“Aperture” Sci-Fi Horror by Dan A. Cardoza

“That building across the street is another Freedom Tower, Carl, take a look at all the glass in front. See how the facade looks like a skinny pyramid, or a spaceship being launched?” Carl passes the fumes of a nearly empty gallon of Carlo Rossi back to his street friend Andy.

“Here dude, you need this more than me.”

Andy takes the last pull from the jug and wipes the cheap burgundy off his cracked lips, “You got to open up your mind, Carl-o.”

~~~

Part of controlling someone is telling them, “No one else will ever love you.”

After they got married, Jack would often say, “Even if you were lucky enough to find someone to replace me, in time, they’ll turn into a monster too.” At first it was sex and smoking in bed. Chloe believed everything Jack ever said. 

When they’d finally married, started out, Chloe never asked for the perfect apartment. But, here it was, and it was theirs, 52 East End Avenue, Number 39, New York, 10028, on the Upper East Side. 

They’d been awed by the panoramic view of the city, the East River, Brooklyn all from their small patio. 

The apartment occupies the entire 39th floor of the building. The building is a modest 82 stories that points into the sky. 82 is the same number of moons that circle Jupiter.  

It’s something he wanted to purchase, not Jupiter, the building, and the Subaru telescope on Maunakea, Hawaii.

When they’d bought their 2,700 sq ft. apartment, they’d noticed all fine artisanship and amenities. They especially the admired how the common living area featured an open, eat-in kitchen. Chloe had loved the casual dining, “It’s like Paris.” Each room is a jewel with an exquisite view. 

They loved how the wrought-ironed fenced-in patio offered vistas as far as any telescope dreamed, up and down the East River. It was perfect for dawn and the sun, moonscapes, and the chivalry numbness of winter.

Come winter, Chloe fancied herself on a chair on the patio, listening to the built-in decibels of the alabaster snowflakes, each snowflake a gift from a dark cloud. 

The living space, where the so-called living gets done, offers a breathtaking view of the Brooklyn skyline across the back of the silver scaled East River. On a clear day, you can bend your

eyes around the corner far enough to view the Freedom Tower. Freedom and self-discovery is what Chloe had been promised when they’d married. 

Chloe’s childhood is in the Hampton’s, where it remains, and in Paris, in a meager flat her parents still own. Chloe is quite sophisticated but she’s not of the personage to display it. He finds that quite appealing.

The flat in Paris offers a view of Rue de Monnttessuy Avenue. The Rue intersects a street, just a block away from that skyrocket, the Eiffel Tower. Most of the family still summers in Paris.

Jack and Chloe met in college, Harvard, Boston. Jack paid his way by skimming the books of a moving company. He’s smart, received a degree in Operations Management in the high tech industry.

Today, Jack works for one of the top tech companies in all of New York. It’s headquartered in Lower Manhattan, near Broad and Wall next to where all the green gigabytes are stored. 

Chloe received an unassuming Masters of Arts Degree in Education. Chloe worked in Harlem, with the disadvantaged, grades 4 and 6. Her life was this low-paying teaching gig that she’d loved. 

Notwithstanding, Jack requested Chloe quit her job, a request fraught with the burden of cognitive dissonance on her part. He’d said he could advance his career if only his charming wife were at his side or at home in the luxury apartment. Stratospheric advancement, even a board membership was in reach of his ever-growing tentacles. She could have said no. 

But, she really loved Jack, not so much his politics, or the smell of decay from his eroding character. 

It wasn’t long before the couple had become perfumed in the stink of wealth. Jack grew dour. Wealth hadn’t filled his worldly appetite, nor did pot, meth, or heroin. 

This Jack guy, this new corporate Jack, was the same guy who’d screwed Chloe’s brains out all night under a collision of sexy stars in the Boston Commons Park. Security had to remove them. They were damned near knotted and stuck together. It was after 3:00 AM before they had to leave. Jack loved Chloe. Chloe loves Jack, but less each day.

Everyone supported the lovely couple’s choices, including Chloe’s dwindling number of friends and her family. Jack had made sure of that. He’d provided her with everything she’d wanted, except a baby.

Chloe flops on the toilet to wiz. Her knees pleasantly stick together from Gucci Bloom Body Oil. She places her feet about a foot apart, barefoot toes pointed in. She’s model gorgeous. She’s holding a long cigarette between her fingers. It’s a Newport 100. She looks up at the exhaust fan in the ceiling as it adjusts the zoom. The tiny camera remains hidden behind the quickening blade passion. It takes pictures. It switches to video capacity, as the exhaust fan chops Chloe’s beautiful face into segments. It will practically drool over cut up clips later that night. Chloe imagines the walls having eyes.

Chloe lifts her delicate chin and bellows smoke into the fan in the ceiling. Chloe stands and swishes her paisley shirt as if she’s doing the Tango with a ceiling ghost. She flushes the commode, neglects the bidet, and saunters out of the bathroom suite. 

A few of the screenshots he’s taken look promising. Maybe he’ll print out her face and nail it to his headboard, along with the other subjects.

There were formal Thanksgiving’s, spring vacations, back at the Hampton’s, and France of course, so that Chloe could catch up with everyone. Jack had found creative excuses for leaving their time together. He was always in demand somewhere, somewhere was always more important.

Each year, Jack made it more difficult for Chloe to recreate. Chloe missed her family, but she remained loyal to her skittered marriage.

Chloe had felt alone during the end of year holidays. Her husband had been away. It was just her and the snow in Upper Manhattan. A private birthday on a yacht along the East River in previous fall, their wonderful view out every window, their envious life, hadn’t been enough to fill her inside. Chloe felt she’d be less lonely if she were a shadow on the backside of the moon. She needed something more, it needed something more, his production was tanking.

One day, Chloe felt as if she could walk on water, right across the East River into Brooklyn. After all, she’d gotten the news that she was pregnant. Jack wasn’t at all happy, but he hadn’t rebuked her as usual. She was only human after all. So she’d missed a period or two, sometimes forgetting her birth control, he’d forgive her. 

Her smile had returned. Her tomorrow’s were growing deep inside her. And then–and then in a matter of three years, she’d lost two nearly full-term babies, Amy and Josh. Chloe imagined her womb a turnstile of death and destruction. She and Jack had searched long and hard to find Babyland at Pinelawn. It was the perfect setting, a Memorial Park in New York City singularly for the unborn, infants and children. It was one of the few places Chloe felt comfortable visiting.

Her obstetrician had said, “Chloe, it’s your Endometriosis. We’ve been over this before. Our extensive imaging has revealed that the only thing growing inside you are tenticles.”

“You make it sound so alien, Doctor,” Chloe had said.

“Shall I refer you to a psychiatrist? Medication can do wonders. And, Chloe, there have been so many advances of late.”

Chloe had shaken her head back and forth, implying no! But she’d said, “Yea, sure.”  

“Here’s her number, take it. Her name is Dr. Camille Stone. By the way, Camille means perfect in French. She owes me. Give her a call, Chloe.” 

Each level of the building, each room overlooking the beautiful East River has eyes, millions and millions of lenses, impossibly so. Most of the lenses are low voltage, and consume infinitesimal bits of electricity. Every tiny camera is state of the art, distance, zoom, high def. Each monocle is wired to record on a designated DVR. Each DVR sits on a stand in his large, air-conditioned studio. The room’s thermostat is set at a perfect 33 degrees. There’s a lot to keep track of, but he’s very intelligent and up to the task, up there. 

Each DVR saves limitless imagery: Credit card and banking account numbers, medical records, debit card pins. Each and every prying camera gorges itself until satiated on eBay, and Twitter accounts. He’s gotten to know just about everyone in the building quiet well.

After months of therapy and the right combinations of medication, Chloe seems less anxious. She thinks more clearly and has feelings again. That gnawing angst that has paralyzed her appetite has all but disappeared, at least for now. She’s gotten her weight back. Chloe chooses to read a lot. She enjoys staring out the patio door glass, onto the East River, and Brooklyn, and into the skyline that seems to blur itself into another universe. 

Chloe has been accused of turning the plush modern sofa and the glass coffee table next to it into her personal office space, as if it mattered. And Jack isn’t kidding. His work doesn’t pay him for having a sense of humor.

One evening, after Chloe’s fixed Jack a wonderful dinner, she thought to chill in her designated landing space. She’d molded herself into a comfortable piece of clay on the gorgeous grey sofa. She fingered the mouse on her notebook as if it were her sensitive clit. She’d been given a new Lenovo ThinkPad, P15s, Gen 1-15.6. Somehow the electronic pheromones that it emits feel crazy good to Chloe. 

Seasons laser across the patio door’s glass in the same direction as the East River, west. Nothing stays the same in New York City, including the years. Everything outside the patio’s large window seems to lust in direction of the cities harbor and into the Atlantic Ocean. The invisible wind, the sun, the clumsy dim-witted moon, all head west, month after month, out to the sea. Sometimes Chloe feels like moving along too in the direction of permanence.

Chloe exits her custom-built shower. It’s stereo surround sound in an onyx enclosure. The owner purchased the bath marble from the Carrara quarry in Italy. It’s the same quarry Michelangelo release David from. The dreamy shower is the size of a new Mercedes Benz, with all its whistles and bells. 

Chloe straight arms the bathroom counter and stoops over the rim of the golden sink. She attempts to wipe away the steam on the mirror. She does this until her patch is mostly a circle and squeaky clean. She can see herself clearly through an opening she’s created. The opening view captures her lovely, vulnerable body. She cups her full breasts, still aching from her last miscarriage. Her nipples are pink spring rosebuds. Their darkness has dissipated. He’s dying inside, behind the mirror, to kiss each bud into bloom. He needs the numbers back home for the council. He has to procreate.

She presses closer as if to disappear into the mirror. There is a lovely pout on her lips as if her reflection is a new lover. He knows what she is thinking, says inside his skull, “It won’t be long, pretty.”

He stiffens his back as if he’s just had a hit of cocaine. He does everything he can to keep from igniting. There are times when the male gender can feel out of control. 

Chloe moves out of view to fetch a luxurious towel. She doesn’t know how close he’s come to breaking the glass and entering her world.

