“Aphorisms for a New Viscosity” Dark, Offbeat Humor by Robert Garnham

Franz Kafka, 1906

Another bright morning, just me and the jungle, the fierce sun penetrating the thick luscious canopy, the call of monkeys and birds of paradise. I’m alone here at the research centre, yet again. Someone was meant to come and relieve me, but there’s been no word of a replacement. I eat cereal on the porch of the old wooden building,  feeling the intense heat and humidity rising from the forest floor. Sometimes the humidity is so high that my glasses steam up the moment I step outside. Often, I don’t even bother wearing clothes, though they put a stop to this because they reminded me about the live-feed web-cam.

          Occasionally, schools tune in to see what I’m up to. They’ve instigated a dress code.

          As you may have guessed, I’ve been out here quite some time, extracting certain mucus elements from a species of frog which only lives in this exact geographical area, for the construction and understanding of the technologies which go into the production of masking tape. There’s nothing I don’t know about masking tape. I’ve got so much masking tape lying around that I’ve started to use it for other things. Last week I made a hat out of masking tape, but when I put it down, thousands of ants somehow got stuck to it. I’ve still got the hat somewhere, decorated with all these ants. It’s really quite disgusting.

          I spend most of the days out and about, telling myself how lucky and privileged I am to live here, while looking for frog mucus. The only way to get the frog mucus, – once you’ve found the frog – (and it can only be the male of the species) – is to show it photographs of female frog, and within seconds, you’ll get a healthy supply of the stuff coming out of their mouths. I’ve mastered the art of wiping frog gobs. I’ve got a whole fridge filled with the stuff.

          The phone rings. It’s my boss.

          ‘Just checking in’.

          ‘Anything to report?’

          ‘Nothing, really’.

          ‘How’s the company doing?’

          ‘Let me be frank with you, Bob. Masking tape isn’t selling like it used to. There are so many alternatives these days. There’s talk of restructuring at the higher levels of the company. Now I don’t want you to worry, but they’re talking about budgets and there’s been murmurings – just murmurings, mind you – about research and development. Why should we be developing a product which isn’t selling as well as it should? Anyway, keep this under your hat, for the time being’.

          ‘My dead ant hat?’

          ‘Your what?’

          ‘Nothing’.

          ‘Anyway. All the best, and keep up the good work.’

          It was good to hear from Jeff.  But I could tell that there were things going on which worried him. Ominous, looming, like the daily afternoon thunderstorms. The times I’d spent in the city, beavering away at the technological forefront of the masking tape industry, were some of the best of my life, and it pained me to think of those poor masking tape technicians in their white lab coats, demoralised and filled with existential dread.

          Mid-afternoon, I pause amid the test tubes. I’ve got a swab of frog gob in one hand, a test tube in the other, and the thought suddenly occurs that what I’m doing is completely meaningless. The whole time I’ve been out here in the jungle, the viscosity of masking tape has only ever improved by 0.06 Chatwins, (a Chatwin being the unit of measurement of masking tape viscosity named after my predecessor’s pet tortoise). With a lot of hard work and effort I could improve the viscosity to perhaps as much as 0.08 Chatwins, which equates to masking tape sticking for an average of six minutes longer under certain climatic conditions. Nobody, I tell myself, will ever win the Nobel prize for that.

          I put down the test tube and I put down the frog gob swab. I take a deep sigh and I run my fingers through my hair. I then open the door and go out onto the wooden porch.

          The jungle seems alive. Through the canopies I can see the dark clouds looming for the daily afternoon storm. There are rumbles in the distance, booming, reverberating through the heightened air almost fizzing with expectation. Behind me, of the ten test samples of masking tape I’d stuck to the wooden wall of the hut, seven had already given in to the humid air and fallen from their place, an eighth was hanging limp. Hopeless, I tell myself. Absolutely hopeless. How aptly they seemed to symbolise the fortunes of the MccLintock Masking Tape Company.

          The clouds darken further. There’s a flash of lightning, accompanied by the furious hooting of monkeys who, all things considered, should be used to it by now. But it always takes them by surprise. Then a boom, a ferocious boom which shakes the peaty earth, rattles the boards of the wooden porch. And that’s when the rain starts, intense, pelting arrows of sheer rain clattering against the corrugated iron of the shack roof, the fleshy jungle vegetation, rivulets of water cascading from the gutters and sides of the shack. The last lingering strip of masking tape falls from the test wall, gets carried away by a sudden stream of water which snakes across the wooden floor of the porch. Franz Kafka is standing at the edge of the forest, pointing a machine gun at me. The thunder booms and crashes.

          Hang on, what was that?

          I blink as the water runs down my face. But it’s not a mirage. Franz Kafka is standing at the edge of the forest, pointing a machine gun at me.

          ‘Give me your masking tape’, he shouts, above the wildness of the storm.

          ‘I . .I . .’.

          ‘I admit it is hopeless. The only meaning in our lives is that we eventually die. But before that happens, give me your masking tape’.

          ‘I’ve got loads of the stuff. How many rolls do you need?’

          ‘Depends on their viscosity. Are we talking anything approaching 11 Chatwins?’

          ‘How do you know about Chatwins?’

