In seventh grade, Emma Bridges tells me I have to change my name. There can’t be two Emmas in our class, she says. I nod, and from then on I am Em, to my classmates, to my family, and to my coworkers, the two letters neatly handwritten next to a smiley face on my nametag as I welcome customers to the bookstore.
Today I am Em to the blonde-haired, red-faced woman who angrily takes down my name because store policy doesn’t allow returns past fourteen days. I am Em to my manager, who can’t quite hide a smirk when I hesitantly bring up this year’s promotion cycle. I am Em to my daughter Mia in the backseat, who knows she can get her way with a well-placed tantrum and veiled threat.
Even the pedestrian in front of me refuses to budge, thinking I will give in and swerve out of his way. No longer. Emma Donovan keeps her foot pressed firmly to the gas pedal and her name is —
Janet Fuller, and soon everyone is going to know it. As long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a reporter. I spent four grueling years studying journalism in school and staffing the university paper, inking my blood, sweat, and tears into the broadsheet. Then another seven hopping from paper to paper, each job only impressing further into me that my stories were worth a dime a dozen, if that.
Any journalist knows how to write a good story. We’ve worked our beats, interviewing countless sources and tracking down the routine paper fillers. But what they don’t tell you in journalism school is that the best stories, the ones that headline above the fold, those come and go in as short as three seconds.
One. I see a man start to cross the street.
Two. I see a red SUV racing down the road, showing no signs of stopping.
Three. Janet keeps her mouth shut and brings up her phone camera. Click —
Clack, go my new dress shoes as I step off the sidewalk. They’re perfectly polished, black oxfords with a cap toe. He kept them that way, my father. You can always tell a man’s character by his shoes, he used to say.
That was how I found him in the kitchen that night, shining the blood off his shoes next to my mother’s body. You keep your shoes clean, boy, he told me, before they dragged him away and sentenced him to life imprisonment.
I tried to fight the urge of course. Visions of the knife sticking out of my mother’s pale throat haunted me every time I picked up a shoe rag. But his voice always echoed in my head. A man keeps his shoes clean.
The car is speeding towards me, and I know I have enough time to dive back to safety. But that would scuff my shoes.
A man keeps his shoes clean.
I see a little girl in the backseat, about six or seven years old. Maybe this time, it’ll be my face and voice that keeps her awake at night. Peter locks eyes with the girl and gives her —
A smile breaks across my face from where it rests against the cool metal door. I am in the backseat of my mother’s car, watching as she readies herself to run over a pedestrian. I wonder what he’ll look like, after. I suppose I’ll see it on the nine-o-clock news, courtesy of that wannabe journalist on the other side of the street.
They always say to try imagining things from others’ perspectives. Me, I don’t have to.
It first happened when I was three and my mother brought home a dog from the pound. She called it Rover, or Roger, or something else generic and unmemorable. He yapped and yapped all day until my nerves reached a peak, and the next thing I knew I had four paws and could see my own human body slumped over on the couch.
Rover’s memories flashed through my mind like a whirlwind. I found myself fixating on his tragic past, overjoyed when it finally simmered his barking down into whimpering instead. To my pleasant surprise, he took off out of the house and ran as far as he could until even I didn’t know the way home anymore. Soon I was back in my own body and trying to look concerned as my parents ran around frantically looking for the dog.
You see, it doesn’t give me control of others’ actions. I have to make them want to do it with the thoughts and memories that already exist in their heads. You might think this fairly limiting, but with the right motivation, I can make people do just about anything.
Take this scene I’ve engineered, for example. The woman who decides she will murder someone just to feel an ounce of control over her everyday life. The journalist who in this moment can only think of her own languishing career, at the expense of others’ lives. The man whose recollection of past trauma forces him to stand still in front of an oncoming car.
All in the few seconds I’ve flitted between their minds. Brilliant, don’t you think? I smile back at Peter and brace for the impact.
On the corner of Cedar and Washington, a red SUV barrels through a pedestrian and peels away. I am sprawled across the asphalt, feeling the life drain crimson from my veins — onto the same road that blurs by in the rearview mirror, my knuckles white on the steering wheel and my foot pressed tightly against the gas. I slowly pan across the scene of the accident that is going to make me famous, making sure to keep my phone steady — the same phone I hold up to my face from the safety of my bedroom, squinting in the dim glow as I scroll through the virtual pages of The Chamber Magazine.
Mia smiles and —
Dianne Lee is a quantitative researcher in New York, where she writes code by day and stories by earlier in the day. Follow her adventures at bydiannelee.com.
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When Ethan agreed to stay the night at Jesse’s house that Friday night, he did his best not to read too much into it. On the one hand, at fifteen, they were both a little old for sleepovers. On the other hand, since moving to Finch Point in June, Ethan had been flying solo, and Jesse was the first potential friend he’d found. Maybe.
Jesse was a bit of a mystery to Ethan. In attitude and temperament, they couldn’t really be any different. Jesse was all confidence and bravado. He talked about girls as if he actually knew something. He had worked last summer as a volunteer fireman. At least that’s what he said. Most of Jesse’s stories were like that: almost believable, but always with some whiff of bullshit underneath. Ethan suspected the stories of his sexual conquests were much the same. He was less troubled by Jesse’s need to embellish–to lie, really–than he was confused by it. What was it about Ethan that led Jesse to believe that he would be impressed by these stories? Why so much effort?
And then Jesse had invited him to stay over, watch some dumb movies, stay up late, act like idiots, and Ethan was shocked at how much he craved just those things. Not one more Friday night in his room listening to his dad’s old records and copying panels out of comic books. Actually doing things. With people.
His mom drove him over after work, and pulling to the curb, she looked over the outside of the house with a cool, appraising eye. A single level house, painted a dark green, the branches of tall pines resting on the roof. There was a car in the driveway that looked like it probably hadn’t run in this decade, pine needles piled up at the base of the windshield, rust eating away the wheel wells.
“I still don’t like not meeting him or his folks,” she said, sitting back.
“He’s a guy from school. And I’m not a little kid, mom.”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. I am just registering my concerns.”
“Received and filed. Now can I go?”
Ethan opened the door and climbed out.
“Your sister has swimming tonight, so we won’t be home if you call.”
“Love you too,” he said, rolling his eyes and shouldering his backpack. He closed the door and walked up the front walk. He knew his mom was still there at the curb, that she wouldn’t move until he was inside the house. He refused to turn and look at her. He knocked, and he could hear movement from deep within the house, see shadows behind the wavy amber glass alongside the front door. The door opened, and Jesse smiled from beneath his fringe of stringy hair.
“Hey,” he said.
“Come on in. Quiet, though, My mom’s asleep.”
Ethan followed him in and as he shut the door he broke and glanced out at his mom, car idling at the curb. Still watching. He closed the door without acknowledging her.
The inside of the house was dark with the blinds drawn and the shade of the big trees outside, and the dusk coming on already. It smelled vaguely of freezer-burn and stale cigarette smoke. He followed Jesse through a living room of mismatched couches and recliners, all facing a massive television, down a darker hallway and through a door on the left, all the way at the end of the hall.
Jesse closed the door quietly.
“My mom gave me some money for pizza, if you’re hungry.” He flopped onto the bed, leaning against the wall. The bed looked like it was made for a much younger kid, and the table beside it was beat up and covered in stickers that had been peeled off unsuccessfully. The room was dark, with only the last of the daylight filtering through the flannel blanket tacked up over the window.
“Sounds good,” Ethan said, dropping his bag onto the floor. “I’m pretty hungry.”
Jesse jumped up and vanished back down the hall, into the kitchen, where Ethan could hear him dialing the phone. Ethan stood in the middle of the room, looking around. Dirty laundry piled on the floor. A desk that looked like it probably weighed a ton, with the finish all but worn from the top. Several glasses, half full of mysterious liquids. A boom box with several cassettes piled up around it. A Nike shoebox beside the radio.
Ethan rifled through the tapes. Anthrax and a couple of Black Sabbath. All bands that Ethan knew only as names on t-shirts. He lifted the lid of the shoebox and dropped it quickly again. Looking toward the door, he lifted it carefully again. A naked woman stared up at him, her legs parted, her face painted and bored, hair teased up into a blonde helmet. He supposed he wasn’t supposed to be critiquing her hairdo. It was a page that had been roughly ripped out of a magazine, and Ethan lifted it to reveal a whole sheaf of such pages. A whole box full. He quickly replaced the lid and moved away from the desk.
Jesse pushed back into the room and once again closed the door with surprising care.
“Thirty minutes or less,” he said, flopping back onto the bed.
“You can put on some music if you want. Just don’t turn it up above three or my mom will kick my ass.”
Ethan moved back to the desk, his eye drawn back to the shoebox. He picked out And Justice for All, just because the cover looked cool. He pushed the tape into the player, checked the volume–pegged right at three–and hit play. The music started with a swirl of weirdly distorted guitars that sounded like they were rising from deep underwater.
“Fuck yeah,” Jesse said. “I mean, it’s not Puppets, but nothing is Puppets.”
Ethan just nodded, no clue what any of that meant.
“If you feel like taking a walk in a bit, there are some friends having a thing. We’re invited.”
“Sure,” Ethan said. Am I going to a high school party?
They sat on the bed, listening to the music and thumbing through some of Jesse’s Thor comics. Ethan didn’t read Thor. He didn’t even really know what it was about. Then there was a rap at the front door and Jesse turned off the music as he ran to get the pizza. Ethan followed him out into the living room, and Jesse led him into the kitchen. It was a narrow white room with an old range with dirty trays under the burners. The table was a round formica thing with brass tubular legs. Jesse opened the pizza box and went to the refrigerator.
“Sure,” Ethan said, taking a slice.
Jesse poured out two glasses from the plastic bottle and then looked at Ethan with a mischievous smile.
“Want a little extra?”
Ethan just looked at him.
“Black Velvet? It’s my mom’s.” He pointed to the top of the fridge where a large plastic bottle of Black Velvet indeed stood. Ethan wasn’t even exactly sure what Black Velvet was, but he nodded.
Jesse looked down the hall, listening intently, and then took down the bottle. He poured it into Ethan’s glass until the foam all but spilled over the top and then returned the bottle to its place.
“What about you?”
“I’m good,” Jesse said, taking his drink and the box of pizza and pushing through the back door. Ethan followed. The backyard was a deep stretch of yard with a good half dozen trees looming high up above. There was no grass to speak of, just dirt and pine loam, and some folding beach chairs with tattered webbing. Jesse sat in one of these, put the pizza on another, and put his glass on the ground beside him.
Ethan took another chair, sipped at his drink. It tasted like soda and cough medicine. It was terrible. He took a long drink and set the glass down. He took a slice of pizza.
“Your mom work nights?” he said.
“Nah. She’s just not feeling too good. Been sick for a while. It’s fine. She leaves me alone, you know?”
Ethan finished his slice, washed it down with a long drink. It got better the more you drank. Not good, but at least tolerable. He still wasn’t sure what to make of Jesse’s not taking any.
They ate the whole pizza in silence, and Ethan finished his drink.
“Walk?” Jesse said.
Jesse shoved the pizza box into a plastic garbage can and went around the side of the house, through a little rickety gate, and soon they were out on the street in front of the house.
“We can cut through the park,” he said, pointing with his chin. Ethan, feeling a little swimmy, followed.
The park was a block over, a big chunk of land with a playground on this side and then paths that led down into a dense stand of redwoods, with a filthy little duck pond at the bottom. Ethan had been there a couple of times with his family. It was a cool place, but now the sun was really sinking down, and as they entered under the canopy of the trees the dark deepened. Jesse led them off the asphalt and down through the underbrush, along a well worn trail that cut straight across the main road’s zigzagging switchbacks. Soon they were out of the dark and into the open space of the duck pond. A couple of pickup trucks were parked near the fence, country music blasting from the speakers, and the kids standing around eyed them as they passed, but Jesse didn’t even acknowledge them. He just moved around the edge of the pond and followed a narrow path up the other side.
“These kids, the one’s we’re going to see? They’re kind of church kids, so maybe just don’t mention the alcohol, okay?”
“Yeah, sure.” Like what was he going to say? And church kids? There was no part of Jesse that fit with any other part.
At the far side of the park, they walked a couple of blocks, cut through a yard, and Jesse knocked at the door to a nice looking two story.
The door opened and a clean cut looking girl with a blonde ponytail looked out. She smiled at Jesse and then saw Ethan.
“Oh, hi. Come on in. I’m Beth.”
Ethan nodded to her as they passed into the house. The entryway gave onto a living room that was broad and open, with high ceilings. A baby grand piano took up one corner, and another girl was sitting on its bench, facing away from the keyboard, drinking a coke. Piano girl had red-blonde curls that stood out around her round face. Three other kids were scattered around the room in various stages of lounging. There was a bag of potato chips on the coffee table. On the radio, playing low: “Nothing Compares to You,” which was almost inescapable but that Ethan secretly thought was kind of great.
Jesse shoved his hand into the bag of chips and wandered around the room.
“This is Ethan. He’s new.”
“Hey.” They all nodded or raised hands in greeting. Ethan wasn’t sure if he fit in with the church kids either, but they were certainly a lot easier to read than whatever was going on at Jesse’s house. He still felt a little woozy, a little unsure on his feet, and he was sure that they could all see it, that he was making a fool of himself.
“What you all up to tonight?” Jesse said around a mouthful of chips, crumbs flying.
“God, you’re disgusting,” Beth laughed, holding up a hand as if to protect herself. Ethan watched her move, her long-fingered hands. Maybe it was the ponytail, but she seemed like a dancer, scrubbed clean and smooth.
“Nothing much,” the girl by the piano said. “I’ve got to get home soon. If my parents find out I was here, they’ll kill me.”
Ethan looked around. What sinister influence was supposed to be lurking here?
“We can walk you home,” Jesse said, and piano girl gave him a long, seemingly meaningful look.
“Yeah, okay,” she said, finally.
Without even looking at Ethan, Jesse extended an arm, guiding the girl toward the front door again, and before he knew it, Ethan was standing in the living room with several strangers.
“Well, nice meeting you,” he said.
“Yeah, see you around,” the boy on the floor said without looking up.
Ethan nodded to Beth, who was really kind of painfully pretty, and then he hurried out the door, running to catch up to Jesse and piano girl. He kept his distance, trailing behind them as they moved back into the park.
It was almost full dark now, and it was nearly impossible to see his way under the trees. He just kept his eye on Jesse up ahead and stumbled blindly forward, hoping the ground wouldn’t drop away beneath him.
At the pond, the pickup kids had their headlights and the bright spots mounted on top of their cabs turned on, reflecting off the algae-strewn surface of the water. Garth Brooks loudly proclaimed how he had friends in low places. Someone threw a bottle into the pond, and it made a hollow plump! Someone shouted something, and Ethan didn’t know if it was directed at them or not. Once again, Jesse paid them no mind.
They plunged back into the brush, the darkness so deep it was almost palpable, and Ethan was sure that he was going to get lost or fall and hurt himself. And his balance was messed up from the stupid drink.
The other two were a ways ahead of him, and Ethan hurried so he wouldn’t lose them. Jesse was holding piano girl’s hand now. She would sometimes say something quietly to him, and he would give a little laugh and answer in similarly quiet tones. She never acknowledged Ethan’s presence.
Soon they climbed out into the playground area, where streetlights illumined the parking lot. Jesse led them away from his house, and Ethan walked along, a few paces behind the couple, for three blocks. Then piano girl stopped them and told Jesse he needed to go.
“If my mom saw you,” she said.
“Right,” he said. “Well, later.” And he turned away, heading back toward Ethan. Piano girl walked up the block, not looking back.
“What was that about?” Ethan said.
“Heather’s a trip, man. Strict parents, but she’s wild, man. Her sister, too.”
“So, you two?”
“She just does hand stuff,” he said, miming. He laughed a mean little laugh, and they kept on.
Ethan thought again about walking home. He could always go back to the house and call his mom, but no, he couldn’t. Steph was at swimming. So, yeah, just walk away. Whatever Jesse was, Ethan was pretty sure he didn’t want to be that. Well, he wanted to be with girls, and the picture of Beth’s blonde ponytail flashed through his mind again, and then unbidden the thought of Beth lying down in the pine needle and trash of the park floor. He shook it away. There was something about Jesse’s way of being in the world that just felt… off.
He also knew he was too much of a coward to go. He’d wait it out. He knew he would. Call his mom in the morning. Make a run for it then.
Back in the house, they returned to Jesse’s room, where he turned the music back on and dropped once again on top of the bed.
“Bathroom?” Ethan said.
“Down the hall. Last on the right.”
Ethan imitated Jesse’s careful opening and shutting of the door and crept down the hall. The last thing he wanted was a run-in with Jesse’s mom. If Jesse was scared of her, Ethan couldn’t even imagine.
The bathroom was filthy, with a black coating lining the inside of the toilet bowl and mold growing up the walls. Ethan peed, half-holding his breath, ran his hands under the water, and wiped his hands dry on his pants.
Moving back down the hall, the door on the right was now open a couple of inches. The mom’s room. He did his best to move silently by, but a voice called out from inside.
Ethan stopped. He didn’t know what to do. Finally he spoke, standing where he was.
“No, ma’am. I’m Jesse’s friend. Ethan. I can get him for you.”
“What the fuck do I want with him?” The voice was thin, rough, and sharp as a rusty fishhook. “Come help me.”
Ethan looked down the hall toward Jesse’s closed door. He turned and pushed the door to his right open. The room was dark but for the light from the attached bathroom. That light fell on Jesse’s mother, a skeleton hung with pale skin, wearing a sheer bra and panties. Her legs were covered in half-dollar sized bruises, some green, some blue, some sickly yellow. She was trying to get up from the bed, without much success, and her hair, greasy and lank, hung down over her downturned face. Ethan stepped inside, and took one scrawny forearm in his hands. Her skin was dry as paper, and she felt too light to make up a whole person. He got her onto her feet, and she wavered, unsteady. She smelled of old urine and something vaguely medicinal. Ethan tried not to look at her, offering the modesty that she didn’t seem to afford herself. Instead he looked at the bed she had just risen from and saw sheets stained brown with what looked like dried blood.
“Just help me in there,” she said, nodding toward the bathroom, and Ethan kept one hand on her upper arm and placed his other hand at the small of her back, feeling the vertebrae standing out like the ridge along a lizard’s back. Glancing down, he saw that the back of her underwear was stained almost black.
In the bathroom, she swatted his hands away and braced herself on the counter.
“Shut the door, but don’t go away. I need help back.”
Ethan hurried out and closed the door. Looking around the room, he noticed that in the center of the far wall was a hole in the plaster. Eye-level and maybe ten inches across, it went clear through, darkness on the other side. The edges of the broken drywall were worn smooth along the bottom edge, and the wall was dirty around it, as if hands had worried it often. That would be the last bedroom on the right side of the hall. He watched the hole. It seemed to pull at him, and he wanted to cross the room and look through, but he wanted to be nearby when Jesse’s mom called, so he just watched it, as if something might crawl out of it, or some face might appear on the other side.
The toilet flushed, she called out, and Ethan opened the door again. She was sick alright, and the smell was truly foul. He held his breath and helped her up from the toilet. She clawed at her underwear with broken nails, not seeming to be able to make her fingers work. Finally, Ethan reached down and tugged them up, quick as he could manage. Bending down brought his face near to hers, and he really saw her for the first time. Her eyes were sunken and black-ringed, and her lips were chapped to bleeding, and there were more bruises on her cheeks. One nostril was caked with dried blood.
“The bed,” she gasped.
Ethan led her back into the bedroom, nausea tickling the back of his throat. As they shuffled back to the bed, he watched the hole in the far wall. It was like a pupil in some massive eye, focused on him, watching. At the bed, she turned, and Ethan lowered her down. She swatted his hands away again.
“That’s enough. No more free feels for you. Out.” She waved a hand toward the door and with the other hand picked up the glass beside her. She drank it greedily, some of it running out the sides of the glass and down her chin.
Ethan pulled the door quietly shut and hurried back toward Jesse’s room. He looked at the door across the hall, the room that neighbored the mother’s. A slide latch had been installed on the outside of the door, the metal bar pushed into a hole drilled into the frame.
“You get lost, or just take a really big one?”
“Your mom. She was calling.”
He threw his comic book down and swore, starting to rise.
“No, it’s okay, I helped her.”
He stopped and looked at Ethan. A very long pause.
“You helped her.”
“Yeah. She seems pretty sick.”
“I told you. She needs a lot of rest.”
“Well, she’s back in bed now.”
He was still holding Ethan’s eyes, as if he were doing some complicated calculations in his head.
“Well, if she’s up, we can watch some TV. Come on.”
They went into the livingroom and Jesse turned on the big TV. The volume was all the way down, and he left it that way as he flipped through the channels. TBS was playing Beastmaster, and Jesse turned the volume up just loud enough to make out, and then tossed the remote onto the coffee table.
“So, how do you know those kids from before,” Ethan said.
“Oh, just from church.”
Ethan tried to imagine Jesse in church. Then he tried to imagine his mother anywhere.
“We haven’t gone in a while, since my mom got sick, but they’re okay.”
On the screen, Dar and his companions found themselves surrounded by red, bat-like humanoids who closed in around them in an ever-tighter circle.
“I used to have this on tape. Wore it out,” Jesse said.
“Yeah,” Ethan said. He didn’t know what else to say. He wondered if his family was back from Steph’s swimming lesson. He could fake sick. Say his stomach hurt. Get the hell out.
But instead, they watched the rest of the movie, and then MacGyver reruns came on, and they watched that. They didn’t say much, only occasionally commenting on the action. Ethan found himself drifting off in the fake leather recliner.
Finally, Jesse got up and disappeared down the hall, returning with a couple of blankets and two pillows. He threw a pillow and blanket and Ethan, and took the rest back to the couch. He set up his little bed there, while a Tide commercial flashed bright on the screen. Ethan put the pillow behind his head and covered up with the blanket. It was pretty comfortable, actually.
Jesse wanted to watch USA Up All Night because he thought the host was hot and the movies were funny, but they didn’t make it even a half hour into the first movie before Jesse was snoring quietly on the couch, the TV still humming away quietly. Ethan punched the pillow, which smelled musty, and settled in. Soon, he drifted off in the blue light of the television.
He awoke to the sound of scratching and a soft voice calling out. At first, still caught in the gauzy web of half-sleep, he thought it was a cat, trying to get in. But that soft whine was a word.
He looked across the room at Jesse, twisted in his blanket, back turned toward him. The TV was still on, whispering out the laugh track from Happy Days and casting shifting shadows around the room.
Fully awake now, he didn’t have to guess. He knew where the voice was coming from. The end of the hall. The last room. Ethan’s mind raced through horror movie images and tabloid headlines. He imagined some little sister, kept chained to the wall, half-starved. But why? And why the hole in the wall? Who did it serve? The mother or whoever was locked up inside?
He allowed himself a brief fantasy of opening the door, gathering up the emaciated form of the abused child, carrying her–he knew it must be a her–out into the street, as ambulances and police cruisers converged on him, the hero.
And then the voice shook him back into reality.
The scratch-scratch like fingernails along the bottom of a hollow-core door. And he didn’t want to be a hero anymore. He didn’t want to open any doors on any secret family horrors. He wanted to run. He could get his bag, slip out the back door, walk home. He’d make it before daylight. Sleep the morning in his own bed and forget about everything he’d seen and heard in this house.
He carefully folded up the recliner, tangling the blanket in the footrest, and stood up. Jesse slept on, the rise and fall of his breathing barely visible. Ethan moved to the end of the hallway. It was dark, the bathroom door standing open but offering only deeper darkness within. The scratch-scratch seemed terribly loud in the stillness.
It was the voice more than anything. Childlike and feminine and pleading, as if only for him. He took two steps into the hallway. There was a wet cough from behind the mother’s door, a sniffle, and the sound of rustling bedclothes. Ethan stood statue still. He imagined the mother opening her bedroom door at that moment and finding him standing there in the dark, perfectly still, just staring at the door. She’d probably scream. Jesse would wake up. He’d look like a crazy person.
He felt a little like a crazy person.
Two more steps and he was past the mother’s room, almost to the end of the hall. It was deep darkness here. He remembered thinking he was lost in pure dark earlier in the evening, in the park, with Jesse and piano girl. But this was true darkness. Glancing over his shoulder he saw the flickering glow of the television in the other room, but the hallway seemed so long, the light so far away.
He ran his hands along the smooth wood of the door, feeling for the latch. He found it, and it rattled, too loud. Too loud. He was still again.
The voice didn’t even seem to come from behind the door. It filled the darkness. He lifted the little hasp and slid the bar to the side. It wasn’t a large lock. A good kick should have been enough to knock it loose. He carefully pushed the hasp back down, and then waited again, listening.
Sliding his hands down the door, he found the handle, turned it slowly, pushed.
As the door moved, something skittered away from it, back, away into a far corner. There were two windows in the room, both of them covered in cardboard, held in place by duct tape. The only light came in through the hole in the wall to his right, casting a dim spotlight on the far wall. Devoid of furniture, the room felt over-large, cavernous, the corners dark.
“Hello?” he whispered, his eyes slowly adjusting to the weak light.
In the far corner, beyond the hole in the wall, in the deeper shadows, a shape moved slightly.
“Please,” she said.
Ethan stepped further into the room, eyeing the hole in the wall. The room beyond, Jesse’s mom’s room, was just an orange glare of dim light and shadow. He passed through that light, approaching the figure in the corner with his hands up.
From the shadows he could see that she was at least not a child. Her hair hung loose over her eyes, and she seemed to be wrapped in a sheet, or some kind of loose, gauzy scarf-like thing. She stood slightly hunched, with her hands at her sides, shoulders tensed up.
“I’m Ethan,” he said, not touching her, but holding his hands out so that she could see they were empty. “What’s your name?”
She looked up from under the fringe of hair so blonde it was almost white, big eyes reflecting the faint light, and he thought he saw a smile.
And then the light was gone, and they were plunged into darkness. Ethan flinched away, turning to the hole on his right, where Jesse’s mom peered through. Her eyes and nose filled the space, her fingers poked through, clutching the bottom of the hole. She hooked her eyes at Ethan, standing guilty in the dark.
“She don’t talk,” she said, the voice coming through the wall muffled and rattly. “Never talks.”
“Why’s she locked in here,” Ethan said, adrenaline shaking his voice, ready to run.
“Why you lock something up? So it don’t get out, or so someone else don’t get in. Don’t ask stupid questions. What you really want to know?”
Ethan took a step back, away from both women, the skeletal face peering through the plaster and the grinning woman hunched in the corner. Suddenly, he didn’t know which to be more frightened of.
“I caught her,” the mother said. “She didn’t think I could. Didn’t think I was strong enough. Didn’t think I had the juice. But I caught her. She’s mine.”
“You can’t,” Ethan said. Just that. He couldn’t find the words to say everything that was wrong with the situation. You can’t keep a person prisoner. You can’t steal people away. You can’t be here, staring through this ragged hole in the wall in the middle of the night. You just can’t.
The mother laughed. It was a broken glass under car tires sound. “That’s what she thought, but look at her. I can. Can’t I, dear?” The eyes moved toward the corner.
“Who is she,” was the best Ethan could do. He didn’t have the necessary resources for this conversation.
“Not a who. A what. What’s she look like to you? Tell me what you see.”
Ethan looked back at the girl in the corner. She lifted her hands, long-fingered hands, pale in the dark, and pushed her hair back behind her ears. He knew that face. He’d seen it just today. Jesse’s friend. Beth. Her hair let down from its ponytail. She smiled up at him.
“Ooh, hoo. What do you see, boy? She look like an angel to you? She looked like an angel when I got her. She ain’t no angel. Sometimes she still tries, but I see through it. Tell me. Tell me what you see.”
“She’s just a girl,” he whispered.
That laugh again. “A girl. All you boys think about. Girls. She’s no more a girl than I am. Ancient. Older than time, this one.”
“Why are you keeping her in here,” Ethan said, straightening himself. The first waves of adrenaline had subsided enough that he could almost think.
“That’s what you do with one like her. I like to watch her. Sometimes I watch her all day long. Taken almost everything to keep her here. Almost drained me dry, but I caught her. She’s mine. She’ll be mine until I finally die. Soon now. Then she’ll go. But she’ll remember. She’ll know I caught her. She won’t underestimate the next one.”
“Come on,” he said to Beth. “I’ll take you out of here.” He held his hand out to her.
The mother laughed again. “I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t do that. Never touched her. Wouldn’t.”
“It’s okay. We’ll get help,” he said.
The long pale fingers reached out slowly across the darkness, stretching out toward his open hand.
