“Night” Dark Fiction by Amita Basu

From his third-storey hostel room Vikesh jogs down, hands in pockets jangling coins and keys, knees loose as if about to give way, happy knees relaxed and loose, Bata floaters clapping on speckled granite stairs. He saunters into the mess. The long steel tables and steel stools, all welded together against theft, clang with 500 young men’s steel dinnerplates and steel-strident voices. Vikesh greets friends on his way to the front of the queue, where his junior – a first-year History undergraduate, and his neighbour in hostel – makes way.

On the counter sit aluminium vats. Daal yellow-green-red with turmeric, coriander, and tomato. Sabzi – potato again, always potato, twenty rupees a kilo. Jeera rice. A plate of sliced radish and cucumber and onion, all colourless bar the occasional fingerprint. And a giant casserole of chapatti. Vikesh serves himself one chapatti and some salad, tours the mess saying hello, explains his plate – “My stomach’s upset” – and sits down near the door. He nibbles at the radish, sweet and young with a hint of pepper. Under his baseball cap he’s vigilant for glances cast his way.

When the influx ceases and everyone in hostel is in the mess, Vikesh deposits his plate in the cobalt-blue plastic used-plate basket, slips out, and heads gatewards. The boys’ hostel has no curfew: he could embark early tomorrow. He’s too restless to sleep, so he’s embarking now.

Approaching the security guards, Vikesh wonders how Simran felt, signing the attendance-sheet then sneaking out of her hostel before curfew. To avert suspicion she wore her homeliest clothes – salwar calf-long and two sizes too big, dupatta drawn up to chin – and avoided the guards’ eyes. But they never stopped her. For Simran’s got an angel face. What an innocent she was when she came to him, that first night in the hotel room he’d booked. He coaxed her open, showed her what he liked, and got her – as a man does – to show him what she liked. Their nocturnal education notwithstanding, her face still is like this full moon in the murky autumn sky. His blood churns in his heart and throbs in his groin.

He passes the frangipani, ravaged daily by 19-year-old boys plucking tributes for their girlfriends. Under the tree lie the fallen flowers. Fleshy, white, and brown-edged, these past-best flowers complain against their abandonment with the broadcast odour of staleness – the odour of Vikesh’s old-maid aunts. He steps around the fallen flowers, as his mother taught him. On the eve of love’s last great adventure his lips soften with affection for those plain-faced, simple-hearted old women, who struggled to earn your affection, who’d sweetly surrendered all hope of earning respect.

He wheels his motorbike towards the security guards, meeting their eyes. Who knows what’ll happen to him tomorrow: but he’s doing the right thing, and he must keep looking the world in the eye. As he approaches the hostel-gate, his Rubicon, his heart pounds in his ears.

Retired from the army as unranked jawaans, the security guards pull twelve-hour shifts to earn the same pittance as a domestic servant. All three years of his undergrad studies, Vikesh has bid them Good evening every evening, and has paused to chat with them on vacant evenings. For these men have served India honourably; besides, you never know who you’ll need on your side. Tonight he stares at them, and wonders whether they’ll see anything different in him, his breath coming shallower.

They bid him Good evening as usual. He returns their greeting, nodding graciously. His trepidation retreats, making room for other feelings. God, if his own hair ever got as thin as this old man’s, he’d know better than to oil it flat. These poor men don’t seem to care what face they turn to the world. No proper pride.

“That’s the cousin of the student body president,” he hears the long-time security guard murmuring to a new colleague. “His cousin controls contracts worth crores of rupees, yet Vikesh sir” – that’s how the 45-year-old secondary-school graduate speaks of the 21-year-old months away from getting his B.A. – “Is as modest and affable as my five-year-old.”

Vikesh pretends not to hear but, mounting his Royal Enfield outside, he pulls himself up straight. In their eyes he’s still the man: if something goes wrong they might be useful. God willing, nothing will go wrong on his last date as a free man with the love of his life.

###

He rides down Bank Road lined with hostels. Show your money and take your pick: private hostels and public, old buildings and new, red-brick and cement-and-glass, five-to-a-room and one-to-a-room, air-conditioned and hot-tin-roofed. At 9pm the November smog is settling, smudging the yellow streetlights into halos. The smog’s at streetlight-height: hasn’t yet descended to the asphalt. How wide the streets look, traffic-free, night homogenising the potholes and dung-stains that give a street its features but steal its spaciousness.

The fragrance of shiuli turns his head this way and that, seeking the inconspicuous bush that perfumes late monsoon and early winter lemon-vanilla. Can’t see the bush – must be behind a wall. He remembers the shiuli bush in Simran’s hostel garden. He’d stand waiting at her gate, his nostrils flaring and narrowing to draw in the fragrance from the small cream-petalled orange-stemmed flowers, which the girls gathered for evening puja in the tiny-idolled flashing-lighted shrines in their rooms.

Simran doesn’t go in for that old-fashioned nonsense. Sometimes she cradles a few flowers in her handkerchief – shielded from body-heat, keeping their freshness – and sniffs them when they’re riding down a particularly rubbishy or cowdungy street on their Allahabad tours. She sits pillion on his Royal Enfield, face dupatta-veiled against the dust, arm lightly circling his waist, cream-coloured legs in thigh-shorts resting against his hips. Under her oversized salwar-kameez Simran wears these party outfits, disrobing at her friend Ishita’s. But she bares her skin only when Vikesh is there to protect her.

He’s never had to ask her. Simran’s a feminist, but sensible.

It would’ve been awkward having to ask her. It’s alright when you can tell people to do things. But Simran’s never been the kind of girlfriend you tell – at best, with trepidation, you ask her, and watch for the lip-pursing that’s her only indication she’s displeased. Alone among his friends Vikesh has a girlfriend who has her own mind. He’d never admit this to his chauvinist-pig friends, but he’s proud of Simran’s mind. For a pole cannot lean on a creeper. His chin rises into the descending smog, and his heart surges thinking of the treasure he’s won.

He’s slowed his bike to a crawl: the wind’s less biting so. Shivers run up his spine. Seeking the cause of his alarm, he peers over his shoulders. It’s like there’s a lizard on his upper back, on the one spot he can neither see nor reach, but it’s there: a cold damp blight on his soul.

The streetdogs sit majestic as sphinxes, ready to riddle passersby. Their corneas shine green-gold with the light reflected back from their retinas, reflected back with an offset that makes each dog look both squint-eyed and all-seeing. The offset disorients you: you don’t know where to look, to look the dog in the eye. Already in the night the dogs are on edge; your shifty eyes push them over.

As Vikesh crawls past, one dog stares and tries a guttural growl, just to see how it feels and how the others feel about it. The growl proves infectious. Soon the pack is chasing Vikesh’s bike through the night. The lead dog sprints at Vikesh’s heels, just a few feet behind. Vikesh pictures himself ribboned by streetdogs, and across his consciousness like lightning streaks the thought: ‘I deserve this.’

As he accelerates away he remembers years ago a stranger riding through the night, chased by a pack of streetdogs. The rider kept glancing over his shoulder, slowing down and speeding up, teasing. He capsized at a pothole outside Vikesh’s house, leg trapped under bike, fangs gnashing, Vikesh watching from the balcony petrified, but thinking that man must’ve deserved what he got. At 21 Vikesh has shed his belief in God, but the fatalism that was one of God’s fathers haunts him still.

That man got what he deserved, and what will Vikesh deserve to get now? He speeds up, looks back, and slows down again. He lets the dogs catch up, looks away again, and prays fate to show him what he deserves.

On the air behind his ankles teeth snap. Excitement clenches his heart into a fist and drums in his ears. He speeds away a few meters, then slows again for the dogs to catch up. Teeth catch in the hem of his slim-fit chinos. He accelerates away, the baritone drone of his Royal Enfield one half in tonight’s jugaalbandi. The other partner in the impromptu music-jam is the dogpack, snarling barking growling.

‘If they catch up again, I’ll stop and let them have me,’ he decides. He slows down, but the dogs are falling away, trotting back home. He crawls around the corner. The dogs have given up; their leader stands barking, claiming victory. Disappointed, Vikesh decides, ‘Fuck them. They’re just dogs. They’d chase a good man as soon as a bad.’ Fate has refused to tell him what to do, so Vikesh tosses his fatalism to the half-moon glimmering through a rend in the smog, and speeds away.

###

This road runs between campus scrubland and Company Garden’s flowering trees. Stripped of their flame-coloured flowers and fan-shaped leaves, the gulmohars’ branches lifeless taupe under the white streetlights. The amla trees flaunt their silver-green foliage and pale-green clusters of super-sour fruit, bleached in the artificial light. Here amid greenery the smog falls early and thick; here the smog’s sulphur nausea is dispelled by amla’s earthy freshness: for feasting squirrels have left the fallen fruit, half-eaten, to scent the air. Vikesh slows and sniffs. For weeks he’s looked forward to tomorrow. Now his heart aches with all that he’s giving up. Never has the amla smelled so delectable, nor the smog-blanketed city looked so cosy.

The headlight of an approaching motorbike looms disembodied, rocking as wheels sink into potholes and roll over the speedbumps that fight a losing battle against Allahabad’s traffic. Vikesh remembers the lantern-bearing ghost – out on a foggy night, approaching the man whose hour had come – with which his grandmother frightened him on demand as a child. Emerging briefly from the smog, the motorbike passes by. Vikesh smiles, remembering what silly things used to scare him, then purses his lips as he realises nobody warned him about life’s real dangers.

He draws up outside Simran’s hostel, facing the university’s Science Faculty campus. The light’s on in her first-storey room. Has she already returned from the mess, or is she cooking her own dinner? She’s a good cook, producing traditional recipes with remarkable consistency and gentle twists: aloo jeera with saunf as well as jeera, baigan bharta with capsicum instead of eggplant. She’s made lunch for him all year. They eat her cooking out of his tiffin-carrier on the lawn, under the peepul that murmurs its wisdom patiently to the flighty winds. They watch their peers straggle down the History department’s wide stone corridors, cool even in June. The university’s buildings date from the British Raj. So does its syllabus.

Staring up, Vikesh wonders if Simran’s convection heater is on. It’s not cold enough for her to need the heat, but perhaps she’s cooking on it. Cheap to buy, costly to run, electric coils naked, blazing orange-red, these little monsters electrocute a few people every winter. But they’re cheap, and in this city of students they sell like hotcakes. One of them disfigured Simran’s cousin as a child. Still Simran refused to let Vikesh buy her an induction cooker and a sensible space heater.

‘This is what I’ve grown up with,’ she said. ‘Just have to be careful. I keep my eyes open – I’d never have an accident.’

‘Then think about the electricity bill,’ said Vikesh. ‘These things suck up electricity like, uh, like something into a black hole.’ Picturing Simran crouching cooking over a death trap upset him too much to conjure a proper simile.

Simran tossed her head. ‘The hostel pays the electricity bill. Besides, everyone else has one.’

‘By that logic,’ said Vikesh, ‘You should get an AC too. You’re always complaining how hot your room gets in summer.’

‘Oh, coolers are good enough for me. That’s what I’ve’ –

– ‘Grown up with,’ Vikesh supplied, and a laugh ended the argument.

But she perplexes him: a one-in-a-thousand woman whose favourite phrase is ‘good enough for me,’ an intelligent woman who’s convention-bound. Vikesh knows now that ‘good enough for me’ is Simran’s way of refusing to argue. As for convention – after tomorrow she will have to think for herself. He’s giving up his own freedom to set her free.

Engine idling, rolling down against the chill the carefully-folded-up sleeves of his blue-and-white-checked Superdry button-up – he remembers how she’d fast all day before she came to him: self-conscious about bloat and food-babies. God bless women, inventing things to worry about. She hadn’t been as innocent as she looked, not even that first night, when she yielded to him after eleven months of coaxing. When applying for an overnight pass she told her hostel warden it was to visit her local guardian. And she’d meet him only once a fortnight: any oftener and they’d suspect, she said. Vikesh didn’t argue: he understood she was projecting her own guilt, and it saddened him that she felt guilty. His own conscience was clear: they weren’t violating ethics, only hostel rules set by sex-starved wardens.

A jamun tree insinuates a sturdy primary branch towards Simran’s second-floor balcony. On the nights she wouldn’t go to him, he could’ve come to her. The hostel’s boundary wall is fifteen feet tall, but the plaster’s coming off, providing footholds, and there’s no barbed wire on top. Drop into the garden, clap to scare off snakes, scale the jamun tree that pelts the earth all July with large-stoned, God-fleshed purple fruit, and crawl along the branch to Simran’s balcony. He suggested this scheme to Simran in February.

Her head whirled to him and her brows knit in that childlike wonder he loves to earn. ‘How did you know all that? Does being related to the president mean the guards let you into the women’s hostel compound also?’

Vikesh grinned. ‘I despise people who use their status to get privileges… No, I just keep my eyes open. You can see all this from the gate… So? May I come? We’ll be quiet, and your cooler’s fan will cover up any noise. I can come to you, and you can stop complaining about running the gauntlet of the security guards’ eyes.’

No, said Simran. Someone would find out. One of her neighbours, her bosom friends would expose her. She’d lose her hostel room, her reputation, and probably her life: for the hostel warden would write home and her parents would ask her, ‘Have you gone there to study or to fuck?’ and then they’d kill her.

‘Hmm.’ Busy considering logistics, Vikesh hadn’t considered consequences. So all year he’s made do with her rare visits. After tonight there’ll be no worry about logistics.

Vikesh turns off his engine. All his first year of undergrad, before she said yes, he haunted this road. He didn’t stop haunting it afterwards, still alone most nights. Here he came to watch the moon rise and set, listening to the night’s yawning silence, to its sudden sharp noises like the choking snores of sleep apnoea. Sometimes they spoke on the phone, Simran staying inside her room; but mostly she was busy studying, her phone switched off. He’d stay here till he got pleasantly drowsy; then he’d return to his room and leaf through textbooks in bed till he drifted asleep.

Leaning on his handlebars, he closes his eyes and smells her lying beside him on the hotel bed, jasmine perfume mingling with musky nether odour. She learned fast. Her nervous giggles ceded to the same grave interest with which she regards textbooks, civil-service exam-prep books, their lecturers, and everything else she’s decided is important. As a teenager, Vikesh taught his younger brothers cricket and football: they still play fervently, while Vikesh dabbles. But it was Simran who really taught him how to teach: how to communicate the most intimate things one person can to another. Gratefully he spent hours showing her the city and the state, discussing his plans for their future. They’d move far away from this cultural backwater, and surround themselves with progressives: that’d make it easier for him to act right, for of course he knew the patriarchy had tainted him too. She looked and listened. But when he asked her what she’d do after graduation, or how she liked this banyan that was its own forest, she only tilted her head and pouted her lips.

Sometimes her passivity annoyed him. But he reminded himself she’d grown up beautiful. It’d been enough for her to arch her brow, to make her breasts shift under her teeshirt. She hadn’t had to plan and opine. Nor, he reflects, drawing up his collar against the cold, had she had to become brave. That’s why they’re doing it this way.

After two years sneaking out of hostel to meet him, she told him last month that her parents had arranged her marriage to a 25-year-old Brahmin software engineer. After he recovered from his shock, Vikesh rode to Chandigarh to scout his rival. He brought Simran back an accurate picture: flabby, only ever goes to work, boring car. Simran listened attentively, for she wouldn’t meet the man herself till the engagement. Then she shrugged. ‘A man doesn’t need to be interesting, only kind.’

Vikesh begged her to tell her parents about himself, to tell them it was him she wanted to marry. ‘They’ll behead me,’ she said, ‘If they know I’m not a virgin. And they’ll hunt you down and strangle you and toss your corpse into the Ganga. When people fish you up, your own mother won’t recognise you.’

‘They wouldn’t hurt us,’ Vikesh protested. ‘We’re in love, it’s right for us to be together. We just have to do the right thing, God will look after the rest.’ Exigency had made Vikesh religious.

‘Maybe if you’d been a Brahmin too, I might’ve dared tell them,’ she said. ‘You know I don’t believe in that caste nonsense myself, but… D’you want to get us both killed?’ Her coal-black fire-bright eyes beseeched him to see sense. He could see only the blank of a future without her.

That’s why they’re doing it this way. When the alarm is raised, please God, they’ll be where nothing else can hurt them. Filling his eyes one last time with her window’s square of light, stark behind the jamun branch, he rides off.

###

In Civil Lines, the new small malls and high-street shops stand fog-shrouded. He runs into Partha: on his Honda Aviator motor-scooter, a secondhand piece-of-shit a grease-monkey cousin fixed up. Cost when new: Rs.56,000; cost of being seen riding it now: Partha’s whole manhood, such as it was. Riding pillion is Partha’s girlfriend Ishita, Simran’s best friend. The two two-wheelers draw up alongside midstreet.

“What’s up?” says Vikesh.

“Nothing much,” says Partha guardedly.

Partha and Ishita have dined at the factory-sized, no-standing-room, chicken-biryani-only Eat On. Now they’re heading to the room Partha rents. His landlord lives in Aligarh, his moral policing confined to his proximal tenants – so Partha can have anyone he likes. Scenting on them the biryani’s star anise and rosewater, Vikesh’s stomach rumbles. He didn’t like Partha’s tone just now, so he draws him into discussing the one-day-international tournament.

“I like Australia’s chances,” says Vikesh. “This team’s stronger than it looks, under Clarke.”

“I doubt they’ll make it to the semis,” says Partha.

Annoyed to be contradicted by this cheap-ride punk, Vikesh scoffs. “Seriously? Whoever makes it through will be playing England for God’s sake. In the last qualifier England almost got beat by the minnows.”

“In the qualifiers only the minnows make a serious effort,” says Partha. “You can’t judge a serious team by their qualifier performance. No, England will beat Australia, and it’s 50-50 they’ll beat us too.”

Vikesh scowls and draws breath, then remembers tomorrow and shrugs. “We’ll see. No point speculating… What did you think of South Africa yesterday?”

It’s Partha’s motor-scooter they’ll use tomorrow. Vikesh can’t use his own motorbike: Simran’s parents would trace that easily – whereas it’ll be a while before anyone notices Partha’s absence. For Partha isn’t in Vikesh’s primary social circle: look at his no-brand shirt, his girlfriend with the haandi-round face and belan-flat chest. Nobody will suspect Vikesh chose Partha for his getaway ride – just as nobody would deny Simran’s prettier than Ishita, better worth a man risking all he has.

Vikesh mustn’t alienate Partha, but neither can he end the conversation on a losing note. He crosses his arm and leans back on air, discussing the ODIs, tossing at Ishita hints about tomorrow’s mission. That’ll teach Partha to toy with him. Partha side-eyes his girlfriend, clears his throat, and stammers terse replies to Vikesh. Enjoying Partha’s perplexity, Vikesh keeps nodding at Ishita, including her in this conversation which he knows, which he hopes, is gibberish to her.

Does Ishita suspect about tomorrow? It’s possible. Ishita’s told Simran, and Simran’s told Vikesh, that Partha’s always slightly drunk when he fucks Ishita, for Partha thinks sex is wrong. And Partha blabs when he’s drunk. If Partha has blabbed to Ishita about tomorrow’s mission, then the whole thing is off. Please God don’t let her know, prays Vikesh as he continues dropping hints. Ishita yawns at the moon, oblivious to both cricket and the two boys’ plans.

His nose crinkling, Vikesh remembers that Ishita’s one of those inert women who let their men speak and feel and listen for them. Simran at least is beautiful: she has an excuse for inertia. Simran at least turned out not to be inert at all, and Vikesh has accepted that fact, is preparing to rejoice in that fact. Partha grows more tense and Ishita grows wet-eyed with yawning. Vikesh stops toying and lets Partha go – with a magisterial nod, confirming they’re still on.

Riding away, Vikesh wonders what Partha makes of tomorrow’s plan. Partha knows he’s driving Vikesh to Simran’s hostel. Partha knows Simran’s engaged to marry another man. Does Partha know Simran refused to tell her parents about Vikesh? But even the best women are changeable, Partha knows – for Partha himself spent a year wooing Ishita.

Partha hasn’t dared ask Vikesh what their mission is. Partha owes Vikesh. This spring Partha’s brother became infatuated with the girlfriend of a student thug. The thug threatened to bash in the brother’s head. Vikesh got his own cousin, the student body president, to intervene; they paid for the abortion, arbitrated peace, and hushed everything up. If Partha’s mother found out, she’d be here on the next train, herding both boys home to the village – not because they got a girl in trouble, but because they risked their own heads. Now Partha would rather run the gauntlet of the police and Simran’s parents than face his own mother.

So Vikesh can count on Partha doing the right thing. Tomorrow, when Vikesh runs from the hostel gate back across the road to Partha’s motor-scooter – Partha might be shocked, but he won’t be petrified. Politics runs in Vikesh’s family: his uncles and cousins have graduated from student body politics to the state assembly. Vikesh knows that when the people are shocked, they’re likely to obey the first strong man who raises his voice. And tomorrow the people will be Partha, and the strong man will be Vikesh, telling Partha to go, go, go.

What if Partha won’t go? Ungrateful bastard, disputing Vikesh’s views on cricket! Before he met Simran, Vikesh played division cricket for Uttar Pradesh. Partha can’t even finger-spin. Anticipating betrayal, Vikesh shifts gears. His bike’s whine rises into a roar. Serves him right for helping a nobody fucking around with a somebody’s woman.

If Partha won’t go, Vikesh will go on his own bike, abandon it midway, and jump onto a train’s third-class carriage, where nobody’ll think to look for him. Simran always enjoyed slumming it with him, drinking in the stares of malnourished idlers drinking in her bare cream-coloured flesh. If Partha won’t go, he’ll go alone. The rest is up to God, who might or might not exist – he’ll find out soon.

###

It’s 1121 on Vikesh’s Titan Black Dial, the readout dim behind the streetlamp’s yellow glare. Chattering with Partha, Vikesh forgot the time – he’ll be late, and he’s never late. He speeds across the city, taking turns without slowing down, picturing himself as he’d look to someone peering through the curtains of a third-storey window: his wheels at an acute angle, the asphalt grazing his calves. Of course he isn’t really going that fast – impossible on these streets – but playacting never hurt.

They call Naini Bridge the rocking bridge – but really it just trembles under the weight of the eighteen-wheeler trucks that’ll be allowed into the city after 11pm. On the Ganga’s slothful surface this windless night, the yellow moon fractures into big clean shards. One night he brought Simran here, she leaned over, and the pendant he’d given her broke its slender silver-link chain and dropped 300 meters waterwards. He watched the panic in her eye, her hand snatching at air. He saw himself jumping after the trinket, plunging into the river which, below its slothful surface, hurtles seawards, a million gallons a second. It would’ve been worth it to calm her panic.

When he was six months old his mother had left him on the table with the cassette player. Playing with the cassette covers he’d dropped one, and pursued it down, racing gravity, earning a head-bump. His family loves recounting this story, laughing at him. But love has made him a child again, eager to dive after the impossible.

‘Forget it,’ he said, taking Simran’s wrist, steering himself away from the edge. ‘I’ll buy you another – or a different design, if you prefer it.’

‘That was my favourite piece of jewellery ever,’ Simran insisted. Moved, he’d pecked her lips. Pecking was all the PDA she allowed, even on a deserted bridge at dawn.

The lost pendant was a leopard: Simran’s favourite animal, he’d discovered. A month before her birthday, this discovery had cost him a mazelike conversation with Ishita, his question buried in the maze’s heart – lest Ishita guess his intention, blab to Simran, and spoil his surprise.

Outside Higgins, Roshan’s waiting, pacing by his hot pink TV Pep Plus. A female cousin who graduated last year gave it to him, and he doesn’t seem embarrassed to use it. But Roshan was raised by women: can’t hold him to normal standards. Stamping out his cigarette Roshan crosses the street to Vikesh, who’s leaning on his bike. Roshan smells of green apple and menthol, the most popular flavour of hookah. Hookahs, outdoor dining, and orange chicken are the three sirens beckoning to Higgins people across Allahabad over the Ganga.

“Enjoying yourself?” says Vikesh.

Roshan replies with a shrug studiedly casual. The bad boy look is a motorcycle jacket Roshan’s still growing into.

Vikesh remembers Roshan from their first year on campus: a Sociology student, thin and stooping, his face pimple-strewn, in thick eyeglasses and ill-fitting plaid button-downs picked out by his mother. But no wimp. A student thug sauntering near the teashop knocked down Roshan’s books for fun and felt a fist flying into his throat. Only Vikesh’s presence saved fifty-kilo Roshan from annihilation in broad daylight. All that first year Roshan pored over his books and resisted his hostelmates hustling him out for a night of fun, viz riding around mildly drunk, wildly whooping, courting the police. He told his hostelmates straightfaced that his widowed mother depended on him to study well and enter the Civil Services.

Now glancing left and right, like a trainee thug himself, Roshan hands Vikesh the package. Brown paper and tape. Slender and flat. Trust Roshan to have the packing skills of a gift-shop clerk. This ordinary-looking package will alter the course of many lives.

“Nobody knows,” Roshan assures Vikesh. “A friend’s friend had the key. I’ve covered my tracks.”

Vikesh claps Roshan’s back, lightly, but Roshan stumbles and his eyes fly open – as if Vikesh were already an outlaw, and contact with him contamination-by-proxy. Briefly Vikesh pictures punching the lights out of this small-town soft-brain shrinking from him. Vikesh totters on a cliff, ready to fall down either side. He falls into laughter: first gentle, then rising into hysteria. Roshan watches him wide-eyed, waiting for the laughter to explode into a punch.

Vikesh wipes his eyes and sighs breathless. “Aunty would be proud,” he says. They’re not related, but every civil young person addresses elders as relatives. “You wanted to grow up fast and make your mother proud. Now you have.”

Roshan grimaces. Where his hostelmates failed to bring him out of his shell, the big city’s charms succeeded. Roshan’s found new friends, and they’re very friendly indeed, for night after night Roshan loses money at poker, and doesn’t see how, and pays unfailingly if grudgingly. Since May it’s with Vikesh’s pocket-money that Roshan’s been paying his poker debts. ‘Pay me back later, or never,’ Vikesh told him, long before he had any idea he’d need him – for Vikesh pitied the small-town boy gone astray.

“You haven’t told me what it’s for,” says Roshan, gesturing at the package distantly, eyes averted.

Vikesh understands. Now that the package is out of Roshan’s hands it’s not Roshan’s business. Roshan’s got enough troubles of his own: gambling, failing classes, lying to his mother. Vikesh met Roshan’s mother when he invited Vikesh to his village last spring for Holi. Now a letter, telling her what’s become of her bright boy, her life’s hope, would give the widow a heart attack. Whatever Vikesh is planning – and Roshan doesn’t know, Roshan doesn’t know – is better than a letter home from Vikesh.

“I told you what it’s for,” says Vikesh. “Science experiments.”

“You’re a History student.”

“Not a good one!” His smile fades. His hysteria has taken the edge off his feelings. Gazing at the restaurant’s yellow-orange lamps, he becomes reflexive. “There’s nothing for me back here, nothing I can do with my own efforts I mean. I could get someone to get me a plush job, grow flabby and smug, but that’s not my style. If you’ve got nothing to lose, it’s easier taking a risk, eh?”

Roshan’s eyes widen at this uninvited confidence, then turn back towards the restaurant, where his new friends are preparing him for another night’s play, one last night’s chance to win all his money back. Slowly he repeats, “You haven’t told me what it’s for.”

“Yes, I haven’t told you what it’s for. You’re safe.” Anger gone, laughter gone, Vikesh feels a tranquil comradery. After all, Roshan and he are in the same boat. He holds out his hand – Roshan dares not refuse – and says thanks.

