The Saturday Night Special: “Lukundoo” by Edward Lucas White (1907, the Project Gutenberg Australia text)


A few years ago, when I had only my personal website, I ran a dark story from classic (usually nineteenth-century) literature on Saturday nights at 10:00 p.m. I called these “The Saturday Night Special” and I ran these for about a year or so. To go back into the literary roots of The Chamber, I have decided to rerun many of those stories in The Chamber. Leave a comment below to let me know what you think of them.

I am going to start off the resurrected Saturday Night Special with one of my favorite horror stories of all time: “Lukundoo” by Edward Lucas White.


Edward Lucas White 1866-1934
Edward Lucas White
1866-1934

“It stands to reason,” said Twombly, “that a man must accept of his own eyes, and when eyes and ears agree, there can be no doubt. He has to believe what he has both seen and heard.”

“Not always,” put in Singleton, softly.

Every man turned toward Singleton. Twombly was standing on hearthrug, his back to the grate, his legs spread out, with his habitual air of dominating the room. Singleton, as usual, was as much as possible effaced in a corner. But when Singleton spoke he said something. We faced him in that flattering spontaneity of expectant silence which invites utterance.

“I was thinking,” he said, after an interval, “of something I both saw and heard in Africa.”

Now, if there was one thing we had found impossible, it had been to elicit from Singleton anything definite about his African experiences. As with the Alpinist in the story, who could tell only that he went up and came down, the sum of Singleton’s revelations had been that he went there and came away. His words now riveted our attention at once. Twombly faded from the hearthrug, but not one of us could ever recall having seen him go. The room readjusted itself, focused on Singleton, and there was some hasty and furtive lighting of fresh cigars. Singleton lit one also, but it went out immediately, and he never relit it.

Chapter I

We were in the Great Forest, exploring for pigmies. Van Rieten had a theory that the dwarfs found by Stanley and others were a mere cross-breed between ordinary negroes and the real pigmies. He hoped to discover a race of men three feet tall at most, or shorter. We had found no trace of any such beings.

Natives were few, game scarce; food, except game, there was none; and the deepest, dankest, drippingest forest all about. We were the only novelty in the country, no native we met had ever seen a white man before, most had never heard of white men. All of a sudden, late one afternoon, there came into our camp an Englishman, and pretty well used up he was, too. We had heard no rumor of him; he had not only heard of us but had made an amazing five-day march to reach us. His guide and two bearers were nearly as done up as he. Even though he was in tatters and had five days’ beard on, you could see he was naturally dapper and neat and the sort of man to shave daily. He was small, but wiry. His face was the sort of British face from which emotion has been so carefully banished that a foreigner is apt to think the wearer of the face incapable of any sort of feeling; the kind of face which, if it has any expression at all, expresses principally the resolution to go through the world decorously, without intruding upon or annoying anyone.

His name was Etcham. He introduced himself modestly, and ate with us so deliberately that we should never have suspected, if our bearers had not had it from his bearers, that he had had but three meals in the five days, and those small. After we had lit up he told us why he had come.

“My chief is ve’y seedy,” he said between puffs. “He is bound to go out if he keeps this way. I thought perhaps…”

He spoke quietly in a soft, even tone, but I could see little beads of sweat oozing out on his upper lip under his stubby mustache, and there was a tingle of repressed emotion in his tone, a veiled eagerness in his eye, a palpitating inward solicitude in his demeanor that moved me at once. Van Rieten had no sentiment in him; if he was moved he did not show it. But he listened. I was surprised at that. He was just the man to refuse at once. But he listened to Etcham’s halting, difficult hints. He even asked questions.

“Who is your chief?”

“Stone,” Etcham lisped.

That electrified both of us.

“Ralph Stone?” we ejaculated together.

Etcham nodded.

For some minutes Van Rieten and I were silent. Van Rieten had never seen him, but I had been a classmate of Stone’s, and Van Rieten and I had discussed him over many a campfire. We had heard of him two years before, south of Luebo in the Balunda country, which had been ringing with his theatrical strife against a Balunda witch-doctor, ending in the sorcerer’s complete discomfiture and the abasement of his tribe before Stone. They had even broken the fetish-man’s whistle and given Stone the pieces. It had been like the triumph of Elijah over the prophets of Baal, only more real to the Balunda.

We had thought of Stone as far off, if still in Africa at all, and here he turned up ahead of us and probably forestalling our quest.

Chapter II

Etcham’s naming of Stone brought back to us all his tantalizing story, his fascinating parents, their tragic death; the brilliance of his college days; the dazzle of his millions; the promise of his young manhood; his wide notoriety, so nearly real fame; his romantic elopement with the meteoric authoress whose sudden cascade of fiction had made her so great a name so young, whose beauty and charm were so much heralded; the frightful scandal of the breach-of-promise suit that followed; his bride’s devotion through it all; their sudden quarrel after it was all over; their divorce; the too much advertised announcement of his approaching marriage to the plaintiff in the breach-of-promise suit; his precipitate remarriage to his divorced bride; their second quarrel and second divorce; his departure from his native land; his advent in the dark continent. The sense of all this rushed over me and I believe Van Rieten felt it, too, as he sat silent.

Then he asked:

“Where is Werner?”

“Dead,” said Etcham. “He died before I joined Stone.”

“You were not with Stone above Luebo?”

“No,” said Etcham, “I joined him at Stanley Falls.”

“Who is with him?” Van Rieten asked.

“Only his Zanzibar servants and the bearers,” Etcham replied.

“What sort of bearers?” Van Rieten demanded.

“Mang-Battu men,” Etcham responded simply.

Now that impressed both Van Rieten and myself greatly. It bore out Stone’s reputation as a notable leader of men. For up to that time no one had been able to use Mang-Battu as bearers outside of their own country, or to hold them for long or difficult expeditions.

“Were you long among the Mang-Battu?” was Van Rieten’s next question.

“Some weeks,” said Etcham. “Stone was interested in them and made up a fair-sized vocabulary of their words and phrases. He had a theory that they are an offshoot of the Balunda and he found much confirmation in their customs.”

“What do you live on?” Van Rieten enquired.

“Game, mostly,” Etcham lisped.

“How long has Stone been laid up?” Van Rieten next asked.

“More than a month,” Etcham answered.

“And you have been hunting for the camp?” Van Rieten exclaimed.

Etcham’s face, burnt and flayed as it was, showed a flush.

“I missed some easy shots,” he admitted ruefully. “I’ve not felt ve’y fit myself.”

“What’s the matter with your chief?” Van Rieten enquired.

“Something like carbuncles,” Etcham replied.

“He ought to get over a carbuncle or two,” Van Rieten declared.

“They are not carbuncles,” Etcham explained. “Nor one or two. He has had dozens, sometimes five at once. If they had been carbuncles he would have been dead long ago. But in some ways they are not so bad, though in others they are worse.”

“How do you mean?” Van Rieten queried.

“Well,” Etcham hesitated, “they do not seem to inflame so deep nor so wide as carbuncles, nor to be so painful, nor to cause so much fever. But then they seem to be part of a disease that affects his mind. He let me help him dress the first, but the others he has hidden most carefully, from me and from the men. He keeps his tent when they puff up, and will not let me change the dressings or be with him at all.”

“Have you plenty of dressings?” Van Rieten asked.

“We have some,” said Etcham doubtfully. “But he won’t use them; he washes out the dressings and uses them over and over.”

“How is he treating the swellings?” Van Rieten enquired.

“He slices them off clean down to flesh level, with his razor.”

“What?” Van Rieten shouted.

Etcham made no answer but looked him steadily in the eyes.

“I beg pardon,” Van Rieten hastened to say. “You startled me. They can’t be carbuncles. He’d have been dead long ago.”

“I thought I had said they are not carbuncles,” Etcham lisped.

“But the man must be crazy!” Van Rieten exclaimed.

“Just so,” said Etcham. “He is beyond my advice or control.”

“How many has he treated that way?” Van Rieten demanded.

“Two, to my knowledge,” Etcham said.

“Two?” Van Rieten queried.

Etcham flushed again.

“I saw him,” he confessed, “through a crack in the hut. I felt impelled to keep a watch on him, as if he was not responsible.”

“I should think not,” Van Rieten agreed. “And you saw him do that twice?”

“I conjecture,” said Etcham, “that he did the like with all the rest.”

“How many has he had?” Van Rieten asked.

“Dozens,” Etcham lisped.

“Does he eat?” Van Rieten enquired.

“Like a wolf,” said Etcham. “More than any two bearers.”

“Can he walk?” Van Rieten asked.

“He crawls a bit, groaning,” said Etcham simply.

“Little fever, you say,” Van Rieten ruminated.

“Enough and too much,” Etcham declared.

“Has he been delirious?” Van Rieten asked.

“Only twice,” Etcham replied; “once when the first swelling broke, and once later. He would not let anyone come near him then. But we could hear him talking, talking steadily, and it scared the natives.

“Was he talking their patter in delirium?” Van Rieten demanded.

“No,” said Etcham, “but he was talking some similar lingo. Hamed Burghash said he was talking Balunda. I know too little Balunda. I do not learn languages readily. Stone learned more Mang-Battu in a week than I could have learned in a year. But I seemed to hear words like Mang-Battu words. Anyhow, the Mang-Battu bearers were scared.”

“Scared?” Van Rieten repeated, questioningly.

“So were the Zanzibar men, even Hamed Burghash, and so was I,” said Etcham, “only for a different reason. He talked in two voices.”

“In two voices,” Van Rieten reflected.

“Yes,” said Etcham, more excitedly than he had yet spoken. “In two voices, like a conversation. One was his own, one a small, thin, bleaty voice like nothing I ever heard. I seemed to make out, among the sounds the deep voice made, something like Mang-Battu words I knew, as nedru, metababa, and nedo, their terms for ‘head,’ ‘shoulder,’ ‘thigh,’ and perhaps kudra and nekere (‘speak’ and ‘whistle’); and among the noises of the shrill voice matomipa, angunzi, and kamomami (‘kill,’ ‘death,’ and ‘hate’). Hamed Burghash said he also heard those words. He knew Mang-Battu far better than I.”

“What did the bearers say?” Van Rieten asked.

“They said, ‘, Lukundoo!'” Etcham replied. “I did not know the word; Hamed Burghash said it was Mang-Battu for ‘leopard.'”

“It’s Mang-Battu for ‘witchcraft,'” said Van Rieten.

“I don’t wonder they thought so,” said Etcham. “It was enough to make one believe in sorcery to listen to those two voices.”

“One voice answering the other?” Van Rieten asked perfunctorily.

Etcham’s face went gray under his tan.

“Sometimes both at once,” he answered huskily.

“Both at once!” Van Rieten ejaculated.

“It sounded that way to the men, too,” said Etcham. “And that was not all.”

He stopped and looked helplessly at us for a moment.

“Could a man talk and whistle at the same time?” he asked.

“How do you mean?” Van Rieten queried.

“We could hear Stone talking away, his big, deep-cheated baritone rumbling along, and through it all we could hear a high, shrill whistle, the oddest, wheezy sound. You know, no matter how shrilly a grown man may whistle, the note has a different quality from the whistle of a boy or a woman or a little girl. They sound more treble, somehow. Well, if you can imagine the smallest girl who could whistle keeping it up tunelessly right along, that whistle was like that, only even more piercing, and it sounded right through Stone’s bass tones.”

“And you didn’t go to him?” Van Rieten cried.

“He is not given to threats,” Etcham disclaimed. “But he had threatened, not volubly, nor like a sick man, but quietly and firmly, that if any man of us (he lumped me in with the men) came near him while he was in his trouble, that man should die. And it was not so much his words as his manner. It was like a monarch commanding respected privacy for a deathbed. One simply could not transgress.”

“I see,” said Van Rieten shortly.

“He’s ve’y seedy,” Etcham repeated helplessly. “I thought perhaps….”

His absorbing affection for Stone, his real love for him, shone out through his envelope of conventional training. Worship of Stone was plainly his master passion.

Like many competent men, Van Rieten had a streak of hard selfishness in him. It came to the surface then. He said we carried our lives in our hands from day to day just as genuinely as Stone; that he did not forget the ties of blood and calling between any two explorers, but that there was no sense in imperiling one party for a very problematical benefit to a man probably beyond any help; that it was enough of a task to hunt for one party; that if two were united, providing food would be more than doubly difficult; that the risk of starvation was too great. Deflecting our march seven full days’ journey (he complimented Etcham on his marching powers) might ruin our expedition entirely.

Chapter III

Van Rieten had logic on his side and he had a way with him. Etcham sat there apologetic and deferential, like a fourth-form schoolboy before a head master. Van Rieten wound up.

“I am after pigmies, at the risk of my life. After pigmies I go.”

“Perhaps, then, these will interest you,” said Etcham, very quietly.

He took two objects out of the sidepocket of his blouse, and handed them to Van Rieten. They were round, bigger than big plums, and smaller than small peaches, about the right size to enclose in an average hand. They were black, and at first I did not see what they were.

“Pigmies!” Van Rieten exclaimed. “Pigmies, indeed! Why, they wouldn’t be two feet high! Do you mean to claim that these are adult heads?”

“I claim nothing,” Etcham answered evenly. “You can see for yourself.”

Van Rieten passed one of the heads to me. The sun was just setting and I examined it closely. A dried head it was, perfectly preserved, and the flesh as hard as Argentine jerked beef. A bit of a vertebra stuck out where the muscles of the vanished neck had shriveled into folds. The puny chin was sharp on a projecting jaw, the minute teeth white and even between the retracted lips, the tiny nose was flat, the little forehead retreating, there were inconsiderable clumps of stunted wool on the Lilliputian cranium. There was nothing babyish, childish or youthful about the head; rather it was mature to senility.

“Where did these come from?” Van Rieten enquired.

“I do not know,” Etcham replied precisely. “I found them among Stone’s effects while rummaging for medicines or drugs or anything that could help me to help him. I do not know where he got them. But I’ll swear he did not have them when we entered this district.”

“Are you sure?” Van Rieten queried, his eyes big and fixed on Etcham’s.

“Ve’y sure,” lisped Etcham.

“But how could he have come by them without your knowledge?” Van Rieten demurred.

“Sometimes we were apart ten days at a time hunting,” said Etcham. “Stone is not a talking man. He gave me no account of his doings, and Hamed Burghash keeps a still tongue and a tight hold on the men.”

“You have examined these heads?” Van Rieten asked.

“Minutely,” said Etcham.

Van Rieten took out his notebook. He was a methodical chap. He tore out a leaf, folded it and divided it equally into three pieces. He gave one to me and one to Etcham.

“Just for a test of my impressions,” he said, “I want each of us to write separately just what he is most reminded of by these heads. Then I want to compare the writings.”

I handed Etcham a pencil and he wrote. Then he handed the pencil back to me and I wrote.

“Read the three,” said Van Rieten, handing me his piece.

Van Rieten had written:

“An old Balunda witch-doctor.”

Etcham had written:

“An old Mang-Battu fetish-man.”

I had written:

“An old Katongo magician.”

“There!” Van Rieten exclaimed. “Look at that! There is nothing Wagabi or Batwa or Wambuttu or Wabotu about these heads. Nor anything pigmy either.”

“I thought as much,” said Etcham.

“And you say he did not have them before?”

“To a certainty he did not,” Etcham asserted.

“It is worth following up,” said Van Rieten. “I’ll go with you. And first of all, I’ll do my best to save Stone.”

He put out his hand and Etcham clasped it silently. He was grateful all over.

Chapter IV

Nothing but Etcham’s fever of solicitude could have taken him in five days over the track. It took him eight days to retrace with full knowledge of it and our party to help. We could not have done it in seven, and Etcham urged us on, in a repressed fury of anxiety, no mere fever of duty to his chief, but a real ardor of devotion, a glow of personal adoration for Stone which blazed under his dry conventional exterior and showed in spite of him.

We found Stone well cared for. Etcham had seen to a good, high thorn zareeba round the camp, the huts were well built, and thatched and Stone’s was as good as their resources would permit. Hamed Burghash was not named after two Seyyids for nothing. He had in him the making of a sultan. He had kept the Mang-Battu together, not a man had slipped off, and he had kept them in order. Also he was a deft nurse and a faithful servant.

The two other Zanzibaris had done some creditable hunting. Though all were hungry, the camp was far from starvation.

Stone was on a canvas cot and there was a sort of collapsible camp-stool-table, like a Turkish tabouret, by the cot. It had a water-bottle and some vials on it and Stone’s watch, also his razor in its case.

Stone was clean and not emaciated, but he was far gone; not unconscious, but in a daze; past commanding or resisting anyone. He did not seem to see us enter or to know we were there. I should have recognized him anywhere. His boyish dash and grace had vanished utterly, of course. But his head was even more leonine; his hair was still abundant, yellow and wavy; the close, crisped blond beard he had grown during his illness did not alter him. He was big and big-cheated yet. His eyes were dull and he mumbled and babbled mere meaningless syllables, not words.

Etcham helped Van Rieten to uncover him and look him over. He was in good muscle for a man so long bedridden. There were no scars on him except about his knees, shoulders and chest. On each knee and above it he had a full score of roundish cicatrices, and a dozen or more on each shoulder, all in front. Two or three were open wounds and four or five barely healed. He had no fresh swellings, except two, one on each side, on his pectoral muscles, the one on the left being higher up and farther out than the other. They did not look like boils or carbuncles, but as if something blunt and hard were being pushed up through the fairly healthy flesh and skin, not much inflamed.

“I should not lance those,” said Van Rieten, and Etcham assented.

They made Stone as comfortable as they could, and just before sunset we looked in at him again. He was lying on his back, and his chest showed big and massive yet, but he lay as if in a stupor. We left Etcham with him and went into the next hut, which Etcham had resigned to us. The jungle noises were no different than anywhere else for months past, and I was soon fast asleep.

Chapter V

Sometime in the pitch dark I found myself awake and listening. I could hear two voices, one Stone’s, the other sibilant and wheezy. I knew Stone’s voice after all the years that had passed since I heard it last. The other was like nothing I remembered. It had less volume than the wail of a new-born baby, yet there was an insistent carrying power to it, like the shrilling of an insect. As I listened I heard Van Rieten breathing near me in the dark; then he heard me and realized that I was listening, too. Like Etcham I knew little Balunda, but I could make out a word or two. The voices alternated, with intervals of silence between.

Then suddenly both sounded at once and fast. Stone’s baritone basso, full as if he were in perfect health, and that incredibly stridulous falsetto, both jabbering at once like the voices of two people quarreling and trying to talk each other down.

“I can’t stand this,” said Van Rieten. “Let’s have a look at him.”

He had one of those cylindrical electric night-candles. He fumbled about for it, touched the button and beckoned me to come with him. Outside the hut he motioned me to stand still, and instinctively turned off the light, as if seeing made listening difficult.

Except for a faint glow from the embers of the bearers’ fire we were in complete darkness, little starlight struggled through the trees, the river made but a faint murmur. We could hear the two voices together and then suddenly the creaking voice changed into a razor-edged, slicing whistle, indescribably cutting, continuing right through Stone’s grumbling torrent of croaking words.

“Good God!” exclaimed Van Rieten.

Abruptly he turned on the light.

We found Etcham utterly asleep, exhausted by his long anxiety and the exertions of his phenomenal march, and relaxed completely now that the load was in a sense shifted from his shoulders to Van Rieten’s. Even the light on his face did not wake him.

The whistle had ceased and the two voices now sounded together. Both came from Stone’s cot, where the concentrated white ray showed him lying just as we had left him, except that he had tossed his arms above his head and had torn the coverings and bandages from his chest.

The swelling on his right breast had broken. Van Rieten aimed the center line of the light at it and we saw it plainly. From his flesh, grown out of it, there protruded a head, such a head as the dried specimens Etcham had shown us, as if it were a miniature of the head of a Balunda fetish-man. It was black, shining black as the blackest African skin; it rolled the whites of its wicked, wee eyes and showed its microscopic teeth between lips repulsively negroid in their red fullness, even in so diminutive a face. It had crisp, fuzzy wool on its minikin skull, it turned malignantly from side to side and chittered incessantly in that inconceivable falsetto. Stone babbled brokenly against its patter.

Van Rieten turned from Stone and waked Etcham, with some difficulty. When he was awake and saw it all, Etcham stared and said not one word.

“You saw him slice off two swellings?” Van Rieten asked.

Etcham nodded, chokingly.

“Did he bleed much?” Van Rieten demanded.

“Ve’y little,” Etcham replied.

“You hold his arms,” said Van Rieten to Etcham.

He took up Stone’s razor and handed me the light. Stone showed no sign of seeing the light or of knowing we were there. But the little head mewled and screeched at us.

Van Rieten’s hand was steady, and the sweep of the razor even and true. Stone bled amazingly little and Van Rieten dressed the wound as if it had been a bruise or scrape.

Stone had stopped talking the instant the excrescent head was severed. Van Rieten did all that could be done for Stone and then fairly grabbed the light from me. Snatching up a gun he scanned the ground by the cot and brought the butt down once and twice, viciously.

We went back to our hut, but I doubt if I slept.

Chapter VI

Next day, near noon, in broad daylight, we heard the two voices from Stone’s hut. We found Etcham dropped asleep by his charge. The swelling on the left had broken, and just such another head was there miauling and spluttering. Etcham woke up and the three of us stood there and glared. Stone interjected hoarse vocables into the tinkling gurgle of the portent’s utterance.

Van Rieten stepped forward, took up Stone’s razor and knelt down by the cot. The atomy of a head squealed a wheezy snarl at him.

Then suddenly Stone spoke English.

“Who are you with my razor?”

Van Rieten started back and stood up.

Stone’s eyes were clear now and bright, they roved about the hut.

“The end,” he said; “I recognize the end. I seem to see Etcham, as if in life. But Singleton! Ah, Singleton! Ghosts of my boyhood come to watch me pass! And you, strange specter with the black beard and my razor! Aroint ye all!”

“I’m no ghost, Stone,” I managed to say. “I’m alive. So are Etcham and Van Rieten. We are here to help you.”

“Van Rieten!” he exclaimed. “My work passes on to a better man. Luck go with you, Van Rieten.”

Van Rieten went nearer to him.

“Just hold still a moment, old man,” he said soothingly. “It will be only one twinge.”

“I’ve held still for many such twinges,” Stone answered quite distinctly. “Let me be. Let me die in my own way. The hydra was nothing to this. You can cut off ten, a hundred, a thousand heads, but the curse you can not cut off, or take off. What’s soaked into the bone won’t come out of the flesh, any more than what’s bred there. Don’t hack me any more. Promise!”

His voice had all the old commanding tone of his boyhood and it swayed Van Rieten as it always had swayed everybody.

“I promise,” said Van Rieten.

Almost as he said the word Stone’s eyes filmed again.

Then we three sat about Stone and watched that hideous, gibbering prodigy grow up out of Stone’s flesh, till two horrid, spindling little black arms disengaged themselves. The infinitesimal nails were perfect to the barely perceptible moon at the quick, the pink spot on the palm was horridly natural. These arms gesticulated and the right plucked toward Stone’s blond beard.

“I can’t stand this,” Van Rieten exclaimed and took up the razor again.

Instantly Stone’s eyes opened, hard and glittering.

“Van Rieten break his word?” he enunciated slowly. “Never!”

“But we must help you,” Van Rieten gasped.

“I am past all help and all hurting,” said Stone. “This is my hour. This curse is not put on me; it grew out of me, like this horror here. Even now I go.”

His eyes closed and we stood helpless, the adherent figure spouting shrill sentences.

In a moment Stone spoke again.

“You speak all tongues?” he asked quickly.

And the mergent minikin replied in sudden English:

“Yea, verily, all that you speak,” putting out its microscopic tongue, writhing its lips and wagging its head from side to side. We could see the thready ribs on its exiguous flanks heave as if the thing breathed.

“Has she forgiven me?” Stone asked in a muffled strangle.

“Not while the moss hangs from the cypresses,” the head squeaked. “Not while the stars shine on Lake Pontchartrain will she forgive.”

And then Stone, all with one motion, wrenched himself over on his side. The next instant he was dead.

When Singleton’s voice ceased the room was hushed for a space. We could hear each other breathing. Twombly, the tactless, broke the silence.

“I presume,” he said, “you cut off the little minikin and brought it home in alcohol.”

Singleton turned on him a stern countenance.

“We buried Stone,” he said, “unmutilated as he died.”

“But,” said the unconscionable Twombly, “the whole thing is incredible.”

Singleton stiffened.

“I did not expect you to believe it,” he said; “I began by saying that although I heard and saw it, when I look back on it I cannot credit it myself.”


From Wikipedia: Edward Lucas White (May 11, 1866 – March 30, 1934) was an American author and poet. Born in the USA in BergenNew Jersey, the son of Thomas Hurley White (1838-1902) and Kate Butler (Lucas) White, he attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he lived for the rest of his life. From 1915 until his retirement in 1930 he was a teacher at the University School for Boys in Baltimore.

“He published a number of historical novels, including El Supremo: A Romance of the Great Dictator of Paraguay (1916),The Unwilling Vestal (1918), Andivius Hedulio (1921) and Helen (1926), but he is best remembered for fantasy horror stories such as “The House of the Nightmare” and “Lukundoo” that were based on his own nightmares. Two collections of his short fiction were published in his lifetime, The Song of the Sirens (1919) and Lukundoo and Other Stories (1927)…”


“Night” Dark Fiction by Amita Basu

From his third-storey hostel room Vikesh jogs down, hands in pockets jangling coins and keys, knees loose as if about to give way, happy knees relaxed and loose, Bata floaters clapping on speckled granite stairs. He saunters into the mess. The long steel tables and steel stools, all welded together against theft, clang with 500 young men’s steel dinnerplates and steel-strident voices. Vikesh greets friends on his way to the front of the queue, where his junior – a first-year History undergraduate, and his neighbour in hostel – makes way.

On the counter sit aluminium vats. Daal yellow-green-red with turmeric, coriander, and tomato. Sabzi – potato again, always potato, twenty rupees a kilo. Jeera rice. A plate of sliced radish and cucumber and onion, all colourless bar the occasional fingerprint. And a giant casserole of chapatti. Vikesh serves himself one chapatti and some salad, tours the mess saying hello, explains his plate – “My stomach’s upset” – and sits down near the door. He nibbles at the radish, sweet and young with a hint of pepper. Under his baseball cap he’s vigilant for glances cast his way.

When the influx ceases and everyone in hostel is in the mess, Vikesh deposits his plate in the cobalt-blue plastic used-plate basket, slips out, and heads gatewards. The boys’ hostel has no curfew: he could embark early tomorrow. He’s too restless to sleep, so he’s embarking now.

Approaching the security guards, Vikesh wonders how Simran felt, signing the attendance-sheet then sneaking out of her hostel before curfew. To avert suspicion she wore her homeliest clothes – salwar calf-long and two sizes too big, dupatta drawn up to chin – and avoided the guards’ eyes. But they never stopped her. For Simran’s got an angel face. What an innocent she was when she came to him, that first night in the hotel room he’d booked. He coaxed her open, showed her what he liked, and got her – as a man does – to show him what she liked. Their nocturnal education notwithstanding, her face still is like this full moon in the murky autumn sky. His blood churns in his heart and throbs in his groin.

He passes the frangipani, ravaged daily by 19-year-old boys plucking tributes for their girlfriends. Under the tree lie the fallen flowers. Fleshy, white, and brown-edged, these past-best flowers complain against their abandonment with the broadcast odour of staleness – the odour of Vikesh’s old-maid aunts. He steps around the fallen flowers, as his mother taught him. On the eve of love’s last great adventure his lips soften with affection for those plain-faced, simple-hearted old women, who struggled to earn your affection, who’d sweetly surrendered all hope of earning respect.

He wheels his motorbike towards the security guards, meeting their eyes. Who knows what’ll happen to him tomorrow: but he’s doing the right thing, and he must keep looking the world in the eye. As he approaches the hostel-gate, his Rubicon, his heart pounds in his ears.

Retired from the army as unranked jawaans, the security guards pull twelve-hour shifts to earn the same pittance as a domestic servant. All three years of his undergrad studies, Vikesh has bid them Good evening every evening, and has paused to chat with them on vacant evenings. For these men have served India honourably; besides, you never know who you’ll need on your side. Tonight he stares at them, and wonders whether they’ll see anything different in him, his breath coming shallower.

They bid him Good evening as usual. He returns their greeting, nodding graciously. His trepidation retreats, making room for other feelings. God, if his own hair ever got as thin as this old man’s, he’d know better than to oil it flat. These poor men don’t seem to care what face they turn to the world. No proper pride.

“That’s the cousin of the student body president,” he hears the long-time security guard murmuring to a new colleague. “His cousin controls contracts worth crores of rupees, yet Vikesh sir” – that’s how the 45-year-old secondary-school graduate speaks of the 21-year-old months away from getting his B.A. – “Is as modest and affable as my five-year-old.”

Vikesh pretends not to hear but, mounting his Royal Enfield outside, he pulls himself up straight. In their eyes he’s still the man: if something goes wrong they might be useful. God willing, nothing will go wrong on his last date as a free man with the love of his life.

###

He rides down Bank Road lined with hostels. Show your money and take your pick: private hostels and public, old buildings and new, red-brick and cement-and-glass, five-to-a-room and one-to-a-room, air-conditioned and hot-tin-roofed. At 9pm the November smog is settling, smudging the yellow streetlights into halos. The smog’s at streetlight-height: hasn’t yet descended to the asphalt. How wide the streets look, traffic-free, night homogenising the potholes and dung-stains that give a street its features but steal its spaciousness.

The fragrance of shiuli turns his head this way and that, seeking the inconspicuous bush that perfumes late monsoon and early winter lemon-vanilla. Can’t see the bush – must be behind a wall. He remembers the shiuli bush in Simran’s hostel garden. He’d stand waiting at her gate, his nostrils flaring and narrowing to draw in the fragrance from the small cream-petalled orange-stemmed flowers, which the girls gathered for evening puja in the tiny-idolled flashing-lighted shrines in their rooms.

Simran doesn’t go in for that old-fashioned nonsense. Sometimes she cradles a few flowers in her handkerchief – shielded from body-heat, keeping their freshness – and sniffs them when they’re riding down a particularly rubbishy or cowdungy street on their Allahabad tours. She sits pillion on his Royal Enfield, face dupatta-veiled against the dust, arm lightly circling his waist, cream-coloured legs in thigh-shorts resting against his hips. Under her oversized salwar-kameez Simran wears these party outfits, disrobing at her friend Ishita’s. But she bares her skin only when Vikesh is there to protect her.

