to the god they believe in. I pray to some other ones too. I pray to death itself. Night after night, I pray for his peace, I pray that his spirit moves on, I pray that he finds something to comfort him. God does not end his suffering. Death does not answer me. Back to my window he returns.

I ask my neighbors what I should do. I’ve clearly caught them off guard, I’ve never asked for their opinion on anything before. Hopefully, after he leaves my window, I’ll never have to ask again. My neighbors smirk a bit at me, clearly disbelieving the notion of ghosts entirely. They live across the road, their driveway too long and winding to hear him at night. Lucky bastards. I turn to leave, but as I walk back down their driveway, one says to try burning him up. I blink at them, but the other only shrugs, and tells me to call them when I’m sane enough to have lunch together. 

Burn him up. I consider it, even though I don’t want to hurt him; it can’t be his fault he’s dead… but I consider the other words. Am I still sane? I hear crying that isn’t there, I can’t sleep without horrible nightmares, and I spend all my time thinking about him. Regardless, I still believe this is a solvable problem. Surely, there has to be some answer I’m missing.

Maybe burning is that answer. I think about fire all day. Then, the sun sets, and he’s outside my window, crying. Always, always, always, always crying and I don’t have anything to ward ghosts away- I don’t have any incense to burn, no candles to light. I open the kitchen cabinet and pull out my camping lighter anyway. He’s still out there, still crying, yet for the first time since his arrival, I go outside while he’s here.

He doesn’t seem phased at all. The crying never stops, not even when I spark the lighter. He does look at me, though. I don’t think I’ve ever seen his eyes before. Little lights of his own, inside a dark, hollow shell. I thrust the flame forward; he stares but doesn’t move, only watches. I can’t quite reach him; I have to jump and the flame gutters- he doesn’t move. I’m so close, I can’t give up here, I cup the hot light in my palm against the wind and try again. The flame brushes against him. The crying crescendos, so piercing my lungs rattle and my ears ring. I catch my breath just in time to watch as he flies away, fleeing. He brushes against the whole house as he darts, sparks falling from the air around him.

All at once, stillness sweeps over me, my ears ringing now at the absence of sound. There’s no crying. It’s finally quiet because no one is crying. With nothing left of his presence to chase away, I go back inside. There are flames growing, crackling as they climb the walls and caress the floors, but I cannot hear them over the sweet silence. There is smoke outside my window, inside of it too, but all I see is his absence. He’s not at my window, and I’m so enamored by the sight that nothing else could possibly catch my attention. I slip into my bed, hopeful that I will not dream tonight. I feel nothing past the overwhelming relief which blankets me in breathless victory, not even the fire that licks up my sheets and spreads to my clothes. 

He’s gone. Surely, I’ll never see him again.

Neolatry is an emerging poet and writer from the Cincinnati area. Find her in the city seeking inspiration for her genre fiction, penning poems in a park, or admiring her pet snake Mika. Contact information can be found at neolatry.carrd.co

“The Rain” Dark Short Story by Loredano Cafaro

"The Rain" Dark Fiction by Loredano Cafaro: Loredano Cafaro lives in the hills of Turin, Italy, with his wife and their two sons. In the little free time left to him by his work as a computer scientist, every now and then he imagines stories. Sometimes he writes them down. You can find him at https://loredanocafaro.com.

It was a gleeful rainy night. Water in front, water behind, water on the right, and water on the left. More than a tranquil summer storm, it looked like the background of the universal flood. It was raining with anger, as if divine ire had decided to wash away all the sins of humanity in an instant. It was raining with a roar, in a silent pouring scream that seemed to envelop the world. It was raining like I could not recall ever seeing it rain. And I thought out loud: “Shit, look how much it’s raining.”

I had always loved sitting in a soft armchair, in front of the fireplace, watching the raindrops through the opaque glass of a window. But now the armchair was the seat of an old Panda car held together by adhesive tape and prayers, there was no fireplace, and I was starting to get edgy. While I concluded that the most suitable soundtrack for the occasion would have been “Singing in the Rain” celebrated by The Cure, I turned off the radio – which no longer picked up anything – and I paid more attention to the revs of the motor, since the Panda’s electrical system was never that great of a masterpiece. At the first raindrop, in fact, the dashboard had gone off and, in the faint reddish light of the lit cigarette, I could see the fuel indicator go crazy and jump beyond full tank. The current had to travel from the battery to the candles and the lights, and I dared not imagine how long and full of dangers that journey could be. Not to mention the actual risk of wetting cap and the like.

I slowed down, unable to even see the roadside. I lit another Amadis and reflected on whether to stop or not, to wait for the storm to calm down. After all, driving blind was not the best solution, but I had never been able to wait for a situation to resolve itself, doing nothing to screw it up further. I had always preferred to run toward the problem rather than wait for it to reach me, and on that occasion, I didn’t want to be outdone. Reckless, as usual. I began to nervously whistle “Singing in the Rain,” just to play it off, trying in vain for a dark intonation.

To be honest, I was driving along a remote hillside street that I liked very little. I would have challenged the devil himself just to get out of it as soon as possible. It was dark, winding and desolate. In short, one of those streets on which the protagonists of the B series horror movies end up right before something bad happens to them. A street so disturbing that at night – and with the rain, too – not even Batman would pass through it.

