“The Guest” Science-Fiction by James Hanna

"The Guest" Science-Fiction by James Hanna

Only females had escaped the disaster—a hundred tiny creatures known as Aphrodites although the press dubbed them Thumbelinas.  Their survival was not due to the imprecision of the meteor that had destroyed their little world, but because males had no apparent ranking on the planet Aphrodite.  And so a miniature spacecraft, containing only women, had been plucked from the asteroid belt by the mining shuttle returning to earth.  So enchanting was the diminutive cargo of the spacecraft that every one of the Thumbelinas had been safely delivered to the NASA laboratories.

Henry Hokum first learned of the creatures from his daughter, Deborah.  “Can we adopt one, Daddy?” she asked.  “Can we?  Please?  They’re only six inches tall.”  He studied the newspaper article that his daughter had thrust into his hands—an article confirming that the government would not be segregating the Thumbelinas at the laboratories.  Instead, the women would be placed with a hundred carefully chosen families across the country.  This seemed partly due to the fiery temperament of the little creatures, the consistency with which they irritated one another, often coming to blows or stabbing each other with wee hairpins.  If left to its own devices, the race seemed determined to self-destruct, and so it seemed wise to assimilate the women individually into their new world.

Only females had escaped the disaster—a hundred tiny creatures known as Aphrodites although the press dubbed them Thumbelinas.  Their survival was not due to the imprecision of the meteor that had destroyed their little world, but because males had no apparent ranking on the planet Aphrodite.  And so a miniature spacecraft, containing only women, had been plucked from the asteroid belt by the mining shuttle returning to earth.  So enchanting was the diminutive cargo of the spacecraft that every one of the Thumbelinas had been safely delivered to the NASA laboratories.

Henry Hokum first learned of the creatures from his daughter, Deborah.  “Can we adopt one, Daddy?” she asked.  “Can we?  Please?  They’re only six inches tall.”  He studied the newspaper article that his daughter had thrust into his hands—an article confirming that the government would not be segregating the Thumbelinas at the laboratories.  Instead, the women would be placed with a hundred carefully chosen families across the country.  This seemed partly due to the fiery temperament of the little creatures, the consistency with which they irritated one another, often coming to blows or stabbing each other with wee hairpins.  If left to its own devices, the race seemed determined to self-destruct, and so it seemed wise to assimilate the women individually into their new world.

“A planet?” he said.  “In the asteroid belt?”

His daughter laughed.  “It’s magic, Daddy—magic.”

He shrugged and shook his head.   Since the situation defied both science and speculation, it seemed best to submit to a child’s interpretation of the matter.

“All right,” he murmured, not in the spirit of charity but because he owed his daughter a concession.  His daughter had scarcely benefitted when his divorce had been finalized last month, when his ex-wife had reminded him that ten years of marriage were enough.  “We were good together, Henry,” she had told him. “Just like a pair of old shoes.  But who wants to live with an old shoe?”  He had nodded profoundly and had felt vitalized for the first time in years.  A towering man with wandering eyes, he was more like a spring bull than an old shoe.  And so he had been trolling the singles bars while his daughter remained with a sitter.

“Can we, Daddy?  Can we?  Their hair is so golden.”

He looked at his daughter and smiled indulgently.  He was glad to have her for the summer, but she had grown clingy since the divorce and her clinginess too often kept him from the bars.  Perhaps a diversion, something to compensate for her mother’s absence, would help him take better advantage of his freedom.

“All right,” he repeated.  “If that’s what you want.  Let’s adopt a Thumbelina.”

*

A letter from NASA arrived in the mail.  He opened it and read.

May 3, 2040

Dear Henry Hokum & Daughter:

Congratulations.  You have been selected as a host family for one of our Thumbelinas.  Her name is Clarissa and she will provide you with hours of intrigue and entertainment.  You will particularly enjoy it when she sings since her voice is sweet, full, and purer than that of any nightingale.  Sometimes, she can be a little temperamental, but this can be moderated with steady attention and a select diet.  Please stock up on honey, cantaloupes, and sunflower seeds.  These are her favorite foods.  She also needs lots of milk, not to drink but to bathe in because her skin is very delicate.  We will deliver Clarissa to your home in one week.  Should things work out, the arrangement may be made permanent.

Thank you for opening your heart to a little refugee.

The letter was signed by Jean Hargrove, a public relations official with NASA.   Startled by the news, Henry called her office immediately.  She answered her phone on the first ring, as though she had been expecting his call.

“Ms. Hargrove?!”

“Yes.”

“Henry Hokum.  You wrote me about a Thumbelina.  About my providing a home for one of them.”

“We know that, Mr. Hokum.”

“There must have been a mistake.”
“No, Mr. Hokum.  There’s been no mistake.”

“I’m a barfly, a jerk—a pop music promoter.  My wife left me a month ago.”

“We know all that, sir.  You were carefully investigated.”

“Well isn’t there a problem?”

“No, Mr. Hokum.  There would only be a problem if you were a married barfly.  Thumbelinas are very jealous.  They cannot abide the presence of wives, mistresses, or lovers—not for very long.”

“What about my daughter?”

“She’ll make an allowance for your daughter.  Children of ten, they like.  Perhaps because they share the same emotional level.”

“So how did they build a spacecraft?”

“We really don’t know, Mr. Hokum.  Theories abound but we really don’t know.  Perhaps it was a gift from an interplanetary civilization.  One that takes pity on tiny creatures in distress.”

“And how did they survive in the asteroid belt?”

“We don’t know that either, Mr. Hokum.  We don’t understand their language—not yet.”

Then why are you placing them with families?”

“We believe it will speed up communications.  Collectively, they’re disinclined to talk to us.  Mostly, they just jabber among one another and get into fights.”

“I’m terrible with women.  Just ask my ex-wife.  I’m a bore.”

“Don’t worry, Mr. Hokum.  Thumbelinas are not impressed by men.  We want her to feel at home, don’t we?”

Henry sighed and scratched his head.  He was totally out of objections.

“One week,” he said.

“One week, Mr. Hokum.  And please buy some sunflower seeds.”

*

The following morning, a delivery van pulled into his driveway.  A few minutes later, the doorbell rang.  Henry cringed as he answered the door.

“A delivery, Mr. Hokum.”

Henry looked with astonishment at the miniature house that a pair of deliverymen were carting on a dolly.   Moments later, the men were gone and the house lay parked in a sunny corner of his living room.

Henry studied the house.  It was a marvelous construction—six feet high, solar powered, and lined with tiny green shutters that complemented its white siding.  He slipped loose a panel, examined the interior, and was even more amazed.  The house had an elaborately decorated living room, a bathroom with shiny faucets, a spacious bedroom with a telephone—even a gymnasium.  Obviously, no expense had been spared to make his small visitor feel at home.

When his daughter came home from day camp, she squealed.

“Is that for me, Daddy?”

He shrugged guiltily.  “No, Deborah.  That’s a real house.”

“It’s wonderful.  How does it work?

“It’s powered by the sun.”

Holding her breath, Deborah peeked into the house.  She ran her hand over the stunted staircase, a bed no larger than a book, and the little treadmill in the gymnasium.  She touched a tiny light switch and gasped when the living room came aglow.

“I can’t wait till she’s here, Daddy.  We’re going to be such friends—her and me.”

Henry patted his daughter on the shoulder.

“Even the plumbing works,” he said.

*

Six days later, a tall saturnine woman was standing in his doorway.  She frowned when he asked her in, as though he were inviting her to bed.  She was holding a briefcase and what appeared to be a shoebox with holes.

“Mr. Hokum?”

“Yes?”

“I’m Jean Hargrove.  We made an appointment.”

“A week ago,” he admitted.

“And the week is over, Mr. Hokum.  I would like to introduce you to your guest.  And then I would like to go.”

“Why the rush?”

“There’s no rush, Mr. Hokum.  I would simply like to go.”

She followed him into the living room where she dropped the briefcase and then set the box upon the coffee table.  She then stared at him critically, as though he were an intruder in his own home.

“Let’s wake her gently, shall we?  She’s napping.”

She lifted the lid off the box and he gaped.   Asleep on a velvet cushion was a perfect miniature of a woman.  She was beautiful, incredibly beautiful—her skin so white and shiny that she appeared to be made of porcelain.  Only when she stirred, brushing her long blonde hair from her eyes, did he realize that she was a living being.  She looked at him with a mixture of curiosity and reserve.

“You might introduce yourself,” Jean said.

He continued to stare, too dumbfounded to speak.  “Henry,” he finally stammered, slapping his chest as he spoke.  The slap brought a hiccup to his voice.

The tiny woman smiled and he felt himself blushing.  Although the smile did not seem spontaneous, it was entirely disarming.  Even her dimples had dimples. 

Felling wholly embarrassed, he looked back at Jean, but her presence did not reassure him.  Next to the dazzling creature in the box, she looked like a big awkward horse.  His eyes, as though drawn by a magnet, returned to the tiny woman.

“Hey there, Dolly,” he said.

Jean scowled.  “Her name is Clarissa, Mr. Hokum.  Please have the courtesy to address her by her name.  Now show her the house we delivered you.”

Henry pointed towards the little white home with the green shutters.  Noticing it, Clarissa yawned.  She did not seem surprised or unduly impressed.  Obviously, her startling beauty had endowed her with a king-sized sense of entitlement.

“I said, show her, Mr. Hokum.  Carry her over to it.”

Pick her up?”

“Yes, Mr. Hokum.  She expects to be carried.”

Self-consciously, he extended his hand towards the tiny woman.  He felt like a panhandler and was surprised when she hopped instantly into his palm.  She was warmer—far warmer—than he expected her to be.

Although his palm itched, he carried her to the house and deposited her in front of the doorway.  His embarrassment increased when she looked up at him, placing her hand on her hip, teapot-style.  She seemed to be in a hurry.

“Open the door for her, Mr. Hokum.”

Slowly, as though performing surgery, he pushed the door open with his fingers.  As she vanished into the house, he sighed with satisfaction.  He felt as though he had passed a test.

“So what happens now?”

Jean opened the briefcase.  “Now you will sign our agreement, sir.  The agreement gives you custody of Clarissa for one month.  During that month, you will interact with her, make her feel welcome, and try to teach her some of our language.  Just a few words will do—we’re not expecting rapid progress.”

“I’m a bad conversationalist—ask my ex-wife.  She says I’m a Neanderthal.”

“It’s just as well that you are, Mr. Hokum.  We don’t want to over stimulate Clarissa, do we?”

She placed the paperwork on the coffee table and handed him a pen.  Shrugging, he accepted the pen and signed the contract with an exaggerated flourish.  With his visitor now out-of-sight, he began to doubt that she truly existed.

Jean took back the contract and stuffed it into her briefcase.  “Thank you, Mr. Hokum.  If you have no more questions, I’ll leave you alone with her.”

His skin prickled as he followed her to the doorway.  He felt ill at ease, as though she might suddenly arrest him for fraud.  His heart missed a beat when her hand hesitated upon the door handle.

“We’ll check back with you in a month,” she said.

He nodded.

“And, Mr. Hokum.”

“Yes?”

“Good luck with her.”

*

Clarissa did not speak to him for the rest of the day.  Instead, she remained in her house—there he could hear her puttering in the bathroom, running on the treadmill, and chatting on the tiny phone in her bedroom.  Her voice had a rich lilting quality, but she spoke a language completely unrecognizable to him.  Apparently, she was talking to another little refugee somewhere in America.

When Deborah returned home from day camp, she squealed: Clarissa was peeping at her from the doorway of her house.  “We’re going to be such friends,” Deborah cried, a prediction that was instantly fulfilled.  Within minutes, the two girls were in Deborah’s bedroom, laughing, shrieking, and banging about like old friends at play.  They don’t even need a language, Henry thought, and the realization made him envious.

What was going on in there?  Aching with curiosity, Henry slipped down the hallway and peaked into the bedroom.  The two were playing Whack-a-Mole, a game involving an electronic rodent attempting to dodge a rubber mallet.  Deborah was wielding the mallet; Clarissa, skipping about on the game board, was teasing the critter from its hole.  She showed no compassion when the mallet struck the rodent, causing it to squeal like a pig.

Noticing him at the doorway, Deborah froze the mallet in mid-air.  “Leave, Daddy,” she said.

“How come?”

“Clarissa thinks you’re weird.”

He looked at Clarissa, hoping for some support, and was struck once more by the irrelevance of language.  The pout of her little mouth, the thrust of her tiny chin, the iciness of her stare all spoke a clear message:  Get Out.  But even in defiance, she was beautiful—so much so that she appeared to glow.  For all true purposes, she might have been a fairy.

Feeling justly chastised, Henry stepped away from the door and slunk back down the hallway.  Once he was seated in his den, laughter again spilled from his daughter’s bedroom.

*

The next day, he awoke to a beautiful song—a song so enchanting, so lively and full, that it reminded him of water tripping along a brook.  It was the purest sound he had ever heard—so utterly engrossing that, had he been a sailor, he would have run himself aground rather than drift away from it.  Spellbound, he arose from his bed and walked in the direction of the song.  He walked slowly, carefully—contemptuous of the sound of his feet.  Reaching the living room, he paused: Clarissa was indeed singing in her little home—singing so bewitchingly that she might have been an angel of the morning.  He stood there for an hour, listening to her sing, and when she was finished he felt an irrepressible sadness.

It wasn’t until he heard Deborah cheer that he noticed his daughter beside him.  “Wasn’t that lovely, Daddy?” she said.

“Incredible,” he replied.  “I never heard such a tune.”

“Yes you have, Daddy.  It’s ‘Hang on Sloopy.’  I taught it to her last night.”

He shook his head disbelievingly.  The song, on some ethereal level, did bear a slight resemblance to “Hang on Sloopy”—that trivial classic of the sixties.   But the thought of this in no way dampened his spirits; he continued to feel such joy—such pure and utter elation—that he could not contain it.  He dialed Jean Hargrove on her cell phone.

Yes, Mr. Hokum?”  Her voice was like sandpaper.

“She sang.”

I know that, Mr. Hokum.  Thumbelinas sing every morning—at sunrise.  They’re singing all across America right now.”

“Every morning?”

Yes, Mr. Hokum—every morning.  I think it’s some kind of ritual.”

“It was ‘Hang on Sloopy’.”

Her chuckle was like the raw cackle of a crow.  “That doesn’t surprise me, Mr. Hokum.  They’ve also sung car commercials.”

“It was incredible.”

Maybe so, Mr. Hokum.  But singing makes her ravenous.  Please don’t delay her breakfast.”

“Will that make her cranky?”

Very cranky, Mr. Hokum.”

He put down the phone and stumbled towards the kitchen.  There, he fixed scrambled eggs and placed a small portion into a bottle cap.  He also filled a thimble with coffee.   Returning to the living room, breakfast in hand, he tapped softly on the door to the little house.

She was wearing a bathrobe when she opened the door, a loose-fitting garment that puddled around her feet.  Clearly, he had interrupted her bath and, clearly, she was not happy.  She looked at him so coldly that he almost dropped her breakfast.

“Daddy,” Deborah cried.  “The sunflower seeds.”

Leaving the breakfast at her doorway, he dashed back to the kitchen.  The sunflower seeds.  He located a package of them and poured a small handful into a saucer.

“She likes them steamy, Daddy.  I gave her some last night.”

Panicked, he thrust the saucer into the microwave and hit the timer.  When the seeds were hot, he sighed with relief.  The plate burned his fingers when he retrieved it from the microwave, but he clutched it stoically and hurried on back to the living room.  Clarissa was still standing at the doorway to her house. 

“Be careful,” he warned her.  “They’re hot.”

She made no reply when he placed the saucer at her feet.  Instead, she bent over, gripped the rim on either side, and lifted it like an enormous tray.  Without a backwards glance, she squeezed the saucer through the little doorway.

Deborah clapped her hands.  “Thank you, Daddy.  She’ll need a big breakfast.”

“What have you two got planned?”

“Songs, of course.  And maybe a game.”

“More Whack-a Mole?”

Deborah giggled.  “Don’t be silly, Daddy.  I’m teaching her Monopoly.”

*

His envy of the girls—their quick and easy rapport—grew with each passing day.  But it also annoyed him that Clarissa—although only a fiftieth of Deborah’s size—was clearly the dominant of the two.  This was never clearer than when Deborah was tardy in fetching Clarissa her hairbrush, fixing her a snack, or heating up milk for her bath.  At such times, Clarissa would fly into rages—furies so epic that her voice would become as shrill as chalk scraping a blackboard.  Meanwhile, Deborah would scamper about in a breathless effort to placate her little ally.

One day, Henry had had enough.  “Why,” he asked his daughter, “do you let her push you around like that?”

“She’s so beautiful, Daddy.  I just hate to see her upset.”

“She’ll be a lot more upset when I flush her down the toilet.”

Deborah gasped.  “Daddy.  That would be mur-der.”

He shook his head—undeterred.  The thought of an inquisition—even a prison term—was secondary to the joy he would feel in getting rid of the little bitch.  But it did seem fair to warn her before flushing her down the toilet.  He rapped sharply upon the door to her little house.

She was wearing a jogging suit when she opened the door and her skin, normally lily-white, was flushed and glistening.  He pointed a finger at her midriff.

“No more tantrums,” he said.

She looked at him stonily, as though he were something an animal had dropped at her doorstep.  Her face was now redder than a cherry tomato.

“NO MORE TANTRUMS,” he repeated, emphasizing each word with a thrust of his finger.

She continued to glare at him, her arms folded haughtily across her chest.  Her eyes were so piercing, her stare so contemptuous, that he suddenly felt like a schoolyard bully.  When she slammed the door in his face, he flinched: he could hear her yammering behind the door—a tirade that was only intensified by his inability to comprehend a word of it.

