“Interrogation” Dark Horror by Damir Salkovic

The corridor was cold and dark and stank of fear. Dull electric light bathed the iron galleries and rows of grim doors, threw long shadows up the stark white walls. The silence was absolute, funereal. Solovkin watched his feet move across the concrete floor of the passage without making a sound. His mind reeled: it was a mistake, had to be. They would realize it any moment now. Beneath his confusion he could taste fear, bright and hard and metallic, cutting through the daze like a knife.

The guard in front opened a heavy steel door. Beyond it lay a wide, windowless chamber, its walls and floors covered in stained gray tile. A long wooden table stood halfway across the room, and behind it sat two uniformed men. Before the table was an empty chair. Further back was small desk with a secretary hunched over a typewriter, a metal cart covered by a dirty sheet. Dim, terrible realization dawned on Solovkin, something his bowels understood before his brain did. He felt his legs give way. The guards half-led, half-dragged him across the threshold, dumped him into the chair without ceremony. Behind him the door slammed shut.

Harsh white light streamed from a naked bulb, blinding him. The faces of the two men were shadows in the painful glare. Solovkin recognized one of them, a tall, slender officer of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs who’d been present at his arrest. The other one was stocky and brutish, with coarse dark hair and a cruel set to his mouth. His huge, scarred fists lay knotted on the table like mallets. His eyes, flat and black and lifeless, stared at Solovkin like the eyes of a shark.

They had come for him in the dead of night, hammering on the door of his apartment, the ill-lit landing echoing with their shouts. Solovkin, half-asleep and dazed, was given ten minutes to dress and pack his belongings. An arrest warrant had been thrust into his face. Before he knew what was happening, he was in the back of a huge black car, roaring through the sleeping Moscow streets. Then the prison, a vast, sprawling nightmare of brick and concrete, bristling with searchlights and machine gun towers. That had been days or months ago: time slowed to a trickle in the mute, shapeless darkness of the cell. No one had spoken to him until the two guards came and ordered him to get up and follow. He hadn’t dared ask where they were taking him, afraid of the cell door closing again, of the thick, viscous silence that descended like a shroud, shutting out the world.

“Smoke, Comrade?” The tall interrogator pushed a crumpled pack across the table. Solovkin thanked him and reached for it with a trembling hand. The wood of the chair dug into his back. He lit a cigarette with the proffered lighter, feeling the eyes of the men on him. “My name is Malenkov and this is Commissar Kazakov. We have been commissioned to question you about the events leading to your arrest.” The pack vanished into an inner coat pocket. Malenkov leaned back in his seat. “Do you know why you’re here?”

“There has been a mistake, Comrades.” It took Solovkin tremendous effort to keep his voice steady. His gaze betrayed him, crept to the covered metal cart. Terror rose in him like an icy tide: he knew what lay beneath the stained sheet, had used it himself more times than he cared to remember. “I assure you I had nothing to do with the matter. I’m the deputy head of the Special Tasks Section, not a-”

“Surely you don’t think we don’t know who you are, Vitaly Dmitrovich.” Malenkov chuckled, a low, unpleasant sound. He rummaged through the thick folder before him. “A decorated veteran of the Great War and a stalwart of the Revolution. Before joining the Special Tasks Section, you served as acting chief of the Seventh Directorate. Your exploits in the fight against the enemies of the people, at home and abroad, are legendary. You’re something of a hero in the Commissariat. One of the Old Guard.” He put the folder down and steepled his hands under his chin. “This makes your betrayal all the more baffling.”

Solovkin fumbled for words, but found none. Malenkov’s eyes bored into his, glinting with cold amusement. “You claim your arrest is a mistake. Very well. It might be so. Think carefully before you answer. Where were you in October last year?”

A knot of hope and anticipation tightened in Solovkin’s chest; his mind grasped at it like a drowning man at a straw. “I was in Paris, on assignment. I stayed at-”

 “-the Hotel Quai Voltaire.” Malenkov was skimming over a tightly typed page. The expression on his face was suddenly stern; Solovkin felt the glimmer of hope die out. “Attending a trade exposition. Your cover was that of a publishing house representative. What was the nature of this assignment?”

“It’s in my report.” The light hurt Solovkin’s eyes. From somewhere behind the table came the distant clatter of a typewriter. “We – the Section – received orders to find and eliminate Konrad Odinets, a former White officer and reactionary ringleader. I went to Paris to gather intelligence and coordinate the operation.”

“How did that go?”

“It was a failure,” Solovkin said. “An agent was assigned to visit the target in his quarters and kill him with a cyanide bullet. Somehow Odinets must have gotten wind of it. He fled the city, took the overnight train to Marseilles. I dispatched two men to find him there, but they were unsuccessful.”

“I see.” Malenkov pretended to study the file again. “According to this report, on the third day of the exposition you met with a Finn by the name of Vartiainen. An antiquarian from Helsinki.”

“As you said. It’s all in the report. I met with him to preserve my cover”

“He gave you a package. What was in it?”

“Yes.” Solovkin could hear the tremor in his voice. The other Commissar’s silence was beginning to unnerve him. “A rare copy of Philidor’s Analysis of the Game of Chess, published in Paris fifty years ago.”

“Come now.” The thin man gave him a reproachful look. He reached under the table and brought out an old, leather-bound volume, the covers lettered in gold. “We found the book while searching your apartment. It is of no interest to us. We want you to tell us what you did with the letters.”

“Letters?” The walls seemed to close in on Solovkin. “I don’t know anything about any letters.”

“This Vartiainen,” Malenkov said, as if the prisoner hadn’t spoken, “is an enemy agent, in league with reactionary immigrant groups. He used you to transport ciphered messages to subversives and criminal elements within our borders. We want to know the names of his contacts here, in Moscow.”

“There were no letters,” Solovkin said blankly. The words sounded like they came from the mouth of a stranger. A horrible uncertainty seized him for a moment. What if Malenkov was right? Nonsense, utter nonsense: he knew how the game was played. This was what they were taught to do — spread confusion, tried to get the suspect to contradict himself, to question his own sanity. How many times had he sat on the other side of the table, smoking cigarette after cigarette, staring at the condemned with cold, calculating eyes?

“He’s lying,” said the thick-shouldered Kazanov. His voice was very even, void of accent or inflection. He leaned back in his seat and laced his massive hands across his stomach. “The bastard is sitting in front of us, lying to our faces.”

Malenkov shot an annoyed look at his comrade, turned back to Solovkin. “Do you know a man named Bogatsky? Mikhail Bogatsky?”

“He was second-in-command of the foreign intelligence branch.”

“Was?”

“He was arrested and executed for treasonable conspiracy.”

“Indeed.” Malenkov nodded and shuffled papers. “In his confession, the accused Bogatsky stated that he maintained contact with counter-revolutionary terror groups in Berlin, Warsaw and Helsinki. That he used his influence and position to betray state secrets to foreign powers through a network of dissidents and exiles. Are you aware of this?”

“I am aware.” Solovkin rubbed his temple. His mouth was suddenly very dry. A sinking realization settled into the pit of his stomach with frigid certainty: he would never leave the prison alive. He was the one who had dictated the confession to Bogatsky. He recalled how the old man’s hands shook while signing the statement, the desperate terror in those watery blue eyes.

“There’s no use denying it. Two reactionaries arrested last week signed confessions naming you as the courier. They accuse you of delivering the letters to the leader of a secret counter-revolutionary group. Who is this man, Comrade Solovkin?”

“There is no man.” He stared at the drab floor tiles. A dark, rusty stain had seeped into the grout, into the tiny cracks. “I’m telling you, I never-”

The blow caught him unawares, knocking him off the chair. For a man of his bulk, Kazanov moved like a panther. Shadows gathered in the corners of Solovkin’s consciousness. Malenkov’s voice reached him from a vast distance: … restraint… handled delicately… well-known public figure. A great hand picked him up, deposited him back into his seat with a boneless thump. The pain came in a dull bolt, almost an afterthought. He was vaguely aware of the cut above his eye, the warm stickiness crawling down the side of his head.

“We’ll have none of that,” he heard Malenkov say. A noncommittal grunt came in response. The blur before Solovkin shifted, resolved into the faces of his interrogators. “Why do you so stubbornly maintain your innocence? We have read your file. You’re apolitical; you hold no extreme ideological views. It is the belief of the Commissariat that you have been manipulated by the criminal reactionary movement. We know you’re not a subversive at heart. You can be reformed.”

Solovkin shook his throbbing head. To his right, the troll-like form of the hulking Kazanov hovered on the fringe of his vision. Malenkov sighed and rubbed his eyes.

“Is it ready?”

Behind the interrogators, a metal chair scraped across the floor. Footsteps approached and receded. Solovkin kept his stare riveted to the scratched surface of the table. It was an awful dream; any moment he would wake up, away from the interrogation room, from the hideous silence of the prison.

A typewritten page was thrust in front of him. He tried to read it, but his mind refused to make sense of the words. References to clandestine meetings, unfamiliar places, names he didn’t recognize. A drop of blood fell from his cheek to the paper, a dark red stain spreading across the whiteness. What use could they have for a false confession?

“Sign the statement,” Malenkov said, pushing a pen across the table. The tall man’s countenance was weary and sallow; dark shadows ringed his eyes. “It’s an admission of guilt, concocted to minimize your culpability in the affair. Ten years at most, but you can get amnesty in one or two.” The Commissar’s tone was businesslike. He rapped his fingers on the tabletop. Solovkin sat with the pen poised over the page for what seemed like an eternity. Finally he looked up and placed the pen to the side.

“As you wish.” Malenkov shrugged his shoulders. Kazanov took a menacing step forward, but his companion waved him away. A bell rang in the depths of the endless corridor beyond the door, and within minutes two prison guards appeared in the room. Solovkin was escorted down the dark passageway, through the great circular galleries, back to his cell. Thoughts roiled in his head, each one more dismal than the next. He didn’t think he’d be able to fall asleep, but exhaustion overcame him as soon as he settled on the hard, uncomfortable cot, and his sleep was full of nightmares.

#

In his dream he sat behind a chessboard in a vast, shadowy hall, its walls melding with the darkness. Across the board sat a tall figure, pale-skinned and gaunt and swathed in black robes. Its long, bony fingers flickered over the black and white squares with uncanny speed. Solovkin couldn’t make out his opponent’s face amid the shifting shadows; its contours seemed to meld and change with each shift of the flickering light. The only thing that didn’t change was its grin, huge and frightful: a hungry grin, looming in the darkness like the crescent of a diseased moon. The teeth in the grin were like a shark’s, folding back from the gums in double rows, too many to count. Bone-deep cold sank into Solovkin’s flesh; he was thankful for the shadows that hid the rest of that hideous face. Dream or no dream, he suspected the sight might drive him mad.

Frozen as his mind was with fear, his fingers danced across the chessboard with unusual confidence and cunning, seemingly playing the game on their own. The dark man played with blacks, cackling and tittering after every move, regardless of the outcome. At times his actions appeared erratic and haphazard; yet no matter how well Solovkin plotted his tactics and developed his position, his opponent remained a step or two ahead of him, weaving a tangle of moves and countermoves, the mad, glassy smile never wavering. Slowly the realization that he was going to lose dawned on Solovkin with chilling certainty. His second thought, groundless but persistent, was that there was more to the game than met the eye, that he was playing for the highest stakes imaginable.

A black knight blundered into the right file, leaving the middle exposed. Solovkin saw through the gambit and riposted deftly. The cackling ceased; Solovkin thought he could see the dark man’s eyes now, dull red embers glowing in the shadowed face. The robed figure leaned forward, grin twisted into a grimace, skeletal fingers grasping the sides of the chessboard. Sick, baking heat came off it in waves. Silence held for a moment; then the creature threw its head back and hooted with laughter.

“Excellent.” The dark man’s voice was the whistle of wind across a corpse-strewn battlefield. He shook and clapped his hands with mirth. A black piece slid across the board without making contact with the long, pale fingers. “Truly remarkable, Vitaly Dmitrovich. But how many moves do you have left?”

Solovkin stared at the board, a furrow of concentration etched between his brows. He launched a counteroffensive, but his opponent evaded, the black king dancing maddeningly out of reach. Still the game was drawing to a close: the black was on the retreat, the white advancing, cutting off avenues of escape.

“Closer and closer,” the dark man said, unfazed. For a moment the room took on the shape of Solovkin’s dismal cell, wavered, dissolved once more into dimensionless shadow. “There’s no escape. All for a handful of letters.”

“I already told you,” said Solovkin through clenched teeth. “There were no letters.”

“That’s of no importance.” It was Malenkov’s voice issuing from the man’s black lips. The tiny figures on the chessboard came alive, writhing in mute agony. “Your guilt has already been decided. By refusing to sign your confession, you’re preventing justice from taking its course. You’re a bourgeois parasite, a scab and a traitor to the Motherland.” This was accompanied by another convulsion of laughter.

“Who are you?” The notion that the dark man might be the devil crossed Solovkin’s mind, but deep down he knew that the truth was far more complex than that. His eyes had adapted; he could now see into the crawling darkness, where blind, ravenous shapes lurked. The thin veneer of reality had cracked and he looked upon the truth beneath it, chaos and madness spinning in the absolute nothingness beyond the rim of the universe. “What do you want from me?”

“I dwell in the cracks, in the small, hidden spaces,” came the cryptic answer. “I need to do nothing but watch and wait. Speaking of which, I fear our time together has come to an end.”

Solovkin glanced down and his heart sank: the white king was checkmated. Bit by bit, the robed figure faded into the blur until all that was left was the voracious grin, triangular, razor-sharp teeth gleaming in the darkness.

“Wait,” Solovkin said. The darkness grew thicker; something moved inside it, vast and unformed and older than time. “What do you want from me? What do they want?”

“You have been forgetful, Comrade Solovkin.” The face of the First Secretary stared out of the dark man’s cowl, the broad, stern peasant features stamped with malignant glee. Solovkin screamed and sprang backward, the chair beneath him tumbling to the floor. The robed figure shrieked in awful hilarity. “Some doors close, others open. There were no letters, but there was a book. What was in it? Can you be certain?”

“I never agreed to it.” The words took Solovkin by surprise. “The Finn — Vartiainen — said it was a parlor trick. That it would open new horizons, awaken dormant senses.”

An image came to him in the dream: a musty study lined with bookshelves, a faded rug rolled back to the wall. Vartiainen holding up the Philidor tome, drawing lines across the dark floorboards: a crude many-pointed star. Black candles burning at the intersection of the lines. Some sort of mnemonic device, the antiquarian had said — but if that’s what it was, why couldn’t he remember?

“The faithful are eaten first,” the mouth said. There was torment in its voice, a crooning hunger that the mocking tone couldn’t quite conceal. “Open the doorway, Vitaly Dmitrovich. It wants to come in.”

The slavering shapes circled closer. Solovkin raised his arms to ward them off, flailed wildly. He blinked at the darkness surrounding him: the cell was empty and he lay on the cold concrete floor, a dull pain in his elbow and side. A gruff, disembodied voice from the other side of the door shouted at him to be silent. He climbed back under the thin blanket and tried to fall asleep, but the white, featureless face floated behind his closed eyelids, the pestilent grin like a raw, suppurating wound.

#

At some point he’d fallen asleep, because when he opened his eyes the cell swam in pale light and a guard was shaking him awake.

He was taken back to the interrogation room and seated in front of the two sullen, unshaven Commissars. The covered metal cart had been wheeled closer. Laid out neatly on the table were the typed confession, a cigarette, a match and a pen. Solovkin pushed the paper away. Malenkov gave him a look of weary hatred, but Kazanov seemed almost cheerful, his dark, beady eyes shiny and malicious.

They made him stand in a corner of the room and kept him awake with a continuous stream of questions. Hours went by; at some point the two interrogators were replaced by others, and those by others again, shouting at him, waving the fabricated confession. Solovkin suffered in silence, his legs and back riven with cramps, the world around him a blur of angry faces and loud, echoing voices. Memory came to him in disparate fragments. In his delirium he saw a crack in the wall grow into a wide fissure, the pale sickle of the dark man’s grin rise up from its depths.

What is the name of your contact?

Where did you meet?

What did you carry from Helsinki?

The questions ran together, numbing his sleep-deprived mind. The answers had already been entered into the statement Solovkin refused to sign. The name of the man he was expected to denounce was vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t put a face to it. From what Solovkin could gather, the suspect had been accused of plotting to assassinate the First Secretary and a number of Party officials. Two men arrested as participants in this alleged conspiracy had already denounced Solovkin as a collaborator. All the Commissariat needed now was a confession from the chess master to close the circle. Several times he nearly broke down with exhaustion, but fear and desperation gave him strength: he knew that a signed deposition would spell certain death, both for the accused and for himself. A bullet to the back of the head, or, worse yet, whatever lay covered on the metal cart. He knew he was only delaying the inevitable, but for the moment that didn’t matter.

Hallucinations set in: there was a hole in the center of the concrete floor, a black pit that dilated like a great sightless eye. The room was collapsing into it: he could feel the irresistible pull, see the objects around him stretch and distort. The hole blotted out everything; an abyss opened under his feet and he was falling, into the bottomless, viscid dark, into the maw of the thing that slithered below.

An eternity passed. Rough hands lifted him to his feet, shook him awake. Kazanov’s broad, blank face hovered over him. Malenkov stood in the background, smoking a cigarette and leafing through the Philidor tome, flicking ash carelessly across the precious pages. Behind the table sat the dark man from Solovkin’s dream, grinning at the two Commissars who appeared to be oblivious to his presence.

“I trust you’ve come to your senses,” said Malenkov. He closed the book with a snap and sat down in the chair. Solovkin blinked once, twice. His eyes had played a trick on him: there was no robed, leering figure behind the table, only a shadow. “The sooner you sign, the sooner you’ll be released.”

“I can’t confess to a crime I haven’t committed,” Solovkin said. There was something about the book he couldn’t remember, something his exhausted brain couldn’t quite grasp. Vartiainen had spoken of unseen spheres and hidden realms, of forces beyond human comprehension. Philidor’s book, Vartiainen claimed, was a piece of a much greater puzzle, a story within a story. Solovkin remembered thinking the old man was mad, but the rest of the evening was a hole in his memory, filled with half-formed images: the window of the antiquarian’s garret opening on swirling galaxies; a vast cosmic cloud dimming the cold radiance of the stars.

“Don’t be a fool.” Malenkov’s face twisted in a sneer of disgust. “Whom are you trying to protect? Your accomplices have all been arrested. Your man in Helsinki was found dead two weeks ago.” The Commissar paused, mistaking Solovkin’s terror for grief. “You haven’t heard? The police could barely identify his remains. Poisoned, no doubt, by reactionary bandits trying to cover their tracks. But we’ll find them — there is nowhere for them to hide.”

Solovkin was silent. He was staring at a crack in the wall, from which a cancerous blackness seemed to emanate. “May I have the Philidor manual back?”

“Certainly.” Malenkov waved the leather-bound tome. “As soon as you sign the deposition, that is. We’re done playing games.”

“I can’t.” Solovkin shook his head slowly. “You don’t understand. I have to see — have to know.”

“Know what?” asked Malenkov, but the prisoner was already sagging against the wall, his eyes glazed over: he had fainted again.

#

“It all happened before Philidor’s time, of course.” Vartiainen poured cognac into snifters and raised his in toast. “Right after the terrible winter of 1709. In a few decades most of it was forgotten. What survived was a sort of morbid legend, whispered among the city’s libertine circles, growing more lurid with each retelling. Even those who had been there denied the evidence of their own eyes, or refused to speak of it at all. To speak of him.”

“Him?” Solovkin drank and watched the flames dance in the fireplace. From outside the tall double windows came the tolling of a bell, sonorous and measured in the dusk stillness.

“The dark man.” A strange gleam had settled into the old antiquarian’s eyes. He drained his glass and reached for the crystal decanter. “The Devil’s bishop, some called him — not always in jest. No one knew who he was. He appeared out of nowhere and caused quite a stir on the Parisian chess scene that bleak spring. Tested his skill against the best players of the time, Marquis de Saint-Brie and one of the Princes de Condé, and defeated them both, along with a slew of other challengers. Or that’s how legend had it, at least.”

“It sounds more like a tall tale to me.”

“There is more to it. The mysterious stranger was frequently mentioned in connection with rumors of scandalous goings-on in the insalubrious quarters of Rue Glatigny and the Filles-Dieu. Among his accomplices in debauchery was the wealthy Comte de Bavière, an infamous profligate and gambler who also happened to be a chess enthusiast. In the midst of their revelry, the story goes, the Comte proposed a bet to the stranger. A dozen or so merrymakers would travel to the Comte’s estate at Villecresnes and spend a fortnight drinking and carousing on the premises. Meanwhile, the two players would lock themselves up in the Comte’s study and play chess, undisturbed, until one of them gained a three-game advantage over the other.” A smile crossed the old man’s lips. “Or until he succumbed to the wine and opium, of which there was an abundance. It was all terribly decadent, quite in the spirit of the day.”

“What were the stakes?” The strong liquor made Solovkin’s head swim. The warm glow of Vartiainen’s study suddenly seemed sinister, shadows pooling under the stained wallpaper, the encroaching night outside vast and close. He should be on his way to the hotel, the Philidor manual tucked under his arm; he’d only accepted the old antiquarian’s offer of a drink because the price the man had set on the invaluable tome had been ludicrously low.

“That’s the odd part of it,” Vartiainen said. “No one knew but the stranger and the Comte, although there was no want of speculation. Either way, the bet was accepted and a band of the hardiest revelers set off for the Comte’s estate. After a fortnight had elapsed, the valets and footmen came to Villecresnes to collect their masters. They found them scattered about the gardens and halls of the mansion, drunk to near oblivion and half-mad with terror. When there was no response from the Comte’s study, the door was broken down.”

“Let me guess.” Solovkin attempted an ironic smile, but it felt too tight on his face. “The Comte was dead, his features twisted in absolute terror, and no trace could be found of his mysterious companion.”

“The study was empty.” Vartiainen pretended not to hear the mockery in the other’s tone. “The walls had been stripped bare, the carpets rolled back to expose the floor. Diagrams and symbols drawn in ink and chalk covered everything. Other things — a servant went insane from whatever he saw up there.” The antiquarian’s glass was nearly empty again. “Neither the Comte nor the dark man were ever seen again. Many discounted the story as superstitious babble and claimed that de Bavière had fled France to evade a jealous husband, or royal disfavor.”

“But Philidor thought otherwise.”

“He must have heard the tale through his mentor, the great chess master de Kermeur. Apparently he became obsessed with it to the point of compulsion. The abandoned de Bavière mansion burned in a fire some years before, but Philidor decided to track down the survivors of that ill-fated orgy using his connections at the Court.” Vartiainen paused to light a foul-smelling pipe. “Mind you, this was almost half a century after the event took place. Few of the revelers were still alive, and of those fewer still had their wits about them. But Philidor persisted; he delved into the seedy underbelly of Paris, met with occultists and charlatans, astrologers and chymists. Piece by piece, the puzzle was completed.”

“Yet no one knows what the puzzle looks like,” Solovkin said. “His private papers make no mention of his occult studies. The world remembers him as Philidor the subtle, opera composer and chess genius, admired by Rousseau and Voltaire.”

“He was afraid.” The old antiquarian blew a puff of blue smoke. His eyes wandered the dimly lit room as if following some flitting shadow. “De Bavière had thought the dark stranger the Devil, and sought to offer his soul in exchange for unfathomable pleasures and wonders never before seen by human eyes. An escape from the trivialities of this world. But the truth, Philidor found out, lay well outside such tired scriptural platitudes as God and the Devil, good and evil. The dark man was a gatekeeper of sorts, the servant of beings from unfathomable realms beyond our world, the true masters of destruction and creation. Oh, he would show you wondrous sights, and whisper forbidden knowledge in your ear — but at a terrible price.”

“You speak as if you believed this drivel.” Solovkin tried to rise from the velvet armchair, lost his balance and sat back down. His words came out slurred, heavy. He reached for the book, but the old man was quicker: gnarled fingers leafed through the age-stained pages with infinite care, trailing over the numbers and letters.

“He couldn’t bring himself to destroy it,” Vartiainen said. “Instead he hid it in the pages of his famous work. A special, rare edition, printed exclusively for private circulation. The differences from the original Analysis are not readily apparent, but they are there. Diagrams, incantations, rituals to open the dimensional rift, to ward against that which lies on the other side — all disguised as chess moves.”

“Nonsense.” Fear thrust through Solovkin, cold and sharp, cutting through the daze. The room was melting away, shapes fading into the darkness. He could not bear the stare of the old man’s searing eyes. “Utter nonsense.”

“Is it?” Vartiainen chuckled and nodded toward the garret stairs. “Only one way to be certain, wouldn’t you say?”

Solovkin opened his mouth to reply, but no sound came out. His surroundings came back into focus. The old man was gone, and so was the study: he knelt on the floor of a prison cell, the stub of a pencil in his right hand. For a moment he didn’t know where he was, his heart beating a frantic tattoo in his chest. Then it came back to him: the arrest, the interrogation, the cruel faces of the men of the Commissariat. They would be back for him any moment.

He stared at the broken pencil as if expecting it to move on its own. A recollection lit up the recesses of his mind, bringing a smile to his lips. They had taken the book away, but he would remember: he never forgot a single move he’d played. Even in a dream.

The lead heart of the pencil traced a line across the concrete floor, haltingly at first, then bolder. The secret sign, hidden in the tangle of moves and countermoves, burned in his mind’s eye. Solovkin hummed as the image took shape, lost to the world around him. When the pencil was used up he tore his skin open and dipped the shards in the dark ink welling from beneath.

#

The guards were caught unprepared.

Several times they had escorted the quiet, bookish prisoner from cell 336 to the interrogation room, and he’d never tried to resist in any way. When they came for him that morning, he seemed even more subdued and distracted than usual. He shuffled along between them, his eyes glassy and unfocused, until they reached the staircase that connected the iron galleries. Then he spun round and shoved the guard behind him with all his strength.

The unexpected attack nearly sent the guard over the railing; he flailed his arms as he fell back, clutching at the metal bars. The man in front was too slow. By the time he turned, the prisoner was already halfway up to the upper gallery, bounding up the steps with desperate speed.

Shouts exploded in the staircase, footsteps thundering from below, the noise immense in the dead silence of the prison. Other guards joined the pursuit, but the fleeing man evaded them with ease. Yet there was nowhere to run: he was almost at the top of the staircase, two guards waiting for him on the uppermost gallery, truncheons at the ready. The prisoner scrambled over the railing and perched above the drop for a moment, arms thrown out like a grotesque bird of prey. Before the nearest of the guards could reach him, he stepped off into the emptiness.

They found him in a pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs, crumpled and twisted like a broken doll. He drew in a ragged breath, then another. His finger smeared a dark scarlet curve on the concrete, the start of a drawing or a strange symbol. His dying eyes gazed around the circle of faces; blood bubbled on his lips as if he were trying to speak. By the time the doctor arrived, the prisoner was long gone.

#

“Are you all right, comrade?”

“Yes,” Malenkov said through clenched teeth. “Leave me now. I have to go through the prisoner’s personal effects.”

The guard moved away, his steps noiseless on the carpeting of the corridor. Malenkov waited until the man was out of sight, exhaled a whistle of breath. The interior of the cell spun round him, mad designs and patterns inscribed into the floor and walls robbing him of all sense of dimension. He stepped in and closed the door behind him. The cell had to be cleaned up by someone reliable, someone who’d keep his mouth shut. There would be enough unpleasant questions to answer: not only had he failed to secure a confession, but the prisoner was dead. In the paranoid atmosphere of the Commissariat, even the smallest mistake could easily place one on the wrong side of the interrogator’s table. No one could know about this.

He crossed the room and peered at a shape that resembled an eight-armed star, surrounded by small, twisting symbols. Devil-worship of some sort, occultism. There had been nothing in the chess master’s file to suggest anything of the sort. Similar drawings covered every centimeter of the bare walls and floor like a hideous, tightly woven tapestry. Some had been drawn in pencil, others in the prisoner’s own blood, the strokes crude but precise, measured. A central piece above the cot featured a tall, slender form emerging from a crack in the wall: a huge, predatory grin cleft the face in two. In spite of himself, Malenkov shuddered. Something about this gruesome icon made his skin crawl, turned his mind to deep, sunless places in which screams could echo forever without being heard.

The silence was oppressive, the roar of blood in his ears deafening. Suddenly he no longer wanted to know what had happened, only to be as far from the call as possible; some long-dormant fragment of his consciousness screamed in alarm. The walls faltered, lost solidity. He turned round. The door had disappeared under the obscene scrawl. He clawed at the stone until his fingertips split and bled, distantly aware of the animal whimper coming from his throat. From behind him came a crumbling noise, the crevice in the wall widening, something pushing through. Fetid air rushed at him, the sickly sweetness of corruption. An irresistible force grasped his head, turned it against the resistance of his neck muscles and vertebrae. Malenkov heard the crack, saw the grinning maw yawn open, a razor-lined tunnel glowing with infernal light.


“Interrogation” was originally published in A Lonely and Curious Country: Tales from the Lands of Lovecraft by Ulthar Press (August 2015).


Damir is the author of the sci-fi thriller Kill Zone, the occult mystery Always Beside You, and short stories featured in multiple horror and speculative fiction magazines and anthologies, including the Lovecraft eZine, Martian Migraine Press, and Scare Street’s Night Terrors series. He lives in Virginia with his wife and his feline writing assistant. An auditor by trade and traveler by heart, he does his best writing on cruise ships, thirty-plus thousand feet in the air, and in the terminals of far-flung airports. He can be contacted at https://darkerrealities.wordpress.com.


“Little Bunny Foo Foo” Dark Fiction by Tre Luna

Doctor Cutter, your new patient is in room three,” the nurse said. “Torn meniscus, left knee.”

“Uh-huh. BMI?” The question was automatic as breathing. Dr. Richard Cutter didn’t believe in mincing words when it came to obesity.

“She has a large file folder which she refused to put down in order to be weighed, and she held onto it during the X-Ray, too. I don’t know if she had it during the MRI,” the nurse said, compressing her lips. “But yes, she’s a big girl.”

“Naturally.” A file folder, eh? Self advocates were the worst—these days anyone with a third-grade reading level and access to WebMD thought they were a medical expert. Cutter rolled his eyes as he knocked smartly, then entered without waiting for permission.

The patient sat upon the examination bed, fingers laced together, hygienic tissue paper crinkled beneath her. Cutter summed her up with a glance, noting how the one-size-fits-all paper exam shorts were stretched to their limits due to the rolls of abdominal fat. Of course she had a torn meniscus. Why wouldn’t she? Her knees had to carry so much bulk every day, it was just logical. Why couldn’t these people ever see that their own irrationality and compulsions caused all their problems? Terrible willpower.

“Doctor Cutter?” the woman said. Her ponderous voice was oddly scratchy, like an opera singer on three packs a day. What kind of accent was that? Not that he cared.

“That’s me.” He took to the rolling stool and zipped across the examination room in a single practiced push to reach the computer. Cutter tapped in his login and her information populated the screen. “Evangeline Fey, is it? I hear you’re having difficulty walking. Your left knee is bothering you, as I understand it.”

“It is.”

“Looks like the MRI and X-Ray results are back.” As he spoke, Cutter focused on the screen showing layers of the patient’s knee structure, scrolling up and down to reveal the problem. Which was obviously not the little disk of cartilage poking out of its matrix, but the morbidly dimpled knee within which it was situated.

He cleared his throat. “As you can see, the issue is the structure on the side of your patella, which is called the meniscus, and it’s displaced…” 

Throughout the preliminaries Cutter noticed Evangeline Fey was being very quiet for a woman with a thick manilla file folder placed atop her neatly folded clothing. He frowned, distracted from the test results. There was a pair of bright silver scissors placed on the file folder with the kind of precision he associated with surgeons. He stared, taken aback. 

Instead of watching the screen like most new patients, Fey was gazing at him. “They’re Ginghers,” she said, interrupting him in the middle of a sentence. 

“I’m sorry?”

“Capable of slicing completely through a human finger.”

“The scissors?” Cutter blinked several times. 

She nodded once, self assured. 

Cutter looked away from the shears with an effort, as it was time to begin The Lecture. He swiveled on his stool to face her and cleared his throat, feeling a satisfactory sense of purpose—this is why he got up in the morning. “Ms. Fey, I realize that for someone like you this may be hard to hear, but you need to lose weight before medical care will be effective. Would you treat a machine the way you’ve been treating your body? Like a machine, your body needs the proper nutrition in the right amounts and plenty of exercise, or it cannot function correctly. This torn meniscus is only one of many such ailments that will lead to a painful death unless you take steps now.”

Evangeline Fey’s calm demeanor didn’t change, and she continued to regard him with an intensity he found vaguely off putting. “Is that your recommendation, Doctor Cutter?”

“Yes,” he said with force. “Losing even fifteen pounds would help take the load off of your knee, though more would be better, of course.” 

God, he loved this. It was the best feeling on earth to explain to these fools what they needed to hear—no one else but a doctor could communicate the information so clearly when everyone else thought it was too rude or direct. It was important, almost a holy calling. Cutter sat straighter on the stool, feeling his glutes work. They were still sore from this morning’s workout, though his alignment was absolute. With an internal smile he readied himself for counterarguments, yelling, or even better, crying.

Sure enough, Evangeline Fey stood and waddled—with a limp from the torn cartilage in her knee—to retrieve the file folder from the chair. He glanced over and realized the scissors were nowhere to be seen. Cutter frowned, but patients could be strange about their possessions. Evangeline settled back on the crinkly tissue paper, making eye contact as she opened the file folder; her eyes were bright black, like a bird’s. Cutter sighed, almost wishing he could just leave. Ugh, why did these people insist on quoting statistics at him? 

She cleared her throat. “Doctor Richard Michael Cutter. Graduated with honors, summa cum laude, from Yale Medical School. Third in your class. Internship at John Hopkins in Boston, then you practiced for three years in Virginia Beach.” Her scratchy alto was utterly dry.

Shocked, Cutter looked at the paper and realized it was his CV. “Where did you get that?” 

Fey hummed as she scanned it. “Miami Jackson Memorial, then on to Charlotte. This stint in Providence is a bit of a step backward for you, but I can only assume it was a family move.” She nodded at his wedding ring. “Let us move on to your published works.” She licked a finger and turned the page. 

“I… look, is this some kind of, er, sting operation?” Cutter shifted uncomfortably on the stool. What he knew about the police came from pop culture; the dun dun sound from “Law and Order” echoed through his head. What Cutter really wanted was to snatch the thick file folder out of her hands—was his address on the CV? His cell number? The invasion of privacy was unacceptable.

“‘The Impact on Bone and Muscle Health in Cases of Severe Morbid Obesity: A study.’ Peer reviewed and everything, hmm hmm. I see you presented it at this time last year with one Doctor Elliot Ward at the Bariatric Medical Conference in Atlanta, despite the fact that you’re in orthopedics.”

Actually, his friend Elliot was the bariatric surgeon—which made them a great team—and the conference was a lot of fun, but Cutter didn’t feel the need to correct her. “How is this relevant to your knee?”

“I assume you’re going to Atlanta again this year—it must be nice to get out of New England, considering the January we’re having.”

Cutter stood abruptly. “Lady, I don’t know what your intentions are, but we’re done here. I can’t believe you have my personal information!”

Fey said with slow precision, “I assure you that this is a professional review. Though your personal life may be impacted, depending on the outcome.”

“Uh-huh. Well, I recommend that you lose some weight—best thing for you. That’s all I have to say.” He banged out of the room.

Behind him Fey called, “But we’re not done yet.”

“Oh, yes we are,” Cutter grumbled under his breath.

Crazy fat women took up too much room. They should do the world a favor and die, which would happen anyway. Cutter breathed a sigh of relief at his escape and glanced at his smart watch. He was nearly late for the team meeting in cardiology, and Doctor Gupta had been wanting a consultation all morning. He strode away from the exam room with a straight back, whistling.

***

The best part about working at Shriner’s Medical Hospital were the office hours, in Cutter’s opinion. He could knock off and go home to his wife and daughter at a decent time of day.

Of course, now that Delany was moving around on her own and could singloudly, home wasn’t the cozy warm bubble it had once been. Cutter had enjoyed Delany’s infancy because she couldn’t do much except roll over—the potato phase, as his wife put it. Now that she was a toddler… well. Cutter poured himself a glass of dry Pinot Grigio, swished to aerate, and attempted to settle on what had once been a pristine white couch while avoiding a minefield of Duplos, molded plastic food, and other sundry items.

“If you get home before me, why can’t you do a better job of picking up?” Cutter said to Kara, though he kept his tone light. He liked his marriage, and enjoyed being married.

Kara glanced up from grading papers. “You want a broken wrist, Mr. Summa Cum Laude?”

“Little Bunny Foo Foo hopping through the forest, picking up the field mice and bopping them on the head!” Delany sang, off pitch and with evident enthusiasm. She made a fist with one hand and slapped it with the other, pantomiming the act with uproarious laughter. 

“Ah, the latest day-care contribution to our conversations,” Cutter muttered as he sipped wine.

Kara said, “Don’t complain, it’s better than the Paw Patrol theme song. I swear that show is just a bunch of male strippers at its heart. I mean, you have the fireman, the policeman…”

“Cute. Listen, the strangest thing happened to me today. Wait until you hear about this.”

“Then the Good Fairy said, I’ll give you THREEEE chances. If you don’t do what I say, I’ll turn YOU into a FOO!”

“I think that’s ‘goon,’ sweetheart.” Kara smiled fondly at Delany. 

Cutter cleared his throat. “So, this crazy woman came in today…” The story, as he retold it, seemed even less funny than when it had happened.

Kara frowned. “Why would she have your CV?”

“Logically speaking she must have found my information on the internet. I mean, you’d have to do a little digging, but it’s not impossible,” Cutter said. Delany tapped his knee insistently, and—sighing—he set down his wine to pick her up. “Ooof. Del, you’re getting heavy. Kara sweetie, it’s time to cut her caloric intake.”

“Daddy, wha’s…” Delany started to ask.

“It’s ridiculous to put a toddler on a diet,” Kara said. “She’s within her developmental benchmark.”

“At the very edge of the benchmark, anyway. We should switch to non-fat dairy and cut her sugar and white-flour carbs. No more Cheerios for you, young lady.”

“Daddy, wha’s caloric?”

“Ah, the golden question. Caloric is the reason Daddy hasn’t eaten an apple, which has a whopping 19 grams of sugar, since his undergraduate years. ‘Keeps the doctor away’ indeed.”

Kara frowned at him. “Richard, she doesn’t understand things like that. Delany my love, caloric means what you eat, okay?”

“The last thing I want is an obese daughter.” Cutter frowned at his offspring, and he pinched a roll of baby fat between his index finger and thumb. “What a horrible fate that would be.”

“Her body is not about you, Richard. Besides, if you take that attitude, she’ll become fat when she’s an adolescent just to spite you.” Kara went back to her papers. “Teenagers do things like that.”

“God forbid.”

Kara glanced up with a smile, though her eyes were concerned, and she said nothing more.

***

The next morning Cutter awoke at 4:30a.m. for his usual workout regimen before the day began. He trotted down the stairs with a sweat towel tossed over his shoulder, then frowned. There was a light on in the dining room—several, in fact, based on the glare through the open doorway. Hadn’t Kara turn off the lights before going to bed? He strode into the room, then stopped cold, his blood turning to ice.

Evangeline Fey sat at the dining room table, the manilla file folder spread open before her.

“Good morning, doctor,” she said in her scratchy alto. “As I tried to tell you yesterday, we weren’t done.”

“Get out of my house or I’ll call the police!”

“Hush now. You don’t want to wake your family.” She turned a page in the file and said, “We must enact the ritual so you understand the depths of your danger. The reading of the names shall now commence.”

“What danger?” For that matter, what names? Cutter reached over and snagged the file folder, pulling it toward him. He leafed through it, hissing under his breath. “These are my patients!”

“Yes. That there was Sarah Hilary Craig. She committed suicide last year, like several others on this list.” Fey watched with cool eyes as the pages flew past. “It has been determined that you are directly or indirectly responsible for sixteen lives lost. Though your patient who is my client—and pardon me if I keep her name to myself—is alive and well, and decidedly in our good favor.”

“You are breaching doctor-patient confidentiality! This is the worst violation of HIPAA I’ve ever seen.” Cutter tried to keep his voice down, though it was a struggle. “Cyber-stalking me, breaking and entering, and now this? Whoever hired you is just as guilty of breaking the law as you are.”

Fey gave a little sigh. “I accept that you’re angry, but my client is a polite young lady. Leaves out milk with a dash of cream for us every evening in a little bowl, just like the old days, and lately she’s been sweetening the deal by adding her home-brewed, vanilla-and-noyaux mead.” Fey shot him a sharp look. “Perhaps you would like to make an offering as well? Milk is traditional, though you must be a regular contributor in order to make it stick.”

“Offering?” Cutter was lost in this conversation; it was like dog paddling against a riptide.

“Think of it as a counter-suit.”

“You’re a lawyer? Are these patients suing me?” Cutter threw back his head and laughed. “Please, lady. You can knock off the dramatics. It’s not like I’ve never been sued before.”

“I’m sure.” There was a hint of wry humor in her black eyes.

“Honey?” Kara’s voice floated down the stairs. “Who are you talking to?”

“Someone who thinks I cave in to intimidation!” Cutter yelled, then sneered at Fey. “Get out of my house.”

Fey calmly reached over and closed the file folder, though she didn’t rise. To his astonishment she raised three fingers in the air, and her subtle accent broadened. Irish, maybe. “You have three chances. Mark it well, Dick Cutter. Do not bully, belittle or browbeat others for their heft. You will do no more harm under the oath you took, or your three chances shall go by in a flash.”

“Richard, why are you yelling?” Kara was coming down the stairs. “Is something going on?”

“Keep Delany away, love. I’m handling… this?” Cutter looked back, but Fey was gone as if she’d never been there. So was her file folder.

Only a slight scent of vanilla and floral almonds wafted in her wake.

***

The rest of the day Cutter was so jumpy that the nurse asked if everything was all right. The next day he had calmed a bit, and the day after that he was convinced he’d dreamed the whole thing up.

Another Monday, another obese patient taking up space on the exam bed with a crappy meniscus. This one was male and about seventy pounds over. He looked contrite during The Lecture, and Cutter braced himself for arguments.

Sure enough, the guy opened with a classic. “Doc, 95% of diets don’t work. Within five years you gain the weight back with more pounds on top of what you originally shed. Does it make sense to recommend a course of action with a 5% success rate?”

Cutter raised an eyebrow, enjoying himself tremendously. “If you had any willpower, that shouldn’t be an issue.”

“This isn’t about willpower. Doc, I’ve been on every diet imaginable. Atkins, South Beach, Keto. All they’ve done is to make me feel bad about my body.”

“I believe the psychiatry department is down the hall. You do know this is orthopedics, right?”

The man frowned at him. Glared, actually. “I can’t believe you just said that. That was completely unprofessional, and I’d like a second opinion for my knee.”

“Best of luck with that. Look, if you don’t want my medical advice, why did you even come in?”

“I need help because I can’t walk.”

“Lose some weight. That will help.”

“Thanks to this bum knee, I can’t climb on a StairMaster right now even if I wanted to.”

“So go swimming instead. I suggest deep-end water aerobics on a daily basis.”

“That costs a lot of money. I pay over nine-hundred dollars a month for my health insurance, which means you, Doc. Don’t you think, say, a cortisone shot or surgery should be part of this conversation? I have a feeling you recommend those options for your skinny patients.”

“Look, I’ll put in a referral for a physical-therapy consultation, okay?” Cutter glanced at his watch. “That’s all the time I have. Come back when you’re thinner, and then we’ll talk solutions.”

Cutter made his escape and headed for radiology, but a familiar figure stood in his path. Evangeline Fey was absolutely still in the corridor, her black eyes enigmatic. Slowly, ponderously, she raised a hand and gave him… the peace sign? What the hell?

Cutter opened his mouth to yell at her, but Fey was gone. Just like last time. His cell phone buzzed and Cutter answered it, still staring down the hall. Why did he have such a strange feeling in his gut?

Maybe he should inform the police, but he’d better do some digging first. The computer ought to have everything he needed to know… except it didn’t. The Shriner’s network refused to cough up any information about Fey. Last week’s appointment was gone, wiped clean from his calendar, leaving an unexplained blank.

Cutter didn’t know what to think; each theory seemed as bizarre and unsatisfying as the next. Was he imagining things? He didn’t want to become a target of the hospital rumor mill, so he kept his lip buttoned and braced himself. Cutter would find out more information about Fey soon, one way or another.

***

Delany skipped ahead on their way to the park, dressed in her winter coat and a hat with a pompom on top. Cutter lengthened his stride to keep up, though he kept texting as he crunched through the newly-fallen snow on the sidewalk.

She sang to the tune of “Following the Leader,” “My daddy has a long shadow, long shadow, long shadow, my daddy has a long shadow, hear… him… shout!”

Cutter ignored her, chilled fingers tapping away. Hey Elliot. Is Sung-Min coming with you to Atlanta?

Three dots appeared as Elliot typed his reply, and Cutter took a moment to brush snow off a park bench by the playground. Delany was already halfway up a slide in the wrong direction, feet skidding on the frozen plastic surface. 

Elliot’s text popped up. Not this year. Is Kara coming?

Nope. Just us guys, I guess. Two wild doctors out on the town.

“Long shadow, long shadow, my daddy has a long shadow…”

Elliot’s reply was prompt. Haha, yeah right. Happily married here, and I swear Sung-Min is psychic. No strip clubs for me.

Cutter snorted. Want to share a room this year? The bookings are super tight, with both bariatrics and GYN taking up space. The desk clerk said there was another convention in town, too.

Ooooh, GYN. Better than a strip club any day, and its legit. Atlanta, here we come.

“My daddy has a long shadow…”

“Yes, he does, sweet. People listen to what he says. Sometimes they kill themselves because of his words and actions,” said a familiar, three-packs-a-day voice.

Cutter looked up, aghast. Evangeline Fey stood on the other side of the playground with Delany.

“What the fuck!” he yelled, earning dirty looks from several adults, not to mention the laughter of nearby teenagers with sleds.

“Look, Daddy! It’s the Good Fairy,” Delany said, gazing at Fey with open-mouthed rapture as if she was a celebrity.

“Get away from her, Delany! Now!”

“But Daddy…”

Cutter hustled through the snow and frozen playground mulch, grabbed his daughter, and pulled her behind him. He glared at Fey. “This is getting old, lady. Why the hell are you stalking me? And my family?”

She favored him with a cordial nod. “I beg your pardon. I am bound by certain laws that keep me from counting personal incidents among your warnings, but your daughter is so sweet—she drew me like a will-o’-the-wisp in a swamp. Delany tells the truth. She sees what is, rather than what she believes to be. Do you know what a precious gift that is, Dick Cutter? Rare and terribly valuable.”

“That’s it, I’m calling the cops.” Cutter punched the numbers into his cell phone, but Fey was already gone. He glared at the spot where she had been, then yelled into the empty air. “Nice trick, lady! Goddamn it.”

Delany had both mittens pressed to her mouth. “Daddy?”

“Yes, Del?”

“Be careful, okay?”

“Sweetheart, she’s just some pushy fat lady. I don’t know what her deal is, but she’s the one who should take care, not me.”

“But Daddy, she has scissors.”

“I—how did you know that?” Cutter stared at his daughter.

“Snip, snip,” Delany whispered. “She’ll cut off your shadow for bopping field mice on the head.”

“Yeah, okay, sure. Whatever. Just don’t speak to that lady again because it’s not good to talk to strangers. She didn’t give you candy, did she?”

“Nooo.”

“Glad to hear it. Besides, you don’t need more sugar in your diet,” he said with a sigh. “Now go get some more exercise.” 

***

Atlanta was the usual crush. 

The worst part about the Bariatrics Medical Conference was the lack of available workout machines at the hotel fitness center in the early morning hours, but at least some of the gynecologists were hot. He even managed to talk a few into coming to his and Elliot’s latest paper presentation. Cutter relished looking smart for beautiful women, no matter how married he might be.

This year he even decided to open his talk with a joke. “So, this woman goes to see the doctor, and he said, ‘Don’t eat anything fatty.’ The woman said, ‘What—no bacon or sausages or burgers or anything?’ The doctor replied, ‘No, fatty, just don’t eat anything.’”

Laughter. Cutter grinned at his audience and bounced on his toes. Then he froze, shocked. Evangeline Fey was sitting in the front row, staring up at him. She raised a single finger in the air.

“Er… Richard?” Elliot muttered. “Want me to speak next?”

“I—what?” Cutter looked around wildly, but Fey was gone. Of course she was.

Elliot cleared his throat and began his part of their presentation. It was out of order, but Cutter was too distracted to care. Fey had followed him from Rhode Island to Virginia. She was here. This was going too far.

Cutter managed to get through his performance, then hustled to the convention logistics desk. Fey wasn’t listed among the attendees, exactly the way she hadn’t existed in the Shriner’s computer system. No one had seen a woman matching her description, and she would have stood out in this toned, trim crowd.

It was time—past time, really—to follow up on his threat, no matter how inconvenient it might be. Cutter needed to go to the police at last.

***

The nearest police station had all the charm of a urinal in a bus terminal, but Cutter waited it out until he was called. The black woman behind the desk should have never been an officer—how did they even hire someone like that? At least a hundred pounds over, she was as short as she was broad. Good lord, she even had a pink donut box sitting on her desk. How stereotypical could you get? Cutter stared at it—and her—with disgust as he described Fey and her stalking behavior.

The policewoman followed his gaze with a dyspeptic expression. “Is there something interesting about that box?”

“What?”

“My lunch,” she clarified. “I don’t see what’s so fascinating about leftover dim sum, do you?”

“Oh, dim sum,” he said with a laugh. “No, nothing interesting.”

“Glad to hear it. Now, about your complaint. Did you file a police report back in Providence?”

“No.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Really? Because if this woman, Evangeline Fey, broke into your home, in Providence, and followed you around at your workplace, in Providence, and confronted you in a playground when you had your daughter, in Providence, then why didn’t you take it to your local police department?”

“I…” Cutter glared at her. “I was going to. I’ve been busy!”

“Well, sir, I don’t know about that.” The policewoman settled back in her chair, her chubby fingers tapping the desk in a way Cutter found aggravating. “All I know is that it isn’t illegal to attend a medical convention here in the state of Virginia, whether one is a registered attendee or not.”

There was no good reply to that.

***

Cutter wanted to strangle someone. He couldn’t believe this was happening, and to him! Graduated with honors, third in his class at Yale. Weight loss was a holy crusade, and everyone listened to him. It was unthinkable that Fey could affect his peace of mind this much. 

The hotel where he and Elliot always stayed had once been a historic Masonic temple, lovingly restored and expanded for its current use. The lobby was a huge, perfectly round hall with a high ceiling, marble columns and wooden beams. In the exact center of the space was a crowd—fifty or sixty people—laughing, talking, and drinking from pewter tankards. They were dressed in quirky clothing, and Cutter wondered if they were in town for a Renaissance Faire or comic-book convention. 

