“The Devil Prefers Darjeeling” Gothic Fiction by T.L. Beeding

It was difficult to see the house numbers through the fog. The grey, musty effluvium had boiled in off the Thames just as Claire Dennings had encouraged herself to set out, before evening began to fall. Though light at first, it quickly became an impediment, reflecting the street lamps’ light in massive halos of diffuse, sickly yellow. If it was a warning, Claire tried her best to ignore it. There was nothing – if anything – that could stop her, now that her heart and mind were in full agreement about her illicit endeavour. 

Her errand took her in the direction of London’s seedy underbelly. Painted ladies of the evening, tucked away in dark alleys and standing on corners more frequently the further she walked, eyed her suspiciously. Hoarse shouts of an undefinable nature became commonplace, both from pubs and establishments that had no markings as to the natures of their business – though Claire could make an educated guess as to what that business was. Yet she kept her head down and walked on with purposeful stride. If she had to place herself in disreputable clutches for a while whilst seeking the answers she was desperate for, then so be it. 

Eventually, a turn down a dimly-lit avenue brought her in the vicinity of the address she was searching for. Claire slowed her pace, peering up at each ramshackle. Now, coming upon the end of the road, her hope slowly began to deflate. That is, until she finally caught a glimpse of the abode she needed: 36 Stepney Way.

Claire checked the curled number written on the sheet of foolscap tightly clutched between gloved fingers, before glancing back up to the dilapidated stoop. A single street lamp with a weak flame was the only source of light, yet the brass numbers tacked to the face of the facade’s chipped wood gleamed brightly. Claire blinked, squinting further. Everything else about the residence was either crumbling or decayed, but the numbers were freshly polished – a testament to catching the attention of passersby. It was most certainly the right place. With a heavy sigh, Claire folded the sheet of paper and slipped it into her reticule, then stepped through the rusted iron gate and onto the rickety wooden steps. She knocked three times, swallowing down a sudden sensation of being watched. 

After several long moments of uncomfortable silence, shuffling footsteps drew Claire’s rapt attention. The door unbolted, slowly creaked open – revealing a handsome woman of middle age with grey eyes. She was dressed modestly, in sharp contrast with the housing and area she called home. A closed-mouth smile stretched across her face, wrinkling only at the corners of her eyes. 

“You must be Claire Dennings.” 

Claire’s heart dropped into her stomach. “How do you—”

“I know of all who seek my assistance, my dear,” the woman crooned softly, opening the door wider. It led into a rather pleasant-looking entry hall. “Please, come in.” 

Claire nervously followed the woman through the house, which was just as deceptive on the inside as its owner. The innards boasted of well-bred aristocracy, entry hall leading into a sizable parlor. An overstuffed damask sofa sat in the far corner, beside a window draped with curtains of black velvet. A circular table sat in the very centre of the room, flanked by two wooden chairs and dressed with sheer fabric that hung nearly to the honeysuckle carpeting. Atop the table, a large, unlit black pillar candle stood beside a black-painted spirit board. Aside from these items of furniture, the room was bare. 

Chills immediately overcame Claire, freezing her to the floor. The woman swept to the table’s opposite side, seemingly as though she were about to take tea with a guest – nothing more. 

“I…” Claire began, losing her words faster than they had come. 

The woman only smiled wider. “Uncertainty is natural, my dear. The unfortunate thing of today’s strict Christian values is that it limits our knowledge of what lies beyond the man-made concept of devotion to one almighty power. The ideology that only one exists is ridiculous.” She tilted her head. “Tell me; when your darling Albert passed, was it not the supposition that God intended for his time to be up?” 

Claire swallowed, pressing her lips together. Asking how the woman knew of Albert would be moot. “Y-Yes….”

“But you do not believe that to be the case?”

“I…do not know what to believe.” 

“Albert was murdered, was he not?” The woman’s eyes seemed to glisten. “Taken not by an act of God, but by an act of Man?” 

Tears stung the backs of Claire’s eyes. “Y-Yes.” 

The woman smiled softly. “Then the Good Lord should not be to whom your prayers are directed.” 

Claire took the lace handkerchief from inside her reticule, wrangling it. Dabbing at her suddenly tear-blurred eyes. It had been an answer she was terrified to hear, yet desperation gave her no alternative. Albert had been her everything. The rock she had laid her foundation upon, the strength that supported her fragility. Without him, life held no meaning. She had prayed countless nights since the news of his death first reached her; since she had been forced to identify his mutilated body drug up from the banks of the river. Prayed for either an end to her own life, or the return of his in some way. Claire had passed it off as hysterics until she had heard of the woman in Whitechapel who could purportedly summon the deceased. Could give those who had lost a loved one a brief time to say their goodbyes. It came with a cost – of what type, the eavesdropped gossip never said – but she no longer cared. One more night with Albert was worth any price to be named.

The woman gestured to the chair before Claire. “Pray, take a seat. I believe I can help you in obtaining what you most desire.” 

Clair slowly dropped into the chair. She set her reticule in her lap, sniffling as the woman struck a lucifer from a pearl matchbox to the side of the black candle. “What must I do?” 

The candle’s wick caught, sputtering somewhat before taking on a steady flame. The woman shook out the lucifer, discarding it into a hidden receptacle on her side of the table. “We shall find out soon enough,” she replied, taking a seat in her own chair. Her hands, slender and manicured, reached across the table. “Take my hands, love.”

Claire laid her trembling hands across the woman’s palms. Her grip was firm – almost reassuring. She closed her eyes, tilting her head toward the vaulted ceiling and taking a deep breath. “Close your eyes. Focus deeply on dear Albert. Focus on what it is that you want most out of an encounter with him.” 

Claire did as instructed, allowing her eyes to fall closed. She drew a deep, shaky breath, filling her lungs with the stale air of the parlor. She brought to focus Albert’s face, youthful and bubbly. The face that had charmed her, even as a young girl. It appeared in the darkness of her mind, smiling brightly – bristling the thin mustache he had proudly grown before his untimely death. She could almost hear his baritone laughter, at some wily joke or another he liked to recant with her from his visitations to the gentlemen’s club. What she wouldn’t give for one more blissful night with him, the chance to speak her goodbyes…and tell him how much she loved him, just one last time. 

The woman across from her chuckled. “I see.” 

Startled out of her reverie, Claire snapped her eyes open. The woman looked forward again, slowly opening her eyes. They sharpened, focusing upon Claire with an almost amused twinkle. She squeezed her hands once. 

“You wish for the chance to spend one last night with your dearly departed husband.” 

Claire licked her lips, nodding. “Yes. Desperately.” 

The woman smiled again. “It is indeed possible, though it may come at a hefty price.” 

“What price?”

The chuckle returned; low, knowing. The woman sat back in her seat, releasing Claire’s hands and stroking her chin. 

“I am unsure; his prices vary, depending on the service requested of him.” 

A chill fingered Claire’s spine, forcing her to sit upright. “Who is ‘he’?” 

“An old friend.” The woman reached once more to her side, coming back up with a piece of paper and an inkwell. She dipped the tip of her pen into the jar, scribbling something across the sheet. When she was finished, she slid the paper across the spirit board. Claire took it, turning it rightside-up; on it appeared to be a list of instructions. At the very bottom, the words ‘loose-leaf Darjeeling’ was underlined twice. She looked back up, trying to swallow down the sinking feeling in her stomach. 

“What is all this?” 

“Instructions, dear Claire. Instructions on how to summon him.” The woman stood, licking the tips of her fingers. “He is able to provide you with what you seek, but just remember the most important instruction of all – the one which I underlined.” Her smile turned crooked, just as she doused the candle flame with her fingertips. It hissed ominously into the dark silence. 

“He prefers Darjeeling.” 

***

Claire read the sheet of instructions over and over when she left the woman’s house. Mouthing them to herself to commit them to memory. Upon returning home, any second thoughts Claire had quickly vanished as she bolted the front door and made her way to the kitchen. Carefully setting the set of instructions on the breakfast table, she lit three tallow candles in a candelabra and set to work digging through cupboards for the ingredients required. Thankfully, she was a lover of Darjeeling herself, and had several sachets of loose-leaf to choose from. She set to work boiling a kettle of water, and setting the breakfast table with a full service tray of milk, sugar, honey, fresh blueberry scones and two cups of the finest china she owned. Once the water was boiled and spilled into the china pot for pouring, she brought it and the candelabra to the table and sat without a word. 

Claire glanced the instructions over yet again, careful to read every word. Biting back the uneasiness that clutched her heart. The last instruction had yet to be completed Once the tea was steeped and she had worked up the confidence, she grasped the handle of the teapot and stood. Beginning to pour – first into the cup set at the empty seat across from hers.

“Lord of the Underworld…I invite thee to tea.”

She repeated this phrase thrice, as the china cup filled nearly to the brim. She was sure to leave enough room for milk and sugar – as the instructions made clear. Then she began to pour herself a cup. 

“Ah – Darjeeling. And a fine quality, at that.” 

The deep voice startled Claire into a scream. She nearly dropped the teapot, whirling on her heel; catching herself before the ceremony – and her fine china – would be ruined. The empty chair was now occupied by a man, angular face cast in attractive shadow from the flickering candles. Golden hair spilled across his shoulders, matching golden eyes as he watched Claire with an amused smile.  

“Dear lady, whyever are you frightened? Did you not mean to summon me on purpose?”

Claire stared at her visitor, quaking with shock. “I-I…I did mean…”

The man rose, gently removing the teapot from her iron-like grasp. Once setting it on the table, he touched her elbow. His skin was pleasantly warm. “Please, do sit down. You look upon the verge of fainting. There we are.”

Claire allowed him to assist her to her seat, into which she sank heavily. Disbelievingly. She couldn’t help but continue to stare in silence as the man reseated himself, pouring milk and honey into the steaming cup before him. Once he had finished, setting his silver spoon to the side of his saucer, he put the cup to his lips. The smile then turned satisfactory. 

“Perfectly brewed.” He sat back in the chair. “Thank you. Darjeeling has always been a favorite of mine.” 

Claire cleared her throat, too nervous to move. To speak. So many thoughts rushed through her head all at once that it caused her world to spin. She squeezed her eyes shut before opening them again; the man still sat across from her, watching her with the same amused twinkle that the woman in Whitechapel had. 

“Does your mind still denounce my existence?” He chuckled humorously. Taking another slow sip of his tea. “A funny thing, the human brain. A finely-tuned machine capable of quite amazing feats, yet malfunctions often due to strong emotion of any kind. I fear I shall never understand it.”

Claire did her best to regain control of her composure. She cleared her throat, straightened her spine. Bit her lower lip to stop it from trembling. 

“Who…who are you?” She finally found the courage to ask. 

The man set his teacup upon its saucer, brushing a hand through his glossy hair. “I have gone by many names, some of which are rather unsavoury. Some of which are completely false, fabricated by men who cannot tell the difference between fallen angels and true elements of evil.” He flashed her a polite smile. “But you may call me Lucifer.” 

Claire’s heart pounded. “L-Lucifer. The Morning Star. God’s favorite son.” 

Lucifer held up one finger. “Former favorite son – but yes, I am the very same.”

“The…the devil himself.”

Her guest frowned, golden eyes glimmering in the candle flame. “That is one of the unsavoury names I mentioned. Also a falsehood. Though I may be devilish at times I am not, in fact, of that species.” After yet another sip of tea, the perturbed expression left his face. “But enough about myself. Let us focus on the present.” He inclined his chin toward her. “Pray, what is your name, dear lady?” 