Utterly frustrated, he called up Jean Hargrove.  “Please come and get her,” he begged.

Why?”

“Just listen to her.”  He held up the telephone then returned it to his ear.  “She’s scolding me like a shrew.”

Maybe you deserve it, Mr. Hokum.  You are a bit of a hound, you know.”

“I don’t deserve this much scolding.”

Well, you did sign a contract, sir.

“Not to be abused in this manner, I didn’t.”

In what manner would you like to be abused?  Tell her—perhaps she’ll oblige.”

“What gives her the right?  I’ve been a perfect host.”

Not from what I hear.  I hear you were watching her take a bath.”

“That was an accident.  And how did you find out?”

She complained about you to one of her little friends.  A few Thumbelinas have learned a bit of English, sir.”

“Maybe they could talk to her—tell her to respect her host.”

Maybe you could tell her.  Remember your mission, Mr. Hokum—to communicate with an alien race.  Let’s not lose sight of it, sir.”

 “I’m doing my best.”

“Are you?  Then why don’t I sense any progress?”

She won’t even speak to me.  She’d rather play games with Deborah.”

“Then it’s time you took charge of matters.”

“How?”

Figure it out.  Aren’t you the mature one?”

“You called me a hound.  That’s not saying much.”

“Much is not required here, sir.  Just teach her a few words of English.  We’ll be checking up on you at the end of the month.”

When the phone line went dead, he felt totally lost. The room was now quieter than a morgue.  What was she up to behind that little door?

He looked at his daughter.  “So what do I do?”

“Stay away from her house, Daddy.  She thinks you’re a burglar.

*

In the evenings, the three of them would watch television together.  At such moments, Clarissa would perch herself upon his shoulder—not in the spirit of intimacy but to get a better view of the programs.  She was captivated by American Idol and would watch the reruns for hours, memorizing tunes she would sing the following morning.  Complemented by her voice, the tunes would instantly blossom, acquiring a fullness so stunning and rare that the songs, in their original versions, seemed like rank parodies.  She also liked movies—old DVDs—and would grow irritable if he failed to replay them constantly.  Her favorite was Pulp Fiction.

Feeling increasingly trapped in his house, Henry spent more time at the singles bars—a futile pursuit since, whenever he brought a woman home, she would have to deal with Clarissa.  Standing at the doorway to her house, her hands upon her hips, she would look at his guest as though she were urinating on the rug.  He hoped the women would dismiss Clarissa as a chimera—the product of too much booze—but instead, they would dash out the door while Clarissa hurled gibberish at them.

He changed his tactics, allowing the women to take him to their homes, but the results were pretty much the same.  Clarissa would be awaiting him when he returned the following morning—her gaze so intimidating, so utterly self-righteous, that he felt as though he had slighted a queen.  And so, feeling like a trespasser in his own life, he would creep to the solitude of his den.

But communications were still an issue—at least to Jean Hargrove who came to see him at the end of the month.  After spending an hour with Clarissa, she looked at him sternly.

Explain yourself,” she demanded.

“She’s taken over.”

“I’m talking about language.  She hasn’t learned a thing.”

“She’d rather scold my dates.”

“Can’t she do that in English, Mr. Hokum?  She’s way behind the rest of the Thumbelinas.  Some are reciting Hallmark cards.”  She sighed, opened her cell phone, and made a notation on her calendar.  “One week, Mr. Hokum.  You have one week more.  If she hasn’t learned something—even if it’s just one word—I’ll place her with another family.”

“I’ll try,” he replied—a promise he intended to keep.  In the company of his little mistress—her relentless sense of proprietorship—he felt like an unworthy servant.  And so he resigned himself to teaching Clarissa English.

*

The following morning, she was gone.  He sensed this instantly, not because the house was silent—not even because the living room window was ajar—but because the little woman was so often incensed with him.  But he did not panic until he had checked the little house, looked under the living room sofa, and peered into his daughter’s room—and his panic was very brief.  Clarissa’s absence did create an uncommon sense of dread in him, but then again so had her presence.  And so it was not until Deborah spoke up that he realized the seriousness of Clarissa’s departure.

“You left the window open, Daddy.”

“We needed the air.”

“Now Clarissa’s gone.”

“Maybe she just went for a walk.”

Deborah started sobbing.  “We have to find her, Daddy.  A cat’s gonna grab her.”

He tried to joke her out of it—“Feel sorry for the cat”—but Deborah was inconsolable.  “It’s your fault, Daddy.  I’ll hate you forever.”

While Deborah sobbed, he continued his search.  He checked the birdbath in the driveway; he spread the hedges next to the house; he shined a flashlight into the gopher holes in the backyard.  Finding no sign of her, he jumped into his car—a shiny red Porsche—and drove up and down the neighborhood streets.  Deborah, sitting beside him, grabbed his arm whenever she spotted a robin, a sparrow, or a chipmunk.  “There she is, Daddy.”  But the tiny woman was nowhere to be seen—not even after he had been cruising the streets for several hours.  Desperate, he began knocking on doors, but none of the neighbors were helpful.  One of them, an irate woman with massive forearms, even glared at him.  “Waddayawant with a Thumbalina?” she spat.  “I hear they suck your breath while you’re sleepin’—like cats.”

At the end of the day, completely exhausted, he phoned Jean Hargrove.  “We’ve lost her,” he said.

“Lost her, Mr. Hokum?  Just what do you mean by lost her?”

“She slipped out the living room window.”

“After you left it open, I assume.”

“I only wanted air.”

And did you get some air, sir?”

“Plenty.  I’ve been searching the whole neighborhood for her.”

That won’t get you out of the woods, Mr. Hokum.  She was your responsibility, you know.”

“What more do you want me to do?”

He heard her sigh deeply.  “Nothing.  She’ll only come back if she chooses to.  It’s not uncommon for Thumbelinas to leave a home—usually it happens when they’re displeased with their host.  Was she displeased with you, Mr. Hokum?”

“I guess I was too much hound for her.”

Don’t flatter yourself, Mr. Hokum.  Probably, you weren’t enough of a hound.  Thumbelinas are only satisfied with blind devotion.”

“So where will she go?”

She’ll probably adopt another family.  There are plenty of people who would love to have a Thumbelina in their home.”

“What if she doesn’t like them either?”

If she doesn’t like them, she might give you another chance.”

“When is that likely to happen?”

Maybe in a week or two—if she doesn’t like them.  That will give you an opportunity to make amends.”

Become her slave, you mean.”

“If you want to put it that way—yes.

“I do want to put it that way.”

I’ll make a note of it, Mr. Hokum.  Let us know if she shows up.”

*

Three weeks passed and Clarissa did not return.  Deborah, true to her promise to forever hate him, went to live with her mother full-time.  She left while he was out on one of his prowls.  Returning home, he saw a note upon the coffee table—a note with his ex-wife’s scrawl.

He picked up the note and read.

Henry,

When I left you, I had hoped you might grow up a little.  But it seems I’ve overestimated you once again.  So now it’s a living Barbie doll.  How did you get involved in something so sick?  And don’t try to say it was Debbie’s idea—she calls you an oinker behind your back.

Weren’t your other toys enough for you? The speed boat, the sports car, that damn swinger’s network you made me join. Did you have to get involved with a fickle little alien?  And did you have to let Debbie fall in love with her? You know how attached she gets to stray things.  But stray things wander off, Henry—you of all people should know that.  Really, I’ve never been more disappointed in you.

The damnedest thing is you will have to fetch her back.  Debbie is heartbroken—she cries every day—and I’m left to pick up the pieces once again.

I’m furious with you, Henry, so please don’t try and phone me.  Your daughter will be staying with me until further notice—or at least until that ridiculous pixie is found.

He put down the letter and started making plans.  Since further searching seemed useless, it was time to seek distractions—ways to ease the time until Clarissa might deign to return.  Thank Heaven for his toys.

He continued to cruise the nightspots, picking up women at random.  In defiance of Clarissa, her rare and uncompromising beauty, he grew less selective: it was now easier to overlook platinum blonde hair, starched face-lifts, and sagging boobs.  Solace, not beauty, was the point after all: the warmth of a cocktail, the glow of muted lights, and the thrill of anticipation before he moved in for the kill.  And his pickups, recognizing him for the hound he was, did not grow cross when his conversation lapsed and his eyes wandered fleetingly around the bar.  “You’re a one-nighter, slick,” one of them remarked before he took her home.  “But one-nighters are the best of all.”

And so, in the absence of his little mistress, he had himself a ball.

*

She came back on a Sunday morning, awakening him with the musical lilt of her voice.  The song was coming from the living room, where he had left the window open.  And the song was so captivating, so stunningly rich, that he barely recognized it as “Baby One More Time”—a Britney Spears number.  She must have learned it wherever she had been staying—probably there had probably been a teenager in the house and they had not gotten along.

He crept into the living room, careful not to make the slightest sound.  He could hear the water running in her bathroom: a lyrical tinkle that mingled so perfectly with her voice that she might have been a siren perched upon a river bank.  But not even a siren could have sung a song so beautifully.  It therefore seemed a sacrilege when he picked up his telephone and dialed Jean Hargrove.

Jean answered him on the first ring.  “Yes, Mr. Hokum?”

“She’s back.”

I know that, sir.  I can hear her.”

“Am I out of the woods?”

Has she learned any English?”

“I don’t think so.”

Then you’re not out of the woods, sir.”

“Give me a break.  She’s been gone for three weeks.”

You’ve had your break, sir.  I’ll be over in one hour.  If she’s not speaking some of our language—even if it’s just a word—I’ll be taking her with me.”

He hung up the phone, grateful for the delay—grateful that he would have another hour to hear her sing.  And her last trilling note had just faded away when he heard the knock on the door.  A moment later, Jean Hargrove was standing in his living room.

“Well, Mr., Hokum?”  He face was expressionless, like that of an executioner, and she was carrying the shoebox with holes.  Her eyes followed him as he rapped tentatively upon the door to Clarissa’s house.

 She answered the door in her bathrobe.  She looked weary and ruffled, like a housewife recovering from a hard day—but the curlers in her hair and the cream upon her face in no way diminished her startling beauty.  She watched him coquettishly as he patted himself upon his chest.

 “Henry,” he declared.

She smiled, a smile more dismissive than spontaneous—obviously, she was in a hurry to return to her bathroom.  Shaking her head, she drew a deep breath.

Oinker,” she piped.

The water kept tinkling. He looked at Jean Hargrove and smiled.  “There you are.”


This story was originally published in Zymbol.


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, four of which have won awards, are available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/-/es/James-Hanna/e/B00WNH356Y?ref_=dbs_p_ebk_r00_abau_000000


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Any time is a good time for chocolate.

“Tide Turners” Flash by Billy Stanton

Tide Turners by Billy Stanton. The Chamber Magazine

Their hands kept slipping while they lashed the bodies to the stakes driven into the iron-grey silt.  The ocean- an even deeper shade of grey but subtly alive, foaming and bubbling- held back its fury and waited.  One of the men, stuffing his hand between a captive’s black teeth to put an end to her godforsaken screeching, felt as if the sea was observing them through the prism of many melancholy eyes and lamenting what would come of their work.

 Cnut stood overlooking the tenuous plot of half-land, this gloomy island that existed only in certain stretches of the blighted day, with his closest men.  It was a supposedly wise one, foolishly emboldened by his position, who whispered to him.

 “It’s the third tide here already at Hamtun today.  Begging your pardon, my Lord, but what other reason could there be to explain this?”

 Cnut said nothing at first, but mounted his horse to gain a better aspect and rest his wearied legs.  When he eventually spoke he was neither imperious nor definitive but slow, quiet, contemplative.  He, like the sea, was already in mourning.

 “If you still, after all, refuse to accept that there is but one true power, and not many middling and earthbound ones, then look and see now.”

 The captors, their work done, came slouching up to the road dropping stinking clods of mud and leaking saltwater.  They were as dark and unknowable now as they often were in battle and just as displeased with their lot.  In this dreary landscape drained of colour, where the sea could not be made separate from the sky, where people were shadows and day was perpetual twilight, there was no nobility amongst any, and Cnut would have tied himself to one of the stakes below if the last solitary glint of light shining in his heart at that moment had been any feebler.

“Curse this land.  Curse what they make us do to them.”

He adjusted his crown and turned his head away.  His men were shivering; the rope-bearers were smearing the dirt from their clothes in the long grass.  Little puddles were drying on the cracked brown earth where they had wrung out all they could wring out.

Time crawled by as Cnut preoccupied himself with thoughts of Wareham.  He saw the piles of bodies, inkless and bloodless, their throats slashed by the heathens.  Only the scale, only the numbers moved him.  Individual bodies, dead and defiled: he had seen enough of those, and seen what his men did to them.  There always arrives a time, he thought, when a King becomes blind to individuality in either living or dead subjects; when a person becomes but a vague thing, and the kingdom- once even vaguer than that- clear and defined and strong.  The latter vision, he knew however, was usually a false one: a dream to pass on, to lull one to sleep, to turn scarlet in sacred premonitions that demanded the swiftest action.  The people on the stakes before him, his men succumbing to their native beliefs, their distance from him now on this bank- that was proof enough that nothing is ever really united, everything is blurred and all is always on the point of collapse.

The sea was flowing in and was almost up to the knees of the savages below.

 “Do you see them commanding their ranks of white horses?”

Cnut turned to his men, but they shrunk back, refusing his gaze.  He had tried to force fire through his weariness; tried to put black in his eyes, a sharp edge on his words, unlike the last time he had spoken.

He returned to watching.  The bound figures were absolutely still and silent now.  If he were not afraid to admit it, Cnut would almost have thought them holy in their pose and manner.  They had bowed their heads to watch the water rise upon them, to see white salt marks climbing up their clothes, filling their wounds with stinging.  They did not scream, protest or squirm any longer.  They seemed to accept their dual fate as martyrs to disproof and unwitting confirmers of beliefs that were not theirs.

When the sea finally came and filled their lungs and buried them, without treasure or comfort for the afterlife, in its great grey tomb, they continued to stay as motionless as they had for almost the whole period of waiting once the men had left them and ascended the path.  They did not thrash about in whatever pathetic way their binds would allow them; they offered no reproach or remonstrance.  The unfortunates on their primitive crucifixes were swept out of existence so utterly and so brutally that it was as if they had never existed at all.  Neither the ancient and near barren fields of their recent workaday pasts or this stark and frigid harbour appeared prepared to remember them.

 Cnut’s men were almost as silent as the drowned at the end.  There was no call of triumph, no jubilations, no apologies to God or King.  If Cnut had not present perhaps there would have been weeping.  His words were brief.  There was no need for anything more.

“They control no tide.  They have no powers.  Sack the rest of them.  No fear.  Take them for all they have.  Our truth is the only truth.  Those who accept it, follow to Wintanceaster.”

 Cnut led his horse off.  The men followed, not looking over the bank at the water where the silt and coarse bunches of seagrass had been.  The wind whistled a ballad, no heroic poetry, no sword-bearing parody.  Seabirds filled the dark cavern of the sky, waiting for the third tide to subside and the carcasses to become uncovered.  What was known- really known, truly known, but hidden until the end- was carried away on the white horses.  No more would have it, as they shouldn’t, and it would dissolve to nothing as it was spread around the great expanse of the world.


Billy Stanton is a young working-class writer and filmmaker based in London, and originally from Portsmouth. His story ‘Screwfix’ was recently published in ‘New Towns’ (Wild Pressed Books). His short fiction has also appeared in Horla and The Chamber magazines. His latest short film ‘Noli is currently in post-production. His blog can be found at: steelcathedrals.wordpress.com


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“Never Again” Dark Fiction by R.P. Singletary

"Never

She slept late again, and they fired her. With a text. Fired her by text. Not even official, but personal phone to personal phone, no disclaimer from lawyer or form from HR.

She slept late this morning and didn’t care. She had enough saved up for a week’s worth of groceries, insurance paid up, car paid off, but there was Shelley. And there was Shelley.

She could never figure out Shelley, asset or liability?, but Shelley always there. Shelley’s bank account always flush, never a negative word from the body, and always a good time. They had fun last night, and both still asleep, well she was pretending to be.

She had roused too many times during the night, too much beer five nights in a row catching up with her thirty-four-year-old bladder that felt to be two. She didn’t know how Shelley managed, could go weeks without a piss. Shelley always complained of constipation, though. She hoped the child wouldn’t get stones, kidney or gall or any of those. The child needed to drink more, more from the faucet.

“Did your Dad get outta prison last month like he was supposed?” Shelley asked without a rollover, words spit into yellow pillow. She could tell Shelley feared bringing up the subject even then.

“Dunno. He didn’t call. I didn’t call. No one else either. I don’t care.”

“You don’t care about your father’s release? The man old.” More spit into pillow.

“How many relatives of yours you helped after prison?” she asked Shelley.

“None.”

“See my point.”

“None of my relatives ever been in the slammer. They pay their taxes and don’t hit women or kids.”

“No one in the South can say such and mean it for God’s truth.”

“None in my family.” Shelley’s face still in the pillow.

“You obviously don’t know your second-cousins’ in-laws.”

“Whatever.”

I replayed the scene in my head all morning long. Shelley long gone before Dad came over that night many months later. The child knew I was joking, I hoped. Dad had gotten out five weeks prior. First, he wanted a dental check. I told him I would buy him a nice steak dinner that first night out. “Trust me, dentist first,” he said, “then steak.” It took me a minute before I understood what he’d meant. Tonight was the night. I’d be paying for teeth longer than steak, but this wasn’t cheap either. Best cut in the store, I had it all out on the table, seasoned like I remembered he ate, salt and pepper dead center. He already had some girlfriend, said they’d met in prison.

“What?” My nerves rattled with that sentence end.

“She has this craze for inmates.” He ate fast, then slow. “Some charity case forwarded me her letter.” He asked for more pepper. “Needed another man in stripes, yeah she out in the car.”

