The dog and the cat were seldom in agreement, that was just a given. There were very few times over the course of an average year when they would actually work together for the greater good. Like when food was dropped onto the floor or the back door left open just a crack, allowing them a brief taste of mutual freedom. In times like that, Marie would always hold back, giving them a quick moment to savor their victory before intervening in any given situation. She wanted them to be a team, for that is what they were. Dog, cat, human, all starting out a new chapter in life–the three of them against the world.
Now she watched as they sat, side by side, heads swiveling in perfect synchronicity, clearly fascinated by something that Marie couldn’t see. She turned, suddenly, to look behind her, feeling more than a little ridiculous. Perhaps a stray bug had somehow gotten in, a loose floating string or an errant beam of sunshine? Nothing. Complete still silence.
Marie shook her head and turned back to watch them. She saw, in complete wonderment their fascinated expressions, both feline and canine. She calmly tried to tamp down the sudden chill that tickled the base of her spine. It’s only the beginning, way too early to be cracking up, she thought sadly. He has only been gone for two weeks, I need to keep it together.
Marie couldn’t recall the exact moment when her marriage began to unravel, but remembered it was pretty anti-climatic. A mutual exhaustion after trying too hard for over twenty years, with a dash of infidelity thrown in for good measure. She was loathe to admit it, but they were the typical middle-aged couple, slowly growing apart as their waistlines grew out. The spark was still there, but neither one of them cared to look for it anymore, or remembered how it all began in the first place.
John, of course, just had to have the typical mid-life crisis, trading her in for a younger model–that stupid, overused cliche in the flesh. A new fling, she assumed, who would give him children since Marie never could. Not for lack of trying, but it seemed that Marie was the problem. She was barren. Or whatever the cold, impartial medical term was for it these days. Marie made her peace with it long ago, letting her “furry children” fill the painful void in her heart, but it would seem, that Johnny had not.
They had gone through several sets of pets throughout the years, living a comfortable life together, such as it was, or so she thought. The day he left, he talked about taking the animals with him, but Marie wouldn’t relent. She’d never give them up. They’d only been in the new house for about a year and there were too many other things to fight over. Bills, mortgage, mistress and a thousand other things that made Marie want to dive under the covers in complete despair. He could walk out on her, on their marriage, but he would never take them. Never.
The dog eagerly wagged his tail, almost in greeting, as the cat rubbed her face against the dog’s front leg, purring loudly. Marie looked around the room again, trying to figure out what had them acting so strangely. The real estate agent told them when they bought the house that something bad happened here. Marie didn’t want to know anything about it, but Johnny looked into it. Something about a murder-suicide. They’d gotten such a good deal on the house that Marie refused to entertain the notion of a haunting, that stuff was pure nonsense as far as she was concerned. Now, with her animals acting this way, she wondered if maybe there was something to it after all? Hadn’t she heard somewhere that pets could see things that their owners could not?
“Hello?” she said out loud to the empty room, “Is there anybody here?”
As if in response, a late autumn breeze lifted the curtains around the open window, making Marie jump a little. That’s all it is, she thought in relief. No ghosts, just a passing distraction outside, they’ll calm down in a minute or two. The dog let out a sudden bark making Marie nearly leap out of her skin. He walked right past her and sat down heavily, making a small whining noise. The cat jumped down from her perch and joined him there, both of them looking up in anticipation. She heard it then, a slight noise behind her. Some sort of shifting as Marie felt a sudden jolt of adrenaline, her heart slamming against her chest.
He told her in the garden, while both of her hands were buried deep in the wet earth. Marie was very proud of her garden, she’d started out as an Iowa farm girl and had managed to keep that part of her identity even living out here in the wilds of suburbia.
He was in love he said. He hadn’t planned for it to happen, but it did. She needed to let him go. She remembered standing up and grabbing the shovel, turning the dirt over and over while he stood pleading with her, insisting that he no longer loved her, that their marriage was finished. They would both be better off he told her, this had been coming for a long time–it was time to be honest about it. She couldn’t remember a thing after that, just the endless digging and turning of her beloved soil until she could no longer hear him.
Now she stood crying in her shower, great heaving sobs of misery that he would betray her this way, that he would break his vows. The steam and hot water were washing her body clean, but the shower was unable to cleanse her broken heart, her shattered soul.
The dog came into the bathroom, alerted, like he always was, when Marie was upset. She turned the water off and opened the glass door, noticing that he had a large object in his mouth. He loved to play “keep away” with her, waggling his entire back end and playfully growling as Marie fumbled, trying in vain to grab it from his mouth. The dog was covered in dirt, with what she assumed was topsoil from her garden. A foul smell assaulted her as she reached out in a panic and managed to get a hold of it.
A hunk of blackened, rotting flesh came off in her hand as the dog pulled the severed arm away, enjoying their little game as usual. He turned and dashed away, forcing Marie to run through the house completely naked to chase him down. She caught him near the compost pile in her garden, the dog reveling in his newfound treasure. Pieces of dismembered corpse were strewn across her tomato patch and onto the lawn like a gruesome crop ready for harvest. Marie picked up her battered old shovel and went to work reburying her faithless husband.
Marie knew without looking that she was no longer alone, but then again, she always could sense when he was near and had for over twenty years. A blast of hot, rancid breath hit the back of her neck as the cat and dog pranced and leapt all around her, delighted in this supernatural reunion.
“Honey, I’m home,” Johnny croaked into her ear, fresh earth plopping onto the floor as his one good arm snaked around her shoulders, “I’ll never leave you again.”
Marie didn’t know what to expect when she finally turned around, but she knew one thing for certain. Johnny was finally honoring his vows and “til death do us part” was about to take on a whole new meaning.
A. Elizabeth Herting is an aspiring freelance writer and busy mother of three living in colorful Colorado. She has over 60 short story credits, podcasts, and reprints as well as non-fiction work, and two collections of short stories published by “Adelaide Books,” “Whistling Past the Veil” and “Postcards From Waupaca” available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
I am the King of the kings. I am the son of the falcon-headed Horus. I am the beginning. I am the end. I am the one who will live forever. I am Nimaatre Smenkhare Meriamun, the living god of the land of Kemet.
The golden boat of Re has finished its way in the celestial Nile and submerged in the darkness of Nun. I found myself wandering around the tombs of deceased kings who have already met Osiris in the Afterlife. I try to remember what I’m doing here in the middle of the night but fail. The night is dark and quiet. Khonsu’s crown shines brightly and lights my path with its cold silver light.
Quiet voices interrupt my thoughts. They sound from one of the tombs. Coming closer, I can see the dim light of torches. The voices sound louder. There is no doubt I’ve met the tomb robbers. Disgusting thieves, sons of dishonoured Seth, doomed to be punished in the Afterlife! Their souls will be eaten by the gigantic serpent Apophis and will be condemned to eternal death. They, who dare to steal from the kings, deserve nothing but a miserable death without a burial.
There are three of them on a doorstep of the underground tomb, ready to smash their way in, to defile king’s eternal peace, taking gold and jewellery, and all other of the king’s belongings, throwing his mummy out of its golden coffin.
I’m going to call my guards to arrest the robbers. Instead, my mouth produces a weird, heart-stopping scream. This scream belongs neither to a man nor to an animal. What is wrong with me? I can’t recognise my voice.
One of the robbers turns around. His face is pale like linen. His eyes stare at me in horror. He drops his torch and runs, leaving his peers and screaming like a lunatic. His friend shouts to him, but noticing me, just freezes on the spot.
‘The king… the spirit of the king,’ he mumbles in shock.
‘How dare you touch the royal tomb?’ I shout, trying to grab his shoulder, but my hand goes through his body and catches the air. I see the thief falling, his eyes are wide opened. I lean over him, trying to have a closer look. He has stopped breathing. He is dead. I have no chance to stop the last one as he disappears into the darkness, following his peer.
I sit down on the ground in front of the tomb, examining my hands and wondering what happened to the robbers, where my guards are, and what, for all the gods’ sake, I’m doing amongst the tombs at night. Struggling to follow the flow of my thoughts, I start to read the writing on the tomb. It is a traditional plate with the name of a king on the door’s seal.
Oh Thoth, the Adviser of the kings, give me all your divine wisdom and knowledge! The king’s name on the plate is… Userkaf Smenhkare Meriamun, the name of my brother. And straight away, I see the face of Userkaf in front of me. He is my exact copy. Even our mother, the Great King’s Wife, queen Nefriru, couldn’t distinguish us. We are the same height, with the same short black hair, the same big black eyes, the same straight long nose, which we have inherited from our great father. We were born together, yet I was the first who came out of the queen’s blessed belly. I was the one and the only heir to the throne. My brother, Userkaf, was brought up to become Chief Priest of Amun-Re, but he always desired more. Always jealous, always despising me, always wanted to be the first.
I remember his face, but it’s blurry. I feel the cold water filling my ears and mouth. I can’t breathe. I try to break free, but my brother’s hand is squeezing my throat tighter and tighter. I try to push him, to call for help, but my efforts are weakening. I’m not a good swimmer. I never have been. The grimaced face of my brother, an agonizing blurry reflection of myself… then… here I am. I am dead.
I cry, ‘Oh immortal gods, I call on you! Let me take my revenge. Let me free the throne of Isis from the usurper. Let me be judged by Osiris in the Underworld. Let me travel together with Amun-Re in his golden boat in the skies and let the name of my brother be forgotten forever.’
The light of the oil lamps and torches is fading, and the whole palace is going to fall asleep. Only heavy steps of guards in the corridors and the murmur of fountains in the gardens break the silence of the chambers.
I don’t remember how I appeared here. I just wished to come back home to my palace in Niwt-Imn, to see my wife, young and beautiful Mutnefert, and our son, my only heir, Senenmut. I wish everything that has happened to me was a dream, a bad nightmare sent to me by the demons of the night. I wish to wake up. I wish…. to be alive.
I enter my chambers and… Oh Seth, I can’t bear to see my beloved wife in the arms of my brother, the murderer Userkaf. Using our similarity, he took my throne, my name, and now… he sleeps in my bed with my wife. She has been tricked the same way as all others. She believes that it was Userkaf who drowned in a river, not me. It was an accident, the will of Hapy, the river god who took Userkaf to his underwater palace. Of course, it was a lie she’s been told.
