“How…?” My shaking fingertips grazed its coarse fibers. “How did I get down?”
Cool tiles pressed against the backs of my naked arms. My eyelids fluttered at the fluorescent light bulb swinging back and forth above my head, throwing shadows along the bathroom walls. A rope dangled from it, its end looking like it’d been chewed off by one of those giant New York City rats.
I swallowed. My throat didn’t hurt.
Blisteringly cold hands glided over my cheeks, my forehead. My skull rubbed along the tile’s grout lines as I tilted my head back, my neck arching–locking–at the pale face staring into mine.
Scars and bruises gilded their skin. Their short, cropped hair stood on spiky ends. Their lips were sewn shut with bleached thread, and their brown eyes were so deep, so liquid, I thought muddy droplets might pour from their tear ducts at any moment.
They were me, and I was them. I saw through them, my ghost.
Those scars had once been mine.
Those bruises; once mine, too.
I glanced down at my bare arms, my legs exposed by ripped jean shorts. I had none of those painful markings. Not from my abuser’s lashing tongue. Not from years of wrestling for her unquenchable approval. Not from my false conviction that her emotions rested on my broken shoulders. It was as if my old skin had molted away; fallen from a cocoon spun by another’s cruelty.
“Get up.” My ghost’s words sunk into my ears, though their sewn lips didn’t move. “Get up. You’re free.”
Free. I sucked a deep breath into my lungs.
Free. I clawed at the rope digging into my throat.
Free. A knife glinted in my ghost’s hand. They slid its teeth beneath the cord and cut it away.
Rubbing my throat, I lay on the floor in wonderment as my ghost faded into the air, sucked away into another space, another time, another life. I stood up, clutching the rope in one hand, and stumbled over to a cracked mirror hanging above a porcelain sink.
Into the shards I looked, no bruises on my neck, as I mouthed my answered prayer: “Butterfly.”
N.V. Devlin writes dark and speculative fiction to better make sense of the world. N.V. was the 1st Runner-Up for Indecent Magazine‘s 2022 Queer Quivers Contest and has had or will have work appear in the Creepy Podcast, Tales from the Moonlit Path, and Rebellion LIT’s The Start anthology. Some favorite authors include Edgar Allan Poe, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Joyce Carol Oates, Shirley Jackson, and Neil Gaiman, and N.V. aspires to someday write even a fraction as well as them. Find N.V. on Instagram (@nvdevlin).
I made that dead thing
from what I found inside your mouth
it was my project, for you
a baby of sorts
ours, to keep and cherish
to have and to hold
in our hands
and, between our fingers
when I remember where I left its head
we can crown it together.
Alistair Thaw is a poet who has work due for publication with The Piker Press. Thaw is also an electronic musician who has recorded numerous horror-themed projects, such as hole house and kindred spirits. Currently, he records as the haunters.
I spend most of my time in the woods, especially since I retired and my wife died in the same month three winters ago. My remaining friends and my children are convinced that I am too old to live alone in the tiny, powerless, cabin two long miles from the nearest passable road. But I am not afraid here. I have been afraid on city streets, in hospitals, in airplanes, but never in the forest. Sure, one might fall, freeze, twist an ankle, or get lost, but an old man who has experience usually knows how to avoid these perils, usually. Modernity speaks of “safe spaces.” My safe space has always been here. Maybe that genuine lack of fear explains why what has been happening to me for the last fortnight is so troubling.
I stepped outside that first night in question to relieve myself and curse my swollen prostate for the second time that evening. The stars were fiercely bright, bright enough to light my path. The frozen ground cracked beneath my shoes, and my breath was visible for at least two feet. I suddenly felt very cold, a chill deeper than the climate could explain. I also felt somewhat unlike myself in a way I can’t define, perhaps a slight, quickly-dissipating headache and dizziness, and then clarity. I also inferred that I was not alone. Woodsmen often experience that feeling when a wary old buck is observing them from behind a large Yellow Pine, or when an old gobbler approaches the hunter’s calls unnoticed. I contemplated retrieving my bright spotlight and searching the hillsides for eyes, but the cold drove me back to my bed.
When I awoke the next morning, the cold had crept through the cracks in my cabin and I again could see my breath. After rousing the banked fire in the stove and warming a pot of tea in my blue-speckled pot, the cold seemed more bearable. After breakfast, I donned my thickest coat, my wool toboggan, loaded my ancient lever gun with six long, slim, flat-nosed cartridges and set out on my normal westerly route. I don’t particularly need the rifle; I carry it only because walking without would seem like so much absurdity. My people were hunters, and a man who walked in the forest without a gun on such a bitter morning would earn just derision. My tribe would have laughed at the mere notion of hiking as a rich man’s foolishment. So I carry a gun because I can justly claim productivity. I walked slowly along old trails and abandoned logging roads, along creek bottoms, and atop ridges. I frequently paused, surveyed the much-colder-than-usual wind, and proceeded. I continued till the light faded. It was, in many ways, so much like every other winter day since I came to live here full time, except that I never escaped the feeling from last night that I didn’t walk alone.
That night I dreamed I was once again back at our old home. It was Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or Easter. I’m not sure which. There were faces of those who still walk the earth and faces of those long since gone. My wife prepared my plate, and the table and sideboard supported dish after dish of the foods that I loved most. There were three or four cuts of meats, soft breads, casseroles, and deserts too numerous to enumerate. It seemed as if I had been asked to bless the feast and I could feel many hands on my shoulders. I struggled to find the sacred words and felt as if everyone were waiting on me, and still no words came. I could still feel their hands when I awoke with a fright. Again, I was very cold.
And so it went. For two weeks I walked these hills in the unseasonable, almost unreasonable, cold, but the once familiar woods now seemed strange. I felt haunted, and maybe, finally, afraid. Each night I stood at the head of the dream table, the waiting hands again on my shoulders, and again, no prayer would come.
Early this morning I awoke again, wordless and chilled. I stepped outside, much as I had done fourteen nights ago. The stars were again fierce, and there in the darkness, I could discern a frozen form on the ground, my form, and then all became clear, and warm, and finally I knew what words to say.
Alan Caldwell is a veteran teacher and a new author. He has recently been published in Southern Gothic Creations, Deepsouth Magazine, The Backwoodsman Magazine, and oc87 Recovery Diaries.
Some semblance of wit running down the track, triggers hordes of bodies plowing strange forms to escape it. Leave my rum madness encased in my mind! lest I lose this unearthly tenderness
I trust God in the earthly crevices where time does not exist; misshapen moons of some other worldliness disguised by mediocrity, where slivers of humanity prevent the uncanny from rearing its common head.
Midnight comes decoding messages on even-numbered lives, marked as clear as the language that saves them.
Slip down the path where peace is eerie, silence loud with the weight of the world. My body skips on the bias, feet trimming each side of the forsaken street.
Holding in dry hands, my heart full with tumult, the flaccid joy of an unremarkable life.
Ashleigh Genus (@themeltedmind) is a Black Caribbean-American artist, born and raised in New York. Her poems have been published by Poetry Under Cover, The Latte Press, and Sweet-Thang Magazine.
The poster seemed an immovable and ancient feature of the stone facade of the theatre, so perfectly was it fixed to the wall and so antique was its appearance. This impression of antiquity came not from any fading, yellowing or other cosmetic damage to the thin paper; rather, the advertisement was in perfect nick, as fresh and bold and inviting as it had probably been at the moment of its original printing. It was instead the imagery, the colour and the overall design that spoke of some bygone, even timeless, age: white-faced clowns in conical hats laughed silently, flame-haired girls in black leotards gyrated down the edges of the bill, great exotic animals glittered with gold and silver trappings like they’d been plucked from a march alongside Hannibal and strong-men and acrobats completed their long-forgotten routines with a dignified flourish. ‘MONKEY MADNESS’ was boasted by a subtitle in thick black lettering below a poorly-rendered illustration of caged primates at play. ‘POOLEY’S CIRCUS’ was the headline spelt out in blue on a gold sash, which clashed with the overall deep red background of the piece, and was held aloft by a tiny suited figure in a far-right corner. If one cared enough to squint, there was a name scrawled beneath the feet of this near-silhouette: Mr. Fate.
It was Mr. Fate alone that was the unlikely star at the Odeum tonight. The appearance of this promotion that relegated him to the status of a sideshow was surely little more than either the desperate trick of a showbiz pauper, trying to hoodwink a passing potential audience with the promise of greater and more varied thrills than those which were actually going to appear this evening, or admittance of defeat in the face of a current budget which couldn’t extend to any new marketing materials. To Richard, this seemed odd: surely a solo act at this venue, such a historic staple of the West End, would be expected to hold a much higher standard of operation, and be in possession of enough capital to at least be able to print up a solo bill? Richard couldn’t imagine the process by which this result had been signed off by everyone from personal agent to theatre manager, social media content producer to board member. He did not, however, quibble. After all, it was the tantalising promise of the unusual and unexpected that had drawn Richard to the hellscape of tourist-land against all his better instincts. It had been the limited but provocative copy of the Time Out listing (“Mr. Fate: Music Hall, Vaudeville and Variety Classics, Comedic and Musical, from an Accomplished Pro; remember how it used to be done and weep for the present”) that had first sparked an interest in him; it appeared to represent a temporary passing over at this theatre, for the length of a very limited engagement, of another musical adaptation of an old film that was familiar to far-flung overseas visitors mainly because it was also safe enough to have reached them without being withheld by their national censors, and this was surely be welcomed. Richard had only been made more curious by his inability to find out much more about the show or the performer anywhere else, as every online source for the theatre’s schedule or content repeated those same few words ad nauseam and without addition or amendment.
So he’d purchased his ticket online- at a cost far, far below the usual three-digit figure for even the cheapest, most pillar-obstructed plush velvet at the conventional shows- and now he stood in line for admittance at the Odeum for the first time in probably decades. The same gold-blue-red colour scheme of the poster was repeated in the simple awnings that had been fixed around the theatre’s doorways. There was no name on these boards and no further suggestion of what was to be seen within. Mr. Fate was, it appeared, an open secret not to be shouted about too loudly. Was the Odeum embarrassed? Did this explain the front of a circus, rather than the admittance of only a single disreputable performer? Was tonight- and the rest of the week- a stop-gap presentation that had arisen out of the commercial necessity of keeping the doors open even when more popular shows left an unfortunate gap in the calendar that needed filling? If the last of those suggestions were truly the case, then the men-behind-the-curtains must have been rubbing their hands together in unexpected delight: there were enough people outside, and within the foyer itself, to suggest an evening at at least two-thirds of capacity.
The crowd, Richard noticed, was oddly mixed. There were tourists, true, who stood around slightly perplexed, quite possibly utterly unaware of what tickets had been foisted upon them by whoever was organising their vacations, and on the verge of a nasty shock. There was also the expected humble elderly contingent, clearly anticipating a night of cloyingly sweet nostalgia, and currently blocking passages of entrance with their tiny, trembling frames. Other people were evidently aficionados of this sort of thing; a combination of scholarly-looking types, probably carrying Dickens’ biography of Grimaldi in their coat pockets, and men who lived up to every negative physical stereotype of the dedicated follower of obscure and esoteric interests. Amongst this lot, however, were two unexpected classes (and the emphasis was really on the word ‘class’ in one instance). First, there was a slice of the self-contented, clearly affluent, friendly but unfriendly, grey haired and silver-watched crowd that propped up the business of most genuinely culturally-important institutions in the city, while forever loudly twittering in their little groups about their shared holiday plans and cosseted opinions, all of which were both definitively received well in advance and frighteningly un-insightful. Richard knew that this type was as well-disposed to decorative nostalgia as their more age-advanced and modest forebears entering the lobby, even if their nostalgia was often of a supposedly superior sort; but he was still somewhat surprised to see them pick Mr. Fate over another evening spent in the company of the same Schubert symphonies they’d heard performed live six or seven times already. The presence of another societal subsection was far more startling: teenagers and twenty-somethings, the majority of them self-consciously retro in their appearance and dress sense, although retro in a way that spoke of very different periods and subcultures than the ones that Mr. Fate had winged his way in from. Richard found their appearance on this scene somewhat puzzling; even at such a low cost, he hardly imagined that this was the sort of thing that could part them from their cash, and he wondered where exactly they could have picked up an interest in, or even much awareness, of traditional vaudeville or the crusty mildew melodies of the music hall. Scattered about were the disbelievers who formed the rest of Richard’s tribe, and who were surveying the scene with much the same confusion as himself.
The doormen were mute; they swung the doors open to each ticket-holder with an unpleasant robotic motion, their eyes confessing their decision to situate themselves- in every aspect but the physical- in some other distant place. When Richard finally made his way past them he tried not to look at them too much; they were almost frightening to him, like zombies from show nights long-passed, reanimated by the devil dust Mr. Fate had blown into their restful faces once he’d prised open their coffins. Indeed, an odd drowsiness had settled upon the general evening since his arrival, for all the denseness of persons. Richard was reminded of the sort of hypnagogic drift that directed his thoughts on the verge of sleeping; he seemed now to be almost guided across the carpet, past the gilt-framed bills that added an ostentatious greeting note to those who had struggled their way inside, and towards the bar in the manner of a semi-sleep-walker, a somnambulist who would have fitted in well as an act alongside the rest of the circus folk that once populated Pooley’s Circus. A vodka with ice was in his hand without him being too conscious of its purchasing; he sucked on the decorative lime that he peeled from the edge of the glass unaware of any bitter flavour or breaking of social decorum. He noticed many of those around him bore a similar manner in their expressions and movements. They appeared to alternately glide or jerk about the place in a way that set Richard to thinking of another old treat: namely the mechanical jockeys that used to complete their horse races along steel beams in glass-fronted cases at the drop of a penny in the seaside arcades. Eyes were glazed all about; conversation was conducted haltingly in whispers or monotone; the teenagers looked ready for a nap, let alone the old folks. The only real point of great animation came from a middle-aged, rotund fellow further down the bar. Richard moved closer to him, hoping some of this life and energy would rub off upon him and knock him from his stupor.
He came to regret his decision almost instantly. The man was bloviating loudly and looking for a target who wouldn’t try to squirm away from the forceful flood of his words. His wife, obviously worn down by the constancy of his torrential downpours, was a mute and detached figure whose current perfect silence and stillness was most likely a consistent feature of her personality, and not a result of the same spell which had been cast upon most of the rest of the room. The man’s eyes fixed on Richard’s, and he extended his hand for the shaking in a needlessly violent motion. Indeed, every one of the man’s actions was made with the hope of projecting a self-confidence, a superiority, a great satisfaction that outranked that of his conversational partner. Richard was caught between slinking away and defiantly meeting him halfway. He opted for the latter approach. He shook the man’s hand.
“Nice to meet you, Richie. Nice to meet you. You looking forward to the show?”
Richard nodded, somewhat rankled at the patronising liberty taken with his name. “I’m curious about it.”
“Me too mate, me too.”
Graham’s voice was plummy and utterly untraceable to any particular region of the country. He wanted to be known as an everyman, and occasionally- purposefully, theatrically- he dropped an aitch or an arr in the hopes of further solidifying and signalling his position as such.
“What bought you here tonight?” Richard asked.
“I want to see if this bloke- this Mr. Fate- is up to it.”
“Up to what?”
“Up to it. I want to see if he can do it properly like he promised; like it used to be done. How it was done when we still had a sense of humour we could be proud of in this country.”
“Yeah. I couldn’t resist when I saw it. We need proper variety back nowadays, y’know. A good old laugh at teatime on a Saturday- that’s what held us together as a people back in the day. The ones nowadays, half of them try it and haven’t got the wit or the skill. Not since Jerry died. He was the last one, the last old pro.”
“I was never much of a fan.”
In truth, Richard thought Jerry was a twirling fool; a purveyor of hack gags- cleaned-up for the early evening audience- and mediocre dance steps, an old twinkle-toes with a barely-disguised mean streak. He’d always seemed the sort who’d knock a couple of quid off a contractor’s pay based on the length of time they stopped for a tea break and had outlived his time on television by a good few decades, supported by the last vestiges of a soppy audience. Richard’s contempt was probably audible in his clipped dismissal and it put Graham on the defensive.
“You’re wrong there, pal. He had something for the whole family. The whole lot could enjoy him.”
Strictly the dewy-eyed grandmas thought Richard, but he said nothing. Graham looked around for someone better to talk to. He could round up no one else and turned back to Richard to strengthen his argument.
“It’s lads like him who made us what we are. He made your struggles during the week- slaving your guts out- worth it; he made you forget it all. Nowadays, you turn on the television and all you get is hectored; everyone’s got something bad to tell you, everyone’s got something bad to say about you. You’ve got to feel guilty all the time. Like you want to hear all that after you’ve been sweating it at the foundry. You want a bit of glamour, a bit of glitz, a few cheeky laughs; it puts a new burst in you for Monday morning. Without people such as Jerry, I tell you, we’d have fallen behind the rest of the world a lot earlier; we’d have been too miserable to make it in after the weekend, and the whole bloody thing would have ground to a halt. Like it has now.”
“I’ve always preferred the sketch comedians from that time.”
It was an opinion offered as a peace-making gesture on Richard’s part, one chosen instead of- quite fairly- enquiring on the exact date that Graham had last toiled at the foundry.
“Fair play to you there, fair play. They were great. Don’t see much of their like either now. That’s all the special interest groups and the bloody elites diluting it all, telling us what we should like rather than giving us a bit more of what we actually do like.”
Richard, tiring of the same old talking-points, decided to change tack. “I don’t know if Mr. Fate is going to be much like Jerry. He seems to be doing something a few decades older.”
“It’s close enough, isn’t it?”
Richard supposed it was. He excused himself and went for another drink. Some of his sleepiness had worn off, and he now put that earlier strange mood down to the warmth of the lobby.
There was more of a crush now around the bar. Richard joined the back of it and noticed the woman next to him was crying. No, not just crying- sobbing, bawling her eyes out. Her partner held her to his chest, stroking her hair.