~~~

Chloe has a diagnosis, one Jack isn’t sold on. She’s suffering from post-partum depression. Chloe disagrees and thinks post-partum depression is simply an expensive word you pay psychiatrists to pronounce. She quits therapy, and cancels any future psychiatry appointments. 

Once she’s out of medicine, she takes over-the-counter Tylenol. Tylenol seems to work as well as Effexor. Actually, anything works. And so, she quits eating, again. At least Tylenol fills her stomach.

Defenseless, Chloe invites her morbid thoughts into her mind. It is in there, crawling around in the fissures. She can’t control the sensation, which is becoming an aphrodisiac. She wants to feel it. 

It slithers on the scales of its belly ribs, and enters her thoughts. Iprobes, using its coiled fullness. It squirms and wriggles inside the folds of her gray matter, searching and waiting for the wetness. She grows completely comfortable, vulnerable to its girth and the fact that it exists in her thoughts. 

They’d first meet on the elevator, the 39th floor, Chloe and the apartment complex owner. He was headed out of the building for the day. Chloe was off to her cute restaurant in the basement, the Cafe Chez Marie. She was dying for fresh coffee. This had been back in her teaching days.

“You are 39,” he quips. Chloe blushes and peaks up at his platinum hair. He is tall. He’s is as handsome as any model she thinks. He looks forward to meeting her husband. They share the usual introductory chitchat, but there’s something else going on here.

Later that evening in his expansive studio, he reviews the elevator video. He intermittently captures a screenshot and then Wi-Fi’s the pic over to the printer, over and over again. He uses a ruler to measure the distance between their hands when they’d clutched the guard rail in the elevator, on their way down to the lobby. 

At the 1.02 point of action, he notices both of their hands gripping the elevator rail. He measures the distance. Their hands were exactly 23 inches apart when the elevator started. By the time the video’s action clip reaches 1.42 minutes, he measures the distance again.  He’s determined that the distance between their hands had shortened to 17 inches by the time the elevator landed on the lobby floor.

Based on his calculations, Chloe’s hands had moved 5 inches in his direction. He smiles. He’s a chic magnet. He can almost smell the wetness of a new spawn.

It’s the third of March, almost spring. Chloe is browsing: Pinterest, Google, and something familiar on YouTube.  It’s this guy who repairs and repurposes furniture. She’s been intrigued and impressed with his imagination and creativity. As a distraction, she’d booked a few of his videos. She loves Haden the Handyman.  Haden’s channel is all about refinishing vintage furniture, and all the care and sanding that goes with handling raw wood. Repurposing feels right to Chloe somehow. 

Chloe stumbles around on her computer, and trips over a new URL. 

It’s as if someone or something is controlling her Google searches. She happens upon a men’s cologne add. It is for Creed Aventus Eau De Parfum 100ml. The imp in her wants to taste the model’s skin. He’s posed in black silk P.J.’s while sitting back in a leather chair in his master bedroom suite. 

Directly behind him is an open black window in the background.  Chloe imagines the background a celestial slate board rift with chalky bits of stars. Something inside her wants to enter his world out there.

His pajama top is unbuttoned. Luxurious fur runs the distance from below his navel to the beginning of his throat. He’s smirking at Chloe. She knows it. He’s looking straight through her.  His hair is not so much silver-white platinum, but rather quaffed liquid mercury. Chloe’s nipples harden and pulse with life. Her skin is a river of goosebumps. 

It’s only a start, but Chloe gets up and walks over to Jack, who’s working at the kitchen table again. She hesitantly taps him on the shoulder. Jack has brought work home he’s focused on, and so it takes a while for Jack to respond. He has a good reason to be distracted. Jack turns to Chloe. Chloe gestures at her notebook. Jack makes that clicking sound again, using the disgust he so often finds between his tongue and teeth.

Jack goes back to his laptop screen.

It watches and records.

Chloe drifts back to her accusatory office.

Not long after, Chloe is pleasantly surprised to discover Jack watching over her shoulder. Just maybe, she thinks, Jack will display some interest in this little nothing YouTube channel she’s discovered. It’s not like she wants to start a furniture repair business. She simply likes the idea of making something old turn newish again. She would like to share this with her husband.

Jack turns sour and says, “Ok Honey, furniture repair is unrealistic. The upfront cost alone certainly doesn’t justify the expense. Jack thumbs the stubbles on his chin, his new compulsion. “Chloe, what in the hell do you know about refurbishing vintage furniture? Jack demands.  

Not waiting for an answer, Jack stomps back to his office at the aquamarine table.

The gorgeous dining room light, not quite grown a grown up chandelier, seems to warm the space, unlike its cold mini cameras that continue to watch the scene unfold.

Chloe gets up and slides the patio door wide open, next the screen door. She’s flushed and needs comforting, stands a minute, looks up into the stars. 

After, she walks back to her intimate sofa, leaving the patio doors wide open. Chloe curls her socked feet under her rump. The same gorgeous rump Jack couldn’t keep his well manicured hands-off so very long ago. 

Chloe gets up again, this time she walks in the direction of the second bath, near the elegant front door. Jack imagines her peeing, maybe crying again on the toilet, boohoo. But Jack’s mostly busy looking at a work email from a friend. His laptop wants Jack to Google skydiving deaths. Jack has deadlines to meet, God-damn it. Doesn’t anyone understand? 

Chloe slowly returns to the sofa and sits. She looks long and hard at the moon. It’s platinum too. She insists on lettering the wind blow west in the direction of change. The opaque darkness and loneliness on the East River have never looked so beautiful.

A half-hour drifts into an hour. Jack searches and searches the entire house. Jack needs to remind Chloe how much pressure he’s been under lately, and how upsetting the thought of her new adventures have become to him, all stupid one day purchases, refinishing, sanding, and glazing. And those damned sales, just to get rid of a shit-load of wooden inventory nobody wants anymore. Jack’s mind is headed for a car wreck.

Chloe had no intention to open a refinishing business. Chloe had simply attempted to communicate with Jack, perhaps work on saving their marriage by sharing something, anything. All she wanted to do was to make sure they were still human, and not following out of love?

Jack walks out onto the patio. It’s freezing cold. She’s never left the door wide open before. Jack looks over the patio railing, straight down at the buildings flashing blue lights. Jack imagines the lights spinning clockwise, blue lights of madness. He’s a horrified child again, stuck on a shaky Farris wheel.  

Jack refuses the uptake of reasonable thought. He tromps back inside, grabbing the patio door handle. He slides the door shut with a smack and locks it tight, unlocks it and locks it again.

Jack backs away from the patio door a few steps.  Next, he becomes transfixed at his computer screens reflection in the glass panel, the stack of emails.  He looks beyond the reflection into the impending darkness. His wife has committed suicide. Jack begins to dial 911 and hesitates. 

In the windows reflection, Jack’s cursor is pulsating manically. The cursor, like the police cars lights, has turned cobalt blue. Everything is cobalt blue through Jack’s new crazy looking glass. Jack feels as though he has the spade of hearts stuck in his throat. He’s going to have to face everything alone now.

Who’s going to believe he hadn’t pushed her over the railing? Who’s going to download his Google searches? After all, Jack’s night hasn’t been all work. 