I’m afraid they can notice me. Coming closer to the bed, I realise they both are deep asleep.
My Mutnefert, my great queen, my only love. I always loved her. I have been in love with her since I was twelve, and she was only ten, but my brother desired her as well. When our mother, the Great King’s Wife died, our divine father took Mutnefert as his new Great Wife, but he was too ill and too old. As soon as he joined Osiris in the Underworld, Mutnefert and I married. Userkaf couldn’t control his passion, though. He tried to seduce her a few times, but she loved me. She has always been the most loyal of my wives. Oh, Atum, the creator of the world and all people, give me a body, and I will claim everything back from my brother. I will take my revenge.
I am only ten, but I can read and write fluently. I am short but strong and agile. My father always took me hunting lions and panthers. I have even caught one for my little managerie. My father told me that I was born to be a warrior. I was born to be a king, but I am preparing for the life of a scribe. The almighty gods have sealed my voice inside my throat, so I can’t speak. I never could tell the truth. I never could tell that my uncle Userkaf drowned my father and took his name and his crown. I am just a boy now. My life is under threat. I am scared to death. Why, oh almighty gods? Why have you chosen this body? The body of my only son, Senenmut?
I sit now at the reception chamber together with three king’s scribes and write everything that is said in the king’s presence.
‘…And you are informing me about this situation only now, Great Vizier?’ The king sits on his golden throne. His head is crowned with a high fancy headdress. Tiny golden bees, colourful butterflies, and lotus flowers made from the lapis-lazuli move with his head’s every movement. Long golden earrings shine in his ears. Heavy wide bracelets decorate his wrists and ankles. His lips shine with a golden balm. He smells of lotus and rose oils. He wears my long robe and richly decorated sandals. He doesn’t hesitate to take everything from me.
Ineni, the Great Vizier and the major of Niwt-Imn, kneels. He leans lower and lower until his forehead touches the floor. Ineni is fat, old, and a coward. His bald round head is shines with sweat. He is afraid to make his lord angry, but doesn’t hesitate to tell him the latest rumours.
‘I didn’t want to bother my king with the information that hasn’t been proven yet. I just wanted to wait to be sure that—’ he mumbles under his heavy breath.
‘To wait? To wait for what? For the prince of Kush and his allies to summon a new army? When their barbarian soldiers will stay at the city’s gates?’ the king sounds furious.
Ineni crawls on his fat belly, coming closer to the king, kissing his toes with gold-covered nails.
The ruler only grimaces. ‘Do the viceroy and his chieftains remember that their sons were brought here by my father during his last campaign and have been living here ever since? Does he remember that his oldest daughter is one of my wives?’
‘There is something else, my Lord, you should know,’ the vizier whispers, looking behind his back at me and other scribes.
‘What is it? Speak!’ Userkaf waves.
‘The rumours are spreading in the city, Your Majesty. People keep talking…’ Ineni stammers.
‘What? Speak! Your king orders you.’ He presses his sceptre to the vizier’s head and raises his chin, staring into his eyes.
‘My sources reported that some of the high priests are involved as well. I’ve been informed that the viceroy has offered a deal to the priest of Sobek, the governor of the south who believes that… that you, our divine Nimaatre Smenkhare Meriamun, have been killed by your twin brother.’
The king only laughs, but I see his face goes paler. ‘Tell the priest of Sobek his suspicions are absolutely baseless. I would like to talk to him with regards to all the nasty rumours he spreads. As for our viceroy, I think I need to remind him to whom he should be grateful for allowing him on the throne of Kush.’
He grins, and I feel a chill runs down my backbone.
I follow the king to his private chambers, trying to be as quiet as possible. Nephthys, the goddess of the night, has covered me with her dark veil. I am almost invisible, hiding behind wide lotus-shaped columns of halls and corridors.
Tiyu, my Kushite wife and another victim of Userkaf’s deceit, has already been brought here and been waiting for the king. He comes into the room and nods to the guards to leave them alone. I have no choice but to cringe behind the nearest column. If somebody notices me here, I will be beaten fiercely.
‘Ah, my gorgeous wife.’ My brother smirks, circling like a kite around its prey. ‘I haven’t seen you since the day of our wedding. We need to see each other more often.’
She looks different from all other queens. She’s taller than women from Kemet, and her long hair is wavy. She has been brought here as a guarantor of peace between my country and Kush, and I took her as my third wife. I love my Mutnefert and I am not interested in other women. I am not like my lascivious brother who’s obsessed with sensual pleasures. He has lots of women, spending almost every night with a new one or sometimes even with a few.
‘Life, prosperity, and health to Your Majesty. I’m happy to serve you, my Lord,’ she whispers, all her slim body starts to shiver.
‘If so, you need to talk to your father, the viceroy. Tell him to go back to his nest and sit there quietly, if he wants to save his crown, his land, his…’ He touches her chin. ‘And your heads.’
She closes her eyes. Her body shivers even more. ‘My Lord, my divine husband, I am sure you’ve been mistaken. Whoever told you this about my father, told you lies.’ She falls on her knees in front of him and starts to cry. ‘My father is the most loyal servant you have.’
He doesn’t want to listen to her anymore. He grabs her long curly hair and smashes her head onto a low table.
It’s unbearable to hear her scream. If only I could help, could stab a sword between his shoulders, but I am only a boy and I am scared to death. I hold my breath, trying not to cry, not to show my presence.
He squeezes her neck. ‘Now, you can write to your father how women in Kemet’s villages felt when his soldiers raided my lands.’
I leave my hiding place and hurry to my chambers.
I can’t feel my body. Am I a spirit again? I find myself in the king’s dinner chamber now. I can see the whole room, but nobody can see me. I am a spirit, an incorporeal being, something that doesn’t belong to the world of men.
The king enjoys his dinner, surrounded by his cupbearers, musicians, half-naked dancers, fan bearers, and all kinds of servants and slaves. Ineni, the Great Vizier, is also presented. Userkaf reclines on a low sofa, a golden band in the shape of a cobra crowns his short black hair, smothered by coconut oil. He wears a long white kilt. One of the slave girls massages his naked shoulders and neck.
Ineni fills his goblet with wine instead of a cupbearer, whispering the latest gossip in the king’s ear. I know what is in his mind. I can read this shameful plotter’s thoughts.
My father gave the title of the governor of the Southern Land to Hapuseneb, the priest of Sobek, the man of the greatest wisdom, experience, and honour. His family has been loyal to our house for many generations. Ineni couldn’t bear such a turn. Addicted to limitless power as much as my brother, he’s tried to overthrow Hapuseneb many times but failed. He knows his time is coming now.
The musicians play a simple quiet tune, and the half-naked dancers gyrate and flex in their fancy dance.
The king strokes his favourite cat. The embodiment of the great goddess Bastet purrs happily. Golden bracelets decorate its four paws; a golden collar embraces its neck.
Ineni wants to say something to the king, but the appearance of the chief guard interrupts him.
‘Life, prosperity, and health to Your Majesty,’ the man starts, kneeling in front of the king.
‘Speak in the presence of the immortal god.’ Ineni waves to him, waddling and puffing on his low sofa like a hippopotamus on a river’s bank.
‘Forgive me my intrusion, my Lord, but Harmachis, the chief of Your Majesty’s chariotery, begs to see you now.’
‘Harmachis? Harmachis, the son of Hapuseneb, my wisest and the most loyal governor?’ Userkaf chuckles.
‘His Majesty is relaxing, don’t you see? How dare you interrupt the rest of God?’ Ineni gets up from his couch. ‘The audience time is tomorrow morning. You know the—’
Userkaf waves. ‘Bring Harmachis to me.’
Ineni only grimaces.
The guard bows and opens the door, letting the young man in.
‘Speak in His Majesty’s presence!’ Ineni proclaims from his place to a kneeled Harmachis.
‘Life, prosperity, and health to Your Majesty, may you live forever,’ Hapuseneb’s son starts under his breath.
Userkaf makes an impatient gesture, ordering him to be as brief as possible.
‘I beg you, my Lord, for my father. He’s been ordered to come here, to the capital. He is kept under home arrest in his villa on the west bank. He’s—’
‘Your father is accused of treason and sabotage. Tomorrow, he will be questioned by my chief of security. This shameful case will be investigated. If you believe that he hasn’t done anything wrong, if you don’t question his loyalty to the throne, why are you so worried? I’m sure if his heart is pure, he will be able to prove this to my investigators.’ Userkaf makes a circle around the young man and gestures him to rise from his knees.
‘My Lord, I don’t question your fair judgement. I know that the gods advise you. Your voice is the voice of Maat, the goddess of truth and justice. She can’t be mistaken. She can’t accuse an innocent servant of Your Majesty in treason. But there are so many people, my Lord, who are jealous and sneaky. They are pulling a veil of lies in front of your divine eyes, trying to distract you from Maat’s wise advice—’
All of Harmachis’s wordy speeches are in vain. My brother doesn’t listen. He circles the young charioteer, staring at his longish golden hair, his pale skin, bewildered by his deep blue eyes.
‘You look different,’ he says finally, paying no attention to Harmachis’s pleas.
‘My mother, my father’s second wife, was from the Sea People’s country. I inherited her features, my Lord,’ Harmachis sounds confused.
‘I hope you inherited from her such features like loyalty, honour, and integrity, because none of them I can see in your father.’
‘My Lord, I—’
‘It’s enough speeches for today.’ Userkaf turns away from him. ‘I question your father’s loyalty, not yours… at least, not at the moment. Take a seat, have dinner with us, tell us how dedicated you are to your duties and your king.’ A mysterious smile crosses my brother’s lips.
Harmachis takes a seat on the floor, next to the king’s sofa. Userkaf makes a gesture to his slaves, and they fill a goblet with wine for the king’s guest.
The cat, unhappy about the disturbance, jumps on its place next to the king and starts to purr again, begging for food.
Userkaf smiles and gives it a piece of a roasted duck. It purrs even louder, enjoying the bit, licking the king’s fingers in gratitude.
‘You see, he knows who’s in charge.’ The king nods at the cat. ‘He’s loving and loyal to his master. Sometimes he’s like my people—forgets his place and starts to bite and scratch the hand that feeds him, strokes him, and gives him shelter. When he does this, I need to show him who’s a master here, and he becomes pleasant and obedient again.’
Harmachis chokes on his wine. His eyes look at the king with hope, ready for everything to save his father’s life, title, and honour of his family.