“Claire Dennings,” she responded softly. 

Lucifer nodded once. “Claire. And you have summoned me because you wish for a sizable favor; one only which I can assist with. Yes?” 

Claire nodded. 

“And what might that favor be?” 

“M-My husband…Albert Crestworth Dennings. He was slain a fortnight ago.” Tears threatened to well in her eyes once again. “During a dispute that he was not involved in, but merely tried to pacify. Slain in cold blood for being a Good Samaritan.” A small whimper escaped her throat; she pressed her fingers to her lips. “Pl-Please, forgive me….”

Lucifer shook his head, voice sympathetic. “You needn’t ask forgiveness for a rational reaction, dear lady. Yet, I find myself asking; since it is apparent that Albert Crestworth Dennings was a soul of purity, whyever seek the services of the Lord of the Underworld?” He shrugged helplessly. “A soul as purebred in nature as his goes directly back to its Creator.” 

Claire frowned. “B-But…the woman in Whitechapel…she told me that only you could offer any sort of hope for me. That only you could give me one more night with Albert, for a price.” 

A knowing look smoothed Lucifer’s expression. “Ah,” he said slowly, deliberately. He stuck a finger through the handle of his teacup. “I should have suspected.” 

“Suspected what?” Claire demanded, voice growing stringent. 

Lucifer shook his head. “Lilith. She always does like to play sinister little games with humans.”

“What does that mean?”

Lucifer’s golden eyes returned to hers, brows folding into a look of genuine guilt. “My sister. It is of her opinion that humans are the dregs of creation – to which, she does have most of a point. But to this end, she cares not of anything else but to bring mankind harm.” Lucifer flipped his wrist. “Humanity is the Lord’s most precious possession, for which his most loyal of children were cast to the wayside. It is, I fear, quite a long story.” Lucifer sipped his tea once again. “Suffice it to say, Lady Dennings, that you were led into a trap. A lamb to the slaughter, as it were.” 

Claire’s heart clenched so hard that it squeezed a gasp from her lungs. “Wh-What do you mean by that? Speak, demon!” 

Lucifer’s eyes glowed, a frown knitting his brows. “I ask that you please watch your language. I am mostly a well-mannered gentleman, but my fury hath no bounds.”

Claire sat back in her chair, appendages abruptly going numb. Her chest and stomach followed suit, effectively drowning her body in pins and needles that kept her bound to her seat by no means of her own. She could only stare helplessly until the glow slowly subsided from Lucifer’s eyes, returning once more to a dull, golden sheen only lit by candle light. 

“Now. What I mean is that Lilith has so cleverly entangled you into a spider’s web, from which there is, unfortunately, no escape.” Lucifer drained the remainder of his tea, then began to refill his cup. He stirred in more milk and sugar. “However, I am far more merciful than what is written of me.” His expression once again turned guilty. “I am unable to provide what Lilith has promised, nor am I able to revoke the price you must pay now that I have been summoned.” He held up one finger, forestalling the torrent of terrified words that began to tumble from Claire’s numbed lips. “Yet, it is within the realm of possibility that noble Albert Crestworth Dennings may be able to visit, provided that you present me with the necessary tools.” 

The numbness paralyzing Claire began to recede, setting her skin to fiery pins and needles. Once she was able to move once more, she rubbed a hand across her forearm. It stung badly. “I…I’m afraid I don’t understand.” 

“It is quite simple, really. A conjuring spell, as old as time itself, is the answer to your conundrum. The required components are easy enough to obtain, through sheer will and some manipulation. Done through my power, summoning the spirit of Mr. Dennings will not be difficult.” Lucifer contemplated her over the rim of his teacup. “And to that end, darling Claire, I would like to present a proposition.”

Claire sniffed, failing against holding back her tears. “You act as though I have a choice in the matter.” 

Lucifer granted her an empathetic dip of the head. “Point taken. However, that does not mean I cannot try to make the deal on even ground. The price is set – and it is quite high. A life of servitude to me, in exchange for the chance to live one more night with Mr. Dennings.” Lucifer took a slow sip. “But as I said, I am merciful. Seeing as you were duped into this contract, I am willing to grant your wish many-fold. As many nights as you require with Mr. Dennings, at any time. So long as you continue to serve me, and obtain fresh ingredients for the spell each and every time.” 

Tears poured down Claire’s cheeks. She had known her venture to be doomed from the start – either by deception or unwillingness to follow through. She had never imagined herself to be in total agreement with all of its aspects, even after being tricked to accept it. Her willingness to persevere into so wretched a life frightened her. But in the end, she would receive what she sought. Many times over. She could only hope now that Albert, once he returned, would not be disappointed in her. 

“I accept.” 

Lucifer pulled a handkerchief from his coat pocket, standing and moving to her side. Gently dabbing her tears. He grasped her abandoned teacup and pressed it into her trembling, pale hands; steam began to rise from it in curled tendrils once more. 

“Drink, my dear. Darjeeling is quite good for the constitution.”

***

At first, the conjuring spell was far from simple, as Lucifer had claimed. While most items could be found within the man-made wilderness of London – herbs, animal blood, tallow candles, and of course loose-leaf Darjeeling tea – the most vital ingredient was the hardest of all to obtain. Claire found it easiest with the weakest of society; drunkards splayed unconscious in alleyways, those just stumbling out of opium dens in a brain fog. Foolish and desperate men, easy to enthrall with feminine charm – which always ended on the point of a freshly-sharpened knife. It took all the strength Claire could muster to drag the bodies to secluded areas, quick enough to perform the dark sacrament and gather the blood in a vile before life took its final bow. 

But despite misgivings and guilt, Lucifer upheld his end of the bargain. Each time she finished her ritual slaughters, scampering home to prepare tea with the vile of blood, Albert came with him. Filling her with warmth and light. And each time tea was over, the hunger to host again grew ever stronger. Visceral. It began to consume her, devour her thoughts. She wanted more. Claire soon began to stalk the fog at night, through the slums that first led her to the life she now lived. The more robust and lively the offering, the stronger the conjuring spell worked, keeping Albert with her longer. She became so incensed to her nightly vigilance that she unknowingly gained many reputations and many names – just as Lucifer had before her. Eventually, Lucifer stopped attending tea, leaving Claire to drink the entire pot herself  It was no wonder, then, that she had always preferred Darjeeling tea.


T.L. Beeding is a single mother from Kansas City. She is co-editor of Crow’s Feet Journal and Paramour Ink, and is a featured author for Black Ink Fiction. When she is not writing, T.L. works at a busy orthopedic hospital, mending broken bones. She can be found on Twitter at @tlbeeding.


“Who Are You Talking To?” Psychological Horror by Harold Hoss

Casey-Linn cleans her home, starting in one corner and working her way to the next. She wants to have the place clean when the love of her life, Doctor John-Michael Fern, gets there. She wants to see the look on his face when he walks in, looks around and sees just how clean the place can be. She knows how proud it will make him. How impressed he will be.

“One who maintains cleanliness keeps away diseases,” Doctor Fern likes to say.

He has lots of little sayings like that. His favorite saying is: “a healthy mind in a healthy body.” Doctor Fern talks to Casey-Linn about health a lot, but he’s usually just saying the same thing in different ways. A sound mind in a sound body, he might say. Or mens sana in corpore sano. As if saying it again in a different language will make the message stick.

            Casey-Linn finishes one corner of her home and moves towards the next, only to pause at the nightstand, where a picture of her and Doctor Fern, standing side by side, sits. Doctor Fern’s wearing his white coat and scrubs, of course, but if she squints, she can imagine him in a tuxedo and her in a ballgown, standing on some red carpet or coming out of some fancy charity dinner. She can imagine Doctor Fern complaining – not really complaining, but half complaining and half joking – about having to attend so many fancy events while she listens with an indulgent smile.

            Casey-Linn holds the picture, tenderly, like a baby. She caresses Doctor Fern’s forehead with her thumb and smiles. She puts the picture back in its place on the nightstand when she hears something. The voice of a young boy. Her son. Only he isn’t calling out to her. Instead, he’s whispering, careful to keep his voice low and hushed. As if he’s trying not to be heard.

            Casey-Linn puts the picture back, careful not to make a sound, and takes a deep breath. She listens intently. Her son’s whispers have the ebb and flow of pauses that come with a normal conversation, but she only hears one voice.

            Turning, she wonders who he’s talking to and moves towards the sound of the voice.

            Casey-Linn’s footsteps are light and barely audible but, clinging to some childhood superstition, she holds her breath and closes her eyes, although she knows the latter won’t make her any less visible. Eyes closed, she inches closer and closer to the sound of her son’s voice, until she knows she’s standing close enough that she can reach out and touch him, then she balls her fists and rubs them in her eyes, hard enough that the darkness behind her eyelids flickers and the shadows twist.

            Casey-Linn opens her eyes and there’s her son, crouched on the ground and facing away from her. The blue blazer and red trousers of his schoolboy uniform are wrinkled and the curly brown hair he refuses to comb sticks out at all angles.

            Casey-Linn’s body goes rigid, her jaw clenches, her shoulders tense, and her hands slowly close into fists. She works so hard to keep the home clean. Doctor Fern works so hard to put a roof over their heads. Everyone works so hard because everything is so hard.

            Except for her son. Her son, who has everything. Her son, who can do anything. Who can be anyone. And who instead sits here. Alone.

            “We can’t go outside. It’s against the rules,” he whispers. He waits for an answer only he can hear, then he shakes his head. “I did ask. She said no. I can’t ask again. She’ll get angry.”

            Her nails dig into her palms. She can’t have him acting like this, talking to shadows under the bed or cracks in the floor or whatever it is this week. Doctor Fern will be here soon. She can’t have him embarrassing her. She won’t let him embarrass her. Not again. Not in front of Doctor Fern.

            Before she knows it, Casey-Linn marches across the room, clearing it in a few seconds, barely giving the boy time to turn and look, his eyes wide with fear and surprise. She grabs him by the shoulders and shakes. He squirms at first, then goes limp, like a mouse in a bird’s talons, resigned to its fate.

            “Who are you talking to?” she says. When he won’t answer, she screams, “Who are you talking to?”

            She shakes him like a child would shake a piggy bank, lightly, then, excited by the sound of something rattling inside, harder. When nothing comes out, she shakes harder.

“There’s no one there! So whoare you talking to?”

            She keeps shaking, and she keeps shouting, but nothing changes. She knows what Doctor Fern would say. He would say you can’t do the same thing over and over and expect a different result, but she doesn’t know what else to do, and she has to do something. So, she keeps shaking, and she keeps shouting, and nothing happens.

<><><> 

            “Casey-Linn,” the sound of Doctor Fern’s voice cuts through the air with such force that the lights in the tiny hospital room almost flicker. “Who are you talking to?”

            Doctor Fern stands in the doorway. Knowing his eyes are hidden behind opaque glasses, he lets them scan the small room. It’s mostly barren save for a generic bed and nightstand with a book and an empty picture frame. Nothing, and certainly no one,for Casey-Linn to be speaking to.

            He takes a breath and slowly stretches out one hand towards Casey-Linn. He has his palm out, the same way someone would approach a wild animal.

            “Casey-Linn,” he says again, his voice softer. “Who are you talking to?”

<><><> 


Harold Hoss is a former entertainment attorney who enjoys reading horror, watching horror, and writing horror – always with a cup of coffee in his hands. When he isn’t reading, watching, or writing he can be found running with his dog Margot. 