He’s never had to ask her. Simran’s a feminist, but sensible.

It would’ve been awkward having to ask her. It’s alright when you can tell people to do things. But Simran’s never been the kind of girlfriend you tell – at best, with trepidation, you ask her, and watch for the lip-pursing that’s her only indication she’s displeased. Alone among his friends Vikesh has a girlfriend who has her own mind. He’d never admit this to his chauvinist-pig friends, but he’s proud of Simran’s mind. For a pole cannot lean on a creeper. His chin rises into the descending smog, and his heart surges thinking of the treasure he’s won.

He’s slowed his bike to a crawl: the wind’s less biting so. Shivers run up his spine. Seeking the cause of his alarm, he peers over his shoulders. It’s like there’s a lizard on his upper back, on the one spot he can neither see nor reach, but it’s there: a cold damp blight on his soul.

The streetdogs sit majestic as sphinxes, ready to riddle passersby. Their corneas shine green-gold with the light reflected back from their retinas, reflected back with an offset that makes each dog look both squint-eyed and all-seeing. The offset disorients you: you don’t know where to look, to look the dog in the eye. Already in the night the dogs are on edge; your shifty eyes push them over.

As Vikesh crawls past, one dog stares and tries a guttural growl, just to see how it feels and how the others feel about it. The growl proves infectious. Soon the pack is chasing Vikesh’s bike through the night. The lead dog sprints at Vikesh’s heels, just a few feet behind. Vikesh pictures himself ribboned by streetdogs, and across his consciousness like lightning streaks the thought: ‘I deserve this.’

As he accelerates away he remembers years ago a stranger riding through the night, chased by a pack of streetdogs. The rider kept glancing over his shoulder, slowing down and speeding up, teasing. He capsized at a pothole outside Vikesh’s house, leg trapped under bike, fangs gnashing, Vikesh watching from the balcony petrified, but thinking that man must’ve deserved what he got. At 21 Vikesh has shed his belief in God, but the fatalism that was one of God’s fathers haunts him still.

That man got what he deserved, and what will Vikesh deserve to get now? He speeds up, looks back, and slows down again. He lets the dogs catch up, looks away again, and prays fate to show him what he deserves.

On the air behind his ankles teeth snap. Excitement clenches his heart into a fist and drums in his ears. He speeds away a few meters, then slows again for the dogs to catch up. Teeth catch in the hem of his slim-fit chinos. He accelerates away, the baritone drone of his Royal Enfield one half in tonight’s jugaalbandi. The other partner in the impromptu music-jam is the dogpack, snarling barking growling.

‘If they catch up again, I’ll stop and let them have me,’ he decides. He slows down, but the dogs are falling away, trotting back home. He crawls around the corner. The dogs have given up; their leader stands barking, claiming victory. Disappointed, Vikesh decides, ‘Fuck them. They’re just dogs. They’d chase a good man as soon as a bad.’ Fate has refused to tell him what to do, so Vikesh tosses his fatalism to the half-moon glimmering through a rend in the smog, and speeds away.

###

This road runs between campus scrubland and Company Garden’s flowering trees. Stripped of their flame-coloured flowers and fan-shaped leaves, the gulmohars’ branches lifeless taupe under the white streetlights. The amla trees flaunt their silver-green foliage and pale-green clusters of super-sour fruit, bleached in the artificial light. Here amid greenery the smog falls early and thick; here the smog’s sulphur nausea is dispelled by amla’s earthy freshness: for feasting squirrels have left the fallen fruit, half-eaten, to scent the air. Vikesh slows and sniffs. For weeks he’s looked forward to tomorrow. Now his heart aches with all that he’s giving up. Never has the amla smelled so delectable, nor the smog-blanketed city looked so cosy.

The headlight of an approaching motorbike looms disembodied, rocking as wheels sink into potholes and roll over the speedbumps that fight a losing battle against Allahabad’s traffic. Vikesh remembers the lantern-bearing ghost – out on a foggy night, approaching the man whose hour had come – with which his grandmother frightened him on demand as a child. Emerging briefly from the smog, the motorbike passes by. Vikesh smiles, remembering what silly things used to scare him, then purses his lips as he realises nobody warned him about life’s real dangers.

He draws up outside Simran’s hostel, facing the university’s Science Faculty campus. The light’s on in her first-storey room. Has she already returned from the mess, or is she cooking her own dinner? She’s a good cook, producing traditional recipes with remarkable consistency and gentle twists: aloo jeera with saunf as well as jeera, baigan bharta with capsicum instead of eggplant. She’s made lunch for him all year. They eat her cooking out of his tiffin-carrier on the lawn, under the peepul that murmurs its wisdom patiently to the flighty winds. They watch their peers straggle down the History department’s wide stone corridors, cool even in June. The university’s buildings date from the British Raj. So does its syllabus.

Staring up, Vikesh wonders if Simran’s convection heater is on. It’s not cold enough for her to need the heat, but perhaps she’s cooking on it. Cheap to buy, costly to run, electric coils naked, blazing orange-red, these little monsters electrocute a few people every winter. But they’re cheap, and in this city of students they sell like hotcakes. One of them disfigured Simran’s cousin as a child. Still Simran refused to let Vikesh buy her an induction cooker and a sensible space heater.

‘This is what I’ve grown up with,’ she said. ‘Just have to be careful. I keep my eyes open – I’d never have an accident.’

‘Then think about the electricity bill,’ said Vikesh. ‘These things suck up electricity like, uh, like something into a black hole.’ Picturing Simran crouching cooking over a death trap upset him too much to conjure a proper simile.

Simran tossed her head. ‘The hostel pays the electricity bill. Besides, everyone else has one.’

‘By that logic,’ said Vikesh, ‘You should get an AC too. You’re always complaining how hot your room gets in summer.’

‘Oh, coolers are good enough for me. That’s what I’ve’ –

– ‘Grown up with,’ Vikesh supplied, and a laugh ended the argument.

But she perplexes him: a one-in-a-thousand woman whose favourite phrase is ‘good enough for me,’ an intelligent woman who’s convention-bound. Vikesh knows now that ‘good enough for me’ is Simran’s way of refusing to argue. As for convention – after tomorrow she will have to think for herself. He’s giving up his own freedom to set her free.

Engine idling, rolling down against the chill the carefully-folded-up sleeves of his blue-and-white-checked Superdry button-up – he remembers how she’d fast all day before she came to him: self-conscious about bloat and food-babies. God bless women, inventing things to worry about. She hadn’t been as innocent as she looked, not even that first night, when she yielded to him after eleven months of coaxing. When applying for an overnight pass she told her hostel warden it was to visit her local guardian. And she’d meet him only once a fortnight: any oftener and they’d suspect, she said. Vikesh didn’t argue: he understood she was projecting her own guilt, and it saddened him that she felt guilty. His own conscience was clear: they weren’t violating ethics, only hostel rules set by sex-starved wardens.

A jamun tree insinuates a sturdy primary branch towards Simran’s second-floor balcony. On the nights she wouldn’t go to him, he could’ve come to her. The hostel’s boundary wall is fifteen feet tall, but the plaster’s coming off, providing footholds, and there’s no barbed wire on top. Drop into the garden, clap to scare off snakes, scale the jamun tree that pelts the earth all July with large-stoned, God-fleshed purple fruit, and crawl along the branch to Simran’s balcony. He suggested this scheme to Simran in February.

Her head whirled to him and her brows knit in that childlike wonder he loves to earn. ‘How did you know all that? Does being related to the president mean the guards let you into the women’s hostel compound also?’

Vikesh grinned. ‘I despise people who use their status to get privileges… No, I just keep my eyes open. You can see all this from the gate… So? May I come? We’ll be quiet, and your cooler’s fan will cover up any noise. I can come to you, and you can stop complaining about running the gauntlet of the security guards’ eyes.’

No, said Simran. Someone would find out. One of her neighbours, her bosom friends would expose her. She’d lose her hostel room, her reputation, and probably her life: for the hostel warden would write home and her parents would ask her, ‘Have you gone there to study or to fuck?’ and then they’d kill her.

‘Hmm.’ Busy considering logistics, Vikesh hadn’t considered consequences. So all year he’s made do with her rare visits. After tonight there’ll be no worry about logistics.

Vikesh turns off his engine. All his first year of undergrad, before she said yes, he haunted this road. He didn’t stop haunting it afterwards, still alone most nights. Here he came to watch the moon rise and set, listening to the night’s yawning silence, to its sudden sharp noises like the choking snores of sleep apnoea. Sometimes they spoke on the phone, Simran staying inside her room; but mostly she was busy studying, her phone switched off. He’d stay here till he got pleasantly drowsy; then he’d return to his room and leaf through textbooks in bed till he drifted asleep.

Leaning on his handlebars, he closes his eyes and smells her lying beside him on the hotel bed, jasmine perfume mingling with musky nether odour. She learned fast. Her nervous giggles ceded to the same grave interest with which she regards textbooks, civil-service exam-prep books, their lecturers, and everything else she’s decided is important. As a teenager, Vikesh taught his younger brothers cricket and football: they still play fervently, while Vikesh dabbles. But it was Simran who really taught him how to teach: how to communicate the most intimate things one person can to another. Gratefully he spent hours showing her the city and the state, discussing his plans for their future. They’d move far away from this cultural backwater, and surround themselves with progressives: that’d make it easier for him to act right, for of course he knew the patriarchy had tainted him too. She looked and listened. But when he asked her what she’d do after graduation, or how she liked this banyan that was its own forest, she only tilted her head and pouted her lips.

Sometimes her passivity annoyed him. But he reminded himself she’d grown up beautiful. It’d been enough for her to arch her brow, to make her breasts shift under her teeshirt. She hadn’t had to plan and opine. Nor, he reflects, drawing up his collar against the cold, had she had to become brave. That’s why they’re doing it this way.

After two years sneaking out of hostel to meet him, she told him last month that her parents had arranged her marriage to a 25-year-old Brahmin software engineer. After he recovered from his shock, Vikesh rode to Chandigarh to scout his rival. He brought Simran back an accurate picture: flabby, only ever goes to work, boring car. Simran listened attentively, for she wouldn’t meet the man herself till the engagement. Then she shrugged. ‘A man doesn’t need to be interesting, only kind.’

Vikesh begged her to tell her parents about himself, to tell them it was him she wanted to marry. ‘They’ll behead me,’ she said, ‘If they know I’m not a virgin. And they’ll hunt you down and strangle you and toss your corpse into the Ganga. When people fish you up, your own mother won’t recognise you.’

‘They wouldn’t hurt us,’ Vikesh protested. ‘We’re in love, it’s right for us to be together. We just have to do the right thing, God will look after the rest.’ Exigency had made Vikesh religious.

‘Maybe if you’d been a Brahmin too, I might’ve dared tell them,’ she said. ‘You know I don’t believe in that caste nonsense myself, but… D’you want to get us both killed?’ Her coal-black fire-bright eyes beseeched him to see sense. He could see only the blank of a future without her.

That’s why they’re doing it this way. When the alarm is raised, please God, they’ll be where nothing else can hurt them. Filling his eyes one last time with her window’s square of light, stark behind the jamun branch, he rides off.

###

In Civil Lines, the new small malls and high-street shops stand fog-shrouded. He runs into Partha: on his Honda Aviator motor-scooter, a secondhand piece-of-shit a grease-monkey cousin fixed up. Cost when new: Rs.56,000; cost of being seen riding it now: Partha’s whole manhood, such as it was. Riding pillion is Partha’s girlfriend Ishita, Simran’s best friend. The two two-wheelers draw up alongside midstreet.

“What’s up?” says Vikesh.

“Nothing much,” says Partha guardedly.

Partha and Ishita have dined at the factory-sized, no-standing-room, chicken-biryani-only Eat On. Now they’re heading to the room Partha rents. His landlord lives in Aligarh, his moral policing confined to his proximal tenants – so Partha can have anyone he likes. Scenting on them the biryani’s star anise and rosewater, Vikesh’s stomach rumbles. He didn’t like Partha’s tone just now, so he draws him into discussing the one-day-international tournament.

“I like Australia’s chances,” says Vikesh. “This team’s stronger than it looks, under Clarke.”

“I doubt they’ll make it to the semis,” says Partha.

Annoyed to be contradicted by this cheap-ride punk, Vikesh scoffs. “Seriously? Whoever makes it through will be playing England for God’s sake. In the last qualifier England almost got beat by the minnows.”

“In the qualifiers only the minnows make a serious effort,” says Partha. “You can’t judge a serious team by their qualifier performance. No, England will beat Australia, and it’s 50-50 they’ll beat us too.”

Vikesh scowls and draws breath, then remembers tomorrow and shrugs. “We’ll see. No point speculating… What did you think of South Africa yesterday?”

It’s Partha’s motor-scooter they’ll use tomorrow. Vikesh can’t use his own motorbike: Simran’s parents would trace that easily – whereas it’ll be a while before anyone notices Partha’s absence. For Partha isn’t in Vikesh’s primary social circle: look at his no-brand shirt, his girlfriend with the haandi-round face and belan-flat chest. Nobody will suspect Vikesh chose Partha for his getaway ride – just as nobody would deny Simran’s prettier than Ishita, better worth a man risking all he has.

Vikesh mustn’t alienate Partha, but neither can he end the conversation on a losing note. He crosses his arm and leans back on air, discussing the ODIs, tossing at Ishita hints about tomorrow’s mission. That’ll teach Partha to toy with him. Partha side-eyes his girlfriend, clears his throat, and stammers terse replies to Vikesh. Enjoying Partha’s perplexity, Vikesh keeps nodding at Ishita, including her in this conversation which he knows, which he hopes, is gibberish to her.

Does Ishita suspect about tomorrow? It’s possible. Ishita’s told Simran, and Simran’s told Vikesh, that Partha’s always slightly drunk when he fucks Ishita, for Partha thinks sex is wrong. And Partha blabs when he’s drunk. If Partha has blabbed to Ishita about tomorrow’s mission, then the whole thing is off. Please God don’t let her know, prays Vikesh as he continues dropping hints. Ishita yawns at the moon, oblivious to both cricket and the two boys’ plans.

His nose crinkling, Vikesh remembers that Ishita’s one of those inert women who let their men speak and feel and listen for them. Simran at least is beautiful: she has an excuse for inertia. Simran at least turned out not to be inert at all, and Vikesh has accepted that fact, is preparing to rejoice in that fact. Partha grows more tense and Ishita grows wet-eyed with yawning. Vikesh stops toying and lets Partha go – with a magisterial nod, confirming they’re still on.

Riding away, Vikesh wonders what Partha makes of tomorrow’s plan. Partha knows he’s driving Vikesh to Simran’s hostel. Partha knows Simran’s engaged to marry another man. Does Partha know Simran refused to tell her parents about Vikesh? But even the best women are changeable, Partha knows – for Partha himself spent a year wooing Ishita.

Partha hasn’t dared ask Vikesh what their mission is. Partha owes Vikesh. This spring Partha’s brother became infatuated with the girlfriend of a student thug. The thug threatened to bash in the brother’s head. Vikesh got his own cousin, the student body president, to intervene; they paid for the abortion, arbitrated peace, and hushed everything up. If Partha’s mother found out, she’d be here on the next train, herding both boys home to the village – not because they got a girl in trouble, but because they risked their own heads. Now Partha would rather run the gauntlet of the police and Simran’s parents than face his own mother.

So Vikesh can count on Partha doing the right thing. Tomorrow, when Vikesh runs from the hostel gate back across the road to Partha’s motor-scooter – Partha might be shocked, but he won’t be petrified. Politics runs in Vikesh’s family: his uncles and cousins have graduated from student body politics to the state assembly. Vikesh knows that when the people are shocked, they’re likely to obey the first strong man who raises his voice. And tomorrow the people will be Partha, and the strong man will be Vikesh, telling Partha to go, go, go.

What if Partha won’t go? Ungrateful bastard, disputing Vikesh’s views on cricket! Before he met Simran, Vikesh played division cricket for Uttar Pradesh. Partha can’t even finger-spin. Anticipating betrayal, Vikesh shifts gears. His bike’s whine rises into a roar. Serves him right for helping a nobody fucking around with a somebody’s woman.

If Partha won’t go, Vikesh will go on his own bike, abandon it midway, and jump onto a train’s third-class carriage, where nobody’ll think to look for him. Simran always enjoyed slumming it with him, drinking in the stares of malnourished idlers drinking in her bare cream-coloured flesh. If Partha won’t go, he’ll go alone. The rest is up to God, who might or might not exist – he’ll find out soon.

###

It’s 1121 on Vikesh’s Titan Black Dial, the readout dim behind the streetlamp’s yellow glare. Chattering with Partha, Vikesh forgot the time – he’ll be late, and he’s never late. He speeds across the city, taking turns without slowing down, picturing himself as he’d look to someone peering through the curtains of a third-storey window: his wheels at an acute angle, the asphalt grazing his calves. Of course he isn’t really going that fast – impossible on these streets – but playacting never hurt.

They call Naini Bridge the rocking bridge – but really it just trembles under the weight of the eighteen-wheeler trucks that’ll be allowed into the city after 11pm. On the Ganga’s slothful surface this windless night, the yellow moon fractures into big clean shards. One night he brought Simran here, she leaned over, and the pendant he’d given her broke its slender silver-link chain and dropped 300 meters waterwards. He watched the panic in her eye, her hand snatching at air. He saw himself jumping after the trinket, plunging into the river which, below its slothful surface, hurtles seawards, a million gallons a second. It would’ve been worth it to calm her panic.

When he was six months old his mother had left him on the table with the cassette player. Playing with the cassette covers he’d dropped one, and pursued it down, racing gravity, earning a head-bump. His family loves recounting this story, laughing at him. But love has made him a child again, eager to dive after the impossible.

‘Forget it,’ he said, taking Simran’s wrist, steering himself away from the edge. ‘I’ll buy you another – or a different design, if you prefer it.’

‘That was my favourite piece of jewellery ever,’ Simran insisted. Moved, he’d pecked her lips. Pecking was all the PDA she allowed, even on a deserted bridge at dawn.

The lost pendant was a leopard: Simran’s favourite animal, he’d discovered. A month before her birthday, this discovery had cost him a mazelike conversation with Ishita, his question buried in the maze’s heart – lest Ishita guess his intention, blab to Simran, and spoil his surprise.

Outside Higgins, Roshan’s waiting, pacing by his hot pink TV Pep Plus. A female cousin who graduated last year gave it to him, and he doesn’t seem embarrassed to use it. But Roshan was raised by women: can’t hold him to normal standards. Stamping out his cigarette Roshan crosses the street to Vikesh, who’s leaning on his bike. Roshan smells of green apple and menthol, the most popular flavour of hookah. Hookahs, outdoor dining, and orange chicken are the three sirens beckoning to Higgins people across Allahabad over the Ganga.

“Enjoying yourself?” says Vikesh.

Roshan replies with a shrug studiedly casual. The bad boy look is a motorcycle jacket Roshan’s still growing into.

Vikesh remembers Roshan from their first year on campus: a Sociology student, thin and stooping, his face pimple-strewn, in thick eyeglasses and ill-fitting plaid button-downs picked out by his mother. But no wimp. A student thug sauntering near the teashop knocked down Roshan’s books for fun and felt a fist flying into his throat. Only Vikesh’s presence saved fifty-kilo Roshan from annihilation in broad daylight. All that first year Roshan pored over his books and resisted his hostelmates hustling him out for a night of fun, viz riding around mildly drunk, wildly whooping, courting the police. He told his hostelmates straightfaced that his widowed mother depended on him to study well and enter the Civil Services.

Now glancing left and right, like a trainee thug himself, Roshan hands Vikesh the package. Brown paper and tape. Slender and flat. Trust Roshan to have the packing skills of a gift-shop clerk. This ordinary-looking package will alter the course of many lives.

“Nobody knows,” Roshan assures Vikesh. “A friend’s friend had the key. I’ve covered my tracks.”

Vikesh claps Roshan’s back, lightly, but Roshan stumbles and his eyes fly open – as if Vikesh were already an outlaw, and contact with him contamination-by-proxy. Briefly Vikesh pictures punching the lights out of this small-town soft-brain shrinking from him. Vikesh totters on a cliff, ready to fall down either side. He falls into laughter: first gentle, then rising into hysteria. Roshan watches him wide-eyed, waiting for the laughter to explode into a punch.

Vikesh wipes his eyes and sighs breathless. “Aunty would be proud,” he says. They’re not related, but every civil young person addresses elders as relatives. “You wanted to grow up fast and make your mother proud. Now you have.”

Roshan grimaces. Where his hostelmates failed to bring him out of his shell, the big city’s charms succeeded. Roshan’s found new friends, and they’re very friendly indeed, for night after night Roshan loses money at poker, and doesn’t see how, and pays unfailingly if grudgingly. Since May it’s with Vikesh’s pocket-money that Roshan’s been paying his poker debts. ‘Pay me back later, or never,’ Vikesh told him, long before he had any idea he’d need him – for Vikesh pitied the small-town boy gone astray.

“You haven’t told me what it’s for,” says Roshan, gesturing at the package distantly, eyes averted.

Vikesh understands. Now that the package is out of Roshan’s hands it’s not Roshan’s business. Roshan’s got enough troubles of his own: gambling, failing classes, lying to his mother. Vikesh met Roshan’s mother when he invited Vikesh to his village last spring for Holi. Now a letter, telling her what’s become of her bright boy, her life’s hope, would give the widow a heart attack. Whatever Vikesh is planning – and Roshan doesn’t know, Roshan doesn’t know – is better than a letter home from Vikesh.

“I told you what it’s for,” says Vikesh. “Science experiments.”

“You’re a History student.”

“Not a good one!” His smile fades. His hysteria has taken the edge off his feelings. Gazing at the restaurant’s yellow-orange lamps, he becomes reflexive. “There’s nothing for me back here, nothing I can do with my own efforts I mean. I could get someone to get me a plush job, grow flabby and smug, but that’s not my style. If you’ve got nothing to lose, it’s easier taking a risk, eh?”

Roshan’s eyes widen at this uninvited confidence, then turn back towards the restaurant, where his new friends are preparing him for another night’s play, one last night’s chance to win all his money back. Slowly he repeats, “You haven’t told me what it’s for.”

“Yes, I haven’t told you what it’s for. You’re safe.” Anger gone, laughter gone, Vikesh feels a tranquil comradery. After all, Roshan and he are in the same boat. He holds out his hand – Roshan dares not refuse – and says thanks.

“Good luck,” says Roshan, sincere now that he’s out of it. He knows about Simran. Vikesh has told everyone about the love of his life, the woman he’s going to start a whole new life with.

The Royal Enfield glides back over the river. The fat lazy water rustles in Vikesh’s ears. The water dampens the wind, blunting its blade; but the water chills the wind into a hammer of cold. Going at 70kph, Vikesh’s unhelmeted face numbs. To awaken his muscles he grimaces at the moon in the river, shrugs mightily, and jogs his shoulders, all without slowing down.

Roshan’s a coward, but most people are. He’s done his bit. Mentally Vikesh promises Roshan, ‘Whatever happens, I won’t involve you.’ He pictures Roshan, miles away, with his friendly friends who’re treating him to the green apple-flavoured hookah to ease him into the night, for you’ve got to spend money to make money. Roshan inhales from the hookah too deeply, gets giddy like the innocent he is, and feels invulnerable. ‘I’ll say I procured it myself,’ says Vikesh. A good friend deserves loyalty unto death. This thought spasms in Vikesh’s heart, pumping out a flood of blood suddenly alive, throbbing alive, pushing into Vikesh’s consciousness the fact that all this while he’s been terribly lonely. Tears blind him. Midway over the bridge he slows down and wonders: should he jump in? That, too, would solve all his problems. Simran still has enormous qualms about running away.

He can’t jump in. When he was a kid, his father told him: ‘If you get beaten up at school, don’t come home till you’ve beaten the other boy up.’ What would his mother think, when they found his corpse and showed her her grown son beaten by a girl?

###

Back in the city proper, in old Katra he stops at the Kali temple. One of those waist-high steel-trunk-sized temples that guard every street corner, the exterior lumpy cement and stripes of gaudy paint, the idol within a black dwarf in a gilt crown, its body garlanded in layers of sunshine-smelling orange-and-yellow marigold. Kali’s room is locked for the night, but from the low ceiling, behind the grill gate that constitutes the temple’s front, the naked yellow incandescent bulb still flickers. Over the gods the lights must never go off.

Yes, Kali’s the right deity for a last-minute appeal. A super-goddess who defeated the rakshasa threatening humanity, then went on a killing spree and trampled her own husband. Vikesh dismounts and stands, arms by side, asking Kali for a sign for tomorrow. Yay or nay?

Kali bids him search the sky. Vikesh throws back his head. The smog blurs the yellow streetlamps and veils the moon. He sees nothing unusual. He faces the goddess – she tells him he already knows what he must do. Vikesh bows his head in thanks and resumes his last ride around the city, savouring every second.

Tomorrow at 0850 when Simran hurries out of her hostel gate, soft fingers adjusting satchel straps, feet stepping lightly as if nothing’s wrong – Partha’s Honda will be parked outside the sweetmeats shop, Partha idling the motor, looking across the road at Vikesh. By the hostel-gate, out of sight behind the wall protruding from the cowshed next door, Vikesh will be waiting. The brown-paper bag ready, the flat bottle inside opened, his arm raised.

Simran said they couldn’t be together. Vikesh has wept and pleaded and argued. Now he accepts her decision. But if he can’t move forward with her, then he must move radically backward without her. If he can’t have her, then she must lose something too.

She must lose her parents’ approval. Her parents think she’s a do-it-all: acquiring a western education while clinging to her Indian sanskaar, preserving her virginity for the man they’ve chosen for her.

She must lose the life that’s been planned for her. A life with that mama’s-boy, a flabby virgin who has bought Simran with his upper-caste birth-certificate, and with the plush job that is the reward of a lifetime’s mindless grind.

She must lose her beauty, which draws strangers’ eyes from across the street – but seldom draws their whistles, for her beauty’s babylike, her face an angel’s face, protecting her even from street harassment. A woman who flings away her virginity, then flings away unblinking the man to whom she flung it, deserves a face to match her heart, a face to tell the world how to treat her right. The prospect of their parting doesn’t seem to trouble her: too late, he’s realised she’s always considered this a fling, and that he’s fallen for a whore.

What will they do to him? It doesn’t matter, for he can see no life without Simran. He’s told everyone about the woman he loves, the woman he’s going to marry, and she’s made him lose face, so she must lose hers. Tomorrow at 0850 Vikesh will be waiting, bottle uncapped, to fling sulphuric acid into Simran’s face.


Amita Basu is a cognitive scientist by day. Her fiction has appeared in over forty magazines and anthologies including Fairlight Shorts, CommuterLit, Bandit Fiction, Bewildering Stories, and Gasher. She lives in Bangalore, and blogs at http://amitabasu.com/


“Tea with Nanna” Dark Fiction by B.C. Nance

Lewis gritted his teeth and growled as he reached the end of Red Mill Road. He gripped the steering wheel, his knuckles white as he waited for an old truck puttering down Harpeth Turnpike to pass by. He accelerated into a U-turn, spinning his wheels, and headed westward once again, his heart racing and his breathing short and shallow. Nothing looked the same to him after so many years. He could count the time from his last visit in decades, and he feared he had waited too long.

He cruised the winding country road a third time looking for anything familiar. In his childhood memory the landscape was vivid as he peered over the backseat of his parents’ car, eager to spot the huge red oak, the forsythia hedge, and his grandmother’s house on a small hill overlooking the old road. A flash of movement ahead caught Lewis’s attention, and as he slowed, he finally saw the two stone columns that flanked the driveway to Nanna’s house, now camouflaged by privet and honeysuckle and wild grapevine. Whatever had moved was gone.

Lewis eased the rental car through the screen of foliage, cringing as the shrubs clawed at the sides of the vehicle. Nanna’s house lay ahead on the knoll, and though his sight line was obscured by rambling foliage, it appeared to be in poor condition. He peered through the living screen and was sure that he saw shutters hanging askew, shingles missing, and possibly some broken windows. Was no one taking care of Nanna? Lewis had always lived too far away. He was nearly one thousand miles away while he was in college, though he hadn’t bothered to visit when he was home on breaks. A new job had taken him too far for frequent visits, but he never made even the infrequent ones. Lewis supposed he had not kept the promise he had made to his grandmother so many years ago.

“I’ll never leave you alone, Nanna,” the eight year old Lewis had promised. “I’ll visit and help you out and keep you company.” Now a half-century old himself, Lewis didn’t think he could be held to his childhood pledge. Still he regretted his long absence and was well aware that this visit was out of his need and not his grandmother’s welfare.

Lewis crept the car up the looping driveway, past the unkempt azaleas and rose bushes that appeared to be dead, or was it just not the right season for roses. Even the huge oak tree appeared to have lost a large limb, and if his eyes didn’t deceive him, that limb had fallen on the roof right over Nanna’s parlor. “Parlor” was Nanna’s word, but Lewis’s mother referred to it as the “delicate room” because of the many fragile items displayed there.

Lewis slid from the car and removed his sunglasses, temporarily blinded by the sudden brightness, then rubbed the wetness from his eyes. The front door opened and Nanna stepped out. She beamed at him, and he ran to embrace his grandmother.

“Oh, Nanna,” Lewis said, “I’m so sorry it’s been this long. What’s happened to your house?”

“What do you mean, dear,” his grandmother said, offering him a tissue from her apron pocket.

Lewis stepped back and dried his eyes. He looked at the house and saw to his relief that his vision had just been clouded by the tears. There was never anything wrong with the house. It looked as it always had, neat and trim. The shutters were hung true, every shingle was in place, and the red oak stood strong as it always had.

Lewis’s grandmother led him into the house, and he paused to look into the delicate room. Porcelain figures were arrayed on display stands, all meticulously dusted, while fragments of colored light refracted through a crystal vase dusted the room with rainbow shards. Nanna hurried Lewis to the kitchen which had always been the heart of the house. The fragrance of fresh-baked bread and cinnamon and fruit filled his senses. His grandmother had just finished canning a batch of homemade strawberry jam, and the jars formed a regiment of delicious fruit filled soldiers along the kitchen counter. She sat him down at the table and put a kettle on the stove.