“What?”

“Yeah, just two stones’ throws away, look if ya don’t believe me.”

No need. Where was Shelley when needed in the worst way of all? A big woman, she warmed me every January, would’ve known what to do here and now. I looked at my father. I didn’t know who was sitting in my driveway, much less who sat at my table. Too many years.

“No worry,” he said. “All her family like ours been in jail, prison, halfway places. She a’ight.”

I stopped talking and listening at this point, my hairs at attention.

“Good steak.” He thanked me. “Good steak, good job, better than that steakhouse El Slammer.” He winked.

I said he was welcome, before asking about the dentist.

“Teeth not so good, but they work.”

Food stuck gross around his yellow canine teeth and dark gums. I asked if he needed a sharper knife.

“I have toothpicks, I forget where, but think in the cupboard.”

“No needa worry, girl,” he said without looking this time.

Then he swallowed the gristle hard and looked around the room like he sought someone to kill. He held the steak knife up real close to my face. Something about toothpick had triggered a memory. I wished for Shelley. I wondered if Mom had really gone missing back when I was two and Dad came home late and drunk with lipstick and money, or so I was told by some other kin fresh out of prison. He laughed and chomped on the meat, but I felt like he was chewing on something else and wanted to stomp on something more still.


R. P. Singletary is a lifelong writer from the southeastern United States, with work appearing or forthcoming in Bumble Jacket Miscellany, CafeLit, Ariel Chart, Syncopation Literary Journal, Last Leaves, Stone of Madness, Wingless Dreamer, The Journal, and elsewhere.


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“Stitched Jack” Short Story by Billy Stanton

"Stitched Jack" by Billy Stanton, The Chamber Magazine

It was the feeling of the cold metal needle piercing his nose that woke him. The roaring burning in his throat was the next sensation he was aware of, and the iron warmth of his blood dripping into his mouth was the third. Douglas tried to move, tried to scream, but the stitching was completed quickly. He could not tear his face away from the tight sour dampness of the canvas that formed his traditional makeshift sarcophagus and which swallowed his encrusted cries. 

There were murmurings above and around him. Even in the depths of his shock, he could identify some of the voices. Gunther, one of the Swedes or whatever they were, whispered devout and passionate prayers over him that seemed to carry a solemn and flinty echo from the middle pews of an ancient and deserted Scandinavian chapel. Douglas tried to reach out to him, but the material holding him was too strong, too weighty for his limbs that had so recently spent countless minutes struggling against the vicious tides and howling squalls forcing him again and again beneath the tossed foam. Cracked Thomas was, in his usual way, less charitable to the supposed corpse than Gunther. He brusquely pushed the kinder man aside and berated him in the near-unintelligible accent that took influence from every corner of his known world. Where once he had sounded absurd, now he had the voice of all the Earth’s ghoul

“‘E went ova fivveteen minutes agow. Ya poot the steetch en ‘im ta tie ‘im in. Naw Jack Tar gost is gunna tek him. Wat’s the good en yer prayin’? Threw ‘im ova bevore ‘e teks the rast of us to ‘is fate.”

 Gunther, getting the necessary gist of his meaning, stepped away. Douglas tried to squirm, tried to give some signal that Atlantis had not claimed him, that he had come back to them to paint and haul again, but his body was not ready after its previous exertions. He was almost completely paralysed, the blood still dripping steadily- not gushing- around and between his gritted teeth. Douglas noticed he was sweating now too, and the sweat from his forehead was mingling with the blood. He could only taste the latter and not the former; his mouth was still too full of the remains of the waves to notice any fresh salty addition. 

 “Lads! Lads! ‘Eave ‘ooooooo! ‘Eave ‘oooooo!”

 Men who had been keeping a respectful, mournful distance stepped uncertainly forwards in response to Cracked Thomas’ cries, all of them hoping that another would arrive before himself to be forced into that duty which they could not fortify their own stomach enough to perform. An even greater fear flooded through Douglas, but it did nothing to revive his flagging physicality. His form stayed so unwillingly rigid on the deck that, had he had a mind to it, he would have wondered if he was not truly already dead and only granted some post-mortem purgatorial awareness of unhappy life going on without him as a fitting punishment for his multitude of sins.

He felt rough hands lifting him. This was it. Cracked Thomas was directing the doings with the same heave-ho cries he had already given to spur the action, and the crew eventually joined in with his bellowing. Douglas tried to summon something, anything, from somewhere, but he could not. As he was carried towards the side of the boat, time didn’t slow, as one might expect, but rather sped up. Before he knew it, before he could contemplate the full horror of the inevitable fate he was meeting head-on, he was ensconced in the same cold and the same wild sound and the same fury that had ravaged and pummelled him only minutes before. 

 There was little that Douglas could do but submit; his body gratefully rose to meet the intentions of his spirit, and the customary thrashings, struggles and strivings of the drowning- had he even able to achieve them in his exhausted state- were not to be witnessed by his old fellows on the timber behemoth of a ship above. A large wave sent him spinning towards the depths as if he was caught in the riptides of his adolescent memories of Corryvreckan, that kelpie-strewn maelstrom with its hungry heart that insatiably devoured the fragile boats of fishermen. Once down beneath, he did not rise again for a long time. Instead, he floated so seamlessly and slowly beneath the waves that it was as if he was lying- resting- on the seabed with the whole burden of the ocean around him as his vast sepulchre. He was settling into this sleep and letting the drowsiness fill his aching limbs when he suddenly felt himself flying upwards with tremendous velocity. He knew he had surfaced when the light of the brightest, bluest afternoon showed through even the thickness of the embracing canvas. 

A seagull swooped down and sat on his stomach. 

 “I could ‘ave sworn to God hisself that Cracked Thomas woulda been the first to come to us from that vessel.”

The seagull laughed once it had finished speaking. Another came and plopped itself down on his legs. 

“It should ‘ave been. Our lad ‘ere was a victim of pure carelessness. ‘Alf of sailors don’t know they’re bloody born. Too much of a rush, too much a-fearing of the skipper to even check proper if one of their fellows ‘as got the blood still pumping in ‘im. He did, you know. And fer his glory, they gave ‘im a collop of the old brutality to see him out. HEAVE-HO.” 

The second seagull laughed now as it imitated the onboard chorus. Douglas tried to speak to these strange creatures, these seabirds that communicated with voices and words so familiar and so friendly in the glittering dark. 

 “Don’t try, son. Don’t try. We know what you’ve got to say.”

 It was a third gull who had spoken as it perched on his forehead and started picking at the stitching on the canvas hammock. 

 A herring gull joined his friends, perching on a knee. He was followed swiftly by an oystercatcher, its orange beak gleaming proudly in the sun, which took up position on the opposite leg. It ruffled its slender monochromatic wings and called out to the heavens. The song was met by an albatross, which did not descend and take up position on Douglas’ now-crowded waterlogged frame, but instead hovered a few feet above him. 

“‘ave you been to Greece?” 

 The oystercatcher asked the question and moved up to assist the third gull with its work at the unstitching. Douglas, still not able to speak, faintly shook his head. 

“Shame. An experienced boy like you, as young as you are- would’ve thought you’d managed it.”

 Half of the canvas covering Douglas’ face flopped open; his head filled with sweltering white light and burned. The oystercatcher continued its monologue. 

 “The most beautiful girls in the world live there. Of course, all sailors ‘ave got their favourites. I’m sure you did. I ‘ad a love there; she used to bring me great big plates of fried octopus when the ship came in. I ‘ated it at first, loathed the stuff, but what’d she give me in return for finishing that plate- I’d ‘ave slurped down a w’ole Kraken. Shame we can’t talk to you in life as we do in death- I’d ‘ave asked you to pass on my fondest regards if you ever made it over.”

 “The first thing ‘e hears on entering the afterlife is your dusty old lusty memories. What a welcome!”

 The herring gull, having put his fellow to silent shame, untangled the final threads. After finally adjusting to the sun, Douglas found himself staring into the eyes of the albatross. 

“Figures of eight on the top deck, dirty songs with no meaning and the sacred ones to hold. Goodbye, fare thee well, in the lowlands low, by the ivory castle glittering beside the streams of lovely Nancy. Carved puppets, elephants and kings, inscrutable and silent, bare or wrapped in silk; presents from the Indians. Quickly inked tattoos, leering faces and hearts redder than blood. Muscles broken, falling in the muck and shit below, stumbling to bed, to not sleep, to not sleep again. Circles of ice and the sun burning layers of skin from your back. Bubbling wounds, loose black teeth thrown overboard. Forcing down dry bread and flat beer more like sludge. The stink of the tar always everywhere, inescapable, locked in your nose. An itch below the trousers, an itch that drives you to the point of madness after stopping at Ratcliffe. Maps that can’t be read anymore and stars that can’t be trusted. Mermaids winking below the waves when the summer turns the seas warm. Hot springs in the snow, rivers frozen and no way down. The stink of old clothes and flower garlands around the neck. Dark flags on the horizon, the cannons taking what little’s left of your hearing, if not your legs. ‘My son John was tall and slim, and he had a leg for every limb…’ Was the bulging pouch at the end of it all worth it? Never, but always.”

 The albatross stopped reminiscing and came and sat on his chest. The rest of the respectful seabirds went soaring back up into the distant blue, screeching and screaming joyfully to each other. 

“All that’s over now. Good riddance and bad luck. But all drowned sailors have got to go somewhere. We don’t belong on land, not anymore. That’s why they bury us at sea. What else can we do but keep an eye on our friends, and fly alongside ‘em, follow ‘em, and live off their scraps? Was it any different when we was living? When we go out the first time, as boys, we swear off other ways of life for good- even in death. We might not know it- or accept it- at the time, but it’s true. This is our belonging. Eternal.”

 Douglas spoke for the first time. 

 “I’ve heard it before. Old hands would talk about it sometimes, late at night, just before the candles went out. The birds of the dead.”

 “The birds of the dead. More blessed than the living- just.”

 The albatross took off and hovered above, waiting. The last of the canvas fell from Douglas’ body, and then he too was hovering, beating his wings against the finest, the thinnest of breezes. Below, his ship continued on its course, far from coming in, pounded by hail and rolling with the thunder. But this high- this high- the going was clear and clean and safe and shining. Tears filled his eyes. 


Billy Stanton is a young working-class writer and filmmaker based in London, and originally from Portsmouth. His story ‘Screwfix’ was recently published in ‘New Towns’ (Wild Pressed Books). His short fiction has also appeared in Horla and The Chamber magazines. His latest short film ‘Noli is currently in post-production. His blog can be found at: steelcathedrals.wordpress.com


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Urban Appetites by Kilmo

"Urban Appetites" Dark Fiction by Kilmo

The man hurrying through the streets shifted the serviette around his coffee.

“Damn.”

He rubbed ineffectually at the spot where scalding liquid had landed on his suit. Alec had been up half the night with figures marching through his head and his eyes felt like someone had sandpapered them.

“What now?”

The first bars of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 were erupting from his pocket.

“Alec speaking,” said the accountant nearly dropping the handset as he tried to juggle his briefcase and paper cup at the same time. “But they… WHAT? Look, I’m nearly at the station. I’ll be as quick as I can.”

“’Scuse me fella. Got any… ,” said a figure sitting with his back to a wall.

Alec’s lips thinned.

“Terribly sorry, no I haven’t”

The executive who’d been responsible for removing as much of the city from public control as an air raid stabbed at the volume button.

“Tell the clients… ”

For a moment, all Alec cold do was stare at the dratted thing. The battery had died, and the offices of Pickaxe and Share were still forty minutes away.

“How about a drink then? One of those coffees would go down a treat.”

A tic spasmed at the corner of Alec’s eye.

“For God’s sake why don’t you people get jobs?”

“No need to be like that,” said the beggar. “I was just asking.”

As Alec stared at the youth’s scab pocked, needy, face he noticed the skin around his piercings were swollen and red.

“Just leave me alone,” said Alec trying to put as much distance between them as possible. But as he fled down the road toward the nearest metro, he stopped. It was unlike him to not know his route down to the last detail, and yet he was sure the alley hadn’t been on the app.

Alec peered at the unusual route marking bolted next to its entrance. It showed the outline of a hurrying man

He glanced at his gold watch.

Halfway down the passage that had quickly turned into a roofed over maw Alec began to shiver. The temperature had dropped by at least ten degrees and the intermittent lighting meant he could barely see where he was going.

“Should have taken an Uber,” he muttered as he fought the urge to break into a run. The last thing he needed to do was turn up at the meeting any more out of breath.

When the bulbs began to go out one by one Irvine’s grip on his temper lessened even more.

“Christ… why do we even pay taxes?”

He glanced up – only a single flickering bulb was left.

[POP]

Glass rained around him.

In the darkness Alec felt his world shrink to the hammering in his chest, and when he realised the alley was closing around him like the coils of a snake his mouth dropped open.

“Help. Somebody? Anybody?” said Alec trying to brace his arms on either side. But it was no use. Soon he was caught so tight he could barely breathe. In the darkness Alec’s eyes darted from side to side as he waited for the gulp his mind screamed was coming next.

The first thing the figure lying outside the alley noticed was it was no longer morning, the next that he had a hugging a briefcase in his arms. He stared into space. He’d had a name but whatever it was every time he tried to grasp it it slipped out of sight. He was sure of one thing though: he felt like half the man he used to be.

With a hand that only shook a little he tapped the wall – nothing moved.

When he tried to recall how he’d got there all that surfaced was a feeling like he’d been chewed up and spat out. He picked a direction at random and followed the pavement as he struggled with a feeling like he wanted to run a bulldozer through his surroundings and start again with a better world full of numbers. If he could just remember what they were…

The next morning he woke outside the alley’s entrance again, and the morning after that, and the morning after that. By the end of the month his stubble had grown into a beard and the hole in his head was so large passers-by could see it in his eyes.

“Hallo.”

The tramp lying in the street tore his grey washed-out eyes, from the cracks of light leaking between the buildings.

A council worker with a litter picker was standing next to him.

“You alright?” said the stranger nudging him with its claw.

“I must have tripped.”

“’Course you did,” said the street cleaner. “I wouldn’t stay down there long if I were you. Do you want me to call someone? The name’s Ralph by the way. The emergency services all know me.”

The vagrant brushed ineffectually at the dirt on his threadbare suit and Ralph took note of the title deeds spilling from the case that seemed to be his only possession.

“People who it’s feeding on aren’t popular round here you know, mate.” Ralph shrugged. “The residents are afraid it will spread to them.”

The tramp sidled out of range. Whoever the lunatic was he might turn dangerous.

“I’ll be leaving then,” he said carefully.

“You do that, sir. Mind how you go.”

The vagrant did his best. He avoided the area around the alley as much as he could. But it never lasted long because he always ended up where he’d started, particularly after the street names stopped making sense. Soon when he looked at them it was like someone had tipped a scrabble board upside down.

When people began trying to walk through him he knew he didn’t have much time left.

“Please Miss? I need… ,”

The woman in skin-tight blue jeans with perfect calves turned her head but she might as well have been looking at a lamp post.

Night was drawing in by the time the man with footprints on his clothes found the stairs leading beneath a flyover that snaked through an area he vaguely remembered signing purchase orders for. He stepped through the rusty chain link fence that had been used to block access to the shelter underneath.

There was a caravan in there, and its door was open.

“Hallo?” he said trying to ignore the feeling that the walls were moving in as he stepped closer.

If there’d been anyone to watch they’d have noticed the way the lights went out inside after the door closed.

Ralph’s sleep had been disturbed. His dreams full of paperwork, numbers, and marching buildings that all seemed full of faceless yuppies. Dragging himself into work had been even more of a pain than usual.

“No change there then.”

He took in the mounds of filthy clothes and shoes with vanished owners.

“Getting worse round here isn’t it?” said a beggar with a face full of piercings sitting on a makeshift skate ramp. “They’ve sealed off access further in. Must think it’s dangerous.”

But Ralph didn’t bother replying. He was too busy examining the wall of polythene stretched between the pillars across his route. He shook his head – typical upper management behaviour. The part of the city hidden in its depths rarely showed itself where it could be seen but trying to contain it like that was never going to work. He paused and picked up a Rolex that looked like it had been dropped in a mangler and deposited it with the rest of the litter he’d been asked to remove.

Ralph shook his head.

“Always hungry, aren’t you?”

But if they were going to muck around with his itinerary he should have been informed. He was on the payroll, wasn’t he?

Plastic bulged by his head, and for a second Ralph saw nebulous suckers splay against the flimsy barrier.

“Thought that might happen. If it keeps feeding it’s bound to grow” he said only half aware he was speaking aloud.

“What was that?”

Ralph shut his mouth remembering he was supposed to stay schtum. The guidelines were very specific on investment.

“Nothing, they’ll be trying to give the place a deep clean I expect – remove any toxic materials they find.”

The beggar with the pierced face shook his head uninterested at this nugget of information, and Ralph relaxed. The city’s appetites were better left alone. Nobody wanted a panic.

“What are you supposed to be then?” said Ralph remembering his public service training. The kid reminded him of one of those dropouts. They were called Woke Ads, or New Age Alkies, something like that. He wasn’t local that was for sure.

“I don’t know, me I guess. What’s really in there?” answered the youth gesturing at the sealed off area.

Ralph stared at the distorted shape of a man behind the city council’s paltry barricade. As he watched it vanished.

“Looks to me like you’re not far from finding out.”


Kilmo started writing because mental health is a bitch and there didn’t seem to be much choice. He brought it from a squat in Bristol, to a car park, to appearing in various publications. He also has a story in the anthology One Hundred Voices entitled ‘Closest’.