“I don’t want to go in, Charlie. I don’t. I don’t.”
Her partner pattered her on the head and pushed her face further into his coat. He said a few more comforting words, but the woman kept weeping; she began to shake more and more, and Richard thought her legs were going to give way. The man ushered her away and they were lost to Richard’s sight for a few seconds; when he caught a glimpse of them again through the throngs he could see that the man was all but forcing her towards the open doors of the auditorium. He whispered in the usher’s ear as they were asked to present their tickets, and the two of them together helped carry the woman to her seat.
Richard only had time to briefly consider if she had some form of agoraphobia before he was ordering his second drink. It arrived and he downed it one. The bell rung.
“Seats please, ladies and gentlemen!”
An usher, holding an old brass megaphone, was standing on the balcony that led to the upper stalls. His silver buttons gleamed in the overhead fluoresce; he wore little white gloves and thick, shining black shoes. His hair was slicked back so forcefully that his forehead and brow jutted forwards with an unnatural, furious tightness. He lifted the megaphone to his lips again.
“Enjoy your trip with Mr. Fate!”
There were a few cheers for this, which were followed by a low murmuring. Then Richard was caught up in a rapid pouring forward of the crowd towards the waiting doors. Behind him, he could hear a couple more members of the audience crying as they too were propelled onwards by the irrepressible movement around them. There was no question of turning back, or slipping out of the mass; everyone had very quickly become too tightly packed. Richard felt himself being lifted off his feet; the ushers gave up on checking tickets and simply stood aside to let the crowd through with vacant grins. Richard turned his head as the sobs behind him turned to screams; he tried to see if people were being crushed, as he felt he might soon be. He saw that a line of people was pushing the rest of the audience forwards from the very back of the congregation. The faces of these stormtroopers were red and contorted with the pressures of their exertion. Richard wanted to shout at them to stop, that someone was going to get hurt, but his chest and lungs were being too heavily pressed to allow for speech. He focused only on his breathing- and blocking out the terrible wailing- as he was carried into the stalls. As he came through the door, a good number of those in front of him collapsed, and soon Richard too was rolling down the aisles with them, bruising his back as it hit against individual steps. When he stopped falling he was lying atop a groggy, near-purple middle-aged woman. He apologised profusely and helped her up. She said nothing, put a friendly hand on his shoulder, and then went in search of her seat. To his left, Richard saw Graham laughing delightedly in Row BB. He gave Richard a thumbs-up; apparently, nearly everyone here was desperately, devotedly on his side- they were willing to kill to get a bit of that old variety back.
Indeed, most of the crowd had reacted as if this display was the normal, accepted way of entering a performance hall. As people pulled themselves up or were caught against the backs of the first row of seats, they then worked themselves free, adjusted their clothes and hair, and wandered off with a calm, even contented demeanour. The banshees of the crush had been silenced; there was an expectant, excited hush in the place now. Richard could see a few others looking around with a similar sort of apprehension as himself, but the pressures of conformity soon weighed, and even they went about seating themselves in much the same way as the rest of the room.
Richard, too, followed their lead and sat himself down. Gazing up at the balcony and the rest of the stalls, he noted that his early guess of two-thirds capacity was an underestimation- surely, this was a near sell-out. Richard’s neighbours were composed mainly of the same geriatric folks he’d seen on arriving, broken up only by the occasional forty-something like himself, and a couple of youngsters- their dress sense caught somewhere between 1965 and 1995- perched somewhat uncomfortably at the end of Row KK. A few of the oldies were sucking on hardboiled sweets like they’d stepped out of some cheap advertisement. One of them proffered a bag of humbugs to Richard; he politely turned down the invitation.
There came a great whirring noise, and then a long musical note, the sound of which was somewhere between that of a church organ and the burst of a laser gun. The stage and its red curtains lit up in splashes of purple, blue and yellow light and an elegant behemoth of a Wurlitzer came up through a trapdoor in the orchestra pit. It shone in pure, blinding white, was topped by silver pipes, and was decorated by dancing green and gold bursts that hopped jauntily across the multiple cascading keyboards and up into a system of buttons and pullies. A man in a wide-cut grey suit, his hair also slicked back to an impossible point like the announcer’s, made an unlikely medley out of Autumn Leaves and Everybody Loves My Baby. There came coos of delight, hands clapping, other tunes being hummed in counter-point. Richard himself could not help but get caught up too, leaving behind any wondering about how exactly this instrument had been installed in the theatre, and how much such an operation would have cost. Surrendering himself, he drifted out of his body to float above the innocent pier of seaside memories, a wash of striped-bathing suits and Sunday bests below him. The music seemed at once an orchestrated version of the sound of two penny pieces clattering down in the push machines, the clicking of a hawker’s camera offering deckchair candids to pretty factory girls and dads in rolled shirt-sleeves, and the meetings of steel forks and plates cleared of haddock, chips and even lemon. Richard’s spirit perched itself upon the top of a helter-skelter, an enormous tower in red-and-blue spirals, that had grown to a size of several hundred feet, and was still soaring upwards, carrying him towards the muggy clouds of a hot bank holiday afternoon. Then he was cast off and was falling towards the grey nothingness of the sea, straight through the nailed boards of the pier walkways, before he was caught on a lattice of fine, oiled ironwork beneath the pier, and suspended- crucified- in perfect, beaming happiness. The dancers and fairies of the circus bill poster flew in loop-the-loops high above him, becoming angels; he watched them go, as an acrobat, carrying a cartoon weight, made easy work of walkathons up-and-down the inches-thin handrail of the platform above him. The music started coming to an end; Richard was struck by melancholy as he became aware that these weren’t his own memories, dreams or visions, but just the construction of some great shared store of memory and imagination, all of it infinitely sweetened beyond reality, and not much beyond ghosts flattened and mulched into universally familiar patterns. But it was all sweet, so, so sweet, that it hurt to reawaken to the murkiness of the theatre. The magic lantern clicked off. The Wurlitzer sunk back into its subterranean resting place, and he was left choking on his tears.
Before his nostalgia could curdle any further, Richard’s attention was stolen by someone shouting; he saw a youngster breaking for the doors. He was met by an usher who bear-hugged him and manhandled him back to his seat, letting the kid writhe and kick out the whole way. Once plunked back down, a guard was kept.
Before the audience could protest, a man appeared on the stage; a spotlight turned on him and made his face blue. The response was immediately rapturous, geed up by the tender majesties of the organ.
“You remember, don’t you,” the man said, in tones attempting for the sonorous but letdown by an underlying asthmatic weakness, “the glory days of theatres such as these?”
He approached the front of the stage, then dropped and backward-rolled and stood again on the spot he’d started from.
“Magic and laughter, tears and delightful delicacies. France’s finest legs kicking the cancan, jokes and routines from the funniest men alive that would send you- the audience- into convulsions. Indeed, didn’t it seem like every hall needed a standby St Johns ambulance, to cater to those whose collars had gotten too hot, or who had been forced into cardiac arrest by the brilliantine brilliance of the final punchline?”
Members of Richard’s row were nodding.
“Do you remember Charlie?” The man imitated the Tramp’s walk.
“Do you remember the songs?” He offered a line of a Flanagan and Allen favourite.
“Do you remember the tricks?” He produced a pack of cards from his suit pocket and showed a five of clubs to the audience. “That was your card, wasn’t it?”
There were chuckles. The man walked closer to them. Richard could see him better now; white paint had been caked upon a face approaching old age, marked by a surfeit of deep, dark wrinkles. Around each eye was drawn, in black wobbly lines, a large circle, and these were connected by an even shakier line across the bridge of the nose to form a false pair of round spectacles. His eyes were brown but animated, even fiery. His teeth were stained yellow. He repulsed Richard and made him involuntarily draw back in his seat to escape the gargoyle leer that was now fixed upon them. The stage had been claimed by a sad Pierrot partly infused by the spirit of a particularly malicious Harlequin.
“I am Mr. Fate,” said the man. He was acting as his own compere; there clearly was no support, no other attraction. “This is the biggest show I’ve ever played. I hope you’ll bear with me.”
A roar boomed over the theatre’s speakers and made every one start.
“Exit, pursued by a bear!” Mr. Fate bellowed. He ran off stage left; then his head appeared round the curtain, caught in a paroxysm of panting pain that was too real, too immediately suggestive of a genuine and sudden heart-attack victim, to be in any way amusing. Roaring and growling continued to fill the auditorium. Mr Fate ran towards stage right, his suit shredded and a large pair of boxer shorts, in the customary bright red love heart pattern, showing through the remains of his trousers. Now the audience- or parts of it, at least- laughed. He disappeared around the curtain again, and then stuck his face back out with the same grotesque expression upon it as previously, except now he’d become aware that no one thought this particularly funny, and brief flashes of both frustration and sadness passed across his otherwise fixed countenance. His response to this negation was to double-down: his fake agonies only became more outrageous, more monstrous.
He re-emerged into the fullness of the spotlight, with only his boxers and heavily-polished brogues remaining to cover him. The crowd liked that. Mr. Fate pretended to be embarrassed, shielding his modesty with outstretched hands.
“What a way to begin my show!”
He stepped up again to the lip of the stage.
“Like I said, I’m not used to venues of this size. Not at all, not at all. Holiday parks, holiday camps, that’s more my thing. Performing for the tanked-up inbreds who can’t afford a trip abroad, and who end up bored out of their skulls in the wind-blasted rot of coastal England. But even those places are going away. Good riddance, I say. Especially if I can get gigs at all the world’s Odeums, eh?”
The tone of those words had been serious- poisonous- and met with general bemusement. Mr. Fate grinned, stood back, and caught a cane that was thrown in from off-stage. He twirled it and picked up the tune of the Flanagan and Allen number again.
“We’re always on the outside
On the outside always looking in
We never know how fortunes are made
For the sun, when it shines, finds us still in the shade
We’re always on the ebb tide
But we’ll keep on trying till we win
For we know someday we’re gonna be on the inside
Instead of the outside always looking in.”
He performed a few rudimentary dance steps as an unseen small orchestra caught up the pensive melody; Richard thought Graham would be happy, as the routine seemed to have been half-inched from one of Jerry’s. It turned into a fake foxtrot and then a waltz, Mr. Fate taking his cane as a willing partner.
“Isn’t it hard to find a dame these days, fellas?”
The question was asked in a New York drawl. He followed it by throwing away his prop and dancing the Charleston, wildly and with a relish that belied his age. Then feet were caught in a choreographed tangle, and he was on his back, staring up at the stage lights. It was from this position that he performed the next and final verse, gifting the slender words a real, precious wistfulness.
“We’re very ordinary people
We never make any fuss
We’re the easygoing kind,
if you look around you’ll find
There’s a million like us
We’re always on the outside
On the outside always looking in.”
He rolled onto his stomach, resting his face in his hands and looking out cutely at the audience, then jumped up as the orchestra struck a new tune. He sang it in a quavering voice.
“Twas down in Cupid’s Garden
I wandered for to view
The sweet and lovely flowers that in the garden grew,
And one it was sweet jasmin, the lily, pink and rose;
They are the finest flowers that in the garden grow.
I had not been in the garden but scarcely half an hour,
When I beheld two maidens, sat under a shady bower,
And one it was sweet Nancy, so beautiful and fair,
The other was a virgin and did the laurels wear.”
The orchestra continued playing as Mr. Fate bowed to the audience and shuffled his way off-stage. There was applause, but also a palpable edge of disquiet; the song was much too old to be familiar to anyone in the room, as Richard suspected the first may well have been to most of the audience also. He had thought himself more likely to hear variations on Always Look On The Bright Side of Life or similar, but Mr. Fate was chasing some form of authenticity, with a wide historical remit, at the very least.
When he returned, Mr. Fate was wearing a top hat and tails. His face was still tainted blue by the spotlight.
“Ladies and gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen, I welcome your kind response to my first routine. It is the sort of thing that one dreams of during yet another night in a motorway-adjacent Travelodge, kept awake by the howls of a domestic in your neighbours room while trying to keep down the cheap lager and slimy Hunter’s Chicken the janitor-cum-chef managed to under-microwave. It’s a tough life on the road, I tell you. A tough old life. You know, the other day in one of those places I met a fellow with one leg called Smith.”
He turned to the audience expectantly and was met with silence. He visibly sighed and made a tiny gesture to the gallery. A voice boomed out of the speakers, crackling, almost warped.
“One leg called Smith? What was the other one called?”
Some laughs, mostly polite.
“‘Cor blimey. Let’s go again, eh? Woman gets on to the bus and says to me ‘I say, is this the Barking bus?’ Me, I respond ‘No, madam, this one just goes toot toot’.”
The same response followed.
“A waiter in a top London restaurant was sacked today for having his thumb in the soup when he served it. A topless waitress has been dismissed for two similar offences.”
There was more appreciation for this one. Mr. Fate looked a little disheartened.
“That more your line is it? A little bit blue? Oh, I say! Boys will be boys, won’t they? Lucky for you, girls, otherwise you’d get no fun … now … listen!”
Mr. Fate spun and broke into a fit of maniacal laughter. The sound rang out through the hall; it grew to such a pitch that it could almost have shook the balconies and rattled the lighting system. Richard’s discomfort rose. He wanted to turn and flee from the sound, the horrible unceasing sound, but he worried that any break would be met by the ushers in the same mysterious manner as the teenager’s earlier attempt at gaining freedom. Richard turned his head, battling against the cackling assault that near-paralysed him, and saw the usher was still looming over the boy. Very few others around seemed to notice this or care very much.
A few laughs eventually rose to uncomfortably meet Mr. Fate’s, and this apparently spurred him into stopping. He smiled, and the orchestra played another tune. Mr. Fate once again broke out the same limited dance steps as earlier, enlivening them with a couple of strategically placed, still fully-trousered, moonings of the crowd, each one accompanied by a fluttering upwards of his coattails. He belted out the words with gusto.
“When I was a nipper only six months old
My Mother and my Father too
They didn’t know what to wean me on
They were both in a dreadful stew
They thought of tripe, they thought of steak
Or a little bit of old cod’s row
I said, “Pop round to the old cook-shop
I know what’ll make me grow.
Boiled beef and carrots, Boiled beef and carrots
That’s the stuff for your ‘darby-kel’
Makes you fat and it keeps you well
Don’t live like vegetarians, on the stuff they give to parrots
From morn till night, blow out your kite
On boiled beef and carrots.
When I got married to Eliza Brown
A funny little girl next door
We went to Brighton for the week
Then we both toddled home once more
My pals all met me in the pub
Said a feller to me, “Watcha Fred!
What did you have for your honeymoon?’
And just for a lark I said
Boiled beef and carrots…”
The invisible orchestra cut out, and Mr. Fate fell into a cross-legged sitting position.
“The great Harry Champion, that one. Truly great. Not like me, not like me. Oh, I know I’m not up too much,” he said quietly. “You don’t have to tell me. I know it.”
He looked out at his wide-eyed following.
“I’m like so much of you lot. ‘There’s millions like us’. I came along too late, much too late for myself. Or I just let my time pass, without grasping it properly-“
He stopped and smiled sympathetically at them all.
“Doesn’t have to be that way, though, does it? Does it? That’s why you’re all here, after all. Because it doesn’t have to be.”
Someone in the audience whooped. Richard looked around to see who was so excited by Mr. Fate’s melancholic pleas and saw another member of the audience being restrained by the doors. The balcony announcer took hold of the woman’s wrist and dragged her back to her seat. It was Graham’s wife. Mr. Fate took no heed of her.
“I’ve given you a bit of a reminder of what was, in my own sorry way. Now it’s your turn to do the rest, to do what we’ve come here for. Now, we can get time back. Our time. Better, happier times, the real thing. And it will be better than this, I promise, so much better. Don’t you want that, boys and girls?”
The crowd grew more and more excited. The room was melting for Richard now; reality was dripping away and congealing on the floor in thick, gloopy puddles. He could see this was a false world before him; an alien world, a terrible place, a bad photocopy, an ersatz reproduction printed in the wrong hues and with the lines smudged. He tried to stand, but another usher came up behind him and pushed him down. He could see, out the corner of his eye, that a small army of them had arrived from somewhere- like they’d shot up out of the old floorboards- and were pinning down any resisters, any who weren’t now fixing the stage with the same rictus delight, or waxen death-mask serenity, as the rest of Richard’s row. Most of those being held were audience members of his age or younger, but even scattered amongst those of fewer years he could see others who were consenting and exuberant. So many in the hall now seemed to him possessed of some secret knowledge, an idea of a secret aim to the proceedings, that he’d arrived tonight completely unaware of. He wondered how many were like him. Who had spread the word to the others? Had it even been put abroad, or had the educated not otherwise just been drawn here by a mysterious instinct, a voice that whispered to their most futile desires? Had Mr. Fate this evening been in their heads, their hearts, telling them things from inside that could never reach Richard; trilling in the gaps between his gags and songs in a tongue only to be understood by the initiated?
“Cover their eyes!” Mr. Fate pointed at the usherette militia, directing them. A smooth, supple pair of hands cut off his view of the stage.
“Sing along!” Mr. Fate bellowed. “I need all of you that can manage! It won’t work without most of you willing- willing! I’ve got a sheet for you to read from, there’s no excuse! Start the music!”
The fantasy orchestra started up again. The Wurlitzer sounded deep, rumbling, sizzling hellfire from below the pit.
“Time again, time again!” Mr. Fate shouted, and leapt into the words of the song. The crowd joined, uncertainly at first, but then with great enthusiasm, with glory in their bellies and golden syrup in their mouths. The song turned from the rinkydink to the sublime; it could have filled the greatest cathedrals in the world and sent the sheer grey sullen spires of God toppling. Richard struggled against his captors, but more hands were placed on him, more held him in place.