“Nanna,” he said in a creaking voice, “I’m sorry that it’s taken me this long…”

“Don’t you fret now, dear,” she interrupted. “You’ve had your own life to live and a family to care for. You can’t take time to write to your doddering old grandmother every day.”

“But I should have taken the time,” Lewis said. “I should have listened to you; I should have taken your advice, then things might be different.”

“Oh, Lewis,” Nanna said, “are things not right with your wife.”

Few in the family had ever liked Charmaigne. Not her unusual name, her “hippie” parents, her brusque manners, or her insistence on living far away from Lewis’s family and seldom visiting. Lewis had an equally good job offer only twenty miles from the rural middle Tennessee community where he had grown up, but Charmaigne had insisted that he accept a job in a larger city where the schools would be better, and her own opportunities would be greater.

These, he supposed, included the opportunities to have two affairs during their marriage. Opportunities to frequent night clubs and find dealers for the myriad pills she kept hidden in the bedside table next to an old silver broach, a family heirloom that his grandmother had promised to Lewis for his wife. It was a promise made long before Lewis had met Charmaigne and a promise that Nanna was loathe to keep. His wife had disdained the trinket, never once wearing it.

“Maybe it will be worth something when the price of silver goes up,” Charmaigne said, tossing the jewelry into the drawer.

“I’ve tried for years to hold things together, Nanna.” Lewis said, and tears were beginning to form in his eyes again. “We’ve stayed together for the children, but now that they’re in college I don’t know if I can go on.”

The kettle began to whistle, and Nanna poured them each a steaming cup of tea. She pushed the blue-patterned porcelain toward her grandson, and he inhaled the herbal-scented steam.

“Drink that, dear,” she said. “It’s my special herbal blend that I guarantee will soothe your jangled nerves.”

Lewis continued to inhale the vapors while he waited for the tea to cool.

“She won’t go to counseling, Nanna.” He wouldn’t say his wife’s name in his grandmother’s house, knowing how she felt about the younger woman. Nanna had seen through her. Nanna had known best. He blew into the cup and sipped at the tea.

The taste lay somewhere between sassafras and licorice with a molasses sweetness and a mineral tinge. It was at once nostalgic and medicinal. It was the lilac-scented night breeze that blew through the open windows of Nanna’s house when he spent the night. It was the sting of mercurochrome that she daubed on his scrapes and scratches and the tang of ginger in her Christmas cookies. Lewis took a deep breath and looked his grandmother in her time-wizened eyes, deep and calm.

“I wish that I could go back to a time when you gave me sound advice and take with me the wisdom to listen to it, Nanna,” Lewis said in a steady, calm voice.

“Nanna always makes everything better, dear,” she said. She pushed a small jar across the table toward him. “Nanna has a tea for your wife, too. Have her drink this, and she will see what a wonderful boy you are. You are Nanna’s special boy.”

“I doubt that she will even take a sip,” Lewis said. “I think the marriage is just doomed.”

“Once she smells it she will come to the table, dear,” Nanna said, “and this is the same tea that saved my own marriage.”

Lewis’s eyes grew wide, and his grandmother’s smile was wider.

“Yes,” she said, “you probably don’t remember much about your grandfather. He died when you were very young, but even we had our problems.”

“I never knew,” Lewis said.

“That’s because of the tea,” Nanna said, tapping the jar. “He got into the habit of drinking a bit too much liquor and playing cards with his friends. He would come home staggering and usually angry because he had lost, and a time or two he forgot himself and gave me the back of his hand.”

Lewis’s expression had now turned to one of shock, but before he could speak, his grandmother went on.

“I knew we needed a solution, and the preacher’s advice was no help, but his wife sent me to Mrs. Hinshaw, and elderly widow who lived a ways down the Harpeth Turnpike. It was her herbal tea that solved our problems. The tea saved us.” Nanna again tapped the jar.

Lewis hugged his grandmother, and said goodbye. She clipped a newly bloomed red rose from the ordered bushes in front of the house for Lewis to give to his wife. He questioned whether it would last long enough to get it home, but Nanna overruled his objections. He drove away knowing that everything would be all right. Nanna always made things better. As he drove away he could smell the faint floral scent of the rose, and he touched the dried, decaying petals. He turned back to look at the house in time to see a rotted shutter fall off.

He returned just one month later. When Nanna didn’t answer his knock, he let himself in. She wasn’t in the kitchen, but he had an idea of where he might find her. From the back door a dirt pathway meandered up the hill and past the old orchard, where few of the long-neglected peach and plum trees still stood. The old stone wall around the cemetery was overgrown with Virginia Creeper, and the rusted iron gate had fallen from its pintils.

Lewis found the two tall stones in the center of the graveyard and brushed away the lichen to read the names. John Robert Haskin was born just before the First World War and lived until 1973, when Lewis was four years old. He had few memories of his grandfather. Lewis ran his fingers through the engraved lettering of the other stone. Edna Grace Haskin, born on the 3rd day of November in the year 1919, departed this life on New Year’s Day 2001.

“I should have visited more often, Nanna,” Lewis whispered. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his grandmother’s silver broach. He rubbed it with his thumb then placed it on the tombstone. Charmaigne would never touch it again, or anything else for that matter. Nanna’s tea had solved their problems.

Lewis stood and brushed the dirt and leaves from his knees. The broach glinted in a shaft of sunlight as if winking at him.

“I’ll go make us some tea, Nanna. I’ll make us some tea, and I’ll never leave you.”


B. C. Nance is a writer who still hasn’t given up his day job. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, he works by day as a historical archaeologist. After wandering the neighborhood in the evening, he writes fiction and poetry and stays up too late reading.


“It Wasn’t My Fault” Dark Fiction by Joseph Buckley

The floods started as a small disturbance. First, the kitchen sink went, filthy, tepid, water pooled to the brim of our once functioning, silver sink. I tried the plunger but couldn’t get the water to give. I stabbed at the drain with a knife, but still no movement. The water sat in the sink for hours. Moving about the house, I felt like the flooded sink watched me. The water a stalking predator waiting for me to let my guard down, so it could spring over the edge, flood the house and drag me under, choking on a torrent of putrid waters. But eventually, I couldn’t stand the paranoia, or the stench, any longer, and scooped the mess out with a bucket, tossing the scuzzy water into our backyard splashing across the heads of Eli’s, my six-year-old, abandoned lego city.

Then the bathroom sinks fell prey to the toxic waters. Of course, this version of discolored water came complete with curled hairs skimming across the surface. You would’ve guessed right if you had said the toilets would go as well, since they went around the same time. Water bowled up over the porcelain edge releasing all variety of foul-smells to haunt our hallways. Who could tell they’re burning their son’s morning oatmeal when the entire house smelled like a landfill?

So, we built a fort in Eli’s bedroom. A peaceful sanctuary secluded from the ugly state of the remainder of our house. A place we watched cartoons. A place where we stuffed our cheeks with chocolate chip cookies and barbeque chips. A place I even let him stay up past his bed time. Anything to keep his mind distracted.

I looked up home solutions on the internet. Baking-soda and vinegar was supposed to have worked, but all that did was further complicate the mess, chunks of clotted baking soda swam around the surface like disfigured teeth. Bleach didn’t work either. In fact, my hands were so wet from the wretched waters the bottle slipped, then spilled all over my jeans, eating through them along with a the top-most layer of my skin.

So, since I was clearly in over my head, I gave up. I didn’t want to call a plumber. The idea of strange men nosing around my house unsettled me. I mean, who can trust a man to be honest? Don’t they always get away with whatever they want?

My husband Frank, for example, left us without so much as a note, didn’t even take his truck. One day he was tossing the ball out back with Eli, and the next he was gone. No explanation. I called the police, but they had patronizingly dictated to me how these types of things happen all the time. They even went so far as to insinuate that I was to blame for my husband’s sudden departure. And that, maybe I needed to take a look in the mirror first, examine what it was about my character that a man would want to abandon.

I tried Frank’s brother. But he had no answers either. He explained how he was deep into his own issues: Shirley wanted a divorce citing his drinking among many other issues — it runs in the family. Work hadn’t seen my husband either, so I was left trying to explain to our son where his father had gone. Eli believed he was still coming back. But that was the least alarming of his behaviors.

***

One night, I left him in the tub, only for a quick minute to refill my wine glass — I also hadn’t taken the disappearance well. At that time the floods had begun, but the tub still worked, or maybe it was that we had yet to use the tub. It’s hard to keep track of the details. My memory feels like a collection of thought bubbles floating whimsically, landing with me only at random. When I returned to the bathroom, Eli’s soap-bearded face lit up.

“Mommy, I just saw dad. He came back!”

“You saw him? What do you mean? He’s in this house?”
 “He was in the tub.”

“Eli stop that. How could he be in the tub? You know better than that. What did mommy say about lying?”

 “If I lie then I’ll go to…I’ll go to…I can’t remember.”

 “You’ll go to hell. Now look, do you see your father anywhere in the water?”

I splashed my hand around to demonstrate how, besides the toy boats and scuba man, there was no one in the tub with him.

“But he was laying in the tub. The water got all red. He looked broken.”

He blubbered.

“Oh come on Eli, get with it. I told you your father left us. There’s no way he would be lying in the tub. He couldn’t even fit in there. He’s not coming back. Okay? He hates us. Can’t you see that?”

He burst into tears. I realized my hands were shaking. The wine glass shattered onto the tile floor like a crime scene.

“But it was him mom, I promise.”

I grabbed a towel, pulled him out of the tub and bundled him up tightly in my arms.

“It’s okay honey. It’s gonna be okay.”

I dried him off and tucked him into bed. We then read his favorite story about a little boy who goes in search of his parents with a tiger in a boat, sailing around the world. I blew him a kiss goodnight from the doorway, but before I walked away he asked me:

“Mom, do you think he will come back again?”

“I’ll tell you what. If he comes back, you tell him to come and speak with me because I’ve got some things to discuss with him. Okay buddy?”

I left the hall light on for him. Back in the bathroom, I noticed a lot of water around the tub. Droplets had somehow splashed as far as the vanity, but then, when I looked closer I thought I saw ripples in the discolored water, as if something had just moved, something large. There was no way. I pulled Eli out of the tub a long while before.

The tub water was so gray I couldn’t see through it. Anything could have been lurking within, waiting for me to reach my hand in. I could’ve sworn I had pulled the chord when Eli got out, but the water hadn’t drained at all. Then I wondered: What if Eli was right? What if there really was someone in the tub? I had to go downstairs for another glass of wine before I returned to brave the task of reaching into the mysterious waters of my own bathtub.

Wine in hand, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and sunk my other hand into the water, waiting for the bite or clench then subsequent abduction to hell. But my hand parsed through the grit all the way to the drain. Clogging the drain was what felt like the coarse fur of an animal or beast. I tugged at it coming up with a fistfull of hair. Except it wasn’t Eli’s. Or mine. The knot of hair was indeed human and still attached to a small section of skin, scabbed with blood.

Then it hit me — the same rotten smell from the toilets drifted off the hairs and I gagged, then ran from the bathroom, slamming the door behind me.

***

The next morning, I couldn’t bring myself to open the door to the bathroom. Decorative squares embossed into it’s white surface like mouths, mocking me, laughing at me, like the door knew exactly what was happening in my house; took pleasure in my discomfort.

Below the door the dirty, gray water had seeped out, soiling the hallway rug. So, I shoved a stack of towels at the bottom of it and decided that we needed to leave the house, at least for the day. Between the gory waters and Eli I didn’t know which caused me more anxiety.

I called off work and school for Eli. Sure, my boss said he’d have to write me up. But, I only took the stupid retail job to appease Frank. Now that he was gone I would have to find a real job anyway. Go ahead write me up. Fire me. There was some strange and dark presence in my house. I couldn’t care less about what type of bath soap was the least pollutive, or what candle scent would settle some housewife’s chakras.

I figured we could go to the park. Try to have a little fun. I worried Eli may have been developing some type of disorder or trauma that the internet is always going on about. It’s like everytime I turn around somebody is opening up about some type of scarring incident, something their parents did they will never recover from. What if my son grew up to be one of those people?

On our way to the park, passing through the quiet, still suburbs, Eli was right back to it.

“I saw daddy again last night.”

It was hard to believe this tiny, round-cheeked person could have grown to be such a disturbed child. He was too young. Where had I gone wrong? I pulled the car over. A sprinkler stream inching closer to the windshield.

“I thought I told you to come get me.”

“I didn’t know what to do.” He pulled down the brim of his blue ball-cap.

“Eli, listen to me. Next time this happens you have to get me, I mean it.”

“I had to go down to the kitchen to get a cup of water. And then, and then, I saw one of his eyes floating in the pool in the sink. It kept looking at me.”

“Enough Eli! Stop with the stories.”

“But, I heard his voice too. He had a secret to tell me.”

“Enough!”      

I sped away, windshield blurred with sprinkler water. I couldn’t seem to find the wiper lever. Our car kept going faster, everything in front of us melting together. I couldn’t understand if I was going blind with rage or the water was in fact blocking my vision. The car sped faster. 

“Mom.”

“Not now Eli. Not now!”

“Mom, red light.”

I slammed the brakes at what looked like a red light. Then found the wiper lever and when I looked in front of me there was a woman pushing two children in a stroller, glaring at me.

***

At the park, the sky was an empty blue, not a cloud in sight. It was so blue that my vision of the outside world was too highly defined. I could feel the murmurings of a migraine somewhere in the depths of my head. The subtle bird chirps. The trickling creek. The buzzing cicadas all sounded like clattering metal,

grinding gears. It was too hot out. My breath felt short like my lungs had a belt clamped around them.

  “Mommy, will you push me on the swing? Pleeease.”

  I took a deep breath.

 “Okay.”

I pushed Eli, tried to take my mind off things, but then I thought of Frank. Still confused why he would leave me. I felt like I must’ve been forgetting something. Like I had blocked out the bad memories. Then, the next thing I knew, all the wind left my lungs. Eli’s sneakers had kicked me in the chest on his backswing, sending me to my knees.

“Sorry mom!”

“I’m going to take a break for a minute. Why don’t you run around the pyramid thing, or try the slide or something for a while.”

“But I wanna swing more.”

“You know what Eli? Do whatever you want. But, I need a rest.”

Surrounding the jungle-gym were benches. Two women in bright workout clothing talked quietly next to each other on one of the benches. They cupped their hands over their mouths like they were talking about me. Their manicured and polished fingernails glinting so sharply in the sun I thought my eyes had cuts.

Maybe they knew me, but I couldn’t remember their faces. Maybe I knew them from one of the PTA meetings I was forced to attend twice a year? Or, the wine club Frank used to drag me to, as if going to a club gave his drinking more credibility. Just because half the town drank at these gatherings didn’t mean it was okay for him to come home stumbling drunk, scaring our son.

I waved to the women and they turned their gaze to a small blond girl in overalls picking at the yellow dandelions.

On the other side of the playground, far away from the nosey women I found respite under a large oak tree. Listening to wind pass through the dangling spanish moss finally settled me. I didn’t even mind the scratchy grass under me. Above me, a spider climbed around the tangled vines of moss. I wondered what it would feel like to be that spider. All alone. Stalking this gigantic tree for food and then waiting, spinning webs, to trap and devour anyone who got in my way. What a life that would be.

Suddenly, a shriek broke my reverie, sprung me to my feet, gasping for breath like I had been underwater for hours. Over by where the girl had been playing, one of the women stood above Eli wagging her finger. The girl clutched the other woman’s stretchy, purple shirt in her tiny fists, her face buried in the woman’s bosom.

“What’s going on?”

I stepped in front of Eli, shielding him from the ravenous woman, who appeared poised to strike. Sweat percolated on her forehead under her curled dome of blonde hair.

“Your little devil of a son is trying to give our Daisy nightmares is what’s going on.”

“I’m sure whatever he did was an accident. Right Eli?” I confirmed with my son who only stared back at me. “Eli, apologize to the little girl.”

“I’ll tell you what he did–”

“Ma’am, please let my son speak.”

“Show your mother what you showed our little girl.” She lunged toward Eli’s hand but I stepped in the way. “Of all the things. She’s going to be scarred for life. You know I didn’t want to believe what they said about you, but I guess the rumors are true.” The woman continued to rant.

She had passed off the young girl, pigtails bouncing, to the other woman. The two of them then retreated, leaving behind the purple shirted woman to take me down. 

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“Oh please honey. Everyone knows Frank walked out on you and honestly it’s easy to see why. You’re a mess. Keep that little demon of yours away from our precious child, or I’ll call child protective services so fast you’ll regret ever leaving the house.”

“Excuse me?” I was too shocked by what she had said to confront her any further before she stormed off to her car.

Her words only further shook my thoughts, my paranoia. What was everyone in town saying about me? It felt like everyone around me had gone mad.  

“Eli what on earth did you do to their girl?”

“I just told her about dad.”

“Oh God, again with the stories. Why do you keep doing this to me? Do you want your mother to go to jail. They’re going to take you away if you keep this up. You’ll never be allowed near me again. Is that what you want?”

He held out two teeth in his hand: full size, roots like dinosaur talons, speckled with dried dirt and blood. 

“What are you doing with those filthy things?” I tried to smack them out of his hand, but he took off running into the field. He was too fast. I went back to the car to see how long he would play this game of chicken.

Part of me wanted to just drive away, leave everything. Frank got to, why couldn’t I? So, I did. I put the car in reverse and was on my way to my own future. Free from all of this madness. Free from my possessed son.

But no.

No.

I slammed the brakes.

I had to be better than Frank. I had to prove those women wrong. Sure enough, the sight of our truck pulling out of the parking lot had sent Eli running back. I took him to get a scoop of his favorite ice cream, Rocky Road.

***

When we came back home, chewing what was left of our ice cream cones, the entire house had flooded. The basement was, what I assumed, a foot or two high. The water scared Eli. He didn’t want to come inside the house. The walls were sweating with the humidity. I wanted to be there as little as Eli, so I caved and called a plumber.

An hour or so later, I answered the door to an attractive man dressed entirely blue: blue work shirt, blue jeans, and blue boots. The only non-blue item on the man was his sagging work belt.

“Hiya, here to fix the pipes.” He chuckled.

“Right, come on in.”

“Oh my.” His large boots squished around the soiled carpet in the front hall. “Quite the situation here. When did you say this all began?”

“I don’t know. A few weeks now? Maybe more, maybe less.”

“All right, and no remarkable incidents? No flushing something crazy down the toilet? No cherry bombs, or rats chewing away the piping?”

“No, not that I can remember.”

I tried to remember when the flooding began. But it felt like my life had always been this way. Like the time before the flooding was the same. Then there was Frank, a shadow on my thoughts. But yes, perhaps it was him. Maybe he had sabotaged the pipes as a way of getting back at me, but why?

He was the one who left. He was the drunken one. The one forgetting birthdays and needing me to bail him out of jail. If anyone should have exacted revenge, it should’ve been me.

“Do you remember where it first started?”

“Maybe the kitchen?”

“All right then. I’ll check around, but this is worse than I imagined. It may take quite a while…this the door to the basement?” He asked.

I nodded. His large, calloused hands pulled at the door. I then realized how large of a man he was. He could crush me in the palm of his hand if he so desired. He scratched his head with those meaty hands.

“Let me recalibrate here.”

He walked out to his work truck in the street and returned wearing what looked like the same type of water-proof overalls Frank used to fish in. But before he went down the steps, he turned to me. His blue eyes sparkled through the wild mess of eyebrow and facial hair that covered his well-tanned face. He really was quite attractive.

“Hey, weren’t you that lady on the news?”

“News? No. What do you mean?”

“Yeah, it was you. Your husband went missing? They couldn’t find any traces of him anywhere. The reporter accused you of murdering him.”

“What in the world…that’s a strange thing to say to someone you just met. I think you should leave.”

“Whoa now. I’m sorry. You’re right. I apologize. I can’t leave you in such dire straights. It goes against the plumber’s code.”

He winked. For a moment, he stood there, staring, uncannily, before heading down the steps, whistling his entire journey deeper into our house.

First, the women in the park and then a random plumber. What did everyone know that I didn’t? There was no way I could have gone on the news without remembering it. Through the kitchen window, I saw Eli splashing in a puddle of water.

“Eli, get out of that dirty water and come in here.”

“Why?”

 “Don’t question me when I tell you to do something. Get in here. I need to talk to you.”

  He ran in the house, cheeks flushed. His red sneakers smeared with mud.

 “Sorry, I know I’m not supposed to play in the mud but—”

 “Do you remember your mother being on the news?”

 “You said we can’t talk about it.”

 “Talk about what? What happened?”

 I grabbed him by the wrist.

“You said that we can’t talk about the people with all the cameras. And the, and the —”

“And the what?!” I screamed

“And the lady who talked to you in the living room.”

My blood felt like thousands of ants marching under my skin. How had I not been able to recall this moment? What had happened. I couldn’t believe it. A ringing grew in my head. My head spun. Eli must’ve been lying again. That was it. Eli was lying, of course.

“Are you okay mommy?”

“I told you to stop lying.”

“Mommy you’re hurting me.”

The skin of his wrist had turned red around my fingertips. I let go quickly, shocked.

“Go play outside.”

He ran away. I poured a glass of wine, to the top. Then, the plumber appeared in the doorway to the basement.

“Ma’am, there’s some type of major blockage. I can’t tell what the hell is going on. I tried snaking the pipes, but got no movement. Something is lodged somewhere in there causing the entire system to back up. I’m gonna have to get inside the pipes…is that something you’re ready to do?”

“Huh? Get inside the pipes? What do you mean?”

“You see, to fully diagnose the problem I’m going to have pull apart your plumbing. It can be a large undertaking. We’re talking maybe a few days, weeks maybe, which means a lot of labor. The water will be turned off.”

He looked at my pityingly. What was it with these men in my life?

“And I suppose you’re going to say this is my fault? Accuse me of some other despicable action?”

I sneered.

“Whoa now. Maybe you were right. Maybe I should go.”

“Oh no you don’t. Not after you fed me all that crap about the plumbers code. Get back down in the basement and finish what you started. Smash the pipes to hell for all I care.”

He threw his hands up in caution. When he came back from his truck this time he carried two heavy bags in each arm. They were large enough to fit bodies into if he had to. What was this man’s plan with me and my son?

Bags clunking down each step, thwap, thwap, he made his way to the basement, whistling the whole time. Maybe he had killed Frank. Yes that was it. Then he had sabotaged my pipes in order to get a large payday. That was it. He was out for money. Sure, prey on the newly single mother. Just another man trying to get one over on me. Well, he had another thing coming if he thought that was going to work. 

“Can I go downstairs?” Eli asked.

“What for?”

I realized I had finished my entire wine glass and was sipping at nothing.

“I want to watch the plumber. I was gonna bring my boat down.”

He had already changed into a bathing suit and rain boots holding his boat in hand.

“You know what Eli, I want you to go pack your bags for a long trip, okay honey?”

“But mom, I want to help the plumber.”

“If you’re good we can get ice cream again. Okay honey? Now, go and be a good boy.”

From the butcher block I pulled the chef’s knife and walked down the steps with it behind my back.

“Oh hey, glad you’re down here. I think I’ve found something.”

I watched the plumber pull a leg from out of the pipe, still adorned in blue, now blood-red jeans, my husbands’, I mean ex-husband’s favorite blue jeans. The skin inside was sodden and colorless, and the rotten odor almost enough to knock me over.

“Oh jesus lord. This is someone’s leg. Looks like it’s been clear cut off.”

He threw it down into the water. Then my knife was in his gut, to the handle. I pulled it out and plunged it in again. His last breath exhaled, hot in my face before he dropped into the water with a splash and then everything was silent just like when Frank died.

I remembered it all then.

I was scared for my life. Frank, so drunk I thought he would kill me or Eli. I was only trying to keep him away. Trying to protect myself. It all happened so quick. He stomped toward me, cornered me in the kitchen. The butcher block of knives behind and then his blood rushed from his slumped body in torrents. I tried stopping the wound with a kitchen towel. The wound that I had opened in him but it was too late.

It was an accident. I couldn’t leave Eli with no parents. He needed me to protect from all the craziness in the world. So, I cleaned up the accident. I cut and shoved and flushed whatever I could into the sinks and toilets of our house. I just wanted to be there for Eli.

Blood spread into the waters around the plumber’s head. But the ringing in my head had stopped. I could see clearly. I knew we had to get out. then ran up the steps out of the basement.

“Eli? Where are you? Eli?”

 I rushed around the house searching for Eli. I found him under his covers, shaking.

“What’s going on mom? Why is dad in our pipes?”

“Daddy? No, no honey what did you see? That was nothing. It was a joke the plumber was playing. I think he found an old possum in the pipes. Okay sweetie?”

“I saw dad again downstairs. Right before you came up. He was all bloody.”

“Okay sweetie, okay.” I hiked Eli up on my hip and packed a bag for him with one hand. “Can you be a big boy and help your mother put this in the truck?”

He nodded.

“Good, then wait in the car for me.”

 When I pulled out of the driveway, Eli asked me “What about the plumber?”

“He left us honey. Just like your father. It’s like I said Eli, you can’t trust men.”

 “But his truck is still there.”

I turned up the stereo a little louder and tilted Eli out of the vision of the rearview. I could finally see clearly, not a man in sight. 


Joseph Buckley is a poet and dark fiction writer. His work is featured in December, Fogged Clarity, The Horror Zine, and elsewhere.


“Billy the Killer and Martha Jean” Horror by Rachel Brands

The town outside has gone to hell, and I can’t find anything good to watch on TV. My options are never bountiful when I get off work this late, but The PiYo Craze from Beachbody! feels especially grim tonight.

I came home to find my poor answering machine overloaded with missed calls from my mother, most of which were likely made before she found out Billy Fillerton was running around town, chopping up our neighbors with a katana. I heard myself when a frantic teenager nearly drove a gold minivan through the glass doors of the hospital, seeking help for her mother, who was a pile of limbs and guts.

Polly came running up to me at that point and breathlessly asked if I had heard the news.

“Sure,” I said. “Somebody fucked up Mrs. Abernathy real good.”

Billy did,” Polly moaned. “He’s on a rampage! I mean, how do you not know?”

She then proceeded to show me several videos from her friends’ Instagram Live feeds, all of which showed a big, skulking figure cutting up our townspeople, whose screams populated the warm night air.

Figures. Polly was always getting reamed for being on her phone at work. Mine was carefully tucked away in my locker, like a professional.

“Oh, God, Martha Jean, what do we do?” Polly asked, tearfully.

I don’t know about any ‘we,’ but ‘I’ finished up my shift and went home. The hospital was surprisingly quiet for being in the middle of a town under duress. My guess is that Billy is finishing the job.

On my way out, I found the front desk empty and the discarded phone still on the line with the sheriff’s office. Jo must have booked it as soon as she heard. I hung up the phone and sprinted to my car with my pepper spray handy. Don’t think that’s on account of Billy. I always cross the parking lot like this after the late shift.

I didn’t stick around to see, but I hope Polly went home to her boring husband and squalling baby.

On the drive home, I listened intently for screams akin to those on the videos, but heard nothing. The only clue that anything was amiss was the squad car that went racing past me, sirens wailing. It’s times like these that make me wonder if maybe our town should’ve hired more than two cops.

I arrived home and ate ice cream straight out of the carton in my dark apartment while watching late night TV. The way I see it, Billy will come for me whether I want him to or not, and a bored, unruly part of me wants him to.

It’s that same demented curiosity that made our entire town line up on Main Street to get a first look at Billy after more than a dozen years in the slammer. A bunch of vultures, is what they are. I was so peeved when my boss wouldn’t give me the day off, so I could go.

I hear a noise and whip around, heart racing, but it’s only my air conditioner kicking on. In my fear, I squeeze the carton too tightly and now Neapolitan is dripping down my arm and onto my leather recliner. Cursing, I stumble into the kitchen to wash off in the sink. The running water coats not only my arm, but the stack of dirty dishes, and the backsplash wets my shirt. I hastily turn off the faucet and dry myself with a towel. I wonder if I made too much noise.

Not that it matters. I expect he will pay me a visit tonight and I’m strangely cavalier about it. I just wish I knew how he planned to make his entrance. Would he creep up on me in the night, or bash his way through the entire apartment complex to get to me? I don’t like surprises.

I’m tempted to peruse the socials for any clues on how Billy will approach, based on other townies’ experiences, but I stop myself. If I turn my cell on, I will be assaulted with the many texts and calls my mother has undoubtedly left for me over the course of the night. I’m sure she’s imploring me to take refuge with her and Daddy and the rest of my siblings at the farm, which is her go-to emergency plan for any disaster, such as when it rains too hard for her liking.

No, thank you. I’m good and fine right where I am, Ma, in the dark and all alone.

I putz around the kitchen for a bit, habitually checking the time on the stove, but detect no movement. Billy is taking his sweet time getting over here.

After I wear myself out pacing around the apartment, I give up and decide to crawl into bed. I’m tired and I don’t wait more than an hour for any man. Billy can wake me up before he gets me, or not. It might even be better if I’m asleep. Less flailing.

Impatiently, I stride down the hallway to my bedroom and throw open the door and–

“Billy,” I breathe.

There he is: a husky, hulking mass of a man, filling up my doorframe entirely. His face is obstructed by a Ralph’s paper bag, but I can feel his eyes poring into me through makeshift eye holes. His right hand is curled around the handle of a katana sword, which he slowly raises in my direction. The tip of his sword cuts through my scrubs and pokes my abdomen, producing a pinprick of blood.

My breath catches in my throat.

The last time I saw him, we were fifteen and he shot a woeful glance at me as he was shoved into a squad car for allegedly running over his stepfather with the family truck. When Billy went away, I thought of him often, but never called or wrote. I didn’t know what to say.

I’m frozen, but only for a moment.

Once I’ve regathered my composure, I lean forward and the sword punctures me further. I wince at the pain, but don’t feel afraid. I hear a faint, startled gasp from underneath the paper bag.

“Billy,” I say again, as I move closer still.

He removes his blade from my belly and wipes my blood off the tip with his rough, bare hand. I reach up to stroke not his face, but the side of his paper bag mask and he flinches away from my touch. I halt, but after a moment, keep inching my hand towards him.

I gently grip the side of the bag and the flimsy paper crinkles beneath my fingers. Slowly and carefully, I remove it and look at Billy’s face for the first time in years. Gone is the lanky kid with the chestnut-colored mullet and mischievous smile that I knew in my youth. In his place stands a tall brick house in the shape of a man, with scraggly salt-and-pepper hair and a beard to match. Only his eyes are the same – a steely grey gaze laced with intensity.