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“My Heirloom You’ll Be” by Dimas Rio

"My Heirloom You'll Be" by Dimas Rio

The mother’s eyes widened when she saw her son fornicating with a dishonourable woman. Fajar’s chest, covered in sweat, moved in unison with the swing of his pelvis. His lust was boiling, triggered by the sighs of Ambar’s breath. The woman, lying on her back on the passenger seat, stretched her neck, whispering Fajar’s name every now and then as if every jolt of the man’s body brought her infinite pleasure. Ambar really understood how to intoxicate her lover. It didn’t matter if Ambar didn’t actually feel the same joy. Fajar wasn’t adept at making love, but Ambar thought he had the right to taste what it felt like to be a stud. After all, Fajar had been good to her.

“This belongs to my mother,” Fajar said as he wrapped a gold chain necklace around Ambar’s neck just before they shuffled into the passenger seat. Having never had luxurious jewellery before, Ambar’s eyes were stunned by the gleam emanating from every tiny link that formed the piece. However, what caught her attention was the bulging eye – or at least that was her first impression – which was hanging from the end of the necklace chain. White diamond shards clustered around the emerald piece, holding it hostage in the middle, forcing the eye to see it all.

“Are you sure your mother would want you to give this to me?”

 “Of course,” Fajar assured her. There was no doubt on his face, “in fact, she specifically asked me to give it to you.”

Ambar raised her eyebrow in disbelief. Considering their relationship wasn’t exactly the type that a Javanese traditionalist mother would approve of, this unexpected gift came as a pleasant surprise to Ambar.

I guess I am welcome to the family after all,Ambar thought. But then again, she supposed Fajar’s mother just had no choice in the matter.

Ambar’s attention shifted back to the present, where Fajar, now moving faster above her, grunted in pleasure as he climaxed. Out of breath, Fajar collapsed on Ambar’s shoulder, feeling worthy of an embrace even after only satisfying himself.

Ambar stroked Fajar’s hair as if she was lulling a child to sleep, while her mind wandered, contemplating everything that had brought her here.

“Ambar, are there no single men in your office?” Ambar remembered her mother had asked a few weeks ago during dinner.

Careful not to rise to her mother’s taunt, Ambar chose to take a piece of tofu that was laid out on the table. But as expected, her mother never waited for an answer.

“Not one man has approached you at work? Or maybe you scare them away?”

Ambar didn’t have enough patience that day. “Mom, would they hire me as their secretary if they thought I would scare people away? And my priority there is not to find a husband.”

“Just remember, you’ll only get older,” the mother replied, always scapegoating time as the enemy, “you’ll be in your thirties this year. If you don’t start looking for a husband now, when will you get one?”

“I just got a job, Mom,” Ambar stressed every word as if talking to a child, “can I focus on that first?”

But her mother didn’t relent, “I’m not telling you to quit your job. I’m just saying that, while working, you can also search for a husband. Your fortune will only grow after you get married. Didn’t you read the hadith[1] book I gave you?”

 Ambar’s face heated up. If getting married can make you rich, why were we always poor when Dad was still alive? Ambar was about to respond but chose to clear the plates from the table and withdraw from the battlefield. In her mind, she wished to get enough money fast to afford her own place, so she would no longer be trapped with her mother, although this thought made her feel like an ungrateful daughter. It wouldn’t matter anyway. Ambar knew that her salary as a secretary in a small law firm wouldn’t be able to buy the freedom that she longed for.

However, that night, as she lay on her bed, considering her options, Ambar thought that maybe it could be helpful for her to have a boyfriend. She wouldn’t give a rat’s ass if she fancied the guy. At least his presence could, for a time, stop her mother’s nagging comments every night.

Hence, in her first few weeks at work, Ambar began to look for a potential mate. It was clear to her that Fajar stood out from the rest, and it wasn’t because of his position. Well, not entirely anyway. Because even though Fajar was the owner and partner of the law office she worked in, he was different from most other young entrepreneurs in similar positions, in that he wasn’t an entitled jerk. If anything, Ambar saw that Fajar was too naive to use his power. He could only make decisions after getting validation from others, including his subordinates. Ambar could often hear Fajar’s questions to the associate lawyers in his office: Could you check the law, have we quoted them right? What is the name of the law again? So we’ve quoted the correct one, right? Does this report look good enough to you?

It was clear to Ambar that Fajar was her “in”. While physically, Fajar was definitely not her type, Ambar found his habit of always asking for others’ opinions refreshing. Ambar imagined it must be nice to be with someone who cared about what she had to say. She wanted to know more about him, but in the two weeks she had been working there, Ambar had only been trusted with filing and scanning documents. The rest, the man did himself. Accustomed to fighting to get what she wanted, Ambar knew that she had to be proactive.

One afternoon at work, when all the other secretaries had gone home, Ambar knocked on Fajar’s office and stepped inside. From behind the pile of documents on the desk, he looked up.

“Excuse me, Mas[2]  Fajar. Is there anything I can help you with?” Ambar’s voice sounded sweet, surprising even herself, “is it okay if I call you ‘Mas’? You’re still quite young, so I thought…”

Fajar didn’t answer right away; he just stared at her. Ambar panicked. Was I too forward? Perhaps he would like me more if I just acted pretty and cute like all the other secretaries here?

For a moment, Ambar suspected that maybe there was something wrong with the way she dressed. But that day, she was wearing a blazer, white shirt, and black pleated skirt. An ensemble that was very common in a workplace, if not boring.

Ambar was about to apologize and shuffle out of the room before Fajar asked, “It’s already late; you don’t want to go home instead?”

“I don’t have anything to do at home anyways,” Ambar said.

Fajar smiled awkwardly. His previous secretary had never been this straightforward. He motioned for Ambar to sit down, with Fajar’s desk stretched between them like a barricade. He handed a document to Ambar and commented that the format therein wasn’t up to the firm’s standard. Fajar had asked a junior lawyer to fix it, but the young man had to go home early due to a family emergency.

“I have to send this out to our client tonight,” Fajar tried to sound calm, though Ambar could see the nervous twitch on his face. Fajar asked Ambar to tidy up the formatting on the executive summary while Fajar would check on the regulatory references.

“If I may, can I just bring my laptop here?” Ambar asked, which prompted a doubtful look from her superior. Ambar quickly gave her justification, “So that if I have any questions, I can just discuss them with you here instead of having to go back and forth into the room.”

Fajar thought her reasoning was quite sensible. In the hours that followed, Ambar worked across the table from Fajar in his office, typing away on the laptop in front of her. Every now and then, Ambar would read a series of paragraphs from the file to him, making sure her revisions were in accordance with his wishes. From the spelling of terminologies that were foreign to her (juncto, lex specialis, and pacta sunt servanda, to name a few), cross-references to things that piqued her curiosity (“Why is the law changed so many times? How can they expect us to keep up?” “Why can’t the regulations use a simpler language?” “So lawyers are basically just copying off of the law with a little bit of paraphrasing?”). At first, Fajar just answered dismissively, as if he thought that Ambar would eventually lose interest. However, as the secretary’s questions became more and more probing, Fajar’s answers became more detailed. There was no longer any hesitation in his voice. Ambar saw, to her delight, that Fajar had started to enjoy conversing with her. She suspected that his confidence emerged after he was sure that Ambar wouldn’t doubt his words. She began to think that, like herself, perhaps Fajar just wanted somebody to act as a sounding board.

Ambar found other similarities with Fajar when they had dinner together at a cafe after working until late at night for the umpteenth time.

“Even after I opened my own law office, my mother still complained, ‘Why don’t you try working for a bona fide company first to build your resume?’, ‘My friends’ kids work in oil and gas companies offshore, and they got good benefits and everything,’” Fajar tried to sound humorous. Still, Ambar knew, even in the dim light of the cafe, that these comments had been bothering him for a long time.

“My mother is the same way, Mas,” Ambar said, “I thought she would be happy when she found out I got a job. But her complaints just shift to ‘When are you getting married?’ and so on.”

Both of them laughed, relieved to know that they belonged to the same clan: grown humans who only functioned as extensions of their parents.

Fajar said that his mother also often tried to set him up with her friends’ daughters. “She asked me to have dinner with her friend’s daughter tomorrow. Her father is a director of a state-owned company,” Fajar said.

Not knowing what to say, Ambar just nodded at first. However, when she caught the tired look on Fajar’s face, Ambar asked, “If you don’t feel like it, why don’t you just refuse to go?”

Fajar stared at Ambar as if she had just said something ridiculous. A defeated smile spread across his face, “Even if we refuse, do you think our mothers would stay silent?”

Ambar recalled her mother’s complaints whenever they argued about her future: “I know this is none of my business. But is it wrong for a mother to want the best for her daughter?” “Have I ever asked anything from you? Why can’t you just listen to what I say for once?”, “Remember the hadith, Ambar. Children must make their parents happy.”

Ambar returned Fajar’s smile, raised her glass, and toasted, “May your matchmaking dinner go splendidly tomorrow.”

Ambar thought her humour was too grim for most people, but Fajar laughed out loud at her direct remarks. She realized that she liked seeing him laugh.

But it wouldn’t change a thing anyway since Ambar realized that her chances of winning her lottery were slim. She knew that there was no way a devout prince could defy the mandate of his queen mother.

Which was why Ambar was surprised when she saw Fajar the next day, still in his office at 8 p.m. From her cubicle, Ambar could see him in his room, which was entirely framed by glass partitions. He was sitting in the chair; his eyes were glued to the monitor. But Ambar knew the man wasn’t paying attention to anything. His mind was lost in the ether, which Ambar had often caught him doing whenever he thought nobody was watching. Triggered by curiosity, Ambar stepped into Fajar’s office, but not before taking a document from her desk to make her visit look more official.

Fajar’s gaze shifted to Ambar as she entered. Ambar could see his face beamed at the sight of her – which she thought was cute.

“Don’t you have a dinner date tonight?” Ambar immediately retorted.

Hearing Ambar’s question, Fajar’s brow furrowed, “I have an online meeting tonight with a Panamanian company.”

For a moment, a sense of panic hit Ambar. How could I forget that he has a work meeting tonight? Ambar had always prided herself on being good at keeping track of things. This carelessness made Ambar curse at herself in her head, in a voice identical to her mother’s. But then she remembered something.

“I don’t recall us having a client from Panama, Mas.”

Fajar’s smile slowly grew, “If you ask my mother and my date now, they think we have.”

Ambar couldn’t hold back her laughter. It was endearing to her to see the changes in Fajar’s demeanour over the last few weeks. Like herself, the man was twisting and turning, trying to free himself from his shackles. However, Ambar knew that any struggle was futile. They were lifetime debtors to their mothers, and pursuing desires other than their matriarch’s wishes would constitute a default.

Ambar and Fajar had dinner together again that night and the night after that. And the night after that. Their conversations always lasted until the café was closed, and Fajar always drove her home afterward. She knew that they had become the subject of gossip throughout the office, from secretaries to employees to the partners’ level. Everybody must have noticed that Ambar was the only secretary who was still in her cubicle after five o’clock in the afternoon and that she would only leave the office when Fajar finished working.

“Maybe I should just wait for you on the ground floor,” Ambar suggested one afternoon.

Fajar refused and asked her not to care about what other people said. “I have learned not to bother anymore, Ambar. And you should too. It’s liberating.”

Ambar reminded him that as the owner and the management in the office, he might remain safe from any consequences, at least for now, but not for a secretary who only had been working there for a month. And she was not planning to lose her job.

“I’m the founding partner in this office, Ambar. If anyone has to worry about their position in this office, it’s them.”

Ambar raised her eyebrows, surprised. If someone had said to her that the timid man she knew a month ago was the same person as the man who now sat in Fajar’s office, Ambar would never have believed them. However, she felt a sense of pride, like a mother’s, seeing the burgeoning man she had created.

Fajar drove Ambar home again that night, stopping just outside the alley where her house was. She didn’t want her mother to know that her boss drove her home every night. Ambar knew that even though her mother always wanted her to find a mate, making sure her only daughter avoided adultery and especially being the subject of nasty gossiping by the neighbours was paramount. Regarding why she often came home late, Ambar always reasoned to her mother that working overtime was something common in a law office, even for the secretaries. Her mother never once questioned Ambar’s excuses, at least for now.

“I told my mother about us,” Fajar said. His gaze fell on their intertwined hands, “I hope that’s okay.”

Ambar was disappointed that Fajar did this without asking her first. The old Fajar, Ambar was sure, would have asked for her opinion first before telling anyone else about their relationship. 

Now that the queen mother had been made aware that her young prince had secretly been getting intimate with a peasant woman, Ambar could only guess which one of them would be called a whore. Bitterness permeated her mind, so thick that she could taste it on her tongue.

“What did you say to her?” Ambar asked, preparing for the worst.

“I showed her your picture. She said that you’re beautiful and wanted to meet you,” Fajar said.

Bullshit.

“What else did you not tell me?”

Fajar seemed stunned by Ambar’s reaction, “What do you mean?”

At that moment, Ambar found his naïveté exasperating. “Even if your mother wants to see me, it’s definitely not because she likes me. She probably wants to prove how unworthy I am.”

Despite her protest, Ambar knew that meeting the queen mother was something she couldn’t avoid, especially if she wanted their relationship to attain legitimacy. As of now, she knew that she was already floating on her space shuttle, halfway to escaping her prison. She just hoped that she would not be denied permission to land.

Fajar whispered, as if able to read her mind, “Ambar, you don’t have to worry. Even if my mother doesn’t like you, she won’t be able to do much.”

Ambar looked at Fajar, waiting for him to make his point.

“My mother is very sick.”

Fajar’s voice broke as if shards of glass were puncturing his throat. He told Ambar that his mother had stage four colon cancer. Her condition had deteriorated rapidly since she was first diagnosed with the disease two months ago. Even though she had undergone resection surgery, doctors still found cancer cells left in her body, so she had to continue with a series of chemotherapy.

Fajar said that his mother didn’t respond well to the drugs. On the doctor’s advice, Fajar decided that his mother be treated palliatively at home with the help of a nurse. Ambar knew exactly what this meant: Only divine intervention could save the queen from death. Unfortunately, Ambar knew from her own experience with her late father, that the man in the heavens could be pretty unforgiving.

“But my mother is a fighter,” Fajar continued, “the doctor said that she only had weeks to live, but it’s been two months now, and she’s still hanging on.” Fajar’s gaze was lost in the past. He then closed his eyes and took a breath as if trying to keep his soul from escaping. When he opened his eyes again, Ambar could see tears welling up inside.

“At this point, I know she must be exhausted, Ambar. I just want her to know that I will be okay… because now I have you by my side.”

Ambar suddenly felt as if her stomach was filled with rocks.

He thinks that by parading me in front of his dying mother, she can die more peacefully, and he can feel less like a failure to her. Ambar thought. She was unsure if she was interested in being made a Messiah for Fajar and his mother. She realized that she enjoyed spending time with this man simply because he gave her an excuse to avoid being at home with her own queen lioness. On the other hand, she relished the possibility of being the last woman that the queen saw before she passed. After all, she had to pay respect to the previous ruler before she could ascend the throne herself.

It was then that Fajar produced a small bronze box from inside his suit that he hung behind the driver’s seat. The sight of the antique-looking item immediately grabbed Ambar’s attention. Even under the pale moonlight that shone through the windshield, she could see the intricate snake-like carvings slither through the box’s surface. Traditional Javanese scripts, Ambar realized. The hanacaraka. She remembered her mother had tried to teach her to write and read the letters when she was in elementary school, but she would always find a way to avoid the lessons (“Why should I learn all of this stuff? Even my teacher at school doesn’t know how to read this,” little Ambar would argue). But if her mother kept pressing, Ambar would make a fuss and cry. She discovered early on that if she cried long enough, her father would eventually swoop in and save her – like the valiant prince that he was – believing that her mother was being too hard on her. Ambar realized that she had always wanted to escape her mother’s unwavering and critical gaze for as long as she could remember.

However, Ambar was surprised to find that she could understand the meaning of the ancient texts engraved on the top of the bronze box. It looked and sounded mystical; Ambar swore that it could have been a mantra.

꧋ꦔ꧀ꦭꦁꦏꦸꦔꦶꦫꦎꦱ꧀ꦒꦼꦫꦃꦭꦤ꧀ꦏꦼꦱꦼꦁꦱꦫꦄꦤ꧀ꦏꦸꦭ꧈

꧋ꦩꦼꦏꦠꦺꦤ꧀ꦭꦃꦕꦫꦥꦚ꧀ꦗꦺꦤꦺꦔꦤ꧀ꦠꦼꦂꦭꦲꦶꦂ꧉

꧋ꦣꦼꦩꦶꦱꦱꦶꦭꦤ꧀ꦱꦸꦂꦪ꧈ꦏꦸꦭꦧꦼꦂꦱꦸꦩ꧀ꦥꦃꦣꦠꦺꦁꦥꦚ꧀ꦗꦺꦤꦺꦔꦤ꧀꧈

꧋ꦮꦶꦮꦶꦠ꧀ꦱꦩꦺꦤꦶꦏꦔꦤ꧀ꦠꦺꦴꦱ꧀ꦱꦣꦔꦸꦤꦶꦥꦸꦤ꧀‌

꧋ꦥꦚ꧀ꦗꦺꦤꦺꦔꦤ꧀ꦧꦣꦺꦣꦣꦺꦴꦱ꧀ꦥꦸꦱꦏꦏꦸꦭ꧉

Through my pain and misery,

that was how you came to be.

By the moon and the sun, I swore to thee.

From now to eternity, my heirloom, you’ll be.

Ambar saw Fajar open the box’s lid and lifted a golden chain necklace with a large green emerald glistening at its end, swarmed by hundreds of white diamonds, making it look like a staring, unblinking eye.

“This belongs to my mother,” he said as he laid it on her palm, “and I want you to have it.”

Ambar couldn’t take her eyes off the gemstone. So arresting yet intimidating its power was that she felt like challenging it.