“Good luck,” says Roshan, sincere now that he’s out of it. He knows about Simran. Vikesh has told everyone about the love of his life, the woman he’s going to start a whole new life with.

The Royal Enfield glides back over the river. The fat lazy water rustles in Vikesh’s ears. The water dampens the wind, blunting its blade; but the water chills the wind into a hammer of cold. Going at 70kph, Vikesh’s unhelmeted face numbs. To awaken his muscles he grimaces at the moon in the river, shrugs mightily, and jogs his shoulders, all without slowing down.

Roshan’s a coward, but most people are. He’s done his bit. Mentally Vikesh promises Roshan, ‘Whatever happens, I won’t involve you.’ He pictures Roshan, miles away, with his friendly friends who’re treating him to the green apple-flavoured hookah to ease him into the night, for you’ve got to spend money to make money. Roshan inhales from the hookah too deeply, gets giddy like the innocent he is, and feels invulnerable. ‘I’ll say I procured it myself,’ says Vikesh. A good friend deserves loyalty unto death. This thought spasms in Vikesh’s heart, pumping out a flood of blood suddenly alive, throbbing alive, pushing into Vikesh’s consciousness the fact that all this while he’s been terribly lonely. Tears blind him. Midway over the bridge he slows down and wonders: should he jump in? That, too, would solve all his problems. Simran still has enormous qualms about running away.

He can’t jump in. When he was a kid, his father told him: ‘If you get beaten up at school, don’t come home till you’ve beaten the other boy up.’ What would his mother think, when they found his corpse and showed her her grown son beaten by a girl?

###

Back in the city proper, in old Katra he stops at the Kali temple. One of those waist-high steel-trunk-sized temples that guard every street corner, the exterior lumpy cement and stripes of gaudy paint, the idol within a black dwarf in a gilt crown, its body garlanded in layers of sunshine-smelling orange-and-yellow marigold. Kali’s room is locked for the night, but from the low ceiling, behind the grill gate that constitutes the temple’s front, the naked yellow incandescent bulb still flickers. Over the gods the lights must never go off.

Yes, Kali’s the right deity for a last-minute appeal. A super-goddess who defeated the rakshasa threatening humanity, then went on a killing spree and trampled her own husband. Vikesh dismounts and stands, arms by side, asking Kali for a sign for tomorrow. Yay or nay?

Kali bids him search the sky. Vikesh throws back his head. The smog blurs the yellow streetlamps and veils the moon. He sees nothing unusual. He faces the goddess – she tells him he already knows what he must do. Vikesh bows his head in thanks and resumes his last ride around the city, savouring every second.

Tomorrow at 0850 when Simran hurries out of her hostel gate, soft fingers adjusting satchel straps, feet stepping lightly as if nothing’s wrong – Partha’s Honda will be parked outside the sweetmeats shop, Partha idling the motor, looking across the road at Vikesh. By the hostel-gate, out of sight behind the wall protruding from the cowshed next door, Vikesh will be waiting. The brown-paper bag ready, the flat bottle inside opened, his arm raised.

Simran said they couldn’t be together. Vikesh has wept and pleaded and argued. Now he accepts her decision. But if he can’t move forward with her, then he must move radically backward without her. If he can’t have her, then she must lose something too.

She must lose her parents’ approval. Her parents think she’s a do-it-all: acquiring a western education while clinging to her Indian sanskaar, preserving her virginity for the man they’ve chosen for her.

She must lose the life that’s been planned for her. A life with that mama’s-boy, a flabby virgin who has bought Simran with his upper-caste birth-certificate, and with the plush job that is the reward of a lifetime’s mindless grind.

She must lose her beauty, which draws strangers’ eyes from across the street – but seldom draws their whistles, for her beauty’s babylike, her face an angel’s face, protecting her even from street harassment. A woman who flings away her virginity, then flings away unblinking the man to whom she flung it, deserves a face to match her heart, a face to tell the world how to treat her right. The prospect of their parting doesn’t seem to trouble her: too late, he’s realised she’s always considered this a fling, and that he’s fallen for a whore.

What will they do to him? It doesn’t matter, for he can see no life without Simran. He’s told everyone about the woman he loves, the woman he’s going to marry, and she’s made him lose face, so she must lose hers. Tomorrow at 0850 Vikesh will be waiting, bottle uncapped, to fling sulphuric acid into Simran’s face.


Amita Basu is a cognitive scientist by day. Her fiction has appeared in over forty magazines and anthologies including Fairlight Shorts, CommuterLit, Bandit Fiction, Bewildering Stories, and Gasher. She lives in Bangalore, and blogs at http://amitabasu.com/


“Tea with Nanna” Dark Fiction by B.C. Nance

Lewis gritted his teeth and growled as he reached the end of Red Mill Road. He gripped the steering wheel, his knuckles white as he waited for an old truck puttering down Harpeth Turnpike to pass by. He accelerated into a U-turn, spinning his wheels, and headed westward once again, his heart racing and his breathing short and shallow. Nothing looked the same to him after so many years. He could count the time from his last visit in decades, and he feared he had waited too long.

He cruised the winding country road a third time looking for anything familiar. In his childhood memory the landscape was vivid as he peered over the backseat of his parents’ car, eager to spot the huge red oak, the forsythia hedge, and his grandmother’s house on a small hill overlooking the old road. A flash of movement ahead caught Lewis’s attention, and as he slowed, he finally saw the two stone columns that flanked the driveway to Nanna’s house, now camouflaged by privet and honeysuckle and wild grapevine. Whatever had moved was gone.

Lewis eased the rental car through the screen of foliage, cringing as the shrubs clawed at the sides of the vehicle. Nanna’s house lay ahead on the knoll, and though his sight line was obscured by rambling foliage, it appeared to be in poor condition. He peered through the living screen and was sure that he saw shutters hanging askew, shingles missing, and possibly some broken windows. Was no one taking care of Nanna? Lewis had always lived too far away. He was nearly one thousand miles away while he was in college, though he hadn’t bothered to visit when he was home on breaks. A new job had taken him too far for frequent visits, but he never made even the infrequent ones. Lewis supposed he had not kept the promise he had made to his grandmother so many years ago.

“I’ll never leave you alone, Nanna,” the eight year old Lewis had promised. “I’ll visit and help you out and keep you company.” Now a half-century old himself, Lewis didn’t think he could be held to his childhood pledge. Still he regretted his long absence and was well aware that this visit was out of his need and not his grandmother’s welfare.

Lewis crept the car up the looping driveway, past the unkempt azaleas and rose bushes that appeared to be dead, or was it just not the right season for roses. Even the huge oak tree appeared to have lost a large limb, and if his eyes didn’t deceive him, that limb had fallen on the roof right over Nanna’s parlor. “Parlor” was Nanna’s word, but Lewis’s mother referred to it as the “delicate room” because of the many fragile items displayed there.

Lewis slid from the car and removed his sunglasses, temporarily blinded by the sudden brightness, then rubbed the wetness from his eyes. The front door opened and Nanna stepped out. She beamed at him, and he ran to embrace his grandmother.

“Oh, Nanna,” Lewis said, “I’m so sorry it’s been this long. What’s happened to your house?”

“What do you mean, dear,” his grandmother said, offering him a tissue from her apron pocket.

Lewis stepped back and dried his eyes. He looked at the house and saw to his relief that his vision had just been clouded by the tears. There was never anything wrong with the house. It looked as it always had, neat and trim. The shutters were hung true, every shingle was in place, and the red oak stood strong as it always had.

Lewis’s grandmother led him into the house, and he paused to look into the delicate room. Porcelain figures were arrayed on display stands, all meticulously dusted, while fragments of colored light refracted through a crystal vase dusted the room with rainbow shards. Nanna hurried Lewis to the kitchen which had always been the heart of the house. The fragrance of fresh-baked bread and cinnamon and fruit filled his senses. His grandmother had just finished canning a batch of homemade strawberry jam, and the jars formed a regiment of delicious fruit filled soldiers along the kitchen counter. She sat him down at the table and put a kettle on the stove.

“Nanna,” he said in a creaking voice, “I’m sorry that it’s taken me this long…”

“Don’t you fret now, dear,” she interrupted. “You’ve had your own life to live and a family to care for. You can’t take time to write to your doddering old grandmother every day.”

“But I should have taken the time,” Lewis said. “I should have listened to you; I should have taken your advice, then things might be different.”

“Oh, Lewis,” Nanna said, “are things not right with your wife.”

Few in the family had ever liked Charmaigne. Not her unusual name, her “hippie” parents, her brusque manners, or her insistence on living far away from Lewis’s family and seldom visiting. Lewis had an equally good job offer only twenty miles from the rural middle Tennessee community where he had grown up, but Charmaigne had insisted that he accept a job in a larger city where the schools would be better, and her own opportunities would be greater.

These, he supposed, included the opportunities to have two affairs during their marriage. Opportunities to frequent night clubs and find dealers for the myriad pills she kept hidden in the bedside table next to an old silver broach, a family heirloom that his grandmother had promised to Lewis for his wife. It was a promise made long before Lewis had met Charmaigne and a promise that Nanna was loathe to keep. His wife had disdained the trinket, never once wearing it.

“Maybe it will be worth something when the price of silver goes up,” Charmaigne said, tossing the jewelry into the drawer.

“I’ve tried for years to hold things together, Nanna.” Lewis said, and tears were beginning to form in his eyes again. “We’ve stayed together for the children, but now that they’re in college I don’t know if I can go on.”

The kettle began to whistle, and Nanna poured them each a steaming cup of tea. She pushed the blue-patterned porcelain toward her grandson, and he inhaled the herbal-scented steam.

“Drink that, dear,” she said. “It’s my special herbal blend that I guarantee will soothe your jangled nerves.”

Lewis continued to inhale the vapors while he waited for the tea to cool.

“She won’t go to counseling, Nanna.” He wouldn’t say his wife’s name in his grandmother’s house, knowing how she felt about the younger woman. Nanna had seen through her. Nanna had known best. He blew into the cup and sipped at the tea.

The taste lay somewhere between sassafras and licorice with a molasses sweetness and a mineral tinge. It was at once nostalgic and medicinal. It was the lilac-scented night breeze that blew through the open windows of Nanna’s house when he spent the night. It was the sting of mercurochrome that she daubed on his scrapes and scratches and the tang of ginger in her Christmas cookies. Lewis took a deep breath and looked his grandmother in her time-wizened eyes, deep and calm.

“I wish that I could go back to a time when you gave me sound advice and take with me the wisdom to listen to it, Nanna,” Lewis said in a steady, calm voice.

“Nanna always makes everything better, dear,” she said. She pushed a small jar across the table toward him. “Nanna has a tea for your wife, too. Have her drink this, and she will see what a wonderful boy you are. You are Nanna’s special boy.”

“I doubt that she will even take a sip,” Lewis said. “I think the marriage is just doomed.”

“Once she smells it she will come to the table, dear,” Nanna said, “and this is the same tea that saved my own marriage.”

Lewis’s eyes grew wide, and his grandmother’s smile was wider.

“Yes,” she said, “you probably don’t remember much about your grandfather. He died when you were very young, but even we had our problems.”

“I never knew,” Lewis said.

“That’s because of the tea,” Nanna said, tapping the jar. “He got into the habit of drinking a bit too much liquor and playing cards with his friends. He would come home staggering and usually angry because he had lost, and a time or two he forgot himself and gave me the back of his hand.”

Lewis’s expression had now turned to one of shock, but before he could speak, his grandmother went on.

“I knew we needed a solution, and the preacher’s advice was no help, but his wife sent me to Mrs. Hinshaw, and elderly widow who lived a ways down the Harpeth Turnpike. It was her herbal tea that solved our problems. The tea saved us.” Nanna again tapped the jar.

Lewis hugged his grandmother, and said goodbye. She clipped a newly bloomed red rose from the ordered bushes in front of the house for Lewis to give to his wife. He questioned whether it would last long enough to get it home, but Nanna overruled his objections. He drove away knowing that everything would be all right. Nanna always made things better. As he drove away he could smell the faint floral scent of the rose, and he touched the dried, decaying petals. He turned back to look at the house in time to see a rotted shutter fall off.

He returned just one month later. When Nanna didn’t answer his knock, he let himself in. She wasn’t in the kitchen, but he had an idea of where he might find her. From the back door a dirt pathway meandered up the hill and past the old orchard, where few of the long-neglected peach and plum trees still stood. The old stone wall around the cemetery was overgrown with Virginia Creeper, and the rusted iron gate had fallen from its pintils.

Lewis found the two tall stones in the center of the graveyard and brushed away the lichen to read the names. John Robert Haskin was born just before the First World War and lived until 1973, when Lewis was four years old. He had few memories of his grandfather. Lewis ran his fingers through the engraved lettering of the other stone. Edna Grace Haskin, born on the 3rd day of November in the year 1919, departed this life on New Year’s Day 2001.

“I should have visited more often, Nanna,” Lewis whispered. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his grandmother’s silver broach. He rubbed it with his thumb then placed it on the tombstone. Charmaigne would never touch it again, or anything else for that matter. Nanna’s tea had solved their problems.

Lewis stood and brushed the dirt and leaves from his knees. The broach glinted in a shaft of sunlight as if winking at him.

“I’ll go make us some tea, Nanna. I’ll make us some tea, and I’ll never leave you.”


B. C. Nance is a writer who still hasn’t given up his day job. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, he works by day as a historical archaeologist. After wandering the neighborhood in the evening, he writes fiction and poetry and stays up too late reading.


“It Wasn’t My Fault” Dark Fiction by Joseph Buckley

The floods started as a small disturbance. First, the kitchen sink went, filthy, tepid, water pooled to the brim of our once functioning, silver sink. I tried the plunger but couldn’t get the water to give. I stabbed at the drain with a knife, but still no movement. The water sat in the sink for hours. Moving about the house, I felt like the flooded sink watched me. The water a stalking predator waiting for me to let my guard down, so it could spring over the edge, flood the house and drag me under, choking on a torrent of putrid waters. But eventually, I couldn’t stand the paranoia, or the stench, any longer, and scooped the mess out with a bucket, tossing the scuzzy water into our backyard splashing across the heads of Eli’s, my six-year-old, abandoned lego city.

Then the bathroom sinks fell prey to the toxic waters. Of course, this version of discolored water came complete with curled hairs skimming across the surface. You would’ve guessed right if you had said the toilets would go as well, since they went around the same time. Water bowled up over the porcelain edge releasing all variety of foul-smells to haunt our hallways. Who could tell they’re burning their son’s morning oatmeal when the entire house smelled like a landfill?

So, we built a fort in Eli’s bedroom. A peaceful sanctuary secluded from the ugly state of the remainder of our house. A place we watched cartoons. A place where we stuffed our cheeks with chocolate chip cookies and barbeque chips. A place I even let him stay up past his bed time. Anything to keep his mind distracted.

I looked up home solutions on the internet. Baking-soda and vinegar was supposed to have worked, but all that did was further complicate the mess, chunks of clotted baking soda swam around the surface like disfigured teeth. Bleach didn’t work either. In fact, my hands were so wet from the wretched waters the bottle slipped, then spilled all over my jeans, eating through them along with a the top-most layer of my skin.

So, since I was clearly in over my head, I gave up. I didn’t want to call a plumber. The idea of strange men nosing around my house unsettled me. I mean, who can trust a man to be honest? Don’t they always get away with whatever they want?

My husband Frank, for example, left us without so much as a note, didn’t even take his truck. One day he was tossing the ball out back with Eli, and the next he was gone. No explanation. I called the police, but they had patronizingly dictated to me how these types of things happen all the time. They even went so far as to insinuate that I was to blame for my husband’s sudden departure. And that, maybe I needed to take a look in the mirror first, examine what it was about my character that a man would want to abandon.

I tried Frank’s brother. But he had no answers either. He explained how he was deep into his own issues: Shirley wanted a divorce citing his drinking among many other issues — it runs in the family. Work hadn’t seen my husband either, so I was left trying to explain to our son where his father had gone. Eli believed he was still coming back. But that was the least alarming of his behaviors.

***

One night, I left him in the tub, only for a quick minute to refill my wine glass — I also hadn’t taken the disappearance well. At that time the floods had begun, but the tub still worked, or maybe it was that we had yet to use the tub. It’s hard to keep track of the details. My memory feels like a collection of thought bubbles floating whimsically, landing with me only at random. When I returned to the bathroom, Eli’s soap-bearded face lit up.

“Mommy, I just saw dad. He came back!”

“You saw him? What do you mean? He’s in this house?”
 “He was in the tub.”

“Eli stop that. How could he be in the tub? You know better than that. What did mommy say about lying?”

 “If I lie then I’ll go to…I’ll go to…I can’t remember.”

 “You’ll go to hell. Now look, do you see your father anywhere in the water?”

I splashed my hand around to demonstrate how, besides the toy boats and scuba man, there was no one in the tub with him.

“But he was laying in the tub. The water got all red. He looked broken.”

He blubbered.

“Oh come on Eli, get with it. I told you your father left us. There’s no way he would be lying in the tub. He couldn’t even fit in there. He’s not coming back. Okay? He hates us. Can’t you see that?”

He burst into tears. I realized my hands were shaking. The wine glass shattered onto the tile floor like a crime scene.

“But it was him mom, I promise.”

I grabbed a towel, pulled him out of the tub and bundled him up tightly in my arms.

“It’s okay honey. It’s gonna be okay.”

I dried him off and tucked him into bed. We then read his favorite story about a little boy who goes in search of his parents with a tiger in a boat, sailing around the world. I blew him a kiss goodnight from the doorway, but before I walked away he asked me:

“Mom, do you think he will come back again?”

“I’ll tell you what. If he comes back, you tell him to come and speak with me because I’ve got some things to discuss with him. Okay buddy?”

I left the hall light on for him. Back in the bathroom, I noticed a lot of water around the tub. Droplets had somehow splashed as far as the vanity, but then, when I looked closer I thought I saw ripples in the discolored water, as if something had just moved, something large. There was no way. I pulled Eli out of the tub a long while before.

The tub water was so gray I couldn’t see through it. Anything could have been lurking within, waiting for me to reach my hand in. I could’ve sworn I had pulled the chord when Eli got out, but the water hadn’t drained at all. Then I wondered: What if Eli was right? What if there really was someone in the tub? I had to go downstairs for another glass of wine before I returned to brave the task of reaching into the mysterious waters of my own bathtub.

Wine in hand, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and sunk my other hand into the water, waiting for the bite or clench then subsequent abduction to hell. But my hand parsed through the grit all the way to the drain. Clogging the drain was what felt like the coarse fur of an animal or beast. I tugged at it coming up with a fistfull of hair. Except it wasn’t Eli’s. Or mine. The knot of hair was indeed human and still attached to a small section of skin, scabbed with blood.

Then it hit me — the same rotten smell from the toilets drifted off the hairs and I gagged, then ran from the bathroom, slamming the door behind me.

***

The next morning, I couldn’t bring myself to open the door to the bathroom. Decorative squares embossed into it’s white surface like mouths, mocking me, laughing at me, like the door knew exactly what was happening in my house; took pleasure in my discomfort.

Below the door the dirty, gray water had seeped out, soiling the hallway rug. So, I shoved a stack of towels at the bottom of it and decided that we needed to leave the house, at least for the day. Between the gory waters and Eli I didn’t know which caused me more anxiety.

I called off work and school for Eli. Sure, my boss said he’d have to write me up. But, I only took the stupid retail job to appease Frank. Now that he was gone I would have to find a real job anyway. Go ahead write me up. Fire me. There was some strange and dark presence in my house. I couldn’t care less about what type of bath soap was the least pollutive, or what candle scent would settle some housewife’s chakras.

I figured we could go to the park. Try to have a little fun. I worried Eli may have been developing some type of disorder or trauma that the internet is always going on about. It’s like everytime I turn around somebody is opening up about some type of scarring incident, something their parents did they will never recover from. What if my son grew up to be one of those people?

On our way to the park, passing through the quiet, still suburbs, Eli was right back to it.

“I saw daddy again last night.”

It was hard to believe this tiny, round-cheeked person could have grown to be such a disturbed child. He was too young. Where had I gone wrong? I pulled the car over. A sprinkler stream inching closer to the windshield.

“I thought I told you to come get me.”

“I didn’t know what to do.” He pulled down the brim of his blue ball-cap.

“Eli, listen to me. Next time this happens you have to get me, I mean it.”

“I had to go down to the kitchen to get a cup of water. And then, and then, I saw one of his eyes floating in the pool in the sink. It kept looking at me.”

“Enough Eli! Stop with the stories.”

“But, I heard his voice too. He had a secret to tell me.”

“Enough!”      

I sped away, windshield blurred with sprinkler water. I couldn’t seem to find the wiper lever. Our car kept going faster, everything in front of us melting together. I couldn’t understand if I was going blind with rage or the water was in fact blocking my vision. The car sped faster. 

“Mom.”

“Not now Eli. Not now!”

“Mom, red light.”

I slammed the brakes at what looked like a red light. Then found the wiper lever and when I looked in front of me there was a woman pushing two children in a stroller, glaring at me.

***

At the park, the sky was an empty blue, not a cloud in sight. It was so blue that my vision of the outside world was too highly defined. I could feel the murmurings of a migraine somewhere in the depths of my head. The subtle bird chirps. The trickling creek. The buzzing cicadas all sounded like clattering metal,

grinding gears. It was too hot out. My breath felt short like my lungs had a belt clamped around them.

  “Mommy, will you push me on the swing? Pleeease.”

  I took a deep breath.

 “Okay.”

I pushed Eli, tried to take my mind off things, but then I thought of Frank. Still confused why he would leave me. I felt like I must’ve been forgetting something. Like I had blocked out the bad memories. Then, the next thing I knew, all the wind left my lungs. Eli’s sneakers had kicked me in the chest on his backswing, sending me to my knees.

“Sorry mom!”

“I’m going to take a break for a minute. Why don’t you run around the pyramid thing, or try the slide or something for a while.”

“But I wanna swing more.”

“You know what Eli? Do whatever you want. But, I need a rest.”

Surrounding the jungle-gym were benches. Two women in bright workout clothing talked quietly next to each other on one of the benches. They cupped their hands over their mouths like they were talking about me. Their manicured and polished fingernails glinting so sharply in the sun I thought my eyes had cuts.

Maybe they knew me, but I couldn’t remember their faces. Maybe I knew them from one of the PTA meetings I was forced to attend twice a year? Or, the wine club Frank used to drag me to, as if going to a club gave his drinking more credibility. Just because half the town drank at these gatherings didn’t mean it was okay for him to come home stumbling drunk, scaring our son.

I waved to the women and they turned their gaze to a small blond girl in overalls picking at the yellow dandelions.

On the other side of the playground, far away from the nosey women I found respite under a large oak tree. Listening to wind pass through the dangling spanish moss finally settled me. I didn’t even mind the scratchy grass under me. Above me, a spider climbed around the tangled vines of moss. I wondered what it would feel like to be that spider. All alone. Stalking this gigantic tree for food and then waiting, spinning webs, to trap and devour anyone who got in my way. What a life that would be.

Suddenly, a shriek broke my reverie, sprung me to my feet, gasping for breath like I had been underwater for hours. Over by where the girl had been playing, one of the women stood above Eli wagging her finger. The girl clutched the other woman’s stretchy, purple shirt in her tiny fists, her face buried in the woman’s bosom.

“What’s going on?”

I stepped in front of Eli, shielding him from the ravenous woman, who appeared poised to strike. Sweat percolated on her forehead under her curled dome of blonde hair.

“Your little devil of a son is trying to give our Daisy nightmares is what’s going on.”

“I’m sure whatever he did was an accident. Right Eli?” I confirmed with my son who only stared back at me. “Eli, apologize to the little girl.”

“I’ll tell you what he did–”

“Ma’am, please let my son speak.”

“Show your mother what you showed our little girl.” She lunged toward Eli’s hand but I stepped in the way. “Of all the things. She’s going to be scarred for life. You know I didn’t want to believe what they said about you, but I guess the rumors are true.” The woman continued to rant.

She had passed off the young girl, pigtails bouncing, to the other woman. The two of them then retreated, leaving behind the purple shirted woman to take me down. 

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“Oh please honey. Everyone knows Frank walked out on you and honestly it’s easy to see why. You’re a mess. Keep that little demon of yours away from our precious child, or I’ll call child protective services so fast you’ll regret ever leaving the house.”

“Excuse me?” I was too shocked by what she had said to confront her any further before she stormed off to her car.

Her words only further shook my thoughts, my paranoia. What was everyone in town saying about me? It felt like everyone around me had gone mad.  

“Eli what on earth did you do to their girl?”

“I just told her about dad.”

“Oh God, again with the stories. Why do you keep doing this to me? Do you want your mother to go to jail. They’re going to take you away if you keep this up. You’ll never be allowed near me again. Is that what you want?”

He held out two teeth in his hand: full size, roots like dinosaur talons, speckled with dried dirt and blood. 

“What are you doing with those filthy things?” I tried to smack them out of his hand, but he took off running into the field. He was too fast. I went back to the car to see how long he would play this game of chicken.

Part of me wanted to just drive away, leave everything. Frank got to, why couldn’t I? So, I did. I put the car in reverse and was on my way to my own future. Free from all of this madness. Free from my possessed son.

But no.

No.

I slammed the brakes.

I had to be better than Frank. I had to prove those women wrong. Sure enough, the sight of our truck pulling out of the parking lot had sent Eli running back. I took him to get a scoop of his favorite ice cream, Rocky Road.

***

When we came back home, chewing what was left of our ice cream cones, the entire house had flooded. The basement was, what I assumed, a foot or two high. The water scared Eli. He didn’t want to come inside the house. The walls were sweating with the humidity. I wanted to be there as little as Eli, so I caved and called a plumber.

An hour or so later, I answered the door to an attractive man dressed entirely blue: blue work shirt, blue jeans, and blue boots. The only non-blue item on the man was his sagging work belt.

“Hiya, here to fix the pipes.” He chuckled.

“Right, come on in.”

“Oh my.” His large boots squished around the soiled carpet in the front hall. “Quite the situation here. When did you say this all began?”

“I don’t know. A few weeks now? Maybe more, maybe less.”

“All right, and no remarkable incidents? No flushing something crazy down the toilet? No cherry bombs, or rats chewing away the piping?”

“No, not that I can remember.”

I tried to remember when the flooding began. But it felt like my life had always been this way. Like the time before the flooding was the same. Then there was Frank, a shadow on my thoughts. But yes, perhaps it was him. Maybe he had sabotaged the pipes as a way of getting back at me, but why?

He was the one who left. He was the drunken one. The one forgetting birthdays and needing me to bail him out of jail. If anyone should have exacted revenge, it should’ve been me.

“Do you remember where it first started?”

“Maybe the kitchen?”

“All right then. I’ll check around, but this is worse than I imagined. It may take quite a while…this the door to the basement?” He asked.

I nodded. His large, calloused hands pulled at the door. I then realized how large of a man he was. He could crush me in the palm of his hand if he so desired. He scratched his head with those meaty hands.

“Let me recalibrate here.”

He walked out to his work truck in the street and returned wearing what looked like the same type of water-proof overalls Frank used to fish in. But before he went down the steps, he turned to me. His blue eyes sparkled through the wild mess of eyebrow and facial hair that covered his well-tanned face. He really was quite attractive.

“Hey, weren’t you that lady on the news?”

“News? No. What do you mean?”

“Yeah, it was you. Your husband went missing? They couldn’t find any traces of him anywhere. The reporter accused you of murdering him.”