“We’ll smile again
With the sun through the rain
As we welcome back those good old days we knew
No more goodbyes
No more heartaches and sighs
We’ll awake to realise our dream’s come true
Those happy days, happy ways
Are the things we sigh for
They’ll all come true, Mister Blue-“
Richard felt the ground shifting beneath his feet; the whole hall began rocking left and right at a tremendous velocity. The hands confining him slid and skidded across his face and body; behind him, the bodies to which they belonged tried to keep themselves upright. Flashes of blue and red light blinded him when his eyes were free. The sideways movements turned into great lurchings backward and forwards. Richard gritted his teeth and dug his fingernails into the hard plastic beneath the thick velvet of his armrest; blood started dripping down his fingers. Mr. Fate took an opportunity to encourage the crowd.
“C’mon now, ladies and gents, boys and girls! Don’t be frightened! The golden pathways are opening for you; all you’ve lost is returning, all that’s passed is coming back. This is what we need!”
Someone- Graham?- cried out. “England! My England!”
Mr. Fate finished the song with the audience.
“What ya gotta cry for
Turn the lights on
For the darkness has gone
Arm in arm let’s sing a grand refrain
The world is with us
So we’ll smile again.”
Everything stopped. The theatre was still. The hands were withdrawn from Richard’s eyes, and the ushers melted back into the walls’ scarlet shadows. Richard looked around him; much of his row was caught between a new radiant happiness- old faces crinkled in children’s expressions of wonder- and an ambiguous dabbing at wet eyes with the edges of hankies. The young couple at the end of the row looked around in search of something or someone, or some clue as to the outcome of this mass seance.
Mr. Fate, who had been missing from the stage when Richard’s vision had been restored, returned.
“You’ve done a wonderful job. Oh, joy of joy, day of days! Isn’t it a shame we don’t have any windows in this place? But I’ve popped backstage, ladies and gents, and let me tell you- this isn’t the same city we left behind! Oh, it’s so much better.”
He gave a little jig and sang a song of his invention.
“Start again, start again, oh what can be, what can we be, now we can start again. We’ve left the cruelty of our age behind; the bitterness and the division. Oh Christ, how cold we’ve all been, eh? How bloody, bloody cold. Well, throw off your shawls, Mother Brown! Chuck the hot water bottle out from under the eiderdown. Go you lot, go!”
The majority of the audience thew themselves from their seats and once again battled their way towards the door, clambering and clawing their way over each other to get towards- what? Mr. Fate’s promised land, a new shining paradise beyond the foyer? Richard watched the crush develop- the lost and lonely stragglers, regretful or befuddled, joining after the worst of the stampede- and remained rooted in his seat. Mr. Fate had gone again; the stage lights were dimmed and eventually shut off. A kinder, gentler usher than the earlier paramilitary equivalents appeared at his elbow and helped him gingerly out of his seat and towards the door. No words were exchanged; Richard’s guide, although pinched and grey, walked with a puffed chest and a solemn stateliness.
They passed through the foyer and then out the the theatre; the usher left him and went back inside. Richard looked about and his legs buckled, and his head almost hit the pavement as he swooned. As Mr. Fate had promised, the Strand was indeed not the Strand he had come in from; the cladding and chrome, the lurking monsters of concrete frames and glass exteriors were gone from the margins of the scene around Charing Cross, and the familiar chain restaurants and shops had been replaced on this great stretch of life. The occasional horse-and-carriage or cart held up the lanes of early motorised hackney carriages, half-open to the elements and stinking with their dense fumes. The buildings had taken an almost Victorian appearance, a long line of tall soot and smoke-stained facades dropping down into the striped canopies and block-colored awnings of fancy shops. The people hurried about- the pace of their lives had changed little- but they were long overcoats, wide-brimmed hats and suits in great acres of fabric or peculiarly dumpy and formless dresses.
A pair of brogues stopped at Richard’s crown. A hand came to meet his, and after a few seconds of exertion from a samaritan almost out of puff, Richard was standing with a comforting arm around his shoulder. The man holding him was Mr. Fate, smiling warmly with his yellow teeth and his flaking make-up.
“Bit of a shock, isn’t it? Even for the most willing ones, it will be.”
Richard nodded. He couldn’t form words.
“Nineteen twenty-six. For God’s sake, I wish I’d got a better year. I hoped to avoid the Blitz at least; I managed that. But the crash is right around the corner.”
He shrugged his shoulders. Richard stood gaping at him.
“Still, it’ll be alright for me. Entertainment’s always boomed in hard times, and I’ll be on a bill with the best- heck, I’ll steal most of their routines before they’ve even thought of them. Bully for me. I’ve got my public. It’s the others I worry about. I needed them- of course- but I worry they didn’t quite think things through. To be honest, I think I took most back further than they were expecting. Not quite a Christmas Eve recording at the BBC Studios, is it? All dancing girls in elf costumes, and the comedian as a great big erect Santa. That’s what they really wanted- if they ever really did know for sure what they wanted. Oh, well. They’ll pull through. They’ll find a silver lining, and so will you. Call me if you need help.”
Mr. Fate slipped a business card into Richard’s coat pocket. He started to stroll away, with a grand promenade air, but Richard stumbled over and grabbed at his poleyster sleeve.
“Is there any way back?”
It was all he could manage to say, and he had to lean right into Mr. Fate’s ear to make himself heard. Mr. Fate shrugged once again.
“Get a few hundred of those who want to go the opposite way in a room and give it your best shot. It’s the only way. You might be able to round up a nice little crowd after the crash. They might even be knocking down your door to go forwards a little. Good luck with it, if you decide to make a go of it.”
Mr. Fate patted his shoulder and was away and swallowed by the Saturday evening crowd. An old song resounded in Richard’s head.
“Life begins at Oxford Circus…”
He watched a car hurry past and contemplated throwing himself under the next, or beneath the hooves of a horse. But then one of the old contraptions stopped before him and he climbed in and asked for the place the song had named. As they merged with the rest of the traffic, and avoided the masses of jay-walkers and delivery boys who recklessly pelted off the kerb and slipped through the tiniest spaces between the cumbersome vehicles, he tried to send himself back again to the latticed metalwork underneath a long-distant pier, on a hot summer’s day from someone else’s photo album, but found the sun had long since already set and all the joys of the seaside had disappeared into the black of the night. He wept. Back at the Orpheum, a blue-overalled workman, overseen by a courtly, august shade in all-black, carefully extracted the POOLEY’S CIRCUS poster from the wall, rolled it up and pushed it inside a cardboard tube. He received a nodded dismissal from his inspector and went down the side of the building, bill in hand, towards the tradesman’s entrance. The shade watched him all the way, before turning, stepping back inside the theatre and motioning to a waiting usherette to lock the front doors.
Billy Stanton is a young working-class writer and film-maker based in London, and originally from Portsmouth. His short story ‘Screwfix’ was recently published in the psychogeography collection ‘New Towns’ (Wild Pressed Books). His short fiction has also appeared in Horla and The Chamber magazines. His latest short film ‘Noli’, dealing with the rituals of modern British drinking culture, is currently in post-production.
We snuck out to the Goat Man’s place every Halloween night. It was our secret tradition. First, my brother Joey and I did some bad-ass trick-or-treating, racing from house to house throughout the neighborhood. Our covert mission was to score at least a handful of candy at each stop to stuff into our pillowcases. We only had about two hours before our parents would return to pick us up in the station wagon, and we didn’t want them to know where we spent most of the evening.
Out behind Pine Woods Cemetery.
That’s where the Goat Man lived, alone, in a rambling Victorian cottage. Perched on a knoll down a long driveway behind the cemetery, it boasted all the hallmarks of a real haunted house, right down to its crooked shutters, peeling paint, and squeaky iron gate.
In other words, it was scary freaking perfect.
All us kids called him The Goat Man, but he didn’t herd goats or even own them. He didn’t possess any goat-like qualities, either, except for the gray hairs that sprouted from his chin like steel wool. His real name was Earl Ruskin. He was a hunched over and skinny old man, perpetually dressed in a tattered black suit, even in summer, and he wore thick wire-framed glasses and kept his straggly white hair pulled back into a rat tail. He seemed like a hundred years old to us then, but looking back, he was probably only sixty.
I even felt sorry for him, sometimes. I was a sensitive, nervous girl, the kind who worried about missing cats and dogs in the neighborhood and often went out to search for them. To me, Earl was sort of a stray human. The way I figured it, he probably didn’t deserve all the things people said about him. Maybe he just needed rescue from a lifetime of loneliness.
People rarely saw him out and about in real life, but we all heard the whispered stories. If you stare at his face for more than ten seconds, it changes from human to wolf. Some older kids said he chased them from the cemetery one night, and that he could run lightning fast. He was behind them, and then, in a flash, he was ahead of them, levitating above one of the headstones.
And if that wasn’t scary enough, some of my fifth-grade classmates said they peeked in through his dining room window one night and saw him eating handfuls of spiders. Some of them crawled around on his face and hands while he was chewing. Well, it didn’t take long for that story to morph into Earl slurping brains from a silver ladle, dipped from the open skull of a dead goat. Hence the moniker.
Our dad told us that when Earl was young, he was more of a normal guy with a just few odd quirks. His family owned the old shoe factory in Milford for generations. When Earl inherited it, the Ruskin Shoe Company was one of the largest employers in our little corner of Vermont — half the town worked there. Earl was good to his employees, too, and for the most part they all liked him well enough; he was a fair and even-handed boss; he didn’t talk much, and he never came down on anyone too hard for being late or for asking for a raise.
But he was a loner, and never socialized, not even at company events. He often stayed late at the office so he could walk home in the dark. And he didn’t have one single friend that anyone could recall.
Earl was also shy around women. But he earned the name Earl the Hugger because during the holidays, at bonus time, he hugged each female employee when he handed out checks. He never said a word to any of them, just gave them the eye, if you know what I mean, and pressed them close for a few furtive seconds. Some of the women squirmed, others giggled, and some outright declined.
He never tried to hug the men.
His peculiar holiday hugs added to his creep factor. And despite his decent looks and wealthy bachelor status, no one wanted to go out with him.
Including my namesake, my aunt Emmaline. She was a beautiful, raven-haired young widow with ethereal blue eyes and a gentle smile. As the story goes, Earl was love-struck, and tried without success to garner her affection.
Still grieving the loss of her own husband from a car accident, Emmaline was upset by Earl’s behavior. He waited for her in dark hallways, and often hovered near her desk, staring at her. One Saturday morning, Earl showed up unexpectedly at the house. He held a huge bouquet of dead roses. When Emmaline saw who it was, and what he carried, she fled upstairs and dove under the bed. My dad, who was only eleven at the time, slid underneath to hide with her. She told him Earl had rancid breath and questionable manners, and that something about him frightened her. There’s something wrong with that man, she told him, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.
Emmaline needed a fresh start. She had big plans for a whole new life, and had just accepted a position as a Shore Excursions Manager with a major cruise line. She couldn’t wait to see the world. She gave her two-week notice to Ruskin Shoes, and was on her final countdown to freedom.
But tragically, on her very last day at Ruskin, a massive fire erupted at the plant, right in the middle of second shift. All the employees managed to escape the flames – all but Emmaline. As a shift supervisor, she must have felt it her duty to go back in to make sure everyone had gotten out safely. But she never made it back out again.
She was only twenty-two years old. Her whole family —and the entire town for that matter — was devastated by her death.
Including Earl. Although the Fire Marshall deemed the fire purely accidental, caused by faulty wiring, Earl was so broken he couldn’t rebuild. Instead, he became a black-suited recluse, and the object of two generations of childhood mischief.
“Check out the moon, Emmie,” Joey said, his breath trailing clouds. “It’s like a huge severed head rising behind the pines.” It didn’t look that way to me; it was missing the whole severed part, all the blood and gore. Besides, there was a bit of a gravity problem.
“Severed heads don’t rise, they fall.” But the moon was really big and full that Halloween; it cast long, eerie shadows on the gravestones. I kept my head down as we crossed the wooded path through the cemetery, just in case Earl was floating nearby. That would be a gravity problem, too, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
We crept to edge of the high row of overgrown shrubs by the front gate. As the wind rose, the temperature dropped, and both of us shivered in our costumes. The cold stung our faces and numbed our hands. There we crouched — a hairy biped and elegant princess – staring up at the Gothic windows.
A milky light flickered inside.
Joey lifted his furry mask. “I go first,” he mumbled, his mouth full of Snickers. He was a year older, almost twelve, a lot bigger than me, and very bossy. Last year he went first, too.
“Look at me and count to three.”
I watched, giggling, as he reared up to his full height and beat his furry chest. I attempted a deep, royal intonation. “One…two…three…and a dare from thee.”
“I’ve got a good one, your Highness.”
“Pray tell, Bigfoot.”
“I dare you…to knock on the Goat Man’s front door, and when he answers, tell him you’re cold and you want to come in.”
“Are you crazy?” No one, to our knowledge anyway, had actually ever stepped foot inside the Ruskin house. Except for Earl, of course. Even the Amazon delivery drivers never made it past the front porch.
“It’s a solid dare. You’re a sissy if you say no.”
Last year, he dared me to clang a bell at the front gate and then toss some candy onto the grass. The previous year, I dared Joey to drape toilet paper on all the low-hanging branches. Harmless, innocuous stuff.
Until now. This dare felt a full level higher on the danger scale.
But I was pretty confident that Earl wouldn’t answer the door.
With dramatic flair, I flipped my white and silver embroidered veil over my right shoulder. “I hereby accept on one condition.”
“You go with me.”
Joey didn’t say anything. But I could tell he was thinking about it.
“Time’s it?” I asked, trying to keep my teeth from chattering.
Joey checked his watch. Then he cracked a wicked grin. “It’s Goat Man time!”
We dropped our stuffed pillowcases and squeezed through the narrow opening in the gate.
Shimmering moonlight flooded the stairway. In fine princess fashion, I ascended the steps slowly, regally, admiring the ornate trim and gingerbread cutouts. I held on to the balustrade as I climbed, noting how steep and uneven the steps were. Almost twice as steep as normal stairs. At the top of the landing, I looked back down, and Joey gave me a tense wave before ducking behind the railing. I turned to the imposing, wrought iron front door, with its elegant scrollwork and reached for the black iron door knocker.
My heart skittered as I took a deep breath, and knocked.
At first, silence. I backed away from the door to see if Joey was still at the bottom of the stairs. He urged me on with a verbal push.
I stepped forward and knocked again.
And heard footsteps approaching from the other side of the door.
A male voice, “Yes? Who is it, please?”
I wanted to run. But I was frozen in place.
The door opened a crack. I heard a sharp intake of breath. And then it opened wider. Standing there, in the flesh, was The Goat Man.
He wasn’t what I expected. Not at all. He wasn’t skinny or hunched over. He wore a dark suit and slippers. And his suit wasn’t worn at all; quite the opposite. It looked expensively stitched, made with very fine material. His white hair was shiny and thick, brushed back from his forehead. His skin wasn’t even wrinkled; he was clean-shaven. He didn’t even wear glasses. His twinkling gray eyes looked very surprised to see me.
“Um, hi,” was all I could manage.
Then I saw his face clearly, and realized that the look I saw there was much more than surprise. It was raw pleasure. He broke a smile; his teeth were small and very white.
“Come in, come in, oh my dear–you must be so cold out there!”
I took a tentative step across the threshold. The door closed behind me with a swoosh and a soft thud.
I wasn’t scared then. Not yet. The veil shrouded my face; it felt like it protected me.
“Are you lost? No one is with you? Oh, my sweet dear, that’s such a pretty costume. And such a lovely veil. You look like a lost little princess bride. And a princess needs a house befitting royalty.”
He bowed dramatically, gesturing me to enter. I took another step inside. The heat hit me full blast. It must have been eighty degrees in there. An antique woodstove cranked in a corner of the kitchen, and I could see a fire roaring in the grand fireplace in the living room.
“Would you like a cup of herbal tea, dear? That’s what I’m having. It will warm you up.”
I found my voice; timid and hoarse. “It’s not what I thought.” I forced a smile. “Neither are you.”
“Ah. Lots of scary stories out there about me, eh?” He laughed and his whole body shook. “Do I look like some kind of decrepit old monster to you?”
I gave him a cautious look. Shook my head. “You really don’t even look that old.”
“Tell me, what do they call me these days?”
“The Goat Man.”
“Ah. Hadn’t heard that one.” As he pondered it for a moment, he picked something out of his right ear. I hoped he wouldn’t ask for further explanation.
He grinned and leaned in close. His breath smelled like decayed fruit.
“My name is Earl. Earl Ruskin. And what is yours, my dear?”
He held a delicate teacup. It had tiny black birds painted on it. I could see his fingernails were clipped short. He seemed very elegant. I felt shy in his presence, maybe even star-struck. Meeting Earl was kind of like meeting a celebrity. And he seemed so sweet, so nice.
I gently moved the veil away from my face and looked up at him, directly into his eyes. In my mind, I quickly counted to ten.
I was relieved to see his face stayed human.
“Emmie,” I said, “Short for Emmaline.”
Earl’s pale eyes bulged. That made me a bit uneasy. Then, his jaw started trembling. I was started to regret accepting this dare. Joey was going to have to give me all of his candy to make up for this. Gray hairs sprouted from his chin. The skin on his face rippled. He let go of the tea cup and I braced for the crash.
But it didn’t fall. It hung there, tipped over and suspended in mid-air. The tea stayed in the upside-down cup. The cup twirled a bit in the air but stayed aloft.
“Oh, it is just as I have always hoped!” Earl exclaimed. “Just as I have prayed! Yes! My prayers have indeed come true!”
Earl slipped his left hand into his suit coat pocket.
I was completely mesmerized by the levitated teacup. We were having a gravity problem. A big one. And now I was scared. Earl flipped his hand from his pocket and flung sparkles at my face. “Princess dust for the princess bride,” he said.