“Are you sure your mother would want you to give this to me?” Ambar asked, even though she couldn’t have cared less.

“Of course,” Fajar assured her, “In fact, she specifically asked me to give it to you.”

Ambar smiled. She suddenly remembered her father, who had always spoiled her with gifts, from dolls, toys, to a minibike. It didn’t matter to her that he had bought those items from a secondhand market by the roadside – every time her father brought something home for her, Ambar felt like a royal daughter.

Fajar wrapped the necklace around Ambar’s neck and kissed her forehead. “You look beautiful,” he whispered. It was as if Ambar’s father had come back to life, making sure that his daughter was treated like the empress that she was.

“Please come to my house with me tomorrow; it would mean so much to me,” Fajar said. The way he looked reminded Ambar of a stray kitten begging for scraps, and Ambar could not help but give in.

“Of course I will,” Ambar squeezed his hand gently. She could see that her response gave him relief. Locking his gaze with hers, Fajar shifted closer and planted his lips on Ambar’s. His hands cupped her face as if he was gulping from it. Ambar pulled her knees onto the seat and rested them on the cushion, driving herself closer, letting him savour the nectar of her lips. He earned every lipstick-tinged drop. After all, he had just invited Ambar to her very own royal coronation – neither wicked stepmother nor fairy godmother necessary. This was better than any fairy tale Ambar could ever dream of.

Scrambling to the back seat, Ambar and Fajar mauled each other as if they lusted for blood. Squirming and writhing like snakes in a cave, they felt freer than ever. Not one drop of light shone on them, and they preferred it that way. Under the shadows, they could be feral animals, not anybody’s pets.

Because the light held you captive while the darkness set you free.

What they didn’t realize was that a mother’s gaze could penetrate through even the darkest of nights. After all, she had seen a glimpse of hell and lived to tell the tale.

So relentlessly unwavering and unflinching were her eyes that shadows folded onto themselves in fear, allowing her a better sight of the abominable act that was splayed on the passenger seat just beyond the rear window.

Her eyes reddened and trembled as she saw her son fornicating with a dishonourable woman.

§

Ambar planted a parting kiss on Fajar’s lips before she stepped out of the car several minutes later. Upon alighting on the gravel, she self-consciously pulled at her blouse and skirt, as if afraid that people would know what she had done just by looking at the creases.

Ambar glanced sideways and saw Fajar’s car starting up. The beam from the headlight and the rumbling sound from the engine disrupted the quiet night as if alerting every house in the neighborhood that Ambar, the daughter of a pious and God-fearing single mother, was once again being dropped off late at night by a man, like a dirty secret.

As Fajar drove away, Ambar raised her hands to wave at him, hoping to get a wave back or a smile. However, Ambar could see from the window that Fajar’s attention was fixed on the road; his face was devoid of any of the joy that had earlier oozed from his every pore.

He’s probably tired. It’s after midnight, and we have a big day tomorrow, Ambar reasoned to herself.

But in a split second that followed, Ambar realized that she had seen that look before. It was the look that Fajar had whenever he was alone and thought that nobody was watching.

It was as if his soul was only loaned to him, and someone – or something else – had decided to take it back.

§

“It looks good on you,” Fajar complimented Ambar when he saw his mother’s necklace encircling her neck.

It was the day after, and Ambar was back in Fajar’s car, which looked and smelled the same as it had the night before. However, unlike the gloomy man that Ambar had seen through the window last night, today, Fajar looked as chipper as ever. He kept saying how stunning Ambar was in her long-sleeved white dress and blood-red shoes. Ambar quite liked the look herself as she based it on her favorite fairy tale, Swan Lake, where the prince professed his love and released the princess from her curse, making her a true royal in the end. Her whole ensemble was her way of manifesting her destiny.

However, her mood just couldn’t align with her sunny get-up this evening, all thanks to snippy comments made by her mother just before she was about to head out.

“They must pay you a lot of money, don’t they?”

Ambar, who was just putting on her crimson shoes, stopped in her tracks and stared at her mother. Her insinuating tone was palpable; she might as well cut Ambar’s jugular with a knife.

“Do you know what people in our neighborhood have been talking about?” her mother stood in the living room, a good four feet from where Ambar sat. Wrapped in her oversized black dress, she leaned her shoulder against the wall, her arms folded across her chest as if assessing a shameful object from afar.

Ambar didn’t have time for this. She rose from her chair and headed for the front door.

“They said, ‘Look at Mrs. Endang’s daughter; she’s always being taken home late by someone. I wonder what she does for a living’,” her mother continued. Rage shook her voice.

As if rotten eggs had just been thrown at her back, Ambar turned to face her aggressor. Her eyes were burning coals.

“I don’t give a fuck what they think.”

The mother hen winced as if Ambar just spat acid on her, “Have you no shame?”

The more her mother threw heinous accusations at her, the more she wanted to mess with her mother’s head. After all, she had decided that her daughter was a whore. Why bother correcting her now?

“I thought this is what you want, Mother? Me finding a husband? I’m just doing what you told me to.”

“Not by disgracing our family in front of everybody!” her mother barked.

“You want to talk about family, Mother? Am I not your family?”

Both women breathed heavily; each was a distorted reflection of the other – arch Nemeses bound by blood. 

“You are my daughter,” her mother reminded Ambar’s position in this household, “and as your mother, it’s my duty to guide you through life so you don’t do things that you’ll regret.”

“No, you want me under your thumb,” Ambar retorted, “and you think your duty is to point out the things that I lack.” Ambar could feel her pent-up anger rolling like a storm.

“When I had to refuse the job offer in Malaysia a couple of years ago because you didn’t want to be alone, you belittled me every day for not having a job. When I finally got this job, you asked me when will I have a boyfriend,” Ambar’s voice cracked,and now that I have done exactly as you asked, you called me a whore.

Her mother just stared at her, dumbfounded, unable to refute Ambar’s tirade. Ambar believed there was nothing her mother could do other than admit defeat. But she forgot the fundamental law in this household: Ambar was the daughter, and she was the mother. And her mother would rather chew on shards of glass than apologize.

“Don’t twist my words, Ambar. I have never said such a thing. I’m just telling you what other people have said,” her mother’s voice trembled, “remember the Quran and the hadith, Ambar. Respect and honour your parents. Especially your – .”

“You can cite the Quran and the hadith all you want, Mother,” Ambar snapped, “I’m done feeling guilty for you.”

Ambar turned her back on her grief-stricken mother and walked out. In between the sound of her pounding heart, she vowed to move out of her mother’s house tonight – never to return.

§

Ambar let her fingers play with the golden necklace on her neck. The gleam of the gemstone at its center shone as brightly as ever, casting specks of light throughout the sprawling living room where she sat.

Ambar marveled at the lavish items and adornments that lay before her eyes. There was a large painting on the wall across from her, stretched from one corner to the next, depicting a traditional shadow puppet show watched by a smattering of locals. Ambar felt as if she was part of them.

As she observed the painting from where she sat, Ambar could see the hand of the puppeteer protruding from behind the white cloth, unnoticed by the rest of the audience. The yellowish glow from the chandelier in the living room made the puppeteer’s hands seem to move ever so slightly.

Annoyed by what her mind had conjured up, Ambar shifted her sight to the closed door across the living room, beyond the reach of the chandelier’s light. That was where Fajar had disappeared to moments ago. He told Ambar that he wanted to check with the live-in nurse whether his mother was in a good enough condition for a visit. “She seemed well enough this morning. But I better check since her condition fluctuates by the hour.”

Ambar glanced at the watch on her wrist – 8 p.m. It had been ten minutes since Fajar had left her in the living room, but it felt like hours. She was getting anxious, and knowing that she was sitting there alone, surrounded by antiques and relics with no one else in sight, made her uncomfortable. Determined to shake off her jitters, Ambar rose from the chair and decided to look around.

As she walked across the hall from the living room, her eyes were drawn to her right, where a massive stone carving stretched along the walls. There was a sculpture of a woman wearing a traditional robe, standing in the middle of a forest. She was extending her arms to a sickly-looking old man, offering him a bowl of water. While the woman’s eyes brimmed with care and generosity, the old man’s visage looked cunning and malicious. It didn’t take long for Ambar to realize that she recognized the scene: it was from the Javanese version of the Ramayana, the story that her father used to read to her every night.

The woman depicted on the wall was Sita, who, at that particular part of the tale, was tricked by the calculating Rahwana – who disguised himself as an old man – into giving him water. As Sita’s arms extended beyond the protective circle made by her prince, the ferocious Rahwana snatched her away and held her hostage in his castle.

The devious glint in Rahwana’s eyes sent a shiver down Ambar’s spine, yet at the same time, she couldn’t look away. The frail man on the wall, with his apparent harmlessness, drew her in, just like he did poor Sita.

Ambar thought that it was understandable why Sita didn’t suspect the man’s true intention. Carved in broad, expressive strokes, the old man seemed to have the most friendly laugh. She couldn’t only identify with Sita, but also feared for her. Ambar realized that she had also been drawn by that very laugh many weeks ago when she thought that her humour was too grim for most people.

Yes, Mother…

A voice as thin as air jolted Ambar out of her thoughts. Her gaze immediately swerved to where she believed the voice was coming from.

The closed black door.

Thinking that Fajar would emerge from behind the door and invite her in at any moment, Ambar made a last-minute attempt to smooth out her hair and dress. After all, she only had one chance to impress the dying queen.

However, after minutes passed without any sign of the black door opening, Ambar began to feel annoyed. 

How hard is it for him to ask whether his mother is in good enough condition for a visit? Ambar thought impatiently. Surely the nurse can give him a quick answer? 

Ambar’s questions floated aimlessly in the air without any answers to keep them earthbound. She turned her head to the living room, contemplating whether to just return there and wait like an uncomplaining little girl, when she, once again, saw a glimpse of the Ramayana carvings across the wall. The scheming Rahwana now seemed to be laughing at her.

Ambar quickly turned her sight back to the coal-black door. There was no way that she would spend another minute waiting there under the encroaching gaze of those relics.

Ambar drew a deep breath. She knew that she just had to walk through the door and ask nicely whether there was something she could do to help. After all, she was Fajar’s secretary. 

As she clasped her hand on the door handle, she could see a faint red gleam cast onto the door’s surface. She noticed that it came from the gemstone in her necklace. Has it always been red? Ambar didn’t care enough to remember, as her focus was to make sure she made an impressive entrance.

The door was heavier than she had anticipated when Ambar pushed it open. A long creaking sound filled the air as the door swung inwards, revealing – to Ambar’s surprise – not a well-lit bedroom fit for a queen but a dark cavern.

Ambar stood, statue-like, in the doorway, trying to adjust her eyes to the gaping darkness in front of her. There were cobbled stairs ahead, leading down to an even darker abyss. She was about to call out Fajar’s name, but something in her head told her not to. She knew something was wrong, but she didn’t want to turn back before getting some answers. She needed to find Fajar and asked him what the hell was going on. And if she had to walk down that flight of stairs to get her answers, so be it.

Ambar took out her cellphone from her handbag and turned on the flashlight app. The white beam emanating from the device gave her enough sense of what lay ahead. Unfortunately, the light was still too weak to reveal what was in store for her at the end of the pit.

Ambar inhaled deeply before started descending the cobblestone stairs. She could feel the door behind her being swung shut by the wind, engulfing her in suffocating darkness.

As she treaded deeper into the womb of the cavern, Ambar was greeted by a chilling breeze – and with it, a distant but unmistakable voice.

“I’ll fetch her, Mother.”

It was Fajar’s voice, which sounded both adoring and fearful. Every word he said bounced off the stone wall into Ambar’s ears, creating an overlapping squawk that looped endlessly.

“I’ll I’ll fetch fetch her her, Mother Mother.

I’ll I’ll fetch fetch her her, Mother Mother.

I’ll I’ll fetch fetch her her, Mother Mother.”

Ambar stopped in her tracks, realizing that she was almost at the foot of the stairs. In front of her was a landing that led to a low archway on the right, where Fajar’s voice resounded.

The hair on Ambar’s neck stood up when she heard the sound of the walls breathing, resulting in a cacophony of whispery chants from hell. Only moments later did she realize that the panting sound was coming from her own mouth.

“You wait here, Mother. I’ll be right back,” Fajar’s voice continued to undulate in the darkness, but now it sounded closer than before.

Ambar’s heart sank when she saw a man’s shadow appear on the cobbled floor, approaching the mouth of the archway. Fajar was coming for her.

Ambar turned back to the stairs and started climbing to the black door. At this moment, she wanted nothing more than to make her legs move faster, but the blinding darkness and her godforsaken stiletto heels made her attempt at running more like a light jog than a dash.

Ambar screamed in frustration as she hobbled her way towards the upper landing, where the black door was. Her escape was now in sight. A few more steps and she would be able to ditch her shoes and sprint as fast as she could – or fight. 

“Ambaaaaar!” Fajar’s bestial roar followed her from several steps below. The thumping of his feet sounded more and more frantic as he got closer.

Skipping over the last two steps, Ambar reached the upper landing and swung open the obsidian door. Without even blinking to adjust her eyes to the piercing light, she kicked off her crimson shoes and ran for her life.

As she ran past the living room where Rahwana’s smile taunted her from the wall, Ambar felt a tightening grip around her neck. Thinking that she must be hyperventilating, she desperately pleaded for her lungs to hold on just a little longer. The main front door was right there in front of her, ready to grant her an escape. All she had to do was pay no mind to her heaving lungs and aching body and keep pushing. She was sure that she would be out in the front yard in no time, free to scream and yell to anyone who would listen. 

But the tightness around her neck intensified the closer she got to the front door. Now, barely an iota of air could enter her lungs. Ambar’s run regressed into a blundering shamble. Her mouth agape, she gasped for air. As her fingers clawed violently at her neck, she felt chain loops coil tightly around her throat. She wasn’t hyperventilating; she was being strangled by her own necklace.

Ambar’s body slumped to the floor. Devoid of oxygen, her head felt like it would topple to the ground. The front door, which before had looked ridiculously near, now seemed miles away.

From behind, she could hear Fajar’s footsteps approaching, steady and triumphant, eager to claim his prey.

“It will choke you to death if you keep running away,” Fajar spoke calmly as if he was explaining the laws of physics. Ambar could feel Fajar’s hand resting on her shoulders. He then pulled her backward, letting her rest in his arms as he knelt.

“I need your body to be well, Ambar. It’s the only way I can have my mom back,” Fajar said; his tone was as loving as ever, “but you don’t need to be scared. Everything’s going to be all right. I promise you. You won’t feel a thing.”

That was the last thing Ambar heard before her whole world turned black.

§

At least Fajar kept part of his promise. Minutes later, when Ambar regained consciousness, she didn’t feel any pain. She found herself sitting on a chair in a dingy chamber. The only light source in the room was a chain bulb that hung from the ceiling. Ambar could taste the pungent smell of rats’ droppings that permeated the air, making her gag. Tears, snot, and spit dripped down her face like melting wax, wreaking havoc with her make-up.

As she examined her own situation, Ambar could see that her hands were lying idly on her thigh, and her bare feet were resting on the cold stone floor. There was no rope tying her to the chair. Nothing that could keep her from fighting back and making a run for it. However, when she tried to lift her hands, it was as if there were iron cuffs that held them in place. Her feet, too, felt like they were weighed down by a heavy-duty ball and chain.

As her eyes darted in panic, trying to make sense of what was happening, she caught the sight of the necklace with a dangling emerald eye on its end, still coiling around her neck like a greedy snake. The previously green gemstone that formed its pupil now took on a reddish hue, making it look like a gaping, throbbing wound. Recalling what had occurred minutes ago when she tried to escape, Ambar suspected that, as unbelievable as it might sound, this life-like necklace was somehow responsible for her currently paralyzed state.

“Hi,” seemingly out of nowhere, Fajar’s face filled her whole view. Ambar opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out. She was as silent and defenseless as a carcass.

Fajar kept staring at her for a moment. So close was his face to hers that Ambar could see every bead of sweat leaking from the pores of his skin.

“You’re fine. You’re not hurt,” Fajar cupped Ambar’s tear-stained face and moved it around in his hands as if checking for a defect. There was a worried glint in his eyes; Ambar was unsure whether his remark was supposed to soothe her or himself.

“I love you, Ambar,” Fajar whispered as he caressed Ambar’s trembling face, “and I love my mother. I need to have you both.”

Ambar stared at Fajar in confusion. But as he moved away from her sight, Ambar was able to look ahead and got her answer. What she saw in front of her made her eyes bulge in fear.

Sitting right across from her were skeletal remains of a human, covered in filth and dirt. Its big hollow eyes were emotionless and bare, while its lipless mouth was forever grinning. Ambar couldn’t comprehend how something devoid of a soul could look so cunning.

“That horrible disease took her months ago,” Fajar lamented as he rested his hands on the bony shoulder of what once was his mother’s, “before she died, she promised that she would always be with me… that she would always watch over me.”

Fajar’s voice cracked as emotions overtook him, “But I don’t want just her presence or her memory. I want her here. I want her alive, healthy, and well.”

“And then I met you,” the man smiled that deceptively warm smile, “you’re fierce, funny, and intelligent, just like she was. Right then, I knew….”

Fajar’s voice petered out as if losing its transmitter. Ambar could see his hands move to his mother’s collarbone, where a familiar object lay bare and loose: the emerald necklace, identical to the one twisting around her own neck.

“I knew that you two would get along. Two of my favorite women, in the same body.”

Ambar managed to let out a muffled scream. Her whole body jerked and trembled, trying to free herself from the spell that rendered her immobile. But those invisible chains just would not give.

Fajar turned his attention to the dark corner of the room and said giddily, “Isn’t she perfect, Mother?”