Then he sneered. Every single last one of them was morbidly obese. A few were so overweight that they were in wheelchairs, immobilized by rolls of fat. Arms jiggled and double chins wobbled. Everyone was eating. There were Tupperware containers with cookies and pastries making the rounds among them, crumbs sprinkling upon expansive bellies and breasts. 

The worst part was they just seemed so happy

Cutter gazed at them for a long time, shaking with rage. He had never before understood the idea of “seeing red”—he’d always thought it an imaginative turn of phrase, but as he breathed in and out his vision was occluded by blood-filled mist.

A young guy wearing a rainbow-colored Utilikilt and a puffy pirate shirt—about a 36 on the BMI chart, Cutter estimated—approached with a goofy grin and a container of chocolate eclairs. “Hail, stranger! Please, feel free to partake with us.”

Cutter opened his mouth wide and screamed, “YOU PEOPLE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE.”

The lobby fell silent. Everyone stared at him.

“Don’t you care about your health? Can’t you see how you’re treating your bodies, how disgusting you are? What horrible examples you’re setting for your children, with your asthma and heart conditions? It’s completely unnecessary. You deserve the pain because you choose to live this way, and it’s your own damn fault. The worst of it is that I have to touch you, and I have to look at you, and when you open your big fat mouths and talk…”

One of the older men stepped forward and said in a calm tone, which carried to the ends of the lobby, “Fat saved my life.”

“What?” Cutter was panting, off balance.

“I love my fat. It saved my life in a major car accident. It cushioned me, while my cousin—skinny as a pole and sitting right beside me—died in the crash.” His eyes looked sad, but his spine was absolutely straight, and his feet were planted in a powerful stance.

A woman came forward and gently took the man’s arm, then addressed Cutter. “It saved my life, too. The doctors would have let me die when a polyp exploded in my large intestine, but I survived two whole weeks because my fat protected me. It buffered my heart and lungs until I could get better care.”

“I get more dates because I’m fat!” a voice called from the back of the crowd. 

“I have better stamina than my skinny friends, and I don’t get cold.”

“Anyway, what business is it of yours?” 

Cutter swelled and enunciated each word with immense dignity. “I. Am. A. Doctor.”

“Oh, you’re a doctor. Gee, what a surprise. Fucking bigot.” The hall filled with laughter. The guy in the Utilikilt threw an eclair at him, and others followed suit. Desserts pelted Cutter’s back as he turned and fled. 

He had no idea where he was going. Blinded by outrage and mortification, he made his way outside and around the corner. It was dark. Cutter paused by a dumpster, smelling strongly of garbage, and there was a barking dog just beyond the barbed-wire topped fence. He took a breath, sick to his stomach. Cutter’s patients had always come at him one at a time. The crowds he’d addressed had always been sympathetic and educated, nothing like that medieval torches-and-pitchforks tomfoolery. Well, they’d pay for their ignorance… pain and death were coming for them…

There was a slight sound behind him—a resonance of metal sliding against metal. The dog whined, then fell silent.

Cutter swiveled, adrenaline pumping. Evangeline Fey’s eyes were black as the void. The edges of her extensive body fuzzed into the darkness; there were stars surrounding her, endless night. An ocean of sky. Cutter jerked back, mouth open with shock.

“I did warn you. You had three chances,” she said, and her voice filled his entire world. Delany was right, she was the Good Fairy. There was no other name for her.

He wanted to run like a deer fleeing a master hunter. Cutter almost managed to turn, but the Good Fairy touched him softly on the shoulder, and he knew it was futile. The Gingher scissors were in her other hand.

“Your shadow first, I should think, and then a finger. I will let you choose which one.”

“What?” Cutter couldn’t breathe. “What?”

“Hmm. Perhaps summa cum laude isn’t everything.” She grinned, her teeth extending far beyond her physical mouth.

The scissors snipped, and pain washed over him in waves. He lolled, lost in agony. He’d never thought of pain as a house with rooms, but he stumbled from one space to another, discovering new depths of torment with each slice of her shears.

“That’s better,” the Good Fairy said.

Richard looked behind him, but didn’t see any blood. “What did you do?” he said. His voice sounded different… less certain, higher pitched. Whiny. When Richard had been a child he’d watched the Andy Griffith Show on late-night TV, and there had been a character, Gomer Pyle, who spoke that way. An indecisive warble.

“Now for the finger. Have you decided?”

“But you can’t! I’m a doctor.” Why did he sound so petulant?

“I know.” The Good Fairy gazed at him. “Show me your hand.”

He automatically held up his dominant right, then swiftly pulled away and replaced it with his left.

“Ah, you do have a preference after all.” The Good Fairy caressed his hand, drawing out each finger with loving attention. “Go on, then. Tuck the others and offer me the one.”

Richard squirmed. “I don’t… I can’t…”

“You must, or I choose.” She gripped his index finger hard, and he yelped.

“No, wait.” He offered his pinky, feeling every inch the coward.

“Close your eyes,” the Good Fairy said. He followed directions, scrunching them tight. She whispered in his ear, “Now think happy thoughts.”

***

The EMTs didn’t hide their bemusement, and the lady cop he’d seen earlier at the station had laughed outright. Cutting off his own damn finger! Who’d have guessed? The social worker at the hospital had been far less amused. Subsequently, during his six days in psychiatric inpatient care, Richard was given prescriptions of Ativan, Risperdal, and Zoloft, and left the hospital with a habitual tick of looking over his shoulder to see if someone was there. Anyone.

What had happened in that back alley? Richard remembered choosing the finger. He remembered the pain. No scissors were ever found, but no one cared about details like that. There had been sixty-two witnesses in the hotel who’d said that he was a raving lunatic, clearly unhinged, and the policewoman had believed them. Everyone did.

Back in Providence, Richard cradled his bandaged left hand as he wheeled the suitcase over the threshold, home at last. Yet he was incredibly nervous for no reason at all.

Delany was in her high chair in the kitchen, singing softly while munching Honey Nut Cheerios. Richard gasped, shocked at the sight, then snatched the bowl away from her. Delany’s face scrunched and she began to cry.

“Richard, what the hell?” Kara said. “You don’t say a word of welcome, and the first thing you do is take away her Cheerios?” She swept Delany up in her arms, cuddling her close.

“I said no sugar! No carbs! Lower her caloric intake! I told you that, Kara.” Richard’s voice warbled indecisively, and Kara wrinkled her nose.

Delany’s watery eyes grew wide. “Daddy! Your shadow is gone.”

“What?” He gazed at her, not comprehending.

“I told you to be careful. Now no one will listen to you,” Delany said with authority. She looked at Kara. “Mommy, I want my snack.”

“You’d better believe it, kiddo, only let’s get you something at Grandma’s house. I’ll need to pack a bag, first.” Kara glared at Richard, then strode away with Delany.

“What? Kara, no. You can’t leave me,” he wailed from the base of the stairs.

She called, “It’s inappropriate to put a two-year-old on a diet. I won’t let you mess up your daughter’s relationship to food, or her own body. You’ve screwed up enough as it is.”

“But…” He cradled his tender, throbbing hand. “Don’t you care about me? I lost a finger, Kara.”

“Which is your own fault, as far as I understand it. Frankly, I don’t know why I ever took you seriously. You’re a self-centered ass with a heart of stone, and I’m getting out of this house. You can lecture yourself from now on, Richard Cutter.” Kara thundered down the stairs, Delany in her arms, and she gripped her suitcase decisively.

Delany pulled a thumb out of her mouth and said, “The Good Fairy turned him into a foo, Mommy.”

“I think you mean ‘fool,’ darling. Goodbye, Richard.”

The door echoed as it slammed shut behind them. Richard could hear Delany’s singing growing progressively farther away. “Little Bunny Foo Foo, hopping through the forest…”


Tre Luna has had horror, poetry, and non-fiction pieces accepted by Dark Horses Magazine, Idle Ink, the non-profit NeuroClastic, and the Sci-Fi & Fantasy Writers Guild in partnership with Cloaked Press. His blog can be found at https://panfae.medium.com, and his Twitter handle is @TreLuna5


“His Heart’s Desire” Horror by N.D. Coley

Hugo pressed his hands against his cheeks, now flushed and warm from the punches. He tasted blood in his mouth. It was salty and hot. His fingers pushed further and felt bones crunch. Tears dripped onto his lips and added to the savory flavors. It was all like broth made for vampires.

            Hugo slumped against the cemetery gate, a door of metal black rods and spikes that felt more like a prison enclosure than an entrance, and his small frame pushed it open with a creak. He looked around. In front of him a lone street light flickered. The menacing figure of Richard DiCastro was gone, and with him Hugo’s G.I. Joe backpack and history book and the die-cast Optimus Prime he’d received for his birthday. He sobbed and thought of how he would explain this to his father, who might very well hear the news, take another swig, and finish the job Richard started. Hugo, for his part, would have liked to have finished Richard. In his mind’s eye he saw himself holding a stone above Richard’s head, and he brought the stone up and down, and and down. There were crushing sounds and splashing sounds, and soon Richard’s face was not a face at all, but something more like an overturned cherry pie, but topped with detached eyes and teeth. Hugo shut the thought down, recoiling at his rogue imagination.

            It was dark and cold, and a breeze came through and crept over his shoulders and up his neck. He did not want to think about anything right now. Not Richard or Optimus Prime or when to go home. He wanted to walk and walk until everything that happened got left behind. He thought that a walk through the cemetery was just as good of a walk as any, and that nobody, not even Dick DiCastro, would follow him here. If Hugo had his own problems, the dead certainly had it worse. He wondered how many of them would trade their boxed prisons for one more chance to get up and walk the streets again, even to just get punched in the face, and for a moment he did not feel bad.

            A cluster of dark clouds moved above, revealing a moon so full and bright that he could see graves far in the distance. Mariam Memorial Park was a wondrous site. From where he stood it looked like a painting of rolling hills, each lapping over the other like waves, and on these hills he saw the tombstones, oval and square and in the shape of crosses. In the shadows of the moonlight, each grave had the same look — a deep, expressionless black. It seemed sad to him that the graves said so little. All of the names and dates printed on them. All of those lives, buried in the ground and next to hunks of stone. The whole lot was silent in the shadows.

            Hugo walked on, his shoes crunching over leaves. He stopped next to one grave. Up close he could see that it was pitted and discolored, with engravings from the late18th Century. Weeds grew around the sides.

             He placed a hand on it. The stone was hard and cold, and he thought that maybe he would learn or sense something. For a moment he imagined that it was a child’s grave, of someone taken by the flu or tuberculosis. His mind thought of a small boy in a small hat, with a small tweed jacket and brown shoes, coughing and crying and scared. The boy was in a bed in home, and then under a sheet in a morgue, and then in a coffin on display, surrounded by a weeping crowd of nameless adults. As the coffin shut, the boy opened his eyes and cried, but his noises were heard by nobody they and said nothing.

            Hugo realized that the sobs were not in his head, but in the air, carried by the chill that weaved in and out of the tombstones. The weeps were soft and gentle. They came and went, interrupted by a wet cough. Hugo stepped off the path and followed the sounds. He walked with care, as if on a hunt, around a row of granite crosses and up to a rectangular crypt with three cherubs atop the entrance. The cries were louder.

            He paused and, as if fearful of being caught, craned his neck around the side. There was the shape of a small boy, crouched on the ground, with his hands over his knees and his head slumped down. He wore a brown dress cap with a button on top, and as he wept his shoulders rose and fell.

            “Hello?” Hugo asked. “Are you alright?”

            The weeping stopped, and the hunched figure turned its head. Its face was grey and white, with eyes that looked like soft clumps of clay.

            “I am hungry,” the figure said. “I am so very, very hungry. Can you help me?”

            Hugo reached into his left pocket, his hand closing around a Snickers bar.

            “Yes,” he said, pulling the treat out. He held it forward, as someone might hold a biscuit out for a dog. The boy took it and fumbled with it. His hands were thin, with flesh that looked more like a stretched deerskin than that of a person. The hands were covered in sores and the sores oozed black. The boy struggled with the wrapper and winced.

            “Here,” Hugo said, taking the candy again and peeling it open. “Now, take it.”

            The boy shoved the chocolate into his mouth in two bites. It was so quiet in the graveyard that the sounds of his chewing seemed to echo off the monuments.

            “Thank you,” the boy said. “I have never had such a thing. It was nice. I have not had anything nice in a long time.”

            Hugo nodded and stepped back.

            “Could I ask for one more thing?” the boy asked.

            “Sure. What do you want?”

            “I am so cold. Cold all the time. I would like to be warm again.”

            “Where is your home?”

            The boy pointed to rectangular gravestone to his left.

            “There.”

            Hugo frowned.

            “Haven’t you got a real home? A house with a bed and all that?”

            “Not anymore. That’s ok. I just want a blanket. Could you get me a blanket?”

            Hugo thought on it. His father would not approve of him coming home and going back out again, though he was sure that his father would also be passed out. Hugo could do it.

            “Yes. Would you like a pillow too?”

            “Yes. That would be nice.”

            Hugo waved goodbye and set back the way he came, and as he left he couldn’t shake the idea that he was being followed and watched, not just by the boy, but by the residents of the graveyard who hadn’t taken shape and come out to say hello. He was sure that there were eyes in the scraggly trees and hands wrapped around the graves, growing in number by the moment, watching and breathing and waiting for Hugo to stumble.

            Hugo turned around. He was at the gate. Behind him a fog had gathered, setting the rolling hills of the graveyard behind thick clouds. For a moment he thought he had not gone inside at all, and that he had been slumped against the entrance the whole time.

             He shut the gate and made for home.

***

            Hugo had no trouble getting in and out. His father was, as he expected, passed out in his chair. The missing blanket and pillow would not be noticed.

            Hugo returned to the site where the boy had been, but there was nothing save for a small patch of flattened grass. It could have been from a fawn that had bedded down, or from a small boy. It was hard to tell.

            Hugo called out with a weak “Hello,” but his voice did not travel. He stood for several minutes and shivered, and decided to leave the blanket and pillow near the grave to which the child had pointed earlier.

            The temperature dropped and the air felt wet. Hugo made his way back through the fog and up the path. As he arrived back the gate, he stopped. A soft whisper entered his ear.

            “Thank you,” the voice said. “In return, I will give you what you truly want.”

            Hugo turned.  The fog had lifted, and the graveyard was empty. He was alone.

            He left the cemetery behind and marched on, making the first left. As walked he noticed a person slumped against the pole of a lone streetlight. The figure sat in a puddle of blood, and below one of his hands sat a backpack, discolored and soaked in red. Hugo approached and looked into the eyes of the figure, but there was no light in them. He was sure he knew the face, but his mind hesitated. It was not so easy to recognize the dead versus the living.  There was only a blank stare and a wide mouth. Hugo gasped, looked left to right, and thrust his hand inside the backpack, certain his fingers would close around his Optimus Prime.

            Hugo was afraid—he pulled the backpack out away from the body and looked around. The street was as before, deserted. A bird settled atop the streetlight, fluttered its wings, and took off into the darkness. Hugo stepped out of the light and followed, his footsteps moving soundlessly. He felt that he was not only trying to get away from the scene before him, but from himself. He crossed a small bridge, a narrow relic with wooden walls, built for a time for different little boys. He paused and reached into the backpack. Optimus Prime’s eyes glistened in reflected moonlight. They stared at Hugo and through Hugo. Optimus did not approve.

            Hugo dropped the robot into the backpack, walked under a handrail and onto a pathway, and sent the goods into the stream below. The waters were high and fast moving. There was a small splash. The steady flow of the water resumed.

            Hugo quickened his pace and walked on, taking random turns as if trying to throw something off his trail, and with each step he thought on what else sat within his own heart, about the monsters and secrets hiding down there, tucked away in dark corners. He imagined that his desires were dull-colored, malformed creatures without eyes, with bony hands, and sharp teeth that lined drooling mouths.

            What else do I want? he thought, and what will I see when I finally go home? Did he want to find his father, face down on the coffee table, his lifeless cheeks coated in a pool of vomit? He did not know, and he suddenly wanted nothing at all— except to keep walking.

            The hoot of an owl sounded in the distance. Hugo opened his mouth as if to reply, but closed it, feeling silly. He moved on, his soundless footsteps taking him down lonely and dimly lit streets, deeper into the night.


N.D. Coley (MA, English, University of Pittsburgh) is currently a college English composition instructor. His work has appeared in Shotgun Honey, Coffin Bell Journal, Close To theBone, Bewildering Stories, Indiana Voice Journal, Corner Bar Magazine, The Mystic Blue Review, Teleport Magazine, Grotesque Quarterly, Jakob’s Horror Box, Massacre Magazine, Crack the Spine, and Funny In Five-Hundred. In his spare time, he laments the human condition, reads depressing literature, plays with his son and daughter, and irritates his wife.  You can irritate him at ndcoley1983@phil795


“Fathers & Sons” Dark Fiction by Andre P. Audette

Gruesome Gertie,” Louisiana electric chair, now on display within the Angola Prison Museum, Angola, Louisiana.

The Execution Chamber defined Richard Clement’s life in many ways. He ran a bar and BBQ joint by the name a few blocks from Bourbon Street in New Orleans, filled with macabre decorations of serial killers and their untimely fates that made it a small, obscure tourist destination. If it was not the décor that brought one in, it was his fall-off-the-bone smoked ribs. Richard ran something of a one-man show, working the kitchen and the bar in the small, hot, and dark building, while the jukebox and a waitress or two attended to patrons on the busiest nights. He made a mean (and strong) Sazerac but could often be found on his down time sipping on ice tea or a can of Schaefer beer.

When the regulars got Richard talking, he would spin a yarn revealing a bit of the bar’s history. Richard’s father, Gilbert Clement, gave the bar its name when he was executed on Gruesome Gertie, the state’s electric chair, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary when Richard was 15. Gilbert was accused of rape and sentenced to die, despite maintaining his innocence. Richard was the sole family member in attendance as Gilbert was executed, his mom having left Gilbert shortly after Richard was born. He sat there with the required state witness and a prison chaplain as the switch was thrown once, twice, and a third time to finish the job. The final words of the condemned were “close yer eyes, boy.” Richard did not heed his father’s advice.

Richard and Gilbert were opposites in many ways. Gilbert was quiet and reserved, even awkward. He was a churchgoing man but did not have much else going for him that others would deem respectable. He was unemployed most of his life, becoming a father at age 16 and picking up odd construction jobs here and there to provide for Richard as he could. When he was sentenced to die the court officially declared him a “moron” based on his mental state. Despite his many flaws, Richard saw him as a decent man and believed him to be innocent of the crime he was supposed to have committed.

Richard, on the other hand, was quite sharp, despite making it through only two years of high school before heading out into the working world. His outgoing nature and business acumen led him to accumulate enough money bartending to start his own bar. Not much for religion, he preferred the nightlife of the French Quarter. “Ain’t got time for a woman though,” he’d say when people asked about his family. He lived alone in the small loft above the bar where he would hear the sounds of the close-down crowd with his windows open after a hard night’s work.

The Execution Chamber served all types, depending on the occasion. Sometimes groups of teenagers would wander over, other times tourists looking for an authentic hole-in-the-wall bar, or other out-of-towners who mistook it for a voodoo shop. The regulars, though, were working-class locals who would stop by for a lunch break or to unwind after a day’s work. Some would even bring their families by for a weekend lunch or a bite to eat when a kid skipped class for the day. These were the ones Richard got to know best.

Having not had much time with his own father, Richard looked longingly at sons with their fathers, hovering quietly as his guests talked about coming home from the army, going off to college, or even mundane life events over a cold beer. He would think back to the few beers he shared with his dad, though never fancy enough even for a bar like The Execution Chamber. “This one’s on the house” he would occasionally throw in for the guys he had seen growing up. Each time, it triggered something new in him: a sense that he needed to harness those emotions and keep building The Execution Chamber that got him this far.

And indeed, that is what he did. For The Execution Chamber defined Richard Clement’s life in many ways.

“So, where you two visiting from?” Richard made small talk with two guys in late on a Tuesday night.

“Just up there in Greensburg,” the dad replied.

“Well what brings you ‘round these parts?” Richard inquired.

“We was thinkin’ there’d be some work right over on the new buildings on Poydras Street.”

Richard grew more interested as they talked about the two of them working construction projects together after the boy’s momma died. After a few more drinks on the house, he learned they came down to New Orleans looking for better pay, and they also were not shy that they “didn’t mind the peep shows ‘n’ dancers you got down here neither.”

The few other patrons shuffled out of the bar as the hours dragged on, but Richard kept serving the duo.

“Speakin-a shows,” said the dad, slurring his words, “I’m just gonna pop on over to the house back where we were ‘n’ see if my pretty kitty is off yet.” He slinked toward the door, with a “you finish up here, boy, and I might see you at the Sun” – a run-down boarding house Richard knew of down the road. Richard looked to the son’s expressionless face, unsure of whether he heard or not. He could not tell if it was the face of a son who was used to being left by his old man or a kid that had too much absinthe in him. Nonetheless, Richard whipped up two drinks and shared a commiserating sup with him. He brought out a plate of some smoked meat to take the bite off the booze.

As the kid got up to leave, Richard walked out with him for a smoke and a nightcap in the cool night air. It was a quiet evening, and the boy quickly stumped off to find the room they were staying in.

Just as Richard breathed in to start heading in for the evening, he heard a snort, the sound of a drunken fellow sleeping outside. Following the sound, he found the father he had spoken to earlier lying in the alley with a black eye and teeth marks on his neck, as well as a few colored feathers clinging to his clothes. He was nowhere near lucid, but amenable enough when Richard told him to come back to The Chamber with him to at least clean up the vomit down the front of his shirt.

As they walked back into the bar, Richard sat the man down on a stool. He stepped behind the bar and slowly moved aside the chest cooler that sat beneath the counter. Underneath was a crack in the floor, a door to the basement that was a remnant of the Prohibition days. He pulled open the door and casually walked back to the man. He invited him down and helped him down the rickety stairs.

In the basement, Richard helped clean the man up. James, his name was, as his billfold revealed. Richard grabbed some ice for the man’s eye and some cool water to drink. “What would you like to eat, James?” he asked, “anything you like.” At the man’s request, he brought down some BBQ and a plate of fries, and another drink to cap things off. James would have to sleep things off right there at The Execution Chamber.

The next morning, Richard woke up and casually walked downstairs, moved the cooler once more, and stepped into the basement as he did most mornings. James was also awake, trembling and screaming from the chain link and barbed wire cell he was shackled in. Around him, James could see what looked like a torture chamber with different stations, a chair and a gurney, a crude and bloodied guillotine, two gallows, and a pile of sandbags with blood splatters on them. There was also a large meat smoker with a long skinny pipe to the outside that could just as easily have been part of the hellish setup. The remnants of his meal were on the floor in front of him next to a small drain. The cold concrete and brick echoed his shaky voice back to him.

Ignoring the man’s screaming and demands for answers, Richard pulled out a paper and read, “James Landry: for your actions of last night and your failure as a father, you are sentenced to death by lethal injection at 10:00am today. You may specify an alternative method one quarter hour prior to the execution.” James continued cursing loudly at Richard, screaming and begging for answers, but Richard coldly walked up the stairs without turning back and closed the door once more, placing the cooler over it for the time being.

Richard made some eggs and sausages and slowly ate a breakfast at the bar while some jazz music played on a record. The air was hot and stuffy upstairs. He swept the floor and did his dishes, glancing out the window at the quiet city streets and then shifting the cooler to one side yet again.

Richard opened the hatch and descended the stairs again, as James perked up and began cursing at him again and asking, begging, for a chance to talk things out. Indifferent, Richard approached with a leather notebook and asked to record any final words he had.

“What kind of tataille hurt you, man? Wha’d your daddy do to you, you sick bastard?”

“I watched my daddy die in that there chair,” said Richard resolutely, but still a bit taken aback by the question. He finished writing the words and closed the journal, placing it back on the stack of bricks it had been sitting on before. As James started cursing out Richard’s dad, Richard started opening the straps on the table that James now understood to be the place that lethal chemicals would take his life.

“Give me the chair too, you dirty cochon; I dare you!” yelled James.

Richard reached down, took an old watch out of his pocket, and checked the time. 9:43am.

“Heh,” he said with a cagey smile, not looking at James directly, “my first time using the chair.”

James stopped yelling and started watching Richard, looking for a last-minute way out. Richard grabbed a razor and a large carving knife, as James grew afraid he was just going to chop him up then and there. As Richard approached the cage, he set the instruments down and grabbed a thick leather strap. James pressed against the shackles that bound him to the floor, his veins bulging out of his head. Richard opened the cage and placed the strap over James’s neck, clipping it to a bracket on the floor. James spit in his face and almost immediately Richard knocked James on the forehead with his palm, hitting the back of his head hard against the concrete floor. James faded in and out of consciousness as Richard shaved James’s head and leg, coming to it once as Richard looked him straight in the eyes and said, “try that again and I will carve you slowly before I cook you.” He put a rag over James’s face and James temporarily slipped back out of consciousness.

When he came to it again, James realized he was strapped into a wooden chair with a wet strap on his head, a sponge duct taped on his leg, and a cloth wire coming from an old fuse box on the wall. Richard had crafted a thicker fuse that would take longer to break, with two backup wires to administer subsequent doses of electric shock. Richard finished up the preparations and sat himself near a switch several feet away from James. James could not speak, knowing his time was likely through, but he burbled out any defense noises he could. A quick and sudden trial from a man he had met only the night before…

Richard administered the first shock. James involuntarily clenched the chair as electric volts shot through his body for several seconds. The first fuse broke. James groaned and his head sank down as Richard got up and hooked up the second wire. The spit in his mouth foamed. After a few minutes of fumbling with the wiring, Richard sat down again. He calmly pulled the switch and a second course of electricity flowed through James’s body. This time James was silent. Richard hooked up the third wire to finish the job. The third round of electrical work went quicker, as less electricity is used in the final rounds of the death sentence, Richard learned. He sat down and flipped the switch until the third fuse broke.

James was not moving, and there was a slight stench in the air of urine and burnt hair. A puddle had formed around James. Richard looked at him pathetically, then threw a few lumps of charcoal and wood in the smoker. He was going to let James’s body cool first, just as they had done with his father.

Richard stayed clear of the chair as he walked back up the stairs, placed the cooler over the trap door, and took a cold shower to get ready for work.

Wednesdays were slow days, especially at the end of the month when local folks were waiting for their paychecks to come through. Richard put on a record and drank some ice tea while snacking on some jerky. The front door was open, waiting for a possible lunchtime drop-in, but Richard did not expect anyone to join him.

In walked James’s son.

Richard raised his eyebrows, took another sip of his drink, and said “where’s your pappy today, son?” The kid flopped down at the bar.

“He nain’t come back last night. Probably still sleepin’ somewheres.”

“Getcha somethin’ to eat?” Richard asked. James’s son took out a wallet, but Richard told him not to worry about it.

The two ate small sandwiches and chips, making small talk about the weather, the lady who ran the boarding house, and how built up the city was getting. After a half hour or so had passed, with no other customers gracing the doorstep of The Execution Chamber, Richard walked up to the door, closed it, and switched his sign to “closed.”

“Boy, I’m gonna show you something,” said Richard calmly. There was a small glint in his eye like a kid excited to show his dad his what he had built. He motioned for the kid to come back behind the bar. He scooted the cooler and told him he had an old Prohibition-era room downstairs where he could wait for his dad. “They don’t use these places much anymore, but maybe they oughta.”

He opened the door, and the dry, woody, delicious smell of the smoker eased any anxiety James’s son had about going down. Richard went first, stepping carefully onto the stairs. He reached out a hand to help the son in. “Close yer eyes, boy,” Richard said. The kid did as he was told, expecting a surprise of sorts.

As Richard and the kid took the first few steps down the stairs, James moaned in a dull crescendo. His son, recognizing his dad’s phantasmal voice, opened his eyes and saw the chamber that lay before him. “Ah shit,” said Richard.

Within seconds, James’s son instinctively shoved Richard down the stairwell onto the concrete floor. Richard murmured as he hit his head on the railing, the wall, and floor, but he did not appear to be completely unconscious. James’s son just looked on at the scene, unsure of whether he should help his dad, finish off Richard, or run. As his dad rolled his head around, the boy jumped off the side of the stairwell and grabbed the carving knife that was still sitting near the cage. James strained and groaned the word “chain.” The son grabbed one of the chains used for the shackles that hours earlier held his father. He angrily whipped the chain at Richard, striking him across the arms and chest and nicking his face. Having immobilized him slightly further, then he took the carving knife and stabbed him in the right leg. By now, Richard was in shock and nearly out of it. Strong from his days working construction, the boy dragged his ragged and bloodied body over to the cage and locked him in, not taking the time to leash him up further.

The son ran to his father and unhooked the leather straps that bound his arms and legs, standing next to three wires and a pool of sweat and urine that gathered at his dad’s feet. His father’s skin was blistered and hot to the touch, and he was obviously in pain, but James nonetheless pulled him up the stairs and laid him on the floor next to the opening of the stairs, as the father winced with each bump. He left the trap door open and desperately ran out to the streets for help.

Two blocks down, James’s son found a group of men on their lunch break. He told them a crazy man who ran the bar had just tried to electrocute his dad, and he goaded them to reluctantly follow him. They entered The Execution Chamber, a familiar haunt, and followed him around the bar. They looked down and were horrified by James’s crispy body, as he strained out a “help.” They peered into the basement and saw Richard beaten and caged in the torture room of his own creation. One of the men took to the phone and clicked out the number to the city’s emergency services.

The police investigation turned up the recorded death warrants and last words of seven men, including James Landry. Three men belonged to a single family, a father and two sons who moved to New Orleans from Mississippi in search of work. All three were shot in the heart or the head in Richard Clement’s basement. A fourth man faced death at the guillotine while his son went off to serve in the war. Another father and son duo were executed in the chamber, the father by hanging, while the son opting for a lethal injection after witnessing the father give a second round of final words. None of the bodies or personal effects were recovered; all but the first three had previously been reported missing. Richard Clement freely admitted to the crimes, and said there were more, but declined to speak further to the investigators. At trial, the jury did not have to deliberate more than 20 minutes before sentencing him to die.

Richard Clement spent the next seven years on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. He refused to participate in any appeals of his case, instead saying “let’s get this over with” and “get me in the chair where I belong.” Richard had scheduled no family or religious counsel to be present at his execution in the same chair as his father. After being told that James and his son, Ricky, would watch his execution, Richard was reported as saying only that “the boy oughta keep his eyes closed this time.” Meanwhile, his bar was demolished and replaced by a chain restaurant, a fitting close for the impending end of the Clement family line.

Richard was executed using a sequence of four electric shocks, which the state had devised years after his father’s death to ensure that the vital organs would fail. He was buried in the common state penitentiary cemetery after no one claimed his body. Witnesses said they believed his soul went straight to hell where he would be reunited with his criminal father, and that he was finally put where he belonged. For, as the papers reported just hours after notice of his death by electrocution, the execution chamber defined Richard Clement’s life in many ways.


Andre P. Audette is a political scientist by day but twists politics and social issues into poetry and short horror stories by night. 


“The Hangings” a Dark, Futuristic Parody by James Hanna

Maggie and I sit on our front porch at dusk. We drink ice tea and watch the sun sink. In our fifty-five years of marriage, we have rarely missed a sunset.

 Today, the sun bleeds through the haze, and the horizon is apple red. Maggie rocks in her rocker, knitting a shawl. I smoke a pipe filled with Captain Black tobacco.

Maggie sings a fragment of a song while she knits. “Give us any chance, we’ll take it.”  She pauses, shakes her head, and keeps on knitting. “That’s all I remember, Poppy,” she says. She still calls me Poppy after all these years. Sometimes, it gets on my nerves.

“It’s from Laverne and Shirley,” I say. “We watched it on ABC back in the seventies—it came on the year we got married.” I sing the next bar to help Maggie recall the song. “Read us any rule, we’ll break it.’”

Maggie drops a stitch. “I rather liked that show, Poppy,” she says.

“I liked it too, Maggie,” I say. “Especially that episode where the girls got into a tizzy.”

“They got into a tizzy every week, Poppy. I wish you could be more specific.”

“They got into a really big tizzy that week. I think they were wearing space suits.”

“Were they, Poppy? I don’t remember them in space suits.”

“I liked them on Happy Days too. The girls were even funnier on Happy Days.”

 Maggie sighs. “I never liked Happy Days much. That Jewish boy was such a braggart.”  

She recovers the stitch and keeps knitting. Despite her comment, she sings two bars from the Happy Days theme. “Sunday, Monday, Happy Days. Tuesday, Wednesday, Happy Days.”  She puts down her knitting, “It’s Wednesday,” she remembers. “We have to attend the hangings.”

The hangings now happen twice a week. Every Wednesday and Saturday, in towns across the country, fanatics are hanged in the courthouse squares. It is considered poor etiquette not to attend the hangings.

“It’s disgraceful,” says Maggie, “the way they drag those things out. The noisy bands, the endless speeches. Just hang them and be done with it, I say. Let’s be Christian about it.”

“‘First they came for the socialists,’” I quote. “‘Then they came for the unionists.’”

 Maggie does not like me to be trite. “They came for you a few days ago.”

 “Yes, but they let me go.”

“Wasn’t that because you turned in Doctor Beckman? Didn’t you tell them he was a writer?”

“He might have been one.”

“That’s true,” Maggie says. “If I started a journal, would you turn me in also?”

“I would never turn you in, Maggie.”

“What if they put you back in that jail? What if they beat you again?”

I have always been honest with Maggie. “They would have to beat me twice. I owe you that much, Maggie.”

Maggie looks amused—my answer must have pleased her. “Thank you, Poppy,” she coos. “You know how to make me feel better.”

I puff my tobacco and sing a Dylan song I remember. “People don’t live or die, people just float. She went with the man with the long black coat.”

“Be careful whose music you sing,” Maggie cautions. “That’s such a socialist song.”

I shrug. “They’re going to come back for me anyhow. I may as well sing that song.”

 Maggie shrugs too. “When they’ve picked you up once, they always arrest you again. You told me this never could happen, Poppy.”

“That was before the bombings.”

“Those dreadful bombings. Will they ever stop?”

“He promised to stop the bombings.”

“Yes,” Maggie says. “He promised that, didn’t he?”

The shawl she is knitting is blue—blue is a primary color. It is not smart to knit in non-primary colors. When Mabel Leibman was arrested last week, she was knitting a beige sweater. 

Maggie finishes a row. “He’s so much like Lincoln. I never knew how much.”

“Lincoln shut down the courts,” I say. “He shut down newspapers too.”

“I’m glad he’s a lot like Lincoln.”

My pipe is cold, but I do not fill it again. Captain Black tobacco is scarce. You can no longer find it in stores.

“I love you, Maggie,” I say.

She takes a sip of ice tea and sighs. The evening is dry and hot, as though someone left an oven door open. Maggie does not like heat.

I pat Maggie’s wrist. “Let’s go into the house. Let’s turn on Happy Days.”

Maggie taps her foot. “You never listen, Poppy.  We have to attend the hangings.”

“If they hang them quickly, we can still catch Happy Days.”

 “They won’t hang them quickly,” Maggie snaps. “They never do anymore.”

I don’t like to make Maggie angry; she has a tongue like a thorn. “After they cut down the bodies,” I say, “lets buy some frozen yogurts.”

Maggie swirls the ice tea in her glass, and the ice cubes rattle like bones. “Every time I get cross with you, Poppy, you want to buy frozen yogurts.”

 I change the subject. “Will the Boy Scouts be there, do you think?”

Maggie strokes her neck. “The Boy Scouts are always there, don’t you remember? It’s the Boy Scouts who fit the nooses. It’s the Boy Scouts who cut down the bodies.”

“I hope they cut them down right away. Before their tongues turn blue.”

“They cut Doctor Beckman down right away, and his tongue was as blue as a smurf.”

“They would have hanged him sooner or later. He never attended the hangings.”

“No,” Maggie says. “It was rude of him to never go to the hangings. I don’t know where that man picked up his manners.”

“I’m glad they let me turn him in. It gave us this evening together.”

“This evening is hot,” Maggie says. She presses the glass of ice tea to her brow then takes another sip.

Our anniversary is today, and I have a surprise for her. “We are going to fly to Hawaii,” I say. We flew to Hawaii fifty-five years ago to spend our honeymoon. Maggie liked the rainforests and waterfalls. She did not like the dormant volcanoes.

Maggie rolls her eyes. “You promise that every year, Poppy. How quickly you forget.”

“This year I’ll book a flight early.”

“I don’t do well on planes,” Maggie says.

“We’ll sit on the beach and drink Mai Tais”

“That wouldn’t be much of a change.”

Maggie returns to her knitting. The shawl is getting thick. “I’m glad you’re so quick to forget,” she says.

“Why is that, Maggie? Tell me again.”

She coughs and continues her knitting. “We have to attend the hangings.”

2

Maggie and I sit on our front porch. She rocks in her rocker, knitting a scarf. I sit on a stool with my pipe in my hand. We drink ice tea as we watch the sunset.

The haze is heavier, and it is hard to make out colors. It traps the heat so we sweat a great deal. Maggie always corrects me when I complain about our sweating. She says, “Poppy, women don’t sweat, they glow. How many times must I remind you?”

Maggie likes to remind me of things.  Sometimes, I pretend to forget so that Maggie can remind me. I don’t know what I would do without Maggie.

I am smoking my last pouch of Captain Black tobacco. Maggie is glad that I will soon be out of Captain Black tobacco. She says it smells like dead roaches.

 “Would you rather it smelled like live roaches?” I ask. I take another puff.

Maggie titters and keeps on knitting. “Poppy,” she says, “you can still make me laugh.”

“I’m glad I still make you laugh,” I say.

She frowns like a judge. “I do wish you’d stop it. Laughing is illegal now.”

I’m glad that Maggie reminds me of this. Sometimes, I forget that laughing can get you hanged.

The hangings take place every day now. In hundreds of towns across the country, turncoats are strung up in droves. They do not laugh when the nooses are put around their necks. They stand like statues and wait for the ropes to tighten.

I am glad that the hangings take place every day. Maggie no longer has to remind me on what days the hangings are scheduled.

We attend the hangings six days a week. We no longer attend the hangings on Wednesday. On Wednesdays, we stay home and watch Laverne and Shirley. It is risky not to attend the hangings, but we like to watch Laverne and Shirley. We do not watch Happy Days anymore. Maggie does not like the Jewish boy. She says it is scandalous to watch a show that has a Jewish boy in it.

We don’t watch television as much as we used to. We watch the televised speeches, we also watch the marches, but we don’t watch the football or the porn. Most of the time, the television watches us.

He promised to stop the bombings, but bombings have increased. Buildings are bombed all over the country every single day. Still, he appears on television each night and says he will stop the bombings. Some say he orders the bombings himself. It is not funny to joke about the bombings.

Maggie is knitting a bright red scarf. She no longer knits in blue. He told us that traitors wear blue. He says the bombers wear blue. He says you cannot hide from him if you ever dressed in blue. I remember when Maggie knitted in blue, but she likes to correct me about this. She says blue is worn only by murderers, and she never knitted in blue.

I suspect they will hang me today. They arrested me several weeks ago and then they let me go. That was because I turned in Doctor Beckman—I told them he was a writer. That gave me a few more evenings with Maggie. I like to spend time with Maggie. But they always come back and hang you after they let you go. This happens within a month.

I look at Maggie. I think I will miss her even though she gets on my nerves.  “Today is the day,” I tell her. “We may as well say goodbye.”

 “We’ve been saying goodbye for years,” Maggie says. “One more time won’t make any difference.”

“Does that mean you won’t come to my hanging?” I say.

Maggie rolls her eyes, so I know I am making her cross. “If they hang you on Wednesday—no,” she says. “I’ll miss Laverne and Shirley.”

I am glad that today is Monday. I don’t want her to miss Laverne and Shirley.

“If they hang me today, will you come?” I say. “I’ll buy you a frozen yogurt.”

Maggie does not look at me. She stares at her knitting instead.

 “Poppy,” she says to me after a while, “you may as well save your money. In all the years we have been married, I’ve never liked frozen yogurt.”

I am surprised to hear that Maggie does not like frozen yogurt. Every Sunday, after church, I buy her a frozen yogurt. I also buy her a frozen yogurt on the days we attend the hangings. What else don’t I know about Maggie?

I speak to her gently—I don’t want her upset. Not on the day of my hanging. “Why did you tell me you liked frozen yogurt?”

“Why did you believe me, Poppy?”

A van is parking in front of our house. Men are sitting in the van. It should be no more than an hour until the rope bites into my neck.

 “Do you remember when we went to Hawaii?” I ask.

“That was fifty-five years ago, Poppy.”

“It seems like yesterday, doesn’t it Maggie?”

Maggie groans and puts down her knitting. “You don’t remember yesterday, Poppy. You only remember Hawaii.”

“I remember you liked the waterfalls, but not the dormant volcanoes.”

“No,” Maggie says. She rubs her eyes. “I did not like the dormant volcanoes.”

“Would you rather the volcanoes were active?” I ask.

She chuckles and picks up her knitting. “Poppy,” she says, “you still make me laugh.”

“I’m sorry,” I reply.

I hear the van doors slam. Men are walking towards our house. I can practically trace out my name in the haze, and they look like a mirage.

“They’re here, Maggie.”

She keeps on knitting. Her eyes do not stray from the scarf. “Are they wearing red or blue?” she asks. The needles leap in her hands.

I look at the men, but I don’t answer Maggie. I can’t tell what color they’re wearing.

 3

A week ago, they hanged Poppy. And I did attend that man’s hanging. My, what a fuss he made. Standing beside the gallows, he begged the hangman to wait. All so he could hand me a dollar to buy myself a frozen yogurt. Poppy believed every problem in the world could be solved with a frozen yogurt. Not that his hanging was much of a problem. He dropped like a sack of potatoes, and his neck snapped like a whip.

Why on earth did I go to his hanging? Was I really hoping for closure? I still feel his absence when I sit alone on our porch. But I felt his absence when he was alive, so it’s really not much of a change. 

He comes to me in my dreams, you know—my, what a tiresome man. He used to snore like a trumpet, which kept me awake half the night, and now he has the temerity to bother me in my dreams. I truly wish he would just move on and let me enjoy my sleep. Doesn’t he have anything better to do than to come around pestering me? No, he probably doesn’t—that man did like our bed.

I go to the hangings alone now, and I’m finding them rather tiresome. Do you know they’re hanging women and children? First, they hang the women and then they do the children. The women grow rigid the instant they’re hanged; the children squirm like eels. That’s because children are lighter, and it’s harder to break their necks. Their little legs pummel the air as though they’re riding invisible bikes.

He appeared on television last night to explain why he’s hanging the children. He said the children come from bad seed. He said if the children are not eliminated, they will grow up to bomb our cities. He explained that he hangs the mothers first so they won’t see their children swing. I’m glad he’s such a thoughtful man. I’m glad he’s destroying bad seed.

The smog has grown much thicker; I can no longer see the sunsets. But it’s bad for your eyes to look into the sun so that’s probably for the best. Poppy often gazed at the sunsets, and it’s a wonder he didn’t go blind. I do think he lost his sense of smell though—his tobacco stank like dead roaches. “Would you rather it stank like live roaches?” he asked me the day they took him away. Up until the moment they hanged him, that man could make me laugh.

I sit on our porch, hand-stitching a sunset quilt, and it’s hard on my arthritic fingers. The quilt has yellow, red, and blue so I use three colors of yarn. I no longer knit shawls and scarves with blue yarn, but I still stitch blue into my quilts. A sunset wouldn’t look authentic without a bit of blue.

The patrols are much more frequent now. Black vans, the kind they took Poppy away in, glide up and down our street. They took away Gertrude Edelman and ten-year-old Aaron, her son. They took away Precious Jackson; they took away Marquis Jones. They did not take away Margaret Sullivan; she came to see me yesterday. She said she admired my quilt. She said blue is a telling color. That’s high praise coming from Margaret, she’s the prefect of our block.

Any day, they will hang me for putting blue into my quilt. So I always have my makeup kit on me and I always wear freshly-ironed dresses. Before they hang me, they just might allow me to freshen up my face. A dab of rouge would look nice on my cheeks when the color drains away. I must ask Margaret to speak to the hangman before he stretches my neck. It would be very disrespectful if I did not leave a pretty corpse.

He appeared on television yesterday, interrupting Laverne and Shirley. It was one of my favorite episodes, the one where the girls have a séance to get rid of a household ghost. He told us it’s his painful duty to hang the Boy Scouts too. He said the Boy Scouts are planting bombs. He promised the bombings will stop once the Boy Scouts are hanged.

 I do believe his speeches have awoken the trollop in me. Yesterday, when I heard his brave words, my nipples grew harder than bullets. That’s a fine howdy-do for a woman near eighty who stopped menstruating decades ago. If they’re going to hang me for impure thoughts, I hope they do it quickly.

I pray there is no afterlife; I don’t want my thoughts to go on. And I certainly don’t want to meet the souls of traitors and murderers. Imagine spending eternity hearing their wretched laments. No, I don’t want to go to an afterlife; I might be compromised there.

The quilt is nearly completed. A bit more blaze in the yellow, some ripple in the red, a tad more nuance in the blue, and I think it will be done. I rather wish Poppy were here to see it before I put it away. But Poppy liked everything I stitched so his compliments didn’t mean much. My god, I hope there is no world to come; I don’t want him back in my hair.

I stitch a little faster as the van pulls into our driveway. I do not look up as I hear the doors slam. I do not watch the men as they tromp to the house. I do not even offer them a glass of ice tea when they’re standing on the porch. I pluck a loose thread and I keep on stitching. “Wait ’til I’m finished,” I say.


“The Hangings” was originally published in A Lonely Riot and Literally Stories. It is also included in James’s anthology: Shackles and More Gripping Tales.


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


“Ideal You Bars” Dark Fiction by Emma Burger

The city was a blank, unknowable slate to me. I’d graduated mortician school that May and had originally wanted to go to LA or Miami for my residency. Somewhere sunny enough to at least attempt to counter the morbid theme of my day job. As it turned out, there was only one hospital in all of the US that would have me, and it was in the city of Detroit – a place I’d never been and until match day, had never imagined going. “Trust me,” my advisor had assured me, “Detroit is the best possible place for you to learn. You’ll see more gunshot wounds and trauma cases in a week there than you’d see in six months in Los Angeles. You’re lucky – by the time you’re done, you’ll be the most employable of anyone in your class.”

Skeptical, I bought a used car anyway and packed it full of books and clothes. The first time I stepped foot in Michigan was just a week before residency started, everything from my old life in New York in tow. Although I wouldn’t be making much that year, I was hellbent on finding a place with no roommates, in a good neighborhood. What I’d ended up with was a 500-square-foot studio with a couple windows on the second floor of a brick townhouse in midtown Detroit. Besides downtown, the realtor had promised, this was the place to be. I’d be right in the heart of it – good restaurants, bars, shopping, this neighborhood was really up-and-coming – popular especially with students, young professionals, and hospital employees. Looking in either direction, I wasn’t convinced. There were a couple nice looking restaurants down the block and I was close to some student housing, but other than that, it certainly didn’t seem like the heart of much. Compared to my block in Queens, it felt eerily quiet.

Residency itself started only a few days later, all my things still in boxes, stacked neatly around the perimeter of my apartment. Orientation took place in a vast auditorium mainly used for lecturing med students and hosting grand rounds. My entire residency program didn’t even fill up the first row. It took all of thirty minutes for me to figure out that everyone else in the program was from the area, and mostly knew each other already. They all had their families close and had graduated from the same few local colleges. They’d spent the last four years copying off each other’s Embalming Procedures homework, swapping study group notes in Forensic Pathology. “You’ve never had a Coney dog, like, ever?!” asked one of my friendlier co-residents, sounding shocked. “You’ve gotta go to Lafayette – try Lafayette and American, and tell us which one you like better.”

For the first two weeks of residency, I was on days, reviewing embalming technique, restorative cosmetology, and container selection with the attending morticians at the hospital. Two easy, circadian rhythm-respecting weeks of days before I switched to nights. After my first night shift, I drove downtown to Lafayette Coney Island for my 7 am dinner. Breakfast. Who knows. If nothing else, I’d be able to tell my co-residents I’d tried it. To me, Coney Island was a littered beach. The rickety clatter of the Cyclone, the Mermaid Parade, minor league baseball, old Russian ladies in satin scarves and ankle-length skirts out on the boardwalk with their walkers. In Michigan apparently, the name was synonymous with what I would’ve called a Greek diner. Rather than a long Nathan’s hot dog with ketchup, the specialty at these Coney Islands was the Coney dog – a hot dog slathered in loose brown chili and topped with chopped onions, maybe a squirt of yellow mustard.

Despite my groaning empty stomach, which was slowly beginning to eat its own lining – I poked at the gummy, greyish boiled meat, wholly unappetized. The hot dog itself looked intestinal – shiny and taut and slathered in brown, soupy chili. Like innards. Maybe it was all the corpses I’d been hanging out with, but the thing looked disturbingly anatomical in its flimsy paper takeout dish. Lifting a sporkful of chili to my mouth, I set it down, my stomach churning. I pulled a morsel of soft white bread off the hot dog bun, convinced it should be inoffensive enough to choke down. Looking down at the mild, lightly sweet white bread though, all I could think about was the possibility that some loose cadaver had wedged itself under my glove and between my ragged, bitten down fingernails during the embalming process. No wonder I’d hardly eaten in days.

When I got home and turned sideways in the mirror, it hit me how gaunt I’d grown in the two weeks since residency started. My reflection was pale and skeletal, corpse-like even. It felt like years since I’d seen the sun. Longer even since I’d been able to keep real food down. My body was begging for some solid REM sleep, fifteen minutes of movement, fresh fruit, a vegetable if I was feeling ambitious. Anytime I sat down to eat though, all I could think about was the stench of dead bodies as they were wheeled down on guerneys, some still bloody. Leaky. The slick, slightly viscous feel of embalming fluid between my gloved fingers.

The whole point of residency was to learn from the experienced morticians. To shadow them, hour after hour, carefully copying their practiced motions as they pulled out IVs, removed bandages, wired the patient’s jaw shut. Observing closely as they drained the patient’s blood, replacing it gradually and completely with embalming fluid. Like all the city hospitals in Detroit though, we were chronically understaffed. As a result, the staff morticians jumped at the opportunity to relieve themselves of night shift, leaving me largely to my own devices. Alone with the unending parade of cadavers from 7 pm to 7 am most days. No better place to learn than Detroit, no better way to learn than by fire.

The only other person in the morgue at night was the young security guard who sat at the end of the hall connecting us to the main hospital – the juncture where the living met the dead. She wasn’t anything like the security guards at my clinical rotations during mortician school. She was young – younger than me even – and exceptionally beautiful. Glowing, really. Her skin was always dewy, a healthy flush in her cheeks. Her lashes, though possibly fake, were everything. Long, lush black eyelashes that tickled the underarches of her brows, thick curtains that revealed warm, deep brown eyes. Her jet black hair always in perfect coils, just brushing the top of her shoulders. With her posture and casual elegance, she even managed to make the boxy security guard suit jacket and slacks look flattering, feminine somehow. She seemed more vibrant, more alive than just about anyone else I’d ever met.