          ‘Often, during my many years as a clerk working for an insurance company, I would require masking tape of the highest viscosity that Prague could offer. Now, are you going to give me those masking tapes, or am I going to have to shoot you?’

          ‘You’d better come inside’.

          The air is heavy, humid, oppressive. Franz Kafka, in his business suit and tie and a very formal looking long over-jacket, approaches me warily, the machine gun still trained in my direction.

          ‘I had plenty of masking tape. But I gave them all to Max Brod, and he destroyed them. Do you know for how many days I’ve trekked through the jungle, just to find this place?’

          He clambers up onto the porch. It’s just me and him, surrounded by the forest. If he shot me now, I tell myself, nobody would ever find out. Well, not until the next person logs in to the live feed webcam. Sees my body on the porch. Sees the door open, the jungle beyond.

          ‘I’ve got loads of it. Help yourself . . Take two rolls, three. It doesn’t matter. Just . . Just don’t shoot’.

          ‘The joy of masking tape is not the ownership of masking tape, it is the fear of existing in a world without masking tape, and from this emerges all self-torment on account of that fear’.

          ‘Just don’t shoot’.

          ‘The notion of an endless cosmos is at once nullified by the dread which comes from contemplating eternity without masking tape’.

          ‘I’ve told you, take as much as you need!’

          ‘One of masking tape’s most efficient means of seduction is the challenge to contemplate a world in which nothing sticks’.

          ‘True . .’.

          He looks at me with that famous deep stare. It bores right into the very depths of my soul.

          ‘Why are you pointing that weapon at me?’

          ‘Do you know what it’s like to live a life of complete hopelessness? I, more than any other person who ever lived, can truly claim to be Kafkaesque, in every action I undertake, every word I utter’.

          By now we are inside the cabin and I have backed myself as far into the corner as I can. The work surface is littered with test tubes, frog gob swabs and spare bits of masking tape.

          ‘I’m going to turn around’, I tell Kafka, ‘And reach into this cupboard, OK? For inside, I have masking tape aplenty’.

          Franz raises the machine gun, ready to fire at any second.

          ‘Do it’, he says.  ‘It is only our conception of masking tape which lets us call it by that name’.

          I turn, reach into the cupboard, grab several rolls of masking tape, then turn back and offer them to him. He smiles, puts down the gun, and, with his delicate, long fingers, takes them from my hands.

          ‘Cheers’, he says, and he turns, and leaves.

          The storm rages as I watch him depart, his black jacket merging with the gloom at the heart of the jungle, the wet branches and fleshy leaves bending, dripping as he makes his way deep, deep into the foliage.

‘To be honest, we disabled the webcam as soon as you started walking round in the nude’, Jeff says, the next day. ‘The last thing this company needs is a big scandal’.

          ‘So there’s no way of checking the footage?’

          ‘Afraid not, Bob’.

          ‘You know what the silly thing is?’

          ‘Go on’.

          ‘If he’d have asked nicely, I’d have given him as many rolls as he wanted. Why did he need a machine gun?’

          ‘You know, those rolls are property of the McCLintock Masking Tape Company. That’s going to have to come out of your wages’.

          ‘I know’.

          ‘Say, Bob’.

          ‘Yeah?’

          ‘Are you OK out there? We could find a replacement, you know. Sharon down at the South Pole research centre says she’s getting fed up with the cold. You could always swap, you know?’

          I look around the cabin. The test tubes, the scientific equipment, my bed in the corner with its mosquito net.

          ‘I think I’ll stay. I feel fine here, Jeff. You know that? I feel pretty fine out here’.

          I put the phone down and go out onto the porch. It’s another bright, warm, humid morning. My glasses steam up. I put on my dead ant hat, gather my swabs, and go wandering off into the jungle.


Robert Garnham is a comedy performance poet. He has performed at festivals and fringes and comedy nights. A joke from one of his shows was acclaimed as one of the funniest at the Edinburgh fringe. He has made some TV adverts for a certain bank.    


Interview with Author Rie Sheridan Rose

Bio:

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. Things happened along the way, like school and I gave up the dream for awhile. But when I was laid off a couple of weeks before my wedding in 2003, my fiance said I could stay at home and write. So, I have. I actually had my first published story in 1998, but it was still juggling to get writing in around work and stuff. I consider 2003 my real birth as a writer even though I had two novels published by then.

What is your greatest accomplishment as a writer so far?

I think my story in Startling Stories feels like the biggest accomplishment, though having a five book series is a close second. Since that is self-published, it doesn’t have the same feeling of “Wow” that Startling Stories gives me.

Why do you write?

I write because the words in my head want to come out and play. 🙂 Because I have these cool stories that other people might enjoy as well, and I am happy to share them.

What is your writing process? (Any favorite places to write? Any interesting quirks, traditions, or rituals you may have? How many times might you revise something before being satisfied with it? Besides you, does anyone else edit your work? Etc.)

I am very definitely a “pantser.” I never outline. Most of the time I sit down and start typing and see where the story goes. Revisions are very subjective. I used to never revise because I hated the editing stage–and then one day I realized that the first draft is just the bones of a story, and the revisions are where you get to add the muscles and flesh. Now, it can be one of my favorite parts. And, this year, I’ve noticed that most of the stories I’ve placed are ones that I looked at again and tweaked a bit. Including “Cheap Sunglasses.”