A puddle the size of Lake Garda and the engine started sobbing; it seemed to run only on three cylinders.

“One down,” I whispered. “Fuck.”

And I remembered a boy who had tried the theoretical driving test on my same day, failing to pass the written test and having to fall back on the oral. He was stranded on an answer about the engine, so the examiner, as usual, had then thoroughly investigated.

“What is the radiator water for?” he had asked the boy.

“To extinguish the spark plugs,” the boy had replied.

Perhaps more power would have been useful. I turned off the rear window heater and lingered for a few moments on the lever of the front windshield wipers, which by now was no longer of any use, such was the amount of water pouring onto the windshield. I gently lifted the windshield wiper lever, I could not see anything anymore, I lowered it a little less gently.

But how could I have considered going to say goodbye to Sergio, before he left for the holidays, in that goddamn place in the ass-end of nowhere in which he lived?!

A puddle the size of Loch Ness and a jolt, stronger than the others.

“Two down,” I muttered. “Fuck, fuck!”

I put out the cigarette, only half consumed, and mechanically lit another one. Cold sweat ran down my spine. “Okay, I will stop and wait,” I resigned myself. “I will warm up the engine and maybe stay quiet until it…” All the dashboard lights came on and the dull hum of the fan stopped keeping me company. “…stops raining.” A few second and the windshield was covered with an impassable halo. “Oh shit.”

With the help of a hand, my gaze tried to break through the misted glass but was not pleased with the first thing it could see. The dark shape, the braking, the steering. The 180. The engine went out and the lit cigarette fell on my seat between my legs; I managed to recover it, with a sigh of relief, before it could do damage. I looked all around: the dark shape, if there ever was one, was nowhere to be seen.

“Someone loves me up there,” I whispered, watching the reddish light of the cigarette flicker between my fingers. “Sister, you’re the only thing that hasn’t gone out in here,” I muttered a moment before smothering it in the ashtray. “For solidarity.”

No engine, no lights. I tried in vain to restart everything, but it was like trying to resurrect a dead person, and that was not my area of expertise.

I opened the door, got out of the car and was immediately soaked. I noticed with astonishment that there was no asphalt under my feet, but gravel: I had entered some courtyard, judging by the open space that welcomed me. In the wet night, I thought I caught sight of a wall: how I had managed to slip in there, God only knew. I opened the hood door, looking for an umbrella I was sure I had left there. I lowered it again, peevishly; I was wrong.

Unable to tell where I had come from, I advanced in the dark, in the pouring rain, in any direction. Where there is a courtyard, usually, there is also a house and I would have found it, at the cost of going around in circles for hours. Or for days.

I slipped a soggy Amadis from the package in my jacket pocket and carried it to my mouth; the fury of the rain broke it in two, leaving me only the filter. My nerves had definitely gone quite up.

“Enough!” I shouted. “Where is the olive branch?”

A dim light lit up before me. I ran forward and found myself in front of a building, a window through which a shadow holding a candle pointed to something on the right.

I found the door, opened it, and entered.


“The house is isolated: no light, no telephone, nothing at all. The good news is I have a decent supply of candles.”

My host was a petite brunette in her thirties. Her black eyes radiated heat and the context of her body gave an impression of innocence and fragility; it made you desire to take care of her. Instead, it was she who was taking care of me.

“My car is also isolated,” I said.

She smiled, a sweet smile that invited you to life and made you important.

“We haven’t introduced ourselves yet. I am Elisabetta,” she said, holding out her right hand in a strong, warm grasp.

“I am Stefano.”


“I’m sorry I can’t help you. I don’t have a car. I took refuge up here to escape the hectic city life and ended up turning this house into a hermitage. The only contacts I have with the outside world are my publisher, to whom I send the stories I write, and the van that delivers food and necessities. I am sorry, but you ended up in the wrong place.”

“You say? I don’t think so. Suffice it to say that I owe you my life: you saved me from a principle of drowning.”

She laughed again.

“I’m afraid I’m the one who should thank you instead,” she whispered. “Although I love solitude, this rain is melancholic and seems bound to last forever. A little company will do me good.”

“Do you live here alone?”

“Not anymore.”


It was like a dream, an infinite instant, unrepeatable and always the same. I stopped counting the days after the first, and time lost its meaning. I wasn’t waiting for anything anymore and nothing was waiting for me; my life had ceased to be that long and gruelling wait for someone who is perpetually late. It didn’t matter if, beyond the impassable layer of water that separated us, the rest of the world still existed. Nothing mattered except me and her.

“I love you, Elisabetta.”

“I love you, Stefano.”

Love came for both of us, and it was like never having loved before. It seemed that our two souls had once been one and that now, after long wandering, they were finally reunited. We were complete. And happy.

“I love reading your stories.”

“It is much nicer to write them, now that they are for you.”

Food supplies abounded so that, despite being isolated, we needed nothing.

“Damn, I quit smoking!” I realized one day, who knows when, as I noticed my jacket resting in the armchair where I had left it the day I arrived. “I had been trying for years. Elisabetta, I quit smoking!”

“You don’t need it anymore: you have me.”

“Do you mean that I’ll soon stop drinking and eating?”