“The Power of You” Dark, Supernatural Fiction by Rayfox East

I saw him as soon as I entered the ticket hall. In the pre-show crowd he sat alone, staring into a plastic cup of water at a table near the gents. He poured a sachet of sugar into the cup and swirled it with a dirty finger and stared at it again. Here was a for-sure oddball – perfect fodder for Anorak UK.

Eccentrics (the juicy ones) are easily spooked, so I joined a larger group of attendees first. Beer and excitement had loosened tongues. A woman with a husky voice declared a lack of confidence had scuppered her romantically; a short man in a tall hat confessed he had been passed over for promotion five times; a well-to-do couple jostled their son to admit he was unpopular at college. Most reasons for coming were like that.

Mine was no better. A feature on vegetable sculptors had been cited on breakfast TV, now my blog Anorak UK (tagline: Tales from the Eccentric Frontline) brought three times the ad revenue. Thus I could afford the £300 ticket for tonight’s event – my next feature. And I had spotted my first source already.

Five minutes before showtime I approached the man’s table. In his cup floated a dead fly, drawn by the sugar, which he picked out and devoured in tiny bites.

He coughed when he saw me and wiped his fingers on his beard. The beard was ersatz, hooked around his ears; and his eyebrows, I saw, were a different colour at the roots. He stank of tobacco. His skin was loose from fasting – a strong breeze would treat it like a sail. No ring on his hand – but then, his fingers were too slender to have kept one on.

“Here for The Power of You?” I asked.

He shrugged guiltily.

“Me too.” I said, pleased I had switched on my recorder. “Although I don’t have much appetite for crowds.” I was pretty sure he’d agree, but he stared at me like an animal in a trap. He stood up quickly, pushed away the cup and, as he fled, delivered me a look of such frantic loathing I was briefly stunned.

The call came to take our seats in the auditorium. By ill luck my seat was one row in front of his. For the next hour he would be literally breathing down my neck. His manic glare was all I could picture as the lights dimmed.

‘The Power of You’ proclaimed six screens, the words pulsing to a Wu Tang track. With a hail of sparks the great Mindy Coleman strode onstage. The applause brought dust from the rafters and shook the seats. She was a magnesium flare in a room full of moths, every stitch the international self-help guru and network TV host (Doing You on CBS). Buoyed by the crowd I tried hard to catch her eye.

Not one clap from behind me. Dour sod – £300 he paid!

“Oh, thank you all for coming! You know, it’s not everyone who has the courage to come out to one of my seminars. You’ve already overcome limitations to be here tonight. Give yourselves a hand!”

Palm-stinging applause from everyone but the fly-fisher.

“If I know one thing, it’s that every one of us has power. We can use that power against ourselves or to launch us forward. Tonight I’ll share a taste of how to find your power and unlock your dreams. Oh, so many faces!”

When the self-activation period came, it was for the sake of our hands and throats. Mindy Coleman supercharged us, no one could stop talking. Her glow was impossible to dim. It was only the well of silence behind me that polluted my uptake of her doctrine.

Offended by the man’s resistance, since it showed me up as an easy convert, I loitered by the gents in ambush. But he slipped past, armpits projecting wide stains, and scuttled to the exit. For no definite reason I followed. Whatever secret had made him come would be humiliating, and right then I wanted it to be.

He turned away from the bright car park and skirted the walls of the centre, keeping in shadow. I turned the next corner and lost him. The cold air and abundant shadows brought me to a halt. What was I doing here, the stink of the bar bins eroding my cologne?

Then I saw him. A shadow leapt over the wooden screen around the bins. My god, was he so desperate? But no, the ticket cost a fortune…

What I heard next was the squeal of a bat or rodent, stamping, then a wet crack. Some plastic items clattered on the tarmac. I kept still, expecting the man to climb out, having retrieved, possibly, a cache of drugs.

Then I heard chewing. Wet and grisly, like a bear chewing fish.

I hurried back inside as an electronic bell signalled the end of the self-activation period.

The second half was billed ‘Living Your Truth in the Digital Age.’ I had seen a spare seat behind him. Now I claimed it. But he did not reappear in the audience.

Mindy Coleman came on to raptures, brushing the fingers of the front row. My eyes were fixed on the empty seat. His sugar-water sat on his armrest, attracting flies.

Feeling spiteful, I knocked the cup onto his seat cushion mid-cheer, so that if he came back I would watch him squirm.

Carpe Diem. What does it mean?” Mindy yelled as the music faded. “Let me hear you!”

Seize the day! came the cry rehearsed in the first half.

“And what day is that?”

Today!

The smell of bins made me twitch. There he was, shuffling along the row in front! He sat, felt the wetness and froze, staring dead ahead. Mrs Coleman took a backseat to his reaction, the dye trickling down his neck. What did he need motivation for? He was already so unrestrainedly vulgar.

With no clear trigger, the whole thing started to revolt me. Mindy was more predator than prophet, a lack-of-confidence trickster. And these misfits were easy prey. The gist for my feature would be: cynic milks the vulnerable for money.

When the curtain fell I raced to the foyer, but I lost him in the loud, happy exodus. I could hear horns bleat as the crowd drained from the car park, bound for promotions, marriages, start-ups and affairs.

I looked until my Prius was alone in the car park, weighing up whether to search local bars. But my heart slumped at the thought. My trophy had escaped, dour sod. His smell was all that was left – I had to replace the air freshener. That’s what I get for £300 worth of journalistic inquiry!

On the M40 I thought of Cheryl. Pretending she was with me made the journey faster. I turned on the radio, seeking Mindy Coleman’s broadcast frequency but it was off-air.

Towards midnight it began to rain, fat drops like marbles, then the rain began to flash blue and red. A siren scared me, waving me over. I checked the speedometer – well within the limit – as the police car parked in front. After a while an officer approached, strafing a flashlight over my windows and roof.

Hitching his trousers, he tapped on my window..

“Where’s your luggage?” he asked once I’d lowered it.

“I don’t have any luggage.”

“You sure?”

“Yes. Is there a problem?”

The policeman’s torch crossed the backseat. He patted the roof. “Alright. It’s been a long night, I guess. Drive safe.”

I let the policeman drive off first, shaking my head. He looked younger than me, too. When did that happen? It was my birthday next month. I knew Cheryl had some plans for it, but I wished it wouldn’t come all the same.

I stopped for a coffee at Knutsford services. The reek of the toilets was not unwelcome after hours of driving – sharp enough to keep me awake. I bought a sausage roll and ate it in the Prius.

The sky was fuzzy lilac when I arrived home. Cheryl had left the light on by the front door, but the rest of the flat was dark. Rain had softened in the last hour and I listened to the peaceful sound for a minute or two before locking the car and letting myself in.

Inside there was a note from Cheryl saying there was take-out in the fridge. Since the microwave beeped loudly I ate it cold, thinking about how to bulk out my feature. I could reach out to Coleman herself, overstate my influence and weedle for a one-on-one. As she herself put it: Give yourself permission to chase your dreams.

I heard Smudge rattle the catflap as I washed the plate and headed upstairs. It was dark under the bedroom door, Cheryl asleep. I ran a bath and undressed in the hall, spotting Smudge asleep in her basket – she must have raced upstairs ahead of me – and settled in the bubbles for a calm half-hour. I scratched a few notes on my mental pad, towelled and crept into the bedroom.

Cheryl was warm, her breathing excited by a dream. I tossed and sweated for two hours, unable to fully rid from memory his BO and tobacco stench. At last I tried to lie still and make sleep come to me. The clock read 02:54.

Something probed my lower back – a dislodged spring, sliding between vertebrae. It lanced up with a pain too intense to accept as real. My disbelieving hand found a thin blade sticking through my navel. My scream was a wet hiss – my hand dropped – a numbness like early death spread until I couldn’t speak. The bed churned like a sick stomach. Two slender hands clawed through the mattress, tipping Cheryl’s numbed body so at last I saw her terrified eyes.

From the gutted mattress he emerged, dripping sweat on our faces, eyes gemmed by the moon. His stench engulfed the room; he seemed bigger than the room could possibly allow. From a crusty pocket he withdrew a long serrated knife and giant fork, spilling condiment sachets and lint. His hands were shaking.

“I am brave enough.” he rasped. “I am strong enough. I give myself permission to chase my dreams.”

 He undressed in the moonlight, put on a child’s bib, and fulfilled the most courageous act of his life.


Rayfox East was born in Bangor, Wales, and lives in London, trading a sea breeze for city smog. He is not as well-travelled as his stories, which have been published in four continents, but plans to catch up before the next pandemic hits. He works as a website manager for a UK charity.


“New England Gothic” Dark Fiction by Elizabeth Gauffreau

Do you remember reading “A Rose for Emily,” in high school English class? You know the story: William Faulkner’s tale of a prideful vestige of a bygone era who kills her lover and lives with his corpse in her house until she dies, the townspeople’s discovery of the lover’s skeletal remains at the end of the story all Southern Gothic and delightfully chilling? Well, our town too has its story of a woman who killed a loved one and kept the corpse in her house as she went about her business–although in our case, there was nothing Southern, Gothic, or delightfully chilling about it. You must have heard about the case. It made the national news.

On a chilly morning in April, we were all in our respective homes in our quaint New England town eating breakfast, reading the morning paper, watching the morning news, when police cruisers came to Sycamore Street. The reason for their arrival could not be determined by looking out the window, and we poured ourselves another cup of coffee. Then a coroner’s van pulled into the driveway of Marjorie Broe’s small, gray ranch house, and, in due course, someone was wheeled out of the house in a bag. Marjorie must have passed away. Sad, we’d seen her working in her yard just the day before, and she’d looked in perfect health. Still, she was in her seventies, so not a complete shock. Then Marjorie herself emerged from her front door with a uniformed female officer, who led her to one of the cruisers and drove her away. Who, then, was in the bag? The yellow crime scene tape went up. The state police crime lab van arrived, followed by the local news vans.

It didn’t take long for the news media to inform us that the person who had died in Marjorie’s house was her eighty-five-year-old sister Anna. We had no idea Anna had been living there. She’d stayed with Marjorie the previous year, but no one had seen her in months, and we assumed she’d gone into a nursing home. Marjorie, the media informed us, was staying with friends while her sister’s death was being investigated.

Something wasn’t right here. The contents of Marjorie’s small, gray house on Sycamore Street were being methodically removed in sealed bags. The circumstances of Anna’s death slowly began to come out. She hadn’t died where she’d been found. She had died well before Marjorie called the authorities. Her injuries were inconsistent with a fall. Marjorie was arrested.

As we waited for the final autopsy results to be reported, we remembered an incident that had happened about six months before Anna’s death, the last time she kept her weekly appointment at the beauty parlor to get her hair done. She was quite infirm by this time, barely able to walk unaided. Her one pleasure left in life was her weekly shampoo and set, done in the old-fashioned way with brush rollers and the big bubble dryer. Marjorie drove her to the beauty parlor as usual, but instead of helping her sister out of the car, Marjorie leaned across her to open the door, pushed her out, and threw her cane out after her. Then Marjorie just drove off. And she never went back to get her. The shop owner drove Anna back to Marjorie’s house herself. Marjorie was none too happy to see either one of the, muttering about never being a allowed a moment’s peace as she slammed the door. After that no one could recall seeing Anna until she was wheeled out of Marjorie’s house in a bag.