“Don’t feed the animals, boy. Don’t do it. I wouldn’t. She’s just good to watch. She’ll show you anything you want. Be anything you want. Wouldn’t touch. Just look.” She started to cough, that wet, hacking cough, and her face disappeared from the hole in the wall, once again letting a solitary beam of light enter the room. In the light of that beam: Ethan’s open hand, and the girl’s pale fingers reaching out, almost touching. He held his breath. That touch. Just the feel of her fingers wrapped up in his own. He’d die for it. Just one touch. Her fingers slid into his palm, and he closed his fingers around them. They were so cold. He wanted to take them in his mouth, warm them, keep them close to his skin. She looked at him across the circle of light, so beautiful. Painfully beautiful. Like a fishhook just below his sternum, tugging.
The mother returned to the hole, peering in, and the room went dark again.
And Ethan felt his arm jerked suddenly away. There was no pain. It simply wasn’t there any more. He felt at his shoulder with his left hand, at the wet socket, blood pumping warm between his fingers.
“Oh, my, no. I wouldn’t have done that,” the mother said. “Wouldn’t have touched her. Not for a million dollars, no. Just watch her. Just look.”
Ethan fell to his knees, the blood rushing from his head, gone light, too light. He couldn’t feel his arm. As he fell, he felt those cold fingers on his skin. Painfully beautiful.
The mother laughed her gravelly chuckle that was half cough, as the mouth closed on the base of his neck.
“No,” he said, though no sound came out. “Please.”
“Oh, goodness,” he mother said. “I tried to warn you. Look but don’t touch. Oh, look at that. She’s never shown me that before. Yes.”
Ethan felt the warmth running out of him. He felt his body shake as the girl’s teeth tore through his belly, her fingers pulling him open.
“Please,” he sighed, but he wasn’t sure if he was pleading for help or begging for her not to stop. If she would just hollow him out and climb inside, he’d keep her warm forever. Just so that he could feel that touch.
“Just look at that,” the mother said. “Just look.”
Josh Hanson is a teacher and a graduate of University of Montana MFA program, and his first novel, King’s Hill is forthcoming from Wicked House. His previous work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sinister Smile Press, BlackPetals, Dance Cry Dance Break, Stoneboat,Fast Flesh, and Diagram.
When the phone rang Louis came awake with no memory of his dreams and a sinking feeling in his stomach he couldn’t place. He reached over – wide awake, despite the hour and the sudden pull from sleep – and picked up the handset.
The voice on the other end spoke in a harsh whisper and he sat up with a bolt of animal fear. His hand found his sleeping wife, stroked her thigh beneath the blanket.
The voice said, “How long until I fall in love did you ever really care what year was it you lost it all how do you feel now is it dead yet are you alone do you feel it—“
He pulled the phone from his ear, looked at it for a moment, and killed the connection. It beeped and fell silent and he sat still in the quiet dark for an hour with his hand on his wife’s leg.
Then he rose and went downstairs to make breakfast. He was always up earlier and he always made her breakfast, even during the brief time in their late twenties that their marriage had been hanging on by a thread.
Harriet woke to lazy sunlight, the smell of toast and something frying. She dressed quickly in a t-shirt and sweats patterned with cats (a random gift from Louis, one of those he would bring home on occasion for no reason at all) and went downstairs. In the kitchen Louis stood at the stove, frying bacon in a pan. He didn’t turn to look at her and she yawned, frowned at his back. “Are you okay?”
“Of course,” he said. His voice seemed flat. She sat at the table and watched him, his stiff posture, shoulders bent slightly as he turned the food over.
“Did you sleep okay?” she asked, feeling silly as the words left her mouth – since when did they make small talk? Louis had always been a somewhat dispassionate man – given more to acts of service than declarations of love – but he was a morning person, it was when his energy was at its’ highest, and this behaviour was out of character.
“Sure I did,” he said, and he turned to her. His face was as flat as his voice. Behind his horn rimmed glasses his eyes seemed to float somewhere: over her shoulder, to the dark expanse of the living room. She turned, expecting to see something there, and when her gaze returned to her husband the sunlight filtering in bursts through the thin blinds above the kitchen sink triggered her. She stiffened and her eyes went wide then squinted shut then went wide again and she started to convulse, falling out of the chair, knocking it aside with a splayed foot, and she was aware of it all and the light was so bright and the pain in her locked dancing limbs was excruciating.
*** *** ***
Louis watched until the bacon began to burn. He turned and slowly shut off the gas, watching the flame recede and go out. Then he walked past Harriet’s flailing body into the living room, through the hall to the parlour and the second downstairs bedroom. Satisfied that their son Jacob was at high school as he should’ve been, he returned to the kitchen. Harriet was flat on her back – her eyes filmed over, glassy, following him as he gingerly picked up the kitchen chair she’d knocked over.
“You really ought to be more careful in taking your medication, sweetheart,” he said, dragging the chair to the centre of the kitchen. He lowered himself onto it and sat with his knees apart, hands dangling, like he was watching a fishing line.
She made a savage noise deep in her throat and he glanced at the iPhone sitting on the table. His face was expressionless, a wad of putty into which flat blue eyes had been stuck. “I’ll call an ambulance after,” he said. “I don’t believe you’ll make it through this one. They’ve been getting worse. I’d say that I’m sorry but I don’t know if I feel things like that anymore.”
Her ankle hit the table, sent a salt shaker to the floor with a clatter.
He said, “I got the oddest phone call this morning.”
JP Townsend is a writer of crime, science fiction and horror. Originally born in Terre Haute, Indiana, he migrated to Australia as a teenager and currently resides in Brisbane, Queensland, with his partner and a very talkative cat from whom he gets most of his ideas. Currently employed as a motor winder, he has previously been a high school English teacher, a line cook, and an intern editor. Townsend completed a bachelor’s of fine arts in creative writing at the Queensland University of Technology in 2013, and has been writing since the age of fifteen.
“The Thrill”, a science fiction story set in a post-apocalyptic United States, was published by Aurealis – an Australia speculative fiction monthly – in May 2022.
Mona holds back from exhibiting her usual face of disappointment in the presence of Izzy, who is yet again, late to the hospital. Flush and glassy eyed, Izzy explains a long drawn out excuse, only half of it making sense, as Mona stares forward, pressing the elevator button until it beams red. Fucking time I will never get back, thought Mona as she forces her lips to curl into a grin, a line of teeth showing, her cheeks risen from its natural spot, pushing her eyelids closer together in a way to make her eyes smile. Masking friendliness. Or hiding the complete despise she has for her sister.
“You won’t believe what happened,” said Izzy and how badly did Mona want to respond.
“You’re right, I won;t believe it, I usually don’t believe those who can’t tell the difference between truth and absolute bullshit. But go ahead, waste my time.” But she held back. This was not the time, not now when there was much to do.
The conversation, as always, is light and one-sided but Mona adds a few ‘uh huh’s’ with a little bit of ‘oh wow’ as the climax of the story unfolds–Izzy’s broken down 05 Hyundai Elantra, which is not in any fault Izzy’s doing. How could she know letting a year lapse before getting an oil change could cause engine problems? How could she know how impaired her driving could be if she drank four or five rum and cokes if no one told her not to? Or that you should replace your brake lights when they begin to dim, not wait until they all go out, changing her life to a schedule or day driving only. This was Izzy’s poison, sheer denial of accountability. It made Mona’s blood boil enough to want to wrap her newly manicured hands around Izzy’s tulum tinted neck, and squeeze, watching the veins pop to the surface like the tentacles of a dead jellyfish.
Instead she listened, patiently as humanly possible, one hand flexing in her pocket as the other anchored itself on the strap of her purse. Today could be the last day of listening to the woes of a woman still stuck in the brain of a teenager.
Today is special.
Today is the day.
“Visiting hours are over at 8pm.” says Mona, flatly. “Doesn’t leave a lot of time but I think we can do it.”
Izzy wrinkles her nose, “Us….right.”
Izzy leaves no more time for silence, craning her neck towards her sister who is at least 5 inches taller but mine as well be looking up at the Empire State building.“You don’t believe me about my car, do you?”
A faint vein from the side of Mona’s forehead begins to bloom, slowly.
There is no time for this, she thinks, the hand in her pocket now balling into a fist.
Mona’s focus remains forward, avoiding her doe eyes and pouty lips which to the opposite sex, has some effect. Not all men of course, only the losers she’s recycled from high school, or through treatment, or because they felt bad and were divorcees looking to fill the void with someone half their age. Izzy was a spider the way she spun her web around them, so delicately and with skill. They wouldn’t know how deep they were in until she tightened the silk around their neck, like a noose.
“I’ll tell the cops you fucking raped me,” she once told a man who had been help paying some of her rent when she got fired. In a drunken bender, she told Mona but stopped when Mona’s face didn’t show the approval she thought was coming, only disgust and second hand embarrassment.
“You never fucking believe me,” Izzy’s voice is rising and at a rate faster than the shitbox elevator taking them to the 12th floor.
“Can you for one moment,” Mona says but she’s cut herself off, the vein beginning to pulse. She touches it as if her finger will soothe it back below, like its crying child needing to be lulled back to bed.
“Jesus fucking christ – I can’t ever do anything right!”
The slick silver doors part and Mona steps out, the stench of sanitizer piercing both their nostrils, but Mona didn’t mind it. In fact it gave her a sense of safety. Cleanliness. Calm.
Izzy is still talking, her words muddled by the clicks of Mona’s red heels, the shuffling of night nurses as they perform their checks, the last of the kitchen staff removing untouched trays and placing them in large stainless steel holding cabinets, entrapping the uneaten food in its metal stomachs.
Room 1204 is pale and empty, the off-white walls toned down against the moonlight coming from the widened windows. All of the lights are off except from the bathroom, showing nothing more than a crescent of brightness etched across the linoleum. Izzy takes the chair on the right of him while Mona pulls a chair towards the end of the bed.
“He’s going to die soon – look at him, he looks like shit.”
“That’s an insult to shit,” says Mona, her eyes cemented onto the frail figure in the bed. “I don’t think we’re that lucky though.”
Izzy lost count of how many times they had stood in that place, sometimes on a different floor or room, but in the presence of their father who seemed to teeter between alive and dead. They had been sure a hundred times it was the last day, their hearts filled with joy and relief. Until it continued. He continued. He kept breathing. The threat was still lingering.
Izzy dances her fingers along the bed until reaching the wall, removing the clipboard of his records from it’s cubby.
Albert Cloy. Sixty-three years old. Height 5’9’. Weight varies but slowly declining, maybe 147 lbs. Maybe thinner. Widower. Father of three. Occupation retired, but former technical writer for instructional manuals. Condition – poor. Pneumonia, heart palpitations, nerve damage to forty percent of his body. Frail, abrasions, bruises, uncontrollable bile spilling from his throat. Do Not Resuscitate.
A colostomy bag hangs on the side of the bed, bone dry.
“I don’t want to be here,” says Izzy, clutching a spare pillow to her chest, her cheap french manicure digging into the fabric.
Cheap ass, thought Mona as she glances at her own nails – red with gold tips from a reputable salon that gives you cucumber water while you wait. Izzy wouldn’t even know what to do with a place like that. With any place like that.
Izzy tosses the pillow to Mona, only for her to toss it back.
How many people have touched that pillow, thought Mona. Hundreds? Thousands? The nurses certainly, and patients, then maybe a few doctors, families of patiences, transport staff, cleaning crew, the staff who sowed it, the one who placed it in a box to ship it.
“Are you going to use the pillow or not?” asks Mona, however it sounds like more of a command.
Izzy drops the pillow onto the floor, a flapping noise following against the deafening space, dust wisping in the air.
“Why can’t Robby be here?” she asks but the question goes unanswered.
They know why Robby can’t be there.
Robby is in prison, a place he belongs for strangling his girlfriend to death four years prior, dumping her plastic wrapped body in a Shaw Pond behind the financial hub of town. He’s held by bars, concrete, the eyes and armored guards because he became impatient for this day to end it all and be free from the sins of our father. The sins of ourselves. The literal monster we created so many years ago. In that house. In that basement. On that night.
Mona doesn’t want to think about it but the memory floods through of the beginning where they packed into their blue Chrysler Minivan and drove 400 miles to to Massachusetts to a sleepy town with only one road in and two Dunkin Donuts, which at the time, was a big deal. Now you can find a Dunkins or variety of cafes in every crevice. The Cloys complete with Robby, Izzy, Mona and their parents, pulled up to the two story Victorian house. It was green and had twin chimneys and two turrets like raised hands excited for their arrival. A gem among the dull houses surrounded it.
“Emerald Palace” said Robby, fourteen, and amazement in his eyes at the size in comparison to the two bedroom ranch they had come from living with their cousins and Aunt Barbara and her array of boyfriends who changed more frequently than he changed his boxers, although he was a boy and was gross so not as often as he should. Robby was fresh coming off watching the Wizard of Oz and enjoyed it, even though he mixed up Emerald City and the Royal Palace. Not that he could go back on his mistake. Boys grow into men and a man can’t be wrong – especially to his little sisters.
It was Izzy who first noticed the flaw in the house. A small hole in the corner by the second floor window in the turret. With each breath Izzy could spot what we first thought was a bee but it was black and moved in a way they had never seen before. Izzy tugged on her mothers skirt but it went unnoticed.
Mona rises from the chair, her eyes still on her father as she approaches Izzy. She reaches down, pulling the pillow up, a firm grip on the edges.
“You ruined us,” she mutters, waiting in earnest for Albert’s consciousness to emerge, to respond to his crimes before justice could prevail. It would be more satisfying that way.
But he sleeps, lost in some other dimension unknown to the wake. Is he in pain? Did he ever feel pain? Mona hopes he is burning in all nine circles of hell, even if just unconsciously. Izzy on the other hand, is divided, like in all aspects of her life, living between fear of this creature before them, and unconditional love of a father.
“Visiting hours are over,” says a voice over the intercom. Something pre-recorded.
The sounds of footsteps near and Mona places the pillow at the end of the bed, her hands clasped together, the white of her knuckles showing.
“All I asked was for you to be here on time Izzy. You couldn’t even do that.”
Izzy sits, flustered and angry but before she can speak, Mona leaves, almost bumping into the night nurse.
She doesn’t wait for Izzy downstairs or outside, rolling away from the hospital, tears beginning to form but dry before a single one can escape, as the radio buzzes in the background.
What the fuck is wrong with me, what the fuck was I thinking bringing her into this, she thought as she pulls over, the engine humming before she kills it. In her peripheral vision, she can see it, the house, the secrets within it that have been kept so well. Kept for so long.
The house is dark but Mona can feel it breathing, almost asleep but could awake at any moment. To swallow her whole again.
It’s not more than ten minutes when Mona’s cell rings from an unknown number. Robby and his connections, she thought, her thumb hovering over the answer button before committing to it.
“Hey, it’s me.”
She nods, although he can’t see that. “The yellow brick road led nowhere,” she says.
There is a long pause, although she really wants to chastise him instead. Only an idiot would call right after a crime, leaving cell tower records and phone records as an obvious trail. They might not have realized it was Robby for a while, but eventually they would.
“I’m sorry,” says Mona. “I’ll try to watch the movie again. Ok?”
Robby sighs hard and it breaks Mona’s heart, what’s left. “Pinky promise,” she says and in her mind, she can tell he is grinning, just a little bit.
Izzy pulls up in a cab, and hops out, moving towards Mona’s car with ease and quickness like a figure skater. She taps on the window hard.
“I got to go, the disaster is here. I love you.”
“Ditto.” says Robby, nonchalant.
“Bye, you ass.”
Izzy walks away, almost dancing to the front door, offering herself up like an appetizer. Mona is more careful, her steps slow and shy, as if the door itself is some curious being–maybe dangerous, maybe magical but that was always the appeal. The trick. By the time Mona forces the extra 40 lbs up the stairs, the hair on her neck begins to salute. The door is unlocked and agape, like the opening of a mouth and for a moment Mona hesitates; muscle memory.
The moment she turned 18, a milestone that should have been celebrated for springing into the unknown of adulthood, Mona was leaving in the dead of night, Izzy trailing along, mascara running as Izzy left all of her favorite things – her flip phone, her new Tori Amos CD, knock off Tommy Hilfigure bag, and of course, her favorite blush pink cardigan. It has ‘senti’ she cried, not able to make out the full word ‘sentimental’. Mona didn’t have any senti, none worth the misery to stay in that house. It was all just things, things that could be replaced in time. But she would have to face it someday. Why not today, she thought.
The smell of staleness fills the air, from the top of the bookshelf in the hallway to the ceiling where the old chandelier hung, an out of place decoration if it wasn’t for all of the other junk–the knights helmet that fascinated a mini bar, a partial set of tattered and moldy copies of The Bobbsey Twins book series – literature for children though neither Izzy or Mona ever remember reading them, two separate gold framed pictures with dirt caked corners, one of Mary and the other Jesus hanging above the walled up fireplace. Dog hair peppers the vents, although they never had a dog, though the strains would levitate once the heat was turned on and would land onto the black leather couch, which is in somewhat good condition if you didn’t mind the lumps.
“I’m not going to sleep, not at all. Not here,” says Izzy, her behavior a complete 180 from outside. She slumps on the couch, in between the larger lump that slightly rose, like a cancer cell.
Mona shrugs, surveilling the picture frames, seeing a few authentic ones among the many store bought families. How did the Department of Family Services not find this odd. How did they, in the one time they visited, sitting across from young Mona, her hair greasy, shirt double stained over, her body thinning from missed meals, not see all of the trouble hung right above them. How when Mona pleaded to take her away, the woman jotted notes and never surfaced again.
I know now, Mona thought, burned out by the many careers–starting with the bleeding heart gigs that take every bit of you starting with the privilege of being on the other side of the clipboard. To judge, measure, to take children away from bad homes and not destroy ones because of a one time incident or accident. To try to measure against agency policy written by people who have never done the job. Then it was the soulless jobs, selling people their own short term happiness until your entire life depends on people being irresponsible. The rest blurred like the years, like a carousel going 100 mph. My good years are behind me, Mona would think, looking up at the drop down ceiling of her condo, the shape of her body in a S, her cat nestled in one of the empty spaces as the latest Tinder date slipped out back into the night. She enjoyed the small treats she gave herself – the hook ups, the spa days, the croissant over the healthy option. The occasional adventures that took her places in the dark. She still felt empty, held back by the past.
“I’m going to bed, good luck not sleeping.”
“I’m not going to, why don’t you believe me?” says Izzy but Mona is already walking upstairs, her hands crouched to her side, not wanting to touch the banister, not wanting to rely on something already broken.
Izzy rested on the couch, watching the ceilings as she counts the cracks. She could remember when this place was brand new–or brand new to her. It still had its spooky charm, the breath taking edges and designs embossed in the framework, both inside and out. There was even a backstory to the house, one grim and unmentioned upon The Cloys moving in. Izzy of course took that as an opportunity. She smiles at the memory of Izzy pulling her classmates through the house.
“If you step over here, this is where the Ghost of Meredith Wyler was murdered by her husband,” said little Izzy as the group entered the kitchen.
“Did he shoot her? My dad says guns killed my uncle,” said a round boy, his thick focals like two coasters.
Izzy laughed and twirled around the kitchen, stopping before the sink with her arm stretched out, palms up, just like the Wheel of Fortune models–part of the presentation she promised the neighborhood kids after she couldn’t ding dong ditch, even when she was double dog dared.
“It was here, over the sink where he bashed in her head with a hammer!”
One kid, Mikey or Jake, or some other plain yogurt of a name, began to cry as Isabell, Izzy’s rival, started to interrogate her.
“How would you know, you weren’t even alive 100 years ago when it happened. You’rea liar.”
The other kids starred, waiting with eyes wide, juvenile as kids are but also instinctual and brutal, all fighting to stay in the clan. At that moment, Izzy had to prove herself against the emerging spotted hyena Isabella of 6th grade.
“I’ll show you! It was in an old newspaper!” yelled Izzy, past the point of acting calm and civilized. She stepped over to the basement door, her hand was grasping the knob. It wasn’t worth the beating to prove anything to Isabell, not that Izzy got a chance. She had tried to open the door but as was, another body was pushing through on the other side. It was Albert, towering over them, expressionless. Izzy pissed herself right there in front of everyone.
In the morning Mona finds herself buried against the wall, Izzy, the big spoon, gripping her skin for dear life. She’s asleep, looking the same as she did as a child — terrified but nearly dead to the world. An earthquake wouldn’t wake her. Maneuvering like an acrobat, Mona frees herself, the light of the window shining bright against the dull yellow walls. Faded posters of boy bands fill one side, the fresh faced groups on an old copy of J-14, who are at this point, are fathers themselves if not young grandfathers. Photographs of friends hang off the mirror but their names don’t surface to her mind.
Purple hair dye, still in its box is in the wastebasket, surrounded by emo and dramatic attempts at poetry. She doesn’t unravel those.
“I’m going to get coffee,” she says but Izzy doesn’t stir, drool piling on to the pillow Mona brought with her along with the comforter.
Does Izzy even drink coffee? Does she need it with her manic personality? She thought, pulling on her jacket and exiting the house.
Her phone rings as she juggles between two large iced coffees, extra cream in both but no sugar. Unknown caller.
“Hey it’s me, it’s Robby.”
` “Hi it’s me, it’s Robby, Mona speaking,” Mona teases, knowing this would be the only opportunity for a lighthearted joke before getting back to first degree murder.
“It’s 7:30 in the morning, the movie theater isn’t open yet for patrons.”
A silence looms on the other end.
“Get it done.” he says, then the line goes dead but Mona doesn’t remove the phone from her ear.
“Okay, love you too Robby. Say hi to the wife and kids you would have had if you didn’t kill your high school sweetheart. Dick.”
Izzy is waiting on the front steps, still wrapped in the comforter which is now getting dirty. Mona kills the engine but doesn’t move, hoping to muster another moment with her sister that doesn’t detonate into a full blown fight.
“You left me!” she yells from the stairs.
No such luck, thinks Mona.
By the time Mona gets to the stairs, Izzy is stomping, like a child, but still accepts the coffee.
“Do you know what it’s like in there?” she wines but merely meant what it was like alone.
“I haven’t forgotten,” spits Mona. “Do you know why? Because I pay the bills. I pay for random strangers to turn the lights off and on once in a while so someone thinks we live here. I pay people to park here occasionally so it always looks like we are here – that we have never left so no one breaks in. No one accidentally finds anything that would put us away.”
She pushes past Izzy, unable to contain the huffing.
“We didn’t do anything wrong.”
Mona turns, glancing down the driveway, seeing a glimpse of the shed. “We did nothing. And that is so much fucking worse. Now get your ass in the car.”
“There’s nothing we can do – try coming back tomorrow or next week,” says Jenine, the patient service coordinator.
“I’m only in town for a few days – can’t leave my cat along for that long. I don’t understand, why can’t we see our father?” says Mona, the word ‘father’ hard to swallow.
“Yeah, why are you being a bitch.”
“Izzy, stop.” says Mona, hoping to turn the conversation around as Jenine ruffles through her drawer, looking for the ‘Closed for Visitors’ sign. An infection or rather what they are pretending is not cross contamination or negligence has blocked anyone from entering the ICU momentarily, including family to ensure no one knows about what happened.
“He’s on death’s door!” wines Izzy. “We just want to be able to say goodbye to daddy.”
She’s actually convincing, thinks Mona, watching as Izzy’s eyes begin to water, her chest heave, her hand beginning to shield her mouth like she is going to be sick. It’s more than Jenine can handle, at least more than what she is willing to deal with at $14 an hour – and she can sense an escalation to a supervisor in the near future.
Jenine’s brow raises as she tries to calm Izzy down. She leans close, placing the sign to the edge of the desk. “Just come back tonight. The night guy is never on time so you can slip in if you want twenty minutes before closing plus we are short staffed in like every department. Like no one wants to work here. The issue is going to be wrapped up soon anyway. Just please–”
“Leave now,” Mona interrupts. “We will go. Thank you, we really appreciate it.”
A smile rises from Jenine’s face as they exit from the automatic doors, and disappear from view.
“I’m hungry,” says Izzy, holding her stomach as if it would subdue the pains.
The two settle on a classic-Pizza Hut–and sit at the furthest edge of the restaurant. In the car Mona made it clear they would not talk about the hospital–who is in it, why they were going and anything six degrees from it. It’s only until the last slice of pepperoni they both realize they have nothing to talk about. No common thread to keep a conversation alive. Izzy didn’t want to talk about her pervert landlord which she is sure is watching her through a camera in the vent, or about getting fired, again. Mona didn’t want to talk about feeling suffocated all of the time, but not finding the courage to seek help, or talk about the latest fuck–the guy with a thick mustache and dick that curved a little to the left, making her feel lopsided as he thrusted against her walls, close to a real orgasm but not quite.
So they only found one thing to talk about–Robby.
“He’s so annoying sometimes. He calls me like all of the time,” says Izzy.
“Yeah, he won’t shut the fuck up half of the time. Why is it so surprising he calls me? Doesn’t he call you?”
She nods, but it’s a lie. Over the past year he’s called less and less, and she assumed it was due to the lack of money on his call card or was running out of favors for private cell use. She knew he wasn’t busy, being in the general population without anything more to do than play the same games he did outside of prison, just this time with limited range.
“What do you guys talk about?” asks Mona, trying to sound sly but desperate for any crumb, mostly if the terrible things she says about Izzy have telephoned its way through him to her.
“Mostly about how exciting prison is or how he’s trying to make it. That and sex.”
“He gets his dick sucked like weekly. I guess there is plenty of ass and drugs so it’s like a party every weekend, you know, when someone isn’t being shanked or he’s in solitary.”
Mona imagines some hussie obsessed with killers sending him nudes, responding back from his letters about his innocence. “How does a woman get weekly access? Is that some kind of conjugal visit program?”
Izzy takes a wide bite of pizza, grease dripping down her chin but her hand saves it before it travels to her shirt. She shakes her head.
“He fucks dudes now. He’s going to be old if he ever gets out at all and that chick he killed, she was upper class Catholic Republican- those people don’t forget and always show up at appeals and know someone on the parole board. He was also in that satan phase”
“Yeah, that didn;t help him at all.”
What was her name again? A sense of shame rises within Mona. The trial had gone on so long it started to fit into their lives like a normal activity. Some people had hobbies like tennis, weight lifting, and crocheting. The remaining Cloys went to court.
Izzy continues, “Got to get some where you can. As long as they don’t have facial hair, he says it’s not different from a girl giving head. He says it’s actually better.”
“He’s living better than me, Jesus and all he had to do was murder his girlfriend.”
Izzy is quiet for a moment. “Do you think that will happen when we-”
“Stop,” Mona says forcefully. “Finish what you have – let’s go to the house for a bit.”
Mona gets up first, slinging her brown leather purse around her shoulder, for a moment seeing her reflection in the window. She looks like a mother – before they moved, minus the complete and gutted despair shrouded around her like a tight sweater. But not like their mother. Helen was light and airy and confident. At least that is how they remember her, or chose to remember her.
Back at the house, the television flickers, not constantly but just enough to get on Izzy’s nerves.
“Is it time yet?”
“No, it wasn’t five minutes ago and it won’t be in five more minutes.”
Izzy shifts on the couch, the lump moving with her.
“Do you think there’s a dead body inside the couch?” asks Izzy but she gets no response. “Why do you hate me?”
Mona is fixated on the window behind the TV and how small it looks, smaller than she remembers the night they fled. The girls tiptoed through the living room in the middle of the night, Izzy clung to Mona’s arm as they stood in front of the window, their father just a room away. If he woke, he would kill them. He had to, they knew too much. Mona leaned against the sill with one hand while fastening the other around Izzy’s foot. Izzy leaned close, unclasping the lock with delegate hands, waiting for another breath of the house before inching it further. Unlocked, they waited again, for the sounds of life outside to become weak- a car peeling off, the sound of an ambulance, drunks walking by yelling loudly to their friends.
Mona, feeling the pain in her legs, leaned closer, her sweatshirt draping the sill, ready to capture any clean air or wind invading. It was another hour before the window opened, inch by inch, the air rising up Mona’s sweater, cooling her skin before going completely numb. When opened, like they practiced although this also involved Robby, rests Izzy on the window, moving their hands into a clasping position as she lowers Izzy’s back to the side stairs, movements smooth and graceful like a dance. Izzy doesn’t let go, something they promised because if the Beast stirred, it would be harder to pull them both in. They don’t bother to close the window, instead using thumbtacks to hook the sweatshirt in place, the wind still being blocked.
By the time they reach the dark road, Mona’s thumb is out, looking for any ride out of there, under any circumstance. They didn;t look back but never felt they truly left, fragments of themselves trapped behind.
“I love you Mona. Say you love me back,” says Izzy, pulling her from the moment back into reality.
The phone rings and Mona is delighted, even though she has no positive news to deliver.
“Is that Robby?!” exclaims Izzy.