And time kept passing, or perhaps there was no time at all? Who knows. Day and night no longer existed, nothing in the surrounding world could reach us, nothing could filter through to us and nothing else besides us counted anyway.

I went to the window and watched it. 

“The rain…”



“Tell me.”

“Which position could we do tonight?”

“The lotus flower whipped by the wind.”

“What would it be?”

“First of all, you have to go out and look for a lotus flower.”


I found myself more and more often – if it makes sense to use this term in a timeless life – to my surprise, scrutinizing the nothingness beyond our world. I was complete, what else could I wish for? I was satisfied, happy. Always.



Elisabetta understood. She cried. She spoke.

“If you want to leave, you won’t be able to return.”

That was when I realized. Or, perhaps, I accepted a truth that I already knew.

“I know.”

“Isn’t all this enough for you?”

“I am a man, Elisabetta. I am a man. I will never have peace: this is my damnation.”

A quick kiss, no other word. I grabbed my jacket from the armchair and left, the door closed behind me and I was outside. A couple of steps and I was already soaked. Another pair and I had already turned toward the house, toward Elisabetta.

“You knew it, Stefano. You have made your choice.”

No light, no building; nothing at all. Only water.



Holy water, perhaps.

I turned back on myself and moved forward. A few steps and I saw the dark shape, a few more and I could make out a big tree against which my old Panda was resting, tired. All that remained was a meagre tangle of sheets, the cockpit could no longer be distinguished from the rest of the car. Nobody could have come out alive.


I slipped a wet Amadis out of the package in the pocket of my jacket, took it to my mouth and walked slowly, in the rain, toward the rain.

Loredano Cafaro lives in the hills of Turin, Italy, with his wife and their two sons. In the little free time left to him by his work as a computer scientist, every now and then he imagines stories. Sometimes he writes them down. You can find him at https://loredanocafaro.com.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine

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“The Flesh Garden” Horror by Jennifer Oliver

"The Flesh Garden" Horror by Jennifer Oliver

“Hey, tits, how’s it hanging? Both of them, I mean.”

It never occurred to Gabrielle at the time that everyone on the planet was here for a reason, and yes, that even included assholes like Marcus Stoll. During most of study period he had done nothing but lounge at his desk with his dirty-blond hair falling into his eyes, drumming his chewed stub of a pencil on the desk, and making no secret of staring at her chest while she tried to focus on her Sociology essay, aptly titled “Crime and the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.”

“You know,” she said, keeping her tone as cold as possible, “You really should give this a read. It might help you in later life.”

Marcus only laughed, a sudden and blunt croak. Nope, there was probably no helping him.

Simon used to say that Marcus liked her, but because he was so emotionally stunted he didn’t know how to show it so he said shitty things to her instead. Gabrielle wasn’t sure, though she often wondered if there was any truth to Simon’s theory.

“You made any new friends yet?” Marcus asked. Gabrielle didn’t need to see the smirk, it was right there in his tone.

She wished Simon was there, sitting beside her, preparing to back her up when she told Marcus to piss off. “Piss off,” she said.

“Hey, I’m just trying to look out for you.”

She refused to glance up from her notebook. The nib of her pen created a vicious smudge of ink across the last word she wrote. Soft denim hissed gently as Marcus slid across one space to sit beside her, in Simon’s old chair. Nobody had sat there since. Marcus smelled like weed and cheap deodorant. He dipped his head so he could speak to her without others hearing.

“I bet you get a lot of attention from guys. But you know, they’re only after one thing, right?”

“Oh? And what are you after?” she said, prickles winding up her back.

Marcus fiddled with the corner edge of her textbook, ruffing up the pages. “I just want to make sure you have a friend to lean on. You know, after all that McCullough stuff.”

Heat flushed through her. “You don’t know anything about it.”

“I know he was your buddy. Maybe he was more than that—who am I to say? McCullough—what was it, Simon?—yeah, he seemed all right.”

Gabrielle was pretty sure Marcus and Simon never exchanged a friendly word. She wondered if Marcus ever exchanged friendly words with anyone.

“So was he your boyfriend?” he asked.

Was this his odd way of trying to make conversation? Up until now, he had only ever teased Gabrielle about the size of her boobs. “Not that it’s any of your business, but no,” she said between gritted teeth. “He was my best friend.” The best friend anyone could dare to hope for.

“Aw man, I didn’t mean to hit a nerve.” Marcus tapped his fingertips on the table. “It’s just rough, is all. How he killed himself—”

Now Gabrielle snapped around to glare at him. “You shut your mouth. Where have you been getting your information?”

“Hey, it’s just been going around.” Marcus idly rubbed his pointed chin where a fine ghost of stubble pushed through. His eyes usually had a dark and lazy quality to them, as if he wasn’t engaged in whatever was happening, but at that moment they were bright and alert, gauging her reactions. He just wanted to get a rise out of her, Gabrielle was sure.

“Well you should check your facts before talking crap,” she said, gathering her books.

“Aw, come on, I’m just trying to make friends with you.” Marcus pressed his hand against her elbow as she shoved her books into her bag. “Don’t be like that. Come on, tits.”