In her youth, Marjorie was a beautiful girl, with fair skin, fine features, and dark curly hair that had no need of the beautician’s ministrations. She had a smile I was about to describe as radiant, but, no, I don’t think it was. Marjorie had an impish smile, the smile you see on the face of someone who has never experienced a moment of boredom in her life. Back in those days, she appeared taller than she actually was, with a figure that the older generation described in the old-fashioned way as willowy. She had a real gift for playing the piano. She’d learned to read music before she started school, and she could play any song by ear after hearing it only once. As you can imagine, she never missed an invitation to a party. When she was crowned Miss New Hampshire of 1952, none of us was surprised.

After her reign as Miss New Hampshire ended, Marjorie married Billy Broe and settled into married life. She was active in her church, singing in the choir, serving on the altar guild, visiting shut-ins, contributing her best coconut cake to the bake sales. She volunteered at the school when the teachers needed extra help, and she started a book group at the public library. She babysat our kids when the young mothers among us needed to run errands unencumbered. The kids would come home all sticky from eating graham crackers and molasses because Marjorie was fearful of hurting their little hands and faces if she scrubbed them clean.

Billy bought her the house on Sycamore Street, and she made it into a nice little home for the two of them, picking out the furniture, painting the walls, sewing all of the curtains and slipcovers herself, at last finding a place for all of their treasured wedding gifts. She even painted the exterior of the house herself, faithfully, every five years, standing on a step ladder with her hair done up in a red bandana as she waved her paintbrush at passersby. Marjorie and Billy never had children, and of course there was speculation as to the reason why, but I don’t think we were mean-spirited about it. I hope we weren’t mean-spirited about it.

As for Anna, she was ten years older than Marjorie, so she wasn’t in the picture much. As far as any of us could recall, there had been no animosity between the two sisters growing up. They’d just never been close. As adults, Anna had her life as a single woman earning her living in a neighboring town, and Marjorie had her life with Billy.

In 1984, Billy died of a massive heart attack shoveling their front walk. A neighbor found him face down in the snow with the shovel still in his hand. When the paramedics got there, they didn’t even attempt to resuscitate him. They just loaded him into the ambulance and took him away. Something happened to Marjorie after Billy died. She dropped out of her community activities and stopped attending church. She gained weight. Her features coarsened and sagged. Her hair thinned and lost its curl. Obviously, we tend to let ourselves go when we’re grieving, but this was different. We all lose our looks as we get older, too, but this was different. Something happened to Marjorie.

Years went by. The people on Sycamore Street reported that an elderly woman was now living with Marjorie. This woman could be seen passing in front of the picture window pushing the vacuum cleaner, out sweeping the front walk on warm days, working side by side with Marjorie in the flower beds. We weren’t surprised. Even with the changes in Marjorie following Billy’s death, we’d expect her to take in a relative in need. We’d expect her to be kind.

The news reports were muddled. Marjorie denied to the police that she’d hit her sister. Marjorie admitted backhanding her sister but not killing her. Marjorie admitted killing her sister but not on purpose. Marjorie confessed to killing her sister out of malice to put an end to her constant demands. Marjorie recanted her confession. Marjorie was arraigned to stand trial. Marjorie was found fit to stand trial. Marjorie was found unfit to stand trial.

In the end, none of that mattered. In the end, blood told the story. There was blood in every room of the small, gray house on Sycamore Street: in the kitchen, in the living room, in the hallway, in the bathroom, in the dining room, in both bedrooms, and on the enclosed porch. There was blood on Marjorie’s clothes in the hamper, blood on more of her clothes in the trash in the garage, and blood on paper towels in the trash. Marjorie had followed Anna through the house for the better part of a day, beating her until she went down and then beating her again when she managed to get up, the blows delivered with such force that the diamond ring Marjorie wore punched patterns into her sister’s flesh. When Marjorie finally tired of it, she delivered a series of kicks that left Anna with twenty-two broken ribs, in addition to the two black eyes and carpet-bombing of bruises on her face and chest, finally leaving her on the floor to bleed softly, gently into her brain until she died. Then Marjorie dragged her sister’s dead body across the living room floor and shoved it down the steps to the enclosed porch, where she left it for three days while she puttered about the small, gray house on Sycamore Street, stepping over the body and back when she went out to the porch to water the plants.


Elizabeth Gauffreau writes fiction and poetry with a strong connection to family and place. Recent fiction publications include Woven Tale Press, Dash, Pinyon, Aji, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, and Evening Street Review. Her debut novel, Telling Sonny, was published by Adelaide Books in 2018. Learn more about her work at http://lizgauffreau.com.


“The Jets” Psychological Horror by Keith LaFountaine

When Jan came home from work, she found her husband curled in the fetal position on the living room floor. He had stuffed two pieces of cotton in his ears. In the distance, Jan heard the approaching growl of the F-35s – at least, the one that was trailing behind his four other pals. They were making so many loops it was challenging to keep up with their schedule.

            Dropping her bag next to the kitchen counter, Jan rushed toward her husband, her heels clicking against the wood floor. The door slammed behind her, and when she reached Peter, the jet came thundering over their house, the sound of its engine drowning out everything in a hundred-foot radius.

            “Peter!” she shouted. She felt the strain in her throat as the words slipped out, but the jet engines stole their power. She wrapped her arms around Peter, pulling him into a seated position. He trembled to the point that she worried about the possibility of a seizure or some other serious injury. But no – when she looked in his eyes and pressed her palm against his cheek, she saw her Peter there, lucid as ever – terrified, certainly, but conscious.

            “Baby,” she said, cradling his face, “what’s wrong? What happened?” She plucked the cotton out of his ears. To her shock, they were soaked with blood.

            “Did you hear them?” Peter whispered. “Oh, God. Jan – the screams! Can’t you hear them?”

*

            Peter slept soundly, his snores rumbling in their tiny bedroom, his mouth hanging ajar, a thin line of drool spilling down his bottom lip. It was six-thirty – a far cry from the usual time they went to bed (or, when she would lay up at night knitting, when he would crack open whatever paperback he’d brought home from the used bookstore down the road). Odd, but not a crime. Truth be told, she couldn’t get the image of the blood-drenched cotton swabs, nor the fear in his tone when he spoke. As she returned to the living room, Jan figured that whatever Peter had experienced more than earned him an early night.

            She considered grabbing her knitting needles from the bedroom but instead decided to make a quick dinner. Crossing through the living room and into the kitchen, she rummaged around the fridge until she found some soup she’d made the night prior. As she put the pot on the stove, the drone came again – soft and in the distance, but unmistakable.

            “Christ,” Jan muttered under her breath. The Governor had warned that they would be starting night runs soon, but a part of her foolishly hoped better ideas would prevail. Ideas like not bothering people with cacophonous jets around the time they were preparing dinner.

            Slapping a pot onto the stove’s electric coil, she scooped in a few spoonfuls of the cold soup and turned the burner on high. As she watched the burner turn a bright crimson, the first of the jets came flying over the house. As it did, the structure shook with it. The whiskey bottles on their bar rattled around; the pictures on the walls twitched left and right; dust shifted from the lamps and fell to the floor; the windows made an awful grating sound as they chittered about. And that was just the first jet. There were five, each as droning and annoying as the next. Sure enough, as steam rose above the warming soup, the next came. Again, the house did its little jig.

            That was when she heard Peter screaming from the bedroom.

            Instinct kicked in. Leaving the soup behind without flipping off the burner, Jan dashed through the kitchen, hooked left, and sprinted down the short hallway toward their bedroom. Upon flinging the door open, she saw Peter standing naked in front of their window, the one that overlooked the driveway. She saw a jet speeding ahead into the distance in the darkening sky, turning left, heading toward the highway. The third jet came, and it seemed to put a little oomph into its engine. The roar was so loud Jan felt her ears pop, and the glass of water on Peter’s nightstand came tumbling down on the floor, where it shattered, sending jagged blue pieces of glass skittering every which way.

            If Peter heard the sound of the glass breaking, he didn’t indicate it. Jan yelled at him as she approached, straining her voice to do so. Even before he turned, her heart lurched. Dark blood streamed from his ears like there was an internal leak in his brain. Maroon tributaries ran down his neck and his chest, dripping onto the floor. And still more came. Her stomach wobbled when she saw the blood was being pumped out, fresh batches dousing his earlobe and slicing down the side of his face.

            When her husband turned, her heart jolted again. The fourth jet came flying over, and in the wake of its fading drone, she heard her husband whisper something. In his right hand was one of her knitting needles, its pointed edge glimmering with a devilish hunger, backlit by moonlight.

            “Peter,” she said, trying to enunciate. The fifth jet, the last of the bunch, was still approaching. “Peter, give that to me.”

            “Can’t you hear them?” Peter cried. Tears ravaged his cheeks, burning down his face, parallel to the blood pumping from his ears. “Jan, you have to hear them! They’re…they’re crying, Jan! God, they’re screaming! Why can’t anybody hear them?”

            The fifth jet tore through the sky, its sound ripping the world in two, and that was when Peter drove the knitting needle into his bleeding ear. Jan didn’t hear the sound of the needle puncturing his brain, nor did she hear her screams. The jet engines stole all.

            She ran as he fell, catching his body before his head cracked against the wood floor. The F-35 flew away, twisting to follow the group, and as it did, Jan sobbed, unsure of what to do or who to call. In her arms, Peter seized, his body jerking around uncontrollably, and eventually Jan had to lay him down on the floor, run to the kitchen for her phone, and call 911. The stove’s burner hissed as the soup boiled over the sides, unleashing gouts of white smoke.

*

            In the weeks that followed Peter’s death, Jan participated in a handful of police interviews, answering the same questions repeatedly: did your husband have a history of depression; what happened prior to his suicide; did he have any enemies that you know of; did he often talk about being upset with life or wishing he could disappear? Aside from pricking her heart again and again with barbed needles, the questions served only to prove how ridiculous the notion of Peter’s suicide was. It was the word to describe what happened, yet it didn’t explain any nuances. The Peter she knew was buoyant and hopeful. The Peter that had died…well, he had been someone else entirely. Driven mad by the jets, as odd as that was to say. Jan only allowed herself to consider the cause-and-effect of the jets when she was alone at home, often wallowing away in a steep glass of wine, sitting in sweatpants stained with her hot tears.

            And still, overhead, the jets thundered on.

*

            The first night after the funeral, Jan drew a hot bath. She found some salts and bubble bath squirreled away under her bathroom sink, and she dumped half of each into it. After lighting a few candles and putting calming music on, she brought a bottle of rosé and uncorked it. Then, settling into the warm water, she drank and cried.

            When the first jet flew overhead, she rolled her eyes, pulling one hand from the bubbly water to flip off her ceiling. As silly as the gesture was, something settled in her gut then: a comforted rage, satiated for the moment, even as she remained confused and addled by the trauma of that night. Sucking down some more wine, she listened to Hozier croon from the speaker on her sink, and she closed her eyes, settling deeper into the bath. Warm water licked at her chin, and she placed the bottle on the side of the tub, resting her weary, tear-streaked eyes.

            The second jet came screaming by soon after. The description was too accurate, though. Jan opened her eyes as it passed overhead. She did hear screaming. A high-pitched wail. The kind she would have expected in a cheesy slasher movie, with Jason cutting down a few too-horny-for-their-own-good campers. But then the sound was gone, fading into the distance. Until the next jet came, and she heard it again. This time, she kept her eyes closed. In the darkness, she saw a mouth, unhinged; a tongue pulled back in reflexive terror; eyes with dilated pupils; hands clutching something close, holding it tight, some precious thing.

            Jan shook her head and sat up in the bathtub. Water sloshed over the side, spilling onto the tile floor, and the cold air in the bathroom raised goosebumps on her chest.