The number is recognizable. Mona shakes her head. It’s dick slightly to the left. It goes to voicemail but Mona only reads the transcript. Mona blushes and for the first time feels uncomfortable in the presence of her sister, but not because of anything Izzy did.
“Can we go early?” asks Izzy but she ignores her, leaving the room, dialing the number back, listening to the sultry confessions of a man masterbating to her voice, feeling for a moment, wanted.
Trying to compose herself, Mona re-enters the living room to find the TV showing nothing but static and no Izzy. She walks outside but her car is still parked with no one inside.
She puts her hand on the den door but stops. She’s not in there, she thought. Of all rooms.
“Izzy, where the hell are you?”
She nails her hip against another table, this one with sharp edges, the surface covered in a sepia tinted dolly, once white, and a few dusted animal figurines and a pile of Country Home magazine tipping over.
Moving through the living room, Mona pushes different island’s of messes, her patience growing thin, not caring about the useless garbage in the museum of their past.
In the kitchen, Mona sees it.
The basement door. Open.
The den was their father’s workspace, his legitimate work of pushing papers of what they never really knew but might have been in the realm of authoring technical manuals. It was one of two out of bounds areas. The basement was the second place they were absolutely forbidden from opening, where his other work commenced.
Another inviting stomach waiting for her to be swallowed, though Mona.
She yells for Izzy again but no voice returns.
Feeling cemented in place, Mona keeps yelling, hoping at the twentieth time, she answers. In the backdrop of the living room, the phone goes off but Mona doesn’t move. It’s probably Robby forcing them into another corner while they do the dirty work. Fuck off, Mona thinks, trying to push one foot in front of the other.
When her hand finally grasps the door, sweat pooling at the back of her neck and forehead, she has to swallow the urine aroma clouding her face as the stench rises from the basement. It’s potent, almost fresh but she put her foot down at the idea of fixing every hole and crevice at the back of the house six months ago. Who else would know about the crawl space that leads you directly into the basement and therefore, outside of the house. Who else would know the paint of almost every room was never deleaded. Who else would know there are holes in the pantry that allow small animals into the ceiling and walls. The infestation of both worldly and unworldly insects taking up permanent space.
A squatter, she thought just then. Of course.
“Izzy?” her voice is small.
At the top is a forest of windbreaker jackets and a single string connected to the light. She pulls but the glare is dim at best, only illuminating the first few steps. But it isn’t pitch black. Another source of light lingers below, somewhere between the end of the basement where the washer and dryer is and the light right above her.
Izzy is dead, she thought, oh my god she’s fucking dead and someone is going to notice – her pervert fucking landlord for one.
Vomit sits in the back of her throat as the panic settles, thinking about so many things. About how she told people she was an only child in order to avoid talking about her family. About what happened to her mother and the things in that house–the house as a creature, the most vile and ghastly presence that pumped out madness like a blood to the heart.
About how madness leaves a residue. A spot, sometimes several, patches both perfectly rounded and unshaped, darker, sometimes lighter, sometimes blushed against a soul. It can be shallow, a polished shade of trauma that only blooms when everything else is wrong, maybe for a day. Maybe for longer than a day. For Mona it felt like a lifetime, especially when that madness can turn that spot into a steep pool, expunged from the soul and seeped into the bones, under the skin, through the pupils. It lives and destroys. It’s inherited, passed among families like an unwanted heirloom. If you’re directly untouched, by miracle, you still hold the ricochet of it – lightly peppered on you like freckles. There and you’re not sure why until you remember, vaguely, a moment in time that seems unreal, seems made up.
But it wasn’t – the horrors that unraveled there. It wasn’t made up.
And yet life went on, for all three of them–Mona, Robby, and Izzy who bobbed through life in this pool but never attached to any current, instead fighting to stay above the surface. No exit. No door or window from this house, even when you’re outside of it.
Mona doesn’t notice the tears pouring down her face, the cracking of her voice as she makes each step, the next one more slowly, more painful than the last until reaching the bottom, the last step heavy and true and exhausting.
“It’s there,” says a voice, a familiar voice. An annoying voice.
Mona rushes to her, feeling light as a feather brushed up by a nor’easter. She collides into Izzy, holding her tight, not letting the words I love you out but in her own way. In a way Izzy would understand.
Izzy closes an arm around her, not avoiding this opportunity at sisterly affection. Any affection.
“It’s there,” she says again. This time, and maybe for the first time in a while, in a firm cold tone.
It takes a moment, more than a moment for Mona to release, to follow Izzy’s finger pointing forward to an object suspended in air. It was small, vibrant, and pink. Izzy’s favorite pink cardigan. Still fresh like the day she left it. Right below the cardigan is the hole. A space they feared as children on the few occasions they entered the basement before it became locked for good.
“Let’s go, fuck the plan. Fuck Robby, we need to get out of here,” says Mona, pulling at Izzy’s arm.
“It’s there. It’s always been there.”
“Izzy, who gives a shit, we need to–”
Izzy turns to her, her doe eyes round and wet. “I need it.”
Izzy rips her arm away, the jerking motion almost sending Mona to the cement. Izzy holds her hands to her head, at first only jumbled words escaping. She breathes in hard, her chest rising then falling before trying again.
“You don’t get it- you don’t get it because you’re strong. I’m not.”
Mona wanted to speak, wanted to tell her she isn’t not strong-shes emotionless and thats different, and how she longed to have a fraction of Izzy’s vibrancy, and life and heart. On a reduced scale, but still.
Izzy continues, “I know what I am. I know I can’t follow the same path that you did. I can’t put my shit together and it’s sad and god, its so fucking pathetic and it’s so cold living in your shadow. I need courage and I need that,” she points to the sweater. Izzy never explained until then what the sweater meant and how she came upon it when their father never spent a dime on them.
“I stood up to some bully. Me, weak, scared, crazy Izzy! I beat the shit out of Isabella at the spring fling in 10th grade and it felt good watching the blood pour from her nose and that she cried the entire time. The next week she was wearing it and I told her to give it to me. And she did. She really did Mona. She never fucked with me after that, even though it wasn’t long before we left, it was enough to feel like I was brave. ”
A silence looms as the words cut through Mona. Mona’s lips open and close. She sighs.
“I didn’t know you felt this way or if I made you feel like you couldn’t be brave. Izzy, I don’t have a good fucking life. I don’t have-”
“You don’t have what?” says Izzy, watching her sister’s every move, except she’s not moving. She’s not even looking at Izzy. Only through her.
Izzy snaps her finger, disappointed on what have been a mental picture to relive many times over.
“You were saying?” says Izzy impatiently.
Mona’s lips begin to tremble, her hands beginning to quake as she only says one solitary word. “Mom?”
In the short distance, their mother emerges from the hole, a hand stretched outward, her face filthy. Her eyes black. Izzy looks over her shoulder at the figure rising slowly.
“Sis, mom’s dead. You know that and it’s not funny. We watched her body get tossed in fucking hole. With the others.”
Mona doesn’t speak, trapped in a trance of her memory.
She takes a step forward but Izzy blocks her path. “It isn’t her and if it is, then fath–Albert–then he’s been feeding her. She isn’t our mother, Mona. Not anymore.”
Disgust overtakes her as she pushes Izzy, breaking the glare as she directs all of her energy on the fuck-up of a sister.
“You would risk your life for a fucking sweater but not our mother? How materialistic of you. I almost believed your bullshit ‘this is all I have’ speech. Well, go claim your fucking prize Izz.”
She points forward but the sweater is missing.
Their mother is missing too.
“Fuck.” Izzy grabs Mona’s hand but as soon as they turn, the creature is hanging from the pipes, its face of their mother’s, but the body covered in spotted black fur, and its arms are suited with sharp claws, stained from the years of tearing apart the bodies, some dead, some alive, and all of Albert’s victims. It would be infrequent at first, a few every few months but they didn’t know why he insisted they needed a babysitter, or nanny, or a sick person he ‘found’ and was taking care of them like the Emerald Palace was a half-way house. Inviting all to see what’s behind the curtain.
They didn’t know they would be taken to the basement, bodies suspended over the hole. They didn’t know that every time he brought them new clothes, most not in style or size, that these were from the people he prayed upon. They didn’t know he spent time with the woman, and the girls in the basement before chucking them into the same hole they watched their mother get thrown in.
They didn’t know.
Or they didn’t want to know.
The truth seeped into all of them, destroying their lives because it was better than these strangers, than each other.
“We fucking deserve to die Izz,” says Mona in a panic, tears flowing. She isn’t cold, not right now.
“I’m fucking pregnant, I don’t want to die.” Izzy cries, then putting a hand over her mouth. Mona grabs her sister’s hand, instinctively.
Their eyes stay on the creature that is swaying back and forth on the pipes, black sludge oozing from its deep and sharp cavern mouth. It’s hungry.
The two grab each other’s hands as Mona reaches to the floor for anything, finding a heavy bag but it’s Izzy who is first to lunge, drenching the creature with pepper spray she was gifted the time she dated a (married) cop. She knew it would come in handy, but she was even willing to admit, this particular situation was not on her radar.
“Take that you fucking cuntbag,” she yells.
Izzy parted with their mother long before the night’s first death. Helen despised Izzy, ruining her career, her body and feeling shackled to her and the house before the shackles were made real. It was Izzy who targeted her first. Wishing among the haunted walls of the house that the wicked witch would fall to her doom.
Izzy lunges again, this time throwing a piece of wood from the floor towards it. The creature is barely fazed, only laughing in jittering pitches, jumping down from the pipes, its bulbous midsection moving like something is living underneath it. Its tongue is long and split down the middle, the two sides folding out of its mouth. It raises one arm, coming down hard on Mona. It hits mostly the bag but a few superficial scratches. It’s taunting them, slashing again as the sisters fall, hands still clasped.
Only Robby saw it happen. Say Izzy push Helen down the stairs, her head bouncing off the sides until lying motionlessly on the floor. Izzy looked at her hands, amazed and scared at the unnatural strength she had at her young age. Her mother moved, badly hurt but alive. Until the den door opened.
Izzy looks to Mona, talking in glances as Mona nods.
They rise from the ground and charge the creature, an aggressive red rover, forcing the beast into the ground but it leaps up quickly, blocking the exit.
“Fuck, this bitch is fast,” says Izzy, grabing anything she can get her hands on, throwing hordes of junk at the monster. “Maybe we can appeal to its motherly instinct.”
“I think we’re past that.”
Mona remembers when her mother began to turn. She had always favored Robby more but Mona was a confident second with Izzy barely trailing in third. She showered Mona with compliments and gifts before the move and still was close. It was after Sunday church when they stood in the kitchen, just the two of them, her mother washing the same dish for a few minutes. Then an hour. Mona reached for the faucet. It happened so quickly, Helen’s hands on her daughter’s face until she pushed her into the wall. Her eyes are dark and veins protruding from her neck. She had been steadily declining since the move but this was different. She was infected.
The creature leaps through the floor, running on the first level, barricading the basement door. Izzy and Mona run to the back door to find it’s been barricaded for some time.
“Fuck,” says Mona.
Izzy grabs the first box but Mona stops her, pulling her away, around the hole in the floor, the halo of light shining from above.
“It’s too much stuff – she wants us to go there. She wants to corner us.”
“How do you know?” asks Izzy.
Mona holds back a grin, “Isn;t that what you would do if you were hunting prey?”
“I don;t fucking know dude, I just want out of here,” Izzy responds.
The creature creates a new hole from the ceiling and jumps down, close to the back door.
“Told yah,” says Mona but Izzy ignores her.
They walk backwards, still finding objects–dolls, Newbury Ave street sign, a candlestick bowling ball–which does damage to the creatures eye, but only slows it down.
“I’m sorry Mona for being a pain in the ass.”
“I’m sorry too.”
Izzy’s heel hits the uneven edges of the hole as the creature lowers its body in a crouch.
It was this moment, years before, seeing Albert drag her to her grave after beating her with his bare hands while she laughed at the bottom of the steps, blood pooling from her mouth. Their mother barely fought, her mind too degraded by the house, and no one moved, that instilled this weakness in Izzy, even if it was her doing. That she should always allow things to happen to her and someone else will clean up her mess.
The monster lunges and Izzy, with what little strength she has left, pushes Mona to the floor, the creature colliding into her as they both careen to the bottom of the pit. As they fall, Izzy closes her eyes, feeling like she is flying and for the first time in her life, free.
Still dazed, Mona lifts her body upward, her head still pained from the fall. She’s lost plenty of blood, some of it drying on the washing machine that so kindly placed a kiss on her skull. It’s morning, she is sure of it, but there is no inclination in the basement.
“Izzy!” she calls out, crawling to her feet, looking into the hole.
She is met by silence, worse than screams or cries or the discomfort of having to spend time with her little sister. Upstairs the phone is ringing, Robby, checking if all things are peachy fucking keene and if we’ve reached the ending credits.
Fuck you Robby, thinks Mona.
“Mona!” Izzy’s voice trembles as she looks upward. and only sees a silhouette of her sister’s body. “I can’t find a way up.”
Mona’s chest tightens.
“I’ll find something, just stay there!”
Still clenching the sharp bone on one end, a previous meal of their mother, while the other is logged through its eye socket, Izzy doesn’t shy away from the carnage. She won, afterall, adding to the small list of victories that can never be told. In the day, she will wash off the blood, wash off the memory and bury it deep but not in the same way as she had.
She has been given a second chance.
They both have.
Izzy emerges from the hole, shedding away the sheets turned harness and her old self as the two go through the old crawl space and make it outside.
They sit against the house, breathing in the crisp fresh air.
“I wish I had a cigarette right now,” says Izzy.
Mona laughs, a real one this time which is almost unrecognizable to her sister. “You don’t want to hurt the baby.”
Izzy nods before leaning against her sister’s shoulder, nestling in like she used to as a kid. “That was a lie. I thought it would not eat us if I said it.”
Mona smiles, “You probably made it more hungry.”
“That’s fucking gross!” says Izzy.
They laugh, going through the details and how they will tell Robby. How they will be able to explain their mother had always been there, or some horrific form and that it was almost over. Reminiscing for a moment on how it all started that Friday night as they convened in the basement full of all the cursed items. They weren;t sure what conjured up the evil, as the evil felt like it was in the beams and foundation. It could have been the creepy doll, or antique mirror that seemed to slow their reflection, or the old paintings which depicted horrors and sacrifices. It could have been the urn of the previous owner which somehow ended up in the wave of junk. He was a collector and that was all that was said by the realtor. They were little kids wishing for selfish things. For their parents to go away, for people more prettier or more well off to get what they deserved. The house and its things were listening and remembered. It infected the ones it needed to and spoiled the rest. It was alive, in its own way.
Mona glances at the shed, its metal padlock glistening in the morning sun. her fingers rubbing against one another. She is infected, residue from the Emerald Palace like Robby, except she’s more cunning and knows when the opportunity is ripe for the taking or when to retrain herself. It happens when men take advantage of her, men who are already flighty and come with intentions other than tenderness and that it’s not their first time. Unlucky for them, its not hers either. There is no place like home to keep the souvenirs.
“Should we kill dad tonight? I’m over my fear of smothering a fucking monster out. I’m practically an expert now.”
Izzy kicks her leg forward, only to retract it and wince in pain.
Mona thought about how Izzy could pick up the pillow, her hand grazing against the rough fabric while she grabs the other end, putting the pressure over Albert’s face, watching as the EKG machine shows his heart rate thrust into overdrive, his body twitching, his mind falling away, like sand through fingertips. He’s old and has been dying for years. No one would investigate. No one would really care other than to make sure the bed was cleared for the next body to fill it. And if all went wrong, Mona knew she could get out of it. Izzy on the other hand might not.
Mona wraps both arms around her sister, leaning her head on Izzy’s shoulder. “Let’s have some breakfast first. Deal?”
Izzy smiles wide. “Deal.”
S. Eamma is a North Shore born writer and a lover of all things thriller and horror. At age 2 she watched Killer Clowns From Space and never forgot it. Also passionate about poetry, she has been published with The Bitchin’ Kitsch magazine and Red Skies Magazine.
“Control is an illusion which is in and of itself a cliche or an illusion of knowledge. A double illusion if you will, but I digress.” She ran her fingers lightly over the tools spread across the table. A feminine movement, albeit yet one she was loath to stop herself from performing.
“You know darling,” she sighed, her fingers slipping around the handle of her favorite drill, “you’ve always known how to” she clicked the button the whirl filling the room, “turn me on.”
For a moment all was right in the world. Unfortunately, it was too late to see the fear in her eyes as they’d already been removed, but her ears worked wonderfully well for someone who had been ignoring her genius for the past fortnight.
As the drill tip lowered towards the knee, her body tensed up in preparation for the unimaginable pain.
To fight against the flesh is spiritual, and while her mind had always egged her on towards greatness the indolence that seeped from her bones turned her limbs to mush at the slightest hint of effort.
There was no obstacle, no force, no patriarchal demon that held her future dormant. It was then that morning when the alarm clock went off again after the fourth snooze that it occurred to her the problem. The flesh is weak, but the drill is not.
Madison Randolph is attending the University of Texas Permian Basin to earn her Master’s in English. Her works have appeared in Friday Flash Fiction, The Drabble, Bright Flash Literary Review, Spillwords, The Chamber Magazine. Also, 101 Words as Ryker Hayes. She can be found on Instagram madisonrandolph17 or Twitter @Madisonr1713
The brownstone was more than one hundred and fifty years old, standing between two others in a block of rowhouses in Chelsea, just north of Boston, sad and decrepit. The adjoining houses were in better shape, having been renovated a decade or so ago. The house wasn’t cheap, but it had incredible potential. We bought it, Meg and me. We’d been married almost three years then. She was still in law school, and I was a resident in Emergency Medicine at Mass General. The brownstone was ideal. But first we had to make it livable. It had been unoccupied for years. The realtor never did say why.
For weeks we labored every spare minute, cleaning out debris on the first floor, just to make a space so that we could live in. Once we had a kitchen, a bedroom, and a functioning bathroom, we moved in. For the next year we poured time and money into the three-story building. Actually, there were five floors, if you counted the basement and the attic.
One Sunday afternoon, I was battling the aged and obsolete plumbing and wiring on the third floor. A back room had a balcony over a tiny backyard. I wanted to make the entire third floor into the master bedroom suite, including a sybaritic bathroom complete with huge sunken tub, and huge shower. The view from the bed would overlook the back wall, someday festooned with climbing roses, giving a glimpse of the Boston skyline.
As I was bludgeoning my way through walls and removing pipes that were out of spec before Moses was born, I found an old tin box stuck in the wall. I had a hell of a time getting it out. It was about eleven by fourteen inches by five inches, and it was heavy. Together Meg and I manhandled it out into the daylight. The wall studs were barely wide enough to get it out. Anderson’s Biscuits was written in flowing black script across the pastoral scene on the lid.
After wiping off the dust and spider webs and accumulated desiccated insect bodies, I pried it open. Inside there were seven thin, blue fabric bound volumes, all identical. I opened one at random and found it to be a diary. Spidery handwriting took up each page. A quick check confirmed they’d all been written by the same person. Fascinated, I wanted to stop right then and read them, but Meg gave me a look that said I’d better get back to work.
Later that night while Meg lay snoring gently beside me, I pulled out the box and examined my prizes. Finding them dated, I went to the earliest and started reading.
April 17, 1909, My name is Ingrid Johannsen and I have lived in this house all my life. I was born in the kitchen, a few minutes before my mother died. She was nineteen years old, immigrated from Sweden in 1896, sponsored by Arthur Samuels, whose house this is. She was an indentured servant, although they don’t call them that anymore. But the Samuels brought her to America, paid her way, and took her into their house as a servant. She owed them a lot of money. My poor mother never got the chance to be free. I was born in 1899 and am now ten years old. I don’t know who my father was.
April 20, 1909, The cook, Emilda, told me once that when Mother died and left me an orphan, Mr. Samuels was all for sending me to the orphanage on Washington Street in the South End. But Mrs. Samuels said no. She had a daughter not yet six months old and wanted to keep me as a playmate and servant for Elizabeth. In one sense I was lucky. For had I gone to the orphanage, I would have learned about sewing and knitting and household duties. At age twelve I would have been placed in a private home to be trained as a servant. Growing up with Elizabeth Samuels, I have been taught to read and write. I love reading. There is a library on the third floor, but I will go through all the books in It soon. I shall go mad if I have nothing to read. I suppose I could go back and reread the ones I’ve finished, but I want new adventures, new stories, new information. Our teacher, Mr. Sanderson, says I am very advanced for my age.
May 6, 1909, One of my favorite chores is taking care of the beehives. Elizabeth won’t go near them, but the little creatures like me. I put on white coveralls and a hat with a veil on it and I collect the honey. I think the bees sense when I am coming to check the hives. They come out and dance around me. I get to eat a little bit of the honey before I bring it in the house.
My eyes drooped and I put away the diaries. The next two weeks went past in a flurry of work and exhaustion. I was on call in the hospital every other night, covering for another resident. I had no time for anything else but work and sleep. When I pulled out Ingrid’s diaries again, I read a couple of entries each night, most of which dealt with life in the Samuels’ household and the daily routine. Much of the time she was treated as one of the family. Sitting at Elizabeth’s side, Ingrid absorbed knowledge like a sponge. She developed an obsession with the written word and read everything she could reach in the household library, (which I discovered was in the room with the balcony). She read literature, poetry, history, and whatever books were available dealing with the sciences and mathematics. Since her room was in the attic, she habitually sneaked down to the library every night for books. She salvaged the daily newspapers from the garbage whenever she could and read those as well. She begged her teacher, Mr. Sanderson, for more books and he obliged her, lending her books he had acquired over time.
Then came this entry.
July 7, 1909, I must write this down. It will be painful.
Elizabeth and I are usually obedient. Or at least I was. Elizabeth is the youngest child, a girl in a family of boys, who are all grown now, and she is spoiled. Very spoiled. She thinks she is a princess in her own little kingdom. But I thought we were close friends. I know that I have special privileges because of Elizabeth.
One morning a week ago, we had been playing hide-and-go-seek in her father’s closet, when the door opened and the man himself loomed over us. He was supposed to be at his office or we would never have dared to enter his bedroom. He looked down at Elizabeth and frowned. As he opened his mouth to scold her, I stepped out from behind his fine beaver coat and stood beside her.
I took the blame in a whisper, terrified, but I thought it was the right thing to do. Elizabeth stared at me, surprised. Mr. Samuels also stared at me a moment, then rang the bell for his valet. Branson appeared instantly, as if he’d been just outside.
Mr. Samuels waved at me vaguely and told Branson to take me and punish me. He dragged Elizabeth into his study.
Branson regarded me coldly. Then he grabbed my wrist and pulled me along behind him. Down the stairs and outdoors to the garden shed. There he shoved me inside, in the dark, and he came in after me.
Branson’s voice was cold as he said he’d kill me if I screamed or ever told anyone. Then his hands were on me and I whimpered. He slapped me.
He pulled off my clothes, threw me to the filthy floor and raped me. I tried to get away, but he punched me in the stomach and I threw up. I cried quietly until it was over. I will never forget the smell of his disgusting breath or the feel of his greasy hands. I don’t want to write anything more.
I leaned back against my pillow and stared at my half-painted wall, horrified. I went several days without reading the diaries after that. Partly because I was busy, but mostly because I wasn’t sure I could face reading more. Meg was reading them too, but we hadn’t discussed them. Somehow it seemed a very private thing. Just between me and Ingrid. As if I were the only person in the world she wanted to confide in. Finally, one night I picked up where I had left off.
July 15, 1909, Mr. Samuels saw me as Branson dragged me back into the house that day. Blood was running down my legs onto the floor. He stopped us, looking shocked and demanded to know what he had done to me.
Branson smirked when he said he’d punished me his own way.
Mr. Samuels stared at him, then told him that if I should die, Branson was out of a job. He was ordered to take me to Mrs. Tranberg, the housekeeper, and never to touch me again.
Branson seemed taken aback by this, but he only nodded and pulled me off to the servants’ quarters. Mrs. Tranberg had never been particularly friendly to me. I think she resented the position I enjoyed as Elizabeth’s companion. I won’t say friend here. Not anymore. After Mrs. Tranberg had cleaned me up and put me to bed, Elizabeth came to see me. She wanted to know about my ‘punishment’. I lay still, facing the wall and said nothing. After a while she said that I shouldn’t have talked her into playing in the closet, although she had been the one to drag me in. And then she left.
The bleeding continued for hours, but eventually stopped. Afterward I developed a fever and was sick for days. I don’t remember much of the next week, except that Mrs. Tranberg seemed to be there every time I woke up. I don’t think Elizabeth was there even once.
I woke up last night. It was dark except for an oil lamp next to my desk where Mrs. Tranberg sat reading. I called her name. She came to me, concern, and relief in her face, her eyes soft and kind, asking how I felt.
I was shocked by the warmth in her eyes and voice. I could never remember feeling cared for before. She told me I’d been very sick but was getting better.
And she was right. I am feeling better. I know I should be shamed by the rape, but all I am is angry.
When Meg and I finally talked about the diaries, the difference in our attitudes astounded me. I found the story heartbreaking. She only considered it fascinating. She couldn’t consider that it was real – that it had actually happened. To her it was a novel, fiction. Or at least it had happened so long ago that it had no bearing on us, on now. I was obsessed by the story.
She looked at me with those bright blue eyes, brushing an errant brown curl back behind her ear. “You always want to help people. Here is this little girl in horrible trouble that you cannot help. And it’s tearing you up. Now either stop reading the damn diaries or put up some walls between her and you. And I don’t want to hear about her again.”
With that she kissed me and went off to school.
I tried staying away from Ingrid for a week but found that I needed to know what was happening in her life.
August 15, 1909, Mr. Samuels caught me coming out of the library in the middle of the night. The master bedroom is right across the hall. He was very angry, wanting to know why I was sneaking around in the middle of the night. I said I just wanted to get a book to read. He grabbed the book I had selected, a collection of poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and looked at it and then at me.
Holding the book up, he stared at me. He asked why Tennyson and, surprised, I answered that I liked him.
There was a trace of a smile on his face, something I had never seen before, when he admitted that he liked the poet, too.
We were at the bottom of the stairs that led to the attic. Mr. Samuels sat down on the stairs, and we talked about poetry. His favorites were Byron and Shelley, while I loved Wordsworth. I don’t know how long we talked, but later, he stood up and groaned as if his back hurt, saying that he had to go back to bed. He told me that I could read any book in the library that I wanted. After a hesitation he said he was sorry about Branson and disappeared into his suite.
Further entries told of the deterioration of the relationship between the two girls.
Elizabeth started going out to parties at the homes of people in the same social class as the Samuels, and Ingrid, of course, was not invited. Elizabeth would come home excited and talk endlessly of dresses and shoes and hair styles. Ingrid was bored and Elizabeth became annoyed by her inattention. They squabbled frequently.
February 12, 1910, This afternoon Elizabeth and I were fighting again. We had been shouting at each other when Mrs. Samuels appeared and grabbed my arm. She yanked me away, screaming into my face that Elizabeth was my mistress, that I was a servant and must never, ever raise my voice to her again.
I hung my head, crying.She grabbed my chin and forced me to look at her, snarling that I had been warned.
Then she grabbed Elizabeth by the arm and dragged her off.
I am still crying as I write this. I don’t know what to do. I will have to be careful about what I say. But what if I lose my temper?
That was the end of the first volume.
The holidays came and with them came a tide of pneumonia, influenza, heart attacks, and bleeding ulcers at the hospital. I worked long hours and Meg was studying for finals. We barely saw each other. Work on the house stopped. And I read no more of the diaries.
Two days after Christmas I was studying in the kitchen, unable to sleep. Starting to get drowsy, the text no longer making sense, I heard a humming noise. Looking up, I noticed that the basement door was slightly open. I could hear the roar of the old furnace down below, but above that was a hum, like a distant swarm of bees. Shivering, I crossed to the door and started to close it when I noticed two red lights at the bottom of the stairs. I couldn’t remember anything down there, so I flipped the light switch. There was just the basement – nothing with red lights. I stood for a long moment regarding the empty stairwell, then shrugged and went to bed.
The load at the hospital began to lighten up after Christmas – fewer sick people, fewer admissions. I went back to reading the diaries. The next several entries were few and far between and spoke of the growing estrangement between Ingrid and Elizabeth. Apparently, Mrs. Samuels had stressed the importance of keeping strict divisions between the classes because Elizabeth became more aloof, treating Ingrid like a servant. Ingrid’s words in the diaries were angry and resentful.
March 3, 1910, I HATE ELIZABETH! She’s being so nasty to me. “Get me this and get me that and run downstairs to see if lunch is ready.” The worst of it is that she’s enjoying it. I always knew she could be mean. But now she’s not trying to cover it up. I am trying to behave as Mrs. Samuels said. But it is so hard.