Asshole, she wanted to snap. Bastard. But her throat was too tight and she couldn’t speak another word. She brushed past the back of his chair, her bag knocking him in the shoulder. Trust the rumour mill to make up some horrid story about Simon. Suicide couldn’t be further from the truth. She bet they had all been in each other’s DMs about it, spreading lies until the lies became real for everyone at school who didn’t know how Simon died.

Gabrielle didn’t think twice about skipping her next class.


The tangled, overgrown garden was tucked near the back of the allotments, the one spot that had never been claimed because it was so much smaller than the others although the landowner charged just as much. None of the other allotment owners seemed to mind Gabrielle and Simon using it to hang out, study after school, or watch movies on the tablet with their headphones on. They especially didn’t mind when they eventually began to grow plants—which had been Simon’s idea, on account of him having green fingers, on account of his dad being a landscape artist.

Unlike him, Gabrielle always struggled to keep things alive. She tugged a few weeds out of the dry soil, wishing for more of the little yellow buds that speckled the strange vine-like creepers that covered their patch like veins, though unsure of what they were or how to grow more.

“I’ll make it really easy for you, Gabs. Like, literally give you the easiest plants to take care of. Trust me, a hamster could grow these.”

“What are they?”

“Succulents. Look, they’re kind of small and prickly-looking but they’re nice at heart. A bit like you.”

“Shut up.”

She wished she could hear Simon’s deep and hearty laughter, just one more time. It would have cheered her up after her encounter with Marcus Stoll and put her at ease about people making up rumours about her best friend. Then again, if Simon was there to ease her worries, there wouldn’t be any rumours about him.

But their garden served another, more secretive purpose, one that only they knew. It had been Gabrielle’s idea, based on a folk tale in a TV show she watched when she was younger.

Take a really bad day, a Marcus Stoll kind of day, a day where you failed a test or, in Gabrielle’s case, a day where you’ve got horrible period cramps and just want to curl up and not. Gabrielle and Simon dug holes between the plants on those days, small in diameter but as deep as they could go with their basic tools.

Then they yelled into the earth, as long and loud as they could, pouring out all of their anger and pain and exhaustion until they felt better. As soon as they were done, they filled the holes in and planted something in their place.

Let’s leave something nice, Simon once said. We don’t want to poison the garden by accident.

Gabrielle stood at the allotment edge, the gardening gloves her grandmother leant her suddenly feeling too big for her hands and the trowel too small to make an impact on the dried, early-summer dirt. Part of her wanted to plunge the trowel into the ground and stab and stab and stab, but Simon had loved this little patch of earth and it didn’t feel right.

It was theirs.

Well, hers now, she supposed.

She shoved her curls out of her face and knelt, picking a random spot and starting to dig out a hole. Maybe, once she had screamed down into it, she would plant something. Simon always said it was better to grow something nice in place of a weed.

She was only a few inches into the dig when a breeze swept across the allotment, far colder than any June breeze had a right to be. On that burst of frigid air came a whisper, soft and sibilant. Gabrielle sat back on her heels and looked around. All the other allotment plots were quiet, not another gardener in sight.

Another strong gust of chill air shuddered across her skin and she dropped the trowel, one of her oversized gloves slipping from her hand. “Hello?” If this was some perv’s idea of a joke she was going to be mad. She’d heard her parents talking about an old local who liked to sit in hedges and watch the traffic, but creeping on a girl on her own just minding her business and digging a scream hole was beyond weird.

Nothing moved.


“Holy sssssshi—” She forgot the trowel and shoved herself backward on the dirt as something fluttered in the air before her, pale and filmy like smoke. Then, the disembodied voice again.

You didn’t seriously just fall over in the middle of the horror movie, did you? God, how cliche can you get?

It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be Simon’s voice—Simon was dead. But there it was, that familiar tone, always loaded with his gentle sarcasm.

Gabrielle knew grief did strange things to a person. Her counsellor had told her as much during their past sessions. But hallucinating? Nobody had explicitly mentioned that.

Um, hello? This is your friendly dead best friend. Earth to Gabs, do you read me?

The voice was not quite a voice, although Gabrielle heard it clear as a rushing river. Simon’s voice, in her head and her chest and all around her. “Si?” she whispered, as the pale wispy smoke shape grew bigger.


“Oh my God, it’s really you? I can’t even…”

Yeah. So, guess I died then. That’s a shame.

“This isn’t real,” Gabrielle said, more to herself.

OK, whatever you say. But could you still help me? It’s cold here and too quiet. I want to come back. I miss you. Would you believe me if I said I kind of miss school?

“No,” she said almost without thinking. She began shuffling backward on her butt, away from the twisting ghostly figure.

I know this is a lot—

“This is so more than just a lot.”

—right, but… Gabs. There’s a way. A way for me to come back.

“That doesn’t sound right.” Neither did chatting with the ghost of her dead friend, but there you go. Gabrielle was pretty sure she was having a breakdown of some sort. “None of this is right. I think I’ve cracked.”

You and me both, mate. Try being the dead one in this scenario.

She let out an incredulous, involuntary burst of laughter. It sounded so loud and alien among the silent plants. Had it really been that long since she’d laughed?

It was his humour, for sure. That breeze again, chill and whispering, freezing the tears Gabrielle didn’t even realise streaked her face.

Gabs, I need your help. Even if you don’t believe this is real, would you do this for me anyway?