            It can’t be, she muttered, shaking her head. It’s the trauma. It’s losing Peter. I’m just hearing things.

            When the third jet boomed by, she heard it again, though. This time the screaming was more pronounced: an unmistakable wail of terror, a word she didn’t recognize. It was screamed in a higher register, and when the deeper boom of the F-35’s engines kicked into gear, the word was lost to her.

            But she heard it with the fifth jet. It stole her breath. Jan reached her hand up to her neck. Her heart thumped in her chest, hard and fast, and she whispered her husband’s name, though that sound was stolen by the engines and the screams, too.

            The word she heard, clear as day, was HELP.

*

            The Governor’s email was about as bare bones as she expected, given the lack of clarity in her initial query. Underneath her email, which (among other things) requested a stoppage to the jets flying over her neighborhood, was a cold response.

            Dear Mrs. Anderson: we understand your concerns and apologize for any inconvenience. However, Governor Scott stands firmly in support of our military and will not hinder their pursuit to protect our freedom.

            Jan rolled her eyes and cursed under her breath. After snapping the laptop closed, she stood from her living room couch and returned to the kitchen. Typical politician bullshit. Jets doing loop-de-loops over residential neighborhoods protected her to the same degree that Brent the Mall Cop did while standing outside the Macy’s in South Burlington.

            The jets returned that night. With them came the screams, the pleading for help, the sound of vocal cords breaking. Jan huddled in her bedroom closet, slamming the door shut behind her. But even the additional walls were unable to drown out the sound of terror. The engines roared overhead, shaking the house, and with the shrieks came new sounds: wailing bombs falling to the ground, exploding; the chatter of gunfire, pocking an arid landscape, shattering bones and spraying the soil with blood; the faint moans of the dying, holding bloody stumps where elbows had once been, holding throats that seeped crimson, gurgling and coughing; another high-pitched warble as an additional bomb blasted the Earth, akin to the sound Wile E. Coyote made after falling off a ledge.

            When the final jet passed over, Jan pawed at her cheeks. They were awash with hot tears. Even as the engines faded into the distance, she heard the horrors of war in her head, drilling deeper, wrapping around her brainstem with fiery hands. As if acting on instinct, she curled into the fetal position and pressed her palms against her ears. In the dark closet, the sounds of destruction were omnipresent.

*

            “Jan, you can’t just leave!”

She’d expected Andy, her boss, would say something along those lines, but the truth was her role was easy to transfer into a remote role.

“I just do a lot of writing,” Jan retorted, putting her cellphone on speaker and rushing around her bedroom. She yanked a red suitcase from her closet, zipped it open, and tossed it on her bed. “I’ll still hit my deliverable, don’t worry. I just – I need to get away. Losing Peter, the aftermath. I just need to get away.”

            “I get that. And I told you that you could take some time if you needed it. Nobody would be upset if you did that.”
            Forgoing folding, Jan heaped clothes into the suitcase. She checked her watch. She still had time. The jets wouldn’t come by for another hour – by then, she would be a few counties away, safe from their engines, safe from the cries of terror and the whine of exploding shrapnel.

            “Andy, I can’t lose the PTO,” Jan demurred. She grabbed a phone charger from her nightstand, averting her eyes from the window, the place that still stank of blood, even after being professionally cleaned. “I just need you to listen to me, okay?”

            Her boss’s sigh was heavy, and her phone’s speaker crackled. Then, Andy said, “Fine. I can give you two weeks. Just stay in the state, okay? But I need you in the office after two weeks. Got it?”

            “Yeah, got it,” Jan said. “Thank you.” The phone beeped three times, indicating the call was over, and she returned focus to the suitcase.

            Forty-five minutes, Jan thought when she finished packing. She glanced once again at her watch. Her heart thumped hard and heavy in her chest. Blood pounded in her ears, and a faint metallic tang coated the back of her tongue. Ignoring her palpable fear, she grabbed the suitcase by the handle and lugged it out of her bedroom. In the kitchen, she snagged her car keys. They jangled when she stuffed them into her pants pocket.

            She turned back once to look at her living room. The sun streamed in through the window, laying out a blanket of yellow warmth on the floor. The couch looked inviting, with its soft cushions, and the remote on the coffee table called out to her. Throw something on the TV, it said. Watch a show. Relax.

            Turning away from the hell that had once been her haven, Jan opened the door and slipped out. She fumbled with her keys for a brief moment before stuffing the silver one into her lock. She twisted hard, and the ka-chunk of her lock slamming into place sent a stone of heat spiraling up into her chest. Jan stuffed the keys back into her pocket and marched toward her car, still lugging the suitcase by hand.

            Once Jan stowed it in her trunk, she slid behind the wheel and stuffed her large black key into the ignition. As she turned it, her motor made series of ruhruhruhruhruh sounds, as if it was gasping for breath.

Heat flashed in Jan’s face. She tried again, turning the key.

Ruhruhruhruhruh.

            “Please,” she whispered to her dashboard. “You can’t do this. Not now. Please.”
            On the third try, the motor coughed to life, though the sound of her car turning over was about as lazy as a car could sound. Jan glanced in her mirror – and that was when she saw the traffic on the road behind her.

            As Jan turned her car around, she glanced at the clock. Thirty-two minutes. She still had time. With thirty minutes, she could make it to Montpelier. Hell, if there weren’t any Stateys lurking in their green cars and the roads were clear, she could make it in less than twenty.

            But traffic wasn’t moving. A black SUV blocked her into the driveway, though the driver behind the wheel – a white woman with a frazzle of blond hair and two kids in the back seat – laid on her horn and opened her mouth, likely hurling some expletive. Jan fought the instinct to thrust her palm against her horn, too. The Mom in the SUV certainly couldn’t move.

            Ten painstaking minutes passed. Every thirty seconds or so, Jane craned her head to look down the road, seeing the long line of cars get shorter. The SUV was long gone. Now, blocking her in was a ratty Toyota. Rust ate away at the white exterior, while duct tape covered one of the back windows. It crept forward, its tires crunching over the pavement.

            “God damn it!” Jan roared, slamming her palm against the wheel. Thoughts swirled in her mind: if you just left twenty minutes earlier; if you didn’t pack that book; if you didn’t take the time to call Andy until after you arrived. If, if, if: the self-critiques stripped her bare, squeezed at her heart, and sent the pounding pulse of panic into overdrive.

            They’re coming, she thought. Christ, the jets are coming.

            It was an additional five minutes before she was able to sneak into traffic, cutting off a blue Honda, which earned her a squeal from its horn. She flipped the bird out her window and drove on, pulling into the right lane and speeding by the expanse of cars. As she approached the end of Pine street, she saw what had cut her precious time in half. A construction crew was actively churning the ground up at the intersection. Through the hole, she saw a pipe gushing dark black sewage. The smell was so fetid it managed to sneak through her car’s ventilation system. Jan wasted no time aggressively passing by the mess, cutting right at the next intersection and going up the hill toward Shelburne Road. Her brakes squealed as she pumped them, slowing to a stop at the next intersection. A sixteen-wheeler with pictures of produce on its side blew by, its engine uttering a churning gargle. The sound sent a flash of anxiety coursing down Jan’s spine. She resisted the urge to recheck the car’s clock. She knew time was running out – what was the use in wasting precious seconds?

            There was an accident up by the onramp, which slowed traffic to another halt. Jan let out a riotous bellow when she saw the Jeep’s smoking hood, dented inward, and the BMW’s shattered taillights. They were pulled off to the side of the road, in Jan’s lane, and a uniformed cop was ushering traffic forward while another took down notes. Jane crept forward, her foot slipping between the brake and the gas every few seconds. She looked up at the sky. It was a perfect powder blue. The sun still shone down with its friendly yellow rays. Birds chirped and cawed as they flew overhead. It was, by every definition, an impeccable day in Vermont.

            But they were coming. The roars, and the cries, and the destruction. They were coming.

            It only took a few minutes for the cop to wave her through, but it felt like eons to Jan. She sped forward, weaving by the cop and sliding onto the onramp. Twisting with the road’s circular descent, her body absentmindedly rocked back and forth. Then, when she hit the straightaway, she slammed her foot on the gas and sped forward. As she merged into the left lane, she checked her clock.

            Ten minutes.

            The cars in the right lane honked their horn at her. Jan ignored them, just as she ignored the needle on her speedometer, which was approaching ninety-five miles an hour. Before her, the highway spread out: two lanes, revealing open fields and lush trees on both sides. Up ahead, there was a bend in the road, and she slowed down to eighty. The last thing she needed was to spin off the road.

But as she took the turn and stared at the giant green road sign that read MONTPELIER: 32 MILES, she heard them. In the distance still, behind her surely, but they broke the sky, nonetheless. The echo of their engines was unmistakable, a cry of fury, high-pitched and warbling. With the echo came the softest whisper, a plea, a desperate suggestion.

Save us, please!”
           

Jan hit the gas again, even as she roared by a statey’s green car. His lights flew on, and he pulled into her lane. The silver Toyota that was behind her hit its brakes to allow the cop to enter. The speedometer’s needle climbed again: eighty, eighty-five, ninety, ninety-five. She didn’t know how far she could push her little Subaru, but as she approached the big 100, the car started to shake. In the sky, those sounds grew louder, piercing the protective barrier of her car’s cabin, sliding through the glass windows, writhing its way into her ventilation system. The drone was louder, the plea more hurried than before, the voice sounding as though it was right next to her, seated in the passenger’s seat with hands clasped and eyes watering.

Please, save us!”

The cop’s lights were flashing a frenzy of blue and red, and its sirens were warbling, though the roar of her Subaru’s engine drowned out some of the noise. Up ahead, there was another curve in the road coming: a sharper one, where the only thing keeping her from crashing down into an expanse of forested mountain roads was a metal guardrail. Jan looked in her rearview mirror and realized blood was seeping from her ears, trickling down her neck, tainting her white blouse.

The curve came fast and hard, and Jan pulled her wheel to the right. Well, tugged was more what she did, as the wheel resisted being turned at such speeds. As her car careened around the curve, the wheels on her left side lifting off the ground, the first jet flew overhead. With it came the sound of a bomb falling, whisking through the sky with a cartoonish howl, soon followed by a distant boom. The voice beside her was only growing more frenzied, more desperate.

“Please help us!” it shouted. Jan could tell it was a mother’s voice. There was something about the desperation with which the woman shouted. She was not scared for herself but her children. In an instant, Jan could see them, their faces pressed against the hot fabric of the woman’s dress, their eyes peering through her the gaps between her fingers, looking up at the sky with wide-eyed dread. And then, when the bombs boomed, they screamed, and their screams were akin to the screeching of metal on metal or the whine of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar at Woodstock.

Jan realized that it was not just the screams she heard but also the sound of her axles snapping as her Subaru desperately tried to make the turn and maintain its hellish speed. Jan jerked the wheel to the left out of instinct, trying to avoid the car turning over. Another scream, this one purely from her car, and the Subaru bucked.

The second jet passed overhead as the Subaru flipped sideways, smashing into the guardrail. Hot sparks jetted from her door as metal tore through metal, and her window shattered, sending sparkling fragments through the interior of her car. The Subaru flipped end over end, burnt metal breaking off and clattering across the road. The cop swerved behind her, managing to avoid disaster. Black smoke rose in the air as the cop car slammed on its brakes, as did the stink of burnt rubber. It was going too fast. The vehicle further ahead, a black SUV, not unlike the one that Jan saw while leaving her house, hit its brakes, likely in response to the sight of a cop car speeding toward it, lights flashing and siren blaring. The cop slammed into the back of it, and the sirens were cut off with a petulant wee-whoo.