“What in the world…that’s a strange thing to say to someone you just met. I think you should leave.”

“Whoa now. I’m sorry. You’re right. I apologize. I can’t leave you in such dire straights. It goes against the plumber’s code.”

He winked. For a moment, he stood there, staring, uncannily, before heading down the steps, whistling his entire journey deeper into our house.

First, the women in the park and then a random plumber. What did everyone know that I didn’t? There was no way I could have gone on the news without remembering it. Through the kitchen window, I saw Eli splashing in a puddle of water.

“Eli, get out of that dirty water and come in here.”

“Why?”

 “Don’t question me when I tell you to do something. Get in here. I need to talk to you.”

  He ran in the house, cheeks flushed. His red sneakers smeared with mud.

 “Sorry, I know I’m not supposed to play in the mud but—”

 “Do you remember your mother being on the news?”

 “You said we can’t talk about it.”

 “Talk about what? What happened?”

 I grabbed him by the wrist.

“You said that we can’t talk about the people with all the cameras. And the, and the —”

“And the what?!” I screamed

“And the lady who talked to you in the living room.”

My blood felt like thousands of ants marching under my skin. How had I not been able to recall this moment? What had happened. I couldn’t believe it. A ringing grew in my head. My head spun. Eli must’ve been lying again. That was it. Eli was lying, of course.

“Are you okay mommy?”

“I told you to stop lying.”

“Mommy you’re hurting me.”

The skin of his wrist had turned red around my fingertips. I let go quickly, shocked.

“Go play outside.”

He ran away. I poured a glass of wine, to the top. Then, the plumber appeared in the doorway to the basement.

“Ma’am, there’s some type of major blockage. I can’t tell what the hell is going on. I tried snaking the pipes, but got no movement. Something is lodged somewhere in there causing the entire system to back up. I’m gonna have to get inside the pipes…is that something you’re ready to do?”

“Huh? Get inside the pipes? What do you mean?”

“You see, to fully diagnose the problem I’m going to have pull apart your plumbing. It can be a large undertaking. We’re talking maybe a few days, weeks maybe, which means a lot of labor. The water will be turned off.”

He looked at my pityingly. What was it with these men in my life?

“And I suppose you’re going to say this is my fault? Accuse me of some other despicable action?”

I sneered.

“Whoa now. Maybe you were right. Maybe I should go.”

“Oh no you don’t. Not after you fed me all that crap about the plumbers code. Get back down in the basement and finish what you started. Smash the pipes to hell for all I care.”

He threw his hands up in caution. When he came back from his truck this time he carried two heavy bags in each arm. They were large enough to fit bodies into if he had to. What was this man’s plan with me and my son?

Bags clunking down each step, thwap, thwap, he made his way to the basement, whistling the whole time. Maybe he had killed Frank. Yes that was it. Then he had sabotaged my pipes in order to get a large payday. That was it. He was out for money. Sure, prey on the newly single mother. Just another man trying to get one over on me. Well, he had another thing coming if he thought that was going to work. 

“Can I go downstairs?” Eli asked.

“What for?”

I realized I had finished my entire wine glass and was sipping at nothing.

“I want to watch the plumber. I was gonna bring my boat down.”

He had already changed into a bathing suit and rain boots holding his boat in hand.

“You know what Eli, I want you to go pack your bags for a long trip, okay honey?”

“But mom, I want to help the plumber.”

“If you’re good we can get ice cream again. Okay honey? Now, go and be a good boy.”

From the butcher block I pulled the chef’s knife and walked down the steps with it behind my back.

“Oh hey, glad you’re down here. I think I’ve found something.”

I watched the plumber pull a leg from out of the pipe, still adorned in blue, now blood-red jeans, my husbands’, I mean ex-husband’s favorite blue jeans. The skin inside was sodden and colorless, and the rotten odor almost enough to knock me over.

“Oh jesus lord. This is someone’s leg. Looks like it’s been clear cut off.”

He threw it down into the water. Then my knife was in his gut, to the handle. I pulled it out and plunged it in again. His last breath exhaled, hot in my face before he dropped into the water with a splash and then everything was silent just like when Frank died.

I remembered it all then.

I was scared for my life. Frank, so drunk I thought he would kill me or Eli. I was only trying to keep him away. Trying to protect myself. It all happened so quick. He stomped toward me, cornered me in the kitchen. The butcher block of knives behind and then his blood rushed from his slumped body in torrents. I tried stopping the wound with a kitchen towel. The wound that I had opened in him but it was too late.

It was an accident. I couldn’t leave Eli with no parents. He needed me to protect from all the craziness in the world. So, I cleaned up the accident. I cut and shoved and flushed whatever I could into the sinks and toilets of our house. I just wanted to be there for Eli.

Blood spread into the waters around the plumber’s head. But the ringing in my head had stopped. I could see clearly. I knew we had to get out. then ran up the steps out of the basement.

“Eli? Where are you? Eli?”

 I rushed around the house searching for Eli. I found him under his covers, shaking.

“What’s going on mom? Why is dad in our pipes?”

“Daddy? No, no honey what did you see? That was nothing. It was a joke the plumber was playing. I think he found an old possum in the pipes. Okay sweetie?”

“I saw dad again downstairs. Right before you came up. He was all bloody.”

“Okay sweetie, okay.” I hiked Eli up on my hip and packed a bag for him with one hand. “Can you be a big boy and help your mother put this in the truck?”

He nodded.

“Good, then wait in the car for me.”

 When I pulled out of the driveway, Eli asked me “What about the plumber?”

“He left us honey. Just like your father. It’s like I said Eli, you can’t trust men.”

 “But his truck is still there.”

I turned up the stereo a little louder and tilted Eli out of the vision of the rearview. I could finally see clearly, not a man in sight. 


Joseph Buckley is a poet and dark fiction writer. His work is featured in December, Fogged Clarity, The Horror Zine, and elsewhere.


“Little Bunny Foo Foo” Dark Fiction by Tre Luna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is.”

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry?”

“Capable of slicing completely through a human finger.”

“The scissors?” Cutter blinked several times. 

She nodded once, self assured. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Daddy, wha’s caloric?”

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

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

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

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

“God forbid.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Think of it as a counter-suit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I need help because I can’t walk.”

“Lose some weight. That will help.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My daddy has a long shadow…”

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

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

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

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

“Get away from her, Delany! Now!”

“But Daddy…”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Del?”

“Be careful, okay?”

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

“But Daddy, she has scissors.”

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

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

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

“Nooo.”

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

***

Atlanta was the usual crush. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

There was no good reply to that.

***

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

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

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

The worst part was they just seemed so happy

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

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

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

The lobby fell silent. Everyone stared at him.

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

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

“What?” Cutter was panting, off balance.

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

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

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

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

“Anyway, what business is it of yours?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s better,” the Good Fairy said.

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

“Now for the finger. Have you decided?”

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

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

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

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

Richard squirmed. “I don’t… I can’t…”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Hugo nodded and stepped back.

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

            “Sure. What do you want?”

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

            “Where is your home?”

            The boy pointed to rectangular gravestone to his left.

            “There.”

            Hugo frowned.

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

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

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

            “Yes. Would you like a pillow too?”

            “Yes. That would be nice.”

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

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

             He shut the gate and made for home.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In walked James’s son.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


“Ferry Ride” Dark Fiction by Alan Catlin

I am listening as the waves are slapping against the harbor, slapping against those dark pylons stretching into the swirling, forbidding depths of the water.  The garbage floats on the oil-stained wavelets as they lap against the man-made shore.  The ferry looms; a beast astride the water, tethered to the mooring, fuming as it waits.

I am staring into the dark pit of the ferry, seeing only the runway cage enshrouded by shadows through which a procession of slow-moving cars slides into night.  I hear the harsh, repetitive clamor of the heavy rubber wheels moving over a steel plated ramp.  Beyond the ferry, a lone, flashing, red buoy light in the harbor.

Jostled by the crowd, I embark. I’m eager to leave the city behind, eager to escape the glaring, stunning streetlights, the threatening shapes of towering structures, the constant fevered movements of faceless men and women brushing against each other on the sidewalks. I am unnerved by the dizzying shriek of car horns, mechanically roaring buses, rumbling of locals and the uptowns below, trembling the pavement, as I walk, seeing the river spanning bridges dominating the sky-scape, jutting out of my nights into my days, casting stark, terrible shadows on my life.

I consider the passengers’ compartment: the white painted wooden benches, Mae West jackets packed tightly in orange rows on the wall opposite the entranceway, the grit smeared picture window panes of the compartment through which nothing can be seen, passengers huddled on benches speaking in subdued tones.  I smell the wood rot and human decay, refuse bins overflowing with discarded food wrappers that black flies and yellow jackets swarm to.  Smell the burning hot cacaos and bitter coffees, steaming rubberized hot dogs behind the snack bar, competing in their vileness with deep fat frying foods, and putrid uncleaned griddle greases.

Inside the passengers’ compartment, the cigarette smoke haze hangs from the ceiling, clouding the already densely packed room obscuring the “Emergency Only” glass case containing fire hoses, hatchets and a cylinder of foam, marred by a black magic marker inscription: “For a good time call BJ 599-5224.”  I hear a terrible rumbling inside the bowels of the beast; the engines growling as the ferry lurches out into the harbor.

I am sitting on the edge of a bench toward the rear of the compartment, wishing I had procured a window seat near the front of the room.  In the rear, I must watch the people: the immense woman consuming various prepared foodstuffs concealed in the voluminous folds of her dress, a homeless alcoholic drinking wine by the pint from the neck of a bottle protruding from a soiled, wrinkled paper bag, the harried, young Latina mother of five, addressing her brood in wild street Spanish, her man aloof, drinking a half quart of Budweiser from an aluminum can, staring at the river moving beneath us, as we surge into the night.

“Hey Mistah, gotta light?”

“Excuse me?”

“I need a light.”

“Hold on, I’ll look.”

Searching through my pockets, feeling through loose change, rumpled tissues, ticket stubs, pocket lint, considering as I grope this gaunt, black man of no age at all.

“You live on the island?”

“Me? No, I just like to ride the ferry.”

“I been livin’ there a long time-a real long time.  Gotta nice little place overlookin’ the water. Just been in the City for the day.  Don’ like the City.”

“Ah, here we go.  You can keep them.”

“Thanks Mistah.  You like the City?

“It’s where I live.  I don’t know where else I could live.  Comfortably I mean.  It’s–I guess, it’s all I’ve ever known.”

“Don’ like the City.  She be evil.  But the Island’s different.  The Island’s okay.  It’s cool man. Want a hit?”

“No, thanks, really.”

“Yeah, the City.  She evil alright.  Know what I seen today?”

“No.”‘

“I seen the biggest, baddest, meanest mother of a rat.  And you know what she was doin’? She was pullin’ at this here paper, diggin’ around for all she was worth at somethin’ buried in the garbage. Man, she was hungry and this be dinner.  Want to know what she was gettin’ at?”

“No.”

“Was what was left of a human baby, man.  Know what else?…sure you don’ want no hit?”

“Sure.”

“There be rats down there everywhere-not like the Island.  Those mothers grow so big down there, they have to in order to survive, I swear you can’t hardly walk around with all them rats, some bigger than badassed tom cats, man, I saw two rats take on the biggest ole alley cat I ever seen and eat that sucker up alive.  Woo-wee was that somethin’ else again.”

“Excuse me.”

“Man, that sucker was squealin’.  Hey man, where you be goin’? Hey, boy, you alright, you don’ look so good?”

Rising, I stride as fast as possible across the passenger compartment, slide the exit door open and step out onto the ferry deck.  A sharp, damp wind assaults me, whips the canvas-shrouded lifeboats hanging from the upper ferry deck.  Staring into the darkness, inwardly embracing the cold, I adjust my army surplus jacket, tighten the knit scarf around my neck, the river mist touching me, welding me to the rail. I hear the compartment door opening, closing, hear footsteps on the deck.  I know that I am being sought out, know the terror each footstep brings.  I should hide somewhere, anywhere in the night bit I wait, paralyzed, shivering, as if forbidden to move by some unseen force.

“Hey, man, you alright?”

“I’m okay.”

“What ails you, man?  I guess I know when a body ain’t feelin’ alright.”

“I just want to be left alone.”

“I can dig that.  Look, I’ve got this smoke of many dreams here, man, you can have free of charge, if you think it’ll make you feel alright.”

“No thanks, I have enough dreams already without the smoke. I just went to be left alone.”

“You be in the City too long, you best get out.”

“What do you think I’m doing here.”

“Come on, man, take a hit.”

“I Don’t Want It!”

“Okay, man.  No need to get violent.  Shit, man, I was just tryin’ to help.”

Footsteps receding in the darkness.

Backing away, slowly.

The chill spray on my clothes.

Staring at the white capped confluence of river and sea in the night.

Lost.

The Island lights, gleaming, glowing in the distance.


Alan Catlin is primarily known for poetry but that doesn’t prevent him for mixing and matching prose and poetry as the subject allows.  He has published dozens of full length book and chapbooks, mostly poetry, over the years. Although he is not a genre writer he has somehow managed three Rhysling Prize nominations and a Bram Stoker Award nomination He didn’t win either award.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “Yes, but they let me go.”

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

“He might have been one.”

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

“I would never turn you in, Maggie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That was before the bombings.”

“Those dreadful bombings. Will they ever stop?”

“He promised to stop the bombings.”

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

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

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

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

“I’m glad he’s a lot like Lincoln.”

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

“I love you, Maggie,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This year I’ll book a flight early.”

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

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

“That wouldn’t be much of a change.”

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

“Why is that, Maggie? Tell me again.”

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

2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why did you believe me, Poppy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” I reply.

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

“They’re here, Maggie.”

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

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

 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


“Office Friends” Dark Psychological Fiction by Pauline Chow

I had a big meeting in fifteen minutes, so very unfortunate that I noticed a smell. It came to me as I waited for the printer. The copy machine broke? Seconds later, the machine churns out freshly baked double-sided collated copies. I sense a change in the air. It was as if someone lit a candle called Low Tide but on the 33rd floor of the corporate building, people did not light candles, not even birthday candles. Birthdays were personal. Non-company reminders were sparse: post-it notes with personal errands, occasional family pictures, and co-workers secretly texting external contacts. Otherwise, colleagues consorted on online chats and email. 

Thank goodness for my morning laps at the Olympic-sized pool. My lungs were able to hold in my breath, avoiding the stink, for the last two copies of a 6-page document. The company suggested length for research documents. I exhaled as soon as I left the copy room, glass windows on my left side and the large conference room at the end of the hallway. I re-read the first page, marveling at my own work. How could they not love my analysis of the company’s new foray into e-commerce? 

Then it hit me, again. A fragrance of festering water conjures images of dark soupy liquid that pooled on the edges of subway platforms. I duck into the bathroom and inspect under my feet, finger every crevice of my body, and inspect my ass in the mirror. A weird reaction to stress? An odor radiating everywhere but nowhere at the same time. I continue down the hallway, noticing the warped bugged-out stares of employees at blue-light screens.

I recite the last sentence of the paper to myself: The evidence shows that for every twenty-five dollars lost in selling essential goods like toothpaste and toilet paper translates into a three-fold profit for the company the following year. If the company hooked a customer once then they would return to purchase much more. The long game worked; no wonder small businesses struggled to stay open. Cue the wicked laugh. Though being privy to a secret felt exhilarating. 

Inside the clean and spotless meeting room, I pray to any god that I would not meet that horrible stench again, at least until the end of the meeting. I graze the back of my hand on my forehead. Not sick. In the bathroom mirror my face looked flush. Should have splashed cold water on my face. Too late. Focus, I tell myself. For months, I had pulled data, coded these algorithms, and positioned the output graphs with precision, thinking of nothing else. Please let my insight be enough. 

Attendees enter the room for my meeting, then read in silence, as all meetings started here. I fidget with the zipper on my hoodie in a corner, gauging my coworker’s expressions as they read. These people laughed and joked at happy hours but facing off over the conference table seemed like warfare. Nothing but stoned faced killers. Ding. A whiff of decomposing vegetables emanated from the table. Did someone fart? SBD. 

I almost fell backwards out of the chair when I see a wispy orb hovering over Mevis, the oldest tenured employee and always late to meetings. I rub my eyes. Specks of dust in my contacts? The lights dim. 

Mevis mutters an apology, sucking the energy from the room.

Then, I taste something metallic and fishy. My stomach ripples and I wretch. Head turns, reacting to the sound, so I stand up. My question redirects my energy. “Does anyone need more time?” I position my fist over my mouth to suppress a gag. 

Tom, my manager, clears his voice. “Ten minutes.” His face set in contemplation and mild irritation. It looks like he needs to take a shit. My mind goes there on account of the smell. Then, the floating tentacles reaches into Tom’s throat and pulls out a sloppy white mass. Tom does not react to this invasion into his body. No one does. 

The apparition sloshes from one person to the next: collecting shadows, consuming their essence, and foraging on the essence of people. 

Should I do something? I didn’t need compliments or praises. I want the director to tell me I still had a job. The requirements of my work visa said that I had to remain in this city and this same employer for at least 6 more months. Else, I would be sent away, back into a menial position that no longer suited me.

My existence didn’t matter to them.  

“Lovely.” I sat down to review the charts and graphs. My team will ask about figure 3, a line fitted to scattered points. I wondered if I explained the outputs well enough. Ding! The thing wipes its filthy appendage across my lips, reminding me of a weirdly nostalgic game from childhood, smell-my-finger, where an unwilling participant had to sleuth the origins of an odor from a finger shoved into their face. I gasp and it recoils from my reaction. This is the source of the vile-drenched tang. Sickening things are happening. 

The thing moves to and fro, slithering its stink. Part of my image is reflected inside the ghostly jellyfish’s shiny skin. I look haggard, aged many decades. Is this its imagination?  As if looking through a magnifying glass, I glimpse the faces in this room: whiten hair, bloodshot eyes, and sunken cheeks. Or Is this what the being does to us? 

“Time’s up,” I announce and sit in the empty seat at the table. Where is the bleach? Now the ghost pinches the skin on my arms and salivates as it peels off a layer. This is the pain of my soul ripping apart. Lights flickered. I hold my breath, concentrating on the visa and six-months. In my right mind I would run out of here screaming. But this option was better for my resume. My eyes begin to water when I ask the room, “Does anyone have feedback?” 


Pauline Chow writes speculative fiction to explore history and systems with disgruntled people. She was an attorney and now works in tech. In upstate New York with her husband, toddler, and rescue pup, she is living her best life in the woods. Find her at www.paulinechowstories.com or @DataThinker on Twitter.


“Peppermint Candy” Dark Fiction by James Mulhern

Helen threw the candy wrapper into the trash barrel, then walked to her desk as I read a line from Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”: “For many hours the immediate vicinity of the low framework upon which I lay had been literally swarming with rats.”

She vomited. The other students screamed epithets, laughed, or moved their desks away as chunks of school lunch spewed from Helen’s mouth.

“You fucking loser,” Gabe said. He used the textbook cover to wipe bits of nacho off his shirt.

“Quiet down,” I shouted to the class. I grabbed some napkins from my desk and asked Sandy, who sat by the door, to get the school nurse.

 I gave Helen the napkins.  She wiped her face and said she was sorry.

“No need to apologize. Sit down and rest your head on the desk.”

She leaned onto crossed arms.

“Go to the bathroom and wash yourself up,” I told Gabe.

He flung the vomit-smeared textbook onto the floor.

“Gross!” Damien, a long-legged track star with frizzy hair, said.

When Nurse Sommers entered with Sandy, she appraised the situation with darting eyes. She was a tall black woman with golden-brown eyes and a no-nonsense demeanor. “I want calm in here. Listen to your music if you want.” Immediately cell phones and earbuds came out.

When she was next to Helen, she spoke softly and touched her forehead. “Are you still feeling nauseous?”

“Huh?”

“Like you’re going to vomit again?”

“No. I think I got freaked out by the story, and those nachos at lunch were really nasty.”

“You feel warm,” Nurse Sommers said. “Are you strong enough to walk with me to my office?”

“I think so.”

“You, sir.” She pointed at Damien. “Assist me.”

“Why me?” Damien looked around at the other students.

“Because you look strong and responsible and kind.”

Damien smiled. “I’ll help.”

“Mr. Darnell.” She seemed tired. “Call Ms. Antonelli and let her know what happened.”

“I already did.”

The door opened. Ms. Antonelli, the school principal, a woman in her early forties, always dressed impeccably in designer clothes, entered. She had a serene presence and was well liked by the students.

“I’m taking her to my office. This young man will assist me,” Nurse Sommers said.

“Great. Thank you.” Ms. Antonelli turned to me. “Can I speak with you in the hallway?”

“Of course.”

I said to the class, “Keep quiet while we talk outside.” Most of the students nodded.

After the nurse exited with her arm around Helen and Damien on the other side, I shut the door and met her in the hallway.

“Tell me exactly what happened.” Her voice was relaxed and her brown eyes concerned.

I told her about Helen Thano.

“You’ll have to make out an incident report.”

“Now?” I looked through the glass of my door. The students seemed fine.

“You can drop by my office after school. I’ll have the janitor clean the room. Just keep the students away from where Helen was sitting. Mr. Abbas will need to disinfect. I’ll have Valerie see if there’s a room where you can bring the class.” She looked at her watch. “Never mind. The bell will ring in five minutes.” She twisted her lips and looked up. “When is your planning period?”

“After this class.”

“Perfect. Mr. Abbas can clean the room thoroughly. If you want to get the form out of the way, stop by next period. It won’t take long. Valerie, as you know, is quite efficient. She’ll help you.”

The bell rang and the students exited quickly, excited to tell the story of “Heaving Helen,” I heard one student say. I waited for Mr. Abbas, a kind thin man with sunken cheeks and sparkly eyes.

“It’s always something.” He dragged a mop and bucket into the room. His hands were gloved. Another janitor, a chubby man whose name I couldn’t remember, followed with a cart of supplies—disinfectant, paper towels, plastic bags, cleaning solutions.

“You’ll be all right in here? I have to go to the office.”

“Sure. Sure,” Mr. Abbas said. The chubby man was already on his knees spraying a solution and wiping the puke up with paper towels.

“Ain’t nothin’ new. Always cleaning up a mess around this place. Sometimes I wish I could disinfect the school of students. They can be such pigs.”

“I understand. You’d be surprised how often I think of ways to get rid of them.” I laughed. The chubby man guffawed. His forehead was sweaty, his hair greasy. He probably needed to be sanitized himself, I thought, smiling at him.

I grabbed a pen and walked to Ms. Antonelli’s office.

“I’ve got the form right here.” Valerie pointed to the top of a pile of papers on her desk. Her cubicle smelled of Christian Dior’s Poison. Her fingernails, as usual, were perfect—a French manicure. Rumor was she worked just to get out of the house. Her husband was a rich contractor, and they certainly didn’t need Valerie’s small salary.

I sat in the blue plastic chair while she watched me fill out the form. The top part was general information—student name, sex, grade, and a section about the observer (me). The second part was confusing.

“It says ‘Accident’ here.” I looked at Valerie who was shuffling through papers. “She vomited. Is that considered an ‘accident’?”

She sighed and waved her hand. “Well, she didn’t do it on purpose.” She laughed. “And who the hell cares? No one looks at these things anyway. They get filed away in some drawer.” She fluffed her blond hair and rubbed a spot on her pink dress.

Most of the information was impertinent — “Burn, dislocation, puncture, concussion.” I was thankful for the comment section, where I wrote a succinct account of the event. As I handed the paper to Valerie, Ms. Antonelli entered.

“I was looking at Helen Thano’s file. She has an I.E.P.” An I.E.P. is an Individualized Education Program, a document for students with special needs or concerns.

“Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Crohn’s disease, seizure disorder. . .  This young lady’s a mess. Have you read her I.E.P., Mr. Darnell?”

“Of course, I have. I read all student documentation.” Does she think I’m negligent? I felt my cheeks burning and removed my glasses. I hung them on my shirt pocket. I noticed a speck of puke on my chinos.

 “Her file also records that you’ve had a few meetings with her Exceptional Needs Facilitator, Ms. Stillman, and the school counselor and Mrs. Thano.”

“Yes.” I folded my arms. She stared into my eyes, as if waiting for me to say something else. Valerie said she had to use the restroom and excused herself.

When she left, Ms. Antonelli said, “She wears too much perfume” and coughed.

“Yes, this place reeks with the smell of Poison.”

“Ms. Stillman said there was some friction between you and Helen’s mother at the last meeting. She said you ‘had words’”

I shrugged. “I don’t think so. I simply stated facts about Helen’s performance in class, her speaking out of turn and making snide comments. I suggested to Mrs. Thano that perhaps Helen might be seeking attention.”

“Ms. Stillman said you seemed irritated, and after the mother left, told her that Helen was a . . .” She looked at the pad she was holding. “‘rat and her mother was a pain in the ass.’”

“That sounds accurate.”

She sat down in Valerie’s chair. “Don’t you think that’s a bit harsh?”

“No. I believe my assessment is spot on. Besides, I said those things in confidence to Ms. Stillman. Sometimes we need to vent. You understand that.”

“Yes, I do.” She put her elbows on the desk and rested her head in cupped palms.

I said, “Helen likes to be the center of attention. She often says she has a problem with the workload in my class and talks about colleagues in a disparaging manner. I think something may be going on at home. Did Ms. Stillman tell you that I also expressed that concern? I was hoping she could look into it.”

“That’s not the point, Mr. Darnell.”

“What is the point, Ms. Antonelli?”

“I think you could be more empathetic.”

I snickered. “And helping her wipe up her vomit or calling the school nurse immediately is not empathetic?”

“Other students have complained you can be mean,” she said, almost sympathetically.

“First time I’ve heard that. Why haven’t you mentioned this before? Are you afraid of me, Ms. Antonelli?” I glared at her. She scratched her neck. Her mouth quivered.

“Not at all.”

I feigned a sweet voice. “I understand. I will try to be more warm.” I rose from the chair. “Have you spoken with the nurse?”

“Nurse Sommers says Helen’s fine. Her mother is coming to pick her up.”

“That’s good. The poor girl could use some rest. . .  Will that be all? I have to prepare for my next class.”

She stood up. “Yes.” She smiled. “And thank you for taking care of Helen.”

“Certainly.” I smiled and left for my classroom.

A while later, Ms. Antonelli entered, followed by Helen and Mrs. Thano.

“I want to thank you for taking care of Helen today.” Mrs. Thano’s face was white, her auburn hair a mess. She pushed bangs away from her glassy blue eyes. The end of her nose was red, and she held a tissue in a fist.

“Of course.”

“Helen gets nervous sometimes. I think that horror story got to her.”

Helen pouted. “I told you it was mostly the nachos from lunch.”

“Okay, sweetheart. All that matters is you feel better now.” Mrs. Thano kissed her forehead.

“Poe can be pretty graphic. I understand how the part about rats might have bothered her.” I smiled at Helen who was holding onto her mother’s arm as though her life depended on it. She looked away.

“What do you say?” Mrs. Thano glanced at her daughter.

“Thank you, Mr. Darnell.”

“No need to thank me. I’m glad you’re OK.”

“I hope the rest of your day is less hectic.” Mrs. Thano laughed. “We’ll leave you alone.” She opened the door and began to leave.

Ms. Antonelli said, “I’m happy things worked out all right.”

“We’ll be fine. Probably just a small case of food poisoning.”

“That seems likely,” I said.

When the two left, Ms. Antonelli said, “I want to apologize. I was a bit accusatory earlier.”