How could she say no to even the hallucination of Simon, the boy she had known since they were little, the boy who always had her back, who would’ve done anything for her?

“What… what do you need me to do?”

It’s easy, I swear. We just need something to exchange. Some hair or a fingernail or something. Nothing major, I promise. But it can’t be yours. It needs to be—look, just relax and I’ll tell you everything.

As the sun began to set, Simon—ghost, hallucination, whatever he was—outlined the plan.


Marcus Stoll caught up with her near the lockers the next day. Gabrielle didn’t notice him approach through the crowds passing between lessons, until he noisily leaned a shoulder against the locker next to hers. One earbud was jammed in his left ear, the other dangling on its wire against his tarnished belt buckle. The hems of his jeans were frayed.

“What’s up, tits. Is that a new shirt?”

“What do you want?” Gabrielle sighed. She needed to play this carefully, although she had a feeling it wouldn’t be too difficult, based on pretty much all of their encounters to date. “And my name is Gabrielle, not tits.”

A tangle of students snickered nearby. Gabrielle’s shoulders tightened but she continued fussing at nothing-in-particular in her locker.

“OK, OK, Gabrieeellllle,” Marcus said. She heard his smirk rather than saw it. He seemed to like an audience and she wondered why since his father was the town drunk and his mother was… well, nobody knew where Mrs Stoll was these days. Sometimes Gabrielle felt bad for him, but then he’d go and open his mouth. “But you can’t blame me for noticing. They’re… impressive.”

She turned and smacked him on the arm, only lightly, hoping it was the right move.

“Whoa, you know I’m teasing, right? Like I don’t really mean any bad. You should be proud anyway. Most of your friends are still flat. Hey,” he leaned in. “You free tonight?”

There it was.

Only now Gabrielle craned her neck to stare up at him. “Why?”

“Wondered if you wanted to go to the beach. My uncle’s staying with my dad and he leant me his car. It’s a banger but should get us to the coast.”

“Tempting,” Gabrielle said slowly.

“C’mon, you’ll adore me once you get to know me. You just need to give me a chance.” It almost sounded believable, if it wasn’t for the way his eyes flicked downward. Was eye contact really that hard? She was also pretty sure she knew what chance he was after.

Gabrielle remembered Simon’s wispy, pale form. There’s a way. A way for me to come back. The way Simon had laid it out that evening on the allotment sounded simple enough. “Hm. All right. But not the beach. I’ve got a better place.”

He lifted one unruly eyebrow. “Oh yeah?”

She just needed to get a bit of his hair, or some small memento from a living person, even if it meant letting him in close. How hard could that be? Let him think she wanted to kiss, then just yank it out. He’d probably swear, call her a bitch, might even shove her. Who cared? This wasn’t about her. It was about Simon.

“Yeah. Here.” She tore a scrap of paper out of her notebook and scrawled the directions. “We can meet here. It’ll be quiet.”

Marcus scanned the paper. “Really? Isn’t that where old people go and hug trees or some shit?”

“It’ll be empty,” she clarified. “Seven o’clock. I need to go home for a bit first and drop off my school stuff.”

“Sweet. Yeah, OK. I’ll bring a smoke. My brother got hold of this great weed, really sticky and strong.”

Gabrielle lifted a shoulder, not willing to agree to anything but not wanting to put him off. A bitter taste rose up in her throat and she swallowed it back.

“Or we can just chill, you know, whatever.” Seriously, he might be convincing if he could just maintain eye contact.

“Yes, whatever,” she said.

Marcus laughed and tossed back his hair. “Whatever gets you off. But let me get stoned first, ‘K?” He shoved himself from the lockers and disappeared into the crowded hallway.

Painfully aware that some of their classmates had stopped chatting so that they could listen to the exchange, Gabrielle turned back to her open locker, wanting to crawl inside it. No doubt the rumour mill would pick up pace again, not to mention the things Marcus would say about her once he realised she was not up for sex.

She would just deal with those rumours, and it wasn’t like there was a lot of time left before the school year was out and then she’d be done with it all and go to uni where nobody knew who she was or what she’d been through. The plan was to go to the same uni as Simon, and now they could make that dream a reality.

This was for a good cause, the best cause, she reminded herself. It would fix everything.


A tight ball of prickles sat in her stomach. It had been there all day and it wouldn’t go away. Gabrielle got to the allotments first just before seven, weaving through the narrow walkways. The change was noticeable before she even reached the boundaries of their plot, and the smell…

The garden bloated with something like life, though it wasn’t the life she remembered Simon cultivating. Fly orchids spiralled up in strange helixes, different from the photos Simon had shown her the day they originally planted them. The delicate dancing girls she had planted with their soft petal arms were pushed down, pinned under the violent arch of sharp red leaves. The parasitic underground hydnora africana gave off a familiar, sickly-sweet and cloying scent, its red flowers worming up through the soil with their hungry mouths gaping open. Fat, moist-looking vines netted the ground, spewing out hundreds of those little yellow buds that seemed to scuttle like insects. Colours oozed together into uncanny spectrums that Gabrielle couldn’t quite wrap her head around.

Weird. It had never looked like this before. It had never made her feel like this before: slightly nauseous. She took a step backward.