Do you have anyone (friends, relatives, etc.) review your works before you publish them?

I have a group of beta readers that I use most of the time. They are a mix of friends, family, and writing professionals, because you want different types of feedback from different people.

Could you give us an idea of your upcoming works without spoiling anything?

Well, several of my novels were left homeless when a publisher closed their novel line, so most of those are re-releasing sometime this year. I have a fairy tale romance with a beta reader (who is also a publisher, cross fingers), and I am working on a spin-off novel for my series that may need to be completely rewritten. I also have a poetry book I’m about to start and a couple of WIPs that may or may not go anywhere. Plus I have a goal of submitting at least one piece of work everyday this year to make up for my dismal laziness last year. I am up to 177 so far.

Do you have any writing events coming up? For example: something being published/released? A reading of one of your works? Interviews? Any speeches or talks?

Everything is still pretty much shut down, though I hope maybe to be back at conventions by the fall. I have a story in Good Southern Witches that debuts in April.

What do you hope to achieve as a writer?

I would like to be known. Not necessarily recognized, but if people hear my name they might say, “Yeah, I read something by her somewhere…”

What do you think of bad reviews? Are they helpful or harmful to you?

It depends on the review. I got a review once on Amazon that purported to be from a specific user. I knew it wasn’t from that specific user, because it was my husband’s user name, and he hadn’t written it. We tried to get them to take it down, but I don’t think we ever succeeded. Mostly, I look at reviews as opinions, and if they seem to have a valid objection to something, I consider it going forward.

What advice do you have for novice writers?

Keep writing. Don’t let a few rejections get you down. I did that when I was in college, and didn’t write for years. What a lot of time wasted! My husband made me a challenge one year to get 300 rejections. It was a kind of aversion therapy. By the end of that year, they didn’t bother me as much. Sure, every now and then, a rejection still really hurts, but I’ve got 80 so far this year… The other piece of advice is keep good records. Make a spreadsheet so you know where things have gone and whether or not they were accepted so you don’t accidentally send something out twice and have the awkward duty of pulling one. And carry some form of notetaking device–notebook, app on your phone, file cards…–wherever you go.

What do you feel are the most important resources a writer can use?

I think the free version of Grammarly is useful. Autocrit is nice, but costs. The Merriam Webster online dictionary. https://www.rhymezone.com/ for poetry. And for submissions, https://www.ralan.com/ and https://trishhopkinson.com/category/call-for-submissions/ are two of my go-tos, as well as the Open Call groups on Facebook. There are several of those.

Where can people find out more about you and your writing? (websites, social media, etc.)

My main social media links are: Twitter: https://twitter.com/RieSheridanRose; Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Rie-Sheridan-Rose/38814481714; and my main website: https://riewriter.com/. I am also on Patreon as Rie Sheridan Rose and on Pixabay as RieFlections.

Is there anything else that you would like our readers to know?

Always follow your dreams. Write what you want to read. And remember, write what you know doesn’t mean you can’t learn something new and write about it.


“Cheap Sunglasses” Fiction by Rie Sheridan Rose

Gillian studied her reflection in the mirror with a worried frown. She looked tired—lines and wrinkles she had never seen before marring the smoothness of her skin. Her eyes looked a bit funny as well…there was an almost golden tint to them, and they used to be sapphire blue. Even the pupils appeared dodgy—more oval than circular. What the hell was going on?

            The most maddening thing, of course, was her hair. She reached up to brush it from her face, and a big clump of it came off in her hand. She felt tears welling up. Her red curls had always been her best feature. Blinking back the tears, she covered her head with a scarf—shades of Grandma Cora for the gods sake—and shrugged into her coat.

            Hopefully the new doctor she was seeing could tell her what was wrong. She glanced at her watch. If she didn’t hurry, she’d be late for the appointment.

            She programmed the address into her GPS and followed the directions on auto-pilot, still worrying about the changes to her appearance. And it wasn’t just that. If it were just superficial changes to the outside, she might be able to live with it…but the constant hissing sound inside her head was driving her mad.

            Thank the gods for Marc. When she’d confided to him on a night of dedicated drinking, he’d clucked his tongue and pulled out a pen.

            “You go see my friend Doctor Asclepius. Here’s his address. If anyone knows anything about all this mad shite you are going through, it will be him.”

            “But how expensive is it? You know I’m between positions at the moment.”

            Marc waved a hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about it. Tell ’im to put it on my tab. Least I can do for you, gorgeous.”

            She tried to protest, but when Marc Urie got something into his head, it was impossible to change his mind.

            “Maybe I can give him my headache,” Gillian growled aloud to the empty car as the streets outside it got more and more rundown, and the scent of decay and debris penetrated even with the windows closed. “Sent me off on some fool’s errand, I bet. Laughing up his sleeve at how easy I am to punk.”

            YOU HAVE REACHED YOUR DESTINATION chirped the happy little voice on the GPS, and she pulled into the parking lot of a Greek revival office building. She looked at the scribbled address Marc had written on a soggy cocktail napkin, and then up at the facade of the building. This was the place, all right. “Let’s hope this guy is as good as Marc says.”