“Apology accepted. And I understand how I may come off as ‘harsh.’ I’ve been told I can be too blunt. It’s just that I like to be direct. I enjoy getting things done and coming up with solutions for problems.”

“You’re a good teacher, Mr. Darnell. Keep it up.” She looked around the classroom. “I’m glad to see Mr. Abbas cleaned things up.”

“He always does a good job.”

She looked at her watch. “God! You only have ten minutes before next period. I’ll leave you be.” She opened the door. “Enjoy your evening.”

“You too. . .  Would you like a piece of candy before you go? Peppermint?” I held one up.

She placed a hand on her abdomen. “No thanks. I’m trying to avoid sugar. Those hard candies are so addictive.” She laughed.

“True. And if you eat too many, they can make you sick.”

When she left, I took the Visine out of my drawer. I found the paper listing the poisonous effects from tetrahydrozoline, the active ingredient in the eye drops. If swallowed: difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, and coma, among other effects.

I thought of the care I had taken to lightly rub Visine onto the candy before rewrapping it. Then I searched through the trash barrel for Helen’s wrapper. I placed it in the zipper pocket of my satchel with the printout about the drug.

I retrieved the peppermints from my desk drawer and placed them in my satchel. I would share them again another day.


James Mulhern’s writing has appeared in literary journals over one hundred and seventy times and has been recognized with many awards. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was granted a fully paid writing fellowship to Oxford University. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. In 2017, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His novel, Give Them Unquiet Dreams, is a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019. He was shortlisted for the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2021 for his poetry. Two of his novels were Finalists for the United Kingdom’s Wishing Shelf Book Awards.


“Speakers” Dark Fiction by Patrick R. Wilson

The development lay over weedy slopes a fair drive from other neighborhoods and highways. If you wanted to walk for groceries, you’d better pack a lunch or settle for road snacks at the run-down gas station a few miles out.

“We’re way out here like a naughty child in the corner,” I told Gertz as we drove on the freshly paved road, sticky and black in the summer sun, passing rectangular plots with concrete slabs and white PVC pipes sticking up, patiently awaiting hookups. Aren’t we all?

“Coming from an overcrowded facility, this comparative isolation may require an adjustment.” Gertz, young and earnest, seemed too smart to lead this program to help ex-cons like me re-integrate.

“My whole life I’ve wanted nothing but this. Peace, meet Quiet.”

“Enjoy having the place to yourself, Mr. Lang,” Gertz said. “Eventually, you’ll have one hundred and forty-three neighbors.”

We arrived at the top of the highest rise. Two tiny homes huddled together there like a couple on a picnic watching the sunset. The houses were plain, mobile-home-like, house-like, but neither.

“Tour time.”

“Won’t take long,” I grumbled. I shouldn’t have grumbled. This new program meant rent and utilities, including electric, were F-R-E-E. I had to sign a paper agreeing to stay sober (check), seek employment (an electrician, I wanted to hook up with an honest outfit), contribute back (this place would need a tradesman like me once they rolled in some more teeny abodes), and, finally, be a good neighbor.

Yeah, that last one.

I interrupted Gertz’s pointing out the community dumpsters, unsoiled and new, sitting alone way the hell down the road from here.

“My place and that place are cheek-by-jowl. I’m a quiet man. I hope you’ve partnered me up with the like.”

“Quiet hours start at nine and end at seven.”

Gertz paused, perhaps recalling my criminal record.

“I understand you enjoy…silence. But those hours are reasonable, Mr. Lang,” he said.

That night, alone on this half-developed clearing, miles from another soul, just me and the tiny house and the buzzing locusts and the humming window AC unit, I had maybe the second-best night’s sleep I’d ever had. First was my wedding night.

Till 4:33 A.M., when a voice, distorted as if from a bullhorn, loud as a cop siren, startled me awake.

What do you think of your new place? the voice asked, over and over.

What do you think of your new place?

#

I stormed to the neighboring house, raging and bare-chested, as is my way.

The lights were on. I pounded on the door.

The flight felt an eternity, roared the amplified voice. Now more awake, I realized that the voice was female.

Between the blind slats, I glimpsed a figure with long blonde hair hunched over a laptop. No bullhorn, but there was a speaker. My ex-wife Mar used to go on the road with bands (as a sound tech, not a groupie) and she’d always hole up in the garage noodling in the guts of black Stonehenge boxes like that 2×12 Marshall.

When we arrived in Ecuador, so–.

“It’s quiet hours,” I shouted, “QUIET HOURS!”

When we arrived in Ecuador, so lush and exotic, I could only think of John thousands of miles away in Manhattan. Ben noticed me staring out of the plane window. He said it was beautiful.

I raised my fist to hammer at the window as the door opened.

It was not a blonde, but it was a blond. A long-haired dude, half my age. Prescription sunglasses, stubbly. Loose gym shorts. Wrinkly yellow t-shirt that said THE WEST IS GOLDEN.

“Hold on,” he shouted over the racket. Different voice, not a lady’s.

“So beautiful,” I said, but I was thinking of John. Why had I left him? Why couldn’t I stop think–.

The guy hopped over to his decade-old Dell laptop and hit the spacebar, stopping what I now realized was a recording.

“It’s my art project,” he said, fumbling with the knobs on the amp. “Thought the place next door was empty.”

The man had only a vague sense of the world around him. He seemed arty, all right. Not drug-high, but his head was in the clouds.

“Travis Lang,” I said, extending my hand when the man returned.

“Ben Argothy,” he muttered, suffering the apparent major inconvenience of having the most mundane of introductory conversations with his new neighbor.

“Gertz just move you in?”

“Mm-hm. They released me at midnight.”

“He explained the rules?”

“Yeah. Thought I was alone.”

He glanced back at his laptop, yearning for me to leave.

“You got headphones, right?” I said, not seeing any among the cables and equipment.

Headphones,” he scoffed. “Can’t feel through headphones, brother,” he said.

The urge grew to make this condescending twerp feel something, like my fist. But if I so much as breathed too hard on someone, they’d toss my ass back in the cooler till the Cubs won another Series. I had to be better.

“Quiet hours, brother,” I, Better Travis, said.

He gave me a thumbs-up. I detected a sneer behind his cascade of hair as he closed the door.

He stayed quiet till nine A.M. on the dot.

#

I lasted fifteen minutes, then called Gertz.

“So, you’ve met Benjamin,” he said.

I held my phone out of my front door towards the other home.

Reynaldo pursued me through the crowded marketplace. Heat rushed to my face, and not from exertion. Do I let him catch me? Or do I lose him in the bustling crowd and return to Ben, dignity and clothes intact, but my body unfulfilled?

Pursued me.

Return to Ben.

Pursued me, Ben.

Pursue me, Ben.

“I don’t get it.”

“He’s chopping up an audiobook like he’s mixing beat samples.”

“Shouldn’t you be online applying for jobs?”

“Shouldn’t he?”

“Can you wear headphones?”

“Can’t he?”

“Travis. He’s breaking no rule or law. I have no time to referee.”

“Where’d he come from? Seems a peeping-Tom type.”

“I can’t tell you. But you’re close. He was never in the joint. More a psychiatric situation.”

“Fucking hell, Gertz. I’d rather live next to a serial killer.”

“I’ll arrange that. But first I gotta get more homes out there. My advice: Be friends.”

#

I cooked up four patty melts with off-brand American cheddar slices and expired deli meat and fried the sweet potatoes they stocked me with into a hash. I toted the lunch, along with a plastic jug of Kool-Aid fruit punch, a stick of butter, and a wad of paper towels, in a cardboard half-box from a Deep Eddy vodka display case and presented the offering to my neighbor.

Argothy welcomed me in. With a sigh.

Hey, fucker, I rarely behave like the neighborhood’s social glue. Keep the eye rolls to a minimum.

He stacked yellow notepads filled with scribblings, words in tiny print going end to end, width-ways and top-to-bottom, on his laptop and moved the bunch to his speaker box. He nodded towards the empty spot on his fold-down table.

“Too hot to sit outside anyway,” I said. These little houses were marvels of efficiency, but his felt cramped with two grown men maneuvering around each other to settle in for a bite. I found a fold-down seat I hadn’t discovered in my home yet. He slumped down into a ratty old swivel chair he must have brought with him.

He ate unselfconsciously, like a child. Breadcrumbs caught in his yellow stubble.

Not a single compliment reached my ears.

The old Travis might have taken offense at the lack of acknowledgement. Better Travis ignored the snub.

“How long till they stand up more houses? Heard anything?”

Argothy shrugged. “Don’t really think about it.”

“Just thinking about your work?”

That dismissive scoff sound.

Dude. I’m twice your size. My arm is bigger around than your thigh. I brought you lunch I made myself. Show some respect.

“We got off on the wrong foot this morning,” I said. “I’m interested in what you’re working on. You a songwriter?”

He finished his first patty melt and reached for another.

“I’ll keep it quiet during quiet hours.

“I’m an electrician, and my ex-wife is a music tech. Could I help with your setup?”

He blinked. I noticed dark circles behind his glasses.

“If I turn it up, I can feel her vibrations,” he muttered, staring at the cheese oozing over the aluminum foil and onto his fingers. “But I’ll blow that God-ancient speaker before I feel her enough.”

Hm.

I had to be careful before he slammed the door closed.

“The narrator’s voice is bourbon-sweet,” I said. “Make you want to say ‘ahh’ when she talks.”

Argothy snorted.

“I’ve said that about her voice since high school. I’ve gotta be the reason she narrates.”

“You know her?”

“I dated her,” he said. He held up his phone to show me the audiobook he was mangling. Paradise of Choice, written by A.D. Sterling, narrated by Clemmie Whitaker. Never heard of ’em.

“Lucky,” I said. “Wouldn’t mind that voice in my ear. You edit her books?”

The door started to close, his eyes drifting back towards his laptop.

In that moment, I suspected they were not together, and he was not doing this for work.

He did it because he was weird and pervy for her still, and that his pursuit of Clemmie Whitaker is what got him locked up.

Lots of assumptions. But just look at the guy.

“I know what you mean, feeling a rush when those sound waves pump out. I got up to the first row of a Metallica show fifteen years ago. Bass made my balls throb.”

He flipped his hair back and pointed at me.

“You get it, then.”

“Yeah, I get it.”

I did not get it the way he got it, though.

Argothy dropped (not put down, dropped) his oozy sandwich and wormed his way between cardboard boxes to his speaker cabinet. He flipped on the power and upped the volume, then opened his laptop, spilling his legal pads, and played a segment of the book wherein the heroine and her rich companion Ben were having a tryst on the balcony of a swanky hotel.

(Dawned on me that one of the narrator’s lovers had the same first name as Argothy. Dude must have come in his floppy shorts when he heard Clemmie W. say his name.)

Argothy upped the volume until it distorted. It was loud for out here on a lonely hilltop, and damn certain too loud for me, but that cabinet wouldn’t have been suitable for the smallest of dive bars.

The speakers can’t take any more than that,” he shouted.

How loud do you need it?

Are your balls throbbing?”

At that moment, I had a li’l ol’ idea, about how sexy-throated Clemmie might help me solve my problem with Argothy.

#

On the way to my ex-wife’s place, Gertz seemed relieved after I told him we became buddies.

“And Marianne? Friends now, too?”

“She doesn’t know I’m coming. Drop me off on the corner.”

“I’ll wait,” Gertz said.

I patted Gertz’s shoulder, ever so gently. “She’ll see that I’m better. She’ll even give me a ride back, I bet. Go on.”

Mar’s garage door was open. A pedestal fan blew broiling summer air into the stuffy confines. She emerged carrying a speaker cabinet to load into the back of her pickup, still fit as hell. Mercy.

I dashed over.

“Travis?”

“Let me assist you with your burden, Mar.”

“I got it.”

“Let me, Mar, it’s heavy.”

By then she’d made it to her truck. She pushed the box into the bed and slammed the tailgate closed. She turned to me, hands on hips.

I couldn’t read her eyes behind her big brown sunglasses, but those lips weren’t smiling.

“How long you been out?”

“Since the first.”

“Early.”

“I’m behaving, Mar. It’s a new Travis. Better. I even got me a tiny house. It’s a new program….”

“Thanks for stopping by, Travis. You look good. Keep it up. Gotta go.”

She moved to the driver’s side door.

“I haven’t seen you for six years, Mar.”

She stopped, looked at the door handle.

“Whose fault is that?”

I wanted to touch her shoulder (and the rest of her, desperately), but dare not.

“Mine, Mar.”

She inhaled and faced me.

“Why are you here, Travis? If it’s for either of the two things I think, the answer’s no.”

“I need auditory advice.”

“Starting a band?”

“I’m helping a neighbor,” I said. “He wants to do music instruction videos, bass guitar, and he wants decibels.”

“Any music store in town will rent–.”

“We aren’t flush with cash and, unless something’s changed, you’re sitting on a storeroom or two full of old junk you haven’t touched in years. So here I am, trying to turn my life around, be the helpful guy, you know, and I thought of you. I knew you’d have my back. As long as I was trying to do the right thing.”

She brushed her hair back. Gray streaks interrupted that coffee brown. Mar wasn’t one to bother with coloring and would probably proudly rock a head full of white in a few years.

“Ride with me to storage. Help me pull some shit I need out of the back, and I’ll lend you a cabinet. Consider it my congratulations-for-not-dying-in-prison present.”

Mar enjoyed supervising me as I lugged out a dozen old 2×12 and 4x12s, Peavy and Marshall, mostly, to get to a pair of Mesa Boogies she sold to a Baptist church. Not her normal clientele, but money is money, she said. She said she’s still making a living, fixing, and selling once-trashed equipment.

When we were done and she asked me what I wanted, maybe this cute Orange 1×8, I told her I needed loud. The loudest she was willing to lend.

She drove me home with a 4×12 Line6 covered in death metal stickers and a beat-to-shit 2×12 Marshall.

I invited her in.

That, Mr. Lang, is not happening, she said.

I asked if she had a boyfriend.

She looked over to see Argothy stepping out of his little house, a smile on his face like we were delivering a high-tech sex doll.

“Do you?”

“That’s my new friend I’m helping.”

“He looks like he needs help.”

“Mar, how loud do these get? I’m thinking about 100 decibels.”

“Roughly, sure. It’ll be plenty loud enough for you two.”

She told me to unload the speakers and she’d pick them up next weekend.

#

Ben Argothy and I set up the cabinets in a triangle, facing inward, in the middle of his living room (or living aisle), with his amp head with the volume and other knobs down a trail of cables to the far end of the home, under the loft that held the bed.

We both agreed that allowing me to control the volume would allow Argothy more freedom. More immersion.

What I didn’t discuss with Mar, and sure didn’t with Argothy, is that I did some research about how many decibels it would take to burst a person’s eardrums.

Best number I found was 185.

I figured that putting these three amps together would net about 100 times 3, or 300 decibels — easily loud enough to fuck up Argothy’s ears and send him into a hospital. By the time he returned, I’d have a new neighbor and he’d have to move in a tiny house elsewhere.

And Better Travis’s hands would be as clean as one of my freshly scrubbed toilets in the joint.

Argothy clambered over the Line6 with his laptop, dragging an aux cable (and its multiple adapters and connectors) with him and awkwardly sat cross-legged in the center of the mini-Stonehenge.

“You good?”

“Yeah, good, yeah,” Argothy said. “Thumbs up means louder? Yeah?”

Abso-fuckin-lutely.

I hit the red switch. Power on.

Volume was pointing straight up, midway.

Argothy started his audio file on his laptop.

Hi, Ben, came Clemmie Whitaker’s voice, snipped out of A Paradise of Choice.

“Hi Clemmie,” I heard Argothy mumble over the humming speakers. “You look great this morning.”

You look splendid — as well–my–love. Tell me — your day –about.

About your day, damn it,” he said, then typed notes to himself to fix it.

I rubbed my temples. He’s crafting a whole fucking conversation.

“Louder, bro?” I called.

Thumbs up.

I bumped it to 6.

Marvelous, Ben! Marvelous. Ben. Ben, do you know what I dream of? May I tell you?

A pause, in which Argothy was supposed to respond. He didn’t.

He was undressing.

Thank you for listening. To me. I dream of — seeing you again. I dream of — telling you. I was wrong. I was wrong. For leaving you. On our date. Ben. I was. Scared. Of my feelings, how I long for you and what our lives could be in New Y–. If only I could tell. You.

“Tell me,” I think he said, and lifted his thumb again. His arm was bare. His wrinkly yellow shirt and gray gym shorts lay atop the Line6.

He had stopped making notes on his laptop.

As the edited recording continued, he was, unmistakably, starting to pleasure himself. I could see the top of his blond head fall backwards, eyes closed, right arm working hard.

Savor it, you little freak, ’cause that’s the last thing you’re ever going to hear, I thought, and twisted the volume knob all the way.

I stuffed my fingers in my ears.

I want to. Embraced in the park on that spring day in Vermont. I forgot all about the chill in the air when you pulled me close and grazed my neck with your soft lips. When my mouth met yours, I forgot all about my duties as a PR professional for the candidate’s campaign through the northeast. I only thought of you and I and your hands all over me, on my breasts, on my thighs under my sundress.

I could feel every syllable in my feet.

But that motherfucker seemed unaffected.

He seemed to feel no pain and made no motion for me to turn it down.

Keeping my ears plugged, I used my elbow to turn every knob, Gain, Bass, Middle, Treble, all the way up.

And Argothy did not stop till he came with a shuddering grunt. After a minute, he waved his left hand to tell me to shut it off. Sluggishly, he pulled his shorts back on and stood, his skinny white chest glistening with various fluids.

I shut the power off. My ears rang.

He leaned on his elbows on top of Mar’s Marshall.

“Fucking awesome,” he said. “I need to do some more edits, though.”

How the hell is he all right after being pummeled with 300 decibels?

“Loud enough?”

“Does your ex have more speakers?”

“I’ll ask.”

“Hey. Thanks, Travis,” Argothy said, climbing out of his box. “I know this seems strange, but you’re being an amazing friend for helping.”

He extended his hand.

I tossed him a nearby bath towel.

“I’ll call her,” I said on my way out.

#

I decided to give it a night. Weird little dude almost made me feel guilty, he was so grateful, and I wanted to see if maybe getting that wank session out of his system would chill him out.

Not a chance. The concept of Quiet Hours went out the window. I heard about the goddamn illicit Vermont fuck session and that horndog Reynaldo that popped up in every marketplace in Ecuador till four in the morning, when Argothy must have finally wanked himself out, and slept for perhaps the first time since arriving.

I called Mar at eight the next morning.

#

“Wasn’t loud enough for a YouTube video?” She sounded like I woke her up.

“You said a cab could output about a hundred decibels. Three together means three hundred. I don’t think we got to three hundred.”

I heard the creak of the bed as she sat up. “Nothing, nothing,” she said in response to a male voice. That stung. She divorced me while I was locked up, and we were barely hanging on even before that. Back then, though, I was not Better Travis. Now I was and had been thinking about how to propose rekindling Marianne & Travis when I wasn’t thinking about Clemmie & Argothy. I might have had my own (silent) wank about Mar after he finally shut up last night.

“Your math is wrong, dummy,” she said. “Decibels is logarithmic. Tripling the speakers does not triple the decibels. You’d only get a couple points.”

I was staring out the kitchen window at Argothy’s place. No signs of movement yet.

“So, it’d take hundreds of cabinets to get to, like, 300 decibels.”

“You aren’t getting to 300 decibels, Travis. Jesus, what are you guys doing?”

“Videos.”

“Like, bro stunt science bullshit? You told me guitar instruction, so that was a lie. And your buddy isn’t a very good scientist, then.”

“We want to burst a balloon.”

“Will you ever grow up? First, I’m positive you’ll need a more powerful amp head than you and Mr. Wizard are using now.”

“Can you lend me one of those?”

“No.”

“I saw a bunch in the warehouse.”

“No. Go rent one.”

“If I were to rent one, what kind could burst a balloon?”

I heard a screen door slam. I bet she was on the back porch now.

“I’m getting a weird feeling, Travis. Like when you said you needed my truck to move lumber. For a friend. And it turned out to be–.”

“This is straight-up science, Mar.”

“You only get intense like this when you’ve been aggrieved. You trying to blow out someone’s….”

Eardrums.

“…windows?”

“Marianne. I’m different now.”

“Are you aggrieved?”

“I’m grieving the loss of our beautiful relationship.”

“Jesus. I’m going. Whatever you’re up to, don’t fuck up. I’m still getting those cabs on Saturday.”

She hung up just as Clemmie uttered her first words of the morning.

Do we have plans?

Oh yes, we do.

#

The rideshare ate up half of my debit card balance. I didn’t tip, which I felt bad about because the guy was nice and took me to Home Depot, then looked the other way when I used my new bolt cutters to get into Mar’s locker. Getting in the place was easy, though. I had noted, out of hustler habit, her gate code. 2788. No idea what it meant to her, but it got me in.

That done, I knocked on Argothy’s door.

He answered in a bathrobe, oblivious to his red, inflamed junk hanging loose.

“That for our project?” he said. He seemed drained, literally and figuratively.

Our project. Sure, bud.

“It is,” I said, unfolding the chrome rolling stand it had been sitting on in the warehouse. I sat the amplifier on top.

“You can bring it in.”

“It’s too tight in there. I grabbed more cables and connectors. I’ll run lines from your place to mine. This sucker has three outputs. Never seen it before.”

“Looks old school. 60s.”

“This here,” I said as though I knew what I was talking about, “Is a Fender PS-444. I picked this for two reasons. First, it’s the only one I saw that said it was a bass amp. See? Bass Instrument, it says. You want to feel those sound waves, make your balls throb? This ought to do it.”

“Fuck yes.”

I pointed out the strip of gaffer tape with Mar’s handwriting she had taped next to the Master Volume knob.

“Second reason. Look what she wrote: ‘Never above.’ I’m thinking she means ‘Never above where this tape is, four.'”

“Must be loud. If this works, it’ll feel like she’s touching me. I’ll let you try if you want.”

“She does have a nice voice.”

“Oh, not with her,” he said.

#

I set up the amplifier on my kitchen sink so I could see into his place when it came time to twiddle the knobs, plugged it in, and flipped the power switch.

All my lights cut off, and Argothy’s too. That sucker was a juice-sucking beast.

As I stared at the breaker box, working out how I could get more current in with my limited access to supplies, here drives up Gertz.

I put on a bit of an act as I met him at his truck.

“Checking on our welfare? For starters, your crap electrical crew cheaped out on this job, Gertz.”

“Came to check on your situation, Travis.”

Argothy stepped out to join us. He had put on clothes.

“We’re getting along great,” I said. “Can’t keep the lights on, though.”

“Isn’t it just a break–.”

I flipped the breaker switch. It flipped off immediately.

“Aren’t you an electrician, Travis?” Argothy said.

“I’m an electrician with no tools or materials,” I said.

Gertz rubbed his face like not another god damn problem.

“I can’t get a crew out here till next week, earliest,” he said. “What do you need to get going?”

Two hours later I had us fixed right the hell up. I mean, you could have run an electric chair with motorized cupholders and built-in tv with the AC full blast by the time I was done with it.

#

I hadn’t gotten an angry call from Mar yet, so there’s a chance I could handle Argothy’s wing nuts and get the Fender back to the locker before she was any the wiser. I’d figure out the sliced lock later.

We checked it with a random song I clicked from the internet. The Meters, Look-Ka Py Py, and that funk was loud. We clearly heard those guitar stabs over in my place, and the Fender was just grazing 2, much less Not Above 4.

“The file I gave you works?”

Gertz’s rehab program issued me a basic Windows laptop that I didn’t know how to use, but Argothy set me up. (There’s no way he’d surrender his own to me, not even for a few minutes.)

I hit the spacebar on the laptop like Argothy showed me.

Remember when we embraced in Verm–.

Ugh. I stopped it.

“Works. Enjoy it, brother.”

“I will, Travis. Then we’ll find a good audio file especially for you and we’ll switch so you can feel it, too.”

“Can’t wait,” I said, grinning.

After Argothy skipped away, I ripped apart a sheet of paper towel and wet it. As I plugged my ears up, I watched Argothy, now completely naked, scale the speakers. He situated himself down in the center of the triangle.

The amp was in my house and the speakers in his, with cables running into and out of both of our windows, connecting us for what I hoped would be the last time.

Argothy’s thumb rose into view.

Why didn’t you just rough him up and tell him to use headphones and be done with it? Why go to all this trouble?

Because I am smarter now, that’s why. Better.

I powered up, then clicked the spacebar.

The rig worked, and the lights stayed on.

Clemmie, it’s showtime.

#

I’d heard this bizarre dialogue quilt enough to know that Argothy started with a conversation with Clemmie and knew that I needed to wait to crank up the volume till the empty spaces for Argothy’s lines gave way to Clemmie’s monologue. When she launched into her recollection of their imaginary northeastern tryst on the campaign trail and her pledges of love as they overlooked the Ecuadorean jungle from their hotel in Quito, that’s when I’d try my best to break that volume knob slamming it to max.

Argothy’s thumb came back up again. I juiced it a tad and his thumb came down.

The conversation continued. When Clemmie spoke, my windows rattled, and my feet vibrated. If I hadn’t memorized her cobbled-together speech, I might not have known it was a human voice, because it sounded like a chainsaw was erratically cutting through a steel drum.

During Argothy’s turn to speak, I heard nothing, but I could sense the power that the amp head was pushing through this Frankenstein system like I was next to a monster taking in breath.

The Master Volume knob pointed to two. Bass was up all the way, middle and treble way down.

And then came that spring day in Vermont.

No hesitation.

I turned everything up to ten.

Every fucking knob on that fucker, I turned up to ten.

The sound was not recognizable as human. When my mouth met yours became a beastly series of roars from a deep cave from the reverb. I felt Clemmie punching my eardrum with every syllable even at this distance. I had the same sense of being surprised at how far away you could still feel the heat at a distance from a homecoming bonfire.

Argothy’s kitchen window cracked, held for a moment, then shattered, spilling glass onto the ground, and giving me a clear view inside.

Frantic, he waved at me with both hands.

His mouth formed the same word over and over: STOP STOP STOP.

I fell backwards against my table, holding my ears, trying to remain upright and resisting the urge to hit that power button.

And then Mar, inexplicably, shockingly, was there, in my house.

She, too, screamed at me, furious, hands over her ears.

“STOP IT, TRAVIS!”

She made for the power button.

I grabbed her around the waist and pulled her away before she punched it.

“WAIT,” I screamed as she fought me, aiming her elbow at my balls.

“YOU’RE GONNA FRY IT!”

Through my window, I saw Argothy attempt to climb out of his three-walled speaker enclosure.

He collapsed down into the triangle as if Clemmie herself had dragged him back.

Mar saw, too.

“YOU’RE FUCKING THAT GUY UP, TRAVIS!”

“HE WANTS IT!”

“YOU’RE BOTH INSANE!”

Grappling with Mar felt so familiar. We’d rassled endless times over car keys and telephones and being-in-a-bar, one or the other of us doing our physical best to keep the other from doing something they wanted to do. The last time we tussled, she was trying to prevent me from shutting up this loudmouth in an IHOP that was ruining everyone’s Valentine’s Day. I got free of Mar and scooped up the metal pronged centerpiece that holds ketchup and salt and menus and bludgeoned that fucker.

Just once.

But it cost me six years.

And here we were again, Mar trying to stop me from shutting someone up.

Smart woman that she was, she pivoted from reaching for the amp with her hands and feet and instead kicked the hanging cable connecting my laptop to the amp.

The amp didn’t budge, but the laptop disconnected and fell to the floor.

The buzzy drone of an unplugged cable replaced Clemmie’s voice.