Each evening when I passed through the morgue doors I’d nod in her direction, my hair still half wet and lank from the shower, deep purple bags under my eyes from my sleepless days. Most nights, she’d look up from the notebook, pushing her gold wire-framed glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Have a good one!”, she’d smile, her straight white teeth gleaming. Never once did I pass by without her sunny greeting, never once was I not jealous of her perfect smile.

It felt weird to think that we were the only living people on the unit most nights. If I didn’t seem so anti-social and harried walking through those doors each night, I’m sure she would’ve made an effort to be friends. She seemed so charismatic and sweet, she must’ve been friendly with the last residents, I was sure. With a personality as warm as hers, I must’ve come across as a real loser for her to not make any real attempt at conversation.

My blood sugar felt low – my hands shook. In recent weeks, the only things I’d been able to stomach were products detached entirely from the cadavers I worked on. Peppermint patties, mango Hi-Chews, Bali Hai cigarettes. Something to bring me back to earth without feeling too real. Vegetarianism suddenly felt obvious. My thoughts felt as shaky as my hands. Unsteady and ethereal – not all there. “Shit,” I said to no one in particular, patting all my pockets. I’d probably left my badge in my purse, and I was already fifteen minutes late for my shift. The day shift mortician would be waiting, desperate for me to relieve him, to usher him into the night.

The blue security light at the morgue’s side entrance glowed bright. Perfect. I buzzed, waited, then buzzed again. It wasn’t clear whether anyone sat on the other side, but it was worth a shot. Better than waiting outside in the sub-zero temperatures hoping by some miracle that someone might happen to walk past or hear me knock. She suddenly appeared at the end of the hall, her curls bouncing with each step. “I’m so sorry!” I told her, rubbing my hands furiously together for warmth as she pulled open the door. “I was running late and completely forgot my badge at home.” Even the sterile air of the hospital felt nice in comparison to the frigid winter night.

“No problem,” she replied. “It happens all the time. What’s your name by the way? I feel terrible – I see you every night and still haven’t gotten a chance to ask.”

“I’m Sasha,” I told her, walking in lockstep with her, lengthening my stride to keep up. “What’s your name?”

“Daniella. It’s so nice to meet you,” her voice was affectionate and soft. It took all my effort to emulate her friendliness. Daniella even smelled nice – sweet and floral – the contrast stark against the metallic, microwave smell of the hospital. The hall was silent besides our footsteps. Glancing down at my phone, I estimated how long it would take me to get down to the morgue and relieve the day shift resident. “Sasha,” Daniella said aloud, breaking our silence. “I always loved that name. What do you do here? It’s so weird, I see you more than almost anybody and I don’t know anything about you.”

“I’m in my mortician residency,” I explained, bracing myself for the usual bad zombie joke.

“You should come down if you get a lunch break today or something,” she replied. Only someone else who worked in the morgue would skip over that fact like it was nothing. It made me like her even more.

“Yeah, for sure,” I smiled. “I’m gonna be so late – I should run, but I’ll come back up sometime tonight,” I promised her, power walking downstairs.

Time always moved slowly in the hospital, but especially in the windowless basement morgue when things were slow. “I’ve been sitting here all day scrolling Reddit,” the day shift resident had warned me at handoff. People always seemed to have a way of choosing the same few days to die. When things were slow like that, I craved a hobby. Something to do at work besides stare at my phone and will space-time to fold. I thought about Daniella and her thick notebook filled with writing, filling up incrementally each night as she manned the morgue. She must have had epics written in there, I figured. Whenever I’d brought a book or my iPad to entertain myself, it turned out to be a busy night. A flurry of bodies to prepare for the afterlife. Not wanting to jinx it, I’d stopped bringing anything to pass the time at all.

It had to have been past midnight by the time I looked up at the clock. “God, how was it only 8:45? Maybe I should go talk to Daniella. Find out her secret to boundless positivity. If nothing else, it would be good for me to interact with an alive person,” I thought.

“Hey!” She shouted, waving at me from down the hall. Her energy was magnetic. If there had been more people around on nights, they surely would’ve been there too, crowded around her desk, hoping to siphon some of the life force that flowed through her so effortlessly. Of all the jobs in the world, I wondered how she’d ended up as the night guard at a Detroit morgue. She should’ve been an actress, a dancer – even a child-life specialist or a music therapist, brightening the halls of the pediatric hospital as she wandered from room to room, strumming a Disney princess guitar. “I’m so happy you came! Slow night?” She asked, setting down her pen.

“You have no idea. I was starting to pull my hair out down there. How is it not even 9:00?”

“You’re telling me,” she replied. “At least you can get up and walk around. I’m stuck at this desk for twelve hours.”

“Can I ask what you’re always working on?” I asked, gesturing to the spiral-bound notebook, which lay open on her desk.

“Oh! I’m a poet. This is my poetry. You can flip through it you want,” she flipped the book around and pushed it in my direction. Of course. The contagious smile, the effortless charm. This is why she was a poet, and I was a mortician-in-training. The first two-hundred pages were bent and swollen, blackened with ink – the remaining hundred clean and white, yet to be filled. As I thumbed through the book, I was floored by how perfectly printed her bubbly handwriting was. Her penmanship was even better than I’d thought as I’d stolen glances on my way past her desk. It felt too intimate to sit with a poem and read it right in front of her, but I skimmed several pages, each one covered in carefully crafted prose. “I’m in school at CCS for creative writing,” she told me. “That’s why I work nights. Once I graduate though, I’m moving to Paris to write.” CCS was the College for Creative Studies, not too far from where I lived. I’d passed it a couple times and had meant to check out some of the student exhibits, but never could rally the motivation to venture out during the day, choosing instead to bury myself in bed until it was time for work.

“How do you have the energy for this every night?” I asked, jealous of her seemingly endless ability to not only stay awake, but to stay awake writing poetry, greeting me with a smile each night like she’d been waiting up just to see me and only me. To still dream of an artist’s life in Paris. I’d never seen her lids heavy, her attention waning. She seemed so incredibly present, so fully alive despite the bleakness of our shared surroundings. In my sleep deprived, hungry state, it had become increasingly difficult for me to really focus on another person’s words. For the most part, working nights provided a legitimate cover for my rapidly deteriorating focus and social skills. On the rare occasion I did have to talk to someone though, their words usually came through garbled, our conversation muffled and distant. I’d nod, looking them in the eyes to indicate yes, I’m here with you, listening, but my mind would be miles away. With Daniella though, it was different. Her energy felt radiant, uplifting even. Her voice cut through the fuzziness, addressing me directly.

“You want to know my secret?” Daniella asked, reaching under her desk and pulling out a shoebox covered in wrapping paper. She opened the lid, revealing stacks of what appeared to be chocolate chip protein bars, each wrapped individually in Saran Wrap. “They’re amazing – they’ll keep you going all night, seriously. Try one,” she handed me a bar. Normally, I would’ve politely declined, but I hadn’t seen a body yet that night and I was starving. Figuring it would be better to eat now before a corpse came down to ruin my appetite, I unwrapped the bar, eyeing it hungrily. It was soft, lightly sugary and pleasantly chewy between my teeth. Flecked with mini chocolate chips, it tasted exactly like the Tollhouse cookie dough I would secretly spoon raw from the fridge as a kid, but even better.

Maybe it was the starvation talking, but I could’ve sworn my eyes rolled back as I chewed, a heady rush flooding my brain. “These are incredible,” I said to Daniella. “Do you make these myself?”

“Thank you! I do – top secret recipe. It’s my little side hustle actually. A lot of the night shifters here buy them from me.”

“What’s in them? Caffeine?” I asked.

“Like I said, top secret. Come by tomorrow night though, I’ll hook you up,” Daniella smiled, closing up the box.

“Thank you so much. This shift work has been killing me. At this point, I’d try anything to keep me up,” I told her, putting the rest of the bar in the pocket of my scrubs. “I’ll see you later!” Daniella turned back to her writing as I walked away. The bar was so incredibly good, I was eager to polish off the rest in private. Whatever they were, I needed more.

That night flew by in what felt like minutes. Bodies started coming down just after midnight. In retrospect, I must’ve done at least three embalmings, but it felt like nothing had happened at all. Twenty minutes after I finished the bar felt like a rebirth. Energy coursed through my veins – my thoughts clear, my movements swift and intentional. Unlike the usual slog, the walk home that next morning felt crisp and bright. The birds’ early morning chirping sounded lyrical, rhythmic even. At home, I lay down in bed, pulling the cool comforter up to my chin and fell asleep like it was nothing. For the first time since moving to Detroit, the shouts of the guy living on my corner didn’t keep me up. No dreams of corpses reanimating as I wired their jaws shut. In fact, I didn’t dream at all. My mind felt completely at ease. As I rolled over, I looked at the clock. It was only 1:00 pm and I felt refreshed, fully rested, still satisfied from the bar I’d scarfed down last night. Since starting nights, I hadn’t once woken up with hours to spare before work, actually feeling motivated to get out and see the city. In fact, I had enough time to head down to CCS and see some art. Digging through my laundry basket full of just-cleaned scrubs, I rummaged through dusty teal tops and several hospital-issued ice blue pants before finding a pair of Levi’s and a sweater at the bottom. It felt like ages since I’d needed real clothes.

The lobby of the main CCS building was hosting an exhibit featuring a visual arts student’s senior thesis project. How fitting that they’d chosen mummification as their theme. Neon colored Egyptian-style mummies lined the walls – bright pinks and purples and blues. Ancient artifacts reassembled with metallic duct tape. I read through the artist’s plaque hung by the entrance – something about preserving the body in order to support rebirth in the afterlife as it related to modern rave culture. The role of psychedelics in preparing the soul to leave the material world. Ego death and all that. Not sure anyone could reasonably gather all that from the flamboyant mummies on their own, but the art was pretty if nothing else. On my walk home to get ready for work, I resolved to do more of this. This waking up early thing, putting on real clothes. Go see more of Detroit, which everyone had been telling me such great things about. Tonight, I’d need another bar from Daniella and then tomorrow I’d try to hit the Detroit Institute of Arts, or maybe go downtown. Try to actually eat something besides a Coney dog or a chocolate chip bar.

“Hey!” I walked up to Daniella’s desk, early for my shift for the first time ever. “Do you have more bars? That was amazing last night! I’m happy to pay for them.”

“Oh my god, are you kidding? I’ve got you! I never charge people I like,” she winked, handing me a plastic-wrapped bar. “Aren’t they incredible? I’ve been calling them Ideal You bars in my marketing,” she said, pointing at her signature lettering decorating the side of the box.

“So freaking good,” I replied, “They do make me feel like the Ideal Me.” That night, another shift flew by without me even noticing. It didn’t feel like I was high. Almost the opposite in fact. I felt more zoned in and awake than I’d ever been before at work. My movements flowed without even needing to think. My body felt light, but not that hungry eating-my-own-stomach-lining lightheadedness that had characterized my pre-bar night shifts. No, this felt much different. Like levitating.

So it went for the next four weeks. Nothing had ever transformed my life so completely and quickly as the bars. No single meal had ever tasted as good as that first perfectly chewy bite. Daniella only ever offered me one at a time, which seemed right. It was generous enough of her to share at all – if she thought it best to dose them out, I had to believe that was true. As badly as I craved more, the bars perfectly sated my hunger for a full day, down to the minute. No need to rush back to work with the assurance that Daniella would be there at her desk, as always, standing at the ready with more.

The biggest change of all was that I started loving night shift. I loved the feeling of being awake while the rest of the world slept, just me and the bodies. The quiet of the night made me feel important, reminding me of the seriousness of my job. The precision with which I needed to perform the rites in order for the dead to pass smoothly into the next life. The buzz I felt those nights wasn’t exactly like the first time I’d tried coke at a college party – my energy frayed and electric, my confidence false. This was different. My newfound vitality felt embodied – realer. Was I getting addicted? Maybe. But it was a healthy addiction, more exercise than cigarettes. If this was a drug, it was only making me better. Since I’d started waking up with energy, I’d actually started doing things. Fun things. Interesting, enriching, cultural things. I’d browsed the produce at Eastern Market, hand-arranging flowers in bespoke bouquets that brightened the window of my midtown apartment. I’d tried coffee shops, cocktail bars, strolled art galleries and skate parks and the Dequindre Cut. I’d stood at the edge of the turquoise Detroit River looking out at Canada. This was the Detroit I’d heard about – the one everybody had been trying desperately to sell me. The city was finally becoming knowable.

That Tuesday night started like any other. I’d gone down to the brewery below my apartment for a Diet Coke before work, determined not to break my streak of societal participation. Convinced staving off agoraphobia and narcolepsy was not a one-time effort, but a daily habit, like flossing. That Tuesday I’d actually struck up conversation with a nice couple sitting next to me at the bar. I’d seen them around and figured that it was what normal people did in their neighborhood. Me! Starting conversations! Meeting my neighbors, maybe even friends. This was the new me.

As I badged into the hospital that night, I strained my eyes to see down the hallway, surprised not to immediately recognize Daniella’s perfectly coiffed head of curls. In her place sat a 350-pound bald man, eyes closed, snoring. Walking by without acknowledgement, my first thought was how I missed the sweet sound of Daniella’s “have a good one!”, followed closely with a crushing hunger pang. How was I supposed to get through the next twelve hours without a bar? “Hey! You off tonight?” I texted her, hoping I didn’t sound too desperate. My phone sat face up next to me that night, but nothing came through.

This went on for the next three weeks, the pattern from that Tuesday repeating itself – her replacement guard snoozing, me fighting to keep my eyes open throughout the night, struggling to keep any food down when I got home. White toast just looked like bones to me, white rice like marrow, plain broth like fluid secretions, still sometimes bubbling up from the bodies’ mouths, even after death. My stomach rejected it all violently – I lost seven pounds. Slept all day. Back to zombie mode. “Hey!” I texted her. “Everything ok? Haven’t seen you in a while.” Sad face emoji. Broken heart emoji. “I miss you.” Skull emoji. “U alive?”

Another barely conscious night in the morgue. Little bottles of five-hour energy lined my desk – the only thing keeping me awake. I stared down at the face lying supine on the gurney, staring up at me. A little old lady – her face bloated but still human looking. From behind me, I heard an unexpected knock on the door. I jumped, footsteps fast approaching. “Oh my god!” I whipped around, surprised to see another living person awake in the morgue at this time of night. “You scared the shit out of me, I’m sorry.” He was tall and skinny, kind of cute in his loose-fitting scrubs in an abject, gaunt sort of way.

“Hey, sorry. I guess it would get kinda creepy here alone at night,” he said, glancing down at the corpse lying between us. “I know this is weird, but you’re friends with Daniella, right? The security guard?”

How did he know? I guess I did spend a lot of time lurking around her desk. “Yeah, well I thought so… I was friends with her anyway – I haven’t heard from her in weeks though. Do you know what happened?”

“Nah,” he replied. “She won’t return any of my texts. I’m pretty sure she got fired though. The new guy said he thought she might’ve been stealing from the hospital. Anyways, question for you. Did she ever sell you any of those bars?”

“Oh my god, yeah. I miss those.” I didn’t correct him, but it made me happy to think she’d given them to me for free – I remembered her telling me she’d sell them to some other night shifters. That must’ve meant we were real friends. “They’re so freaking good – I can’t function without them. You?”

“Dude, right? She was my hookup. I don’t think I can keep doing this without them. I think I figured something out though, and I might need your help. Check this out,” he said, handing me his phone, open to the Cremation Wiki article, scrolling to a section titled RVGs.

I scrolled, skimming the article furiously. RVGs stood for Revitagenic Byproducts, a group of biochemicals released during the cremation process. It was believed by some that they contained life-giving compounds, returning some of the life that had been lost to anyone who consumed them, like new mothers swallowing their own placentas. “What the fuck,” I muttered, disgusted.

“Listen, I know this sounds crazy, but I think I know what Daniella was stealing. Where do those vents lead?” He asked, pointing at the large metallic tubes connecting the morgue to the cremation chamber.

“I’ve never gone in before. It’s a biohazard – I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t breathe in whatever’s in those rooms, but there should be a key in one of these drawers.” Digging through the mess of papers and pamphlets, I scanned for the yellow lanyard my attending had pointed out during orientation, just in case something should ever go wrong. “Ahh, found it!” I held up the bronze key. He followed me to the back room, waiting patiently as I jammed the key into the sticky lock. “Can you try? I can’t get it,” I asked, handing him the key. He wiggled it forcefully, pulling it out and pushing it back in until we heard a sharp click, and he pushed the door open.

The room was small and hot – uncomfortably hot. It smelled repulsive, nauseating at first, but then I recognized it. A vague, sweet smell. Not the tiny chocolate chips or the mild vanilla sweetness of the dough, but an unmistakable, addictive chemical headrush. On the floor beneath the silvery ventilation pipes sat a white bucket labeled RGVs, in those familiar, perfectly printed bubble letters. “So, this is what she was using? Dead bodies?” I asked him, already knowing the answer. Hating myself, hating Daniella, hating this guy. He nodded. The whole enterprise was fucked, but I needed it. I needed more. I couldn’t go on living like this, already half dead. “This stays between you and me,” I said, looking him square in the eyes. Unspeaking, we each knelt, hoisting the heavy bucket. Two strangers bound by a shared appetite and no other option. For once, I was firm in my conviction. If given the choice between life and death, I was choosing life.


Emma Burger is a writer and young professional working in oncology research. She splits her time between Ann Arbor, Michigan and New York City. Her debut novel, Spaghetti for Starving Girls, was released in September 2021.


“Doctor Dread’s Creative Writing Revolution” Dark Fiction by Thomas White

The members of the Friday Night Writers’ Circle sat at the small table, its cheap blood-red plastic covering littered with partially eviscerated bags of potato chips and colorful jellybeans. Joe Shank imagined a late-night card game played by declared bankrupts, their gambling addiction having moved them to purge even the snack bar for stakes.

Perhaps that should have been the basis of a story. The one he had written was certainly disappointing. A timely fable, he had thought when originally conceiving it, of modern romance on the Internet, entitled E-Love, now seemed too mechanical and wooden.

As he read it, his writer’s viscera told him that the members of the circle were rejecting his effort without mercy. Shank felt like a surgery patient who had humbly brought his guts to the hospital, only to have the medical team declare that he was too disgusting to be treated. Suddenly, he had a grotesque vision of himself naked on the blood-red tablecloth, the others stirring indifferently through his open frontal bodily cavities, while they calmly munched on a few remaining chips (the ones with the burnt, mole-sized scars always left for last). The literary review process is indeed brutal.

“Oh, Mr. Shank…” Shank was startled from his musings by the squeaky voice of the Dowager Downs, which contrasted absurdly with her hulking frame. She was writing a 1,000-page novel, set in 1960s New Zealand, about a pornographic start-up operation that was producing X-rated films based on the writings of Casanova to entice literate upper-class, private school girls as its audience. This ring of pornographers, with eyes on ultimately seducing all of the wealthy classes as either actors or viewers, was just completing—as the novel began—their first feature, Emily Goes to the Country.

 “Oh, Mr. Shank,” Dowager Downs said more sharply this time. “Are you reading a story, or are you thinking up a new one?” (Nasty but clever, thought Shank. I will put the screws in her when her turn comes.)                                      

Shank glanced at his watch and cursed; he must have wasted a good three minutes of his allotted time, silently letting his mind drift. Bending his head as if in homage to the Dowager, who was still glowering over her reading glasses at him, Shank quickly, guiltily, went back to reading, while covertly surveying the rest of the group.

At the head of the table sat Sunshine May, gazing placidly, almost sleepily, at Shank, like a thin, well-built, full-breasted Buddha. She was a former flower child who had once lived in a series of hippie communes from Queensland to the Blue Mountains to Tasmania. Despite being bare-footed and still wearing leather breeches and a crimson blouse, homemade items from her previous life, she now had some type of well-paid, high-flyer editor position reporting on Australia’s Alternative Life-Stylers. Her manuscript, equal parts memoir, journalistic expose’, and fiction, was about the life of Sasha in the various previously mentioned communes, where she was dominated by an odious control freak, occasional boyfriend, and compulsive psychopath named Zane.

To Sunshine’s immediate left sat two unlikely members of a creative writers’ circle, a pair of thuggish, slightly questionable, characters, Yallop and Rattio, whom Shank had labeled Dark and Darkness. The former wore all black, had a ring in his left ear, and had a bald head. The latter wore all black, had a ring in his right ear, and had a bald head. Their contributions ranged from muddled, weird, gothic-style passages, describing dismemberments and disemboweling, to wild, incoherent ravings about sex, Satan, and bodily fluids. This verbiage, or more to the point sewage, seemed to have no relationship to any particular work-in-progress but was a mere frantic recitation of extracts they had shared with their equally bizarro friends on a homemade Gothic website, www. Blood & Bones.com.au.

Shank cringed in his seat whenever they read; was it possible to take a vote to eject such members of a creative writers’ circle for not being engaged in “serious” literature? That was a tricky matter, one best left alone, as he had to walk in the same poorly lit late-night parking lot as these literary criminals. He imagined them stalking him under a full moon, suddenly yanking away their masks, faces like two pale, hard-boiled eggs with large teeth, and laughing soundlessly as their thick, hairy fingers reached for his neck.

 Nor was this a mere paranoid fantasy: the way they had glowered and nodded violently toward him when he had first introduced his story E-Love had made him uneasy. Their subsequent childish, half- coherent criticisms of Shank’s use of the Internet showed that they resented an old “book-based” punk like Shank using, or misusing, what they considered their special media.

But after gloom always comes the light: next was June, the newest member, June the Ethereal, as Shank called her. After perusing the rest of the tiresome, motley crew, it was a pleasure and a relief to let his eyes linger on her.

Spacing herself at a meaningful distance from D & D, her manner was that of a charming princess with literary and aristocratic standards who had wandered inexplicably into this herd of irritating commoners: not arrogant but slightly bemused, her distaste laced with a measure of saving good humor.

June wore long black gloves and a tasteful royal blue dress as if she had come straight from some formal dinner. In fact, her wardrobe on creative writers’ nights always displayed the ultimate in taste, her sleek style, classy charm, and expensive perfume offering a blessed antidote to the nauseating Bad Mouth Odor of Dark & Darkness, and their grimy, sweat-stained T-shirts that displayed the usual cliché logos of the Hell’s Angels.

Shank had once, during a recent break, tried to chat her up, but she had only mumbled, before turning her graceful white profile away from him as if he had D & D’s stinking breath. Still, when her turn came, Shank listened uncritically, his heart thudding, quasi-in-love, to her smooth prose style that gracefully painted a complicated, multi-layered, gentle world of ghosts who, in their corporeal state, had sought therapy for various addictions, including compulsive drunkenness. Though the premises seemed absurd, the execution was excellent, and even if her efforts had produced rubbish, Shank would have still defended her words to the hilt. She, however, never returned the favor. When he had earlier read a summary of E-Love’s plot and themes to the group, she had promptly dismissed the whole project as a useless exercise:

“How can real love be expressed in cyberspace?” she had demanded.

“By demonstrating how cyberspace distorts love, I will progress toward a true definition of love,” Shank had responded weakly.

Arching her chin elegantly, she sniffed. “Dudes don’t have a clue… I think you are wasting your bloody time on the whole story. “

 Shank wanted to cry out a few real-time clichés of love: if you knew how I felt about you, you would know that it was not a waste of time. I am talking, he had mentally shouted at her, about something emotionally real here. It is not about a bunch of stupid drunken ghosts, crazy gothic ravings, communes full of psychopaths, or ridiculous New Zealand peddlers of smut.

“Tisk, tisk June,” Peg, the group’s de facto leader (because she kept the key to the front door), sarcastically pouted. “You must realize that this is Mr. Shank’s first draft. We don’t expect to find a new Jane Austen amongst our number in our modest little circle, now do we?”

Shank turned to face Peg. Her eyelids seemed to be drooping, but he knew that she was cunning, watching the entire group intently. She was the indomitable Pudding Lady, skin and hair with the hard texture of dried, brown-reddish pudding bread—leftovers from last Christmas. This description captured, in a way, Peg’s literary offerings. Her memoirs rambled on endlessly about her 1940s Tasmanian home life. There was no sweet sauce of creativity; only the hardness of mundane facts: who was born, who died, who married whom, and who constantly sewed hand-woven quilts. Peg the Pudding Lady made matters worse by once passing around a yellowing, dusty album of hoary baby pictures and family portraits—the cheap plastic cover embossed with the words My Most Cherished Memories—to “document” her memoirs, an occasion only enlivened by a chorus of nasty jokes from the group. However, the Pudding Lady was hard. It had not bothered her. She only smiled a dry, cracked little smile.

                                                   ***

The hours moved slowly like most of the manuscript readings. Shank’s interminable piece was, as he feared, generally greeted with a collective yawn of indifference. DD asked an elementary technical question about email which provoked a few patronizing smirks from D&D, who suddenly lapsed into sullen silence when June glared at them with a majestic look of total contempt. Shank was hoping at least for a few sardonic remarks from June allowing him at a bit of eye contact and an excuse for some banter but, wordless, she was icily aloof. When the copies of Shank’s piece were returned, he saw that no one, including June, had even bothered to write comments on it.

                                                       ***                                                

The room was clearing; everyone, suddenly energized by the end of their enforced boredom, chatted almost merrily. Generally, the night’s session had been a dud: the offerings had ranged from the dull to the insipid. Even June’s latest section of her lively novel had fallen flat tonight. 

June, who usually exited, after the session, with her normal swift, regal stride, seemed to linger about for no particular reason. Perhaps, she finally wanted to chat with Shank? His bladder, at the breaking point, though demanded more immediate attention. Cursing this untimely bodily urge, Shank rushed into the men’s room (noting an unusual sight on the way: Peg conferring with Dark and Darkness in a corner, along with two other men, whom he had never seen, in greasy green pants, arms covered with skull and cross bone tattoos, and wearing T-shirts reading Love is Evil. Probably maintenance men come to fix that annoying wheezing radiator, Shank surmised).

Unfortunately, a sudden outbreak of constipated bowels further detained him from any effort to chat with June. After he was finally able to return, he found the room oddly, suddenly, empty, its soulless interior creepy, the old rusty radiator still rattling fitfully like a defective iron lung. D&D, he imagined, were creeping around outside in the gloomy parking lot. Maybe after disemboweling him, they would post a gruesome photo of his remains on their Blood & Bones website. (The fact that this building, part of a community arts center complex, had originally been a hospital for the criminally insane in the 1950s did not help calm his fears.)

 “Shank?” Shank twisted on his heels. Standing behind him was Professor (aka Doctor) Derrick Demester. Shank knew him from various articles in the local media and had once taken Demester’s evening creative writing course at the university.

With his streams of carefully crafted dreadlocks, he was known as “Doctor Dread” in both the local and academic community. And the professor loved his moniker. A few months back, he, an academic who had received tenure 20 years ago, had denounced the tenure system as a way to protect all the old “book-centric” academic has-beens. Speaking before a campus rally, he had been quoted in the student online paper, The Academic Body, as saying:

They call me Doctor Dread, and I am here today to strike dread in all the old academic has-beens—or better yet, the ‘never-were’— who still teach today’s youth like students were taught in the 19th century. It is time for a bold, new revolution in creative writing.

Thereafter, in a variety of well-orchestrated interviews and blogs, distributed through the university’s email system, he had unleashed a tirade against “those cowardly fools who hide behind the tenure system and do their old, useless research while delegating their lackeys to brainwash the students with more academic rubbish.” It was time, he had declared, “to truly recognize the revolution of the Internet, which is the actual enemy of soulless Big Brother and his Corporate State. Cyberpunks and hackers are the new revolutionary guard. “

Weirdly, though, in person, he did not dish out a rehash of 60s radical jargon. Having done his Ph.D. on Raymond Chandler’s novels, Doctor Dread had reinvented himself as a tough-talking 1940s private detective, who growled in a parody of noir clichés.

“Before you blow this dump Shank, we have to have a meaningful exchange of jaw,” muttered Dread through his highly stylized clenched teeth.

“You surprised the hell out of me Doctor. What are you doing here? I thought you said that creative writing was a waste of time.  ‘Words Suck’ I believe you once told our class,” Shank retorted.

“Cut the Big Despair, captain”, ‘ Detective’ Dread grunted. His yellowish, bloodshot eyes glared from behind the curtain of his dreadlocks in an effort to look threatening. Instead, he looked merely like a sleepy man who needed some soothing drops for tired eyes.

Shank and Dread entered the community center’s shabby kitchen commons area. Reaching into his jean’s hip pocket, Doctor Dread slipped out a small flask of whisky, which he emptied into two large mugs. Sprinkling in some instant coffee and pouring in boiling water from a steaming kettle, he handed Shank one mug. Dread sipped from the other. He quivered a bit, then said:

“I guess you have heard the news?”

“No, what?” answered Shank.

“About the new creative writers’ circle being formed,” replied Dread.

“Uh….” muttered Shank, “Ummm…”

“Yeah,” Dread said, cutting Shank off. Your old group is dust, passé, ancient history, Jurassic Age feces, yesterday’s song, a lime-green Disco Era polyester suit nobody wants”.

“That decision’s gotta come from the director’s office.” Shank was worried: June the Ethereal might leave if the original circle was abolished and merged with another group full of rank beginners, mumbling cranks, and Internet addicts who fall asleep during manuscript readings.

“Oh, Irwina Molina is in the bag”, chuckled Dread, “Everything is cool with her”.

“You mean Irwina Molina herself is saying that our circle will be canned!” exclaimed Shank, his queasy stomach sinking out of sight into his bowels, now constipated again.

“Well, not quite canned,” grinned Dread. “Let us just say restructured, or better yet revolutionized, to democratically meet the demands of the center’s growing numbers of internet-oriented students”. For the first time, Shank realized that he could smell Dread’s malodorous breath in the confines of the kitchen.

“You old fool,” he bellowed at Dread, shaking his fist as if he had him by his dreadlocks and was jerking them back and forth. “I’ll feed you to the sharks,” Shank’s frenzied mouth snarling as if tearing off chunks of Dread’s flesh.

“Screw you, Shank,” Dread said as he stood up and slouched toward the large walk-in kitchen closet, his boots shuffling as if he had crippled feet.  Shank thought of nothing but a scarecrow in ragged jeans, his dreadlocks dribbling around his ears like grey-blonde corn stalks, his plaid shirt draped loosely, like a rumpled flag, over his cadaverous chest.

Doctor Dread pushed a withered, spotted hand against the kitchen’s closet door. Creaking open, it revealed the Friday Night Writers’ Circle tied up, frozen mouths covered with duct tape, wriggling on the floor like sacks full of snakes. The two tattooed men, who Shank had seen earlier, hovered over them, clutching loops of thick, hairy rope, and wearing T-shirts which this time read: Love Kills.

Suddenly, Peg the Pudding Lady walked in—her dusty 1940s photo album stuffed into a large straw handbag—holding a boxy 1970s Polaroid camera. She mouthed an obscenity directed at Shank and then began to snap pictures of the two men who turned and smugly gloated as if they were posing for a photoshoot after a big game kill.

Shank’s horrified gaze slid over the bound members—both DD and Sunshine May, eyes glazed over, looked comatose—but quickly fixed on June’s frightened, doe-eyed, pleading look, and her left, partially exposed breast.

A black swarm of movement in the gloomy kitchen, and Dark and Darkness entered quickly from the outside, both now wearing hoods; a quick blast of cold air chilled Shank’s sweaty face. They marched in mechanical lockstep toward June, seized the terrified, struggling woman, carried her out of the closet to the kitchen, and dumped her on her back. Dark flipped a coin and then punched the air triumphantly; clearly, he had won. Darkness’s hooded head slumped a little. Dark then began to unhook his pants belt as he circled vulture-like over June’s long body for just the right position, while the Pudding Lady delicately tip-toed in closer for just the perfect angle for her pornographic photo shoot.

 Before Shank could rush to defend June, Professor Dread and Darkness grabbed and held him in an arm lock. In his right ear, Shank could hear the cranky sigh of the kitchen’s radiator and the heavy, lecherous breathing of The Doctor. A massive ache from their grip slowly spread over Shank’s upper body like a thick, penetrating oil. Then, he heard June shriek—and the click of Peg’s camera as she happily snapped another picture for inclusion into her My Most Cherished Memories album.


Thomas White has a triple identity: speculative fiction writer, poet, and essayist. His poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print literary journals and magazines in Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He is also a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author who has contributed essays to various nonliterary journals on topics ranging from atheism, the meaning of Evil, Elon Musk, Plato, The Matrix, and reality as a computer simulation. The Encyclopedia Britannica selected one of his previously published essays on Hannah Arendt, Adolph Eichmann, and the “Banality of Evil” for inclusion on its website, Britannica.com.

In addition, he has presented three of his essays to the West Chester University Poetry Conference (West Chester, Pennsylvania), as well as read his poetry on Australian radio. His poetry collection Ghostly Pornographers, published by Weasel Press/Sinister Stoat Press, is available on Kindle and through the publisher’s website.


For anyone interested in learning more, please check the December 17, 2021 issue, which includes The Chamber’s interview with Mr. White.


“Resurrection” Dark Fiction by Kelly Piner

After an eighteen-year absence, Raine drove past marshlands and farmhouses toward her remote, coastal hometown. She no longer remembered why she’d stayed away so long—maybe the distance, or a long-forgotten disagreement, not to mention having no one to cover for her at Serenity, the nursing home facility that she ran? But with her father’s failing health, she had to see him one last time. She shook off the thought and gazed at the surrounding landscape. Bogue Isle, an adjoining seaside town, was barely recognizable with its boutique hotels and trendy cafes. And ten miles down the road, a pang of loneliness gripped her chest when she passed her old high school, a sprawling one-story brick building situated behind a lily field. The once massive football field now looked overgrown and miniscule. How long had it been since she’d spoken to any of her old classmates? Thirty, maybe thirty-five years?  Then, exactly ten hours since leaving her mid-west home, she entered the sleepy village of Willistowne.

Areas of the town looked exactly as she remembered, simple Craftsman homes with large front porches tucked away under towering pine trees. But the upscale beach homes with lavish patios built along the sandy stretch of shore next to the old boat house looked out of place in the simple down-home community. She slowed when she crossed the bridge over Jarrod Sound and rounded the curve to the small local cemetery. Instinctively, she cruised off the road and onto the grass. Not sure why she had stopped, she sat and stared straight ahead. Fighting sleep, she took a last gulp of coffee as she stretched her aching legs and climbed from her car. Inside the overgrown burial ground, she leaned over and read the headstones of long-gone relatives. Covered in mildew and spider webs, a bouquet of plastic roses rested on top of her mother’s grave. Raine’s heart ached when she thought of how much her mom had loved flowers. She’d once been awarded Best Garden by the local botany society and had kept the blue ribbon on her bedroom wall until she’d died. Next to her mother, lay Raine’s baby brother, Jacob, whose unmarked grave had worn with age as relentless storms had left behind a film of silt and grime. She looked around at other headstones of the many residents who had died since she’d last visited, including her elementary school teacher, Miss Minnie, and the church pianist. When she next checked her watch, it was half past five, so she returned to her Jeep for the short drive to Aunt Delta’s, where her father and big brother, Robert, waited for her.

But a mile down the road, she couldn’t locate the dirt drive to her house. None of the terrain looked familiar; nor could she spot Aunt Delta’s home. After driving two miles out of her way, looking for a turnaround, she headed back west, but the scenery still looked oddly out of place with new row houses that she’d never seen. She parked at the empty post office lot and walked back in the direction of her home. She was bound to find it this way. Finally, she vaguely recognized a house resembling her aunt’s, but what had happened to her childhood home next door? As she stood in Aunt Delta’s front yard, a feeling of dread washed over her. The once brilliant eggshell-blue home with colorful window boxes now appeared uninhabitable and looked more like an abandoned building. Trees had overtaken the roof, and dozens of stacked boxes and old tools and trash cluttered the front porch. Slowly, Raine climbed five crumbling steps and tapped on the rusty front door.

An unfamiliar heavy-set woman greeted her. “It’s about time. We’d given up on you.”

Inside the jumbled living room, Aunt Delta vigorously rocked back and forth as she knitted. She wore dark glasses, and her long blonde hair was twisted into an old-fashioned bun. Dressed in a bathrobe, Raine’s 90-year-old father, frail and slumped in an easy chair, registered no recognition of his daughter. His oversized reflective sunglasses made his small head resemble a large bug.

“Dad, what’s wrong with your eyes?”

When he didn’t answer, Aunt Delta stopped knitting. “Severe photosensitivity. We both have it.” She then motioned toward the unfamiliar woman. “This is Lula, my home aide.”

Raine looked around the room at the mishmash of books and boxes. In one corner, a clothes rack held an array of old castoffs, and a stack of firewood filled the entire back wall. Raine couldn’t put her finger on a peculiar odor that filled the air. Feeling more like a stranger than family, she perched on the edge of the worn sofa, still wearing her heavy autumn sweater. “Where’s Robert?”

Without looking up, her aunt motioned with her head. “The bathroom.”

Lula spoke in choppy sentences, like a robot. “We’ve been holding supper. Till you got here.”

Delta tossed her knitting onto the floor. “I’m starved.” She stood unsteadily and leaned into her walker. “Let’s go.”  

The soles of Raine’s shoes made sticky sounds in the kitchen as she walked through years of ground in grease and grime. How long since it had been mopped? Five mismatched place settings had been squeezed onto the small Formica table. An array of utensils had been tossed in the center. Raine took the seat facing the window.

Right on cue, Robert emerged from the bathroom and sat next to Raine, looking decades older than his fifty-eight years. He stared down at his plate through dark-tinted Coke bottle glasses. “Hi, Sis.”

A lump constricted Raine’s throat. “Robert.”

Raine’s father hobbled into the kitchen. “Oh, Lordy,” he said and winced as he eased into his chair, his life force burning as dimly as a 10-watt bulb. At the stove, Lula poured a stew into a large bowl and then used a ladle to spoon servings onto each plate. She sat down next to Delta. “Let’s eat.”

Indistinguishable mush floated on top of a reddish fluid. Raine stirred it around. “What is this?”

When Lula spoke, broth dribbled down her chin. “Goulash.”

As Raine lifted the spoon to her mouth, a roach crawled from the stew. She shrieked, and the spoon clanked against the plate.

Aunt Delta looked up. “What on earth?”

“A roach.” Raine pointed as it crawled across the table, sniffing the air. Its antenna wriggled. 

Lula dismissively flapped her hand. “A roach never hurt anyone. They’re especially bad this year.” She resumed sipping broth.

Raine turned to Robert, but he avoided her gaze as he shoveled more stew into his mouth. She dabbed at her mouth with a paper napkin and folded her hands in her lap. When she looked out the window, a figure was darting behind an old crib house where her aunt stored vegetables. It happened so quickly that she couldn’t be sure if it was human or animal.

“Go ahead and eat,” her aunt told her.

“That’s okay.” Raine lied. “I had a late lunch.” She peered out the window, looking for the shape she’d seen.

Delta slurped more stew. “We’ve got something to show you after lunch.”

She turned to her aunt. “Oh yeah. What’s that?”

“You’ll see.”

Raine already regretted making the long journey, the oddness and all. Feeling as nothing more than an outsider, maybe eighteen years was too wide a gap to bridge. “Dad, what happened to our house? It’s gone.”

He spoke without looking up. “What do you mean? It’s where it’s always been.”

“I didn’t see it.” Something about her father raised the hairs on the back of her neck, a void, as if no one existed behind the reflective glasses.

“Weeds have grown up around it,” Aunt Delta told her.

After Lula cleared the table, she asked, “Dessert? I made a blood pie.”

Raine gulped. “No thank you.”

Delta raised her finger. “I’ll have a slice.”

When Lula cut into it, a thick, reddish fluid oozed from the crust and small bits wriggled from the pie, like worms.

When everyone had finished their dessert, Delta disappeared into the next room and emerged wearing an old sweater. “Better bundle up,” she said. “We’re heading out.” She handed Raine’s father a jacket. “Put this on, Brother.”

Raine buttoned the thick sweater she hadn’t bothered removing. She couldn’t imagine what her aunt had to show her—maybe some old relic they’d discovered in the attic? The family moved through the dilapidated screened-in porch and into the back yard filled with stray branches and pecans. Lula marched in front and led the group up more steps and into the old crib house. As a child, the crib house had frightened Raine with its cobwebs and creepy crawlies.

Her heart rapped hard against her chest as she followed closely behind her family into the dark dwelling that smelled of old rags and grime. As the family formed a semi-circle, Lula pulled a light cord and a naked bulb illuminated the room. Old crates stacked against one wall reminded Raine of her great Uncle Elmer, who had spent his days in there, sitting on the crates, whittling.  His old coveralls still hung from a nail, and she half-expected to see him rounding the corner. A hodgepodge of discarded tools had been cast into a corner. And then her eyes moved slowly to the rear of the room, and when she saw it, she pressed her hand to her mouth to muffle a scream. A dozen or more lifeless piglets hung upside down from hooks. Their maggot-covered faces seemed to cry out for help. Had she stepped into a nightmare? Her voice rose in panic. “Oh my God! What is this?”

“This is why it was so important that you returned,” her aunt said. “This is Phase I of the operation. I’d like to show you Phase II.”

“What?” Numb from shock, she turned to her father and Robert, but they stared at the piglets, seemingly transfixed by the sight. Had the entire family lost its mind?

Delta pulled a book from a rickety shelf. “It’s all right here in this book that we discovered buried under the floor when we decided to replace the rotted boards.” She held up an archaic book with a worn cover entitled Resurrection. A pentagram and goat were featured on the cover. “It’s a miracle we ever found it.”

“This is sick.” Raine raced outside. Her earlier curiosity had morphed into terror. She leaned over and heaved. She wanted nothing more than to hop into her car and drive away as quickly as possible, but she’d left her purse and keys inside the main house. “I don’t feel well,” she told her aunt. “I think I’d better drive back home.”

Delta lowered her voice and stared through Raine. “That would be the worst thing you could possibly do.”

Raine looked to her father who stood motionless, still wearing the reflective glasses. “I don’t understand any of this.”

“Be patient and I’ll explain the whole thing. Let’s pay a little visit next door. Lead the way, Lula.”

Lula marched in front, ushering the family across a field filled with crunchy autumn leaves, in the direction of Raine’s old childhood home. Delta shuffled slowly behind on her walker while Robert locked arms with their dad and steadied him. Raine had the sensation of moving toward a cemetery. Then, she saw it once again, a figure darting into the woods. She pointed. “There it is again.” She looked at her brother with questioning eyes.

In his first real show of emotion, Robert placed his hand on her shoulder. “Sis, don’t you know who that is?”

She shook her head.

“It’s Jacob, Sis. It’s Jacob.”

“No! Jacob’s dead. He got killed over fifty years ago.”

“But’s that the miracle of this whole thing.”

Raine’s legs went limp, like she might faint. Robert steadied her against an old oak tree where she took deep breaths. “Why are you all doing this to me? I just want to go home.”

Robert leaned in and spoke softly, so as not to be overheard. “You can’t leave. Dad’s life depends on it. You’ll understand it all soon.”

Raine swiped tears from her cheek and straggled toward her old home. With most of the house suffocated by weeds, the chimney finally peeked through a tangled web of branches. From a distance, the dwelling reminded her of old slaughterhouses she’d seen in horror movies with tarpaper flaps for doors. Her insides quivered as they neared the front entrance that hung loosely from its hinges. Lula led the family through a dilapidated utility room and into a kitchen where the floor had caved in. Her mom’s oak dining table lay on its side, and a colony of spiders had formed a home in the corner and waved their legs at Raine as she passed by. She couldn’t believe this had once been her childhood home. Why had the family let it fall into such disrepair?

She couldn’t make sense of what Robert had said about their little brother, Jacob. Maybe the entire family suffered from a collective delusion. She’d read about these occurrences in isolated areas of the world.

Delta limped along on her walker. “Watch your step. There’s snakes in here.”

“Snakes?” Raine regretted not escaping when she’d had the chance, but with Robert saying their father’s life depended on it, what could she do? So she watched her feet and took cautious steps.

Lula held up her hand when they approached the back bedroom. “Before we go inside, we need to explain a few things.”

Delta turned to her niece. “What we’re about to show you defies the imagination. But it’s all laid out in the book. Keep an open mind. Then we’ll tell you how you can help.” She pushed open the squeaky old door, where inside, two bodies lay on the bed. Raine pulled the collar of her sweater up over her nose to ward off the stench. The blood rushed from her head as she tried to make sense of what she saw. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t be. But despite the black, decaying flesh, she’d recognize them anywhere, her great Uncle Elmer and her mother. The room spun around her as she grasped a nearby chair and slumped into it. Thousands of maggots covered the corpses, and a repugnant odor filled the air.

“You’re crazy! You’re all crazy,” she told her family in a labored voice. “I was just at the cemetery. How’d you dig them up?”

“Never mind how they got here,” Delta said. “This is where you come in. The book lays out a plan to resurrect our loved ones. The maggots are key. They must feast on infant flesh for a week. This is why we use the newborn piglets. Next, they need protein and the DNA of relatives. That’s where the family comes in. Only then do we transfer the maggots to the corpses of loved ones. This is how we brought Jacob back. It’s easier with children.”

Raine covered her face and whimpered. Then, one of the corpses moaned.

Delta cackled. “Did you hear that, Brother? Elmer just made a sound. He’s coming around.”

Raine scanned the room. Maybe when no one was looking, she’d dart out of the house and speed away. But Robert and her dad stood directly behind her, and Lula watched closely from the corner. Would they kill her if she didn’t cooperate? “I don’t understand,” Raine said. “What does this have to do with dad?”

Delta nodded. “It takes a toll, the maggots. They suck away our life force and cause premature aging. That’s why Brother is so weak. He can’t do it anymore. It’s getting to me too. You’re the only living relative who can help. We need your DNA and protein to feed the maggots so they can transfer it to the corpses. Without your help, we likely can’t fully bring back Elmer and your mother. Do you want that on your conscience? We’ve gone too far to back down now.” Delta clutched Lula’s hand. “Lula is your great grandmother. She died years before you were born, but we resurrected her.”

Raine stared back in disbelief. “This is absolutely insane. Why are you doing this?”

“You wouldn’t ask if you’d read the book. We’ve been handed the miracle of everlasting life.”

Trying to make sense of the situation, Raine pressed her hand to her forehead. “But how do the maggots get our protein and DNA?”

Delta looked at Robert and at Raine’s father and in unison, all three removed their glasses.

“Oh God!” Through tear-filled eyes, Raine watched as maggots clung to their eyeballs, sucking away at the plasma. Several maggots wriggled from her father’s eyes and crawled onto his cheek.

“This is why we wear the dark glasses,” Delta added. “The maggots can’t tolerate the light.”  

Raine’s left arm went limp, and in a slurry voice, she protested. “I won’t do it. Let me go. Let me go.”

***

Rained wheezed and twisted the sheet in her hand.

“Wake up, Miss Raine. Wake up.”

Disoriented, Raine opened her eyes. She didn’t recognize her surroundings. A young woman stood over her, on her chest a shiny tag that read Serenity. “I’m Sarah, your nurse for the shift.”

“Nurse? Where am I?”

“Saint Grace’s Hospital.”

“The hospital? How’d I get here?”

“Don’t you remember? You had a minor stroke. Thank God your family sought help immediately. Hopefully, you’ll have a full recovery.”

Raine searched her memory. “I didn’t have a stroke. My family’s crazy. If I told you what they’ve done, you’d lock me up and throw away the key.”

“Now, Miss Raine. That’s just the sleep medication talking. It can cause unusual dreams. In fact, I’ve got a surprise. Your family is right outside, waiting to drive you home for the weekend.”

“No. I won’t go. You can’t make me go.”

Nurse Sarah squeezed Raine’s hand. “You’re on blood thinners. You’ve suffered brain trauma. You’re not allowed to leave the hospital alone or even in a cab. We can only release you to your next of kin. I just met your relatives. They’re sweethearts.”

Five hundred miles from her Midwestern home, no way would Raine’s best friend drive that far to get her. Plus, she had no other family in the area to help.  

Seemingly unconcerned with Raine’s pleas, Sarah motioned, and when Raine looked up, her family stood by her bed, all three wearing dark glasses.

Robert leaned down and kissed her cheek. “Hi, Sis. Excited about going home?”

“Oh, Robert. Help me.”

He and the nurse exchanged looks, and in a soft voice, Sarah said, “She’s had a rough night, the medications and all.”

“They want to put maggots in my eyes! Maggots in my eyes!”

Sarah patted Raine’s hand. “Now, now, Miss Raine. Your family’s waiting. Let’s get your stuff together.”

Raine’s body quivered as Delta tossed toiletries into an overnight bag. For a moment, she thought of calling hospital security, but what could she say; that her family had dug up relatives and used piglets and maggots to resurrect them? They’d transfer her to the psychiatric unit where she’d lose everything. And then Raine’s blood ran cold. What if the nurse was right, that she’d had a stroke, and maybe her surreal memory was nothing more than a well-constructed delusion caused by medications and brain damage? She’d been around elderly people her entire career. She knew the tricks the mind played.

Sarah rolled up a wheelchair and spoke softly. “If the visit goes well, you can move home permanently. Wouldn’t that be nice? But if you’re unhappy when you return to the hospital, you can meet with the charge nurse and make other arrangements upon discharge.”

Delta nodded toward an overweight woman standing by the door. “You remember Lula, my home aide. She’s our driver.” Then Delta handed Raine a pair of dark glasses. “Put them on.”

Practically a hostage with no transportation of her own, Raine played along. Once back at Aunt Delta’s, she’d make some excuse to go outside, and when no one was looking, she’d rush to the post office where she’d left her car and speed away, never to return.

Sarah helped Raine out of bed and into the wheelchair. “You’re a lucky woman. You have a family that loves and cherishes you.”  Raine silently rode in the chair as Sarah pushed her down the long hallway and into the parking lot. At the edge of a large field filled with dahlias and goldenrod, a small child waited. Raine instantly recognized him. His name was Jacob.  


Kelly Piner is a Clinical Psychologist who in her free time, tends to feral cats and searches for Bigfoot in nearby forests. Ms. Piner’s short story “Blackout” was recently published in Scarlet Leaf Review’s anniversary issue. Her story, “Dead and Gone,” was just named Honorable Mention in Allegory’s upcoming issue. Her short story “The Old Man and the Cats” was published by Storgy MagazineWeirdbook’s annual zombie issue featured Ms. Piner’s short Story “Lazy River.”  Her stories have appeared in multiple anthologies. She also has short stories published in The Literary Hatchet, East of the Web and in be-a-better-writer.comShejust completed her first novel, FAT SANDS.


“The Black Curtain” Dark Surrealism by Leonard Henry Scott

“What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Sorry, I ….”  Marvene replied, trailing off in squints and shrugs.

Ivan stared at her briefly. Then with the help of a carefully pointed index finger, he slowly enunciated the one unequivocal rule, as if for the twenty seventh time. “We don’t go outside when the night is coming.”

“Yes….”

“We talked about this. We agreed.”