Everything happened so fast. I winced and coughed; the cup dropped and shattered. I took a step backward, away from the shards, away from the dust that stung my eyes and nose. There was a loud noise, it came from Earl’s mouth, I couldn’t make out what he was saying. He looked down at the mess, then at me. His lips were moving.
He grinned. His teeth were all yellow, decayed. Slimy. His hair was thin and brittle and pulled into a rat tail. I felt so dizzy. I couldn’t control my arms or legs. As I tried to steady myself against the spongy wall, I could see into the living room.
Blooms of black mold patterned the walls. The impressive gold drapes were shredded. The tiles in the fireplace were cracked and some were missing altogether. The heavy dining room set had fallen to ruin; some of the chair legs were broken. Everything was covered in dust and cobwebs. The table was on its side, the varnish bubbled and cracked. A marching column of insects emerged from the cracks.
Earl’s voice dialed back in, loud and tinny. “You’re so, so beautiful. Even more than she was.” His suit was torn and threadbare; it hung in ragged strips from his skinny frame.
I took a shaky step backwards; my hand was sticking to the wall.
A large spider scuttered across my left foot. Earl flicked out a bony arm and grabbed it in a second, popped it into his mouth, crunched it. “Mmmmm.” His pointed, yellow tongue darted out and licked his cracked lips. He rubbed his sunken stomach and belched. Something gray glistened at the edge of his shriveled lips.
He tilted his head, bemused by my horrified expression. “Oh, my dear, what kind of host am I? You must be starving.”
I screamed, but the sound didn’t come out of me. It went in; I felt it blast through my veins like lava, ricocheting into my muscles. The pain knocked me off my feet; I slumped to the floor.
I think I passed out for a few seconds; as I came to, my head seemed a little clearer. But unfortunately, my Halloween nightmare was still playing out in high definition. I drew a shaky breath. The hallway floor seemed to be rippling. Earl was swaying in front of me, his mouth moving incessantly. Black house flies buzzed in and out of it.
I thought of my parents, how upset they would be when Joey and I weren’t at our usual pick-up spot in front of Jensen’s Pharmacy. We had let them down. My mom said the worst thing to do to someone you love is lie to them. Joey and I didn’t lie, really. We just didn’t tell them the whole truth. Was I being punished? If so, the punishment didn’t seem to fit the crime.
It just wasn’t fair. Halloween was supposed to be fun-scary. And the impossibility of what I was seeing had put me into some kind of split-brain mode. Part of me terrified, the other part angry.
I decided to focus all my energy on the angry part.
“You’re just a horrible…thing!” I screamed at him, and the words punched out of me like hot coals. Earl cackled and danced around like an emaciated marionette. He started to sing, oh yeah, oh yeah, I’m just a thing called Earl. Come here little lady and I’ll take you for a whirl. Yeah baby, you’re my princess girl…then he lunged at me with a clawed hand, his feet hovering several inches from the floor.
I ducked away from the swipe. “Ugly stinking lump!”
Come here, my beautiful one. Emma—Emma–Emmaline. With the ocean blue eyes. We are destined to sail together across the sea of life.
“No one would ever want you! I hate you! And my aunt hated you, too!”
That hit the mark. Earl’s feet struck the floor, hard. He fixed me with a vicious stare.
My outburst made me realize something. Something important. Something that might save my life.
I was no snuffling little sissy.
“You’re a very cruel child,” Earl said, as if correcting me, and bared his disgusting teeth. His eyes were red slits. He opened his horrible mouth wide, and this time, the flies that issued from his mouth buzzed like tiny chainsaws, swirling into a funnel. Dozens of them. Hundreds.
I flashed back to a family camping trip up in Maine. We were staying near a lake and I was playing in a sandy area near some low bushes. All of a sudden, I heard my dad yelp. He was running up from the lake. I could hear him yelling, Run, Emmie! As fast as you can, in a straight line! To the car! Get inside and close the doors! And the swarm of bees was an undulating black cloud around his head, and I turned and–
–fled down the Goat Man’s hallway, away from the bees, trying to stay in a straight line, trying to stay upright; the floor was still moving beneath my feet. Run, Emmie! Don’t flail your arms! I felt a few of them pinging me, sharp little zap zaps on my head, pinch, ping, then my face, my arms.
Hold your breath, Emmie! It makes the bees blind. That was the hardest part, when all you want to do is scream out, ragged and raw. But more than anything else, I wanted to see my dad’s face again. And my mom’s. And Joey’s.
So, I held in my breath. I held back my screams.
I burst into a bedroom and slammed the door closed behind me. I dragged a heavy chair against it. In the dim light, I spied a canopy bed, heaped with quilts. I grabbed the top one and stuffed it under the door. I glanced around for a closet, but there wasn’t one. The only place to hide was beneath the bed. So that’s where I crawled. I could hear my heart hammering in my chest. A few bees still crawled on me; some were stuck in my veil. I tried to make myself small and breathless. The stingers hurt. I washed them with silent tears.
Everything seemed quiet. No buzzing. No sign of Earl. As soon as my heart found a slower tempo, I lifted the edge of the bed ruffle and peered out.
This room was very clean. Nothing fancy, just clean. The windows were small and dark. One ceramic lamp rested on a wooden table; it flickered like candlelight.
I was gathering my courage to slide back out and check the windows. I could bang on them. Yell for Joey. Maybe they would open. Maybe Joey had already run back and called the police. I couldn’t stay here. I had to find a way out.
That’s when something swung past my face, like a pendulum.
I heard a rustling, creaking noise in the bed. And a pitiful moan.
And realized the pendulum was a bony arm.
I flew out from beneath the bed, too terrified to look. I was at the window in two steps, and immediately my heart sank; I could see they would never open.
They were fortified with metal security bars.
I shrank into the curtains. Where could I go? I forced myself to look at the bed. The lump of quilts moved and turned, and then coughed. I could see the shape of a human head. Then a voice; female, weak, and very raspy. “Is…someone there?”
I was still terrified, but at least she wasn’t Earl. And I prayed she wasn’t worse.
Please, God, don’t let her be worse. “Um, yeah.”
The woman jerked at the sound of my voice. She pushed the blankets to her lap and looked over at me. Then she started to weep.
“Oh, lady, I’m sorry if I scared you. I’m not mean like Earl.”
Was this his mother? She looked very old. Her skin was thick and leathery, like elephant skin. Didn’t she pass away like a zillion years ago?
“Earl is more than mean, child.” She reached for the glass by the bedside, took a feeble sip. Her upper body was skeletal. Her gray, braided, hair fell to her elbow.
“Then you should leave here. Leave with me.”
“I can’t. He would never allow it.” She patted the blanket and motioned me to come closer. “Let me see you, child. I haven’t seen anyone other than Earl in a very, very long time.”
She seemed so nice. But I had been fooled by that “nice” trick before.
“What’s your name, little one?”
“Emmaline. But I go by Emmie for short.”
Her smile was sad. “That’s a lovely name. Did he…hurt you, Emmie?”
“I think he wants to.” I saw the woman wince, press her fingers against her eyes. I wanted some answers. “Is he…a demon?”
“He’s a very sick human being. He’s evil. He is very practiced at it. He can make you see things, awful things, things out of a scene from Hell.”
A heavy rapping at the door. Then two more sharp knocks, louder. The door had a red tinge around the edges. It was starting to bulge. The woman bolted upright. I could see fear shining in her eyes. “Child. Listen. You are in terrible danger. He’s very angry.”
Her eyes darted about the room. Where could we go? I couldn’t see any way out other than back through the door. “Quick,” she said, “get under the covers. I’ll hide you.”
She reached over and rustled around in the drawer in the bedside table. “Earl has plenty of evil tricks in his arsenal. But — I’ve got one too. I only wish I tried this years ago.”
The door erupted right off its hinges. I dove under the blankets. I could see a blood-red glow even through the heavy black wool. I wondered if Earl’s rage had turned him into a dragon. I was having trouble taking a full breath; it was if all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room. I heard the woman scream out, “No! I forbid you! She is not yours; she will never be yours!”
I heard something pop, then a squelchy noise, followed by a small explosion. And then, the most blood-curdling scream I have ever heard. It sounded like the hellish howl of a dying animal.
The old woman pulled me tight to her, covered my head with a blanket. “Brace yourself, child. Don’t look. Just hold on to me and don’t let go.” We were out of the bed and moving through some kind of tunnel. It felt like my skin was melting. I held on. We crawled through muck and slime and smoke. Something hard fell against my shoulder. My knee pressed into a nail. I was choking. We kept crawling. The heat was unbearable. The old woman was wracked with coughs but she kept going, pushing, pushing me forward, and then a sudden, delicious blast of cold air; I heard voices, lots of them, Joey was screaming my name, and there were sirens, and someone yelled, two survivors–the female adult is critical with second-degree burns and a female minor is stable. We are in transport to UVM Medical Center.
I was on the bench seat, getting hydration therapy. The EMT told me my parents and brother were following us to the hospital. The old woman was strapped in a stretcher beside me. Paramedics attended to her, busily attaching wires to her chest and administering intravenous fluids. Her eyelids fluttered open. She looked over at me with the kindest eyes.
I studied the intricate pattern of scars on her face. Her private road map of a life of pain.
She still had a kind of beauty, haunted and ravaged. She motioned for me to come close. I slid off the bench seat and pressed my ear near her mouth.
“Do you want to know a secret?” she asked.
I nodded, then leaned back in.
“My name is Emmaline, too.”
Kate Bergquist holds an MA in Writing and Literature from Rivier College in New Hampshire. Insurance agent by day, dark fiction writer by night, Kate’s work was nominated for Best New American Voices. An original dark thriller screenplay NO FORCIBLE ENTRY (co-written with Patricia Thorpe) was honored by Showtime, nominated for a Tony Cox award and won top honors at Scream Fest and Reel Women. She finds inspiration along the craggy Maine coast, where she lives with her husband and several old rescue dogs.
I dreamt my love there lost on a raft.
I dreamt I tried to care
And clung to the other half.
I dreamt I offered her a drink
The dregs white
As the white heart of a ghost.
I dreamt she started to sink
Her hand upraised in a skeleton’s toast,
And I dreamt I tried a sexy wink,
And my closed mouth
Tried a clenched kiss.
I dreamt she whispered bitterly:
Thomas White has a triple identity: speculative fiction writer, poet, and essayist. His poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print literary journals and magazines in Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He is also a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author who has contributed essays to various nonliterary journals on topics ranging from atheism, the meaning of Evil, Elon Musk, Plato, The Matrix, and reality as a computer simulation. In addition, he has presented three of his essays to the West Chester University Poetry Conference (West Chester, Pennsylvania), as well as read his poetry on Australian radio.
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly,
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”-Lennon and McCartney
Ryan O’Shaughnessy stands in front of a strip club in King’s Cross, the red-light district of Sydney. He is a muscular man with a severe harelip—a disfigurement he welcomes since he does not want the whores to hassle him. His back leans on the wall of the club; his hands, heavy for a short man, hang loosely from the belt of his jeans. His collar is turned up Elvis Presley style; his shirt, partly buttoned, reveals his hard chest. His hair, a more stunning anachronism, is clipped into a crew cut and bristles with white flecks—yet he is not out of place in the Friday night ambiance of the street. His gaze is proprietary as he watches the drifting cars, the stationary hookers and the barker who paces back and forth in front of the club.
A traffic light turns red, and cars drift to a halt. The windows stay rolled up although the prostitutes beckon cheerfully; their clinging skirts and brassy shouts have no effect on the stalled drivers. The club’s marquee is also deflected: the letters pulse impotently on the shiny hoods of the cars. The letters flash kniP rehtnaP kniP.
When the cars again move, Ryan pushes himself off the wall. The barker seems to be calling him back as he walks away from the club, but Ryan has no use for girlie shows—he is focused on earthier matters. He is a vagrant who has just been released from jail, and he is looking for a piece of ass, a couple of hits of acid and a brawl.
The prostitutes hop out of his way like frogs. Although he has been there most of the night, they know he is not a patron; his face is too scarred and menacing, and he moves like a lynx on the prowl. Ryan curls his lip as he walks, exaggerating his aura of menace. Since the streets and jails are his elements, it is comforting to be a thug.
The city lights bloat as he waits for a break in the traffic. They leap back to size after he wipes his glasses. The goldfish bowl lenses restore his weak vision; he now clearly sees the towering boy on the opposite side of the street. The boy, his drug dealer, is as stiff as a scarecrow. His eyes sweep the sidewalk like lighthouse beams. With a wave of his hand, Ryan signals the boy who nods like a marionette. Ryan starts to cross the street.
A traffic cop shouts, glaring at Ryan as he carelessly steps in front of a car. The cop’s white-gloved hands flutter like doves in flight. The chirp of his whistle punctuates the angry admonishment of the motorist. A chorus of horns from other stalled cars joins the blast of the whistle.
Ryan covers his ears. He jumps to the curb, and the traffic behind him starts rolling again. Not wanting to draw more attention to himself, Ryan looks away from the cop. He walks toward the boy, but changes his mind and decides to hide from the cop instead. The police have Ryan’s number, and Ryan is too poor to buy them off.
A coffeehouse offers him refuge. He pushes the glass door open and saunters toward the counter. The prune-faced woman behind it gasps at the sight of him. She stares at him as though he’s diseased when he asks for a pack of Camels. Handing her a grungy bill from his small disability pension, he says, “Where’s the fire, grandma? You act like you’ve seen a spook.” The woman picks up the money as though it might burn her hand. Trembling, she gives him his cigarettes along with a bit of change. Ryan tears the pack open; he surveys the room, flinching when he hears funhouse laughter. Noticing a pair of drag queens at a table, he decides to make them shut up. They need to know that his nerves are raw and their laughter is pissing him off.
The queens, lost in their chatter, do not notice him leaning over them. Although powdered like corpses, they squeal like children; their wigs bob and nod while their laughter erupts. Ryan raps his knuckles on their table. Their chatter evaporates as their grainy faces turn towards him.
“Ladies!” he jeers.
Unimpressed, the queens continue their chat, and Ryan straightens his back. He picks at the pack, shaking loose a cigarette. His match winks like a firefly before hitting the floor. He creeps to the door and peeps at the street. The cop’s attention is back on the traffic, and Ryan shivers with relief. It’s bad enough that specters stalk him; he does not need cops after him too.
The towering drug dealer is still awaiting him, but Ryan moves guardedly, staring into storefronts so it won’t look like he’s making a buy. He almost steps on a fleshy street artist, displaying his paintings beneath a moth-covered streetlight. The man talks with a tourist while Ryan stoops over the paintings and feigns an interest in art. The pictures—red sunsets and bosomy nudes—only make him wary. He does not like to look at paintings because they are similar to hallucinations. The last time Ryan was in jail, a psychiatrist gave him a warning. He said, unless Ryan took soul-numbing meds, his hallucinations would only get worse. Psychiatrists talk too fucking much and oughta be pistol-whipped.
As he pretends to study the paintings, the fat painter notices him. The man’s sweaty face blanches, and his voice becomes tight. “Ya find one ya like, mate?” he bleats.
Ryan shrugs. “I live in Hyde Park,” he snaps. “Plenty of sunsets there.” He holds out the package of cigarettes. “Have a smoke, baby. I’m not gonna hurt you.”
The painter picks tentatively; Ryan shakes the pack. “Come on now!” he mumbles. A bit of ash drops like a feather from the cigarette in Ryan’s mouth.
When the man has picked more cigarettes, Ryan snatches one back, which he lifts to his own. When the flame is transferred, Ryan offers it back and the painter accepts it with shaky hands. Ryan salutes the painter dismissively then looks around for the boy.
The streetlights cast motionless shadows—the boy is nowhere to be seen. The cop at the crosswalk orchestrates traffic as though he’s conducting a band.
Ryan tosses the butt as a pearly cloud escapes him. The red eye scatters upon the sidewalk. Feeling like an abandoned dog, Ryan pockets his powerful hands. Fortunately, he still can lay claim to his mission: a piece of ass, some fisticuffs and a couple of hits of acid that he may have to buy somewhere else. These primitive goals are a godsend—proof that his ghosts do not own him.
A prostrate form almost trips him—a bum. As he steps over the body, avoiding a vein of piss, a double-decker bus stops beside him. Its engine growls like an ogre, its headlights comb the night, and a pale conductress stands in the stairwell and inspects him with frozen eyes. Ryan waves the bus on and sighs like a kettle when it pulls away from the curb.
The towering boy, having reappeared, is now waiting for him on the opposite side of the street. He has turned his back on Ryan and is studying a movie marquee. This is an obvious guise since the ticket booth is empty. The lettering on the marquee reads Last Show Ends at Midnight.
These words seem grimly prophetic, and a chill invades Ryan’s spine. He crosses the street, strides over to the boy and slaps him on the back. “Baby,” he laughs, “gimme some love.”
The boy nods politely. Despite his skeletal demeanor, he seems to be callow and kind. His manner suggests indiscriminate warmth. Only the smell of him is intrusive: a pungent aroma that smells like bad meat.
Ryan tells him, “The usual. Gimme two hits.” His thick fingers snap like a rifle shot, bringing the boy to life.
With practiced fingers, the boy opens his jacket. Two small paper squares appear like magic in his palm.
Ryan holds out his hand and winks at the boy. The boy’s wormy fingers relinquish the squares. Ryan pockets them hastily. Removing his wallet, he slips the boy a few dirty bills.
The boy’s slender fingers close over the money like an octopus grabbing a crab. When he opens his jacket to pocket the bills, his odor makes Ryan gag.
Ryan needs to disengage from this cadaverous presence, so he pretends to wind his wristwatch. The boy limps away, and his ambling gait reminds Ryan of leg irons. The boy trips as he walks.
Ryan feels his shins prickle. His eyes flicker, dart. The clang of a jail cell comes suddenly to mind. Although his memory is fried, his instincts still protect him. He swaggers up to another street vendor as though he is merely out for a stroll.