I let Mar go. She switched off the PS-444.

As our ears rang in the sudden silence, we stared at each other and caught our breath.

“You ruined the video,” I said.

“You broke into my place and didn’t even lock it up again. I’m lucky–you’re lucky–no one stole anything. Except you.”

I lifted my window.

“Ben,” I shouted.

Mar began coiling wire, the precise and fast way I never got the hang of.

“I don’t have to tell you not to contact me again. Right?”

“Ben!”

“Go check on your scientist.”

I left her to check on the little twerp.

“Load all my shit in my truck, Travis. Right now,” she called to me out my open window. “Fucking asshole!”

#

Argothy, naked, lay curled like a baby inside the triangle of speaker cabinets. His glasses lay against the bottom of the Line6. Both hands held his head as if he had a massive migraine, which he probably did, and he shook, spasmed.

“Dude,” I said. “I don’t know what went wrong. Can you sit up? Want some water?”

He spoke, but through his chattering teeth and the bell echoing in my head, it took me a minute to work it out. It was a phone number.

I punched it in my phone but paused before calling.

“It’s Clemmie,” he said, shivering. “If I don’t make it, tell her I’m sorry for the t-trouble I c-c-caused before.”

“Not make it? Dude. You just got your clock rung. Give it a minute….”

“Travis! Call 911.”

Of course, Mar followed me in.

“He’ll be fine. Stay out of it. You’ll get your shit, Marianne.”

“He’s bleeding out his ass, Travis.”

I had tried to avoid looking at the man below the waist. So he was.

His nose, too.

Fuck.

Mar went outside to call an ambulance. I heard her grumble nasty shit about me.

I regarded Argothy as he trembled like he was in a freezer.

Ok, it went too far. This wasn’t just busted eardrums.

My self-preservation instincts kicked in.

“This is what you wanted, though,” I said, hitting Dial on a video call.

“No. N-no. Th-thumbs down,” he sputtered, choking on his own blood.

A woman about Argothy’s age answered the video call. Glasses, hair up in a loose bun. Cute, but not my type.

“Hello?”

She didn’t recognize me, of course, but I recognized her butter-smooth voice instantly.

“Hold it, Clemmie,” I said, then turned my phone towards Argothy.

“Ben? Why are you on the floor?”

Trembling, he reached for his glasses.

“Who called me? Who are you?”

I kept the camera focused on her forever suitor.

“You hurt your boy terrible,” I said. “I don’t mean when you ghosted him –so uncool, by the way–I mean now.”

Mar stuck her head in. “I don’t know how to describe it. Can sound waves cause a heart attack? I don’t know what happened. He’s bleeding. Maybe he ruptured inside? Just get here, Christ.”

Clemmie’s voice went up in panic.

“Ben? What happened?”

You did this,” I said. “This is on you.”

I kneeled to help him put his glasses on–he shook too much to do it himself–and held the phone up close.

I didn’t see her expression but could see his.

As she begged him to tell her whether this was real or another stunt, he smiled, eyes overflowing with utter adoration.

Until they suddenly blossomed red, like a time-lapse video of someone getting stoned.

Blood welled up into his mouth like he was puking, then he collapsed into the fresh, bright pool.

Clemmie made a sound I hadn’t heard her make before in Paradise of Choice. She screamed.

“Destruction follows you everywhere,” Mar hissed. “This is no accident. Judge is gonna throw you right back in. For good.”

I shook my head.

“I don’t hurt people. I’m better, Mar.”


Bio pending.


“A Saga of Blasphemy” Dark Fiction by Hareendran Kallinkeel

A church bell tolls, a single strike, noise that pierces her ears

Rosy’s eyes dart, seconds-hand ticks to the thirtieth minute of ten, gems on her Rolex’s disc glow

Morning sunlight, sans warmth, casts shadows on her pale skin; buildings countless, occasional trees, as her Benz gains momentum

Thanks she, God’s mercy, clear sight even at sixty

No need to rush, Rosy hisses, sweat erupts on driver’s forehead, hints of glee on goose bumps on her skin  

Pleasure perverse, emits shameless, unleashed grudges quell AC’s chill

Horrible prison cells, memories etched forever; in body or soul, it doesn’t matter, the torment revisits

Small town, metropolis; systems corrupt, pain remains same, inflicted out of frustration

Guards bulky, potbelly sporting, pant walking

Batons and canes, sleek and slender, nestle in cavities

Fence eats the crop, convicts mumble

Peace necessitates violence, guards rumble

Rosy, a pawn, gets shuffled; wrong to right, right to wrong, like all those inmates; many guilty, some innocent, all condemned to the same fate

Wronged by birth, a family in poverty; wronged by fate, a victim of abuse

Right by affiliation, a noble cause; right by choice, an advocate of social change  

Wrong again, by being in the right place

Right again, by being in the wrong place

Joining a revolution against injustice, choice of the right place, system says, Anarchist

Lands up in jail, the wrong place, yet fights for the right cause, society says, insurgent

Wrong for being right

Again

Wrong for being right

She leans back, she can raise her voice now, send it farther than the bell’s toll, let it resonate; no one will so much as raise an eyebrow

Right choice, right move, judge himself a rebel, within his heart, evokes human rights, and sets her free

Jails him in nuptial bond, she scores a home run, touts the trophy

Scars of incarceration, remain a laceration unhealed, bleeds forever

The boy, sitting next to her closes his eyes, an only grandson

Remain awake, she coos like a dove, only fools choose to miss the experiences

Open your eyes and train your ears, know your world; feel the breeze on your skin when it blows, it doesn’t last forever

The boy smiles, she ruffles his hair, grooms it back to order with her fingers

The car enters the school’s gate, approaches the open ground

The assembly awaits, principal presiding, waiting for over thirty minutes for the Queen’s grandson to arrive, keeps invocations at bay

The prince exits

Put on the aura, that mask of superiority, she whispers, you’re the master of all

Heaving a sigh, the boy blows a kiss her way

Roll the window down, Rosy commands

She puts her hand out, beckons with her middle finger

The principal stoops by the door side, shame more than age weighing his shoulders down

Here, she says, offering him a check, you asked for a hundred thousand, it’s a million; a school for the blind is a necessity

Thank you, ma’am, says the principal

Rosy leans out, gestures him to bend further

You know what, Mr. Thomas? She whispers into his ear, You’re just a pile of garbage in human form

Aloud she says, You’re most welcome

Rosy leans back on her seat. Roll up the window, she tells her driver, spite vented

#

Rosy stood sweating.

A single drop of tear rolled down the corner of her eye. No more would flow, because she’d already mastered the art of containing emotions.

Her fifteenth birthday gift, on August 1, 1975, from the English teacher, would ever remain etched in her memory.

Thomas, a young graduate in English literature, had just joined the school a couple of months ago, and he had instantly earned the reputation as a master of the language. Also known for his unique ways of punishing the guilty, he’d become sort of a terror among students in no time.

One of his favorite methods of punishment was sneaking his hand up the half-trousers of boys; skirts of girls, and a pinch that would last longer for the latter.

For boys who wore full-length trousers and girls anything other than half-skirt, he went for an ear.

“Will you, ever again, forget your homework?” he’d ask, repeat the question more than a dozen times, his hand hidden all the while. For a girl, it’d be a couple of dozens, often more, if the girl happened to be plump enough.

Rosy had always watched the torment of her classmates, so she promptly did her homework; except for yesterday. 

Her father, in celebration of the impending birthday of an only daughter, had brought home a bottle of arrack, a dirty brew that stank like millipede’s shit. She’d never smelled it, but her mother had told that they put millipedes into the vat for speeding up fermentation. So, she presumed the millipedes would defecate before they rotted, and the liquor would carry the stench of their feces.

Father stayed busy throughout the night, arrack’s demons unleashed; Rosy grappling with those monsters, Mother, cursing her destiny.

Even the first time default didn’t go unpunished, not in the teaching regime of young Thomas.  

“Will you, ever, Rosy…

Closing her eyes, she kept counting. Was she so plump, that he continued even after twenty-four?

She wouldn’t have minded the pinch. But his fingers that fumbled between her legs, unseen by the class, left a torment from which she’d never escape.

“See, she stands there,” he said, “like a statue.” He held his hand up, shook it a couple of times. “I have to hurt my fingers, pinching, to tame you sloths.”

Teachers, in those days, were revered as godly figures, an authority parents looked up to, reformers of societies.

Rosy scraped her notions, casted reverence aside.

You, Thomas, you’re just a piece of millipede shit, Rosy thought, that God had unwittingly rendered in human shape.

The single drop of tear had, by now, dried on her cheek.

#

The church bell tolls seven

Rosy exits her Audi, checks her diamond-studded Patek Philippe; she hastens up the flights of steps leading to the church, defying age with her agility

Morning mass, a Sunday ritual she’ll never want to be late for, begins at seven

She pauses midway, waits for her maid, Cathy, ten years younger, yet struggling to keep pace

The one who takes care of Rosy, the only one Rosy cares for other than her family; only one that fulfills her needs, other than her husband

Faster, Rosy says

Cathy pauses, hands on knees, slightly bent, heaves-in a few deep breaths

The church throngs with people, swelling bodies and thirsting souls, seeking redemption from sins unending

Inside the church, approaching the altar, Rosy’s mind sheds worldly thoughts

The Red Sea parts, feet clamor, as the masses pave way for the queen to pass

They bow, a presence they revere, their palms folded in salutation

Rosy returns their gesture, a hint of a smile creasing the corners of her mouth

A most pious gesture, Rosy places her hands on Cathy’s shoulders, leads her to the altar, to a place reserved for the ‘family’, a servant honored

Rosy kneels, only after Cathy does so, making sure that her maid remains comfortable

She prays to her God, the one whose grace sees her through

Rosy partakes in the Holy Communion, remembers the suffering, recognizes the love of God, purifies her soul and thoughts, Cathy close by

In the eerie silence that follows the Holy Communion, it happens

Rosy farts, a failure of body system’s control

A child sees the king naked, laughs

Others follow suit, a wildfire roaring through a jungle, dry grass and twigs crackling

Rosy sweats, tremors shake her body; feels her dignity melt, ripple down her legs, wipe the masses’ feet clean

Rosy’s eyes drill into Cathy’s, Stupid cunt, her spiteful hiss reverberates on the walls

#

James Chacko, a retired judge, Rosy’s husband, sits silent as the inspector thrusts an envelope towards him.

“It’s an open and shut case,” the young officer says.

“I know, a poor woman’s regret, having desecrated the church’s sanctity.”

“This suicide note,” the inspector continues speaking “it’s conclusive enough. The ME found it hidden inside her bra during the autopsy.”

“What?” James asks, as if surprised, and then says, “I mean…” He feels relieved that the officer hasn’t noticed his confusion.

“I also gathered she made a public apology in the church the day before,” the inspector says.

A sudden pain gnaws at James’ guts. “Thank you, inspector … I think I’ll leave.”

If he stays longer, the gnawing may intensify; he might end up revealing that Cathy was illiterate.


“A Saga of Blasphemy” was originally published in Sincerely Magazine [print] and Queen Mob’s Tea House [online].


Hareendran Kallinkeel writes from Kerala, India, after a stint of 15 years in a police organization and five years in the Special Forces. He reads for Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores and is also a Staff Reviewer for Haunted MTL Magazine. His recent publications include The Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Bryant Literary Review of Bryant University, The Chamber Magazine, and El Portal Journal of Eastern New Mexico University, among several others. His works are forthcoming in 34 Orchard, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and Untenured Journal. His fiction has been nominated for Pushcart Prize and he is also a finalist of the Best of the Net-2020. 


“Like Moths to a Flame” Dark Fiction by Cecilia Kennedy

When a deluxe RV blocks our driveway, and the pocket parks in the neighborhood sprout graffiti and trash, we decide to move.

            “Our dream house is for sale,” Dillon tells me.

I know which one he’s talking about. It’s the one we built, two hours away, the one we sold for far less than what it was worth before we moved to this house, but now can afford to buy it back.

            “We won’t want it now. We’ll hate it.  You should never go back. You’ll only hate what the new owners have done to it.”

But Dillon’s convinced that whatever they’ve done, we can undo easily enough, and when some kids throw stones at our windows, I look for realtors.

#

            Brown grass and bare patches bleached by the sun, do nothing to offer “curb appeal” to the house we once owned. The scorched, concrete driveway is cracked with dandelions poking through. Dillon’s face drops. All of the plants and roses he’d grown—the trees he took care of—are gone.

            “I’m sorry,” I say.

He lowers his gaze, most likely thinking about all the work it’ll take to put the plants back in and to re-do the yard, which has been depleted of the mature trees that blocked the sun.

            Inside the house, I’m shocked to see our bamboo floors carpeted over and gaudy old- timey wallpaper covering every inch of the walls. The kitchen cabinets were painted over as well, and I hate it here.

            For months, we put everything back the way it was and plant gardens and open windows and cover the air with fresh lavender spray. We sleep tucked in between cotton sheets and thick duvet covers. Even the birds return. We see the flutter of cardinals’ wings.

#

            While folding the blankets on the couch, I hear the thud of a package hitting the front door. When I go outside to retrieve the package, I see a brown box wrapped tightly in layers of packing tape. I tear through the layers and brown paper wrapping to find a painting and a note from my mother. It’s a painting I remember—one she hung in my bedroom when I was child. In the painting, two dancers in pink tuille and tights and leotards lace up the pink satin ribbons of their pointe shoes. In the background, dark walnut lacquer contrasts with a halo of golden light above their heads.

            In the note, my mother reminds me that this painting was once hers, and she’d given it to me as a child, but I’d sold it in a garage sale. Later, it ended up in an antique store—and she bought it back. She had no use for it herself, so she gave it back to me.

            It doesn’t really go with the rest of the house; I still don’t want it, but I hang it in a spare bedroom, figuring it will only still come back to me. But I don’t have to look at it if I don’t want to. That’s the compromise.

            When Dillon and I tuck ourselves into bed that night, I picture everything in its place: the flowers outside, the bamboo floors, the freshly painted walls, the dancers in the spare bedroom—and I close my eyes to dream.

#

            A faint fluttering sound and a ray of light awaken me in the bedroom. Dillon’s sleeping in, so I go downstairs, the fluttering growing louder as I go down the staircase. The sound is nearly deafening when I enter the living room, and when I turn right to go into the kitchen, my breath catches in my chest. The entire floor is covered with brown, powdery moths. I look for the open window, to see how they got in, but it’s closed. Everything, including the windows, was in its place when I went to bed the night before, and now, these disgusting moths have taken up the floor and are crawling onto the cabinets. My stomach lurches when I see one squeeze itself into the pantry, while others follow.

            “Dillon!” I scream.

When he enters the kitchen, he rubs his eyes and stares.

            “Do something,” I say, knowing full well I could do something myself. Dillon swats them with a broom, but they scatter, and I’m hoping they’re not multiplying. Eventually, we use the vacuum and toss them outside. The kitchen reeks of them: A sharp, musty odor with a lingering gamey smell I thought only belonged to dead mice.

            “Do we get an exterminator?”

Dillon shakes his head no. This is just a fluke. I perfume the air with a stronger lavender smell and try to rest assured at night that everything is back in its place.

#

            In the morning, it’s still dark, and I don’t want to disturb Dillon, so I make my way down the staircase in the growing morning light, but I’ll need to steady myself, so I don’t fall. I touch the railing and something soft brushes the back of my hand, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d swear I hear the fluttering, just like I did the day before.

            When I get to the bottom of the staircase, I switch on the light, only to discover that the wall and floors are moving. Every inch covered in moths. Screaming, I run back up the stairs, swiping at my legs. It’s as if they’re crawling all over me, and I can’t shake the squirmy feeling that’s wormed its way onto my skin.

            “The house is crawling with them!” I tell Dillon, but he thinks we can handle this ourselves, just like the bamboo and the flowers and the kitchen cabinets. But I’m exhausted and I smell them. I smell them everywhere.

            “We’ll look for the source,” he promises. “We’ll set some traps. I’ll research it on the internet.”

            In the evening, when only the scent of lavender lingers, just over the bitter moth smell, Dillon sets out cameras. I inspect the walls near the staircase and the floors of the living room and kitchen for any signs of damage. At first, I don’t see anything, but then, when I look closely, I find what appears to be tiny smudges. I look again, and I see empty spaces filled in by dirt and soil and pure air and night sky. Ever so faintly, the empty spaces take on the shape of moths’ wings. I rub my eyes and shake my head until everything looks whole again, and I tell myself the world is not disappearing.

            Dillon’s placed cameras in every room, and the next morning, when the moths have covered the entire first floor and walls along the staircase, and when we’ve stepped on them and heard them crunch beneath our bedroom slippers, we retrieve the footage from the kitchen camera first. There’s nothing extraordinary to note. The kitchen is empty all night, but then, the moths suddenly appear, all at once, and we can’t see how they get there. We see the same thing happening in the footage we retrieve from every room in the house—except for the footage from the spare bedroom. In the grainy light of the film, we see the painting of the dancers open up, right above the torso of the tallest dancer. It opens wide, layers of lacquer unfolding. Moths pour out, for a good 30 minutes. They spill out from inside the painting, and I can’t imagine what makes it open like that—until the moths disappear, and the painting is left wide open, and from inside, what looks like two eyes begin to glow. My skin crawls.

            “What did these people do to this house?” I ask.

            “Clearly, it’s the painting.”

            “But something’s making it happen—something that moved in here between the time we left and the time we returned.”

Dillon shakes his head. “No. It’s simple. We get rid of the painting.”

So we take the painting out back and bury it, and when I go back up the stairs, I notice a piece of the banister is missing, and floorboard as well.

            “How do you explain this?” I ask.

Dillon can’t, which is why he doesn’t offer an explanation, just a promise to fix the banister and the floorboard in the morning.

#

            Every morning, we clear out the moths, piles of them, pungent and powdery. They spread their dust everywhere, and little by little, the house disappears along the edges, rubbed out by the wings, until one day, we wake up on the foundation of our house—the walls and the floors gone—all of the furniture nearly transparent, as if the house and everything inside had never existed. The moths settle in our hair, on our arms— rub their wings and their powder all over, and when I look down, the spaces between my fingers and my toes span the length of the garden, wilting in the sun.


Cecilia Kennedy taught English and Spanish courses in Ohio before moving to Washington state and publishing short stories in various magazines and anthologies. The Places We Haunt is her first short story collection. You can find her DIY humor blog and other adventures/achievements here: (https://fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog/). Twitter: @ckennedyhola


“In My Heart There Stirs a Quiet Pain” Dark Fiction by Kate Bergquist

The only time I ever visited the Maine coast was during my senior year of high school.  Honors English field trip up to Camden, to stay at an inn where the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was discovered. 

I lived in Standish, New York back then, north of Albany, a dusty mill town with three dive bars and one church.  It stormed that April weekend, and we left before sunrise, on a mud-streaked Greyhound bus, all of us giddy with excitement to see the ocean.  By noon, we were eating lobster rolls in the pelting sleet, and I remember watching the whitecaps, and boats tossing about in the harbor.                                                               

At the inn, each of us had our own room, painted in a blue and white palette, decorated with ship anchors and sea birds.  My room was tucked away on the top floor, and appropriately masculine with a four-poster mahogany bed, sturdy oak desk and a fireplace.

Everything was spotless, just the way I liked it.                                                                    

Still, you could never be too careful, so I wiped down all the surfaces with antiseptic wipes.  I cleaned the doorknobs, the TV remote, the flush handle for the toilet.  In the bathroom, I found a wet towel that housekeeping had forgotten to remove. And when I walked back into the bedroom, I noticed the ruffled bed skirt was lifted slightly on one side. When I checked under the bed to make sure it had been vacuumed, I discovered a small pillow centered beneath the mattress frame.

And a couple of old photos placed upon it. 

Curious, I slid my arm under the bed and pulled them out. 

The pillow was roundish, quilted in a faded flowered silk.  The photos were tattered and water-stained.  I could vaguely make out the faces of a blonde boy and a man, but it was evident they were both very good-looking.  The laughing man was holding up the boy, who was probably four or five, with eyes as clear as lake water as he grinned for the camera. 

I thought about bringing the items to the front desk and making a complaint to housekeeping.  But I had to admit — they were interesting, evocative details that could be used in my writing. 

So, I slid them back under the bed. 

The beginning of the weekend was uneventful, even dull.  We did a bit of sightseeing and shopping the first morning, spent the afternoon touring Millay’s childhood home in nearby Rockland.  In the evening, we talked about her poetry.  At the time, I really didn’t have much interest in poetry, or Millay for that matter.  Though I was kind of jealous of Millay’s early discovery by a patron of the arts.  I worked several nights and weekends stocking shelves at the Standish Drug Store and never seemed to have much time to write.  Now that I had a few days off, I was anxious to find some quiet time.  And starving for something to jolt my inspiration. 

On the second night of the trip, something happened that did just that.

We were gathered at the long dinner table, all ten of us plus our teacher, sweet rodent-faced Mrs. Stevenson.  Six girls, but only one of them — Diana — was almost hot: pink plumped lips and skinny jeans, but a complete, fucking narcissist so before I sat down, I whispered into her jeweled ear, it’s all lies, what they say about you! and smirked when I saw shock register on her face; and there was Mick and Wally with their legs touching, a popular couple who I fondly dubbed Milky, who spent most of the weekend practically oblivious to the rest of us. 

That night, there was one extra seat at our long table, but no setting.  When our crab cake appetizers arrived, a gaunt woman in a dark wool dress swept into the room.

She smelled like wet leaves. She sat down but didn’t acknowledge anyone.

We all stared.  She had a long neck, delicate as bone china.

Mrs. Stevenson regarded her curiously, somewhat nervously, so I knew she was uninvited.  She murmured something to the woman, who nodded after a few moments.

  Mrs. Stevenson gestured to the waiter, making this odd, solemnly beautiful woman our guest.  The woman pressed her lips into a tight smile.  It took some effort.

I studied her all during dinner.  Sculpted cheekbones, slender fingers, clean nails filed short.  She picked at the salmon and chewed robotically.  She scanned the room as if it were a distant landscape, then slid her gaze back to the safety of her plate.  She ate very little, allowed herself only a few sips of seltzer. 

After dinner, though, when Mrs. Stevenson started droning on about Millay’s bohemian days, contrasting it with her pastoral life in Austerlitz, New York, her literary significance, the woman’s eyes grew luminous.  She became attentive, hands clasped together, listening as Mrs. Stevenson gushed about Millay’s intellectual sophistication and her gift as both a poet and playwright. 

A few of us yawned, some fidgeted, anxious to get back to our phones, while I feigned interest, but honestly, Millay was a complete bore to me.  I hated rhyming couplets, and everything I had read of Millay’s, even her sonnets, sounded infantile.  To me, they were just a bunch of silly love poems.  I could write so much better than that.  I should be the one who was being celebrated tonight, not some old, long-dead female poet.

As if on cue, the strange woman suddenly stood, cleared her throat and began to recite from memory some of Millay’s sonnets.  To this day, I can still hear the deep tolling bell of her voice:

Small chance, however, in a storm so black,
A man will leave his friendly fire and snug
For a drowned woman's sake, and bring her back
To drip and scatter shells upon the rug.
No one but Night, with tears on her dark face,
Watches beside me in this windy place.

It was electric.  Her tremulous voice, her haunted gray eyes, her thin arms clutching her sides as if to keep her ribs from breaking.  She was that drowned woman, ruined by lost love, trying not to fall apart in front of us.  Trembling, trying not to scatter her shells, her fragile bones.

And her perfect porcelain face, a counterpoint to her battered soul.

We were captivated. 

I don’t know how long she spoke, maybe ten minutes, but it was the depth of her pain that drew us in. And it was a life-changing moment for me.  For the first time, I recognized the embodiment of suffering.  Yet, here she stood before us, somehow so beautiful and elegant.  And ethereal.  A fascinating study for my teen self who had published two short horror stories in our school literary magazine, Midnight Anthem, and fancied himself the next Stephen King.  Now a thundering wave of great writers and poets crashed over me, and the synapse between the written word and emotional pain was something I knew I wanted to capture.

When the woman finished, we were speechless.  Mrs. Stevenson quietly thanked the woman for her passionate recitation.  

But she didn’t ask her to continue. 

And no one applauded.

An uncomfortable silence filled the room.  Still standing, the woman nervously tucked a lock of black hair behind her right ear.  I noticed a single pearl earring and wondered if she even knew she wearing only one.

I took copious notes in my head.  I wanted to remember every detail.  Hard to tell her age. She could have been thirty or even older, her face scrubbed clean, thick lashes and brows framing those storm-gray eyes, a heart-shaped face.

And the earring.  It was one of those grayish, fresh-water pearls, and it gleamed in the dim light.

I remember her eyes darting about the room, shyly seeking out some human connection, however small or fragile.  When she saw me watching her, our eyes locked for a long moment, but I wrenched mine away. 

Flustered, I rose abruptly and went outside to smoke a joint.

The street was empty. The wind was blowing so hard; I almost couldn’t light it.  I zipped up my hoodie and walked to the harborside dock and watched two gulls struggle against the storm.  The wet air smelled like seaweed and dead things.

A short while later, the woman appeared at my side.  Startled, I flicked the joint into the harbor.  She was tall, just a couple inches shorter than me.  She leaned forward, her dark hair fluttering like bird wings about her thin shoulders, searching my face as if desperate to find someone she recognized.

“The rain is full of ghosts tonight,” she said. 

I couldn’t speak.  My heart was thudding so loud I thought she might hear it.  She touched her ear lobe, fingered the pearl.  She studied my face as she plucked it from her ear, handed it to me.  “In my heart,” she said softly, “there stirs a quiet pain.”  She pressed the earring firmly into my palm and closed my fingers around it using both of her hands.  

She shivered, clad only in the wool dress and low heels.  Her thin lips were chapped and I had a sudden urge to kiss them. 

 But those eyes!  Even clouded with tears, they cut right through me, into me, sliding down my throat, into my liver, slipping around my spinal cord.  I froze; my hands wet with sweat.  I didn’t know what to say or do.  She looked at me and knew everything about me.

Being in her presence was unsettling, exciting, all-consuming. Arousing. Was she seeing me as a fully mature young man? Did she want something in return?  

I didn’t wait to find out.  I didn’t even say goodbye.  I abandoned her and fled across the deck and back into the inn. 

My room, my refuge, perched on the third floor in the left wing – faced the harbor.

I went over to the window by the fire escape and peered out at the gathering dark. 

The window panes were cold to the touch and it sent a shiver through me.  Distant lights blinked in the harbor.  At the horizon, a tiny scar of moon.  No curtains, but I still had total privacy.  The window was closed, but unlocked.  I secured it and tried to relax.  Then it occurred to me that a glowing fire would warm me up and calm me down and set the mood for my writing.  It was a gas insert, so all I had to do was push a button and voila! – instant ambiance.

The wind started rattling against the window panes.  As I began typing a new story, The Pearl Earring, I popped a few Benadryl and washed them down with several vodka nips I’d pilfered.  The liquor stung my throat and sent a golden burn through my veins.  But I still couldn’t relax – I was restless and anxious as I typed into my laptop. 

Several pages in and the story just wasn’t coming together.  Lately, I really couldn’t seem to get anything decent down on paper.  It was all shit! Even my writing teacher Mr. Prior had warned my work was falling flat at times.  He announced during our previous class, “Joshua used the adjective ‘lugubrious’ to describe his character’s deep state of sadness. Why would you do that, Joshua, except to blow your own trumpet?” And the class actually laughed at me! It took of all my strength not to scream back at him, you fucking moron! My character is a Rhodes scholar! And then he declared, in front of the whole class, “You need to learn to harness your inner voice, Joshua.  Your writing lacks authenticity.”