            She bent for her purse, and the hissing in her head surged. She rubbed her temples, feeling a bit of roughness under her fingertips. Her skin was so dry lately…

            Forcing herself to walk into the building without a stagger, she spoke to the woman at the reception desk. “I have an appointment with Dr. Asclepius at ten.”

            “Do you have your insurance card?”

            Gillian could feel her face heating. “It’s to be charged to Mr. Marc Urie.”

            “Oh…so you’re Marc’s friend. Of course. Through that door, and first right.”

            She followed the directions, feeling a bit dirty for the way the receptionist had spoken to her. As if she couldn’t pay her own way, but had to rely on the kindness of strangers, as it were…and the worst part was that it was true.

            She found the room the receptionist had indicated and sat in the patient’s chair, taking off her scarf and scratching her itchy scalp. More hair came off in her hand. She bit her lip to keep from crying.

            After twenty minutes, she had just about decided to leave in frustration when there was a rap on the door and a man breezed in without waiting for an answer. He was muscular, with a bushy graying beard and twinkling blue eyes. Gillian felt marginally better.

            “Miss Gorgon, is it?”

            “Gordon. Gillian Gordon.”

            “Forgive me. My nurse has horrible handwriting.” He plopped down in the other chair. “What seems to be the problem then?”

            “It seems so silly, now. It’s just…well…my eyes seem to be changing, and I’ve got terribly dry skin, and new wrinkles, and—my hair is falling out.”

            “I see,”

            “Plus, there’s this hissing…”

       “Hissing?”

       “Yes. It’s like it’s inside my head.”

       “Is it like white noise hissing, or a tea kettle, or what?”

       “None of those. It’s…organic. Like an angry cat…or maybe a…snake?”

       “Interesting.” He made a note on her chart. “How old are you, Miss Gordon?”

       The question startled her. “I turned twenty-one in February.”

       He nodded thoughtfully and made another mark on his chart.

       “And these changes started when?”

       “I noticed the first symptoms about six weeks ago.”

            “I thought as much.” He made a note on her chart, sighed, capped his pen, and then leaned forward confidentially, his hands laced in his lap. “I’m afraid I wasn’t so wrong about your name, my dear.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “I could send you for a battery of tests, but I don’t think they would do any good. This isn’t a normal ailment.” He sighed again. “Have you read much mythology?”

            She blinked at the apparent non sequitur. “Some. What you get in school, of course.”

            “What is your heritage? Bloodline-wise.”

            “Is that important? Largely English, a bit Irish, some Italian on my father’s side, I believe.”

            “Any Greek, perhaps?”

            “Not to my knowledge.”

            “I think you should invest in one of the DNA tests to be sure, but I believe your knowledge is incomplete, my dear.”

            He reached over and patted her knee. “Don’t be alarmed. This is a perfectly natural occurrence. You’re just coming into your birthright, that’s all.”

            “What do you mean, Doctor?”

            He stood and reached into a cabinet hanging over the desk. He rummaged through it for a moment, and pulled out a pair of dark sunglasses. He handed them to her with a solemn expression.

            “I’m afraid you must wear these at all times from now on, Miss Gordon. Unless you’re home alone, it’s imperative. And, I would suggest removing all your mirrors to prevent…accidents. Marc was quite right to send you to me. No one else would be able to diagnose this condition…but I’ve seen it before.”

            She glanced down at the sunglasses, wondering what he was going on about.

            “You’ll also wish to invest in a collection of kerchiefs. Perhaps a hoodie or two. Believe me, you won’t want to go about with your head uncovered.”

            “I don’t understand!”

            He hunkered down beside her, taking her cold hands in his. “The snakes will be coming next.”

            “Snakes?” She tried to pull away, but his hold was deceptively loose.

            “Do you know the story of Medusa?”

            “Of course…”

            “Wear the sunglasses.”

            “W-why?”

            “My dear, you’re evolving. Somewhere in your ancestry, there was a gorgon. You’ve inherited the gene. It’s recessive, but there are triggers that will awaken it. Stress can be a factor, for example. Marc mentioned you were between jobs. That could be a factor. The bottom line is…you’re turning into one of those creatures.”

            She felt the tears running down her face, and shook her head. “No. That’s impossible. You must be wrong!”

            “I’ve been doing this job for a very long time. I’m sorry, but it’s the truth.” He released her hands with a pat of sympathy.

            Gillian sobbed into her hands. And felt flickering tongues licking away her tears.

       He let her cry herself out, moving back behind his desk and pointedly working on papers stacked there.

       When she could pull herself together, she reached up and ran her fingers through the wriggling mass of creatures that had sprouted on her scalp.

       “What’s the cure?” she asked, tying her scarf about her head and squaring her shoulders.

       “Cure?”

       “There’s a cure for everything these days, isn’t there? I’ll pay for it. No matter what the cost. I’ll rob a bank if I have to!”

       “My dear, I am afraid it doesn’t work that way.”

       She surged to her feet. “I refuse to accept that.”

       “Feel free to search, but I have never heard of any way to reverse genetics.”