The vendor, an old man with mocking eyes, has spread cuckoo clocks on the sidewalk. Ryan stoops over the clocks, studying them carefully. They are expertly carved and shiny with paint. The vendor holds up one of the clocks as though it’s a peace offering. “Cuckoo,” he teases. “Cuckoo, cuckoo.”
Ignoring the jibe, Ryan points to his wristwatch. “Stuff it, gramps. I’m traveling light.”
He is recalling places the clock might have fit: small pockets of time that have grown so remote that they float like flotsam on the scrambled surface of his mind. Thankfully, the memories are too trite to be reliable: he remembers a dirty flat, he remembers his mother’s coffin, and he remembers a Catholic orphanage where the nuns whipped him with switches. He recalls little more than the smell of his mother: a boozy whore with huge flaccid breasts and weary bloodshot eyes. She sweated a lot from her boozing, and her sweat stank like Limburger cheese. Had she died when he set fire to the flat they had lived in and had that landed him in the orphanage? Since his dementia is growing stronger, he can dispense with these parodies of memory. It is enough for him to challenge the vacuity of the moment—a vacuum he can fill with some ass and a brawl. Hell, even a noisy party would keep the darkness at bay.
Ryan walks away from the cuckoo clock vendor—his mission is yet unfulfilled. High above him, a street lamp is boiling with insects—a sight that ennobles his hunt. The bugs, undeterred by the heat from the lamp, keep tapping on the glass.
An urchin comes up to him and asks for a quarter—a small teenage girl with dirty bare feet. Her face is waxy, her eyes bright as buttons. She reminds him of an elf.
Ryan shrugs warily. Is she a phantom? He must put her to a test. “I’ll give you ten dollars to strip,” he jests. He laughs, embarrassed by his joke as the girl walks away from him. He dips into his pocket. “Oi, baby!” he cries.
The quarter he flicks her spins like a top. The girl shakes her head as it bounces on the pavement beside her. She sits down in front of a porn shop and does not look at the coin.
Feeling himself blush, Ryan bows his head. That there are limits to his depravity is not a comforting thought. The streets are a jungle, after all, and no place for charity.
A song from a car radio batters his ears. A voice sings, “It’s now or neverrrr…” The car hurtles by and the voice recedes. Ryan’s heart thumps like a bill collector pounding on a door.
Across the street is the city stadium, a gray brick building with a gigantic marquee. The marquee proclaims A Battle of Champions,and Ryan feels his brawler’s heart race. Two wrestlers in profile are featured on the marquee: men that look like gorillas. They watch him from the corners of their eyes as he hurries across the street.
Ryan pauses to light another cigarette. He blows out the match when the flame bites his fingers. Provoked by menacing marquee, he walks with a gunfighter’s swagger. Keep looking at me like that, Ryan thinks, and I’ll bash in both your skulls.
The crowd at the ticket booth separates, allowing him a wide berth as he struts past the stadium. They are mostly foreigners—Arabs and Greeks—and their chatter is unintelligible to him. Some are glancing at the cars that slow down beside them. The hookers in the cars are cruising in pairs, but no customers join them. The cars gather speed and melt into the night.
The chatter grows faint as Ryan strides up a hill. It is finally drowned out by the drone of deep breathing. Ryan strays towards a lamppost, props himself up and labors to catch his breath.
A police car passes him and then sinks out of sight when it reaches the top of the hill. Ryan sighs, relieved once again that the cops did not cuff him up. Before he is back in the slammer, he will have time for some ass and a party.
He is standing beside a massage parlor—a building with frosted windows that emit a hoary light. He tosses a butt and watches as it strikes theOpen sign. The parlor is beckoning him to go in, and Ryan feels his skin crawl.
Ryan holds onto the lamppost, transfixed by the parlor’s wintry light. His scalp tingles like ants are devouring it. Thankfully, his mission awaits him. The hill is now plunging. He lights another cigarette and takes a heavy drag.
The milky glow from the massage parlor fades as he starts to descend the hill. As the streets become darker, he sees only shadows. His shoes faintly echo. His spark remains bright.
A piece of ass, a brawl, a couple of squares of acid. These are not diversions but staples—life values to be celebrated with beer and song. They are palpable, after all, and offer him proof that he thrives.
He is sitting on a couch in the Last Call Saloon, a rowdy gay bar near the west side of town. He has found himself at a party: a place of music and dance. If his luck continues to hold, he will also score some ass.
He has swallowed both hits of acid, and the walls are starting to breathe. He looks at the dancers that hover above him. Contained within cages and plumed like peacocks, they seem immune to the sweaty crowd below them. Although they are out of reach, these queens smile enticingly. Their bodies swell and contract as though they are made of elastic. A band is playing “Hang On Sloopy,” and Ryan is ready to dance.
He can practically trace out his name in the air, and the people around him seem drugged by the smoke. A willowy singer is crooning the song, but the band is drowning her out. The drummer, a boy with a sunken chest, ought to be punched in the gut. His drumming, which sounds like a death rattle, freezes Ryan’s pulse. Ryan does not want his heart to stop, so he must keep the beat alive.
Ryan unbuttons his shirt and starts tapping on a low table in front of the couch. His head sways like a reed in a stream, and soon he is soaked in sweat. He hesitates only to pick up his glass—a superfluous gesture since most of the beer has spilled onto the table, which glitters like blood. Ryan’s mouth is now drier than lint and aches with incredible thirst. He takes a sip of beer before continuing to flog the table.
The bar is packed with men, some in leather. They seem irritated by his pummeling hands, but he pays them no notice. He must keep his blood pumping, or his heart will stop like an unwound clock.
A piece of ass is approaching him: a cherub-mouthed hussy with a shiny, blonde wig that spills down over her shoulders. She is far more tempting than the fickle jailhouse punks he has known, and she is toting a glass of beer. Ryan seizes her wrist as she tries to crowd past him.
“I’ll have it here.”
She giggles. “Naw, you don’t.”
She holds onto the glass. Ryan squeezes her wrist. She’s giving him a workout.
He answers, “Gimme!”
“It’s not for you, honey.” She pries his hand from her wrist.
Ryan leaps to his feet, but his lunge is in vain and his thumb, electrified by the rubbing of the couch, sparks feebly on her dress. He has grabbed only air, so she might be a ghost but his head still bobs with triumph. His heart is thudding like a war drum; he is going to stay alive.
Ryan points to his crotch as she stomps away from him; he must keep the quarrel going. Rolling his hips, he announces, “She blew me!”
She whirls around and stares at him as though he is not of this world. Her face has turned into the face of a monkey—she looks ready to bite off his head. She leans closer to Ryan. “Weirdo, piss off!” Her voice is now deep and gravelly as though coming from a well.
“She bleeeeew me!” Ryan sings.
Her teeth are bared. She balls her fists. She is ready to hit him in the nose, but Ryan waves her off as though she were a fly. He will not diminish his manhood by slugging it out with a queen. Ryan snorts with indignation as she fades into the crowd.
Ryan sits down and keeps pounding the table. The acid is making him antsy; he is having a very bad trip. But a more fuckable queen is perched near the bar. This queen is vampish and slender. She is looking at him with lust in her eyes. Ryan winks at her and rises from the couch. The drums keep time with the throb in his cock as he pushes his way towards her.
Dance, Ryan thinks, and the shadows won’t linger. Dance and goblins will turn into clowns. Dance and the phantoms of memory will vanish into the night.
This queen has pupils like saucers—she must be high on meth—but Ryan bows deeply and grins like a fox. “Dance with me, baby?” he pleads.
She nods and smiles thinly—a coy one is this one. He takes her arm gently, his thick fingers throbbing, and guides her out onto the dance floor.
Releasing her arm, Ryan struts like a gamecock—a toe-to-heel motion. His knees bend and bob. This causes a spasmodic snap to his wrists; they seem tied to his knees with invisible threads, and his feet nimbly skip behind opposite ankles as he deftly raises his puppeteer hands.
Dance and shadows won’t linger. Dance and your heart will still pound. Dance and the goblins and boogeymen will go back to where they belong.
He bumps into a waitress who is toting a pitcher of beer. His soles nearly slip as the pitcher explodes, but Ryan springs quickly and pivots full circle avoiding the beer that creeps towards his feet.
Ryan isn’t unnoticed as he hops to the rhythm. The bouncer is watching him like a jailer, but Ryan has thwarted the reaper—he isn’t going to die. He wipes his forehead and waves to the bouncer who warningly shakes his head.
Ryan whirls—now alone—and the strings become tighter. His hands have grown heavier. His legs feel remote. When a strobe light flickers, he feels like he’s trapped in an old-time, Charlie Chaplin movie. The room is now stifling; his legs are cramping. Although most of the revelers have left the dance floor, a few remain. They keep dancing with Ryan who claps his hands loudly and shakes to the tune.
The music dies in a rattle of the drums. The barkeeper shouts, “Last Call!” Ryan hears hands clapping, applauding him, and so he continues to dance. But the dance floor is barren. The cages hang empty. The room comes awash in a smoky gray light.
The applause thickens, pauses, and then once again swells as he finishes his performance with a leg split and bow. His brow lapses forward—touching his knee; he spreads out his arms like an eagle in flight. The room starts to spin, but he holds his pose until the bouncer grabs him by the collar.
The bar is closing. The street awaits him. The bouncer says, “Piss off, asshole,” so he lurches toward the door. But a silver-haired man is now blocking his way and looking at him with interest. The man’s skin is leprous, his face wan and wrinkled; his flat cold fingertips touch Ryan’s own. Ryan backs away, and this fiend does not follow—the sharp frame of a mirror contains him.
A pair of strong headlights stabs Ryan’s eyes as he stumbles to the sidewalk. The glow of a streetlamp is brighter than flame. Although he closes his eyelids, two saffron orbs linger. They bounce like flaccid tits, even when he opens his eyes, but he can see beyond them. He can see a huge dirty building beside him, a warehouse for dairy products. He can tell by the wind, which is ripe and sour—a rancid assaultive breeze. The cheesy stink dies as the wind grows stronger. The air is freshened by warm drops of rain. The moon, which looks like his mother’s face, watches him stagger along.
The rain passes. The street starts to dip. An angry gust of wind snatches his cigarette pack from his hand. Ryan pauses a moment, doubting his eyesight; the wind is also assailing a woman in a long, black billowy gown. The woman hurries toward him, waving her hand as though she is wielding a whip. A cab, trailing smoke, pulls alongside the curb and she slithers like mercury into the cab. Ryan shakes his head, unconvinced by this sight, then resumes walking. As he crosses the street, an approaching car comes shrieking to a stop.
The twin orbs linger as the sidewalk accepts him. A dark silhouette, his shadow, crawls before him on the sidewalk. He picks up his pace and overtakes the shadow, but it hops back out in front of him like a prisoner making a break. Blue and red lights canter behind it as though in hot pursuit.
The lights dance like a coven of witches. A police siren freezes his pulse. He glances about him; an alley awaits him. He leaps into the alley and hides behind a dumpster.
The scent of ripe urine withers his nostrils as he presses his back to a dirty brick wall. The cop car streaks past the alley as though he is not even there.
Ryan peeks from the alley, his breathing still shallow. A garbled noise tickles his ears, but Ryan has no time for voices. Somewhere in the city, salvation awaits him: a fight with his name on it.
A short distance away a crowd is collecting, the probable source of the voices. The faces are fleeting and clownishly rouged by the police car’s rotating lights.
Ryan’s curiosity overpowers him, and he steps back onto the sidewalk. The crowd expands as he hurries downhill. Something wicked is taking place, and he must know what is going on. He orbits the crowd until an opening appears then he hunches his shoulders and bulls his way in.
He has seen knifings before in the county jail, and the pool of blood excites him. It expands upon the pavement like an uncharted fountain of youth. The victim—some tramp with a shiv in his chest—is as stiff as a mannequin. His face looks as though it’s been carved from wood and is frozen with surprise. His palsied hands clutch the knife handle as though unwilling to turn it loose.
A wiry policeman disperses the crowd as an ambulance murmurs then pulls to the curb. Ryan drifts away from the crowd. He has no business here. The night is not over, and Ryan needs action. He also has ghosts to outrun.
The police car eases past him. Its lights are no longer flashing, a promising omen. Ryan’s feet skip a beat as he struts along, and he puffs out his chest like a toad.
The stadium is dark now, shadows have deepened. Small clouds of men stand by the entrance as though waiting to catch a bus. The hookers, successful now, pull their cars to the curb. They let passengers out; other passengers join them. Doors slam as the cars pull away.
Ryan struts past the johns, feeling bold and superior. He will not waste his seed on a whore. He picks up his pace as though late for a date, and the hookers drive on by him. A few minutes of walking are all that it takes to return once again to his post near the strip club.
The club’s racing lights are now rimmed with huge halos, but the barker seems unaware of this. He is still calling out to passing pedestrians and pacing back and forth.
The lights in the coffeehouse seem softer, perhaps because Ryan is thirsty. His tongue feels glued to the roof of his mouth, and he cannot even swallow. He pushes the glass door open and walks into the coffeehouse. An ape of a man with a cruel, meaty face watches him from one of the booths. A bouncer, most likely, or maybe a wrestler. Could this be the brawl he is looking for? Ryan’s heart begins to race.
Feeling the ape’s eyes upon him, Ryan pays for a cup of coffee then he sits in a vacant booth that allows him a view of the street. The burgundy leather is soft on his back. The coffee, still frothy, is scalding and sweet. Ryan’s glasses are fogged when he sets down the cup, and a ghostly veil hides the street.
Deathly fatigue arrests him. He starts to nod although the cup stings his palms; he drifts off for a moment. He wakes with a jump. The twin orbs have returned; they are bloodshot now and glitter like the eyes of a cat. They obscure the warm pool he has spilled onto the table. They leap to the carpet, the counter, the wall as he staggers out of the booth. They blur even the ape who now looks up at Ryan; the ape is unmoved by his visitor’s plight, but his huge jaw tightens and his beefy face flushes when Ryan leans over and calls him a pussy.
The orbs glide away, redder than sunsets as the ape musters Ryan out of the coffeehouse. On the sidewalk, the orbs mingle with sharp points of light that swirl around him like a carousel.
And Ryan is battling the ape!
The ape grips his collar and pummels him vigorously. Ryan grunts from the punches—“Hey there!” he shouts. His specs splash on the pavement. “Ho!” The blows—not unpleasant—pound his shoulders and the cropped top of his head. One of them bangs off the door of the coffeehouse, producing a shower of tinkling glass. Now Ryan is slipping on wafers of glass and throwing wild blows at the ape. The ape’s fist pounds his mouth—he can taste his lip. It’s as plump as a sausage and warms where it’s cut.
A wall, hard and grainy, squashes Ryan’s shoulder. He turns towards the pavement, facing it flat; it is dotted with ruby-red beads. As he pushes the pavement away, his tongue strokes his front teeth. They are still in place—just barely cracked. On the street, the headlights are swollen and spinning, but the cars are still rolling along.
Then comes the shoe. It jolts his side, emptying his lungs, and Ryan rolls onto his back. This way he can see the ape. The ape has taken his belt off to flog Ryan soundly. He raises the belt gingerly; his hand must be hurt. He is gasping for breath.
Ryan pumps his foot at the blurred, beefy face. Missing his target, he pumps it again. He hears a sound like a chestnut exploding. The ape is struck!
Ryan rolls to his chest. He gropes the pavement for support. He can move without too much pain although slivers of glass cling to his palms. Ryan climbs to his feet, glancing about. The ape is on the ground, breathing raggedly. Ryan has broken his nose.
The street is still spinning. Ryan tries to stand up straight, but a current keeps pulling his head to the sidewalk. A bleating keeps time with his galloping heart. Already, the barker is marching toward him, and out on the street, from between the cars, the policeman is blasting his whistle.
Ryan must run—he must run for his life, he must run like a wounded gazelle. He shuffles forward, leaps over the ape, and takes off down the sidewalk. His shoes strike the ground like hammer blows; his hands slice the air like scythes. Still, the whistle grows louder. It stabs his ears. Shoes faster than Ryan’s strike the pavement behind him; hands soon will drop on his collar and neck.
A pedestrian shouts and jumps out of his way. A vehicle skids as he crosses the street. More calls fill the air as Ryan sprints on. His lungs are tugging, his legs are like rubber—yet the footsteps behind him are mere inches away. The corner is too sharp where he changes direction. His hand skids on its heel—his knee dents a trashcan—but as quick as he falls Ryan leaps to his feet.
Like a deer Ryan bolts, his pursuers close behind him. The whistle is dead but the footsteps grow louder—a resolute, walloping sound. The traffic light is green at the end of a block, and Ryan dashes safely out into the street. The cars wait as he passes, but their engines are snarling. Their headlights glare like flame.
A towering blur at a bus stop awaits him—an open two-decker bus whose engine is humming. It drifts from the curb as Ryan draws near it then slowly builds speed as if entering the race. Ryan gains on the bus—he can make out the license plate. Behind him, the footsteps are gaining on him.
The bus is now inching away from him. As the platform recedes, Ryan sucks one more breath. Although his legs have dissolved and his lungs are on fire, the vertical pole by the stairwell is only a few feet away.
Ryan loses his balance—his run a mere stumble. His fingers close desperately over the pole. He is jerked like a rag doll but stays on his feet, his momentum preserved by the pull of the bus. Pain knifes through his shoulder—the socket is wrenched—but his burning fingers are cooled by the pole and refuse to forfeit their slippery hold.
As the bus gains more speed, he leaps onto the platform. He sits in the stairwell and labors for breath. His chest glistens like oil. It caves and expands. Punishing blows pound his temples and ears, but the bus keeps rolling along.
The conductress is looking down at him. Her face is as pale as ivory, her eyes are as brilliant as opals, and she stares at him like an angel of death as she waits to receive his fare. Her bony hands rest on a change maker; it winks when a streetlight hits it.
“Almost,” Ryan says.