‘Why don’t you eat your meal? These duck and figs are delicious.’ Userkaf takes one of the baked figs and offers it to Harmachis. ‘Try it. Don’t upset your king even more.’
‘I’ll do everything to please you, my king,’ he murmurs, taking a fig from the king’s hands with his lips.
Userkaf’s narrow eyebrows arch. ‘Leave us alone,’ he orders.
One by one, the servants leave the chamber. Ineni doesn’t move from his low couch.
‘You’ve heard me, Great Vizier.’ The king doesn’t look at Ineni, he stares at the young charioteer, tempted by his eyes, his golden hair, his big lips.
I am a little scribe again. I sit on a low bench together with two other scribes and watch the king reinstating the priest of Sobek in his duties.
Hapuseneb kneels in front of Userkaf, his chief of security, and the vizier. His body shakes under the long white robe. All his jewellery was taken away from him on the first day of his home arrest and given to the king’s treasury. His shaved head is covered by ashes in a tribute of grief and obedience.
‘His Majesty the King, may he live forever, honours you with his forgiveness,’ Ineni proclaims, and the scribes start to scratch on their papyri, trying to catch every word.
I start to write down as well, but instead of words, I draw. I draw what I can’t say aloud. I draw my plan, the plan of my revenge.
‘The mercy of our king is truly limitless,’ Ineni continues. ‘He deigns not only to save your life and honour of your family from the greatest shame but also he leaves you to perform your duties as a priest of Sobek, the lord of all waters. However, taking into consideration all the charges against you, His Majesty orders you to be suspended from the post of the governor of the Southern Land.’
Userkaf nods in support of his words. ‘Remember, Hapuseneb, I’m watching you.’
‘I’m grateful to His Majesty for his mercy. I know Maat, who always judges fairly, advises my king that there is no guilt on me. I know, oh the greatest of the kings, that the Eye of Re guides you through the darkness of lies to the light of truth. It shows you my loyalty is undoubted.’ Hapuseneb raises his eyes to the king.
Userkaf gestures him to rise from his knees. ‘I’m very pleased that you finally understood the seriousness of the accusations against you, Hapuseneb.’ He smiles his crooked smile. ‘Try not to disappoint me again.’ He takes a step closer to the priest. ‘Next time, even your son, who is very sweet with me, won’t be able to save you.’
He turns around and leaves the chamber. Ineni, the chief of security, scribes, fan bearers, and all other servants follows their lord.
I glance at Hapuseneb. He stands still, his head is bowed, his eyes are full of tears. I approach to him and take his hand. I give him my drawings. I stare into his eyes. My drawings… they are showing him how I’ve been killed by my brother. They are showing him the future. He knows now the favour of the king costs his son dearly. He knows what to do. He accepts his fate. He is ready for his revenge, and so am I.
It is a huge feast in the palace. My brother adores such types of entertainment when he’s partying till late at night, getting drunk with his generals and chief officers.
I am too young for the feast. I am supposed to sleep in my chamber as all little princes do, but I am here, hiding behind a column. I am here. I feel the future. I don’t know how, but I feelwhat is going to happen.
The music plays louder and louder, drunken guests try to dance, shouting, laughing, and falling on low couches. Userkaf is on his low sofa, embracing one of the slave girls. He looks tipsy and bored. His usual entertainment doesn’t amuse him anymore.
‘Where is Harmachis? Where is my favourite and most loyal friend?’ He turns to one of his guests. ‘Why doesn’t he celebrate with us?’
The officer sends one of the servants for Harmachis, but after some time, he returns alone.
My brother frowns. He doesn’t like to wait, even less he likes to ask for something twice. He sends the chief of security to bring him Harmachis immediately. A couple of hours pass before the chief of security returns. Userkaf is drunk and furious, but he doesn’t want to show it to his guests.
‘My Lord.’ The officer kneels in front him. ‘We’ve found him.’
‘Where is he? Where has he been? You make me wait… again.’
‘I didn’t mean to disappoint you, my Lord, but…’ The officer struggles. ‘Harmachis was arrested this morning together with Your Majesty’s wife, queen Tiyu, when they tried to cross the border with Kush.’
‘What?’ Userkaf jumps from his couch. ‘Why? How? It is… it is…’ he stammers, his eyes shine in anger.
‘It is treason, my Lord.’ The officer bows his head lower.
‘Why did you hide it from me?’
‘I didn’t want to upset my king until we would know the details of their plot. I know, oh my Lord, that Harmachis is very close to Your Majesty—’
‘Where are they now?’
‘Queen Tiyu is under arrest. She is locked in her private chambers. It was the order of the Great Vizier. Harmachis is in prison. He is waiting to be interrogated.’
‘Question them, torture if needed, and send my treacherous wife back to her father with the greatest dishonour. Make Harmachis suffer as he makes me suffer from his treason.’
The king’s army like a cloud of sand moves south-east to the land of Kush. The king is in a chariot of fine gold, adorned with his accoutrements like Horus, the lord of action, like the war god Montu, like Sobek, the lord of the waters. The royal serpent on his crown spills fire. Trumpets sound, troops start their march down the hill to meet the enemy’s army. Hundreds of thousands of Kushite soldiers are killed. Hundreds of officers and aristocrats are captured. Beja, the viceroy of Kush, and all his family follow the king’s chariot as the most precious trophy of the king’s victory.
I am a bodiless spirit again. I observe the battlefield, captured by the whirlwind of countless dead soldiers’ souls—free and wild, just like I am. .
The battlefield is covered with dead bodies, abandoned without a burial. The rivers of Kush turn red, filled with blood. Cities are in ruins, and the moaning of Kushite wives is spreading all over this endless desert. Sekhmet, the ferocious mother of war, has a rich harvest of souls in these lands.
Userkaf took his revenge. Surrounded by his officers and generals, he returns to Niwt-Imn to worship the gods, who granted him the victory.
The king disembarks from his royal barge at a quay on a riverbank and looks up at two obelisks of red granite with golden pyramids atop. This is the threshold of the house of deities. This is a gateway to another world that is accessible only for the king and the priests. Crowned with the double crown and carrying the ceremonial flail and the sceptre, with an artificial beard made from fine golden threads, he sits on a golden throne on a long pole, supported by bearers.
The procession passes the main gates and enters the first square court. It crawls through the endless gateways, roofless courts with sacred lakes, and halls with columns, where the light shades gradually, preparing the king and his retinue for the meeting. The king with his eyes half-closed looks focused.
His body has been cleaned by the waters of a sacred lake. The priests purified him by burning holy oils and giving him special salts to chew and so to make his mouth clean and ready for the uttering of his prayers. His body is fully prepared for the conversation with the gods, but his mind is as dark as the waters of the Nile. His heart knows no mercy.
I’ve assisted priests in purification as it was the will of the king. Userkaf wants to get rid of me as he’s already done once. Is he afraid of his ten-year old nephew? Is he afraid of me spying on him and, one day, taking over his throne? He wants me to become a priest of Sobek now. He wants to lock me up in the temple, far away from the court.
It is the time to worship the river god, Sobek-Re, who gives mightiness to the king, who makes the king’s heart fearless, who makes the king’s body unreachable for arrows and spears, who protects him in a battle.
The king enters the shrine, and I follow him as that is what he wishes. There are only the king, Hapuseneb, and I in the chamber.
I carry a richly decorated casket—the offering to the god. My hands are numb. The horrible content of the casket makes me feel dizzy.
The first words of a hymn start from somewhere above the ceiling, and the service begins. There is a huge pond in the middle of the chamber. In its sacred waters, the embodiments of Sobek enjoy their meal. The king offers the first bloody piece of meat, and one of the divine creatures opens its massive jaws with razor-sharp fangs. Its brothers and sisters, feeling the smell of blood hiss and gnash their teeth, ready for the feast.
The spicy fume of the lamps fills the chamber, the hymn sounds louder. Userkaf is on his knees in front of Sobek’s statue. Only the pond separates him from the deity. He takes the casket from my hands and, slightly turning it to Hapuseneb, pronounces a short prayer, ‘Oh Great Father of all the waters, oh mighty Sobek-Re! Please, accept this offering from your obedient son.’ The king opens the casket.
Poor Hapuseneb screams in horror. The head of his son, Harmachis, stares at him from the casket.
Userkaf grins. ‘I’m sure that my Lord, mighty Sobek, enjoys the taste of the traitor. The pieces I’ve offered him belonged to the body of your handsome but disloyal son.’
Hapuseneb’s eyes are full of tears. He saw this scene in my drawings long ago. The reality hurts even worse.
I open my mouth, and for the first time in my short life the sound as loud as thunder comes out, ‘Murderer! Murderer and usurper!’
Userkaf tries to rise from his knees, but I push him forward and…
The powerful and bloodthirsty embodiments of Sobek are ready for a new portion of the offering. The king screams and shouts, but the heavy wooden doors are too thick. Nobody from the outside can hear his screams.
The pond turns blood red. Userkaf stretches his hand, covered in blood, trying to get out of the pond, but Hapuseneb has no mercy. He steps on the king’s fingers and pushes him back. A few minutes later, Sobek is satisfied with his offering.
Hapuseneb looks into my eyes with sadness and hope. I give him the casket. He kisses Harmachis’s forehead and turns to me. He dashes to open the heavy doors. He falls on his knees and proclaims, ‘Long life and prosperity to the king, may you live forever!’ I am the King of the kings. I am the son of the falcon-headed Horus. I am the beginning. I am the end. I am Nimaatre Smenkhare Meriamun, the living god of the land of Kemet. I am the son of immortal gods and I will live forever.
Valeriya says about her life:
“I am a multi-genre author from the United Kingdom. I studied History and earned my Master’s Degree in Art Expertise at St. Petersburg University of Culture and Arts. Born in Belarus, I’ve lived for many years in Ukraine and Russia before settling down in the north of England. Apart from creative writing, I have a passion for travels, arts, history, and foreign languages. My short stories and essays have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including The Copperfield Review, Meet Cute Mag, Bewildering Stories, The Pine Cone Review, and Strange Fiction SF & F ‘Zine.“
Her gimlet eyes are sooty diamonds. ‘You treat this place like a hotel.’