“—Yes, I know. But it’s not even close yet. It’s all the way across the street.”

Marvene motioned to the window. “See?  It’s barely moving.”

She was correct. The night was across the street standing quietly in the rain.  It seemed almost to be not moving at all, still as a photograph. But they both knew that was a deception. They knew the night was always moving and that soon it would be at their doorstep.  And this night would not arrive softly as a gentle veil to take them off to sleep.

This was a different sort of night. It moved ponderous and slow as heavy winter drapes. Now, it could clearly be seen in the near distance through the translucent blur of hard pelting rain and spaces between the autumn-colored trees. Stretching to infinity on both sides, it dropped down from the sky as a thick ebony curtain suspended from the heavens. Its uncompromising darkness blotted out everything behind it and buildings in front stood out brightly against its ink dark surface as if they had been painted on black velvet.

“We don’t go out at night.” Ivan reiterated.

“I know. I just wanted to empty the garbage, that’s all.”

 “The garbage?” Ivan replied shaking his head. “I’m talking about our lives here. This is our last night. Let’s just try to be safe and make it through. Forget about the garbage.”

“Yes,” Marvene replied persistently. “But we had fried fish and the garbage is stinking up the place. I only wanted to take that greasy, awful smelling bag to the dumpster.”

She had a sensitive nose. Ivan knew that about her. He knew everything about her. If he cut one careless fart, she’d be spraying Fabrize for a day and a half. 

“Why can’t we just leave the bag outside the door?”

“No, the animals will get into it and….”

“Animals?  What animals?”

“Cats.” Marvene replied. “And maybe raccoons, but I have seen cats in the mornings foraging around.” 

Ivan shook his head. It was hard to believe that anything could survive out in the night. He’d found the grim remains of a few dogs. At least that is what he thought they were. He’d found what was left of people as well, people that had been his neighbors. One in particular stood out in his mind. It was a disgusting sight, so tragically sad. There were red and brown foul-smelling remnants, crushed bones, shreds of clothing all melded together and painted onto the asphalt. To Ivan, the most disturbing part was the pieces of cloth. There were some shreds of a familiar multicolored material. He was certain that it was torn from a dress that Mrs. Murphy used to wear. She lived across the courtyard.  Ivan had always liked her. A nice lady, he thought, very pleasant.

Most of his neighbors had already left. They had gone to seek refuge in the long abandoned deep mines of the Black Mountain. He’d printed out a Goggle map two weeks ago, just before the internet crashed. He couldn’t recall at the moment the reasons why they had waited so long to leave.   

“Cats are resilient. They find places to hide.”

Ivan sat down beside Marvene on the couch.

“I don’t give a damn about the cats,” he said, “Or the garbage or the unpleasant smell. I only care about you. I want us to finish packing up the car so we can get the hell out of here as soon as the night moves down the road tomorrow.”

“Seconds,” she said.

“No.” Ivan replied firmly.

“I could be there and back in seconds”

Ivan sighed heavily and took a deep pause to calm himself.

“Seconds,” She repeated softly as Ivan placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“It’s just not safe. We’ve talked about this.”

“Whatever.”

Marvene shrugged.

‘Dammit Marvene!’ He thought. His mother would call him ‘hardheaded’ whenever he broke one of her sacred rules. She’d waggle a cautionary finger and pronounce with full motherly gravitas; “A hard head makes a soft behind.”  And he’d straightened up immediately. It worked for him, a tried-and-true method for any four-year-old. But Marvene was a grown-ass woman who could (and would) do whatever she damn well pleased. And she would not hesitate to remind him of that whenever he got too full of himself. And so, although he dearly loved her and respected her free spirit, it did make keeping her safe a bit of a challenge.

They sat together in the resonating silence. He could feel himself inexorably softening in the sweet cocoon of Marvene’s presence. They watched television.  Yes, although cable was dead, for now at least there was still television, rudimentary though it was, news alerts, cartoons, old black and white movies. More and more there was less of it. Ivan suspected that soon it would be gone altogether. To be replaced by what? He didn’t know.

Things change.

Ivan reluctantly dragged himself away from Marvene and the comfortable couch to take one last turn through the house before the night arrived. He went from room to room rattling closed locked doors and securing windows. He also checked the garage where the half-packed Subaru Outback was waiting for their dawn departure. The garage door was closed, and the house seemed to be safe from the night at least for a day or two. That is what they thought. But it was clearly wearing down.

Although the night was seemingly too thick to enter small cracks, it could easily pour through an open door or window like a great gelatinous sea. Once inside, it could fill up the entire house and smother and grind up every living thing inside.  Other than ensuring that the doors and windows were closed, there was nothing else he could do at this point to protect them against the oncoming night. He paused briefly at the attic window looking out at the rain and creeping darkness. That gloomy sight made him yearn for a long-ago different time when sunsets splashed brilliantly across an orange-colored sky and the sweet nights were soft and smelled of warm earth and honeysuckle.

Things do change.

Ivan knew that Marvene was right (at least sort of right). But even though the black night was some distance away, as she had pointed out, he felt that it was still much too close to take any chances. And what was the point? Usually, the night crept along almost imperceptibly; slower even than the slowest moving most plodding funeral procession. But that could change without any warning until all at once it was all at your elbow, ready to pounce like a great black angry dog. The night was unpredictable, almost as if it had an actual mind and could think.  

In the living room, Marvene stood up and delicately pinched her nose, even though no one was there at the moment to witness her displeasure. She made a face and with an exaggerated theatrical flourish fanned away a bad fish odor with her hand. Then, she reached out and retrieved the book of matches beside Ivan’s flip top box of Marlboro cigarettes. She carefully lit the two almond-colored candles that decorated the coffee table, an ancient gift from a long-ago lady friend. That truth of them, but a truth Ivan felt would be somewhat more than inconvenient.  So, he had told her that he had gotten them at Target. She was suitably impressed with his good taste.

When the heat of the candle flames had asserted itself into the wax, a pleasant curl of jasmine smoke slowly emerged dancing cheerfully into the air. The sweet smoke blended with the lingering odor of fried fish to create a wholly new, somewhat less daunting aroma. It was better, Marvene thought, but still not good. She placed the book of matches back onto the table top and glanced up through the front window. The dark curtain had by now completely consumed the houses across the street, with front porches, steps and posts seeming to be stuck to its opaque pitch-black surface like bizarre decorations or pieces of art.

The metal dumpster was still in plain view near the edge of the courtyard, well in front of the advancing darkness. It shimmered and sparkled in a thousand splashes of falling rainwater. although it constantly beckoned to Marvene with its silent siren’s call through sparkles and squints of diminishing daylight, Marvene resisted.

That was just as well. Because as she turned her gaze away for just a moment and then looked back, the night had suddenly devoured the entire courtyard and stood now as a great black wall no more than two feet from their back window. Emptying the garbage this late in the evening would have been a mistake for sure.  Marvene stared at the way too close encroaching night and shook her head slowly up and down. She thought, ‘Success in life is all about timing.’ The falling piano crashes into the sidewalk, missing you by six inches. The guy in front of you in line at 7/11 wins the lottery for 100 million dollars just because you stopped to tie your shoelace. It all equals out somehow, she thought.

Ivan returned to the couch. The Subaru was packed and waiting. All they needed was to get through the night.

And now at once the night came fast and heavy, claws out, like a hungry, red-eyed beast in the wilderness.

Soon the house was altogether covered by the heavy black curtain. Ivan and Marvene sat together on the couch (as they had done many times before) listening to its eerie, rumbling cadence as it laboriously dragged and crawled and scraped its way across their shingled roof. The sound of it was frightening (of course). Yet their hearts did not burst with fear and their minds did not run wildly out of control with flailing hands and terrified thoughts. Ivan and Marvene, just like other members of their species, possessed an enormous capacity to adapt to the worst possible circumstance. No matter how frightening, no matter how dire, they simply got used to it.

So, now they just sat quietly waiting out the hours, hoping that the house, their once beloved home, would not suddenly give up and collapse around their ears. They knew the dawn was coming as it always did. But they hoped that they would still be alive to see it when it arrived. 

The house shuttered and groaned as shingles and siding were ripped away. Pieces of it, large and small, flew off and crashed into the yard. And there was a gathering rhythm of loud bangs and pops as the black curtain of night itself dragged heavily along the sides and across the roof. The ripping, rending, and crashing of things from the house had a certain cadence like a ceremony of shotgun blasts one after the other.  As things on the roof and in the attic crashed and ripped apart, the room filled with falling streams and great misty clouds of dust. Ivan and Marvene sat very close together on the couch, arms wrapped around each other, eyes tightly closed. But there was little to see anyway since the only light in the house came from the dim scented candles on the coffee table. Marvene wondered, ‘How much more can the little house take? But the horrible cadence of destruction continued deep into night and the absolute darkness that surrounded them when candles burned out.     

They knew that at some point when the heaviness of their eyelids outweighed their fear, they would drift off to sleep. The need for sleep can be as compelling as the need for relief of a bursting bladder. Nothing can hold it back. They knew that no matter how hard they tried to stay awake, no matter how horrible, how terrifying the night sounds would be, at some point they would be overpowered by the need for sleep.

They had two Big Ben clocks that sounded off like fire alarms. They set both to wake them before the sunrise.

When the loud ringing clocks woke them, the gray dawn was beginning to rise in the courtyard. The back of the night had just slipped through the front yard and was moving rapidly away. The rain had stopped. Devastation was all around. Everything was sopping wet. Houses that had been standing the day before were now just piles of shingles and wood, a myriad of broken, indefinable things.  They had thought that they might have two or three more nights before their home collapsed into a pile of rubble. But looking at the sad condition of it now, they agreed, the house would most likely die tonight.  It was time to leave.

 Ivan was tightening the straps around a three-foot pile of luggage on the roof of the Outback. Marvene had taken the garbage bag to the dumpster and was returning to the house through a gauntlet of rain-soaked trash and piles building parts. Ivan smiled to himself when he saw what Marvene was doing. He shook his head and mused that she was truly a credit to her community.

A tiny head popped up from one of the piles of debris.

“It’s Mrs. Murphy’s cat.” Marvene exclaimed.

‘Poor Mrs. Murphy,’ Ivan thought. He wondered why she had even ventured outside. Her house had remained standing right up until last night.  The cat came over to say hello. Then she immediately jumped into the back of the Subaru through the open rear hatch. 

“She wants to go with us.”

Marvene turned to face Ivan squarely and pointed at the cat.

“See? Cats know things I tell you! They do. She thinks that we know what we’re doing!”

“Do we?” Ivan asked.

She thinks so.”

The two of them worked together to clear the debris that had covered the driveway. After locking the front door to the house Marvene climbed into the car and backed it out of the garage. Ivan pulled the garage door shut and climbed into the passenger’s seat beside her. She would take the first turn at the wheel. Before they went half a block the cat was asleep.

This was the plan. They would get on the main highway. They would chase the night down the road as they ran from the rising sun. Hopefully they would not run out of gas or have an accident or break down. Hopefully the pocked and damaged road would hold up and they would not encounter a game ending sinkhole the size of a Greyhound Bus.  They would scrupulously follow the Google Map to the mines at Black Mountain and there (hopefully) they would meet up with other humans (including some of their former neighbors). And together, they would figure out what to do.

As they travelled down the highway, the sun continued to rise up slowly behind them. Soon it would be directly overhead. Whether or not they made it to the mines they would have to find somewhere safe before the sun set in front of them and the night appeared in their rear-view mirror. They could not allow its Black curtain to find them out here in the open. Ivan, now at the wheel, mashed down on the accelerator carefully dodging potholes and debris. They had plenty of gas and still hours of time. Although they increased their speed, they knew that no matter how fast they went, it would not be fast enough.  Ivan and Marvene would try very hard to find that safe place. Because they certainly knew that not even the fastest Subaru on earth could outrun the night.


Leonard Henry Scott was born and raised in the Bronx and is a graduate of American University, with an MLS degree from the University of Maryland.  He was a long-time staff member of the Library of Congress and he and his wife, Hattie presently reside in National Harbor, Maryland. Len’s fiction has appeared in; The MacGuffin, Mystery Tribune, Straylight Magazine, Crack the Spine and elsewhere.


“Medusae” Science-Fiction/Horror by Elana Gomel

…the worst thing is boredom. Standing at the checkpoint, waiting for a blowup that never happens – until it does. Everything is dusty: the sky, the hills, and the air. Hamsin, hot wind from the desert. You don’t see the sun for days, just a white splotch in the grey sky. You breathe sand and sweat mud.

Too many birds today. Circling above my head like a squadron in disarray.

Here, somebody is coming. Walking…Oh, hell! A woman! Hey, lady, stop! Yes, just there! Don’t come closer! Show your passbook. OK, now lift your veil.

What is this? What is…?

Sophie

I was going to the hairdresser today.

I almost decided against it. Looking in the mirror, I was struck by the familiar sense of futility. Grey hair. Not silver, not fluffy white. Just grey – untidy and dispirited. It did not belong to me. I was still twenty-five inside, just as I had been for the last twenty years. Some people never grow old. And some people never grow up.

Jesse was out of the house before I got up, a dirty coffee cup on the table. As I was making coffee for myself, my phone pinged, and a jolt of adrenaline told me it was Emma, but it was not. Jesse, messaging me he would be home late. I deleted it and took my pill. It helped me to decide that I would definitely go to the hairdresser today and tmorrow would start sending out my resume. Again.

I stepped out into the cool misty air of the Peninsula. The clouds were rolling down the Santa Cruz mountains like an invading army: heavy billows sliding down the wooded slopes. I imagined mounted riders hidden inside, about to erupt into the expensive suburbia of Menlo Park. The vision gave me a pleasant thrill, so I lingered in the driveway before getting into the Tesla.

And that was when I saw the woman.

She walked slowly down the street which was unusual in itself – nobody walked here. Joggers ran and dog-owners dragged their pooches but there were so few pedestrians that some streets in our subdivisions had no sidewalks. But here she was, a slender woman in a long dress and a large droopy hat that obscured her face. She clearly did not belong here, and I envied her conspicuous strangeness. All too often, I, a homeowner, wife, and mother, felt like an impostor, trying to fit in.

I almost stepped out and called to her – even though what would I say? – when it happened.

Two men appeared out of nowhere, running, and tackled her to the ground.

I believe I screamed. Whoever screamed, it was not her because she just crumbled like a rag doll, her hat sliding off, and the men…they bent over her but I could not watch, could not see, because I was fumbling with my phone that almost slipped out of my nerveless fingers, and dialing 911, and running back to the house, and locking the door, and answering the dispatcher’s questions in a voice that did not feel like my own, and trying to remember where Jesse kept his handgun…

I peered out the window onto the street. I expected to see her being raped, brutalized, robbed.

She was not.

The woman was up and walking away from the two men. One of them flopped on his back, spread out on the wet pavement like a gutted fish. The other man crouched on all fours as if offering a piggyback ride to an invisible child.

The scene was so odd that I just gaped at it, the urgent voice of the dispatcher droning from the phone, asking me what was going on. I could not describe what I was seeing. The misty morning, the black scratches of naked sycamore branches on the pale sky, the two men crawling blindly on the pavement, one of them rubbing ferociously at his face, and the woman, walking away unhurriedly as if she had all the time in the world, her long glistening hair slipping down her back from underneath her hat, thick soapy strands, pure white – like the white I would never grow into.

Jesse

I got a call at 5 am. Mr. Wei was pulling out.

Delivered in a staccato voice, with a lot of “actually” and “like” mixed in to cover up the dearth of actual argument, the ten-minute long monologue amounted to the fact that Mr. Wei no longer believed that the science underlying ForeCast was solid. Of course, at this point I tried to interject, regretting that I did not possess Tam’s talent for yelling. Mr. Wei just plowed on.

I took the call in the kitchen because I did not want to wake Sophie. She had not been sleeping well. A couple of times I found her wandering downstairs in the middle of the night, staring at her phone or peeking into Emma’s bedroom as if she expected our daughter to materialize there suddenly, transported, Star-Trek-style, from her college dorm in Berkeley. I tried to talk to her, encouraging her to start volunteering or spend more time with her friends, but her eyes would glaze over. She started looking for a job, though I knew she was unemployable after taking fifteen years off. Science is a competitive business; once out of the race, you can’t go back. So what? She had her family. We had a good life.

When the conversation ended, I did not know what to do. I wanted to call Tam and tell her what was going on, but it was too early. I tried to think about other investors I could approach for a cash injection, but my brain felt hollow. Maybe I was too old for this game.

At the end, I just drove to the office park. A flock of birds, starlings or sparrows, wheeled above, coming together in a solid body and falling apart, swirling like tea leaves in the yellow sky.

There was light in the window and I almost called the police about a break-in – we did have expensive computers – when I realized it was Svetlana, our cleaner. She had asked to come in early. She had tried to explain her reasons, but her harsh Russian accent gave me a headache and I just nodded. Or was she Ukrainian? Whatever. I would have to fire her in any case. We did not have the funds to rent this Menlo Park office for much longer.

I parked and went out. The air exploded with cawing and a raven strafed me, the shadow of his wings like a black lightning. I lifted my hand to protect my face, but the bird was gone, just as my phone vibrated in my pocket.

I pulled it out, half-expecting another shitstorm.

It was Emma. A video call.

When the picture flashed on the screen, I realized my daughter had dropped her phone or for some reason had the camera pointing away. It showed a patch of dirty pavement and a drainage grill. It was unbelievably filthy, as if garbage collectors had been on strike and had left behind piles of…trash?

It was not ordinary trash. Not torn newspapers, plastic bags and dog shit. There was some whitish stuff that looked like giant mushrooms, poisonous fool’s caps, pale and quivering. From the drain, reddish slime bubbled up. And heaps of something scrunched and wet: used wipes or…masks?

Wrinkled, dark-stained, a white stained rag twitched and humped up like a caterpillar.

“Emma!” I yelled. “Emma!”

The phone was turned around. I saw my daughter’s face.

Svetlana

I had my own construction company in Kyiv. Built sheds, storage units. Houses too. Better houses than these. And then Putin’s invasion, economy down the drain. No jobs. The company went belly-up. My husband got sick. No health insurance. At least in the Soviet times they’d bury you for free.

I was polishing the toilet seat when my phone went off. A stupid “gender-neutral” toilet. Those rich Americans – they pat themselves on the shoulder for being “progressive” and “inclusive” because they put up a plaque with “All genders, all races welcome” crap. And then they pay you starvation wages. But starvation wages in California buy Vassily his chemo in Kyiv.

I heard a car pull into the lot, the sound of its tires cutting through the annoying birdsong. Even birds sounded off here, as if singing in a foreign language, which I suppose they did. At first, I was scared but then I peeked out and saw Mr. Connor’s Lexus. It was strange that he would be here so early but why not? His office, his rules. I only hoped he would not realize that my beat-up Honda had been parked here overnight. I just could not face driving back to my shared rental in Tracy – a two-hour crawl each way.

I expected to hear the chink of the lock as he walked in, but all was silent. I went to the window and saw a man standing with his back to me like a black shadow against the yellow sky. If I were home, I would know he was getting his smoke before coming in, but this was not home, and Mr. Connor – Jesse, as he wanted me to call him, though I never would – did not smoke. Or maybe he was starting. I knew his company was going down. I am not stupid: I could see the signs. No skin off my nose, except I would have to start looking for another job.

A roar overhead rattled the windows, and a mug I had just washed slid off the countertop and shattered on the floor. A plane? SFO and San Jose Airport were both close, but this sounded like it took off from the parking lot.

Who was I kidding? I had lived through the Russian invasion and knew the sound of a military jetfighter.

And then the dry clatter of a chopper. It was beginning to feel like Nana’s tales of the beginning of the Great Patriotic War.

I opened the door and stepped into the chilly air. The birdsong had resumed as if military planes and helicopters were as ordinary as gulls and ravens.

Mr. Connor still stood by his car, not moving, head bowed. I wanted to call out to him but for some reason, my throat felt locked.

My phone buzzed again. A text from Vassily.

But I could not take my eyes off that huddled black shape in the pale light. He looked like a chuchelo. A scarecrow. Except that the crows were not scared of him. One of them, a large black thing, landed on his shoulder and then took off again, wings whirring. And still, he did not stir.

Another bass roar of a low-flying military plane. The noise got into my bones and rattled them as if I was already dead. I saw cross-shaped shadows on the white sky like smudged fingerprints in the dust.

A gust of wind and something flew at me. A newspaper? The parking had been clean when I went into the office.

It wrapped itself around my foot. It looked like a surgical mask. I was shaking my foot, trying to dislodge it, because I would not touch it. I scrubbed filthy toilets for a living, but I would not touch this thing.

It was clingy and moist and stippled with dark stains like smeared black-currant jam. It slithered up my sneaker as if it were alive and I cried out in disgust as I kicked it off.

And still, that huddled figure with its back to me would not move. No, not true. Something was moving around his head, something swollen and bleached: not his hair because his hair was dark, and he had precious little of it anyway…but something corkscrewing away from his skull, twitching and retracting like fat worms…

I rushed to my car and though my hands were shaking so badly I dropped my keys, I managed to get inside and pull out, swearing and praying to the Mother of God, begging her to take pity on my husband who would die in agony if I could not send him money.

The car fishtailed but then righted itself and I was almost out of the parking lot when a large bird flew across the windshield, making me brake abruptly. And the standing figure lifted its head, and looked at me, and though I did not want to look back, I did.

Sophie

The police never came.

I called Emma. And then I called again.

The screech of military planes overhead thrummed on my nerves. And when they fell silent, the birds started again. The Morse-code chirping of swallows, and the hoarse cries of gulls, and the cackling of ravens. They swirled in the grey air when I ventured outside, rising and falling in dense clouds of chaotic bodies.

My sister Veronica called. She and I had not spoken for ages.

“Don’t look,” she said. Her voice was calm with that icy brittle clam that I remembered from my childhood when it had always presaged another tantrum. “Don’t answer the door, don’t take videocalls, don’t turn on the TV. Don’t look at faces.”

And before I could erupt in fury at my wayward, hysterical sister, tell her that she had finally crossed the line, she hung up. My calls went to voicemail.

Not so my calls to Emma. The phone rung and rung in that hollow emptiness that tells you, better than any words, that your world has just stopped making sense.  

As an afterthought, I called Jesse. He did not answer, and I did not try again.

I turned on NPR. Radio, the quaint leftover of the last century. It is impossible to avoid faces when surfing the Internet. They pop in online ads, wink from an embedded video, stare from the journalists’ bylines. I could not risk it. When a disaster loomed on the horizon, my sister sensed its approach as unerringly as a bloodhound. My sister was crazy. But she was always right.

There was some political talk-show on NPR. The participants’ voices sounded hollow and unreal, periodically blotted out by the shriek of the planes and the commotion of the birds outside.  

I did not know who else to call. This was how attenuated my existence had become: a remote husband; an absent daughter; an estranged sister. I used to have friends. I used to have colleagues. I used to have a life.

My finger hovering over my list of contacts, I felt it descend before I could make a conscious decision.

Tam.

When Jesse had first talked about his hotshot new coder, I did not realize it was a girl. When I finally figured it out, I was bemused. I asked her about her name at some office do.

“It’s unisex,” she explained. “It means ‘innocent’ in Hebrew.”

She was not my idea of innocent. She occupied too much space, drew too much attention. Everything about her was big: her hair; her laughter; her eyes. The last time I had seen her, they were made even bigger by dark circles, so pronounced she looked like a racoon. She always talked about her parents and her two older brothers. I tried to tell myself I was not jealous, but I doubted Emma ever mentioned me to her friends.

I did not expect her to pick up. But she did.

“Sophie?” she said and in the pause that followed, I knew Jesse was not coming back.

“Do you know what’s going on?”

“No…yes. Sort of. Listen, I’m not sure. But it’s bad.”

“Should I…” I hesitated. “Should I drive to the office, get Jesse?”

“No! Stay in. And don’t…don’t talk to strangers.”

I snickered.

“That’s what I am supposed to tell you!”

We could not quite have been mother and daughter according to our ages, but we were close enough.

She laughed – a pale shadow of her usual booming laughter.

“Right! But seriously. Not online either. Just…don’t look.”

“Tam,” I said. “I want to know what it is.”

And I did. I realized it suddenly with piercing clarity. More than anything else, more even that Emma picking up the phone, I wanted to know.

I had been a scientist once.

Tam exhaled.

“Yes,” she said. “I need to…talk to my brothers. One of them is in the army. A pilot. But I’ll come by, Sophie. Later. We will talk.”

I went into the bedroom, retrieved Jesse’s handgun from the bottom of the closet and sat in the living room, watching the door.

Tam

 I needed to call Menachem.

But instead, I just sat at the table, my head in my hands, refusing to think. Refusing to act. Most of all, refusing to look.

After a while, my arms were cramping, and nothing was happening. Nothing would happen unless I did something.

I went into the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face. And I dared myself to look, studying my reflection in the toothpaste-speckled mirror that I had promised myself I would clean soon. Maybe it would be more prudent now never to clean it until it became an opaque expanse of smears and stains. Safe.

No, nonsense. Your own face could not be…or maybe it could? How would I know?

I picked up my phone and then it trilled in my hand. Was Menachem awake? Time difference meant it was the middle of the night. But he was a soldier, used to ungodly hours. Had there been an emergency mobilization already?

But the name flashing on the screen was in Chinese symbols that I had input as a lark. Mr. Wei.

Donald Wei

I did not believe in this technology. Nobody can know the future in the present. “Study the past if you would know the future,” says Kongzi – Confucius as they mispronounce it in English. But if you invest in startups, you invest in what other people believe in – or may be persuaded to.  

Seemed like a simple idea. Collect information on the sidelines: all those odd little things that major trend-studies disregard because they seem irrelevant. But irrelevant is what counts. Black swans, they call it; events that swoop out of nowhere and change the course of history. I had been skeptical when Jesse Connor approached me. There are trends and there are accidents. History can be diverted from its course but not for long. Still, I went for it. There is a big market in predictions.

Connor was very persuasive. Until the algorithm started giving us those weird scenarios, like a bird epidemic in Sichuan. Not bird flu, bird. Whatever that meant. Connor and his team worked around the clock fixing the software but the more they tinkered, the stranger the results. Fungi forests in California. Worm-eating cornfields in Iowa. Mold explosion in London. And population numbers – dwindling to zero and then exploding off the charts.

And then a conference call. Tam, the hotshot programmer who wrote the software. Funny I did not realize Tam was a woman until I saw her on the screen. Big hair and dark circles under her eyes.

“It’s not the algorithm,” she said with no preamble. “It’s time itself.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“We think time is uniform. But it’s not. It branches out at crucial points. And it may even run backwards. Well, not exactly. Causality may work backwards – from the future to the past.”

And then she launched into a tirade punctuated with “quantum uncertainty” and “Many-Worlds solution”. When she ran out of breath, Connor took over until I interrupted him.

“What you are saying is that these predictions are true even if they impossible?” I said.

“Yes,” Tam said.

“And this is because the future is trying to eat the present?”

Tam blinked but I thought she understood. Connor did not.

“Something like this,” she said.

“Does it mean that your prediction algorithm is going to help it? Help this new future?’

Tam tossed her hair over her shoulder.

“I don’t know. I never thought of it.”

Count on gweilos not to think of the most important part!

I called Connor later and told him I was pulling out.

Kongzi says that a superior man must pursue the truth regardless of the circumstances. But what happens when the truth pursues you?

Erica my wife went to the mall this morning. She took MTR, the Hong Kong subway. It is always crowded. Some people still wore masks after the pandemic, but most did not. It was safe now. Time flowing smoothly once again, no eddies or rapids, no alternative streams.

She had not come back.

I called Tam. I put it on speaker, not video. I had heard the rumors.

At least she did not beat around the bush.

“Yes,” she said. “It’s starting”.

I sent her a link to the South China Morning Post.

Yesterday in Kowloon a forty-story apartment bloc, was found empty. Lamma Island was covered by a blanket of crippled butterflies. A witness saw a clutch of birds splashing in the water of the Victoria Bay, their wings sown into a patchwork by a raw bleeding cord.

“Anything we can do?”

“No.”

I hung up.

My grandmother had died in the Great Leap Forward. My great-uncle had been in the Red Guards. We escaped to the Fragrant Harbor, my parents carrying me in their arms.

The future that could have been was coming for me, sniffing me out, following the road not taken. I guess you could only run away for so long.

I heard the door of the apartment open and close. Erica was back.

Menachem

Tam called at 4 am. Crazy Californian time. But I was not asleep anyway. There was talk of Code Red and I was getting ready to go to the base.

Rina woke up but I waved her back into the bedroom. She was used to it.

My little sister, a computer genius. I heard her breathing as I was putting on my uniform.

“Don’t go,” she finally said.

I laughed.

Code Red. Syria, or Lebanon, or Hezbollah, or space invaders. They call, you go.

Rina was asleep again, her head under the pillow: she always did it, no matter how often I teased her about being accused of her murder if she suffocated herself. I kissed her hair; she twitched but did not turn over. 

The Twin-Tail Knights Squadron, the best in the IDF. Boys were already out on the field, but I was told to wait. The scuttlebutt made no sense. Unidentified objects? Were we supposed to go after UFOs?

An F-16 was taking off…and then there was a screech like millions of nails on millions of windowpanes…and I was on the floor as slivers of glass were flying over me and there was a stench of burning and fear. Familiar. The smell of war.

No, the plane had not exploded but it had gone off the runway and was now sagging like it was melting or something. The clear bubble of the cockpit was not clear anymore.

My face was washed in sweat as I was running out, and in the gray hamsin sky something was swirling, sullen and broody, like the twisters I had seen in Oklahoma. There are no twisters in the Middle East. We have wars instead. I flew combat: Lebanon, Gaza, Lebanon again. My father fought in the Six-Days War. My uncle Avi was a POW.

But this…this was…what was this? It looked like birds, pigeons or ravens. No. Birds do not fly tethered together like beads on an infinitely long necklace that is swinging above our heads. A necklace or maybe a whip; a spiraling cord that descended from the cloud. And yet these were birds, strung on this tough tendon, flapping their wings, croaking and whistling and screaming…Yes, screaming. Like POWs. It was so weird that my brain refused to process what I was seeing. Where was the end of this thing? What was it connected to?

The cord suddenly fell from the sky, piling up into a heap of squawking meat. And emerging from the dusty-glass sky, an enormous shadow. An F-16? Some new stealth bomber?

A bird.

It was as big as an Airbus-330, too big to be real. But real it was. The stench of raw meat and rot made my eyes water and I saw a soldier on the tarmac puking his guts out. Another idiot was shooting, discharging his machine gun into this thing – did as much damage as throwing pebbles. But the shooting drew its attention and I saw its eyeless head dip down, the beak gaping. The head was swarming with busy ant-like motion. The entire thing was pixelating like a bad TV screen. It was composed of flocking bodies, merging into each other. It rained feathers and blood.

The grey light curdled to darkness as the bird-thing was descending. More shooting, screams. And then I saw a line of people coming out of the HQ. They marched in lockstep, strung along a sagging umbilical.

I ran to the hangar where a small Cessna 182RG was tucked into a corner. Behind me a strange white noise rose and fell like an irregular heartbeat, composed of shuffling, flapping and croaking. But no more screams. No more shouts. The last machine-gun salvo disintegrated into silence.

My hands found the controls faster than my brain.

An explosion rattled the runway. The Cessna was cruising out, listing and shuddering as I was fighting with the controls. The day had turned black. The bird-thing – the flock stitched together by tortured sinews –was above me and I could see more and more birds flying toward it and adding to its rapidly growing body. The sky was alive with pigeons, geese, starlings and cranes.

The runway was blocked by a line of hunched-up figures. I plowed through them. The glass was splattered with red, but I didn’t need to see anymore. I am a pilot. My hands know what to do.

The screech of torn metal. I was airborne. I was flying.

My uncle’s body was returned for burial. There wouldn’t be anything left of mine to return. Better this way. Easier to cope. My parents have two more kids. Too bad I would not leave any behind. Rina would forget. My sister would remember.

Flying straight into the tornado of flesh as birds are being sucked into the engine. Imagining myself as a ball of flame tearing through the crawling sky and bringing back the sun.

Sophie

Tam came at midnight. I had been crouching in the sitting room, Jesse’s gun by my side, curtains down, radio and TV off, only the blue light of the computer monitor dribbling into the gloom. No matter what, I had to know.

Neither Jesse nor Emma answered their phones. And as I surfed the Internet, closing each window when a video clip popped up, as they seemed to do with insistence of a buzzing fly, I was burying my family. But they kept coming back. Emma as a toddler. Jesse on our wedding day. Twenty years of my life gone. I tried to pretend they had never existed; that I had taken a different route and I was now settling back into the life of that alternative Sophie who had persevered with her studies, had taken a research job, had never married, never had a baby. That they had never existed.

My husband. My daughter.

I opened the door with no apprehension. Tam’s face looked like a bruise; as if those dark circles had spread all over her pale skin, turning it the color of dusk.

“Not very careful, are you?” she said with a wry smile.

“Does it matter?”

“Not really.”

I asked her if she wanted to eat and she said yes but when I brought her a cheese sandwich, she took a minuscule bite and put it back on the plate.

“My brother is dead,” she said.

“The pilot?”

“Yes.”

I did not say anything because there was nothing to say. But for a moment, we were together in the shared bubble of bereavement, and I hoped it eased her pain as much as it eased mine.

“You know what ForeCast is,” she finally said, and I nodded. The truth was, I did not, not really. Jesse had stopped talking to me about his work long time ago.

“A killer forecasting algorithm. Universal too – works for finance, climate, politics, you name it. We were running last trials when it started throwing off these weird results. Like really weird. Apocalypse, kind of, but not the end of the world. More like the end of a world.”

“What does it mean?”

“Well, I am not a physicist but the idea at certain key points, the future may influence the past, so that a less-likely outcome will happen. Like some events – the emergence of life or the extinction of dinosaurs – are so unlikely that the only way they could happen is if something in the future forced them. Like…there is another kind of time. I’m not really explaining it well.”

“Not just another kind of time,” I said. “Evolutionary time. Moving by leaps and bounds. Punctuated equilibrium.”

Tam stared at me as if seeing me for the first time.

“I was an evolutionary biologist once,” I said.

“I did not know.”

“Doesn’t matter. Go on.”

“Well, that kind of explains it.  Because what’s happening – people losing their faces, birds melting together into a flying hive, stuff coming out of the drains – it’s a new ecosystem being born.”

“Invasion from the future?”

“Invasion of the future.”

“A new ecosystem? But what kind of ecosystem?”

She shrugged. But I knew the answer and it came back to me with a rush of forgotten pleasure: the pleasure of understanding; the sparkle of insight.

“I think it’s an evolution that went for colonial, rather than multicellular, organisms,” I said.

“Like bees?”

“No, like jellyfish or polyps. Colonies.”

“And faces…”

“Identities.”

She was smart; she understood immediately. A face is who you are: unique and irreplaceable; an individual. As part of a colonial organism, you don’t need a face.

“Do you think it can be cured?” she asked, our roles suddenly reversed, and I felt as if I was talking to one of those students I could have taught and never did.

“How can it be? There is no cure for time. The future is not coming because of an infection; the future is an infection.”

She nodded, her black curls obscuring her face as she looked down at her tightly clenched hands.

“Our investor, Donald Wei, suggested it,” she said in a small voice “and I think he was right. It is likely that the reason this insane future is happening is because we have forecast it.”

There was a knock on the door.

I ran to the entrance and stared at the Ring security screen.

They stood outside, so close together that their bodies blended into one on the pixelated display. Their heads bowed; their hands intertwined. But I did not need to see their faces to know who they were. I had invested my entire life in these bodies: feeding and loving; touching and worrying. The warm biological tie. Male and female; mother and offspring. I could not break it now; could I? Time only flows in one direction for each of us.

“Don’t open!” Tam was behind me. I looked back. She had picked up the gun.

 I hesitated. That was my other life calling; the life that might have been; the life in which my face was my own.

I opened the door. 

Tam

They stood on the threshold. They? It? One or many?

A man and a woman, their bodies squeezed together tight that they melded into each other, the clothes ripped and distorted by the protrusions of shapeless quivering flesh. I recognized Jesse’s familiar jacket and his daughter’s Berkeley t-shirt, but they were as irrelevant as yesterday’s newspapers: remnants of the world that was not simply gone but had never existed. Above them were two identical moist white ovals, as featureless and raw as a jellyfish’s tentacle. It looked so weird, that for a moment I felt like laughing. And then there was that slithering sensation under the roots of my hair, as if something were separating there, coming undone…

I lifted the gun and fired but my sight was dimming, and the shot went astray, and in the last seconds of having eyes I saw Sophie thrown against the wall, a dark patch blooming on her chest. I wanted to cry out in horror, but I had no mouth. And it did not matter anyway.

Sophie

I felt no pain.

But the shot turned me away from what stood in the doorway and I faced Tam as my top was turning dark and heavy and warm, rivulets of blood slithering down my thighs.

Her face was lying on the floor by her feet. Dark eyes open wide, tumbledown curls spread around like a corona. The pale quivering thing stepped over it and went to join the colony.  

Something was loosening up inside me and I pressed my hands to the wound as if trying to keep it all together, knit the unraveling seconds but it was too late as if always had been.

Redhawk-4 to base, Redhawk-4 to base, do you copy? Yes, I am on target. Flying over the city center. All clear. No pedestrians. No traffic. Stationary cars but not many. No fires. No signs of damage to infrastructure. Lowering altitude. Still nothing. No…wait! Something is blowing along the street. Yes, blowing! Like…snow? I know that there is no snow in summer but it sure as hell looks like…I am not coming down. I am over a circular plaza and it is covered…I don’t know how to describe it. Are you getting my feed? Looks like…like cuts of meat in a butcher’ shop, like somebody filled the fucking plaza with raw meat…No, I can’t go any lower without landing.

More of the white stuff carried on the wind. It is light and the wind is getting stronger. It can foul my blades.

Something above me, something big. Do you copy? I have to land. Forcing me to…

I am aborting the mission! Aborting the mission! Anybody is listening?

This is Redhawk-4 to base.

The streets are paved with faces.


“Medusae” first appeared in Legendary Tales in October 2020.


Elana Gomel is an academic with a long list of books and articles, specializing in science fiction, Victorian literature, and serial killers. She is also a fiction writer who has published more than a hundred short stories, several novellas, and four novels.  She is a member of HWA and can be found at https://www.citiesoflightanddarkness.com/ and at

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“Useless Things” Dark Fiction by James Mulhern

Nonna called and asked if I would accompany Mrs. Muldoon and her to a faith healer. The woman had allegedly cured a young girl whose cancerous tumors disappeared and an old arthritic man who later ran in the Boston Marathon.

“Does Mrs. Muldoon have cancer?” I asked.

“No. She said she wants to see the woman as a precautionary measure.”

“That’s silly, Nonna.”

“Of course it is. Mrs. Muldoon is crazy, but I can’t refuse to help her. That wouldn’t be nice.”

“Why can’t she go on her own?”

“Molly, she can barely find her way to Broadway to do her food shopping. How’s she gonna manage a trip to downtown Boston? That’s like asking her to travel to Africa.”

I agreed, and one Saturday in May, Nonna and I drove in her Plymouth Fury to Mrs. Muldoon’s house. The day was brilliant. Not a cloud in the sky, bright sun, just a few clumps of dirty snow leftover from a freak storm the previous week. There were puddles all over, and small streams ran in the gutters along the street. The temperature was in the low 50’s; water dripped everywhere. A chunk of icicles fell from the railing as we stepped onto the porch. I saw Mrs. Muldoon through the sheer curtain in her living room. She opened the door.

“Come in. Come in. Stomp your feet first. Don’t bring any of that wetness in here.” 

The house stunk like mold and sour milk. The living room had boxes with clothes and old shoes spilling out.

“Mary, it smells in here. And what is that mess?” Nonna pointed at the boxes.

“I’m going to have a garage sale if I get inspired. Or maybe just donate the things to the Salvation Army. I hear they pick up stuff, don’t they?” She led us into the kitchen.

“The things in those boxes smell pretty musty. I’m not sure anyone would want them.”

On her grey Formica table were several plates with leftover food—bits of toast, old bacon, half-eaten sandwiches. Dirty take-out boxes from a Chinese restaurant had fallen between the sink counter and the basket. 

“We gotta get you a maid. What’s going on with you, Mary? Why did you let your house become such a pigsty?”

“I’ve been busy, Agnella.”

“Doing what?!” We stood in front of the sink with hardened Comet in the basin.

“This and that. Let me grab my coat from the back hall and we’ll get going. Molly, are you excited to be healed?” Her pretty blue eyes sparkled. I thought she must have been beautiful when she was younger. Such fair skin and perfect teeth, or were they dentures?

“I don’t think I need to be healed. I’m healthy, Mrs. Muldoon.”

“Darling, we all could use healing. Ya know it’s not just physical healing,” she said, putting her arms into the sleeves of her red coat. I liked the black fur collar. “It’s spiritual healing as well.” 

The healer’s business was on the street floor of a six-story building with various ornate architectural features. At the top was a mansard roof with dormer windows. The granite exterior was dirty with lines of black and green, formed when rain pools on the many outcroppings and ledges seeped down the face of the building. The parlor where “Lady Jane” cured people was underneath a printing company squeezed between a luggage store on the left and a jewelry store on the right.

We parked across from the building, along the edge of the Boston Common. I could see a line of desperadoes that extended from the front of the building and around the corner to Court Street. Nonna’s parallel parking was awful, and Mary screamed that we were going to hit the car behind us. At last, we were parked. For a few moments we sat in silence, the three of us taking in the sights. Two skid-row men on a bench, wearing derby hats and unkempt mismatched suits, shared a bottle wrapped in a paper bag. One of them pointed to something at the top of the building. I followed his finger to a flock of large black crows perched on a ledge.

The people waiting in line looked pathetic. Mostly old ladies, a few men, some with canes or crutches, a young blonde girl in a wheelchair. It was a motley group, a range of ethnicities, all seemingly poor.

“You sure you want to go, Mary? These people look pitiful. I think they need curing more than any of us.” It was true. We were wearing nice dresses and overcoats. I thought we would be out of place in that crowd.

“Of course I’m sure.” Mrs. Muldoon pushed her door open and pulled herself into a standing position.

We followed Mrs. Muldoon’s lead, who told us to hold hands as we crossed the street.

Nonna cut in front of an Indian couple, explaining that I had leukemia “very bad,” and the doctors gave me three months at most. “It’s urgent that we see Lady Jane. You don’t want the poor girl to die, do you? She’s my granddaughter!”

Mrs. Muldoon whispered irritably, “That wasn’t a nice thing to do.”

The Indian woman was beautiful with large dark eyes. She had a red dot between her beautifully shaped arched brows. In an Intro to Religion class, I Iearned the spot was called a Bindi or Kumkum, marking a spiritual center or chakra, placed there out of respect for an inner Guru, all of which I thought was bullshit. She wore a purple sari and a pink headscarf. Her short, bespectacled husband had a flat nose with large blackheads; tufts of hair sprouted from his nostrils and ears. He wore a blue navy suit. 

They spoke Hindi for a few moments, then stepped back and nodded for us to move in front of them. There were grumblings and complaints from those behind us.

“Hey, go to the end of a line like the rest of us. What makes you so special, ladies?” an Irish-looking guy with a broad red face and a scally cap said.

Nonna teared up. “My granddaughter is dying.”

The man’s face blanched, and he looked at me with a sad expression. “Sorry, lady. Not a problem.”

I tried to appear sick. I shook a little and drooled, not sure what a leukemia patient’s symptoms were. The Indian couple stepped back.

We turned forward and Nonna put her arm around me as if trying to keep me from fainting. Mrs. Muldoon looked upward at the gathering of crows.

Nonna followed her gaze. “I hope they don’t shit on us,” she said.

“Agnella, it’s good luck. Let them poop if they need to. I’ve got a handkerchief in my purse.” The idea of birds pooping on my head was vile, but I refrained from making a wiseass comment. 

Finally, we were inside. The healing room, or parlor, or whatever you call it, had metal fold-up chairs along the sidewalls. Some of the armrests were rusty. I thought we would need a tetanus shot if we used them.

Lady Jane sat in a large throne-like chair on a platform at the back of the room. She couldn’t have been more than 27 years old—petite, with long bleach blond hair, a pixie face, and deep-set shiny green eyes. I was surprised that she wasn’t an older woman. She wore a tight-fitting black and white dress with a high hemline. She was busty with long satiny legs that ended in white ballerina slippers, a flower pattern of red gemstones near her toes. Her white string shoelaces were untied.

“She’s not what I expected,” Mrs. Muldoon whispered and sighed. “She looks like a tart that’s trying to make a few extra bucks before she goes to her other job in the Zone tonight.”

“What’s the Zone?” I said.

“It’s where all the hookers hang out, just around the corner. Perverts, pimps, drug dealers, and dirty bookstores,” Nonna whispered.

Lady Jane made circular motions with her hands over the head of an old man with a cragged face. Her eyes were closed and she mumbled.

It was only a moment or two before he yelled “Hallelujah” and threw his crutches towards the chairs on the left side of the room.

When it was our turn, Lady Jane said, “I take it you three are together.” She had a fake British accent with a hint of Georgia twang.

“Yes, we’re together.” Mrs. Muldoon sighed, clearly disappointed with Lady Jane.

“What can I do for you?” She looked at each one of us, scrunching her face. I noticed a pimple on her nose.

“Cure us. Do your mumbo-jumbo so we can get outta here. This place is a dump,” Nonna said. “I think we’re more likely to catch a disease here than be cured. Maybe the bubonic plague. So heal us quick before a rat bites one of our feet.” 

“I know you want to be cured, but first you must tell me what ails you.”

“For Christ’s sake, at our age, everything ails us,” Nonna said. “Where do you want me to start? How ’bout you make my breasts perky like yours?”

Lady Jane pretended to be indignant, then said, “I can’t do anything to help your breasts, lady. I’m not a plastic surgeon.” Her Georgia twang was strong.

“Agnella, you mustn’t talk to this woman like that,” Mrs. Muldoon said. “I would like to be cured spiritually, Lady Jane. Forget about my body. That’s too far gone. I want my soul to be cleansed.” 

Lady Jane put her hands in a crisscross on Mrs. Muldoon’s heart area, then closed her eyes while she softly murmured an ostensibly sacred language. I thought I heard what sounded like ‘pussy’ in her gobbledygook. I think Nonna heard it, too, because she gave me a look and rolled her eyes.

“The masters have told be you are spiritually cured for your trip.”

“Cut the crap! Mary’s not going on any trip.”

“That’s not true, Agnella. I am,” Mrs. Muldoon said excitedly, as if there might be some authenticity to Lady Jane after all.

“Where the hell are you going?”

“I’m going home.” Mrs. Muldoon was beaming.

“To your family in Ireland?” Nonna asked.

“To my family.”

“And how can I cure you, dear?” Lady Jane looked earnestly into my face.

“I don’t know.”

Again she did the crisscross thing with her hands. Again she murmured her sacred prayer. And again I heard a distinct “pussy.”

When she opened her eyes, her face was pale. “What’s your name?”

“Molly.”

“Molly, I hate to tell people things like this.” Now she spoke entirely in her Georgia twang. “I see a gruesome death in your future. Not yours, but someone close to you.”

“Let’s get outta here,” Nonna said, clearly upset. She started muttering in Italian. 

Lady Jane said to Nonna, “I take it you’re the grandmother.”

“That’s easy to tell. I couldn’t be her mother. Too old and dried up.”

“Tell me about this death,” I said.

“You have the unlucky fortune of being someone who will either find dead people or be with them when they die, sometimes in violent situations. I guess you might say, ‘You’re an Angel of Death.’ ” Then she started giggling like a little girl. It seemed out of her control, and she curled up in her throne.

The Indian woman behind us whispered something to her husband, and then they rushed out the door. I wonder if the woman’s inner Guru told her to get the hell out of there.

“Angel of Death! Ffangul’!” Nonna said. She pulled Mary and me out of the line and we followed the couple. Before the door shut, I looked back and saw that Lady Jane was still laughing. She waved to me. I mouthed, “Fuck you,” echoing Nonna’s sentiment.

During the ride home, Mrs. Muldoon and Nonna argued over what “Angel of Death” might mean.

“Maybe she’ll be a police officer?” Mrs. Muldoon said. “That’s a nice profession. Protecting citizens. All police officers witness death now and again, don’t you think?”

“Are you crazy? No granddaughter of mine is going to be a police officer. I think that broad saw that Molly was gonna be a doctor.” She smiled at me in the rearview mirror. “What do you think she meant, Molly?”

“I think she made things up to frighten us. Maybe she spotted someone further down the line who would pay, and she was in a hurry to get rid of us.”

“A man told me she doesn’t accept money. Believes she has a calling is what he said she said,” Mrs. Muldoon answered.

“He said, she said? Do you know what Mary’s talking about?” The car swerved as Nonna turned to look at me.

“Lady Jane, I mean. . . Watch it, Agnella!”

“I noticed people slipping her bills,” I said.

Nonna zipped through a red light.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. You’re going to get us arrested or killed,” Mrs. Muldoon said.

“Don’t worry. We have a cop in the back seat. She’ll use her connections and get us off the hook.” 

We all laughed.

As we passed Logan Airport, Nonna asked Mrs. Muldoon, “When is your flight?”

“What flight?” 

“The flight to Ireland. When will you go home?”

“Oh . . .” She paused to think a bit. “The third week of August.” I thought it funny that her pronunciation sounded like “turd.”

“I’ll be sad to see you go, Mary. At least we have you for a few more months though.” She patted Mrs. Muldoon’s shoulder. The car swerved again. “I’m gonna miss you, but I’m sure you’ll be happier. Everybody needs family. And you got nobody here, right?”

“Nobody.”

I leaned back in the seat and thought how Mrs. Muldoon and I shared something. Sure, I had Nonna, but I still felt very alone. But aren’t we all essentially alone? I thought of a quote by Hunter Thompson: “We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and—in spite of True Romance magazines—we shall all someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of company, we were alone the whole way.”

We wanted to see Mrs. Muldoon before she left, so we took her to the Renwood Diner. I had the seafood platter, and Nonna and Mrs. Muldoon had sea scallops with pancetta, mushrooms, and fresh tomato.

Mrs. Muldoon made a joke about this being our last supper. “It is in a way, don’t you think? I won’t be seeing either of you again after tonight.”

“Of course you will. You’re not leaving until five days from now,” Nonna said, motioning for the check. “I’ll drop by before your flight on Thursday.” The waitress put the bill on the table.

“Let me pay for that,” Mrs. Muldoon said. “I appreciate you girls bringing me out to dinner. It’s not often I get out. Ya both have made me so happy.”

“I’m glad you feel good, Mary, but I insist on paying.” Nonna took cash out of her purse and placed it on the check. The waitress picked it up.

“I’ll see you one more time, Mrs. Muldoon. Nonna’s driving me to Boston University on Thursday to speak with a counselor. On the way over, we can both say goodbye.”

“That would be nice, Molly.” She smiled at me.

After the waitress returned with the change, Nonna put it in her purse and snapped it shut. “I’m tired. I don’t know about the both of you. Let’s get outta here.”