He searches his pocket, locates a quarter—the precise amount of his fare. His hand shakes like a cornered rabbit as he presses it into her palm.
Ryan clutches the pole and pulls himself to his feet. The iron is stained red from his grip. The girl slips the coin into the change maker, and he gives her a victory sign.
Grinning, Ryan pinches the bill of her hat and pulls it down over her eyes. “Hah!” he exclaims. He buttons his shirt up.
He climbs to the top of the bus.
James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. “His books, all of which have won awards, are available on Amazon.” (Global Book Awards recently gave James’s latest book, The Ping-Pong Champion of Chinatown, a gold medal.)
You are afraid of the light
that burns inside you
like an unborn child
A thousand tiny spiders
gnawing at your bones
You are cautious of the wind
that brings a plague upon its wing
A fetid, ebon miracle
like a monster in the clouds
that swallows cruel men whole
You are sure that something's breeding there
Your body is not your own
And the sky is full of tumors
that terrorize the soul
You inhale the song of the universe
Fall asleep inside its chaotic womb
You find refuge in a lullaby
as the cancer chews away
The stars shed light that blinds your eyes
Your home is the darkness of a dream
A coldness in the white,
We cling to childhood
That epileptic dance
Of chaos and lace
A fire burning
In the face of madness
Where the death bell tolls each midnight:
The lonely sound
Of a heartbeat
You wear your crown so perfectly
both saints and sinners weep.
You whisper dirge songs in your sleep
while the blood runs warm, still, in your veins.
You shed your skin in hopes to join your
lover in the grave,
To save your mortal soul from the heat
of a burning flame.
You play the martyr much better than I.
There's a sacrifice I'm not willing to make.
But, aren't we all like lambs to the slaughter,
hobbling about on broken knees?
Our demon seed strewn over this doomed land.
Bodies splattered across the threshold of paradise.
Morgues and graveyards fill to excess.
And I am left to clean up the mess.
Stephanie Smith is a poet and writer from Scranton, Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in such publications as PIF MAGAZINE, WHISTLING SHADE, NOT ONE OF US, THE HORROR ZINE, ILLUMEN, and LIQUID IMAGINATION. She can be found on Twitter @horrorsteph78 or at imajican.blogspot.com.
in this afternoon
as river fog creeps
dragging it's thickness
licking us in heavy air
in this time
that is not time
we amenities shall speak
of what went unspoken
shall see and place
the invisible signs
. . . . . .
afternoon: the whistle summoned
its great silence
the omnipresent shroud of grief
the sewers cheered its sound
rustled its rusted soul
giving up its secret sins
to a slow drying
of an incipient wind
children in unholy air
beyond hope in despair
lie in promise inhaling artificial prayer
in manufactured immortality
young gods in destruction
serving enchanted eyes
from dreams awakened
and came to an end
light within light
light without light
in an eternal horizon
the exquisite perfection of a void;
flying, promising, expiring
the Intercourse of troubled air
and smoke in waning light
the infinite of incense and white wine
in this moment
in this time
from the vaulted silences
climb the stairs to
exchange the word
descend, give sermon
and climb again
at the given hour appointed, consumed
as we lie in plastic passion
our synthetic love shared
touch my lips and feel my words
and hold my soul to breathe them
made gods by by our union
of multifoliate frailty
perhaps once we were vestal
pure and coveted
touching the undefinable
as we began to explore
devoured or deflowered
both an ending
satiated in the void
of the light: artificial
Joseph A Farina is a retired lawyer and award winning poet, in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. His poems have appeared in Philadelphia Poets, Tower Poetry, The Windsor Review, and Tamaracks: Canadian Poetry for the 21st Century. He has two books of poetry published ,The Cancer Chronicles and The Ghosts of Water Street.
Rory J. Ribert, Sales Manager of Dial-N-Smile Inc., looked out on the empty sales rep cubicles that could be seen in a wide angle from his corner office. The late afternoon shift would begin in about an hour. Though an atheist, he said a prayer of thanks for the blissful peace created by this lovely absence of jabbering telemarketers.
Sliding open the low-slung console behind him, concealing a monitor linked to cameras hidden above the sales floor, Rory could watch the staff jerking and bobbing about like hyperactive monkeys during their marketing calls. This system also allowed him to monitor their conversations ensuring that they were sticking to business not chatting with their lovers – or drug dealers.
Rory was supposed to be updating profit-loss spread sheets but today he was feeling like a low-performing slacker himself, preferring to just stare at his computer, too morose to even waste his time fiddling around on social media. Frustrated, he considered the absurdity of his current workplace situation. John Jeffy, the owner, had invested big money in all this high-tech gear, yet with salaries and other miscellaneous overhead the company was barely breaking even. Moreover, the quality of the available telemarketer had hit rock bottom: ex-whores, drunks, crack addicts. It was a sad day when management had to listen into routine sales calls, not for quality, but for criminal activity.
Not that it mattered: as any blind fool could see this so-called “business” was in steady decline. When he had come into the telemarketing profession ten years ago there were actually a few hiring standards. His first company had even had an HR rep that screened applicants for bad references – or an unsavory past. Now it fell upon him, the irritated, unwilling Rory J. Ribert, to go through the motions of “vetting” the dregs of society and other barbarians who flooded Dial-N-Smile with their resumes. Nevertheless, Rory never screened any applicant for a criminal record. Results were all that counted. It was a don’t ask, don’t tell policy – even if they were ax murderers, he did not want to know.
Indeed, he often suspected that John Jeffy considered a felonious past a valuable skill for a successful telemarketer – something about the mercenary, unrestrained style of a criminal made such a person especially effective in the telemarketing business.
The office intercom buzzed. Jane Chowders, the foyer receptionist – who doubled as the accountant – spoke in her usual whiny, quasi- nasty voice. “Rory your 2pm applicant appointment, the one referred by Mr. Jeffy, is here.”
Last night he had had to fire an employee for failing to meet his sales quotas so today, as much as he hated it, he had to interview again. Jeffy had promised to network among his old industry contacts for an applicant with some sales experience. Good thing too, as the earlier 1:45 appointment had been a disaster. Rory had shown the applicant – completely unsuitable as a salesman – the door after a two-minute interview.
The portly Jeffy himself, much to Rory’s surprise, waddled into the office with the 2pm appointment – a spectacled, very pale, slender man in his fifties. Protruding from his dirty collar, a scrawny neck from which bulged a massive Adam’s apple like a grotesque pink tumor. Lost in this cheap baggy polyester suit, the applicant, almost skeletal with a gaunt, cadaverous face, appeared to be timid, shy, and reclusive – the very qualities an aggressive sales firm was not looking for. He also reeked powerfully of mothballs and stale smoke as if he had been living in a closet or cheap room. This odor alone would drive away other reps before Dial -N-Smile’s drooling, sadistic floor monitors did. These words instantly came to Rory’s mind: Do not hire this loser.
Immediately the weirdo excused himself to use the men’s room. Winking at Rory, Jeffy then cracked a smug smile and said cheerfully, “I know what you’re thinking. What rubbish bin did I drag that dog’s breath out of?”
“Good question John. You’re becoming a mind reader in your old age,” replied Rory, “Who – what – is he – and why is he here?”
“His name is Simon Sorter and he is going to be our new top biller – believe it or not,” smirked Mr. Jeffy, like a naughty boy with a secret.
“I rather not believe it,” scowled Rory, shaking his head. (Hell’s bell’s was the old fool losing his marbles?).
“Trust me,” assured Jeffy, his fragile face beaming softly like a prematurely aging child, “I used to work with Simon and the guy has some amazing talents.”
“From his looks and smell, hygiene and high fashion are not among his best skills”, noted Rory.
Mr. Jeffy opened his mouth to say something but Simon Sorter reappeared wiping his hands on his frayed trousers.
“I was just telling Rory here about our glory days when we did Fortune 500 account management together,” lied Mr. Jeffy.
Simon Sorter cocked his head sidewise as if he were a puppet on a broken string. Rory, wincing, saw a nasty, crooked scar running the length of the odd man’s head and neck.
Then without a word, Simon marched to an empty work station, logged on to the system, slipped a Dial-N-Smile magazine product list from his shabby jacket, and began to call the phone numbers randomly generated by the computer. He did not use a script – nor did he smile.
Mr. Jeffy nudged Rory and said, “Watch this and be amazed. Simon is going to take our sales numbers through the roof and save our bottom line.”
Immediately, the death-warmed-over pallor of Simon’s face flushed bright red like a giant drop of blood. From one call to the next, his voice changed drastically – depending on which magazine he was hustling. During the next hour a flabbergasted Rory, with a grinning Mr. Jeffy by his side, watched in awe as Simon Sorter’s Multiple Personality Disorder became an incredible marketing tool.
When selling the magazine Retirement World, he became “Pappy Smith”, his voice aged and frail. Marketing Big Wheels, the timid, anemic-looking Simon Sorter seemed to sprout into a fearsome psycho Hell’s Angel-type – code-named “Rod Piston” – his sales spiel threatening and gruff. These performances were followed by others just as remarkable: Gun News made Simon into “Tommy Guns” who wowed his customers with his Southern drawl and defense of the Right to Bear Arms; Computer Time transformed this normally mumbling clod into a very articulate, brisk personality – “Simon Server” – tossing off techno-babble with the greatest of ease. In fact, in front of Rory’s eyes Simon Sorter must have assumed – and shed – at least twenty different personalities, voices, and names.
His sales tally sheet boggled Rory’s mind; the disheveled eccentric had exceeded the firm’s top rep’s billings by 50%.
“Now pal. you know why we used to call him Morphing Man”, happily purred Mr. Jeffy.
“Yeah, I must admit that it is damn incredible. How did he get like that?”
Mr. Jeffy motioned Rory away from Simon’s workstation and spoke in a hushed tone. “You saw that scar? He was in a horrible accident when he was about forty. Split his head and neck open. A few years later, he started having multiple personalities. Underwent treatment but later got into sales with me. Sometimes, it takes a weird person to do good marketing.”
“Yeah, maybe being a bit nuts is ok – but not a psycho……”
From Simon’s workstation came a fresh confusion of voices as he plowed anew into the computer-generated customer list. Mr. Jeffy asked Rory to wait in the office. A few minutes later Jeffy and Simon Sorter, both stone-faced, entered, closed the door, and stared at Rory without speaking. Cold sweat trickled down his nose. The atmosphere was funereal, and he felt like the corpse on display. Or considering Simon’s zombie-like gaze, maybe it was more the dead inspecting the living….
A deep unearthly voice suddenly boomed from Simon’s throat. “You Rory Ribert are no longer required as sales manager of Dial-N-Smile.!” Rory literally jumped from his seat: so this was it, he was being fired – dead meat. Jeffy, the sorry bastard, had some gall, replacing Rory with a cruddy weirdo who smelled like he slept in a used clothes bin at the Salvation Army.
“Well, don’t forget that my contract gives me a severance package. So I don’t give a damn about this hole in the wall!” laughed Rory wildly, suddenly relieved at the thought of never having to interview any more useless applicants like his earlier appointment: a little mumbling man, with a weak, shifting gaze, referred by the unemployment office jobs bank for a telemarketing position requiring at least fair communication skills.
“That is something we need to talk about,” coldly replied Jeffy, peeping out of the shadows.
“Better not try to screw me you cheap bastard,” yelled Rory, “otherwise I’ll be seeing you in court.”
He then bolted for the door, but Simon, showing amazing strength and quickness, grabbed his shoulder. Again, Simon’s voice changed, this time into a very good imitation of Mr. Jeffy singsong cheerfulness. “Looks like we’ll have to part ways partner…”
From the same pocket that had contained the magazine product list, Simon whipped out a knife-cum-paper opener: the “Mr. Jeffy voice” again, but this time slurred and vicious. “The good news is I can save you from going to court and paying a lawyer. The bad news is that you won’t be ‘seeing’ – or calling – anybody any more. You are useless phone time now Rory, wasted cubicle space, dead air…” As if somebody had pulled a plug in Simon’s brain, the John Jeffy persona abruptly stopped. His face now seemed to be undergoing serial plastic surgery at the speed of light. Simon Sorter’s features morphed into every twisted, ghastly facial appearance and expression known to humanity: gnashing feral teeth, wild, yellow eyes, a snarling, pulpy mouth, black, rotting gums, squirming scars. Then a museum of interactive, evil masks: his face melted into Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Saddam Hussein’s, Ted Bundy’s, Pol Pot’s. Still powerfully griping Rory’s arm, Simon Sorter raised the knife-cum-paper opener to the ex- sales manager’s quivering throat.
Thomas White has a triple identity: speculative fiction writer, poet, and essayist. His poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print literary journals and magazines in Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He is also a Wiley-Blackwell Journalauthor who has contributed essays to various nonliterary journals on topics ranging from atheism, the meaning of Evil, Elon Musk, Plato, The Matrix, and reality as a computer simulation. In addition, he has presented three of his essays to the West Chester University Poetry Conference (West Chester, Pennsylvania), as well as read his poetry on Australian radio.
“Not even the fragrant musk was as intoxicating as this story.”
The storyteller told sitting on a swollen root of an aged tree on the edge of a forest. He addressed a gathering of enthralled people.
One dreary afternoon, under the opaque clouds, when the mists had curtained much of the peninsula’s profile, a tea boy made tea. He had a stall near the same place where the storyteller was also telling his stories. It was the boy’s job to make tea as long as the storytelling lasted. He made it in an iron cast kettle over a makeshift stove kindled by dry wood and brown leaves. The kettle steam was a beacon that fueled the desire of many to travel thus far. The brew carried a distinctive aroma.
The storyteller had a large following. They gathered here not just to listen to the story but also to indulge in the hot tea served from the stall. This storytelling helped the boy’s business to flourish. The boy poured the tea in small pottery bowls and handed them over to the rapt listeners. The more they drank, the more they listened.
This tea boy was an orphan. He was fifteen. He lived with the storyteller who had adopted the child when he lost his parents in the last great flood. They had lived on the sea line of a rugged peninsula. This place didn’t have much to offer apart from a school, a spice bazaar, and a few odd dry-fish shops.
Deeper into the woods on the same peninsula, the storyteller now lived with the boy. They lived in a hut near a shaded pond. Tall poplars and their verdant saplings rendered much of this shade. In the evening, when they lit a lantern in the hut, a glow would illuminate a darkly spot outside and light up a pond’s pod corner. The jungle’s wild animals transformed in the full moon, especially the musk deer. This sparked the storyteller’s imaginations.
Neither the jungle nor the deer knew what treasure it possessed, not at least until the musk pods were wrenched out of the deer bodies. The deer didn’t know how crazy earthlings was for its musk. It couldn’t smell its own. The others could. The sensuous properties drove humans to madness, wild with gluttony where fantasy fed reality.
Where would they stop, though? How far would they go to get it? Not even the formidable amazon could stop them. And it was not just the musk but insatiable human greed … said the storyteller and stooped to pick up an object loosely stuck on the bottom of the tree trunk. His breathing intensified. Inch by inch they stole the natural providence. They ate away like bite-sized like termitesinto the planet without replenishing: poaching animals, cutting trees, mining gemstones: red rubies, green sapphires, blue lapis lazuli, the sparkling diamonds. His audience listened mesmerized as he told them this old story retold, and the tea boy to sell innumerable kava clay bowls. His coffers filling up soon with silver coins and gold jewels.
No matter, this storytelling was free. No one ever paid to listen. But drinking tea was essential, said the storyteller. Because the delightful tea glued those stories together. Even on a hot day, it had to be served. People tread miles to come here to listen, but more so for the thirst of the tea. No other could make it like this boy, magic in the brew, the word rang true.
One day it happened. The storyteller stopped and looked closer at the object he held in the tip of the index finger. It was a cast-away gold ring that also had a story to it.
“What happened?” the listeners gasped.
Sitting on the ground, they looked at him hooked to the hot tea. Today, the mist of the day and the tea vapour played a twister in the sky.
“The tea boy became sick,” said the storyteller. “He couldn’t make tea anymore. The boy lay cold on the ground of his hut groaning in agony.”
“Oh no!” the listeners gasped.
There was no afternoon tea. People fidgeted and looked at the empty stall. But the tea never came.
“It was not the story, you see?” the storyteller told. “But it was his tea which brought them here.”
Where was the boy anyway? His listeners wanted to know. They demanded to see him. He grimaced and pouted his mouth in hesitation. But they were adamant. They stood up, held hands, and formed a niche circle fomenting unrest. They protested in a slogan, “no tea, no story” and walked in the circle. In the beating heart, this addiction baffled the storyteller who then realised that he had failed to stir them. He morosely nodded his sage white head as he relented and asked them to follow him to the hut. By then, the night had fallen a full moon lit up a yellow pathway.
It was a menacing jungle. But people didn’t mind. They walked over sodden leaves, shed snakeskins, dry blood, fallen horns and ivory, torn human clothing, hanging bats, and swinging monkeys. They must find the boy. They paced up and they reached the hut beyond the poplar pond. The bare bone sat unadorned on earth’s blue bowl. Not stark as Mars, Earth’s fowl-play tarred and scarred.
The storyteller asked them to wait outside as he went in to find the boy. But people were restless. They couldn’t wait it out. The mob forced themselves into the hut and looked in a frenzy for the prized fugitive. However, when they searched the small hut, they didn’t find him, at all. What they found though, was the last thing they had dreamed of. They found a white-bellied musk deer instead. He was the same small size as the tea boy, lying lengthwise across the space without a musk pod.
Mehreen Ahmed is widely published and critically acclaimed by Midwest Book Review, DD Magazine, The Wild Atlantic Book Club to name a few. Her short stories are a winner in The Waterloo Short Story Competition, Shortlisted in Cogito Literary Journal Contest, a Finalist in the Fourth Adelaide Literary Award Contest, winner in The Cabinet of Heed stream-of-consciousness challenge. Her works are three-time nominated for The Best of the Net Awards, nominated for the Pushcart Prize Award. Her book is an announced Drunken Druid’s Editor’s Choice.