I laugh. It sounds hollow, even to me. ‘You want payment?’ Of course, I had paid already, in more ways than one. Time to go. Time to find a nicer hotel – an exotic marigold, preferably. Far away from here. Somewhere the rooms have locks on the doors, where you don’t get wriggling red ants dropped on your face while you’re sleeping.
‘You’ll regret this!’ Mother’s voice has become uglier.
‘Listen to me. You need to listen. That’s the problem.’ She is whisky-slurred again.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘What are you talking about? You crossed a line’
‘Don’t throw it back at me. You always throw it back.’ Words catch like barbed wire in my throat.
‘You push too far. You keep pushing.’
‘So, it’s my fault? You’re blaming me? You’ve totally lost it.’
‘Get out, then. Don’t come crying to me when it all falls apart, because I won’t take you back. No-one will want you, not now, not ever.’
‘Well, you made sure of that, didn’t you?’
‘Monster!’ Her skull-splitting scream contorts a face I once considered beautiful. My stomach lurches.
I’m two, maybe three, steps away from reaching the door, clutching the rucksack I’d packed the night before and hidden inside the foul-smelling, blood-stained wardrobe.
‘Pot. Kettle. Black.’ My voice barely a whisper, I walk away, the sharpened blade still warm in my pocket.
“So, you cheated on me.” Mel almost choked on the words, salty tears spilling from her baby-blue eyes, and I quickly regretted confessing my deceit.
“How could you?” Her soft voice was heavy and sad. “Who was she?”
I hesitated. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Someone I knew, then.”
I couldn’t argue. Memories of her younger sister and I rolling naked on the sand dunes, arms and legs entwined, passionate tongues exploring, probing, were still vivid, fresh. Had it really been worth it?
Mel started to walk towards the door. I panicked. “Don’t go,” I heard myself say. I began to cry. Images of what had been, what would no longer be, flooded my brain and I realised I didn’t want it to end like this. “I’m sorry. It didn’t mean anything.”
Mel turned and stared, unmoved, the hurt in her eyes replaced with contempt. “You betrayed my trust.”
“I’m sorry,” I repeated. Needles of moonlight poked through the bedroom blinds, casting an eerie glow. Mel paused for a moment, as if considering what to do next. Then she said, “Before I leave you, Kat, before I leave us, I want one last kiss.” Cradling my face in her slender fingers, she brushed her lips gently across my forehead, moving down, until her mouth covered mine. My head started swimming while familiar delicious sensations surged through my veins as the tip of her tongue touched my teeth. I felt the magnetic force of Mel’s desire as she pushed me against the wall and in that moment, I was confident she could never leave. Not when we still had this, our two bodies fused, as if time had been frozen. After a few moments, I tried to pull away to get some air, but Mel held me so tightly I was unable to move. She’d sealed her lips to mine, draining me, and I suddenly realised this kiss would not end until finally, triumphantly, she’d drawn all the breath from my body.
“Hey, big brother, your turn to see to Mum,” Faith murmured.
Alec yawned but nestled further into the well-worn armchair in the corner of the draughty living room.
“Her glass of milk is on the kitchen table,” Faith reminded him. “Semi-skimmed, of course. And don’t forget her medication.”
Cursing profusely, Alec finally got up, rubbing his bleary eyes. Faith knew his patience was wearing thin.
“When you think of the word ‘mother’ what adjectives spring to mind?” he muttered. “How about cantankerous, vindictive, demanding, selfish -”
“Exactly,” he replied. “If anything, old age has made her even more intolerable.”
“This is her home. If she wants to recuperate on the top floor, she can. Have some compassion.”
“Like she did, when we were kids?” His voice cut like an ice pick piercing a skull. “Besides, it’s only a broken ankle. Which she brought on herself.”
“How can you be so mean? She tripped on the doorstep.”
“Yes, pursuing her latest care assistant with a meat cleaver, after wrongfully accusing the poor girl of stealing one of her hideous china ornaments. I’m not surprised the agency refused to find a replacement this time. She’s a bloody nightmare, and I swear her temper outbursts are getting worse.”
“In the meantime, we can sort things out. We can, Alec. She’s our mum.”
“So you keep saying. When we were growing up, I kept hoping there was some mistake, that she wasn’t really our mum, that we’d been adopted, and one day we’d be rescued by someone who really loved us. At the very least, a normal human being. No such luck.” He disappeared into the kitchen and returned holding a wipe-clean plastic tray. Hovering in the doorway, he said, “You forgive too easily, Faith.”
Avoiding his gaze, she continued, “Try again to persuade her she’ll be better off down here.”
“Fat chance,” he replied, his voice fading as he disappeared into the gloom of the forbidding oak staircase.
“We could make up a bed for her in the living room,” Faith mumbled to herself, as she snuggled into the sagging sofa, pulling a fleecy blanket over her shoulders. Minutes later, she had drifted into an uneasy sleep.
Alec was panting by the time he reached the second flight of stairs. The house was too big too old, menacing shadows lurking in every dark corner. Alec had always been convinced the place was haunted. In a way it was. After their softly-spoken father’s shocking departure when they were still toddlers, both siblings had frequently been at the receiving end of their mother’s volatile rages and spiteful manipulation. Alec could never understand why, despite everything, Faith had tried desperately to win her monstrous mother’s affection.
As he stopped on the landing, at the very spot where their father had fallen to his death, Alec looked forward to the day he and Faith could sell this dreadful, crumbling shell of a building, and try to escape all the memories locked inside. Perhaps then they could get on with their lives. Having to be here now was putting a strain on his already unstable marriage, not to mention the disruption it was causing his property development business. And he knew things were just as difficult for Faith, who was missing her beloved Danoodle, Ivan, temporarily entrusted to a friend’s care, since their mother loathed animals and had never allowed them to keep pets.
Taking a deep breath, Alec opened the door to the bedroom and quietly entered the stifling, foul, cluttered space. Even his mother’s harsh snoring sounded belligerent. For a moment, seeing her pasty, puffy face he felt a pinprick of conscience. He reached out and tentatively shook her shoulder to wake her.
“I’ve got your milk, Mum.”
She rolled over, ignoring him. “I’m not thirsty. Take it away.”
“Don’t be silly. You must drink something, or you’ll get dehydrated.”
She muttered ungraciously, eyes half closed, and suddenly all the years of resentment and fear that seethed and fermented inside him rose up like bitter, red-hot lava. In an impulse, Alec opened the bottle of pills and tipped the entire contents into his mother’s milk. He would forge a suicide note and no-one need ever know what had really happened. Then he and Faith would be free. Finally.
“Come on Mum, drink up.”
“I don’t want it,” she spat.
“I don’t want to be here looking after an ungrateful cow but do you see me complaining?” Sighing, he placed the tray carefully on the bedside table. If he couldn’t persuade her to drink it, maybe he would have to force her. Glancing at the sweat-stained pillow leaning against the laundry basket, Alec picked it up with a look of grim determination. Perhaps there was another way, quicker and simpler.
Downstairs in the dining room, Faith woke with a jolt. Shivering violently, she glanced at the clock. Nearly midnight. Where was Alec? Shuddering, she remembered her nightmare. It was only a dream, she told herself, but she couldn’t shake the feeling of unease. Something was wrong. Panicking, heart pounding, she ran up the stairs. As she flung open the bedroom door, she saw Alec bent over their mother, trying to smother her with a pillow.
“What the hell are you doing?” she screamed, leaping forward and knocking her startled brother to the floor. “Mum! Mum are you okay?”
Sprawled across the bed, the terrified woman was coughing and spluttering for breath. Between gasps, in a tight, rasping voice she muttered, “Thank you.”
Tears pricked Faith’s eyes. It was the first time she could ever recall her mother uttering those two simple words. Still shaking, Faith said, “Let’s get you sitting up. Your voice sounds croaky. Here, this will help.” Alec watched with a mixture of horror and surprised delight as Faith gave their mother the glass of milk, sip by sip by sip. “Yes, drink up, Mum,” he said, standing beside his sister, unable to stop the grim smile that had hijacked his face. “It will make us all feel much better. Sweet dreams.”
“How could you? My own daughter committing such a vile, disgusting -”
“Sorry, Mum. It won’t happen again.”
She watched me cowering in the corner of the cellar, the stench of urine overpowering. “I’ve tried to bring you up properly,” she continued, unfastening my chains and helping me to my feet. “I couldn’t believe it when the neighbours started complaining, told them they’d got it all wrong. That my daughter hadn’t got a sadistic bone in her body. But after all you put us through last week, well…”
“I won’t do it again,” I insisted, trembling beneath her stony glare.
“Too right you won’t do it again,” she growled, her gnarled fingers still gripping the bloodstained tin-opener. Unaccountably, her tone softened. “Your old Mum believes you. This time.” She held out her hand. Cautiously, I tiptoed out of the shadows.
“Do you forgive me, Mum?”
She smiled. “I forgive you. Come to Mummy.” She threw her arms around me and gripped my rake-thin body with her familiar powerful embrace. Sobbing like a baby, I buried my head into the soft folds of her maternal breasts, breathing in the smell of stale biscuits and nicotine.
“There, there,” she crooned, rocking gently.
My stomach rumbled loudly, a reminder food hadn’t passed my lips for days. Shut away in the darkness, it’s easy to lose all sense of time. To lose all sense.
“Is my precious hungry?” she murmured. “Doesn’t Mummy feed you properly?” I was vaguely aware of her screams as I sank my teeth into the warmth of her flesh and began to eat.
UK based neurodivergent writer Jane Ayres completed a Creative Writing MA at the University of Kent in 2019 aged 57. She is fascinated by hybrid poetry/prose experimental forms and has work in Sledgehammer, Punk Noir Magazine, Versification, Streetcake, The North, Crow & Cross Keys, Door is a Jar, Kissing Dynamite and The Forge. @workingwords50
New issues appear Fridays at 10:00 a.m. CDT/ 4:00 p.m. BST/ 8:30 p.m. IST/ 1:00 a.m. AEST (Saturdays).
“Furry Children” Dark Fiction by A. Elizabeth Herting
A. Elizabeth Herting is an aspiring freelance writer and busy mother of three living in colorful Colorado. She has over 60 short story credits, podcasts, and reprints as well as non-fiction work, and two collections of short stories published by “Adelaide Books,” “Whistling Past the Veil” and “Postcards From Waupaca” available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. For more of her work, contact her at aeherting.com, twitter.com/AmyHerting, or facebook.com/ AElizabethHerting
Melody Wang currently resides in sunny Southern California with her dear husband. In her free time, she dabbles in piano composition and also enjoys hiking, baking, and playing with her dogs.