A chill breeze lifted her hair from her neck, drying the sweat on her skin. The reassurance was all she needed and she released a breath.

“I’ve got someone. You’re probably not going to like it, but… anyway. It’s Marcus Stoll.”

That cold breeze again, sharper this time. Oh well, it was too late to change it now. Plus, she was sure that if there was a huge part of her eager to see Marcus freak the hell out, there would be a huge part of Simon eager to see it too.

Gabrielle thought she saw the glimmer of something near the hedge at the rim of their allotment, just for a moment. “So how does this work, exactly?” she asked.

But Simon didn’t reply or appear.

Dirt crunched beneath a heavy foot behind her. Gabrielle spun around.

“Holy shit, tits—I mean, Gabrielle.” Marcus stepped off the path and headed toward her, wrinkling his nose and waving his hand in front of his face. “This place stinks.” A thin joint was hooked behind one ear and his eyes were bright with anticipation for something she had no intention of giving him.

“You’ll get used to it,” Gabrielle said. “I told you it was quiet.”

“Yeah.” Marcus didn’t sound too sure. “Quiet and creepy as fuck.”

Here goes. Gabrielle held out her hand.

“Is this like a fetish or something?” Nevertheless, Marcus stepped into the garden to meet her. She was sure to put on her tightest t-shirt after school. “Whatever. It’s not about the venue, right? It’s all about the show.”

Gabrielle grabbed his sleeve and pulled him in close. Marcus stumbled, his feet catching in the vines, and they tumbled together to the ground.

“Hey—” He no longer sounded so self-assured. Beyond them, a grey shadow rose up and loomed above them in the still summer air. It was like time ground to a halt, no distant cars passing through town on the main road, no birdsong, nothing.

Gabrielle grabbed the collar of Marcus’s shirt and kissed him, crushing her mouth against his. Before she knew it his tongue was inside, sliding against her too fast and too forcefully to be pleasant. He tasted of weed and his nose was cold at the tip. She reminded herself that this was a good cause. Just a few strands of hair, Simon had said. Gabrielle reached up to tangle her fingers through Marcus’s dark-blond strands, finding them surprisingly soft.

Through the wet sucking of Marcus’s lips, the air hung heavy with that sickly-sweet scent and Gabrielle finally placed it.

It was rot.

She began to pull back, thinking she might throw up, the prickles churning in her stomach, but Marcus grasped her hard and held her still. A solid rise nudged against her thigh, straining against his jeans.

Just grab the hair, just grab the hair. But her arms were trapped by Marcus’s grip.

“Si!” she tried to scream, but the sound died in her throat.

Something slick and cool snaked around her leg. Gabrielle jerked and their chins struck. “Wait.” She heard her own voice as a distant alarm; her ears started to ring. For a moment Marcus froze, too.

“What?” he said. Then, “Wait. What the hell is that?”

Finally he released her. As Gabrielle scooted backward across the dirt, thorns latched onto her clothes, biting her skin beneath.

 She looked over to where Marcus lay. Thick purple, pulsing tendrils wrapped around his legs, rising up past his knees. Tiny thistles burst from the yellow buds and clung to him, and he let out a guttural noise, something between a cry and a curse.

“Tits—Gab—!” he shrieked. “What the hell is this? Is this some kind of—oh, Jesus.”

The vines crept higher, twisting up around his thighs, thickening, lengthening, shining with a dark sap-like goop that stained Marcus’s threadbare jeans. The roots tightened around him. Marcus scrabbled with his hands, dragging lines of dirt but getting nowhere.

Gabrielle covered her mouth with her hand. She looked for Simon’s ghost and found it crouched at the edge of the garden, its pale, nebulous arms dug deep into the earth, its head inclined toward the struggling, shrieking Marcus.

“Si, stop. This wasn’t part of the plan!” Gabrielle cried. “What are you doing?”

Marcus gave up trying to drag himself to the edge of the garden, and waved his arms at her as if he expected her to grab him and help pull him free. But Gabrielle couldn’t move. The rise at the front of his jeans had abated. More tendrils sipped up out of the soil, hiking up great clods of earth, breaking flower heads. The tendrils wrapped around Marcus’s arms and stomach, and up, and up, snaking across his exposed throat, slimy trails glistening on his skin. When the vine tip entered his mouth, he let out a noise more vulnerable than anything Gabrielle had heard before in her life.

This isn’t right, what is Si doing? Yet she knew there was no stopping it. The garden—it was too hungry. Simon was too hungry.

A scream burbled up from the pit of Marcus, from somewhere deep inside that Gabrielle didn’t know existed. It was a child’s wet scream. But the garden ate his cries, and the vines visibly tightened around his throat.

“Si!” Gabrielle’s limbs suddenly gave and she shot forward, trying to pry the vines from Marcus’s neck. “Si, stop this!”

As she spoke, the earth shuddered and began to peel, dusty dry soil rolling back away from Marcus. He was sinking. The garden was eating him alive and Gabrielle couldn’t tear the vines from his neck. The garden pulled Marcus down, soil gaping to accommodate him; first his feet, his scuffed and faded Chuck Taylors vanishing beneath the dirt, then his legs. Dirt and the vine sap streaked his belly where his t-shirt had ridden up. His chest heaved with unspent cries, the vine in his mouth so thick now that no sound could escape.