       “If there is a way, I’ll find it.”

       “I believe you will.” He rose to his feet and stuck out his hand. “Best of luck.”

       Gillian ignored the outstretched hand, walked to the door and turned. “One more thing, Doctor…”

       “Yes?”

       She lowered the sunglasses and stared at him over the top of them.

       He gasped—and froze into stone.

       “I had to know for sure.”             Pushing the sunglasses back into place, she smiled grimly. She couldn’t wait to show Marc…


Bio:

Rie Sheridan Rose multitasks. A lot. Her short stories appear in numerous anthologies, including Killing It Softly Vol. 1 & 2, Hides the Dark Tower, Dark Divinations, and On Fire. She has authored twelve novels, six poetry chapbooks, and lyrics for dozens of songs. She tweets as @RieSheridanRose.

Publisher’s Note: Check back frequently for The Chamber’s written interview with Rie Sheridan Rose. Date of publication to be announced later.

“Ashes” Fiction by Ethan Maiden

There you go, daddy. There you go to the next place where mummy is waiting.

I was there when he stopped breathing. Just like I had been there with mum. I had become some kind of grim reaper watching over as they passed over. Did I feel fear? Of course. But did I feel sorrow – unashamedly not.

It hadn’t been a secret that I didn’t get on with my parents. I was an only child and their special little daughter. In my younger years I had been spoilt rotten, getting anything I wanted. Dad (Patrick) had been a partner in a successful architectural firm and we had a significant amount of wealth. It paid for my first car, my education and eventual marriage to Stephen. But behind everything, there comes a price and as they say; ‘you reap what you sow.’

*

 Dad’s funeral took place on a blustery morning in March at 11:00 to be precise. It was a small affair with distant family relatives and his old work associates. Dad had ensured he had a life plan and the whole thing had been paid off in advance. All I had to do was arrange the thing and show up.

            I nodded to the, ‘Sarah, we’re sorry for your loss,’ condolences.

            I hate to admit it, but I resented both my parents. I was told to get out and get a job, to fend for myself. I remember the arguing. I could still see mum collapsing to the floor grabbing her chest. She couldn’t breathe. I reached for the phone to call an ambulance but…

I’d tried to be the rock to get dad through the grief. 

            ‘Sarah, I miss her every day,’ dad would say.

            ‘Me too dad.’

            Little white lies don’t hurt … not sometimes.

*

            Dad had insisted on being cremated instead of a burial like mum.

            The ashes were placed in a grey ceramic urn which found its way onto my fire mantelpiece. Stephen said he enjoyed having it there, like dad was still here with us. They had had a special relationship. They went fishing and had a beer watching the game. When mum died Stephen had been the rock to pull dad through the grief.

            ‘Are you scattering them like he asked?’ Stephen asked.

            I nodded, ‘in the sea.’

            ‘When?’

            ‘He said he wanted to go after a week.’

            ‘Huh?’

            ‘He said to me that when he died he wanted to stay just one more week with me, before he is left to rest forever.’

            ‘Well, you have one more week with him, so enjoy,’ Stephen said.

*

            The following day we met with dad’s solicitor. Marcus Hind was a smart chap wearing a navy pinstripe suit, wavy grey hair and thick glasses that showcased his bright hazel eyes. Marcus’ office was on the top floor of the building which housed other small businesses in the centre of town. Stephen and I arrived at just past noon for our appointment.

Butterflies fluttered in my stomach. Dad had been wealthy, that was common knowledge. However how much was still in question. He took early retirement and amongst his assets were a healthy bank balance, a property in Spain and the manor residence where he had passed away.

            ‘You’ll be wondering what details were in your father’s will?’ Marcus asked staring down at the paper.

Oh, you betcha!

            ‘I’d prefer to have him here, Mr. Hind,’ I said, gripping Stephen’s hand.

            Marcus mumbled something I couldn’t quite make out before staring up at us. ‘So, Patrick left the house and the residence in Spain to you.’ Marcus pulled from below his desk a leather black briefcase. ‘Inside this case is the property paperwork as well as the remains of his entire bank balance in cash. I believe it’s in the region of two hundred and forty thousand pounds.’

            ‘All that money can fit in there?’ Stephen asked, pointing with a gaping mouth.

            ‘You’d be surprised,’ Marcus said.

            I went to take it and Marcus quickly slid it back from my grasp.

            ‘There is one more thing Patrick requested.’ Marcus said. ‘The case is locked and will remain locked for the week. In seven days, I will provide the combination code.’

            ‘What?’ I asked, bemused. ‘Is this a joke?’

            ‘Afraid not,’ Marcus said. ‘That’s the conditions Patrick requested.’

            Marcus slid the case back to us. I picked it up, the weight made me almost drop the damn thing. A scent rushed up to me – burnt paper or smoke from a fire. I took hold of the steel handle and left.

            So much money in my grasp … a week will fly by … no problem.

*

            There is a powerful aura around the thing(s) you want the most. The wealth alone in this case was enough to see me through the rest of my life without struggle. Stephen and I had agreed early on in the relationship that we wouldn’t have children. We or more I was selfish. We enjoyed our extravagant holidays and lived the lifestyle we wanted – a life with freedom and without restrictions.