“Aphorisms for a New Viscosity” Dark, Offbeat Fiction by Robert Garnham
Robert Garnham is a comedy performance poet. He has performed at festivals and fringes and comedy nights. A joke from one of his shows was acclaimed as one of the funniest at the Edinburgh fringe. He has made some TV adverts for a certain bank.
“The Son of Immortals” Dark Fiction by Valeriya Salt
Valeriya Salt a multi-genre author from the United Kingdom. She studied History and earned her Master’s Degree in Art Expertise at St. Petersburg University of Culture and Arts. Born in Belarus, she lived for many years in Ukraine and Russia before settling down in the north of England. Apart from creative writing, she has a passion for travels, arts, history, and foreign languages. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including The Copperfield Review, Meet Cute Mag, Bewildering Stories, The Pine Cone Review, and Strange Fiction SF & F ‘Zine.
At the Neon Studios Salon, tails creeped luxuriously along the napes of necks in shades of lavender and pearl—and I wanted one—one that hissed and shimmered, one that blinked with long eyelashes and snaky curves. My mother said that no self-respecting daughter of hers would ever go there. Rumor had it that the walls were filled with the bones of the dead, but it was also the best place to get the latest hair styles, the kind that all of the boys at school liked.
To get a boy to like you, everyone knew you had to have the stair-step bob with the long, leafy tail that sprung to life, growing in the back—the one that made the boys sneak a hand up there and run the tail through their fingers, hoping it would lick them.
“I’ve seen the way boys behave when girls your age grow a tail, letting it swing to and fro while walking, swaying their hips. Don’t ever disrespect yourself like that. Don’t get used,” my mother had said, but I didn’t see the harm.
The tails were mesmerizing. Everyone I knew wanted one, and everyone’s grew in differently, in different colors. My friends told me that after the stylist washed their hair and trimmed it, they pulled out a sharp knife and cut an indentation in the nape of the neck. They said the stylists kept gems in various shapes and colors in a special drawer and would insert one into the cut. My friends swore that it didn’t hurt at all because the knife was incredibly sharp, and the stylists had a special license to perform light surgical procedures. Once the gem, which was gel-like, was inserted, the stylists pricked it and seeds oozed out. Over time, the tails grew, developed, licked fingers, or playfully hissed.
The Neon Studios Salon didn’t exist inside of a mall, wedged between a movie theater and an arcade. To get to it, I borrowed my mother’s car (on the pretense of running errands) and drove it through wooded streets, just past the center of town, where all of the country clubs shared views of forest canopies in the summer. All kinds of women—important women—snuck off to the salon while their husbands played golf. They didn’t let their tails grow too long, and they modified the bob cut just a bit—enough to be stylish, but still acceptable in their social circles. I didn’t have to worry about any of that, and neither did my friends. We were young and had nothing to do with country club circles.
At the edge of a wooded street, stood a massive, Craftsman-style home, with white trim. From the outside, it didn’t look like much. It didn’t look like it could be the hub of modern style.
However, there was a sign, done up in soft purple, fluorescent lights that flashed “Neon Studios Salon,” but not in that creepy, motel-by-the-side-of-the-road way. More like a dream-sequence music video in pulses of desire and mystery. Inside, walls the color of deep eggplant gleamed in the light of crystal chandeliers, which hung from the ceiling. The air smelled of perfume and fruit-scented hairspray and shampoo. Mirrors shined, etched in gold. A stylist, Rochelle, who was blond with a violet, glitter-streaked tail that slapped the air behind her, took me to the shampooing station to begin my appointment. Already, I knew I was in excellent hands. I ignored what I thought were groans and shrieks coming from the walls, somewhat drowned out by the latest Top 40 hits blaring through the speakers, booming with synthesizer beats. I still heard the noises faintly and wondered if Rochelle heard them too. They sounded sorrowful, anxious, and if I looked close enough, I thought I saw the walls move. But it was clear that Rochelle didn’t want me looking at the walls. She’d turn my head in the sink whenever she caught me straining my neck. The ashen flakes that fell all around, though, were hard to ignore. They landed on the sleeves of the protective black cape Rochelle game me, and in Rochelle’s hair. Someone came by to sweep up the piles that accumulated on the floor, and I wondered if they were the remnants from the dead—the bones in the walls. I wondered if that’s what made this place so special.
In the main salon area, Rochelle worked quickly to chop off my shoulder-length locks, shaping my hair into a sharp bob with distinct stair-step layers in the back. Then, she took out a knife.
“Most people say it doesn’t really hurt,” she told me. “Sometimes it does, though. Just depends.”
I nodded my head. She opened a drawer at her station and showed me the gems I could choose. They all looked impossibly beautiful, but I eventually settled on a diamond-shaped, green glittered gem.
“Don’t move,” she said, “and uncross your legs. Otherwise, your body will be uneven and so will your cut.”
After injecting the back of my neck with a topical numbing agent, Rochelle made the first cut, which felt like fire, searing and burning, despite the numbing solution, but I refused to scream or cry—or jump. Why would I? Pain was a part of the deal. I’d be entering the world changed, and everyone would notice, especially the boys.
“There. All done,” Rochelle said, before pricking the diamond gel pack, letting the seeds run smooth and warm down my neck. She then massaged the area to work the seeds in and told me not to wash my hair for 24 hours at least. I left the salon with everything my babysitting earnings could get me, which included a 20-ounce bottle of lavender jasmine shampoo (specially formulated to help tails grow), matching conditioner, mousse, and hairspray.
At first, my mother didn’t notice. The nub that formed on my neck was my secret, and I’d gently rub it, just to make sure it was still there. Within a few weeks, though, the seedlings started to sprout, growing like ruffles on lace collars, trailing down my neck, weaving themselves into one sturdy strand of brilliant garden green, speckled with light. Never mind that when I went to the beach that year, I wore a skimpy bathing suit, much too revealing for a girl my age. Never mind that I blossomed and spilled out of the spaces strategically cut into the bathing suit. It was the tail that enraged my mother the most.
“Oh, you’re getting attention all right. The wrong kind of attention. And everyone’s talking about you—all of the neighbors—all of my friends. I’m so embarrassed.”
While I was somewhat ashamed because of what my mom said, I just couldn’t stop myself. I’d look in the mirror, pull the lovely strand across my shoulder and over my neck and admire the way the glint of green picked up lighter shades in my eyes. It hissed happily, darting between my fingers, and I just couldn’t imagine how I’d look without it.
The solution to my problem, I believed, was silence. I shut my mother out. We stopped talking. I stayed longer after school, went over to my friends’ houses more often—my friends who all had tails, just like I did. Besides, a tail didn’t mean you had to do anything with a boy. You just could if you wanted to, at least, that’s what I thought until my friend Jodi mentioned the walls at the Neon Studios Salon. I remembered the rumors but hadn’t thought about them for a while. Despite what I had experienced when I got my hair cut, I brushed the sounds and the ashes off as nothing. To me, the rumors had to be entirely untrue.
“Oh, no!” Jodi told me one day at her house. “If you get a tail, you have to follow through or else. The bones in the walls are from virgins—other girls who got tails but didn’t follow through.”
“Yeah, you know?”
“Have you . . . followed through before?”
“Yeah. It’s no big deal. But if you don’t, well, the walls know. They whisper their secrets to the owners of the salon. They find you in the middle of the night—or in the middle of the day.”
“That’s not true.”
“Remember Betsy Mulligan?”
“She didn’t. Her tail grew in, but she didn’t follow through. Think about it. When’s the last time you saw Betsy Mulligan?”
“We were eating ice cream at the mall. And then, I don’t remember what happened next. I guess her parents picked her up or something.”
“No. She was snatched up off the street. Her virgin bones were ground to powder and stuffed inside the walls. The sacrifices of virgins—not the shampoos and gels and seeds—make the tails grow.”
Jodi’s news was alarming, and I half considered cutting the tail off to maybe break the spell, if it could be broken that way, but I couldn’t. I loved it—the whole look. I couldn’t imagine going out in public with out it. I’d be so plain with just a naked stair-step bob. I’d be nothing special.
But I couldn’t let myself get sacrificed, either, if the rumors were true. As much as I hated my mother, I didn’t want her to grieve the loss of a daughter. So I followed through, with the first boy I met a party. We spent fifteen minutes in a closet together. For me, the experience was underwhelming, but necessary. He wanted another date, said he thought we bonded, reached for my hair, but the tail pulled away. In fact, the tail lasted longer than the boy, and I left the party with my life intact, but wondering if anyone would notice. Would anyone, such as my mother, be able to tell that I followed through?
Eventually, there were signs. The green strand grew long, sassy, and started to hiss. Apparently, you’re not supposed to let it get too long. You had to get it trimmed, but I liked the length. My mother, on the other hand, believed the length was a new source of embarrassment.
“It looks awful. Even your friends haven’t grown their tails to the length you have. Why do you insist on just destroying yourself?” Then, she yanked the front of my hair, turning my face towards her, and asked, “Have you had sex? Tell me now. I’m not leaving you alone until you tell me.”
My mother’s threats were never empty. Her rage knew no boundaries. If I left the room, she’d follow me, and there were no locks on the doors in our house. Those were the rules.
“Yes! So what? At least I had the decency to not get sacrificed to the salon. So there, Mom. You happy? Happy, Mom?”
My mother put her head in her hands and mumbled something about how she’d be able to take care of a pregnant daughter.
“No, Mom,” I said. “I’m not pregnant. We were careful.”
“So will there be more—boys? Times?”
For the first time in a long while, I saw a smile on her face. Her shoulders began to shake as she laughed. A big, powerful, triumphant laugh that rang out through the streets. I’d just said the funniest thing she’d ever heard.
She never spoke badly about the tail again. In fact, she let me grow it out longer, and later, when Dad left us, she went to the Neon Studios Salon and got one too—in blazing red.
“I don’t think so. It wasn’t that great.”
From then on, every afternoon during the rest of my high school years, we’d sit on the front porch. Mom would pour me a glass of champagne, and we’d watch the cars go by, our shimmering tails, hissing and snapping at the air.