Tears poured down Gabrielle’s cheeks.

I did this.


Simon lied.


But Simon would never lie to me.


This can’t be happening.

But it was. Shoulder-deep in the soil, Marcus finally lost consciousness. The vine in his throat, bloated and black, pulsed slowly like a heartbeat. Gabrielle shut her eyes as he sank deeper, and all she was left with was the sounds.

Shuffle. Slurp. Rip. Ssschlop.


Gabrielle didn’t know how long she lay motionless among the plants, eyelids squeezed tight, mouth pursed against the screams that twisted in her throat like vines.


She didn’t want to open her eyes. The garden had grown still and silent. She felt dry, still roots pressing into her back. The thump of her pulse sounded loud, blood-rush like thunder in her ears.

A single bird cawed long and low somewhere nearby, a keening, melancholy sound.

Gabrielle dared to look.

Simon crawled to a sitting position, wobbled back and forth, and then slowly rose to his feet on shaky, stick-thin legs. Mud caked his naked body. He smiled a smile that was almost Simon’s, but not quite.

“See, Gabs.” His voice just a husk of what it once was. Soil fell from between cracked lips. “I told you everything would work out. Easy.”

Jennifer Oliver (she/her) is a writer, gamer and illustrator based in the UK. She writes stories set in the fantasy, sci-fi and horror genres aimed at both adults and young adults. Her stories have been published in Kaleidotrope and Youth Imagination Magazine. Visit her website at jenniferoliverwriter.com.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine

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Two Stories by Hannah Woodvine: “Ire” and “Persistence”

Two Stories by Hannah Drury: "Ire" and "Persistence": Hannah Drury is a writer and poet from Brighton, England who loves speculative fiction and spoken word. Beyond her job as an English Teacher, she is embedded in the Brighton poetry scene, reaching the final of Hammer and Tongue Brighton’s 2023 slam. This is her first published fiction since childhood.


Knowing that this was the last waiting room I would ever visit filled me with a desperate, visceral panic. My thigh vibrated frantically against the seat, twitching with the ache to run back through the sealed aluminium doors; to feel on my cheeks even the feeblest ray of sun, which filtered down through the tainted clouds. The clock saw my panic and ticked mockingly, rebukingly at me; its cold hands curved in a metallic sneer. I tore my eyes away from it to gaze nonchalantly around the room, trying to feign calmness, boredom even. I couldn’t see any cameras, but they had long since stopped advertising their presence. Being watched was a guarantee now, not a possibility. Regardless, I couldn’t help resisting, searching desperately for a way to escape the inescapable.

The clock was amused by this.

The way it dripped with scorn made me think of a painting I had seen as a child at school, back when you could learn about things like art. I couldn’t remember its title, or the lesson that my gentle, curly-haired teacher had failed to teach us about it, while we ignored her, giggling, and gossiping under our breath. I could only recall the picture itself: the clocks dripping down a table, like blood from a gunshot wound, and how the sudden sight of it glowing on the screen had stopped me in my tracks, the secret note from my friend forgotten in my hand. I ached to make this clock melt like that, to stop it from laughing at me and from tick-tick-ticking away these last minutes.

For a moment, this blistering yearning overpowered the fear of what I knew waited for me when my name was called.

This fear was also forbidden. Heretical, even. Officially, days like these are nothing more than a fresh start. A tabula rasa. They always said those words oozing with the expectation of gratitude, as if we should thank them for wielding the erasers which wiped us clean. As if today were a liberation, not a robbery. Our memories, our differences, our desires, they were glitches which were corrupting the system of the world, a lacquer of grease and grime which jammed the cogs of society. Thinking of it like that was supposed to make things easier.

They didn’t say for whom.

When I received my notice a few weeks ago that I was due for Recalibration, I did try to think of it that way. I tried to forget that I used to be a word and not just a letter. I tried to see it as a squashed, sideways H, just another meaningless symbol. I wrote it over and over again until it stopped making sense, I reduced it to a doodle, a line and a dot, a dot and a line. It became a flower with all the petals plucked off, the stem and the stamen, she loves me, she loves me not. Sometimes it morphed into a person, with their head detached and floating away from them, weightless and empty like a balloon. I tried to make my head like that, vacant and vacuous. But I couldn’t stop the ‘I’ from jumping out at me in every word, from playing peekaboo on every shop window, from lurking in every television broadcast. So, I gave up. I let my fingers trace it absent-mindedly on my thighs, on tables, I whispered it in my head as a mantra on the bus, in the office, in the toilet. It pumped through my veins again now.

My fingers drummed unevenly against the underside of the fabric-coated chair. I relished the feel, tried to drown in the miniature royal-blue ridges of synthetic wool. My fingers tapped against a loose clump of fibres. They stopped suddenly, and without quite knowing why, a wave of exhilaration bloomed in my stomach. Slowly, cautiously, even though I knew the movement would be hidden under the chair, I pinched and rolled it into a ball between my thumb and forefinger. My heart raced with fervour, my breath quickening in my mounting excitement. I pulled it and felt the ball, my ball, coming loose, I heard the soft tear of nylon fibres, like the snapping of a neck. It was the sound of destruction and it made me hungry. With a rush of private, sadistic triumph, I flicked the clump of blue thread violently away from me; ‘Ha!’ I spat defiantly at the clock in my head, my lips curving into the slightest, most inconspicuous smirk. My blood hummed in my veins, calling ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ with each of my heartbeats, as I ran my finger over the void where the fibres had been, alive with the joy of my legacy, my indelible mark on the world. No matter what they did to me in there, this chair, if nothing else, was irrevocably different because of me, this me. It would stand forever as a relic from this version of myself, like a prehistoric cave etching, screaming into the abyss, to the generations to come. It was a primal, luxuriant joy.