May 30, 1910, I tried an experiment today. I went out to the beehives without my white clothes and veiled hat. The bees were there to greet me as usual, swarming around me. I opened the hives and started to collect the honey. They landed on my arms, my dress, my hair, everywhere. I just moved slowly so as not to disturb them. It was like they were dancing on me. I could feel their tiny feet moving, tickling. Then when I was finished, I told them I had to go inside and they all lifted off me, circling around a couple of times, then went back into the hives.
The diaries were full of anger and resentment that she could only express in secret. Her one ally, Mrs. Tranberg had been sent away at the end of November with a ‘wasting disease’. From Ingrid’s description, I suspect the woman had tuberculosis.
December 22, 1910, Branson nearly caught me alone today. I have been careful to avoid him since last year but have seen him looking at me when we’re in the same room. I know he wants to do it again. There’s no one I can turn to. Mrs. Tranberg is gone. Mr. Samuels is rarely here. I’m all by myself.
The next entry was nearly six months later.
May 3, 1911, Branson forced the door to the attic in February and raped me again. He threatened to kill me if I told anyone. But who would I tell? The only one I can think of who might believe me is Mr. Samuels. I have no proof. It would be my word against Branson’s. I have reinforced my door. I stole an old padlock I found in a kitchen drawer and a chain from the cellar. He has tried to get in again several times, but without success. I will have to do something. But what?
The rest of that volume dealt with her resentment of her treatment in the Samuels household and her terror of Branson and many entries about her only friends – the bees. Elizabeth continued to distance herself from her former friend. Mrs. Hathaway, the new housekeeper, started instructing Ingrid in her duties.
November 5, 1911, Mrs. Hathaway handed me the dust cloths and mop and told me to clean the dining room today. I worked at it for an hour and went to report to her. She inspected and found fault with everything and made me do it all over again. When she made me do it a third time, I yelled at her and she slapped me. I cannot live here like this. I have read of other lives. Surely there is a place for me somewhere? The only friends I have here are bees.
The entries were heart rending as Ingrid slipped farther and farther into herself and began living a fantasy life.
January 15, 1912, The games Elizabeth and I used to play, I now play by myself. I pretend I am a princess, kidnapped by foul miscreants and forced to do hard labor or be whipped and starved. I know that I will be rescued and find a handsome prince because that is the way stories are supposed to end and if I believe in the prince and the happy ending enough, maybe it will come true. Please?
Spring had come to Boston and flowers were everywhere. The first floor of the house was totally remodeled with living room, dining room, kitchen and bath. We had moved the temporary bedroom up to the second floor, which would eventually be a study/ library/ office for the two of us and two bedrooms, ideal for children with a bathroom between the bedrooms.
One evening I was studying when Meg called out to me hoarsely. I found her in the kitchen, back against the wall opposite the cellar door. Pale and shaking, she pointed at the open door. I saw nothing until I went to the head of the stairs. There at the bottom were two red lights that winked out as I watched. Somewhere a humming stopped.
I slammed the door and got Meg to a chair. “What was it?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Red eyes. They were coming up the stairs!”
I searched the basement but found nothing. Meg was upset for a while, but then I think she began to realize that she had been exhausted and maybe the eyes were just the product of her exhaustion. I didn’t mention the red lights I had seen.
March 2, 1913, He caught me again today. I have been so careful not to go into the cellar when he’s around. Today Mr. Samuels went to Worchester on business and I thought that Branson had gone with him. Midmorning I went down to the cellar to gather some cleaning supplies. I opened the door to the supply closet and he grabbed me from behind and forced me inside. His hand was over my mouth, and I bit it. He swore and threw me down and I began screaming, but he kicked me in the head, and I knew no more for a time. When I came to, he was astride me, grunting. I hit at him and tried to fight, but he is much bigger and stronger. He smacked me across the face and grasped my wrists tightly in one hand while he finished. When he was getting off me, I tried to kick him in the crotch, but only managed to strike his knee. He grabbed my ankle and twisted it until I thought it would break. Kneeling beside me, he slapped me again and threatened to kill me if I talked.
Mrs. Samuels saw me as I dragged myself up the stairs. Branson had just come up a moment before. She must have seen him. She asked what had happened to me. I told her I had fallen down the stairs. She looked at me, at my filthy dress and apron, at my battered face. Then she looked at the door Branson would have used to leave the house.
Staring back at me with a smirk on her face, she told me to get cleaned up before I served dinner. And she turned away.
I am going to kill him.
That night I tossed and turned. I finally got up about 2 AM and went downstairs for a glass of milk and some cereal. I was just sitting down at the new kitchen table when the cellar door flew open. A cold wind with a foul odor blew from the stairwell. The sound of bees filled the air. Two red lights burned in the blackness at the top of the stairs.
“Ingrid?” My voice quavered.
The lights and the sounds disappeared. I found myself staring at the closed cellar door, my mouth hanging open. I had slopped cereal and milk all over the table and floor and myself and I hurriedly cleaned up while I brought my pounding heart and trembling hands under control.
Should I tell Meg? I was fairly certain that she would want to leave the brownstone. We had so much invested in the property that I could not see any way to leave. The financial crunch would be devastating. So, I decided that I had been half asleep and had just had a very vivid dream.
Should I destroy the diaries or finish reading them? I was well into the sixth book, with one more to go. I now knew Ingrid better than had anyone she had ever met. The changes in her were frightening. She was ‘now’ fourteen years old and had been raped multiple times by the monster, Branson. She detested the people she lived with and worked for with the possible exception of Mr. Samuels, although he never had another conversation with her. She was consumed with fear and hatred and kept making references to a plan.
April 3, 1913, My birthday was last week. No one noticed. Actually to be fair, Emilda, the cook, did fix me a rather special dinner that night with a little roast beef left over from the family’s dinner and an apple and even a bit of pudding for dessert. Emilda has always been kind to me. As if she were somehow responsible for me since I was born in her kitchen. I am ready to end my terror. I know what I must do. And soon – before he realizes that I am not just a frightened child.
The next two entries were of the usual sort, complaining that Elizabeth was insufferable with her constant nattering about the fashions at the girl’s private school she was going to. Ingrid’s access to a tutor had been cut off when Elizabeth started attending Mrs. Choates’ Day School for Young Ladies.
I wasn’t prepared for the next entry.
May 13, 1913, Since it was Tuesday, Branson had the day off. But he often stayed around on his days off to see if he could catch me. This morning I saw him at the top of the back stairs, waiting to see where I would go. I worked for a while in the kitchen until Emilda went out to the garden to pick lettuce.
Then I gathered up a basket and walked down the cellar stairs. I turned on the light that hangs just above the stairs, but otherwise the only light came through the windows near the ceiling on both sides.
The furnace was running, and I needed to shovel some coal in, it being a cold, rainy morning. I went directly to the coal bin, picked up the shovel, and waited. The roar of the furnace covered any other sound, but I could see him from the corner of my eye as he crept closer and closer. When he started his rush at me, I swung the shovel around in an arc that connected with his face. He tried to lift his arm up, but he wasn’t fast enough.
Falling back against the hot furnace, he screamed, but the roar of the flames covered his cries. I dropped the shovel and, pulling out the butcher knife from my basket, I stabbed him. His eyes grew round and wide as saucers. He opened his mouth in a large “O” but all that came out was blood, a flood of it. I yanked the knife free and stabbed him again and again and again. He stared at me as he died, as though he couldn’t quite believe it.
I bundled him up in an old blanket I had put down there next to the furnace. Most of the blood had erupted onto this. Then with great effort, I shoved and pushed and lifted him into the furnace. My bloody uniform went in next after I used it to wipe my hands and face. I quickly donned the one I had secreted there earlier. I slammed the door shut on Branson and let the fire have him. The flames leapt up and I could hear him sizzling. The smell would have been a problem, but Emilda and I were the only ones in the house and the smells in the kitchen were overpowering.
After cleaning up the blood, I climbed back up to the kitchen. I washed the knife and put it away. I felt quite faint for a time, but when Emilda came back in, red cheeked and sopping wet, I was able to help her off with her coat and take the lettuce to the sink for washing. I checked the furnace before the family was due home. There was some residue, but not much and I shoveled several loads of coal into the furnace’s hungry maw.
He’s gone. Forever. And I’m a murderer. But all I feel is relief. I’m not afraid tonight.
I sat stunned, unable to take in what she had written. Good God! What she had endured!
I was almost afraid to read more, but after a few days I had to know what had happened. I came home early and sat in the finished living room with the last diary. I have only reprinted a few of the entries.
June 1, 1913, Mr. Samuels was upset when Branson disappeared. He made inquiries, but nothing came of it. The household has quieted down again. I do my work and don’t complain. I am rereading some of the books from the library, since I have gone through every one of them now. And that is how I spend my time. I work and I read and I try to avoid sleeping. There does not seem to be anything else for me.
Killing Branson was horrible. My dreams – Oh, God! – my dreams! I am terrified of sleep. And being in the cellar fills me with dread, almost as if he were still down there.
June 19, 1913, I saw something yesterday down in the cellar. I have been very worried about going down there. The place gives me chills. But I cannot avoid it. In the afternoon I came down the stairs to get some canned goods for Emilda. I went around the furnace-giving it a wide berth and collected the cans. As I started back to the stairs, I saw two red lights in the midst of a darkness blacker than night. I ran, my heart in my throat. Now I am truly terrified of the cellar. What can I do?
July 30, 1913, Mrs. Samuels and Mrs. Hathaway have noticed that I’m not going into the cellar. I have seen the ghost – for that is what I believe it is – twice more now. The air becomes frigid, smelling of carrion, and I hear the sound of the wind in the trees. Then the red eyes appear. The thing hates me and I’m sure it’s Branson. I can feel the hatred radiating off it with the icy cold. Mrs. Hathaway has hit me several times to force me into fetching things. I cannot leave this place legally until I am eighteen. I am desperate.
September 7, 1913, Mrs. Hathaway is dead. It was an accident. We were arguing in the kitchen. She wanted me to fetch a bottle of wine for the family’s dinner from the stock in the cellar. I refused. I told her there was something horrible down there, but she didn’t care. She hit me and I pushed her away, and she fell backwards into the stairwell. I watched her tumble down the stairs. She hit the bottom and just lay there. I ran. Putting on my coat, I fled to the garden and was busily weeding when Emilda came out yelling that Mrs. Hathaway was dead. I don’t think anyone suspects me.
When I had finished reading that entry, I realized that I was crying. My poor, poor Ingrid. What had life done to you?
December 23, 1913, Mrs. Samuels has gotten meaner and meaner. She makes me work harder than ever since Mrs. Hathaway died. They interview candidates for the position of housekeeper, but Mrs. Samuels finds fault with every single one. Meanwhile I work twelve to thirteen hours every day, until my legs shake with exhaustion, and I sometimes have to crawl up the attic stairs. I cannot go on this way.
December 25, 1913, Mrs. Samuels sent me to the cellar for a bottle of wine after dinner. I grabbed the bottle and turned to leave, but I felt an icy breath on my neck and heard the wind. I screamed and threw the bottle behind me, shattering it. The red eyes appeared, coming closer and closer. Wailing, I retreated. Mrs. Samuels’ voice came from the stairs, shrieking that I had broken the bottle, calling me stupid and careless. I nearly knocked her down racing past her to the kitchen. That thing is after me. I think it’s Branson – and maybe Mrs. Hathaway, too.
January 4, 1914, I collapsed on the dining room floor yesterday. I had been cleaning all day, preparing for a dinner party. While serving the main course, I fainted and dropped two plates. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. I tried to get up. Mrs. Samuels was furious with me because I caused a scene, but Mr. Samuels told her to be quiet and picked me up. He carried me all the way to the attic and laid me on my bed. A short time after he left, Emilda came up with a dinner tray. I’m afraid to go downstairs. Mrs. Samuels will still be very angry.
I ran into Elizabeth on the stairs. She smirked at me. “Mother’s going to kick you out. She says you’re too incompetent and lazy to stay here. It’s too bad Branson’s not here. He would be happy to take you away.” And she sneered at me. I slapped her. She ran off to tell her mother.
I have returned to the attic. I will wait here for Mrs. Samuels.
Later – Elizabeth and Mrs. Samuels are dead . I have killed them. I waited for Mrs. Samuels in my attic room and stabbed her when she came in. I found Elizabeth in her room, trying on a new dress.
The dress is ruined now.
Mr. Samuels wasn’t here for which I am grateful. He went to New York on business and won’t be back for several days. And it’s Emilda’s day off.
I had to kill them. They hated me. Mrs. Samuels would have thrown me out. I had to protect myself. Didn’t I? The thing in the cellar worries me. I should block up the door.
I wrestled Mrs. Samuels’ and Elizabeth’s bodies down the stairs. Steeling my nerve, I grabbed Elizabeth by the hair, pulling her to the furnace. I picked her up and began to shove her into the fiery mouth, but it felt as if she were clinging to me, trying to pull me in with her. I yanked free of her grasp and, using the shovel, poked her until she was far enough in so that I could fit Mrs. Samuels.
Elizabeth’s eyes watched me as her face singed and sizzled.
Mrs. Samuels was easier to lift and thrust into the flames, but again I felt her hands grabbing at my clothes, trying to draw me in with her. Her mouth opened in a silent scream as the fire took her.
And then I heard the sound of the wind. When I felt ice on my neck and breathed the reek of death, I whirled around and the eyes were there. They seemed far off at first, but came speeding toward me, growing larger and brighter, twin meteors from Hell. The sound of the wind grew to a shriek. I fled back into the kitchen and slammed the door closed. Something slammed into the door from the other side. I backed away but the door crashed open. I flew up the stairs to the library. Barring the door will probably not save me. I hear a wind below me. It’s searching for me. The odor of death is getting stronger and the wind! I feel its icy fingers through the cracks in the door. Oh, God! I am lost.
I will put this volume with the others, in the biscuit box. There is a hole in the wall behind one of the bookcases where I hide these. If someone finds these, pray for me.
It is coming.
That was the last entry. I put the diary down and sat staring into space. Meg found me that way. She dragged me away from the diaries, threatening to burn them. We argued and she stormed into the kitchen. I followed.
“Meg,” I started, but something slammed into the cellar door from the other side, and the door shuddered and rattled. I grabbed Meg, shoving her behind me. The cellar door exploded open, wood splinters flying everywhere. An icy, stinking wind knocked us against the wall. We fell together. I heard Meg grunt in pain as I came down on top of her.
“Run, Meg! Get outside!” I yelled over the shrieks of the wind and the sounds of a huge swarm of bees.
Red eyes appeared in the stairwell.
Meg tried to rise, but doubled over, grabbing at her right side. Her eyes were wide as she stared at the stairwell. The eyes were coming closer. The wind howled and dishes on the counter crashed to the floor. Napkins took wing, flying into the darkness and vanishing. Pieces of broken dishes scraped along the floor and disappeared into the oily blackness that flowed out of the cellar door, red eyes in the center. Bees began flying around the kitchen, bumping into walls. My heart raced and sweat poured down my back despite the frigid air.
“Ingrid!” I called. “Ingrid! I know you will not harm us. Ingrid! Help us!”
The darkness seemed to hesitate, the wild wind calming slightly.
I whispered to Meg, “Get outside.” Instead, she grabbed my belt and pulled herself up to stand beside me, holding on to me tightly.
The blackness began to swirl, eddies forming in the blackness. I could see mottling with grey and brown, like paint being mixed. The movement within the shade became violent and the mottling more widespread. The wind, which had died down, now shrieked around our heads, sounding like a thousand fighting cats. A refrigerator magnet careened off my forehead and blood began to run down my face. Frying pans which had been hanging from a rack vaulted into the maelstrom, pulled into the dark. The window shattered and glass shards flew past us into the blackness. I felt sharp pains as slivers of glass hit my face.
From within the shade a hand appeared, fingers widespread. Leaping forward, I grasped it and was clasped in an icy grip. I heard Meg cry out, but I didn’t hesitate. Reaching farther in, I got a handful of cloth and pulled. Ingrid began to emerge, crying, face scrunched up in agony.
I slid my right hand around her waist and strained. Meg was with me now, both of us pulling on the girl. My right arm was on fire. I couldn’t tell whether it was frozen or burning, but the pain was tremendous. We were all screaming. Then, like a boot coming out of the mud, Ingrid popped out.
The three of us had fallen to the floor and lay in a heap. I looked up and the inky mass had risen up so that it touched the ceiling. The red eyes glowed right above us. It gave out a howl that shook the house and leaned down toward us. Ingrid stood up and faced it, the darkness inches from her face.
“Enough!” she screamed. “No more! You’ve tortured me for too long.” But the blackness swooped down on her and the upper half of her body disappeared into it. I yelled and grabbed her around the waist and Meg held onto me. A banshee howl again shook the house.
I was being pulled into the foul night, my shoes slipping on the tiles. My face was approaching the inky surface. I turned my head but couldn’t avoid being sucked under. I knew Ingrid immediately. A brutish man, two women, and a young girl, surrounded by roaring flames, were pulling on Ingrid. Their faces were horribly burned, and fire spouted from their eyes. I shouted at them to let go, to leave us alone.
Meg grabbed my belt. Setting my feet, I slid my grasp around Ingrid’s shoulders and yanked her back. Meg kept a constant pull. All at once, the bees appeared, hundreds and hundreds of them. At first, they swarmed around us, moving aimlessly, frantically, a wild Brownian motion in a humming mass of bees.
Ingrid screamed “Get them. Stop them. Help us!” Her voice rose in a wail.
The bees became even more frenetic while my feet started slipping out from under me again. Meg’s head was entering the inky mass. Then the little creatures became organized. Instead of an amorphous mass of insects, there were four arrows, brown and humming, aimed at the four people in the blackness. The arrows shot forward and the four became covered with angry bees. I heard horrible screaming. The suction disappeared. The four had let go and the three of us fell back onto the kitchen floor.
Ingrid rose to her knees, tears flowing down her face. She spoke, but I couldn’t hear her words. The darkness backed away, the screams diminishing to a mewling. Then dwindling, the blackness became smaller and smaller until with a little pop, it disappeared. The only sound was the roaring buzz of a thousand bees.
Meg and I lay sprawled where we had fallen, exhausted. Ingrid turned to us. For a moment we gazed at each other, a century apart, but inextricably linked. There were tears in her eyes as she smiled at us. She reached out her hands but became translucent and faded away like smoke in a breeze until she was gone. Meg and I sat on the floor, holding on tight to each other.
Finally, I crawled to the outside door and opened it. A vast cloud of bees exited into the afternoon sunlight.
I was a little hesitant about staying in the house after that, but Meg talked me into making it our home. She seemed to feel that the ghosts had been exorcised. I knew she was wrong. But I gave in.
We finished our schooling and we each got jobs here in Boston. We still live in the brownstone. The remodeling was finished shortly after Meg gave birth to our first child, a daughter that we named Kelsey Ingrid. The house is noisy now with three children and two dogs.
But I know there is still one more resident, up in the attic. At times, I go up there to keep her company. I feel welcome.
* * *
Rhema Sayers is a retired ER doctor who always wanted to write but never had time. After retiring from medicine, she started writing seriously and has had moderate success in being published. She lives in the Arizona desert just outside Tucson with two dogs and one husband.
“Our contest is not against flesh and blood; rather, the authorities of the world and the spiritual hosts of wickedness” (Ephesians 6:12)
Mortified, I looked at the sullen, jowly individual with sunken eyes in the mirror. He was a world-weary, jaded and life-beaten stranger. Not the young man once filled with verve and positive belief in the potential of humanity. I was plummeting towards fifty, with no parachute to resist the velocity of time. As I aged, memories of my younger self were blurring and darkening, becoming a swirling, ephemeral phantasmagoria. None of it seemed real. The conversations I’d had, the people I’d known and the things I’d done. All of my lived experience was melting into myth. Time was the subject and I the reluctant object of its terrifying, phenomenal power. At this age, I was troubled constantly by Shakespearean metaphors: which of Jaques’ seven acts was I now living?
In this middle-aged atrophy, I had lost all control over my attention span. Although, as a Generation Xer (a person with experience of the slower analogue life of the past), I was a reluctant addict of the digital opium that the technocratic cabals had relentlessly mainlined into humanity’s psychic veins. I had surrendered my cognition to digital media, allowing it to become my surrogate memory and pilot of consciousness. When I recalled now, I recalled only web pages, video sequences and animations. True images of my past were disappearing. I was one of the docile ones now, no better than the living dead receiving their beliefs from the misleaders, celebrity cheerleaders and YouTube oracles.
I had stopped reading books years before. I could no longer go beyond a paragraph until the endorphin cravings had me clicking YouTube uploads and reaching for the HD television remote and sessions on the Netflix hypnosis couch. I watched one movie after another with my mind locked into beta mode. After each film ended, its meaningless, drivelling content vanished from my mind only to be replaced by another generic replica of its predecessor of exactly the same length, with the same distribution of heroines and villains, sadism and cruelty, vapid dialogue and nauseating soundtracks. I just couldn’t stop watching. After punishing my senses for hours with this rotten entertainment, I switched to serialized ‘dramas’ populated by charismatic psychopaths and clever murderers presented as desirable with their cynical smirks and coded dialogue written to code our minds and support their hideous values. Within this endless procession of two-dimensional fantasy—I found it impossible to switch off, to stop engaging with this intoxicating content—there seemed to be a deliberate force reversing morals and inverting positive beliefs.
On a daily basis, I was locked into a digital opium dungeon, obliged to inhale the paralysing fumes of this corporate narcotic. When I had sated my appetite for the banal dross of the dramatic genre, my attention was directed to ‘reality’ television episodes. My right arm raised itself habitually and my fingers pressed the rubber padded buttons of the remote of their own accord, like the components of a mechanism in an operational cycle programmed for repetition. For a mind coma routine that kept the patient laughing and grunting with happiness. I went from one reality television show to another, becoming the long-distance voyeur for monetized extroverts, attention thieves, scripted pretenders and purchased, franchised souls ready for brand-name instant fortune after signing their Faustian promises. Each show blended into the next, and the tedious, shallow, self- absorbed gargoyles from the show that had finished simply merged into the bodies of the next ‘big personalities’ obliged to entertain and drive ad revenue. There was Bruce, the central personality from Real Male Strippers of Atlanta having his customary lamentations with close-ups and pieces of tense music as he bemoaned his lack of ‘respect’ and ‘recognition’.
“Once upon a time, you actually needed talent to be famous,” I told the screen with disgust. Bruce responded by snarling and giving me the middle digit. These media demons insulted me often, but I was too numbed to react and tell them to go to hell. This is because as I spent my days fastened to screens, watching these gruesome parodies of humanity hypnotize me with their distorted pictures of life and felt my life-force, every joule of my energy, being sucked out of me through transparent tubes into the ports of the computer monitor or television screen. Certain shows were particularly greedy for my elan, with the most ravenous being Keeping up with the Kartrashians, a profitable vanity vehicle for the show’s ‘star’, Trish Kartrashian, a bodacious woman who had gained digital notoriety five years earlier for fornicating in public places with tattooed and belligerent individuals and videoing the footage with GoPro cameras, Google Glass and other high technology devices. She shared the footage through her website free of charge first, and then monetized the downloads when a fanbase emerged. Her piece de resistance was convincing a group of imprisoned ‘gangsta’ rappers to participate in a graphic orgy inside the jail itself, right under the surveillance cameras and within earshot of the guards. A brilliant, ground-breaking piece of guerrilla performance art that celebrates women’s sexuality gushed lead-piece feature writers online, duplicating the video and sharing it on until it went truly viral, infecting the sense of a generation of youth who wanted to be just like her. At 24 she was a millionairess, ruling over her money-for-nothing realm from the prime-time court of this ‘show’ where viewers were treated to sixty-minute instalments of her family members’ musings on sex, shopping and plastic surgery within the bizarre confinement of this televisual exhibit cage with a conspicuous fourth wall.
During one episode that centred around a fierce argument between Trish and her younger sister Britney about whether Trish should have a course of anal bleaching, I felt perilously close to losing too much energy. My vitality was surging through the tubes and the suction from the television was too great. Too greedy to be safe. I was haemorrhaging life force by the pounds per square inch and as I did, the volume of Trish and Britney’s shrill shouting match intensified.
“Listen, I know what’s right for me and my body. And only me, it’s my right to do what I want and make my own informed decisions. God gave me this body to share with world, right? It’s my gift. My treasure and not you, mom or anybody else is going to tell me what to do!” Trish said this with such vigour and determination that the camera closed in on her tanned, symmetrical cheekbones.
“If you livestream the bleaching, I’m never going to talk to you again. It’s an embarrassment. You’re bringing shame on the family,” declared Britney, oblivious to the dense irony in her words. “You’re going to actually do this? Livestream the bleaching for your Only Fans channel? That’s just so selfish. You’re going too far!” Trish’s jaw dropped, and her eyes flared wide and indignant.
“Huh!” snorted Trish, getting off the scarlet living room sofa emblazoned with a golden skull motif. “You’re one to talk! What about Jared’s live tongue-splitting op. on his next episode of My Face, My Art?” Jared was Britney’s fiancé. A former crack addict turned body modifications celebrity who’d found patronage from the networks who’d given him a twice weekly show in which he catalogued the mutilation of his face and body. His goal was to look like Satan, and he already had horn implants, blood-red eyes, sliced ears, hollowed out cheeks from which saliva dripped and a silicon-filled cavity where his nose had been. The tongue splice was next. His fans multiplied with each episode and his grisly visage confronted you on YouTube commercials for demonic fantasy games and garnered screams of approval from daytime talk-show audiences agog at his great cultural work.
“You are such a bitch sometimes!” said Britney. “You know that’s not fair!”
“I’m badass. I just don’t take shit from people when they start trash talking,” replied Trish, defiantly tapping her sternum.
I felt dizzy and weak as I not only felt my life being sucked out of me but saw it spiralling through the thin, wiry translucent tubes attached to the television. If I couldn’t ‘disconnect’ right away I could be drained entirely for a long time and left a shrivelled, dry husk of a near corpse for the week. A useless, lifeless, passive creature unable to act. The device slurped the force and the entities on screen grew in power.
“Leave my time and attention alone you monsters!” I cried at the screen. Trish and Britney turned to the camera, giving the fourth wall their most arrogant sneer.
“No way, host! You don’t stop feeding us—ever!” With this, they turned back towards each other and resumed their quarrel. My thumb reached the remote’s power button just in time and I was spared any more of the sisters’ dialogue. The suction tubes vanished. I collapsed onto the floor and was unable to stir for at least five minutes. I crawled to the chair and hoisted myself up, needing a few minutes more before I was strong enough to stagger to the bathroom. When I went to the sink to splash water on my face, a withered, gaunt, sunken-eyed stranger stared back with concern from the mirror. I looked sixty-nine, not forty-nine. The hair was greyer. The eyes more forlorn and resigned, as though reconciled to the path I was compelled to follow.
I opened the front door of my apartment which I couldn’t remember leaving for a while and the breeze that caressed me was refreshing, pure and uplifting. I needed more of this. More of nature’s timeless, gratis gifts…but I needed my media, or it needed me. Looking down my neighbourhood’s street, I saw traffic. The cars made their fleeting acquaintances with my sense reality and the sound of their engines was a comforting assurance that a familiar normalcy still existed alongside the freakish high-tech realm I was trapped in. Then I saw people walking along the pavement with faces transfixed on their phone screens or talking loudly and rapidly to no-one visible through their ear-pods. In both types of media consumer, I noticed the same thin tubes, wispish and diaphanous, extended from the devices and latched onto the base of the people’s skulls by some kind of suction pads.
“Don’t they see it? Don’t they feel it?” I asked the outside world and closed the door. I was determined to go out soon: I needed groceries but, when I struggled to recall the last time I had visited GLOBE MART, I had the vague memory that there hadn’t been much on the shelves to buy anyway. Something about food shortages I’d heard or read a while ago. Then I noticed the unopened protein supplement box on the floor, and everything made sense: the government posted us protein supplements in leu of food, so I didn’t need to go out.
I went into the kitchen determined to have a coffee. A pounding headache that usually accompanied these prolonged screen sessions had arrived on cue, and coffee and aspirin were the best medicine. If that failed to give relief, there was always the complimentary opium or Prozac to reduce the pain and lighten the mood. How did I get these drugs again? More government freebies perhaps. I had my coffee and felt instantly better but was momentarily preoccupied by the concern of work. I was certain I had a job, either an online teacher of something or marketing ad copy writer. Again, I couldn’t get my memory to cooperate. Whether I still did or had stopped doing the job I did not know. When I furrowed my brow and massaged my forehead in an effort to remember, all I got were fleeting traces of internet knowledge. There had been a global virus, a persistent and stubborn one that stopped people and economies breathing. Few people worked now. The government paid us and fed us, and the devices entertained us. Was this correct? I couldn’t know for sure and needed to go to Yahoo News or the BBC to check. Only problem was I couldn’t retain information for longer than thirty minutes.