Jack’s searches: How to best divorce your wife so she won’t take all you money. Pushing someone to their death/top ten dating sites/how to cheat the bitch out of her alimony? /how to tell your new love how much you hate children?/the deadly effects of Ricin?

Jack mulls over an email he’d received from a government attorney he knows, Mr. Tom Jennings. Mr. Jennings works for the Securities and Exchange Commission. “Heads up dude, call me in the morning, you’re going to be indicted for fraud and insider trading.”

Jack had opened and closed the email over an hour ago. 

The cameras are viewing Jack’s behavior in real-time. Someone or something already knows the 411.

Jack’s hands feel clammy and sweaty. His guts are wriggling eels. He’s got acid electricity reflux. Epinephrine car jacker’s are running red lights through the intersections of his synapse. 

Jack fixes his eyes on the patio door handle. His fingerprints overlap Chloe’s. It’s obvious who shut the door after Chloe jumped. Jack has an urge to wipe the prints clean. But that’s tampering with evidence. Jack chooses not to wipe. How about becoming a fox, and opening the lock with a butter knife? But that makes little difference. 

Jack is saddened by a long buried thought. He remembers how his older brother had gotten himself written out of his mother’s trust fund. How Thomas had embarrassed her and tarnished the family name. 

Jack is too aware of all the forensic evidence stored on his company’s hard drive, as well as well as somewhere far away in a data farm in Iowa or out in the Ethernet.

Jack’s laptop is stingy, it is holding back those sexy pictures of his hotel tryst, an affair he had affair with a coworker named Andromeda. The undercover photos had been taken and sent to Jack just like the shit-load of other incriminating emails. A private detective he’d hired had traced the emails to the Public Library on 66th street. From there, any further evidence had disappeared into some kind of black hole.

Jack and Chloe had recently upped their life insurance payout totals. 

Jack opens the patio door again. His face is swollen and numb. His hands bloody from clinching his fists. He shuffles forward over the threshold into another world. Jack presses up against the rail, never thinking to look up again. His fingernails splinter against the iron rail like hickory kindling cut with a hatchet. Jack loses control of the steering wheel nearly half way down to his death.

Chloe Rings his doorbell. He takes the longest time to open his ornate entrance, not wanting to appear too anxious. He peaks through the vertical slit between the door and door jam, created by the hallway lighting.

Chloe blurts out, “What is that smell in your apartment?” 

“I’m so very sorry,” he says, “I’ll open a window, come in. As he pivots in the direction of his massive studio, he adjusts his sclera from black to white, and turns off the ultrasonic sound.

 Chloe says, “No, no, I didn’t mean…I love the scent of furniture wax.” 

“39, follow me, take a quick look.” he insists. It loves control more than Jack ever imagined. Building worlds is in his wheelhouse. 

It contemplates how the building’s complex has been blessed in a honeycomb of planned cells. Each cell a prismatic hexagonal chamber of wax meant for the incubation of mammalian larva. 

In the expansive craft room, rest a pair of Antique French Nightstands. He refers to them as French Provincial Cane Bedside Tables.

Chloe stands mesmerized, as the building’s ownerexplains how the nightstands had been a bargain on eBay, costing only $4,995.00. The special furniture polishing wax is meant to be the finishing touch on the restoration project.

Chloe marvels how he’s going to give the two antiques to Goodwill Industries for their annual fundraiser raffle. Jack never gave anything of himself away.

Time is of the essences in the vast preparation room. It is a sexual monster and it shows.

Before Chloe knows it, she’s nearly chatted an hour away. There’s certain numbness around her swollen lips, this feeling of heaviness clear up into her tummy. It’s a good feeling though, she thinks, not a bad one. She’s pregnant.  

With Jasmine, the modern on level 24, it had been more difficult. A full 2 hours had been needed, she was insatiable. Jasmine loves cooking, the smell of basil. 

And Theresa, 18, last August, the perfume of espresso had lured her into his masterful, foul stickiness. Theresa’s downfall had been her lust for his La Marzocco Linea Mini Espresso Machine. Theresa is two months away from her birthing.

He had become well acquainted with Chloe, but, he’d taken his time to get to know her, like all the rest. After all, he reads everyone’s emails, and monitors there phone calls.  And he knows so much more his assigned city. 

He thanks Chloe for stopping over.

After the coupling, he walks Chloe back to the elevator. She admires the tall, dark and handsome stranger, as he gently places her finger on the 39th floor button.  

Later, it will retire to the studio and pleasure himself over the day’s recorded videos. 

He’ll watch the one with Chloe in the elevator and observe closely how she erotically sniffs at her armpits while on the ride down to her floor. It imagines she finds her new scent quite zesty. It slobbers as she touches her cheeks with her silken hands, cups one of her firming breasts. She’sblushing fuchsia. Iwatches as she tugs at her Cashmere sweaters V-neck, admiring her cleavage and dampness. How she waves her hands over her face, stoking the fires of submission.

Chloe Exits the elevator and slowly walks up to her apartment door. She unlocks it and enters. Chloe closes the thick door quietly. She then engages the deadbolt. She dares not disturb Jack, She’s sure he is still busy at work.

Chloe thinks this the beginning of the better part of her life. 

It observes Chloe as she anxiously walks through the empty living space directly to the patio. She senses something alarming. At the patio she presses up against the railing and looks down. 

It claws at an itch on the edge of a wing. Its brain is a fevered swamp of new life.

Chloe looks down at all the flashing blue lights. This time, the blue lights are police cars, not the flashing blue lights that warn pedestrians as a driver exists the underground parking. The signaling blue lights are meant to warn the homeless they are about to get run over. The building owner is delighted that the exit is dangerous, thus driving the homeless to camp across the street. 

Her actions tell it that she is relieved. 

Chloe walks back to her favorite sofa. She sits and thinks. Chloe dials 911. Of all her senses, her sense of smell is the most heightened. Everything molecule in her world is Carnauba wax and Google baby clothes. 

Several stories up, in its studio, it continues to watch Chloe. It has met his world’s projected monthly quota. Soon, there will be a new one of them, and then Chloe’s disposal.

It is a rock star. Its appetite is insatiable. Its numbers are tops again. There will be another bonus. It is just one of many across the Promised Land. Who needs a spacecraft to create a new planet?

It smells more like a bat than artificial intelligence. It wishes it had teeth and didn’t have to suck like a leach. It hangs upside down, more than it crawls. It needs to procreate. It is looking over your shoulder. It is becoming a God of a new planet, his assigned city, The Big Apple.

“Andy, maybe you’re correct about that pointing spaceship Building. From the looks it,” Carl points across the street as FDNY hoses down the messy sidewalk, “I think one of your aliens dropped out of the sky last night.”


Dan’s most recent darkness has been published by Aphelion, BlazeVOX, Black Petals, Blood Moon Rising Magazine, Bull, Chilling Tales for Dark Nights Podcast, Cleaver, Close to the Bone, Coffin Bell, Dark City Books, Entropy, HorrorAddicts.net, Mystery Tribune, Suspense Magazine, The Yard Crime Blog, Variant, The 5-2.  Dan has been nominated for Best of the Net and best micro-fiction. 


“Blue Genie” Horror by Robb White

Part 1: Lottery Ticket

Rebecca rounded the corner of Giant Eagle’s main entrance to check out the produce. She had  white bean soup for dinner in mind, although leeks weren’t her favorite recipe item. No matter how much they were washed, grains of sand wound up at the bottom of the bowl. 

The voice behind her jarred her out of her cooking reverie, thrusting her into one worse:  Eleanor Ragsdale, her one-time best friend, looked at her with scrunched-up face behind the shopping cart where a chubby toddler waved around a piece of paper and screamed, “Mommy! Boo-gee-gee, boo-gee-gee!”

“Hello, Becky.”

“Hey there, Ellie.”

They wore matching frowns. These rare but always awkward meetings in public always distressed Rebecca, reminding her of her losses: the husband and family she never had.

“Everything OK, hon? You made such a sour face I thought a tarantula jumped out of a bunch of bananas.”

Rebecca forced a smile. “Ah, I see you brought your helper.”

The child’s name—what was it? Some clever-cutesy thing.

“Boo-gee-gee!” the child howled.

“Blue Gee-nie, Rainbow, Blue Gee-nie.”

Blue Genie?

Eleanor’s face, never her strongest feature, bloomed with pride; her expansive bosom beneath the double chin was, she suspected, the main reason why Bill had been lured away just before senior prom. Acid reflux shot up her esophagus every time.

The child thrust a paper at her.

“Becky, Bow wants you to have it.”

Rebecca leaned down to the child’s level. “Thank you for the lovely picture.”

