“Children of Sin” Dark Fiction by Nick Guthry

Granville Street in Vancouver, "Children of Sin" Dark Fiction by Nick Guthry

It is a Friday night during summer in the not-to-be-out-poshed neighbourhood of Point Grey, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Former Colony of the British Empire. Ancestral lands of the Coast Salish group of Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. Earth (for readers of the far future). The temperature outside is sixteen degrees Celsius, and if you’re not a smoker and you practice mindfulness, you can almost smell the Pacific Ocean of nearby English Bay. It is also the year 2012, which necessarily arouses all kinds of idiosyncratic associations in your silly human mind.

Now we are there, and we see John Foreskin, twenty-something-year-old, white cis hetero male walking briskly down West 14th Avenue, a distinct hitch in his giddy-up. His hands are buried deep in his pockets. His shoulders are doing the work of the popped collar he is not wearing. And at first glance, we correctly infer a combination of nicotine, diuretic fluids, and refined sugars. The continent among us feel an almost organic contempt.

Some twenty paces back, at the house where John rooms, his millennial associates are busy debasing themselves under the false pretence of immortality. All are still young enough to mistake their looks and vigour for signs of inner virtue. John Foreskin finds parties to be exhausting, sullying affairs where one mixes what one is with too much of what others are. And John Foreskin knows that too much mixing leaves a person as nobody, least of all themselves. At the tender age of twenty-something, he has already begun cultivating the sternness that he will eventually come to associate with adult-male-juvenile hairlines, especially on solitary walks like this. But tonight, he just needed to get out.

He arrived in Vancouver over a year ago following a stint of tree planting up north. Then after couch surfing for a couple of months, he finally found a room in this student house near UBC. It’s an expensive part of town, Point Grey, but the number of people in the house, as many as eight at a time, keeps the rent low. Plus the house itself is in shambles, one of the last student houses of its kind in the neighbourhood. Most of the others have been torn down and replaced with family homes, families that stare at John and his housemates and wonder what’s wrong, where the parents are, and why caucasian youth seem to age so rapidly. John’s not a student anymore, but he can pass for one and is even younger than some of his housemates, so there are no connotations of predation, at least within the house. But the neighbourhood parents don’t seem to want him anywhere near their children.

At the start of John’s walk, he encounters some of them, well-to-do thirty- and forty-somethings, smugly toeing the line, fulfilling nature’s prerogative, then signing up said prerogatives for extracurriculars. Their small children are, by all appearances, in heaven, totally aloof to the Buddha’s diagnosis of the human condition.

I alone am at fault, John tries to convey with a meek smile, as the mass of baseless pride lodged in his forehead embarrasses even the smallest of the children. They gawk while the parents can only usher them to the opposite edge of the sidewalk, can only wonder what ungodly chance of nature could spawn such a creature. John digs his hands even deeper into his pockets, trying to take up as little of the sidewalk as possible, determined not to light a cigarette till he’s at least off his own street. 

If there is a track, their lives are on it, John thinks.

And yet, there is no envy this time, if only because…John senses nothing magical about them. And John, being a twenty-something millennial prone to mood swings, is all about magic. Whether magic is anything other than the caffeinated whimsy of youth is a question for another time, another phase of one’s life.

John plods on, his pace brisk, and finally reaches a busy strip. West 10th. Lighting his first cigarette of the walk, he employs a steady, vacant gaze to accumulate several small victories over passersby who make the mistake of underestimating him. As he passes a yoga studio, it occurs to him that he will probably never preside over the docile harem that his pedigree would have surely justified in bygone times. That his greatness is not immediately apparent to others seems to accord with the discomfort he feels around men of greater height, strength, ability, and overall life force. These encounters, by no means rare, interrupt, but do not extinguish, John’s distinct sense of being somehow special, somehow great.

He next passes a string of establishments boasting both bars and grills, establishments where skirts are weaponized in the name of shaking what one’s mother has given one, flaunting it if one has it, and, more concretely, paying one’s rent and tuition. But the Skirts never regard John in the same way they regard the other cis hetero male patrons, and John tells himself this is because he isn’t “daddy material.” 