I soon began to shake, and agonizing tremors went through me, which were media withdrawal symptoms. Now recovered, and ready to sacrifice more of my life force, I approached my desk and booted up my laptop. The device’s flexible, transparent tubes popped out of its ports and attached themselves to me. I went to various news sites and got updates on wars that were either the same, eternal conflict or a variation of another war that had been exported and monetized by a government or cabal. The war justification rhetoric was almost identical from both belligerents and seemed identical to speeches and soundbites from the past I couldn’t quite recall. The story links clicked themselves, anticipating my craving for information novelty. One lead to a story about an architect of one of these deadly wars being knighted, thrown high paying jobs and lavished with attention at global leader forums. Another story triumphantly reported how a serial killer had been compensated for the emotional trauma of imprisonment. Another reported the passing of a law making it illegal to use the words man, woman, boy or girl.
“Are demons in control now?” I asked the screen. KEEP BROWSING. KEEP CLICKING. KEEP WATCHING AND ENJOYING. STOP THINKING appeared on the monitor and I complied, selecting YouTube and watching Tik Tok synchronized fart orchestras followed by endless looped videos on celebrity dating and rehab updates. Links to monologues from celebrities announcing their sexuality, their plastic surgery regrets, mid-life sex life assessments and frequency of bowel motions clicked themselves and I was helplessly unable to resist engaging with the content.
Then I was tied up with a movie channel for several hours, compelled to watch a series of outlandish ‘blockbuster’ fantasy films featuring violent, androgynous protagonists tearing their opponents to pieces and carrying out a repertoire of sadistic punishments to the now familiar approving tone implicit in the imbecilic plot and hackneyed dialogue. As the action scenes reached their predictable crescendos, I winced as the energy was sucked out of multiple points in my body and through the familiar, wiry tubes. I shuddered as one particularly ugly scene played out. The aching pain in my sides caused by the suction was incredible, and more intense than any I’d experienced before. It was as though the marrow was being sucked from my spiritual bones.
I shut down my computer for a while to recover, but then enabled the tube reconnections and continued my marathon donation of energy to the system. First, I visited the internet to consume a fresh menu of hideousness. Atrocious news items about murders, wars, riots, viruses and disintegrating cultures cascaded down the monitor. A story link that clicked itself opened a report about a virus manufacturing centre, but when I looked away the story had vanished. The stories cannibalized others, taking elements of some and discarding others. Some mutated hideously across web pages. Trish Trashian was becoming a Global Youth Ambassador for the United Nations in one story and receiving an honorary doctorate for contributions to society and culture when the same link was clicked elsewhere. Pictures of familiar tycoons, demagogues and figures of power appeared at summits and conferences playing like an orchestra in a recital of rhetoric that seemed to have been playing for centuries, although nobody had been listening to their nefarious music, what ever it was. Whenever they spoke, their words were always forgotten.
After this, it was back to YouTube where I heard Stacey, another of Trish Kartrashian’s siblings, talk about her plans to monetize her orgasms through the launch of a new Only Fans channel which she planned to cross-market and promote with The Devil’s G-Spot, her new perfume.
“This is where I can really get to know my fans and they can really, you know, get to know the real me,” said the Botox-lipped Stacey giving the interview wearing nothing but a thong and with only her glossy, straight ebony hair covering her breasts.
“You mean get to know their bank accounts, you charlatan,” I remarked disdainfully. The video paused and Stacey scowled at me, shaking a fist at the camera and telling me to f off. Feeling fatigued already, I wanted to disconnect, to switch this soul-sucking session off and recover but I couldn’t stop. I exposed myself to more mind-suction media content, watching shows about people watching shows followed by shows featuring panels of experts discussing the conversations of the people who’d watched the shows. Their discourse descended into cycles of nauseating, crippling insignificance which caused excruciating pain in my temples.
“Aggh!” I cried, and the gabbling, opining faces on the screen turned to me and laughed cynically in sync. The pain intensified, and the next thing I saw was my carpeted floor getting closer and larger in my field of vision as I collapsed, and my face smashed into it.
I could not establish whether I was conscious, unconscious or simply hallucinating. I wasn’t in my apartment anymore, but in a different place that was suddenly familiar and much more appealing than the repetitive, unimaginative, digital media addicted world I knew. I was in a beautiful park with lush green plants, bamboo groves, tall coniferous trees and an enchanting stream that meandered through it.
“Hey, Billy! Come on. Let’s jump the stream again!”
I couldn’t recall the last time a person had called my name. It seemed a lifetime ago, but I realised I was now back in that very lifetime for this was my past and the voice from the freckle-faced young boy calling me in the distance was Victor, my closest friend since childhood. There he was, standing on the grass, with his button-nose, basin haircut and juvenile expectation filling his face. I was immediately elated, for Victor had spoken these words and now they were restored from the past. I actually had memory again. It was as though stolen property had been returned: access to recollections and experiences of a different life and reality from the parasitic, digital syringe that had been stuck into me for longer than I could recall.
“Boys! Your sandwiches!” The high, anxious voice was unmistakable. It was my mother, imploring us to return to our lovingly prepared comestibles before flies or seagulls got to them. She was sitting on a blanket with Beryl, who was Victor’s mum. It was a bright summer’s day, and the park was full of neighbourhood faces. There were the older folk having parochial conversations on benches, clusters of restless, boisterous youths loitering around the flower beds or climbing trees and young lovers intoxicated with the sight of each other strolling dreamily around the park’s perimeter. My sense of sight, my sense of smell but most of all my sense of hearing was heightened in this dream, or fugue. I actually heard the people. Their voices, words and emotions coalesced beautifully in a sublime harmony. Their communication was real, their feelings were genuine and there wasn’t a screen or computer monitor in sight. People were free of technology: there were no transparent tubes attached to them.
A vicious sound vandalized this sense sanctuary. It was a pounding, thumping, high tempo beat that tore into its victims, causing them to clasp their ears and scream in agony. Blood streamed between the fingers of some unfortunates unable to protect their ear drums in time. The noise incinerated the elderly people nearby, burning their bodies with an unearthly speed and chemical energy. Others scarpered, falling into the park’s stream which was now flowing backwards and drowning them. The ground trembled and cracked as huge fissures opened, revealing pink, flesh-coloured strata. Nearby buildings crumbled and trees groaned when their roots were torn apart. Victor was gone, and the spot on the lawn from which our parents had called us was now scorched earth.
“The Archons are here! The Archons have returned!”
The scream carried across the traumatized land. From the fissures in the earth scaly, serpentine creatures writhed and emerged. Some were Gorgons who grabbed the helpless ones that tried to flee and sank their fangs into their necks as the nested vipers on their heads squirmed. Dragons rose out of other smoky earth trenches, with their red eyes glowing and foul-smelling, acrid smoke wafting from their vast almond-shaped nostrils. There was a deafening rumbling, and the ground shook tremendously. Then a strange, three-dimensional pyramid-shaped stage rose out of the ground. Standing on it was a giant, muscular rapper covered in tattoos and wearing a serpentine necklace and clasping a phallic microphone. There was a posse of backing rappers behind him in badass boy uniforms, with flipped baseball caps, matching serpentine necklaces and phallic microphones. A turntabling DJ positioned to the side made a pair of gigantic speakers snarl into life and the grotesque ensemble, whom I now realised consisted of the same men from Trish Trashian’s self-promoting prison orgy, drawled out the following in deafening monotone:
we’re taking control
gonna rape your soul
in a black hole
lose your mind, we got you confined
here we go, slap you like a ho
you can’t say no
we’ve been reinstated, get you mutilated
The rap started massacring those still trying to flee the park. The words were deadlier than bullets, puncturing the delicate senses of the people just as they reached the gates at either end. They perished, clasping their ears in agony. Then, there were shrill, coordinated cries.
“Look! The demons are descending!”
I was squashed into a mass of helpless people and their hands pointed upwards. The blue sky was dotted with giant drones and the combined whining of their rotor blades was so deafening it drowned out the destructive racket of the rap. There were piloting platforms on each of these craft occupied by creatures operating controls. As they descended, their forms and faces became clearer, and I gasped when I saw Trish Kartrashian in control of the largest craft. She had fangs and had grown a tail. Britney was to her left in the formation, and she had also acquired monstrous features while Bruce, the prime-time Adonis and darling of entertainment podcasts, had pulled away and was now looping into an attack pattern like a plane intending to strafe us. He passed over us at speed at low altitude, simultaneously urinating and taking aim with a harpoon gun. His acid urine burned the flesh of all it touched and attached to the spear tips of the harpoon he fired and reloaded as rapidly as a machine gun were the thin, transparent tubes that pierced the flesh of everybody they struck and started sucking. Trish, Britney and other smirking familiars of the screen world who’d fed on me for years landed and as they did tendril coils reached out from their torsos and attached themselves to dazed and paralyzed victims.
More and more of these appalling creatures dropped from the sky or emerged from the ground. Reality television zombies, actors, talent-show winners, DJs, internet influencers and politicians were surrounding us with their tendril coils reaching out from their torsos and attaching themselves to each helpless victim within range. We offered no resistance as the pointed tips of the tendrils pierced our skin and sucked out our vitality to the sound of a sickening slurp.
We had become the paralyzed, helpless quarry of these predators as incapable of defending ourselves as river-crossing zebras surrounded by crocodiles. We were a herd of psychic food they could feed off at will. I looked at the gaunt, emaciated faces of my fellow humans in the remains of the park with extreme terror. Everything was starting to burn, and the eyes of these beings glowed amber. There were more tremors and the ground opened again. From a narrow fissure in the earth about ten meters in length a massive flat-screen, high-definition television rose up. It was bigger than the industrial sized screens that had once been used for showing major sports events in public, back in a time that I could barely recollect or reconstruct from the shattered debris of my experience. The television screen dazzled us with a flash of bright red light and then we saw on it the scene of a ritual human sacrifice in progress with Jared the mangled, devilish freak and favourite of light entertainment producers raising a large, serrated knife over the exposed chest of a victim. Jared hissed, poking out a forked tongue and twelve archons circling the poor man on the death stone murmured incantations as the thin wiry tubes sprouted out of their fingers and eye sockets.
I was in the open boxcar of a train traversing an arid landscape. I turned my head and was astonished to see it was an endless train, snaking across and around the contours of the land to the horizon. It was like a Nazi concentration-camp transport, with iron bars criss-crossing the windows and the carriages were cages packed with the punctured and the drained. Their skeletal faces could haunt anybody unfortunate enough to see them to their day of death. The train came to an abrupt stop, and the tops of the boxcars opened. We were scooped up by giant machines and deposited onto a conveyor belt which moved us into the mouth of a factory-like building with a large neon sign above it that read The Mind Banqueting Hall. Once inside, what I saw made me faint. The conveyor belt led to a giant circular tray on which the bodies of the dead or barely alive dropped. Creatures surrounded us that were more hideous than the celebrities, the gorgons or the dragons. They had the faces of ancient gods, and the dreaded, transparent wispy tubes sprouted from their bodies. There were thousands of us, helpless and supine, staring at these ravenous, haughty giants. One of them produced an unearthly and horrific sound that was a signal to begin the feast, and their multitude of tubes reached out to us.
I still live for the screens that beckon me daily, and I gladly offer up my faculties on their sacrificial altars of binary code. All sense of linear time has vanished, or been removed, from my awareness. There are no longer minutes, hours, days, weeks, months or years. There is just the constant infotainment that feeds off me while my memory is a destroyed museum whose wrecked artifacts will never be restored.Aha! There’s the theme music for Keeping Up with the Trashians! The monitor is bright and here come the tubes!
Titus Green was born in Canada but grew up in the UK. His fiction, non-fiction and prose poetry have appeared in numerous online and print magazines, including The Collidescope, Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Bosphorus Review of Books, HORLA, Literally Stories, Sediments Literary Arts, Fear of Monkeys, Stag Hill Literary Journal, The Chamber, S.A.V.A Press, The Rye Whiskey Review, Empty Sink Publishing and The Font. He teaches English as a foreign language for a living. His published work can be found at http://www.titusgreenfiction.com
There were four things that could explain away what Gerald was seeing as he sat one night drunk on the porch of his empty home looking out at a dust storm gathering. Four things that allowed Gerald to tell himself he was simply delirious when he saw, out on the edges of withered fields, the figure of a woman coming toward him. A woman out here, when most of the farmers and their families had the good sense to clear out when their crops failed and their children started coughing like they’d been smoking for twice their lifetimes.
He hadn’t had a proper meal in days. That was the first thing. Hunger makes one bleary-eyed. Makes one hallucinate.
The second thing was grief.
It wasn’t two weeks before that Lorrie’s water broke. It was early. Too early. But once she started hollering and sweating, Gerald knew that the baby was coming. He sent Freddy to town to fetch the doctor.
Boise City was a good eleven miles off, and the horses were in no shape for running. They were weak from lack of food, same as every man, woman, and child in Cimarron County. Was a wonder Gerald hadn’t broken down and slaughtered the horses for what little meat was left on their bones. But he’d been saving them for just this occasion. Lorrie was due two months hence, but that child of theirs wanted out and once it was coming, there was no going back.
“I’ll stay with her,” Gerald said to Freddy over the sounds of Lorrie’s screams. “You need to get the doctor, though. Get him fast.”
Freddy tried his best to make those horses fly. Even if they’d been healthy it would’ve been hard to run them fast enough to save her. Gerald hadn’t any money to fit those horses with new shoes, not since the whole world had dried up and the soil swirled skyward, blocking the sun. Still, Freddy kicked and whipped them and rode them harder than he’d ridden any in his life. But it’d taken him three hours to come back with the doctor and by that time, Lorrie was dead. Freddy and the doctor came in to find Gerald on his knees cradling a still baby in his arms, blood all down his shirtfront.
The doctor said it was hard to have a normal baby these days, what with the dust in the air and everything falling apart. Said he’d been seeing a lot of cases of babies coming out too early — all quiet and cold as the fields at night.
Lorrie had been thin, besides. “Malnourished,” was the doctor’s word. And even Gerald couldn’t ignore the odd shape of her body in the last weeks of the pregnancy. He’d seen her walking around the house thin as a vine, with one big watermelon swelling in the middle. No denying she’d been getting worse right along with the crops.
“Even if I’d made it in time, she might not have lived,” the doctor said to Freddy who kept crying that he could have ridden faster. Freddy cried more than Gerald who just sat holding that would-be-son of his and shaking his head. They couldn’t get that child out of his arms. The doctor tried to ease Gerald’s grip, but Gerald reached out with one hand and slapped him.
“Ain’t takin’ my baby,” Gerald had said. “Ain’t takin’ him.”
Eventually, Freddy went back to town on one of the doctor’s horses and brought back the mortician and his assistant. The doctor had to use chloroform on Gerald to get him to let go of his child. The mortician took the child and wrapped it up in a small cloth. Then they wrapped Lorrie up in the bloody bedsheets and brought her to the carriage. Said they’d have to get the measurements for the coffins.
“He don’t have no money for coffins,” Freddy said.
“No one does,” the mortician said, then rode off with the remains of Gerald’s family.
When Gerald did come out of it, he wouldn’t listen to Freddy.
“You got to pay those folks for the coffins.”
“They ain’t dead, Freddy,” Gerald insisted. “Just gone for a while.”
Melancholy settled into the house as thick as the dust and soon enough Freddy left. “Can’t stand to look at you lying to yourself,” he said to Gerald. “I’m no help. You got no work for me anyhow.” So he went off west and left Gerald to drink his store of whisky.
And those were the third and fourth problems. The dust and the alcohol. He was sure to be seeing things in his state. Yet the vision of this woman was so clear. So real.
Out at the edge of the field where the dust danced, he could swear he saw a woman approaching. He squinted and still, he could see her. She was carrying something and walking steadily toward the house.
He wondered if it was a stranger come to loot and if he should grab his gun, but he thought better of it. He was too drunk to aim. So he just sat back and watched the figure come. He took another swig then closed his eyes tight, shook his head, and slapped his face. When he opened his eyes he knew he’d gone insane.
Right on the porch steps, the woman stood. She’d advanced with inhuman speed. Jumped right from the horizon onto his front steps.
Wasn’t any normal woman either. She was caked in dust. Her face, arms, dress, even the bundle in her arms—all of it was covered in a thick layer of dust. The longer he looked, the more he thought she wasn’t coated in it, but she was made of it. He sat looking at her, too dumb to speak.
She took a step up the porch and dust rolled off her body. She took another step, and another cloud of dust kicked off her and rolled into Gerald’s face. He started coughing.
“Stay right there. Don’t you take another step,” Gerald said through a dry throat..
The woman stopped.
“You’re just something I dreamt up,” he said.
The woman shook her head no.
“Then I figure I’m dead.”
The woman shook her head no again and another wave of dust fell from around her head.
“What you got there in your arms,” Gerald asked.
The woman began to step toward him again, dust falling in buckets off her body, but she didn’t get any smaller. It was as if she had an infinite store of the stuff filling her insides. Gerald shrunk back in his rocking chair. She got nearer and nearer, and Gerald saw what he was trying not to see.
The dusty specter kept walking toward him, adjusting the bundle in her arms so that she was holding it out to him like an offering. A dust child swaddled in a dust blanket.
“Jesus.” Gerald closed his eyes again. He felt the weight of something being placed in his lap. When he opened his eyes he looked down at the bundle. A baby made of dust was reaching up for him.
“Is this him?” Gerald asked. “Is this our son?” The woman shook her head yes.
He lifted the bundle to his face and looked at the child’s full, dusty cheeks.
“He’s beautiful,” Gerald said.
The woman spoke. “Kiss me,” she said. It wasn’t quite a human voice. It was the sound of someone coughing. The words were punctuated by dust spilling from the woman’s impossible lips.
Gerald looked back at the baby and adjusted him in his arms. He stood up to face the dust woman.
“Kiss me,” she coughed again. This time it was more forceful, and dust shot out her mouth and stung as it hit Gerald’s face, but he could barely feel it through his foolish desire. He closed his eyes and kissed her. It was sweet at first despite the lips being dry and powdery. The kiss went on and on. He didn’t care if he was seeing things as long as it felt this real.
At last, he tried to pull away and found he couldn’t. Through a small crack in his lips, he felt dust threading into his mouth and down his throat. He could feel it snaking through him filling his lungs. He opened his eyes and saw that the woman was no longer a woman, but a huge, spinning cloud of dust. He felt there was no longer any weight in his arms. The child was gone. And still the dust filled him and filled him. It spun into his mouth, the cloud disappearing into him.
He couldn’t breathe. His mouth tasted of earth and rot. His eyes were heavy. They began to close. And he knew he was dying, full of dust. As the last bits of the cloud disappeared down his throat, all he could think was that this last kiss was worth it.
Elizabeth J. Wenger is queer writer from Oklahoma. Currently an MFA student at Iowa State University, Wenger’s work has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine, The Hopper, orange peel literary magazine, and more. You can find more of her work at her website wengerwrites.com. Twitter: @wengerwanger. Instagram: @wengerwow
Maybe you don’t have a place in your heart for this adorable (?) little fuzzball, but if you know anything about her (we think it’s a her), please contact us. We can’t figure out what she eats. You can see the teeth on her, but I’ve never seen her so much as nibble a donut.
Technically, she’s Mom’s. But Mom is dead and our place is “no pets”. She died on Thanksgiving, rest her soul. We swoop in for turkey (NOT politics) and then she keels over in the cranberry sauce, flips over and tangles with the bird. Cranberry sauce down her best dress—looked like somebody shot her. Last thing she ever said wasn’t about us, it was about the fuzzball, how it was almost “done with her”. Crazy.
Ma loved the thing, called it something that sounded like “Grinny”, but who knows since we could never-ever get my mom to wear her teeth. Grinny is still here and likes loud white noise. She hides by the AC, but likes AC/DC even better. Ma used to put on my old tapes at breakfast. The neighbors didn’t like that, but maybe yours won’t judge. Running the blender and dishwasher and microwave all at once works pretty okay too tho. (Pro tip.)
Don’t agitate Grinny. If things are too quiet, that’s what you get. Turns everything out and upside-down. Comes from behind the fridge and goes for the trash, couch cushions, potted plants. Juney saw her half lodged in the toilet bowl last week when we were in, cleaning the place. Seemed like she was looking for something but I don’t think she found it.
Sometimes Grinny disappears for as long as a week. When it happened to Ma, she said she missed the company, but she got sleep.
“Why would anyone want this monster around?” you’re asking. Well, that’s the thing. When you pet her you feel… good. Like anything is possible. Her fur isn’t soft the way it looks (it’s prickly like rows of Xactos), but you get used to that. And then it’s all good. Everything is really good. You could sit there, and sit there, just moving your arms rhythmically, never needing to be anywhere else, or do anything else. I don’t know how to explain it, but thinking thoughts and being places seems stupid when you have your hands in that fur.
We can’t get Grinny to eat anything out of a can. Not anything out of a bag either. We tried dog food. Chinese. Primanti’s. Mineo’s. We’ve done everything we know how to do and we’re starting to worry. She’s getting weird. Okay, weirder. Restless. Maybe she’s almost “done with” us too.
Anyway, call or text or whatever, and do it soon. We’re tired, and worn out, and I have to get back to work, and the estate’s not settled, and Juney doesn’t look so good. Like maybe she’s coming down with something. And right when it’s almost time for Christmas.
Douglas’s story “Poppy’s Poppy” is on the preliminary ballot for a Bram Stoker Award this year, and “Year Six” appeared on Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror #14 recommended reading list after making the preliminary ballot last year. He is co-editing The Midnight Zone’s upcoming first edition, Novus Monstrum, which is jam-packed with modern legends of weird fiction, but is also a showcase of new talent. Read his stories in Lucent Dreaming, LampLight, Penumbric, Diet Milk, and Tales from the Moonlit Path, or listen on Bloody Disgusting’s Creepy podcast or Tales to Terrify.
I was going to start off by saying I haven’t always been big, but that would be a lie. And not one of those little white lies either, but a huge, big, fat one – just like me. I’ve been fat, seriously fat, verging on the morbidly obese from the mere tender age of six. But, in my defence, I couldn’t have turned out any different, all things considered, because I just didn’t know any different.
Both my parents, my mom AND pop, were ‘big’ (that’s how they always liked to refer to themselves – big) living off TV dinners, greasy take outs, bagfuls of candy and gallons of sugary soda. I really didn’t stand a chance.
My aunties and uncles were fat. My cousins were fat. My gran and grandpa died young because they were so fat; I never even got a chance to meet them. Even the damn dog was fat, the poor thing. Snuffled around the floor like a vacuum cleaner hoovering up all the scraps, never taken for a walk and pooped wherever it fancied all over the goddam trailer. Luckily for her my pop wasn’t fast enough to catch the slow waddling mutt to whoop its fat butt as he wasn’t even capable of a slow waddle himself, but boy he wanted to so bad and no mistake.
Sometimes the poops were picked up but more often than not they sat there dried and forgotten about just like the unceremoniously dumped pizza boxes and take out cartons along with the dropped food that all eventually became a part of our home furnishings. Turns out the less you moved the less you noticed and the less you wanted to notice the less you moved. A kind of lazy ass win/win in our home. But there was a time when I did used to notice and it got me real down. I even tried to clear up after everyone on occasion but I couldn’t keep on top of it as well as going to school and running errands for them as they both made a silent pact to never step foot outside the place.
And so the cycle began.
I got more depressed about it and so ate more to feel better and also to stuff down the hate that had started to rise from the pit of my ever growing stomach – that pit was fat, like me, and so the hate was too. I couldn’t let that devil out in fear of what it might make me do, weren’t ready for that. So I kept pushing it down with more and more food, just like I saw my momma and pop do every day of all the days I can remember remembering. And boy, did it work too. We had managed to create our own version of ‘Happy Ever After’ despite how sick the actual truth of our lives were. Of course even more eating helped with that uncomfortable truth if ever it decided to try and rear it’s ugly, fat head.
We weren’t in denial, nothing like that, we obviously knew we were fat – real fat – we just didn’t need the constant reminding of it. But hey, we got it anyway. We got it on the street, we got it in the parking lots, we got it in the mall, we got it at the stoplights from other rides pulled up alongside. Some nasty ass guys felt it was their God given right to shout through their open windows about how fat we were before speeding off ahead when the stoplights turned to green leaving us stranded as our own exhausted vehicle struggled to set off with us all crammed in, leaving us tight lipped, never to speak about, but wide mouthed on our return home, ready to stuff our faces once again.
That’s why we stopped going out.
It became easier and easier to keep it all down, all in, as we swallowed down food we never even tasted to keep our anger and shame suppressed deep down under the weight of all we stuffed ourselves with. Eventually we were all just too darn heavy to leave even if we wanted to, which we never did. The effort and energy it would have taken to propel us from where we chose to slump ended up being as stagnant as our voice. So, deliveries and take outs it was. Day and night. Even the dog stayed in with us as it began not to care whether it ever went outside again either, not that she was ever really given much choice.
I know that to be cruel now, especially as I am someone who has always loved animals way more than people, still do, but I go without since she died right where she ate her last pizza straight out of the box it came in, her own little pizza box coffin, she probably would have liked that except only half of her fit, and it was a super size.
I remember when she had been cute and pretty and full of life before turning ugly and fat like the rest of us. She was one of those little yappy lap dogs, easy to carry under your arm, until she wasn’t no more. I didn’t mind cos I was ugly too so of course I was always gonna love her just the same. I got a kind of peace with my obesity and ugliness; I reckoned it must have been God’s will for me to have turned out the way I did. Mom and pop always said the same about themselves and I guess that’s what made it all kind of okay in the end. I’ve had time to think about it while I lie here; time to think about a lot of stuff I hadn’t allowed myself to think about before and I reckon that probably weren’t true at all, that maybe they just made it all up to make me feel better about myself and no doubt to make them feel better about themselves too. My whole life I’d been convinced of it, that it had been ordained by the Almighty himself to be just so. It’s hard to accept now that it had all been a load of old bull. It’s no wonder then that I loved to eat so much; a pizza and a couple twinkies became my medicine, even my best friend.
I promised I wouldn’t lie, so I won’t.
I never just had the one pizza, it always came with all the extras – the wedges, the chicken wings, the cheesy garlic bread. And as for the twinkies it was more like a couple packs. It feels better to be honest. Might as well get it all out there as I’m feeling real shit anyway. And that is exactly why cake was invented.
I must try and move a bit more; staying in the one place is making me feel uncomfortable. Easier said than done if you’re me. But I’m going to give it a go, all by myself. There’s no-one here to help me so I don’t really got a choice.
I pull down hard on the rope that hangs from the ceiling right above me, it was put there just for me. It took a while to set it up right as it turned out it needed more than just the ceiling itself to hold it as well as me when I pulled on it. When it was fitted it was practically the only time I got to see anyone else apart from him. Him – the one who fed me and tended to my every need.
The guy He chose to do it came recommended, He assured me of that as I was embarrassed at the thought of someone from the outside coming in and settling their eyes on me while I laid there, here, immobile and useless. It was okay, turned out he was used to seeing others like me and so was neither fascinated or appalled by my appearance. It seemed he knew exactly what he was doing as he got to work quickly and efficiently, obviously experienced in fixing my tug rope securely and safely so I need never worry about pulling the house down around me when my weight was on it, no fear of the ceiling collapsing all about me followed by the walls that held it. He proved to be polite and courteous as he worked around me under the ever present watchful eye of He who loved me the most in the world.
I manage to hoist myself up a bit so as I am in more of an upright position rather than my usual reclining one. I cannot ever be flat in fear of my weight crushing down hard on my compromised heart and lungs which would absolutely guarantee a death I’m not quite ready for despite being acutely aware that I’m not truly living either.
I’ve always felt like I’m in some kind of limbo, some sort of holding place where I just sit and wait, have waited for so long to either take control and actually exist in a place with others who share this world beyond these walls or choose to lose any will I might barely have left and give up my body and hope that the soul that resides within it moves on to another host in which it can be free. I fester between the two possibilities.
It feels like I’ve been alone here for days now but I know it can’t be, boredom does that. Boredom is an enemy that corrupts time and confuses me. The lack of windows mean I can’t tell if it’s night or day so it’s easy to lose track. I guess it doesn’t really matter. I’ll keep myself busy with memories.
I never had any friends, ever, apart from my dog, the once cute, joyous dog that we turned into one of us. She used to always sit with me and share my bed at night. She never left my side (she could probably feel my loneliness) except to poop on the floor, snuffle for dropped food after which I’d help her back into the couch beside me using my fat hand on her fat behind to give her a helpful push.