Hardly lovely . . . A genie caricature, not Disney’s Aladdin, either—huge teeth, jet-black goatee and matching spit curl peeking beneath a turban cinched with a ruby pendant. Rainbow’s genie leered at her with a stare that tracked owing to his bulging eyes. The asymmetrical nose and mouth had been applied by stickers. Rainbow’s work. The whole cockeyed alignment made him more sinister. 

The little girl shifted buttocks in the cart, releasing noise followed by gaseous vapor.

“I farted!”

“Yes, you did, honey-bunny.”

Rainbow kicked her mother’s thighs, yelled: “Mommy, go! Cu’cakes!”

“Say ‘You’re welcome’ to the nice lady, so we can get you a yummy cupcake.”

That elicited a mini-tantrum.  

“Shush, Bow, sweetie, we’re going!”

Mugging for her friend, Eleanor delivered an eye-rolling visage of an overwhelmed parent accompanied by a theatrical sigh. “Sometimes I envy you single women. I really do.”

Mother and daughter headed to the bakery section. Eleanor gave her child a smooch on her mop of curls. Rebecca burned with a pang of envy.  She clutched the child’s blue-faced genie, her meager crumb from a feast she’d never enjoy.

A clerk behind a counter where razors, tobacco, and matches were sold along with lottery tickets muttered “Good luck” to a customer. She’d never bought a lottery ticket in her life, not even when the country was consumed with lottery fever after a massive jackpot. Something propelled her toward the window.

“What’ll it be?”

A placard behind the clerk showed penciled-in sums for the Powerball and Mega Millions drawings. Staggering figures: 67 million and 118 million.

“Ma’am?”

“Sorry,” Rebecca replied, “is there one for less money than those two?”

“Wow, that’s a first.”

“What is?”

“Somebody wanting less money. Well, there’s Ohio Classic. A lousy hundred grand.”

“OK.”

“Brought your lucky genie with you, huh?”

Rebecca’s face turned hot. She didn’t realize she’d placed Rainbow’s picture on the counter.

“I’ll take that one, the last one you said.”

“Auto play?”

Rebecca had no idea what that meant.  “Yes.”

“One dollar.”

Ticket in one hand, genie in the other, she abandoned any idea of food. When a customer’s cart triggered the automatic doors, she fled. 

* * *

Part 2: Make a Wish

Nothing for supper the last two nights but Mac & Cheese and a can of Chef Boyardee’s spaghetti. Replacing the bundle of celery in its row, she dug out the ticket from the bottom of her purse and walked over to the same counter she’d purchased the ticket.

The clerk behind the counter was different and seemed intent on ignoring her. Becky noticed the ticket scanner at the end of the counter. A small rectangle of LCD screen above the laser scanner beamed digitized joy: “Welcome! Place Ticket Here.”

She inserted it. Nothing happened. She was about to crumple the ticket and toss it into the receptacle next to the magazine kiosk when the clerk grimaced at her, said, “Put the barcode inside the viewfinder, ma’am.”

Becky’s face flushed; she immediately reversed the ticket.

What happened next came out of dream time that slowed everything to a molasses crawl. Bells clanged, party whistles whooped, and the tiny machine proclaimed in a tinny voice: “Winner! Winner! Winner!”

Her face turned crimson. Everyone in earshot stopped pushing carts to watch.

The clerk sidled over, her scowl replaced by curiosity. “I ain’t ever heard that much whoopty-doo before.”

A crowd gathered around like bees in a hive. People pointed at her.

“Could be a mistake. Gimme the ticket.”

She slid it under Plexiglass.

A deep male voice behind her mumbled, “Damn if I’d hand over that ticket. She’d pull back a bloody stump first.”

Rebecca stood there, still as a post, hoping the crowd would go back to shopping. The opposite happened: more people wandered over, magnetized by the small commotion. Every person in the checkout lines was looking her way. Being stared at brought back the worst time in her life. That old terror welled up.

“Winner! Winner!” the machine kept bleating.

“Can’t find nothin’ wrong with it,” the clerk said. “Looks like it’s the real McCoy.”

Real McCoy . . . her father’s expressions . . .

“How much is it . . .”

“The whole shebang, lady. You got yourself a hundred thousand, cash money. What’s your name anyway? We gotta put you up on our Winners’ Board.”

The clerk jabbed a thumb over her shoulder at a poster board. $5, $10, $20, $100, and $500 denominations were written beside the names of customers in black Magic Marker. Beneath: “Congratulations to All Our Winners!!!” was slathered in glitter.

“You beat ‘em all, hon.”

Rebecca protested she didn’t want her name on it. She was terrified she was gibbering. Her vision lost clarity in moments of panic like this. The edges of things blurred—furniture, people’s faces.

She gripped the counter to keep from falling to the floor; her knees gave out. She clipped the counter with her chin going down to the floor.

Before the light faded, a face loomed above hers: a man’s, not unpleasant. His face stared down at her from the edge of the crowd surrounding her, the only one not expressing panic or concern.

She would recall his frank appraisal later in perfect detail.

When she opened her eyes, the man was still there. This time he was smiling. He swiveled his head at the crowd pressing in. “Folks, move back! Give the woman some air! C’mon, folks, move back!”

Kind but forceful—like her father. No matter what state the grieving family was in when they arrived at the funeral home for calling hours, he was a pillar of strength. He knew exactly what to say and to whom. He gave the same pep talks to the same kinds of people year after year until his stroke. His favorite being the “The-Lord’s-Will-Be-Done” speech he used inside the parlor. In the hospital once, she caught his expression in the convex security mirror in the corner, but it was distorted into a grimace of rictus, a look that terrified her young mind.

The man was striking in looks: a full head of closely barbered hair slightly graying at the temples, deep brown eyes, and a strong jawline. Not Hollywood handsome but good looking by Midwest standards. The slim gold watch on his wrist winked under fluorescent lighting; she noted the gemstone ring, the ironed points of his shirt collar.

The man helped her to her feet.

“Let me help you,” he crooned.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” she repeated, rising to her feet slowly.

Nonetheless, the stranger had her triceps in a firm grip, leading her as if she were blind, past the onlookers, through the Express Lane and out the pneumatic doors.

“Let go,” she pleaded, “you’re pinching my arm.”

“I’m so, so sorry.”

They stood on the pavement beside racks of white, yellow, and orange mums for sale. She blinked into the late autumn sun, her stomach queasy. Behind the store’s plate glass, people stared at them. She wanted to get away, far away.

The strange man’s eyes bulged.  “Wait! Your lottery ticket!”

He rushed back inside. She stood transfixed, fearful she’d stumble or faint again. Her stomach roiled with bile. An odd sensation of floating in a cone of ambient light hadn’t yet receded from her vision.

The man came out the exit doors guiding the ticket clerk.

“I brought her,” he said unnecessarily. The ticket woman glared at him.

“I wasn’t gonna hand this ticket to nobody but you,” she said.

Rebecca meekly thanked her.

The man’s smile was radiant. “You never know, dear. Decent people turn into dogs when it comes to this much money. My name’s Ted—Theodore, actually—but I go by Ted.”

“Thanks for—thank you . . .Ted.”

She lacked a handy exit line to depart gracefully. Before she realized what was happening, he was walking beside her, talking the while, in no hurry. She wondered if he was a salesman, maybe a telemarketer. That seemed unkind for his assistance.

Mentally fatigued and drained, she barely replied to his banter. Instead, she thought of Delphinia, her ginger cat, asleep on the ottoman. 

“I hope you don’t consider me presumptuous,” he said, standing beside her car door, “but I told you my name, you haven’t told me yours.”

“Rebecca.”

“A beautiful name,” he whispered, “my mother’s name.”

Rebecca thumbed the key fob. The chhkk of the door unlocking soothed her jangled nerves; she set the ticket in the cup holder and shut the door.

He gave her that look again. She drove off, her heart thumping.

Three days later, answering the doorbell, she found him on her porch with a box of candy and a bouquet of red gladiolas.

* * *

She looked back on that moment as pivotal. She had choices. She could have borrowed a page from Ellie Ragsdale’s book and told him to shove off and take his flowers and candy with him. Or cocked a hand on her hip in the doorway, put Ellie’s arch look on her face and growled, “Say there, Teddy, this doesn’t have anything to do with my coming into a hundred grand now, does it?”

She did neither. She stood there blushing like a moonstruck girl, cutting her eyes from his beaming face to the flowers, then to the candy, then back to his face. Her armpits perspired and a moustache of perspiration began forming above her upper lip.

Before she could say anything other than a stammer of greeting, he was inside the foyer.