            I set the case on the kitchen table and went to the lounge. The urn stood tall on the mantelpiece.

            ‘This is your last joke, huh?’ I asked. ‘One more week?’

            The urn stared at me and I felt tingles spread across the entirety of my skin.

            That night – it started.

            I woke at just past midnight. Stephen snored next to me as per usual. For some reason I felt wide awake at such a nocturnal hour. Ice filled the room; it felt more like December than early spring. I sat up and rubbed my arms to remind my body of warmth. When I exhaled I saw my breath float and then evaporate before my eyes.

            My surroundings felt off. I could swear I was being watched. I glanced around the shadow filled room. For some reason our eyes like to play mean tricks on us and I’m sure I saw a silhouette run across the landing. Nothing was there obviously, but I couldn’t shake the unease festering in my gut. I laid on my side and held my eyes closed hoping for the sleep to take me. Eventually it did.

*

            The following day I stood staring at the briefcase on the kitchen table. I stroked and smelt the leather. The combination was set to 0-0-0. I thought about rolling the numbers to see if I’d drop lucky. Maybe there’d be a click and the fortune would be mine.

Jokes on you, papa.

My hands moved closer but before I could make contact there was a small bang from the lounge.

            I headed in and saw that the urn had moved across the mantelpiece to the right by at least a foot. Stephen was at work so there was no way he could have moved it.

            ‘Hello, someone there?’

            My spine arched, just like a cat when you give it a stroke. I had to get out of this place. I threw on my jacket and headed out. I wanted to stay out as long as possible; being alone in this house had my nerves jingling.

            I walked to town to buy a few groceries, that passed a little time and hopefully Stephen would be home by the time I got back. I bought the essentials – milk, bread, eggs and a bottle of white wine.

            On the way back, I saw a homeless man sat on the street. He wore a red beanie hat, green jacket and had facial hair to his chest. He sat sorrowfully with a steel cup that held the change he had been given throughout the day. I ransacked my pockets to see if I had anything to give. My hand waddled out a measly £1.34 but as Tesco say – ‘every little helps.’ I bent down to throw it in the pot when the homeless man stared up at me.

            Have we met?

            ‘I have no need for your blood money,’ he said.

            I stopped before dropping it in, startled by what I’d just heard, ‘what?’

            ‘That money is no good to me.’

            ‘I … I don’t know what you mean,’ I said shaking my head in disbelief.

            ‘You know exactly what I mean,’ he replied, toneless.

            I put the coins back in my pocket and hurried back up the street not daring to look back.

*

            I was pacing the kitchen when Stephen arrived home.

            ‘Sarah, what’s wrong?’ he asked, dropping his work bag down.

            My arms were folded and I bit my nails.

            ‘Something’s not right Steve,’ I said.

            ‘What do you mean?’

            I pointed to the briefcase. ‘Ever since we brought that thing back I’ve been feeling … strange.’

            ‘Strange?’

            ‘I … I can’t explain.’

            He moved closer placing his warm hands on my shoulders. ‘You’ve been through a lot,’ he said. ‘First your mum and now your dad in a short space of time. The grief has no doubt taken its toll on you.’

            ‘That’s not it Steve … I know something is wrong.’

            He grimaced and assured me nothing would happen whilst he was here. He would protect me.

*

            Stephen could say what he wanted but when night came that’s when the shadows played their devious tricks.

Again I woke in the middle of the night. For once Stephen wasn’t snoring. I think it was worse that I was engulfed in silence, it somehow made the atmosphere eerier. At least Stephen’s heavy breathing brought a realism to everything.

            The cold fell over me the same as before. I sat upright and stared at the open bedroom door which led to the landing. The staircase creaked. My heart thundered. Thud … thud … thud.

            Mum?

            I struggled to breathe.

            My throat felt as though it was closing with a barricade of ice.

            I gasped trying hard to suck in the air.

            Stephen woke and started shaking me by the shoulders.

            ‘Jesus Christ Sarah, what’s wrong?’

            ‘Mu … mu …,’ I mumbled pointing to my throat.

            My whole body started to shake.

            Stephen laid me down and held me tight.

            ‘I need to call an ambulance.’

            And then the ice in my throat melted. The beating in my chest relaxed and the air returned to normal.

            ‘I … I don’t know what happened,’ I said finding my voice a few moments later.

            ‘You looked like you were having a heart attack,’ Stephen said.

*

            The following two days and nights went without incident. I put the episode down to a panic attack with everything that had happened lately. Still the briefcase sat on the kitchen table. I had to fight the urge to keep my thumbs from scrolling down the numbers. I wanted what was inside … I needed it.

            My hands reached down and I started on the numbers one through nine on all three dials. After an hour or so I flicked them all back to 0 with a huff and sigh.

            A few more days … that’s all.

            It was that night when my fears were suddenly turned up a notch. My eyes popped open to the cold air. This time I felt no struggle to breathe, well not initially. The cold air puffed out of me and I swamped the quilt to keep warm.

            The stairs creaked and not in the way we expect in the midnight hour. They creaked as if someone was climbing them. Something was coming up the stairs.