I can almost remember the moment she stopped wagging her tail and it wasn’t because she was unhappy, more probably because it was too much like hard work, but I knew she was happy as she always had a stupid droopy grin on her face while she panted heavily next to me as I petted her. She was such a good girl. I still miss her to this day.
After the dog died I felt more alone than ever. My mom rarely left the bedroom and my pop watched games on the television from his worn sunken chair with the flip out foot rest that gave up working some time back. I could either sit and watch him watch TV as he ate and drank and scattered what was left around about him or I could go lie on my bed that groaned like an old galleon ship as it tried so hard to hold me aloft. I worried that if it were to collapse beneath me I might never rise again but just die where I laid.
The irony of that concern is not wasted on me. I must have seen into the future or something. If it wasn’t so hideously true I might have laughed, who knows, maybe I still might. It’s not over till the fat lady sings. What does that even mean? Maybe I should get to practising.
I did used to go to school, when I was little, before the kids the same age as me noticed I was at least twice their size. When they were little they didn’t care or didn’t notice and even though I’m pretty sure their parents did (judging by the way they gave me the side eye) it hadn’t yet rubbed off on their own. I reckon it was probably because they didn’t want to have to be explaining nothing to them just yet, there was plenty of time for that and that time came round a darn sight quicker, looking back, than I remember it seeming back then.
I didn’t feel excluded as I was always getting invited to the birthday celebrations of my class mates. It wasn’t till I was older I learned that I was the only one never to be invited for a play date or a sleepover on my own. That would have been ‘distasteful’ so I heard later on. ‘Distasteful’. I hope you’ll agree that their behaviour was the only distasteful thing going on. I honestly don’t know how I would have felt knowing all that at the time. Maybe it would have triggered me to eat even more or just maybe I might have been more capable of change than I ever have been since.
If I were to say I’d tried healthy eating, dieting, some form of exercise (even low impact in a chair) I’d be blatantly lying, which as you know I’m not going to. I will say that by middle school people in authority started to get real interested in my size, advising me to do all the things I just mentioned but never did. It seemed like way too much hard work and my mom and pop threw all the letters and leaflets they’d been sent for me straight into the trash, making sure they were covered real good with ketchup and mustard so I’d never retrieve them. Funny how they moved their butts then. They always said they were doing me good by doing that while they opened a fresh pack of twinkies and handed me a few as a reward for having done the right thing by ignoring it all. Turns out they were the ones who were ignoring it.
It’s amazing what you can see, clear as day, when you have time to think about things. Thinking is also a strategy I am using to fill up my time, my head and hopefully my belly as the gnawing hunger is getting more difficult to dismiss. It will do me good to go without. I know it will. This is how it starts, right? The journey to a lighter body, a body that just might be able to function unaided. It’s been so long since I last did anything for myself. I’m not sure I’ll remember how to do it right. It’s gonna be like being a kid all over again. This time, though, I’m gonna grow up how I want to, choose the life I want, not the one handed to me in take out boxes by my parents. I know I am not them, I am me.
I’ve got to try and move myself again, don’t want to be getting bed sores in places I can’t reach and treat. Those things can kill you. I’ll try and move onto one side a little, it don’t feel nice, reminds me of what’s underneath, it ain’t pretty and I don’t wanna look. It’s too soon for that. Not sure if I’ll ever manage to.
Middle school could have been an opportunity for me but it was taken and in its place came more of my favourite food. Me, my mom, my pop and dog were all part of the one same. Like a giant organism in four parts that all relied on each of us to keep us going in the way we were accustomed to. If any part of this family were to break off all the other parts might well have died so we kept feeding us and we all grew more and more reliant on each other to keep up this way of life. Turns out if you ignore people for long enough they don’t bother you no more. The term “You’ve made your bed, you can lie in it,” couldn’t have been any more appropriate. The only thing I would say contrary to that is the beds we lay in were never made, that required far too much effort on our part. We had all managed to drop out of society which back then felt like a kind of victory; at least people stopped looking and commenting. There was nothing victorious about it – I know that now.
Old Mrs Dooley from a couple trailers down always checked in on us. Her husband had left her years before and her only son had died while serving in the military. She’d kinda decided she needed to fill her time caring for us instead. She never judged, she’d just come round take our dirty clothes off our backs and launder them while quietly throwing things into garbage bags which she then took out for us. We became so reliant on her twice weekly visits that one time, when she was ill, my dad cursed the fact she ‘hadn’t bothered turning up’. Turns out she was pretty sick. She didn’t actually return home from the hospital at all. After everything she had done for us we couldn’t even get off our fat behinds to go show our respect. We never spoke about it but I could tell that my mom was most ashamed about that. I was too young back then to have gone alone and let’s face it, who was gonna take me anyways? My pop used this as even more reason to feel sorry for himself and eat more. After Mrs Dooley died there were no more visitors and that made me real sad but I knew candy always helped with that. And soda – lots of sugar sweet fizzy pop soda.
We lived off disability even though we weren’t really disabled, we were incredibly obese, and that was our fault. I find it hard to believe that we could ever come under ‘disability’ – it’s an outright insult to those who are born handicapped or those maimed in wars. I still find it embarrassing to think of it. We were gluttonous pigs who chose to eat till we couldn’t move. It disgusted me and it disgusts me still as I lie here incapacitated, unable to carry out the most basic of tasks and all because I was taught to choose food over anything else. Oh, I know I’m sick alright, that’s a no brainier, but disabled? Absolutely not. Even though I was never the one that ordered the take outs, all that fast food and sugary candy and pop that strips the enamel from your teeth, I was the one who picked it all up and shoved it into my waste pipe of a gullet. Barely even catching a taste of it on my tongue as I shovelled in mouthful after mouthful of total garbage.
I look down at my body and I don’t recognise it as human. My entire form is a huge blur of grey and red crusty hills that are arid and spotted and monstrous. My hands and feet look ridiculous in comparison to the rest of me. Tiny yet bloated, misshapen, as the ingested fat has burrowed its way into every nook and cranny in which to settle causing toes and fingers to flare out in different directions. I laugh at how they had been made to look pretty by the nails being painted rosy pink. That wasn’t me, I wouldn’t have been able to. It was Him, of course. Strange how the one thing He always wanted to look real pretty were my nails; He’d go to all that trouble, painstakingly choosing the right colour and then applying it perfectly, making sure not to get any of the varnish on the distended skin that held my nails firmly in place – if it ever did He’d use a q-tip and varnish remover. It amazed me that a man would even know how to do that, it was as if He must have practised or done it before. Oh God, He must have.
I feel sick.
He’d done it before hadn’t He?
Im not special, like He said.
I want to puke. I mustn’t, I won’t, I can’t. Who’s going to clear it up?
It was our Friday night thing – ‘date night’ He liked to call it. Not that we ever went anywhere, ever. He would do me up real nice, spend time brushing my hair and putting it up to make me look more sexy and also so He could admire the fat building around my neck that had long stopped looking like a neck, a neck should be narrower than the head it holds, not twice the size. He’d bought make up especially for these occasions and apply it how He wished, sometimes real slutty and at others all girly and fresh. I don’t think He preferred one look over the other, more like whatever suited His mood that particular evening. When He finished He would triumphantly hold a hand mirror to my face so I could admire my reflection which I don’t remember ever admiring. It made Him happy, He called me beautiful over and over as He started taking the photographs. He would get real excited when He started taking the photographs.
I should probably tell you how we met because you really must be thinking, ‘Hang on there a sweet second, how the hell she gonna be getting hooked up with a guy when she never went out?’ and you’d be right to wonder. I’d want to know if I were you.
Some do-gooders a few years back decided they wanted to do their bit, you know, charitable types that wanted to be of help to those that are beyond helping themselves. Somehow they found out about us, the long forgotten obese trailer park family. They no doubt knew it was too late to save my mom and pop but they should at least try and do something for their poor blameless daughter – me. A second hand computer was donated to us, to me, in the hope I might find something of interest, something I might want to consider studying, learn about, which might move me on to who knows what. Maybe if I furthered my cut short failed education I could get a job perhaps. I get what they were trying to do but where the hell was I supposed to start?
The screen and keyboard became a portal to the outside world. I spent the first few months watching YouTube and catching up on things other young adults my age were interested in. I could game online with others who only ever knew my avatar, not the real me. I finally had friendships. This new exciting distraction didn’t stop me eating but it did stop me thinking about food every minute so it was definitely a good thing. It got to a point where I didn’t bother talking to my parents anymore – I didn’t have to. They didn’t try either so we co-existed in the same shared space without taking any notice of one another. I reckon if my mom or pop had died back then I wouldn’t have known till they started to smell. It’s bad, I know, but it’s how it was and I didn’t know any different. They’re still not dead.
I wonder how long it would have taken them to notice if I’d stopped breathing.
After a while I started to get real chatty with a fellow gamer BigLove30. Whenever we finished a gaming session we would private message and that’s how we got to truly know about each other. As we got more and more comfortable we slowly began revealing things we hadn’t shared with anyone else. He told me He chose the username BigLove30 because He just loved big women, the bigger the better, He claimed. This was a revelation, a turning point, the turning point. Until that moment I had no idea there were men out there who loved big women, and when I say big I mean REAL BIG! I had never allowed myself to entertain the thought of having any kind of relationship, let alone with a man. It went against everything I knew to be true.
The words He wrote to me made me feel safer and safer until I knew I could show myself for who I really was, which of course was nothing like the sexy, hourglass avatar I had hidden behind. He asked me how big I was and obviously I lied, not wanting to scare Him off, I made myself smaller,
took off a good few pounds. To my surprise He seemed disappointed, said that I was small compared to the women He was usually attracted to. I told Him I was more than capable of putting on a few more pounds if He would like. He said that would make me just about perfect. He let me know what His desired weight for me would be and I made sure to fulfil His fantasy, I didn’t want Him to lose interest in me. When I reached the goal He had set for me thats when He told me He loved me and right then I knew I loved Him too.
I was delirious with happiness.
We stopped gaming that night, instead I would message Him with a list of all the things I had eaten throughout the day and give Him a weekly note of my latest weigh in, like He asked. He said He felt like He’d died and gone to heaven and I told Him I did too.
I’m starting to itch terribly, it crawls underneath me where it knows I cant reach to scratch it. It’s an all consuming sensation despite my skin being more like hide. Even as I hold on to the rope above me to try and jiggle my gross mass from side to side in the hope that whatever lies beneath me might help chase the itch away I know the effort is probably a futile one. I haven’t had the usual creams massaged into my cracked, elephantine skin for some time and it’s starting to show. The cream isn’t even on the bedside table where it always stood so I can’t even have a go at applying it all on my own. I’m telling myself its pointless to worry about it seeing as there’s nothing I can do, but it doesn’t help. I must use all my willpower to try and ignore it but we all know how poor that particular trait is in me. If it doesn’t go away soon it might well drive me mad.
I’m probably mad already.
I must have slept. For a second there I forgot where I was, it’s disorientating. The hunger growling in the pit of me helps to remind me. That’s probably what woke me. I can just about reach the water bottle that still has a mouthful or two left, I’ve been consciously rationing, it’s nowhere near enough to quench my thirst or stave off the desperate pangs in my belly, but it will have to do.
It’s His fault, all of this, His fault. If I’d never been given that stupid computer in the first place I wouldn’t be here right now. I wouldn’t be like this. Nothing like this. BigLove30 was sent by the devil himself. Sent to tempt me, lure me away from everything I had ever known. Trouble is what I had known was bad, toxic and by the time He entered my life I was more than ready to get away. More than anything I wanted to feel loved, cherished, desired and most of all looked after, I wanted someone to actually look after me. He offered me everything my mom and pop had long forgotten about giving me. That’s why I did it.
It’s so easy, in retrospect, to see how many alarm bells I switched off before they were allowed to ring loudly and bring me back to my senses. I heard them eventually, loud and clear and way too late. I knew it and, worst than that, He did too. That’s the moment He turned, the moment when He knew I was absolutely beholden to Him, at His complete and utter mercy. He had made sure to become my everything while He fed me more to make me completely useless and under His total control. He grew horns and a forked tail that only I could see. It was just for me.
I can tell you, there is no heaven and there is no hell, the devil walks the earth just like the rest of us, and He is way worse than any religious doctrine could have you believe. This is the only truth you need to know.
It’s too late for me.
After a few dates (Him visiting me at my house, my catatonic parents showing very little interest) He wanted me to move in with Him (my parents sure took notice then). I looked about me, at my life, at my mom and pop’s sorry life that I didn’t want and quickly made the decision. There was never going to be another opportunity like it and, well, I was in love.
The day of the move He helped me to His pick up truck – I was pleased it was a pick up truck as I knew it would be strong enough to take my weight. The bench front seat was big enough for both of us to sit comfortably side by side. He held my hand the whole drive, squeezing it every now and then to let me know everything was going to be just fine. I needed that so bad as the heavy fluttering of hundreds of butterflies waking in my belly weren’t from excitement and nerves alone, they were also from fear. Fear of the unknown. I swallowed down the rising nausea and reminded myself we were in love, I was safe. The way He looked at me on that drive helped. He looked at me the same way guys did in the movies. Turns out it wasn’t just the guys in the movies who were good actors. I should have listened to what my body was trying to tell me but those sensations were all new to me and so hard to read having had no previous experience of it. I hadn’t been prepared for anything in life. My parents failed me, the system failed me and, worst of all, I can only think how badly I had failed myself. That is the hardest thing of all.
After an hours drive or so we pulled up outside a detached bungalow that looked the same as all the others on the street. I hadn’t given a thought to what His home might be like so I was neither impressed or disappointed. I guess the only thought I did have was that at least it was a step up from the trailer, so that was definitely something. Inside it had everything you needed but lacked anything you might want for yourself to make it your own. At least the floors were clear, the sink was empty and the trash cans weren’t over flowing. It was weird not to smell anything on entering, I mean literally nothing. If I didn’t know for sure it was His home I would have thought it might be a rental He had just leased for us.
The rooms were large, square and spacious. The halls and doorways were wider than usual, even my mom and pop wouldn’t have to turn sideways to try and squeeze through. The bedroom was at the back, he led me straight there to proudly show off the huge bed he’d had specially made – solid, sturdy, purposely built to take someone like me. Until that moment I hadn’t given any real thought to the fact we’d be sharing a bed. I hadn’t thought about the fact we’d be having sex like everyone else who were in love and lived together. Neither of us had even mentioned it despite our intimate conversations covering food and my ever growing size. I should have wanted Him to want me in that way but I was terrified of exposing my body, losing my virginity, being with a man, even the man I loved. He must have sensed this as He was gentle, handling me with kid gloves at all times, in fact He never, in all our time together, ever made love to me, not properly. It was the folds of my body, my belly, my thighs that he would intimately rub himself against, between, in order to climax, and that suited me just fine. Seeing Him get so much pleasure relieving Himself in this manner made me happy too.
There were no windows in the bedroom.
How wrong it all was.
The only time He would touch me intimately was to wash me. As I grew larger and larger the more He fed me the more I had to rely on Him to maintain my personal hygiene. If you’re my size and you don’t look after yourself properly, clean every hidden inch of your landscape, you can get sick real quick and neither of us wanted that to happen.
I wish someone was here to help with my personal hygiene now; not Him, I don’t want Him anymore, He is responsible for the gross monster I have become. But the smell, it’s overwhelming and seems to be getting worse by the minute, bringing me out of my reverie, the reverie that I am so desperately relying on to forget who I am now.
The water bottle beside my bed is now bereft of its last dribbles so I can’t afford to feel nauseous despite its creeping presence. Nausea makes my mouth drier and then the retching will start. I cannot retch, I must keep what little is left inside me, I need to eke out it’s last remnants of nourishment in order to keep me alive. I am not prepared to give up – not now. Also the vomit itself will cover me and make the stink worse, the stink that I already cannot bear. There’s no one to clean it up, no one to clean me up so I absolutely cannot vomit no matter how much my body wants to eject all the fat and sugar and shit that sits rancid and rotten in every fibre of me. Any human trace I was born with has long been forgotten and replaced with all the bad stuff my parents gave me and that He continued to force into me.
Of course it didn’t start like that with Him. The food He offered and gave to me was more than welcome at the beginning. A fat girl like me having a guy that relished the fat and having more joy adding to it, was like a gift.
Until it wasn’t.
How attractive and loving and generous He was. I was beautiful to Him, my rolls and mounds were art to Him. I was His artwork and He was the artist that created me.
The pride He showed when He measured me, the tops of the arms, tops of the thighs, calves, the width of my back and shoulders, my chest, waist, stomach, hips, even my neck. All of them kept growing, and the more they grew the more He wanted them to grow. There was one moment, a weird moment when it seemed I became totally lucid, and I looked down at me and I looked over at Him and for the first time I felt used, abused even, and in reaction to this thought I refused to eat what He sat before me and I refused to let Him measure me or photograph me, twisting my head this way and that as He tried to make me over for date night. I was having none of it.
He taught me a lesson after that, a big one, one I didn’t see coming. He acted all normal as He got ready to leave for work on the Friday morning. He didn’t return until the Monday. An entire weekend He left me with a solitary bottle of water, nothing else. I cried and cried like a baby as I sat in my piss and shit, like a baby. I had become a big, stupid, pathetic, useless baby and I knew how much I needed Him. And so did He.
Boy, did He punish me after that.
No longer was I spoon fed gallons of ice cream but funnel fed it. He made damn sure it was going to get straight into me and stay there and no mistake.
I’d given up the fight, I knew it was a pointless endeavour after His ‘lesson’ and honestly what else could I have done? I was trapped. Trapped by my body, trapped by Him, trapped in the house, trapped by the fact I had become invisible to all but Him and me. There was no escape, no secret key to be found that might release me from this hell.
The weekly phone calls to my parents that He had permitted and sat in on were no more.
My bed is a cess pit. Faeces, piss, other bodily fluids and rot are my bedfellows, all a reminder of what is there. I don’t want reminding. It was deserved, there’s no denying it, but as I lie here enduring the unendurable consequence of my action, in retrospect I know I should have played it differently. But something inside me snapped. An opportune moment had arisen which my mind had made a rash decision over. I didn’t even allow myself time to consider it. It had already been done, acted upon.
How stupid He was to have crawled onto the bed after rolling me onto my side so He could wash deep into the crack of my dirty and disgusting arse and how utterly degrading and humiliating for me. I’d had enough, I rolled myself back to stop Him. Surprisingly He didn’t make much noise and neither did his body as it crushed under me, my fat and blubber acting like a muffler over and around Him. I can’t remember Him struggling even, maybe he couldn’t. I don’t care anymore.
The lump beneath me has flattened greatly over time but now it oozes out from underneath me, as if I’d juiced it. And now that’s all there is for me, this juice, me and the brown red oozing juice. Just so happens juice is wet and I am thirsty, so thirsty. It’s supposed to be His job to keep me fed and watered and even in death it seems He shall continue to do so. I reach down a hand, dip in a finger to get myself a taste. My rancid finger makes it to my mouth and I suck on it like a baby and taste Him in the knowledge that I am truly insane. I giggle to myself as I replace the use of my index finger with both my hands as if readying myself to make a hand print painting, like a baby.
His big baby.
I can’t even smell how bad it is anymore which is just as well as there’s no one here to clean it up. My giggle turns to full on maniacal laughter. I really haven’t thought it through properly, have I?
The world seemed to be steeped in slate. Paris was silent but the streets were crowded with hundreds shod in black, giving the impression of a populous of ghosts. Their steps bled together into a whispering that filled the street like the sound of a light wind. There had been music and the sounds of wheels rattling against the stones, but that had long since gone, leaving nothing but the procession behind. L’Arc de Triomphe was draped in yards upon yards of black crepe.
The funeral of Victor Hugo drew the city’s gloomy attention, and stray mourners flitted through the cold streets like circling vultures. The city was full of the bereaved, but no prayers were said for one poor soul in particular.
The corpse in question floated motionlessly in the ash-gray Seine, the frigid water barely seeming to part around her. She almost seemed imbedded in it. A butterfly pinned under glass. Her insipid skirts fanned out in the water like the tail feathers of a downed bird. In this manner, frozen still and face down, she drifted listlessly to the Southwestern side of the Île de la Cité and towards the stone arches of Le Pont Neuf.
The constable who patrolled the bridge in the mornings had already sent notice to the coroner about the woman, and the corpse catchers were gathered at the base of one of the arches, long, curved metal hooks upright in their hands and bristling above their head like spears. Bets had already been placed between the three men on the state of the body: murder or suicide? It certainly wasn’t going to be any type of natural. Natural causes don’t end up face down in the Seine.
When the corpse had drifted close enough to reach, the corpse catchers cast their hooks out, tangling in her skirts and hooking over her side. They drew her unceremoniously from the cold water and loaded her onto a stretcher, peering down into the rigid white face.
“Quite a young thing,” one of the men observed, squinting down at her, “Just looks like she’s sleeping.”
“A damn shame,” another muttered at the same time as the third snapped, “Well, she ain’t sleeping. She’s dead.”
The first man made a rude gesture at the third. “I know that, tu salaud! I just meant she looks peaceful — she’s even smiling, look at her!”
True to his claim, the young woman’s face was arranged in a mask that seemed more alive than dead. Her eyes were closed, wet lashes clumped together in small dark triangles, her water – darkened hair still tied back in a simple knot, and her closed lips curled softly into the ghost of a contented smile.
It was this youthful, almost living face that drew Doctor Jean – Louis Léger’s eye when he found her on his table. She’d been stripped of her sodden dress, and she lay bare before him, her modesty preserved by a thin white sheet, her blonde hair twisted in a cushion under her head. He conducted his examination in the quick, personable manner that he always used, speaking to the corpse softly under his breath. It was something his colleagues continually made fun of him for — speaking to the corpses, but it was something Doctor Léger insisted on. The bodies were his patients and they had carried the souls of their owners while on this Earth, they deserved the same care and dignity as the living.
As he spoke to her and poured over her body, finding no blemishes apart from the natural, he began to feel strangely like he was examining a living woman. Her chest didn’t rise but her cheeks held faint color and her limbs moved with an elegant pliancy uncommon to the dead.
“Ah, mon cheré,” he said, tilting her head to the side to press her neck, looking for breaks or markings, “I know twenty living women who would pay an obscene number of francs for skin as soft as yours.”
He spent several hours with her in the cool, tiled examination room, and found nothing that could hint to the cause of her death other than the circumstances of her discovery. She must have thrown herself into the cold waters of the Seine before and allowed herself to sink into the murk, surfacing the next morning with the gray sun. He wondered which one of the corpse catchers had won the bet this time. The nameless death certificate listed her cause of death as suicide, and she was only identified by the moniker L’Inconnue de La Seine — The Unknown Lady of The Seine — on the papers and the tag affixed to her right toe.
Doctor Léger restored her shroud and called an attendant to fetch her and bring her to the mortuary upstairs to be displayed in the window with her fellow unidentified in the hopes a passerby or on the street would recognize her. For the first few hours of her installment there no one paid her any mind; the city was preoccupied with mourning the great writer. However, as the day passed, rumors of the beautiful corpse with an untroubled smile began to creep through the city like the many branching fingers of a tree root, gradually becoming more and more elaborate as it spread.
One said the La Morgue de Paris was keeping a living woman imprisoned in their museum gallery as a product to sell to the highest bidder, another claimed that anyone who looked on her face would be cured of all ills, yet another theorized the corpse was cursed and would bring death to anyone who looked on her. Doctor Léger laughed at each of the florid stories as they were brought back by colleagues and assistants from their lunches and breaks. Not all of them saw the situation as humorous as he.
“But, Monsieur,” one of the more superstitious assistants asked, “it’s not exactly a regular body.”
Doctor Léger looked up from the body he was examining for signs of poisoning and chuckled. “My good man, you’ve worked in this business long enough to know there is no such thing as a regular body! They all have something irregular about them! Now hand me that scalpel, would you?”
Doctor Léger was considered by most, and especially by himself, to be of a practical nature, having a clear knowledge of the distinction between fact and fiction, but as the day wore on into evening and the mortuary gradually emptied of the living, the rumors began to weigh more heavily on his mind. He sat back at his desk, watching the flickering of the gaslight against the wallpaper of his small office. The forms he’d been filling out to transfer back over to the police sat in a carefully ordered pile before him — they’d started making his eyes cross. Maybe he needed glasses. None of the display corpses had been identified that day, the young woman included. Though, her body had attracted quite the crowd of viewers as the rumors about her spread.
Doctor Léger tsked, pushing himself out of his chair and tugged on his jacket. There was nothing unusual about the corpse and he’d prove it to them! He stepped out into the cold tiled hall, musing as he went. He was the last living resident of the morgue by that time of night — again, nothing unusual for him. He had never taken a wife, both of his parents had passed years ago, and the only sibling he had moved to London. In short, no one was expecting him home. He would take his time examining the body again and report his findings to whatever silly gossips he could get his hands on come the next morning. Hopefully, the correct information would be printed by lunch. A young suicide of an unidentified woman, a regretful tragedy and nothing more.
The curtains had been drawn over the display window, heavy swaths of purple velvet that Doctor Léger thought to be too decadent. It was a morgue for God’s sake, not a boudoir! Alas, it was out of his hands, even though he’d spoken those exact words to the appropriate figures. So, the velvet curtains remained, later accompanied by gilded gas lamps that dripped with glass crystals. The place was turning into a damned tourist trap.
The row of stretchers was evenly spaced, the metal shimmering under the flickering flames, their occupants as still as the steel below them. Some of them lay completely bare, skin appearing like wax in the half-light; they almost appeared to be their own memorials, cold tilted headstones carved in their likenesses. The woman’s corpse, Doctor Léger noticed with a bit of satisfaction, was still mostly covered with the white sheet. Even in the orangey dark the body stuck out from the rest, her hair reflecting bronze, her face full of more life than half the people who’d come to see her. He stepped up onto the raised platform and picked his way to the proper stretcher and disengaged the lock on the wheels.
The stretcher screeched and rattled as Doctor Léger rolled it down the deserted hallway, the corpse quivering atop it. The exam room was colder than the rest of the building, and the wavering gaslights gave the space a cave-like feeling or one like it was submerged in water. He locked the stretcher wheels again, leaving the body on the stretcher in the center of the room like an opera singer lying in repose on stage. Her peaceful smile and lightly shut eyes could be the tragic illustration of a show poster in the box office of Le Palais Garnier.
Doctor Léger couldn’t stop himself from imagining the scene; the fair, blonde maiden who surrendered herself to the suffocating water to join her lover in death. The lady herself wouldn’t know, but the audience would weep softly with the knowledge that the lovers wouldn’t meet again in Heaven. Suicide, of course, being the most tragic of sins to offend France’s Catholic sensibilities. It would make the entire thing more tragic, and the maiden would lie alone on the stage, bathed in the swaths of blue light from gaslights shown through colored glass, at the bottom of the river but at peace. The black crepe screens would fall before the heavy final curtains, the veil of Death stealing her away from the audience.
But then that beautiful girl would rise from the boards and float off stage to wait for final bow; the unknown woman under Doctor Léger’s examining fingers would never rise. She’d sink into the ground and then into the earth, becoming nothing more than dirt. He sighed, pulling the body’s eyelids back, revealing blank eyes, white with calcium deposits. Nothing particularly unusual there either, and, when Doctor Léger removed his fingers, the lids drifted shut like closing shuttered. He examined the corpse top to bottom, finding nothing unusual, and grumbling to himself about the intellectual failings of the average Parisian, fetched a large syringe from a metal dish at the side of the room. With careful, practiced precision, he slipped the thick needle between the ribs and into the spongy, unmoving lungs. When he pulled back on the plunger, a pinkish brown liquid began to be sucked back up into the glass receptacle. Doctor Léger withdrew the needle and held it up to the light, shaking it slightly. It moved easily. Water. Stained with blood from the vessels in the lungs rupturing due to the strain of trying, and failing, to breathe.
It was as he’d first assumed. A drowning, no signs of foul play, as simple as that. Now she’d be left to rot. The light playing across her features created the illusion that the eyes would open and the faint smile would spread across the face, reveling in the simple joy of one’s heart continuing to beat.
A very strange thought stole through Doctor Léger’s mind, an unavoidable feeling, a purpose. Yes, she was dead, but what if she wouldn’t rot? What if she could continue just as she was? He had a duty to care for the dead, to grant them their dignity; maybe he could grant more to the unnamed woman. Doctor Léger could have sworn he saw the pale lips twitch and a chill ran through him, the rumors about the corpse rushing to mind. There was something unusual about it, that was undeniable. Her features were still fair and elegant, her skin and limbs still supple and flexible. She seemed to be an incorruptible saint.
The Seine had been her rebirth.