His “excuse for dropping by” was her fainting spell, but she wondered how he knew where she lived. The funeral home’s name and number remained changed since her father’s death. Her social awkwardness, aggravated by her semi-reclusive life, left her confused and self-conscious.

Handing him a microwaved cup of decaf, she almost blurted out that her lottery winnings would be deposited in her bank account any day.

Ted was a good listener—in fact, he was a great listener. He really looked at her when she spoke. Not many people do that, she knew. She used to ask Ellie to stop interrupting the middle of her sentences with the beginnings of hers, a rebuke that bounced off Ellie’s head.

He wanted to know about her. It thrilled her.

When he checked his watch, apologizing, saying he had to be somewhere, she was aware of her keen disappointment.

“Thank for the coffee, Rebecca. Do you mind if I call you that?”

His mother’s name, he’d said—

“Call me Becky. My friends all do.”

A tiny fib, she thought. What friends? Job’s comforters, the lot of them or traitors like Ellie.

She didn’t own a cell phone, much less have a “presence” on social media platforms. She wasn’t sure what that meant when he asked her about “family online.” She kept a shoebox in her bedroom closet full of old photos, most dating from her parents’ time. Her father tall beside the casket, neatly shaved, black tie, and suitcoat, beaming, thick horn-rimmed glasses—his first funeral. Her mother in a Jackie Kennedy hat, looking shyly at the camera. They were flawed by camera flash and revealed red eyes like raccoons, not a plain, middle-aged couple. 

The “Bill photos” she could not bear to look at.

Ted was a successful contractor, often on the road in neighboring counties with various projects.

“I don’t get my hands dirty anymore,” he sighed between sips of the bland decaf. “I miss hard work—you know, tearing off a roof, replacing pipes, work that makes you feel good at the end of the day.”

Over the course of two months, they “dated,” although she didn’t like to think of their relationship so formally. He hinted about past relationships that “hadn’t panned out” or were “amicable splits.” She inferred these were amorous events in other states. He briefly mentioned a grown son and daughter that he flew out to visit during holidays.

“Randi’s currently in Indianapolis,” he mentioned. “Ronnie’s in Nevada.”

He didn’t pry into her past, and yet she found herself revealing secrets she thought had been clamped down. He always backed off when he felt he’d trespassed onto private grounds. She reassured him that was not the case, always revealing more than she expected to.

On their first date, he begged her to take him on a tour of her house.

“It’s like a palace, so many rooms. I’ll bet you haven’t even been in some in years.”

She didn’t want him to think she was some kind of neurotic spinster—was that the word people still used?

She took him downstairs for a look at the embalming rooms.

He followed, commenting on the size of the green-tiled walls and high ceilings, ignoring the scuppers in the corners and the unsold display caskets lining one wall, their satin and polyester liners having turned an antique white over time.

She flipped a light switch. Fluorescent lights crackled.  She stood aside to let him enter.

“So, this is where the magic happens?” He lost his smile when he noticed the expression on her grim face. “Sorry, that was tacky.”

“No, no,” Rebecca replied. “It’s just that I haven’t been down here in years.”

The faintest smells overlay the quiet of a room long shut, a familiar redolence of formaldehyde, disinfectant, and the pungent aromas left in the wake of hundreds of corpses.  Powerful olfactory memories tumbled from her neocortex—too many to banish like the dust motes swirling in the faint light streaming from the glass-block lights above their heads at ground level.

He walked along the counters, one hand trailing, passing through the dust over the array of instruments laid out and kept at the ready:  graspers, scissors, staplers, the boxes of gallons of embalming fluid neatly stacked in the corner, extra tubing coiled like transparent snakes on the gleaming counters, the scalpels for making slits beneath the armpit and groin for draining fluids.

Her father’s image arrived unbidden—splash gown rolled to the forearms, the black hairs of his hands vigorously massaging the muscles of “the decedent” (never “the dead” or “the body”). After arrival from the hospital or nursing home, he first had to eliminate blood clots after rigor once the body was stripped and washed on the slab.  Her first jobs as his assistant were to set the face, cant it at a 15-degree angle for proper viewing upstairs. She’d glue the eyelids, seal the mouth in a natural expression—“extremely important,” her father insisted, because embalming fluid would make it impossible to change the features later.

Ted asked simple questions, nothing gross.

“I’ll bet you were great at the makeup.”

“My father taught me to do hair and makeup first. My mother and I pitched in. It was expected. I was still in high school. He thought it would be a good idea to learn a few things before mortuary science at Gannon.”

He had wanted her to succeed him as he had succeeded his father in the mortuary business. Her failure to finish mortician college crushed him. Not even her mother’s death from stage-4 breast cancer hurt as much as that betrayal.

The unasked question hung in the air.  Ted looked at her.

“I—I left school before completing my associate degree,” she said. “See, it was my turn to insert the trocar—”

“Trocar?”

“An instrument designed for removing fluids. It goes into the abdomen.”

She felt that rapid, heart-fluttering sensation as though she were standing in that same room, not here. The 3-sided cutting point, its obturator, and cannula all flashing back to a tactile memory of that day when she hesitated at her instructor’s direction to place it inside “Benny.” Benny was the foam corpse students practiced on.

“What happened?”

“I fainted.”

“I . . . understand.”

“No, you can’t. My father never understood how a stupid practicing dummy made me faint after I’d worked on so many bodies down here right beside him. But it happened. I fainted to the floor. I left school that evening.”

Before she knew it, she was sobbing in Ted’s arms. They made love for the first time that night.  She was so grateful for the release of pressure that she wanted to please him. Unlike her teenaged lovemaking with Bill, this was adult sex. She had her first orgasm.

Weeks passed in bliss. Ted drugged her with sex.

“My God, I’ve missed so much,” she told him in bed that first night.

She dressed for him, made herself more attractive. She tossed out all her negligees and sleepwear for more erotic attire.  She made him meals that took hours to prepare. It seemed that, more than the lottery winnings, her wish for a lover was granted in spades.

Ted pulled the Blue Genie picture attached to the fridge and crumpled it to throw it away.

“You don’t need his magic now. You have me.”

“Please, don’t,” she begged. “He granted me my wish.”

“You mean the money?”

“No, you.”

She understood that men were the sex-seekers, and this was what they craved beyond the homemaking, the dinners, and pillow talk—even more than the tenderness and gentle kisses in daytime. Still, it was strange, unsettling to see him lean against the counter so casually with that look on his face. He slowly undid his belt and shove his pants down to his knees. The bulge in his underwear drew her gaze.

“Come here,” he ordered.

She walked to him, zombie-like, hoped he meant to kiss her passionately. Instead, he pressed her shoulders down, guiding her over the rough fabric of his clothing.

“Do it.”

Her first blowjob. It seemed harsh; it seemed . . . like rape.

He hissed something, gurgled, then grasped the back of her head and thrust his crotch into her. She adjusted to the aggressive rhythm of his thrusts, unable to control anything. She was less afraid of gagging than of what she might see if she removed his erection and looked up into his face.      

* * *

“Get that, hon.”

He sat at the table in his underwear reading. She wanted to protest she was the one doing some work; the moment passed, so she dried her hands on a dish towel and went to the door.

A man in his mid-twenties stood there. At first, she thought he was a salesman, but he didn’t look the part. In fact, he was scruffy looking with long hair and a dark, untrimmed beard. Tattoos on his hands looked crudely drawn, something done in a jail. A duffel bag lay at his feet.

“I’m Ron,” he said. “Where’s my dad here?”

“Your d-dad?”

“Did I stutter? Yeah, my dad. Ted Mayfield.”

Ted shouted from the other room: “Who is it?”

“Your son . . . he says.”

The man brushed past, exclaiming, “Hey, old man, what’s up?”

She turned to behold father and son embracing. Ted gave the youth a hard clap on the shoulder.

“What took you, Ron.”

“Hon, this is Ron. Ron, Becky.”

They shook hands. Father and son walked away, both talking, conversing in a shorthand she didn’t understand. She heard “Seattle” and “docks,” but that was all she understood.

She wondered if she should say something about the duffel bag. Instead, she closed the door and returned to the kitchen.

“Where’d he go?”

“Oh, Ron’s going to stay with us for a couple days. I know, it’s sudden. He should have called, the rascal. I swear, hon, if he weren’t big enough to eat apples off my head, I’d tan his hide for him.”

“Ted, this is not—this is an . . . imposition.”

A fatuous word, but she had nothing else in her vocabulary to fire.

“I told him he could stay at the end of the hallway upstairs.”

“Ted, I don’t let strangers barge in here on a whim.”

Strangers? He’s my son, damn it! I haven’t seen him since last Christmas.”