Cecilia Kennedy taught English and Spanish courses in Ohio before moving to Washington state and publishing short stories in various magazines and anthologies. The Places We Haunt is her first short story collection. You can find her DIY humor blog and other adventures/achievements here: (https://fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog/). Twitter: @ckennedyhola
David stood in the doorway of the empty cabin. His breaths came in rapid pants, fogging into the empty room. The wind gusted behind him, swirling snow onto the floor at his feet. His tired eyes swept the room through another frozen breath. There was a small stove near the center of the room, a cot along the far wall, a desk and chair, but not much else. After trekking for days through knee deep snow, the cabin looked like the Ritz.
He stomped the snow from his boots and stepped inside, shoving the door closed against another gust of wind. With no windows, the room went pitch black, so he opened the door again with a reluctant sigh.
Moving into the room, he went to the stove. His hand touched the metal, searching for warmth he knew wouldn’t be there. He pushed the hood of his parka from his head and scanned for fire wood. There was none.
There were also no traps, no snowshoes, and no other sign this was a trapper’s cabin. No pictures hung on the walls, laying claim to it. The room was bare. It was a last chance cabin, built and left open by the state to aid unfortunate souls trapped in the weather, like him.
Him. The man who considered himself a survivalist, an outdoorsman. He’d allowed himself to get lost in the middle of winter. The embarrassment and shame he felt had long since faded, giving way at an adamant desire to survive, and the possibility that he might not.
He knew that most of his toes were lost to frostbite, and probably some of his fingers. He hadn’t eaten in days, sustained only by snowmelt to drink. The weather had come down on his third day out here. That was four days ago. He was lucky to be alive.
David ran his gloved hands over his beard, knocking the frozen spittle from his face. He needed to start a fire. Even though he’d found shelter, he would still freeze to death if he didn’t. The cabin would be better than the snowbank he’d slept in last night, but it was still freezing.
With no hope of finding wood outside, he looked around the room. Whatever he burned would have to come from the cabin. His eyes went to the wooden, ladder back chair. That would do. Now, all he needed was something to start a fire. If he still has his pack, he could use the flint, but that was long gone.
He went to the desk and snatched one of the drawers, expecting it to be frozen shut. It released easily and flew out of the desk, dropping to the floor. A stack of old, crumpled papers fell out, along with a few stray matches. He smiled, thankful for his fortune.
David stuck his hands into the iron stove. He could see the tiny flames lapping at his bare flesh, but he couldn’t feel it yet. That would take a while.
He smashed the drawer and fed the fire carefully, smiling though his body was shivering. He’d be okay now. The cabin would shelter him, and the fire would warm him. With any luck he’d find something to eat, and in a few days, he would be strong enough to travel.
“It’s going to be alright.” His voice echoed back to him sounding hollow and unsure.
David fed the last of the drawer into the fire and leaned back in the chair. The cast iron stove popped as it expanded with the heat. It was still very cold in the cabin, but the mere sight of a flames felt like heaven. The fire lifted his spirits, lending him the energy to explore his sanctuary.
He spun in the chair and lifted some of the loose papers from the drawer. He expected notes from previous occupants. What he found was several pages of chicken scratch that were barely legible.
He dropped the papers back on the desk and picked up a sheet of paper from the floor. It had fallen from the drawer and somehow avoided becoming a fire starter. The handwriting was rough and uneven. Like a man who was freezing to death, he thought. He shook his head and tossed the paper onto the desk. He had his own problems, reading someone’s else’s didn’t appeal to him. Yet. Maybe, if he got bored later. Boredom was a luxury of those well footed in the land of the living. He wasn’t quite there yet.
He got up and stumbled to corner, searching both cabinets. Nothing was left but frozen dust. He went to a wooden box built into the floor and opened the lid. His eyes bulged when he saw the stacks of canned goods.
Dropping to his knees, he groped one of the cans and pulled it out. Holding it in the dim light of the open stove door, he read the label. Beans. A smile slid across his cold face. It wasn’t a gourmet meal, but it would do nicely. His hand washed over the cans, counting eleven of them. If he were prudent and rationed them, he could make them last two weeks easy. By then the weather would break and he could walk out of here.
David peeled back the top of the can and dug his knife into the frozen beans. The few slivers of ice danced on his tongue, reminding him how to taste. A hot meal would warm him, and the full belly would let him sleep well. “It’s going to be alright.”
He picked up the can by the lid, peeled halfway back from the top of the can. Eating with two fingers, he savored the first lukewarm bite like it was a seasoned steak. He moaned and shoveled more into his mouth.
When he forced himself to stop at two cans, his stomach clamored for more, but he refused. He wanted to eat everything right now, but it wouldn’t help him much. At best he’d be able to stay a few days then would have to search for food again.
Instead of gorging on the food, he broke up another drawer and stoked the flame. He closed the door to preserve the fire and pulled the bed close to the stove. He sank into the simple cot with a sigh. His body ached, and now that his feet were thawing, his toes were starting to hurt.
He wrapped himself in the wool blanket and stared at the stove. He watched the flame dance through the thin crack around the door and drifted off to sleep with a smile.
David sat up on the cot, his eyes going to the door. The heavy timber still laid across it though it trembled at the mercy of the elements. He’d heard something. He told himself it was the wind and laid back down. The sound was just the wind. Nothing else. He pulled the cover tight around his shoulders and settled back into the cot.
His eyes had barely closed when the sound came again. Now that he was awake, he knew what it was. It was a howl. He opened his eyes but didn’t move. It couldn’t have been a wolf. They’d be in their den this late at night, especially when the weather was up.
When the howl came again, closer, he sat up on the cot. The cabin was pitch black except for the faint glow of embers escaping the stove. His eyes darted around the room, making sure it was secure. The only way in or out was the door, and it was barred. Whatever was out there wasn’t going to be getting in.
Now wide awake, he broke up the fourth of the five drawers and fed the coal bed. The dry wood ignited instantly, and a fire sprang forth. He smiled, watching it dance on the new fuel as it consumed the splintered drawer.
He clutched the blanket to his shoulders and slid closer to the stove. The cabin was much warmer than it had been, but it was still cold. There was a chill in his bones that might never go away.
His eyes followed the stove pipe to the ceiling. It was the smoke that brought them, he thought. They would smell the smoke and know a human was nearby. Wolves were smart. They knew a human couldn’t survive in these conditions long. To them a human was just another meal, especially in the dead of winter.
He got up and checked the door. It was thick and sturdy and the bar across it was solid. With most of the cabin buried in a snowbank, the door was the only way in. He’d be okay.
The echo of a long, screeching howl filled the cabin and he jerked around, looking behind him. His heart hung in his throat. That one was close. It didn’t sound exactly like a wolf. Maybe some kind of big cat?
It might be something else.
David shook his head, pushing the thought from his mind. It was a wolf, or a big cat. That’s all it could be.
He went to the desk and rifled through the pages, eager for something to occupy his mind. Pulling the chair closer to the stove, he opened the door and examined them. The writing was hard to read. In the dim light, his eyes narrowed, as he slowly began to decipher the first line.
I don’t know what it was, but it was something big.
His brow furrowed as he sifted through the pages, finding the beginning of the letter. The writer introduced himself as Addle Fleming and explained that he’d gotten lost in the woods. He stumbled onto the cabin by a stroke of luck. A fur trapper by trade, he’d gotten caught in an unexpected storm on his way home from running his lines. He spent two paragraphs explaining his surprise at not being able to find his way, since he’d lived here all his life.
David nodded and scratched his cheek. “It happens, my friend.” He shifted back to the second page and began reading again.
I don’t know what it was, but it was something big. At first, I thought it a wolf, or a mountain lion, but I don’t know now. As it got closer, it began to not sound like either.
David cast a wary eye at the door and sighed, then went back to the letter.
It is close now. The door is solid and I’m sure it can’t get in, but it’s still unnerving to hear. I’ve got plenty of wood and several cans of beans and a few packs of dried fish. I should be fine for a few weeks. Surely the weather will break then.
He looked into the fire, rubbing his face. Addle Fleming had gotten himself into the same predicament as him. It’s not an unusual situation, he told himself, trying to calm his nerves. This was, after all, a last chance cabin. It was built and stocked for this very situation. Of course they both shared similar fates. This was rough country, especially in winter.
I was woke from sleep by a scratching at the door. It wasn’t hard, but more of a testing. Something was curious. I thought it might be another traveler, so I went to the door and yelled. No one answered. I pounded on the door and whatever it was ran away. I opened the door. There were big tracks in the snow, to big for a wolf, or even a cat. All I had was a lantern, and I couldn’t see none too good. I don’t know if they were my tracks or not, so I closed the door and barred it. I don’t know what it was.
A howl pulled David’s head up from the letter. He swallowed hard as his eyes swept the room. The letter was right. It didn’t sound exactly like a wolf or a big cat. It sounded like-
“No.” David stood, tossing the pages back to the desk. He couldn’t allow his mind to begin to wander. There were plenty of legends and ghost stories about these mountains, but that’s all they were. Sure, people went missing, but they probably froze to death and were buried in the snow. In the spring, before the weather allowed much travel up the mountain, their bodies were found by the animals and eaten. It wasn’t a pleasant thought, but it explained all the disappearances.
That, he thought adamantly, was what happened. That and nothing else. He paced the room then came back to the stove. His eyes went to the papers and he shook his head.
He wadded the first two pages and tossed them into the fire, smiling as the flames consumed the writing. Good riddance.
Sitting back in the chair, he pulled the middle drawer from the desk. Two stubby pencils and a few pages of loose paper fell out. He tossed the two pencils into the fire and laid the papers on the desk before breaking up the drawer.
After feeding the fire, he looked back at the new pages. The paper had yellowed, and the writing was different. Another occupant of the cabin had left his account. His hand had a slight tremble as he picked them up. Leaning closer to the fire, he began to read.
I ain’t even got no idear what the hell made the noise. wernt no wolf like I thought it was. It’s got to be a lot bigger. I could hear it walking on the roof last nite. I thought it could be a bar, but it cut lose a howl and I knew it wernt no bar. Sount like a woman hollerin. A woman in some kinda pain.
David sighed. The letter wasn’t right, but it wasn’t wrong either. The howl didn’t sound like a woman screaming, or a wolf, or even a big cat. It sounded like all three in one. He swallowed hard and slid closer to the stove, holding the letter to the light.