The pale girl with the gold earrings like the crescent moon rubbed a hand through her hair and looked out of the window. Even with the creaking radiator turned all the way up she was surprised she couldn’t see her breath fog the air. Kata was beginning to forget what it had been like when the kitchen table groaned with food, drink, light, and laughter. She sighed and watched snowflakes beat uselessly against the glass. Past them, in the street, people were scurrying about like ants desperate to get back into the warm.
“Something’s got them excited.”
Keys rattled in the lock before a crash heralded her boyfriend’s return. Kata rolled her eyes. Twenty-eight years old, a grown man, and still Hannibal couldn’t open a door properly. No doubt the six-foot giant unfolding in the hallway had left a new imprint in the wall for the landlady to moan about.
“Any luck? You’ve been gone a while.”
“Same old story,” said her sweetheart as he strode into the room shaking snow from his favourite denims, the ones that looked they were held together by band patches. “But there might be something in this.”
He shoved his phone forward so Kata could read the screen.
“Maintenance? You’re a roadie. You push speakers about. Don’t tell me you know how to look after a building.”
“How hard can it be?” Hannibal shrugged. “Besides there’s nothing going on anymore. State says all performances cancelled for the crisis’ duration.”
Kata glared at him.
“The crisis? Is that what they’re calling it now?”
But Hannibal put his finger to his lips.
“Careful honey. You don’t know who might be listening, even here.” He glanced at the flat’s propaganda screen and the security camera bulging from its top. “We should go. They say it’s better in the sticks, and there’s something else.”
“It’s back in our old manor. Should be easy to get on our feet again.”
Kata’s skin prickled. It had been a hard struggle to escape that trap before it ground them into submission, but she knew what he meant. The city was a black hole where the only work left was for the privileged with connections high up. She watched as the ants at the end of the street formed a line. A soup kitchen had opened its doors.
“I suppose it can’t be any worse than here.”
Two weeks later Hannibal and Kata were getting off a bus. As the big man retrieved their bags she shivered and examined the station with its smashed windows and weeds growing through the cracks.
“Home sweet home lover. How long since we left now d’you think?”
“Ten years.” Hannibal glanced up and fixed his eyes on her. “We got out when we still had a chance.”
“Remind me why we’re here again then?”
“Because it’s better than a slow death in the city.”
Kata looked at the rest of the buildings off the wide square, high, and institutional, they looked in equally bad shape.
“Hope you’re sure about that.”
But she kept her voice to a whisper. It wouldn’t be long before the city was the same, and with way more desperate people. They just had to hope the rumours they’d heard were right and the hicks were siphoning off the countryside’s food supplies for themselves.
“Wonder if there’s any of the old crowd left?”
“I doubt it,” said Hannibal swinging their bags over his shoulder. “Not the way they were carrying on before we got out.”
When Kata had met Hannibal he’d still been living with his aunt, and her own parents had disappeared not long after as if they felt the job of child rearing was done now their daughter had found a man. Kata had cried a little at first, but as far as she’d been concerned life without the constant fighting and drunken declarations of love had been a relief even if she’d temporarily lost the roof over her head. Hannibal and her hadn’t stayed in town much longer after that.
“The clerk on the phone said report to the school for work and they’ll show us the house we’ve been allocated,” said her boyfriend as he reached her side.
“Looks even worse than I remember it.”
“Yeah… I’d forgotten. Where do you think everyone is?”
Kata was opening her mouth to reply when a scarecrow dressed in a ragged trench coat emerged from a nearby alley and blocked their path.
“The kids have come back.” A huge unkempt beard thrust itself in their direction. “No, not kids anymore. All grown up.”
There were eyes in there too, black, and beady, and filled with a feverish light.
“You remember me? Jim Devereux? Nah, you wouldn’t, too young, I expect.”
Hannibal and Kata examined the figure in front of them doing their best to strip away the dirt. It was Kata who figured it out first.
“I know you.” She shook her head and slowly a smile travelled across her face. “You were a copper. What happened to you?”
Devereux tapped a finger against his nose and gave them a wink.
“I’m undercover. This place is rotten, but I’m gonna clean it up. You’ll see. Drag each and every one of them to jail and throw away the key.” He backed away still staring at them with that bright light in his eyes. “Got to go now. People to see. Places to be. You know how it is.”
“I remember him chasing us all over town.” Hannibal watched the man shuffle up the street. “Doesn’t look like much now.”
“Yeah, but what’s replaced him?”
They’d been back a month before Kata began to suspect something was wrong, a month of checking who was alive and who was dead amongst their old friends. A month of calm reassurances that they’d made the right decision. Residential Sector Twelve was safe, dull, but safe.
The only problem was she was tired with the sort of bone aching weariness that had her dragging herself out of bed like an old woman, and Hannibal was worse. Kata stared at the pitted ceiling over her head. She should get up and start preparing the evening meal, but after a day spent with one of the sector’s volunteer militias lethargy sat in her bones like lead.
“At least we’re alive.”
That was no small thing since the fighting started. She frowned as the doorbell disturbed her thoughts.
“Yes? Who is it?” Her voice was barely a croak as she activated the grimy vidscreen and grabbed a clear plastic bladder from the pack that arrived on their doorstep every morning along with instructions for the day. As she squeezed the water down her throat the stamp of the company that ran the town caught her eye. Another quirk that kept the area secure was the presence of so much decaying heavy industry that the groundwater had long since been contaminated.
“Jesca I… what’s wrong?”
The woman on the video screen was Hannibal’s supervisor and her eyes were darting from side to side as she leaned closer to the speaker.
“Let me in Kata, please.”
Kata had never seen the teacher in such a state. Normally Jesca’s smile was a permanent feature and she brightened up a room just by being in it, but now she looked like a hunted animal. As Kata watched she pulled her daughter into view.
“Please Kata, for my kid’s sake. I don’t have long.”
There was no one in the street outside when Kata looked but she double bolted the door just to be on the safe side as soon as she’d let them in. There was something about seeing the only person in town who’d seemed to have a pulse in such a state that was a little unnerving.
“Shouldn’t you be at the school? Has something happened? Is Hannibal Ok?”
“I don’t know. I ran.”
“What do you mean you ran?”
Jesca gripped Kata’s hands so hard her nails dug into the flesh and stared into her eyes.
“Believe me I’d have gone elsewhere, but you’re still new. You’re not hooked.”
“Hooked on what?”
Jesca pointed at the water.
“Riot control honey. The answer to the civil war. What made you think coming to a pharma town was a good idea? This place is one big laboratory.”
“You should see the city. Besides, I was born in this sector. Nothing ever happens here.”
“Nothing happens for a reason. They’ve been feeding the population sedatives for years, constantly upping the dose to see what they can get away with and still have a productive labour force. But they’ve gone too far now. They want to start on the kids.”
Kata fought to think clearly through the lethargy filling her mind.
“How come you don’t seem affected? What makes you so special?”
Jesca looked down.
“I oversee distribution. I’m trusted.”
“Not by me. Her maybe, but not me.”
Kata pointed at where Jesca’s daughter had wandered into the living room. She was already slipping a pair of rubber nodes onto her temples so she could glue herself into her screen.
“You’re missing the point Kata. It doesn’t matter if you trust me or not. They’ll know I’ve come here. You can’t avoid the surveillance. I just need you to get my daughter out. Take her anywhere you like. I’ll give you money. Just take her far away from here.”
“Why don’t you do it?”
For the first time since the woman had started her story Kata felt a twinge of pity. The look Jesca was giving her was the same as a convict who’d been locked up all their life.
“They’ll never let me go. Not with what I know. Your parents were the same. Look where trying to fight the town’s board got them.”
“You knew my parents?”
“We were friends a long time ago before they were designated high risk and gotten rid of.”
Kata’s head suddenly felt as though a storm was blowing through it. She wasn’t sure whether to tear the teacher’s eyes out or start crying.
“No, I had nothing to do with it. I told you. I’m distribution, but not anymore. If they want to turn the kids into drones too, I’m out. My daughter deserves a chance at a decent life.”
“Is still at the school,” once again Jesca was finding it hard to meet Kata’s eyes. “You don’t understand. They’d never let me leave and I wasn’t sure you’d agree to help me. They’ve only just made the decision, but it won’t be long till they put this place into lockdown in case there’s any trouble from the parents.”
Kata felt her stomach lurch.
“What is it? What have you done Jesca?”
“You’re not the only ones with connections in the movement. I left certain things where they’ll find them in case you said no. But there’s still time to do something about it. I’ll tell you where they are if you agree to help… please.”
The crack as Kata’s hand met Jesca’s cheek and snapped her head round sounded loud in the narrow corridor.
Kata glared at the teacher.
“Alright, then I better go get him.”
The school was a huge concrete block at the town’s centre. Once someone had tried painting colourful murals along it, but generations of kids had covered them with graffiti until only the odd splash of colour remained where even the oldest couldn’t reach. As Kata drew nearer she saw the lights were out. She pulled out her phone and tried another call listening to the ringtone before it was replaced by the flat whine of a disconnected service.
“You better be in there Hannibal.”
The wind howling down the street stole the words from her mouth with ease and she glanced at the lowering snow laden clouds gathering overhead. If they were going to make a run for it tonight they’d have a storm to cover their tracks.
“If we make a run for it tonight.”
Kata headed up the stairs. The entrance was open, but crossing its threshold felt like stepping into an abyss, and some deep primal part of her was screaming to get out before it was too late.
Kata’s voice bounced through the gloomy building. There were lights on she realised just not the main ones. Instead, only the cabinets and their ranks of cheap trophies shone in the dark.
Kata’s foot met a bucket and water sloshed onto the floor. With her next step she found the mop, and something went cold and hard inside her.
Hannibal was hanging from a knotted cord tied to the railing of a balcony. It looked like he was trying to see something on his shoes.
As she tried to hoist him free Kata’s feet slid on the photos scattered on the floor like the leaves of a tree in autumn. She knew what they’d be without even looking and as she finally gave up and began to cry with her face buried against his legs the grainy images of a much younger Hannibal with even longer hair stared back from under a banner with the revolutions slogan. Once upon a time the movement had played a large part in both their lives; although she doubted their lack of activity recently would matter. The association was enough, and the town’s runaway had been caught and punished at last for his escape. Hannibal would have known what was waiting for him in one of the crumbling state-run gulags. Politicals rarely made it to old age.
When Devereux found her she was curled in a ball staring at the love of her life’s fingers, the ones that would never touch her again, never caress her face.
“Come on get up.”
She felt herself being dragged to her feet.
“You can’t stay here. They’ll be coming before dawn to clear away the body. Probably already know you’ve found it.”
“The board’s servants; they’ve plenty of those in this town.”
“Jesca,” hissed Kata, the name spitting from her tongue like an insult. “She’s at my house.”
“With her child Kata. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t have done the same yourself. That kid stays here she’ll be a drone just like everyone else.”
“You’re not like them. Everyone else… their eyes. They look like you could walk right up and shoot them, and they wouldn’t care.”
“Trust me it’s been done. They’re the perfect docile population. All the board wants now is to see if it can get the same result with the kids.”
“So, what’s your secret? Why aren’t you like them?”
Glass clinked in the man’s pocket as he pulled something free.
“I don’t drink the water sweetheart… prost.”
Devereux replaced the bottle.
“Come on now let’s get you out of here. You gonna take the kid?”
Kata’s heart felt crushed and sour, and she could feel the tracks of tears freeze on her cheeks as they stepped into the rising storm, but she knew she had no choice.
“Yes… but the mother.”
Devereux stared back at her and she was surprised at the kindness hidden in the look.
“Thought you might feel like that.”
When they got back the house was empty except for Jesca’s daughter and no amount of raging from Kata could change it. The note that Jesca had left almost stayed unread, but if it wasn’t Kata that killed the woman for what she’d done her superiors surely would. Kata unfolded the paper and thought of the thousand things she’d like to do to the person who’d written it.
She thrust it in Devereux’s direction. One word had been enough.
“I can’t read this. Tell me what she’s got to say… briefly.”
The ex-policeman hunched over the paper as thunder rumbled in the distance.
“She says to leave now. She says they’ll be busy with her and what she’s going to do to their hardware round here. She says you won’t see her again, neither of you.”
“She’s lucky then,” hissed Kata. But as she looked at where Jesca’s daughter was still sat her jaw softened and some of the wildness left her face. She realised she didn’t even know the kid’s name.
“What are you going to do Devereux?”
The man took a long drink from his bottle and grinned. “They might not pay me anymore but I’ve a responsibility to this town. Well, what’s left of it. The people here were my friends.”
“Won’t you be in trouble for helping me?”
“Probably, but I think they like having me around. It reminds them of how untouchable they are. But I have this.”
Devereux pulled his coat aside and Kata saw the pistol slung around his hip.
“If I ever see one of the board I’m going to let rip. But they’re careful and they don’t like to get too close to the herd. Normally they just send their servants to do their work for them. This time though I’m not sure. This thing with the kids is a big deal for them. It’s the culmination of their program; the final hurdle. Afterwards, if it works, they’ll start rolling their product out to the cities.”
Kata stared into the night pressing against the window. She felt empty, used up, and it had nothing to do with what they were putting into the water. She’d no idea where she would go, just that it had to be away from here.
“Then I’ll say goodbye.”
“Goodbye Kata. I’m sorry about Hannibal. He was a good kid.”
Just for a moment Kata thought she might cry, but she was damned if she’d let him see her weakness.
“Come on,” she called instead as she went into the next room. “We have to get going.”
“Where’s my Mum?”
The girl stared up at her with wide blue eyes. She was a lot younger than Kata had been when her own parents had disappeared, but she still knew something was wrong.
“Your Mummy’s told me to look after you until she can join us.” Kata stretched a smile across her face she didn’t feel and took the kid’s hand. “Let’s get you wrapped up warm. We’re going for a walk.”
The storm had died down a little by the time they made their move, and the moon was visible sailing through the ragged clouds.
“At least we can see where we’re going.”
Fresh snow lay everywhere un-marked and un-disturbed and for a moment the town at the heart of Sector Twelve almost looked beautiful. Kata and the girl hurried through the streets crossing the open spaces at a run. Kata pretended it was a game and she was glad of the weather because it made it too cold to talk much. It was only when they reached the suburbs pressing up against the forest that she allowed herself to breathe a little easier.
“Mummy’s in there. In the forest. Shall we go see her?”
“No. It’s cold. I want to go home.”
“Listen,” Kata crouched until she was level with the girl’s face. “What’s your name?”
“Listen Adele, we’re going on an adventure. That’s how you have to think of this. Don’t you want to see if there’s elves in the woods? I bet there are.”
Adele squinted suspiciously at the dark looming trees.
“What sort of elves?”
“Good ones, with tons of candy, and warm fires. That’s who your Mum’s with.”
Kata was hoping that the part about warm fires was true at least. She knew she was storing up trouble for later, but she’d do anything to put a million miles between her and Sector Twelve right then.
They were halfway to the nearest trees when the first figure stepped from between their trunks.
Kata veered through the drifts. She couldn’t tell if the man had seen them. Maybe they’d been lucky. Her hope died a miserable death when the next black clad figure emerged, and the next, and the next.
Soon there was almost as many people as trees spread in a semicircle around them.
“Who are they?” said Adele.
“Nobody we want to know.”
Kata began to step backwards dragging the child with her. They’d gotten about twenty paces before the crowd appeared from between the buildings. All that was missing were torches thought Kata with a bitter smile.
“Run kid. Your mother’s waiting for you.”
A narrow rapidly closing path led to the nearest clump of woodland on her left and Kata shoved the kid in that direction.
Adele’s face crumpled and Kata waited for her to burst into tears. But the kid was tough. When she gave her another, harder, shove she didn’t fall to the ground or lose control. She just stared back at Kata with a puzzled frown.
“Move, these people are killers. They’ll eat you up and chew on your bones and they’re coming now.”
Kata thought fast.
“Move, you’re a horrible little stray I wish I’d never met.”
She glanced at the forest hoping the kid can’t tell she’s faking it.
“I think I see your mother now. I wish she was dead too.”
At least the last part is true and with a sound midway between a sob and a gasp the little figure was running through the thickening snow. Kata had no idea how far it was to the nearest settlement. No idea if she’d live, but as her back disappeared between the trees and the crowd drew in she was glad the kid had a chance.
“Never come back sweetheart. It’s true what they say. Going back will be the death of you.”
Kata turned to face the nearest grey faced figures with their deadly blank eyes. They were drawing knives.
Kilmo writes. He brought it from squatting in Bristol to a van in a pub car park, to “Dark Fire Magazine,” “CC&D Magazine,” “Feed Your Monster Magazine,” “Blood Moon Rising,” “Aphelion,” “The Wyrd,” “One Hundred Voices,” and now here.
Disturbing the bones of the dead
Remembering the torment best forgotten
Creating your narrative of persecution and innocence
Wearing a halo of flies
You natter about your village in exaggerated anger
You put chains on the slaves you maternalistically call a tribe
Tonguing the wounds you open
Skinning the corpse and wearing the skin
Bearing the gift of maggots
You return in the night to make subtle agony
You come to take her by infecting me
You are the living disease
You enter the blood through a parasite in the ear
Your eyes twinkle with malevolence
Your eyes narrow with underhanded intent
You yourself are the illness
You wear your scars inside still raw and pink
You break the bone and suck the marrow from a smile
Disturbing the bones of the dead
Feeding on those who live
You yourself are dead
You kill the sun
The floor slick with sadness you create
Snarling with your bloody teeth
Drunk on bigotry and madness
Creating a false family of zombies frightened of noise and shadows
Frightened of you who casts the largest shadow
But you are the mistress of this darkness
You ascend from the steps of hell
Emerging from your sepulcher like a spider
Cascading up and down the wall
Such loveless fangs
Such a cold embrace
You bring your fog of evaporated tears
You bring your pestilence like rotting meat on a rusty hook
You attempt to give every day to the dead
You bring sickness as if it is medicine
You alone create tomorrow:
Día de Muertos
I had driven through the bleached downtown area battered by wind and dirt. Across the railroad track – once six tracks wide, now two, and the highway – once two-lanes, now four, I entered a neighborhood unseen in over fifty years. Not much had changed except the basement house on the corner was gone.