It couldn’t last.

In the end, they didn’t even call my name. A cold, metallic voice whirred around the room, with no discernible source: “Ready to commence Recalibration. Patient may enter.” A door opposite me swung open.

“No,” I breathed quietly. “No. I’m not ready.”

“Ready to commence Recalibration. Patient may enter.”

“I said I’m not ready.” I screamed, my words bouncing, distorted off the pristine walls. I curled up into a ball on the chair, my chest heaving, my arms clinging to each other around my knees.

“Irrelevant. Ready to commence Recalibration. Patient will enter.”

“Please.” I begged, sniveling, without knowing who I was begging. “Please don’t do this.” I gasped for air, staring imploringly at the clock. “Do something,” I yelled at it. “Don’t just stand there looking at me!”

A metallic chittering approached from the darkness of the corridor which had unfolded in front of me. I thought of nails on a chalkboard, of axes gouging metal walls, of the needle on a record player scratching its path. I thought of home, the dew on the grass of our garden, the almond smell of my scented felt-tips, the stuffed bear I’d had as a child. I couldn’t remember its name. “Please, please, just a minute longer, just let me think.” Nothing in my life had ever been so important.

“Negative. Ready to commence Recalibration. Retrieving patient.”

The lights went out. I screamed into the void. It didn’t answer.


Two trainers walked softly through the black corridor. Five fingers absent-mindedly trailed along the wall, lightly feeling their way along. Her other hand swung nonchalantly by her side, occasionally brushing against her trousers. She stepped casually into the waiting room, pushing the door closed behind her as she entered. She made her way towards the exit, without registering the clock hung above her on the icy walls. Her feet carried her closer and closer towards the door, and as she left the room behind her, she crushed underfoot a small, insignificant bundle of blue fibres.


“The killer is among us,” the pastor said gravely, his eyes roaming over the pews, sparsely occupied by the uneasy villagers. “He, or she, is in this room, hearing my voice, breathing this air. Our air.” He paused to let the gravity of the situation seep into the bones of his congregation, along with the ever-present, creeping tendrils of mist. His voice began to rise, as if to drown out the anxious thrumming of heartbeats, the whispered prayers, the stench of fearful sweat. “This ends tonight. We will have no more death on Mortay Island. No more!”

The villagers broke out into a deafening mass of sobs, cheers and shouts of “no more!” Among the uproar, the pastor scanned the room. He allowed a few moments to pass, then held up a single finger. Silence fell instantly. He turned his hand to point at the heavy-set oak doors behind the crowd. “These doors will remain locked until the killer is found. Nobody will get in or out of this church until we are absolutely assured that he will never again strike fear into our hearts, never again rip our loved ones away from us.” His voice escalated into a roar. “Never again take our earthly lives! Never again! Never again!”

The townspeople joined his cry, chanting as one voice, one body, one mind. The pastor smiled with one side of his mouth, satisfied. He confidently stepped down off the stage, making his way toward the audience.

“Now,” he said quietly. The crowd hushed. “Does anyone here have anything they wish to confess,” he paused, looking up at the church ceiling, then continued. “Before God.” He gestured around at the room, “before your fellow man,” he cried, his voice booming around the damp stone walls. “Speak now and be redeemed! If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Silence rang out through the church like a funeral knell. The pastor sighed in exaggerated grief. “Very well.” He proceeded down the nave, away from the stage and towards the doors. Heads turned imploringly as he passed, families, wives and husbands waiting for his next word, for his reassurance. He discretely moved his hand under the black robes to his pocket and turned the match over and over in his fingers. He reached the end of the aisle, his feet were almost touching the door, splattered with mildew like flecks of blood. When he finally spoke, he kept his back to the villagers. “You will make them as a fiery oven in the time of your anger; the Lord will swallow them up in His wrath, and fire will devour them.”

Their eyes fell onto the lit match between his finger and thumb, then to the hungry flames rapidly devouring the cloth hangings on the wall, the fire making its way to the thatched roof. They were stunned into silence. “Farewell, my lambs.” He said quietly, before lifting the heavy iron bolt, slipping out of the door with a flourish, and closing it behind him. He turned the key in the lock just as a clamour started to rise up from the other side of the walls. He took the padlock from his pocket, and clamped that on, for good measure.

With a swift, simple motion, he cast off his robes and left them in a pool by the door. The screams echoed behind him, fading into the silence as he left them all behind, embraced by the snaking arms of the mist.

Hannah Woodvine is a writer and poet from Brighton, England who loves speculative fiction and spoken word. Beyond her job as an English Teacher, she is embedded in the Brighton poetry scene, reaching the final of Hammer and Tongue Brighton’s 2023 slam. This is her first published fiction since childhood.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine

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