Prior was jealous.  Obviously.  But his stinging criticism had set me off kilter.  Now I was questioning every word and I’d completely lost my flow.  I needed another story ready in three days and so far, it was all crap! 

I had to capture some magic in my writing.  Some emotional pain! My head was spinning. It was so damn hot in the room! I stripped off my hoodie, my T-shirt. I kept envisioning the woman’s face, and it was making me angry and confused.  And hard.  And the wind kept hammering the window, clattering against the fire escape.  I just couldn’t concentrate with so much noise! I pulled off my jeans and started to pace.  The lights flickered.  I felt dizzy and grasped onto the one of the bed posts to steady myself.

Then I remembered the pillow and photos under the bed.  How inconsiderate of housekeeping to have left that stuff in my room! They probably never even vacuumed under there!

Frustrated, I pulled them out, staggered over to the fireplace and flicked the photos in, mesmerized as they curled into little fingers of ash. 

And the pillow! So soft! Warm as a lover’s skin.  As I caressed it and slipped it all over my body, I saw it wasn’t actually round; it was a misshapen heart.  Delirious, I wrapped it around my manhood and harnessed my inner voice as the wind banged and howled and shrieked down the chimney.

A while later, I tossed the pillow into the fire.  It smoked a bit, then made a dull popping sound before it eventually succumbed to the flames. 

I fell onto the plush quilt, slipped down into the soft mattress and into a dead sleep. 

I dreamed of capsized ships, bruised and battered bodies.  Moist places where earthworms and other crawly things writhed.  And in that dark, lonely place, my nose filled with the pungent mix of seaweed and dirt, I reached for the silken bones of the woman with haunted gray eyes.

I overslept and only had time for a quick shower that morning, scrubbing myself clean with balsam-scented soap, before packing my duffel bag and joining the others for breakfast. 

My head was a concrete block.  But despite all the weed, booze and Benadryl, I was starving.  Practically drooling as I thought about wild blueberry pancakes drizzled with maple syrup. 

Downstairs, a tense commotion.  Muffled voices.  Milky sat together glumly, picking at cold eggs. Two paramedics were talking to a visibly shaken Mrs. Stevenson.  One put his arm around her as she squeaked; I wish I had known!  She was scratching at her neck, her jawline, and her dry skin looked raw in the harsh light.  A few silver strands had pulled loose from her bun.  Some of the girls were huddled together, whispering and texting. 

Diana shot me a cold, you’re-the-problem stare. 

One of the detectives motioned to me, and led me over to a small table in an alcove.  Through the window, two schooners bobbed in the harbor, their sails like flashing suns.  It made my head throb even more.

“This won’t take long, Joshua,” the cop began, and when he introduced himself, I light-bulbed a plate of cookies. “Chip Oates.”  A sliver of something green was caught between his two front teeth.  I nodded, made a mental note.  I could use that name.

“We had a…situation here last night and need to ask if you saw or heard anything.”

 I told him no, recounting how I had gone to bed after writing for a while. 

Oates paused, took a breath.  “It’s about a woman, Alice Esker,” and I knew it was her; her name fit her perfectly.  Fragile, but elegant.  A candle burning low but not blowing out.  

It also had a familiar ring to it.  Alice Esker.  “The woman at dinner?” and Oates nodded solemnly, jotting something in his notepad, waiting.

“Something happen to her?”

“Yeah, you could say that.  She’s dead.”

“Oh, shit.”  I gripped the table edge.  “How?

He didn’t reply.  Then: “You hear anything, son?” Oates studied my face, and I knew he was a man who could read either the truth or a lie there.  “No sir,” I said, and turned toward the window, to watch gulls scream at the sea. “Just the storm.  It was raging! I thought my window might break.”  Dead?!

“We’ve been looking for Alice for weeks,” Oates explained, letting out a long sigh.  He lowered his voice to a whisper and all I could make out was, “Nervous breakdown.”

“Oh,” I stammered, “th-that poor woman.”   

“Tragic.  Lost her husband and young son in a fire. Both! Can you imagine! And her break with reality…well, it was profound,” Oates explained, and now his voice seemed like it was booming.  “Guy found her in a fishing hut in Lincolnville couple weeks back, buried up to her neck in a twisted pile of ropes and buoys to stay warm.” He shook his head. “Real shame.  Could’ve called us, should’ve called us, but we didn’t find out till days later.”

“But she…she didn’t seem that bad,” I offered.  My mind flipped through several possible scenarios.  Drowned? Hanged?

Oates coughed up something wet and spit into a handkerchief. 

“I mean – she looked so, so clean,” I continued.  “She didn’t seem like someone who didn’t have a place to stay.” 

Oates nodded. “You’re right, son.  She was trying to hang on.”  He took a gulp of black coffee, set the mug back down.  “Clever girl, that Alice.  Famous, in fact.  Wrote novels.”

What?!

“We believe she was staying right here, in this inn.”

A deadbolt slid across my brain.  A stream of lava issued from my duodenum and spread into my throat. I swallowed the stinging swill. 

“She didn’t have a key apparently, or any money, but she was staying here…hiding here, really.  Upstairs,” he tilted his bald head toward the staircase.  “We’ve got someone taking a look now.” As he kept on talking, my mind lowered the volume until I could barely hear his voice, and phrases wriggled out like loose worms…honeymooned hereshould’ve known she’d come back and the enormity of the truth, the utter horror of it, hit me with full force. 

My room…it was her room! Had she been sleeping…under my bed?!

And the pictures, the pillow…I just couldn’t go there.  I tried to stand, but my legs wouldn’t work.  In the background, the raging scream of a teakettle. 

Oates kept on.  “We’ve been piecing it together.  She’d access the room from the fire escape.  Apparently, according to folks we talked with this morning, she was making a lot of noise trying to get in last night.” He coughed again, a wet wheeze in his lungs.

“Just wondering how you didn’t hear her.”

Because I was messed up! And I’d locked the window! Oh GOD! She SAW?! This can’t be real. This can’t be real!

Oates looked weather-beaten.  “It seems one of her shoes – well, the heel — we think it caught in the steel grating, and, poor thing, she must have lost her balance and…” his voice trailed off as I steadied my arms against the table. 

Another detective thudded down the stairs and strode over to the alcove.  “We found this,” he said and placed something on the table.  It sounded like a small marble.  It started to slide off the crooked surface, and I caught it just before it slipped off the edge.  I set it back down.  Oates said, “I’ll be darned.  That yours?”

I took a closer look.  It was Alice’s earring.  It must have fallen out of my pocket when I pulled off my jeans.  But, wait – it looked so different in slanted morning light.  It wasn’t a pearl after all.  It was a…what? A tooth? She wore a tooth in her ear?! And not just any tooth, it was small like a child’s…!

And then, I knew.  I knew everything.

I launched myself up, only to pitch forward into a dead faint, fracturing my skull against the sharp edge of the table.  Like a beetle with a broken carapace, my mind scuttled into a slippery crawl space, grateful for the black.  But even in this deepest crevice, devoid of light, there was still no peace.  Alice’s voice slipped into my ear like amber syrup, reciting Millay.   

I can endure, and that the lifted dust
Of man should settle to the earth again;
But that a dream can die, will be a thrust
Between my ribs forever of hot pain.

Vague shadowy shapes appeared and then a blinding shock of light as I lifted back into consciousness.  Paramedics were waving pencil-lights into my eyes, Joshua, you’re going to be okay, we’re transporting you to Maine Medical, and everyone was crowded around me with looks of shock and concern.  Mrs. Stevenson was patting my hand, oh dear boy, dear boy.  And even Oates nodded sympathetically as he stuffed his notepad into his shirt pocket. Everyone cared about me more than Alice.  She was gone now and no one in that room ever really knew her like I did.  She sacrificed herself for me, perhaps intentionally, perhaps accidentally.  But she opened her window of suffering to me and gave me a gift that I will never forget.

And I will always keep her secret safe. 

That day was filled with sirens and sadness, but also with undeniable hope.  And I knew I could shoulder the burden of Alice’s truth.  I would transform her quiet, hot pain into extraordinary works of fiction.

I would make her proud.


Kate Bergquist holds a Master’s in Creative Writing from Rivier College in New Hampshire.  Insurance agent by day, dark fiction writer by night, Kate’s work was twice nominated for Best New American Voices.  An original dark thriller screenplay NO FORCIBLE ENTRY (co-written with Patricia Thorpe) was honored by Showtime, nominated for a Tony Cox award and won top honors at Scream Fest.  She finds inspiration along the craggy Maine coast, where she lives with her husband and several old rescue dogs.


“Interrogation” Dark Horror by Damir Salkovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did that go?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was?”

“He was arrested and executed for treasonable conspiracy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it ready?”

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

What is the name of your contact?

Where did you meet?

What did you carry from Helsinki?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But Philidor thought otherwise.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

The guards were caught unprepared.

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

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

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

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

#

“Are you all right, comrade?”

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

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

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

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


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


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


“Useless Things” Dark Fiction by James Mulhern

Nonna called and asked if I would accompany Mrs. Muldoon and her to a faith healer. The woman had allegedly cured a young girl whose cancerous tumors disappeared and an old arthritic man who later ran in the Boston Marathon.

“Does Mrs. Muldoon have cancer?” I asked.

“No. She said she wants to see the woman as a precautionary measure.”

“That’s silly, Nonna.”

“Of course it is. Mrs. Muldoon is crazy, but I can’t refuse to help her. That wouldn’t be nice.”

“Why can’t she go on her own?”

“Molly, she can barely find her way to Broadway to do her food shopping. How’s she gonna manage a trip to downtown Boston? That’s like asking her to travel to Africa.”

I agreed, and one Saturday in May, Nonna and I drove in her Plymouth Fury to Mrs. Muldoon’s house. The day was brilliant. Not a cloud in the sky, bright sun, just a few clumps of dirty snow leftover from a freak storm the previous week. There were puddles all over, and small streams ran in the gutters along the street. The temperature was in the low 50’s; water dripped everywhere. A chunk of icicles fell from the railing as we stepped onto the porch. I saw Mrs. Muldoon through the sheer curtain in her living room. She opened the door.

“Come in. Come in. Stomp your feet first. Don’t bring any of that wetness in here.” 

The house stunk like mold and sour milk. The living room had boxes with clothes and old shoes spilling out.

“Mary, it smells in here. And what is that mess?” Nonna pointed at the boxes.

“I’m going to have a garage sale if I get inspired. Or maybe just donate the things to the Salvation Army. I hear they pick up stuff, don’t they?” She led us into the kitchen.

“The things in those boxes smell pretty musty. I’m not sure anyone would want them.”

On her grey Formica table were several plates with leftover food—bits of toast, old bacon, half-eaten sandwiches. Dirty take-out boxes from a Chinese restaurant had fallen between the sink counter and the basket. 

“We gotta get you a maid. What’s going on with you, Mary? Why did you let your house become such a pigsty?”

“I’ve been busy, Agnella.”

“Doing what?!” We stood in front of the sink with hardened Comet in the basin.

“This and that. Let me grab my coat from the back hall and we’ll get going. Molly, are you excited to be healed?” Her pretty blue eyes sparkled. I thought she must have been beautiful when she was younger. Such fair skin and perfect teeth, or were they dentures?

“I don’t think I need to be healed. I’m healthy, Mrs. Muldoon.”

“Darling, we all could use healing. Ya know it’s not just physical healing,” she said, putting her arms into the sleeves of her red coat. I liked the black fur collar. “It’s spiritual healing as well.” 

The healer’s business was on the street floor of a six-story building with various ornate architectural features. At the top was a mansard roof with dormer windows. The granite exterior was dirty with lines of black and green, formed when rain pools on the many outcroppings and ledges seeped down the face of the building. The parlor where “Lady Jane” cured people was underneath a printing company squeezed between a luggage store on the left and a jewelry store on the right.

We parked across from the building, along the edge of the Boston Common. I could see a line of desperadoes that extended from the front of the building and around the corner to Court Street. Nonna’s parallel parking was awful, and Mary screamed that we were going to hit the car behind us. At last, we were parked. For a few moments we sat in silence, the three of us taking in the sights. Two skid-row men on a bench, wearing derby hats and unkempt mismatched suits, shared a bottle wrapped in a paper bag. One of them pointed to something at the top of the building. I followed his finger to a flock of large black crows perched on a ledge.

The people waiting in line looked pathetic. Mostly old ladies, a few men, some with canes or crutches, a young blonde girl in a wheelchair. It was a motley group, a range of ethnicities, all seemingly poor.

“You sure you want to go, Mary? These people look pitiful. I think they need curing more than any of us.” It was true. We were wearing nice dresses and overcoats. I thought we would be out of place in that crowd.

“Of course I’m sure.” Mrs. Muldoon pushed her door open and pulled herself into a standing position.

We followed Mrs. Muldoon’s lead, who told us to hold hands as we crossed the street.

Nonna cut in front of an Indian couple, explaining that I had leukemia “very bad,” and the doctors gave me three months at most. “It’s urgent that we see Lady Jane. You don’t want the poor girl to die, do you? She’s my granddaughter!”

Mrs. Muldoon whispered irritably, “That wasn’t a nice thing to do.”

The Indian woman was beautiful with large dark eyes. She had a red dot between her beautifully shaped arched brows. In an Intro to Religion class, I Iearned the spot was called a Bindi or Kumkum, marking a spiritual center or chakra, placed there out of respect for an inner Guru, all of which I thought was bullshit. She wore a purple sari and a pink headscarf. Her short, bespectacled husband had a flat nose with large blackheads; tufts of hair sprouted from his nostrils and ears. He wore a blue navy suit. 

They spoke Hindi for a few moments, then stepped back and nodded for us to move in front of them. There were grumblings and complaints from those behind us.

“Hey, go to the end of a line like the rest of us. What makes you so special, ladies?” an Irish-looking guy with a broad red face and a scally cap said.

Nonna teared up. “My granddaughter is dying.”

The man’s face blanched, and he looked at me with a sad expression. “Sorry, lady. Not a problem.”

I tried to appear sick. I shook a little and drooled, not sure what a leukemia patient’s symptoms were. The Indian couple stepped back.

We turned forward and Nonna put her arm around me as if trying to keep me from fainting. Mrs. Muldoon looked upward at the gathering of crows.

Nonna followed her gaze. “I hope they don’t shit on us,” she said.

“Agnella, it’s good luck. Let them poop if they need to. I’ve got a handkerchief in my purse.” The idea of birds pooping on my head was vile, but I refrained from making a wiseass comment. 

Finally, we were inside. The healing room, or parlor, or whatever you call it, had metal fold-up chairs along the sidewalls. Some of the armrests were rusty. I thought we would need a tetanus shot if we used them.

Lady Jane sat in a large throne-like chair on a platform at the back of the room. She couldn’t have been more than 27 years old—petite, with long bleach blond hair, a pixie face, and deep-set shiny green eyes. I was surprised that she wasn’t an older woman. She wore a tight-fitting black and white dress with a high hemline. She was busty with long satiny legs that ended in white ballerina slippers, a flower pattern of red gemstones near her toes. Her white string shoelaces were untied.

“She’s not what I expected,” Mrs. Muldoon whispered and sighed. “She looks like a tart that’s trying to make a few extra bucks before she goes to her other job in the Zone tonight.”

“What’s the Zone?” I said.

“It’s where all the hookers hang out, just around the corner. Perverts, pimps, drug dealers, and dirty bookstores,” Nonna whispered.

Lady Jane made circular motions with her hands over the head of an old man with a cragged face. Her eyes were closed and she mumbled.

It was only a moment or two before he yelled “Hallelujah” and threw his crutches towards the chairs on the left side of the room.

When it was our turn, Lady Jane said, “I take it you three are together.” She had a fake British accent with a hint of Georgia twang.

“Yes, we’re together.” Mrs. Muldoon sighed, clearly disappointed with Lady Jane.

“What can I do for you?” She looked at each one of us, scrunching her face. I noticed a pimple on her nose.

“Cure us. Do your mumbo-jumbo so we can get outta here. This place is a dump,” Nonna said. “I think we’re more likely to catch a disease here than be cured. Maybe the bubonic plague. So heal us quick before a rat bites one of our feet.” 

“I know you want to be cured, but first you must tell me what ails you.”

“For Christ’s sake, at our age, everything ails us,” Nonna said. “Where do you want me to start? How ’bout you make my breasts perky like yours?”

Lady Jane pretended to be indignant, then said, “I can’t do anything to help your breasts, lady. I’m not a plastic surgeon.” Her Georgia twang was strong.

“Agnella, you mustn’t talk to this woman like that,” Mrs. Muldoon said. “I would like to be cured spiritually, Lady Jane. Forget about my body. That’s too far gone. I want my soul to be cleansed.” 

Lady Jane put her hands in a crisscross on Mrs. Muldoon’s heart area, then closed her eyes while she softly murmured an ostensibly sacred language. I thought I heard what sounded like ‘pussy’ in her gobbledygook. I think Nonna heard it, too, because she gave me a look and rolled her eyes.

“The masters have told be you are spiritually cured for your trip.”

“Cut the crap! Mary’s not going on any trip.”

“That’s not true, Agnella. I am,” Mrs. Muldoon said excitedly, as if there might be some authenticity to Lady Jane after all.

“Where the hell are you going?”

“I’m going home.” Mrs. Muldoon was beaming.

“To your family in Ireland?” Nonna asked.

“To my family.”

“And how can I cure you, dear?” Lady Jane looked earnestly into my face.

“I don’t know.”

Again she did the crisscross thing with her hands. Again she murmured her sacred prayer. And again I heard a distinct “pussy.”

When she opened her eyes, her face was pale. “What’s your name?”

“Molly.”

“Molly, I hate to tell people things like this.” Now she spoke entirely in her Georgia twang. “I see a gruesome death in your future. Not yours, but someone close to you.”

“Let’s get outta here,” Nonna said, clearly upset. She started muttering in Italian. 

Lady Jane said to Nonna, “I take it you’re the grandmother.”

“That’s easy to tell. I couldn’t be her mother. Too old and dried up.”

“Tell me about this death,” I said.

“You have the unlucky fortune of being someone who will either find dead people or be with them when they die, sometimes in violent situations. I guess you might say, ‘You’re an Angel of Death.’ ” Then she started giggling like a little girl. It seemed out of her control, and she curled up in her throne.

The Indian woman behind us whispered something to her husband, and then they rushed out the door. I wonder if the woman’s inner Guru told her to get the hell out of there.

“Angel of Death! Ffangul’!” Nonna said. She pulled Mary and me out of the line and we followed the couple. Before the door shut, I looked back and saw that Lady Jane was still laughing. She waved to me. I mouthed, “Fuck you,” echoing Nonna’s sentiment.

During the ride home, Mrs. Muldoon and Nonna argued over what “Angel of Death” might mean.

“Maybe she’ll be a police officer?” Mrs. Muldoon said. “That’s a nice profession. Protecting citizens. All police officers witness death now and again, don’t you think?”

“Are you crazy? No granddaughter of mine is going to be a police officer. I think that broad saw that Molly was gonna be a doctor.” She smiled at me in the rearview mirror. “What do you think she meant, Molly?”

“I think she made things up to frighten us. Maybe she spotted someone further down the line who would pay, and she was in a hurry to get rid of us.”

“A man told me she doesn’t accept money. Believes she has a calling is what he said she said,” Mrs. Muldoon answered.

“He said, she said? Do you know what Mary’s talking about?” The car swerved as Nonna turned to look at me.

“Lady Jane, I mean. . . Watch it, Agnella!”

“I noticed people slipping her bills,” I said.

Nonna zipped through a red light.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. You’re going to get us arrested or killed,” Mrs. Muldoon said.

“Don’t worry. We have a cop in the back seat. She’ll use her connections and get us off the hook.” 

We all laughed.

As we passed Logan Airport, Nonna asked Mrs. Muldoon, “When is your flight?”

“What flight?” 

“The flight to Ireland. When will you go home?”

“Oh . . .” She paused to think a bit. “The third week of August.” I thought it funny that her pronunciation sounded like “turd.”

“I’ll be sad to see you go, Mary. At least we have you for a few more months though.” She patted Mrs. Muldoon’s shoulder. The car swerved again. “I’m gonna miss you, but I’m sure you’ll be happier. Everybody needs family. And you got nobody here, right?”

“Nobody.”

I leaned back in the seat and thought how Mrs. Muldoon and I shared something. Sure, I had Nonna, but I still felt very alone. But aren’t we all essentially alone? I thought of a quote by Hunter Thompson: “We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and—in spite of True Romance magazines—we shall all someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of company, we were alone the whole way.”

We wanted to see Mrs. Muldoon before she left, so we took her to the Renwood Diner. I had the seafood platter, and Nonna and Mrs. Muldoon had sea scallops with pancetta, mushrooms, and fresh tomato.

Mrs. Muldoon made a joke about this being our last supper. “It is in a way, don’t you think? I won’t be seeing either of you again after tonight.”

“Of course you will. You’re not leaving until five days from now,” Nonna said, motioning for the check. “I’ll drop by before your flight on Thursday.” The waitress put the bill on the table.

“Let me pay for that,” Mrs. Muldoon said. “I appreciate you girls bringing me out to dinner. It’s not often I get out. Ya both have made me so happy.”

“I’m glad you feel good, Mary, but I insist on paying.” Nonna took cash out of her purse and placed it on the check. The waitress picked it up.

“I’ll see you one more time, Mrs. Muldoon. Nonna’s driving me to Boston University on Thursday to speak with a counselor. On the way over, we can both say goodbye.”

“That would be nice, Molly.” She smiled at me.

After the waitress returned with the change, Nonna put it in her purse and snapped it shut. “I’m tired. I don’t know about the both of you. Let’s get outta here.”

We dropped Mrs. Muldoon off, and she waved from the front porch before she opened the door. I noticed several trash bags along the gray clapboard wall.

“Wonder what’s in all those bags?” I said as we drove away.

“Useless things. When you get old, you accumulate a lot of junk, Molly. And eventually you become useless too. So live while you can.”

That night as I fell asleep, I thought about “useless things” and living “while you can.” I dreamt of seagulls pecking someone’s eyes out, sharks in bloody water, and a dead fish with white stripes along its sides.

Nonna called Mary on Wednesday evening to ask for her flight time, but the phone service had already been disconnected, so we drove over around 8:00 a.m. on Thursday.

“She may have already left.” Nonna pulled the car into Mary’s driveway. “We might as well see if she’s still here. I forgot to tell you. When we were in the ladies’ room at the restaurant, Mary told me she had a present for you. She said she left it on the table just inside the archway to her living room.”

We got out of the car and walked up the steps. Nonna held her nose. “Those bags smell God awful. Maybe she dumped the food from her refrigerator into one of them.”

I rang the doorbell. We waited a few moments. Then Nonna turned the doorknob. When the door opened, a horrible smell gushed at us—a combination of shit, vomit, body odor, and rotting fish. I noticed a small purple box on the table as we turned into the living room. Flies buzzed in the hot, humid air around our heads. Three standing lamps were lit. Nonna bent over and vomited.

I walked towards Mrs. Muldoon’s body. She was seated in the purple chair that Nonna hated so much, eyes half open and bulging, swollen tongue protruding. There was an intricate pattern of blood vessels and blisters on her face. Her white robe was smeared with blood and a yellowish fluid that dripped from her nose and mouth. Her face, arms, and legs were bloated; her abdomen was distended. Her skin was green, red, purple, and black. White lines crisscrossed her varicose calves. There were two shimmering pools of urine on the mahogany floor, as well as feces on the seat cushion. 

I kneeled and pressed my finger against a dark purple spot above her right ankle; the skin was so cold. The flesh broke and blood trickled slowly down the side of her enlarged foot. I stood, then bent to stare into the thin slivers of her eyes. The pupils were fixed and dilated. The corners were filmy. I thought I saw wetness along the sides of her nose and cheeks. Were they tears or simply the body’s fluids seeping out? I touched her pretty red hair and some fell to the floor in clumps. A bloody maggot writhed as it emerged from her flaking scalp and crawled towards my hand.

Nonna still gagged behind me. She kept saying, “We gotta call the police.” Although I found the smell overpowering and coughed a bit, I couldn’t move away. I guess you could say I was mesmerized.

“Molly! What are you doing? Call the cops! I’m too weak to get up.”

I picked up the black-and-white photograph from the TV table and examined it: an attractive couple, the young Mrs. Muldoon and her husband, in their wedding attire. Both of them dressed completely in white. He wore a tuxedo with a bow tie and a wing-tipped collar. On the top of her auburn hair sat a veil with a crest of small white flowers; she wore a pearl necklace around her neck. Both smiled above a large bouquet of white roses that obscured parts of their chests. In the dark background, blurred white faces hovered like disembodied heads.

“Molly!”

I turned the photo over. In blue cursive, now faded, Mrs. Muldoon had written “The happiest day of my life.” Next to where the photograph had lain was an empty pill bottle. I pulled it close to read the label: “Diazepam, 5 mg. tab. Take one tablet twice a day as needed.”

Nonna had reached the phone. I heard her talking to the police. “Hurry,” she said and hung up.

“What the hell are you doing?” she screamed at me. “Get away from her.”

I turned, accidentally stepping on one of Mrs. Muldoon’s bare feet. The skin cracked and a clear fluid oozed from her big toe. The nail ripped off, falling like an autumn leaf into a puddle.

I walked over to the small purple box with my name on it. Inside was a gold necklace with an emerald and diamond cross.

Nonna stared at me. “What is it, Molly?”

“A useless thing.”


James Mulhern’s writing has appeared in literary journals over one hundred and seventy times and has been recognized with many awards. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was granted a fully paid writing fellowship to Oxford University. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. In 2017, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His novel, Give Them Unquiet Dreams, is a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019. He was shortlisted for the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2021 for his poetry. Two of his novels were Finalists for the United Kingdom’s Wishing Shelf Book Awards.


“The Red Eye of Love” Dark Fiction by Len Messineo

Bad enough Eddie’s separated from Colette, out of work and having to wait in those long lines at the unemployment office with the wretched of the earth. Bad enough he’s back living with Mona, his stepmother, in her ramshackle house on Cos Bay Bluffs, having to put up with his buddies at the fire station needling him on how he’s tied to the old lady’s apron strings, and with her always ragging him to get a job. Now he’s gone and let Presley, Mona’s precious cockatoo escape.

            He’s glad in a way. At the same time, he knows he’s in torrent of water, what with Mona already threatening to throw him out on his ear.

            He would have liked emptying his old Rem pump action 20-gauge shotgun into Presley’s cage. Would have been fun to see feathers fly, like those blitzkrieg pillow fights he used to have with his brother Buddy when the old man was just dating Mona, a woman fifteen years younger than him, the two of them, Mona and the old man, out at the Blue Moon Tavern, sucking up JD through a swizzle until they were as pickled as gherkins at the bottom of the barrel.

            When they’d come home, he and his brother would listen at the top of the attic landing to the fracas coming from the old man’s bedroom. It was like he was racing a buckboard, Mona whinnying, the headboard slapping the wall sounding like a whip. That was before Mona got religion and became a Celes­tial Seasons teetotaler, before the old man died of cirrhosis of the liver for drinking his and Mona’s share, snorkeling up the sauce with a garden hose.

            Now, Mona believes her late husband’s soul has transmigrated into Presley’s, and Eddie’s beginning to believe it’s true. The cockatoo has been ragging him lately, and never worse than since winter when he moved down from the unheated attic and started sharing Mona’s bed.