I stand on my very tip toes, but even then, I only come up to his neck. He has to bend for our mouths to meet, and he tastes like salt and copper. His bloody left hand cups my chin and I let my tongue out to explore his lips and teeth, familiar territory. When we pull away from one another, Billy is breathing hard and I notice I am pressed against him. Our eyes lock. I caress his bare face with my hands.

He shivers, but it’s a warm night.

Billy roughly grabs me by the waist and manhandles me into his arms. For a moment, I fear he will hurt me, but that moment quickly passes when I realize he means to carry me bridal-style to the bed. Gentleness and grace are simply not two of his strengths.

I hear the katana clatter to the ground and, for the first time, wonder where he got it from.

We fall into the clutches of my unmade bed a sweaty, uncoordinated mess. I’m still in my teal scrubs from the hospital and Billy is sporting a black jumpsuit, which has surprisingly little blood on it, for someone who’s been slashing and stabbing all night long. I experience a little of what my fellow townspeople did that night, as I clench and moan on the receiving end of his bloody passion.

When we had finished, I lay awake on his broad chest for a long time. We don’t say a word to one another, only bask in the moonlight and the pungent smell of sex and body odor. I think back to the last time he fucked me, during the restrictive freedom of our teen years. We lay just like this then, too.

It finally occurs to me to ask about my family, and if he has paid them a visit yet. He tells me with his eyes, imploring for my sufferance.

“Please,” I say.

I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I woke to an empty bed and birds singing outside. The only evidence that Billy was ever here is a deep “down there” ache, and the Ralph’s bag on my nightstand, with a smiley face painted with blood.

He knew that would make me smile and it did.

In the weeks after Billy’s rampage through our quaint little town, we were hounded by a circus-media of paparazzi, tabloid reporters, and other bloodhounds. Ashwald became a tourist trap for those seeking a peek of America’s fastest working serial killer, only to discover he vanished in the night. They went away disappointed, and with a patented Billy the Killer t-shirt.

Poor Billy is a public spectacle, now more than ever, the victim of a mob of excited, chatty no-nothings who will never give him a rest because he is the only interesting thing to happen in this town, ever. His name once again populated our press and earned an array of new nicknames. Most notable of which is the Orphan Maker. The reason for that one is he slaughtered many of our adult population, and left the children untouched.

Well, mostly. He did kill Mike Bell, but that kid was 6’3” and had a full beard at fourteen, so it was an honest mistake.

Some speculated that those he killed played a part in his trial or mistreated him in some way; others believed he murdered at random; a select few counted the male to female ratio of his kills and theorized he was making some sort of gender statement.

I have my own thoughts, none of which I can prove as absolute fact, but I knew Billy best and I think I’m right. I think he simply looked at the faces of every man and woman in town, and in them, saw his stepfather, who delighted in hurting him, and his mother, who let it happen.

I’m in no hurry to correct them, since I know the mystery of Billy will always be more interesting than the sad reality of his life. Billy the Killer, they called him long before he ever killed anyone, thanks to that stupid article that misspelled his name. His stepfather is still alive, for God’s sake, remarried and living comfortably a few states over.

Although, I suspect, not for long.


Rachel Brands holds a BFA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Loras College. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, hanging out with her cat, and watching scary movies. She resides in Illinois.


“No Rose without Thorns” Flash Horror by Madeleine D’Este

1. Rose oil

The body was face-down on the kitchen floor. A halo of blood on the polished concrete. A woman with blonde highlighted hair. Another single person household. No sign of forced entry. The only witness, a cat with bloody paws.

Before they turned the body, I knew what we’d find. For four years, I’d been dreaming about the others. The first one was January 14th 2018. Easy to remember, it was the day before my thirty-fifth birthday. Of course, I’d seen worse. Car accidents with nothing but red pulp left behind. But there was something about these bodies that made my skin itch. How many murders made a serial killer? This was number four.

Enticed, you tap. You draw closer to your lit-up screen. Run your hungry eyes over my inventory. Wet your lips as you dream of what my wares will bring. The promises and fantasies in a bottle I sell. But do not fear, I have the perfect one for you.

Your heart flutters as your mind drifts, how my scents on your dewy curvaceous skin will transform you. How intoxicating you will be. His hard gaze on you. His stubbled chin scraping up your neck. His throaty moans. The wolf who wants to eat you alive.

Which one will you choose? The Egyptian priestess, the femme fatale, the tragic heroine. Musk. Rose. Cedarwood. Jasmine. A whisper of romance. A hint of lust. A lingering presence to haunt his dreams.

Staring at your hand-held rectangle, you choose.

2. Jasmine

I didn’t notice at first, it was a pup of a Constable who mentioned it. He was standing in the doorway taking up room.

‘Stinks,’ he grumbled.

At first I ignored him. Thought he meant the blood, he was green after all, couldn’t have been more than a few weeks out of training. I don’t even notice the stink of blood now.

I sniffed and grimaced. ‘I can’t smell anything.’

‘Perfume,’ he said.

I sniffed again. He was right. A floral scent hung in the air.

‘Recognise it?’ I said.

‘Nah. Just hate the stuff.’

The choice is made, your coins tumble my way. But your gold is not my goal. You will make payment in other ways. Not every patron is special enough for my individual attention. I am too wildly popular for that, and far too clever.

As the names rush past my eyes on the screen, I carefully select those worthy to receive a personal touch. Your name jumps from all the others. You chose Fairy Queen. I know you, you covet light-heartedness, flirtation, magic. You see yourself as dull, unworthy and empty. A squirt of my fairy dust at your chubby wrists and ankles will rouse the wolves and bring fun tumbling your way.

Before my little elves package up your purchase, I add a drop of something special to the vial. A concoction so secret I cannot even breathe when I list the ingredients. Handed to me through dreams and trances, after years of fasting and genuflecting, I now have the answer. And today the answer is you.

Swiftly my present weaves through the world. Along roads, conveyor belts and on bikes until a woman in day-glo yellow delivers the small brown box to your door. After another grey day of disappointment and smudged mascara, my gift is a bright spot. You tear open the wrapping and sniff the vial. Across the city, my lips part as I wait for you to take the first spray. We both close our eyes in unison, and swoon as one.

All alone, you sip white wine in your sheepskin boots and dowse yourself in my scent. A smile graces your lips as you snuggle into the couch and I congratulate myself. Once again I have chosen perfectly. But I must be patient, and I know how to be patient. The dosage must be exactly right.

3. Cedar wood

It was the coroner who named the notes. ‘Rose, jasmine and cedar wood,’ he said, sucking air in through his big nostrils. After a twenty-year career surrounded by the stench of death, how he could pin-point the smells, I’ll never know.

‘You know it?’

He squinted, then blinked. ‘No,’ he said eventually.

‘Thanks for nothing,’ I snorted.

Another dead-end. Waste of my time. I went back to looking for proper evidence.

— 

You are greedy, I don’t have to wait long. You ripened exceptionally and three days was all it took. Entranced by the scent, you lather on more and more until your home is a cloud of fairy dust. You leave the door open for me. Of course I know where to find you, you told me yourself. I slide in through the door and you don’t even blink. Your tortoiseshell cat hisses as I stride toward you, my blade gleaming in the flickering television glow. You welcome me with a smile, then loll back your head, exposing your blotchy throat. With the silver tip, I carve you a new smile from ear to ear. I peel back the skin and scoop the nodes from your throat, taking away my treasure in a glass jar.

As you jerk and splutter, then roll face-down on the hard floor, I take back my gift and every trace of my fairy dust, and leave the cat to your blood.

Within the hour, I sup on you, the perfect garnish to my rich venison stew. I raise my glass and say a toast. Here’s to one more year.


Madeleine D’Este is a Melbourne-based writer, podcaster and reviewer. Inspired by folklore and forteana, D’Este writes dark mysteries, including steampunk, historical fantasy and vampire tales. Her novel The Flower and The Serpent was nominated for an Australian Shadow for Best Novel in 2019.

Find Madeleine at www.madeleinedeste.com or @madeleine_deste on Twitter


“The Feverish Fast of Albert Drach” Dark, Surreal Microfiction by Karin Kutlay

It was the third day of Albert Drach’s fast. He had been eating null, inputting nought, defecating null, outputting nought. He was awaiting fever dreams to descend on him. He was awaiting descensions of the kind no one had known before, the way the sun’s sunset sets on the Polish Poppy Proletariat, intoxicated from hours with the black seed, who on their way home would imagine their wives had all slept with a purple fabric seller from Kiralyhida and poisoned their dinners. Albert Drach was awaiting such descensions.

And they did come unto him. (In parts.)

He threw his head back walking out of an ocean; his hair coalesced in one single strand splattering its salt water into a white sky and plopping on his back like a whip. He was groping pebbles in blue, black, and gray, crawling ahead in fast devolution from human form; this here rectangular rock larger than his palm and this here short shard of slippery volcanic vomit. He gasped for air as if his pastel pink lungs were fit for a muddy, pre-Cambrian ocean. Standing on a shore of pure stone, he looked ahead, and without a gaze could feel his nakedness, in waves emanating from his hips, not from shame or negation, but a viscous cold filling in his creaks.

Two and a half girls waited, leaning on layers of white rock squashed into each other for centuries. The half girl had one hand, only hand, in a gap in the wall – but no, it was more of a cliff looked from below, but no, it sharpened as it rose and stood alone, but no – and had her body asymmetrically made. Two feet and two calves and three quarters of a lower body and half a torso and one arm and one hand. It was an artist’s job, this, no sinew or stain in sight, everything perhaps unsuitable to the eye tucked inside a half-wet periwinkle dress. Albert Drach remembered not the name of the poet or the sculptor or the gynecologist, but remembered another immortal work of him, the god Elohim.

The other two sat in an awkward gang. Left girl had her legs crossed, again in periwinkle paper, ruffles rolling over boulders and bishop sleeves. Right girl held a Rodin pose, and a belt of red crepe paper encircled somewhere not her waist. Their faces pale and puffed, eyes small and round, hands fit for a life of craftsmanship at first sight, and after a thought, hands like those after a life of craftsmanship. Left spoke: “We were waiting for someone else.”


Karin is a sophomore studying Physics, from Turkey, and now living in California. She was long-listed for the 2022 Erbacce Poetry Prize, and this is her first published work.


“Quetzalcoatl Comet” Dark, Historical Fiction by Titus Green

He looks out across his resplendent city in the glowing sunrise and sees the sacred sun silhouette the Temple of Tlaloc and Huītzilōpōchtli. Will the latter god save them from the annihilation in his recent dreams, or had the war god grown sick of the priests’ gifts of gory hearts and flayed corpses? Had he decided to do the unthinkable and abandon the Mexica to darkness, famine and extinction? The dawn sun basks the sky in a fiery orange. The water of Texcoco scintillates in the light, and the causeways reach out to the world beyond Tenochtitlan, from where the strangers with metal skin and moveable volcanoes for weapons will deceive him and raze his kingdom to the ground.

Sleep has been impossible for weeks. He has shifted restlessly in his royal chamber, dismissing his concubines when they call. His only desire has been to watch Tenochtitlan through the ominous night and keep a vigil over his domain, which is vulnerable to a permanent darkness and damnation should the gods indeed desert them and approve the end of the world. So, he watches, hearing the waking, squawking cacophonies of the myriad birds in his multiple menageries across the metropolis. Why do they cry out so? Why are they agitated? Why do they wake the soldiers, the priests, the artisans, the merchants, the slaves and the sacrifices who want to be fresh and rested when they climb the temple steps, prostrate themselves and face the obsidian blade?

However, he knows only too well that creatures recognize danger more acutely than men and that the force bearing down on the city is pregnant with terrible significance. Watching the brilliant glowing orb in the sky, he trembles. The benevolent Tonatiuh lives again, and gifts them power and life—but for how long will this birth, death and rebirth cycle last? His life had convinced him it was infinite, but his dreams suggested it was finite.

Then it appears. The massive, blindingly brilliant light bursts out of the womb of the sky and streams across the heavens. Its huge head glows more brightly than the sun, and its fiery tale stretches for miles. It assumes the form of the flaming serpent he’s revered from birth. Quetzalcoatl has returned, roaring across the sky! He was coming for his kingdom, and he, Moctezuma II the mere mortal ruler, would not stand in the way of the God of the West, the Patron of Priests and Creator of the Heavens and the Earth. Then he hears Quetzalcoatl roar, and his bellowing shakes the earth, terrifies the air and scatters the birds in the sky. The caged parakeets squawk and the captive jaguars growl as His Lordship grows bigger and brighter. From below his balcony, Moctezuma hears a collective wail from the population of the city. A deafening lament that sounds like the earth pleading for mercy reverberates across the temple-tops, reaches out across the waters and hits the mountains on the horizon. Then, to his dismay, the fiery serpent in the sky passes the sun, Tonatiuh, and hurtles on towards an unknown place with its vast, smoky feathered plume streaking the sky. Quetzalcoatl was not stopping. He was abandoning the Mexica and its citizens to oblivion.

“The end is coming. We are doomed!” 

The words eject from his lips, but he is not even sure whether his mind has chosen them. It is as though they had been sent by a higher force in the cosmos, an intermediary of destiny’s gods serving his people.

A gust of wind chills Moctezuma and numbs his body. Trembling, he turns around and returns to his chamber. When, he wonders, will the terrible darkness come? So far, his nightmares have not given up this secret.

***

He dreads sleep, which has delivered the same cyclical nightmare for more than a year. Each time he drops into the underworld, he sees the four brothers of time facing him on top of the mighty pyramid, far away, that he knows well. The Avenue of the Dead extends below them, and the baleful silhouettes of their freakish bodies glow in the dawn. They always torment him at sunrise. In this particular nightmare however, there is some variation. Whereas before, the brother gods communicated their vision of Mexica’s destruction with indifference, he notices this time the curling, sneering lips and glints in the eyes behind their garish, bestial masks. They regard him now with weariness and contempt, this feeble-minded, mortal worm obliged to do their bidding. They seem finished with Man, through with providing their celestial favours and now appear committed to nothing more than satisfying their primordial lusts in the heavens.

In the dream, Moctezuma speaks with these haughty, vicious gods and their conversation always comes to the same futile conclusion.

“Huītzilōpōchtli, oh god of war, I implore you,” he pleads. “Grant us your power again. Inspire the brave, give us victory and an eternity of suns and I will feed you more blood and flesh than ever before. You will never know hunger again!”

“Silence!” snarls the deity of death. The rasping voice cuts through the air and makes the king freeze in awe. It is the voice of millennia that has intimidated the immortals. Reptilian hisses come at the end of his speech.

“I do not want your tributes. Your people are parasites and you are a coward!”

The god of war’s muscular blue torso is filthy with blood and a net-sack full of severed human heads hangs from his waist. Their faces look bewildered, as if this monster puzzled his victims to death with riddles before butchering them. The warrior deity raises his huge macuahuitl and points it towards him and shakes the weapon. Its blades are caked in matted blood.

Then Xipe Totec, god of the vegetation and spring, leers at him with a crooked smile that reveals his obsidian fangs soaked in blood. His head-dress of giant turquoise feathers towers over him, and his face is covered by the top half of a human skull. He wears the coat of a young warrior’s skin and grasps a golden mace in his claw and begins to move his limbs up and down in a hideous dance like a marionette. He says nothing but points his talon at Moctezuma and wiggles it provocatively and begins to cackle in a high pitch reminiscent of a forest bird. Moctezuma knows this god has no need of words. Xipe Totec feeds on Moctezuma’s terror of the future; the dread he feels about the fate of his people excites this cruel, corrupted creature of Mexica minds who had starved and fed them capriciously for centuries in exchange for hearts torn from chests and oceans of blood. Is this all our gifted lives meant to this wretched, debased freak? Laughter? Xipe Totec hears his insulting, blasphemous thought and emits a shrill and furious cry. He shudders at the god’s flared nostrils and the glare behind the eye sockets of the skull. Totec reaches behind his back and hurls a spear at him which, according to the character of this dream, becomes a serpent in midair.

“Why do you come here, oh sleepless, anxious one?” It is Quetzalcoatl who asks this, with his long dragon snout pointing upwards. His huge white breastplate is smeared with gore and he reeks of rotting bodies.

“I need…answers,” says the emperor.

“But did you not see the comet? Are you blind to the obvious?” Quetzalcoatl’s voice is deep and melodious. It echoes across the expanse of Moctezuma’s mind and lingers in his past. Why had he never heard this voice, supposedly belonging to the Mexica’s great cosmic guide, in the waking world? Why had he been silent for so long? Where had it been when they had marched the doomed captives past the spire that they had erected to revere him? Why had he not bellowed his gratitude when the priests’ hands tore into the chests of the young, the old, and the beautiful and gripped those beating, incarnadine hearts?

“Answers?” The Feathered Serpent god is amazed. The knobbly, scaly skin on his face makes a shrivelled mask of incomprehension. A crow perched on his shoulder caws, and the god’s tail flexes and slaps the ground. He gives a dispiriting laugh, and Moctezuma fears the forthcoming speech, even though he knows it well by now.

“How can I answer you, you fool? I don’t exist!” He looks towards his brothers of the North, East, South and West. “We don’t exist!” Huītzilōpōchtli nods to support this devastating statement, and the ruler of Mexica’s spirits ebb away once more. “Your foolish ancestors planted our deeds in your minds. They embellished nature’s powers with our grandiose names. They imagined us, just as you are doing. We are fictions.”

“Save us from darkness. I beseech you!” cries Moctezuma. 

Xipe Totec emits a wheezing laugh and Quetzalcoatl shakes his head in resignation like a teacher giving up on a difficult pupil. He looks over to Tezcatlipoca, the fourth god or Smoking Mirror, and gives a nodded signal. This is the prelude to the climax of these dreams that puts him into a frenzy of fear, for this is when the most intimidating of all the gods gives him fleeting visions of his future and that of his people. Tezcatlipoca, the god of magic, looks terrifying and magnificent in his costume. His headdress of black and yellow feathers, combined with his turquoise mask, make him appear like a peacock that flies between the worlds of above and below bearing the misery and happiness of mortals on his wings. Black stripes cross his skull-white face, and a white necklace of skulls lies on his muscular shoulders and there, in the centre of his chest, is the circular black obsidian mirror whose glinting surface reflects such terrible scenes that make the king shake with fear and wake in the night screaming with his aristocratic sweat soaking his sheets.

“Look, come and see,” calls Smoking Mirror telepathically. Moctezuma feels the familiar power drawing him towards the god whose eyes now glow behind the mask. “Come,” repeats the seductive, hypnotic voice. Resistance is impossible in these dreams, and the king surrenders to the timeless force once again. He floats towards the rays of light and through the glowing sockets behind the mask and is surrounded by the vast, infinite blackness of the universe. Before, when faced by the void at this point in the nightmare, he had seen the reassuring gaze of infinite Ometeotl upon him with his eyes composed of stars. The presence of the suns had been the one comforting part of these terrible journeys in his sleep. Now there is nothing but an impenetrable darkness surrounding him, and he gasps. Suddenly he is projected out through Tezcatlipoca’s eyes, through tunnels of swirling colours, and he is back in his former position, facing the hostile gods again. The risen sun now accentuates their hideous forms, filling them with shadows. They have never been more menacing. They are ebony demons baying for his downfall. In the place where Tezcatlipoca stood, there is now a large black disk. From its centre, he sees the dreaded misty glow forming and the palpitations of Moctezuma’s heart make his chest cavity throb. Now it is time for the show of visions and the entrance of Smoking Mirror’s prophecy!

The glow grows brighter and sharper and begins to shimmer, and soon it engulfs the black circle of the mirror. He is now on top of Huēyi Teōcalli, the city’s temple of Tlaloc and Huītzilōpōchtli, surveying a gruesome panorama. A torrent of blood gushes down the temple’s sacrificial steps and collects in a gutter at the bottom of the structure, and from there it flows into Tenochtitlan’s main canal. Blood fills all the architectural arteries of the city, floating boats of decaying maize and slaughtered passengers. Vultures are everywhere, perched on the tops of temples, the window ledges of homes, and the stone icons protruding from the walls of the civic buildings. Their feathers are coated in gore, and their talons are loaded with human carrion. Their coarse screeches carry across the city, but the rest of Tenochtitlan’s birds are silent. Most ominously, the dream sky is a dark, dirty, smoky grey which smothers the sun. No rays can pierce it or bring any warm fragments of hope to this nightmare, which has slammed its pitiless message of Mexica’s oblivion into his senses forevermore. This time, however, the sky is darker than ever.

Then he hears the low, glottal human sound in the distance; it is omnidirectional. It is a tormented groan which encapsulates the city and reverberates throughout its flagstones and temple-tops, carrying its harrowing cry of suffering for miles. It emanates from a ubiquitous source. It carries from the mouth of Tōnatiuh himself, implacable and omnipotent at the centre of the Sun Stone which sits in a relief carved into the wall of the opposite temple. It rises from beneath the cracks in the pavestones, from behind the ornate doors of the unseen nobles and from the glossy, muscular rock of the mountains beyond the water.

In the distance, he sees them beyond the floating gardens at the start of the causeway. There is a vast throng of bloody corpses assembled, standing with patience and purpose, their glowing yellow eyes glowering at him. The procession begins to move across the causeway, edging slowly and gradually towards the temple. When it is nearly halfway across, he appreciates its magnitude. It reaches back for miles, a column thick with butchered bodies that begin to move. The cadavers do not walk but slouch forward with heavy strides while groaning in sync through open mouths. He notices the glistening flayed bodies and feels the peculiar nausea: as emperor in the conscious world, seeing one Tepanec prisoner after another torn open at the summit of this temple to the accompaniment of beating drums and priestly incantations evoked neither revulsion nor excitement but ennui; after a while, witnessing each sacrifice became as stale as the taste of the limbs he was obliged to eat. Yet sleep accentuated the vividness and energy of these scenes and he saw them with a clarity not present while awake. When he looked at the distressed, dismembered victims of his culture’s pantheon shuffling towards him en masse with the wounds in their chests festering, and the skinless flesh of the most unfortunate ones rotting, he recognized in––and only in––this didactic dream the concept he had hitherto not known in his life as a potentate: suffering.

The march of the sacrificed has now reached the temple, and as it passes him below, all of its participants turn their heads, or their skulls, towards the noble at the top of the temple and express their silent curse. Moctezuma II knows what to expect next, and on cue the meteor of guilt now crashes down on him, flattening his royal immunity from the consequences of his ancestors’ three-hundred-year legacy of purchasing Tōnatiuh’s solar protection with human hearts.

“It was the will of the gods!” he cries in an effort to placate their anger.

“Impostor! Traitor! Animal and thief of life!” comes the deafening, chorused reply of the no-longer-silent mass of moving dead. He sees the flayed and beheaded rising from the soil of the chinampa gardens and from the blood canals to join the demonstration. Now, the dream takes, if it were possible, a more disturbing direction as the bloody, mutilated mob is succeeded by a new generation of Mexican dead following behind. These chanting corpses have not been cut open or cut up, but their emaciated bodies are coated with hideous sores that weep as they lurch forward. They do not look at the emperor but merely stare ahead with glazed eyes, too weak and wasting to show anger. They look fit only for death, again and again. Over and over.

The number of the diseased dead is greater than the sacrificed, and the pestilential procession staggering across the causeway reaches back almost to the mountains but finally the last column of his doomed subjects starts to cross the bridge into the city. They are pursued by the most terrifying elements of these dreams, which are the mysterious foreigners with silver skin, strange weapons, baffling flags and extraordinary creatures. The fundamental difference between this cluster of entrants to Tenochtitlan and that which preceded it is that the men within it are very much alive. Moctezuma sees him again. The sallow-faced, hook-nosed, bearded man with the silver head at the front of the column points to Moctezuma from the center of the causeway, and at that moment a part of the dream occurs that was not in its previous iterations. The bright, brilliant comet of that morning whistles through the filthy sky followed by its smoky tail. In place of its head, he does not see the serpentine face of Quetzalcoatl however, but an ominous symbol consisting of two bisecting red lines, with the vertical line longer than the horizontal.

This comet, unlike the one that had appeared in reality that morning in the azure sky above the metropolis, does not pass over them and continue its trajectory. It lands in front of the temple and erupts in a giant sphere of fire, sending blazing debris in all directions. The assembly of the sacrificed and infected below reacts with anger. Thousands of aggrieved voices accuse in unison, calling the emperor a murderer and a traitor. He then notices a large pile of jagged stones in front of the temple steps. In it there are flints, pieces of quartz and, of course, deadly sharp slates of obsidian. Many in the multitude now reach for these and use them as missiles, hurling them at him with superhuman, catapultic force. As the first stone strikes him in the forehead, he screams and suddenly he is awake and upright in his bed shaking and sweating heavily while his traumatized concubine staggers out of the bed and runs down the corridor screaming for help.

***

“They are coming, Your Highness,” whispers the court official into the left side of the divine ruler’s face. The official has interrupted a meeting of elders: a cabinet of conquerors counselling the emperor on tactics for a new campaign to terrify and exploit upstart new states beyond their borders that have dared to defy their demands for human tribute. They are also discussing new raids on Teotihuacan and Alcoman because the crops have been failing and the gods have never been thirstier.

“Where are they now?” he asks, taking a gulp of chocolate from a golden goblet.

“They are on the other side of the lake approaching the causeway, Your Highness,” answers the official, who withdraws at the emperor’s signal.

The news makes him apprehensive, although he has been prepared to receive it for months after hearing the reports of the floating mountains cutting through the ocean off the coast of Yucatan. The apprehension then becomes a heavier, more crippling dread. The very words they have arrived seem cursed. Poisoned. Deadlier than blowpipe darts. The notion of greeting these troublesome travellers from afar evokes buried terror. As a boy he had once nearly drowned in the waters of the Texcoco. He remembers the helplessness as the salty water forced its way down his mouth and into his nostrils and the panic as he saw through the blurry filter of the water not only the fuzzy shapes of fish but the glowing and malevolent skull face of the death god Mictlāntēcutli smiling. A friend, and stronger swimmer than himself, saved him and allowed him to inherit his exalted adult life but that terrifying face intruded on many dreams and jolted him out of sleep often, until the more potent nightmare about the comet and procession of death replaced it. Now Mictlāntēcutli is clawing back into his consciousness once more.

He is at the head of his welcoming party, walking down the center of the vast causeway, which is exactly as it was in his dreams. However, the sun is high and blazing and the sky is clear, which encourages him. He declined both his litter and escort of jaguar knights because he did not want to convey the impression of indolence or insecurity to these trespassers, who they say are stirring up sedition in the vassal states. This will be a diplomatic encounter, he reasons, and nothing more. He told the treasury to prepare the gold objects that he heard they covet and ordered his concubines to scent their breasts and loosen their thighs. One week of hospitality, and with his celebrated charm, they will be on their way. And if not, well….

As the foreign party advances, and their forms and faces become more distinct, he recognizes the silver on their bodies and the creatures from another world that carry them. There, at the front of the column of beasts is the dream character with the hooked nose, beard and crafty eyes. The vast column of the dream is also there, except that it is not composed of the dead but thousands of living mercenaries from the rebellious states.

“No! Quetzalcoatl! Save us!” he blurts out. His aides look at him with bewilderment, believing the emperor is seeing the immortal deity leading the people approaching them on the causeway, and this conviction contaminates them with awe.

Moctezuma sees the four gods towering over the mountains, sneering, and then they are gone. Helplessness takes possession of him, and all he can do is watch his destiny dismount from its beast and approach him accompanied by a black-clad character, obviously from this man’s priest class, whose robe bears the symbol of the two red lines that decorated the comet’s face. Behind them, a Mexica woman in strange dress follows.

The bearded man walks up, bows and offers his hand. He then speaks in a language Moctezuma does not know.

“Greetings, Your Highness,” says the Mexica woman in Nahuatl. “I am Hernan Cortes, an emissary of the Spanish Crown.”


“Quetzalcoatl Comet” first appeared in The Collidescope in 2019.


Titus Green was born in Canada but grew up in the UK. His short fiction has appeared in numerous online and print magazines, including The Collidescope, Adelaide Literary Magazine, HORLA, Literally Stories, Sediments Literary Arts, Stag Hill Literary Journal, Sediments Literary Arts and others. He teaches English as a foreign language for a living.


“Last Call at the Divina Comedia” Dark, Hyper-Real Fiction by Alan Catlin

Virgil stopped and spoke, “Where we’re going is a drinking man’s ultimate dream: a bar where it’s always happy hour, where the drinks are free, and there is no closing time.  I’ll bet you didn’t think such a place actually existed.”

“Not in this life.” I said.

I thought I heard him laugh, but I couldn’t be sure.  Maybe he was simply clearing his throat; taking a deep breath for the final push into the darkness.

“Make sure you stay close, now.  We’re almost there.  I wouldn’t want to lose you now.”

“I suppose I shouldn’t look back either.”

“Sure, you can, if you want to.  No point in it, though.  There’s nothing to see.”

Nothing to see.  Truer words have never been spoken.

He pushed against something in the darkness.  A door gave way from the wall, and he ushered me inside.

“Watch your step.” He said.

And I stepped inside.  The door closed behind me without a sound.  I looked back where the entrance should have been, but I could not see anything resembling a door.  It was as if the wall had sealed itself, the way a wound would, without leaving the slightest trace of scab or scar.

“So, what do you think?” Virgil asked. 

“It’s tough to tell.  The light in here is very strange.”  And indeed, it was.  A strobe light flashed on and off at regular intervals. It was a kind of black light and its source was from somewhere behind the bar.  Consequently, the place seemed colorless and featureless at first.  Like a black and white movie image that had failed to fully clarify.

“Don’t you be worrying about that none. ” He was saying.

“Careless and trouble free, is that it?”

“That’s the spirit.”

“Ever it be so humble…”

“Something like that.”

“So, what’s this place called?”

“I call it the Divina Comedia but it really doesn’t have a name.  Doesn’t really need one.  Call it whatever you like.  Grab a drink.  Don’t be shy.  See, there’s one on the bar for you waiting to go.”

I looked, and I saw that he was right.  It was my brand.  The right mix and it burned all the way down when I took a good, long swallow.  It could be worse than this. A whole hell of a lot worse.

“Take a look around.  Make yourself at home.  We’re all friends here.”