A few surviving elms overhung ancient sidewalks as brittle and cracked as when I, as a five-year old child played in the front yard during a time of unlocked doors. A time when screen windows stayed open, a time with no metal detectors to pass through before entering public buildings.
The slightest of winds caused the leaves of the few remaining elms to flatten casting shadows across the side and onto the house where my dog, Ikey, had frolicked.
I stopped the car, rested my chin on the steering wheel, and, within a moment I was at this very spot as a young boy squinting through the screen door of my parents’ rented house. A small child’s attempt to shut out his mother’s headaches and regrets and his father’s scatter shot venom, that constant burn of anger he carried his entire life.
Is it-? My imagination? Is that him?
I called out. “Mr. Childress. Are you-? Waiting for me? Is it time?” He was an old man about the age I am now.
The back door led to my father spewing anger toward whatever was in his line of sight while slopping aluminum paint onto an old garbage can. The front door led to a walk with Mr. Childress.
I heard my mother’s voice. “Your father wants you in the backyard.” My father wanted me to paint the inside of the trash can, but mostly he wanted to clamp his teeth, rip his glasses off, press his forehead against mine and yell. Even at the age of five, I had tread that path a few times too many.
“Okay,” I said, and walked out the front door straight to Mr. Childress so he could take me on another trip.
“Good afternoon, young man.”
“Hi, Mr. Childress.”
I looked straight at his face as he bent to shake my hand.
“What happened to your nose?” I asked.
“Something grew there and needs to be taken off.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Not yet.” He smiled and asked about school, my dog, and what I planned to do that day. Then he took me on trips from the Populist Party of Jerry Simpson and Mary Lease through the heady days of the Roaring 20’s, and into Prohibition, introduced me to Al Capone, and took me on a car ride with Bonnie and Clyde.
We talked the next day too, but Mr. Childress had to go home early. “Got a doctor’s appointment tomorrow so I need to rest up.”
I did not see him for a week. Then one afternoon he was waiting on the sidewalk wearing a wide brimmed straw hat. The bandage across his truncated nose was dotted with specks of black and dark red.
“What’s that for?” I asked. “Where’s the rest of your nose?”
He grinned and said, “They kept it at the doctor’s office.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Is it time for you to die?”
“Are you going to die?”
He smiled and patted my left shoulder.
I did not see him after that – until today, fifty years later, when he stood in front of that old house – waiting. I saw us walking – his nose restored, wearing his hat, and still with me. I waited until we turned the corner and watched as I held onto him. I heard myself ask, “Mr. Childress. Is it time?”
He smiled and patted my left shoulder.
A Cell in Motion
Why am I here?
Alone each day for eleven years, I – an erudite man of immense education, considerable charm, and the unique ability to twist everything I touch into something illegal – rise, lean my forehead against the door, and stare at a wall six feet away.
The sound of metal beating against itself batters my ears minute upon minute with no moment of peace, nothing to look at other than what others have written on the walls. I step back, sit on a tattered exercise mat that doubles as a mattress strewn across the metal frame embedded into a concrete wall painted institutional green, look at the door, then close my eyes.
When my eyes open, the door has solidified, and, within moments, splits into fractals, divides, then explodes forming a cloud emerging from the center. Walls dissolve. Sink and shower bleed onto the floor, then coalesce into the ceiling.
The single overhead light casts shadows across the hallway floor. Parallel tubes expand – vertically, horizontally – from the solid plate where a key fits, when, once each day, a uniformed man delivers my food.
Thomas Elson’s short stories, poetry, and flash fiction have been published in numerous venues such as Calliope, The Cabinet of Heed, New Feathers, Pinyon, Lunaris, New Ulster, Lampeter, Selkie, and Adelaide. He divides his time between Northern California and Western Kansas.
I don’t mean to rant – like my father screaming at the tv while he inflates his blood pressure cuff to make sure he doesn’t have a coronary or stroke out when politicians and pundits lie and don’t care who gets hurt.
And I take no pleasure in yelling at the dead!
It’s just that, my God! How many times does it have to be said that feelings don’t last forever? No one is perpetually happy from cradle to grave.
Annoyance can turn to irritation, morph into frustration, build to anger, cascade into rage, freefall into guilt, slither away in shame, stew in remorse in a fraction of a mayfly’s life.
Fear may have the lifespan of a startle, a panic attack, a sleepless night, may come and go like the tides.
God forgive me, but hurt may last as long as a skinned knee or a widow’s grief, but not forever.
There are days when sadness goes down with the sun and joy rises with it.
There are seasons when sorrow lasts for an arctic winter, as if the sun will never rise again, but the sun always gets around to rising, and hope stalks us like the rising of the sun.
So how could you swallow the lie and act like no one gets hurt? The LIE – that hopelessness is anything more than fleeting.
Why couldn’t you wait? Hopelessness is always eventually eclipsed by hope!
Hope is a stalker. Hope always finds us. As sure as the sun rises. But as sure as the sun would rise, you turned your lights out with a bullet to the brain before it could.
Rise it did. The sun. With hope. And yet here we are, with you – or what remains of you – lying beneath my feet, with me beating the ground like someone pounding on a door where nobody’s home.
Wish you were here. You’re missing out on a sunny day.
Todd Matson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. He has written poetry for The Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling and has been published in Vital Christianity. He has also written lyrics for songs recorded by a number of contemporary Christian music artists, including the Gaither Vocal Band.
Cold feet walk the corridor in silence
coming from the awakening,
To stray away from a lonely room
with forgotten memories in wet footprints.
Rebellion without sound
went rogue inside the soul.
As the windy candles reflected old habits of the elder’s shadow,
and deep whispers only the wind could hear,
Released old dark memories that escaped her wrinkled lips
and her night gown stained with piss.
Voices wield their intentions,
could be seen from within her eyes of twisted stir,
Characteristics of the dead.
Night spirits seem to visit the home of one without brains.
Carrying her through hallways and precipice,
Revealing the identification of darkness.
Through physical activities of madness.
It’s raining. The first drop touched the corner of my inexpressive mouth. Afraid to taste it, I removed the moisture with the back of my hand. Vacant droplets reached my shoulders. The air, an uncontrollable dampness, raked my nerves. Elusive shattered shelter pushed me beyond the dank cold pour of precipitation. It’s raining. Wet, a drop touched my blouse. The sensation of acid remained on my flesh as the fabric of sanity broke away from the onslaught of venomous rain. Blinking, protected the view in brief cycles of clarity and vision. The damaged vengeful rain touched me. Mocking my forehead it jolted me to the reality of once was to now be. Amid cruelty the smell of desperation hung among the heedless rain. Soaked and sealed with literally nothing else to evade the rain, it bubbled on the surface of empty empathy and painful panic memories. It’s raining. Unidentified articles reasoned about the importance of being one with the nature of rain. Inadequate and inadvertently the causes of rain risk the smallest amount of my sanity. Welled inside a cocoon unbalanced and buried among burdened puddles, I hid the true resemblance of my screaming soul staring at the rain. It’s raining, to mock me. To test my response to reality, my resolve, my values, and beliefs. It’s raining inside my skin, stomach, hair, and veins. Filling me beyond capacity to create, remember, change, or challenge the traditions of storms that swell and sweep away all and everything. It’s raining. As my mind and body fade from this decade to the last. It’s raining.
Francene Kilgore has a Master’s degree in Educational Administration from Concordia University of Austin. She has been teaching writing at an elementary school in Midland, Texas for several years. She says that “Often in my vacant gaze, I hear a melody. Sometimes it’s soft and easing to the mind; other times it’s a frenzy of movements and tones; but most often, it is just you, crossing my thoughts from far away.”
The damn beast wasn’t supposed to charge me. I paid $45,000 to come hunt it, an albino rhinoceros with a nice horn. They made me sign a waiver. This land is owned by a diamond mining conglomerate, and when Pavel looked at my signature he told me I was going in alone. Once I kill the rhino, contact him by satellite phone.
The phone. In the tall grass, maybe still working, or maybe in pieces along with the rest of me because when the rhino charged I was not prepared. Animals have never acted hostile before. You should see the lions. They tear apart wildebeests and buffalo calves, but when they see me they just lay there as I squeeze the trigger.
My arm is aching. I’m trying not to move but my arm. I shift a little. My gut explodes in pain. Blood attracts predators and there’s a difference between a healthy man aiming a gun and a bleeding man under a tree. One’s an anomaly.
The other’s prey.
I went on my first hunt was when I was twelve. My uncle took me to Yellowstone Park and before we set off he pulled me close and said, Congratulations. You’re now part of the food chain.
I haven’t thought of that in years.
Funny what your mind coughs up.
I have some pills but I dare not take any. Night has fallen and I’m alert. I have a .357 Magnum with six shots, well, five. Five for the hyenas.
One for myself.
They sound close. I raise the gun, ignoring the pain. It’s stupid, of course, as hyenas hunt in packs. The best I could do is scare them and if that doesn’t work?
One bullet will.
Hyenas can bite through anything. They’ll start at my legs, ripping me apart beneath the clear savannah sky.
At which point do you die? In the middle or does it happen last, after you’ve been mostly eaten?
Night passes. No hyenas.
I’m getting weaker. I sip the canteen. There’s enough water for a day, maybe two if I space it out but it’s hot. The sun breaks through the leaves and a fly crawls around my mouth.
The satellite phone is ringing.
Beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep. The sound of salvation I spot it in the tall grass, green light flashing.
I’ve spent the day making arguments against going for the phone. My uncle’s words keep coming back, circling me like the flies. I’m already part of the food chain, and it didn’t happen when the rhino charged and I stood there like a doofus, too shocked to do anything. It happened the moment I stepped out of the jeep.
A caw. I look up.
A vulture cruises overhead.
I close my eyes. Vultures can smell the dying from miles away.
I open my eyes and reach for my gun. The vulture. I stare at it, my eyes burning in the unfiltered daylight. The vulture spreads its wings and perches on a high branch.
It’s staring down at me.
I tilt my gun skyward, , aligning the barrel with the bird. I do a silent Mississippi-count to five.
The bird drops down beside me. Its wings spread open, covering my legs and I look down and scream, brushing it away and igniting a new series of pain.
I shove the dead bird as far as my arm will allow and close my eyes. The smell. A messy infection below and I can smell myself rotting and I can’t hold it in. I turn my head.
Laughter cuts through the night. My eyes flip open and I grab the Magnum.
Congratulations. You’re now part of the food chain. I had slipped away to somewhere just beneath the pain. My uncle was leading me through the jungle to where the rhino stood waiting in a long field. I lined up to take my shot while the rhino charged and I took it down, one shot. Dead.
Their laughter makes me want to laugh too and I let go of the gun. I cover my mouth with both hands. I laugh, pressing my hands tighter as they approach.
The hyenas move with purpose through the tall grass. Their eyes shine like migratory starlight as they rush their prey. I know they can see me and smell me but do they understand and I know I should grab the gun because this is it, but I don’t.
I just laugh.
And I’m still laughing when the hyenas ignore me. An elephant herd is on the move. I’m laughing when the hyenas slip between the great beasts’ legs, separating a baby elephant from the herd. I’m laughing when they start with the trunk, one hyena tearing it in half and the rest ripping it off. The baby elephant is screaming as the pack swarms and I have my answer: you die at the very end. The hyenas eat the baby elephant to the bone.
I’m laughing so hard I have a coughing fit.
The pain is bad and the smell is worse.
The pills are part of the standard first aid kit they issue all hunters. They give you a vacuum-sealed pack of six. One a day.
I tell myself it won’t come to that. I look up. The sun hasn’t crossed the midway point yet and the predators hunt at night. I look out across the savannah. The baby elephant’s bones. I feel a laughing fit coming on and I jab my tongue against my cheek. The laughter rises, falls back. I hold my tongue there until I no longer feel like laughing.
I peel one of the pills free.
It dissolves on my tongue in seconds. I lean back, close my eyes and listen for the phone.
I open my eyes.
I close them.
I’m awake. For a second I think there is a bear in the tall grass, guarding the satellite phone. I have to concentrate for several minutes, readjusting my mind to the time and the shapes around me.
It’s night. I slept all day.
I wasn’t supposed to sleep all day. God damn pills are only supposed to knock you out for five hours. But you’re also supposed to eat with them and I have no food. The three emergency MREs they give you are out in the tall grass somewhere, assuming the hyenas haven’t gotten to them.
Flies crawl on my forehead.
I turn my head to puke but only dryheave. I have nothing to throw up.
I’m awake all night, thinking of my rifle.
My uncle taught me how to shoot. We hit targets on his property. And in Yellowstone, he taught me the importance of stealth.
Since we’re part of the food chain we gotta act like it, he said, outfitting a silencer to his rifle.
We tracked the bear and her cubs for days. We weren’t dumb enough to carry our rifles out in the open and once we were in position for a good shot, my uncle handed me his rifle. He showed me how to steady the aim. The cold cylinder in my hands. The weight that decides death.
I can still see the bear. She looks right at me when I line up my sight. My uncle would have laughed so I never told him but I know what I know, and what I know is that bear saw me. She knew I was there to kill her.
Her cubs squealed afterwards. They crowded around their mother, sniffing her, trying to lick her back to life. My uncle told me not to feel sorry for them: turn the tables, and the bears would have me for lunch.
Let’s go, my uncle said.
We’re not taking it?
Where? To who? He gave me a light smack on the back of my head. Yellowstone’s got too much stick up their asses for that.
We left the bear to rot, her cubs to mourn and on the way back home we bought ice cream.
A fly lands on my cheek buzzing I brush it away more on my forehead
I drift off and wake up hearing the bear cubs sobbing for their mother. What ever happened to those cubs? Male bears will kill cubs that aren’t their own but the bear would eat me if the tables were turned and besides we’re now part of the food chain so we have to act like it.
I cough. Flies. I can’t wave them away. Something is stalking me through the tall grass. I can’t make it out. Hyena? Lion?
Where the hell is Pavel? They should have come for me by now. The satellite phone is working, I heard it beep (yesterday? day before?) so they know I’m here.
Where are they?
I don’t have the strength to move but I do have the strength to think and see and combined I think I see what’s out there in the tall grass.
I grab the Magnum. The movement startles the flies but doesn’t scare them away.
Five shots left.
Laughter and it’s not coming from the hyenas.
It’s coming from the bear.
Mama bear is laying in front of the satellite phone. She keeps her paws to the side of the phone so I can hear it ring.
Laughter. Sounds like hyenas but it’s that fucking bear. Congratulations. You’re now part of the food chain.
Fucking bear. You haven’t moved all day. The sun sets and I need another pill for the pain and the flies the itching is driving me crazy the smell makes me gag. I dryheave.
The bear laughs.
And this is it. I won’t survive another day out here. Pavel isn’t coming. I need to get to the phone. That’s him calling. Their equipment is broken. They can’t find me unless I answer.
The bear laughs.
Your cubs are dead, I whisper. My voice sounds like it belongs to someone else.
My uncle is beside me. He swats me on the back of my head and hands me his rifle. The rapport might knock me down, but at least mama bear will die and this time she will stay dead.
I stand up. Something’s coming closer. A small stampede. The laughter grows. The bear doesn’t raise her head. I aim the rifle as something tears at my legs. The flies have scattered. I try to squeeze the trigger but my finger is too weak and I no longer feel it.
I feel teeth.
I hear laughter.
And somewhere, the satellite phone is ringing. Beep-beep.
Travis Lee lived in China for two and a half years, where his short story ’The Seven Year Laowai’ went viral among the expat community. He currently lives in Japan, working as a weather forecaster. Find out more at https://www.travis-lee.org
In a cold
she sat silent
at the space
between her toes
rocking back and forth,
to many triggers shots
stealing time preoccupying
she reached maximum capacity.
"Talk to me," I whispered.
She looked at me once
and turned her face.
leaked down her
shaking pants leg
to the ground.
She parted her dry lips
to bite her fingernails,
shaking her head
side to side,
her swollen eyes
looked into mine
"I want to be erased, kill me now, or I will myself, no matter what it takes."
Slowly walking towards
her we embraced.
guards open large
Stepping out of the threshold
she yelled, "I love you girl, don't come back to My Hell. "
the door slammed closed
for seventy-two hours
and three minutes later,
she was pronounced dead...,
she visits in my head.
JGomez is known for her words deep and heavy in her dark poetry. She grew up in Boynton Beach, Florida, where she has seen and been through a lot to convey the realness of “real life” in her writing.
flaming from a
than any microorganisms
young thighs at age six.
were to fool y'all
and my parents
as their Pastor,
stretching his truths
could've done no wrongs
as they praise his messages all week long,
reaching for their
but they accepted
the hands that
holds the man-made bible
speaking from a podium
as if he's entitled
to congressional crowds
God forbid if
I wore the X on my forehead for
the children's voices
that tried to talk,
hustled to eat,
handcuffed and beat,
Whose hands would believe me?
JGomez is known for her words deep and heavy in her dark poetry. She grew up in Boynton Beach, Florida, where she has seen and been through a lot to convey the realness of “real life” in her writing.
Although this is not advertised as “dark”, this work by Erik Satie definitely has a dark, brooding air. Imagine yourself walking for hours along a dark, Parisian boulevard at night, your breath stinking of strong tobacco and Absinthe, during a thick fog sometime during the Second or early Third Republic, mulling over the tragic news of the day or of the tragic events of your life, mustering the resolve to find a way into a better, if not brighter, future. This is how this piece speaks to me.