            Eddie had always had a thing for Mona. Ever since he’d danced with her at the old man’s wedding, the band playing “Jalousie,” her clove-sweet breath on his neck, her insinuating thighs bumping against his invitingly to the strains of the violin.

            It all seemed so appropriate somehow. Didn’t his psychology professor at Hemiston Community—this is before he dropped out–say that the driving force behind civilization was the child’s desire to surpass the father, to displace him in the mother’s affection? Every boy back to old Oedipus dreamt of sleeping with his mother. Well, it wasn’t like you dreamt of sleeping with your mother. It was like, you have a dream in which you sleep with this mysterious wall-eyed woman. And then the psychologist would say, “But isn’t your mother wall-eyed?” It was symbolic, like.

            Except in Eddie’s case, he was actually sleeping with his mother. Well, his stepmother. And he wasn’t repressing anything. Not like his up-tight brother Buddy, a successful orthodontist up in Portland. Eddie was more a slacker, like his father.

            And then there was the guilt–even though Mona wasn’t his mother. And that cockatoo ruffling its feathers, cackling, “Ho, boy, yer in big trouble.” Who taught Presley that? Not Mona, with her stern sanctimoniousness.

            He’d slept with her anyway. Eddie knew she’d started drinking again, those pretended evening meetings in which she dressed fetchingly and did the bar scene, her breath tart and smoky behind the breath mints. The way she negotiated the kitchen with a syrupy puckishness, as if she were the homecoming queen.

            Don’t put on false appearances for me, he’d thought to say. He did not. Instead, he bought her a fifth of Johnny Walker for her birthday, three long-stemmed roses, brooding scarlet, a nondescript greetings card in which he wrote “For my favorite gal.” He didn’t bother to sign it. He half knew he was striking a match in a tinderbox.

            From the loft where Eddie lay curled up on his bed under a sleeping bag reading an Erskine Caldwell novel, the space heater churning out its red-hot magma against the chill winter, he heard her come in. Her heels clicking across the linoleum, stop­ping, clicking again, in and out of her bedroom. Finally, she stood at the bottom of the landing. “How thoughtful of you, Eddie,” she shouted up to him. She climbed the ladder until she was half in his bedroom. “I know I’ve been short with you, hon,” she said. She expressed her concern, his brooding all the time, his separation from Colette. “Would he like to have dinner with me?  Help me celebrate?  My treat.”

            Mona had gotten herself all gussied up, stockings and heels, a cranberry knit dress that hugged her body and showed off all her curves. He’d pulled on a clean pair of jeans, his Western shirt with the pearl snaps, lizard boots.

            They ate little that evening. They went to Joe’s Steak House where the sirloins were gristly and the drinks cheap. At first, she was reluctant to drink. “What’s the problem,” Eddie said. “It’s only one. It’s your birthday.” After she’d nursed the first, the second went down like she was a sailor on shore leave. She started looking at him rapaciously. Or maybe it was the thought of that fifth waiting for her at home.

            They continued partying at the kitchen table. Mona sitting there, crossing and crossing her lovely gams, smoking a cigarette like a starlet, making large airy gestures, leaning forward showing off her cleavage teasingly from behind her lacy bra, sipping at her tumbler full of JW, straight up. He, slouched low in his chair, smoking a blunt, taking her in. The kitchen was dimly lit by the yellowish stove hood lamp; the only other light, the reflection through the window of the security flood on freshly fallen snow. It was quiet, except for their empty prattle, and the hiss and thud of the gravity furnace.

            “You were sweet to me tonight,” she said, her voice deep, a little slurred.

            He laughed. He leaned forward in his chair, one elbow on the table, fist to his cheek. He let the back of his other hand brush her leg, right above her knee. By then his old neurons were flickering like a shorted Christmas tree.

            She looked downward at his hand, her lips parted, her eyes shadowy. Was this the look of longing? reproval? He couldn’t tell. Even if he could, he didn’t care. Everything felt unreal, like they were making a movie. Just what he thought he was doing, he didn’t know. She didn’t withdraw, and his hand slid higher up her thigh.

            She uncrossed her legs. The quiet rasp of her stockings raised the hair on the back of his neck. His heart thudded against his chest like a nine-pound hammer.

            He followed her towards her bedroom, her taking small wobbly steps, looking back over her shoulder, her eyes large, her face blushed, her mouth open as if she wished to chasten him for his sauciness but just couldn’t find the words.

            At the doorway she made a show of resistance, mewing and complaining, her arms locked against the door jam. He didn’t pay her any heed and when he fell on top of her, he felt himself falling forever.

            When he finally rolled off her, Mona was asleep, or maybe unconscious.  He listened and in the distance he heard the muffled roar of breakers on Cos Bay slamming against the bluffs.   Eddie felt a deep nausea buffeting his intestines. He eased himself off Mona’s bed, hoping to slip back to his room. Mona started up, grabbed him by the elbow. She rolled over to his side of the bed, hissed into his ears, “Things are going to be different around here, sweetheart.” She bit his ear lobe and straddled him. Mona was no Colette. Colette had been all holding hands, cotton candy at the state fair, strolls in the moonlight, modest, shy, almost virginal. 

            As she took her fill of him and Eddie realized why his pop took to drink, why he called Mona the widow maker. Mona was not at all the demure creature she pretended to be, the sensible pumps and starchy high-collared prim dresses she wore to Sunday services, the prayer book clutched to her breast; or the house coat-frocked homemaker, her hair pinned up, sitting at the kitchen table with her coral-framed reading glasses cutting out coupons. Her passion unleashed, Mona was fiery, insatiable. He had miscalculated, unlatched the cage door, freeing a feral creature.

            Their affair went on all that winter, into the spring and summer. Mona used him for her pleasure, then remonstrated against him: that he didn’t contribute to the kitty, didn’t help her around the house, hung out with his do-nothing friends at the fire station. Strangely, the more she chided him, the more he worshiped Mona.

            Was it in the summertime he first noticed the bird haranguing him? Was it because he had too much free time? He’d just been furloughed from Northwood Mill.  “Fire in the hole, fire in the hole,” Presley would screech, squaring its shoulders, staring fiercely at him, taking agitated crab-like steps along its perch, sometimes lifting a leg and dropping a load.

            Eddie hated that bird, saw in its blood-red eyes his father’s mean spiritedness, the endless preachments. Its cackle was like the sharp report of his father’s barber’s strap across his hindquarter, the endless lickings he got for no good reason.

            How many times, Mona off to work, he’d wake to that cackling sound, clammy and feverish, all tangled in the sheets, suffocating in the midmorning heat, Mona’s cloying perfume still lingering in the air.

            He had to leave the house else he was sure he’d strangle that bird. But sometimes, he didn’t. Instead, Eddie’d get himself a Miller’s High Life. He’d grab up one of Mona’s cats, feral toms that in the summer Mona left out to fend in the wild. He’d sit back in her sewing chair, put the cat up on the armoire, or the sewing machine, or the boxes piled in the corner, let the cat exercise Presley who, with hackled crown, would suffer the cat batting at his cage while staring at it imperiously, evilly, as if he were wishing some unspeakable horror befall the cat. He hated that bird so much, he even put buckshot in his feed, looking in on him every day to see if he’d died of lead poisoning. The ugly wretch would cackle, “Ho, boy. Yer in trouble now!” while picking up buckshot in its beak, spitting it back at Eddie.

            This morning he’d just about had it with that damned bird. Presley woke him out of a monstrous- sized hangover with its cawing. He’d gotten himself a High Life out of the frig, pulled out Mona’s sewing machine into the center of the room so as it was right under the cage, then brought in one of the toms. Presley was not making a peep, but staring out defiantly at the cat, which was standing on its hind legs, pawing at that cage, like Presley was lobster and cooked just right. Eddie was blowing cigarette smoke into the cage. After a second brewski and a third, he got bored. He unlatched the cage. Thought he’d raise the stakes.

            This was great. He felt like he was on one of those Animal Kingdom specials, one of those zoologists. He wished he had a video recorder so as he could show his buddies down at the Hemiston FD.

            In fact, he was thinking he might just rent himself one over at Video City and do a documentary. He’d get one of those camcorders that allows you to caption. He’d call it “Safari in the Sewing Room.” Maybe they’d feature Eddie’s video on the Animal Planet station. Enthused by this stroke of genius, Eddie let his chair fall on all fours. This distracted the cat’s concentration. Soon as the cat took its eyes off the cage, Presley, with a loud flutter, flew out the opened cage.

            The cat took right off after him as if born to the hunt. Eddie found this immensely entertaining. Only, shit-brained that he was, he’d forgotten to put up the accordion stairway that led to his bedroom. There was that big gaping hole where he’d taken out the ceiling fan, the one Mona had been nagging him to fix for weeks and which was now sitting up against the tool shed in the tall grass, going to rust.

            Presley reconnoitered the kitchen and the living room and Mona’s bedroom with the cat in hot pursuit, doing flips and twists and double half gainers in the air like he was on the Olympic gymnastics team. Then Presley flew up through the attic loft, saw daylight through the ceiling fan vent, and, as the expression goes, flew the coop.

            Just like that. And Eddie’s thinking, Good riddance, I hope you get eaten by turkey vultures.  Except he knows that when Mona gets home, surely she’ll kick him out on his butt. Lately, since he’s not been performing what she calls his nightly duties, he’s noticed she’s not drinking as much; she’s been reading in her 24 Hours a Day, that twelve-step program, acting right­eous with him. He’s not regular, a bad influence on her, besides being a wastrel drunk. Eddie can’t afford to get kicked out just yet, his unemployment benefits barely enough to keep up his Camaro payments, and the cooler in the trunk filled with beer.

            Which is why for the last hour, he’s chasing after that goddamned Presley, his face slathered with sweat, milkweed spores stuck to his hair and shirt, his clothes glued to him with the late morning heat, his ankles chaffed and torn up, even through socks, with thistle, his head throbbing something awful because he’s drank his breakfast.

            Then they’re at Oswald’s Overhead, a sheer forty-foot drop onto jagged rocks, the pounding surf below. This is where, long ago, after his father had beaten him for taking his air pump apart, he’d run the old man’s whippet off the cliff, throwing a stick for the bitch to fetch. That dog, his father’s favorite, was stupid as sin. He’d just hightailed after that stick, leapt out over the cliff’s edge, as if this were a steeplechase. 

            Eddie, by now, is feeling like he’s about to have a heart attack. Maybe the bird’s smarter than him, he’s thinking. Presley keeps lighting in the low branches of a chokecherry or hawthorn where he could easily bag him with his fishing net. Except soon as he’s underneath the branch, Presley flies up, cackling in that scoffing voice, “Ho, boy. Yer in big trouble.”

            Then they’re at cliff’s edge. Presley perches on an old juniper tree that leans out over the precipice, practically horizontally, gnarled and stunted from the salt breeze. He has his back towards Eddie. Presley keeps looking out over the ocean, then turning his head sidewise. Strong gusts of wind puff up its feathers, practically dislodging Presley’s grip. Eddie can smell its fear.

            Eddie makes sure of his footing, wrapping an arm around the juniper trunk. He reaches out with the net. Presley flaps his wings in protest. Eddie has Presley trapped. There’s nowhere for the bird to go. Next stop, Singapore, he thinks.

            Then just as he’s lowering the net over it, Presley drops out the bottom where two branches form a “V.” Eddie tries to whip the net around and underneath the bird and just misses. Instead, he catches the net on a broken branch. Pulling too strenuously, Eddie loses his foothold. He swings underneath the tree, his arm slipping from around the trunk until he’s holding himself up with one hand clutching at the trunk, the other the long pole handle, the hoop still snagged on the branch.

            He looks down at that dizzying drop beneath him, jagged rocks, the crashing surge of breakers. His heart palpitates in his throat. He can barely breathe, and he’s wet himself.

            Presley falls like a stone, then opens its wings, catches an updraft.

            Presley floats upward until the bird is only inches away, its wings flapping noisily, its malevolent red eyes glowering at him. It lights in the juniper tree between Eddie’s hand and where the hoop is snagged. First it starts pecking at his hand, piercing jabs that feel like someone is pounding asphalt nails through Eddie’s wrist. Eddie lets go of the trunk and grabs the net handle. He makes one last effort to shimmy himself up the handle. As he does so, the hoop opens into a horseshoe, only the strong nylon netting holding it together. Presley starts pecking at that too.  It’s funny how when you’re about to die you can see so clearly how every lapse, every misstep, led you to perdition. Eddie watches with cool detachment as the netting unravels. He’s going to miss Mona, he thinks. Meanwhile, Presley leaps into the air, silent wings flapping, the ocean breeze carrying the bird inland, a sailor returning to his bride.


Len notes: “Previously published in Shenandoah, Tampa Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, The New Novel Review, The Sun: Journal of Ideas and other magazines, I am a former recipient of the Hugh Luke Award and my stories have twice been nominated for inclusion in the Pushcart Prize anthology. I teach at Writers and Books of Rochester and head up the Artisan Jazz Trio which performs throughout Upstate New York.”


“All the Coney Islands of the Mind” Dark Fiction by Alan Catlin

There is a man standing beneath the El.  In the shadows.  He is wearing a black rain coat like mine.  He is wearing black slacks and a black hat.  Also, like mine.  He is wearing black leather boots of unmistakable high quality. I am not.

I cannot see his face.  He appears to be reading a newspaper although it is dark and there are no street lights.  In the shadow of the El.       

The man is watching me through some square holes he has cut in the newspaper.

I wonder how long he will stand by the trestle, not reading his newspaper.  As I walk in the shadows of the buildings, not looking back in his direction.

There is an amusement park three blocks from the El.  A large amusement park full of neon lights, cotton candy and rides. And a boardwalk overlooking the sea. I buy a newspaper at the corner newsstand opposite the amusement park.  I burn two black holes in the first section with a cigarette.

A misting rain has begun to fall.  I am leaning against a wall opposite the entrance inside the amusement park. Listening, reading through the dark holes of my newspaper.

I feel something against my leg, something like a newspaper cut full of holes.

The attendant in the ticket booth who has taken my money has changed his clothes.  They look exactly like mine, like those of a man standing beneath a trestle, waiting without a newspaper.

 I throw my cigarette at a mange infested dog digging in the garbage.  He drags a bone like a human thigh out of the rubble. Into the night.

I examine the remains of the overturned trash cans, see a photograph of a man dressed in a black rain coat, matching black slacks and a black tie.  I cannot make out his face.  In the darkness.  Perhaps, it is mine, perhaps not.

The man in the photograph is wearing black leather boots.  I am wearing my best pair of black dress shoes despite the rain.

I may be trapped in the amusement park, may be confronting more serious danger than I could ever have imagined.

I enter a fortune telling lady’s booth.  She is dressed like a tourist’s conception of a gypsy.  Her hair is tied back in a severe bun that is hidden beneath a silk scarf.  She motions me to sit on the customer’s side of her rude wooden table opposite the crystal ball.  I see two men dressed exactly alike, holding their black hats close to their eyes passing outside her booth just beyond the slightly parted curtains.  Their passing is an opaque shadow grotesquely bending into the grey dark night beyond the crystal ball.

The fortune teller’s voice is harsh and gruff.  She seems afraid to speak of death outside her booth. Her eyes betray nothing.  Like a photograph cut from a newspaper.

It is all in the cards, she says. The Tarot. The initial overturned card is a laminated photograph of a man dressed in black.  I cannot see his face on the table.

 Outside the gypsy’s booth the rain is a mist falling on the sea beyond the boardwalk.  Two men dressed identically in black exchange sections of a newspaper.  Each section is a checkerboard of newsprint and black spaces.

I hear a noise like an elevated train passing overhead.  I am momentarily relieved.  Perhaps these people outside have overlooked the train.

I see an effigy of a man dressed all in black, from his hat to his dress shoes, hanging from the highest arch of the roller coaster track.  I hear the cars crashing down the ramp, screaming out toward the boardwalk.

Outside, I stare down a desolate row of neon shops, each promising hidden pleasures and sudden thrills.  The yellow, overhead lights make everything unreal and dreamlike.  It is so difficult to focus, so difficult to perceive human shapes amidst the artificial haze.  I am most imprudent in this manner, staring out into the artificial light, in full view of anyone who cared to approach me.

“Shine Ya Boots, Mistah?”

“Certainly Not!” I say, stalking off into the nearest darkness, clutching my newspaper to my chest as I go.

I am in a hall of mirrors.  Everything is irregular.  The hall is the nearest darkness to escape within.  A man with a slick black toupee and a face full of smiles takes my money.  I see his smile bending in the infinite mirrored hall.  The news­print on his cheek.  Distorted in a thousand places.

I hear someone laughing.  Far away in the darkness. Beyond the mirrors.  “Shine your shoes Mistah.” It is a laughing matter.  For someone in full possession of a voice.

I light a cigarette.  At least, a thousand different ways.

I am absurdly small at the waist.  My chest is abnormally large and my face is exploding through my cheeks.  My hat is a mere wrinkle drifting off the top of my head, floating away.  Beyond the mirror.  Where the sea is a mist.

Inside there is no mist.  My hands are elephantine against the glass.  My feet enormous.  I am afraid to see my eyes stretched out like rubber bands, longer than a taut, live wire.

Someone is counting the veins in my eyes.  Calculating the total on an abacus. In a sound chamber.  Each vein is a dull metallic sound, the sound of a disk, the sound of a foot moving deliberately somewhere. In the mirrors.

My fingers are like spider legs.  Terribly elongated.  Reaching out, passing through glass.  My hands are full of glass.  The mirror gives way.  I am a face with someone, dressed as myself, his black hat aslant, his neck taut and slightly awry.  Hanging from a rope.

I throw my cigarette toward the sea.  My hands are full of glass.  Embedded in a thousand places, between the stains of the newsprint.  I hear the roller coaster overhead like an elevated train.

I step behind the broken mirror.  I am not without fear, lighting a cigarette in my own, my one way.  Mirror glass cracks beneath my feet.  In a sound chamber. “Shine Ya Boots Mistah!” I open the exit door.  A poster sized reproduction of a man dressed in black hangs on the alley wall opposite the exit.

I toss my cigarette at the poster.  I cannot see his face.  Stretched a thousand times out of shape.  A taut rubber band. Breaking in a hall of mirrors.

I hear footsteps in the alleyway. See two black hats.  Shadows on the slick pavement, holding a length of rope tied in a noose. I am running like a mange infested dog. Dragging a human thigh.

 I am leaning my shoulders against a pillar.  Like a man beneath an EL.  I pull my hat low over my forehead and turn the collar of my black rain coat over my neck.  No one can see my face.  The red ash of my cigarette burning the darkness. Perhaps, I will be mistaken for the other men.  Those men without faces.  I have forgotten about my shoes.

I am aware of the stillness.  The dampness in the bones of me, stiffening. The dull pains behind my eyes.  The glass beneath my fingernails.  The darkness like a satin sheet. A veil.

I am staring out of my darkness.  Seeing nothing. The silence is like a dog scratching the cobblestoned pavement, scratching the darkness.

I feel the pillar, the hand on my shoulder, shaking the scream from my lungs, shaking my heart in my chest like a marble eye in a shallow cup.

“How about a match, mistah?”

I am inside the nearest door.  Outside, I see a man leaning against a pillar in an relaxed pose.  He withdraws a pair of scissors from his black rain coat and begins to cut squares in the newspaper.  I see a cigarette smoking on the ground near where he stands.  Where I have stood. He is staring in my direction through the squares of newsprint.  I see his black leather boots, the noose of rope around his waist as a belt.     

I must proceed into the darkness, into the unknown building.  I am walking in what appears to be a narrow corridor.  There is a railing on either side of the passageway.  The floor­boards are old and rotten, the overpowering smell of dog urine and of vomit, the sound of the sea close by, beneath the build­ing.

The hallway is irregular.  The railings are constructed at odd angles in and away from the pedestrian.  The floorboards are built in odd tangents, as well, slanting in upward or downward directions at unexpected intervals.  The ceiling does not maintain uniform angles, forcing me to bend and crouch as I walk.  What if I were to enter a cul de sac, bending forward into a wall, and am confined in a corner, unable to move, frozen in a grotesque posture, screaming until my mind fibers snapped like too tightly strung wires?

In an open, level space, I lean against the railing, resting.  This funhouse, the amusement park is getting the best of me.  Of my imagination.  Only the darkness is uniform.  The night bends like a funhouse floor.  The sea rumbles down the rails beyond the boardwalk like a roller coaster.  Voices are screaming.  I light a match.  The red ash of my cigarette burns.

Sufficiently rested, I walk, holding on to the slick varnished railing.  The red ash of my cigarette hangs from my lip.  A board cracks beneath my left foot.  I am too startled to scream.  My right foot slips on a patch of a moss like substance and I fall.  I hear the bone, my left thigh snap like a piece of dry wood.  The red ash raising welts on my chest. My glass wounded hands slip, clawing at splinters.  In the vomit.  The stains of my insides on the walkway.

The pain is more intense than my fear of the darkness.  I drag my lifeless leg from the hole left by the broken plank.  My raincoat is no longer black.  Is a smear of vomit, of blood and mud like slime.  I have lost my hat in the darkness.  The sea against the foundation of the funhouse.  Rumbling.  The irregular bending of the sound down the multi‑leveled passageways.

I am trapped, holding onto the railing.  Crippled. I touch a lighted match to my broken cigarette.  In the darkness, the sound of leather boots approaching.  A rope dragging along a wooden floor.  The heavy steps of men collecting bodies.  In a sound chamber.

I am desperate.  Madly struggling down the railing suddenly bending upward, the floor- corridor declining and I, with it, sliding down a felt ramp into yet another vast unknown.

My voice on the rails, screaming out over the sea.

The felt ramp ends abruptly in the darkness.  Two black doors like window shutters spring open at my first touching.  I am propelled onto a foam rubber matting, which, despite its softness, does little to dull the excruciating pain the fall causes my broken leg.  I am conscious only of the broken bone ripping through my skin.

The impact of my fall upon the matting causes the wall opposite the shuttered doors to become lighted.  A full-length poster of a man dressed in black, from his hat, to his leather boots, fills the wall.  Just like a laminated Tarot card.  In a gypsy’s booth.

            I am afraid of death beyond the screaming sea.

            In a gypsy’s booth.

            The sound of rope dragged down a multi‑leveled walkway.

            Leather footsteps in a sound chamber.

            Collected bodies tied against a pillar.

            The red end of a cigarette burning through a shirt.

            Reading newsprint through paper holes like eyes.

  Like my eyes.

            The walls.

            Cut full of holes.

            I cannot see the faces.

            The splinters in my thoughts.

            In my thighs.

            So much worse than glass beneath the skin.

            The splitting of flesh about the broken bone.

            Marrow on my skin draining like blood.

            I feel a dog scratching through the garbage.

             Through the vomit.

             Clawing at my skin.

             Pulling my broken leg bone through the hole in my leg.

             Out into the darkness.


Alan Catlin is primarily known for poetry but that doesn’t prevent him for mixing and matching prose and poetry as the subject allows.  He has published dozens of full length book and chapbooks, mostly poetry, over the years. Although he is not a genre writer he has somehow managed three Rhysling Prize nominations and a Bram Stoker Award nomination He didn’t win either award.


“Greetings from Krampus” Dark Fiction by Tiffany Renee Harmon

Aubrey pulled her coat closer to her body as she slowly crossed the parking lot. As she neared her silver Toyota Camry, the mall loomed menacingly behind her. Wet snowflakes started falling. Aubrey saw the artificial baubles and gold garland adorning the light poles, illuminating the parking lot with a festive fluorescence that made her sick. She’d never particularly enjoyed working retail, the endless swipes of credit cards and folding t-shirts into tower, but the holidays made it a particularly horrible hellscape.

She exhaled and her breath came out like a fog of despair as the water vapor froze around her. She dug around in her pocket for her car keys, her fingers less dexterous while ensconced in thick red gloves, but eventually she fished them out. Behind her, there was a scraping sound. She flinched – her keys fell out of her hands and landed with a metallic thunk on the cold concrete before her. She narrowed her eyes reflexively as if it would help her see the unseen but there was nothing there. It might have been another car, a reckless driver, all that mattered was that it had nothing to do with Aubrey.

Aubrey picked up her keys, rushed into her car, and turned it on after locking herself safely inside. The small car warmed quickly, and she could feel her mood lifting as she drove out of the parking lot.

Halfway home, sitting at a red light, she heard another scraping sound beside her. Jesus, she thought, it was like no one knew how to drive in a little snow. She glanced at the rearview mirror to see what was behind her and gasped as she saw two red eyes staring back at her. She shut her eyes and reopened them. Slowly, she turned around. A blue car honked at her, clearly upset that she was still stopped now that the light was green. Shaking, Aubrey hit the accelerator and continued home. Surely, she hadn’t seen what she thought she’d seen. No, it was just red traffic lights in darkness and snow mixed with a tired but overactive imagination. It wasn’t him.

The next day, Aubrey folded white t-shirt after white t-shirt as Christmas carols mocked her in the background. She signed and swore this would be the last holiday she worked retail. It was an empty vow – something she’d promised herself last year too and the year before that. She looked down at the mountain of shirts and wondered how long it would be before the next toppling. Why were people even bothering with white t-shirts so far after Labor Day?

“Aubrey” a male voice called, and she looked up to see her portly boss, a perpetually reddened face framed with dashing caterpillar eyebrows. She’d often wondered how such a sweaty, unpleasant man had ascended the ranks of customer service to become manager.

“Yes, Chad?” she asked.

“You’re overdue for a break and then come back and work register 3 until closing. Gina has to leave early. Her kid’s Christmas pageant is tonight and Kara’s angel #4 or something like that.”

Aubrey nodded and resisted rolling her eyes. No way Gina had raised even the fourth most important angel. She and Chad were probably sneaking out for some Christmas cheer of their own. Everyone knew about the affair, but Aubrey truly didn’t care as long as it didn’t impact her hours. She clocked out for her break and headed to the food court for a coffee, sidestepping toddlers and weaving to avoid being hit by shopping bags swung by careless housewives desperate to finish their Christmas shopping.

Finally, she found the coffee line, even that was excessively long. She groaned and looked around at the madness surrounding her, practically dizzy with all the holiday rush. Why did the food court also have to house the winter wonderland complete with Santa’s workshop? At least, that wasn’t her job. After grabbing her coffee, she could escape back to the world of clothing. She didn’t have to don a green elf costume or a scratchy fake beard. And while children sometimes undid her hard folding work, she wasn’t in danger of one of them jumping in her lap and peeing on her.

“Your mocha,” a bored voice said as the pimply teen handed Aubrey her coffee.

A scraping sound echoed across the food court and Aubrey jumped and a few drops of coffee spilled out from the flimsy lid and burned her hand. She twirled around, thinking she was seeing red eyes and antlers out of her periphery, but nothing was there when she turned around. No, it must have just been a chair sliding against the floor. He wasn’t really there.

That night in bed, Aubrey dreamed of the past. There were no visions of sugarplums from her childhood Christmases. No, the images swirling before her were of switches and chains. She saw the antlers peeking out of a red hood lined with bloody fur, his red eyes glowing in front of her.

Aubrey awoke but she wasn’t alone in the darkness. Her limbs felt heavy as if chained to the bed. Was it sleep paralysis? Was she stuck inside herself, awake but dreaming? The huge, cloaked figure loomed over her, his demon eyes drilling into her. She heard the scrape of chains on the wooden floor as he dragged them, stepping nearer and nearer. His horned antlers were soon nearly touching her as he leaned down, his hot breath steaming the air between them. Aubrey pressed against her paralysis, desperate to fight back or run, but her body betrayed her. Warm tears rolled down her cheeks, as she whispered his name, “Krampus.”