I certainly hope so, I thought, as I slugged about half of my tall drink down, and placed it on the bar.  There didn’t seem to be anyone back there making drinks, but there must have been.  The next time I looked at my drink it was filled to where it has been before I had taken my first long swallows.

“What’s with the flashing neon?” I asked.

“Atmosphere.”

“I hope you don’t have too many epileptics among the regulars.  That constant flashing would have them on the floor rock and rolling like an old-time revival band.”

“They will do that for you.”

“The constant flashing doesn’t get on your nerves?” 

“Nope. You get used to it.”

“Nothing gets on your nerves, is that it?”

“Pretty much.”

“I don’t see how I could get used to something like that.”

“Don’t trouble yourself.  You’d be surprised what you can get used to when you try.  Put your mind at ease and enjoy the sights, and sounds, and, the free drinks.  Take a look around.  Make yourself at home.”

If this was to be my home away from home, I thought, it was going to be a long, strange, drawn-out affair.  At first, focusing was difficult due to the nature of the interior lighting.  Although the bar was oddly quiet, you couldn’t help but sense the presence of the other drinkers; the other patrons along the long expanse of the wood.  I wondered who had designed this magnificent hand planed surface, who maintained the surface, and kept it waxed, oiled, and hopefully, free of permanent damage from distracted smokers, graffiti carvers; the careless, and the bereft.

The first person I saw was a small, aged man, almost completely bald, wisps of greasy hair lying askew across his bald spot.  It was difficult to see his face in the haphazard light.  His shadowy form was enveloped in a haze of smoke and dust, as if the light source were from a projectionist’s booth, and the life illuminated, was a flickering form disrupted as soon as it assumed a shape. 

What was clear was, his back was permanently stooped, hunched around the shoulders as he sat before a jukebox selector. The cards indicating the song selections were laminated in yellowed plastic stained so badly the hand typed words could not be read.  Each card contained eight selections, both A&B sides. The pages could be turned by flipping the selections, one after the other, using small metal rods affixed to the bottom of each page. The whole card assembly was encased inside a small, glass cage smudged, dirty, and greasy with an accumulation of filth only an untold amount of human contact could bring. 

The man was transfixed by the device, and was driven to continually place the same quarter in the coin slot at the very top of the machine. The coin traveled the length of the machine, clanging as it went, until it settled noisily into the coin return where it was retrieved, then dropped into the coin slot, and the whole process began anew.  Time after time after time.

“It’s what he does.” Virgil said, as if he were reading my mind. “No point in trying to change things you can’t control.”

No point at all, I thought.

A few stools down from the old man, sat a fat woman of indeterminate age, dressed in a filthy, hopelessly out-of-date house dress.  The woman was crying noiselessly, not crying so much as weeping, with an intensity so complete, I wondered what it could be she was hearing from the two skinny men sitting on either side of her. Their hands were cupped to an ear on either side of her head, whispering loudly, but inaudibly to everyone but her.  The tears rolling down the fat of her cheeks, onto the wattles of her neck, sliding further down to stain the fabric of her faded dress.  And the whispering.  Always the whispering.

I turned to face the bar, cradling my tall drink between my hands.  I noticed a circular, slightly raised platform to the left of the back bar mirrors, on which a cage was placed.  Inside the cage was a young female dancer swathed in white bandages as if she were a burn patient, or a mummy whose exposed skin had been covered by white baby powder. Except for her face; that impassive face, coated with black grease paint. And false eyelashes teased unnaturally long; her unnaturally red lips, and her all too white teeth filed to a point. 

I couldn’t say for sure if what her body was doing could be called dance.  Movement yes, but dance?   Whatever it was she was hearing, came from within; a silent inner music, dissonant and mournful, slowly transferred from her brain to her outer limbs.  Limbs that slowly translated the cranial impulses into a sluggish, mechanical movement.  The pediment she stood upon seemed to give off a kind of damp, dank effusion, a soft glow that served no real purpose, neither illuminating her body, nor emphasizing what it might be doing.

Reflexively, I looked in the back bar mirrors to see what had made a noise behind me in the darker corners removed from the bar.  What I saw there disturbed me more than a sudden noise in an unfamiliar place did; the mirrors were alternately concave, convex panels, horribly distorting, and absorbing all the objects that fell within their purview.  The glass oxidized, and unclear in places, crowded with smoke, and, shadows, and the unfiltered dust.

Beside the bottles, an ancient, hand crank, ornately designed cash register.  A NO SALE ticket prominently displayed inside the glass fronted space for the recorded transactions.  A hand lettered sign on either side of the cash machine that said HAPPY HOUR PRICES IN EFFECT: FREE FROM NOW UNTIL…?

Now Until….?, seemed suitably vague.  As vague as the indefinable shape behind the wood.  I tried to focus on what the unmoving form might have been, but it remained immobile, fixed as a cigar store Indian. I saw a human figure, cloaked in a long-sleeved white shirt with a black garter around the sleeves to keep the cuffs stationery.  And then I saw carved wooden cigars in its out-thrust hands.  The fake, faded headdress and the folds of the tribal gear made from animal pelts covering the body. 

I drank deeply, closed my eyes, and tried to clear my head. 

When I opened my eyes, the vision was gone, replaced by a small fun house clown rotating on a metal axis that rocked back and forth, laughing at something so unimaginably funny, nothing could stop the laughter.  The silent, wild laughter.

I hoped that if I drank enough, closed my eyes, and, looked again, this vision too would no longer be there.  I might think that, might temporarily be relieved of seeing them before me, but the relief would be temporary. I knew that anything I imagined seeing was sure to remain, and fixed in my memory and subject to recall without notice.

Even the young, thin woman dressed in a clinging black evening dress, hunched over the bar, sipping a frothy white drink through a long, plastic straw.  Her unnaturally pale skin, sepia tainted by the light, when there was light, oddly present as an after-image, when there was not.  I felt drawn to her, but I couldn’t say why, couldn’t begin to imagine what would happen if I acted on my impulsive attraction.  All things here being equal and opposed, black as white, white as the black foam of her drink; the strange evanescence of her skin in the encapsulating dark.

I turn from the solitary woman, to look at the other patrons sitting at randomly spaced intervals along the bar.  Collectively, they look like Dust Bowl pioneers, refugees from a Steinbeck novel like Grapes of Wrath; their shabby clothes, thin cotton jackets, and pants losing threads, torn and tattered from years of traveling, hard work and abuse.  All their shoes were careworn, lost soles, holes where their feet showed through what remained of the leather.  I thought of the Dust Bowl poet and how she saw, with unflinching eyes, the hordes of the hopeless struggling against the wind, the dust storms, the heat and privation, struggling Westward to a promised land that became just like where they left only with grass and clear skies, instead of dust and infertile plains. 

I thought of how they would discover more unrewarding, back breaking work, for insufficient wages, they would piss away in a place like this, hunched over a bar.  A bar that would stink to high heaven of human sweat, rancid beer, and defeat.  I thought of the last their few nickels rubbed together, as if somehow there might be luck in it, but all that ever happened was a faceless man behind a bar removed them one after the other in exchange for another, not-cold-enough, tasteless beer. A beer that increased the despair they felt, that hung about them as an extra layer of skin.  

They no longer possessed the ability to dream of a better place. Their posture, their demeanor, everything about what they did and did not do, was reflected in their slow, determined, dedicated-to-a-cause-like-no-other, drinking.  If they had been drinking for free, the way I had been, it certainly did not show in their mannerisms, the way they turned to look at me as one; their tired, dead eyes inset amid darkened shadows in the leanness of their face and bones.  A look that was so far beyond life, even death wouldn’t qualify it. 

If I were capable of feeling horror, and, of showing it, I would have done so then.  Instead, I turned toward an odd, disruptive noise that came from a pinball machine. The way it was working was oddly fascinating. Despite not having someone to work the push buttons, the flippers and levers, the metal ball traveled the intricate gridwork of the machine on its own, triggering flashing lights, and toting scores as it went.  The face of the machine briefly lit, and flared, revealing the face of a laughing carnival clown in a setting that suggested a Coney Island funhouse.

Just as I began to have a sense of the machine, it would stop dead and the steel ball would roll unmolested through the board maze. TILT would register in large capital letters on the board.  Just as abruptly the machine self-started and the lights would begin flashing again, a dizzying momentary glowing that would fizzle out in mid-turn. It was as if a crazy, unseen spirit, had been playing. There was no doubt in my mind that he was winning whatever game this was.  

Then I hear the hollow sound of heavy, wooden darts sinking into the pitted cork of the boards the players threw their missiles at.  They were keeping score with chalk on a board that squeaked as they drew the odd shaped numbers on it. Their uncut nails slide across the skin of the chalk, and the board, and the face of the dart board, as they played, and threw, and watched. Boldly, they drew concentric circles in the false black lights of these neon dreams, and sudden alcoholic reveries of places like this one. Places thrust open, to admit a ravening crowd, the native sons and daughters of the night game players, mole people and worm runners, fully blood lusted and raring to go wherever the next cocktail will take them; even if where they are going is well past the point of no return. 

That’s where they’ll find me now. Now that I’ve seen the contents of the self-portrait in oiled cloth on the barroom wall. That painted visage framed in spoiled wood, stained with blood, and alcohol, and tears, gold flecked, in places, to contain the perfect image of the penitents’ bearing torches down the side of a volcanic mountain at near-dusk.  The procession leading the unseen spirits from their graves to walk again, on hollowed grounds, inside the sulfuric tainted mists that cling to the blue blackened sky; the red sun sunken into itself behind the black mass of volcanic stone.  Those torches borne, as weights, that can never be successfully removed from the chained hands of the living and the dead, chanting as they come and go. The seen and the unseen, animated as I watch, as I try to read the caption inscribed in gold plate that says Los Dias de los Muertos.

What else could it say?

Nada, hermano.

I look back toward the bar, and there I am behind it, raising my carved hands in a  toast to the drinkers here, there, and everywhere else.  And here I am in the dark of the barroom, returning the gesture, touching glass to glass with others, I have known, or, will come to know. Tilting the one that matters, the one that holds my flavor that I must drink; drink, and drink, and drink from until I can drink no more. 


Alan Catlin is primarily known for poetry but that doesn’t prevent him for mixing and matching prose and poetry as the subject allows.  He has published dozens of full length book and chapbooks, mostly poetry, over the years. Although he is not a genre writer he has somehow managed three Rhysling Prize nominations and a Bram Stoker Award nomination He didn’t win either award.


“12 Items or Less” Dark Fiction by Kay Summers

The killer walked in the grocery store, grabbed a shopping basket, and headed for the bread aisle. He was out of sandwich bread; when he went to make a grilled cheese for lunch, the last pieces had been one moldy slice and the bottom heel. It was with some irritation that he entered the store; he was a man of routines, and he always made one trip a week to the grocery store, on Wednesday nights.

He picked Wednesday evenings because there were no weekend shoppers—no nine to fivers picking up a week’s worth of milk, cereal, and hamburger meat with one kid sitting in the cart and another trotting alongside, dressed for a soccer practice either imminent or just concluded. Those people always moved slowly, balancing requests from whiny kids for corn syrup-laden snacks against their own desire to shop in the same leisurely way they once had, before they defied all reason and self-preservation and procreated.

He came late enough on Wednesday evenings to miss the after-work emergency shoppers—the people who received panicked phone calls from their spouses on the way from work to home telling them that there was no milk for tomorrow’s breakfast, or the kids used the last roll of toilet paper yesterday and didn’t think to tell anyone. Those people moved too erratically, running from the front door to aisle seven or nine and stopping short when they almost ran into people who were taking the more standard progression in strict numerical order. Even now, knowing exactly what he needed and where it was, the killer took each aisle in turn, steadily.

He shopped early enough on Wednesday evenings to miss the post-church crowd, those Baptists and Methodists who had just sat through a mid-week prayer service while their teens hung out with their friends and called it fellowship even as they made weekend plans for parties their parents wouldn’t approve of and gossiped about who was dating whom and how far they were going. The adults always had a vaguely pious air about them. They knew they had done the right thing by stopping midweek to reflect and praise God, as the preacher always admonished them to do, so that they wouldn’t stumble off the righteous path in the treacherous evenings leading up to Sunday morning.

In fact, if he hit his Wednesday evening window just right, everyone else in south Alabama was either sitting down to dinner at home or sitting down in the church fellowship hall.

But this wasn’t Wednesday evening. It was Monday afternoon, an entirely unfamiliar time to shop for groceries.

The midday light coming in through the front windows was glaring; the clerks were different. In the middle of the day, you got the older grocery clerks, the people who had made a career of checking out other folks’ food, running one item at a time over the scanner that beeped the same beep as all the other scanners. The killer often wondered how they knew which beep was theirs. He believed that a lot of items ran over the scanner unscanned, as the clerks heard a beep and assumed it was theirs. It was a system he felt sure supported an unacceptable level of chaos.

The different faces and quality of light didn’t sit well with him. He felt his vigilance activate, the watchfulness that informed his professional life and had kept him alive as a hired killer for nearly three years now. He told himself to calm down; professionals don’t lose their shit because they happen to find themselves in Publix on Monday at 2 instead of Wednesday at 6:45. But he knew he wouldn’t feel right until he had checked out.

He swung through the produce section, rounding the corner where deli changed to fish market. He heard a familiar voice from behind the counter; his brother greeted him. He groaned inwardly; he had forgotten that Jonah would be there, working his 9-5 shift as usual.

“Hey, Toad, man, what’s up? Good to see you. You ain’t been around much. Momma wants to know when you’re gonna come by the house. She mentioned cooking this Sunday. You free?”

His brother had just said more words in ten seconds than the killer had said over the past two days.

The killer’s name wasn’t Toad. That was a nickname his oldest brother, Garret, had pinned on him before he was old enough to talk, hit, or defend himself in any way.

The killer’s given name was Tod. Like Todd, but with only one D. He was the youngest of five brothers. Jonah was number two.

Tod didn’t know why his parents left off the customary second D from his name. He suspected it was a symptom of the creeping nonchalance that greeted children who arrived after the first few. He hadn’t been able to articulate this thought until Zak, a similarly short-named platoon buddy of his, had put his finger on it.

Zak, who was one of four brothers, said it succinctly: “Every kid after number two, they basically start raising each other.”

Parents can’t provide the same level of care and attention to all their kids when they have more than one. People know this, of course—there’s a reason folks indulgently talk about first-time parents and their obsessions with first teeth and first steps and other developmental milestones, checking each one off in a memory book that really only serves to provoke anxiety or relief in the parents, depending on how quickly their offspring hit the goalposts. People say, “Just wait ‘til they have another one; they’ll stop being so silly.”

But most people don’t have more than two kids, or three, max. They don’t know about the diminishing returns, the built-in Darwinism, the Lord of the Flies existence of siblings who come in sets of four or greater.

For example, Tod knew that parents stop caring about names after they pick out a few. They labor over that first name—should it be Garret Andrew or Andrew Garret? Should we use your grandfather’s name as a middle name? How will his initials look? By the second kid, they pick a name they’ve always liked. For the third, they pick a name of someone they knew in high school who didn’t turn out to be a complete jerk. By number four, they are likely to pick the same name as the local TV meteorologist who has nice ties. Number five? You get three letters, tops. Better hope they remember to include a vowel.

In Tod’s case, it wasn’t until he joined the Army that he learned that his abbreviated name actually means “death” in German. Zak told him; he said it was pretty badass that his parents had given him such a metal name.

Tod nods back to Jonah at the counter, a “’sup” glance meant to convey affection, from a distance. He says, “I’ll catch you later, bro, I’m on the move right now,” with a smile and keeps walking.

Tod had joined the Army after 9/11, along with what seemed like every other guy under 30. It was a lucky break for him; standards then were really flexible. The Army recruiter, with his quota to make every month, had been happy to work around Tod’s weed busts from high school. Also, the Army recruiter had seemed slightly less psycho than the Marine recruiter. That guy was wound super tight. He was all “professional opportunities and free college” with the parents and then all “in the Marines, you’ll get to whoop ass and kill some ragheads” with the boys he was pursuing.

Tod went Airborne because it sounded fun. He enlisted right after high school graduation in June 2002. He was recycled once in basic training because he got a stress fracture in his foot on the first go round. He finished training just in time for Iraq.

Jonah had joined up, too; three of Tod’s four brothers did. Jonah and Garret had both been bumping around aimlessly for a few years after high school, still living at home. They had gone Marines because they said it was the most badass. Both of them came back from boot camp super thin and so mind-controlled that they wouldn’t sit all the way back in a chair. Tod’s fourth oldest brother, Ken (named after the local meteorologist who did the “Locals Turning 100” segment each week), had gone Navy just to be contrary.

Ken was using the GI Bill to go to college like they all said they would. He was in his third year of college now; going to get a nursing degree from Auburn. Tod thought Ken would make it, too; he had always been the most organized and motivated of the brothers.

Their middle brother, Adam (named after a guy his dad had known in high school), was the oddball. He had done well in school, gone to University of Alabama on a scholarship, and gotten a job in Atlanta as a graphic designer. He rarely visited.

Jonah and Garret returned home after their four-year stints. Both of them picked up where they left off; Jonah started back at the fish counter, and Garret resumed a string of dead-end jobs at various restaurants and pizza joints near the beach. Garret put on 100 pounds within a year of his return but still used his post-boot camp photo on social media, where he looked lean and mean.

Tod had been fine in Iraq. He didn’t mind the assignments too much. When he finished his four-year enlistment, he thought about re-upping but discarded the idea quickly. He was tired of the uniforms and constant ass-kissing required in the military.

He considered a contractor job with a group like Halliburton. But that, too, would have required an unacceptable level of obsequiousness.

In the end, his choice had been easy. Zak reached out to him. He had gotten hooked up, he said, with a great gig that was limited in time requirements and well-compensated. And Tod wouldn’t need to move.

The guy Tod would come to know as Whippet had put together a network of former military willing to put their US government-provided killing skills to use for profit. He had a site on the dark web with a number of ways in for people who were looking to rid themselves of problems.

When Whippet was first building his organization, he assumed he would need people who were willing to work mostly in cities, dealing with drug dealers and lowlifes. He was quickly disabused of this notion when it became apparent that the market for offing people was not exclusively urban. The small-town boys who gravitated to the service and were left at loose ends at the end of four-year enlistments had built-in markets in their hometowns. There was, it seemed, always someone looking to knock off Uncle Elmer or their no-good cousin Billy or that jerk from high school who now worked in the cubicle next to them at the insurance agency.

The thing that separated Whippet’s agency—the defining difference that allowed them to stand apart in a crowded market, as he put it—was his insistence on a motive. He required that all clients of his agency spell out in very clear terms why they wanted someone put down.

The reason was two-fold. First, it provided a type of insurance that protected them from their client getting a guilty conscience. It was a lot less likely that, say, Betty from choir practice would wake up feeling remorseful, call the police, implicate the agency, and try to plead temporary insanity if her hired killers had her on record saying that the specific reason Alice had to die was because she had, for 20 years now, insisted on bringing “her” special butterscotch brownies to church socials when it was, in fact, a recipe that she had borrowed from Betty back in 1985 and claimed as her own. Betty would sound cold-blooded and very, very sane on such a recording, and she knew it. So, Betty needed to be damn sure she wanted to do this and not think about growing a conscience later.

The other reason was equally practical: if the killers knew the reason, they could avoid any adjacency to that activity in the execution of their duties, no pun intended.

What the client got in return for this information was an assurance that the killing would be as painless as possible and would, to the extent feasible, not appear to be murder.

Take Mrs. Balder, for example. Tod just now nodded civilly to her as they passed on the soup aisle, but he felt himself inadvertently cringe away slightly. Mrs. Balder had hired Whippet’s agency to kill her husband of 35 years, Mr. Balder, because he had developed an online gambling problem and was eating through their retirement savings. Knowing this motive allowed Whippet, and by extension, Tod, to avoid any connection to gambling that might have tipped off law enforcement that there was foul play.

Instead, the plan had been simple: Mrs. Balder went to visit her sister up in Luverne for two weeks, as she did every spring. Tod planned the killing for a Tuesday evening when he knew Mr. Balder would be home gambling because he always gambled on Tuesdays. On Wednesdays, after he got home from prayer service, he always felt too guilty to gamble, but Tuesdays, it was on. Tod used the key he was given by Mrs. Balder, snuck in at 3 a.m., and placed a pillow over Mr. Balder’s face. The sleeping pill Mr. Balder always took kept him docile, and his heart condition did the rest. The police, faced with elderly, unhealthy corpse, were quick to assign blame to an apparent heart attack in an old man with heart problems. There wasn’t even an autopsy. Mrs. Balder was able to live comfortably off their retirement, life insurance, and Social Security.

Tod’s regular day job was with a landscaping company, keeping all the hotel grounds down by the beach in resort shape. He lived a quiet life, using his semi-regular windfalls from Whippet’s jobs in ways that were invisible to his family, who were never invited over to his small house to see the variety of electronic toys and metal-working tools he accumulated and enjoyed.

Tod’s mother, a chaos-Muppet-type woman with a head of crazy gray and brown curls, was a nurse at the local hospital. She was a practical nurse, not a registered nurse, a fact that she never failed to blame on Garret, who had the misfortune to be conceived before Mom finished college. She had worked constantly changing shifts throughout their childhoods.

Mom was kind but clueless, the kind of mother who arrived at your school play late, came right down to the front row, asked someone else to move over so that she and Dad could get seats together, and then cheered too loudly when her progeny emerged for their walk-on roles as trees, or townspeople, or rocks.

Mom also spent money like she could print her own, which she unfortunately could not. This was the main source of friction between her and Dad, a high school English teacher and massively frustrated writer who ate his feelings for 30 years or so and now weighed 300 pounds.

Dad had bad sleep apnea, and he snored so loudly that friends of Tod’s had sometimes mistaken the sound for a motorcycle on the highway just on the other side of their front yard. He slept in every weekend, saying that he was exhausted after a week of training young minds. Dad’s favorite movie was Dead Poet’s Society; he fancied himself the type of life-changing teacher who would live in his students’ memories for the rest of their lives. The truth was that the smartest of his students found him to be a bit of a blowhard.

Why Mom and Dad had five kids was a question that had troubled Tod for many years. As the youngest, he had seen how the diminishing set of resources—financial, emotional, mental—played out to the fullest degree. His dad was Catholic; Tod supposed the Catholic thing, which his dad played up or down depending on his mood, was the reason given for both the quickie marriage and the large family. But he suspected it had more to do with Dad’s idea of himself as a real character, someone larger than life, a patriarch. Like Don Corleone or the dad from Cheaper by the Dozen or Barbara Stanwyck in The Big Valley.

As Tod headed down the bread aisle, finally, he found himself face to face with Fern Davis, who had been in Ken’s class in school.

Fern smiled and said, “Hey, there, stranger. Ain’t seen you in a dog’s age.”

Tod smiled back—he had always liked Fern—and replied, “Keepin’ busy, Fern. Just ran in for some loaf bread.”

She paused in the aisle. Tod tried not to look impatient.

“Guess you heard about Albie, huh?”

“Yeah, Fern, I was real sorry to hear about him. How’s your mama takin’ it?”

“Well, you know, she’s tore up. But I think it was probably for the best. I know that sounds terrible. But he gave her a rough few years. At least now, she can get some peace.”

Tod nodded. “Yep, it’s good to have some peace about it. Albie was a good guy back in the day. I’ll remember him like that.”

Fern looked like she might cry, then straightened up and forced a smile. “Well, it’s good to see you, Tod. Don’t be a stranger, ok?”

“Sure thing, Fern. You take care.”

Tod kept walking toward the bread. Fern had paid Whippet’s agency ten grand to take out her brother. Albie had been a druggie for years, but the final straw was when he broke into their mama’s house and stole some of her jewelry. He was picked up trying to pawn it, but their mama had refused to press charges; said Albie had her permission to take the jewelry.

Tod had done the job; made it look like an overdose, which wasn’t that big of a stretch. Fern, of course, never knew it was him.

As Tod made his way through the check-out line, he nodded to Jimmy Knott, who had paid Whippet’s agency to get rid of the man who was screwing his wife. That one had been messier than Tod liked, but a car accident was the most believable way to go for a healthy man in his early 40s.

He was taking his two bags to his truck when his phone vibrated. He glanced at it and saw a secure message from Whippet. He passed Bart Northam, who was working as a bag boy while finishing up high school. His grandma had paid for a suicide; she was living in a nursing home and had advanced Parkinson’s. She didn’t want all her savings going to the nursing home people; she wanted it for Bart so he could go to the university in Tuscaloosa. Tod had taken care of that for her and made sure it didn’t hurt at all.

When he got back to the house, he put away his groceries and went to his comms station in the dining room. Whippet had a satellite set-up that guaranteed untraceable calls; Tod logged on now and signaled Whippet that he was available.

Whippet’s reedy voice came on immediately.

“What’s up, man?” Tod hadn’t spoken directly to Whippet in months.

“Got a bit of a situation I need you to weigh in on.”

Well, now, this was unusual. Tod had never been asked for his opinion before.

“Job came in. Little unusual.”

“Yeah, how’s that?”

“Well, Tod…”

It was very unlike Whippet to sound so uncertain. He sounded, if Tod was honest, almost sad.

Whippet continued. “Job is on someone you know. One of your brothers. Garret.”

Tod knew his oldest brother was an asshole. But he was surprised that someone would spend money to take out such a useless individual.

“The thing is, Tod, man, the client is…” Whippet cleared his throat. “It’s your mom, man.”

Tod said nothing.

Whippet rushed ahead. “Ordinarily, as you know, a job’s a job, man, but you’ve been a good guy, you know, and it’s your family, man, and I just wanted to run this one by you…” He trailed off again.

Tod finally spoke. “Can I hear it?” They required all their clients to record the motive.

“Sure, man.” Tod could hear Whippet fumbling on the other end. He had never been so discombobulated in Tod’s experience.

Tod’s mother’s voice came on. She had a high voice, like Minnie Mouse, with a light Alabama lilt.

“The other morning, I came in after working the overnight shift at the hospital. Garret was asleep in his room. The door was open, and I could see clothes and dirty dishes all over the room. I had done some laundry the day before and left it out on the sofa in the living room for someone to fold and put away. It had all been dumped on the floor and scattered everywhere, like someone was rooting through for a particular item and couldn’t be bothered to neaten up once they found it.

“He was snoring just like his daddy. I knew he was going to keep me awake. I went in there and said his name a couple of times, as nice as I could. He said, ‘what the hell, Mom? I got in late and just got to sleep a couple hours ago’. I said did you work late? And he said no, he had just been out with Justin and what business was it of mine. I told him it was time for him to get up and fold that laundry.

“He cursed at me. Me, his momma, who dropped out of college to stay home and wipe his butt and who is still washing his dirty drawers thirty-some-odd years later. And I had just had it. It’s beyond time for that boy to grow up, but he won’t. If I don’t do something, I’ll be waiting on him until I’m in the grave. It’s him or me. This time, I’m going with me.”

There was a pause as Whippet stopped the recording. He came back on the line and said, “So, Tod, man, here’s the deal. If you want me to, I’ll turn down the job. It’s not unheard of. I can do that. I can’t promise she won’t find someone else—hell, she found me—but at least you’ll know it wasn’t us.”

Tod thought about his oldest brother. Thought about him coining the name Toad, always tripping him when he walked by, stealing his toys and breaking them even when Garret was way too old for them. Thought about him talking about his time in Iraq with a gleam in his eyes. Thought about his fat ass taking up space in the house whenever Tod decided to visit Mom.

Tod finally answered. “It’s o.k., man. Just get Zak to do it. And keep it painless.”

“Always, man. You know that’s our thing.”

“Listen, Whippet, I appreciate your stretching your own professional code and reaching out to me. It’s a nice thing.”

“No problem, Tod; like I said, you’re a valuable person to the organization and a good guy. You take care.”

Tod hung up and went into the kitchen. He finally made his grilled cheese and sat down to eat it with a Coke while he started a new book. After a few pages, he gave up and put down the book. He stared out the window for a few minutes, and finally shook his head. As he rinsed off his plate, he thought, whatever else happens, I’m never going grocery shopping on Monday afternoon again, that’s for damn sure. Messes up the whole week.


Kay Summers is an emerging fiction author with a 20+ year career in communications. She’s written on behalf of others for so long that she started writing fiction to make sure she still had a voice. She does. 


“All’s Over, Then” Horror by Gershon Ben-Avraham

Joseph Interpreting the Dreams of Pharoah’s Chief Butler and Baker, print, formerly said to be after Jusepe de Ribera (called Lo Spagnoletto), Alexander Bannerman (MET, 25.62.2v)

“In three days Pharaoh will lift off your head and impale you upon a pole; and the birds will pick off your flesh.” — Gen. 40.19 (NJPS)

There was a time when many people believed dreams were messages from gods. Guilds of dream-masters, trained in decoding these “visions of the night,” arose in ancient Egypt. These Masters of Secrets soon stumbled upon a perplexing question: Did they read the future or create it? Of course, if they only read it, they weren’t responsible for what would happen. But what if their interpretation produced the future they foretold; was a prediction, an omen, not a predetermined fact? Were they accountable for what they prophesied then? What if Divinity sent a dream but acted based on the interpreter’s words? This difference is crucial in comprehending a tale recorded in early Hebrew writing. It is the story of a gruesome death—prophesied by the most famous dream-master in Hebrew literature, a man named Yosef.

            In Collected Tales of Old Mesopotamia, Gila Goldener, late Isaacson Professor of ancient Near Eastern literature, Grün College, University of Beersheba, includes a letter addressed to Yosef by one of his clients. Her source text is A1107K, from the University of Beersheba Library, Special Collections. Below is Goldener’s English translation of the original. Make of it what you will.

*

Master of Secrets,

            I cannot sleep. I cannot put what you told me out of my mind. Like termites that penetrate the roots and hollow the heart of a date palm, your words have entered me and eaten away my strength. I have become like water. There is no one to help me, to whom I can turn, no one who cares. If I could, I would erase the hours between now and yesterday. I would return to the time before we spoke, remain silent, and in doing so, change tomorrow. But I cannot. Times river neither stops nor returns for anyone.

            Yesterday morning I awoke troubled. During the night, I had a dream I could not understand. I have always disliked dreams. They are often frightening, populated with strange creatures and odd situations. They take place in mysterious, unusual places. They terrify me. When I was a child, my father told me that dreams have no meaning. They are merely physical phenomena, he said. They come from drinking too much wine, for instance, eating spoiled food, or sleeping by an open window through which a cold night wind is blowing. On the other hand, my mother said that dreams are messages from the gods. I hoped my father was right, but I believed my mother.