We dropped Mrs. Muldoon off, and she waved from the front porch before she opened the door. I noticed several trash bags along the gray clapboard wall.

“Wonder what’s in all those bags?” I said as we drove away.

“Useless things. When you get old, you accumulate a lot of junk, Molly. And eventually you become useless too. So live while you can.”

That night as I fell asleep, I thought about “useless things” and living “while you can.” I dreamt of seagulls pecking someone’s eyes out, sharks in bloody water, and a dead fish with white stripes along its sides.

Nonna called Mary on Wednesday evening to ask for her flight time, but the phone service had already been disconnected, so we drove over around 8:00 a.m. on Thursday.

“She may have already left.” Nonna pulled the car into Mary’s driveway. “We might as well see if she’s still here. I forgot to tell you. When we were in the ladies’ room at the restaurant, Mary told me she had a present for you. She said she left it on the table just inside the archway to her living room.”

We got out of the car and walked up the steps. Nonna held her nose. “Those bags smell God awful. Maybe she dumped the food from her refrigerator into one of them.”

I rang the doorbell. We waited a few moments. Then Nonna turned the doorknob. When the door opened, a horrible smell gushed at us—a combination of shit, vomit, body odor, and rotting fish. I noticed a small purple box on the table as we turned into the living room. Flies buzzed in the hot, humid air around our heads. Three standing lamps were lit. Nonna bent over and vomited.

I walked towards Mrs. Muldoon’s body. She was seated in the purple chair that Nonna hated so much, eyes half open and bulging, swollen tongue protruding. There was an intricate pattern of blood vessels and blisters on her face. Her white robe was smeared with blood and a yellowish fluid that dripped from her nose and mouth. Her face, arms, and legs were bloated; her abdomen was distended. Her skin was green, red, purple, and black. White lines crisscrossed her varicose calves. There were two shimmering pools of urine on the mahogany floor, as well as feces on the seat cushion. 

I kneeled and pressed my finger against a dark purple spot above her right ankle; the skin was so cold. The flesh broke and blood trickled slowly down the side of her enlarged foot. I stood, then bent to stare into the thin slivers of her eyes. The pupils were fixed and dilated. The corners were filmy. I thought I saw wetness along the sides of her nose and cheeks. Were they tears or simply the body’s fluids seeping out? I touched her pretty red hair and some fell to the floor in clumps. A bloody maggot writhed as it emerged from her flaking scalp and crawled towards my hand.

Nonna still gagged behind me. She kept saying, “We gotta call the police.” Although I found the smell overpowering and coughed a bit, I couldn’t move away. I guess you could say I was mesmerized.

“Molly! What are you doing? Call the cops! I’m too weak to get up.”

I picked up the black-and-white photograph from the TV table and examined it: an attractive couple, the young Mrs. Muldoon and her husband, in their wedding attire. Both of them dressed completely in white. He wore a tuxedo with a bow tie and a wing-tipped collar. On the top of her auburn hair sat a veil with a crest of small white flowers; she wore a pearl necklace around her neck. Both smiled above a large bouquet of white roses that obscured parts of their chests. In the dark background, blurred white faces hovered like disembodied heads.

“Molly!”

I turned the photo over. In blue cursive, now faded, Mrs. Muldoon had written “The happiest day of my life.” Next to where the photograph had lain was an empty pill bottle. I pulled it close to read the label: “Diazepam, 5 mg. tab. Take one tablet twice a day as needed.”

Nonna had reached the phone. I heard her talking to the police. “Hurry,” she said and hung up.

“What the hell are you doing?” she screamed at me. “Get away from her.”

I turned, accidentally stepping on one of Mrs. Muldoon’s bare feet. The skin cracked and a clear fluid oozed from her big toe. The nail ripped off, falling like an autumn leaf into a puddle.

I walked over to the small purple box with my name on it. Inside was a gold necklace with an emerald and diamond cross.

Nonna stared at me. “What is it, Molly?”

“A useless thing.”


James Mulhern’s writing has appeared in literary journals over one hundred and seventy times and has been recognized with many awards. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was granted a fully paid writing fellowship to Oxford University. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. In 2017, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His novel, Give Them Unquiet Dreams, is a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019. He was shortlisted for the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2021 for his poetry. Two of his novels were Finalists for the United Kingdom’s Wishing Shelf Book Awards.


“The Red Eye of Love” Dark Fiction by Len Messineo

Bad enough Eddie’s separated from Colette, out of work and having to wait in those long lines at the unemployment office with the wretched of the earth. Bad enough he’s back living with Mona, his stepmother, in her ramshackle house on Cos Bay Bluffs, having to put up with his buddies at the fire station needling him on how he’s tied to the old lady’s apron strings, and with her always ragging him to get a job. Now he’s gone and let Presley, Mona’s precious cockatoo escape.

            He’s glad in a way. At the same time, he knows he’s in torrent of water, what with Mona already threatening to throw him out on his ear.

            He would have liked emptying his old Rem pump action 20-gauge shotgun into Presley’s cage. Would have been fun to see feathers fly, like those blitzkrieg pillow fights he used to have with his brother Buddy when the old man was just dating Mona, a woman fifteen years younger than him, the two of them, Mona and the old man, out at the Blue Moon Tavern, sucking up JD through a swizzle until they were as pickled as gherkins at the bottom of the barrel.

            When they’d come home, he and his brother would listen at the top of the attic landing to the fracas coming from the old man’s bedroom. It was like he was racing a buckboard, Mona whinnying, the headboard slapping the wall sounding like a whip. That was before Mona got religion and became a Celes­tial Seasons teetotaler, before the old man died of cirrhosis of the liver for drinking his and Mona’s share, snorkeling up the sauce with a garden hose.

            Now, Mona believes her late husband’s soul has transmigrated into Presley’s, and Eddie’s beginning to believe it’s true. The cockatoo has been ragging him lately, and never worse than since winter when he moved down from the unheated attic and started sharing Mona’s bed.

            Eddie had always had a thing for Mona. Ever since he’d danced with her at the old man’s wedding, the band playing “Jalousie,” her clove-sweet breath on his neck, her insinuating thighs bumping against his invitingly to the strains of the violin.

            It all seemed so appropriate somehow. Didn’t his psychology professor at Hemiston Community—this is before he dropped out–say that the driving force behind civilization was the child’s desire to surpass the father, to displace him in the mother’s affection? Every boy back to old Oedipus dreamt of sleeping with his mother. Well, it wasn’t like you dreamt of sleeping with your mother. It was like, you have a dream in which you sleep with this mysterious wall-eyed woman. And then the psychologist would say, “But isn’t your mother wall-eyed?” It was symbolic, like.

            Except in Eddie’s case, he was actually sleeping with his mother. Well, his stepmother. And he wasn’t repressing anything. Not like his up-tight brother Buddy, a successful orthodontist up in Portland. Eddie was more a slacker, like his father.

            And then there was the guilt–even though Mona wasn’t his mother. And that cockatoo ruffling its feathers, cackling, “Ho, boy, yer in big trouble.” Who taught Presley that? Not Mona, with her stern sanctimoniousness.

            He’d slept with her anyway. Eddie knew she’d started drinking again, those pretended evening meetings in which she dressed fetchingly and did the bar scene, her breath tart and smoky behind the breath mints. The way she negotiated the kitchen with a syrupy puckishness, as if she were the homecoming queen.

            Don’t put on false appearances for me, he’d thought to say. He did not. Instead, he bought her a fifth of Johnny Walker for her birthday, three long-stemmed roses, brooding scarlet, a nondescript greetings card in which he wrote “For my favorite gal.” He didn’t bother to sign it. He half knew he was striking a match in a tinderbox.

            From the loft where Eddie lay curled up on his bed under a sleeping bag reading an Erskine Caldwell novel, the space heater churning out its red-hot magma against the chill winter, he heard her come in. Her heels clicking across the linoleum, stop­ping, clicking again, in and out of her bedroom. Finally, she stood at the bottom of the landing. “How thoughtful of you, Eddie,” she shouted up to him. She climbed the ladder until she was half in his bedroom. “I know I’ve been short with you, hon,” she said. She expressed her concern, his brooding all the time, his separation from Colette. “Would he like to have dinner with me?  Help me celebrate?  My treat.”

            Mona had gotten herself all gussied up, stockings and heels, a cranberry knit dress that hugged her body and showed off all her curves. He’d pulled on a clean pair of jeans, his Western shirt with the pearl snaps, lizard boots.

            They ate little that evening. They went to Joe’s Steak House where the sirloins were gristly and the drinks cheap. At first, she was reluctant to drink. “What’s the problem,” Eddie said. “It’s only one. It’s your birthday.” After she’d nursed the first, the second went down like she was a sailor on shore leave. She started looking at him rapaciously. Or maybe it was the thought of that fifth waiting for her at home.

            They continued partying at the kitchen table. Mona sitting there, crossing and crossing her lovely gams, smoking a cigarette like a starlet, making large airy gestures, leaning forward showing off her cleavage teasingly from behind her lacy bra, sipping at her tumbler full of JW, straight up. He, slouched low in his chair, smoking a blunt, taking her in. The kitchen was dimly lit by the yellowish stove hood lamp; the only other light, the reflection through the window of the security flood on freshly fallen snow. It was quiet, except for their empty prattle, and the hiss and thud of the gravity furnace.

            “You were sweet to me tonight,” she said, her voice deep, a little slurred.

            He laughed. He leaned forward in his chair, one elbow on the table, fist to his cheek. He let the back of his other hand brush her leg, right above her knee. By then his old neurons were flickering like a shorted Christmas tree.

            She looked downward at his hand, her lips parted, her eyes shadowy. Was this the look of longing? reproval? He couldn’t tell. Even if he could, he didn’t care. Everything felt unreal, like they were making a movie. Just what he thought he was doing, he didn’t know. She didn’t withdraw, and his hand slid higher up her thigh.

            She uncrossed her legs. The quiet rasp of her stockings raised the hair on the back of his neck. His heart thudded against his chest like a nine-pound hammer.

            He followed her towards her bedroom, her taking small wobbly steps, looking back over her shoulder, her eyes large, her face blushed, her mouth open as if she wished to chasten him for his sauciness but just couldn’t find the words.

            At the doorway she made a show of resistance, mewing and complaining, her arms locked against the door jam. He didn’t pay her any heed and when he fell on top of her, he felt himself falling forever.

            When he finally rolled off her, Mona was asleep, or maybe unconscious.  He listened and in the distance he heard the muffled roar of breakers on Cos Bay slamming against the bluffs.   Eddie felt a deep nausea buffeting his intestines. He eased himself off Mona’s bed, hoping to slip back to his room. Mona started up, grabbed him by the elbow. She rolled over to his side of the bed, hissed into his ears, “Things are going to be different around here, sweetheart.” She bit his ear lobe and straddled him. Mona was no Colette. Colette had been all holding hands, cotton candy at the state fair, strolls in the moonlight, modest, shy, almost virginal. 

            As she took her fill of him and Eddie realized why his pop took to drink, why he called Mona the widow maker. Mona was not at all the demure creature she pretended to be, the sensible pumps and starchy high-collared prim dresses she wore to Sunday services, the prayer book clutched to her breast; or the house coat-frocked homemaker, her hair pinned up, sitting at the kitchen table with her coral-framed reading glasses cutting out coupons. Her passion unleashed, Mona was fiery, insatiable. He had miscalculated, unlatched the cage door, freeing a feral creature.

            Their affair went on all that winter, into the spring and summer. Mona used him for her pleasure, then remonstrated against him: that he didn’t contribute to the kitty, didn’t help her around the house, hung out with his do-nothing friends at the fire station. Strangely, the more she chided him, the more he worshiped Mona.

            Was it in the summertime he first noticed the bird haranguing him? Was it because he had too much free time? He’d just been furloughed from Northwood Mill.  “Fire in the hole, fire in the hole,” Presley would screech, squaring its shoulders, staring fiercely at him, taking agitated crab-like steps along its perch, sometimes lifting a leg and dropping a load.

            Eddie hated that bird, saw in its blood-red eyes his father’s mean spiritedness, the endless preachments. Its cackle was like the sharp report of his father’s barber’s strap across his hindquarter, the endless lickings he got for no good reason.

            How many times, Mona off to work, he’d wake to that cackling sound, clammy and feverish, all tangled in the sheets, suffocating in the midmorning heat, Mona’s cloying perfume still lingering in the air.

            He had to leave the house else he was sure he’d strangle that bird. But sometimes, he didn’t. Instead, Eddie’d get himself a Miller’s High Life. He’d grab up one of Mona’s cats, feral toms that in the summer Mona left out to fend in the wild. He’d sit back in her sewing chair, put the cat up on the armoire, or the sewing machine, or the boxes piled in the corner, let the cat exercise Presley who, with hackled crown, would suffer the cat batting at his cage while staring at it imperiously, evilly, as if he were wishing some unspeakable horror befall the cat. He hated that bird so much, he even put buckshot in his feed, looking in on him every day to see if he’d died of lead poisoning. The ugly wretch would cackle, “Ho, boy. Yer in trouble now!” while picking up buckshot in its beak, spitting it back at Eddie.

            This morning he’d just about had it with that damned bird. Presley woke him out of a monstrous- sized hangover with its cawing. He’d gotten himself a High Life out of the frig, pulled out Mona’s sewing machine into the center of the room so as it was right under the cage, then brought in one of the toms. Presley was not making a peep, but staring out defiantly at the cat, which was standing on its hind legs, pawing at that cage, like Presley was lobster and cooked just right. Eddie was blowing cigarette smoke into the cage. After a second brewski and a third, he got bored. He unlatched the cage. Thought he’d raise the stakes.

            This was great. He felt like he was on one of those Animal Kingdom specials, one of those zoologists. He wished he had a video recorder so as he could show his buddies down at the Hemiston FD.

            In fact, he was thinking he might just rent himself one over at Video City and do a documentary. He’d get one of those camcorders that allows you to caption. He’d call it “Safari in the Sewing Room.” Maybe they’d feature Eddie’s video on the Animal Planet station. Enthused by this stroke of genius, Eddie let his chair fall on all fours. This distracted the cat’s concentration. Soon as the cat took its eyes off the cage, Presley, with a loud flutter, flew out the opened cage.

            The cat took right off after him as if born to the hunt. Eddie found this immensely entertaining. Only, shit-brained that he was, he’d forgotten to put up the accordion stairway that led to his bedroom. There was that big gaping hole where he’d taken out the ceiling fan, the one Mona had been nagging him to fix for weeks and which was now sitting up against the tool shed in the tall grass, going to rust.

            Presley reconnoitered the kitchen and the living room and Mona’s bedroom with the cat in hot pursuit, doing flips and twists and double half gainers in the air like he was on the Olympic gymnastics team. Then Presley flew up through the attic loft, saw daylight through the ceiling fan vent, and, as the expression goes, flew the coop.

            Just like that. And Eddie’s thinking, Good riddance, I hope you get eaten by turkey vultures.  Except he knows that when Mona gets home, surely she’ll kick him out on his butt. Lately, since he’s not been performing what she calls his nightly duties, he’s noticed she’s not drinking as much; she’s been reading in her 24 Hours a Day, that twelve-step program, acting right­eous with him. He’s not regular, a bad influence on her, besides being a wastrel drunk. Eddie can’t afford to get kicked out just yet, his unemployment benefits barely enough to keep up his Camaro payments, and the cooler in the trunk filled with beer.

            Which is why for the last hour, he’s chasing after that goddamned Presley, his face slathered with sweat, milkweed spores stuck to his hair and shirt, his clothes glued to him with the late morning heat, his ankles chaffed and torn up, even through socks, with thistle, his head throbbing something awful because he’s drank his breakfast.

            Then they’re at Oswald’s Overhead, a sheer forty-foot drop onto jagged rocks, the pounding surf below. This is where, long ago, after his father had beaten him for taking his air pump apart, he’d run the old man’s whippet off the cliff, throwing a stick for the bitch to fetch. That dog, his father’s favorite, was stupid as sin. He’d just hightailed after that stick, leapt out over the cliff’s edge, as if this were a steeplechase. 

            Eddie, by now, is feeling like he’s about to have a heart attack. Maybe the bird’s smarter than him, he’s thinking. Presley keeps lighting in the low branches of a chokecherry or hawthorn where he could easily bag him with his fishing net. Except soon as he’s underneath the branch, Presley flies up, cackling in that scoffing voice, “Ho, boy. Yer in big trouble.”

            Then they’re at cliff’s edge. Presley perches on an old juniper tree that leans out over the precipice, practically horizontally, gnarled and stunted from the salt breeze. He has his back towards Eddie. Presley keeps looking out over the ocean, then turning his head sidewise. Strong gusts of wind puff up its feathers, practically dislodging Presley’s grip. Eddie can smell its fear.

            Eddie makes sure of his footing, wrapping an arm around the juniper trunk. He reaches out with the net. Presley flaps his wings in protest. Eddie has Presley trapped. There’s nowhere for the bird to go. Next stop, Singapore, he thinks.

            Then just as he’s lowering the net over it, Presley drops out the bottom where two branches form a “V.” Eddie tries to whip the net around and underneath the bird and just misses. Instead, he catches the net on a broken branch. Pulling too strenuously, Eddie loses his foothold. He swings underneath the tree, his arm slipping from around the trunk until he’s holding himself up with one hand clutching at the trunk, the other the long pole handle, the hoop still snagged on the branch.

            He looks down at that dizzying drop beneath him, jagged rocks, the crashing surge of breakers. His heart palpitates in his throat. He can barely breathe, and he’s wet himself.

            Presley falls like a stone, then opens its wings, catches an updraft.

            Presley floats upward until the bird is only inches away, its wings flapping noisily, its malevolent red eyes glowering at him. It lights in the juniper tree between Eddie’s hand and where the hoop is snagged. First it starts pecking at his hand, piercing jabs that feel like someone is pounding asphalt nails through Eddie’s wrist. Eddie lets go of the trunk and grabs the net handle. He makes one last effort to shimmy himself up the handle. As he does so, the hoop opens into a horseshoe, only the strong nylon netting holding it together. Presley starts pecking at that too.  It’s funny how when you’re about to die you can see so clearly how every lapse, every misstep, led you to perdition. Eddie watches with cool detachment as the netting unravels. He’s going to miss Mona, he thinks. Meanwhile, Presley leaps into the air, silent wings flapping, the ocean breeze carrying the bird inland, a sailor returning to his bride.


Len notes: “Previously published in Shenandoah, Tampa Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, The New Novel Review, The Sun: Journal of Ideas and other magazines, I am a former recipient of the Hugh Luke Award and my stories have twice been nominated for inclusion in the Pushcart Prize anthology. I teach at Writers and Books of Rochester and head up the Artisan Jazz Trio which performs throughout Upstate New York.”


“All the Coney Islands of the Mind” Dark Fiction by Alan Catlin

There is a man standing beneath the El.  In the shadows.  He is wearing a black rain coat like mine.  He is wearing black slacks and a black hat.  Also, like mine.  He is wearing black leather boots of unmistakable high quality. I am not.

I cannot see his face.  He appears to be reading a newspaper although it is dark and there are no street lights.  In the shadow of the El.       

The man is watching me through some square holes he has cut in the newspaper.

I wonder how long he will stand by the trestle, not reading his newspaper.  As I walk in the shadows of the buildings, not looking back in his direction.

There is an amusement park three blocks from the El.  A large amusement park full of neon lights, cotton candy and rides. And a boardwalk overlooking the sea. I buy a newspaper at the corner newsstand opposite the amusement park.  I burn two black holes in the first section with a cigarette.

A misting rain has begun to fall.  I am leaning against a wall opposite the entrance inside the amusement park. Listening, reading through the dark holes of my newspaper.

I feel something against my leg, something like a newspaper cut full of holes.

The attendant in the ticket booth who has taken my money has changed his clothes.  They look exactly like mine, like those of a man standing beneath a trestle, waiting without a newspaper.

 I throw my cigarette at a mange infested dog digging in the garbage.  He drags a bone like a human thigh out of the rubble. Into the night.

I examine the remains of the overturned trash cans, see a photograph of a man dressed in a black rain coat, matching black slacks and a black tie.  I cannot make out his face.  In the darkness.  Perhaps, it is mine, perhaps not.

The man in the photograph is wearing black leather boots.  I am wearing my best pair of black dress shoes despite the rain.

I may be trapped in the amusement park, may be confronting more serious danger than I could ever have imagined.

I enter a fortune telling lady’s booth.  She is dressed like a tourist’s conception of a gypsy.  Her hair is tied back in a severe bun that is hidden beneath a silk scarf.  She motions me to sit on the customer’s side of her rude wooden table opposite the crystal ball.  I see two men dressed exactly alike, holding their black hats close to their eyes passing outside her booth just beyond the slightly parted curtains.  Their passing is an opaque shadow grotesquely bending into the grey dark night beyond the crystal ball.

The fortune teller’s voice is harsh and gruff.  She seems afraid to speak of death outside her booth. Her eyes betray nothing.  Like a photograph cut from a newspaper.

It is all in the cards, she says. The Tarot. The initial overturned card is a laminated photograph of a man dressed in black.  I cannot see his face on the table.

 Outside the gypsy’s booth the rain is a mist falling on the sea beyond the boardwalk.  Two men dressed identically in black exchange sections of a newspaper.  Each section is a checkerboard of newsprint and black spaces.

I hear a noise like an elevated train passing overhead.  I am momentarily relieved.  Perhaps these people outside have overlooked the train.

I see an effigy of a man dressed all in black, from his hat to his dress shoes, hanging from the highest arch of the roller coaster track.  I hear the cars crashing down the ramp, screaming out toward the boardwalk.

Outside, I stare down a desolate row of neon shops, each promising hidden pleasures and sudden thrills.  The yellow, overhead lights make everything unreal and dreamlike.  It is so difficult to focus, so difficult to perceive human shapes amidst the artificial haze.  I am most imprudent in this manner, staring out into the artificial light, in full view of anyone who cared to approach me.

“Shine Ya Boots, Mistah?”

“Certainly Not!” I say, stalking off into the nearest darkness, clutching my newspaper to my chest as I go.

I am in a hall of mirrors.  Everything is irregular.  The hall is the nearest darkness to escape within.  A man with a slick black toupee and a face full of smiles takes my money.  I see his smile bending in the infinite mirrored hall.  The news­print on his cheek.  Distorted in a thousand places.

I hear someone laughing.  Far away in the darkness. Beyond the mirrors.  “Shine your shoes Mistah.” It is a laughing matter.  For someone in full possession of a voice.

I light a cigarette.  At least, a thousand different ways.

I am absurdly small at the waist.  My chest is abnormally large and my face is exploding through my cheeks.  My hat is a mere wrinkle drifting off the top of my head, floating away.  Beyond the mirror.  Where the sea is a mist.

Inside there is no mist.  My hands are elephantine against the glass.  My feet enormous.  I am afraid to see my eyes stretched out like rubber bands, longer than a taut, live wire.

Someone is counting the veins in my eyes.  Calculating the total on an abacus. In a sound chamber.  Each vein is a dull metallic sound, the sound of a disk, the sound of a foot moving deliberately somewhere. In the mirrors.

My fingers are like spider legs.  Terribly elongated.  Reaching out, passing through glass.  My hands are full of glass.  The mirror gives way.  I am a face with someone, dressed as myself, his black hat aslant, his neck taut and slightly awry.  Hanging from a rope.

I throw my cigarette toward the sea.  My hands are full of glass.  Embedded in a thousand places, between the stains of the newsprint.  I hear the roller coaster overhead like an elevated train.

I step behind the broken mirror.  I am not without fear, lighting a cigarette in my own, my one way.  Mirror glass cracks beneath my feet.  In a sound chamber. “Shine Ya Boots Mistah!” I open the exit door.  A poster sized reproduction of a man dressed in black hangs on the alley wall opposite the exit.

I toss my cigarette at the poster.  I cannot see his face.  Stretched a thousand times out of shape.  A taut rubber band. Breaking in a hall of mirrors.

I hear footsteps in the alleyway. See two black hats.  Shadows on the slick pavement, holding a length of rope tied in a noose. I am running like a mange infested dog. Dragging a human thigh.

 I am leaning my shoulders against a pillar.  Like a man beneath an EL.  I pull my hat low over my forehead and turn the collar of my black rain coat over my neck.  No one can see my face.  The red ash of my cigarette burning the darkness. Perhaps, I will be mistaken for the other men.  Those men without faces.  I have forgotten about my shoes.

I am aware of the stillness.  The dampness in the bones of me, stiffening. The dull pains behind my eyes.  The glass beneath my fingernails.  The darkness like a satin sheet. A veil.

I am staring out of my darkness.  Seeing nothing. The silence is like a dog scratching the cobblestoned pavement, scratching the darkness.

I feel the pillar, the hand on my shoulder, shaking the scream from my lungs, shaking my heart in my chest like a marble eye in a shallow cup.

“How about a match, mistah?”

I am inside the nearest door.  Outside, I see a man leaning against a pillar in an relaxed pose.  He withdraws a pair of scissors from his black rain coat and begins to cut squares in the newspaper.  I see a cigarette smoking on the ground near where he stands.  Where I have stood. He is staring in my direction through the squares of newsprint.  I see his black leather boots, the noose of rope around his waist as a belt.     

I must proceed into the darkness, into the unknown building.  I am walking in what appears to be a narrow corridor.  There is a railing on either side of the passageway.  The floor­boards are old and rotten, the overpowering smell of dog urine and of vomit, the sound of the sea close by, beneath the build­ing.

The hallway is irregular.  The railings are constructed at odd angles in and away from the pedestrian.  The floorboards are built in odd tangents, as well, slanting in upward or downward directions at unexpected intervals.  The ceiling does not maintain uniform angles, forcing me to bend and crouch as I walk.  What if I were to enter a cul de sac, bending forward into a wall, and am confined in a corner, unable to move, frozen in a grotesque posture, screaming until my mind fibers snapped like too tightly strung wires?

In an open, level space, I lean against the railing, resting.  This funhouse, the amusement park is getting the best of me.  Of my imagination.  Only the darkness is uniform.  The night bends like a funhouse floor.  The sea rumbles down the rails beyond the boardwalk like a roller coaster.  Voices are screaming.  I light a match.  The red ash of my cigarette burns.

Sufficiently rested, I walk, holding on to the slick varnished railing.  The red ash of my cigarette hangs from my lip.  A board cracks beneath my left foot.  I am too startled to scream.  My right foot slips on a patch of a moss like substance and I fall.  I hear the bone, my left thigh snap like a piece of dry wood.  The red ash raising welts on my chest. My glass wounded hands slip, clawing at splinters.  In the vomit.  The stains of my insides on the walkway.

The pain is more intense than my fear of the darkness.  I drag my lifeless leg from the hole left by the broken plank.  My raincoat is no longer black.  Is a smear of vomit, of blood and mud like slime.  I have lost my hat in the darkness.  The sea against the foundation of the funhouse.  Rumbling.  The irregular bending of the sound down the multi‑leveled passageways.

I am trapped, holding onto the railing.  Crippled. I touch a lighted match to my broken cigarette.  In the darkness, the sound of leather boots approaching.  A rope dragging along a wooden floor.  The heavy steps of men collecting bodies.  In a sound chamber.

I am desperate.  Madly struggling down the railing suddenly bending upward, the floor- corridor declining and I, with it, sliding down a felt ramp into yet another vast unknown.

My voice on the rails, screaming out over the sea.

The felt ramp ends abruptly in the darkness.  Two black doors like window shutters spring open at my first touching.  I am propelled onto a foam rubber matting, which, despite its softness, does little to dull the excruciating pain the fall causes my broken leg.  I am conscious only of the broken bone ripping through my skin.

The impact of my fall upon the matting causes the wall opposite the shuttered doors to become lighted.  A full-length poster of a man dressed in black, from his hat, to his leather boots, fills the wall.  Just like a laminated Tarot card.  In a gypsy’s booth.

            I am afraid of death beyond the screaming sea.

            In a gypsy’s booth.

            The sound of rope dragged down a multi‑leveled walkway.

            Leather footsteps in a sound chamber.

            Collected bodies tied against a pillar.

            The red end of a cigarette burning through a shirt.

            Reading newsprint through paper holes like eyes.

  Like my eyes.

            The walls.

            Cut full of holes.

            I cannot see the faces.

            The splinters in my thoughts.

            In my thighs.

            So much worse than glass beneath the skin.

            The splitting of flesh about the broken bone.

            Marrow on my skin draining like blood.

            I feel a dog scratching through the garbage.

             Through the vomit.

             Clawing at my skin.

             Pulling my broken leg bone through the hole in my leg.

             Out into the darkness.


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


“Greetings from Krampus” Dark Fiction by Tiffany Renee Harmon

Aubrey pulled her coat closer to her body as she slowly crossed the parking lot. As she neared her silver Toyota Camry, the mall loomed menacingly behind her. Wet snowflakes started falling. Aubrey saw the artificial baubles and gold garland adorning the light poles, illuminating the parking lot with a festive fluorescence that made her sick. She’d never particularly enjoyed working retail, the endless swipes of credit cards and folding t-shirts into tower, but the holidays made it a particularly horrible hellscape.

She exhaled and her breath came out like a fog of despair as the water vapor froze around her. She dug around in her pocket for her car keys, her fingers less dexterous while ensconced in thick red gloves, but eventually she fished them out. Behind her, there was a scraping sound. She flinched – her keys fell out of her hands and landed with a metallic thunk on the cold concrete before her. She narrowed her eyes reflexively as if it would help her see the unseen but there was nothing there. It might have been another car, a reckless driver, all that mattered was that it had nothing to do with Aubrey.

Aubrey picked up her keys, rushed into her car, and turned it on after locking herself safely inside. The small car warmed quickly, and she could feel her mood lifting as she drove out of the parking lot.

Halfway home, sitting at a red light, she heard another scraping sound beside her. Jesus, she thought, it was like no one knew how to drive in a little snow. She glanced at the rearview mirror to see what was behind her and gasped as she saw two red eyes staring back at her. She shut her eyes and reopened them. Slowly, she turned around. A blue car honked at her, clearly upset that she was still stopped now that the light was green. Shaking, Aubrey hit the accelerator and continued home. Surely, she hadn’t seen what she thought she’d seen. No, it was just red traffic lights in darkness and snow mixed with a tired but overactive imagination. It wasn’t him.

The next day, Aubrey folded white t-shirt after white t-shirt as Christmas carols mocked her in the background. She signed and swore this would be the last holiday she worked retail. It was an empty vow – something she’d promised herself last year too and the year before that. She looked down at the mountain of shirts and wondered how long it would be before the next toppling. Why were people even bothering with white t-shirts so far after Labor Day?

“Aubrey” a male voice called, and she looked up to see her portly boss, a perpetually reddened face framed with dashing caterpillar eyebrows. She’d often wondered how such a sweaty, unpleasant man had ascended the ranks of customer service to become manager.

“Yes, Chad?” she asked.

“You’re overdue for a break and then come back and work register 3 until closing. Gina has to leave early. Her kid’s Christmas pageant is tonight and Kara’s angel #4 or something like that.”

Aubrey nodded and resisted rolling her eyes. No way Gina had raised even the fourth most important angel. She and Chad were probably sneaking out for some Christmas cheer of their own. Everyone knew about the affair, but Aubrey truly didn’t care as long as it didn’t impact her hours. She clocked out for her break and headed to the food court for a coffee, sidestepping toddlers and weaving to avoid being hit by shopping bags swung by careless housewives desperate to finish their Christmas shopping.

Finally, she found the coffee line, even that was excessively long. She groaned and looked around at the madness surrounding her, practically dizzy with all the holiday rush. Why did the food court also have to house the winter wonderland complete with Santa’s workshop? At least, that wasn’t her job. After grabbing her coffee, she could escape back to the world of clothing. She didn’t have to don a green elf costume or a scratchy fake beard. And while children sometimes undid her hard folding work, she wasn’t in danger of one of them jumping in her lap and peeing on her.

“Your mocha,” a bored voice said as the pimply teen handed Aubrey her coffee.

A scraping sound echoed across the food court and Aubrey jumped and a few drops of coffee spilled out from the flimsy lid and burned her hand. She twirled around, thinking she was seeing red eyes and antlers out of her periphery, but nothing was there when she turned around. No, it must have just been a chair sliding against the floor. He wasn’t really there.

That night in bed, Aubrey dreamed of the past. There were no visions of sugarplums from her childhood Christmases. No, the images swirling before her were of switches and chains. She saw the antlers peeking out of a red hood lined with bloody fur, his red eyes glowing in front of her.

Aubrey awoke but she wasn’t alone in the darkness. Her limbs felt heavy as if chained to the bed. Was it sleep paralysis? Was she stuck inside herself, awake but dreaming? The huge, cloaked figure loomed over her, his demon eyes drilling into her. She heard the scrape of chains on the wooden floor as he dragged them, stepping nearer and nearer. His horned antlers were soon nearly touching her as he leaned down, his hot breath steaming the air between them. Aubrey pressed against her paralysis, desperate to fight back or run, but her body betrayed her. Warm tears rolled down her cheeks, as she whispered his name, “Krampus.”

The next morning, she awoke in a daze, the nightmares from the night before still causing her heart to race. She stayed under the hot water of her shower as long as possible until she knew she’d have to rush or be late to work. Still, she dressed like a zombie, avoiding the inevitable, but she knew what she had to do.

That afternoon on her coffee break, she stood and watched the families with their smiling faces and canned laughter as jungle bells and Santa’s ho-ho-hos peppered the air. They didn’t know. They couldn’t see the demon always in the background feeding off their joy.

Aubrey stepped closer to the gingerbread facade background where Santa and his helpers were moving quickly through the photo op line.

“Mommy, she’s cutting in line,” a little boy cried.

“Shhh,” his mom chided, “I think she just works here.”

Finally, Aubrey was close enough. She reached into her pocket for her thermos and dripped the liquid all along the base of the gingerbread.

“Hey, what’s she doing?” a voice shouted behind her. It sounded like Chad but might have been someone else – all the mall managers were starting to sound the same.

Aubrey reached for a match, lit it, and stared for a second at the little flame before dropping it into the gasoline and stepping out of the way. She didn’t run – this is what she had to do. She was saving them. As screams echoed around her, Aubrey stood and admired the flames pluming around black smoke. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Now, she was finally in the Christmas spirit.


Tiffany Renee Harmon is a writer and artist based out of Cincinnati, OH. She has an MFA from Lindenwood University, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Scarlet Leaf Review, Danse Macabre, and Z Publishing. Her first novel, Suburban Secrets, debuted in 2020. Learn more about her at www.tiffanyreneeharmon.com.


“A Proper Ballerina” Dark Fiction by Janet Goldberg

The Ropel house, one of the most expensive in the neighborhood, was on a cul du sac near the woods.  Fifteen-year-old Carrie, who lived two doors over, had been babysitting for Mrs. Ropel’s six-year-old daughter Simone, as well as other neighborhood families, for about a year.  She’d been sitting since she was twelve, first in Connecticut where she’d spent her first fourteen years and now here in Deerhaven, Illinois, where her family had moved last winter when she’d been a freshman, her sister Evie in kindergarten.  Though her shy, nervous sister didn’t make friends easily, Simone and another neighborhood girl, Lisa, befriended her, and much to her mother’s relief they all began playing at each other’s houses.  Meanwhile, Carrie had nearly flunked both Spanish and algebra last year, and she’d not made one friend.  But neither her mother nor her father had said a word about this, her mother never one to fret over Carrie:  Drop her in the ocean and she’d find her way back, Carrie had sometimes overheard her mother say on the phone.  And yet, her mother seemed to hold this against her, at times indifferent, if not hostile, toward her; in turn, Carrie often hated her mother, as she did now, because she wouldn’t admit that yanking her and Evie out of school mid-year for a new house in a fancy neighborhood had been a mistake.  If her mother only knew.  “Daddy has a lady downstairs.  Don’t tell Mommy,” the Mulvaney’s little Tabitha, tucked in, ready for bed, had suddenly blurted out one night while Carrie had been babysitting.  But the basement door was always locked; then one time it wasn’t.  But she didn’t bother telling her mother what was inside.  She wouldn’t have believed her anyway. 

Tonight was the Ropels again, the first time after a two-month hiatus.  It all had to do with what had happened to Evie, all three of the girls playing over at Simone’s and then somehow ending up in the snowy woods at dusk, an hour later the police with their flashlights finding only two small sets of prints coming out.  “I don’t care what the police said,” Carrie had told her mother.  “They left her there.  You have to do something.  That’s not right.”  And her mother, finally working up the courage, had said, “I’m going to give that woman a piece of my mind.  You’re never babysitting there again.”  But a week later when Carrie had asked what had happened, her mother slapped her.  After that, she and her mother barely spoke, except today when Carrie told her she was sitting for the Mrs. Myers, last year the only neighbor who’d welcomed them on move-in day, leaving a chocolate cake on their doorstep.

At Mrs. Ropels’ front door now, Carrie stomped the snow off her boots and then rang the bell.  Little Simone opened up.   She was wearing a pink leotard, tights, and ballet slippers.  With wavy dark hair and milky-brown eyes, a small mole at the corner of her mouth, she was a miniature of her mother.

 “Mom, Carrie’s here!”  She ran back down the hallway.

 Carrie stepped inside and unzipped her parka.  The foyer was just like in her house, one small closet and a slate tile floor.   

Mrs. Ropel was rushing down the steps, as always, running late.  “I’m so glad you could make it, Carrie.  Here, let me take your coat.”  In black pants, a billowing silk blouse, hoop earrings, she smelled mildly of perfume and was briefly pretty, almost likable, someone she might want to be.  But then she thought of her own mother. 

Carrie started pulling off her boots, standing them against the wall as Mrs. Ropel hung up her parka.  Then, turning to Carrie, she clapped her hands together and bowed slightly. “Well…”

 Carrie almost felt bad for her, how awkward it was, but clearing the air would only make things harder.  As is, she wasn’t sure she could go through with it.  She looked back at the door, thinking she should just leave.

“Simone’s eating dinner now,” Mrs. Ropel said.

Carrie followed her down the hallway.

 “Macaroni and cheese.”  She gestured to the stove.  “And there’s some there for you too.  Simone, Carrie’s here.”

Simone, at the table, spoon poised above the bowl, said, “I know, Mom.”

“Hi, Simone,” Carrie said.

Simone looked back and grinned, showing all her teeth.

“I shouldn’t be any later than 10:00.  Simone in bed by 8:00.”  Leaning over Simone, Mrs. Ropel kissed her on the cheek.  “Be good.  Listen to everything Carrie says.  I love you.”  Then, she went back into the hallway. 

Carrie followed.

Back in the foyer, Mrs. Ropel put on her coat and wrapped a scarf around her neck.  It had a kind of hood on it, and she pulled it up over her hair.  “Now be sure to turn the deadbolt.  Don’t let anyone in.  Everything else is locked.”  Before, this lock litany had been merely annoying, but now, after what had happened to Evie, it almost made her laugh, and she thought of the Kleins–they had even more locks on their door—one time how the older boy came at his younger brother with a pair of scissors, Mrs. Klein not believing her, and all those Dr. Spock books on the shelves.   

Mrs. Ropel opened the front door, letting the chill in.  Carrie shut the door after her and turned the deadbolt, knowing Mrs. Ropel wouldn’t leave until she heard it slide into place.   Then, she went into the living room and, through the bay window, watched her car disappear down the dark, snow-packed road.  Now, the place to herself, she could do whatever she wanted, not that she ever drank, smoked, or had friends over.  She actually didn’t have any unless you counted the two dopey sisters next door that once invited her over to smoke marijuana and put on mascara.

Carrie went back to the kitchen.   

Simone pushed her bowl away and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.  “Is my mom gone?”

“Aren’t you supposed to use a napkin?”

She slipped off her chair and got up on the balls of her feet, her arms stretched above her head, and started twirling and then fell down on the floor.  “I take ballet now.  I’m going to be Clara in the Nutcracker.” 

 “Doesn’t Clara have to spot if she doesn’t want to get dizzy?”

Simone got up.  “My mom says I get to wear pointe shoes when I’m twelve.”

 “Is that what you want to be when you grow up—a ballerina?”

“Can I watch TV?”

 “Sure.  But bowl in the sink first please.  Then later we’ll play a game.”

Carrie went over to the stove and lifted the lid, peering at the gooey orange noodles.  Milk, butter, powdered cheese, all the kids loved that boxed stuff, including Evie.  She took a spoonful and then stuck the pot in the refrigerator, her eyes roving over the usual stuff–milk, orange juice, wine, chocolate syrup, eggs, chicken breasts, frozen French fries, a Sarah Lee apple pie, and in the door salad dressings, ketchup, mustard, relish, jam.  No shrinking heads here, though she’d babysat long enough to know that didn’t mean anything, the secret room in the Mulvaney house papered with naked women, and a mannequin in glasses and a wig, two perfect breasts, seated behind a desk.  Well, at least her own father used the basement for better things, buying a pinball machine and ping-pong table to ease their move from Connecticut.  Evie got a pet hamster too, but it turned out to be pregnant, and she ate some of her babies, so now the table was covered with cages, the mother hamster’s the most elaborate, exercise wheels and a maze of tubes. 

“Carrie, can we make popcorn?”  Simone yelled from the living room.

“Sure!” Carrie yelled back.  She didn’t see any point in not being nice.  She pulled some out of a cabinet and stuck it in the microwave watching the bag slowly inflate, and then, after pulling it out, split the bag down the seam, letting the steam out.

Carrie sat down on the couch placing the bowl between them. 

Simone, slouched down, dug in, pulling out a handful.  “That girl just turned into a blueberry,” she said.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was on, the petulant Violet in a purple jumper and black Maryjane shoes chomping on a wad of gum Mr. Wonka told her not to touch, the oompa loompa men now rolling her out to be juiced.   Carrie had seen the movie before.

A commercial came on, and Simone suddenly turned to Carrie, made a pouty face, the corners of her mouth downturned.  “Where were you, Carrie?”

“What do you mean?”

“I didn’t like my other babysitter.” 

“How come?”

 “She was mean.  Mrs. Humperdink.  That’s a stupid name, isn’t it?”

Carrie chuckled.  “Is that really her name?”

Simone shrugged and then turned back to the TV, the spoiled Veruca Salt, another bad egg, getting sucked up a garbage shoot, and then Mike Teavee, shrunk small enough to fit into a TV, had now been eliminated too.  Only Charlie and his grandfather left, Mr. Wonka’s face softened as he started explaining how he’d searched the world over for just one sweet, able child to take over the factory.

“Can we watch another movie, Carrie?”

“It’s not over yet though.” 

“I don’t like this part.  It’s stupid.”  Wonka was now escorting Charlie onto his magic elevator.  Soon all of Charlie’s family would be rescued from poverty.  Simone changed the channel, a bald, muscular man, with bushy white eyebrows on now.  Grime-busting Mr. Clean.

“Well then maybe we can play a game,” Carrie said.  “Remember how we used to?”

Simone shrugged again.  “Can we watch another movie?”

“I’m it.”

Thinking, Simone rolled her head around in circle—one of her odd quirks—and then slipped off the couch.  “Count slowly.  No peeking.”

Eyes covered, Carrie started counting “1,2,3 4,” stopping only when she heard Simone heading upstairs.  She always hid in the same spot.  It seemed odd at first, but Carrie had just assumed that getting caught was the best part of the game for Simone.  And in the past, they’d had fun, Carrie in Mrs. Ropel’s bedroom closet pretending to be stumped, Simone jumping out, shouting, “Boo!”  But now she wondered.  Sneaking out of the house, past her watchful mother, Lisa and Evie in tow, out into the woods at night took stealth.

 Carrie pulled her hands away from her eyes and headed upstairs.  In her socks, she could move silently.  She took her time, though, roaming around the other bedrooms, first Simone’s, cozy pink with a strand of blue lights lining the ceiling, and her very own bathroom with a polka-dotted shower curtain, a furry pink bathmat beside the tub.  The other bedroom, blue and smaller, hadn’t changed—wooden crib, rocking chair, a three-drawer dresser with a changing table on top.  Carrie pulled each drawer open—all still empty.  Then, she headed toward Mrs. Ropel’s bedroom.  A small lamp on the bedstand threw off a little light, beside it a magazine—Good Housekeeping—and an alarm clock.  The other bedstand was bare, the Ropels separated, Carrie’s mother had told her.  All the other sitting jobs, the husband usually drove her home in their dark cars, small-talking her, pulling up to her house, as if they were dropping her off from a date.  At school the driver’s ed instructor kept sliding his arm around her shoulders showing her how the dashboard worked.  In the Ropel house, she’d always felt safe though.

 She walked over to the closet.  It was open a crack.  She thought she could hear Simone breathing.   It wasn’t too late.  She could just play the game as they always had.  But then Carrie remembered the snow swirling down from the black sky, her feet so cold they burned as she shivered at the edge of the woods while the police searched for Evie, her hysterical mother waiting at home in her sunken living room, her father trying to comfort her.  

Carrie opened the closet door and leaned in.  “Hello?  Anyone in there?”  Then she went all the way in.  “Anyone here?”  Simone, she knew, could only contain herself for so long, but Carrie continued to play along, turning to the right side first, making a fuss of pushing clothes this way and that way, making the hangers jangle.  Then she turned to the other side, where there were a lot more clothes, dresses and blouses, and did the same thing, Simone, she assumed, crouched somewhere beneath, watching Carrie’s legs, trying to stay quiet.  “Simone?   Are you in here?”  Carrie let out a loud sigh.  “Wherever could she be?  Well, I guess she’s not here.”  Then, as she stepped out and started closing the door, the hangers suddenly jangled.  But Carrie already had the door shut, her hand firmly around the knob as she felt Simone trying to turn it.

“Carrie,” Simone said, “the door’s stuck.” 

  Carrie thought she could hear a twinge of fear rise up in her voice, what Evie must have felt when she first realized she was alone, lost. 

Simone started banging on the door now. 

Letting go of the knob, Carrie quickly swung around, pressing her back against the door.

Then Simone started kicking.  “Let me out!  Let me out!  Let me out!”

Carrie could feel the door shuddering.

 Then she stopped kicking.  “Carrie please,” she pleaded, “it’s dark in here.”  She started weeping.  “Carrie, I’m scared.  Please, let me out.  Please, Carrie.”  She was trying the knob again, pulling on it, rattling it.

Carrie looked up at the ceiling, at the small ring of light from the lamp.  Evie had been found curled up at the base of a tree, unconscious, her shoes missing.  After laying her on the stretcher, they’d cocooned her in blankets as they snow kept falling.

The rattling stopped.  “If you let me out, I promise I won’t tell on you.”  No longer crying, Simone was trying to modulate her voice now, to reason with Carrie.  Negotiation it was called, what a victim does trying to survive an attack, something she’d learned in psychology class.   But Evie probably didn’t even get that chance, Simone and Lisa running off while she was it, Evie with her eyes covered, counting, afterward the police claiming it was a game of Hide and Seek gone awry.

 Simone started beating her fists on the door again. “That’s not fair.  Let me out!  Let me out!” 

So now you know.  Maybe you’ll think twice.  She’d planned on saying things like that, but now Simone was throwing her body into the door, putting her weight into it, and Carrie, worried she might damage the door or hurt herself, stepped away, and Simone suddenly flew out, landing on her knees.  “Oow.”  She started crying again, real tears now, her lower lip trembling.  She glared up at Carrie.  “I’m going to tell my mom.  You’re going to get in trouble.”   She was breathing heavily, almost gasping.  Then she started coughing.

Carrie reached down and pulled Simone to her feet. 

Simone wiped away her tears.  “I’m going to tell on you.  That you tried to kill me.  Then you’re going to get in trouble.  You’re going to go to jail.  Rats are going to eat you.  Then they’ll put you in the electric chair, and your hair will fall out.”

Carrie stepped back and sat down on the bed.  “Who’s going to believe you?”

“My mom will.  She always does.”

“But there’s not a thing wrong with you.  I bet you don’t even have a bruise or a cut.”

Simone put her hands out in front of her and spread her fingers.  Her knuckles were red, her hands shaking a little.

“See?  Not a thing.”

 Simone pulled her hands back and started rolling her head around again; this time, though, with her flushed face, watery eyes, snotty nose, she looked ghoulish.  Then, after wiping her nose, sniffling a little, she straightened up, lifting her chin, like a proper ballerina, and said, “I’m going to get in my pajamas.  It’s almost my bedtime.”

“Do you want me to read you a story?”  Carrie was still sitting on the bed.

 “I’m too old for that.  Besides I’m going to tell on you.  You’re never coming back.”  Then she scampered out of the room.

The next day Carrie slept late.  She always did on the weekends.  Then in the afternoon she went down to the basement to feed the hamsters; the babies, now plump and furry, were running around their cages.  The mother hamster, though, just sat in her bedding, her dark eyes unblinking, food untouched.  Tapping on the plastic walls, Carrie tried to coax her to move.  Then, opening the cage, she reached in to pick her up, but she just nipped at her hand.

“Carrie, are you down there?”  Her mother was coming down the steps with laundry.  In front of the washer now she put the basket down and then looked over at the ping-pong table.  “When it gets warm, I’m going to let her go.”

Her mother’s eyes looked puffy, like she’d been crying.  She was trying to make up, be friends now.  But Carrie, still angry, wasn’t so sure she wanted to relent.

“If you must know her baby was still-born.  She had to carry it and then give birth to it and then bury it.  Mrs. Ropel.  All before we moved here.”

“That doesn’t excuse it,” Carrie said.  “Evie could have frozen to death.  And then what?”  Carrie looked down at the mother hamster and then over at her mother.  “What do you mean let her go?”

“Behind the house.  Out by the woods.  I’ll just open the cage.”

“But what if she doesn’t go?  What if she gets eaten?  They’re wild animals out there, you know.”  She hammered at her mother. 

“What’s the point of keeping her?  You can’t touch her.  She won’t eat.  They don’t live very long anyway.  Hamsters.”  Her mother turned to the machine and started stuffing the laundry in.”

“Where’s Evie?”

“Upstairs.  Playing.  You know, making her Barbies talk.  By the way, I found your bathing suit.  I’m washing it now.”  Her mother shut the machine door and turned the dial. “Don’t bother,” Carrie said.  “The school won’t let me wear it.  You have to wear one of theirs.”  She recalled last Friday, the first day of swimming, naked and shivering, how she stood in the locker room, the attendant sizing her up.  


Janet Goldberg’s “A Proper Ballerina” comes from a collection titled Every Small Thing.  Her novel The Proprietor’s Song will be published by Regal House in the summer of 2023:  https://www.regalhousepublishing.com/janet-goldberg/  She also edits fiction for Deep Wild https://deepwildjournal.com/ and teaches writing at a community college in northern California.


“The Shade” Dark, Supernatural Fiction by Wess Mongo Jolley

In the stacks, my soul is tossed like a tumbleweed.

For every book here that I have read, there are many thousands more—and each one is a ghost, knocking at my skull and demanding entrance. But since I don’t believe in ghosts, I don’t answer their calls, and instead just walk slowly up and down the narrow aisles, arms outstretched, fingers gently whispering against the old cloth and leather bindings. I’m always amazed how some feel so warm to the touch, and others chill the fingers and send shivers to my shoulders.