I dun herd the damed thing screeming for 3 nights in a row now. It keeps me up so I sleep some when its day time. Last nite it come real clost agin. It was scrachin at tha door. Not hard. Like it was testin it, in case it did want to come in.
David picked up the first set of pages, examining the passages that spoke of the scratching at the door. Both stated the same thing. Had the same thing happened to both men or had Addle read the first letter and thought he’d heard scratching? It could have been the wind and the power of suggestion. Being cooped in such a small place had a way of working on a man’s mind sometimes.
The door rattled against a gust of wind then went still. The sound of David’s thundering heart filled his ears as he stared at the brace on the door, waiting. His eyes widened when a soft scratching came against the wood. Something hard moved against the door, pushing it against the bar holding it closed. The tension on the door released, then another long scratch from top to bottom.
David bolted from the chair and went to the door, slamming his fists against it. “Get out of her!” he screamed. The wind gusted again then went silent.
He turned and leaned his back on the door. The soft light of the fire cast long shadows in front of the stove. Inside, a knot popped in the flames, and he jumped, yelping like a kid.
An unsteady hand wiped across his lips as he scanned the room. He needed to know what happened to the others. That would tell him what to expect. He hobbled across the room and fell into the chair. His toes were hurting, but they would have to wait. He had to know.
I herd it again. It was on the roof when I shot at it. I spent up all my shot but one. When I was dun shootin it just left. It wernt skeered of the shot. It wanted me to shoot at it to spend all my shot up. It new I could not kill it. I don’t know what it is. God help me.
David sifted through the papers and found a similar passage in the newer letter. Addle had a pistol and shot every bullet but one at the sound, having the same effect.
He shook his head. “Don’t you see,” he said, his voice faltering. “That’s what it wants. It wants to torture us. Drive us crazy. That’s what it wants.”
The screeching howl ripped through the cabin. He jumped and spun around quickly. He stared at the ceiling, his eyes wide with freight, ignoring the bead of sweat running down his temple.
“I hear you, you bastard.” His eyes swept back and forth across the ceiling, then came back to the papers in his hand. He nodded. Yes. The secret was in the letters. They would tell him what to do.
This is my third day. The screeching has been relentless. I can not sleep. I don’t know what it is, but I know it is big. I know that it knows I am here. Why doesn’t it just bust the door in and come get me. I only have one shot left. One shot, and I am saving it.
David’s eyes narrowed as he looked at the paper. Saving it for what? he wondered. For yourself? He shuffled the page to the back and bent closer to the fire.
I do not know what is happening to me. I hear things from everywhere. The door, the roof. I hear scratching and howling, and today there is a new sound. Like the wings of a giant bird. But how can I hear it through the snow? Something is outside waiting for me. I cannot stay here forever and it knows it. Soon I will have to try to make a break. I think that’s what it is waiting for.
David leaned back in the chair with a heavy sigh. That was his plan too, but now he was second guessing it. But what was he to do? He could last two weeks, if he rationed the food and melted snow to drink. After that it would only be a matter of time. If he waited, he’d be weaker. That was what they wanted, wasn’t it? Whatever was outside could wait him out and it knew it.
He looked at the box in the corner. Why wait at all? he asked himself. Eat all the food now, get some energy back, and go. Don’t wait. Don’t play the game. Maybe the element of surprise would be in his favor. No, he thought. Maybe that’s their plan. They want me to think I’m surprising them, but they’d really be surprising me. He nodded his head, stroking his beard. No, you bastards, not this time. I’ll outthink you.
He stumbled to the cot and fell into it. He was still tired. He just needed rest. He laid down and pulled the covers over his head. Rest. That’s all I need. Just some rest. I’ll be fine. Beneath his eyelids, his eyes darted back and forth. A smile pushed his beard back. Just some…. He didn’t finish the thought before he fell into a restless sleep.
David awoke suddenly. He sat up in the bed, disoriented. Where was he? He looked around the room and found the faint orange glow in the shape of a square. Other than that, the room was pitch black. He tilted his head, still breathing heavy. What was that shape? What was the light?
He wiped sweat from his brow and stood. The cold washed over him instantly, setting off the shivers. He was freezing. He grabbed the blanket and wrapped it around his shoulders as he staggered forward. He extended a hand toward the source of light. There was also heat. Good.
He bent forward, bringing his nose to within inches of the stove. He could smell the coals, the hot metal. His mind lurched forward, telling him it was the stove in his cabin.
He smiled and took another step toward the light, and the heat. His left foot struck the iron leg of the stove and shockwaves of pain tore through his damaged toes. His feet. Yes. He remembered now. His feet were hurt. Frozen. The pain helped him strip away the fog as he slowly put things together in his mind.
Despite building up the fire, he couldn’t stop shaking. Shivering. He pulled the sock from his foot in uneven tugs. The fabric rolled slowly back as he unfurled it from his skin. His toes were black, the skin hung on them loosely. The last three were solid black. They were done for. The big toe and the one next to it were discolored near the tips but might be saved.
Using the tip of his hunting knife, he peeled the dead skin from his pinky toe. It fell away, revealing a wet lump of black tissue. He grimaced and peeled the skin from the next two toes.
They were gone. There would be no saving them. If he were in the hospital, they could amputate and save his foot. But he wasn’t in the hospital. He was miles from civilization and his chances of getting back were growing slimmer with each black toe he found.
He ran a hand over his hair and sighed. The longer the dead tissue stayed on his foot, the more he would lose. Shivering wildly, he crowded closer to the stove, straddling it. The dead toes had to come off.
Outside, another howl pieced the night. They’re celebrating, he thought, shaking his head. They knew that in this condition, he wouldn’t be going anywhere soon.
The blade of the knife was hot. David grimaced as the metal seared his foot. That was a good sign. If he could feel it, he was in live tissue. Moving quickly, before he could change his mind, he brought the heel of his boot down on the back of the knife. The metal slid through the flesh, lopping off his last three toes.
He fell back onto the cot with an agonizing scream. In the distance, another howl answered his. He pounded his fist into the cot, gritting his teeth until the pain subsided enough to sit up.
The hope of cauterizing the wound as he amputated the toes vanished when he saw the bloody stumps. He shook his head, then looked at the stove. A knot tightened in his stomach. He had to stop the bleeding.
David awoke with a start. He sat up on the cot and looked around. The smell of cooked meat hung in the air. His mouth almost watered with delight, but then he remembered what had been seared. The pain in his left foot screamed when he hauled it up, inspecting the wound. The flesh was red and swollen, but the bleeding had stopped.
David paused, his hand holding the coiled wire of the stove handle. His eyes went to the cabin door as it pushed in against the thick timber. A long, scraping sound filled the cabin. He picked up a boot and hurled it at the door. When the sound stopped, he opened the stove and stuck the blade of his knife into the bed of red coals.
The knife hadn’t been hot enough before. He couldn’t make that mistake again. If he passed out before cauterizing the wounds, he could bleed out. He couldn’t let that happen. He’d die alone and in pain and that son of a bitch outside would howl all night.
He was halfway through his third can of beans when the sound of crunching snow filled the cabin. His eyes went to the ceiling, tracking the sound of the footfalls. It was walking on the roof. Whatever it was, it was right there. If he had a gun, he could kill it. He could shoot it through the ceiling.
A scream filled the cabin, but it took a moment for David to realize it was his own. He screamed and the creature answered with a hollow, piercing howl of its own. He screamed again, and the creature answered again.
David laughed loudly. “You son of a bitch! Not me. You’ll not get me.” He dropped the can and opened the door of the stove. He wrapped a gloved hand around the handle of his knife and removed it. The blade was glowing red.
He bent and shoved the blade into the flesh at the base of his toes. His scream tore through clenched teeth as the hot steel sank into his skin. Outside, the creature answered his cry.
David awoke, slumped on the cot. He opened his eyes, watching his breath fog before him. Each ragged breath turned to smoke as it left his body then dissipated in the air before him. He straightened himself and looked at the stove. The warm glow was gone. He’d been asleep long enough for the fire to burn down to hot ash.
Groaning as he bent forward, he opened the door and looked inside. The stray embers awoke as he blew on them. The fire hadn’t gone completely. That was good. He reached down for some firewood but stopped.
His hunting knife lay on the floor next to his foot. Next to the knife two lumps of black tissue lay on the floorboards like rotten grapes. Brushing the toes aside with a grunt, he picked up the wood and tossed it into the stove.
He wrapped the blanket close and slid closer to the stove. Gripping the papers with a trembling hand, he tilted them to read by the light of the fire.
I went outside. The snow has stopped, but it is waist deep. Walking out will be nearly impossible, but I can’t stay here. The scratching at the door was worse last night. I slept in the corner with my pistol, but it never broke through. I think it might be easier to just give up. It’s going to get me either way. I’m just prolonging things. I still have one bullet left.
David shook his head. “Don’t give up, man. You gotta make it. If you made It so can I.” His eyes went to the next entry.
I cain’t take it no more. the howling and screaming is driving me crazy. It’s like a pack of dogs outside. It comes from everywhere at once. I know it ain’t wolves, or no mountain lion. I wish I knew what it was, that way I might have a chance of beating it. I been here a week and it’s getting hard to stay. I wish it would knock the door in and come after me.
He swallowed hard and flipped the page to the back. Wiping sweat from his lip with the back of his hand, he continued reading:
I may get my wish. Whatever it is was at the door. The screaming made my blood run cold. This might be my last entry. I done ate all the food I had. I didn’t wanna die cold and hungry. If it comes through the door I’m going to turn the gun on myself. That way I won’t be alive when it gets me. Either way I’m almost done for. I’m either going to freeze, starve to death, shoot myself, or make a break for it. Or whatever the hell that thingis will get me. I just wish I knew what it was. I ain’t never heard nothing like this.
David tossed the paper onto the fire and rubbed his face with both hands. His options were pretty much in line with old Addle, except he didn’t have a gun.
He pulled the blanket tight over his shoulders and slid up to the stove, nearly touching it. He extended his hands to the stove, watching them shake. Closing his eyes, he concentrated on making them be still. When he looked again, they were shaking worse.
“Dammit.” He moved his hands closer but misjudged in the dim light and brushed against the hot steel. He jerked his hand away and looked at the tips of his fingers. Small circles of gray, ashy skin stared back at him like so many dead eyes.