They’d never argued. This was a shock. She finally relented to Ted’s pleadings, and agreed to “a few days, no more.”

He kissed her neck—more a dismissal than an apology. “That’s my girl!”

Ron stayed out of sight, avoided her. She told Ted to ask his son to share a meal with them that evening. She wanted things to be normal. This seemed like an appropriate truce to bring her and Ted back together. Ted told that morning Ron expected to get work in Cleveland “soon.”

“He’s short of money at the moment. This’ll make all the difference in the world to him—and to me.”

She thought being “short of money” ironic. That expression was on Ted’s lips often these days. She’d already “loaned” him $300 for a contracting job in Andover that fell through at the last minute and left him short of spare cash. “Just to tide me over, sweetie.  That farmer ripped me off. I lost twenty-two hundred on the job. I’ll have to go to court to see any of it back.”

On the day Ron was packing to leave, upstairs waiting for his Uber to take him to Cleveland, another knock at the door summoned her away from the Highsmith novel she was reading in the breakfast nook. She slammed the paperback shut—her first quiet moment dissolved. She was glad Ted had left her alone for a while. She was suffocated by the constant presence of father and son in the house. Her romance had evolved through a rapid progress of honeymoon stage through mid-life crisis to a stressful being taken for granted. Ted hadn’t volunteered to pay a dime for household expenses since that first week she allowed him to move in. 

She parted the sheers and looked out the big front window. A dark-complected male sat behind the wheel of a Honda Civic with its engine running.

Thank God, his ride is here, she thought.

She opened the front door to signal the driver to wait while she called Ron. But she found herself looking into the face of a young woman, age hard to discern because of the matte-black, dyed hair, the purple-tipped bangs, and lip studs at each corner of mouth, all topped by a large nose ring. Her tattoo sleeves, if anything, looked more elaborate than her brother’s and extended to the backs of her hands.

“Hey, I’m Randi. My father said you’d be here to let me in.”

Hell, she told her reflection in the bathroom mirror five minutes later where she ran to weep silent tears. I’m in hell.

* * *

The sanctity of her home wasn’t just gone, it was obliterated—first by Ted, then by his son (whose job mysteriously “evaporated”), and now by his surly daughter; she moved in across the hall from Ronnie. Randi moved ghost-like about the house, rarely speaking to her unless the encounter couldn’t be avoided.

“Randi’s had a hard time,” Ted told her, sheepdog look on his face as phony as everything he said nowadays.

What else is a lie, she wondered. Had he stalked her from Giant Eagle that very day the scanner bleated out “Winner!”?  

“You told me you always wanted a family,” he complained over breakfast, his tone surly. “You said that was your fondest wish, huh.”

She got up without a word and went upstairs to cry alone in her bed, muffling the sound of her sobs with a pillow. She thought about her simple life before Ted. The life she thought she hated. Tending the tomato-and-pepper garden out back, feeding the birds and squirrels, grooming Delphinia, tossing dinner scraps to the occasional stray cat.

She would have traded this life for her former existence in a heartbeat. Another old expression of her father’s flitted across her mind’s eye, one used frequently after her disgrace from college: 

Worse always come to worse . . .

* * *

Part 3: Careful What You Wish For

The catastrophe was complete the day she discovered $500 she kept in a linen closet missing. She accused Rand.

“Bitch! I didn’t touch your money!”

Screaming brought Ted downstairs.

“Hey, hey! Why are my two favorite ladies squabbling?”

“Your daughter’s a thief!”

“You’ve been under a lot of stress lately, babe. Take it easy. Maybe you only thought you had money in that drawer.”

“Who told you it was hidden in a drawer? Go ahead, ask your daughter. She’s been sneaking around ever since she showed up.”

“C’mon, Becky, that’s harsh. Randi, did you take the money?”

“Hell no.”

“That settles it.”

She’d stepped out of the shower an hour ago and caught Ronnie leaning against the wall looking at her. She was so flustered that the towel dropped to her knees before she could gather it up to her chest.

“You’re a real redhead,” he said. “Most redheads are dye jobs or else go bald.”

Angry, shocked, disgusted all at once, she screamed, “Get the hell out of here, you lout!”

“Kiss my ass,” Ron said.  He smiled, winked, and flipped her the bird from behind as he casually walked down the hall.

She’d avoided the upstairs bathroom because of the mess Ron and Randi left it in. Sanitary pads and Kleenexes spilled out of the wastebasket, urine spots on the toilet lid, her ceramic figurines broken or chipped. Splashed shower water seeped into the grout and popped it loose in places.  Worse now that boyfriends picked up in bars spent weekends sleeping with her. Randi thought it funny to splash water all over the mirrors, floor, and walls. Two nights ago, Rebecca’s bladder aching, she risked a quick trip to “their” bathroom. Big mistake. Cracking the door, she saw outlined against the shower curtains Randi and a rail-thin male engaged in coitus.

“Wait! You hear that? It must be that bitch out in the hall.”

“Babe, who—uh—gives—uh-uh-uh—a shit,” the boy grunted, not pausing in his humping.

Randi took the money, no doubt, and it went to keep her and her sleazy boyfriends in drugs.

Ted having been out of the house for two days, she planned to confront him as soon as he got back. I almost said ‘home,’ she realized. He has no right to bring his lowlife children into the house my parents worked for all their lives.

Ted arrived in the foyer around ten-fifteen, very drunk; the booze reek reached her before she stood in front of him. He fumbled at placing his jacket a coat tree hook like some blindfolded child trying to Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

“Shit,” he growled. The whole rack of coats, mostly hers, tumbled to the floor.

“I want to talk to you,” she demanded.

“So, talk, light of my life.”

“Look at me, Ted.”

“I am lookin’, Re-becca, mine, and I’ll tell you what I see. I see someone who’s going to the bank with me tomorrow. Someone whosh—who’s going to keep her goddamn promise to put me on a shared checking account like I been askin’ for the last got-damn week.”

“Over my dead body.”

“That can be arranged.”

Said with an icy coldness that rooted her to the floor. He staggered toward her, and she stepped aside to let him pass. Instead, he stopped in front of her and slapped her hard across the head. She flew into the wall and collapsed to the floor.

“See what you made me do, cunt?’

He stepped toward her. She cowered, raising her hands to cover her face and head in case he meant to swing again.

“Hey, sweetheart, look, I’m sorry! It’s just you jumped me comin’ in the damn door like that—”

She scuttled away, on all fours like an insect, launching herself up the stairs, stumbling, slamming into Ron coming downstairs. He gripped her under the arms and raised her up.

“Hey, what the hell’s going on?”

She broke free and bolted past him to her bedroom. 

The following days were all eerie silence and hostile glares from Ted’s children. On the fourth day, he laid down the law, bringing them all together at the supper table. She wasn’t permitted to cook or even set the table. He served London broil (underdone) and asparagus (overcooked), and a store-bought Mississippi mud cake that stuck in her craw. Ted tried to jolly them into “pleasant  conversations about everyone’s day.”

“Like, what the frig we s’posed to say?” Randi snapped.

“Language, Randi. Just be pleasant.”

Randi turned to her and sneered, “So how was your day?  Mine was fine, thanks for asking and see you later.”  She jumped up from the table, knocking Rebecca’s wine glass to the floor, grabbing Ted’s car keys from the sideboard. The door slamming behind her rattled the dining room windows.

Ronnie laughed. “Ha, ha, Randi’s on the rag.”

Ted stared at his son as though some secret communication had passed between them. She shivered. She pushed food from one side of her plate to the other.

“May I be excused?”

Ronnie snorted.

“Are you sure, sweetie? You hardly ate.”

“Yes, I’m fine. It was good, thanks. I’d like to go upstairs and nap. I’ve had a migraine all day.”

She slammed the door loud enough for them to hear downstairs. She waited ten minutes and crept down the stairs, shoes off, placing her feet carefully, locating places she’d memorized years ago to avoid the creaking steps. Her father suffered from insomnia toward the end, and she didn’t want to alert him to her presence. Meetings between father and daughter in those days were fraught with shame and a burning anguish she found unbearable.

When she thought they were sure she was asleep upstairs, she worked her way to the oaken pocket doors and held her breath, listening.

Ronnie: “You sure about this?”

Ted: “Are you stupid? You can see she’s going to give us all the boot any day.” 

Ronnie: “Yeah, but I thought—”

Ted: “Thought what, Ron?  Thought we’re going to get another shot at a hundred grand?”

Ronnie: “We—I mean, you been doin’ good so far, right? Cracking into her checking and savings accounts, right. You always said the women were too embarrassed to report you to the cops.”

Ted: “Chickenfeed, Ron. I want a big score this time. This property’s worth a couple hundred grand, easy. Who knows what else she’s got squirreled away for her lonely old age? I mean to get it, son. Every goddamned dime of it.”