The next morning, she awoke in a daze, the nightmares from the night before still causing her heart to race. She stayed under the hot water of her shower as long as possible until she knew she’d have to rush or be late to work. Still, she dressed like a zombie, avoiding the inevitable, but she knew what she had to do.

That afternoon on her coffee break, she stood and watched the families with their smiling faces and canned laughter as jungle bells and Santa’s ho-ho-hos peppered the air. They didn’t know. They couldn’t see the demon always in the background feeding off their joy.

Aubrey stepped closer to the gingerbread facade background where Santa and his helpers were moving quickly through the photo op line.

“Mommy, she’s cutting in line,” a little boy cried.

“Shhh,” his mom chided, “I think she just works here.”

Finally, Aubrey was close enough. She reached into her pocket for her thermos and dripped the liquid all along the base of the gingerbread.

“Hey, what’s she doing?” a voice shouted behind her. It sounded like Chad but might have been someone else – all the mall managers were starting to sound the same.

Aubrey reached for a match, lit it, and stared for a second at the little flame before dropping it into the gasoline and stepping out of the way. She didn’t run – this is what she had to do. She was saving them. As screams echoed around her, Aubrey stood and admired the flames pluming around black smoke. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Now, she was finally in the Christmas spirit.


Tiffany Renee Harmon is a writer and artist based out of Cincinnati, OH. She has an MFA from Lindenwood University, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Scarlet Leaf Review, Danse Macabre, and Z Publishing. Her first novel, Suburban Secrets, debuted in 2020. Learn more about her at www.tiffanyreneeharmon.com.


“Ideal You Bars” Dark Fiction by Emma Burger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s in them? Caffeine?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                   ***

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

                                                       ***                                                

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess you have heard the news?”

“No, what?” answered Shank.

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

“Uh….” muttered Shank, “Ummm…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


“Resurrection” Dark Fiction by Kelly Piner

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

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

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

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

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

“Dad, what’s wrong with your eyes?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aunt Delta looked up. “What on earth?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ll see.”

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

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

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

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

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

Raine gulped. “No thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shook her head.

“It’s Jacob, Sis. It’s Jacob.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Rained wheezed and twisted the sheet in her hand.

“Wake up, Miss Raine. Wake up.”

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

“Nurse? Where am I?”

“Saint Grace’s Hospital.”

“The hospital? How’d I get here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, Robert. Help me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


“The Black Curtain” Dark Surrealism by Leonard Henry Scott

“What the hell is wrong with you?”

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

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

“Yes….”

“We talked about this. We agreed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Animals?  What animals?”

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

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

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

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

Ivan sat down beside Marvene on the couch.

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

“Seconds,” she said.

“No.” Ivan replied firmly.

“I could be there and back in seconds”

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

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

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

“Whatever.”

Marvene shrugged.

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

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

Things change.

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

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

Things do change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She wants to go with us.”

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

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

“Do we?” Ivan asked.

She thinks so.”

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

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

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


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


“Medusae” Science-Fiction/Horror by Elana Gomel

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

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

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

What is this? What is…?

Sophie

I was going to the hairdresser today.

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

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

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

And that was when I saw the woman.

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

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

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

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

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

She was not.

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

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

Jesse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I pulled it out, half-expecting another shitstorm.

It was Emma. A video call.

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

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

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

“Emma!” I yelled. “Emma!”

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

Svetlana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My phone buzzed again. A text from Vassily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sophie

The police never came.

I called Emma. And then I called again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tam.

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you know what’s going on?”

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

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

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

I snickered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had been a scientist once.

Tam exhaled.

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

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

Tam

 I needed to call Menachem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald Wei

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” I asked.

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

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

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

“Yes,” Tam said.

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

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

“Something like this,” she said.

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

Tam tossed her hair over her shoulder.

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

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

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

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

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

She had not come back.

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

At least she did not beat around the bush.

“Yes,” she said. “It’s starting”.

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

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

“Anything we can do?”

“No.”

I hung up.

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

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

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

Menachem

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

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

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

“Don’t go,” she finally said.

I laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bird.

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

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

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

My hands found the controls faster than my brain.

An explosion rattled the runway. The Cessna was cruising out, listing and shuddering as I was fighting with the controls. The day had turned black. The bird-thing – the flock stitched together by tortured sinews –was above me and I could see more and more birds flying toward it and adding to its rapidly growing body. The sky was alive with pigeons, geese, starlings and cranes.

The runway was blocked by a line of hunched-up figures. I plowed through them. The glass was splattered with red, but I didn’t need to see anymore. I am a pilot. My hands know what to do.

The screech of torn metal. I was airborne. I was flying.

My uncle’s body was returned for burial. There wouldn’t be anything left of mine to return. Better this way. Easier to cope. My parents have two more kids. Too bad I would not leave any behind. Rina would forget. My sister would remember.

Flying straight into the tornado of flesh as birds are being sucked into the engine. Imagining myself as a ball of flame tearing through the crawling sky and bringing back the sun.

Sophie

Tam came at midnight. I had been crouching in the sitting room, Jesse’s gun by my side, curtains down, radio and TV off, only the blue light of the computer monitor dribbling into the gloom. No matter what, I had to know.

Neither Jesse nor Emma answered their phones. And as I surfed the Internet, closing each window when a video clip popped up, as they seemed to do with insistence of a buzzing fly, I was burying my family. But they kept coming back. Emma as a toddler. Jesse on our wedding day. Twenty years of my life gone. I tried to pretend they had never existed; that I had taken a different route and I was now settling back into the life of that alternative Sophie who had persevered with her studies, had taken a research job, had never married, never had a baby. That they had never existed.

My husband. My daughter.

I opened the door with no apprehension. Tam’s face looked like a bruise; as if those dark circles had spread all over her pale skin, turning it the color of dusk.

“Not very careful, are you?” she said with a wry smile.

“Does it matter?”

“Not really.”

I asked her if she wanted to eat and she said yes but when I brought her a cheese sandwich, she took a minuscule bite and put it back on the plate.

“My brother is dead,” she said.

“The pilot?”

“Yes.”

I did not say anything because there was nothing to say. But for a moment, we were together in the shared bubble of bereavement, and I hoped it eased her pain as much as it eased mine.

“You know what ForeCast is,” she finally said, and I nodded. The truth was, I did not, not really. Jesse had stopped talking to me about his work long time ago.

“A killer forecasting algorithm. Universal too – works for finance, climate, politics, you name it. We were running last trials when it started throwing off these weird results. Like really weird. Apocalypse, kind of, but not the end of the world. More like the end of a world.”

“What does it mean?”

“Well, I am not a physicist but the idea at certain key points, the future may influence the past, so that a less-likely outcome will happen. Like some events – the emergence of life or the extinction of dinosaurs – are so unlikely that the only way they could happen is if something in the future forced them. Like…there is another kind of time. I’m not really explaining it well.”

“Not just another kind of time,” I said. “Evolutionary time. Moving by leaps and bounds. Punctuated equilibrium.”

Tam stared at me as if seeing me for the first time.

“I was an evolutionary biologist once,” I said.

“I did not know.”

“Doesn’t matter. Go on.”

“Well, that kind of explains it.  Because what’s happening – people losing their faces, birds melting together into a flying hive, stuff coming out of the drains – it’s a new ecosystem being born.”

“Invasion from the future?”

“Invasion of the future.”

“A new ecosystem? But what kind of ecosystem?”

She shrugged. But I knew the answer and it came back to me with a rush of forgotten pleasure: the pleasure of understanding; the sparkle of insight.

“I think it’s an evolution that went for colonial, rather than multicellular, organisms,” I said.

“Like bees?”

“No, like jellyfish or polyps. Colonies.”

“And faces…”

“Identities.”

She was smart; she understood immediately. A face is who you are: unique and irreplaceable; an individual. As part of a colonial organism, you don’t need a face.

“Do you think it can be cured?” she asked, our roles suddenly reversed, and I felt as if I was talking to one of those students I could have taught and never did.

“How can it be? There is no cure for time. The future is not coming because of an infection; the future is an infection.”

She nodded, her black curls obscuring her face as she looked down at her tightly clenched hands.

“Our investor, Donald Wei, suggested it,” she said in a small voice “and I think he was right. It is likely that the reason this insane future is happening is because we have forecast it.”

There was a knock on the door.

I ran to the entrance and stared at the Ring security screen.

They stood outside, so close together that their bodies blended into one on the pixelated display. Their heads bowed; their hands intertwined. But I did not need to see their faces to know who they were. I had invested my entire life in these bodies: feeding and loving; touching and worrying. The warm biological tie. Male and female; mother and offspring. I could not break it now; could I? Time only flows in one direction for each of us.

“Don’t open!” Tam was behind me. I looked back. She had picked up the gun.

 I hesitated. That was my other life calling; the life that might have been; the life in which my face was my own.

I opened the door. 

Tam

They stood on the threshold. They? It? One or many?

A man and a woman, their bodies squeezed together tight that they melded into each other, the clothes ripped and distorted by the protrusions of shapeless quivering flesh. I recognized Jesse’s familiar jacket and his daughter’s Berkeley t-shirt, but they were as irrelevant as yesterday’s newspapers: remnants of the world that was not simply gone but had never existed. Above them were two identical moist white ovals, as featureless and raw as a jellyfish’s tentacle. It looked so weird, that for a moment I felt like laughing. And then there was that slithering sensation under the roots of my hair, as if something were separating there, coming undone…

I lifted the gun and fired but my sight was dimming, and the shot went astray, and in the last seconds of having eyes I saw Sophie thrown against the wall, a dark patch blooming on her chest. I wanted to cry out in horror, but I had no mouth. And it did not matter anyway.

Sophie

I felt no pain.

But the shot turned me away from what stood in the doorway and I faced Tam as my top was turning dark and heavy and warm, rivulets of blood slithering down my thighs.

Her face was lying on the floor by her feet. Dark eyes open wide, tumbledown curls spread around like a corona. The pale quivering thing stepped over it and went to join the colony.  

Something was loosening up inside me and I pressed my hands to the wound as if trying to keep it all together, knit the unraveling seconds but it was too late as if always had been.

Redhawk-4 to base, Redhawk-4 to base, do you copy? Yes, I am on target. Flying over the city center. All clear. No pedestrians. No traffic. Stationary cars but not many. No fires. No signs of damage to infrastructure. Lowering altitude. Still nothing. No…wait! Something is blowing along the street. Yes, blowing! Like…snow? I know that there is no snow in summer but it sure as hell looks like…I am not coming down. I am over a circular plaza and it is covered…I don’t know how to describe it. Are you getting my feed? Looks like…like cuts of meat in a butcher’ shop, like somebody filled the fucking plaza with raw meat…No, I can’t go any lower without landing.

More of the white stuff carried on the wind. It is light and the wind is getting stronger. It can foul my blades.

Something above me, something big. Do you copy? I have to land. Forcing me to…

I am aborting the mission! Aborting the mission! Anybody is listening?

This is Redhawk-4 to base.

The streets are paved with faces.


“Medusae” first appeared in Legendary Tales in October 2020.


Elana Gomel is an academic with a long list of books and articles, specializing in science fiction, Victorian literature, and serial killers. She is also a fiction writer who has published more than a hundred short stories, several novellas, and four novels.  She is a member of HWA and can be found at https://www.citiesoflightanddarkness.com/ and at

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“A Proper Ballerina” Dark Fiction by Janet Goldberg

The Ropel house, one of the most expensive in the neighborhood, was on a cul du sac near the woods.  Fifteen-year-old Carrie, who lived two doors over, had been babysitting for Mrs. Ropel’s six-year-old daughter Simone, as well as other neighborhood families, for about a year.  She’d been sitting since she was twelve, first in Connecticut where she’d spent her first fourteen years and now here in Deerhaven, Illinois, where her family had moved last winter when she’d been a freshman, her sister Evie in kindergarten.  Though her shy, nervous sister didn’t make friends easily, Simone and another neighborhood girl, Lisa, befriended her, and much to her mother’s relief they all began playing at each other’s houses.  Meanwhile, Carrie had nearly flunked both Spanish and algebra last year, and she’d not made one friend.  But neither her mother nor her father had said a word about this, her mother never one to fret over Carrie:  Drop her in the ocean and she’d find her way back, Carrie had sometimes overheard her mother say on the phone.  And yet, her mother seemed to hold this against her, at times indifferent, if not hostile, toward her; in turn, Carrie often hated her mother, as she did now, because she wouldn’t admit that yanking her and Evie out of school mid-year for a new house in a fancy neighborhood had been a mistake.  If her mother only knew.  “Daddy has a lady downstairs.  Don’t tell Mommy,” the Mulvaney’s little Tabitha, tucked in, ready for bed, had suddenly blurted out one night while Carrie had been babysitting.  But the basement door was always locked; then one time it wasn’t.  But she didn’t bother telling her mother what was inside.  She wouldn’t have believed her anyway. 

Tonight was the Ropels again, the first time after a two-month hiatus.  It all had to do with what had happened to Evie, all three of the girls playing over at Simone’s and then somehow ending up in the snowy woods at dusk, an hour later the police with their flashlights finding only two small sets of prints coming out.  “I don’t care what the police said,” Carrie had told her mother.  “They left her there.  You have to do something.  That’s not right.”  And her mother, finally working up the courage, had said, “I’m going to give that woman a piece of my mind.  You’re never babysitting there again.”  But a week later when Carrie had asked what had happened, her mother slapped her.  After that, she and her mother barely spoke, except today when Carrie told her she was sitting for the Mrs. Myers, last year the only neighbor who’d welcomed them on move-in day, leaving a chocolate cake on their doorstep.

At Mrs. Ropels’ front door now, Carrie stomped the snow off her boots and then rang the bell.  Little Simone opened up.   She was wearing a pink leotard, tights, and ballet slippers.  With wavy dark hair and milky-brown eyes, a small mole at the corner of her mouth, she was a miniature of her mother.

 “Mom, Carrie’s here!”  She ran back down the hallway.

 Carrie stepped inside and unzipped her parka.  The foyer was just like in her house, one small closet and a slate tile floor.   

Mrs. Ropel was rushing down the steps, as always, running late.  “I’m so glad you could make it, Carrie.  Here, let me take your coat.”  In black pants, a billowing silk blouse, hoop earrings, she smelled mildly of perfume and was briefly pretty, almost likable, someone she might want to be.  But then she thought of her own mother. 

Carrie started pulling off her boots, standing them against the wall as Mrs. Ropel hung up her parka.  Then, turning to Carrie, she clapped her hands together and bowed slightly. “Well…”

 Carrie almost felt bad for her, how awkward it was, but clearing the air would only make things harder.  As is, she wasn’t sure she could go through with it.  She looked back at the door, thinking she should just leave.

“Simone’s eating dinner now,” Mrs. Ropel said.

Carrie followed her down the hallway.

 “Macaroni and cheese.”  She gestured to the stove.  “And there’s some there for you too.  Simone, Carrie’s here.”

Simone, at the table, spoon poised above the bowl, said, “I know, Mom.”

“Hi, Simone,” Carrie said.

Simone looked back and grinned, showing all her teeth.

“I shouldn’t be any later than 10:00.  Simone in bed by 8:00.”  Leaning over Simone, Mrs. Ropel kissed her on the cheek.  “Be good.  Listen to everything Carrie says.  I love you.”  Then, she went back into the hallway. 

Carrie followed.

Back in the foyer, Mrs. Ropel put on her coat and wrapped a scarf around her neck.  It had a kind of hood on it, and she pulled it up over her hair.  “Now be sure to turn the deadbolt.  Don’t let anyone in.  Everything else is locked.”  Before, this lock litany had been merely annoying, but now, after what had happened to Evie, it almost made her laugh, and she thought of the Kleins–they had even more locks on their door—one time how the older boy came at his younger brother with a pair of scissors, Mrs. Klein not believing her, and all those Dr. Spock books on the shelves.   

Mrs. Ropel opened the front door, letting the chill in.  Carrie shut the door after her and turned the deadbolt, knowing Mrs. Ropel wouldn’t leave until she heard it slide into place.   Then, she went into the living room and, through the bay window, watched her car disappear down the dark, snow-packed road.  Now, the place to herself, she could do whatever she wanted, not that she ever drank, smoked, or had friends over.  She actually didn’t have any unless you counted the two dopey sisters next door that once invited her over to smoke marijuana and put on mascara.

Carrie went back to the kitchen.   

Simone pushed her bowl away and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.  “Is my mom gone?”

“Aren’t you supposed to use a napkin?”

She slipped off her chair and got up on the balls of her feet, her arms stretched above her head, and started twirling and then fell down on the floor.  “I take ballet now.  I’m going to be Clara in the Nutcracker.” 

 “Doesn’t Clara have to spot if she doesn’t want to get dizzy?”

Simone got up.  “My mom says I get to wear pointe shoes when I’m twelve.”

 “Is that what you want to be when you grow up—a ballerina?”

“Can I watch TV?”

 “Sure.  But bowl in the sink first please.  Then later we’ll play a game.”

Carrie went over to the stove and lifted the lid, peering at the gooey orange noodles.  Milk, butter, powdered cheese, all the kids loved that boxed stuff, including Evie.  She took a spoonful and then stuck the pot in the refrigerator, her eyes roving over the usual stuff–milk, orange juice, wine, chocolate syrup, eggs, chicken breasts, frozen French fries, a Sarah Lee apple pie, and in the door salad dressings, ketchup, mustard, relish, jam.  No shrinking heads here, though she’d babysat long enough to know that didn’t mean anything, the secret room in the Mulvaney house papered with naked women, and a mannequin in glasses and a wig, two perfect breasts, seated behind a desk.  Well, at least her own father used the basement for better things, buying a pinball machine and ping-pong table to ease their move from Connecticut.  Evie got a pet hamster too, but it turned out to be pregnant, and she ate some of her babies, so now the table was covered with cages, the mother hamster’s the most elaborate, exercise wheels and a maze of tubes. 

“Carrie, can we make popcorn?”  Simone yelled from the living room.

“Sure!” Carrie yelled back.  She didn’t see any point in not being nice.  She pulled some out of a cabinet and stuck it in the microwave watching the bag slowly inflate, and then, after pulling it out, split the bag down the seam, letting the steam out.

Carrie sat down on the couch placing the bowl between them. 

Simone, slouched down, dug in, pulling out a handful.  “That girl just turned into a blueberry,” she said.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was on, the petulant Violet in a purple jumper and black Maryjane shoes chomping on a wad of gum Mr. Wonka told her not to touch, the oompa loompa men now rolling her out to be juiced.   Carrie had seen the movie before.

A commercial came on, and Simone suddenly turned to Carrie, made a pouty face, the corners of her mouth downturned.  “Where were you, Carrie?”

“What do you mean?”

“I didn’t like my other babysitter.” 

“How come?”

 “She was mean.  Mrs. Humperdink.  That’s a stupid name, isn’t it?”

Carrie chuckled.  “Is that really her name?”

Simone shrugged and then turned back to the TV, the spoiled Veruca Salt, another bad egg, getting sucked up a garbage shoot, and then Mike Teavee, shrunk small enough to fit into a TV, had now been eliminated too.  Only Charlie and his grandfather left, Mr. Wonka’s face softened as he started explaining how he’d searched the world over for just one sweet, able child to take over the factory.

“Can we watch another movie, Carrie?”

“It’s not over yet though.” 

“I don’t like this part.  It’s stupid.”  Wonka was now escorting Charlie onto his magic elevator.  Soon all of Charlie’s family would be rescued from poverty.  Simone changed the channel, a bald, muscular man, with bushy white eyebrows on now.  Grime-busting Mr. Clean.

“Well then maybe we can play a game,” Carrie said.  “Remember how we used to?”

Simone shrugged again.  “Can we watch another movie?”

“I’m it.”

Thinking, Simone rolled her head around in circle—one of her odd quirks—and then slipped off the couch.  “Count slowly.  No peeking.”

Eyes covered, Carrie started counting “1,2,3 4,” stopping only when she heard Simone heading upstairs.  She always hid in the same spot.  It seemed odd at first, but Carrie had just assumed that getting caught was the best part of the game for Simone.  And in the past, they’d had fun, Carrie in Mrs. Ropel’s bedroom closet pretending to be stumped, Simone jumping out, shouting, “Boo!”  But now she wondered.  Sneaking out of the house, past her watchful mother, Lisa and Evie in tow, out into the woods at night took stealth.

 Carrie pulled her hands away from her eyes and headed upstairs.  In her socks, she could move silently.  She took her time, though, roaming around the other bedrooms, first Simone’s, cozy pink with a strand of blue lights lining the ceiling, and her very own bathroom with a polka-dotted shower curtain, a furry pink bathmat beside the tub.  The other bedroom, blue and smaller, hadn’t changed—wooden crib, rocking chair, a three-drawer dresser with a changing table on top.  Carrie pulled each drawer open—all still empty.  Then, she headed toward Mrs. Ropel’s bedroom.  A small lamp on the bedstand threw off a little light, beside it a magazine—Good Housekeeping—and an alarm clock.  The other bedstand was bare, the Ropels separated, Carrie’s mother had told her.  All the other sitting jobs, the husband usually drove her home in their dark cars, small-talking her, pulling up to her house, as if they were dropping her off from a date.  At school the driver’s ed instructor kept sliding his arm around her shoulders showing her how the dashboard worked.  In the Ropel house, she’d always felt safe though.

 She walked over to the closet.  It was open a crack.  She thought she could hear Simone breathing.   It wasn’t too late.  She could just play the game as they always had.  But then Carrie remembered the snow swirling down from the black sky, her feet so cold they burned as she shivered at the edge of the woods while the police searched for Evie, her hysterical mother waiting at home in her sunken living room, her father trying to comfort her.  

Carrie opened the closet door and leaned in.  “Hello?  Anyone in there?”  Then she went all the way in.  “Anyone here?”  Simone, she knew, could only contain herself for so long, but Carrie continued to play along, turning to the right side first, making a fuss of pushing clothes this way and that way, making the hangers jangle.  Then she turned to the other side, where there were a lot more clothes, dresses and blouses, and did the same thing, Simone, she assumed, crouched somewhere beneath, watching Carrie’s legs, trying to stay quiet.  “Simone?   Are you in here?”  Carrie let out a loud sigh.  “Wherever could she be?  Well, I guess she’s not here.”  Then, as she stepped out and started closing the door, the hangers suddenly jangled.  But Carrie already had the door shut, her hand firmly around the knob as she felt Simone trying to turn it.

“Carrie,” Simone said, “the door’s stuck.” 

  Carrie thought she could hear a twinge of fear rise up in her voice, what Evie must have felt when she first realized she was alone, lost. 

Simone started banging on the door now. 

Letting go of the knob, Carrie quickly swung around, pressing her back against the door.

Then Simone started kicking.  “Let me out!  Let me out!  Let me out!”

Carrie could feel the door shuddering.

 Then she stopped kicking.  “Carrie please,” she pleaded, “it’s dark in here.”  She started weeping.  “Carrie, I’m scared.  Please, let me out.  Please, Carrie.”  She was trying the knob again, pulling on it, rattling it.

Carrie looked up at the ceiling, at the small ring of light from the lamp.  Evie had been found curled up at the base of a tree, unconscious, her shoes missing.  After laying her on the stretcher, they’d cocooned her in blankets as they snow kept falling.

The rattling stopped.  “If you let me out, I promise I won’t tell on you.”  No longer crying, Simone was trying to modulate her voice now, to reason with Carrie.  Negotiation it was called, what a victim does trying to survive an attack, something she’d learned in psychology class.   But Evie probably didn’t even get that chance, Simone and Lisa running off while she was it, Evie with her eyes covered, counting, afterward the police claiming it was a game of Hide and Seek gone awry.

 Simone started beating her fists on the door again. “That’s not fair.  Let me out!  Let me out!” 

So now you know.  Maybe you’ll think twice.  She’d planned on saying things like that, but now Simone was throwing her body into the door, putting her weight into it, and Carrie, worried she might damage the door or hurt herself, stepped away, and Simone suddenly flew out, landing on her knees.  “Oow.”  She started crying again, real tears now, her lower lip trembling.  She glared up at Carrie.  “I’m going to tell my mom.  You’re going to get in trouble.”   She was breathing heavily, almost gasping.  Then she started coughing.

Carrie reached down and pulled Simone to her feet. 

Simone wiped away her tears.  “I’m going to tell on you.  That you tried to kill me.  Then you’re going to get in trouble.  You’re going to go to jail.  Rats are going to eat you.  Then they’ll put you in the electric chair, and your hair will fall out.”

Carrie stepped back and sat down on the bed.  “Who’s going to believe you?”

“My mom will.  She always does.”

“But there’s not a thing wrong with you.  I bet you don’t even have a bruise or a cut.”

Simone put her hands out in front of her and spread her fingers.  Her knuckles were red, her hands shaking a little.

“See?  Not a thing.”

 Simone pulled her hands back and started rolling her head around again; this time, though, with her flushed face, watery eyes, snotty nose, she looked ghoulish.  Then, after wiping her nose, sniffling a little, she straightened up, lifting her chin, like a proper ballerina, and said, “I’m going to get in my pajamas.  It’s almost my bedtime.”

“Do you want me to read you a story?”  Carrie was still sitting on the bed.

 “I’m too old for that.  Besides I’m going to tell on you.  You’re never coming back.”  Then she scampered out of the room.

The next day Carrie slept late.  She always did on the weekends.  Then in the afternoon she went down to the basement to feed the hamsters; the babies, now plump and furry, were running around their cages.  The mother hamster, though, just sat in her bedding, her dark eyes unblinking, food untouched.  Tapping on the plastic walls, Carrie tried to coax her to move.  Then, opening the cage, she reached in to pick her up, but she just nipped at her hand.

“Carrie, are you down there?”  Her mother was coming down the steps with laundry.  In front of the washer now she put the basket down and then looked over at the ping-pong table.  “When it gets warm, I’m going to let her go.”

Her mother’s eyes looked puffy, like she’d been crying.  She was trying to make up, be friends now.  But Carrie, still angry, wasn’t so sure she wanted to relent.

“If you must know her baby was still-born.  She had to carry it and then give birth to it and then bury it.  Mrs. Ropel.  All before we moved here.”

“That doesn’t excuse it,” Carrie said.  “Evie could have frozen to death.  And then what?”  Carrie looked down at the mother hamster and then over at her mother.  “What do you mean let her go?”

“Behind the house.  Out by the woods.  I’ll just open the cage.”

“But what if she doesn’t go?  What if she gets eaten?  They’re wild animals out there, you know.”  She hammered at her mother. 

“What’s the point of keeping her?  You can’t touch her.  She won’t eat.  They don’t live very long anyway.  Hamsters.”  Her mother turned to the machine and started stuffing the laundry in.”

“Where’s Evie?”

“Upstairs.  Playing.  You know, making her Barbies talk.  By the way, I found your bathing suit.  I’m washing it now.”  Her mother shut the machine door and turned the dial. “Don’t bother,” Carrie said.  “The school won’t let me wear it.  You have to wear one of theirs.”  She recalled last Friday, the first day of swimming, naked and shivering, how she stood in the locker room, the attendant sizing her up.  


Janet Goldberg’s “A Proper Ballerina” comes from a collection titled Every Small Thing.  Her novel The Proprietor’s Song will be published by Regal House in the summer of 2023:  https://www.regalhousepublishing.com/janet-goldberg/  She also edits fiction for Deep Wild https://deepwildjournal.com/ and teaches writing at a community college in northern California.