Outside the door, a screech rang out in the night.
“You liked that, didn’t you? You bastard.” Anger rose in his chest as he stared wide-eyed at the door. “You’re not going to get me.” David shook his head and armed sweat from his brow. “You hear me!” he screamed. “You’re not going to get me.”
He huddled back beneath his blanket and shook his head. “You’ll never get me,” he mumbled. “Maybe you got the others, but not me.” He shoved more wood on the fire and wiped sweat from his face. No, he wasn’t going out like that. Not him. “You’ll never get me.” His eyes went to the door. “Never!” he screamed. His laughter filled the cabin as another howl rang out in the night. “Never!”
Outside, the howling grew louder. Closer.
A young man wearing an Alaska Wildlife Management uniform exited the cabin. He shook his head as he stepped into the bright sunshine. Putting the empty gas can down, he wiped his hands.
The mountain side around the cabin was awash with lush green grass and wildflowers. Jagged rocks, gleaned from the mountainside by ice, littered the landscape. The scene was typical for this time of year, rugged and beautiful.
“I don’t get it, boss. It seems like a good cabin. Got some years on it, but it’s still sturdy.”
“It’s not my call, Tom. The big boss wants it gone.”
Tom Rutherford looked at his boss and shrugged. “I know all that stuff is weird and all, but it’s still a good cabin.”
“They did find a dead man in here. He’d slit his own throat. And all those notes about things attacking them. It’s nuts.”
“Do you think it’s true. The stuff in the notes, I mean.”
The older man laughed. “You ever been snowed in way out here?”
“It’s not fun. Your mind starts playing tricks on you. If you’re injured, maybe got a touch of fever it’s worse. The isolation on top of the cold and hunger alone gets to some folks. I’m surprised they didn’t find the older notes when they restocked last year.”
“Probably not much reason to inspect much. There wasn’t a body before.”
“Guess you’re right there.”
Tom scanned the mountainside and shook his head. “But both sets of notes claimed to hear noises. You’d think with all the snow it’d be silent out here.”
The older man nodded. “You’d think so, but it’s not. Listen.”
Both men stood in silence as the wind picked up. A low whistle resonated along the mountain side.
“What’s that from?” Ton asked.
“It’s just the wind on the mountain, the rock formations and the terrain. It’s a geographical anomaly. I’ll bet with some snowfall it sounds pretty creepy at night. If the weather really gets up, like it usually does around here, it can sound pretty wicked.”
“Surely you don’t think it was all the wind.”
“Look, Tommy boy. There’s all sorts of crazy stuff that happens in these mountains. Take some wind, some weird rock formations, and a fella who’s tired, hungry, and scared to begin with. There’s no telling what he might hear. There’s also no way to tell what he’ll think he hears.”
Tom shook his head. “It still sounds like a stretch to me.”
“My guess is that the first guy that heard it thought he heard something. He got scared and left a note in the drawer. The next guy probably heard it and might not have thought anything about it. Until he reads the note. Then he starts thinking too much. It’s cold and dark, miles from anything and you’re on your own. Days and days, holed up in a tiny cabin with nothing to do but think. Like I said, your mind can do weird stuff.”
“But what happened to the other guys? They never found any bodies.”
“I suppose they panicked and make a break for it. Got lost in the snow and froze to death. Early in the spring the animals found them. It happens. You should read the ‘Bone Report’. Some crazy stuff.”
“But this?” Tom jerked his thumb at the cabin. “The report said he sliced his own throat after cutting off five of his own toes. That’s a lot for the power of suggestion. Do you know how desperate a man would have to be to do that? It doesn’t make sense.”
“And some kind of monsters stalking them makes more sense?”
Tom shrugged, conceding the point. “Still seems like a heck of a reason to burn down a last chance cabin. A lot of people have been saved by these things.”
“They’re building another one back up the ways a bit. They’re also leaving a pamphlet explaining the nature of things for outsiders. Hopefully, we’ll avoid this mess again.” He looked at Tom and shrugged.
“I just can’t wrap my head around it.”
“If you’d ever been snowed under you would understand it better.”
“I hope I don’t find out this way.” Tom looked up the mountain. He sighed and shook his head, wondering if it was really the wind, or if there was something out there. Above him, the wind gusted. Moving through the rugged terrain, the slightest of whistles drifted down into the valley.
Mr. Ryland notes:
“I have published work in Eldritch Journal, Otherwise Engaged, The Writer’s Magazine, Birmingham Arts Journal, Subterranean Blue, and others. My collection Southern Gothic and novel Souls Harbor are currently available on all major markets. My upcoming novel The Man with No Eyes, will be published by Moonshine Cove Press in March 2022.”
“Do you ever feel worthless?” the boy asked. He tugged at his father’s coat, the innocence of a young child exuding from his soul. His eyes, brown as mud and easy to get lost in, were drowning in tears, a trail of dried teardrops staining his cheeks. They were met by his father’s eyes, locked in a dazed stare, searching for the right words to answer the boy’s question as though those words were spelled in the boy’s eyes.
The father wanted to say yes because it was the truth. He was there when the fire occurred, standing on his half-cut lawn, sporting a horror-stricken expression, heat consuming his body, thick black smoke staining the baby blue sky. He did nothing when the first roof shingles caught fire, nor did he do anything when flames ate the rest of the house. What could he do? 9-1-1 had already been called, firefighters and paramedics dispatched, and he couldn’t be the hero of the story when he had a family in his own house to look after. So he stood on his property across the street from the scene, emergency vehicles flooding the street, the screams of painful death assaulting his ears, the smell of smoke billowing from the burning house filling his lungs, beads of sweat dripping down his face. When the fire subsided—or rather when first responders killed it—he stood there, his feet stuck like glue to the grass, watching paramedics haul charred, unrecognizable corpses out of what remained of the house.
Little did the father know that his son, only nine years old and still with little knowledge of what the world around him was really like, curious as any child (or any person, for that matter) would be, stood on a stool next to the window, watching in awe as his father did outside, sporting a horror-stricken expression as it struck his father’s, the windows hot to the touch. He couldn’t have known that his neighbors were burning alive in the blaze; his innocence let him believe that the blood-curdling screams he heard were only those of fear and maybe a little pain. But the boy’s interest subsided as the fire did, and as his father stood in the same place and watched paramedics haul charred, unrecognizable corpses from what remained of the house, the boy ran to his bedroom and cried into his pillow.
“Why would I feel worthless?” the father asked.
“We watched the fire, Daddy.”
The father looked toward the altar, where his neighbors’ urns were lined up on a cloth-covered table. The bodies were too charred, burnt enough in the house that it wouldn’t make sense to put them in caskets. Nevertheless, the image of their corpses stained his memory, even at the funeral and especially in the days before. It would probably be long before he forgot what the young couple and their plentiful children looked like before the tragedy, but alas, their remains embodied their legacy.
The father would often spend Saturday nights with his neighbor, and more often than not, they would shoot pool in his garage and listen to music that evoked nostalgia, both men always with a beer in their hand. The boy’s mother—she was probably talking to someone somewhere in the church—shared a similar friendship with the neighbor’s wife. The boy himself would often play with the five young children who lived across the street, enjoying himself and the time he spent with his friends and neighbors despite at times being outnumbered. The house that burned to the ground was the young couple’s first together, and that house was the only home their children knew. The father could still remember when the couple first moved into the house, and he remembered each time they brought a newborn home, but those memories burnt and collapsed as the house did.
“There was nothing we could do but watch,” the father told his son.
A tear formed in the father’s eye. He shook his head, wanting to hide the truth from his son, knowing he couldn’t. “Nothing.”
The father still couldn’t explain why he didn’t turn off the evening news that night. Perhaps he was curious about what the press had to say. The evening news had never been a pleasant thing to watch, and of all the house fires they’d covered over the years, he never expected one would be in his neighborhood, on his street, within eyeshot of his house. But he sat on the couch nonetheless, locked in a dead stare at the television screen as monotonous anchors told millions about the house fire that killed seven. He doubted that anyone cared or bothered to listen to the anchors, and maybe the anchors themselves couldn’t bother to care.
But he cared, as did the boy. He cared when the screaming replayed in his mind, keeping him awake in the darkness of the night. He cared when he finally closed his eyes to sleep, dreaming only of the horror he witnessed earlier that day. He cared when he, the most obvious witness and someone who knew the family well, was asked to identify the bodies at the coroner’s office and relived that day as he tried to recognize the seven bodies lying on a table. The coroner told him it was okay if he couldn’t identify the bodies, so the father walked out of the room. Looking up, he still doesn’t know who is in what urn.
“Do you think they’re alive somewhere else?” the boy asked, his tinny voice beginning to tremble.
“Maybe.” The father hung his head and whispered, “Probably not.”
The father looked down at the boy and met his eyes once again. “Well, maybe they are. No one, not even the smartest of the smart, really knows what happens after we die; it’s the single greatest mystery of humankind. So we make an educated guess, maybe live our lives accordingly, and hope we’re right in the end.”
“Do you think they’re happy now, Daddy?”
The father shook his head. “Why would they be happy?”
The boy shrugged. “Because their pain is over now.”
Looking at the urns again, the father told his son, “They died in pain and long before they were supposed to. Those kids? They deserved to live long, happy, fulfilling lives, and their parents deserved to watch them grow and live out the rest of theirs. They’re not happy, son; they’re the farthest thing from it.”
“So they’re sad?”
“Yes. They’re very, very sad.”
“I’m sad too.”
“Me too, buddy. Me too.”
The father took his son by the hand and walked into the center walkway between all the pews. Together, they walked toward the door, saying goodbye to their deceased neighbors, taking a moment to remember them one last time. All the father wanted was to leave the events of that day behind, but the fire still burned in his memory, the screams still played repeatedly, and the air still smelled of smoke. He had a family of his own to think about, a responsibility that saved his life and kept him from running into the fire to save his neighbors, but something still nagged at him. He wanted to do something to save them and wished then more than ever that he had done something, anything at all, to save them, and as he walked out of the church with his son by his side, he felt more worthless than he had ever felt in his life.
Hayden Sidun is a high school student whose short fiction appears in The Dillydoun Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Literary Yard, and Button Eye Review. Outside of school and work, he is active in local politics and often finds himself surfing the Internet in the middle of the night. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, of which he is a proud native.