            I rolled onto my back staring so hard I thought my eyes would pop out of their sockets.

            Time stood still; I was frozen in time.

            Next to me Stephen slept silently. No snores; no heavy breathing and I actually thought he could be dead.

            I glanced up and saw … it.

            The face.

            The right side of a pale white face peeked at me from behind the doorframe. Its hand crawled round spidery and gripped hold of the frame.

            I wanted to scream. My heart wasn’t beating, it felt like it had stopped altogether.

            Then real fear struck me. It was my dad.

            His black eye on show had sunken into his skull and his pale face matched the moon which crept through the curtains.

            A sinister smile crept on the corner of his lip. Crooked teeth fell from his mouth. Dad was mocking me. Even from the grave he was still making my life hell.

            I rolled Stephen over.

            His face had changed.

            Lying next to me now was dad’s frozen corpse.

            This time the screaming did come and I was shaken out of my fit of fear by Stephen.

*

            I tried to explain everything. Stephen looked understanding but I knew deep down he doubted my every word.

            ‘It was just a nightmare,’ he said.

            I walked to the lounge and stared at the urn. That thing was fucking cursed. Could it really be that dad was still here in some way? I pushed his face out of my head.

            I went to speak with Marcus.

            After explaining everything he sat in silence gathering his thoughts.

            ‘I want that code,’ I said. ‘I want to get the money, take the keys and get the hell away from here.’

            Marcus tapped his fingers in a praying pose against his lips. ‘You have twenty-four hours before you get the code, Sarah.’

            ‘No; I want that damn code now!’

            ‘Twenty … four … hours.’ 

            ‘Well I’ll just take that urn and scatter his ashes in the sea if I have to. Good riddance to him.’

            ‘That’s up to you,’ Marcus said.

            He wasn’t budging his stance.

            I got up and stormed out of the office.

            If twenty-four hours was all I had to wait to get my hands on all that money then so bloody be it. One last push of patience.

That night I got in bed early.

Stephen had stayed downstairs to watch the game with a beer.

When I woke this time, Stephen still wasn’t beside me.

Stood above me was my mother.

Her decaying corpse stared down at me.

Her once tanned face was now rotted flesh and bone.

The stench made me want to vomit.

Mum was almost bald but a few loose strands of frizzled hair.

‘M … mum?’ I muttered.

She wore the white gown she had been buried in, it was dirty with stains of mud and earth flowing from knees to her chest.

Then I heard the distant sound of thud … thud … thud.

That horrific noise.

Was it my heart or hers? I couldn’t be sure.

‘Mum … please.’

She pointed at me and her mouth gaped open as though yelling at me, the way she had done all those years ago.

My dad again peeked from the doorframe smiling with that mocking dead expression.

Thud … thud … thud.

The beating of my heart grew.

Thud … thud … THUD.

I couldn’t breathe.

‘Mum … dad … please,’ I strained.

I fell to the bed and started to panic. My hands and toes tensed so hard I thought they’d snap like chicken bone. The muscles and veins in my neck bulged from the thinning skin. This was it; I was dying and my parents were embracing every second.

Stephen came running up the stairs; dad retreated out of view and mum crumbled to the floor vanishing in an instant.          

‘Sarah … Sarah!’ he yelled shaking me.

I managed to take in some much needed oxygen and filled my lungs to capacity.

‘That’s it baby, long hard breaths,’ Stephen reassured me.

My hands relaxed. My muscles started to unclench.

Stephen grabbed hold of me and hugged me tight.

‘Where were you?’ I asked still catching breath.

‘I fell asleep on the sofa.’

‘You were supposed to be here … to keep me safe.’

*

The day I’d been waiting for had finally come. After a long and otherworldly week I’d get what was due to me. But first I had business to attend to.

I grabbed the urn and threw it in the car. Stephen was working so I had all day to carry out the task in hand.

The seafront was an hour’s drive away.  It was a gusty day which suited me. On the way I caught a glimpse of myself in the rear-view mirror.

Jesus Christ Sarah, you’ve aged. Your eyes have bags dropping near your chin. The creases in your face crater like the Grand Canyon and that hair is in dying need of a colour.

Don’t worry we’ll have plenty of cash to sort these things out. All in due time.

It was my mother’s voice that spoke the words.

‘So, you think you can still dictate my life, huh?’ I asked the urn sat innocently beside me. ‘Coming to me in the night … and using mum!’ I said shaking my head. ‘How dare you use mum to get at me. No … no sir; it will all be over today daddy.’

Sarah, you sound hysterical.

I parked at the pay and display next to the beach. £1.30 for an hour’s stay was fine by me. I used the change which should have gone to that homeless chap that freaked me out. Grabbing the urn and my umbrella I headed out down the stone steps. The beach was quiet, a few dog and casual walkers here and there. The sea – wild with a strong scent of salt infiltrating my nostrils.

Surfers would embrace these high waves.

I reached the sea and put down my umbrella. My feet paddled in the ice-cold water and I took the urn holding it out in front of me.

‘Dad. I want to say something. What I put you and mum through was wrong, and I apologise. Thing is, you being in my home is a constant reminder, and I don’t want reminding of the last time I saw you alive. The night terrors are obviously my mind playing the guilt card. I hope you understand. Farewell daddy; be at peace.’