And suddenly, Doctor Léger knew what he must do. He fetched the plaster powder from a storefront down the road that was being refinished and mixed it in a bucket with water from the examining room tap, moving on to other preparations as he waited for it to thicken. He opened the corpse’s abdomen and removed the organs, setting the heart aside. The jugs of alcohol kept for the preservation of bodies gave him some trouble; they were heavy, and he was unsure of how much to use or how long to keep the corpse submerged. The fumes made him cough, burning his nostrils. He gutted several stuffed chairs for their stuffing and refilled the abdominal cavity with it. The corpse would keep its shape and the removal of the organs would limit the buildup of gas.
The heart was the first thing to be covered in plaster, white creeping slowly over the purple flesh, hardening around the lines and veins of the organ until it dried into a perfect sculpture. The heart was returned to the ribcage and sewn in. Applying the mixture to the rest of the body was a delicate matter. Doctor Léger posed the limbs after the model of a Greek statue, driving long nails through joints with a crunch to prevent them from shifting and propped up others. Plaster was applied with a brush, making sure it sank into every crevasse, immortally intombing the muse. The face took the longest. Doctor Léger made certain each detail was captured in stark relief, as delicate and peaceful as the moment she’d appeared before him the first time.
The hours passed as Doctor Léger worked. More layers were applied and dried, a length of cloth was draped about her and also frozen, one dead hand clutching it demurely to her chest, the rest of the fabric twining about her body and pooling at her feet. He had some trouble getting her to stand, but this was solved with the inclusion of a heavy base that the body was fixed to.
The sky was just beginning to lighten beyond the windows when it was done. Doctor Léger staggered back, falling against the wall, dizzy from exhaustion and the caustic smell of alcohol and blood. He had achieved immortality. It stood before him in sweeping planes of plaster and the slight curl of a smile on the face of an angel.
The others who worked the morgue would be arriving soon, and, through his haze of delirium and triumph, Doctor Léger knew he must hide her. They wouldn’t see the angel, her benevolence or power, they’d prefer to put her in a box and let her rot. Yes, he needed to keep her a while longer. Now dry, the statue was heavy, unwieldly, and Doctor Léger was gasping for breath and wiping rivulets of sweat from his brow by the time he’d deposited the statue in his office. Stepping back, he reeled to the side, his legs collapsing underneath him, and he caught himself roughly on the edge of his desk. A drink. Yes, he needed a drink and a rest.
Doctor Léger stumbled to his desk chair and groped in the bottom drawer for the bottle of whiskey he kept there. He didn’t bother with a glass, instead electing to drink straight from the bottle, staring across his dim office at his creation; she was beautiful. Perfect. He slumped back in his chair, taking another draft of whiskey, his eyelids beginning to droop. There was an odd hissing noise he hadn’t noticed before. For an instant, he imagined the woman opened her eyes and fixed them on him. He gasped. They were white and expressionless, but not plaster. They were the eyes of the corpse woman.
Doctor Léger lurched upright, rubbing his eyes. The illusion was gone. The eyes were sealed with plaster, not open. Disquieted, he pulled a cigar from the case on his desk and stood, wobbling to inspect the statue. The hissing had gotten louder, the infernal noise. It sounded like the hissing of a snake. Doctor Léger heard a thousand souls condemning him in the hiss. He shook himself. Nonsense, he’d done right, by the will of God. He’d made an angel. He huffed and pulled a match from his waistcoat to light his cigar. The scratching noise immediately preceded a blast of white and noise, the spark catching the loose gas in the air from the gas lamp that had been broken as Doctor Léger navigated the statue into his small office.
The blast and the ensuing fire burned hot and fast, quickly consuming La Morgue de Paris, sending white tongues of fire up into the navy early morning sky. While the fire brigade was able to save the rest of the street and the main façade of the building, everything inside was consumed. Everything except a strange sculpture that stood white and undamaged in the destroyed former office of Doctor Léger, coroner. An unidentifiable set of remains were also discovered in the ruins, and were assumed to belong to the coroner himself as he had gone missing the same morning, his house left empty and locked.
The statue was removed from the wreckage and placed into the care of the owner of the building who promptly passed it off to a private collector, citing a ‘strange and watchful’ sensation surrounding it. Rumors flew throughout the city; the resemblance to the unidentified corpse that had taken the city by storm the days prior was quickly recognized. The most sensible and believed of the theories said that Doctor Léger having thought the dead woman was beautiful, commissioned an artist to create a statue in her likeness, and realizing his own loneliness, had set off the blast intentionally. Small replicas of the statue bearing the name L’Inconnue began to be sold across the city, becoming quite the popular trinket to own. Though those that laid eyes on the original began to whisper about a curse on it, a bad spirit. They said they could hear crying coming from it at night, and, sometimes, that the eyes cried tears of muddy river water.
Chloe Spector is an aspiring novelist and writer in the process of obtaining a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing and English from Berry College. This is her first publication.
A small red rat crawled to her with slow cautious steps, its tail cut off extremely close to its body. It was making the horrific noise of a crying wolf. It was a dream, Zaimain knew it was a dream. The nightmares were back. She looked at the rat that was now looking up at her with its soulful eyes as if begging to be rescued.
“Zai!” Her eyes flung open and she gasped for breath. She was at home, safe and there wasn’t any begging creature in front of her. Zai looked at the clock on the nightstand and said a silent prayer before looking back at it. It has now stopped, right at seven of the morning. It was her daily schedule to then put it one minute ahead of 7:00 am so it starts to tick again. Zai never understood this deal with this specific clock but her grandmother had said, “Some mysteries are best left as mysteries so answers don’t haunt you.”
There aren’t many guest visits in this town of India, most don’t even believe it exists for real. The natives have many legends about why this is so but no one has an answer. Some believe the haunting spirits are real and roam in the street of Sale-brown, some believe those spirits are waiting to be freed at the old museum and only wake at night to perform the same play every night. No one has ever seen that play so it was as believable as the stories of hell and heaven.
Her room, which was at the far-left end of the guest house, was isolated from the rest and it takes almost five minutes to go to the front reception. There was rain last night. A puddle down the doorsteps was proof of it.
“Zaimain, checking out, love.”
“Oh, Jill. Good morning.” She walked over to the reception desk and pulled the register from under the desk and tucked the key in one of the drawers. “Done with the book?”
“Just the first draft but I will let you know when it comes out. Thrills are epic. Your guest house takes the credit for that. I have written three thrillers and one horror here. All of them are banging.”
“What is this one about?” Asked Zaimain.
“You will know. See you next year.”
“And my nephew is arriving in a few days. Maybe by the end of this week and it will be great if you show him around and give him a little interview. It’s for his college stuff as he says.” Jill walked out the wooden door with a huge backpack on her shoulder and stepped into the puddle as she walked into the garden and out the front iron gate. The Frisk Whispers sits on the top of the reception desk. Jill’s first book she wrote at the guest house eight years ago. It was when it still belonged to Zai’s grandmother, who died in her sleep three years ago.
The one guest couple who were currently staying at the guest house were not up yet but Geet was already in the kitchen preparing breakfast. It’s been thirty years, she arrives at seven in the morning and leaves before seven in the evening. There was no changing her routine. Neither Zaimain nor her grandmother ever asked. It was like those tales that can’t be written without taking away the essence of it.
“I do not want to be the one to tell you how to do your job or how to run this place but I hope you will listen and leave this place for the next few days. And also, don’t take in any more of the customers after this one leaves.” Geet said when Zai was busy rummaging through the plates on the kitchen shelves.
“Why? Is there a reason I should.”
“It will be thirty-one years since the night Vashi died.”
“Geet, that was not a prophecy. He was dying and he said some things. People lose their brains when they are on their deathbed. They start to see things that aren’t there.”
“He said he will come back on the thirty-first anniversary of his death and I saw his eyes when he lost his breath here, in this kitchen. They were not the stare of a liar.”
“He wasn’t lying. He was himself deceived by his senses as his death neared.”
“Will it hurt you to leave the guest house alone for a week? Why must you be so stubborn?”
“Geet, I respect you but I can’t leave this place just cause you believe in an unusual prophecy.” Geet’s face was horrified and tired. She looked like she had run a mile trying to convince Zai why she must not stay.
“Do whatever you wish, I would be happy to find you alive and well here next week.” Geet turned away from Zai and busied herself in the boiling pot. “I will stock the fridge with some food for next week.” She said at last and Zai knew the conversation was over. That was the last she saw of Geet that day or the days that followed. On Sunday morning the front door bell rang and Zai, who was on the reception desk, reading the last page of The Frisk Whispers, raised her head up to see a young man, possibly in his early twenties, sprint inside with a red backpack. He smiled wide at Zai and placed his bag on the chair before pulling out his I.D from the back pocket.
“I am Ben from London. Jill pointed me to this hotel. You are Zaimain.”
“You are Jill’s nephew.”
“Yes. I don’t want to be that forward but I don’t have many days to spare here. Honestly I don’t even believe the stories the street crowd out there is talking about.”
“Do you want me to give you a room, Ben?”
“I would like a room but only for today and I intend to finish this interview as well. I don’t mean to be offensive but I need something that can make my fellow student’s skin crawl and this place seems pretty normal except for some delusional natives.”
“I see now. The difference between you and Jill. She came with an open mind. You believe everyone is delusional except you.”
“I am sorry. Do you believe spirits do roam in this town?”
“I believe delusion is what ignorance can’t see and I don’t see you as ignorant. Come with me.” Zaimain guided Ben to the far side room that once belonged to her grandmother. “I don’t clean it everyday. I haven’t cleaned it in three years and it never catches any dust. You see this mirror, my granny used to say when she died, it will be her home and I saw her here right after her death. She was sleeping on the bed and I saw her reflection, smiling at me. That’s how I knew she was dead. I checked the heart rate and it was no more.”
“Delusion? I know. It could be but here is another thing. That clock. Do you see it ticking?”
“Go closer.” Ben moved up to the grandfather clock and placed his ear on the glass. He shot his head away with a jerk. “What did you hear?”
“It’s not possible. You are joking with me right?”
“What did you hear, Ben?”
“I heard someone saying ‘tick-tock, tick-tock. Like very slow and whispery.”
“It started when I was five. This man died in this guest house and he said he will return on his thirty-first death anniversary.”
“How long has he been dead?”
“Today is the day he died, thirty-one years ago.” The room plunged into silence for a long time. Zai noticed the damp around Ben’s neck above his brows. She walked to the door and held it open for him until he passed. “You can leave now if you want. It’s noon, you can leave the town before night.”
“No, I want to stay. It’s hard to believe but I want more of it. I want to know this isn’t just a prank you and Jill are playing on me. Can I record?”
“You can. Just don’t pan the camera to me.” They started from the front reception, where The Frisk Whispers still sat on the wooden desk. “This is Jill’s first book. I read it when I was fourteen. It was how I got into horror.”
“Good for you. This is, as you know, the reception. It’s not as useful as it should be. Guests are not a luxury here. Here starts the guest rooms. I try to keep them as cheerful as possible but that’s not what guests want when they come here. They want the creepy vibe this place offers. You can take any one of these. They are all empty. Last group of guests left a few days ago.”
“Where is your room?” Ben asked zooming in on a dirt spot on the bed.
“It’s on the other side of the house. Assume a mirror opposite direction to granny’s room. This is the kitchen. Geet works here. She is on break for the week being the thirty-first death anniversary. You can take something to eat from the fridge if you want. She’s stocked it.” Zai didn’t look back from the kitchen counter but she heard the door open and a plate being shifted, then dropped. “What?” She turned around and saw the plate of pie on the floor.
“I am so sorry. It slipped off my fingers.”
“It’s okay. Take something else.” They moved ahead to the common room where there was a television set and a chess table. Ben sat and relaxed on one of the couches and Zai took the seat beside the fireplace which was now cold.
“This feels like I really am in some sort of horror series. A storyteller by the fireplace and me on the couch, listening, taking notes.”
“You know you don’t have to believe me. Some things can’t be said and some are not meant to be heard. My grandmother never told me the stories that locals here believe. Those spirits in the street and museum. I heard it out there but never believed it. There is a lot about this town that can’t be explained but spirits, I believe are a myth.”
“So no one’s ever seen the play they are supposed to perform at the museum? Not even you?”
“No. I tried once when I was fifteen, but got a fractured shoulder. Granny said I must never try it again, at least not until she is alive.” She stopped speaking when she realised Ben was not listening to her. He was looking at his camera. “What do you see?”
He looked up, face ashen and eyes looking somewhere past her head. He turned the camera around and there was a frozen picture of an unlit fireplace and an empty chair, the chair Zaimain was sitting on. “How is this possible? You are here.”
“I told you not to pan the camera at me. Don’t worry, just rewind the tape and it will start recording again.” Zai’s voice was as smooth as any human voice could talk. Ben did not budge from his spot, he just rewound the camera and it started recording again. He looked at the blank television screen and saw his own reflection in front of an empty chair beside the fireplace. But to the naked eyes, Zaimain was still there. She looked at ease, at peace.
“This place can get lonely sometimes. It is nice to have someone around. Is there more you would like to know?”
“You are not really here, are you?”
“Where else would I be? I am in this house.”
“I am not talking about this house. You are not here, on this chair.” Zai said nothing, she stood up and Ben followed her out of the room. “You wanted to see my room. It’s on that corner. There is a small stand clock there. My granny said it was one of two that my parents bought on my first birthday. The day they died in a car accident. One clock was broken, the other one survived, just like me and my twin sister. It stops everyday at seven in the morning and I put it one minute ahead so it can work again.” They entered the room that he presumed belonged to Zai. He looked to the nightstand and saw the clock. It was stopped at 07:00
“You didn’t put it one minute ahead today. Or you couldn’t.” Ben said as he noticed Zai looking at him with her soulful eyes. He felt the grief but there was no pain so he realised her death was peaceful but she was sad. “Why were you sad? Did you not want to die?”
“No. I have been waiting for this day. I knew it would come but didn’t realise it would be my grandmother.” Ben ran out of the room and went straight to the first room Zai had shown him. Her grandmother’s room. He walked past the bed and saw a body laying there. It was Zai’s. Her neck had a slight bruise on it and there was a puddle of spilled water on the side. A shadow appeared beside and he looked up at the mirror to see Zai standing beside an old lady.
His phone rang in his pocket, he picked it up and held it close to his ear.
“Hey buddy. How’s your project going on? Did Zai help?”
“Jill, your friend is dead. Looks like she died sometime last night.”
“Yes. I am looking at her right now.” Ben said, looking from the reflection of Zai in the mirror to her lifeless body on the floor. He walked to the reception, leaving the camera on the desk, he picked up the backpack and left out the front gate.
‘Some stories are not meant to be told.’
Mansi writes about his background: “
Hi I am Mansi Rathore from India. I am 24 years old and I write horror fiction and poetry as my major interest with occasional political blogs. Here is the website to check it all –
How do I feel? What kind of fucking question is that? When I said I was gonna talk, were you all so surprised that you didn’t prepare any good questions? How many suspects refuse a lawyer? The responding officers were dumb-struck, but they at least got their shit together to unstick me and Riley from the walls. They could’ve waited a few minutes before slapping on those cold, metal loop-de-loops. But I guess that’s what we get for breaking into The National Air and Space Museum: cold, metal loop-de-loops.
Thieves’ honor is fucked when the cops who pick you up and take you away are in different uniforms. We were all color-coordinated. Cops and robbers, all in black.
Did you guys get Lee outta the suit? You did? Has he ratted on us already, told you everything? Ah, your poker face is cracking, Detective…Murphy.
Maybe I won’t tell you anything.
This is the part where you offer me something cool to talk like enhanced immunity. Deal. I’ll take a cigarette too. But wait, what about that No Smoking sign? Ha! I always knew cops liked breaking the rules too.
Alright, Detective Murphy, look deep into my green eyes and see that I’m telling the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the—my eyes are gray? They change with the lighting, sometimes. This interrogation room is pretty gray.
Consider yourself lucky. I’ve wanted to tell this story for weeks. Each layer almost had me running to tell all my best friends and none of them are cops.
I swear we got the job from a flyer. You know, one of those paper octopuses stapled to telephone poles that wiggle names and numbers in the wind? MOVING JOB – CASHis what it said. All caps, little clarification needed.
Why did I apply? Did you not hear me? Cash. C-A-S-fucking-H. I thought you were supposed to be a detective. You didn’t notice my college ID in the empty wallet you guys made me put in that gray bedpan? But you’re right. It was also the perfect job.
I ripped the fifth paper tentacle thing off. Lee was the second and Riley was the fourth. No idea who was first or third. Probably two other broke college students.
But I do know why Dr. O’Connor hired us. We each had a skill and a past. Riley was an IT specialist at Hagerstown Community College and was the go-to expert to remove the virus that was slowing down you and your rich uncle’s PCs. It helped that she created the virus.
And moi? I’m an actor. I worked with Riley. We met through a mutual mark. Long story, not worth the jail time to tell. Though I don’t know which jail you’re gonna put us in. Guantanamo? Area 51? Roswell Correctional Facility for the unlucky souls who encounter extraterrestrial, paranormal, or weird shit while committing crimes?
But lemme shine that spotlight back on me. If casting directors didn’t frown upon such things, my audition reel would be full of Emmy-award-worthy CCTV performances such as Milo as a rich, senile old man who needs to make an ATM withdrawal.
Lee? We didn’t know Lee, but we’d learn more about him later. Be patient. You’re getting this testimony for a few stale cigarettes, a grudge, and a promise. Don’t expect better service.
We all got a text saying we had to go to some house in Northwest DC, where all the rich diplomats live. Me and Riley talked about it while planning another con—I mean, birthday party. It was funny that we both had walked by the same flyer, both ripped off a tentacle. But we both can’t turn down cash so it wasn’t that much of a coincidence.
Neither of us remembered texting the number, but, sure as shit, there was a message on our phones proving just the opposite. We agreed to act like we didn’t know each other.
If I write down Dr. O’Connor’s address, can I get another cigarette? Thank you. Nice pen. I don’t know the ZIP code, but I bet you can rustle up a meter maid to track it down. I’ll give you the pen back when you hand me the lighter.
We all arrived at the same time, driving dusty sedans with red, white, yellow parking passes watermarking our windshields. There was no FOR SALE sign on the lawn or moving truck in the driveway.
Dr. O’Connor’s house looks like a castle and a triple-tiered wedding cake had a gray and purple baby. You can see it for yourself when you go later, if she hasn’t burned it to the ground already. Don’t worry, don’t worry. Jeez, your face sure can tremble. She never explicitly said she was gonna do that, but it would be a good way to destroy the evidence. A lot less messy than having to pay someone to shiv us in our cells.
Lee lunged up the walkway and stood flexing on the porch. With too much stuff in her backpack as always, Riley shuffled up, leaned on the railing, and played with her phone. They didn’t talk.
I sat in my car, sticking on a fake beard with Vaseline since I forgot my spirit gum at home. When the beard slid off my face and onto my lap, I got out. Waving to the other two made them shiver. The door opened too.
I’m not one for interior design—that’s Lee’s area of expertise, so to speak—so I don’t remember much about the insides beyond all the…eccentric antiques.
Dr. O’Connor’s collecting philosophy seemed to be to take all the things no one wanted. Tacky court portraits that must’ve lead to a few free haircuts for their painters, thick yellowing skeletons of small dinosaurs that would offend a dog, coral totems that were the missing link between mythological and pathological. All boring, off-putting, and odd. I’d need to take way more electives to understand any of it, but I don’t think they teach you about spooky shit like that in college.
You didn’t wanna touch the stuff. Nothing was small enough to fit in your pockets too. Believe me, I tried.
A tall woman in a long black dress ferried us into a dining room. That was the only time I ever saw Dr. O’Connor’s “help.” Trying to think of her makes my head hurt. It’s like her face was…blank. Smooth. Gone.
We had our interview around a long, thin wooden table shaped like an oval. It made the dining room seem huge. Dr. O’Connor sat at the head of the table. Under her right hand were three manila folders.
She asked us how our days were and had us introduce ourselves to each other. Lee said he was studying physical therapy or one of those pre-med thingies. Riley reminded me of her major: biomedical informatics, which made me think she was working on cyborgs. I talked about some commercial work I did and the plays with the long and twisty names that college directors love performing like they get paid by the syllable. But my eyes never left those folders.
During our introductions, Dr. O’Connor stayed silent. She didn’t even say anything when one of us finished, just open-palm pointed at the next person. She didn’t seem to be paying much attention, but was acting like she was. Her body was turned toward the speaker, her arms uncrossed, her eyes level. But she was staring blankly like someone who’d memorized the answers before taking a test. And I was right. That body language master class paid off after all.
When I finished speaking, she slid us our folders. Every folder contained the same thing: single-spaced reports about each of us. The crimes we’d committed, all the ones we got away with, the close-calls, the mugshots who got the book thrown at them instead of us. There were frames from security cam footage that’d been blown up to reveal as much of our beautiful faces as possible. If she was working for you guys, you might’ve caught us. I consider your capture today to be a supernatural technicality.
The pictures of me were terrible, but they made me wish I didn’t have to burn the costumes after my performances. Riley only had one picture that I assumed was her hacking into a computer that wasn’t hers. The rest of the documents about her were confusing, full of coding language that read like an error message. I recognized some debit card numbers from our cons—birthday parties.
But I did learn why Dr. O’Connor chose Lee. He was an excellent rock climber and liked stuffing shiny rocks into his pockets. His muscles made sense. In his stills, he was walking on his hands, more often than not.
Lee slammed his folder shut. Me and Riley were more polite. We wanted to see what the blackmail was being used for.
When we looked up, three stacks of cash were in front of Dr. O’Connor. She slid these across the table and then told us about Edgar Mitchell. Edgar Mitchell was—Riley already told you. Lame. I really liked that story.
What did the others not tell you? The planning? Really? What did Lee end up talking about? His trip, huh. Can you tell me that? We didn’t have time to talk in between you peeling me and Riley off the walls and dragging down Lee. You can’t? Ugh. Fine.
I’ll set the scene and then I might head to bed. Okay?
Imagine Riley hunched over her chunky multi-monitored computer, clicking and typing away with two mouses and three keyboards. Why she needs this bulky set-up, I’ve never understood. She’s digging through the National Air and Space Museum’s iCloud account or something, nabbing all the passwords and floor plans she can get. She can’t get everything however and that’s where I step in.
After Riley spreads some very convincing lies on the Internet, Dr. O’Connor outfitted me in a snazzy suit and ran lines with me. I become Michael Collins-Danforth The Third, a rich kid looking to become a patron of the arts, sciences, humanities, and whatever else museums hold nowadays.
Act One involved me bragging to the museum’s head honcho about my love of private jets and rockets, my wealth, and, of course, my wealth. They put me on hold the first time I called. But not the second time. They didn’t want me to throw my money at SpaceX and urged me to accept a private tour of the history I’d be preserving.
Act Two was me driving down to DC in Dr. O’Connor’s Mercedes and getting a private tour of the whole place, after all the plebes left for the day. During the tour, I took obnoxiously long and loud phone calls with my imaginary but persistent stockbroker Timmy. These one-sided phone calls revealed everything about my wealth and allow me to wander where I shouldn’t.
I also teared up and ask for a moment to be alone near certain artifacts and their less dusty outlets and control panels. My shiny wing tips and manicured hands set off every single alarm. I got in trouble a few times, but then they just turned off the alarms. Money talks.
I didn’t ask about the suit. But they did show me some of the rocks that Mitchell and the other guy brought back. They were boring until I touched them. My hands froze. Literally froze. My bones and muscles bent into a C. I couldn’t even pocket one.
The attendants didn’t respond to my contortion. Even when I groaned. They were frozen too, staring at the ceiling. I wiggled my arm and the rock rolled off it. An attendant caught it with one gloved hand like she’d been waiting for it. My hand cracked back into place.
I didn’t tell Dr. O’Connor or the others about the rock. It would’ve killed the job or made it harder. I was paid for the space suit, not the rocks. And I’d already spent all the money.
I should’ve called it and let some other talented, black mail-able, and broke college student get the gig. But I didn’t. That’s the scariest sentence in our whole language: But I didn’t.
Act Three took place back at Dr. O’Connor’s. We met there three times a week to plan the heist. Me and Riley hadn’t done anything this big. Lee might’ve, but he didn’t like talking. He preferred bending us into uncomfortable positions and grunting when we couldn’t do standing backflips. Dr. O’Connor let him do all this because she thought the security was gonna be tougher than what our recon said.
The floor layout of the storage area gave us all chills. Rows and rows of the same shelves, the same boxes. Our eyes strained and dripped with the lack of detail. But we stuck with it.
Dr. O’Connor provided those special bags you had to detach from the wall next to me. We bought the clothes and the tools with Dr. O’Connor’s never-ending fortune. We never went into the same store together, never purchased the same things together, never even thought about appearing in public together. They didn’t even visit to the museum until the big day—night.
So yeah, we broke in. The museum could’ve saved all the destruction costs by just selling the damn thing to Dr. O’Connor. Just saying.
Can I take a nap now? There’s something about wrestling with the occult and cops in two different uniforms that really drains you. I’ll take another cigarette before I leave. Thank you very much.
I’m not saying shit. Nope. Nothing. You can speak to my lawyer. You did? She said I should talk? You got that on paper? You do. Hmm. Lemme call her. You need to get a new phone, Officer. This one’s so outdated. It doesn’t even have a—
Do I want a cigarette? No. Milo smokes, I don’t. Save them for him. You’re gonna need one while talking to him. But I do want some Advil and an iced tea. I’ll take a Pepsi. Thank you. My head’s all puddled.
What do you wanna know? Why Dr. O’Connor wanted it? Isn’t that obvious? Someone must’ve told you what the suit can do! Why does it do that? I don’t know! It’s nothing I learned in my STEM classes, I’ll tell you that.
Before working for Dr. O’Connor, I didn’t believe in any of this shit. Still don’t, really. I always thought occultism was something rich people invented when badminton got boring.
But Edgar Mitchell, a smart ass dude, MIT graduate, Apollo 14 astronaut, he believed in it. He also believed in aliens later on, but that’s not important. Or maybe it is. Dr. O’Connor didn’t tell us about that part and told us not to look anything up because of search histories and all that stuff rookies don’t know how to hide. But seeing how good she was at tracking us, I stayed sequestered and tried to find her bugs in my computers without setting off too many alarms. Maybe Milo knows more about it. Lee isn’t much of a reader.
In 1971, while on his way to the moon, Edgar Mitchell conducted a few…experiments. I don’t know if my professors would call what he did experiments, but I’m not sure if there’s a better word.
The first one he did was telepathy. Mitchell flipped a bunch of cards, stared at them, and then wrote some stuff down. On the return trip, he did it again. His psychic friends back on Earth were supposed to be receiving his mental messages.
Mitchell got fifty-one out of two-hundred right which, considering statistics, is about how much you would get randomly guessing. But if you compare the two score-cards, he got every single one wrong on the second try. He was trying to fail.
But that was after he walked on the moon. As him and Alan Sheppard were descending, something malfunctioned. After lots of jiggering, they got back on track. But then the radar blew. Mitchell commanded the radar to work—“Come on, radar. Lock on!”—and it did.
Considering the tech they were using, it wasn’t a miracle. The recorder you’re using right now is probably more advanced then some of the stuff inside those space ships. Is that a TASCAM DR-680? Officer, the police get so much funding. I’ve seen the bank accounts. You really should get—You should hire me as your tech assistant after this. Okay. We’ll talk more about the moon. You’re lucky the Advil and Pepsi are working.
So they landed and something went wrong, again. They were lost. Mitchell forgot to command the radar nicely since it dropped them somewhere not on their itinerary: the dark side of the moon.
No one knows exactly what happened while they were there. They took some pictures with a 16mm data acquisition camera and both made vague statements after the fact. Mitchell threw a javelin and Sheppard swung a golf club. This is why I don’t date STEM guys. Can’t remember a birthday if it’s not written in C++.
Dr. O’Connor was convinced something happened and that whatever it was, Mitchell’s suit would provide some answers.
Why did I join the team? You ever have to fix thirty laptops full of porn and viruses for minimum wage while juggling a full schedule? It’s not fun.
Fun is shutting down the National Air and Space Museum’s security system. Luckily, government-funded stuff usually runs on outdated technology, even science museums.
The night guards move inefficiently. You need at least two pairs of eyes to notice anything. The head guard was on a smoke break when we showed up! Our fake keycards were useless since he propped the door open. You think the museum would hire me, if you don’t?
We went in through the unguarded security room, dressed in all-black. I plugged my computer into one of the terminals and killed the electronic locks and security cameras. After that, I looked into what I could do with the lasers from inside the museum. Lee stretched. Milo paced around, leaning to the right and left when he got to a corner, mimicking Lee. Lee grunted and I told them both to knock it off.