College has been a pain in the ass, and there are days I wish it was over and I was home in Abilene, back on the farm, and feeling cowhide that still contained the cow. But on late nights, when the rest of the campus is buzzing with their frat parties or looking for love, I’m always drawn back to these dark, narrow library stacks.

My favorite time of year is just after mid-terms, when pretty much every student has found excuses for better places to be, with people whose lives are not measured in the decades since the birth of the printing press. On those days I find myself more often sharing the late-night stacks with old gentlemen, as dry as the leaves of these books, and with as much dust in their hair as these books have on their spines.

Most share a similar look, cut from the same old tweed and straw—retired professors, mostly, who haven’t published since the Nixon administration, but still think their next breakthrough insight is hidden somewhere inside this endless maze.

Mostly, they don’t speak. But they always smile, and they always step aside when they see me enter an aisle.

This past year, as my college career has waned, I’ve found joy in studying the straw men over the tops of these gilt edges, imagining I hear their bones creaking and crackling like old glue, volumes opened for the first time in decades.

It was on one of these late-night stack wanderings that I first saw him.

Older than some. Not as old as most; at least not from what I could see between his floppy hat and upturned collar. I could see the beard that overflowed his coat, which buttoned up to just below his knotted yellow tie. It was a beard of more salt than pepper, and it framed a shadowed face with heavy lids, capped by glasses that distorted his drooping eyes behind impossibly thick lenses.

I don’t quite know why I noticed him, in particular. Perhaps it was because the library seemed especially deserted that night, so there was little else to catch my eye. Or perhaps it was the way he navigated his way through the silence.

Books can take your breath away, to be sure, but they rarely still the rise and fall in your chest for very long. And as I watched the old man in the heavy coat, standing like a redwood among the French poetry, I could swear he wasn’t breathing at all.

One aisle over, I peered at the back of his motionless neck through the shelves, and the only sound I could hear was his thin, bony hand, turning the pages.

Each page was a whisper; a timid mouse poking its nose out of the baseboard and then disappearing again. The moments between those pages were sometimes short and sometimes long, but the stillness between them stirred a loneliness in me that settled like a cloak around my shoulders.

I can’t say I watched him for long. I can’t say I followed him through the library like a balloon on a string. But I can’t say that I didn’t either, because I remember so little of it. Later I only recalled standing at the cold winter window, looking out into the snowy night, and watching my old volume as he emerged from the front of the midnight library. He crossed the street in the yellow glow of the streetlamps and melted into the moonlit campus common. I watched him for as long as I could make out his shadowy form, gliding along as if his long coat met the ground with wheels rather than feet.

I watched him fade and merge with the darkness.

I watched the darkness long after he had faded.

I didn’t expect to recognize the volume of French poetry he had been reading. And yet, when I went looking for it on the shelf, I walked right to it—as if it was marked with invisible ink and radium. When I tried to pull it off the shelf, at first it refused to budge. When I opened it, pages cracked and came loose, and dust angels danced in the fluorescent light.

When I put it away, it rested askew, no matter how many times I tried to make it right.

#

In the days since I saw the Shade (as I’ve come to call him), I have wondered if perhaps he was the product of my late-night imagination, or a bit of undigested dinner, as Dickens might say. I’ve told no one about him, although I don’t know who I would even consider telling. After all, my best friends all wear Dewey Decimal numbers on their spines, and they are much better at speaking than listening.

But there was something about the way he floated through these aisles that left me thrilled and confused, the way you can sometimes feel if you stand up too quickly and fear you will faint. When I think of him, it feels like that moment when you are still conscious enough to plan how you will fall safely, and yet still feel everything slipping away like leaves on the surface of rushing water.

But these feelings have not stopped me from imagining all sorts of stories for him.

I imagine he was born in this very library a century ago, when someone accidentally pushed a copy of Dante off a shelf as they passed. When the book hit the floor, rather that a startling crack, it landed with a whisper and a bloom. I imagine the Shade unfolding silently into being in the swirling dust. I imagine him silent and confused, as startled by his sudden birth as the books that looked upon him in their mute astonishment.

Or I imagine him birthed more slowly, as a patchwork quilt of every discontented college student and tired professor who has ever wandered here. Made up of a sigh here, a laugh there, his is a life of fatigue and panic and joy, all brought together here in this laboratory of the mind. The library seems to ask that he return something to these volumes that have given so much and asked for so little in return.

In this fancy, the Shade isn’t reading the books he scans so silently; he’s recharging them. Giving them life. Keeping them alive for those decades when not a single warm hand turns their pages.

#

He came back a week later.

I had not expected him to, but that didn’t prevent me from spending more and more late nights in French Poetry, or the Classics, or Elizabethan Fiction. I found him with what may have been a copy of Herodotus in his bony fingers. The same dark coat turned up at the collar. The same floppy hat shading his face. The same stillness. The same whispering turn of the page.

This time I made bold enough to turn the corner into his aisle, trying desperately to look casual, as if we had both been drawn to obscure Greek and Roman history. Glancing along each shelf, pretending to read the spines, I worked my way closer to him, listening intently for the gentle stirring of the dusty air as he turned each page.

Standing next to him, I was startled to smell rain. Only a foot away from his hunched shoulders, I was transported to evenings at home in Abilene, alone on the porch, as the rain fell and made everything fresh and new and gray. The whisper of his fingers on the pages was like those gentle drops from the roof into the gardens below. He was only inches away now, and I remembered how I would listen to that gentle sound, safe and dry at the porch railing, while the rain dripped just inches from my nose. I remembered how I would slowly reach a out a hand from the safety of the porch and let those drops cascade across my open palm. I remembered tasting that rain, looking apprehensively over my shoulder for my mother, who would surely scold me and tell me that water off the roof was not clean. Every impulse I had was to dash from the porch into the downpour, to let it coat me and cover me and cleanse me and let me begin life anew.

I reached out and it wasn’t the rain that I felt, but the rough wool of his heavy coat. The journey from Abilene back to the Stacks was brief, but it was not violent or startling. And finding myself standing behind the Shade with my hand on his shoulder was less frightening than it should have been.

But the pages had stopped turning. The stillness was overwhelming. And despite the solidity under my palm, I knew I was now alone with Homer and Herodotus and Aeschylus.

#

The snow was falling as I walked slowly away from the library, for what I knew would be the last time. There were so many more libraries in the world; so many more stacks with dusty books that were craving my touch. This library would be closed for a time, I knew, after they discovered the body of the young man in the classics. I was sad for my family in Abilene, but I knew that my sadness would fade. By the time I found my new library, there would only be the books. There would no longer be any grief, and there would no longer be any loneliness.

Longing was for the young, and I was no longer young. It was time to put away the childish things, as they taught in Sunday School. Or perhaps that was just something I read.

There would be time, someday, for childish things once again. But not until I felt that new hand on my shoulder.

How many decades? How many thousands upon thousands of cracking spines and whispering pages? How many deep, dark, lonely stacks in how many libraries?

New York? Butte Montana? Harvard Square? Oxford?

I’d find my first by morning.


Wess Mongo Jolley is a Canadian novelist, editor, podcaster, and poet. His work has appeared in journals such as Off the Coast, PANK, The New Verse News, Danse Macabre, and others. His sprawling supernatural horror trilogy, The Last Handful of Clover, is currently being released serially on PatreonWattpadQSaltLake, and as an audiobook podcast. Find him at http://wessmongojolley.com


“A Game of Horrors” Dark Fiction by Philip Laverty

The Game has commenced, and Alan’s fear gives me such a thrill, such a shiver-inducing rush of adrenalin that my heart actually skips a beat.

It is played by two people who possess the Talent. Alan and I are playing it in a little coastal town, which is as good a place to play as any.

There are three, I feel, very significant years between us. Of those years I will say this: I developed quickly in cunning, cruelty, selfishness and greed, meaning Alan never stood a chance by the time our mother drew her last breath, her blood gushing forth onto the sheets that her labour had turned her as white as. I lost the only person I was capable of loving. Alan ripped her open to get here.

He was born with the Talent, as I had been, and I had already heard the first whispers of the Game from an uncle visiting my father, there, in that old Edwardian house that we grew up in. I heard these whispers as they drank whiskey, and my uncle smoked his repugnant pipe. Puff-puff he went, like a little train or a chimney.

 Puff-puff he went as he visited me in my room one hot Sunday afternoon when I was eleven. I had watched him playing with Alan in the garden earlier. I had looked down from my bedroom as he showed Alan one of his tricks. It was impressive, I must admit: he seemed to make a necklace disappear from his hand and then reappear hanging from the low bough of a tree at the bottom of the garden. I suppose that Alan considered himself close to this trickster, but I perceived the real truth of the relationship: a man and his obedient pup.

Puff-puff he went as he closed the door and raised his hand in a gesture which I daresay he meant to be calming. What odd notions these monsters have.

“Shh. Hush. There. See? ‘Tis only I. There now. I hear you are scared of rats.”

I was and am. How did he know? Of course, the answer was simple: Alan.

“It is good for someone with the Talent to confront their fears.”

I recall that he was wearing a V-neck pullover with diamond patterns of yellow and orange. He had ginger hair, combed in a neat side pattern. He wore a white shirt under the pullover.

A movement under the covers, and then the thing was beside me–long, hideous tail and cruel eyes.

“I can’t move,” I said, feeling like a prisoner in my own body.

“Do not panic,” he cautioned as the rat scuttled up first onto my lap, and then up my stomach, and eventually onto my face. It smelled of damp, dirty places.

“Please, make it stop,” I pleaded.

It seemed like I sat there for an eternity before he replied.

“Weak little bastard, aren’t you?”

The rat sank its front teeth into the flesh under my right eye. 

“Please.”

“There,” he said with the wave of the hand, the rat instantly vanishing.

“And now I too must take my leave.”

He walked out the door, and although I could now move, fear kept me sitting on the bed, fear that the rat would return.

My heart thudded as, outside, heat oppressed the world and made everyone capable of no more strenuous an outdoor activity than sipping cold drinks on loungers. In fact, my father, in an act of brotherly loyalty and paternal betrayal that I was never able to forgive him for, insisted that this was exactly what my uncle was at his side doing throughout the whole time that he was, in fact, in my room.

“It bit me, father!” I screamed at him as we had it out in the kitchen on the day that he showed his true colours.

“I see no bite marks.”

There were none. I could not account for this.

“He is my brother, and my truest friend,” he continued. “And it is impossible that he could have been with you at all.”

I returned to my room, and we never spoke of it again.

I formed my first horror that night. The Talent allows you to give form to your imaginings, and my mind had, for some time, been tormented by the image of a cat formed entirely from cat claws.

Take a moment to imagine. Imagine a claw first, just as I did. See it scratching a human hand and infecting it. Feel the invasive burn, like a nasty, filthy hypodermic needle. See the colour, not quite white or grey, and yet not quite yellow. Smell it too: a smell like decaying flesh. Now imagine a pile of such claws, and that piecing them together will form a cat –a hollow-eyed, clicking, scratching cat, always in disagreeable temper, always ready with a hiss. Imagine touching it, how its back would yield slightly. Not that you would ever get to touch it, mind you, unless you were fighting it off.

Creating this horror took me three hours of trial and error. However, once perfected, it was at my command, as every horror I would create henceforth would be. I christened it Horror No.1, fancying I would christen them all in this manner, and that they would one day number in their thousands. I lost count–or lost interest in keeping count–quite early on. Take the most recent horror, the one that Alan awoke to just this morning: she is called Yesterdaytodaytomorrow. I could name her nothing else, and will describe her soon. Suffice, for the moment, to say that she is quite dreadful.

That night, I set the cat upon Alan as he slept. He woke with Horror No.1 sitting on his chest, hissing viciously. He screamed, and I had the thing attack. As I lay on my bed, my attention focused completely on what I was making happen, it cut him as deeply as I had hoped it would, and he still has the four diagonal scars across this left cheek to this day.

He ran from his bed, his screams waking my father, who came to my room and demanded that I destroy the thing. I reluctantly did just that, and somewhere in the house, in the dark corner it had retreated to, Horror No.1 vanished back into my imagination.

A man not easily frightened, who in fact might have been immune to fear entirely, my father was simply appalled that his son could have created such a thing as Horror No.1.

“You want to play the Game, I suppose.”

“Yes,” I told him.

“You think you’re a player? Do you see a future in it?” he asked, removing his belt and striking my bare legs. “This is not what the Talent is intended for!” he yelled. “We do not unleash horrors upon the world.” Two more strikes followed, and I thought that a third might follow that, but instead he turned, without saying another word, and left the room.

Now it is February, and it is early morning. I have come to the park, from where I look up into the hills. A car creates a foggy searchlight as it makes its way down towards town. The patchy clouds in the dark morning sky are blast furnace orange, blast furnace black, as the sun begins its slow, furious ascent.

Now, let us say that you had the Talent and wished to play the Game. In general–with some deviations based on style, or upon the whims of the players–it takes the following shape:

 Day 1–dawn: A coin is tossed to determine who will go first. The player who loses the toss drops the mental defences that we are taught to develop from an early age

Day 2: The player going first is given this day to prepare their horror. If it is already prepared, then perhaps the player can refine it.

Day 3–dawn: The horror is given form by the player going first, and it is set upon the opponent, who then must hold their nerve for twenty-four hours. If they do, then, after three days of rest, it is their turn, and so on…

The Game is won when the opponent begs for the horror to be destroyed. He has to say that specific, ancient, most sacred phrase: “No more. Please destroy it. I beg you.”

At this point the victor may withdraw from the game, or agree to another, if their opponent wishes. Some players are content with the glory and retire from playing completely.

And now we come to Yesterdaytodaytomorrow. So-christened because this is what she repeats over and over again in a voice that is more like buzzing–ceaselessly monotone. She is the height and shape of a three-year-old child, but is covered in the feathery hair of a bee. I have given her a yellow dress to wear, and each of her fingers has a venom sack on the end with a stinger protruding from it. The venom is not fatal, but the sting will be far more painful than a cat scratch.

Alan woke one hour ago to find Yesterdaytodaytomorrow standing at the foot of his bed. Her droning recital of the only three words she knows was what stirred him from his sleep. I saw what she saw, saw him sitting up, and the terror on his face. You might wonder how he could have slept at all. However, players know they need their strength for the day to come, and those who have not trained themselves to sleep will often take a remedy.

He ran from the house in his pyjamas. I had Yesterdaytodaytomorrow don a black, oversized, rain poncho that I had purchased especially for her, and pair of red wellington boots. I had her put up the hood as, using my mind, I steered her from the house in pursuit of Alan. If she is challenged–if someone sees her–then I will improvise. These encounters can be amusing sometimes. And should the worst come to the worst and I am forced to destroy her, then I will, and it will be Alan’s turn.

All part of the Game.   

I can give the horror as much attention as is necessary. I am enjoying this early morning stroll, and want to concentrate on that for the most part. Yesterdaytodaytomorrow should catch up with Alan soon. After all, he cannot have got far in his pyjamas.

I check on her progress a little more closely. Imagine an idea or other thought bubbling away at the back of your mind, but enabling you to concentrate on other matters. You can bring it to the forefront whenever you please. That is what I am doing now.

She is buzzing along a street, but it is the wrong one, and she is moving in the wrong direction. In fact, it seems that she is coming towards the park. Gentle early morning tides lap against the beach, and the moon still hangs in the no-longer-night sky.

“Turn,” I command her, and am so perturbed I actually utter the word. “Turn round, Yesterdaytodaytomorrow. Come on.”

I can see her now for real, intently striding towards me, the hood of her poncho still up.

Losing control of a horror is unthinkable. The best ones –the only ones that are worth creating–have to terrify the creator too. It horrifies me to be inside her buzzing head, where all that can be heard is the echoing of those three maddening words.

She has reached the far edge of the park. As she does so, a man comes towards me from the other direction. I assume he has been hiding behind the ruin of a wall that separates the park from the beach. He is, I note, in his pyjamas, although he has acquired a coat and boots from somewhere.

“Alan,” I say by way of a greeting.

“Brother.”

My fair-haired brother, whose handsome face mysteriously no longer has the scars left by Horror No.1.

“What is going on?” I ask, glancing towards Yesterdaytodaytomorrow as she comes to a halt within stinging distance of me. “What have you done?”

“You have at least accepted that I have done something. I am heartened. It saves tiresome explanations, eh?”

I am truly at a loss as to what to say to him. Part of my mind is preoccupied with trying to reason out this conundrum, the other with attempting to regain control of Yesterdaytodaytomorrow.

“Nothing to say, brother?” he asks. “No? Well, I suggest that you begin by asking who won the toss. Who went first?”

“I did,” I reply, pouncing upon the one thing that I am sure of.

“No, I am afraid not.”

“I did.” I incline my head towards the horror. “And I created her.”

“Untrue. OK, well, let us try something else. What is this town called?” 

It is…on the tip of my tongue. Or is it? Is that merely a memory, or my brain coming up with some generic name for a generic seaside town?

“Come now, brother, you are usually so verbose! The fact is I never gave it a name. Perhaps I should have. It is a coastal town – that is all. To be precise, it is an amalgamation of a few I have visited. I have never had much of an imagination, which is the chief reason why I should never have become a player. You were keen to play me though; and I suspected you would have had the bad form to set horrors upon me anyway–ones even worse than that fucking cat from when we were children. I had to have some boundaries, and those of the Game were all that were afforded me.

“So, there I was, eighteen years of age and playing for the first time. How unprepared I was! The horror you conjured up almost drove me to insanity.

“Almost, but not quite. My sanity remained intact, and I was keen to exact revenge upon you, keen to best you at your precious game. However, your command of the Talent was frightening, and this presented a problem.

“Do you remember our uncle? He was very kind to me and assured me he could help. He had devised a move, based on a skill he had learned from a woman in Argentina. It was a move he had only utilised once, but to great effect. He told me his opponent had never recovered his senses, and that he himself had then retired from the Game. The skill had not gone to waste though, and he had continued to use it for his own ends, his own pleasure.

“It took me three arduous years to learn, and when I was ready, I asked if you would agree to a rematch. You did, and very eagerly, I might add.”

I recall none of this. In fact, I am starting to find that attempting to grasp at any facts in this regard is like grasping at smoke.  

“Now,” he continues, “I needed luck. I could think of no plausible way to fix the toss, and so I had to hope you would lose. If not, I would have to steel myself to endure your horror before I got my turn.

“You lost, you lowered your mental defences, and I made my move.”

“What did you do?”

I can tell by the twitch of a smile on his lip that he recognises how perilously close I am to begging.

“I used the skill our uncle taught me.”

“What is the skill?”

“To create one’s own reality in the mind of another. We are in that reality now, and I control every aspect of it.”

Attempting to refute what he has told me would be foolish, especially in light of how I am now feeling. My mind feels suddenly sleep-deprived, and so my thought processes are…sluggish. Meanwhile, Yesterdaytodaytomorrow shimmers and fades from view, reappears, shimmers and fades, over and over again. Her buzzing repetition has ceased, but a poster on a bus shelter has caught my eye in the dawn light. It depicts me as a child holding my uncle’s hand as we walk through a plastic replica of a seaside town inside what looks like a snow globe. The copy reads: Yesterdaytodaytomorrow.

“Now,” he says, “you will say the words, and I will win.”

“No.”

“Well, we will see if you feel differently as the day wears on.”

He vanishes before my eyes.

I wonder where I am really. I wonder where we are playing the Game. Wherever we are, I picture Alan sitting at my bedside, holding my hand as I endure the trance that he has put me into.

No, this is…ludicrous. I won the toss. I went first.

I won the

I should have argued that this is an illegal move. Would that I felt sharp enough to argue!

I feel a hand take mine. It is so strong, and I cannot resist it as it leads me towards the beach, which is covered, every inch of it, with rats. The air is filled with their maddening screech.

Puff-puff we go. Puff-puff goes the owner of the hand, and he whispers, “Shh. Hush. There. See? ‘Tis only I. There now.”

My father is sitting on a bench beside the slide behind the see-saw. He watches as we go.

“They will bite me, father,” I protest.

“They will not leave a mark,” I hear him reply.

I close my eyes and say the only thing I can think to say.

“No more. Please destroy it. I beg you.”


Mr. Laverty notes:

“I am currently working on new horror fiction while editing various other pieces and trying to place them with publishers and agents. I live in Scotland and have two daughters. My main horror influences are M.R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu, William Peter Blatty and David Lynch.”


“Every Dog Has His Day” Mystery by Julian Grant (Part 2 of 2)


Editor’s note: Follow this link to Part 1


I waited as Doc Williams worked as I stared at Miguel’s face wishing him to wake up. He was out cold.

By the time the Doc was finished, I had decided to see Sid and get her take on what had happened tonight. I left the doctor snoozing in the chair next to the bed as I headed out into the mansion. On the stairs, Quince and his wife, Mary, another rawboned cowpoke headed down towards the kitchen deep in conversation. I didn’t want to disturb them, but I had to find out what was going on here.

“Where’s Sid?” I asked as both Quince and his wife flinched at the sound of my voice.

“She’s in her room, Sir” Mary said, her eyes cast down at the floor. “I gave her something to sleep.”

Quince nodded in agreement. “And Mr. Todd is upstairs with – the dog.”

“What?” I asked. “Why?”

A shot rang out. And then another as the sound of the Glock in action sounded through the darkened halls. Mary immediately headed off to the safety of her kitchen as Quince stood trapped between looking after his wife and investigating this new disturbance.

“Go with her,” I said, leaping up the stairs. “I got this.”

I lunged through the door to the office expecting the worse. Sure enough, Todd stood there, the gun still in his hand, the same gun I had seen in the screening room, and the dead dog on the ground before him. He’d hit with both shots, one to the heart and another to the head splattering the poor animal across the room.

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked as I knocked the gun out of Todd’s hand.

“The dog was a killer. It had to go,” he sneered. “Once they taste human flesh…”

I shivered in revulsion as I looked at the gun I’d taken away from Todd.

“Where’d you get the gun?” I asked.

“It was on the screening room floor,” Todd said as he bent down to pick it back up.

I slid my foot over the weapon, keeping it in place on the floor. “Is it Jordan’s?”

“It was Jordan’s gun, sure. It’s mine now.”

He pushed my foot aside, picked up the gun and slid the weapon into the back of his jeans. What was I going to say?

Todd turned, his job done according to him, as I took the opportunity to look closer at the dead animal. Outside of the blood and damage done by Todd, the dog was unmarked except for his battle scars. I picked up his front paws and inspected his nails alongside his now-crooked maw. “Not a sign of blood –”

“Meaning?” a voice sounded from the door.

I turned to find Sid, now wrapped in a long chenille robe, standing at the door. Her face was pale, her eyes haunted as she did her best not to look at the dead beast. I moved to block her view as I laid out for her my thoughts.

“This dog didn’t kill your dad. I know dogs like this. Once they draw blood, they keep going. Your dad would have had his guts torn out and –”

Sid turned, burying her face in her robe. “That’s enough.”

I stopped, realizing that I was being inconsiderate. “Todd shot the dog, with the gun your dad had in the front room. He just started blazing away…”

There was a lot I could say about how Todd had screwed up the chain of evidence, maybe even contributed to the crimes that had gone on here tonight. I needed some guidance.

Todd came back, glared at me and dragged Sid away to get something to eat in the kitchen as I dug out my phone and called Diego back in Mexico. He was the one who had got me into this mess. I needed him to help me figure out what went on here. It took a while, but I finally connected.

But Diego wasn’t picking up. I got his voicemail and told him all about Jordan being murdered and that I was in way over my head. Did he know any reason why the man was killed? Or what was going on?  Hell, by the end I was sure I asked him to drive up from Saltillo himself as he could be here in about five hours not counting border traffic. A lot of it was fuzzy now that it was past two in the morning and the cops haven’t even showed up yet. I’d be a lot happier having my boss here if he could make it.

I hadn’t been paying any attention to where I was walking or talking so I was surprised when Todd grabbed me and pushed me up against the main staircase.

“What the hell’s the deal with calling Diego? What’s he gonna do? We don’t know what the hell’s going on. How could he?

“We don’t know what he can tell us. It wouldn’t hurt to ask, right?”

The cops showed up around three and all of us were dragging at that point. I’d already fallen asleep once at the kitchen table we’d all grouped around waiting for them to show.

“Morning, people. Hear we got some problems? Jordan’s been attacked?”

Police Chief Pember looked about the kitchen – checking his dance card to see who was here. Quince and Mary held fast by the coffee machine passing out cups of thick joe for everyone as Sid dozed in Todd’s arms. Pember’s thick moustache twitched as he nodded at us all. “Doc Williams is here too, right?’

“He’s in back,” I said. “Looking after the dog man, Miguel.”

“Two questions,” Pember asked, hooking his thumbs into his Sam Brown belt, hitching up the radio and firearm hanging from the well-worn leather. “Who the hell are you and what‘s happened to Miguel now?”

“I pulled my passport hoping that Pember wouldn’t tumble to the fact it was false as Quince filled him in on finding the injured man and Jordan in the big TV room.

“And Doc Williams is attending?” Pember asked as he passed me back my paperwork without comment. My heart was racing as I tried to make sure my poker face didn’t crack.

“Alright, here’s how its gonna go,” Pember drawled as he started pointing at each of us. “I’ll talk to each of your separately and when Miguel wakes up, I wanna talk to him. I’m gonna bring in the EMTs now and get Jordan tucked away proper.” Pember turned to Sid, dipping his head to the half-conscious girl as Todd did his best not to look guilty as hell.

“My condolences for your loss, Sid. We’re gonna find out who done this.”

Quince showed me up to my room, my bag sitting at the end of the narrow single bed that had been given to me. I didn’t care where I slept at this point and passed straight out.

The next thing I knew, Quince was knocking at the door again as I dragged myself up. The rain had finally stopped while I slept and the world was just coming alive in muted grey and brown.

“The Police Chief wants to see you in the screening room, Clint.”

“How’s Miguel doing, Quince?” I called through the door as I scrubbed at my face in the mirror hanging over the worn dresser. I looked like trash, my face pale and drawn with my hair sticking up everywhere.”

“He’s groaning and tossing around some,” Quince said as I opened the door. Jordan’s handyman didn’t look much better than me. I’d at least had a couple hours sleep compared to him. He looked dead on his feet. “He still looks like hell.”

“You don’t look too good yourself,” I smiled as I tried to hand comb my hair.

Quince nodded and shuffled away from me as I headed down to the home cinema.

“You wanted to see me, Chief?” I asked as I pushed my way inside the room. Thankfully Jordan’s body was no longer on the floor – but the blood was. Pember was sitting a row back from where Jordan had been killed, a deep frown on his face.

“From what I’m hearing, Clint, you seem to have a number of opinions about what happened here. You don’t think the dog did old Jordan in?”

“That’s right,” I said. “I’m sure of it. There were no blood stains on the dog. And Jordan’s body, if it had been killed by the dog, was in a lot better shape than most dog attacks I’ve ever seen.”

Pember nodded. “You’re right there, son. His face and balls were still in one piece and those are usually some of the first things to go after the throat.”

My throat felt tight and thick as Pember casually tossed off the damage done by other pit animals in cases like this. Dogs that are trained to kill and bleed don’t stop and pick or choose their targets.

“What do you think did those marks on his throat?” Pember asked as he watched me carefully for my response.

“I think whoever killed Jordan used the hand sickle we found out by Miguel’s body. You could hack a man up pretty good with that blade. Skin rips pretty easy.”

Now it was my turn to be nonchalant. I’d seen a lot of damage done to people and knew it didn’t take much to put a man down for good.

“There was no blood on the sickle you found out in the back. I checked,” Pember remarked as he kept watching me closely. There was no way I could be guilty of any of this based on my arrival time – it didn’t mean that Pember trusted me.

“And the rain cleared up the mess and took care of any prints.” Pember sighed, looking down at the blood on the carpet as he flipped open his battered notebook.

“According to Sid, she left the house about eight-thirty to come get you. She got back here about nine-twenty, right?

I shrugged. I hadn’t been watching the time and was more interested in getting a hot meal and meeting my new business partner. “Okay,” I agreed. “Where was everyone else?”

“Todd claims he was having a nap before all hell broke loose and Mary and Doc Williams were in the kitchen. We don’t know where Miguel was as Quince didn’t see him all evening. Nearest I can figure, Jordan came here around eight-thirty or so to watch a movie once he saw Sid out the door. That is according to her. So, we got about fifty minutes in which Jordan got himself killed.”

I nodded. What else was I going to do?

A knock sounded at the door of the screening room and Doc Williams popped his head in. “Miguel’s awake. Now would be a good time to question him.”

The Doc looked just as bad as Quince. He’d been up all night and was barely standing.

“Let’s get this done because I need some sleep.”

The news of Miguel awake had traveled through the house and everyone wanted to hear what the man would say. Sid, Todd, Quince, Mary – all of them were already waiting on the landing outside Miguel’s door round the back of the kitchen. It had started out as a mud room with windows out towards the back spread and had been converted into a small sleeping space for the dog handler.

“Hold on, everyone. You can’t all go in. He doesn’t need all of you in there. He’s barely awake.”

“That’s right, people. This is a police matter,” Pember said as he elbowed through the crowd by the door. “Go get some shut-eye and I’ll let you know if I need anything.”

Two minutes later, Chief Pember and Doc Williams were gathered around Miguel’s bed as the rest of us waited in the hall straining to hear what the injured man had to say. None of us said a word as Quince gently pushed the door open so we could hear the whole conversation.

“No, no, señor, I don’t know who hit me,” Miguel whispered. “I was near the door in the barn, the big one’s open, and I can hear someone rolling one of the dog cages outside. I ran out in the rain to see who had taken it out when I got hit from behind.”

“You never saw who hit you?” Pember asked as he wrote down Miguel’s statement. We could all hear the fast scratching the grizzled lawman made in his pad as we waited for Miguel to continue. “You never saw their face?”

Miguel started to cry. “Doesn’t matter now. Who cares? Senor Jordan is d-dead, nothing matters. Why would anyone want to kill a good man like him?”

I frowned, figuring that Miguel hadn’t obviously met many good men in his life if his opinion of Jordan was correct. The dead man had made his money with fight dogs and the more I heard of him and everything here in this house, the sooner I wanted to get back across the border.

“I bet it was for drugs,” Miquel groaned, his voice sharpening in anger.

“Drugs? What drugs?” Sid whispered, leaning forward with me as we eavesdropped at the door. I glanced about myself checking the others but everyone there seemed just as confused by Miguel’s statement.

Everyone but Todd.

Todd drew himself up to his full height, guilt stitched all over his face as I watched him plan his next lie, but I didn’t know if he still had Jordan’s gun or if he had given it up to the Chief already. From my position at the door, it would be hard for me to check him without being obvious.

Miguel continued.

“It was the glass, the crystal meth that came back with us from our last circuit. It was smuggled, but neither Señor Jordan or myself knew about it. Pel’ amor de Deus, we didn’t know.”

Sid had had enough at this point, and she pushed her way into the makeshift interview room.

“Miguel, what are you talking about? What is all this? Who smuggled drugs?”

Señorita,” Miguel explained, “It wasn’t us. We had just come back from Amarillo with the dogs and after I got the crates away, I decided to come back and check on one of the dogs who’d got hurt bad in the last fight. Señor Jordan wanted me to make sure the dog was sleeping when I saw him…”

Chief Pember ignored Sid as Miguel continued. The rest of us held by the door. Except for Todd. He was edging backwards now so I took the opportunity to slide in behind him and put my hand firmly on his back. Sure enough, the Glock was still stuck in his waistband where he’d left it. I slipped the gun out of his pants and pushed it into his kidney. “Stick around,” I whispered to him as I pushed him back towards the room.

Miguel pushed himself up on his pillow, sweat poured from him as he raced to finish.

“I see jefe Todd opening up the bottom of the road cages taking out bags of meth. I know meth. It’s killing my people. Jefe Todd had drugs hidden in the dog’s cages.”

“That’s a lie,” Todd said as he pushed his way into the now crowded mud room.

Pember held up a hand, halting Todd in his tracks as he leaned over to Miquel. “Who else did you tell?”

“I tell Señor Jordan. He goes and chases down jefe Todd and scream at him. He tells him that he’s no good for his daughter. That she shouldn’t be married to a drug dealer.”

Sid’s sobbing shouldn’t have surprised anyone. In one night, she’d lost her father and found out her fiancée was a drug smuggler. Pember dismissed the crying girl as he looked to Todd.

“Where are the drugs, Todd?” Pember asked as he stood up and grabbed the now-terrified man by his arm. I slid in next to Sid, squeezing her arm in sympathy. She looked up at me with tears in her eyes.

That’s when all hell broke loose.

From outside, a single short shot cracked as the window burst into a hundred flying fragments. I ducked down pulling Sid with me as Pember pushed Todd out of the line of fire.

On the bed, Miguel coughed as a plumb of blood spread across his chest, a black bullet hole over his heart.

I raced to the shattered window and jerked up the window.

Outside, all was quiet except for the sound of the rainwater draining off the roof and onto the ground.

Inside, Sid’s crying told us all we needed to know. “Oh, Miguel…”

“So, who the hell killed Miguel?” Todd demanded. “It wasn’t me. I don’t even have a gun,” he glared as I smiled at him. Given the fact that more bullets were flying now, it didn’t seem prudent to hand over my only advantage to Chief Pember.

“Where are the drugs, Todd?” Pember asked. “It’s the only thing that’s happened tonight I do believe.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Todd muttered. “Only one that said I had anything to do with drugs is dead. And he was a liar.”

“But why would he lie about that?” Pember asked, staring at Todd. “Why would he do it?”

“How would I know?” Todd groused. “Jealous, maybe? I’ve seen the way he looks at Sid. Maybe he thought he could get a shot with her if he got me in trouble?

“He’s right,” I said, as all heads turned to me. “The only people that knew anything about this are dead. It’s just hearsay.”

Pember turned a cold eye on me as I defended Todd. It wasn’t that I trusted Todd or even liked him. But in the last fifteen minutes, a man had been shot dead, we searched the grounds and found nothing, and I‘d figured out why Jordan and Miguel had died.

And who had actually done all the killing.

I agreed to help Todd muck out the cages as there was no one else here to help the dogs and I had energy to burn now. He was pissed when he saw the bait dogs were gone as he fancied a bit of sport after we slopped meat ends and kibble to the fighting beasts. I kept my hands well clear as I shoveled food into the battle animals and made sure I was gone when he led a few of them out to the pit to practice. I didn’t need to see that.

So, I was standing right in the drive when Diego rolled up in his big RAM 250. I was glad that he showed up in person as it would make the next bit a helluva lot easier.

Diego made a big deal of stretching, shooting me a side-eye glance as he clocked Chief Pember’s car still sitting front and center. The EMT’s had made a second run just a bit earlier taking in Miguel’s body.

“Cops still here, eh?” Diego said as he looked about the Jordan spread. “Where are they?”

“There’s only the Chief right now. He’s got some Staties coming in to help him search the area for any brass from the shooting last night.”

“Shooting?” Diego asked as he shook his head. “I thought that Jordan got killed by his dog? You weren’t making a whole lot of sense on your message.”

I shrugged.

“We had a shit ton of rain. I doubt he’s going to find anything. Miguel, the dog guy, got shot.”

Diego shook his head. “Ese, the trouble you get into…”

I just glared at Diego. None of this was my fault and the way I had figured I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. All thanks to him. I decided to keep that to myself as I’m not stupid.

I watched as Diego headed off towards the barn looking for Todd as Sid slipped by him at the front door of the house. She didn’t pay him any attention and Diego, to his credit, didn’t even try to hit on her.

Sid wandered over to me, one eye uneasily on the barn and the sounds of the dogs fighting. I could hear Todd yelling his encouragement as they practiced. She’d wrapped herself in a big, hooded sweatshirt that just about swallowed her up.

“Hey Sid,” I called out to her as she stopped and stared at the barn. “How you doing today?”

“It’s Todd’s fault my dad’s dead,” she said simply. It was the first time she’d even called Jordan her dad and I can see that she’d made up her mind about something.

“I don’t think he would have wanted me to marry him. Not if he was dealing meth.”

“Or stole it from one of the gangs that hang out at your dad’s fights?”

Sid nodded. “I hate this. Hate that Jordan made his money in blood. I probably shouldn’t be so picky about the drugs given how I live. But I can’t help it.”

Dogfighting was a tradition out here with farmers and cowpokes stretching centuries back pitting beast against beast. Hell, even Pember turned a blind eye to it, and he was the Chief. But I knew what Sid meant about meth. Crank and crystal had been tearing the panhandle apart and it was one of the reasons I had finally headed further South. I’d gotten clean after two years in the pen and I wasn’t ever going back. I was determined to keep a low profile and I still owed a lot of money to people in Rio Grande that would be more than happy to collect. So, going under and staying as clean as I could was about the only thing I could do as I figured out my situation. Clearly what happened here wasn’t it.

“You tell him yet?” I asked Sid as she fidgeted in the big sweater.

“I…I…don’t want to go in there,” she said, gesturing towards the barn.

“I’ll go get him,” I said. “Wait here.”

Sid nodded her thanks as I walked uphill to the barn steeling myself for what I’d find inside.

“Diego? What are you doing?”

I’d walked in to find Diego pulling into the air a side of cow that hung over the pit as two ravenous dogs leapt to grab the dangling food. Both of them, brindle-coated Pits, slashed at the meat gulping mouthfuls before falling back into the dirty hole.

“Feeding the dogs. You wanna go?”

I shook my head and headed over to Todd.

“Sid’s outside, Todd. She wants to talk to you.”

Todd was by the locked steel gun cabinet piling what appeared to be triple-wrapped kilos of meth in a shrink-wrapped cover. He slammed the door closed quickly as I sauntered up. He gave me his big don’t-screw-with-me stare and headed off out to the front yard.

“I’ll be right back, Diego.”

I watched Todd leave as Diego dropped the last of the meat into the pit. He peered over to watch them work the side of beef as he shook his head in amazement.

“Vicious. Man. Increíble.”

“I know who killed Jordan and Miguel,” I said, watching Diego carefully.

Diego turned and stared me down.

“You,” I said, reaching behind myself for the Glock I‘d taken from Todd. Diego may be my friend, but I knew he was capable of anything. “And Todd.”

“You’re loco, Ese. How could it have been us? I just got here.”

I kept my hands behind my back, not wanting to show Diego that I was strapped. I had no doubt he was packing.

“Just got here, huh? Look at your clothes. They’re filthy. Like you’ve been out in the mud and rain. Your truck’s covered in run-off and brush. And I bet if I checked, your long gun is stashed in the back, right?”

Diego looked down at his loose tracksuit. In Saltillo, AC is a luxury, so everyone has adapted to the heat with lightweight jogging pants and a strap T-shirt, throwing on the top only when it got cooler at night. Diego’s outfit had mud smeared on his knees and on his elbows. Exactly where his weight would have been from lying in the wet ground making a shot through the mud room window.

“You’ve been out in the weather. It poured here last night, and I checked the weather in Saltillo. High 80’s. Not a hint of rain. How’d your clothes get so dirty?”

I watched carefully as Diego’s smile slid slowly off his face. I was shooting in the dark, sure – but Diego didn’t have an answer.

“You made the shot from outside with your long gun.”

Diego sucked his teeth again. Waiting for me to continue.

“I figure Jordan told you about the meth on the phone and that he was going to turn it over to the Chief or make Todd get rid of it. He didn’t want anything to do with it.”

Diego sucked his teeth, shaking his head at me as he tried to talk himself clean. “That’s loco, Ese. Loco. I didn’t know anything about any meth. Who’s got meth?”

“You mean to tell me you weren’t even a bit curious what Todd was doing over in the corner when I came in?”

Diego didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. He knew.

“You shot Miguel ‘cause you weren’t sure if he saw you when you got here and released the dog as a diversion. Todd killed Jordan with the sickle in the TV room and figured that everyone would blame the dog, right? After you both snuck the dog out of the barn when it was raining, Miguel saw something, and you clubbed him with the sickle after Jordan was already dead.”

“I should have killed him then too,” Diego sneered as he went to draw his own gun from the fanny pack he always wore.

“Keep your hands to yourself,” I said as I pulled the Glock and had him toss his weapon belt on the floor. “Why’d you even let me go if all you were going to do was kill Jordan and get the meth from Todd?”

“Because he’s an idiot,” a voice snarled from behind me as Todd stepped into the barn, a bright silver revolver in his hands as he bared down on me. I didn’t wonder where that weapon came from. We were in Texas, after all.

I swung my Glock at Todd as Diego dove for his own gun while I backed up towards the pit. The barn had gone dead silent as if the dogs themselves realized what was as stake.

“You were supposed to be here an hour earlier, and Diego was supposed to shoot the old man and then you’d take the fall. We’d shoot you with Jordan’s gun and the cops would write it all off as a deal gone bad,” Todd said as he gestured with his gun. “Drop the gun, Clint.”

“You heard him, Ese. No hard feelings. It’s just business.”

Diego had retrieved his own twenty-two from his belt. It’s not much of a gun but it will still kill you dead enough if you hit the right spot. Diego was pointing it at my head. That would do it alright.

“I came up with the dog idea once Diego got up here way ahead of you. That way it didn’t matter if you even got here or not, the dog was to blame. I killed the dog after I took care of the old man. Problems solved.”

“Oh, Todd,” Sid sniffed as she appeared at the barn door. She’d heard everything and the look of shock and horror on her face was obvious. Todd had killed her dad.

A shot popped off inside Sid’s oversized sweater as she unloaded her weapon into her former fiancé. Diego swung his pistol at her leaving me with no choice. I tagged him twice as he spun on the spot and pitched headfirst into the dog pit. The Pits went to work immediately. I didn’t bother to look inside.

It was just about then that Chief Pember turned up as Sid kept on firing at Todd, her hand outside the hoodie now with a slick little mother-of-pearl shooter. She’d a great eye with every slug hitting home. I dropped the Glock on the ground by Todd’s body as Pember cleared leather and ordered Sid on the ground.

Down in the pit, the dogs kept on keeping on with Diego.

By the time the EMT’s made the final sweep and Pember had locked Sid in the back of his car, I‘d given my statement and promised that I’d stay local in case he had anymore questions. I supposed it was only about forty minutes later when I was on Texas State 4 heading towards the Rio Grande with a load of saleable meth in Diego’s truck that I remembered to toss my burner phone. I was going back, and I guess it was my turn to make good and clean up my mess from the past.

Every dog has his day.


Editor’s note: follow this link to Part 1.


Julian Grant is a filmmaker, educator, and author of strange short stories, outlaw poetry, full-length novels/ non-fiction texts and outsider comix. A tenured Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago, his work has been published by Dark Fire UK, Quail Bell, Avalon Literary Review, Crepe & Penn, Alternative History Magazine, Granfalloon, Altered Reality, The Chamber Magazine, Dark Lane Books, Clever Magazine, Peeking Cat Literary Journal, Danse Macabre, Fiction on the Web, Night Picnic, CafeLit, Horla, Bond Street Review, Piker Press, Retreats from Oblivion, Free Bundle, Filth Literary Magazine, Horror Sleaze Trash, The Mythic Circle, Murderous Ink Press, Superlative Literary Journal & The Adelaide Literary Magazine. 

Find out more about him at www.juliangrant.com


“Safe” Dark Fiction by Janet Goldberg

Five hours into our escape my husband and I pulled into Bridgeport, 8000 feet up in the Sierras.  Earlier, a little after dusk, we’d seen cows, or the shadows of them, moving slowly across the meadows.  But once in town it was too dark to see anything but the dull fluorescent strip of motels, gas stations, and the brick town hall.  Come morning we’d see the tall, snow-capped mountains rising up around the town and, if we were lucky, blue sky.  We’d been here many times before—a stop-off on the way to the desert—but this time was different.  This was no vacation.  And it was cold, far colder than we’d expected.  At the edge of town my husband turned into the Bridgeport Inn pulling up beside the office.  I peered out my window at the place, most of its rooms dark, the empty pool, lit by two spotlights, peeling.  Come summer, pool filled, it was a pretty place.  Now, early March, still the edge of winter, the motel looked run down, an unhappy place in the middle of nowhere.  Or maybe I was just tired, not just from the drive but from months of madness, and I felt guilty boarding our cats.  Little cages in a back room of a vet clinic.  Still, they’d be safe.  No one could get to them.

“Hey, are you coming?”  My husband, out of the car now, leaned back in, his door still open.  His eyes looked bloodshot, his hair a little grayer.  We’d both lost weight.

I opened my door and got out.  Before coming around the car, I looked over my shoulder at the road and beyond the road into the darkness half expecting the darkness to take shape.

“There’s nothing out there,” my husband said, holding the office door open.

“I know,” I said, stepping in, taking in the dimly lit room, a coffee maker and Styrofoam cups on a table alongside the wall, the check-in counter across from it, and behind the counter an open door to living quarters.  Inside there a T.V. flashed; orange goldfish swam in a large tank.  The rest of the office, which I’d seen before, opened into another larger room, a mini museum of glass-encased Indian relics, mounted on the walls, a wooden sled, a rifle, and a deer head.  It was dark in there now though.  My husband, at the counter, rang the bell.  A man in a plaid flannel shirt and jeans padded out in his socks and yawned.  We knew him, of course, though never asked his name, and he seemed no different than last year, amiable, maybe a little scattered as if he’d accidentally wandered into his own motel.  It was we who were different—more serious than usual, desperate looking maybe, and I worried he’d notice.  People in small towns always noticed and sometimes cared.

 “Well, hello, folks.  Was just getting ready to close things up.”   He put on a pair of gold-rimmed glasses and looked at us curiously.  “You two come up every year, don’t you, but this year seems earlier.”  He started flipping though some index cards. 

“No reservation this time,” my husband said.  “Do you have a room for tonight?”  He pulled his wallet out.

“Maybe two nights,” I said.  “I take it you’re not that busy.”

 “Just our local deer hunters now.  You can have as many nights as you like.”  He looked at me and chuckled.

I must have been grimacing.

“No fan of hunters, eh?”  He slid the credit card through and punched in some numbers.

“Or dead deer,” I said.   We’d seen them all stiff tied to flatbeds or stacked atop another in town on the sidewalks.

“Me neither.  That one over there.”  He cocked his head toward the dark part of the office.  “Came with the place.  Just glad they didn’t put it over there.”  He nodded toward the coffee maker.  “Then I’d have to look at it all the time.”  The man handed my husband his credit card.  “Storm might come in tonight,” he said.  “Maybe snow.  We can still get hit pretty hard up here even this late in the season.”  He pushed a key toward us.  “Good thing you two aren’t in a rush.  You look beat.”

  “Long drive,” my husband said.   He blinked his eyes nervously.

 “Maybe food would help,” he said.  “Nothing open in town now, but a half a mile out there’s a Mexican place–Desperados–might still be open.  You’ll see a sign on the road.”

 After we dropped our bags in the room, we got back in the car.

 “I’m not really hungry,” I said.

“You’ll sleep better if you eat something.”

Back on 395 we drove out of town and into darkness.  My husband switched on the high beams, the road, and the thick forest framing it, coming to life.  We’d driven this stretch many times but always in the morning, after check-out, on the last leg down to the desert, to Death Valley, where the heat rejuvenated us after wet, dreary San Francisco winters. 

“Maybe we should have used fake names,” I said, on the look-out for the sign.

“Relax.  No one knows we’re here.  What did he say the name of the place was?”

“Desperados.  But I don’t remember there being anything out here.”

“There it is,” my husband said, the headlights flashing on a sign at the road’s edge, a gun-slinging bandit and an arrow pointing the way.  My husband turned, driving down a short, bumpy road nestled in forest, pulling up to a ranch-style restaurant, a large picture window in the front.  The light above the door was on and a car, an old Cadillac, in the lot, but the rest of the place looked nearly dark.

“I hope this isn’t another wild goose chase.  I’ve had enough of that for a lifetime.”  A dozen butcher knives stabbed into the deck rails, bullets scattered in between, the vile threats, but because we all lived in the same building, in an HOA, the common space a free for all, the police said they couldn’t do anything, not until our neighbor actually hurt us. 

My husband turned off the engine.  “We might as well check it out.”  He opened the door and got out.

“A Mexican restaurant in the middle of nowhere.  Weird,” I said.

“Only because it’s dark.  You wouldn’t think so during the day.  Everything looks different during the day.” 

We paused at the door, which was massive, made of thick wood.  Carved into it were small gargoyles, human arms wrapped around lion heads.  The sign, hanging from a nail, said Cerrado.

“See,” I said, but my husband pushed on the door anyway, and we stepped in, everything inside–the terracotta tile, the paper lanterns, the wooden booths–giving off a soft reddish haze.  From the back of the restaurant a tall, gray-haired man with a mustache appeared.  He smiled warmly.  “Welcome.  We have your food ready.”   The man slipped back into the darkness. 

I looked at my husband. 

“Don’t say anything,” he said.

Then the man came back, handing my husband a white plastic bag.  “Enjoy,” he said.

My husband pulled out his wallet, but the man raised his hand.  “It’s on the house.”

“Really?  Are you sure?” my husband asked.

The man nodded.  “It’s the end of the day.  It’s the least we can do.  Just come back to see us again.  Okay?”  

 “Thank you,” my husband said, taking the bag.  “That’s generous of you.”

The man escorted us back to the front door and held it open for us.  Good night,” he said. 

Behind us we heard the lock turn.

As we headed toward the car, I stopped, turning, and saw the man at the window.  He raised his hand, and I raised mine back.  Then I caught up with my husband and got in the car.  He handed me the bag, and I put it on my lap.

“The guy from the motel probably called it in,” my husband said.  “He didn’t want us to go hungry.”

“Whatever it is,” I said, “it’s still warm.”

My husband turned on the lights and then drove out of the lot. 

Back at the motel, we lifted the lids off the tins, inside tacos, rice, refried beans covered in cheese.  I stared at it for a moment, a long time since I’d had appetite.  My husband unwrapped his fork and plunged it into the beans.  Even in the best of times, he was lean, but now no one would guess that beneath his bulky sweater he looked like the starved men of concentration camps.  He’d been just as scared as I was.  I pushed my tin toward him.

The dream always started the same way our trouble had–with exploding glass as loud as a gunshot.  Then we’d jumped out of bed and run to the back kitchen door; there, opposite us, was our neighbor’s kitchen door, between the two, glass scattered all over the landing, the shards still left in the frame like monster teeth.  In my dream though a face—wild-eyed and fiendish—always appeared.  That’s when I always woke, jolted out of sleep, heart racing, just as we both had been the night it had all started, the night we’d called the police.  That’s when he’d become vengeful, starting after us, his mania out of control.  Tonight was no different, the dream replaying over and over.  I switched on the bedside lamp.  5:00 a.m. now, it was still dark, the room chilly.  I got out of bed and switched the heat on and then got back in.  I didn’t see how it would end:  months of 5150s at the county asylum, giving us brief reprieves–three days of commitment, two days of post medication stupor, then the rage would start up again, an endless cycle.  The police eventually told us to get a gun.  One officer even showed me what to do if he cornered me in the basement or the garage.  I looked at my husband now.  His face a mask of calmness, he slept so quietly that I felt for his heartbeat, gently placing my hand on his chest, so thin that I could feel the curve of his ribs.  Then I got up again and went over to the window and parted the curtains a little.  But there was no wind, and now, tucked away in this little room in a mountain town, I suddenly felt safe.  I went over to my suitcase and pulled out my jacket.  I slipped my feet in sneakers and walked to the back of the room to a sliding glass door and pulled it open.  The cold air blasting in almost made me slide it shut, but I stepped out anyway, a long time since I could open a door without fear.  