I unlocked the urn and emptied the contents into the sea.

Rolls of money fell into the water.

Bundles of £50 notes held by elastic bands washed out to the sea. There must have been a dozen or so.

What the hell?

I checked the urn and it was empty. Just an empty ceramic container. No ashes and now – no cash. The sea carried the money out and into the waves. I stood speechless as they disappeared under the water.

*

I ran back to the car as fast as my legs would take me. I yanked out my phone out and dialled Marcus’ office.

‘Hello, Marcus H-’

‘Is this some kind of a joke?’ I asked.

‘Sorry?’

‘The urn … it was filled with cash, not my fucking dad.’

‘I see. You scattered it then?’ Marcus asked, irritatingly calm.

‘Yes I scattered them. What’s going on?’

‘Come by the office and we can sort this whole thing out.’

‘Give me the code,’ I said.

‘Pardon me.’

‘The code … give me the fucking code to the case.’

And then Marcus gave it me. I questioned whether he was joking.

He wasn’t.

*

When I arrived home, I ran to the front door with excitement. My hands rushed the key in the lock and I shot through to the kitchen. The briefcase stood on top of the table as I’d left it. I pumped in the code and pulled back the lid.

My hands clasped my mouth like I’d been hit with an arrow in the chest.

Thud … thud … thud …

I took a double take to make sure my eyes were not deceiving me.

Ashes.

The entire case was filled with ashes.

*

Marcus sat behind his desk. I stormed in and smacked the table.

‘What is happening?’

‘Oh Sarah. You have been a naughty girl.’

‘What does that mean you fucking weasel?’

Marcus slipped his computer screen around to face me. On the monitor was the image of a hidden camera. It was staring at my father’s bed. My dad was in it.

‘Where did you get this?’ I asked.

‘Well, you see that your father had become quite suspicious following your mother’s untimely death. So, he set this camera up for proof if he ever needed it, which he certainly did. Didn’t he Sarah?’

‘No … this isn’t happening …’ I muttered, unable to steady myself.

I fell into the chair.

‘Let’s have a watch, shall we?’ Marcus said and pushed play.

I remembered. I didn’t need to see it, but I couldn’t take my eyes away. I entered the bedroom whilst dad was asleep. I remembered his face. I took the pillow and held it tight against his face. I pressed down harder and harder. Dad’s hands gripped as he fought, damn he tried to fight. Yet he was frail, all too frail. I pushed harder until he fell limp …

‘Oh dear Sarah,’ Marcus said. ‘First your mother and then your father.’

Thud … thud … thud.

‘Dad … had suspicions?’

‘The constant discussions over money? The arguing? He heard you say that you’d kill her?’

Mum needed an ambulance. I could have saved her but I didn’t make the call. I watched her die in front of me. Thud … thud …

‘He set me up?’

‘Of course,’ Marcus said ‘He was a dying man but you couldn’t be patient could you, Sarah? You had to have his fortune didn’t you?’

I was close to tears. Marcus had the incriminating evidence and my life was over.

‘The money in the urn was all that was left,’ Marcus continued. ‘Patrick had sold the property in Spain and donated his fortune to charity. The only possession he had was the manor house, which he has kindly left … to me.’

‘You?’ I asked.

Marcus chuckled. ‘He came to me with his suspicions a while ago and we made a deal. And when you make a deal with me, the agreement is final.’

‘Who are you?’

Marcus just smiled. There was a burning behind those eyes – a blackness.

Suddenly fear had substituted the rage in me. This … thing in front of me made my stomach churn.

‘What are you? Is that what the combination to the case was – a clue?’ I asked.

‘I take great pleasure in seeing a sinner’s world fall apart.’

‘The night terrors … the homeless man, it was you, wasn’t it?’

Marcus again smiled with his crooked teeth and burning eyes. ‘I like to have my fun now and again.’

I rushed to my feet almost stumbling to the floor. The blue carpet had changed to bare floorboards. The nice paint of the office had started to peel away. Marcus just sat watching my disbelief as the surroundings fell to desolation.

I ran out of the door which fell from its hinges to the floor. I headed down the stairs. The other small businesses in the building were vacant. Not a soul in sight. I fell through the door and turned to see the entire building boarded up and worthy of demolition.

I had to get home. I had to see Stephen.

*

I flew over the speed limit the whole way. I wasn’t thinking straight and who could blame me?

When I arrived home, a police car was parked outside the house. What had happened now? Had that Marcus thing got to Stephen?

I ran in the house and found two officers with Stephen huddled around his laptop. My face fell. They turned. I saw behind them the footage of me suffocating my father playing on the screen.

Tears fell down Stephen’s cheeks.

‘Sarah … how could you?’ he asked.

‘I … I’m sorry.’

The police officers moved toward me.

The briefcase of ashes remained on the kitchen table; the code still read 6-6-6.

Copyright © Ethan Maiden


Bio:

Ethan works for a utilities company in South Yorkshire.
Writing fiction has become a hobby over the past couple of years and he hopes to one day publish a novel.
Ethan notes Stephen King and H.P Lovecraft as influences behind his work.