I ran through everything and found no way to do it. The lasers were old as shit, barely better than electric fences. It was like someone wanted us tenderized before we got to the suit. There was a laser outside the security room so we had to exit through a fire window. My back’s still hurting from that one.
With the security cameras looping last night’s footage and the electronic locks thinking they were closed, we only had to deal with the lasers and the guards.
Did I notice that there were no guards? In the moment, not really. I just thought we were lucky, that all the guards were living in the fantasy that no one would rob the National Air and Space Museum. You take luck when you find it. Most people’s passwords are obvious and stupid. Besides, the silence was loud. It usually amplifies everything. But tonight, it sucked every decibel away.
Where were the guards, by the way? The ceiling? Are they—I’m not gonna ask that. I’m too tired to deal with that guilt now. I’ll answer your “final” question and then I’m gonna end this and call my aunt again. I mean, my lawyer. Ask the question.
What color are my eyes? Brown, but usually red from staring at screens all day. Weird question considering you have two eyes to answer it for you. Do you want me to tell your eye color? You get one more question.
How did I feel? Scared as shit.
The cold air in the museum didn’t help anything. We used the moonlight and red EXIT signs to guide us. Hoping for a guard’s flashlight was a bad idea. The preparation in Dr. O’Connor’s mansion gave me nightmares and backaches, but it worked. If you turned off the lights right now, I could see better, clearer.
Yeah, nightmares. I dreamed that every thing I opened lead to a locked door. Cereal box, computer file, storage bin, door, door, door. The knobs were hot, cold, rusted, slick, jagged, smooth. But the doors were all red. The red of headaches, of heatstrokes, of sun blindness. I’m not gonna sleep well tonight.
We moved in a single-file line, a hand on each shoulder. Lee was in front and Milo was imprinting his bony hand into my new bruises. The floors should’ve squeaked more and the carpet should’ve been rougher. But it was like a cold stone path.
We went over and under the lasers. I don’t know how long it took us. Time seemed to stop. The moon barely twitched.
The darkness shifted with each step. Propellers, parachutes, and prop planes lunged at us and retreated. We almost slammed into a rocket in one hallway. The faceless mannequins wearing flight suits made us gasp more than any security guard could’ve. But we had time. The cleaning staff weren’t coming until dawn. Dawn was so far way. It still is for us three.
I really need to lay down. My back pain’s spreading to my feet. Being stuck to that wall didn’t do me any good. Smashed my computer and phone too. Can I use your phone again? It’s dead? Ugh.
I fla-fla-fla-floated. I floated. It was…I’m cuh-cuh-cold. Turn the he-heat o-on! It’s on aye-eighty? Nuh-nuh-no way. My gums fuh-feel like eye-eye-icecream. The cuh-coat. Gim-me-me the coat! Nuh-now!
I can still feel the cold in my lungs and stomach, but it’s not pressing against my skin anymore. One thing they never tell you is that museums are cold at night, laboratory-cold, ice-bath cold, cemetery-cold. Cold as space.
You said if I talked about the other two I walk, right? I’ll take “basically.”
Do I want a cigarette? No! Do you know that every cigarette stabs your lungs? It weakens all your muscles. You shouldn’t smoke. Try running instead.
I’m never stealing again. Promise. I can’t—I floated. I fucking floated.
It took us too long to get through the main building. Not because of me. The other two needed to take breaks to keep up. They’d forgotten everything we’d practiced at Dr. O’Connor’s. She’s the woman who hired us. Thinking about her makes my chest hurt. The others will tell you more. I need to get this off my chest so it will literally get off my chest. I have a triathlon in three weeks.
The storage area was dark. The moonlight was gone. No guards waving their beams. We had flashlights. Little blue icicles of light. The same brand as the security guards. If one of them was in the storage area, they’d think we were their coworkers. If they got too close, I was supposed to snooze them.
The boxes all looked the same to me. Dr. O’Connor had told me privately that I alone would know when we found the right box. She said I was more observant and had better sense than the others. Since I spend most of my time perfecting my body and reflexes, I agreed with her. She was right about something.
The first box I sensed weighed at least two-hundred pounds. What do I mean by sensed? You know when you look at a pile of plates and know much you can clear that day? It’s like that. Alpha-sense.
Only I could take the box down. It was no biggie. Inside was a disassembled iron fence. After lifting bar after bar and finding no suit at the bottom, I slid it back into place. I told the other two to turn off their flashlights so I could sense better. Milo laughed at me and Riley kept searching.
The second box I sensed was lighter. When I shook it, it clinked like a glass visor hitting metal. But inside it were thirty-five teacups. They cracked as I threw it back. I was about to yell at them to turn off their fucking flashlights, but I heard scraping.
Milo found it. His flashlight shone on its cracked label first. A chill sprinted up my lats. It had to be the box.
For how weak he is, he didn’t need my help lifting it. It didn’t make a sound when he dropped it on the ground. He stuck his tongue out when Riley and I got next to him.
I jabbed the crowbar into the lock, but it didn’t give. The lock on it was different than the others. It was older, not like the new ones where a well placed punch can short-circuit it. It took Riley longer to find her lock picking kit in her backpack than to crack it.
The suit was resting on a foam pad. It looked like the suit was surrounded by a thin empty oval. It was so ordinary. Smelled bad, though. Cheesy feet. Milo retched. Riley said it was the humidity, a fault in the AC.
While holding his breath, Milo unzipped the bags. Riley kept watch. I scooped the suit with one arm. It shouldn’t have weighed much. Nothing I couldn’t deal with.
But it…rose, rose like someone was dragging it by the helmet. Its gold visor was reflecting rays from some invisible light source. It sparkled like another sun.
Its reflection widened, coloring the room lava orange. And it rose higher. Milo screamed. All that actor’s training he wouldn’t shut up about didn’t help him one bit. He should’ve hit the gym like I told him to.
The suit’s right hand twitched and Milo was flung to the wall with all the bags surrounding him like giant blood stains. Riley ran away. Her backpack spilled her things everywhere. Milo’s thud was followed by another one to my left. She was gone. A smeared puddle somewhere out of reach.
I couldn’t move. The visor’s reflection shrunk. Only a crescent of orange light was blazing on the ceiling. The helmet was more than empty. A void. And it dragged me into it.
Something heavy pressed into me on all sides. My muscles swam. My triceps flooded into my shoulders. My jaw cracked back and forth, left, right, left. All my bones broke, but I couldn’t pass out. My eyes sunk into my skull. They couldn’t close.
No, I don’t need the cigarette and I don’t need to stop. I am a man. I am strong. The other two can’t tell you this. The suit would’ve pulverized their weak and lazy skeletons. It chose me.
The helmet clicked. I sucked in oxygen rich air. Mountain climbers’ saving grace. My lungs were squeezed tighter with each inhale. My senses were jumbled. I could only hear the darkness. I could see this…humming. I raised my hand to guard my eyes. My arm shot up too fast, but caught itself with a tug at the shoulder. My fingers pressed against a soft, padded glove. I was in the suit.
I jerked down the visor. When I looked up, I saw a night sky that held no hope of day. The oxygen choked me, but the visor didn’t fog.
And then I looked down. On my feet were boots pressing against gray rocks covered in dust. The ruins of a scarred desert. The ground shook. A rock pile that looked like a mountain range made of glass rose in front of me. It was no bigger than two feet squared, but it electrified my spine.
I heard a new frequency. Two high-pitched notes tried to merge, but didn’t connect and wailed in agony. It was like two ice needles were jammed into my ears. The glass rocks seeped steel oil full of sparkling chunks of red light.
Even though it was leaking away from me, I ran. The moon’s surface was flat and dead. Perfect terrain to run in. But the suit restrained me. It felt like one hundred rubber straps were suffocating every stride. My heart rate spiked, but I wasn’t scared. I was not scared.
I stopped and turned around. The oil stopped too. I was safe. And then it shot up and rushed toward me. The sparkling chunks were full of gnawing teeth made of cracked red glass. No eyes, no lips, just teeth.
Stop asking me if I need a fucking minute! It’s over! It’s all fucking over!
I woke up to the two officers cracking open the suit with the crowbar. All the lights were on. The storage area guards were standing on their heads, their arms twisted behind their backs. There was less blood than I expected. Milo and Riley were being carried away on stretchers, in handcuffs. The air was too thin and I got sick. Thinking about it—Ugh.
Sleep? I do wanna sleep. I do. But when I blink, I see it. Void. It’s in your eyes too. It’s beyond the iris now. Blinking doesn’t help. I am not scared. I am not scared. I am not scared. I am not scared. I am not scared. I am not scared. I am not scared. I am not scared. I am…We’re never gonna leave here, are we?
Dan states: “I studied journalism at Boston University and received an MFA in creative writing at Columbia University. I’ve worked as a movie theater cleaner, a cashier at a vacation clothing store, an indie bookseller, and a tech assistant for an art consulting firm. My website is dadell.com.”
CONTENT/TRIGGER WARNING: This story contains material of a sexual and/or mature nature that some people may find distasteful, upsetting, or offensive and which may not be suitable for younger readers. If you feel you are such a person, please move on to the next story. The Chamber Magazine wants all its readers to have an enjoyable experience.
Wooden spikes embellished with runes, markings of her ancient clan, protruded through her fluorescent purple nipples. Her white breasts turned pastel blue as they sank and rose with the pulse of their dance. His back clung to the drab cotton sheet weeks past due for a wash. He looked up to see pale eyes turn cinnamon-spiced brown; even the whites of her eyes changed, and a rancid, lime-colored milk drudged out from the corners, but she continued to throb and ride. His hands gripped her sides with determination.
Her teeth, once white, transitioned, and now a piss-colored smile glistened over the boy as she sang to him in words black and slimy like the tongue dangling from her mouth, and his manhood replied with reinforcement. She grabbed his neck, and he returned the grip by clinching her warm sides, just above the hips. As he grasped her tighter, the flesh grew cool, and his nails plunged into it. Her smile turned to a grimace, and he braced.
The cold encased her entrails, and her insides near froze the boy’s penis as he ejaculated. Her sides stung where he tore into her. Millions had looked upon her icy transmogrification, but in thousands of years, this young man was the first to hold tighter. She held his seed inside her. Her sides struggled to heal, and now she sat on his bed in full form—white hair, blue skin, black tongue, yellow teeth, bulging blue breasts with dark-green nipples, pointed ears, and a face decorated with scars obtained during the escape attempts of former lovers. The boy smiled. He moved to grab her left breast before she turned away, sliding backwards on the bed.
“What are you?” she asked.
“Patrick,” the boy replied, smiling.
“How old are you?”
“Six and ten years.”
_A sweet young fool_, she thought. Confused, she stood up to leave.
“Don’t go! Please, I want to be with you! Again and again!”
“I have work to complete,” she said.
“It’s the middle of the night,”
“The witching hour is the only hour my work is done.”
“Come back, please. Tomorrow come back.”
She leapt from the boy’s window. Until her vault, the boy hadn’t noticed her frail, tattered wings. _An angel_, he thought. “My angel!” he screamed to the black, starless sky.
She skirted along the wind and removed a grey ceramic vial from her satchel. She ejected the boy’s semen into the cylindrical vessel, sealed the container, and tucked it away. At the end of the evening’s work, she returned home with several vials. She opened her bag to submit the tubes of man seed to the clerk at the collection and distribution desk of the dispensary. Her work contributes to her specie’s old tradition of cross-breeding with humans, a practice upheld to accomplish a strategic goal unknown to her. She assumed power to be the primary motivator, as it had been in most affairs of the royal, both man and beast. She held the warm, stone-colored tube and recalled his distant yell—_my angel_! Her sides pulsated where he had squeezed her; a series of tingles scattered inside her stomach, a feeling foreign to her. She kept the sample, refusing to submit it to the endless menagerie of human sperm.
The next night, she was scheduled to fly the east corridor in a forty-square-mile block. She diverted, and in twenty minutes, she reached the boy’s unhatched window. He woke to see the pale-skinned, fire-haired woman he had lain with the night before, but in her unnatural form—the appearance of a woman, with white teeth and no blue skin.
“I prefer your other form,” the boy said.
She looked down at her pink-white feet like polished silver. The feet turned gnarled and grey blue, with protruding bones and spiked toes capped with brown nails. When she looked through her brown, leaky eyes, she noticed the boy’s smile and the protrusion of his penis through the single unkempt sheet. She walked to him, and this time she lay under him. Again he penetrated her stomach with the tight grip of his supple hands, the hands of a young man, new to the touch of another. She absorbed his seed.
“I must fly; I am far behind,” she said.
“What do you mean? Just stay, please. Don’t abandon me again.”
“I have to work.”
“What is your work? Who are you?” he asked.
“Please forget me, my sweet boy.”
She flew back to the east corridor to relinquish lost time, but she arrived at the dispensary short on vials and had to fly twice as fast and collect twice as much the next evening. Three days passed before she returned to her boy lover. She returned to see the boy awake under the covers, a candle in hand, writing in frantic, harsh motions, perhaps doodling. She fluttered away. He jumped from the covers in a decisive and violent thrust of the legs, ignoring the fate of the flame in his hand. He ran to the window.
She turned back and entered the boy’s room. The boy’s skin smelled of peppers and earth, his eyes red and lined with purple and black flesh. She flew in with some hesitation. The walls were littered with paintings on parchment and tapestry, blue women with black tongues and dainty wings.
“You create these figures. Why?” she asked.
“Oh, I am so glad. Oh, my. I love you! I do. I love you; tell me your name. What is your name, my angel? What is it?”
She knew from his blood-wrenched eyes that what had been fear and hate in the millions of other men was a dangerous passion and ravenous lust in him. The boy admired her, but his mind had turned wild all the same. _I thought you different, my lovely boy, and you are, but my sting penetrates your mind nevertheless; the rot grows in you_. She went to bed with the boy. She desired the burn in her sides left by the cut of his sharp nails and the twinge in her belly when she parted from him.
A fortnight passed before she returned to the boy. His head was bare, only white skin, skin far more pale than his soiled face. An array of multi-colored bruises covered his flesh, black and blue, purple and black, yellow and green.
“Oh, my angel, my angel, my wonderful angel. I need not your name. My angel. That is your name. My fair and true angel, that’s what you are. Please come in, my angel.”
He had painted the room with black ink and blue paint and the juice of berries; the rock walls were drenched in silhouettes of her kind, Patrick’s angels. Utensils and crusted fruit and berry skins scattered the floor. _All for his walls and not his belly, I’m sure_. The boy appeared famished, and his flesh transmitted the scent of vinegar and soft cheese. She assumed he was days without sleep, and she knew he was several days without bathing.
“Who cares for you, boy?” she asked.
“Why, my angel, do you call me ‘boy’? How many years are you? Eight and ten at the most, yes? My angel, come to me, please.”
“I am as old as many generations, my sweet boy; who cares for you?” she asked.
“I do, my angel, only me. I am all I need, and you of course. Myself and my angel, all I need. Please come to bed, my angel.”
The thought of how he had once looked at her with desire as her flesh fell off in his hands made her stomach tingle. The damage dealt to her tender sides by the boy’s ragged nails had given her a long internal burn. What she felt now, standing in front of this bald, tainted boy, was another new feeling, one unlike the feeling conjured by the boy’s touch. This new feeling happened internally like the tingle, but it was a violent eruption. _I am a daughter of Lamia_, she wanted to tell him; _I came about in the Bronze Age. You are the first to smile, the first to pierce my fragile guts_. Her face wore the scars of past lovers, countless men, but her sides wore only the fresh scars of this boy, her sweet boy. The pain of his grip lingered still, moons after their last affair. Her mind rattled with words she could not speak.
“I said forget me, boy!” she proclaimed in a growl, in a language meant for beasts. The boy could not interpret her language, but he understood her meaning all the same.
“My angel, please, you are my love! You are my angel!”
“Boy, you will be no more; you must forget me!” she said in his tongue.
“I would die before—”
She squealed and hissed. Jars shattered, stone walls shivered and cracked. The boy dropped to his knees in tears. She scooped him up and flew through the window snapping the hinges, his gaunt arms tangled with her own as her wings worked to support the extra weight. Her black tongue slipped into his mouth, feeling every corner.
On a grass hill, he dug into her sides, and she whispered to him, “My boy, you are my sweet boy.”
He replied, “You are my angel.”
Her kind and their ancient curse had scoured many minds, but never before had she watched as her toxins sank deeper into one’s viscera, fostering steady deterioration of the mind and body. Her sweet boy had held tighter, he gave her an admired pain, and now she gave him what none before received, her attention. Many moons came and went as she watched him from afar; the boy tore his bed to pieces, making a blue-painted altar to his angel. He wrote in scribbles, attempts at writing the old tongue she spoke to him, a language long dead and impossible to scribe. She watched as he cut toes from his molding feet. She watched the toes decay in an assortment of jars. The toes turned blue like the color of her breasts, and he cherished his toes in the same manner, caressing them in his palms, until they turned black, and he tossed them from his window. She watched, hovering in the sky, when the boy tossed himself from the window, shattering his neck on the mildew-covered ground below.
Four vials of her sweet boy’s semen remained in her satchel pocket. She took them to an old friend, Zarik, a leader in the distribution department of the dispensary. She promised Zarik any favor if she helped her find the most impeccable suitor for her precious seed. She accompanied Zarik and a breeder on the journey north, where a young woman lay in a decayed farmhouse. Her golden hair swam around her full body, a body prepared for a child. Four chances for the seed to take.
She held no expertise in human reproduction; collection was her work. The firm-bodied breeder flew into the farm girl’s window on his sturdy wings, her sweet boy’s semen injected into his loins, and bedded the fertile girl. Now she watched from afar, hoping the seed took and hoping the seed was true. She longed for a boy to be born of this woman, a boy to look upon her icy skin and tattered face with delight and pierce her delicate sides. This hope summoned the welcome intestinal tingle and the persisting heat of her mangled flesh.
Caleb works as an analyst in Washington, D.C. His passions apart from reading and writing fiction include film, basketball, bourbon, and traveling with his wife Melody.
“We need to go in,” Pierce says, his dirty snow boots tapping the ice. A few flurries stick to his coat, nothing compared to the blizzard that flattened their town in snow last week. The blizzard melted under harsh mountain sun, leaving piles of mushy, soot-colored snow. Afterwards, a hole of ice appeared in the woods behind Brett’s backyard.
The ice hole is special, Brett realized the second he almost fell in during their game of tag. Around the size of a tire, crystallized in a sheet of ice. The ice, like an infection, spreads out from the abyssal interior. They dropped rocks into its mouth, listening in awe as the ice swallowed the fading clinks. The hole does not go straight down, but instead curves into the earth like a water slide.
“You’re fucking crazy,” Drew says, now throwing sticks down the hole.
“What? You don’t wanna check out Jack Frost’s Gloryhole?” Pierce crouches down, yelling into the hole, his screams disappearing inside.
“You’ll get stuck. We won’t be able to pull you out,” Drew says. Pierce smiles, internalizing the compliment. This year he poured all his effort into football and wrestling, and it shows.
“Brett, you’ll go in then. You’re the smallest out of us.” Brett’s body becomes as cold as the ice they stand on, hating how certainties spill out of Pierce’s mouth: you’ll go in. Pierce has always teased Brett for his late bloomer status, not having a single hair under his armpits while a forest grows under Pierce’s. In fact, Brett rarely enjoys spending time with Pierce, but still craves his approval; perhaps it’s because Pierce represents everything Brett isn’t: tall, muscular, confident, athletic—the epitome of masculinity.
“I don’t know.”
“Come on, dude. We can lower you down, then just pull you right back up. Worse comes to worse, we’re literally right next to your house. Your dad’s still home, right?”
“I think so.”
“Then there’s no reason not to go in—unless you’re a pussy.” Brett hates the hold this insult has over him. He can’t be afraid. And, something’s been calling him ever since he spotted the ice hole. A ravenous curiosity needing to be fed.
“Fine. I’ll go.”
Pierce holds one boot while Drew holds the other, lowering Brett’s body into the ice hole. “Head first,” Pierce ordered earlier. “Or else you won’t be able to see inside.” Brett’s body does not dangle, but instead lowers onto a sheet of ice that slopes downwards. Still, he feels a pull yearning to take him further down.
Brett is shocked by the never-ending tunnel’s brightness. The ice above reflects his body, like he’s been swallowed by a mirror. His reflection does not look afraid, and he smiles.
“What’s down there?” Pierce’s voice calls; it sounds distant, despite him standing just outside the hole.
“It goes pretty deep.”
“That’s what she said.” Pierce and Drew’s laughs travel down the chasm. They must lose focus, missing how Brett’s snow boot slips from his foot. Momentum pushes Brett forward, causing him to slide out the other boot as well. A scream launches from his throat, circling around him in haunting echoes.
He stops sliding. Voices, now sounding miles away, call from the surface: “Brett, we’ll go get your dad! I’m sure he has a rope or something we’ll use to pull you out. Just hold on!” Then the voices are gone, and he’s left with silence.
Tears slide down his face, freezing into ice before they even leave his cheek. His raspy breaths create a cloud of panic around him. He wipes his snot on his yellow Pikachu gloves. The gloves his Mom gifted last Christmas since their dog Lucie destroyed his old ones. His thoughts turn to the worst: Will he ever see them again? Will he freeze to death down here? Will a rope even allow him to escape?
The only measurement of time are his rapid heart beats. Even then, Brett is sure at least thirty minutes have passed. The walls coil around him. When looking up at his reflection within the ice, he sees a red-faced child with frozen tears pouring out of hopeless eyes; not the brave, smiling boy from before.
He tries to turn his body around, but only ends up sliding deeper into the tunnel. His toes, without boots to shield them, start to burn as the cold drives needles into his skin. Taking deep breaths proves impossible with his choked-up throat, snot-filled nose, and the stagnant air shredding his lungs.
A hand grabs his foot, and he breathes a sigh of relief. “Dad? Dad, thank you. Please pull me out.” Silence responds. He shifts his weight to his side so he can turn his neck around. No one crouches behind him, yet the pressure on his foot is undeniable: a tight vise-grip. Is this what frostbite feels like? he thinks, but that thought melts as something sharp digs into his foot, drawing blood.
He hears guttural breaths that are not his own. The breaths morph into a syllable, like someone trying to shove a word out of their mouth, but can’t.
His screams, despite their volume, somehow do not shatter the ice. He kicks at this unknown being, but the pressure only increases. He crawls forward as fast as he can: the only direction he can go to escape. Deeper into the ice.
Pierce, Drew, and Brett’s father stand in a circle. No one utters a single word; they can’t find any. Their brains, it seems, have shut off, becoming lumps of flesh out in the snow. No questions circle their mind—only disbelief. A snowflake even lands directly on Drew’s eye, but he doesn’t notice it. The ice hole, open a few minutes prior, has now sealed shut.
The deeper Brett crawls, the smaller the tunnel becomes, until the icy walls start to squeeze his skin. The pressure on his foot has ceased, but a stinging pain persists. A light calls to him at the tunnel’s end. A scratching sound follows him, as if someone’s just above or below the ice, desperately trying to escape. He does not find the many rocks and sticks they threw inside.
He’s hoping for some form of opening in the tunnel. A space large enough to turn his body around. Still, the idea of possibly encountering the creature that left these wounds creates a knot of anxiety in his stomach.
The tunnel continues to narrow. He removes his thick, heavy coat in order to slip through the crushing walls. Just when the tunnel narrows so tight that he’s positive he’ll be unable to progress, he reaches the light.
He squirms out of the tunnel’s confines, into a cavern, reborn anew. Fresh air, for the first time since he fell into the hole, graces his lungs. He can stretch his arms and legs—a luxury he’ll never take for granted again.
His fear ebbs as he admires the giant dripping icicles stuck to the cavern’s ceiling; water collects at their tips, plopping down onto the floor. Cracked fissures run along the cavern’s walls, the jagged ice like teeth.
His eyes lock on the expansive ceilings. How is he this far underground? A cavern like this shouldn’t exist here. He didn’t crawl that deep, right?
The water droplets continue falling from the icicles; the sound jolts his body. He feels another presence in here, staring at him through the walls. Light pulses across the ice, like veins pumping blood. In this underground ice cavern, without a coat, he’s not cold. In fact, sweat starts to collect on his forehead and hands. He takes off his Pikachu gloves, shoving them into his pocket.
Removing his sock to check his damaged foot, he almost bites his tongue off. A word carves into his flesh: FREE. The letters are sloppy, frantic. A deep hiss pierces through the ice. An intense urgency to leave this cavern, as if he’s an intruder, overwhelms his entire body.
Brett sprints towards the tunnel he entered from. His bare feet slip on the ice. Tumbling backwards, his tailbone smacks into the ground. A scream unleashes from him, and, as if the ice reacts to his pain, the hissing sound increases.
His heart is about to burst. His hands shake as he pulls himself up, running to the tunnel’s entrance.
Except there is no entrance.
The tunnel is gone.
He runs his fingers along the cavern’s icy walls, as if there’s some secret button he needs to press to reopen the tunnel. Two pairs of eyes meet his gaze from beyond the ice. He screams again, his voice hoarse from a lack of water. There’s more than just eyes. There’s a child encased in ice, her unicorn pajamas ripped and stained. Her face, on the other hand, does not have a single cut on it. She’s smiling. Her pupils do not move, but Brett feels them moving. Her blonde hair extends upwards, braided by ice.
Next to her, a boy is also suspended in the ice, his eyes frozen open like hers. He, too, smiles. A baseball uniform with an alligator stitched into the fabric crinkles against his pale skin. His palms are open. Dirt, possibly from a baseball field, buries underneath his fingertips. His overgrown shaggy hair wraps around his ears and neck.
A clicking sound echoes from somewhere in the distance, drawing closer. Brett curls into a ball, tears pouring down his cheeks. He’s beginning to accept that he will die down here. He cannot escape. No one will save him.
A presence looms behind him. Even then, he does not turn. Just kill me, he thinks. End this. End this all.
“It’s not an end; it’s a beginning,” the voice whispers.
He cannot wait any longer. He turns around.
After seeing the creature, he fully accepts his future death.
The creature’s face is a fusion of children’s faces, their expressions frozen and animated simultaneously: their sorrows, hopes, dreams, pain, anger, love. It hunches on all fours, the vertebrae of its spine jutting upwards, twisting and turning with every slight movement. Icicles poke out the surface of its waxy, shimmery skin, like it’s being consumed by ice.
The creature smiles, revealing a gaping, reflective hole. Children’s screams escape from its mouth, and Brett cannot tell if they’re screams of joy or fear; it sounds like they’re on a rollercoaster. Steam rises from its vibrating body, creating that hissing sound he heard earlier. Its claws dig into the ice, creating more cracks and fissures. Its icy tail wriggles, twisting upwards like a scorpion.
“Why?” Brett says, but he’s not sure he speaks aloud. Even then, the creature still responds.
“We want you to stay,” it whispers; the sound does not come from the beast, but instead comes from an invisible entity that speaks into his ear.
“Please. I just want to go home.” He forces these words out, mixed with his tears.
“It only gets worse if you leave. Trust us.” The creature’s tail undulates. The scratching sounds from inside the walls increase. Its mouth opens wider, now the size of an arm. “Look inside. You’ll see.”
Brett steps forward. Whatever this creature plans to do with him, he needs it to be over with. He stares inside the creature’s black hole.
And sees his future. All of it, in an instant, the memories filter through him, then become one inside him. They burrow into his consciousness, and he falls to his knees, screaming, crying, clutching his head in his hands.
“Help! Help!” he begs, collapsing into a ball.
“We can help. Let us help,” it says, its tail eagerly moving downwards. “You can stay here instead. With us. Forever.”
“Make it stop!”
“Let me stay! I’ll do anything to stay!”
The hissing stops. All the lights in the ice cavern disappear, swarming the abyss in shadow. And yet, he can still see all the children, hundreds of them, frozen in perpetuity, their smiles and eyes fixed on him.
The creature’s tail lowers, then opens like a flower bud blooming in spring. Within the blooming flower, a blinding light engulfs him, and he’s never seen something so bright and pure. He stares into the light, transfixed. A smile spreads across his face.
The creature’s tail closes around his face, delicately, as if he were glass; it’s warm inside. Icicles emerge from his skin. The creature’s mouth must open again, because Brett hears the familiar screaming, but he now knows it’s one of joy; they must be running around on a playground during recess. The sound grows louder. And louder.
All he sees is light, and eyes, and smiles embracing him, protecting him. The tail snaps shut, encasing Brett. He sinks into the ice, forever staring into that light, the biggest smile of his life seared into his youthful face.
Alec Glisson studies English Education and English and creative writing at the University of Iowa. His interests beyond reading, writing, and teaching include yoga, theater, and sci-fi/fantasy TV shows. Originally from Springfield, Illinois, he hopes to one day live somewhere that doesn’t have 6-month winters.