            When my cellmate awoke, I told him what I had dreamed, hoping that he might help me understand it, but he had had a similar one. We examined both of them and tried to decode them. Our efforts were fruitless. When you arrived to attend us, sensing that something was not right, you asked why we looked so downcast. We told you that we had had dreams and could not grasp their meanings. Interpretation belongs to God,” you said, then invited us to tell you what we had dreamed. I hesitated, unsure if I should trust you. You are a foreigner. I hear it in your speech; see it in your manner. My cellmate was not as cautious.

            He and I worked for the same man, who put us both in prison. Our employer found a fly in a cup of wine that my colleague, a wine steward, had poured him. That was sufficient to land him in jail, even though no one could say if the fly had been in the cup before he poured the wine or had fallen into it afterward. The timing of the flys arrival made no difference to our master. I am a baker. My offense was a matter of his biting a pebble in a loaf of bread I had baked. Such are the caprices of men with power.

            Vines, branches, blossoms, grapes, and a wine cup were the stuff of my companions dream. I listened carefully to your interpretation of it. What lovely things you said! There was nothing he needed to worry about, quite the opposite. You told him he would be freed in three days and restored to his position. When finished, you requested a simple kindness. You asked that he remember you and speak favorably of you to our master, hoping that you, a prisoner like us, might leave this place.

            After hearing such a reassuring interpretation, I decided to share my dream with you. There were baskets, not vines, overflowing with baked goods in mine. I was balancing three of them on my head. Birds were flying around them, picking at their contents. I often found birds arriving to claim their share after placing freshly baked things in the palaces kitchen windows to cool. There, however, I had my assistants chase them away. I was walking, in my dream, carrying the baskets, and had no assistants. I could not frighten the birds away. So they ate as they pleased.

            When I finished telling you my dream, you looked at me curiously. Without sympathy or compassion, without feeling, like one of my helpers reading back to me a marketing list I had given him, you said the words that haunt me now.

            I have to stop. The suns rising, and I hear the jailors key rattling the lock. Alls over, then.


Gershon Ben-Avraham writes short stories and poetry. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image), received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. His short story “The Plan” appeared in Issue 11 of The Dillydoun Review. Ben-Avraham holds an MA in Philosophy from Temple University.


“Speakers” Dark Fiction by Patrick R. Wilson

The development lay over weedy slopes a fair drive from other neighborhoods and highways. If you wanted to walk for groceries, you’d better pack a lunch or settle for road snacks at the run-down gas station a few miles out.

“We’re way out here like a naughty child in the corner,” I told Gertz as we drove on the freshly paved road, sticky and black in the summer sun, passing rectangular plots with concrete slabs and white PVC pipes sticking up, patiently awaiting hookups. Aren’t we all?

“Coming from an overcrowded facility, this comparative isolation may require an adjustment.” Gertz, young and earnest, seemed too smart to lead this program to help ex-cons like me re-integrate.

“My whole life I’ve wanted nothing but this. Peace, meet Quiet.”

“Enjoy having the place to yourself, Mr. Lang,” Gertz said. “Eventually, you’ll have one hundred and forty-three neighbors.”

We arrived at the top of the highest rise. Two tiny homes huddled together there like a couple on a picnic watching the sunset. The houses were plain, mobile-home-like, house-like, but neither.

“Tour time.”

“Won’t take long,” I grumbled. I shouldn’t have grumbled. This new program meant rent and utilities, including electric, were F-R-E-E. I had to sign a paper agreeing to stay sober (check), seek employment (an electrician, I wanted to hook up with an honest outfit), contribute back (this place would need a tradesman like me once they rolled in some more teeny abodes), and, finally, be a good neighbor.

Yeah, that last one.

I interrupted Gertz’s pointing out the community dumpsters, unsoiled and new, sitting alone way the hell down the road from here.

“My place and that place are cheek-by-jowl. I’m a quiet man. I hope you’ve partnered me up with the like.”

“Quiet hours start at nine and end at seven.”

Gertz paused, perhaps recalling my criminal record.

“I understand you enjoy…silence. But those hours are reasonable, Mr. Lang,” he said.

That night, alone on this half-developed clearing, miles from another soul, just me and the tiny house and the buzzing locusts and the humming window AC unit, I had maybe the second-best night’s sleep I’d ever had. First was my wedding night.

Till 4:33 A.M., when a voice, distorted as if from a bullhorn, loud as a cop siren, startled me awake.

What do you think of your new place? the voice asked, over and over.

What do you think of your new place?

#

I stormed to the neighboring house, raging and bare-chested, as is my way.

The lights were on. I pounded on the door.

The flight felt an eternity, roared the amplified voice. Now more awake, I realized that the voice was female.

Between the blind slats, I glimpsed a figure with long blonde hair hunched over a laptop. No bullhorn, but there was a speaker. My ex-wife Mar used to go on the road with bands (as a sound tech, not a groupie) and she’d always hole up in the garage noodling in the guts of black Stonehenge boxes like that 2×12 Marshall.

When we arrived in Ecuador, so–.

“It’s quiet hours,” I shouted, “QUIET HOURS!”

When we arrived in Ecuador, so lush and exotic, I could only think of John thousands of miles away in Manhattan. Ben noticed me staring out of the plane window. He said it was beautiful.

I raised my fist to hammer at the window as the door opened.

It was not a blonde, but it was a blond. A long-haired dude, half my age. Prescription sunglasses, stubbly. Loose gym shorts. Wrinkly yellow t-shirt that said THE WEST IS GOLDEN.

“Hold on,” he shouted over the racket. Different voice, not a lady’s.

“So beautiful,” I said, but I was thinking of John. Why had I left him? Why couldn’t I stop think–.

The guy hopped over to his decade-old Dell laptop and hit the spacebar, stopping what I now realized was a recording.

“It’s my art project,” he said, fumbling with the knobs on the amp. “Thought the place next door was empty.”

The man had only a vague sense of the world around him. He seemed arty, all right. Not drug-high, but his head was in the clouds.

“Travis Lang,” I said, extending my hand when the man returned.

“Ben Argothy,” he muttered, suffering the apparent major inconvenience of having the most mundane of introductory conversations with his new neighbor.

“Gertz just move you in?”

“Mm-hm. They released me at midnight.”

“He explained the rules?”

“Yeah. Thought I was alone.”

He glanced back at his laptop, yearning for me to leave.

“You got headphones, right?” I said, not seeing any among the cables and equipment.

Headphones,” he scoffed. “Can’t feel through headphones, brother,” he said.

The urge grew to make this condescending twerp feel something, like my fist. But if I so much as breathed too hard on someone, they’d toss my ass back in the cooler till the Cubs won another Series. I had to be better.

“Quiet hours, brother,” I, Better Travis, said.

He gave me a thumbs-up. I detected a sneer behind his cascade of hair as he closed the door.

He stayed quiet till nine A.M. on the dot.

#

I lasted fifteen minutes, then called Gertz.

“So, you’ve met Benjamin,” he said.

I held my phone out of my front door towards the other home.

Reynaldo pursued me through the crowded marketplace. Heat rushed to my face, and not from exertion. Do I let him catch me? Or do I lose him in the bustling crowd and return to Ben, dignity and clothes intact, but my body unfulfilled?

Pursued me.

Return to Ben.

Pursued me, Ben.

Pursue me, Ben.

“I don’t get it.”

“He’s chopping up an audiobook like he’s mixing beat samples.”

“Shouldn’t you be online applying for jobs?”

“Shouldn’t he?”

“Can you wear headphones?”

“Can’t he?”

“Travis. He’s breaking no rule or law. I have no time to referee.”

“Where’d he come from? Seems a peeping-Tom type.”

“I can’t tell you. But you’re close. He was never in the joint. More a psychiatric situation.”

“Fucking hell, Gertz. I’d rather live next to a serial killer.”

“I’ll arrange that. But first I gotta get more homes out there. My advice: Be friends.”

#

I cooked up four patty melts with off-brand American cheddar slices and expired deli meat and fried the sweet potatoes they stocked me with into a hash. I toted the lunch, along with a plastic jug of Kool-Aid fruit punch, a stick of butter, and a wad of paper towels, in a cardboard half-box from a Deep Eddy vodka display case and presented the offering to my neighbor.

Argothy welcomed me in. With a sigh.

Hey, fucker, I rarely behave like the neighborhood’s social glue. Keep the eye rolls to a minimum.

He stacked yellow notepads filled with scribblings, words in tiny print going end to end, width-ways and top-to-bottom, on his laptop and moved the bunch to his speaker box. He nodded towards the empty spot on his fold-down table.

“Too hot to sit outside anyway,” I said. These little houses were marvels of efficiency, but his felt cramped with two grown men maneuvering around each other to settle in for a bite. I found a fold-down seat I hadn’t discovered in my home yet. He slumped down into a ratty old swivel chair he must have brought with him.

He ate unselfconsciously, like a child. Breadcrumbs caught in his yellow stubble.

Not a single compliment reached my ears.

The old Travis might have taken offense at the lack of acknowledgement. Better Travis ignored the snub.

“How long till they stand up more houses? Heard anything?”

Argothy shrugged. “Don’t really think about it.”

“Just thinking about your work?”

That dismissive scoff sound.

Dude. I’m twice your size. My arm is bigger around than your thigh. I brought you lunch I made myself. Show some respect.

“We got off on the wrong foot this morning,” I said. “I’m interested in what you’re working on. You a songwriter?”

He finished his first patty melt and reached for another.

“I’ll keep it quiet during quiet hours.

“I’m an electrician, and my ex-wife is a music tech. Could I help with your setup?”

He blinked. I noticed dark circles behind his glasses.

“If I turn it up, I can feel her vibrations,” he muttered, staring at the cheese oozing over the aluminum foil and onto his fingers. “But I’ll blow that God-ancient speaker before I feel her enough.”

Hm.

I had to be careful before he slammed the door closed.

“The narrator’s voice is bourbon-sweet,” I said. “Make you want to say ‘ahh’ when she talks.”

Argothy snorted.

“I’ve said that about her voice since high school. I’ve gotta be the reason she narrates.”

“You know her?”

“I dated her,” he said. He held up his phone to show me the audiobook he was mangling. Paradise of Choice, written by A.D. Sterling, narrated by Clemmie Whitaker. Never heard of ’em.

“Lucky,” I said. “Wouldn’t mind that voice in my ear. You edit her books?”

The door started to close, his eyes drifting back towards his laptop.

In that moment, I suspected they were not together, and he was not doing this for work.

He did it because he was weird and pervy for her still, and that his pursuit of Clemmie Whitaker is what got him locked up.

Lots of assumptions. But just look at the guy.

“I know what you mean, feeling a rush when those sound waves pump out. I got up to the first row of a Metallica show fifteen years ago. Bass made my balls throb.”

He flipped his hair back and pointed at me.

“You get it, then.”

“Yeah, I get it.”

I did not get it the way he got it, though.

Argothy dropped (not put down, dropped) his oozy sandwich and wormed his way between cardboard boxes to his speaker cabinet. He flipped on the power and upped the volume, then opened his laptop, spilling his legal pads, and played a segment of the book wherein the heroine and her rich companion Ben were having a tryst on the balcony of a swanky hotel.

(Dawned on me that one of the narrator’s lovers had the same first name as Argothy. Dude must have come in his floppy shorts when he heard Clemmie W. say his name.)

Argothy upped the volume until it distorted. It was loud for out here on a lonely hilltop, and damn certain too loud for me, but that cabinet wouldn’t have been suitable for the smallest of dive bars.

The speakers can’t take any more than that,” he shouted.

How loud do you need it?

Are your balls throbbing?”

At that moment, I had a li’l ol’ idea, about how sexy-throated Clemmie might help me solve my problem with Argothy.

#

On the way to my ex-wife’s place, Gertz seemed relieved after I told him we became buddies.

“And Marianne? Friends now, too?”

“She doesn’t know I’m coming. Drop me off on the corner.”

“I’ll wait,” Gertz said.

I patted Gertz’s shoulder, ever so gently. “She’ll see that I’m better. She’ll even give me a ride back, I bet. Go on.”

Mar’s garage door was open. A pedestal fan blew broiling summer air into the stuffy confines. She emerged carrying a speaker cabinet to load into the back of her pickup, still fit as hell. Mercy.

I dashed over.

“Travis?”

“Let me assist you with your burden, Mar.”

“I got it.”

“Let me, Mar, it’s heavy.”

By then she’d made it to her truck. She pushed the box into the bed and slammed the tailgate closed. She turned to me, hands on hips.

I couldn’t read her eyes behind her big brown sunglasses, but those lips weren’t smiling.

“How long you been out?”

“Since the first.”

“Early.”

“I’m behaving, Mar. It’s a new Travis. Better. I even got me a tiny house. It’s a new program….”

“Thanks for stopping by, Travis. You look good. Keep it up. Gotta go.”

She moved to the driver’s side door.

“I haven’t seen you for six years, Mar.”

She stopped, looked at the door handle.

“Whose fault is that?”

I wanted to touch her shoulder (and the rest of her, desperately), but dare not.

“Mine, Mar.”

She inhaled and faced me.

“Why are you here, Travis? If it’s for either of the two things I think, the answer’s no.”

“I need auditory advice.”

“Starting a band?”

“I’m helping a neighbor,” I said. “He wants to do music instruction videos, bass guitar, and he wants decibels.”

“Any music store in town will rent–.”

“We aren’t flush with cash and, unless something’s changed, you’re sitting on a storeroom or two full of old junk you haven’t touched in years. So here I am, trying to turn my life around, be the helpful guy, you know, and I thought of you. I knew you’d have my back. As long as I was trying to do the right thing.”

She brushed her hair back. Gray streaks interrupted that coffee brown. Mar wasn’t one to bother with coloring and would probably proudly rock a head full of white in a few years.

“Ride with me to storage. Help me pull some shit I need out of the back, and I’ll lend you a cabinet. Consider it my congratulations-for-not-dying-in-prison present.”

Mar enjoyed supervising me as I lugged out a dozen old 2×12 and 4x12s, Peavy and Marshall, mostly, to get to a pair of Mesa Boogies she sold to a Baptist church. Not her normal clientele, but money is money, she said. She said she’s still making a living, fixing, and selling once-trashed equipment.

When we were done and she asked me what I wanted, maybe this cute Orange 1×8, I told her I needed loud. The loudest she was willing to lend.

She drove me home with a 4×12 Line6 covered in death metal stickers and a beat-to-shit 2×12 Marshall.

I invited her in.

That, Mr. Lang, is not happening, she said.

I asked if she had a boyfriend.

She looked over to see Argothy stepping out of his little house, a smile on his face like we were delivering a high-tech sex doll.

“Do you?”

“That’s my new friend I’m helping.”

“He looks like he needs help.”

“Mar, how loud do these get? I’m thinking about 100 decibels.”

“Roughly, sure. It’ll be plenty loud enough for you two.”

She told me to unload the speakers and she’d pick them up next weekend.

#

Ben Argothy and I set up the cabinets in a triangle, facing inward, in the middle of his living room (or living aisle), with his amp head with the volume and other knobs down a trail of cables to the far end of the home, under the loft that held the bed.

We both agreed that allowing me to control the volume would allow Argothy more freedom. More immersion.

What I didn’t discuss with Mar, and sure didn’t with Argothy, is that I did some research about how many decibels it would take to burst a person’s eardrums.

Best number I found was 185.

I figured that putting these three amps together would net about 100 times 3, or 300 decibels — easily loud enough to fuck up Argothy’s ears and send him into a hospital. By the time he returned, I’d have a new neighbor and he’d have to move in a tiny house elsewhere.

And Better Travis’s hands would be as clean as one of my freshly scrubbed toilets in the joint.

Argothy clambered over the Line6 with his laptop, dragging an aux cable (and its multiple adapters and connectors) with him and awkwardly sat cross-legged in the center of the mini-Stonehenge.

“You good?”

“Yeah, good, yeah,” Argothy said. “Thumbs up means louder? Yeah?”

Abso-fuckin-lutely.

I hit the red switch. Power on.

Volume was pointing straight up, midway.

Argothy started his audio file on his laptop.

Hi, Ben, came Clemmie Whitaker’s voice, snipped out of A Paradise of Choice.

“Hi Clemmie,” I heard Argothy mumble over the humming speakers. “You look great this morning.”

You look splendid — as well–my–love. Tell me — your day –about.

About your day, damn it,” he said, then typed notes to himself to fix it.

I rubbed my temples. He’s crafting a whole fucking conversation.

“Louder, bro?” I called.

Thumbs up.

I bumped it to 6.

Marvelous, Ben! Marvelous. Ben. Ben, do you know what I dream of? May I tell you?

A pause, in which Argothy was supposed to respond. He didn’t.

He was undressing.

Thank you for listening. To me. I dream of — seeing you again. I dream of — telling you. I was wrong. I was wrong. For leaving you. On our date. Ben. I was. Scared. Of my feelings, how I long for you and what our lives could be in New Y–. If only I could tell. You.

“Tell me,” I think he said, and lifted his thumb again. His arm was bare. His wrinkly yellow shirt and gray gym shorts lay atop the Line6.

He had stopped making notes on his laptop.

As the edited recording continued, he was, unmistakably, starting to pleasure himself. I could see the top of his blond head fall backwards, eyes closed, right arm working hard.

Savor it, you little freak, ’cause that’s the last thing you’re ever going to hear, I thought, and twisted the volume knob all the way.

I stuffed my fingers in my ears.

I want to. Embraced in the park on that spring day in Vermont. I forgot all about the chill in the air when you pulled me close and grazed my neck with your soft lips. When my mouth met yours, I forgot all about my duties as a PR professional for the candidate’s campaign through the northeast. I only thought of you and I and your hands all over me, on my breasts, on my thighs under my sundress.

I could feel every syllable in my feet.

But that motherfucker seemed unaffected.

He seemed to feel no pain and made no motion for me to turn it down.

Keeping my ears plugged, I used my elbow to turn every knob, Gain, Bass, Middle, Treble, all the way up.

And Argothy did not stop till he came with a shuddering grunt. After a minute, he waved his left hand to tell me to shut it off. Sluggishly, he pulled his shorts back on and stood, his skinny white chest glistening with various fluids.

I shut the power off. My ears rang.

He leaned on his elbows on top of Mar’s Marshall.

“Fucking awesome,” he said. “I need to do some more edits, though.”

How the hell is he all right after being pummeled with 300 decibels?

“Loud enough?”

“Does your ex have more speakers?”

“I’ll ask.”

“Hey. Thanks, Travis,” Argothy said, climbing out of his box. “I know this seems strange, but you’re being an amazing friend for helping.”

He extended his hand.

I tossed him a nearby bath towel.

“I’ll call her,” I said on my way out.

#

I decided to give it a night. Weird little dude almost made me feel guilty, he was so grateful, and I wanted to see if maybe getting that wank session out of his system would chill him out.

Not a chance. The concept of Quiet Hours went out the window. I heard about the goddamn illicit Vermont fuck session and that horndog Reynaldo that popped up in every marketplace in Ecuador till four in the morning, when Argothy must have finally wanked himself out, and slept for perhaps the first time since arriving.

I called Mar at eight the next morning.

#

“Wasn’t loud enough for a YouTube video?” She sounded like I woke her up.

“You said a cab could output about a hundred decibels. Three together means three hundred. I don’t think we got to three hundred.”

I heard the creak of the bed as she sat up. “Nothing, nothing,” she said in response to a male voice. That stung. She divorced me while I was locked up, and we were barely hanging on even before that. Back then, though, I was not Better Travis. Now I was and had been thinking about how to propose rekindling Marianne & Travis when I wasn’t thinking about Clemmie & Argothy. I might have had my own (silent) wank about Mar after he finally shut up last night.

“Your math is wrong, dummy,” she said. “Decibels is logarithmic. Tripling the speakers does not triple the decibels. You’d only get a couple points.”

I was staring out the kitchen window at Argothy’s place. No signs of movement yet.

“So, it’d take hundreds of cabinets to get to, like, 300 decibels.”

“You aren’t getting to 300 decibels, Travis. Jesus, what are you guys doing?”

“Videos.”

“Like, bro stunt science bullshit? You told me guitar instruction, so that was a lie. And your buddy isn’t a very good scientist, then.”

“We want to burst a balloon.”

“Will you ever grow up? First, I’m positive you’ll need a more powerful amp head than you and Mr. Wizard are using now.”

“Can you lend me one of those?”

“No.”

“I saw a bunch in the warehouse.”

“No. Go rent one.”

“If I were to rent one, what kind could burst a balloon?”

I heard a screen door slam. I bet she was on the back porch now.

“I’m getting a weird feeling, Travis. Like when you said you needed my truck to move lumber. For a friend. And it turned out to be–.”

“This is straight-up science, Mar.”

“You only get intense like this when you’ve been aggrieved. You trying to blow out someone’s….”

Eardrums.

“…windows?”

“Marianne. I’m different now.”

“Are you aggrieved?”

“I’m grieving the loss of our beautiful relationship.”

“Jesus. I’m going. Whatever you’re up to, don’t fuck up. I’m still getting those cabs on Saturday.”

She hung up just as Clemmie uttered her first words of the morning.

Do we have plans?

Oh yes, we do.

#

The rideshare ate up half of my debit card balance. I didn’t tip, which I felt bad about because the guy was nice and took me to Home Depot, then looked the other way when I used my new bolt cutters to get into Mar’s locker. Getting in the place was easy, though. I had noted, out of hustler habit, her gate code. 2788. No idea what it meant to her, but it got me in.

That done, I knocked on Argothy’s door.

He answered in a bathrobe, oblivious to his red, inflamed junk hanging loose.

“That for our project?” he said. He seemed drained, literally and figuratively.

Our project. Sure, bud.

“It is,” I said, unfolding the chrome rolling stand it had been sitting on in the warehouse. I sat the amplifier on top.

“You can bring it in.”

“It’s too tight in there. I grabbed more cables and connectors. I’ll run lines from your place to mine. This sucker has three outputs. Never seen it before.”

“Looks old school. 60s.”

“This here,” I said as though I knew what I was talking about, “Is a Fender PS-444. I picked this for two reasons. First, it’s the only one I saw that said it was a bass amp. See? Bass Instrument, it says. You want to feel those sound waves, make your balls throb? This ought to do it.”

“Fuck yes.”

I pointed out the strip of gaffer tape with Mar’s handwriting she had taped next to the Master Volume knob.

“Second reason. Look what she wrote: ‘Never above.’ I’m thinking she means ‘Never above where this tape is, four.'”

“Must be loud. If this works, it’ll feel like she’s touching me. I’ll let you try if you want.”

“She does have a nice voice.”

“Oh, not with her,” he said.

#

I set up the amplifier on my kitchen sink so I could see into his place when it came time to twiddle the knobs, plugged it in, and flipped the power switch.

All my lights cut off, and Argothy’s too. That sucker was a juice-sucking beast.

As I stared at the breaker box, working out how I could get more current in with my limited access to supplies, here drives up Gertz.

I put on a bit of an act as I met him at his truck.

“Checking on our welfare? For starters, your crap electrical crew cheaped out on this job, Gertz.”

“Came to check on your situation, Travis.”

Argothy stepped out to join us. He had put on clothes.

“We’re getting along great,” I said. “Can’t keep the lights on, though.”

“Isn’t it just a break–.”

I flipped the breaker switch. It flipped off immediately.

“Aren’t you an electrician, Travis?” Argothy said.

“I’m an electrician with no tools or materials,” I said.

Gertz rubbed his face like not another god damn problem.

“I can’t get a crew out here till next week, earliest,” he said. “What do you need to get going?”

Two hours later I had us fixed right the hell up. I mean, you could have run an electric chair with motorized cupholders and built-in tv with the AC full blast by the time I was done with it.

#

I hadn’t gotten an angry call from Mar yet, so there’s a chance I could handle Argothy’s wing nuts and get the Fender back to the locker before she was any the wiser. I’d figure out the sliced lock later.

We checked it with a random song I clicked from the internet. The Meters, Look-Ka Py Py, and that funk was loud. We clearly heard those guitar stabs over in my place, and the Fender was just grazing 2, much less Not Above 4.

“The file I gave you works?”

Gertz’s rehab program issued me a basic Windows laptop that I didn’t know how to use, but Argothy set me up. (There’s no way he’d surrender his own to me, not even for a few minutes.)

I hit the spacebar on the laptop like Argothy showed me.

Remember when we embraced in Verm–.

Ugh. I stopped it.

“Works. Enjoy it, brother.”

“I will, Travis. Then we’ll find a good audio file especially for you and we’ll switch so you can feel it, too.”

“Can’t wait,” I said, grinning.

After Argothy skipped away, I ripped apart a sheet of paper towel and wet it. As I plugged my ears up, I watched Argothy, now completely naked, scale the speakers. He situated himself down in the center of the triangle.

The amp was in my house and the speakers in his, with cables running into and out of both of our windows, connecting us for what I hoped would be the last time.

Argothy’s thumb rose into view.

Why didn’t you just rough him up and tell him to use headphones and be done with it? Why go to all this trouble?

Because I am smarter now, that’s why. Better.

I powered up, then clicked the spacebar.

The rig worked, and the lights stayed on.

Clemmie, it’s showtime.

#

I’d heard this bizarre dialogue quilt enough to know that Argothy started with a conversation with Clemmie and knew that I needed to wait to crank up the volume till the empty spaces for Argothy’s lines gave way to Clemmie’s monologue. When she launched into her recollection of their imaginary northeastern tryst on the campaign trail and her pledges of love as they overlooked the Ecuadorean jungle from their hotel in Quito, that’s when I’d try my best to break that volume knob slamming it to max.

Argothy’s thumb came back up again. I juiced it a tad and his thumb came down.

The conversation continued. When Clemmie spoke, my windows rattled, and my feet vibrated. If I hadn’t memorized her cobbled-together speech, I might not have known it was a human voice, because it sounded like a chainsaw was erratically cutting through a steel drum.

During Argothy’s turn to speak, I heard nothing, but I could sense the power that the amp head was pushing through this Frankenstein system like I was next to a monster taking in breath.

The Master Volume knob pointed to two. Bass was up all the way, middle and treble way down.

And then came that spring day in Vermont.

No hesitation.

I turned everything up to ten.

Every fucking knob on that fucker, I turned up to ten.

The sound was not recognizable as human. When my mouth met yours became a beastly series of roars from a deep cave from the reverb. I felt Clemmie punching my eardrum with every syllable even at this distance. I had the same sense of being surprised at how far away you could still feel the heat at a distance from a homecoming bonfire.

Argothy’s kitchen window cracked, held for a moment, then shattered, spilling glass onto the ground, and giving me a clear view inside.

Frantic, he waved at me with both hands.

His mouth formed the same word over and over: STOP STOP STOP.

I fell backwards against my table, holding my ears, trying to remain upright and resisting the urge to hit that power button.

And then Mar, inexplicably, shockingly, was there, in my house.

She, too, screamed at me, furious, hands over her ears.

“STOP IT, TRAVIS!”

She made for the power button.

I grabbed her around the waist and pulled her away before she punched it.

“WAIT,” I screamed as she fought me, aiming her elbow at my balls.

“YOU’RE GONNA FRY IT!”

Through my window, I saw Argothy attempt to climb out of his three-walled speaker enclosure.

He collapsed down into the triangle as if Clemmie herself had dragged him back.

Mar saw, too.

“YOU’RE FUCKING THAT GUY UP, TRAVIS!”

“HE WANTS IT!”

“YOU’RE BOTH INSANE!”

Grappling with Mar felt so familiar. We’d rassled endless times over car keys and telephones and being-in-a-bar, one or the other of us doing our physical best to keep the other from doing something they wanted to do. The last time we tussled, she was trying to prevent me from shutting up this loudmouth in an IHOP that was ruining everyone’s Valentine’s Day. I got free of Mar and scooped up the metal pronged centerpiece that holds ketchup and salt and menus and bludgeoned that fucker.

Just once.

But it cost me six years.

And here we were again, Mar trying to stop me from shutting someone up.

Smart woman that she was, she pivoted from reaching for the amp with her hands and feet and instead kicked the hanging cable connecting my laptop to the amp.

The amp didn’t budge, but the laptop disconnected and fell to the floor.

The buzzy drone of an unplugged cable replaced Clemmie’s voice.

I let Mar go. She switched off the PS-444.

As our ears rang in the sudden silence, we stared at each other and caught our breath.

“You ruined the video,” I said.

“You broke into my place and didn’t even lock it up again. I’m lucky–you’re lucky–no one stole anything. Except you.”

I lifted my window.

“Ben,” I shouted.

Mar began coiling wire, the precise and fast way I never got the hang of.

“I don’t have to tell you not to contact me again. Right?”

“Ben!”

“Go check on your scientist.”

I left her to check on the little twerp.

“Load all my shit in my truck, Travis. Right now,” she called to me out my open window. “Fucking asshole!”

#

Argothy, naked, lay curled like a baby inside the triangle of speaker cabinets. His glasses lay against the bottom of the Line6. Both hands held his head as if he had a massive migraine, which he probably did, and he shook, spasmed.

“Dude,” I said. “I don’t know what went wrong. Can you sit up? Want some water?”

He spoke, but through his chattering teeth and the bell echoing in my head, it took me a minute to work it out. It was a phone number.

I punched it in my phone but paused before calling.

“It’s Clemmie,” he said, shivering. “If I don’t make it, tell her I’m sorry for the t-trouble I c-c-caused before.”

“Not make it? Dude. You just got your clock rung. Give it a minute….”

“Travis! Call 911.”

Of course, Mar followed me in.

“He’ll be fine. Stay out of it. You’ll get your shit, Marianne.”

“He’s bleeding out his ass, Travis.”

I had tried to avoid looking at the man below the waist. So he was.

His nose, too.

Fuck.

Mar went outside to call an ambulance. I heard her grumble nasty shit about me.

I regarded Argothy as he trembled like he was in a freezer.

Ok, it went too far. This wasn’t just busted eardrums.

My self-preservation instincts kicked in.

“This is what you wanted, though,” I said, hitting Dial on a video call.

“No. N-no. Th-thumbs down,” he sputtered, choking on his own blood.

A woman about Argothy’s age answered the video call. Glasses, hair up in a loose bun. Cute, but not my type.

“Hello?”