On the outdoor patios, wheat-bellied daddies hush their wives to better hear themselves agree about sports and oil prices. In their satiated eyes, John discerns first the inherited will to dominate, and then, hidden beyond that, the withering, still-born form of the utterly dominated. Beside each pear-shaped patriarch sits the tragic tendency of the dominated to imitate their masters: at the sunburnt age of fifty-something, each wife has become trapped in an uncanny impersonation of her husband.

The sun finally sets.

John Foreskin plods on, passing various hipster cafés where he knows he’d encounter more of his own kind: men hopelessly caffeinated and drowning in entertained possibility as they vent gasses barely visible to the human eye. These café men are a different breed, more wiry and high-strung, far more susceptible to dysentery and yellow fever (and every other ethnophilic fever for that matter), but otherwise brighter and better preserved than their inert patio cousins. Barely able to contain themselves at either end, they, too, set a strong example of what John needs to fear becoming, for with age their skittish momentum becomes more weakness than virtue. They have no business imbibing that much caffeine, let alone with milk and sugar. But they carry on as their bone density decreases, and their inner cheeks become more discoloured from the daily friction of violent wiping. John knows swamp ass to be an epidemic in Vancouver, not just in his own house. But nobody ever speaks of the things that go on in the café bathrooms. They walk into them urgently then walk out, however many minutes later, head held high, without even once confessing the shame that has transpired within, the shame that follows them back to their seats, that lingers in the bathroom, waiting to accost the next visitor. The music and the quaint furniture of these cafés encourage the delusion that this is Paris circa 1929, that one of the loose-bowled Xanders, or Julians, by virtue of his name and his tortoiseshell frames will be the next Sartre or Merleau-Ponty, the delusion that this is capital-c culture. Warmed-up croissants and for-here espresso cups help make it so. But it is all a lie. The sugar content of the cookies betrays the time and place as Post-Colonial Privilege, population: Children of Sin.

Lurking in the darkness, John feels the call of the lighting and the plush leather. He braves isolation though, as he passes one café after another. He knows the ruggedness he strives for can never be achieved by protracted sitting in air-conditioned environments. Nor will sugar (crystalline levity) help lower his hairline.

When he finally veers off the main strip, back towards his own neighbourhood, the female baristas of Vancouver West breathe a collective sigh of relief.  For now, they are safe from John’s prickly, craven glare. John is still twenty-something. He still thinks that women find his mix of eccentricity and inner torment attractive. He has not yet become self-conscious of his particular brand of courtship—his latching on—and so has not yet become ashamed of it. In the coming years, certain interactions with down-to-earth females, invariably of lower blood sugar, will give John the inkling that his schtick is passed expiry, and that serious adult partnerships will require that he bring something other than self-pity and mommy issues to the table.

Closer to home now, down the back lane of West 44th, John Foreskin walks to exhaust himself. He lights another cigarette and begins raking his fingernails across his too-hairy forearms. He is a creature of the night., his audience is at once nowhere and everywhere. If no omen presents itself in the next few seconds, he’ll have to pass by the house like a loser, past the music and boozy chatter, and keep walking until he gets that unmistakable feeling that the night has run its course. 

Suddenly, he sees it. Abandoned. Left out for the taking. An old exercise bike. A relic from the days when men’s socks were longer than their shorts.

From when those patio fucks could still run a mile.

It is John’s now. He can lift it. And it’s only twenty or so meters to the house. 

This is it.

It will be my outlet for when leaving the house feels impossible. 

John will sweat on his own terms now, long before he’s ever left his room, long before the sun can have her way with him, and then again long after his final encounters of the day. He will have his own secret exercises, and the other men in the house will wonder where all of his new vigour has come from. And the women of the house will be the first to notice and the longest to look as his thighs transform into twin promises of stamina and virility. 

As he lugs the bike into the yard, then through the kitchen, John Foreskin thanks God and the Universe that nobody is around to witness the indignity of his labours. He hears them out on the front porch and in the living room, jabbering at high speed, but he ducks down to the basement before any of them notice.

John has completed his quest. He’s sweating and more alive than he’s ever been in his entire life. Removing his shirt, he stands in front of his full-length mirror to confirm his self-image.