Blood stained Jan’s face. Darkness swarmed her vision. She was held in place, upside down, by her seatbelt. As consciousness waned, the jets continued to pass overhead, and she heard it all, more intensely than ever before. She heard the gut-churning sound of limbs being torn from shoulder sockets, of children screaming for their mothers with outstretched stumps spurting dark blood. When the third jet screamed overhead, she saw the mother again; only, her eyes were wide and empty, her body torn apart by gunfire. Blood seeped into the sand underneath her, congealing the particles, turning them as dark as sackcloth. In the distance came the next round, carrying more horrors with it, but Jan did not hear them. Darkness overwhelmed her vision, the black spots swelling into each other like hungry amoebas, and she spiraled into the void, wishing for death, praying for silence.

*

            She came to in a warm bed, and for a moment Jan wondered if the afterlife was that simple. But when she craned her right eye open, she recognized the stark white walls and the acidic smell of chemical cleaners. Life crept back into her veins, and with it came the dread of living.

            Beside her, a machine beeped endlessly. Its monotonous tone drove into her ears like a dull nail, and she winced as it picked up with the rapid beating of her heart. Soon enough, it started to chime, flashing red and orange lights. Not long after, her nurse came in.

            “Good to see you awake,” she said. “I’m Annie, your nurse. Let me just shut this thing off.” With a quick hustle, she moved across the room and sidled up to the machine, tapping its screen a few times. The alarm, and the chirp of her heart rate, dissipated.

            “Thank you,” Jan croaked. “Can I…” She licked her lips. God, her mouth tasted like cotton. “Can I get some water?”

            “Sure, hon,” she said. “I’ll check with your doctor, make sure you’re cleared to have oral fluids. Okay?”

            Jan nodded, and Annie left the room, closing the heavy wooden door quietly behind her. Jan pushed her head back into the pillow, trying to find the right crease. She wanted to sleep, wanted the yawning blackness of infinity to swallow her again.

            The TV on the wall was on. From it, she heard the drone of a news anchor. Last night, the President continued strikes…

            “Please. help us.”

            Jan jerked her head to her right. There, sitting in one of the metal chairs, was the woman. Half of her face was a burnt mess of scarlet flesh. An eyelid was fused over its glassy sphere, and her bottom lip was torn in two. Charred blood glistened under the hospital lights, and when the woman spoke, only one side of her face emoted. The other eye, the one that was caked in dried blood but still lucid, sparkled with terror.

            “Please,” the woman begged. “My children.”
           

“No!” Jan yelled, the cry cutting through her dry throat. “No!” Beside her, the machine began to beep again, its rapid tone wailing. Or was that the woman? Or her child? Jan turned again, and she saw the woman holding a wad of bloody cloth. From it peeked a small hand with half the fingers missing, in its place bloody stumps.

            Overhead, the first jet droned by.

            The machine continued to wail, and Jan mimicked it. She grabbed at the IV in her arm and pulled, yelping as a scarlet haze tinted her vision, at the lancing pain that tore up her arm. The IV didn’t come loose, and soon enough, another nurse – not Annie, but a heavy-set white woman with brown hair and bloodshot eyes – came barreling into the room. She shouted some medical jargon out the door before rushing to Jan’s bedside.

            “Hey, that can’t come out,” the nurse said in a calming voice. Was it southern? An accent blunted the edges of her vowels.

            “The jets!” Jan wailed, still clutching the plastic tube in her arm. “Can’t you hear them?”

            “I know,” the nurse said. “They’re definitely annoying. It’s okay, though; you’re safe.”

            Jan looked in the nurse’s eyes, searching her green irises for some sort of recognition. But she could see the truth in her blankness: she didn’t hear the screams, the bombs droning, the chattering gunfire. She heard nothing more than a loud engine. At that moment, Jan recognized herself in the nurse: how she must have looked when she rushed over to Peter.

            Tears slipped out of her eyes. Another jet droned overhead. With it came the mother, a thousand mothers, screaming for help.

            Jan released her IV and grasped the nurse’s sleeve. The fabric of her scrubs was almost papery. “Please,” she moaned, her voice hovering above a whisper, “please kill me.”
           

The nurse shook her head. “It’s going to be okay, Janice. Everything’s going to be okay.”
           

“Why can’t you hear them?” Jan sobbed. “Why can’t anybody hear them?”

            And then Annie came rushing back into the room, along with a security guard. In Annie’s thin hand was a vial of clear fluid, which she attached to Jan’s IV with a quick twist.

            “It’s okay,” Annie said, her voice calming. She pushed on the vial’s plunger, and Jan felt cold fluid seep into the inner fold of her right arm. Annie twisted the vial off and then pumped fluids in behind it. Another cold, seeping feeling. Jan’s heart slowed in her chest, and the machine stopped its annoying screams.

But the jets continued to thunder overhead.


Keith LaFountaine is a writer from Vermont. His short fiction has been published in various literary magazines, including Dread Stone Press and Wintermute Lit. He tweets from @KL_writing, and his work can be found on his website: www.keithlafountaine.com.


“The Monsters Under My Bed” Dark Fiction by Mikayla Randolph

Beneath my bed, three distinct monsters have resided. Three monsters I now call mine. Near constant companions, their presence outlasts kindergarten friendships, first loves, false families, and any other menace I’ve encountered. A special connection formed long ago barred them from being discovered by anyone but me. No, they are my monsters. My burden to bear. Mine alone. No sight, no sound, no stench, nor pain could give them away to anyone but me. Throughout life, they’ve followed me from small town to big city, from house to home, and journeys abroad. No matter where I find myself, I find them there too.

My first monster was a hideous sight to behold. Eyes – large and black with red hollows and a heavy stare, tracked me in utter darkness. They followed my every move, every inch, every breath. Even as I cowered beneath the covers, I felt those eyes watching me. Always watching. Stiff, reptilian hands oozing with slime, long and bony – Nosferatu-like in shape – but covered in scales, snuck up the side of my bed. Its claws glinted in the moonlight. At the foot of the bed, its tail slithered up and crept beneath my blanket, set to strike, to circle my feet, and drag me underneath. Its split tongue slid between rows and rows of razor-sharp teeth, waiting to consume me.

I screamed for my parents, for my siblings, for anyone who dared come to my rescue. They flashed on the light, checked beneath the bed, and declared it nothing more than an act of my imagination. As they left, keeping on a lone nightlight on at my insistence, its throttle kept ringing in my ears. The deep pant of a creature craving blood and flesh, ready to leap upon its prey and devour it at any second. With white knuckles, I clung to my blanket and learned it would stay in its place if I refused to move, not an inch, not a breath. I feared sleep but discovered that the monster preferred me awake and afraid. Little children must taste better that way.

My second monster was far more ordinary. Far less terrifying to behold, barely even worth a heartbeat’s skip if we’d passed on the street. I cannot recall when this new monster replaced the former; I’d wondered how and why but assumed it’d simply scared the creature away. This monster was just a man. Or at least a shadow of one. Maybe not even male at all. My memory of him is most hazy. At times, I recall him having deep-set eyes and a scar, of being large and imposing. At other times, those depictions seem wrong. Whatever it was, it was clever. It was crafty. And it was angry.

He whispered venomous words with delicious glee. Not just threats, though they were plentiful too, but worse: my innermost fears spoken aloud, given form, and perfectly executed when it would pain me most to hear. His dirty fingers clutched a long dagger, always dripping with blood, as a disturbing grin marked his excitement. He laughed. A deep callous laugh that crawled into my ears right as I finally began to drift asleep, foreshadowing the atrocities he intended to commit.

Yet, for all the dread he caused, he never did raise that knife to me. Never plunged it in deep, over and over until the blood spouted freely from my body, and never left only a drained corpse behind. No. Instead, he just kept cackling and taunting, whispering words only I could hear, knowing they cut deeper than any blade.

The third monster tricked me. One night, before climbing into bed, I checked beneath to see how the man looked that day, only to discover that he’d apparently vanished. Nothing. No trace, no creature, no man, just dust and air. At first, I froze, startled by the sight, until relief crept in. With a smile, for the first time in a long time, I lay in bed happy, reveling in the warmth and safety. Not this time, not this night – no – now I was going to finally rest in peace. And sleep wrapped around me like a soft song sung just for me. I slept. For a while. 

In the dead of night, a jolt of electricity burst through me, and my eyes darted open; my body dripped in sweat. It was here. It was back. Something came for me. Something far worse. I peeked below the bed with trembling hands but saw nothing, heard nothing, smelt nothing. Perhaps it wasn’t here for me this time. Perhaps, this time, it was here for someone else.

In a panic, I bent over my partner’s lips so my ear hovered a mere inch away. I listened for their breathing. Strong and steady, it flowed, and their hot breath warmed my cheek. In an instant, I was up, out, and moving to the nursery. On my tiptoes, I snuck in, trying not to wake my child or alert the monster. I watched their little belly moving in and out, each breath accompanied by the tiny whisps of snores, the angelic picture of a child sleeping peacefully. Relief returned; my loved ones were safe. I crept back to my room, back to my bed, back to rest. I hoped.

Once more, I checked beneath the bed. Once more. I saw, heard, smelt nothing. I lay in darkness with my eyes wide, my mind alert, and my pulse racing; I waited for the monster. I sensed it; the hairs on arms rose despite the warmth of my comforter. All I could see were varying shades of black and night and nothing. Still, I felt it. It was near. I waited; it was waiting too. We remained at a stalemate, each waiting for the other to strike, attack, and defend. For years, we waged this motionless war.

These are my monsters. They are mine, just as much as my hands, my voice, or my mind. I keep them in thought, in memory, and in my company. I need them. When they are near, I cannot sleep. Without them, all I can manage or want is sleep. See, you may have forgotten – I mentioned it so long ago: they haven’t always been my monsters. They have not always been there. They’re not constant companions, just near enough.

There have been times, the darkest of times, when I did not sense my monsters. Or at least I did not care. On those nights, rare but bleak, I’d step into bed without checking what manner of monster lay in wait below. If it clawed at me in the darkness, or slashed me to bits, or suffocated me with nothingness, then so be it. I had no strength to fight. And sleep was calling. Those times when I most needed a companion, it seemed it was just me. Alone. I’d sleep soundly those nights – mostly – long and deep from the exhaustion.

The next day, I’d awake wishing my monsters would return. That’s what made them my monsters. That – despite their horrific appearances, hideous voices, and the dread they inspired – I wanted them to come back to me. I’d rather the sleepless nights with one of my monsters lurking below than the hollow alternative. After all our years together, at odds, I’d finally claimed them as my own. Tamed them, as much as any monster can be tamed. Each night, I want nothing more than to reach a hand down my monster, to let it clutch my fingers, and to feel something in the darkness.


Mikayla Randolph resides in California, where she is a customer relations liaison in the tourism industry. She is currently editing her debut novel, a modern gothic horror. When not writing, she enjoys reading, traveling, and taking too many photos of her dogs. Twitter: @Mikraken


“Thin Skin” Horror by Kilmo

The tall figure in the drab olive parka grimaced as another gust of freezing drizzle slapped into his face. Five hundred miles from the Scottish Highlands and the weather had followed him like an old friend. Ben gave the whistle he’d borrowed from the P.E. department a blast mildly surprised it still worked with all the water in it.

“You, Jaxon, isn’t it?” he scraped wet hair out of his eyes. “Play by the rules, or I’ll send you off.”