She didn’t recognize me, of course, but I recognized her butter-smooth voice instantly.

“Hold it, Clemmie,” I said, then turned my phone towards Argothy.

“Ben? Why are you on the floor?”

Trembling, he reached for his glasses.

“Who called me? Who are you?”

I kept the camera focused on her forever suitor.

“You hurt your boy terrible,” I said. “I don’t mean when you ghosted him –so uncool, by the way–I mean now.”

Mar stuck her head in. “I don’t know how to describe it. Can sound waves cause a heart attack? I don’t know what happened. He’s bleeding. Maybe he ruptured inside? Just get here, Christ.”

Clemmie’s voice went up in panic.

“Ben? What happened?”

You did this,” I said. “This is on you.”

I kneeled to help him put his glasses on–he shook too much to do it himself–and held the phone up close.

I didn’t see her expression but could see his.

As she begged him to tell her whether this was real or another stunt, he smiled, eyes overflowing with utter adoration.

Until they suddenly blossomed red, like a time-lapse video of someone getting stoned.

Blood welled up into his mouth like he was puking, then he collapsed into the fresh, bright pool.

Clemmie made a sound I hadn’t heard her make before in Paradise of Choice. She screamed.

“Destruction follows you everywhere,” Mar hissed. “This is no accident. Judge is gonna throw you right back in. For good.”

I shook my head.

“I don’t hurt people. I’m better, Mar.”


Bio pending.


“A Saga of Blasphemy” Dark Fiction by Hareendran Kallinkeel

A church bell tolls, a single strike, noise that pierces her ears

Rosy’s eyes dart, seconds-hand ticks to the thirtieth minute of ten, gems on her Rolex’s disc glow

Morning sunlight, sans warmth, casts shadows on her pale skin; buildings countless, occasional trees, as her Benz gains momentum

Thanks she, God’s mercy, clear sight even at sixty

No need to rush, Rosy hisses, sweat erupts on driver’s forehead, hints of glee on goose bumps on her skin  

Pleasure perverse, emits shameless, unleashed grudges quell AC’s chill

Horrible prison cells, memories etched forever; in body or soul, it doesn’t matter, the torment revisits

Small town, metropolis; systems corrupt, pain remains same, inflicted out of frustration

Guards bulky, potbelly sporting, pant walking

Batons and canes, sleek and slender, nestle in cavities

Fence eats the crop, convicts mumble

Peace necessitates violence, guards rumble

Rosy, a pawn, gets shuffled; wrong to right, right to wrong, like all those inmates; many guilty, some innocent, all condemned to the same fate

Wronged by birth, a family in poverty; wronged by fate, a victim of abuse

Right by affiliation, a noble cause; right by choice, an advocate of social change  

Wrong again, by being in the right place

Right again, by being in the wrong place

Joining a revolution against injustice, choice of the right place, system says, Anarchist

Lands up in jail, the wrong place, yet fights for the right cause, society says, insurgent

Wrong for being right

Again

Wrong for being right

She leans back, she can raise her voice now, send it farther than the bell’s toll, let it resonate; no one will so much as raise an eyebrow

Right choice, right move, judge himself a rebel, within his heart, evokes human rights, and sets her free

Jails him in nuptial bond, she scores a home run, touts the trophy

Scars of incarceration, remain a laceration unhealed, bleeds forever

The boy, sitting next to her closes his eyes, an only grandson

Remain awake, she coos like a dove, only fools choose to miss the experiences

Open your eyes and train your ears, know your world; feel the breeze on your skin when it blows, it doesn’t last forever

The boy smiles, she ruffles his hair, grooms it back to order with her fingers

The car enters the school’s gate, approaches the open ground

The assembly awaits, principal presiding, waiting for over thirty minutes for the Queen’s grandson to arrive, keeps invocations at bay

The prince exits

Put on the aura, that mask of superiority, she whispers, you’re the master of all

Heaving a sigh, the boy blows a kiss her way

Roll the window down, Rosy commands

She puts her hand out, beckons with her middle finger

The principal stoops by the door side, shame more than age weighing his shoulders down

Here, she says, offering him a check, you asked for a hundred thousand, it’s a million; a school for the blind is a necessity

Thank you, ma’am, says the principal

Rosy leans out, gestures him to bend further

You know what, Mr. Thomas? She whispers into his ear, You’re just a pile of garbage in human form

Aloud she says, You’re most welcome

Rosy leans back on her seat. Roll up the window, she tells her driver, spite vented

#

Rosy stood sweating.

A single drop of tear rolled down the corner of her eye. No more would flow, because she’d already mastered the art of containing emotions.

Her fifteenth birthday gift, on August 1, 1975, from the English teacher, would ever remain etched in her memory.

Thomas, a young graduate in English literature, had just joined the school a couple of months ago, and he had instantly earned the reputation as a master of the language. Also known for his unique ways of punishing the guilty, he’d become sort of a terror among students in no time.

One of his favorite methods of punishment was sneaking his hand up the half-trousers of boys; skirts of girls, and a pinch that would last longer for the latter.

For boys who wore full-length trousers and girls anything other than half-skirt, he went for an ear.

“Will you, ever again, forget your homework?” he’d ask, repeat the question more than a dozen times, his hand hidden all the while. For a girl, it’d be a couple of dozens, often more, if the girl happened to be plump enough.

Rosy had always watched the torment of her classmates, so she promptly did her homework; except for yesterday. 

Her father, in celebration of the impending birthday of an only daughter, had brought home a bottle of arrack, a dirty brew that stank like millipede’s shit. She’d never smelled it, but her mother had told that they put millipedes into the vat for speeding up fermentation. So, she presumed the millipedes would defecate before they rotted, and the liquor would carry the stench of their feces.

Father stayed busy throughout the night, arrack’s demons unleashed; Rosy grappling with those monsters, Mother, cursing her destiny.

Even the first time default didn’t go unpunished, not in the teaching regime of young Thomas.  

“Will you, ever, Rosy…

Closing her eyes, she kept counting. Was she so plump, that he continued even after twenty-four?

She wouldn’t have minded the pinch. But his fingers that fumbled between her legs, unseen by the class, left a torment from which she’d never escape.

“See, she stands there,” he said, “like a statue.” He held his hand up, shook it a couple of times. “I have to hurt my fingers, pinching, to tame you sloths.”

Teachers, in those days, were revered as godly figures, an authority parents looked up to, reformers of societies.

Rosy scraped her notions, casted reverence aside.

You, Thomas, you’re just a piece of millipede shit, Rosy thought, that God had unwittingly rendered in human shape.

The single drop of tear had, by now, dried on her cheek.

#

The church bell tolls seven

Rosy exits her Audi, checks her diamond-studded Patek Philippe; she hastens up the flights of steps leading to the church, defying age with her agility

Morning mass, a Sunday ritual she’ll never want to be late for, begins at seven

She pauses midway, waits for her maid, Cathy, ten years younger, yet struggling to keep pace

The one who takes care of Rosy, the only one Rosy cares for other than her family; only one that fulfills her needs, other than her husband

Faster, Rosy says

Cathy pauses, hands on knees, slightly bent, heaves-in a few deep breaths

The church throngs with people, swelling bodies and thirsting souls, seeking redemption from sins unending

Inside the church, approaching the altar, Rosy’s mind sheds worldly thoughts

The Red Sea parts, feet clamor, as the masses pave way for the queen to pass

They bow, a presence they revere, their palms folded in salutation

Rosy returns their gesture, a hint of a smile creasing the corners of her mouth

A most pious gesture, Rosy places her hands on Cathy’s shoulders, leads her to the altar, to a place reserved for the ‘family’, a servant honored

Rosy kneels, only after Cathy does so, making sure that her maid remains comfortable

She prays to her God, the one whose grace sees her through

Rosy partakes in the Holy Communion, remembers the suffering, recognizes the love of God, purifies her soul and thoughts, Cathy close by

In the eerie silence that follows the Holy Communion, it happens

Rosy farts, a failure of body system’s control

A child sees the king naked, laughs

Others follow suit, a wildfire roaring through a jungle, dry grass and twigs crackling

Rosy sweats, tremors shake her body; feels her dignity melt, ripple down her legs, wipe the masses’ feet clean

Rosy’s eyes drill into Cathy’s, Stupid cunt, her spiteful hiss reverberates on the walls

#

James Chacko, a retired judge, Rosy’s husband, sits silent as the inspector thrusts an envelope towards him.

“It’s an open and shut case,” the young officer says.

“I know, a poor woman’s regret, having desecrated the church’s sanctity.”

“This suicide note,” the inspector continues speaking “it’s conclusive enough. The ME found it hidden inside her bra during the autopsy.”

“What?” James asks, as if surprised, and then says, “I mean…” He feels relieved that the officer hasn’t noticed his confusion.

“I also gathered she made a public apology in the church the day before,” the inspector says.

A sudden pain gnaws at James’ guts. “Thank you, inspector … I think I’ll leave.”

If he stays longer, the gnawing may intensify; he might end up revealing that Cathy was illiterate.


“A Saga of Blasphemy” was originally published in Sincerely Magazine [print] and Queen Mob’s Tea House [online].


Hareendran Kallinkeel writes from Kerala, India, after a stint of 15 years in a police organization and five years in the Special Forces. He reads for Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores and is also a Staff Reviewer for Haunted MTL Magazine. His recent publications include The Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Bryant Literary Review of Bryant University, The Chamber Magazine, and El Portal Journal of Eastern New Mexico University, among several others. His works are forthcoming in 34 Orchard, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and Untenured Journal. His fiction has been nominated for Pushcart Prize and he is also a finalist of the Best of the Net-2020. 


“His Heart’s Desire” Horror by N.D. Coley

Hugo pressed his hands against his cheeks, now flushed and warm from the punches. He tasted blood in his mouth. It was salty and hot. His fingers pushed further and felt bones crunch. Tears dripped onto his lips and added to the savory flavors. It was all like broth made for vampires.

            Hugo slumped against the cemetery gate, a door of metal black rods and spikes that felt more like a prison enclosure than an entrance, and his small frame pushed it open with a creak. He looked around. In front of him a lone street light flickered. The menacing figure of Richard DiCastro was gone, and with him Hugo’s G.I. Joe backpack and history book and the die-cast Optimus Prime he’d received for his birthday. He sobbed and thought of how he would explain this to his father, who might very well hear the news, take another swig, and finish the job Richard started. Hugo, for his part, would have liked to have finished Richard. In his mind’s eye he saw himself holding a stone above Richard’s head, and he brought the stone up and down, and and down. There were crushing sounds and splashing sounds, and soon Richard’s face was not a face at all, but something more like an overturned cherry pie, but topped with detached eyes and teeth. Hugo shut the thought down, recoiling at his rogue imagination.

            It was dark and cold, and a breeze came through and crept over his shoulders and up his neck. He did not want to think about anything right now. Not Richard or Optimus Prime or when to go home. He wanted to walk and walk until everything that happened got left behind. He thought that a walk through the cemetery was just as good of a walk as any, and that nobody, not even Dick DiCastro, would follow him here. If Hugo had his own problems, the dead certainly had it worse. He wondered how many of them would trade their boxed prisons for one more chance to get up and walk the streets again, even to just get punched in the face, and for a moment he did not feel bad.

            A cluster of dark clouds moved above, revealing a moon so full and bright that he could see graves far in the distance. Mariam Memorial Park was a wondrous site. From where he stood it looked like a painting of rolling hills, each lapping over the other like waves, and on these hills he saw the tombstones, oval and square and in the shape of crosses. In the shadows of the moonlight, each grave had the same look — a deep, expressionless black. It seemed sad to him that the graves said so little. All of the names and dates printed on them. All of those lives, buried in the ground and next to hunks of stone. The whole lot was silent in the shadows.

            Hugo walked on, his shoes crunching over leaves. He stopped next to one grave. Up close he could see that it was pitted and discolored, with engravings from the late18th Century. Weeds grew around the sides.

             He placed a hand on it. The stone was hard and cold, and he thought that maybe he would learn or sense something. For a moment he imagined that it was a child’s grave, of someone taken by the flu or tuberculosis. His mind thought of a small boy in a small hat, with a small tweed jacket and brown shoes, coughing and crying and scared. The boy was in a bed in home, and then under a sheet in a morgue, and then in a coffin on display, surrounded by a weeping crowd of nameless adults. As the coffin shut, the boy opened his eyes and cried, but his noises were heard by nobody they and said nothing.

            Hugo realized that the sobs were not in his head, but in the air, carried by the chill that weaved in and out of the tombstones. The weeps were soft and gentle. They came and went, interrupted by a wet cough. Hugo stepped off the path and followed the sounds. He walked with care, as if on a hunt, around a row of granite crosses and up to a rectangular crypt with three cherubs atop the entrance. The cries were louder.

            He paused and, as if fearful of being caught, craned his neck around the side. There was the shape of a small boy, crouched on the ground, with his hands over his knees and his head slumped down. He wore a brown dress cap with a button on top, and as he wept his shoulders rose and fell.

            “Hello?” Hugo asked. “Are you alright?”

            The weeping stopped, and the hunched figure turned its head. Its face was grey and white, with eyes that looked like soft clumps of clay.

            “I am hungry,” the figure said. “I am so very, very hungry. Can you help me?”

            Hugo reached into his left pocket, his hand closing around a Snickers bar.

            “Yes,” he said, pulling the treat out. He held it forward, as someone might hold a biscuit out for a dog. The boy took it and fumbled with it. His hands were thin, with flesh that looked more like a stretched deerskin than that of a person. The hands were covered in sores and the sores oozed black. The boy struggled with the wrapper and winced.

            “Here,” Hugo said, taking the candy again and peeling it open. “Now, take it.”

            The boy shoved the chocolate into his mouth in two bites. It was so quiet in the graveyard that the sounds of his chewing seemed to echo off the monuments.

            “Thank you,” the boy said. “I have never had such a thing. It was nice. I have not had anything nice in a long time.”

            Hugo nodded and stepped back.

            “Could I ask for one more thing?” the boy asked.

            “Sure. What do you want?”

            “I am so cold. Cold all the time. I would like to be warm again.”

            “Where is your home?”

            The boy pointed to rectangular gravestone to his left.

            “There.”

            Hugo frowned.

            “Haven’t you got a real home? A house with a bed and all that?”

            “Not anymore. That’s ok. I just want a blanket. Could you get me a blanket?”

            Hugo thought on it. His father would not approve of him coming home and going back out again, though he was sure that his father would also be passed out. Hugo could do it.

            “Yes. Would you like a pillow too?”

            “Yes. That would be nice.”

            Hugo waved goodbye and set back the way he came, and as he left he couldn’t shake the idea that he was being followed and watched, not just by the boy, but by the residents of the graveyard who hadn’t taken shape and come out to say hello. He was sure that there were eyes in the scraggly trees and hands wrapped around the graves, growing in number by the moment, watching and breathing and waiting for Hugo to stumble.

            Hugo turned around. He was at the gate. Behind him a fog had gathered, setting the rolling hills of the graveyard behind thick clouds. For a moment he thought he had not gone inside at all, and that he had been slumped against the entrance the whole time.

             He shut the gate and made for home.

***

            Hugo had no trouble getting in and out. His father was, as he expected, passed out in his chair. The missing blanket and pillow would not be noticed.

            Hugo returned to the site where the boy had been, but there was nothing save for a small patch of flattened grass. It could have been from a fawn that had bedded down, or from a small boy. It was hard to tell.

            Hugo called out with a weak “Hello,” but his voice did not travel. He stood for several minutes and shivered, and decided to leave the blanket and pillow near the grave to which the child had pointed earlier.

            The temperature dropped and the air felt wet. Hugo made his way back through the fog and up the path. As he arrived back the gate, he stopped. A soft whisper entered his ear.

            “Thank you,” the voice said. “In return, I will give you what you truly want.”

            Hugo turned.  The fog had lifted, and the graveyard was empty. He was alone.

            He left the cemetery behind and marched on, making the first left. As walked he noticed a person slumped against the pole of a lone streetlight. The figure sat in a puddle of blood, and below one of his hands sat a backpack, discolored and soaked in red. Hugo approached and looked into the eyes of the figure, but there was no light in them. He was sure he knew the face, but his mind hesitated. It was not so easy to recognize the dead versus the living.  There was only a blank stare and a wide mouth. Hugo gasped, looked left to right, and thrust his hand inside the backpack, certain his fingers would close around his Optimus Prime.

            Hugo was afraid—he pulled the backpack out away from the body and looked around. The street was as before, deserted. A bird settled atop the streetlight, fluttered its wings, and took off into the darkness. Hugo stepped out of the light and followed, his footsteps moving soundlessly. He felt that he was not only trying to get away from the scene before him, but from himself. He crossed a small bridge, a narrow relic with wooden walls, built for a time for different little boys. He paused and reached into the backpack. Optimus Prime’s eyes glistened in reflected moonlight. They stared at Hugo and through Hugo. Optimus did not approve.

            Hugo dropped the robot into the backpack, walked under a handrail and onto a pathway, and sent the goods into the stream below. The waters were high and fast moving. There was a small splash. The steady flow of the water resumed.

            Hugo quickened his pace and walked on, taking random turns as if trying to throw something off his trail, and with each step he thought on what else sat within his own heart, about the monsters and secrets hiding down there, tucked away in dark corners. He imagined that his desires were dull-colored, malformed creatures without eyes, with bony hands, and sharp teeth that lined drooling mouths.

            What else do I want? he thought, and what will I see when I finally go home? Did he want to find his father, face down on the coffee table, his lifeless cheeks coated in a pool of vomit? He did not know, and he suddenly wanted nothing at all— except to keep walking.

            The hoot of an owl sounded in the distance. Hugo opened his mouth as if to reply, but closed it, feeling silly. He moved on, his soundless footsteps taking him down lonely and dimly lit streets, deeper into the night.


N.D. Coley (MA, English, University of Pittsburgh) is currently a college English composition instructor. His work has appeared in Shotgun Honey, Coffin Bell Journal, Close To theBone, Bewildering Stories, Indiana Voice Journal, Corner Bar Magazine, The Mystic Blue Review, Teleport Magazine, Grotesque Quarterly, Jakob’s Horror Box, Massacre Magazine, Crack the Spine, and Funny In Five-Hundred. In his spare time, he laments the human condition, reads depressing literature, plays with his son and daughter, and irritates his wife.  You can irritate him at ndcoley1983@phil795


“The Hangings” a Dark, Futuristic Parody by James Hanna

Maggie and I sit on our front porch at dusk. We drink ice tea and watch the sun sink. In our fifty-five years of marriage, we have rarely missed a sunset.

 Today, the sun bleeds through the haze, and the horizon is apple red. Maggie rocks in her rocker, knitting a shawl. I smoke a pipe filled with Captain Black tobacco.

Maggie sings a fragment of a song while she knits. “Give us any chance, we’ll take it.”  She pauses, shakes her head, and keeps on knitting. “That’s all I remember, Poppy,” she says. She still calls me Poppy after all these years. Sometimes, it gets on my nerves.

“It’s from Laverne and Shirley,” I say. “We watched it on ABC back in the seventies—it came on the year we got married.” I sing the next bar to help Maggie recall the song. “Read us any rule, we’ll break it.’”

Maggie drops a stitch. “I rather liked that show, Poppy,” she says.

“I liked it too, Maggie,” I say. “Especially that episode where the girls got into a tizzy.”

“They got into a tizzy every week, Poppy. I wish you could be more specific.”

“They got into a really big tizzy that week. I think they were wearing space suits.”

“Were they, Poppy? I don’t remember them in space suits.”

“I liked them on Happy Days too. The girls were even funnier on Happy Days.”

 Maggie sighs. “I never liked Happy Days much. That Jewish boy was such a braggart.”  

She recovers the stitch and keeps knitting. Despite her comment, she sings two bars from the Happy Days theme. “Sunday, Monday, Happy Days. Tuesday, Wednesday, Happy Days.”  She puts down her knitting, “It’s Wednesday,” she remembers. “We have to attend the hangings.”

The hangings now happen twice a week. Every Wednesday and Saturday, in towns across the country, fanatics are hanged in the courthouse squares. It is considered poor etiquette not to attend the hangings.

“It’s disgraceful,” says Maggie, “the way they drag those things out. The noisy bands, the endless speeches. Just hang them and be done with it, I say. Let’s be Christian about it.”

“‘First they came for the socialists,’” I quote. “‘Then they came for the unionists.’”

 Maggie does not like me to be trite. “They came for you a few days ago.”

 “Yes, but they let me go.”

“Wasn’t that because you turned in Doctor Beckman? Didn’t you tell them he was a writer?”

“He might have been one.”

“That’s true,” Maggie says. “If I started a journal, would you turn me in also?”

“I would never turn you in, Maggie.”

“What if they put you back in that jail? What if they beat you again?”

I have always been honest with Maggie. “They would have to beat me twice. I owe you that much, Maggie.”

Maggie looks amused—my answer must have pleased her. “Thank you, Poppy,” she coos. “You know how to make me feel better.”

I puff my tobacco and sing a Dylan song I remember. “People don’t live or die, people just float. She went with the man with the long black coat.”

“Be careful whose music you sing,” Maggie cautions. “That’s such a socialist song.”

I shrug. “They’re going to come back for me anyhow. I may as well sing that song.”

 Maggie shrugs too. “When they’ve picked you up once, they always arrest you again. You told me this never could happen, Poppy.”

“That was before the bombings.”

“Those dreadful bombings. Will they ever stop?”

“He promised to stop the bombings.”

“Yes,” Maggie says. “He promised that, didn’t he?”

The shawl she is knitting is blue—blue is a primary color. It is not smart to knit in non-primary colors. When Mabel Leibman was arrested last week, she was knitting a beige sweater. 

Maggie finishes a row. “He’s so much like Lincoln. I never knew how much.”

“Lincoln shut down the courts,” I say. “He shut down newspapers too.”

“I’m glad he’s a lot like Lincoln.”

My pipe is cold, but I do not fill it again. Captain Black tobacco is scarce. You can no longer find it in stores.

“I love you, Maggie,” I say.

She takes a sip of ice tea and sighs. The evening is dry and hot, as though someone left an oven door open. Maggie does not like heat.

I pat Maggie’s wrist. “Let’s go into the house. Let’s turn on Happy Days.”

Maggie taps her foot. “You never listen, Poppy.  We have to attend the hangings.”

“If they hang them quickly, we can still catch Happy Days.”

 “They won’t hang them quickly,” Maggie snaps. “They never do anymore.”

I don’t like to make Maggie angry; she has a tongue like a thorn. “After they cut down the bodies,” I say, “lets buy some frozen yogurts.”

Maggie swirls the ice tea in her glass, and the ice cubes rattle like bones. “Every time I get cross with you, Poppy, you want to buy frozen yogurts.”

 I change the subject. “Will the Boy Scouts be there, do you think?”

Maggie strokes her neck. “The Boy Scouts are always there, don’t you remember? It’s the Boy Scouts who fit the nooses. It’s the Boy Scouts who cut down the bodies.”

“I hope they cut them down right away. Before their tongues turn blue.”

“They cut Doctor Beckman down right away, and his tongue was as blue as a smurf.”

“They would have hanged him sooner or later. He never attended the hangings.”

“No,” Maggie says. “It was rude of him to never go to the hangings. I don’t know where that man picked up his manners.”

“I’m glad they let me turn him in. It gave us this evening together.”

“This evening is hot,” Maggie says. She presses the glass of ice tea to her brow then takes another sip.

Our anniversary is today, and I have a surprise for her. “We are going to fly to Hawaii,” I say. We flew to Hawaii fifty-five years ago to spend our honeymoon. Maggie liked the rainforests and waterfalls. She did not like the dormant volcanoes.

Maggie rolls her eyes. “You promise that every year, Poppy. How quickly you forget.”

“This year I’ll book a flight early.”

“I don’t do well on planes,” Maggie says.

“We’ll sit on the beach and drink Mai Tais”

“That wouldn’t be much of a change.”

Maggie returns to her knitting. The shawl is getting thick. “I’m glad you’re so quick to forget,” she says.

“Why is that, Maggie? Tell me again.”

She coughs and continues her knitting. “We have to attend the hangings.”

2

Maggie and I sit on our front porch. She rocks in her rocker, knitting a scarf. I sit on a stool with my pipe in my hand. We drink ice tea as we watch the sunset.

The haze is heavier, and it is hard to make out colors. It traps the heat so we sweat a great deal. Maggie always corrects me when I complain about our sweating. She says, “Poppy, women don’t sweat, they glow. How many times must I remind you?”

Maggie likes to remind me of things.  Sometimes, I pretend to forget so that Maggie can remind me. I don’t know what I would do without Maggie.

I am smoking my last pouch of Captain Black tobacco. Maggie is glad that I will soon be out of Captain Black tobacco. She says it smells like dead roaches.

 “Would you rather it smelled like live roaches?” I ask. I take another puff.

Maggie titters and keeps on knitting. “Poppy,” she says, “you can still make me laugh.”

“I’m glad I still make you laugh,” I say.

She frowns like a judge. “I do wish you’d stop it. Laughing is illegal now.”

I’m glad that Maggie reminds me of this. Sometimes, I forget that laughing can get you hanged.

The hangings take place every day now. In hundreds of towns across the country, turncoats are strung up in droves. They do not laugh when the nooses are put around their necks. They stand like statues and wait for the ropes to tighten.

I am glad that the hangings take place every day. Maggie no longer has to remind me on what days the hangings are scheduled.

We attend the hangings six days a week. We no longer attend the hangings on Wednesday. On Wednesdays, we stay home and watch Laverne and Shirley. It is risky not to attend the hangings, but we like to watch Laverne and Shirley. We do not watch Happy Days anymore. Maggie does not like the Jewish boy. She says it is scandalous to watch a show that has a Jewish boy in it.

We don’t watch television as much as we used to. We watch the televised speeches, we also watch the marches, but we don’t watch the football or the porn. Most of the time, the television watches us.

He promised to stop the bombings, but bombings have increased. Buildings are bombed all over the country every single day. Still, he appears on television each night and says he will stop the bombings. Some say he orders the bombings himself. It is not funny to joke about the bombings.

Maggie is knitting a bright red scarf. She no longer knits in blue. He told us that traitors wear blue. He says the bombers wear blue. He says you cannot hide from him if you ever dressed in blue. I remember when Maggie knitted in blue, but she likes to correct me about this. She says blue is worn only by murderers, and she never knitted in blue.

I suspect they will hang me today. They arrested me several weeks ago and then they let me go. That was because I turned in Doctor Beckman—I told them he was a writer. That gave me a few more evenings with Maggie. I like to spend time with Maggie. But they always come back and hang you after they let you go. This happens within a month.

I look at Maggie. I think I will miss her even though she gets on my nerves.  “Today is the day,” I tell her. “We may as well say goodbye.”

 “We’ve been saying goodbye for years,” Maggie says. “One more time won’t make any difference.”

“Does that mean you won’t come to my hanging?” I say.

Maggie rolls her eyes, so I know I am making her cross. “If they hang you on Wednesday—no,” she says. “I’ll miss Laverne and Shirley.”

I am glad that today is Monday. I don’t want her to miss Laverne and Shirley.

“If they hang me today, will you come?” I say. “I’ll buy you a frozen yogurt.”

Maggie does not look at me. She stares at her knitting instead.

 “Poppy,” she says to me after a while, “you may as well save your money. In all the years we have been married, I’ve never liked frozen yogurt.”

I am surprised to hear that Maggie does not like frozen yogurt. Every Sunday, after church, I buy her a frozen yogurt. I also buy her a frozen yogurt on the days we attend the hangings. What else don’t I know about Maggie?

I speak to her gently—I don’t want her upset. Not on the day of my hanging. “Why did you tell me you liked frozen yogurt?”

“Why did you believe me, Poppy?”

A van is parking in front of our house. Men are sitting in the van. It should be no more than an hour until the rope bites into my neck.

 “Do you remember when we went to Hawaii?” I ask.

“That was fifty-five years ago, Poppy.”

“It seems like yesterday, doesn’t it Maggie?”

Maggie groans and puts down her knitting. “You don’t remember yesterday, Poppy. You only remember Hawaii.”

“I remember you liked the waterfalls, but not the dormant volcanoes.”

“No,” Maggie says. She rubs her eyes. “I did not like the dormant volcanoes.”

“Would you rather the volcanoes were active?” I ask.

She chuckles and picks up her knitting. “Poppy,” she says, “you still make me laugh.”

“I’m sorry,” I reply.

I hear the van doors slam. Men are walking towards our house. I can practically trace out my name in the haze, and they look like a mirage.

“They’re here, Maggie.”

She keeps on knitting. Her eyes do not stray from the scarf. “Are they wearing red or blue?” she asks. The needles leap in her hands.

I look at the men, but I don’t answer Maggie. I can’t tell what color they’re wearing.

 3

A week ago, they hanged Poppy. And I did attend that man’s hanging. My, what a fuss he made. Standing beside the gallows, he begged the hangman to wait. All so he could hand me a dollar to buy myself a frozen yogurt. Poppy believed every problem in the world could be solved with a frozen yogurt. Not that his hanging was much of a problem. He dropped like a sack of potatoes, and his neck snapped like a whip.

Why on earth did I go to his hanging? Was I really hoping for closure? I still feel his absence when I sit alone on our porch. But I felt his absence when he was alive, so it’s really not much of a change. 

He comes to me in my dreams, you know—my, what a tiresome man. He used to snore like a trumpet, which kept me awake half the night, and now he has the temerity to bother me in my dreams. I truly wish he would just move on and let me enjoy my sleep. Doesn’t he have anything better to do than to come around pestering me? No, he probably doesn’t—that man did like our bed.

I go to the hangings alone now, and I’m finding them rather tiresome. Do you know they’re hanging women and children? First, they hang the women and then they do the children. The women grow rigid the instant they’re hanged; the children squirm like eels. That’s because children are lighter, and it’s harder to break their necks. Their little legs pummel the air as though they’re riding invisible bikes.

He appeared on television last night to explain why he’s hanging the children. He said the children come from bad seed. He said if the children are not eliminated, they will grow up to bomb our cities. He explained that he hangs the mothers first so they won’t see their children swing. I’m glad he’s such a thoughtful man. I’m glad he’s destroying bad seed.

The smog has grown much thicker; I can no longer see the sunsets. But it’s bad for your eyes to look into the sun so that’s probably for the best. Poppy often gazed at the sunsets, and it’s a wonder he didn’t go blind. I do think he lost his sense of smell though—his tobacco stank like dead roaches. “Would you rather it stank like live roaches?” he asked me the day they took him away. Up until the moment they hanged him, that man could make me laugh.