With growing horror, Ambar’s eyes followed his gaze to the shadowy wall. There was only a deep blackness there. But Fajar kept going.

“Did I do right by you, Mother?” Fajar, ever the approval-seeking man-boy, clung to the dead woman who was pulling his strings.

Trying to make sense of it all, Ambar stared deep into the dark corner of the wall, searching for something that wasn’t there. The more she frowned, the more she felt like darkness was closing in on her, forcing her to look deeper.

And then she saw her, hiding behind the ink-black shadows. The queen of the house. Her face was as pale as the moonlight. Her body looked frail and spindly, as if the disease was still eating her away, even after she died. But there was something burning in her eyes. An untamed desire to protect what was hers. Ambar knew those eyes well. She had tried to escape those eyes all her life. They were the eyes of a mother.

Ambar could only scream and wail in silence. In the moments before darkness engulfed her, Ambar prayed that her mother could think of her, forgive her, and eventually look for her.

It was then that Fajar began to recite a passage that sounded familiar to Ambar. Every word seemed to multiply and gnaw over one another like rats, burrowing a chamber into her mind. So ethereal and mystical were those verses; she could swear they could have been a mantra.

“Through my pain and misery,

that was how you came to be.

By the moon and the sun, I swore to thee.From now to eternity, my heirloom, you’ll be.”


[1] A record of the Islamic prophet Muhammad’s words, actions, and approval.

[2] A Javanese prefix used to address older brothers or other men of unknown age to show respect; it is also commonly used to convey a youthful impression of adult men.


Dimas Rio is an Indonesian-born dark fiction writer. He published his first novel, “Dinner with Saucer,” in 2007, which was shortlisted for Indonesia’s Khatulistiwa Literary Award.

In 2022, his self-published short story collection “Who’s There? A Collection of Stories” was re-published by a US-based publisher, Velox Books. Kirkus Reviews calls the book “Entrancing and unnerving” and included it as one of the notable indie books by international authors in 2022

 Dimas can be contacted on his Instagram account @dimas_riyo 


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“Tomato Seeds” Dark Fiction by Maggie Hall

"Tomato Seeds" by Maggie Hall

Three times in a week, Henry had been late for dinner. Wren noticed. Henry Jr. noticed. Elmo, the family mutt, noticed. Even two-year-old Rosie noticed as she played in the living room that third night.

“Mommy. Where daddy?”

Henry ought to know that Wren was not a fan of tardiness; he was twenty minutes late for their first date and she never let him forget it. For fifteen years they’ve known each other and not once after that first date was Henry ever late. Not until now.

The first night, Henry was full of regrets. He kissed Wren over and over, apologizing more than he needed to.

“Wren, my darling, I’m so sorry, I know how you hate it when I’m late. We had a meeting run long and I didn’t get the chance to call. I’m here now, it won’t happen again, I promise. I have Melissa sending you a cake from Oswald’s Bakery tomorrow, okay? Chocolate, your favorite. I’m so sorry.”

Chocolate’s not Wren’s favorite, but she figured she ought not to complain about a free cake. Melissa, Henry’s sixty-some-odd-year-old secretary, never did send a chocolate cake. Or any cake. She didn’t even answer the phone when Wren called her to ask about it.

Henry was late coming home again the next day. And again on Friday. That time the apology was less sincere but offered the same sorry excuse. A month or so rolled by and he wasn’t late again, but he wasn’t exactly present, either. He would often take his dinner into the office, lock the door, and wouldn’t come out again before Wren would retire to the bedroom. Henry had always kept the office locked, and Wren had respected that; Henry Jr. could be rather nosy. But it bothered her that she wasn’t allowed in there, either. She knew it was a pigsty without her to clean it.

A few weeks in to the new habits, she waited in the living room, determined to stay awake until she saw her husband again.

“What’s got you so busy, dear?” Wren had asked the moment he came out of the hall. “I hardly ever see you anymore. Henry J and Rosie miss you, you know.”

“It’s just a busy time of year for me. It won’t last much longer. Work stuff, you understand.”

Wren, in fact, did not understand.

“Who’s answering sales calls in the middle of the evening? Shouldn’t those people be spending time with their families, too?”

Henry cut a glare at Wren for her remark but didn’t entertain it as he mumbled into the dim room, “go to bed, Wren.”

She sat for a second in the stiff silence of the house. Henry let out a harsh sigh.

“Look, Wren, work’s getting a little more complicated than just making sales calls, okay? It’s been hard to keep up. When everything’s done and over, I’ll tell you all about it, okay? You wouldn’t understand it right now, anyway, and I don’t have the time it takes to explain it all to you yet. I just need you to trust me.”

Wren trusted him. She thought she did, anyway. He had never given her a reason not to. She continued to trust him even as the weeks went on and she saw less and less of him. She had grown weary of isolation and silent meals. At least he would always get the mail and take the trash out.

Weekends were fine. Fine during the day, anyway. He wasn’t home at night. They both played the roles of happy couple in public, masquerading perfection. But never any warmth. That wasn’t new; Henry had never been a fan of being affectionate in public. But he stopped touching her at home, too. The days they would spend together, Wren found herself constantly craving even just a pinky to hold.

She had started to suspect a mistress in the beginning. It would explain why they hadn’t slept together in months. But Henry had always expressed deep disgust when discussing friend’s affairs, giving Wren no reason to believe he would ever consider doing it himself. Right?

*                                  *                                  *                                 

The nights got colder, and the sun set sooner. Wren no longer delayed dinnertime for her husband. Time had started to lose meaning for her, anyway. She took a long drag off her cigarette and blew it out the bathroom window. It was a new habit. She hated smoking, but she hated drinking more, and she needed something to calm her nerves. There was a knock on the door and Wren flung the cigarette into the toilet in a panic.

“Mama?” Henry Jr. knocked again and rattled the knob.

“One second, Henry J, I’m using the potty!” She flushed the toilet and mourned the half-smoked stick as it disappeared.

“Mama, when’s daddy getting home? I got a math question for him.”

Wren opened the door to her nine-year-old tossing a baseball up in the air and failing to catch it as it came back to him. She pushed past him with a heavy sigh and a discouraging, “I don’t know, J. And no throwing in the house, we’ve talked about this.”

“Is he ever gonna hang out with me again?”

Wren bit her lip and tried to soften her tone.

“Of course, he will. He’s just been really busy these past few months.”

“Well, can you help me with it, Mama?”

Wren turned to look at her eager son. She probably could help him, but her husband was a lot better at explaining things to him than she was. When she did try, he would often swoop in later and tell his wife she did it all wrong.

Wren rubbed her forehead and caught a whiff of the lingering smell of smoke on her fingertips. The timer went off for the lasagna and she decided her next break would be once the salad was prepared. She could feel her husband’s thirty-fourth tardy looming.

“I’m sure daddy will be home soon, kid, just ask him when he gets here. Go set the table, dinner’s almost ready.”

So, he did. Henry Jr. was a model child, there was no denying that. Hardworking, good listener, a heart bigger than Texas. He was born exactly nine months after Wren and Henry Sr. got married. Wren would always boast that he was the spitting image of her husband. Same brown eyes, same unusually small toes, same stupid, big head, only Henry Jr. still had the dark curls on top.

She had envied those curls since she first met Henry in high school; it’s what drew her to him in the first place. But it wasn’t just his good looks that caught her eye, or even that he excelled in sports. He was the star of their high school’s mathletes, and there was something so sexy to Wren about a man who was good at something she wasn’t. Back then, Wren was better at a lot of things. There were paintings and gymnastics medals hiding inside their garage to prove it.

Wren’s memories clouded her focus. Her knife had missed the tomato. She stared at the blood coming out of her thumb for a long time before she processed what had happened. It pooled around the tomato slices, picking up loose seeds like boats ready to set sail. She saw herself aboard a seed, arms wrapped up in the ropes of the sail, peering beyond the dark red horizon and bracing herself for the ride over the edge of the cutting board. Her vision started to spin.

All at once the pain hit her and she screeched. She grabbed the nearest rag and wrapped it around her thumb. It continued to throb underneath the cover, and tears fell from her cheeks before she even realized she was crying. She let out a whisper of a curse and the pain subsided just a little. Looking up from her wound, she saw Rosie in the highchair, eyes wide and curious. She asked her mother, “Okay, mommy? You okay?” over and over and over again. Her voice bounced around in Wren’s head, and she slammed her injured fist on the counter in a panicked attempt to shut her daughter up.

Both children froze in the dining room and stared at Wren, white with fear of the stranger claiming to be their mother. Her chest tightened with immediate remorse, and she apologized profusely. But the kids didn’t respond. Wren mumbled something about the bathroom and grabbed a loose cigarette from her purse as she exited. Henry Jr. stopped setting the table after two seats and picked up the sippy cup his sister had dropped.

It was another dinner without her husband. But this one was worse than the others. She had never reacted to her kids in such a violent way, she could tell they were still shaken from it. Rosie had quickly exonerated her, or just simply already forgotten, as toddlers do, but Henry Jr. wasn’t so quick to forgive. When she sent him to bed, he refused their nightly routine of butterfly, cheek, and forehead kisses. Wren’s chest continued to hurt until she went to bed.

She pretended to be asleep when Henry Sr. came home, hoping he would come to bed sooner. Her finger had been stitched up by the retired nurse next door, and she made sure to leave the wounded hand visible over the blankets. Henry didn’t even touch it. Or her. More tears fell onto Wren’s pillow as Henry clicked his lamp off and turned away from her.

Wren didn’t sleep. Well, admittedly she nodded off around two or three, but woke back up before the sunrise, so she didn’t count it. She’d never woken up before the rest of the house until about a month prior, and she’d grown to enjoy it. It was like a dream, watching the sky turn from red to orange to yellow to bright blue. The sunrise was a lot more beautiful than the sunset, she had decided, especially when she could have a cigarette with her coffee as she watched from the front porch.

The baby monitor lit up as she finished a second smoke; her morning of peace was over. She hung her coat up by the door and stared at the keys on the hooks. Wren and Henry had bought the minivan together when they found out about Rosie. It was a little on the expensive side as they bought it new, so they both gave up their smaller cars in exchange. They agreed that one car was sensible since Wren would be home most of the day with a new baby, anyway. But after going stir crazy for two years, she was beyond thrilled when Henry decided to buy another car a few months back. Although, she didn’t understand why it had to be a brand new, bright red, expensive sports car. She didn’t think they could afford it, but she’d always trusted Henry, and she assured her they could. She didn’t trust him anymore. She stuffed the keys to Henry’s car in her pocket and went to get Rosie ready for daycare.

Wren was just finishing her eggs when her husband walked into the kitchen. She made sure she took longer than usual this morning so that she would catch him. She watched as he poured his coffee into a travel mug. A scarlet tie sat over his belly and Wren didn’t recognize the pants he had on. When did he have time to shop for himself? She wasn’t sure if he was ignoring her or just hadn’t noticed her yet, so she decided to announce herself.

“Morning, honey.”

Henry almost dropped his coffee at her voice, then turned to her with a plastered smile.

“Hey, hey, morning. Didn’t see you.” He looked past his wife at his daughter in the highchair, having a battle with a Cheerio on her tray. “Hey, good morning, sugarplum! Oh, you are such a beautiful little girl.” Rosie cooed in response and wriggled her tiny fingers at him. “What are y’all still doing here, Wren? Where’s Junior?”

“He takes the bus now, remember? So that he can ride with his little Sarah friend. He’s been doing that for quite a few weeks, now.”

“Oh, right, right, right.” Henry tossed a bagel into the toaster and the house was silent again.

“Listen,” Wren finally said, “I need you to take Rosie to daycare this morning. I’ve got some things to do and—”

“What? No, Wren, I don’t have time for that now, I’m running late. Why didn’t you ask me this sooner? I could’ve made sure I was up earlier.”

“Well, I was going to ask you at dinner, but you weren’t there.”

Henry’s eyes narrowed, and Wren matched it. The bagels popped out and Henry flinched. “Look, I’m late, Wren. Use that brain of yours and text me next time. Or call me. Or email me. I got you that PDA for a reason. Why are you even still here if you’ve got so many things to do?”

“Because I never see my husband anymore and was hoping he’d be happy to see me, too.”

“Look, Wren, we talked about this. Work is… a lot right now. I’ve got a lot on my mind.”

“Right, and I’m at the bottom of the list, aren’t I?”

“Is that what I said?”

“That’s what you implied.”

Henry rubbed his neck and took a breath. “You don’t understand.”

Wren stood up.

“Try me.”

“Wren, I’m already running late—”

“Marriage doesn’t work without communication, Henry.”

“I know, but now is not a good time—”

“Will there ever be a good time? It’s been months!”

“Yes, I know it has, Wren! Jesus, I know how time works. Like right now, if you look at a clock, you’ll see that I’m running late—”

“I don’t care. I don’t care! I want to know who and what is keeping my husband away from the family that he helped create.”

Henry slapped Wren across the cheek. He’d never done that.

“Don’t you dare use my kids against me,” Henry snarled, “and stop talking over me. It doesn’t make you sound any smarter. Work is busy. I am late. That’s all you need to know, got it?”

Wren nodded and watched as he approached the front door. Her cheek throbbed underneath her hand.

“Wren, where are my keys?”

Her pulse quickened and a rock formed in her stomach.

“I don’t know, honey, I haven’t seen them. You didn’t put them on the hook?”

“Of course, I put them on the hook, I always put them on the hook, but now they’re not on the damn hook. Where are they?”

Wren pretended to look in the kitchen, then pulled them out of her pocket while Henry’s back was turned.

“Look, Henry, they’re right here on the counter. You must’ve left them there last night.” He went to snatch them out of his wife’s hand, but she held on to them. Rosie was whimpering behind them. Wren’s voice went soft. “Kiss your daughter goodbye so she’s not scared of you.”

Henry rubbed the top of his head as if something had magically grown there overnight, but he complied. Rosie giggled as he dried her tears and smothered her with kisses. Then he went for the keys again, but Wren couldn’t let go yet.

“And your wife.” She paused. She couldn’t look at him. “Please.”

Henry huffed and reluctantly kissed her injured cheek before darting out the door. Wren rubbed the remaining key in her pocket. The tears came back. She thought the kiss would fill the hole he’d dug inside her. It only tunneled deeper. She didn’t recognize him anymore.

There was once a time when Henry couldn’t keep his hands off Wren. They were just young, little idiots, madly in love with the idea of being in love. They made it through high school together and getting married was just what high school couples in their little Southern town did if they survived that long. That’s what Wren’s parents did; “full of love until forever,” they would say. Wren thought she would last forever with Henry, too. She wondered if he ever really loved her in the first place.

Wren hated her PDA. The screen was too small and the little pen that came with it hardly ever worked right. But she used it that day. She waited impatiently for Melissa to pick up her call.

“Washburn Inc., this is Angie, how can I help you?”

“Angie? I thought this was Melissa’s number.”

“Sorry, ma’am, Melissa doesn’t work here anymore.”

“What? Henry didn’t tell me he hired a new assistant.”

There was a pause on the other end.

“Henry Wilson?”

“Yes, he’s my husband.”

Another pause.

“I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you this, miss, but Mr. Wilson was let go.”

Earth stopped spinning.

“What did you just say?”

“Henry Wilson was let go quite a few months ago. He didn’t tell you?”

“No. No, he didn’t tell me.”

Wren hung up and threw the stupid PDA across the room. She broke into a sob and melted against the wall. Everything inside her body shattered, every fear in her brain conjured, every ounce of love tainted. She pulled a cigarette out from her back pocket and lit it right in the middle of the living room. The house would stink but she didn’t care anymore.

Halfway through the cigarette, the landline rang. Wren let the voicemail take it, thinking it was her friend, Lisa, calling to ask why she missed Mother’s Day Out for the third week in a row. But when Henry Jr.’s recorded voice instructed the caller to leave a message, there wasn’t one. The phone rang again almost immediately.

“Hello?” she shouted into the receiver. No response. “Hello? Who is this? This is Wren!”

There was a quick gasp on the other end. The phone clicked and the dial tone purred. Wren threw that phone, too. It was a woman’s gasp.

She stood in front of Henry’s office for a long time. She wasn’t sure how long, but she knew it was long enough for Elmo to fall asleep beside her. Her hands were balled up tight. She knew whatever else Henry was hiding would be on the other side of that door. She knew everything would change once she found out what he’d been doing all this time. But she needed to know. She was tired of waiting on her husband for answers. Her stomach turned and she was nauseous.

She stuck the key in the door and pushed it just barely ajar. Elmo, likely thinking that Henry was in there, pushed past Wren, his little stub of a tail wriggling.

The office hadn’t changed much since Wren had last been allowed inside, just a little messier. The chairs were all stained and mismatched. No lights except for an ugly lamp they got as a wedding present and a small saucer light on the ceiling. The air felt wet and thick. Wren’s chest tightened more with every inhale. He had clearly not been using the vacuum she gave him to clean the carpet. She opened a window.

There were no pictures on the walls, or anywhere. There used to be a framed picture of the family on the desk but had since disappeared. She caught a glimpse of herself in a stained mirror she had hung up when they first moved in; the lighting made her look old and sick. No wonder she was becoming invisible. She touched at her face and ran her hand down her braid. She’d always been a natural blonde, but she had just dyed it the week before. Rosie called her Ariel. Henry still hadn’t said anything about it. Her eyes went glassy, and the blue in her irises lost their shine.

Wren focused herself and went to the desk, rummaging through papers and any drawer she could open. All the documents looked like gibberish to her, obviously things to do with his job—or, what used to be his job. But there was one drawer that wouldn’t open. She pulled at it a few times, but it barely budged. The only other key that she saw on his keyring was to the house, so he had to have this one hidden somewhere. She threw papers around frantically. She ran her hand underneath the desk and around the open drawers. She checked inside a couple of books. She checked every possible spot she had seen people search on TV, but still couldn’t find anything. She plopped her little body into the giant desk chair and rubbed her forehead. She needed a cigarette.