Screenwriter, repped by The Tobias Agency.  Editor to novelists and academics. Deeply interested in how we, as individuals and societies, inhabit and shift paradigms. Debut Novel “Good Boy Alchemy” to be published Summer 2023. Twitter @Nick Guthry

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“The Sociopath’s Lament” Fiction by Tim Carter

The Chamber Magazine

I awoke to a shape standing at the foot of my bed. A man-sized figure, black against dim moonlight leaking through floral-print curtains. He was more a vacancy of light than a person, and utterly still.

It was deep into the night. Perhaps 2 AM or later. Somewhere in the house our dog, Noodles, barked furiously. Angela named the little monster and I accept no responsibility for the mutt or the name. He yapped as small dogs do, with much anger but little effect.

He certainly didn’t deter the thing at the foot of my bed. The figure didn’t speak. It took me a few seconds to remember that Angela was visiting family in Portland. The bedroom door was closed, the dog going mad somewhere on the other side.

My heart raced; my body paralyzed with terror. I ran through ways to fight off an intruder. None seemed realistic. I’m only five-foot-six, maybe one hundred and fifty-five pounds. I lay flat on my back, barely awake, betrayed by my own frozen muscles.

He glided up the side of the bed. I couldn’t see his face and it came to mind that he wasn’t a  human intruder at all but a demon. A malevolent spirit with an otherworldly purpose. He laughed softly. Then he was gone. Neither door nor windows moved or made a sound.

I knew then he’d come to haunt me.

Still, I got up, pulled on my robe and checked the house, just in case.

We live in North Burnaby, a quiet suburb on the edge of Vancouver. Successive municipal governments blanketed the place in streetlights. When the wind blows, they conspire with overgrown pines to fill my modest pied-a-terre with moving shadows. It’s an old house, 1950s, the best I could do on a teacher’s salary.

On a good night, the shadows provide amusing distractions. Now they kept my fear at a low simmer, as if to soft boil me, like an egg. Might be I was rattled, too. A burglar would have been a one-off event, cured by the police, insurance, and a few stiff drinks.

This was different. A beginning.

It was Dieter Runge’s fault, the prick. Runge taught film studies and PE at the school where I chaired the English department. I had been thinking about his neck when I fell asleep. Specifically, about my hands around his neck, thick with muscle and fat, squeezing. About the smell of him, sweat soaking up through his grey hoodie and onto my chest as I choked the life out of him.

I often indulged such thoughts while alone in bed. Runge wore a stopwatch on a cord around his neck, a badge of manliness or something similarly toxic. Sometimes, for variety, I used the cord to garrotte him. Getting both hands inside the loop and twisting, hard, until his life flowed into nothing. Mostly, though, I preferred a more personal narrative. There was something uniquely exciting to his bare, tuna-steak flesh under my fingers.

I had fallen asleep with this film running in my head, my very own pornographic masterpiece of murder. Somehow, in the moment of transition between waking and oblivion, the fantasy must have opened a portal. A door to a darker place that allowed a demon to slip into my bedroom. Maybe even invited him.

So ok, it was probably more my fault than Dieter’s. But he was still a prick. The kind of man who’d been bullying his peers since he was six years old, when a growth spurt and an affinity for junk food had first given him an advantage. He had this way of standing too close to you even when you weren’t arguing, making the point that he was bigger and stronger.

Besides, I’ve never known a PE teacher who wasn’t a tyrant. A certain insecurity-driven assholeness is practically cooked into the job description.

At this point, I hadn’t actually strangled anyone. Not for real. Some people are haunted by what they’ve done. I was haunted by what I wanted to do.

Which made the demon doubly terrifying. Because how could I defend myself? You can control your actions. You’re responsible for your actions. Nobody controls their desires. The heart wants what it wants, as Emily Dickenson or Selena Gomez will tell you.

Neither daylight nor professional boundaries inhibited my demon. He followed me to work, watching me from under a reaper’s jet-black hood, eerily motionless at the end of a long, brightly lit corridor. The school’s fluorescent lighting was no match for his impenetrable darkness.

Students crowded around him, oblivious. I wondered if he was in my head. The prospect did not make him any less terrifying.