The youth who’d just thrown a punch at his opponent gave the teacher a surly look and went back to chasing the ball.

“Sir?”

Ben felt a tug on his arm.

“Wait son. Not everyone can be on at the same time. You’ll get your turn.”

“No, sir. That’s not what I meant. Whose dog is that? Is it one of those fighting breeds?”

“What dog? Where?”

Ben peered through the rain. Sat at the edge of the sodden playing fields was a dog, a very big black dog, staring at the pitch and Ben got the feeling it wasn’t the ball it was interested in. He strode toward the mutt making flapping motions as he tried to imitate something large and dangerous.

The stray didn’t budge.

“Go on shoo. Get out of it.” For a moment Ben’s feet slowed. “I said shoo. Go find your owner.”

A growl began deep in the animal’s chest and Ben glanced back. The teams on the pitch had come to a halt. He supposed even footie paled in comparison to watching the new teacher get ripped to shreds.

“Right,” muttered Ben under his breath. “Think a wee jessie like you’se going to scare me? Where I come from, you’re nothing but a poodle.”

He was close enough by then to make a grab for the hound’s neck and he was just debating his next move when it made it for him.

“Agh, gerroff,” screamed Ben as what felt like a beartrap closed around his knee. “Help! Call the police!”

The dog was really getting stuck into its work now worrying at his leg like it was trying to snap it in half.

“Teacher, teacher, you Ok?”

The sound of stampeding feet reached Ben’s ears and with a last snarl the dog let go. As Ben finally toppled over, he saw his attacker’s eyes. They were the green of jade in an emperor’s tomb, and they did not belong in a dog like that’s face.

Sprawled on the sodden grass Ben gingerly peeled up his trousers.

‘You little . . ..’

Ben finished with a few choice words that weren’t intended for underage ears and was surprised to hear no answering giggles. For a rare moment, his group of inner-city hoodlums had been struck dumb. As his fingers traced the ragged edges of the wound the dog had left, Ben realized he was clutching something. He flung the broken collar to one side. There was going to be hell to pay when he caught up with the hound’s owner.

Something electronic was being tortured next to Ben’s ear. He groaned as the sound resolved into the rattle of his telephone and flung out an arm.

“Hallo?”

Memories of yesterday’s events began to crowd through Ben’s mind – the hospital, the concerned face of the principal telling him to go home and rest. He groaned louder, there’d been a policeman too, and last but not least, the bloody wound he’d hidden under a blanket when he’d collapsed on the couch.

“It’s me laddie, you Ok? You don’t sound very good.”

Ben snapped back to the present. It was Gran, ever the early riser she’d phoned to check up on his big move to live with the sassenach’s.

“Gran . . .? I’m fine.”

Ben blinked the last of the sleep away momentarily surprised. He really was fine; he even felt quite good as he realized a glorious day was beaming in through the flat’s windows.

“That’s a relief. How are you settling in? Been mugged yet?”

Ben grinned. As far as Gran was concerned anyone from the city was a dangerous criminal, or worse.

“Not yet Gran.”

“Well don’t you go doing anything stupid. You’re my favourite grandson.”

“I’m your only grandson.”

The sound of laughter echoed down the line.

“Ah, but I’d liked to have had more. Much more.”

When Ben had finished placating the woman who’d raised him from infancy, he replaced the phone. He’d carefully avoided telling her anything about the attack. The last thing he wanted was the old dear bouncing around her cottage pulling her hair out over tetanus and rabies.

Ben stared at the end of the couch and the lump where his leg was hidden under the blanket.

“One, two, three.”

He whipped it back half expecting to see a stump, but after all the fuss and bother the bandage looked embarrassingly small. There wasn’t even a hint of blood.

“Plenty yesterday though.”

Ben reached gingerly for the gauze. A stern looking nurse had told him to leave well alone, but Ben was an inveterate fiddler. He couldn’t resist taking a peek at the damage.

“Oh.”

Ben stared at the spot where the dog had dug its teeth in in a neat row of nearly identical puncture marks.

“That was quick.”

Where there should have been scabs, or puss, or anything that showed evidence of how much it had hurt, there was just a row of silver scars. Carefully Ben put his foot on the floor and raised himself off the couch. He had a bit of a limp, but that was all. He hobbled to the window. Below him the city’s rooftops spread into the distance. The principal had said a week off, and there was a whole city to explore.

It was getting dark by the time Ben returned from browsing the record shops and second-hand stalls and the lights on the tower block’s walkways had just clicked on when he stepped inside.

“Lift’s out again bud,” said a Rasta with grey dreadlocks jammed underneath his woolly hat. “Third time this week.”

Ben finished stabbing at the lift’s buttons and looked around despairingly.

“Stairs are that way. Hope you haven’t got far to go.”

The man disappeared outside as Ben hobbled toward a fire door marked “stairs” pushing it open to find a nearly lightless shaft decorated in industrial grey paint. He waved his hand in front of the motion sensor and cursed when nothing happened.

Halfway up his wound finally decided it had had enough.

“Damnit,” Ben wiped his brow as he struggled past another landing. Maybe he should sit down for a moment? He hadn’t seen anyone during the whole climb although occasionally voices reached him from below. He’d just let his eyelids close as he tried to ignore the dull thud of pain when he was stepped on.

“Oh my God!” said a woman’s voice before Ben’s hand shot out and grabbed the figure about to continue her journey downwards at a much faster pace.

“Get off me. What the hell are you doing sitting there in the dark? Don’t you know it’s dangerous?”

“I’m really really sorry,” said Ben clambering to his feet. “I had an accident yesterday and I’m having a bit of trouble climbing these stairs.”

There was a pause and the sound of panicked breathing calmed.

“I nearly went down the lot, all at once.”

“I know, like I say I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you.”

“Trainers,” said the woman absently. “I’m going for a jog. You’re the new guy, aren’t you? The teacher that’s just moved in?”

“That’s right.”

“Do all people from Scotland like lurking around in unlit stairwells then?”

“Only the troglodytes like me.”

There was a small chuckle that quickly stopped.

“Well . . . no harm no foul, I suppose. Hope you get better quick.”

She was already moving off, but before Ben could stop himself his mouth had opened, and words were coming out.

“Let me make it up to you. Come round for a brew. I don’t know anyone yet in town.”

He still couldn’t see her face, but her back had stopped a few steps down.

“How do I know you’re not a weirdo? There’s plenty of them round here.”

“Ermmm, we could leave the front door open?”

There was another chuckle, longer this time.

“Ok new boy.”

“I’m in flat . . ..”

“Don’t worry. I already know.”

“Great,” Ben’s mouth flapped as he tried to think of something to say. “Give me a shout this evening?”

“Bye Ben.”

He felt his cheeks grow hot.

“Bye . . . wait. What’s your name?”

“Eden.”

It had been a success Ben decided as he finished clearing away the last of the plates. Ok, they hadn’t fallen into bed, although that had been exactly what was on his mind when he’d opened the door and seen the woman standing outside. Eden was beautiful, from the tips of her fingers to her clear blue eyes. She was everything her name implied. She was also nobody’s fool, and it looked like she wanted to know what she was dealing with before she decided where she wanted it to go. Besides, decided Ben, it was nice just to know someone on the block.

He flicked out the kitchen light, drying his hands on his jeans as he crossed the front room and stopped. It was nearly midnight and the place should have been in darkness, but outside the moon sailed fat and silent and so huge it seemed to fill the window from side to side. Even the walls were painted silver. Ben felt a vein in his temple begin to throb. What was up with him? He could barely tear his eyes away from the sight.

He looked at his foot. It had begun to throb too.

A second later he was doubled over as pain seared up his back. A second after that and Ben began to scream.

Ben was starting to get used to waking up confused, but it soon became obvious something was badly amiss this time. He was lying curled up in the middle of the room, and there was no sign of his clothes. His eyes travelled round his devastated flat as he stood up trying to avoid broken glass. It looked like every stick of furniture had been smashed and there were gouges in the walls big enough to lose your finger in.

A knocking began to fill the air that quickly turned into pounding. Ben grabbed his dressing gown before his front door could fly off its hinges half expecting armed police to come bursting in.

“What was it then? A party?”

He squinted blearily at the short gray-haired man vibrating with rage in the hall.

“Kept me up half the night you did. Howling and moaning and carrying on. Who’d you think you are?”

“I . . . I . . .,” stammered Ben.

The man stuck his finger under Ben’s nose and leaned in.

“One more night like that and I’m coming down here mob handed.”

Before Ben could say anything else his neighbour was striding down the corridor leaving him to retreat into what had been the safety of his flat. It felt like returning to a war zone.

By the time Ben had managed to deal with the worst of the mess he needed to talk. He eyed the phone and sat on the one unshattered stick of furniture he still possessed.

“Eden?”

“Ben, I was wondering if you’d call.”

“Do you fancy going for a drink? I could do with a friend right now.”

There was a pause and then Eden’s voice returned.

“Sure.”

They’d walked into the city centre at dusk, or in Ben’s case limped, with him growing increasingly worried he was losing it. He’d never been a paranoid person but every time he looked over his shoulder, he got the feeling something had ducked out of sight, and beyond the street lights the shadows were full of movement.

“What’s wrong Ben? You seem jumpy.”

For a moment he was at a loss for words.

“You’ve lived round here a long time, haven’t you?”

“Since I was a kid, yeah.’

“So, you’d know if anything bad had happened locally?”

Ben had kept the TV on all day, but there’d been nothing he could find on the news.

Eden gave him a look.

“Like what?”

“An attack? A mugging maybe?”

“Well, all sorts of things go down round here. It used to be much worse, but it’s still a rough neighbourhood. Not everything gets reported. What’s happened Ben? I like you, but I need to know. I don’t want to have to point out we’ve only just met . . . but . . . well . . . we’ve only just met. You know?”

She looked away and Ben felt a twinge of guilt. He’d no right to get her mixed up in whatever was happening to him, but he was far away from home in a strange city, and he had nowhere else to turn.

“The bite.”

“The dog bite?”

“Yeah, I think it might be infected.”

“Then go to the hospital.”

“I’ve been. This . . . this . . . is something different.”

Now it was him having trouble looking Eden in the eye and for a moment he was distracted by movement on the street’s far side. A dog was sitting on the kerb watching him. Soon it was joined by another.

“We have to go.”

“But we’re nearly there. What’s wrong Ben?”

“I don’t know. Something’s up.”

For a moment Eden didn’t move, and then she shook her head and raised her eyes to heaven.

“Why is it always the loonies? Why?”

Ben might have laughed, but where there’d been two dogs now there were three.

“Come on I’ll tell you what I mean back at the flat.”

He talked a mile a minute on the return journey. Ben couldn’t help himself as the words poured out. He’d covered everything from politics to religion before even coming within sight of home. Anything to avoid the thought that was growing at the back of his mind. When they reached the underpass, he paused. The lights were out.

“What’s the matter Ben? Scared of the dark?”

Eden’s eyes flashed in the streetlights before they stuttered and died, a minute later and they were back.

“No,” he shuffled in the tunnel’s direction with a feeling like something had walked over his grave and glanced at the sky. But there were only clouds overhead, no moon, and the sight made him feel happier than he wanted to admit.

They were halfway down when the first silhouette appeared.

“Eden. . .”

“It’s just a stray. There’s loads of them round here these days.”

The dog growled and filled the air with frantic yapping.

“Don’t go near it,” Ben sounded like he was looking at an unexploded bomb. “It might have something nasty.”

But Eden was already bending down with her hand outstretched.