I sit on our porch, hand-stitching a sunset quilt, and it’s hard on my arthritic fingers. The quilt has yellow, red, and blue so I use three colors of yarn. I no longer knit shawls and scarves with blue yarn, but I still stitch blue into my quilts. A sunset wouldn’t look authentic without a bit of blue.

The patrols are much more frequent now. Black vans, the kind they took Poppy away in, glide up and down our street. They took away Gertrude Edelman and ten-year-old Aaron, her son. They took away Precious Jackson; they took away Marquis Jones. They did not take away Margaret Sullivan; she came to see me yesterday. She said she admired my quilt. She said blue is a telling color. That’s high praise coming from Margaret, she’s the prefect of our block.

Any day, they will hang me for putting blue into my quilt. So I always have my makeup kit on me and I always wear freshly-ironed dresses. Before they hang me, they just might allow me to freshen up my face. A dab of rouge would look nice on my cheeks when the color drains away. I must ask Margaret to speak to the hangman before he stretches my neck. It would be very disrespectful if I did not leave a pretty corpse.

He appeared on television yesterday, interrupting Laverne and Shirley. It was one of my favorite episodes, the one where the girls have a séance to get rid of a household ghost. He told us it’s his painful duty to hang the Boy Scouts too. He said the Boy Scouts are planting bombs. He promised the bombings will stop once the Boy Scouts are hanged.

 I do believe his speeches have awoken the trollop in me. Yesterday, when I heard his brave words, my nipples grew harder than bullets. That’s a fine howdy-do for a woman near eighty who stopped menstruating decades ago. If they’re going to hang me for impure thoughts, I hope they do it quickly.

I pray there is no afterlife; I don’t want my thoughts to go on. And I certainly don’t want to meet the souls of traitors and murderers. Imagine spending eternity hearing their wretched laments. No, I don’t want to go to an afterlife; I might be compromised there.

The quilt is nearly completed. A bit more blaze in the yellow, some ripple in the red, a tad more nuance in the blue, and I think it will be done. I rather wish Poppy were here to see it before I put it away. But Poppy liked everything I stitched so his compliments didn’t mean much. My god, I hope there is no world to come; I don’t want him back in my hair.

I stitch a little faster as the van pulls into our driveway. I do not look up as I hear the doors slam. I do not watch the men as they tromp to the house. I do not even offer them a glass of ice tea when they’re standing on the porch. I pluck a loose thread and I keep on stitching. “Wait ’til I’m finished,” I say.


“The Hangings” was originally published in A Lonely Riot and Literally Stories. It is also included in James’s anthology: Shackles and More Gripping Tales.


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.


“Flowers in the Woods” Dark Sudden Fiction by Anita Joy Balraj

“Forget-Me-Nots” Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

I went to the woods to meet Henry and Gertrude, then… Someone is at the door of my room. Mummy had painted flowers on the door to match with the floral pattern on the floor. I do love flowers, so pretty and delicate! Oh, it’s Mummy, she’s crying now on the floor. She is hugging my bridesmaid gown, how I love the way it glitters! I just wanted to see the pretty blue flowers deep in the woods and maybe see some birds, then… Daddy just ran in and held her, he seems to be crying too. Oh, he is so close to the jewelry box on my dresser! I do hope he doesn’t find the love letters from Henry, I have there. Rob just came in panting, with tears. He always makes me wonder if I really am the oldest. He is telling Daddy that they found me. I had finally found the blue flowers when someone called out my name, then… As soon as Rob spoke, Mummy fainted on my bed. He said I was found in the woods, at the bottom of the lake; I was dead.


Anita is a business analyst by profession and a poet by choice. She started writing when she was six, and has no plans to stop. 


“Office Friends” Dark Psychological Fiction by Pauline Chow

I had a big meeting in fifteen minutes, so very unfortunate that I noticed a smell. It came to me as I waited for the printer. The copy machine broke? Seconds later, the machine churns out freshly baked double-sided collated copies. I sense a change in the air. It was as if someone lit a candle called Low Tide but on the 33rd floor of the corporate building, people did not light candles, not even birthday candles. Birthdays were personal. Non-company reminders were sparse: post-it notes with personal errands, occasional family pictures, and co-workers secretly texting external contacts. Otherwise, colleagues consorted on online chats and email. 

Thank goodness for my morning laps at the Olympic-sized pool. My lungs were able to hold in my breath, avoiding the stink, for the last two copies of a 6-page document. The company suggested length for research documents. I exhaled as soon as I left the copy room, glass windows on my left side and the large conference room at the end of the hallway. I re-read the first page, marveling at my own work. How could they not love my analysis of the company’s new foray into e-commerce? 

Then it hit me, again. A fragrance of festering water conjures images of dark soupy liquid that pooled on the edges of subway platforms. I duck into the bathroom and inspect under my feet, finger every crevice of my body, and inspect my ass in the mirror. A weird reaction to stress? An odor radiating everywhere but nowhere at the same time. I continue down the hallway, noticing the warped bugged-out stares of employees at blue-light screens.

I recite the last sentence of the paper to myself: The evidence shows that for every twenty-five dollars lost in selling essential goods like toothpaste and toilet paper translates into a three-fold profit for the company the following year. If the company hooked a customer once then they would return to purchase much more. The long game worked; no wonder small businesses struggled to stay open. Cue the wicked laugh. Though being privy to a secret felt exhilarating. 

Inside the clean and spotless meeting room, I pray to any god that I would not meet that horrible stench again, at least until the end of the meeting. I graze the back of my hand on my forehead. Not sick. In the bathroom mirror my face looked flush. Should have splashed cold water on my face. Too late. Focus, I tell myself. For months, I had pulled data, coded these algorithms, and positioned the output graphs with precision, thinking of nothing else. Please let my insight be enough. 

Attendees enter the room for my meeting, then read in silence, as all meetings started here. I fidget with the zipper on my hoodie in a corner, gauging my coworker’s expressions as they read. These people laughed and joked at happy hours but facing off over the conference table seemed like warfare. Nothing but stoned faced killers. Ding. A whiff of decomposing vegetables emanated from the table. Did someone fart? SBD. 

I almost fell backwards out of the chair when I see a wispy orb hovering over Mevis, the oldest tenured employee and always late to meetings. I rub my eyes. Specks of dust in my contacts? The lights dim. 

Mevis mutters an apology, sucking the energy from the room.

Then, I taste something metallic and fishy. My stomach ripples and I wretch. Head turns, reacting to the sound, so I stand up. My question redirects my energy. “Does anyone need more time?” I position my fist over my mouth to suppress a gag. 

Tom, my manager, clears his voice. “Ten minutes.” His face set in contemplation and mild irritation. It looks like he needs to take a shit. My mind goes there on account of the smell. Then, the floating tentacles reaches into Tom’s throat and pulls out a sloppy white mass. Tom does not react to this invasion into his body. No one does. 

The apparition sloshes from one person to the next: collecting shadows, consuming their essence, and foraging on the essence of people. 

Should I do something? I didn’t need compliments or praises. I want the director to tell me I still had a job. The requirements of my work visa said that I had to remain in this city and this same employer for at least 6 more months. Else, I would be sent away, back into a menial position that no longer suited me.

My existence didn’t matter to them.  

“Lovely.” I sat down to review the charts and graphs. My team will ask about figure 3, a line fitted to scattered points. I wondered if I explained the outputs well enough. Ding! The thing wipes its filthy appendage across my lips, reminding me of a weirdly nostalgic game from childhood, smell-my-finger, where an unwilling participant had to sleuth the origins of an odor from a finger shoved into their face. I gasp and it recoils from my reaction. This is the source of the vile-drenched tang. Sickening things are happening. 

The thing moves to and fro, slithering its stink. Part of my image is reflected inside the ghostly jellyfish’s shiny skin. I look haggard, aged many decades. Is this its imagination?  As if looking through a magnifying glass, I glimpse the faces in this room: whiten hair, bloodshot eyes, and sunken cheeks. Or Is this what the being does to us? 

“Time’s up,” I announce and sit in the empty seat at the table. Where is the bleach? Now the ghost pinches the skin on my arms and salivates as it peels off a layer. This is the pain of my soul ripping apart. Lights flickered. I hold my breath, concentrating on the visa and six-months. In my right mind I would run out of here screaming. But this option was better for my resume. My eyes begin to water when I ask the room, “Does anyone have feedback?” 


Pauline Chow writes speculative fiction to explore history and systems with disgruntled people. She was an attorney and now works in tech. In upstate New York with her husband, toddler, and rescue pup, she is living her best life in the woods. Find her at www.paulinechowstories.com or @DataThinker on Twitter.


“On the Boardwalk” Dark Flash Fiction by Alan Catlin

From the boardwalk I can see the waves rolling toward the shore. Metal trash barrels stretch row on row in parallel lines as far as the eye can see.  All the broad, white painted backs of the lifeguard stands are empty now as night begins.  Out there, where the fishermen are casting their lines into the surf.  Out there where the waves breaking over the hard grey rocks of the jetties pointing out into the sea. 

Overhead, the squawk of the gulls that are circling above the beach, dipping toward the waves, hovering over an unseen spot.  Something is dead down there but, from here, it is impossible to discern exactly what it is.

Toy carnival rifles crack, a bell rings.  The voice of the barker intones: “Three shots for a quarter, win a kewpie doll, win a prize for that special gal, three shots for a quarter, fifteen for a buck, try your luck.” The Wonder Wheel cars slide on the ramp over the boardwalk.  For a moment they appear suspended in the air, held in place by invisible metal strings.  People inside scream.

I watch the children play tag as I walk.  Watch them running amidst the crowds darting in and out among the people walking in either direction down the boardwalk.  I wonder how long it will be before they run into someone.  How long before they fall to the well‑worn boards of the walk?  Would they be crushed after they fell, crushed into the splinters, by crowds walking?

As I walk, I smell the boiling water where the soggy ears of corn sit stewing, turning as they stew, a sick pale yellow.  I smell the thick griddle grease where the hamburgers sizzle and the hotdogs turn.  I smell the candied apples’ chocolate scorch­ing black as I watch stray dogs pick through the overflowing, rusting garbage cans, for food.  Walking here, as the night grows closer and the carnival lights glare.

Walking, I think of the short beach dunes looming like giant sea beasts.  The beach grass whipping my ankles as I run, the precipitous slide down, down toward the dune valley, the rusting steel girders, brought here for what unknown reason?  And every­where, broken beer bottles, rusting cans and bottle tops.  Every­where the distinct scent of urine; this death dune valley.

The seashore off‑season.  Cool breezes whipping in from the water.  The unclean beach- front strewn with all manner of debris: driftwood, cast‑off luggage and empty food containers washed in from the liners and cruise ships sailing for a port of call.

Walking, I remember riding the Wonder Wheel as a child, remember riding against my will, fearing, then, as now, anything free‑falling, anything rootless dropping through the air.  I feel the terrible spinning wheel on which I was trapped, hiding on the cage floor, quaking, sobbing, clutching my knees to my chest, rocking a crazed feral beast, as we slide over the concrete walks, out over the boardwalk.  I remember shivering while, inside me, a scream louder than all the carnival music ever played.

On the beach front, I remember the reinforced concrete observation towers built by the government during a world war. Deserted now.  Cluttered with refuse so thick with black flies in the heat of summer a man might not get inside even if he, for some dire reason, should have to.

Walking down the boardwalk.  The resort hotels overlooking the sea. Short sleeve‑shirted old men all balding, all over­weight, all smoking fat black cigars, all standing by the hotel entrances. All identical.  Watching the crowd file past.  So many arms and hands attached to a body.  All identical. Marching past this spot in time, disappearing thereafter forever, out into this harshly‑lighted, endless night.

Under the boardwalk a deep, mournful moan.  How many animals have come here to die, and for what reason?

As seen from the boardwalk, the city police jeep riding across the beach, slipping between the trash bins, digging in the sand, routing all but the deep‑sea fishers, is some kind of medieval beast, its white eyes shining in the dark.

A tall, gaunt drunk stumbling on the boardwalk, his dead eyes rolled back in his head.  His body moving without him, weaving in and out of the crowd. Walking onward, lurching, recovering his balance, only to lurch sideways once again.  Moving forward impelled by some inner need, moving forward as if he had some­where of vital importance to go.

Walking down the boardwalk, looking into hotels, the club bars.  Doors flung wide open, the ceiling fans spinning, circu­lating the heavy clouds of smoke.  The dull, gray light of the room.  The crowd of t‑shirted old men sitting, standing, leaning on the mahogany surface of the bar.  Drinking shots and beer, talking and smoking as they drink.  Frozen in the bar mirror. Frozen as the bar man cracks ice in his hands with a short wooden stick.  Frozen as he drops ice into a glass, pours in liquor and moves away.

Standing on the boardwalk staring out over the beach toward the sea.  The shining chrome‑plated heads of the observation scanners like a row of armor-plated, armless dead men impaled upon a metal pole.  Twenty-five cents to peek through a dead man’s eyes, to look directly into the heart of the night.

The red summer moon hanging in the sky, casting light on the white capped heads of the sea rolling, rushing forever onward.  Rushing over the black fingered jetties, smashing on the white- faced sand as it withdraws a handful of sand.  It will be ex­tremely hot for us, walking here tomorrow. Toy carnival rifles crack, a bell rings.  The voice of the barker intones: “Three shots for a quarter, win a kewpie doll, win a prize for that special gal, three shots for a quarter, fifteen for a buck, try your luck.” I watch as the Wonder Wheel spins in a mad terrifying circle. Hear the people screaming.


Alan Catlin is primarily known for poetry but that doesn’t prevent him for mixing and matching prose and poetry as the subject allows.  He has published dozens of full length book and chapbooks, mostly poetry, over the years. Although he is not a genre writer he has somehow managed three Rhysling Prize nominations and a Bram Stoker Award nomination He didn’t win either award.


“Final Trick” Flash Fiction by Young Tanoto

Magician’s boy, stuffed his mouth with nylon scarves. He stood in front of the bedroom mirror, a ten-piece beginner’s set strewn across his desk. Hat askew, fifty-cent bow tie cinched tight around his Adam’s apple, he sucked on what tasted like burnt plastic and whatever backwater oriental factory the kerchiefs were made in. He already felt like his body might pop from the starchiness of his shirt and the tourniquet around his neck. Then he felt a tickle rising in his throat and before he knew it he was retching, gagging on the fabric. And so he spit them back up.

He made a run for the sink. He stubbed his toe on the doorstep by accident, but he had more pressing concerns. Hunched over the counter, he pulled the line of handkerchiefs from his mouth one by one, like drawing  water from a well. Every knot scraped his front teeth. They felt slimy on his lips, the bright colors dampened by his spit.

Maybe he should have stuck to cards, he thought. His toe throbbed, alight with pain.

After a few more days of practice, his trick was ready for an audience. He called his brother to his room. They sat across from each other, a cardboard box in between them.

“I can’t watch another card trick,” his brother said. He’d seen him do the amazing aces, the pick-a-card, the blind three card monte, and seven types of coin flips. 

“I’m done with that kid stuff,” the boy said. He accidentally left his card deck in the pocket of his good trousers and they were ruined in the laundry. “I’ve moved on. I’m working on something else.”

“What happened to your toe?” His brother said, not hearing him.

The nail was jaundiced yellow, purple under the surface where new nail had begun to push through the bed like spring flowers. 

“Stubbed it,” the boy said. “Is it bad?”

“Pretty bad, man,” his brother said. The nail wiggled like a door on a hinge. “I think you’re gonna have to pull it.”

“No.”

“Just rip it off like a bandaid,” his brother said. “It’s dead, anyway.”

The boy paused. He leaned forward and pinched the tip of the nail between his fingers. It felt foreign. The nail lifted easily, barely connected to the cuticle. “Ow,” he said, though it didn’t really hurt much.

“Hurry up, dumbass.”

 He did, but it didn’t come loose. “Hey, does it look longer to you?” He tugged again, and this time felt a distinct sliding sensation within his foot.

The nail slid forward, revealing more dead nail that came out from under his cuticle. 

“How are you doing that?” His brother asked. “That’s amazing.”

 “I don’t know,” the boy said. He pulled harder, and the yellow, tough nail was extended by a foot then, appearing endless. He felt a tug in his navel like something grabbed his insides and yanked. He felt nauseous but reluctant to stop all the same. His brother came forward, then, and grabbed his hand.

“Bravo!” his brother said, and pulled with all his strength. The last of the nail was pried free, pooling along the floor in putrid coils. The plucked nail stem uprooted a white cottony protrusion from within his toe. The boy grabbed the thing by the ears—warm, pulsating with breath—and gingerly, gently unearthed a pristine white rabbit. 


Young is a 21-year-old undergraduate student that writes to satisfy his fascination with the bizarre and the uncanny. He currently studies English and Psychology at Tufts University. His short story, “When Words Fail”, received a gold medal in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.


Submit Your Dark Fiction and Poetry to The Chamber

The Chamber Magazine is seeking articles, reviews, essays, poems, and short stories of approximately 7,500 words (note revised word limit) or less including flash, micro fiction, smoke longs, drabbles or of any flavor of short fiction that demonstrates the art of writing dark fiction, whether it be prose, poetry, one-act plays, or any other form of literature.  We want to showcase the genre in all its subtlety, intelligence, art, horror, terror, suspense, thrill-seeking, and gruesome detail. We will accept dark humor provided it follows the guidelines below with regards to content and good taste.

To be good short fiction, the shorter a work is, the more power it must pack.

Welcome genres include:

  • horror
  • fantasy
  • action-adventure
  • suspense/thriller
  • literary
  • science fiction
  • historical
  • mystery/crime
  • noir
  • romance
  • Western
  • experimental
  • cyberpunk
  • steampunk
  • weird fiction
  • gothic
  • general
  • humor
  • any mixture of the above

There is no pay for publication, but the author retains all rights. Reprints are acceptable. Multiple submissions of up to three works per submission are permitted. Simultaneous submissions are permitted, but you must tell us if the work has been accepted elsewhere. We usually respond within a week. Works generally appear a month after acceptance.

More details about submissions are available on the website.

Send submissions and queries to thechambermagazine@gmail.com.

Submit Your Dark Fiction and Poetry to The Chamber

The Chamber Magazine is seeking articles, reviews, essays, poems, and short stories of approximately 7,500 words (note revised word limit) or less including flash, micro fiction, smoke longs, drabbles or of any flavor of short fiction that demonstrates the art of writing dark fiction, whether it be prose, poetry, one-act plays, or any other form of literature.  We want to showcase the genre in all its subtlety, intelligence, art, horror, terror, suspense, thrill-seeking, and gruesome detail. We will accept dark humor provided it follows the guidelines below with regards to content and good taste.

To be good short fiction, the shorter a work is, the more power it must pack.

Welcome genres include:

  • horror
  • fantasy
  • action-adventure
  • suspense/thriller
  • literary
  • science fiction
  • historical
  • mystery/crime
  • noir
  • romance
  • Western
  • experimental
  • cyberpunk
  • steampunk
  • weird fiction
  • gothic
  • general
  • humor
  • any mixture of the above

There is no pay for publication, but the author retains all rights. Reprints are acceptable. Multiple submissions of up to three works per submission are permitted. Simultaneous submissions are permitted, but you must tell us if the work has been accepted elsewhere. We usually respond within a week. Works generally appear a month after acceptance.

More details about submissions are available on the website.

Send submissions and queries to thechambermagazine@gmail.com.

Submit Your Dark Fiction and Poetry to The Chamber

The Chamber Magazine is seeking articles, reviews, essays, poems, and short stories of approximately 7,500 words (note revised word limit) or less including flash, micro fiction, smoke longs, drabbles or of any flavor of short fiction that demonstrates the art of writing dark fiction, whether it be prose, poetry, one-act plays, or any other form of literature.  We want to showcase the genre in all its subtlety, intelligence, art, horror, terror, suspense, thrill-seeking, and gruesome detail. We will accept dark humor provided it follows the guidelines below with regards to content and good taste.

To be good short fiction, the shorter a work is, the more power it must pack.

Welcome genres include:

  • horror
  • fantasy
  • action-adventure
  • suspense/thriller
  • literary
  • science fiction
  • historical
  • mystery/crime
  • noir
  • romance
  • Western
  • experimental
  • cyberpunk
  • steampunk
  • weird fiction
  • gothic
  • general
  • humor
  • any mixture of the above

There is no pay for publication, but the author retains all rights. Reprints are acceptable. Multiple submissions of up to three works per submission are permitted. Simultaneous submissions are permitted, but you must tell us if the work has been accepted elsewhere. We usually respond within a week. Works generally appear a month after acceptance.

More details about submissions are available on the website.

Send submissions and queries to thechambermagazine@gmail.com.

Submit Your Dark Fiction and Poetry to The Chamber

The Chamber Magazine is seeking articles, reviews, essays, poems, and short stories of approximately 7,500 words (note revised word limit) or less including flash, micro fiction, smoke longs, drabbles or of any flavor of short fiction that demonstrates the art of writing dark fiction, whether it be prose, poetry, one-act plays, or any other form of literature.  We want to showcase the genre in all its subtlety, intelligence, art, horror, terror, suspense, thrill-seeking, and gruesome detail. We will accept dark humor provided it follows the guidelines below with regards to content and good taste.

To be good short fiction, the shorter a work is, the more power it must pack.

Welcome genres include:

  • horror
  • fantasy
  • action-adventure
  • suspense/thriller
  • literary
  • science fiction
  • historical
  • mystery/crime
  • noir
  • romance
  • Western
  • experimental
  • cyberpunk
  • steampunk
  • weird fiction
  • gothic
  • general
  • humor
  • any mixture of the above

There is no pay for publication, but the author retains all rights. Reprints are acceptable. Multiple submissions of up to three works per submission are permitted. Simultaneous submissions are permitted, but you must tell us if the work has been accepted elsewhere. We usually respond within a week. Works generally appear a month after acceptance.

More details about submissions are available on the website.

Send submissions and queries to thechambermagazine@gmail.com.

Submit Your Dark Fiction and Poetry to The Chamber

The Chamber Magazine is seeking articles, reviews, essays, poems, and short stories of approximately 7,500 words (note revised word limit) or less including flash, micro fiction, smoke longs, drabbles or of any flavor of short fiction that demonstrates the art of writing dark fiction, whether it be prose, poetry, one-act plays, or any other form of literature.  We want to showcase the genre in all its subtlety, intelligence, art, horror, terror, suspense, thrill-seeking, and gruesome detail. We will accept dark humor provided it follows the guidelines below with regards to content and good taste.

To be good short fiction, the shorter a work is, the more power it must pack.

Welcome genres include:

  • horror
  • fantasy
  • action-adventure
  • suspense/thriller
  • literary
  • science fiction
  • historical
  • mystery/crime
  • noir
  • romance
  • Western
  • experimental
  • cyberpunk
  • steampunk
  • weird fiction
  • gothic
  • general
  • humor
  • any mixture of the above

There is no pay for publication, but the author retains all rights. Reprints are acceptable. Multiple submissions of up to three works per submission are permitted. Simultaneous submissions are permitted, but you must tell us if the work has been accepted elsewhere. We usually respond within a week. Works generally appear a month after acceptance.

More details about submissions are available on the website.

Send submissions and queries to thechambermagazine@gmail.com.

“Open Tuning” Horror by Harrison Kim

Jay is an imposter.  He knows it but doesn’t know why.  Nothing he does feels real, not even his guitar playing.  He moves his fingers to make the chords, yet are the thumbs totally under his control?  “This is not my body,” he thinks as he comes home at midnight and stares up at the cracked ceiling of his musty room.  He stands up and opens his guitar case.  He goes for the sensual, for the rhythm of the moment.  There’s no depth to that, but there’s a stroking, a fingering that moves him on.  

It’s a note-by-note massage, every sound hits a different pressure point.  He plays the classical guitar five hours a day.  The fast songs bring fluttering down his back, the slow numbers ripple up his arms.  

“Your music has such feeling,” says his girlfriend Lana, her dark, even bangs falling in a straight line.  “I sense the notes all over my skin.”

“I know,” says Jay.  “I watch you as I play, and I see you shiver.”

Lana presents an open, smiling face and gestures with her palms towards her heart.  Her voice is a light wind upon him, but that doesn’t relieve his disconnect.

He rides the bus home, aware of the people, he notices the ragged edges of the riding crowd, the lame and the pushy, the loud and the mentally sick.  He imagines them all as skeletons.

There’s one man he always sees, a stumbler, a night drinker.  Aged and alone, this white-haired shrunken wanderer comes round corners when least expected, as if he’s been called.  Every time, the wanderer stares at Jay as if in shock, as if his presence is recognized but unexpected.  Jay locks into that gaze and the two of them cannot move, they’re joined in a timeless look.  As he stares, Jay imagines a terrible shadow, an event between he and the wanderer that overlaps, and possesses them both.  It’s the thing that wakes him at night when he calls out for his body “please give me back my hands!”  And raising his arms, he sees fingers above him and must admit them as his own. 

That night at the concert hall Jay’s backstage, hit by itching static from the crowd sounds, he has trouble staying still, he’s being pushed around by the cacophony.   He scratches the back of his neck until it’s covered with red lines. 

“You have to go on now,” says Lana.  

Jay peers out at the audience.  He sees all their flaws, ears sticking out, tight mouths, scattered laughter.  He peels back their skin in his mind, imagines them as bones.  Still, he can’t stop perceiving what’s on their outsides, their whispers feel like scratches on his back. He has trouble placing his guitar on his knee.  It doesn’t fit into the right place anymore.  

Then he sees someone familiar in the audience.  The sunken chested wanderer.  The hollow cheeked man’s sitting there in the back, and he’s smiling his stoned smile, rocking back and forth.  How could they let this junkie in?  Jay bites his lip and adjusts another string.  

He thinks of Lana, tries to take his mind off the wanderer.  He tunes all his strings to an open E note.  He looks directly at the audience, and begins to play, only using his right hand.  He makes a drone.  All the strings vibrating in sync, a most basic and deep sound.

Jay chants to this drone, and looks out at the audience, at his skinny white-haired nemesis.  He lets his mind go, begins chanting and vocalizing as the sound sends him into a void.  The guitar drones with him, under the power of his left hand.

All falls away, a floating and a rising. Jay pictures his body.  He drifts away into the audience, above the aura of the wanderer, and looks back. Who he sees performing is not himself, it is a skeleton with different flesh and skin.   He hears his voice call from the stage “that is the body of an imposter.  That is not my flesh covering his bones.”  

Jay hears a cacophony of boos, they become louder as he awakens onstage clutching his guitar, he hears people mocking him by droning out of tune.  Others look stricken and concerned. The entire space between him and the wanderer is filled with sound, the vibration of their two lives thrumming across it.

Lana and the stage manager try to pull the guitar from his hands.

“Jay,” says Lana.  “You have to let go.”  

He stops playing.  “That’s the best I’ve ever done,” he says into the mike.  

The wanderer stands in his seat, turns.  Then he claps, and as he claps, he moves to the exit, the back of his head, his fuzzy white mane, bobbing, the rest of him a shadow near the back stairs.

“Thank God you’ve stopped,” A woman in the crowd yells at Jay.  “I will applaud that.”

Jay puts his guitar on the stand, gets up and shakes his arms and legs.  He feels flutters caressing all up and down his spine.  Lana and the stage manager move back.  Jay walks offstage, rubbing his shoulders.  “No more Segovia, no more Bream,” he tells Lana, and treads home alone, back to his single occupancy room.

He paces in his stinky, littered room and can’t sleep.  He goes out to walk the wee hour streets, watching for shadows, for flaws and fissures, breakdowns in the night. He sidles into the park, listening for prowlers stepping on broken branches, for the whirling bicycle wheels of blood poisoned addicts, and all the time the droning of the guitar drones through his head.

He glimpses a shadow stumble across the grass, towards the river.  He senses who it is, the white hair streaming out under the moon, and as he closes in, he sees the wanderer’s thin shoulders under a torn grey blazer.  Jay doesn’t make a sound, as he feels again that void, that emptiness between his current body and the wanderer’s.  He rushes forward into emptiness as the wanderer slopes his shoulders in the water’s direction.  Before the skeletal figure dives, Jay leaps out and grabs the collar of that blazer and pulls the old man down.

He feels bones beneath the grey cloth covered back, such a thin cover on top. Jay’s thrown down a sack of bones, he jumps up and the sack turns around and shows its face. The little flesh the sack has resembles Jay’s brown skin, especially when it raises its arms and the fingers grab out against the sky, like they’re playing some kind of invisible instrument, and the hairs on the arms are shadowed black under the moonlight.

“Oooooooh,” sings the wanderer inside the sack, and the mouth grins.  “Ooooooh,” Jay hears the drone, in his own voice.

“I’m just like everybody else,” Jay thinks then.  “I am everybody else.”

He lies on top and lets the wanderer sing below him.  He knows that he’s split apart, flesh on top, bones below.   He that perfection of tone.  Now he hears it from the lipless mouth beneath him.  He listens, and pushes down, listens some more, and pushes again.  He stands up, turns away, and leaves behind the calling bones.  The sounds fade as they sink into the earth.  

He meets Lana the next day for a coffee. 

“You seemed kind of possessed last night,” says Lana.  “In some kind of frozen state.”

“Jitters,” he says.

“What was that you said about Segovia?” she asks.

“I want to play my own music,” Jay answers. “And I want to play with you.”

The coffee shop server tells him to go round the side to pick up his drink.

“Give me the coffee right here,” says Jay.  “It’s in your hand.”
“You’re a stubborn guy,” says the server, and passes him the drink.

“Consider yourself lucky to have followed my directions,” Jay calls out.  

He turns to Lana and moves his mouth into a skull like grin.

That night, in their lovemaking, Jay makes rhythm to hear Lana’s perfect moan, to push the inner most sounds from her body.  When he overcomes Lana beneath him, she cries in ecstasy.  His fingers touching her are the same as his spirit, connected and alive.  He raises an arm and looks at it, feels the weight of covered bone, and because he’s fused this flesh to his mind, he’ll claim it as his own.  


Harrison notes: “I live and write in Victoria, Canada.  Many of my stories are inspired by the years I worked as the teacher at a Forensic Psychiatric Hospital.  My blog spot is here: https://harrisonkim1.blogspot.com . “