Kids today are punks. Clog a hallway with a hundred of them and you’ll find dozens of twisted souls. Probably more. The shit on their phones alone would turn your hair grey. Incest fantasy porn and CGI dismemberment scenes barely scratch the surface. It didn’t matter.

He wasn’t there for them.

He was there for me.

I’m not brave. If he’d asked for something, I’d have done it. He scared the crap out of me, dark and silent and knowing. That was the worst of it. The unspoken realization that he knew everything. It left me naked, my dreadful secrets laid bare, like snakes on a stone floor with nowhere to hide.

Angela returned that night. After so many years, there’s a threshold for how long she has to be gone before I miss her. A week is about right, and that was dead-on this time.

I was hoping her return would chase him away. We had a nice dinner. Afterwards we began to make love.

I felt him before I saw him, watching us over a bedside sconce. Angela’s skin warmed under my fingers, and he began to whisper. Not words I could comprehend, but something. A demonic mantra, maybe. Low, urgent, and demanding. A perfect echo of my desire.

Turned on, Angela responded to my touch, and usually that’s enough to get me going. Now, though, fear and hunger fed my arousal like wind into a bonfire. Each gust pushed the flames, and they in turn sucked harder. Lust hit me like a low-voltage current, curling my fingers and making my heart stutter. I buried my face in Angela’s shoulder so she wouldn’t see my cheek twitching.

I wanted to bite her, to taste blood, to push a forearm into her trachea and feel the way she moved when she couldn’t breathe. Less rhythmic, almost twitchy with excitement. That’s how I got my taste for it. It’s probably why I married her. I pinned her down and she gasped. She couldn’t hear the whispering, but she felt the effects and shuddered in anticipation.

I didn’t dare go further. There’s a line I never crossed, not in how far I went but in how I felt about it in the moment. Fall into that kind of love and you’ll never dig yourself out.

So ultimately it was unsatisfying. Like an alcoholic taking a single sip of communion wine. My demon’s whispers rose and fell with Angela’s orgasm, both tinged with disappointment.

The demon disappeared after we finished. But not for long. From that point onward he was never gone for long. I’d catch him following me. Or sometimes leading, since naturally he knew where I was going. I started looking for him when I left the house, but that only made it worse. The act of looking itself put him in my mind, a haunting by a haunting.

Desperate, I accompanied Angela to church. I’m a sporadic worshipper at best. Angela’s a regular and she was pleased. By then I was willing to try anything.

I might not be devout, but I believe. I hoped God might help. What a joke. The bastard demon walked right past me, up the stairs and into the church. I halfway expected him to hold the heavy oak door for one of the old ladies that made up most of our congregation.

I refused to be intimidated. Or to acknowledge it, anyway. Instead, I prayed. It didn’t help. They were just words thrown into a vacuum. We’re Anglicans, which is nice and all, but far too feeble for a demon situation. I needed Southern Baptists, or some crazy-as-hell Pentecostal lunatics with fire and brimstone and a screaming preacher speaking in tongues to even hope to make a dent.  

Instead, I had Father McGee. Kindly and fat, he excelled at holding the hands of the dying, and his brownies cleaned up at bake sales. He was no help to me at all.

Brazen as all hell, my demon made himself comfortable at the end of my pew. Multicolored rays of light from the stained-glass windows disappeared into him as the sun rose. Like he was sucking piety with a straw and never getting full.

Anglicans aren’t big on confession, but it’s an option. I figured I’d try. Maybe Father McGee could refer me to someone more qualified, or at least more fearsome.

I slipped into the booth. The gate slid open with a harsh snap of wood striking wood and, naturally, the fucking demon leaned in from the other side. The audacity of it gave me a momentary flash of courage.

“You can’t judge me. You of all people. I haven’t done anything. I haven’t done anything.” 

I could see his face now. Familiar, but black as if burned, with dark eyes that didn’t blink.

“Desires aren’t sins. And I don’t feel guilty. Not a bit.”

His smile answered for him. He didn’t believe a word of it. I might as well have been talking to myself.

“Well, fuck you then. I’ll go to a shrink. He’ll listen. The more I talk, the stronger the prescription. And that’ll be the end of it. And of you, too.”