Ron: “I can do this one, you want. Choke her out just like her damned cat. Won’t even need the railroad gloves to keep from getting scratched.”

Ted: “No way. She’s all mine. I’m looking forward to it. That nagging bitch is going for a stainless-steel ride on that slab in the cellar.”

Ronnie: “Ha-ha. Wait! I heard something.”

Ted: “Heard what?”

She glided away like a phantom into the semi-darkness of the big hallway as soon as she heard the scrape of a table leg.

She had no sleep that night. Like those cups she used to place over the eyeballs of the decedents to keep the eyes from sinking into the face, she lay awake staring at the moving shadows the big maple’s branches outside her window cast on the ceiling.

At dawn, she rose. A little tired—but also exhilarated. Her brain swarmed with images all night. She knew she didn’t have much time. Ted was returning from one of his mysterious “errands” after lunch, and they were going to the main bank downtown. Once his signature was on her accounts, her days were numbered.

With Ted gone, Randi off on another drug binge with a new boyfriend, only Ronnie remained in the house to worry about.  Around seven, she came downstairs and found him sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee.

“Everyone gone, I see?”

“Yep.”

She removed the Blue Genie picture from the fridge, folded it, and put it in her pocket.

“What is that ugly-ass thing anyway? It crept Randi. Dad said not to touch it or you’d have a shitfit.”

“Just a keepsake from an old friend of mine from years ago, her daughter gave it to me.”

“Whatever.”

She smiled, said: “I told your father I’d get busy cleaning out some junk in the basement.  He’s been pestering me to do it for weeks now.” She tried to get the tone right. She didn’t want him suspicious and come down there looking for her. Lately, he reminded her of a pit bull who followed his father’s voice commands—just barely.

“Ha-ha, you mean like a dead body? Like in what’s-that-movie, Nightmare on Elm Street.”

Psycho, moron.”

“Whatever.”

“Who knows? Maybe my father kept dead folks down there if the family didn’t pay the bill.”

“That’s sick, lady.”

“I know.” 

* * *

Part 4: Your Third Wish Is Granted

The drug would help. She’d gone through Randi’s room that morning with the vacuum cleaner switched on but searching drawers until found her stash of MDMA and Ketamine inside a pair of electric-blue bikini panties. Googling “Mollies” and “Special-K,” she learned about dosages and side effects. Her father’s drug cabinet in the prep room was loaded with various combinations, but none she trusted that old.  

She cut out a small portion of MDMA for herself, laughing to herself, thinking it was exactly like a recipe: “Two tablespoons MDMA, set one tablespoon aside.”

Her sensibilities needed to be dulled when the time came. No more fainting spells. Hard work ahead, she told herself. Suck it up, bitch, borrowing from Randi’s vocabulary for her own pep talk. She’d studied it in textbooks years ago, watched her father hundreds of times.

* * *

“More iced tea?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Ted avoided looking at her through dinner—a sure sign he’d moved closer to carrying out his designs on her.  Randi, ever surly, wanted to be off fornicating with some “rando male,” as she eloquently put it to her father when he ordered her to stay for dinner.

“I don’t recall that last one being so friggin’ wonderful,” Randi whined.

Marijuana smoke had wafted from both back bedrooms all afternoon. Ronnie and his sister were still high, giggling at each other across the table. The weed worked to her advantage.

She thought it odd how obstacles in one’s path were smoothed away when you needed it.  Like her smiling blue genie coming to her aid. 

Ted sipped his tea. “I’m going out later,” he mumbled at her.

“Oh, want some company?”

Giggles from the siblings.

“No, no. It’s a job site in Rome I got to check out.”

“Long way for a job, Dad,” Randi quipped.

That cheap wit sent her brother into a raucous burst of guffaws.

“Rome, Ohio. God damn it, you two morons. Off Route Forty-Five. Christ, you nitwits.”

His bad-tempered swearing was another sign she was on a short clock.

Ted gulped the last of his tea and stood up—or, rather, he tried to.

“Got-damn.”

“Something wrong, sweetheart?”

“Wrong, you idiot? My legs! I can’t stand up!”

Peals of laughter from his children, Ronnie nearly falling over from belly-laughing.

“Let me help you, sweetheart.”

“What . . . what . . . are you doing?”

“Wrapping your legs in duct tape so you can’t move.”  All deadpan delivery but her heart thumped, and she fought dizziness. In seconds, Ted was secured to the chair legs. The next seconds were critical. She had to keep clear of his fists, his fingers.

“Ronnie! Randi!”

“Holy shit, I can’t get up,” Randi complained; “my legs are cramped up.”

Ron suddenly looked sober. He looked at his father, shook his head like a dog casting off water, and swiveled his head to take in Randi.

“Going on . . . what’s going . . . Hey, bitch, what . . . you do to them?”

“Ron, look out!”

Before he could rise, she brought the hammer down on his head. He sat there stunned like a bull in the kill chute hit with a cattle gun. As fast as she could, she wrapped Ron’s torso to the chair.  Randi tried to bite her when she did the same to her, foaming at the mouth, screaming, and cursing. Rebecca had never heard most of those words.

She returned to Ted, re-wrapping him thoroughly around legs; then she moved to his chest, careful as a bird avoiding a snake. He slathered her with curses, entreaties—a mishmash of hate-and-love gibberish, slurred from the drugs she’d put into his tea.

Randi and Ronnie received the same attention.

“What now, you crazy slut?”

“You’ll see. You will all see.”

It was safe to go down into the basement to gather her supplies set aside that afternoon, humming a Puccini aria. Upstairs, Randi screamed “Help!” but her dopey condition made it sound like someone wheezing.

“Go ahead, wear out your lungs, Randi,” she whispered. “That way I won’t have to listen to your potty mouth.”

Lugging everything she needed up the steps, she placed identical items—bucket, tubing, scissors, scalpel, trocar, and tape—around each chair leg for easy reach.

She stood up. “Before I begin, I’d like to say a few words.  You’re all scum and you deserve what’s going to happen.”

A slushy volley of oaths, imprecations, and threats were hurled at her from all three at once.

“You can’t move, but you’re going to be aware of everything happening,” she resumed. “The best part is that you can look at one another across the table as it happens.”

“Becky, Listen, angel, Becky, Becky, what’s . . . going . . . listen to me . . .”

“Better you experience it,” she replied, ignoring Ted’s pleas. “Words won’t suffice.”

She started with Ronnie; the heaviest male meant the most blood.

She cut a small patch of his Levi’s below his belt with her scissors. “Sorry if I hit flesh. This will pinch a bit. There now. Better if you don’t squirm so much.”

“K-kill you—”

When she made the incision with a short, scythe-like flick of her wrist, he howled in pain.

“I know that hurt,” she said softly, “but this will hurt worse so don’t move too much.”

She fed the tube into his abdomen, poking it around to find the best location for placement. The other end she fed into the bucket.

The pump would be faster, but gravity would do the trick.

“Oh God, no.”

“Oh God, yes.”

Ted glared at her while she worked on him, played the tough guy, ground his teeth as she cut into him an inserted the hose. “You and your boy should time out together,” she said, “if I did my calculations correctly.”

Instead of the onslaught of usual cursing—silence. It was as they they’d morphed into a bizarre medieval tableau with herself as the maestro. Three pairs of eyes bored into her face, looked across the table at the remains in the dinner plates, and saw the same fear and terror in one another’s expressions.  

Randi sobbed and cried, begged her not to hurt her, offered to do sexual things to her if she’d stop.

“That sounds interesting, sweetie, but you deserve this almost as much as your scumbag father.”

When she inserted the tube, Randi evacuated her bowels, filling the room with a nauseating stench.

Meticulously, painstakingly, she moved around each one, taking away dinner plates and glasses, utensils. She checked bindings, retaped tubes as needed; it couldn’t be helped—their contortions, struggles to move against the tape locking each one into his or her place at the table.

Clips on the tubing held off a too-quick exsanguination. The tinny drip, drip, drip of blood was the only sound other than her turning on the faucet to wash and wipe her hands frequently. The human body is a warehouse of filth and bacteria, her father always said.

Fifteen minutes, eighteen minutes, twenty minutes. Their movements against the restraints grew more sluggish, their eyes acquired that filmy glaze of dead birds. Each bucket filled at the same pace.

Seeing their eyes cloud and their sensibilities fade, she knew it was time. The dose of MDMA she took hit her like a fist. At first, she feared it was too much; then a warm, fuzzy glow of sensory overload rocked her backward on her heels. She adjusted to the new feeling.