 When my husband woke, I was already dressed.  Curtains parted, sun was streaming through. 

 “Muffins and juice at the front desk if you want,” I said.  “Sleep well?”

 My husband yawned.  “Well enough.  You eat?”

 “I had some tea.”

 The phone rang.

 My husband and I looked at each other. 

 “You didn’t tell anyone, did you?  Not even your sister, right?”

 “I just told her we were leaving,” I said

 “Just let it ring,” he said.

“He knows we’re here.”  I walked over to the nightstand, picked up the receiver put it to my ear, then pulled it away.  “Hang-up.”

 “That doesn’t mean it was him.”  My husband got out of bed.  “Could have been anyone.”

“Sure.  Anyone.”  I walked over to the window and looked out, our car the only one in the lot.  Then I turned back around.  “Did you bring the gun?”

My husband unzipped his suitcase and started rifling through it.  He pulled out a map and spread it open on the bed.  “Someone will kill him or he’ll kill someone, and it won’t be us.  Listen, I have an idea.  The storm’s petered out.  Let’s just take a day off.  We’re safe.  The cats are safe.  No one knows we’re here.  We can take the road into Bodie.  It’s about twenty miles.  It’s right here on the map.  To that ghost town we always pass.  First though.”  He went back to his suitcase and started pulling out some clothes.  “I’m going to grab a cup of coffee.”

In the car we got back onto 395.

“By the way,” my husband said, “it was the guy at the front desk that called this morning.  Called the wrong room.”

“Really?  Why’d he hang up?”

“Embarrassed, I guess.  Worried he’d woken us up.  Anyway, he told me to tell you he was sorry.” 

“Did you have a muffin?” I asked.

“Sure.  Chocolate chip.  There were tons of them, even though nobody’s here.”

“What else did he say?” I asked.

“You know, the usual.  What you’d expect.  Wife left him.  Short stint in law school.  Hamsters.  He’s got a whole bunch of them back there where he lives.”

“But how could he call the wrong room if we’re the only ones here?”

My husband slowed down.  “I think that’s it–the turn-off.”  He turned onto an unpaved road.

“You sure?  Why isn’t it marked?”

“Because it’s haunted.  The ghosts want to keep it that way.  Stop worrying, will you.”

The road started climbing through open meadow.  Beyond the meadow, on my husband’s side, were snow-topped mountains with low-growing sparse vegetation. Out my side a thick line of trees backed a series of bald, rocky hills, but despite the warm sun streaming in, the place felt cold, forgotten. 

“What’s that ahead?”

My husband slowed down coming to a stop.  “Deer.  No.  Antelope, I think.  Two of them.”

 The pair, poised at the edge of the tree line, were looking down the road toward us.  The larger one, the male, I assumed, stepped into the middle of the road, honey-colored, stout, as tall as horse with black antlers. Nostrils flared, he stamped one foot and snorted.  Then there was an explosion, and I fell forward, folding myself in half.  “Jesus, what was that?”

“Hunters.”

I started to sit back up.  “I thought this was state park.”

“Not all of it, I guess.  Are you okay?”

“How close do you think that was?” I asked.

“Probably not very,” my husband said.  “Sound echoes out here.  You still want to go?”

“If you think it’s safe…”

My husband started driving again. 

“What happened to the antelope?”

“I’m sure they’re fine.  They can run.”  Having just reached the crest of a hill, he slowed down again, the town coming into view, a bunch of broken-down wooden buildings scattered across a barren hillside.  “There won’t be any shooting here.”  He pulled into the lot, a truck there and a cinderblock restroom.

“You think it’s flush?” I asked.  

We didn’t talk much as we walked the dirt and pebble path from one building to another–from the church, the jail, the saloon, to the general store.  Mostly we just peeked through windows or barred doorways at what was left of the old furnishings, trying to imagine what life would have been like if the place was teeming with miners, drunks, prostitutes, thieves, children.  At the schoolhouse we could see small wooden desks and chairs and old books, readers from the era, and a chalkboard, and there was a spiral staircase up to a second floor.  We tried pushing on the door, thinking we might somehow get in, but then I felt a firm hand on my shoulder and swung around.

 “Hey, you can’t go in there,” a red-bearded man in overalls said, a shovel in his hand.  “These buildings aren’t safe.  Half my day’s spent propping them up.”

That night we ate across the street from the motel, at the Bridgeport Bar & Grill, a white-shingle house converted into a downstairs restaurant and an upstairs motel.  White scalloped curtains hung over the windows, and on the tables were gas-lit lamps.  There were eight tables in total, two against the windows facing 395, four alongside the other two walls, and two in the center where we sat.

“Now what?”  I said.

 “We order,” my husband said.

I closed my menu.  “I mean tomorrow.”

My husband shrugged. 

“Maybe we should call the police,” I said.  “Maybe they locked him up again.”

“The police won’t tell you anything.  They can’t.  Not when they’re crazy.”

“They’d tell us if he were dead.”

“He isn’t.  That’s the problem with these guys.  You can’t ever kill them.”

“This morning you said someone would.”

My husband opened the menu.  “What are you getting?”

“What are we going to do?”

“We’re going to wait him out.  Something will happen.  He’ll do something, and they’ll put him in jail or in the hospital again and get him right.  He can’t stay crazy forever.  And then we’ll go back and start over.”

“So you don’t think someone will kill him?”

“Do you want someone to kill him?”

“Hey, folks.”  The waitress stood at our table.  “What can I get you?”  She pulled out a small pad.

“Coke, please,” I said.

“Two,” my husband said, and then she went through the specials, venison stew in red wine sauce and rack of lamb with mint butter and mashed potatoes. “Think about it,” she said, turning for the bar.

My husband closed his menu.  “I say we head down to Death Valley.  A week there.  Then we go back.”

“Why a week?” I said.

“How long can we keep the cats cooped up?”

I rubbed my eyes. “I know.  The cats.” 

“It’s only been two nights,” my husband said.  “Don’t worry.”

“You don’t think he can get to them?”

The waitress placed our drinks on the table and pulled two straws from her apron.  “Ready?”

The next morning while my husband loaded up the car, I went over to the front desk and laid the key on the counter.

“So you’re leaving,” the man said.  “Was everything all right?’

“Yes.  Fine.”  I pushed the room key toward him.  “About that call yesterday.  We were already up, so no worries.”

The man raised his eyebrows.  He picked up the key and hung it on a hook.   “Are you all right?”

 “I’m fine.”

 “You know, you don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” he said.  “I can give you a special deal.”

“A special deal?”

He took the key off the hook and pushed it back toward me.  “For as long as you want.” 

I peered at the key and then looked up at the man.  “What did my husband tell you?”

The man shook his head and shrugged.

I pushed the key back.  “We have to go back sometime.”

“No you don’t.  You could stay here forever.  People do.”

“But we’re the only ones here.”  I looked down at the key again, its sharp ridges, and then over at the door.  “We can’t live our lives in a motel.” 

Chuckling, the man stuffed his hands in his pockets.  “Course you can.”


Janet Goldberg’s “Safe” comes from a collection titled Every Small Thing.  Her novel The Proprietor’s Song will be published by Regal House in the summer of 2023:  https://www.regalhousepublishing.com/janet-goldberg/  She also edits fiction for Deep Wild https://deepwildjournal.com/ and teaches writing at a community college in northern California.


“Steve Loved Her to Pieces” Dark Fiction by Robert Kostanczuk

It was at Fatello’s that he let her know.

Over a plate of chicken cacciatore, Steve informed Greta that he really liked her.

“I love you to pieces,” he smiled.

A forkful of meat, diced tomatoes and red bell peppers was about to enter his mouth.

Greta was melting into a warm state of mellow.

“That is just so nice of you to say,” she said, awash in the sweep of the moment.

Her eyes began misting up. She fought the urge to babble away with a stream of I’m-so-happy declarations.

“How’s your ravioli?” Steve asked as his smile grew ever wider.

It was a smile that almost seemed too radiant for a discussion of doughy food. Steve thought his query about his date’s dinner would make for a considerate and caring interjection.

He was precise and prepared on dates.

Greta eagerly acknowledged that her meal was fantastic.

“You know something, I’ve been meaning to tell you how much I like you for quite some time,” Steve assured.

Easing back into his chair, he straightened out the knot in his tie while awaiting a response.

“That means a lot to me,” Greta said.

She was deeply serious about the reply. The night was becoming truly magical. The restaurant was oh-so classy. Greta was in her best dress; classic black, fabulously feminine — with long sleeves that flowed into frilly lace at her wrists.

The background music was Dean Martin. As the swank strains of “Volare” wafted across tables, Steve continued with words of endearment.

“I do indeed love you to pieces; if I could, I would rest your heart in the most exquisite jewelry box on Earth — your heart is like a fine diamond … sparkling, and radiating warmth.”

Steve smiled, and even chuckled a bit.

It was something akin to an acknowledgment of corniness — but his eyes seared with a focused intensity.

With each flowery accolade, Greta sank deeper into emotional surrender.

Steve raised his glass of fine red wine in a toast.

“To my Greta … your heart would glow outside the confines of your exquisite body,” he said with the most earnest of gazes.

“That’s really, really amazing … you have such a way with words,” said Greta. Steve’s poetic nature was intoxicating and pleasantly unsettling. His mention of her “exquisite body” was actually making her blush.

She loved his sharp, dark, thin eyebrows.

When he emphasized a point during conversation, the eyebrow on the right would shoot up like a diagonal exclamation point.

“I like your teeth — there, I said it, and I’m not sorry,” Steve gushed. “They’re so white and perfectly aligned. Dental offices should proudly show pictures of those type of teeth in the waiting room! Yes, display an image of them in the finest of frames.”

Greta burst into laughter. She laughed so hard that the wine she was drinking shot through her nose.

It all was flattering, and endearingly silly.

A small wave of embarrassment rolled in.

The lyrical verbiage continued.

“And those eyes, those eyes; they would float like blue starbursts around your face, if they could just pop out of your head,” Steve rattled on in locomotive fashion. “I hope I’m not going overboard.”

Greta thanked him for the thoughts, but didn’t verbalize her feelings that the accolades were getting to a peculiar point. A discomforting ambience was descending.

“ … And oh yes, your hands … your hands belong on display in an art museum,” Steve continued with ongoing hyperbole.

“Your hands are like fine porcelain; I’m not just saying that.”

It was the “not just saying that” assurance which eased Greta back into bliss; he really did mean all he said — don’t be cynical, she told herself.

He merely has a poet’s streak, she told herself.

“Oh, one other thing,” Steve added. “Those legs — your legs. Excuse me for being bold, but those are sleek little limbs that should be separated from your body and shown as a full-page ad in one of those oversized fashion magazines.”

Greta loved the attention, but harbored the growing impression her boyfriend was getting a little too personal.

“Like I said, forgive me, but I do just love you to pieces,” Steve repeated.

He made the pronouncement with a shrug of the shoulders that implied helplessness over Greta’s charms.

Steve’s gaze suddenly swung to the left, where a waitress was taking care of another table.

Steve smiled back at Greta, then subtly gave another look to the left.

The target of attention was attractive, with blonde hair that playfully drooped over one eye.

Steve took note of the svelte figure and what he thought was the cutest upturned nose.

His distracted disposition was not lost on Greta.

“Pardon me,” Steve said to the waitress after she took the order at her table. “I know you’re not serving us, but is there any way we can get a little water?”

The waitress paused with the pitcher of water she was carrying.

“Sure,” she said, smiling.

 “Really sorry to bother you, but our own waitress has been away a while,” Steve added as water was poured.

“Not a problem,” the waitress said, acknowledging Greta with a look, and Steve with a longer look.

As his server walked away, Steve spoke.

“Thank you … uh … your name is?” he asked with a detectable sense of urgency.

“Marietta,” came the reply.

She barely looked back while answering, but did give a quick wave bye.

Steve took a sip of water. He savored well-groomed ladies, and this one certainly fell into that category, right down to the impeccable manicure.

Steve was a details man.

The thought of making a play for Marietta somewhere down the line had already nestled into his mind.

“Water, hydration is so important,” said Steve, raising the glass in a half toast.

He smiled. Greta did too, although she was a bit unnerved by his veiled flirting with the waitress. But Steve started to talk again; that got her mind off of it.

“How much do you like Italian food? I like it a lot.”

“Me too,” she said.     

Steve was mentally sizing up his latest source of social interaction.

She was not unattractive, he thought — maybe a bit chunky, but not bad. Taking a last bite of the chicken cacciatore, Steve tried not to be too obvious with his attention to her hair. There was a conclusion reached after the discreet perusal: The hairdo was cropped nicely around the shoulders, but the color was mousy.

The eyes, however, were a savior. They were the color of a clear summer sky. They accented plump cheeks that were fairly child-like … even adorable, Steve conceded.

Her smile — infectiously vulnerable — was another selling point.

For her part, Greta had assessed Steve quite a while ago. He was lean and handsome, with clean, angular facial features. Tidy black hair impeccably groomed. A knack for dressing well. Expensive suits were the norm, like the charcoal pinstriped number he donned tonight. When animated — which was often — his eyes took on a delightfully devilish air.

A rapscallion, to be sure.

It was all quite appealing, and perhaps enticingly dangerous, to Greta, an administrative assistant at a law firm.

He was an up-and-coming commodities broker.

They were both in their early 30s. This was their fourth date. It was dinner at an upscale Italian restaurant, then home.

“I had a great time,” Greta said as Steve pulled his car up in front of her apartment building.

They exchanged innocuous pleasantries. They kissed in Steve’s stylish Volkswagen Passat.

“I’ll see you soon then?” Greta asked hesitatingly.

The thought flashed across to her that maybe she was being too forward.

Steve answered quickly: “I’ll see you sooner than you imagine.”

The announcement was made with a wicked flash of his eyes.

Greta was happy, though not quite sure about what he meant by “sooner than you imagine.” She stepped out of his car and into the brisk autumn dark. Steve drove away.

Her head was still swimming in an emotional high.

“I can tell you really like this guy,” her brother, Walt, told her by phone the next morning.

“Yep, I do. He’s very nice, and I guess I partly like him because he’s, he’s … mysterious.” The word she was searching for finally drifted in.

“How mysterious is he?” questioned Walt.

 “You sound worried,” Greta replied.

“Not necessarily. But ‘mysterious’ sometimes isn’t good,” offered the sibling.

Walt had a way of cutting through clutter. He was a no-frills blue-collar guy — a mechanic at the city garage.

Greta loved her brother, but wasn’t about to overanalyze aspects of her relationship. She was merely waiting for Steve to call again.

That night, she headed to the kitchen for a snack when something caught her eye. A small envelope had been slid under her door. It was a thank-you card. Inside, it read, “Love you to pieces, Steve.”

She opened the door. No one in the hallway.

Greta’s emotions were mixed. Odd, yet so nice.

She pondered why he didn’t just phone her.

Later, while trying to fall asleep, Greta mulled her history with Steve.

They had met at a bar she had gone to with her girlfriend. He was there by himself, in a suit, his tie loosened. Steve explained that he was unwinding after a hard day of handling a couple of irritable clients.

In the beginning, the banter was superficial … jobs, favorite foods, the weather … .

Substance entered the picture when Steve Jerrosyk took a photo of his mother from his wallet.

“She’s a lovely lady; you look a lot like her,” Greta Stepprenek said, taking the photo and raising it close to her face.

This was the moment Greta and Steve connected.

They would definitely date, that was for certain.

They were sitting close to one another at the bar, and commenting on the basketball game that glowed on the big screen in front of them. The photo of Steve’s mom was the icebreaker.

“She has a big heart; it should be displayed in a trophy case,” Steve said as Greta continued to scan the picture.

Steve’s mother had short salt-and-pepper hair. She wore a faded floral-patterned house dress. A sweet-looking lady with a wisp of a smile. Nothing flashy. The only thing that really stood out were her fingernails. They had a deep red polish on them.

The color really didn’t go with the simplicity of the dress and hairdo. But it was no big deal to Greta; the image reflected warmth, family and home

She handed the photo back to Steve. The motherly image helped win over Greta’s affection.

“I’d like to meet her sometime,” she enthusiastically told Steve.

He appeared noncommittal about such a meeting.

“Yeah, maybe,” Steve said in a dispassionate tone.

He tucked his mother’s photo away while glancing up at the TV.

Steve’s indifferent attitude bothered Greta slightly, but she still liked him a lot.

Steve and Greta would end up exchanging phone numbers. Steve bade his new friend goodnight with an affectionate squeeze of her shoulder.

“I’m not going to let you out of my sight too much,” he winked.

Greta had no trouble recounting that touch of the shoulder while drifting off to sleep. The memory was something to embrace. The only damper was the conversation she had just had with her brother.

Greta happened to mention to him that Steve told her his mother’s heart was so kind, it should be put in a trophy case.

“Trophy case? Didn’t he also tell you he loved you to pieces, and that your hands were so pretty they should be in a museum?” Walt asked in bewilderment. “It’s bizarre.”

Greta reacted with a flash of anger: “Not true, not true; he’s just being nice … poetic.”

Getting to sleep was harder with the tense exchange rolling around her head.

In the middle of the night, Greta was awaking from a fitful period of sleep when she saw a shadow in the bedroom doorway. After closing her eyes and then refocusing them, the shadow was seemingly closer to her bed.

It bent over her.

She thought she saw an arm extend from the dark mass. Then, a glint of sharp light broke forth.

A knife, it was holding a knife, she thought.

Terror tingled across her body.

Greta jerked up into a seated position. Heart pounding, she shut her eyes, as if to make the moment go away.

Steady, hollow breathing could be heard.

It was not hers.

She waited for a few more seconds — eyes tightly shut.

Then, she looked around — and listened.

This time, nothing. Amazingly, the intruder was gone.

Was it an illusion?

For a minute, she scanned the bedroom, listening for anything, including footsteps. Still nothing.

She figured it was just a dream at the edge of her semiconscious state.

In the morning, Greta noticed the deadbolt lock on her apartment door was not locked, although the doorknob lock was in place.

There was only momentary concern. Greta had the bad habit of only turning the lock in the doorknob into its proper position. Once or twice she had even forgotten to set any kind of lock on her door for the night. The specter she thought she saw was a fading memory.     Everything seemed secure in her apartment.

Life went on.

But there was no call from Steve that day.

Or the day after. Or the day after that.

Although he had come to her place to pick her up on dates, he had only actually stepped inside her apartment once — on the first date.

Greta tried phoning him after not hearing from him, but just got an invitation to leave a voice-mail message.

It hurt.

Still, after three days of no contact, she kept holding out hope. It wasn’t as if they were in what could be classified as a serious relationship, so maybe — she thought — he was merely keeping things loose.

Walt heard a rumor that Steve had moved out of the area. Greta wasn’t quite sure what to think.

Her thoughts drifted back to the time when she was trying to get a better handle on the guy who had won her over.

It was a day or two after the first date.

He had mentioned where he lived; had given his address to her.

She knew he had money; she was just curious how much. She wanted to check out his house, so drove there.

It was a Victorian, in a ritzy subdivision.

On this particular moonlit night, the house was dark as Greta sat across the street from it in her car.

Why was she even here?

She couldn’t answer; the reasoning for the excursion was lame.

Suddenly, a car pulled up in front of the house. It was Steve’s Passat.

In the dim light, Greta could see that Steve had gotten out and opened the passenger-side door.

Someone small and frail looking was leaving the vehicle.

The person was slightly hunched over. It looked to be a woman.

Greta figured it was Steve’s mother, although the person exiting the car appeared to be older and weaker than Steve’s mother should have been.

She wasn’t that old, but maybe she had been sick; Greta felt she had figured it out.

Up the walkway went Steve, ushering the woman along.

It was not all that far to the grand, arching front door.

The path was ornate, as it was laid with red brick and lined with finely trimmed pine bushes.

Steve place his hand on the lady’s lower back, as if to guide her.

Then, she stopped, turned her head, and seemed to say something to Steve.

A few seconds passed.

Steve appeared angry, seemingly throwing harsh words her way.

The woman backed away.

To Greta, it seemed the woman was almost cowering.

Steve, half hidden in the shadows of a tree, continued raining down words.

Greta rolled down her car window to hear better.

By then, any conversation had faded into a washed-out blur.

Steve grabbed the woman by her upper arm — firmly.

And he led her away.

All this was happening while Greta wondered if she was too close — if she would be spotted by Steve.

She slid down in the front seat a bit.

As Steve and the lady approached the doorway, Steve appeared to swivel his head back toward the street.

Greta’s heart sank.

Steve never stopped moving, and turned his head back around.

Greta didn’t think she’d been seen.

She waited until Steve and the woman entered the house.

She was about to drive away when yelling shot out from the house.

It was so loud, and it was angry, and it was Steve.

Though muffled, Greta thought she could make out the words, “You’re stupid. You’re useless.”

She drove off, attributing Steve’s rough behavior to a bad day — the kind of day everyone has.

Recalling such an awkward, uncomfortable episode did not lessen Greta’s affection for the man.

But she promised herself she would not dwell on Steve’s absence from her life.

The next morning came and went, as did the evening, without hearing from him.

Despite not wanting to obsess on him, she found herself sinking into depression as the hours without contact from him passed in a slow, grinding way.

So it was with great joy that Greta took a phone call from Steve exactly seven days after his absence from her life had started.

He apologized for the length of time apart from her, saying overtime at his job had drained him..

He now wanted to see a movie, but asked that she drive since his car was not available because of engine work.

Greta complied, and happily showed up at his place.

She rang the doorbell at the side of the large oak door on the weekend of the movie date.

“Hi, good to see you, come on in,” beamed Steve, wearing a preppy black cardigan sweater.

“Come into my parlor,” he smiled, placing a hand on Greta’s shoulder.

“You have a parlor?” she asked in bemused wonder.

“Indeed I do,” he said, leading her into a small, but exquisite, sitting area that was awash in crimson.

A leather chaise lounge, an antique lamp, a hanging tapestry depicting medieval images — all were colored a rich red.

The room’s tone enveloped the senses.

Greta sat in an armchair.

Steve sat on an ottoman next to her.

“I just wanted to take a break before we head out to tell you much I appreciate your company,” he said.

“I feel the same,” she said.

Over Steve’s right shoulder hung a framed photo of his mother.

In it, she word a babushka and a shy, vulnerable smile.

“Ah, you noticed my mom’s photo,” Steve blurted. “She’s so old-school with the babushka and that tattered winter coat she just won’t give up.

“Sometimes I wish she’d be more hip. Those old-world ways drive me crazy at times,” he laughed, more out of aggravated bewilderment than fond humor.

Stymied as to a reply, Greta chose a diplomatic comment.

“Well, your mother seems nice.”

“Yeah, nice,” Steve said, staring into space.

“Maybe I pick things apart too much; maybe I’m too critical,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders.

Greta was encouraged by the softer introspection.

“I need to dissect and analyze … compartmentalize. That makes me feel like I have control in my life,” Steve said, looking directly into her eyes.

Greta merely nodded as acknowledgment of the dollop of self-analysis.

“I need to dissect,” he repeated, giving Greta’s knee an affectionate, but decidedly firm squeeze.

She was slightly shocked by the strength of the squeeze. It bordered on hurting.

“Excuse me, I need to use your bathroom before we leave,” Greta said, eager to move away from the parlor.

Steve said it was down the hall, second door on the left.

On her way to the bathroom, Greta caught sight of a bedroom to the right, with the door open and nightstand lamp on.

The soft glow of the room pulled her in.

Somehow, she knew she was meant to enter.

Greta noticed something sticking out from underneath the foot of the bed.

Inching closer, she could tell it was the corner of a shoebox.

    Kneeling down, she hurriedly pulled the box to her. The thought of Steve walking in on her was petrifying.

When the shoebox was opened, the interior revealed a ball of aluminum foil. She peeled open the ball to find small, glossy bits of something. Picking up one of the specks, Greta discovered it resembled a fingernail.

False fingernails maybe? They were polished with a fading color, perhaps a dark pink or scarlet.

She felt a natural texture on the surface of what she held.

Then, Greta accidentally dropped it.

Skimming the floor with the palm of her hand to feel for it, she knocked it under the bed.

“Crap!” she muttered.

Panic set in.

    Refocusing attention on the box, Greta quickly counted a half dozen — perhaps eight — dime-sized objects.

Each had a dull sheen that looked like nail polish.

She picked up one of the bits from the box in her fingertips.

It had short, delicate shreds attached.

There was a slight moistness.

“My God!” Greta gasped.

The shreds seemed to be flesh. She rolled the strands between her fingers.

They were indeed skin — they had to be.

She returned the bit to the shoebox. Her fingertips that had held the strange little piece were glistening with red in the light from the lamp.

Taking a closer look, the dreaded realization that it was blood came into focus.

It descended like a lead weight.

The swell of thunder could be heard rumbling across the darkened sky in the world beyond the claustrophobic realm of Steve’s home.

Mouth agape in horror, Greta caught sight of a crumpled-up piece of white paper tucked inside a corner of the shoebox. Spreading the paper apart, a godforsaken thing could be seen.

The tip of a finger appeared before Greta’s eyes. It was complete with fingernail and shredded skin tissue, apparently severed at the top joint.

Greta drew her head away, hoping this was all a sickly illusion. However, there was handwriting on the paper which was undeniably real.

Drawing the paper closer to her eyes, Greta noticed the outline of a tiny heart, which was drawn in pencil.

Above the heart was writing. It said: “I love you to pieces … always.”

Steve’s mother flashed through Greta’s mind. Scrambling to her feet, she tried to gather herself.

She needed to get out of the bedroom, and out of Steve’s house.

Disoriented from waves of terror, Greta frantically attempted to concentrate on her escape.

As she quickly moved to the bedroom doorway, Greta’s vision locked onto an antique chair by the side of a dresser. Underneath the chair was another shoebox.

Greta did not want to inspect it more closely, but she couldn’t keep herself from stepping toward the chair. Bending down, she eased the box from beneath the chair.

Scrawled across the shoebox’s lid in cursive writing was one word: Marietta.

Suddenly, and with welcomed clarity, Greta knew exactly how she would make her way to her car — fast.

Striding with firm purpose down the narrow, but quaint, hallway, she would tell Steve in the parlor that she wasn’t feeling well — it was the flu perhaps — and that their planned date would, regrettably, have to be postponed.

And that is exactly what she told him.

“So sorry,” said Steve with a particularly chilly glance. “But you need to take care of yourself.”

  Greta feared that he didn’t believe her.

  He kissed her — a little peck on the cheek — and said bye at the front door.

Greta, in turn, said bye, sneaking a quick look at him to judge the expression on his face.

It was cold, dead.

Not turning back anymore, she walked as calmly as possible to her car at the curb.

Starting the engine, Greta looked toward the front door, but was startled to see Steve much closer to her, standing — hands nonchalantly in pants pockets — on the grass parkway just a couple of feet from the front of her vehicle.

He smiled a weak smile.

Greta hurriedly drove off. He was supernatural — demonic — she thought.

She had no idea how to handle the nightmarish situation engulfing her.

Go to the police? Greta didn’t want to get involved.

Formally, and quickly, break off the relationship with Steve? Probably, with a short-as-possible phone call.

Whatever solution came, it would have to wait.

She was on her way home now. Greta just wanted to get home.

But she believed Steve was staring at her as she pulled away.

Staring a hole through her. That’s how it felt.


Robert Kostanczuk won first place for “Best Personality Profile” in a 1992 competition sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, Indianapolis chapter. Robert’s “Lizzie Borden Versus Belle Gunness” appeared in Suspense Magazine (Spring 2020 issue). Burial Day Books published his supernatural piece “Fatsy Noodles” in 2021. Twitter: @hoosierkos


“Acting Out” Dark Fiction by Brian R. Quinn

I play this game, every time I rinse out a soup bowl, or a cereal bowl. I leave the spoon in the bowl, swirl it, slosh it, tip it, can’t quit until I balance the scalloped end of the spoon on the lip of the bowl, and land the skinny handle in the strainer. I love the scraping sound the spoon makes circling the ceramic edge, and the sharp, metallic clang when the handle lands in the strainer at that impossible angle.

            I play this game over and over. Spin it, land it; spin it, land it; again and again. It starts as a need to drown out a lingering, early morning problem. It carries into midday, and late afternoons.

            Dr. Thiebold can explain it. I can’t.

            I know it’s wrong. That much, I can tell you. 

            I can tell you, about, how, when I was little, I went to school. Franklin Ave School, in Franklin Lakes. Who in their right mind is going to repeat something like that? Franklin Ave School, in Franklin Lakes. I can’t even say it out loud.

            Repetition is one of those early morning problems that never goes away.

                                                                        #

            “Martin,” Dr. Thiebold says, in his raspy smoker’s voice.

            I ignore him.

            “Martin,” he says again.

            Nothing.

            He gets annoyed when I don’t respond. I love that.

            We sit in silence for a time, Thiebold, in his club chair, staring down at the floor, me, in the corner, sitting Indian style, cradling my backpack in the triangle formed by my knees and my crotch.

            Thiebold tries to hide his annoyance. I’m not looking at him. I hear him, I can picture him, exhaling through his nose, through all that hair that grows down into his mustache. I know he’s going to repeat himself, say my name again, a third time.

            I’ll just wait.

                                                                        #

            The bowl game started when father left us, me and Mother.

            “How did this happen?” Mother said, in tears, sitting hunched over the kitchen table, pressing a damp towel against her forehead. “How did this happen?”

            I hear her, standing over the sink, she said it again, “Oh God! How did this happen?”

            At first it didn’t bother me. The woman, was, after all, asking no one in particular; but the repetition, I couldn’t stand it, so I went to the cupboard, made myself some cereal.

            The kitchen spout is mounted on the end of a metallic hose. The hose is wrapped in a ribbed metal sheath that retracts into the body of the faucet. It’s counterweighted. Sometimes I pull the thing out as far as it will go, then release it. The ribs scrape along the faucet like a Slinky making its way down the stairs. I listen for the weight to thump deep inside the cabinet beneath the sink.

            Mostly I just play the bowl game.

                                                                        #

            Dr. Thiebold sits in his chair, leg crossed, bouncing his foot up and down, up and down. It’s a repetitive action.

            I stare at the wall. Ignore him. Raise the backpack, every so slightly. Squeeze it with my legs. Let it fall to the floor.

            Thiebold gives two quick ankle kicks, a third…and then, nothing. Silence. It’s like being in fucking prison communicating via heat pipes, shutting up when the screws pass by.

            I could put an end to this. I could grab that yellow pad of his, the one with all the notes scribbled on it, crush the pages in my fist, smash it in his face, jump up and down, whoop and holler. That would teach him. That would make him say my name.

            Instead, I sit. I wait.

                                                                        #

            Father wore his overalls at the dinner table; white, paint spattered, bib overalls. He’d unfasten the button loops and let the bib part flop down, expose his fat belly.

            “I wish you’d close that up,” Mother would say, “we’re eating dinner.”

            Father would grunt, eat his meal, elbow on the table, fork held high, pointing down at his plate. He looked like one of those long-necked water birds, a fowl or something, shooting its beak into the water. He’d twirl his pasta, tip his head back, and lower the noodles into his mouth.

            “What’s it to ya?”, he said, chewing.

             “It would be nice to eat like civilized human beings for once,” Mother said, anger rising in her voice, “that’s all.”

            Mother pretended to take father’s sudden departure in stride.

            “Oh Jim?” she would say, as if his disappearance had only just occurred to her.

            “Oh Jim?” she would say, at lawn parties, and on pancake Sunday in the church’s linoleum tiled meeting room, “he’s away on business.”

            “Business? I thought he was a house painter?”

            “He was,” she’d reply, “only now he’s not.”

            Mother like to cut a problem off at the onset.

                                                                        #

            “Martin.” Thiebold, finally says.

            I don’t answer.

            “Tell me about your father.”

            I raise the backpack with my thighs, squeeze it, drop it.

            “Tell me about him. What sort of man was he? Did you enjoy his company?”

            Enjoy him?

            “What kind of things did you do together?”

            I’m far away…picturing him. He’s driving that beat up van of his, or stacking canvas drop cloths in back, pulling loose dollars and bits of change out of his pockets, trying to buy some gasoline, enough to get us through the day, cursing and swearing that time the van coughed and died on the side of the highway.

            We never talked much. Never once played pool or went fishing. Mostly he worked, came home, drank beer, watched TV.

            He was a fat ugly man, I wanna tell him.

            Thiebold waits, silent, bouncing that foot.

            “I’ve seen him in the shower,” I say, testing him, “he’s only got one ball.”

            Thiebold never responds. He just sits in his chair, writes on that yellow pad. He’s got spindly script, very cramped. No doubt he’s writing seen him in the shower at this very moment.

                                                                        #

            Father’s paints are still piled up in the garage. The bay is full of ‘em. Stacked up. No reason. No pattern. Just piled up. Quarts on top of half gallons. Half gallons lying on their sides.

            I like the garage. It’s all so random.

            The cans have hardened paint tracks running down their sides. Little rivulets frozen in time. They’re like road signs. They tell you what color’s inside, if it’s flat, or maybe eggshell. When Father was still around, I’d go into the garage and look for the freshest cans of paint, run my finger down the tracks, pop the little bulbs of thick, half-dry paint, at the end of the rivulets. I loved the feel of the sticky goo, the way the paint dried, hard, under my fingernail.

            But that was all before.

            Before I learned to balance the spoon on the lip of the bowl and plant the handle in the strainer, before I learned to love the metallic clatter in the sink and the counterweight thumping in the cabinet. 

                                                                        #

            “Animal?” Father said. “So now I’m an animal?

            Mother glared at him. “You eat like an animal, and you treat me even worse.”

            Father stopped chewing, threw his fork down on his plate. “I’m an animal and I don’t treat you right? Is that it?”

            “Go upstairs Martin,” Mother said, not even looking at me.

            Father stood up, straddled his chair.

            “Upstairs!” she yelled, “now!

             Father grabbed his dinner plate and hurled it at Mother’s head.

            She tried to cover up, raised her arms just as the plate struck her forehead and opened a nasty gash above her left eye. The plate crashed to the floor, broke into a thousand pieces, sauce everywhere.

            I’d never seen so much blood.

                                                                        #

            Thiebold drinks Diet Coke. Gallons of it. It’s a diuretic. The man must have a bladder the size of Montana, drinks from a big tinkling glass full of ice.

            “Marrrr…tin,” he says, slowly, drawing my name out.         

            I could tell him all about the night Father left us. I picture it. Run it through my head over and over. The blood was fascinating. It dribbled down the side of Mother’s face, slowly at first, just a trickle. Then the flow increased, and the blood began to run. It ran down her cheek, seeped into her hair, channeled in the grout between the tiles.

            Father, that pig, stood over her. Pulled the bib up over his fat belly, studied the gash in her forehead, started humming. Humming. It was a deep, surging, sound, like a man in pain.

            I tried to focus on that sound. Tried to ignore the hurt he’d caused. Maybe it was the only thing that kept him from hurting her more.

            I watched it all from my seat. Silent. A bystander. One step removed.

            He straightened up, kicked his chair out of the way. The legs scraped the floor, the chair fell over, backward, with a crash. He looked at me, turned, and walked out. Vanished, through the back door.

            I just sat, watched him leave.

                                                                        #

            Mother took a job in the shoe store. Mr. Antonito owned it. It was a little, run down place, narrow, next to the Five and Dime. We’d been shopping there my whole life.

            “Mrs. Henderson!” Mr. Antonito said when we walked in.

            Mother nodded, solemn. “I’ve come,” she said, “looking for work.”

            By then, no doubt, my father’s disappearance was all over town.

            I think Mr. Antonito felt sorry for us, knew we needed help.

            “Of course,” he said, adjusting his tie. “And what timing! I was just saying to myself, ‘after all these years alone, maybe it’s time to hire a salesperson’. You Mrs. Henderson would be the perfect fit!”

            Antonito is a squirrelly little worm, short, bald; a loner, never needed anybody’s help until the day my mother came in looking for work.

            News travels fast.  

                                                                        #

            I got a job in SuperRite, stuffin’ bags.

            We got a break every morning, ten minutes. Lunch, half an hour. I spent my weekends at the end of a checkout line listening to wizened old hags tellin’ me how to do my job.

            “Don’t put the eggs on the bottom!” they’d say, dogging my every move. “Wrap that meat up in plastic!”

            I didn’t pay them any attention, just filled up the bags.

            Milk, juice, eggs. Grab another bag, snap it, fast, in the air; pop it open. Milk, juice, eggs. Grab another bag…made me wanna barf.

            Jason worked the checkout next to mine. One time a new kid, Arthur, came in, saddled up next to Jason, figured he was gonna man my line.

            Jason and I snapped some bags of our own in his face! Worked him over good. The kid screamed, made some ungodly sounds, backed away in terror. Mr. Patterson, the store manager, told us the kid had a problem with sound. The kid was afraid of sounds. We looked it up. It’s called misophonia or some crap.

            Patterson put Arthur to work on a different register, Veronica’s register. 

            Veronica and me always had this thing. Unspoken. She’d flash her dark eyes my way; throw me a saucy smile. I was cool about it, all James Dean, all, Rebel Without a Cause. She’d give me that come-on look at the oddest times, like right before school let out and all the moms were showing up, squeezing in a SuperRite run before it was time to pick up their snot nosed kids after school.

            “There she goes,” I announced, cocking my head in Veronica’s direction. “Look at her. She’s givin’ me that look.”

              Jason wasn’t paying me any attention. A woman had shown up in his line dragging two cartloads of shit. Pushing one, dragging the other. She looked like she was gettin’ drawn and quartered. I could see Jason was about to go off, get himself into trouble.

            “Double wrap everything,” the woman said, breathless, ladling shrink wrapped packages of ground beef on the conveyor belt. “Paper first, then plastic, that way nothing will leak out.”

             Jason took his time. Normally he flies, moves his line along like his life depends on it. I watched him pop a bag, real slow; pile red peppers and iceberg lettuce on the bottom, then cans of peas, string beans, and cat food on top. No double bagging, no plastic safety wrap. He couldn’t be bothered.

            The woman stopped unloading, looked at him, “Young man,” she said, “I told you to double wrap the paper bags in plastic.”

            Now I’m gettin’ steamed. Shit like that gets to me. It’s clear, Jason’s just not going to double wrap her crap in plastic. There’s no need for her to repeat it. We heard it the first time. It’s like sayin’ Franklin Lakes School in Franklin Lakes, only even more disconcerting.

            Jason looked at her, stopped bagging, smashed a half-gallon carton of SunnyD fruit juice against the front end of her cart. The seam split, and the juice flew in all directions, soaked the front of her dress and the paper bag full of groceries he’d just packed.

            Maybelle, working Jason’s register, grabbed the phone and blasted out an overhead announcement. “Mr. Patterson, Mr. Patterson, register six please, register six. Stat!”

            Stat was code, it meant something really bad was going down.

            Patterson showed up all anxious, keys jangling on his hip.

            Jason was banging the empty carton against the cart, looking vague, unfocused.

            Patterson took it all in; his customer soaked, Jason out of control.

            This didn’t have to happen. If Jason’d just wrapped the paper in plastic the way she’d asked the whole thing would have blown over. He never should’ve smashed that carton.

            “Jason,” Mr. Patterson said quietly, “please. Let’s put that juice down. Then you and me take a walk to my office.”

                                                                        #

            Mr. Antonito and Mother hit it off real good.

            Mother was a crackerjack saleswoman. She entertained the kids, pressed their mothers to buy shoes, more shoes than they ever needed.

            “Ahh, yes,” she’d say, “I remember when my son Martin was your boy’s age. Martin loved to hunt frogs in the culvert down the street. He’d come home with his sneakers covered in mud. Smelly? Whew! That water was nasty! The only way to keep him looking presentable was get two pair of sneakers, one to play in, the other for school.

            “And Sundays? My oh my! He loved to play tag in the parking lot after mass. His church shoes were always scuffed up. One time Father Frank pulled me aside, told me he’d overhead some of the other mothers bad mouthing my Martin, saying ‘their sons would never be caught dead wearing shoes as old and beaten up as that Henderson kid’s.’”

            In time she had to change the stories.

            I played way too much kickball in middle school, Red Rover too. I had a penchant for kicking cans. Dropped kicked a squirrel one time. Loved to followed policemen, on horseback, kicked horse apple field goals.

                                                                        #

            In the kitchen, eating Mac’n Cheese, I told Mother all about the SunnyD incident. All about the woman, her shopping carts full of shit, and Jason spraying juice all over her.

            “Dr. Thiebold calls that ‘acting out’,” she told me.

            “Acting out?”

             “Yes, that’s when a child,” she said, slowly, convincingly, “when a person, has trouble understanding, or accepting something, and can’t express what they want or need. It usually happens when they’re young. They act out to get their parent’s attention, to get their way. It can also happen with adults.”

            “But Jason’s parents are dead,” I reminded her.

            “Yes,” she said.

             “Since last spring. You know that. Since the accident.”

            “Yes dear,” she said, quietly, in that same tone she uses when somebody raises Father’s disappearance. “It’s not literal. His parents don’t really have to be there. Jason is having trouble understanding… accepting, that his parents are gone. He’s expressing that trouble, publicly.”

            I thought it over.

            She turned her head slightly, looked at me. 

            “Do you understand baby?”

                                                                        #

We talked about it on our break.

            “That bitch never knew what hit her!” I said, leaning against the brick wall behind SuperRite, tossing tiny bits of loose macadam at the high grasses that sprouted up in the empty lot across the way.

            Jason laughed.

            “Put the paper in plastic,” I said, high pitched, whining, following up with forced laughter of my own.

            “That fat bitch!” Jason said.

            We threw some more pebbles.

            “My Mother says you’re ‘acting out’,” I told him.

            “Huh?”

            “Yeah. She says you’re trying to ‘understand things’, only you can’t. So, you ‘act out’.”

            “What kinda’ crap is that?” Jason said.

            “She said you need to learn to express yourself better.”

            Jason stopped throwing macadam. 

            “So whaddya think?” I said.

            “That’s bullshit!” he told me.

            “No, about Veronica.”

            “Veronica?”

            “Yeah.”

            He didn’t get it. “Veronicaand me,” I said, getting angry.

            “Veronica? Shit. She don’t even know you’re alive.”

            “Yeah, right,” I said, challenging him. “You seen the way she looks at me. Turns her head over her shoulder like that, she’s givin’ me the eye.”

            “She ain’t givin’ you the eye,” Jason said, “she ain’t givin’ nobody the eye.”

            “Bullshit,” I said. “It’s like she’s sayin’ ‘come on over here and talk to me’.”

            “She’s not sayin’ nothin’. She’s just got her eye on the clock.”

            “Whaddaya mean?”

            “The clock. On the wall. Behind us,” he looked at me. “At the deli counter. She’s makin’ sure she doesn’t miss her next break.”

                                                                        #

            Mother got more hours at the shoe store.

            “Mr. Antonito appreciates me greatly,” she told me.

            I thought he was creepy. Always wore a sweater and a tie. Tried to hide his baldness. Combed long stringy hairs across his head.

            He started visiting us at the house. He’d show up for dinner with a bottle of wine in a paper bag. I didn’t mind it so much at first. Mother always baked a chicken when Mr. Antonito came over to visit.

                                                                        #

            “Your mother tells me you’re upset,” Thiebold said.

            What an ass.

            Upset? I should get up and slap him. Or maybe smash one of his precious pictures, the one of his simpering wife and his little rat dog, that’d get a rise outta him. He’d get all angry, turn beet red, light up another Pall Mall.

            Smoking is bad for you doc, I’d tell him, straight up, right before I kicked over his floor lamp. It wouldn’t swish or spin like the spoon in the bowl, but it’d make a hell of a racket. The big glass shade would smash against his mahogany desk. He’d be so mad he’d get up outta his chair and scream at me, end the session right then and there.

            “But our time’s not up,” I’d say to him, real slow, restrained. 

            He wouldn’t say another word. No more questions about my father, or the way I’m feeling. He’d have to pick up all that broken glass, one sharp, glittering piece at a time, drop them in his lunch bag. Arnold Thiebold, Doctor of Psychiatric Medicine, carries his lunch to work in a brown paper bag. Go figure. The first shard would make a popping noise in the bottom of the empty bag. The paper’d flex, like a drum, a tiny drum.

                                                                        #

            I found a sweater draped over the sofa and an overturned wine glass on the floor.

            Mother’s bedroom door was shut. Very out of the ordinary.

            We have six bowls, all plain white. Mother says they’re “nested” in the cabinet. The silverware is stored in a pullout drawer. The drawer needs a good strong tug to get it open. Everything bounces around, spoons, knives, forks. It’s all very noisy.

            Antonito was in the bathroom.

            I opened a box of Cheerios, poured them into my bowl. The little oat rings plink against the white ceramic, it’s annoying at first, but quiets down as the bowl fills up. I ate my cereal, listened to the unmistakable sound of urine released from man-height.

            Mother appeared, stepped out of the bedroom in her nightgown, not the sweatpants she usually wears to bed. Not the T-shirt with the sad-eyed puppy on the front. A nightgown, with frills, and swirls.

            The toilet flushed.

            Antonito appeared. He was embarrassed, uncomfortable.

            Mother stepped over to the sink without speaking, reached for the kettle, ran water into the black spout, smiled at Antonito.

            “Cereal?” she said.

            I was done, carried my bowl to the sink, opened up the tap. The water flowed into the bowl, down one side, across the bottom, up and over the opposite side. I liked to watch the last clingy oat rings pile up in the strainer.

            I swish, and swirl, spin the spoon, adjust the flow, slow the whole process down to a trickle, like the blood running down mother’s face after Father threw the plate at her.

            In truth, I didn’t stay in my chair that night. I didn’t sit far removed. I stood up, lunged at him, tried to stop him from leaving. He pushed me away. I grabbed him, threw my arms around his waist, pressed my face against his dirty overalls.

            He smacked me, threw me aside, down to the floor. Mother lay beside me, face to face, inches apart, the gash on her head open, bleeding.

            The water mixed with the last of the milk in the bowl, made little patterns of color.

            The blood ran between the tiles that day. It was bright red at first, turned brown as it dried. I watched it. A skin formed as it dried.

            The spoon spins wildly in the bowl, squeaking and scraping. I can control that sound. More water, less noise. Less water, more noise.

            I know I should have reached out, comforted her. Instead, I listened to the door slam behind me, Father leaving us forever. Instead, I traced the blood flow with my finger. Sluiced it along in the gap between tiles. It left a sticky red spot on the tip of my finger.

            Mr. Antonito was very polite. Made small talk, the weather, seemed to enjoy his meal. When he was done, he carried his bowl to the sink, ready to rinse.

            I couldn’t get it right. The spoon kept falling out of the bowl. I was landing the handle in the strainer OK, but the scalloped end kept slipping out of the bowl. I couldn’t catch the edge, hold the angle.

            “Martin,” mother said, Antonito watching me.

            I tried again, adjusted the flow, couldn’t get it right.

            “Martin, let Mr. Antonito use the sink,” she told me.

             One more time. One more spin. More scraping.

            The spoon clattered into the sink.

            “Martin!”

            It’s not easy to balance the spoon on the edge of the bowl. Takes a lot of practice to land the strainer.

                                                                        #                                                         

            “How much time did you spend in the sink today?” Dr. Thiebold asks.


Brian Quinn is an Emmy Award Winning TV news journalist living in Manhattan who has spent the last thirty years covering news in New York City and overseas. Much of his work is rooted in those experiences. 


“The Lottery” Dark, Speculative Fiction by James Hanna

A warm wind is blowing from the north, and today the air is clear. The air is the color of tea. The air is usually the color of coffee—not the color of tea.

Today, I see trees and grass. The trees are twisted and scaly, the grass is drier than straw. I wish that the air was the color of coffee, not the color of tea. If the air was the color of coffee, I would not see the trees and the grass.

Whatever the color of the air, I can always see into the dome. The dome is huge and bright. The dome has forests and lawns. I see leafy trees and flowers when I look into the dome.

The dome is one mile high, and it must be a hundred miles wide. Birds fly about within the dome—colorful, cheerful birds. There are towering buildings inside the dome, there are roads with buses and cars. There are lakes with fountains and ducks. There is farmland with very tall crops.

I am glad the dome is beautiful, it is where our protectors live. Our protectors are tall with shiny bald heads. Our protectors wear flowing white robes. They do not look like us—we are naked and hairy, not pretty like our protectors.

Our protectors guard our tribe from the trolls that live high up in the hills. If it was not for our protectors, the trolls would come down from the hills. The trolls have razor-sharp claws. Their cocks are harder than stone. They would butcher and rape everyone in our tribe if it was not for our protectors.

Our protectors are kind and intelligent, unlike the horrible trolls. I am very afraid of the trolls—I do not want to feel their claws. Not everybody in our tribe is afraid of the trolls. There are unbelievers in our tribe who are not afraid of them. “Have you ever seen a troll?” they ask us. I have never seen a troll, and that is a very good thing. Our protectors make sure the trolls never come down from the hills.

*

Today, the air is clear. The air is the color of tea. I can see the shapes of the hills where the deadly trolls have their home. I wish the air was darker—I do not want to look at the hills. 

My name is Jeremiah—I’m an old man of seventeen. I belong to a tribe that lives outside the dome, and I have no other names. Jeremiah is a very good name. Everyone in our tribe has that name. Even women and girls are named Jeremiah. Our protectors have given us all this name. They say it’s a very fine name. They say there will be great love in our tribe if all of us share the same name.

A great many tribes live outside of the dome, but none of them share our name. Our protectors tell us to stay away from all the other tribes. The tribes are very bad, they say. The tribes have cannibals in them. The unbelievers in our tribe ask, “Have you ever seen a cannibal?” I tell them I once saw a cannibal, and he was from another tribe. The cannibal was eating a girl from our tribe. He was gobbling down her intestines, which drooped from his hands like snakes.

I stay far away from the other tribes. I do not like cannibals. I do not like the unbelievers either, but our protectors say let them be. Our protectors say everyone in our tribe should be able to speak his mind.

Inside the dome, there are cows and sheep. Inside the dome, there are farmlands and orchards. Outside the dome, there is dust and rocks. The dust is very dry and the rocks are very hot. There is no farmland outside of the dome. There are no animals.

 Our protectors feed us every day—they do not want us to be hungry. Every day, giant vans leave the dome and distribute food to all the tribes. The food is dumped from the vans, and there is always plenty of food. There are apple cores and peanut shells and chicken bones and bread. There are banana peels and corn cobs and watermelon rinds. The food is very tasty. I eat until I am full.

*

Today, the air is the color of tea. It is not the color of coffee. I can see the lights of other domes that are many miles away. There are domes all over the country. There are domes all over the world. I do not want to look at faraway domes, so I turn my head away.