“Hush now,” said his neighbour. “Who’s a good boy?”

They were still waiting to see what Eden’s new friend would do when more dogs began to stream down the grass. Before long there were so many they’d blocked the footpath completely.

“Erm, Ben?”

“I see them. Let’s go a different way.”

The pack began to run, but as Ben pushed Eden behind him the lead dog’s ears flattened.

There was a pop, and the underpass lights flickered on.

“What the hell’s it doing?” said Eden peering over his shoulder.

“It’s submitting,” answered Ben watching the dog lying on its back with its paws in the air. It was looking at him and whining. The others had stopped too, and at the pack’s edges the first were slipping into the night.

“That was because of you, wasn’t it? They were going to attack. You stopped them.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m worried about.”

The next day Ben was looking at a squat concrete building on the edge of an industrial estate. A river curled round its side and across the black water stood the sort of forest whose trees looked like they’d be better suited for hangings than the tiresome business of growing and putting forth leaves. Ben checked the ID tag on the collar again as litter swirled past his feet.

“City pound.”

Next to the title was a number and a barcode. If the dog had had a name, they hadn’t known it. Ben let himself through the security door as distant howling reached his ears. Inside cheerful pictures of puppies and smiling children were everywhere. There was even a poster made from multicoloured handprints intermixed with paws. Only the security glass in front of reception let you in on the lie. Ben supposed some dog owners must get pretty upset when they learned their pet’s fate.

“Hallo?” said Ben leaning toward the grill.

There was silence and then the sound of muffled barking grew louder for a moment. A woman with the pale skin of a Russian princess and jet-black hair framing a face with barely any wrinkles had appeared from the murky interior. She gave Ben the sort of predatory smile that made him think of crocodiles.

“Can I help you?”

“Well, yes. Is this one of yours?”

Ben deposited the torn collar in the security draw and watched her slide it over.

“Ah.”

“That’s right hen, ah. That dog took a chunk out of me the other day. What’s it doing loose?”

The woman behind the glass had taken a step back to examine the evidence and when she looked up her eyes stayed in the shadows.

“I’m sorry you were troubled. That particular dog managed to escape. But it’s recently returned. I’m afraid she has a mind of her own.”

“Are you in charge here?”

“I run this place now, yes. My name’s Lykania Holyhead.”

“Well Miss Holyhead I want her put down. She’s dangerous.”

“Of course, it’s natural you should feel that way.”

The woman must have taken another step back, thought Ben although he hadn’t seen her do it, and for a moment he felt like he was talking to something in an aquarium. Only her face floated in the darkness lapping at the window’s far side.

“If you’d wait there a moment. I’d like you to identify the miscreant. We wouldn’t want to destroy the wrong animal, would we?”

Ben nodded and propped himself against the counter as he surveyed the room. Before long, a frown grew on his face. The tracks he could see must have been there weeks, and as he looked other things began to leap out at him. Why was the date on the calendar from the month before? Even the plants were in the last stages of their death throes. Ben took a step forward. The marks on the floor . . . he peered closer. At first, he’d taken them for mud but there was something else he knew of that dried to that colour. He followed them round a corner where they ended at an office marked: “Manager”.

The hairs on the back of Ben’s neck rose, and when he pushed the door wide, he knew why as the smell hit him like he’d been punched in the gut. A corpse was examining a spot on the ceiling from its position tied to a chair.

“Jesus.”

“No Ben. Not here.”

Slowly Ben turned around. Lykania Holyhead had appeared behind him and up close he could see what he hadn’t noticed before. It hadn’t been the feeble lighting that had meant he couldn’t see her eyes. They were black, not a shred of colour existed in those sockets. By her side was the dog from the sports fields.

“Who are you? I mean who are you really?” said Ben searching the room for a weapon and finding none.

“An agent of change. A catalyst for a return to the natural order. Don’t tell me you haven’t felt it, Ben. What was it like for you when you saw the moon was full?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Denial’s not good for you. You should know that. How about I help you remember?”

The woman had brought the darkness with her and it began to leak through the doorway like mist with Lykania Holyhead following after. When her fingers brushed his it was like an explosion had gone off in his head and in its wake came images. Images Ben knew had been lurking at the bottom of his mind since that night at the flat, only now they’d been stirred up.

The first was of the moon, big, and fat, and somehow nearer than it had ever been before. The next was a confused welter of views from the high rise, stairs, and concrete, badly lit corridors, and doors that only yielded to his paws when he jumped up. Ben frowned . . . paws? But then he was outside and the homeless tramp clutching his bottle of cheap rot gut in a shop doorway took any conscious thought away. Ben knew what he’d been trying so hard to forget then: blood, so much blood he thought he could swim in it and never be clean again.

A lightbulb popped showering him with glass and Ben was back in the room with Lykania Holyhead’s eyes an inch from his own.

“I’ve got a friend who wants to talk to you.”

She clamped a phone to his ear and although Ben’s mind was screaming, he knew the wolves he could hear were real.

“Ben?”

It was his grandma and Ben thought of the lochs beneath the louring Scottish hills, how dark it got up there in winter, and how the pine forests looked like they could swallow you alive.

“Yes.”

Howling surged in the background.

“I haven’t got long sweetheart. This time I’m not coming back. My job’s done. You’re a grown man now. You don’t need me.”

“Gran . . ..”

“Hush bairn. You should listen to her.” Ben watched his face swim in Lykania’s black marble stare. “She wants what you want. What we want. Listen to your heart Ben. You were always happiest running free.”

Then the rest of the memories burst through Ben’s head like a tsunami, and he could see it all. The moon riding high amongst the clouds as he and the pack called to it and down below the huddled yellow light of towns glimmering in the night.

“You’re . . . you’re not my real Gran, are you?”

“No lad. But you are my blood.”

For a moment, the howling grew louder and the wet snap of bones breaking reached his ears. Then the phone went dead.

“Well Ben?” said Lykania Holyhead and as more of the bulbs fused the air rippled like the surface of a pond and he was left looking at not one woman, but three, with a beautiful green eyed brunette crouched panting at their feet.

It was a week before Eden went looking for her neighbour. Not that she hadn’t been worried. Her days at work had been spent with her only half in the room and when Friday had finally drawn to a close, she’d nearly run out the door. Eden stared at the dog pound. There was a sign tacked over its entrance.

“Closed for necessary repairs.”

“Must be pretty serious with you loose,” said Eden taking in the dogs watching from their spots amongst the parked cars and empty warehouses. It felt like they were waiting for something, and Eden had a feeling she knew what as she pushed the door open half wishing it didn’t swing back so easily through the dust.

“Anyone here?”

Eden’s lip curled with distaste. The place smelt foul. Dog food and excrement were all mixed together in the stale air, and the spot behind reception was empty. She headed for a corridor where the light was marginally brighter, and a draught stirred the dead leaves of a plant.

“Hallo?”

Soon Eden found herself in a large room lit by grimy skylights that shone on rows of cages. As the animals inside caught sight of her, baying erupted from every direction and they began to thrash against their prisons – one was by far the loudest. Metal sang as it slammed against the wire mesh.

“A temporary measure, trust me,” said a woman’s voice from the shadows of a doorway. “I want to make sure when I release them there’ll be no going back.”

The barking was so loud it was making Eden’s headache, but the stranger didn’t sound even slightly bothered.

“Where is he? I know he came here.”

Eden threw the note Ben had slid under her door in the woman’s face. After the incident in the underpass, he’d left her on her doorstep with hardly a word. The next morning she’d noticed the message.

“You’re looking at him Eden. Looking at him in all his glory.”

The huge dog . . . Eden stared. The beast slamming against the cage was no dog, she’d seen enough nature programs to know the difference between a wolf and man’s best friend. Eden’s eyes narrowed, but somewhere deep inside an unfamiliar voice was starting up.

“What are you saying?”

“He warned you, Eden, or he tried to, at least.”

“Ben? BENNNNN? Where are you?”

Eden’s attention was on the building’s depths, and with the dogs going wild, at first, she missed what was happening to the woman. But when she looked again, determined to get the real truth out of her, she was having some sort of fit. Her head was between her knees with her arms twisted up behind her spine like someone was trying to hang her from a meat hook and as she jerked and thrashed Eden heard the pop of dislocating joints and tearing gristle. At last, she tumbled out of sight still caught in the seizure’s throws and Eden stared at the space she’d left behind with her ears full of howls and barking. The wolf was watching her. It scraped one paw against the cage’s lock and whined softly in the back of its throat.

From somewhere far above Eden watched herself slide the cage’s deadbolt back before a roar that silenced every animal in the room split the air.

Slowly, Eden turned to the spot where she’d last seen the woman. A shadow was unfolding on the wall back there, an impossible inky stain stretching jaws so wide they looked like they could swallow worlds. She was still watching it when the wolf flew past at shoulder height. As it disappeared from view Eden snapped into movement and her fingers tore at its companions latches until the floor was awash with snarling canine backs. Not one of them headed toward the sound of the battle painting the smooth enamel tiles with contorted snarling demons.

Eden risked one more glance as the noise of a woman’s agony filled the room. The wolf had something by the throat that snapped and slid between forms like oil. Then she was running, and it was only when she was outside that she dared look behind.

“Ben.”

The sweet fresh air she gulped down helped but it still didn’t stop the sight of the pound beginning to collapse like an origami trick seen in reverse. It was still shedding dogs as its walls came down and when she eventually saw the hulking shape of the wolf appear amongst the collapsing brick, she took a half step forward.

“That you?”

Eden felt ridiculous although she knew she shouldn’t after what she’d seen, and the animal had fought to protect her, hadn’t it?

As the last masonry sucked into the void that had opened like a hole punched through the night the wolf’s eyes travelled over her. But although she could see the traces of blood round its mouth Eden felt no fear. When it turned to watch the shapes swimming in the river before disappearing among the gnarled trees, Eden felt a shudder run through her. What was climbing the bank on the other side were its twins, ragged, and starved, but wolves nonetheless. Eden turned to her protector, but he’d gone. A moment later a splash reached her ears as another black shadow followed the pack.

Eden raised her middle finger at the taxi that had just sent a wall of water sluicing over her legs and ducked into a short cut. It was night-time and winter had turned the city into an assault course of snow and freezing ice that matched her mood ever since the night on the industrial estate. She’d picked up a local newspaper the next day to find the words “Gas Explosion Levels City Pound – Dogs Freed” plastered across the front page and when the cops had inevitably appeared at her door, she’d kept her mouth firmly shut.

“Must think I’m stupid,” muttered Eden as a rent in the clouds revealed a fleeting glimpse of the moon riding full in the sky. She hadn’t realized so much time had passed.

The shape waiting for her at the alley’s end far end stayed invisible until far too late.

“What do you want?” said Eden as she finally caught sight of the huge dog with startling green eyes. “If you’re looking for him, I’d imagine you have a much better idea of where he’s gone than me.”

The dog got up, stretched, and yawned, for all the world like it had been taking a nap in the sun not on a freezing British street. As Eden watched the creature pad toward her, she knew there was nowhere to go. She couldn’t run fast enough to escape what it intended and as it opened its jaws wide, she realized she didn’t care.

“You win, take me to him then.”


Kilmo writes. He brought it from squatting in Bristol, to a pub car park, to Dark Fire Magazine, CC&D Magazine, Feed Your Monster Magazine, Blood Moon Rising, Aphelion, The Wyrd, Sirens Call, and The Chamber Magazine. He also has a story published in the anthology One Hundred Voices entitled ‘Closest’.