Elmo nudged her free hand for attention, and she gave him a halfhearted scratch. He moved his head around her hand, and she went under his collar; that was his favorite spot. She moved to his chest and noticed he had something she’d never seen before stuck in between his rabies and ID tags. It was a small tag, long and thin, rectangular. How could she have never noticed this before now? Was it new? She took his collar off to examine it closer and realized there was a latch to open it. Inside was a very small key.

It was a perfect fit.

The drawer was full of mail. Mail? Why would he lock mail away? She pulled them out and noticed one from the bank. Two from the bank. Three. One with a big red “FINAL NOTICE” stamped across it. Two more from a loan company. An envelope tucked away in the bottom of the stack, handwritten and addressed to Wren. It had been opened, but Wren had no memory of ever reading it. So, she decided she would.

*                                  *                                  *

Wren made meatloaf, carrots, and mashed potatoes that night. It was both the Henry’s favorites. She made sure to text Henry Sr. in hopes that he would come home early. It wasn’t the best meatloaf she’d ever made. She wasn’t even sure she remembered all the ingredients. She had been preoccupied ever since she left the office, planning and plotting how she would handle the evening. Henry’s office keys sat on the counter, ready for the big reveal. Every time Wren looked at them, her heart rate would go up and she would get a craving. She took about four, maybe five smoke breaks during her meal prep. She was beyond nauseous. The bathroom reeked of cigarettes.

Both children were already in bed when Henry finally made it home. But not Wren. Wren sat in the faint light of the dining room, staring blankly at her husband’s dinner plate. There was a butt extinguished in his potatoes. Wren was on her second bottle of wine.

Henry tried to be as quiet as possible coming in the dining room, giving her a little smile as he went to grab his plate. Wren grabbed the other side. He wasn’t getting away this time.

“I know,” she said into the silence. Henry wrinkled his brow.

“You know? You know what?”

“I know your secret,” she sang, wagging her finger at him.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about; are you drunk? You hate drinking.”

“Who cares?” she grinned. Her teeth were stained red, and her breath smelled burnt. “I hated it in high school, too, but that didn’t stop you from forcing me to get drunk all the time.”

Henry tried to back out of the room. “Okay, we’ll talk in the morning when you’re sober. I’ve got some work to do.”

Wren roared a sarcastic laugh.

“Oh, do you? You’ve got some work to do? With your job that you don’t have anymore?”

“How drunk are you, Wren? What are you talking about?” His voice had just a bit of a quiver. He was nervous and Wren knew it. Her eyes burned into his.

“I know, Henry.” She stood up and pointed at the keys on the counter. Henry’s face went snow white. “You can try and try to avoid me, to avoid telling me, but I am your wife, and we don’t keep secrets from each other. I called Melissa. Only it wasn’t Melissa, it was Angie. And Angie was kind enough to tell me all about how you got fired five months ago. I thought, ‘surely that’s not true, surely my husband who exchanged vows with me wouldn’t keep this huge, huge thing a secret from me for this long. Surely, he wouldn’t.’ So, I decided to confirm it myself. I didn’t have to look very far.” She pulled the mail out from under her chair and threw it at him.

“What the hell is all of this? Are you out of your mind?”

“Things have never been clearer. I know that you got fired, I know that our house is on the brink of foreclosure, I know that you bought that stupid car with Henry J’s college fund.” She picked up the handwritten letter. “And this? Are you serious? I’m getting letters from, what is she, a prostitute? Telling me my husband owes her money for her ‘services’? Why does she know where we live? Why is she contacting me?”

“She’s not a prostitute, Wren, Jesus. I would never cheat on you, okay? Just listen—”

“Right, right. You wouldn’t cheat on me, but you would keep your unemployment and our potential homelessness a secret from me.”

“Listen, will you? Look, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, okay?” Henry went to hold his wife, but she shook him away.

“Oh, you’re sorry, are you? Oh boy, my husband’s sorry! That fixes it! That’ll save our house. That’ll un-fuck the prostitute.”

“She’s not a prostitute!” Henry was shouting now.

“Then who the hell is she?” Wren matched his volume.

“She was my… business partner. Alright? I had this big plan to open a business of my own, you know, like a store where I could sell watches or sinks or whatever, and she was going to help me.”

“A business.”

“Yes, a business. But I got in over my head and I… reached out for help. I’m not proud of it.”

Wren paused.

“You reached out to another woman for help?”

“Not like that, Wren.” Henry threw his hand over his head and groaned. “Look, God, she sells drugs, okay?”

Drugs?”

“Yes, Wren, drugs. Cocaine. Marijuana. Whatever else. I bought the car before I got fired, a little something for myself for once, then I got fired, then I couldn’t afford the car anymore, so I was trying to find ways to pay it back. I was losing money taking out loans for my business, so that’s when I—”

“When you stole money from your own family?”

“It wasn’t like that!”

“That’s exactly what it was!”

“I had to pay for the car.”

“Then sell it.”

“It wasn’t that easy.”

“Then give it to the drug woman.”

“She doesn’t want a car, Wren.” Henry’s tone was sharpening.

“Why not?”

“You don’t get it!”

“I think I’m catching on.” She crumpled up a drink receipt from Southside Casino and threw it at him. “You gambled with our money.” She threw another receipt at him. “Treated yourself to nice meals.” The letter was next. “Secretly got our family involved with selling drugs.”

“I wasn’t selling drugs!”

“What were you doing, then?”

“My store was going to be her front.”

Wren took a moment to comprehend what he just disclosed.

Money laundering?

“You don’t understand. You don’t understand any of this!”

“Well, I certainly understand that laundering money is extremely illegal! Money laundering and gambling? Are you serious? That was your plan? How could you keep this from me? How are we going to pay her back? Pay any of this? All that money from your parents, all of that was in Henry J’s college fund. And the savings. And in this house! And you’ve spent it all on a fake business you can’t even afford to open. I didn’t go to college. I married you and had your babies instead because I trusted that you would provide. That’s what you told me you would do for me. I can’t do anything to help this. I have no skills, no degrees, no experience. Without you bringing in an income, we have no money. If we don’t pay our mortgage by next week, we’re going to be homeless. Homeless. Do you understand what that means? Do you understand what you’re putting your family through?”

“Wren, I wanted to tell you it just… it kept getting worse and worse and I didn’t even know where to start.”

Wren was sobbing. She slammed her fists on the table. The light above flickered.

“Start here, Henry. You could’ve started at any one of these letters. We could’ve fixed this.”

“I’m gonna fix this, you just have to trust me.” Henry approached her, his tone flirting with the line between calm and fuming.

“Trust you? You want me to trust you? You’ve been secretly unemployed and draining every penny we had into a business that doesn’t exist, and you want me to trust you? We owe over a hundred grand and counting to some drug lord I’ve never even heard of, and you want me to trust you? You’ve ruined our children’s futures. I did trust you. I’ve trusted you for years. Years! And I thought I was doing the right thing by trusting you.”

“You’re my wife, you’re supposed to trust me! For better or for worse. Remember those vows?”

“You want to bring up vows? Vows? Let’s talk about how you broke the vow of always being honest. And faithful.”

Henry slapped her, harder than he did that morning.

“I was faithful. Don’t you dare say I wasn’t.”

Wren was seething. She didn’t deserve to be hit. Months of not being touched and the only contact she received was violent.

“Apologize,” she said.

“No. It’s the only way to shut you up.”

She rushed at him and shoved. The dinner plate fell but he didn’t budge.

“You don’t get to hit me!” Wren shouted.

“You don’t get to accuse me of untrue things.”

“You weren’t faithful, Henry. You lied to me. Every day. For months.”

“It’s not my fault!”

Wren froze. Her version was red and slanted.

“Not your fault? Not your fault? This is all your fault. You’re ruining this family. Everything. Everything is your fault.” She threw a book at him. “See? That’s your fault. You made me so mad I had to throw a book. Look at what you’ve done to me! Look at who I’ve become because of you! You didn’t think. You never do. You’re just as stupid as me! This affects all of us. Not just you.”

She shoved him again.

“Your son.”

Again.

“Your baby daughter.”

Again.

“Your fucking wife!”

She tried to shove him over the couch, but he was too heavy for her. She punched his gut over and over and over again until he grabbed her fists.

“Let me go,” she barked.

Henry slapped her for a third time and Wren spit in his face.

“Wren that’s enough. You’re acting like a child. Let’s calm down and talk.”

His voice was composed and unsettling, exactly how it sounded when he would scold Henry Jr. It only made her angrier. Wren didn’t want to calm down. Wren wanted her husband to pay for what he put her through. She squirmed in his grip and continued to scream. Her knee shot up to his crotch and he let her go. She slapped him across the face this time, again and again and again. He went to grab her arms again, but she shoved him against the couch. He tried to regain his balance and she saw an opportunity. Wren pushed her teetering husband as hard as she possibly could against the back of the sofa they bought together. He toppled over backwards.

She heard a thud, and the room was silent. She stood frozen. Everything was spinning. She wasn’t sure if it was from the wine anymore. The couch was miles away from her and she couldn’t move.

“Henry?” she whispered. She forced a foot forward. “Henry?”

Her stomach was churning with acid and regret. Her throat tightened. Another foot forward. She could see blood on the coffee table and Henry’s legs in the air. She wanted to act faster, wanted to undo the entire day. She gripped the couch and leaned forward.

“Henry?”

His head was bent over his neck and blood was spilling out all around him. Elmo was scratching at the back door. Rosie was crying from her crib. She waited and waited and waited for her husband’s chest to rise and fall. But it never did. All the anger left her body and she fell to floor as if the strings keeping her up had been cut. Her cheeks were wet, but she couldn’t remember when she started crying. She crawled to her husband and held his face, blood now soaking into her shirt and hair. She didn’t care. She wanted to be a part of him. Set sail in the ocean streaming out of him. Dock her boat on his island and claim it as her own. Then he couldn’t get away from her. Then he couldn’t keep secrets from her. Then they’d be together forever.

Her son’s sobs shook the living room.

The boat sank.

The island crumbled.


Maggie Hall is a creative writing student at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She’s loved to write for as long as she can remember, though her earlier works were less about death and more about foxes and ducks playing computer games together. She hopes her work will one day gain the approval of her cats, Bob Elvis and Dolly. They’re very tough critics. 


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“The Event” Sci-fi Horror by Kate Bergquist

"The Event" by Kate Bergquist

Maybe it didn’t happen the way you think. That’s what my friend Billy keeps saying, over and over, looking down at me, giving me his nervous, sideways look.

But it did happen. We were both there; we saweverything. I keep trying to tell him but he doesn’t seem to hear me. And for the sake of human race, for the slightest chance of saving the world, I need find a way to remember all of it.  

                                                            #

My stomach still clenches when I think of it.

The Event.

It happened without warning, cloaked in a summer heatwave, each silver-bright day the same as the one before it; it scorched all the lawns orange, turned our gentle curve of Little River into a stony ditch.

 Even the crows complained about the heat, in their funny crow way, making guttural sounds, stamping their clawed feet on the parched grass, demanding the worms stop tunneling so deep; performing their stomping dance to conjure even the thinnest mist of rain.

I’d just turned fifteen that August, still decompressing after a stressful freshman year.

I was tired of being stuck in an air-conditioned house in North Branch, New Hampshire, in a neighborhood that was pretty much what you might expect: several neat rows of nearly-identical houses, most of them split-entry style, built in the late 90’s, planted like well-tended crops on the site of a once-thriving horse farm.

It was the kind of town that gets crazy full of skiers in the winter, with Waterville Valley not far away. It was the kind of town that attracts swarms of people in the fall, all googly-eyed over the foliage even after all the leaves have turned to rust.

In other words, it was a pretty freaking awesome place to live. Far from where anyone expects anything bad to happen.

Especially here, in our little neighborhood, complete with its fiber optic Internet and a million-dollar view. Behind our landscaped yards, above the tree line on a clear day, you can see Mount Washington and most of the Franconia Ridge in the distance. And sometimes, at night, me and Billy watch the stars. And we’ve seen really cool things, too, like the Starlink slipping like a diamond bracelet across the night sky, and other satellites, but we’ve also seen some things we can’t explain. Tiny specks of light that move in impossible directions at unbelievable speeds.  

But it had been something like forever since I’d seen any clear view. With clouds flung like loose bones and teeth across a white canvas for so long, I was beginning to forget what our mountains and sky even looked like.

                                                             #

Everything was silver.

Oh, hell. I just can’t do it today. I’m going back inside.

#

The morning that the whole world changed, it was too hot even for bugs. I was in the backyard doing some chores, soaked in sweat, pulling some dead weeds from the garden, thinking about a ride I’d taken in Manny’s truck not that long ago. I’m trying to remember what day that was, because all the days seemed to blur together lately. And time seems different now; it doesn’t always move in straight lines; it unfurls like a threadbare flag in the hot wind. But this memory is a good one; it has some weight to it. And it feels so recent; it feels like it happened an eyeblink ago.

                                                            #

The sky cracked open like a hollow, dusty skull.

Sorry. That’s all I got right now.

                                                           #

Me and Billy were hanging out at Whistle Rock but on the way back we decided to go a different way home, down an old logging trail that led to Route 11. It was a short-cut of sorts, but it was really steep and dusty with a couple of narrow turns and you even had to clear one sharp elbow at the steepest spot.

And that’s why we liked it.

Right at that spot is where my back tire snared on a chunk of broken glass.  Billy was in front of me; when I yelled to warn him, he slowed down to turn back to look at me, and I drove right into him. Both of us got tangled in the bikes, in the dust. I slammed down pretty hard, with Billy on top of me.

“Shit!”

Billy was quiet. Like he was holding his breath. 

I got off my bike and looked around. We were still a good four miles from home; that was a lot of walking in this heat. 

                                                              #

I saw it first. It was like waking from a dream, and looking up to see two huge blue eyes opening wide. And then those eyes blinked and I saw an old blue truck bearing down on us.

With Manny Fuentes behind the wheel.        

                                                              #

Manny killed the engine and jumped out. “Hey, you guys okay?”

He told us both to get in to his completely restored, aquamarine and white 1966 Ford F100. So cool. I’d never seen a truck like it. He’d even rebuilt the engine himself.

I couldn’t believe our luck. Manny Fuentes, a senior, captain on our football team, and a really great person, a kind person, a guy who would literally give you his shirt if you told him that you needed a shirt; that guy just happened to be driving down this logging road at the exact right moment that we needed him.

What were the chances of that?

I didn’t hesitate to jump up into the cab. But Billy seemed upset all of a sudden, pouting. He hung his head and I could see he was upset. He scuffed his feet against the ground, kicking up a spray of dust. I wasn’t sure why; it was so broiling hot; the two of us couldn’t ride back together on his small bike.

He said he wanted to ride back alone.

Manny wouldn’t hear it. “Easy, Billy, you’ll get heat stroke out here.” He lifted both bikes into the bed, taking such care with them, then got into the driver’s seat and popped the clutch to ease the truck down the twisting mountain road.

                                                              #

I heard something whimper, and it wasn’t a good sound. And Manny wasn’t smiling like he usually did. He turned his head completely around to look back at Billy, No no no!

And out of the corner of my eye, I saw a white tail fly out the cab window with Billy trying to grab it. And then my vision was interrupted, suddenly, by something bright and silver and so high-pitched in frequency! So loud! It was a like an electric bolt to my body.

It threw me flat off my feet.                                                                              

Or as my mom says, it knocked the stuffing right out of you.

The pain was excruciating. From my head right down to my tailbone.

For a moment, it felt like I had lifted right out of my body. I was weightless. Defying the laws of gravity. Then everything went dead quiet.

What happened was this: a ragged slit formed high in the clouds, ripping across the sky like a torn sheet. Then thousands–maybe a million–terrible, dark things tumbled out of the tear, thrumming their silver wings like angry moths, semi-obscured by the clouds.

Some kind of…spaceships!

I froze. My mind tried to reconcile what I was seeing.

I tried to take a photo with my iPhone but I was shaking too much; besides, I knew it would come out looking like an overexposed legion of ants. 

Because what I was seeing was far more sinister.

                                                                          #

Wobbly, I climbed to my feet. The ground wasn’t quite solid. I glanced across to our neighbor’s yard, and there was Mrs. Rosa. She was sitting in the middle of her lawn, her skinny legs sticking straight out in front of her. She held something round in her lap. I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.

She looked lost, dumbfounded.

“Don’t you see?” I yelled, pointing at the sky. My tongue felt like sandpaper.

 She blinked her unfocused eyes. I saw the shudder in her face. “Was that an earthquake?”

I wanted to scream that what just happened came from above, not below. When I looked up again, a sharp pain blasted into my skull.  But I could see that the sky had put up a serious fight — the clouds were completely shredded.

 I realized my hands and feet had gone numb. The air had an electrical smell to it.

A few seconds later, the silence ended and a humming noise began. It was a deep, metallic hum, but it made the whole neighborhood feel secure again, because our private army of whole-house generators were faithfully defending our insatiable need for electricity.

                                                              #

It must have been the grid, everyone said.

Just a little blip in the grid. Of course! It had to be that. After all, we’d been warned that something like that might happen after so many days of extreme usage.

              But no one else experienced The Event like I did. They were all so happy to be connected to the Internet again after not having it for at least five minutes; completely oblivious to the fact that life as we knew it had just come to an abrupt end.

                                                               #

Okay, so that was a lot to unpack. But some of it really did happen that way, I’m convinced of it.

                                                              #

And so it was that even after The Event, I was always trying to get outside, even though it felt safer inside. At least you could see what was coming at you. And despite what you might think, ninety-five degrees really isn’t so bad for a kid like me, especially in the mornings, when there is still a slight breeze, when I could still smell the pungent mix of pine and balsam like it was a sachet pressed beneath my pillow.  