“Time for the pièce de resistance.” she announced to her sluggish guests at the table.

With a flourish, she placed the gleaming bone saw in the middle of the table, polished to silver brightness.  Every detail of this Last Supper for Ted and his worthless clan of home invaders had been spun out of her anguish that night she lay awake.

They all recognized it at the same time. Randi vomited up a yellow bile that spattered the table and dribbled off her chin. Ron, silent, strained against the tape. Ted wheeled his head in her direction, the light in his eyes not yet faded, a final plea for mercy.

She placed the black tarp all around the chair legs, tucking it here and there; the carpeting was going to be trashed regardless, so the idea was to keep blood out of the tongue-and-groove floorboards beneath the carpeting and therefore visible from below.

“I’m done with you all,” she said.

She went round removing all the clips. Blood that trickled gushed into pails. One by one, their heads lolled, then sagged on their chests. She gave each a tap with the hammer in case anyone played possum. None did.

The girl who couldn’t stick a trocar into a foam dummy had the strength—albeit with a little help from Randi’s supply—to dismember each limb from three adult human beings. Arms piled up on the table. By midnight, legs joined them. At two a.m., all that remained were the heads. Her forearm tendons aching from sawing, she detached all three, Ted last, and placed them in a row, all staring through sightless eyes in the same direction.

Taking a break, she drank half a fifth of vodka from Ron’s room, passing out until the sun pawed her eyelids, forcing her awake. By late afternoon, still groggy, half-drunk and a little high, she staggered into the dining room and saw her work in toto. She opened a window to remove some of the coppery smell of blood and other fluids; however, cadaver flies homed in on the feast in seconds and she was forced to shut the window. 

Limbs were taken out to the garden first, followed by the heavier torsos, which consumed most of the time she allotted for the whole task. A Wagner opera playing from the kitchen for accompaniment, she was indifferent to body parts and placement into the separate holes.

Memorial stones she’d made as a little girl and retrieved from the shed—tiny cement hexagons decorated with plastic colored stones—were placed where the heads were buried.

“I have my family now, Genie. All thanks to you.”

She unfolded Baby Rainbow’s picture of the blue genie and attached it tenderly to the refrigerator with kitchen magnets. She couldn’t be sure, tired as she was, but she thought he was staring right at her, his big-toothed smile agleam—smiling and winking right at her.


Robb White is the author of 2 hardboiled detective series: Thomas Haftmann & Raimo Jarvi. White has been nominated for a Derringer award and “Inside Man,” published in Down and Out Magazine, was selected for the Best American Mystery Stories 2019. “The Girl from the Sweater Factory,” a horror tale, was a finalist in The Dark Sire Magazine’s 2020 awards. When You Run with Wolves and Perfect Killer were named finalists by Murder, Mayhem & More for its Top Ten Crime Books of 2018 & 2019. “If I Let You Get Me,” a crime story, was selected for the Bouchercon 2019 anthology. 


“Darkroom” A Dark Tale by Mick Benderoth

A high fashion photographer’s life is not as glamorous you’d think. Myriads of too beautiful models…they start to look the sameI’m top dog, Dax Miller. Twenty-five years. Jaded. Just another job.

Then, WHAM! No…not the models…the model’s agent, Samantha Brooks, The Brooks Agency CEO. Cool, calm, collected. Class on the half shell. Venus. Lauren Bacall at thirty-five. Shoulder length, page boy, dirty blond, coiffed hair, oversize blue tinted glasses, tailored Cassini silk business suite, Italian high heeled shoes topped with a solid gold Tiffany ankle bracelet. Knocks me out. Unapproachable. Don’t even try. I don’t. I just keep shooting. Prada’s Spring line. But I can dream.

In the darkroom. Printing the days shoot. Don’t trust anyone else to do it. Burn out assistants by the dozen. Alone. Deeply immersed. Outside Red-light signals, Do Not Disturb. Universal. A knock at the door. What dimwit can’t see the light. Pissed, I walked through the black security curtains, closed the darkroom door, step into the small ante-room. I unlock, open the door. There stands Samantha Brooks leaning against the jam. “Loved what I saw on the monitor, Dax. Guess that’s why you cost so much. Got anything to show me?” Before I could recognize the innuendo, Samantha pushes me inside the ante-room, kicks the front door shut with her heel, pins me to the wall.

“This door lock?”, in a sultry voice. “Oh, here it is”, CLICK.”  Dare I say it. Yes, she is. Outrageous. Two hours later, adjusting her clothes, she saunters into the studio. Not even turning, “Dinner, Dax? Per Se, Masa? Your call. Tables at both”.

My, my, my.

Desire grabs my libido, twists it, twists it again. I’m addicted to a woman I know little about, save she owns the hottest modeling agency in the city, country, world. Captivated. Falling. Hard. Was she using me? Of course. For what? I don’t give a damn. She had me. I’ll pay the price.

Obsessed. I need to know more. One evening, late, late, dead of winter, coldest ever, we leave my Soho loft, always my place, never hers…a whole  brownstone, flat iron district. I escort her to her limo. She grabs my hair. Deep kiss. Icy breath. “Goodnight, Dax.” Walks away. Turns to me, “Tomorrow”.

“Of course,”.

“Till then”.

Limo peels. A peeling limo. Cut me some slack.

I decide to tail her home one night. See her infamous New York City digs. I follow her in my Porshe. Her limo drives to a desolate, run down part of the city. This ain’t no flat iron district. I park way behind, get out and follow her, as she purposefully walks through side streets and alleys, then…disappears. I search. Nothing. I hear loud voices from a boarded vacant store. I peek through in window. Mindboggling. Candle lit room. Circle of dark purple robed woman, wearing disfigured masculine face masks. The only differentiation, their shoes. There it is, gold Tiffany ankle bracelet. Samantha Brooks, delivers a hissing, bitter vent ,“The male patriarchy governing the world must be obliterated. We must infiltrate the belly of the beast, disembowel it from within until…it is dead. Extreme prejudice our mandate”.

I turned to slip away, accosted. By two masked, robed women, something wacked me hard. Unconscious. Inside the room, I revive, face to mask with the ranting leader, Samantha Brooks, “Now they send spies to eradicate us. An example must be made!”.

Stripped nude, bound to a chair. Brooks herself grabs me by the hair, no kiss this time, as her apostles smear me with lipstick, mascara, eye liner. The group bursts into wild, crazed laughter, pointing at me, as Brooks holds a mirror up to my eyes. My face, a horrible, bizarre, debauchery.

Brooks forces liquor down my throat, douses me with it. Two women drag my chair out onto the center of the deserted street.

A make shift sign slapped on my naked chest “Dead Men”.  Brooks, sternly. “Enough”. They scattered in the night. I shiver in the frigid air. I see him. My savior. A  bedraggled homeless man from the shadows. “Whatya been up to buddy? Whatever it was, looks like ya lost”, he cackles. “You need some TLC”. Got money?”

Whispering, weakly, “Much as you want”.

Police station, smelling of liquor, draped in a blanket. Lawyer by my side. I tell Detective Dalgliesh, yes, Dalgleish, my ludicrous, terrifying tale. I do not identify Samantha Brooks. She’s mine.

Monday. My studio. Closing out the shoot, there she stands. Sultry smile. No glimmer that I know…everything.

I conceive my plan. Tech nerd buddy, Arch Clafield fashions a remote control Minox, triggered by a wireless switch. The darkroom. Hide the camera atop the wall timer. The switch, under the enlarger.

I instinctively know the inevitable moment will be manifest…it is. I take her, now reviled, with a perverse sexual vengeance, kissing, pawing, tearing. Nude, sweat glistened bodies making not love, nothing near it. Switch secretly hit, camera silently clicks. It ends quietly. We dress, go to dinner, part with a steamy kiss.

I  process, enlarge every print, making sure Samantha’s face is clearly recognized. I stand, stare as they hang drying, slip them in a manila envelope, lable it in red marker SAMANTHA BROOKS.

I get to the deserted street, before the group arrives. The dreaded torture cell. I use my Amex platinum to slip the lock. Stale, high-end perfume redolence choke. I place the envelope in the center of the room, and leave.

Next day. My entire studio staff way freaky, nonstop cacophony. Archy, smiling slyly shows me the Daily News. Front page. Samantha Brook’s disfigured frozen body in a drainage ditch, kicked to death. Victim of an unsolved, brutal murder. I didn’t wish her this. This is what she got. Revenge, served frigid. In my darkroom. Developing prints. A gun is pressed hard against the back of my head. The last sound I hear is the hammer cock.


Mick Benderoth was a screenwriter/filmmaker working in Hollywood. He now lives and writes in New York City. Contact: alexanderbenderoth@gmail.com