He gave a small, knowing tilt of his head. Calling my bluff. It’s hard to lie to someone who knows your secrets. More than knows, who collects them. Hoards them like rare truffles still smelling of dirt and rot. He casually slid the gate closed, as if bored.

As we drove home, my fear and paranoia grew deeper, richer. My hands shook. Angela asked if I’d had too much coffee. What could I tell her?

He started to visit me in my dreams. I would be giving a lecture on Twelfth Night and realize I was in pyjamas, old flannel ones with stains, and the whole class was laughing. He sat at the back or leaned casually on a shelf filled with old textbooks.

I slept less and less, and the world became fuzzy around the edges. Angela cancelled a painting retreat on a small island off the coast, a favourite for her, out of love and concern.

It was no help. He was with me always.

I could feel a breaking point approaching. I’d eat breakfast or step into a class, and I’d want to scream, to run, to tear out my hair. Anything to make him go away, or even just to be cloaked again for a while, to make my secrets secret again. Instead, I’d sip my tea or open a textbook with shaking hands and fake normalcy as best I could.

It happened, finally, in a kind of waking dream. It started with Noodles, once again losing her goddamn mind at two in the morning. This time Angela was fast asleep beside me.

At least I wasn’t paralysed, and I didn’t want him in the bedroom. Some small shred of decency compelled me to leave Angela out of it. I pulled on the robe and a pair of slippers and left.

The bedroom door opened not into my living room, but instead a school hallway, pitch black, trapped like me in the wasting hours of the night. The waning moon left the building dark and silent, but for the whispering.

I fled, down the hallway and around a corner and then another. The school was a maze that didn’t end. Running was pointless, but that’s dreams for you.

I grabbed a locker to help me turn, the slippers being less than ideal for escaping demons. My hand came away sticky and I saw that it was covered in blood. That I was covered in blood, as if dipped into a deep vat, as if I’ve fallen down a deep and sunless well of crimson.

I stumbled, leaving rusty red smears on doorknobs and lockers, half-slipping footprints trailing back to the black, pursuing shape of the thing.

The whispers invaded my brain and I understood them for the first time. Like tentacles of thought wrapping through grey matter, they wanted to pry me into two. Here, my desires. Naked, shameful, repellant and yet thirsty. So thirsty. Over there my conscience, horrified and covered in blood and aroused and horrified anew to be turned on so. An unsustainable Escher drawing of desire and repulsion.

As the one became two, I had to choose. I couldn’t be both. The demon whispered his advice and I took it, clinging to desire at the expense of all else. I guess you could call it fate.

My disassociated twin ran beside me. Two men, both in plaid robes, pelting down school corridors with torment hard on our heels.

I regressed. Fight or flight, kill or be killed. I threw an elbow, knocking my conscience into the monster’s path. Better him than me.

He slipped and hit the floor, but to my dismay the demon refused to do my dirty work. My other half clawed his way up and closed on me, neck and neck with the demon. I couldn’t tell you which I feared most.

It seemed for a moment that they merged. That somehow, that was the secret. My demon and my conscience were one.

In that flash of insight, I turned and tackled my blood-soaked other half. I expected him to be ghostlike, ephemeral. Instead, the impact shuddered all the way down my spine.

We slid across the linoleum floor in a tangled mess. I took the wind out of him, though, and so ended on top. I kept him flat on his back, my full weight on his chest. I found his throat with my hands and clamped down. How could I know that this would be my first real killing?

He struggled desperately and I took a little pride in that. I could admire him even though I knew he had to go. I wish I could tell you I felt remorse, but that would be a lie. I needed to end it, and this was how.

The light went out of his eyes slowly, like sliding a dimmer switch down to the final notch.

You can’t make friends with your demons. That’s a myth. But you can come to a livable arrangement. Once I’d made the sacrifice, the terror dissipated. I miss him, my other half. I know I should feel sad. Or guilty. I don’t. I guess in the end, that’s what I’ve lost.

But you can’t live in terror your whole life. You’d surely go mad.

Tim Carter is a writer of stories, video games, film and TV.  He is known for MORTAL KOMBAT: LEGACY, the DEAD RISING series of movies, and the award-winning video game SLEEPING DOGS. He lives in Vancouver, Canada with his wife, two dogs, and a disgruntled cat.