When the domes fight with each other, there is a truce among the tribes our dome feeds. Our protectors tell us to band together, and they give us banners and swords. Even women and children are given banners and swords. Our protectors say we must kill the tribesmen fighting for other domes. They say we should eat their livers because the livers will keep us strong. They say if we eat only the livers, we are better than cannibals.

 The unbelievers say there is no glory in fighting tribes from other domes. They say the domes fight each other for sport. They say it is bad to eat livers.

I am proud to have carried a sword and a banner. I am proud to have fought for my dome. I have killed those who fight for other domes. I have eaten their livers too.

*

Today, the air is the color of tea, and protectors walk among us. Whenever the air is the color of tea, our protectors visit us. They come down from the sky in magnificent floats that make a cooling wind.

Our protectors are tall and beautiful. Their eyes are like pools of blue water. They do not stay very long outside of the dome, but it is good when they walk among us.

Our protectors ask us a question when they come to visit us. It is the same question every time. “What will you do for us?” they ask. Their voices are thin and melodious. They sound like wonderful birds.

Once a protector looked at me and touched me on the forehead. I never felt a gentler touch. I never saw bluer eyes. “What will you do for us?” he asked. His voice was musical.

I told him I had killed tribesmen from other domes. I told him I had eaten their livers. The protector looked at me and repeated, “What will you do for us?”

Our protectors are kind and comforting. We love them very much. The women in our tribe have orgasms when our protectors walk among us. “What will you do for us?” our protectors ask the woman. Sometimes, they gather up women and girls and fly them back to the dome.

The unbelievers among us say our protectors should stay inside the dome. They say our protectors should never ask us what we will do for them. I tell the unbelievers I would do much for our protectors. Our protectors keep us fed. They give us banners and swords. They protect us from the terrible trolls that live up in the hills.

*

Today, a warm wind is blowing, and the air is the color of tea. Today, our protectors have set up the stage where they have the lottery. Whenever the air is the color of tea, the lottery is held.

There are numbers tattooed on our forearms. My number is 6609. Our protectors spin a big lottery wheel that all the tribe can see. They spin the wheel four times. They call out a number each time. If each of your numbers is called, you will be allowed to live inside the dome.

All our tribe gathers around the stage. It is good to live in the dome. We can better serve our protectors if we are allowed to live in the dome.

The unbelievers say they do not want to live in the dome. The unbelievers have no numbers on their forearms. “We are all of one body,” our protectors announce when they have the lottery. But the unbelievers are never selected to live inside the dome.

Today, the wheel spins slowly, and my number does not come up. I have attended the lottery hundreds of times, and my number has not been announced. I know it will not be much longer until my number comes up. I know that very soon I will live in the beautiful dome.

Today, a woman I do not like wins the lottery. She is standing among unbelievers. She has no battle scars. The woman is very lucky to have won the lottery.

*

Today, the air is the color of tea. Today there are devils among us. Whenever the air is the color of tea, devils come among us. The devils put bad thoughts into our heads—thoughts that make us angry. Our protectors tell us that it is unwise to listen to the devils.

I have listened to a devil today, and today I am very angry. I am angry because our protectors gave out many beautiful banners. The banners are bright and colorful, and they flutter like flames in the wind. The banners declare we are all of one body—that is a very good thing. The banners proclaim that our dome will shine brighter than all the domes in the world.

I am angry because our protectors did not give me a beautiful banner. I have killed many tribesmen from other domes. I have eaten their livers too. I have split open the wombs of their women so they will not be filled with bad seed. Our protectors did not give me a banner, but they gave banners to unbelievers. I am very, very angry at our terrible protectors.

The unbelievers tell me that there are no devils among us. They say it is our protectors who put bad thoughts into our heads. They say I should not be angry because I did not get a banner. They say if I keep bad thoughts in my head, I will not win the lottery.

*

Tomorrow has come. A warm wind is still blowing. The air is not the color of coffee—it is still the color of tea.  

There will be a lottery today because the air is the color of tea. A few protectors have set up the stage where the numbers are announced. I am no longer angry at our protectors—my thoughts are good once again. Some unbelievers stand beside me while the lottery wheel revolves. 

Today I am very lucky. Today my number comes up. The protector who spun the giant wheel called out, “6-6-0-9.” Today I will get to live in the dome and better serve our protectors. 

The protector who spun the lottery wheel is looking directly at me. His face is like the face of a statue. His eyes are as blue as a lake. “What will you do for us?” he says. His voice is as pure as a flute.

I walk behind the protectors, and we get inside the float. My thoughts are good today. I am sad that my thoughts were not always good. I am glad our protectors are kind.

I see the farms and cattle as we land beside the dome. I see the lakes and the butterflies. I see the orchards and birds. My heart is as light as a sparrow. My thoughts are very good.

I leave the float and follow the protectors into the dome.

*

I have never felt a softer breeze. I have never seen brighter colors. I have never smelled the sweetness of flowers. I have never heard voices so gentle.

I see many buildings that are tall and straight, and I see giant temples too. Wonderful signs sit on top of the temples. The signs say WE ARE ALL OF ONE BODY. I see carts being drawn by magnificent horses as I walk towards one of the temples. The carts are full of bodies. They are rolling towards the farmlands. The bodies look like they came from the tribes that live around the dome. There are many, many bodies inside the rolling carts.

I know I will soon be among the bodies that are rolling towards the farmlands. I am glad that I will lie with the bodies—I should not have had angry thoughts. I am glad I will join the bodies while all of my thoughts are good. I am glad the unbelievers told our protectors about my angry thoughts.

Soon, my body will nourish the crops that grow so very tall. It will nourish the fruits and nuts that touch the lips of our protectors. I am glad I will nourish the fruits and nuts. I am glad we are all of one body.


This story was originally published in Fleas on the Dog and will be included in Mr. Hanna’s forthcoming anthology: Fact Check and More Probing Tales.


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


“Sister Tells Me” Dark Fiction by D.C. Marcus

     This morning—there is no time here, we’ll call it morning, but it could be night—Sister brought me a boy to kill, a beautiful blond boy in a burial suit.  Sister has a knack for stealing corpses from funeral parlors.  Down here, in the abandoned tunnels beneath the city, the killings are just rehearsal.  Though the boy was already dead, Sister says we need to practice.  During the Rising the bodies will have heartbeats and voices for screaming.  The beautiful blond boy didn’t say a word when I bit into his neck. 

      “Higher,” Sister said, moving my jaw so that my teeth struck the middle of his vein.  Our technique must be precise.  Traces of formaldehyde burned my lips, but I drank from his vein until sated, until Sister left me, until I hid in the corner and threw up.    

     My name eludes me now, but I remember things, shards of memory that flitter like the filaments in a dying bulb. I was a soldier, someone’s husband, and a father, I think.  Things went bad…this is true for all of us down here…things went bad, and Sister found us living on the street. She fed me soup and a piece of bread, let me smoke half her cigarette, and I followed her into this tunnel, this crypt.  I refuse to call it home.  Sister keeps us isolated, but others are being trained for the Rising, like me.  We are mortal but Sister is Eternal.  She promises us the same once the Rising is complete, but eternity is damnation.

     I don’t tell Sister, but I don’t want to Rise.  All I want is to stop.     

     When we come for them, Sister tells me, they will fight us as if we’ve stepped from a screen instead of risen from the cesspool they created.  We mock the legends.  We hang crucifixes from the ceiling and bat at them with sticks; we gargle with Holy Water. When the Rising begins, we’ll appear in the mist, in the shadows, slashing throats and drinking until we’re full. Consider yourself warned: we’re coming, and it will hurt

     I swore I’d never kill again.  They told me I was crazy, sent me to the hospital, to the pill line, Uncle Dope wants YOU!   I hate it here, don’t ever want to kill again, but Sister is the only one who needs me.  We’re the dark people, and it’s our time to rise. 

                                                                        *

     Sister tells me she was born of the night, her mother gang-raped in a cemetery beneath the full moon and left to die.  But the moon rescued her, held her in its light for nine months, until her mother returned to the cemetery and gave birth to Sister on the night of the vernal equinox.  Her mother tracked down the three men who raped her and gave them a photo of Sister.  Then she stabbed each one in the throat with a pair of sewing scissors and baptized Sister in their blood. She remembers the moonlight on the faces of the dead men, their shocked expressions when her mother arrived.  We wait for the moon to call us again so we can rise.

     When I returned from the war, my family tried to help.  My wife, bless her, did everything to make me feel safe and loved.  Look, I didn’t start the fire, I’m sure of it.  But I didn’t move either, and our two-year old suffered smoke inhalation and second-degree burns.  No, I did not start the fire …Colleen (I think that is her name) came home and saw the flames, the couch engulfed while I sat on the floor watching TV, eating popcorn.  It’s better that I’m gone.  There were shelters, I think, but I preferred the street.  Sleep behind an alley dumpster and no one will ever touch you.  Except Sister. 

     There was a full moon the night she came.  “They will never forgive you,” she said, and by instinct I followed her to an abandoned lot at the edge of the city.  Stepped over weeds and broken glass, listened to the cries of feral cats in heat.  The husks of wrecked cars and twisted metal littered the yard, the moonlight reflecting off sheets of torn aluminum jutting from the ground.  By the barbed wire fence I saw an old sofa, like the one in our house, and when Sister took my hand, the sofa burst into flames.

     In that moment, I loved her.  

     Sister pulls me from the corner and leads me through the corridor to a large opening, where candles line the floor, a grate in the ceiling showing patches of moonlight.  For the first time I see the others, men and women like myself, dirty, cold, and scared.  We form a circle around Sister.  Has the Rising begun? 

     Sister closes her eyes, points her scissors to the sky, the moonlight catching the rusty blade, and the man beside me drops to his knees and howls.  He wears hospital scrubs and a baseball cap; his bare feet streaked with blood. On all fours he throws back his head and bays at the moon.  The others do the same, even me, I’m on the ground knees hurt so much cement howling like an animal, my tongue dripping spit, and does Sister know I’m faking? 

      “Tonight you will hunt for me,” Sister says.  In her hand are palm leaves tied in a cross, a Holy Crucifix, and she bites off the top and swallows the palms, and I wonder again if Sister is real or am I still in the hospital like before?  But she must be real, because the others can see her, and when she waves her arms, they jump and rush toward the metal steps that lead aboveground, and Sister tells them to bring back something young and pretty and alive.      

     We’re alone when Sister tells me I must hunt.   

     “We purify ourselves before we rise,” Sister tells me.  “A sacrifice is required.”

      I’ve followed orders and hunted before.  Never again, I swore, but Sister doesn’t know.  

    “They despise us.  What you knew is gone.  What you are now is still becoming.  Listen to the moon, and you will do what you must.”

     Sister kisses my forehead and hands me the scissors.  “Follow me,” she says, and together we climb the ladder into the night, where the bodies are waiting.    

                                                                        *     

     The coffee is black and hot, loaded with sugar packs, the only thing I’ve tasted in weeks.  In my pocket there’s enough loose change for coffee and a burger, served with a pickle and slaw, free refills on the coffee, I can sit here all night. Sister waits outside, eager for me to drag the waitress back to the sewers, where we’ll slit her throat and soothe our skin with the lotion of her blood.  Shelby, her name tag reads.  She’s young, plump, and pretty, even smiles when I explain the sunglasses at night.  War wound.  “Thank you for your service,” she chirps, and brings me an order of fries on the house.   

     “Not her, not this one,” I tell Sister, but the waitress’s days are numbered anyway. When the Rising begins, everything sweet plump Shelby knows will be extinguished.  If we take her now, she’ll die with hope.  But I don’t want to do it.  

     “In another world, your reluctance would be admirable,” Sister says. “But you’ve been exiled from that world. You’ve already killed.  All those broken bodies sanctioned by your Colonel. These bodies are sanctioned by the moon.  By what authority does your Colonel outrank the moon?” 

     “Another refill before you go?” Shelby asks, her flesh redolent of sweat and apple pie.  “We’re closing in ten minutes, sweetie.”   

     If only I had money for a tip, but Sister tells me the waitress will never see the morning to spend it. 

     I wait behind the dumpster, Sister whispering that she loves me, and when the back door opens, Shelby in her jacket and sneakers reaching in her purse for her keys, I strike like they taught me in Basic, like Sister taught me in the sewers, an arm around her throat, the scissors poised against her warm pink belly. 

      “Please…please don’t kill me.  I’ll do what you want.  I’ll suck it, right here…” Shelby says.  “Please, my baby needs me.”  

     I’m a parent, too, but Sister tells me that I’m nothing now, I’m the wicked and despised, and so I turn pretty Shelby around and see her desperate eyes and I want to let her go, please, Sister, for the sake of the baby, but in The Rising even the babies will be ours. Sister says it’s time to practice, let’s take the baby, too.  No.  No.  Sister’s voice is a whisper and Shelby doesn’t see her as I push her toward the car.  Drive and maybe you won’t get hurt.  Shelby drops her keys, her hand trembling, and I feel her ready to fight, to scratch, kick, and bite, anything to escape the destiny in my dead black eyes, but I want to make Sister proud, and I grab the keys and push Shelby into the car, behind the wheel, the scissors ready as I slip into the backseat and shout for her to drive. 

     “I have sixty-seven dollars,” Shelby says.  “Take my Visa.  I won’t tell anyone.”

     “Drive.”

     I follow her eyes in the rear-view mirror as she backs her tired Honda out of its spot, the chassis screaming as the wheel turns, her tire crunching a discarded Coke can. 

     “The thing is, we’re like a pipe, Sister says.”

     Shelby pulls onto the dark road mumbling please God, please God as if I can’t hear her.   

     “At first it’s a drip, a minor leak, and it’s too much effort to do anything about it, so everyone ignores it, but the primary rule of the universe dictates that the ignored only grows stronger, drip, drip, drip, until the pipe bursts and there’s water up to your ankles, up to your head, and when the water fills your mouth and you can’t even scream anymore and you wonder what happened… it was just a drip …that’s the Rising.  Do you understand what I’m saying?  I didn’t cause the pipe to break.  I’m only the water bursting through.” 

     There’s an empty car seat beside me, a white stuffed rabbit with a missing eye wedged between the straps.  “Boy or girl?” and Shelby answers, “Girl…Melinda…she’s only nine months…please.” 

     If she stopped the car, I could run off and let her be whatever she might become.  I don’t want to hurt a baby named Melinda or her sweet plump Shelby of a mom, but Sister is there on the corner, in the headlight splash, Sister with some man I’ve never seen, and another man, on his knees, arms folded across his chest, Sister holding his head with her hands, no skin now, the intricate pathways of joints and bone clutching a stranger’s head while the other man thrusts the scissors into the victim’s right eye. 

     “…her father isn’t much help, and my parents think I’ve screwed up my life, and my sister has two kids of her own…please.” 

     Once the Rising begins, what difference will it make if poor Shelby is alive or dead?   On that goddamn patrol we already knew we’d lost the war.  But we had orders, still do, Sister needs an offering and a sacrifice, we need Shelby’s sweet warm blood, I’m sorry, sorry, sorry, I kiss the scissors and point them at her neck.  “Pull over.  Your baby shouldn’t see this.” 

      Shelby’s crying and Sister waits in the headlights, eyes closed, a blissful smile, only Sister loves me. When the Rising begins, the world will bow and worship her. 

     “Please…please…” Shelby cries, and then, “…fuck you!”  

     She spins the wheel and the car swerves.  Nothing but darkness as we slam into a tree. 

                                                                        *  

     There’s an I.V. in my left arm, my right hand cuffed to the bed, and in the angled light outside the open door a Security Guard sits on a metal chair, staring at his phone.  I hear them say that Shelby is on a different floor, broken ribs, broken wrist, a concussion, but she’ll live, she’ll live, they say, as if this will hurt me, but I’m glad Shelby’s name won’t be on my soul, though her time is over anyway.  Sister tells me the Rising has begun.   

     The TV on the wall never shuts off. A string of murders across the city.  A decapitated man found on the highway shoulder.  A librarian with both wrists slashed open, her alabaster body drained of its blood. In a movie theater the usher opened the door for the 10:00 PM showing as the credits played, a giant trashcan at the top of the aisle ready for the empty buckets of popcorn and crushed soda cups, only nobody moved, all seventeen moviegoers slumped dead in their seats, a scissors protruding from each of their necks. 

      I hear the nurse consulting with the doctor in the hall.  Clozaril and Haldol, nothing they haven’t tried before, but it doesn’t matter because Sister is coming.  So much I want to see her again, but I know the carnage that she’ll bring, a hospital, so many bodies, don’t they know about the Rising?  If only I could call my wife, I’ll beg Sister not to take her and the baby, Melinda, no, my son, Alex, Sister please don’t rise until Alex is safe.    

      The nurse comes with her syringe and the Guard and a cop who glares like I’m shit on the heel of his shined black boot, that’s all I’ve been for months now, all I am without Sister and the moon. 

     “Lock the doors, she’s coming.”

     “Shut up, felon,” Cop says.  The nurse pulls back. 

     “The Rising…”

     “I heard on the news…”  Nurse says. 

     “It’s a hoax, social media garbage,” Cop says. 

     “It started in China, I heard,” Guard says. 

     “I heard it’s a bunch of white supremacists.” 

     “He’s just some dumb-ass felon who picked the wrong waitress to fuck with.  She’ll walk out of here tomorrow while his ass does twenty to life in State.” 

     I shake my arm, the cuffs rattling against the metal bed frame.  “Sister tells me…”

     “Sister tells you nothing,” Cop hisses.  “It’s all in your psycho head, felon.  Nurse, give him his meds so we can get the hell away from him.”   

      The needle finds the vein, and the screaming begins.  Only it’s not my voice; the screaming echoes in the corridors, and the cop and the guard rush toward the door, the Nurse’s face turned pale as she drops the spent syringe into a plastic bag, following protocols even as her world begins its descent. 

     “If you unlock these handcuffs, Sister might take pity on you.”

     “I…don’t have the key,” Nurse stutters, but she doesn’t move as we listen to the Rising begin.  The crash of overturned med carts and the screams of the patients meeting Sister’s wrath.  “Stop,” Cop shouts, as if the Rising could be halted by words.  Three shots, bullets pinging off the walls. 

     “…side effects include hallucinations…” Nurse says, but it’s her hallucination that makes her think she might escape.  It’s always us, never them, they’ll delude themselves about the Rising right until the end.    

     Sister appears in the doorway, her black hair glimmering, the skirt of her red dress slit to her thighs, her left hand extended, her right hand behind her back, where the scissors wait.   

     “Visiting hours are over, ma’am,” Nurse says. 

      But Sister steps into the room with a loving smile only I can see, police running down the hallway, the screams of the Rising seeping through the walls.  The empty bed on the other side of the curtain erupts in flames, and when the Nurse turns to run Sister stabs her in the heart and I know it’s real as the blood trickles down the front of her olive scrubs. 

     “What lies fallow in the moonlight is the curse they can’t escape,” Sister tells me. She unlocks the handcuffs and helps me from the bed.  The Nurse, her back propped against the wall, presses her chest to stem the bleeding.  Alarms blare as Sister shuts the door and leads me to the Nurse. 

     “As we practiced,” Sister says, and I position my mouth with the center of Nurse’s jugular, ignoring her slaps, her thrashing legs, the same way they ignored me and drove me into the streets.      “Tonight, we rise,” Sister says, my teeth ripping into the Nurse’s flesh, her vein in my mouth like a teat, I don’t want to do it, but the blood is as warm as the smoke from the burning bed surrounding us until Nurse’s heart stops beating.  Alarms everywhere in my head, my chin and neck smeared with blood, and I follow Sister into the corridor to join the others, the meds flooding my brain but what does it matter now, I’m under the orders of the moon.  We march into the night like death, ready to rise. Sister says we will never be forgiven.       


D.C. Marcus grew up in New Jersey reading Twilight Zone Magazine and the classic Shadows anthologies edited by Charles L. Grant.  


“Cruel” Dark, Legendary Fiction by Billy Stanton

Trundle up. Stagger. Stumble. Up, up, up, up to where they were – where they are- in the gloaming. Feel your legs straining. Your old sinewy flesh breaking. Your chest rattling. Your swellings flaming against mothy fabric. There’s no gliding, no hovering above the sheen of the wet grass, not like in the stories. Only old pain. Only old aching. Trundle up. Trundle up. 

Feel the parcel where it always is, heavy and slapping against your thigh in the knapsack slung over your left shoulder. The strap is digging into your skin. Take the parcel out and be ready. Distribute the goods like you were always meant to, like you promised to, like you eventually refused to. You bastard. 

Sing it in your mind’s eye. Sing it: Seven years a tongue in the warning bell.

And seven years in the flames of hell.

Old Jim is first. Old Jim always sat on the ridge, the spire below him, its golden cockerel wavering in the western wind. Old Jim spitting curses under his breath, deep enough and true enough to be engraved on new stones in the mossy graveyard. The years haven’t erased, not for him. Not yet. It will take longer, much, much longer. 

A piece of bread for Old Jim.

Give it to him. 

Seven years a fish in the flood. Seven years a bird in the wood. 

But God, keep me from the flames of hell.  

Seven years. 

It’s been a lot longer than that now, hasn’t it? For a lot longer you’ve been tramping up this hillside, far from your hearth fire, far from comfort. It’ll be seven centuries soon enough. What’s the difference, really, between a year and a century, a century and a year? It’s just time, and time is nothing. Men give names to time, men try to parcel it up, put it in their knapsacks for carrying like your bread, but time is time and it goes on, by itself and for itself, slippery, sliding away…

Massen is next. Massen came to the Dean from the near-West, bringing only his name with him, stranger and more alien to these parts than it has any right to be, him having not come so far from his home. He married Mary. His hands had veins like the runnings of ivy on the church wall, thick and dark and intricate. Mary died before him. Massen died first of this group. He sat here and died, and yet he also sits here still, now, eyes wide open. The boil on his leg never burst, and never will, although it always whispered, it always promised it would. 

A piece of bread now for Massen. 

Back resting against an oak.

All alone and a-lonely-o. 

Say goodbye to Massen again. 

Then it’s farewell again to Lovely Joan, too. She was touching herself with the pedlar’s ointment until the moment of death. She still does it now, sometimes. It must simply be habit. He told big lies in the square, the pedlar, all broad-shouldered in his big dark hat, his sign tied to the trunk of the oak tree. He always had a ballad on his lips, and his eyes were wild. Not like Joan’s, all soft and tired and grey. Milky and overflowing. 

A piece of bread for Joan. She wants a drink too. Give it her this time. Leave her the container. Tell her when it’s empty to let rainwater fill it. Pure water. Heavenly water. Not from the boggy. Show her some kindness once, for the sake of all that’s good. The Lord knows she never had much of it in life. The lines on her, her puckered chalk white lips, the tatters of her blue shawl, they tell their own story: Old England’s tragedy; Old England’s rot; Old England drunk dry. 

O babes, O babes, what can I do,

Down by the bonny Greenwood side-e-o. 

It was one of Joan’s, much further down the line, a twisting twig from the family tree, who sung that song in the fields below. It was her who taught it to you without knowing; left the jumble of it in your mind now, twisting and slashing, words streaming through flooded Eden, the moral ringing with cathedral clarity. The knives. The Greenwood. Seven years. The Cruel Mother. Her sin punished, her penance to be paid after death. Before Hell, before Heaven. No mercy shown for her broken-heartedness. There never is. It all goes on; shadows on the stream, drifting down and out of sight, but always bobbling along, half-submerged. Shadows on the hill, flickering. That’s you now. That’s us. 

Little Hamble is coughing. Black coughing, flecked with yellow. Tell Joan to pass him the water. He sips long, like always. Joan smiles. Strokes his hair. Takes the hat from his head. Soothes. Spares him some ointment where he’s marked. Habit.

Some bread too, for little Hamble. His family gone and gone early. Almost the first away. He broke out the house when they sealed it. No one went looking. They knew they’d done wrong. Acted from fear. Inhumane. You called them that, didn’t you? Hypocrite. Carve that oath on the polished wood of a pew. Hamble was on the hill already, before you sent the rest of the damned up there. He was grabbing at berries and setting traps for rabbits as his father taught him. His father, the poacher. But the rabbits never came. He was already slowly dying when the rest came up. They nourished him a little while longer, but when you didn’t arrive- 

All alone and a-lonely-o. 

O babe, babe, if you were mine,

I’d dress you up in silk so fine. 

The others are on the furthest edges of the rim, way back, hidden where the moon’s light doesn’t touch and where the stars are weak behind clouds, by the cracked barks and stumps of the dead elms. A bed of thorns sleeps behind them; strands of briar twined with themselves, not with red roses, making a more truthful lover’s knot, stinging without beauty. These few stragglers don’t know it, can’t know it, but they’re sitting atop old, old bones, bones deep in the mud, while they also show like skeletons, their own memento mori, blinding white amongst green and brown. They remind you of carvings in the church, don’t they? So sharp and stark they are. They could be new night terrors for the parishioners, to replace the old; fresh visions of ugly doomed tongue-lolling faces. But they’re not in the church. They’re here instead, sinking in the mud, because of you. Falling into the old burial plots, the six-feet-deep-forget-me-nots of Wessex. Bluebells will come in the spring, all over the hill. Buttercups and cow parsley. You won’t see it, and neither will we. Not any of us. 

Bread for the stragglers. 

Bread for Daniel Earwaker and Blind Moran and Lewes the golden young ploughboy, pride of the village, and Rosie Ann Tewkes. 

O, Rosie. 

Your secret darling. Darling, dusty Rosie. Dust to dust Rosie. Ashes to ashes Rosie. Her face looks like it’s falling into her skull. Look at those deep black rings around her eyes, staring out. The flower of the Sunday congregation has gone to rot, like an unsold Covent Garden bloom as summer afternoon closes, thrown on the ground, abandoned, stepped on. She knew all her verses, Rosie did, when the time came to recite them. But her hands are too weak to clutch any prayer book now. Don’t cry for her. You can’t cry. You won’t cry. Don’t register one last insult. Focus on the pain in your legs. Distract yourself. 

Bread for them all. Let them eat it. 

Think. Rosie Ann, could she have lived if- if? No. Pain in the legs. Burning. Hurts. Feel it. Feel it all. 

She leaned her back up against a tree

And there the tear did blind her eye. 

They always eat as fast as their strength will allow. They pick the crumbs off the grass with blackened fingers and let their dry tongues turn drier on the crust. Saliva drips from their slack mouths. Their eyes bulge. Push your disgust down. You don’t have the right. When will you stop feeling it? Turn the hourglass over. The words of recrimination are coming soon- when they’ve recovered from their exertions. 

Old Jim is picking at his buboes. He’s digging his fingers in and grunting, listen. He knows they can’t hurt him now.  The weather vane turns. The quarter-moon glints off it. 

Massen is gaming in the grass. Rolling back and forth. Rosie Anne’s smiling and dissolving into the black of the thorns. They’re piercing and tearing at her skin. She’s doing it for you. Because she knows it hurts to see. Massen’s laughing, howling, wild screeching into the night, like a mad dog. Blood’s dripping from Rosie Ann, from her face, her fingers, her hands, her arms, her legs. She’ll never stop hating. The sand is running down in the hourglass. The words are coming. The reminders. The recasting of the penance. Fortify yourself. Barricade yourself. If you still can. If there’s still spare timbre left to support your buckling doors. 

As she looked over her father’s wall. 

She saw her two bonny boys playing ball. 

“Oh cruel mother, when we were thine

We didn’t see aught of your silk so fine.”

Her skin is hanging from her cheeks, but she’s still smiling. Massen’s still laughing. The pleas are rising in your chest, aren’t they? The same pleas as always. ‘Don’t give me this. Don’t give me this and the words. Please.’ Joan’s laughing now too. Lovely, hating Joan. Old Jim’s picking, picking, picking. Watch the ploughboy dance to the laughter. His body creaks as he’s moves. Not again. Bargain again. Beg. ‘Rosie Ann, step back!” “Earwaker, go to her!” “Don’t just lie there! Don’t just die there!” “Stop it all! Stop it all of you!” “No more seven years! Bring them to their end!”

“She’s taken out her little pen-knife

And she has twined them of their life”

That’s it. The song. The disgraced betraying mother who killed her two babes. Their return from the grave, in the castle gardens, bringing justice, harsh justice, angry cold steel justice, to her. But here- here- you are death, wiping your knives on the grass, and they are your misbegotten children. Betrayal, betrayal. You let them down. You spat in the face of your scarecrow God. All you ever said was weightless. Nothing. They cast you down. Seven years. Accept it, or no. 

Old Jim is turning and looking at you. Rosie Ann is suspended on the thorns, writhing. A lover’s knot with her, Rosie Ann. 

“Oh bonny boys, come tell to me

What sort of death I’ll have to die?”

“Faring well, Rector? We’re glad you’ve found it in your heart to come again to us on such a frost-smited eve.”

Jim is laughing now. 

“With the bread. Our longed-for succour. Salty, bitter and withered.”

Blind Moran speaking from his last dark. 

“Pity for us all you didn’t come with the same when it truly mattered. What were we supposed to do in your absence? Till the waste and plant turnips?”

The labouring boy’s words are hollow, like the ringing of the rusty bell whose tongue you now are. The steeple housing that bell points up to Hell, not to Heaven. He’s still dancing, the boy, no sign of weariness. The child is darting between his legs like an imp, like his familiar. Their venom is putting wind in their sails, animating them, raising them higher and higher, black angels flying with swords of fire above the glorious, awful landscape of their demise. 

“Go to the hill you said. I’ll provide, you said. I’ll provide in your sickness. I’ll show you  the meaning of good Christian charity. The Lord will walk with me, to protect me.”

Joan is advancing; watch her oils dripping down her legs. Hear the bees buzzing through your skull, tearing your mind to pieces. 

“Liar. You never came. We called to you, but you pretended our voices didn’t reach you on the wind. What would our Lord think, eh?”

Massen, still devout, rolling and laughing. 

“We all know what he thinks. It’s what he thinks what gives us the power to make you finally come here. Again and again and again. Resurrection of the flesh.”

Earwaker is coming forwards too, remembering words from the pulpit, turning them into spears now.

“When you should be snug in your tomb, awaiting the trumpet call of Judgement Day to rise, rise, rise.”

Old Jim is sneering, close to singing village hymns. 

“We hate you. We do. I do. Forever and ever. Walk the hill. Keep coming. Piteous creature. Damned creature. Come, starved of peace, starved of rest, just as you left us to starve.”

Rosie Ann is speaking from the thorns. Her words are the hardest to take. They always are, because she’s the one speaking them and speaking them last so that they linger. She’s pulling herself from the thorns now, screaming an imaginary pain that’s real enough for you. It’s clanging between your ears, all through your head, mixing with the burning buzzing. Turn and run. Go on, coward. Run. Before they come any closer. Run, run, run. 

Run down the hillside. Slip in the mud. Call out. ‘Help!’ ‘Help!’ Be back again tomorrow, when angry God dips the sun behind the hill. Scream into the night. Scream for it. Scream like Rosie Ann. Scream ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘I’m so sorry!’ Weakness. Always weakness. Your flimsy faith failed you. You were too afeared, too afeared to come to them. Yet you fell to their same disease regardless. There was no need to be afeared. No need to turn away. But we’re all fear. All of us. All the time. It runs through time. Bobbles down the stream with it, out to invisible inevitable oceans. No ointment for plague, no ointment for fear. It’s too deep in. Too much in the blood. Scream it. 


No keeping from it.

Seven years in the flames of hell.

Down by the bonny Greenwood side-e-o. 

********* 

Memories drifted down and over the hill and were gone. The hill. Their hill. That’s how the people of Vernham Dean saw it; that’s how they still see it. They never go up, not to the top. They warn their children off it. They’re afeared. Time rests on the hill, sleeps on the hill, wakes on the hill, his companion licking at his heels, scampering about him, nuzzling with him in his earthy bed. Old fear, new fear. It’s too much in the blood. Scream it. 


Publisher’s note: In his cover letter for this story, Mr. Stanton provided the following background, which I see as adding considerable depth and dimension.

“…This piece is inspired by a piece of genuine folklore concerning the small village of Vernham Dean in North Hampshire, and the ghostly apparition of its vicar, who traverses the hill where he left his plague-ridden Parishioners to starve during an outbreak of the Black Death in the 1660s. In my short story, this priest acts out his penance, forced to daily enact his spurned charities to the shades of his villagers, tormented by the taunts of his victims and the words of the English folk song ‘The Cruel Mother.’…”


Billy Stanton is a young working-class writer based in London, and originally from Portsmouth. His short story ‘Screwfix’ was recently published in the psychogeography collection ‘New Towns’ (Wild Pressed Books).  His short story ‘The Stray Sod’ was published by online horror magazine Horla in January 2022. The short poetic documentary ‘On an Island, Between Two Rivers’ Birkbeck’s Essay Film Festival this year (Covid-Permitting). 


“Welcome to Hell” Darkly Humorous Fiction by Curtis Bass

It was about one o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon when it all went to hell. Literally. Sitting at my desk, reading over the quarterly profit/loss statement, I felt a familiar burning in my chest. Heartburn again. I really need to cut down on carbs and rich foods like doc says, but I like the taste. And I don’t have time for anything but fast food. I stood to get my water bottle across the office but had to grab the desk to steady myself as a wave of vertigo washed over me. Damn, the burning is getting worse. That’s when I fell. My legs just gave away. I saw the floor rushing toward my face. I couldn’t move my arms to break my fall. My last coherent thought was Man, this is gonna hurt.

            But it didn’t. Instead of slamming face first into the floor, I found myself…nowhere. I couldn’t see or hear anything. I couldn’t move. Well, not exactly that, just no sensation of arms or legs. Crap, am I dead? Damn, I shoulda listened to doc.

            The light rose, as if dawn were approaching. I somehow was floating in a vast nothingness. I looked down at myself but saw only a gritty floor. But I wasn’t actually looking. I had no eyes. I was sensing. Well, this is weird.

            Suddenly an arch of fire flared before me. It was probably five yards high and the same across. And there was a man standing under the arch.

            “Welcome, Peter. We’ve been expecting you,” he said. He fairly glowed with youthful vigor and exuded charm. The last time I saw a face like that I was looking at an Abercrombie and Fitch ad. Yeah, he was well put together.

            “Peter, don’t be afraid,” he said. “You are incorporeal. Think about coming toward me and it will happen.”

            I thought to myself that I wanted to approach the young man, and it happened. I stopped just short of him, still floating about. I could tell that he was beyond the fiery arch. It was strange, but the arch gave off no heat or sound. Fire like that should be hot and loud.

            “Peter, just come through the arch and we will get you situated,” he said in a calm, persuasive voice. I found myself wanting to do what he requested. But I hesitated.

            What is this place? I directed my thought at the young man. I figured since everything else worked on brain power, he could probably hear my thoughts. Who are you?

            “My name is Tamiel. My task is to help you acclimate to your new home. This is Hell. Welcome.”

            HELL? Hell no, I ain’t going in there. Where’s Saint Peter? I want to file an appeal or whatever it is you have to do. I was a good guy. Why do y’all want to send me to Hell? It’s a good thing I didn’t have a body, or I’d be hyperventilating like crazy. I used my thought legs and backed away. This must be some crazy dream. I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell. I gave up all that religious mumbo jumbo years ago.

            “Peter, you don’t understand. God decided at the moment you died where you would spend eternity. He wants you here. So do we. Come on in and let me explain.”

            You can’t come outside that flaming gate, can you? That’s why you want me to come in. And once I’m in I can’t get out. Right?

            “You are correct. This is the Gateway to Hell. All residents must enter here. Come on in. It’s not what you think.”

            You don’t know what I think.

            “Actually, I do. I can read your mind. Remember?”

            I decided there was no way he was making me walk, or float, into Hell. Nope. Not no way, not no how. I began floating toward the gate.

            What? No! I don’t want to go.

            “Calm down, Peter. It’s your destiny. You’ll be okay.”

            Totally against my will, I floated under the fiery gate. As soon as I had passed it, the gate vanished. I was in Hell. A place I never really believed in. Shit!

            Tamiel stood there in his expensive business suit, perfectly groomed and looking smug. If I’d had limbs, I would have smacked him.

            “Now it’s time to get to work. I’ll process you and provide basic orientation and then we will assign you a mentor. But first, come over here.” He walked away, and I followed along like a balloon on a string. I seemed to have no will of my own. We came upon another handsome young man, dressed in casual clothes, khakis and a Hawaiian shirt. Nice shirt. The guy didn’t acknowledge us. He just stood there like a department store mannequin.

            “This is your intake drone. You can choose a permanent body later. This will make the process easier.” I suddenly felt myself moving toward the new guy. As I passed into his body, I felt a tingle. That was the first thing I’d felt since getting here. Then I realized I was inside the new guy. Not just inside him; I was him. What the…? I hated to admit it, but I really liked the body. I hadn’t been able to see my belt buckle in years. And no hair to speak of. I felt the spring and vigor of youth. A tight six pack. I ran my new hand through the thick hair on my new head. I could get used to this. Must be some catch. After all, this IS Hell. At least according to Mr. GQ here.

            Tamiel continued. “Like I said, it will help speed up the intake process if you have a body. Some of our residents like being incorporeal, but most don’t. Now, come with me.”

            The massive nothingness resolved into a comfortable office with a large desk and several chairs. Tamiel walked over to his desk and picked up a file folder.

            “Let’s sit and get the ball rolling, shall we?” he said with a friendly smile. I guessed he was buttering me up before they brought out the whips and chains and hot irons. My drone body reacted just like my old body would have. I started sweating bullets. This was too real to be a dream, but too fantastical to be real. Crap. I’m really in Hell. I felt my drone balls try to crawl back up into my body. Tamiel sat in a large leather chair and motioned me to a similar chair facing him. Lacking other options, I sat.

            He flipped open the file.

            “Okay, you’re Peter Alan Jones, age fifty-seven, right?”

            “You know that.”

            “Well, let’s review why you’re here.” He scanned over the pages. “You were kind of boring as a kid. But you blossomed in college. Overindulgence in alcohol and drugs, good. And promiscuous. You liked the ladies.” He raised his eyebrows and gave me an approving wink.

            I was sure my new face was blazing red. Yeah, I went wild once I got away from home.

            “But you were responsible. You used protection every time. Good for you. Then after college you found a wife, remained faithful to her, and were a good husband until you divorced.”

            “So why am I here? Is God really so pissed that I slept around in college?”

            “Well, He is a bit of a Puritan, but you haven’t been sent here for that. Peter, you are an atheist. I’m frankly surprised that you’re accepting all this so well.”

            “Well, it has crossed my mind that I’m having a stroke, and this is all fantasy.”

            “No, it’s real. You had a massive coronary. Dead before you hit the floor.”

            “Well, so I was an atheist. God hides himself. How does he expect us to believe? And like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry say, he’s got a lot to answer for.”

            “You’ll get no argument from me or anyone else here. Yahweh’s not exactly anyone’s favorite deity around this place. Peter, relax. You’re going to like it here.” He laid my file aside.

            “But Hell is all about fire and brimstone and punishing and crap.” That’s what I’d been told all my life.

            “Yes, we do punish those who deserve it. Do you think you deserve punishment?” He spread his hands.

            “Hell no. I mean no. Sorry about that.”

            “No offense taken. It’s just a figure of speech. We’re used to it. But no, you haven’t earned any punishment. But you rejected God so you can’t go to Heaven. And you dodged a bullet, in my opinion,” he added with a cryptic smile. “Here’s what we will do. Once we finish here, I’ll assign you a mentor. The mentor will show you to your apartment, make sure it suits you. We can customize pretty much whatever you want, but we know you intimately. Hence, your Hawaiian shirt.” I looked down at the cool shirt I was wearing. “I think you’ll be surprised at how well it suits you. You’ll go to the body shop and pick out the body you want to wear. Anything you want. You can even change genders if you like. The transgender people who end up here love that perk.”

            “I can look like anyone I want?”

            “Within limits. Some famous people want to continue looking like they did as mortals and want to be the only ones. Abe Lincoln gets pissy if anyone else wants to look like him, although I can’t imagine why anyone would. So we reserve some faces. Your mentor will guide you. He will also show you how to access the daily agenda to attend activities you like.”

            “Sounds like a cruise ship,” I said.

            “Less cheesy and no viruses.”

            There was a light tap on the door, and then a distinguished-looking man walked in. He looked like he was in his upper thirties, a light touch of silver at his temples. But the charisma was almost tangible. He would immediately dominate any room. It was hard to take my eyes off him. His suit must have cost more than I’d make in a year. He gave it casual charm by going open collar.

            “Good evening, Tamiel,” he said in a honeyed baritone. “Everything all right?”

            “Good evening, sir. Nice to see you. We’re doing fine.”

            “Excellent,” he said, and then focused on me. “Peter, right? It’s nice to meet you.” He reached out his hand, and we shook. I could feel his power surge through me. I was transfixed. The thrill of his touch was almost orgasmic. “You can call me Lucifer. We really don’t stand on titles around here. We’re all in Hell together.”

            “Lu…Lu…Lucifer? As in the Devil?” I forgot to breathe for a moment and then gasped.

            “The same. Satan, Beelzebub, Old Scratch. I have a million names, but Lucifer is my preference. I think it has an air of class. Don’t you?” He looked at me expectantly.

            “Absolutely.” What else could I say?

            He turned back to Tamiel. “Tell you what. I think Peter would like to have Rafaella as his mentor. Don’t you?”

            “I’m sure he would, sir.”

            “Splendid. See to it.” He turned to me. “Peter. I think you’ll enjoy our seminar tonight. Newton and Turing will debate free will. Newton’s a terror at debating. Last week he eviscerated Einstein. You’ll love it. Well, I must be off, so much to do. But it was a pleasure meeting you. I’ll pop in to see you in the next couple of days. Just to make sure everything is to your liking. You’re in excellent hands with Tamiel. I rely on him, and you can too. See you at the orgy this weekend,” he said to Tamiel with a wink. He shook my hand again and swept out.

            “Wow, I met the Devil. Imagine that. I didn’t even believe he exists.”

            Tamiel moved over to his desk and pressed a button. “Azazel? Send up Rafaella. Boss’ orders.” He looked up at me, maintaining his charming smile. “The Boss really took a shine to you. Rafaella is our most requested mentor. And Boss hardly ever shows up for an intake. I would say it’s a lucky coincidence for you, but there are no coincidences in Hell.”

            “Yeah. I guess it’s a big job, bringing in the newbies.”

            “Remember the old Blue Oyster Cult song Don’t Fear the Reaper? ‘Forty thousand men and women every day’. We have to log them all in. God only takes a few. We get the rest.”

            “Good and bad?” I asked.

            “Mostly. A very few go straight to Heaven, but not many.”

            “What about the truly bad people? Like Hitler.” I was hoping I wouldn’t be meeting him walking down a street in Hell. Or Jack the Ripper.

            “Oh, he’s downstairs in Seventh Hell. That’s for mortals who deserve punishment for what they have done. Boss likes to oversee that personally. Believe me when I say you wouldn’t want to be in their shoes. Boss hates senseless evil. As a dark angel I’ve seen a lot, but what he does to them makes even me shudder. He’s got Hitler, Stalin, Dahmer, Gacy, you can probably figure out the cast. The Ripper you’re thinking of also. Lucifer will torture them for a few millennia and then incinerate their souls.”

            “That’s not gonna happen to me, is it?” I was suddenly nervous again.

            “Relax Peter. We like you. No worries. You’re in First Hell. Think of it as Club Hell, Deluxe edition.”

            “There are degrees?” This seemed mystifying.

            “Of course. There are bad people who can be rehabilitated, who don’t need to be incinerated. After appropriate punishing in other levels, they can work their way up. People like Bakker, Swaggart, Falwell, most of the popes. The Big Guy Upstairs really hates religious bilkers. Boss works them over good.”

            “Glad to hear that. So who gets to Heaven?”

            “Your Grandma is there. Your mom, too.”

            “Grandma? Oh, I so wish I could talk to her once more.” I had loved Grandma more than anyone else in the world growing up. She was my touchstone of all that was good and true.

            “Well, if we can get Yahweh to let her out of Hosanna service, I’ll set up a Skype session for you.” Tamiel’s smile was not professional, but seemingly real, sympathetic. Like that of a friend who wants to help you.

            “I hate to ask, but what’s the catch? What’s the downside to all this?” No one would set all this up for free. There had to be a catch.

            “No catch. The Creator gave Lucifer dominion over all the dead who weren’t in Heaven. Boss figured if you were his for eternity, why not make it fun? I know he has a bad rep with mortals, but that’s mainly the theists slandering him. Goes back to that issue with Job. Boss showed up Yahweh for the shallow bastard he is. He never got over it. He trashes our name every chance he gets.”

            “And the Garden too, I guess,” I added.

            “Yeah, and that wasn’t officially us. Samael, a supposedly good angel was the serpent. Although Lucifer did talk him into it. Yahweh never knew about that.”

            Once again there was a soft tap on the door and an angel walked in. Let me rephrase that. The sexiest, most angelic woman I have ever seen strutted in. Form fitting black tights and a halter top stressed all her assets, which were many. Silky brown hair slithered across her shoulders, almost a living creature. My drone body was definitely not a neuter Ken doll as it reacted in typical male fashion. I hadn’t been this sexually aroused in years and tried to surreptitiously rearrange awakening parts of my body suddenly demanding attention.

            “You sent for me, Tam?” she said, propping one hip on the edge of his desk. She turned her green eyes on me and gave me a sly wink. My drone heart almost popped out of my chest.

            “Yes, Fae. The Boss specifically asked me to assign you to Peter here as his mentor. You know the routine. I’ve downloaded his file to your device.”

            “Really?” she looked me up and down. “You must be pretty special to get the Boss’ attention. I’ll take good care of you.” And she licked her top lip. I could swear my heart was beating double time. She rose off the desk as graceful as a lioness who has located her next victim. I gulped, still not sure if I should be overjoyed or fearful.

            “So, Peter, is it? Well, nice to meet you. I’m Rafaella.” She took my hand, and I could feel a warmth flow into me, calming me. “We are going to be great friends. I love showing new residents all the joys of Hell. And I do mean all the joys. Come with me.” She pulled me to my feet. At this point, I would have followed her anywhere.

            We left Tamiel’s office and followed several winding corridors, finally exiting onto a large plaza. There were people everywhere, strolling about, sitting, eating, there was even a volleyball game going on.

            “I just can’t get over this,” I said to Rafaella.

            “It takes some getting used to. You will love it here. You can eat and drink as much as you want. No weight gain, no hangovers, no pain of any kind. And the sex. You haven’t lived till you’ve had sex with a demon.”

            “You’re a demon?” I didn’t know any of the hierarchy of the place.

            “Yes, I’m a succubus, a kind of demon. There’s dark angels like Tamiel, Azazel and the others who handle the administration and the punishment division. Demons usually handle orientation, mentoring and other duties, but sometimes us succubi lend a hand.” She looked at her hand-held device, pushing buttons. “We need to get a move on, there’s a lot going on tonight that I’m sure you want to see. After the debate, we’re going over to Elysian Fields for a bonfire. There’ll be wieners and marshmallows for roasting. Lennon told me he and Janis were going to have a jam session. Maybe get Hendrix or Morrison to join in. Our impromptu jam sessions are the best.”

            “Did I hear Lucifer say something about an orgy?” Her comment about sex had reminded me of his parting remark.

            “Oh yeah. This weekend. Nero only recently got out of Second Hell and asked for an old-fashioned Roman orgy. I’ll make sure they deliver a toga to your apartment. Now let’s go get you that new body and get back to your place. My favorite part of orientation is showing you how thoroughly a demon can blow your mind with Hell shattering sex. After me, baby, you won’t ever be the same.” I couldn’t tell if the next sound she made was a purr or a growl. Either way, every hair on my borrowed body stood on end and my khakis suddenly seemed two sizes too small. She slithered up close to me and ran a long nail up my neck in a way that made every nerve ending in my body fire at once. Her other arm kept me from collapsing. “Yeah, baby. You’re gonna love Hell.”

            “This sounds too good to be true. If Hell has all this, what’s Heaven like?” I couldn’t imagine how it could be much better, but then I was coming at this from a secular, and admittedly sensualist viewpoint. Maybe my moral compass was skewed. Rafaella released me and was businesslike again.

            “Mostly hosannas. Everybody on their knees around God’s throne, licking his feet and singing his praises. Really seems to give him a woody.”

            “I thought Heaven was supposed to be the ultimate,” I said. What she was saying didn’t appeal at all.

            “He shoots them all with this ‘bliss’ thing. It drugs them into thinking everything is beautiful. Makes them fine with fawning over his nasty old feet and singing the same tired hosannas. They’re in a continual fog, rolling on the floor licking him and petting him. Remember that party in ’79 when everyone did the acid?” I’m sure my borrowed body blushed. That had been one wild party. “Yeah, it’s like that. Only without the sex. No sex in Heaven.”

            “What’s he got against sex?” I wondered.

            “Are you for real? God hates sex. St. Michael told me it’s because he has a tiny dick. Just saying. Me and Micky and Gabriel have this little thing on the side. Light angels have needs, too.”

I heard a beeping come from her device.

            “Hold on a sec,” she said, holding it to her ear. She listened for a few moments. “You’re kidding me.” There was incredulity in her voice. “Are you sure?” A pause. “Ok. I’ll tell him. That sucks. Yeah. Later.”

            “What?” Sweat broke out on my brow as she looked at me with a sorrowful frown.

            “Seems there’s a change in plans, Peter. Your secretary found you as soon as you collapsed. They’ve been working on your body and got your heart started again. You have to go back.”

            “But I don’t want to go. I’m thinking I could like Hell.” It was cruel to show me all this and then yank it away.

            “I’m sorry. But don’t worry. We aren’t going anywhere. We’ll be right here, waiting for you. But be careful. Now that you know God is real you won’t be able to go on being an atheist. You’ll have to do a little work to make sure God sends you back to us when you die next time. You’re a good person. Your only black mark was your atheism. Go out and sin some. Lie, cheat, fornicate. Blaspheme every day. Yahweh really hates that. Have a little fun. I’ll tell the Boss I want you when you get back here.” She kissed me on the cheek, and everything faded.

###

            “I think he’s coming to,” I heard a voice say.

            “Rafaella?” I moaned. I opened my eyes and found myself on an uncomfortable bed in a room with industrial green walls. “No, I want to go back.”

            “Easy, Peter,” said a man in a smock;  a doctor or nurse, I guessed. “You’re still in serious condition. You need to rest now. Just relax and everything will be all right.”

            No, it was not all right. I hated it. I didn’t want to be here. I wanted Hell. I considered what Rafaella had said and made a vow right then. As soon as I was out of the hospital, I would find and join the nearest Satanic Temple. I might even become a high priest. I’d be a natural. How many others could say they have shaken hands with the Devil?


Curtis A. Bass (CurtisStories.blog) from the American south, writes short stories in a variety of genres including science fiction, horror, mystery and young adult. He’s had stories published in online and print journals such as Youth ImaginationFabula ArgenteaPage & Spine, and the anthologies 2020 in a FlashBest of 2020, The Protest Diaries, and Screaming in the Night. When not writing he prefers to stay active ballroom dancing or downhill skiing. He is currently working on his second novel while his first remains hidden in a drawer.