And beneath it, I could still hear the pervasive hum.

Even through my closed bedroom window.

I was taking my time making my bed that morning, because doing simple things like that, mundane things, almost makes you feel that everything’s still normal.

But it’s not. Ever since The Event, I don’t even want to eat anymore.

And it takes so much energy to even try to get myself to move; all those little sharp needles of pain.

                                                            #

Hold on. I need to rewind. I wish I could think in a straight line. 

I hear Billy’s voice again. A whisper this time, near my right ear.

 “There was so much blood.”           

Blood? What are you talking about, blood? I don’t remember any blood!   

                                                            #         

I do remember looking at a poster.

It was tacked onto on one of the pine trees, on a trail up near Whistle Rock. There are lots of posters up there, and they’re all black with faded orange letters, ragged around the edges and hard to read, but if you squint, they all say the same thing:

                                               POSTED

                                          No Trespassing.

But this said something different.

Something silver.

                                                            #

That beeping again. My phone?

A text from Billy.

Whistle Rock. Let’s go look.             

Whistle Rock was our secret place, a cool stone formation in the woods that we discovered years ago when we went off-trail one day; it sort-of resembled a turtle. Billy said it was probably made by native peoples. Behind the rocks, in some dense brush, we also found a small stone chamber built into the hill. We named it Whistle Rock because when the wind started to pick up, there was a subtle whistle sound that came out of the rocks.

There was something special about that spot. Something magic. Before the Event, we spent every moment we could up here, alive and free beneath a canopy of pines, listening to the soft whistle of the wind. Digging in the cool dirt, looking for treasure. Finding a few arrowheads, pieces of old bottles.

But it just wasn’t the same now. We had always felt safe there. But not anymore.

                                                            #

Thunderstorms and flying saucers. 

                                                            #

I went to let my dad know I was going to ride my bike; he was busy finalizing his latest work project, or as he put it “shortlisting the right candidates,” and didn’t appreciate the interruption. Frowning, he nodded, without even turning to look at me. Even with the shades drawn, I could see his bald spot; it seemed to be spreading daily. And what was left of his hair was damp and plastered to his head. I could smell cigarette smoke, too–no doubt he had snuck yet another one; the window was cracked open an inch. But the air was so dense outside, it pushed tentacles of smoke back into the room.

I wanted to explain something to him. But Dad, he’s only afraid of two things.

I hovered around the doorway, hesitating. Waiting for him to ask me, “What things?”

But he never did. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d had a long talk, or a short talk, or had done anything together as a family for that matter, really, although I do still have vague memories of doing outdoor things with my parents, like going up the lake, fishing with my dad, taking mountain hikes with my mom.

For the past few years, though, both of them had pretty much lived indoors—even our groceries got delivered – and they only left the house for absolute necessities.

They were closed in, closed up. Covid started it, for sure. We all stayed snug and safe inside. Thinking nothing bad could ever reach us in our homes.

But then, The Event.

I was convinced my dad didn’t fully grasp the enormity of the situation.

I didn’t want to bother him when he was so busy with his work, but I felt a sense of urgency. He looked over at me, then pushed out a long sigh as squinted at the screen — at a section highlighted with a blinking yellow cursor. The yellow was so bright in the otherwise dark room, like a tiny pulsating sun; I could feel the warmth of it even though it hurt my eyes.

Dad saw me staring and clicked back to his wallpaper screen. His eyes were muddy. And his skin was so pale and brittle-looking, I almost expected paper-thin slices of it to start sloughing off his cheeks.

 I knew that look. His insomnia was back, big time. When he got this bad, he fought sleep, he said it was too much likely slipping away from everything he knows, slipping the bonds of his bones and skin into something he had no control over.

I knew how he felt. None of us had control anymore.

Not really.

Pushing back disappointment, I turned to leave. Dad’s voice trailed behind me. “Come back anytime, Ethan. I miss our talks.” 

As I drifted down the stairs, I could hear my mom yelling from the kitchen, “Ethan! I talked to the doctor.”

Oh, right. She must mean Dr. Karo, who was supposedly trying to help me with my “coping mechanisms.” Last session he wanted to work on “compartmentalization” techniques with me, but I kept insisting his time would be better spent helping my parents overcome their own agoraphobic tendencies.

He didn’t find that amusing, hiding behind his glowing monitor, in his locked office, in his sprawling house, complete with a ten-foot-high fence and a monitored security system.

To me, the thought of spending another minute online with Dr. Karo was even more reason to flee. Besides, I’ve been coping way better than my parents have (and better than most people I know, for that matter) ever since The Event.

                                                            #

I feel a change in the air. My palms are throbbing, just like they do when weather is coming in.  And I hear a distant rumbling sound, like the mountain is clearing its throat.                    

                                                            #

Oh! My mom’s here. Hi, Mom! Missed you!

She always triggers me. I can feel a stream of water slipping from my eyes. Maybe, if we’re all lucky, I can cry enough to fill up Little River.

                                                            #

Mom caught me at the back door that day, a bit out of breath. Dressed in her steel-gray bathrobe, she glanced fearfully at the sky, then down at me, a perpetual worried look creasing her face. I noticed her bangs looked straggly lately, streaked with gray.

A visual reminder of how hard The Event had been on her.

On all of us.

Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll be back soon. I just have to keep looking.

“I know, honey.” Her voice had a catch in it. She wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her robe and steadied her gray eyes on my face. “I know how hard you’re trying. You’re doing great. It’s just that I–I wish our world hadn’t…completely turned upside down.”

I know. Everything’s different now. But we’re all still here, right? We’re all survivors.

I gave her a quick, urgent hug, then pushed opened the door to a sharp slap of heat.

                                                           #

I jumped on my trail bike – a Schwinn Sidewinder – got it from a neighbor in trade for my MP3 player—and flew up the trail, ducking the low hanging branches, pushing my calves to near-spasm, feeling my pulse throbbing in my throat.

            Took me about ten minutes to get there. When I did, Billy was in the middle of the trail, hunched over, clutching his stomach.

“What’s wrong?” I skidded to a stop, jumped off the bike and ran over to him. I could smell the puke from ten feet away. And a worse smell underneath.

Putrid. Like something decomposing.

Billy’s face was completely drained of color. His skin looked waxy. He pointed to the chamber. His lips twitched; he was about to cry. “I didn’t know what it was, at first,” his voice croaked. “I just knew…it was bad.”

I put my arm around his shoulder and led him through the scrub brush and down to the entrance to the chamber.

That’s when I saw it. My eyes clicked on it and went in close.

Manny’s backpack.

You couldn’t miss it – sun-yellow with a large, custom black patch in the shape of a flying saucer.

 Something furry was stuffed into the backpack, and something dark had leaked out.

I felt dizzy, disoriented. My breath pushed high in into my chest, finding all the tight spaces. My mind hit the rewind button. I could hear Manny yelling, stop, stop, STOP!

I could see his thick fingers gripping the steering wheel, his knuckles bone-white.

I shook my head to erase the memory and turned back to Billy.

                                                            #

Are these dreams? Or memories? I’m not sure.

                                                            #

“You pull it out of there?”
“No. It was…laying right there. Just…just like it is. I haven’t touched it.”

I was trying to breathe from my mouth, to keep from gagging.

Billy was shaking, his eyes were shut tight; trying to draw the blinds in his mind.

“What are we going to do?” He pushed his hands together, hard, trying to pray.

I wasn’t sure what to tell him. “It’s gonna be okay.” But when I lifted my hand from his shoulder, the trembling got even worse; I could literally hear his teeth rattling. (Billy’s smaller than me, even though we’re almost the same age. He’s thin and wiry; I’m taller and heavier set).

I led him away from the backpack, back up to the trail, where the smell was less overwhelming. “Try to slow your breathing, so you don’t hyperventilate.”

Billy nodded, then sat on a rock and put his head between his knees. I told him to take a few deep breaths and try to visualize something nice.

But I couldn’t think of anything nice. 

I gave him a few minutes to compose himself. Then: “Did you look?”
Billy nodded, gravely.

“Is it –”

“—yeah. I think it is.”

I kicked a stone with my sneaker. “Fuck.”

 “Yeah.” The air was so heavy. Suffocating. Why wouldn’t it rain? Even just a few drops, even if it was black and oily and had a chemical smell or felt greasy. It would just feel so good on my face; it would feel like hope.

I had to do it. I had to go look for myself.

                                                                  #

The backpack gleams like sunlight against the black earth. It reminds me of Manny’s smile, lighting up the gray day.

                                                                 #

I want a happy ending. Who doesn’t? All those other scenes played themselves out in my mind, rolling like free movie previews. But I can tell the real movie is starting now, and after a such a long wait, here it is: – the feature presentation – but I’m afraid — I want to stop it; I really want to go back to a white screen again; I have way more control that way…but its already starting.

My arms and legs are itching with a million pinpricks and I realize that I have no choice but to watch the whole thing right from the beginning, until it pushes deep into the middle and spreads out to all the twisted edges.

                                                                  #               

I hope you’re proud of me. I think I got most of the edges right.    

                                                                             #

It was a bruised and broken sky. That’s what was different. There were black clouds on the horizon that morning, heavy and low-slung, threatening to rupture. The crows were doing their little stomping dance on the grass, celebrating the first fat plops of rain.

    #

I’m pulling dead flowers from in the garden when I get the text from Billy.  Whistle Rock. Let’s go look. I text back: On my way. Bring water and food–just in case.

And then I text Manny to let him know.

                                                                         #

I’m up near Whistle Rock. My legs are cramping from the long bike ride. I can see the poster clearly now. Same as the ones plastered all over town, taped to all the glass storefronts, even curled around the streetlights and so many tree trunks. It was a really clever way to get the word out, too: people stopped to read every word.

This one is taped to a tall pine. I can see it now in full laser mega-pixel. I remember I even have another one folded up in my jeans pocket. It’s printed on a bright silver-colored paper, shaped like a flying saucer. A fluffy white dog’s face pokes out from the escape hatch of the craft.

    LOST DOG: JASPER
(Possible Alien Abduction)
Lost while hiking August 7th
North Bend at trail near junction at Route 11.
Jasper’s only 8 pounds and afraid of only two things:
Thunderstorms and Flying Saucers. If seen, please text Manny Fuentes 603-555-2252

               #

We’ve been searching for Jasper every day for a week now. He’s Manny’s whole world; Manny even camped out a few nights hoping to lure Jasper back to him. We’ve been leaving water bowls in different spots on the trail, tucked into the brush. And a full bowl of dog food in the stone chamber. We told Manny to leave his backpack in there, because scent is everything to a dog, and we thought Jasper might pick up the scent and find his way to it.  

                                                                          #

I’m almost at Whistle Rock when the sky tears open. It had been holding back for so long; it just lets it all go, all at once. The rain comes down so hard and so black, hammering at the earth, washing away the dirt, the rocks. Racing down the culverts. It feels like needles blasting my skin with a million pinpricks.

                                                                         #

I run to the chamber to get out of the rain. The food bowl is empty! My eyes fall across Manny’s backpack gleaming like sunlight against the black earth. And it’s moving! I hear a whimper. “Jasper!”

There’s a frantic thumping. Jasper’s tail. I think he got himself caught in the straps. I take a step forward and reach out, but Billy pushes me roughly aside and lifts the backpack. Jasper’s little white head pokes out and licks Billy’s face.

“Jasper! I got you!”

We’re over the moon excited. Billy keeps hugging Jasper, you’re safe, you’re safe, who squirms in the backpack, trying to wriggle out.

I pick up my phone, but Billy slaps it away. It makes a loud cracking sound against the stones. Billy backs away from me, his eyes full of fear.

                                                                           #

“Maybe it didn’t happen the way you think.”

“What are you talking about?” I’ve never seen him like this. He’s jumpy, nervous. Scared. Jasper begins to whimper. Billy’s eyes are puddling with tears.

“Hey, hey, let’s get him on this leash first so we can get him to settle down.”

“I’m keeping him, Ethan. He’s my dog.”

“He’s Manny’s. You can’t possibly think you have some kind of right to him just because you found him.”

“We need to save him.”

“We just did.”

“No, you don’t understand! It wasn’t like that. Manny never wanted us to find him. Manny’s the one who tossed him out the truck window to begin with!” Billy bends over suddenly, clutching the backpack against his belly, and projectile vomits against the wall. I duck, but some of it still splatters on me.       

                                                                         #          

My friend Billy. I feel bad for him. He’s so mixed up. I think he’s lost it. Dr. Karo would say, he’s in a bad place. As we stand in this hollow space inside the chamber, he’s been telling me these horrible stories, about alien abduction. He says he remembers things; they keep coming at him like knives thrown from bad dreams. He thinks Manny has been seeded by the aliens, and he’s now using Jasper as bait. 

Honestly, he’s kind of scaring me. Billy rubs at his eyes, then he whips his own phone against the wall, and crushes it under his heel.

“So that’s why he threw Jasper out the truck window?”

“That was before. He knew the aliens were coming for him, so he wanted to save him.” 

It sounds pretty messed up. And maybe even crazy. But…he’s my best friend.

“There’s…something you should know.”

“What?” Billy looks at me, his eyes huge.

“I already texted Manny.”

                                                                      #                        

We scramble into action. Billy tucks Jasper securely into the backpack and zips it shut, leaving Jasper plenty of room for air. We rush from the chamber. Beneath the rattle of the rain, there’s a deeper sound now, it’s guttural, like a growl. We grab our bikes and start pushing down the trail. Water is pouring over us; I can barely keep my eyes open, it’s so hard to see. The trail is so slippery I have to go slow to stay upright.

Billy’s getting farther ahead of me; he’s just a dark smudge against the gray. I can see him take a sharp right. He’s taking the short cut. That’s the old logging road; there are fewer trees, but the road is wider and a lot steeper.

I take the turn, too wide and wobbly, trying to avoid the right side of the road that is now a raging river. I almost go down, but am able to correct at the last minute. I start to accelerate down the hill, and then I see Billy, right in front of me! I brake, but it’s too late. I crash into him and we both fall, a silver roar of rain and stones and steel. My right leg crunches beneath my bike and I hear a loud crack when my shoulder hits the ground.

For a few moments, everything is silent, except for the rain, which is starting to slow.  Billy is quiet, as if he’s holding his breath. Adrenaline kicks in and I wrench myself up, and pull both bikes off him. He’s squinting to keep the rain out of his eyes, but it’s not working.

“You okay?” By sheer luck, the backpack ended up in his lap, and Jasper is whining, wrestling to get out. Billy nods, let’s out a breath. “I think Jasper’s okay too.”

“Great. Make sure he’s got enough air.”

I think my shoulder is dislocated. But I can put some weight on my right leg. Good. It’s not broken. I drag the bikes off the road with my left arm.

And that’s when two halogen eyes blink above the crest of the hill.

An old blue truck. Manny’s. But…it’s all rusted, the bumper is dented, and the windshield is spider-webbed with cracks. Billy shrinks back, clutching Jasper.

The truck coughs and sputters. Manny pushes open the door; there’s a squeak of rusted hinges. He shakes the rain out of his face and ambles over to us. He cracks a smile, but it’s not the dazzling smile I remember. It’s gray and greasy and specked with tiny black dots. And the dots are crawling like hungry ants all over his slimy teeth.

There’s an awful smell on his breath, like something decomposing. It smells like rotting fish, but worse. Way worse. I have to hold my breath to keep from gagging.  

Manny says, “Get in the truck, now, or you’re all dead.”     

                                                                        #

We’re in the truck, Billy’s in the middle holding onto the backpack. He’s shaking so hard. I feel bad for him. We should have put up a fight, we should have run, but I couldn’t run. The truck jostles and pops down the steep road, parts of it have washed away, so Manny is trying to steer carefully.

We hit a huge bump and the truck lurches forward. I hit my head on the windshield.

We’re on the steepest part of the road now, and Manny starts braking. But nothing happens. He pumps the brakes but the truck keeps accelerating down the hill. We’re heading right for Route 11, there’s no way to stop!  

Manny yells. “Fuck!”

Billy bolts that very moment, sliding open the cab window and heaving himself out, pulling the backpack behind him.

Manny turns his head around to look back at Billy, No no no!

And out of the corner of my left eye, I see a white tail fly past before my vision is stolen by something bright and silver and so high-pitched in frequency! So loud! It’s like an electric bolt to my body.

                                                                          #

I’m so dizzy. The ground doesn’t feel solid. My tongue feels like a piece of torn sandpaper. I look down, and I’m covered in glass. And blood. There’s so much blood! I’m outside of the truck, sitting in a puddle of it. Where’s Billy?

I blink my unfocused eyes. Ahead of me, a car crushed like a tin can. There’s woman on the ground, her legs shattered into pulp, her hands still holding onto a steering wheel. It’s my neighbor, Mrs. Rosa, and she’s dead as stone.

The pain hits like lightning, flashing red and blue, blasting into my skull.

I hear a voice, somewhere above me. Weak pulse. Thready. This one needs immediate transport.

                                                                          #

There’s a soft pressure on my chest. I feel something licking my face. The tickle of soft whiskers. I know it’s Jasper, and I know he’s alive. Liquid joy fills my veins, but I still can’t lift my arms to hold him.

                                                                         #

Beneath the hum, I can hear my dad speaking in somber tones, “Doctor, what should we expect?” There’s a pause and then another male voice says, “The accident caused a traumatic brain event. We’ve been slowly bringing him out of the medically induced coma, and he’s already showing some promising signs of awareness. But–we need to keep monitoring his vital signs and brain activity before we’ll know the full extent of any permanent damage.”

                                                                          #

Mom’s here again! I hear her say: Omygod…Omygod…Omygod. Her voice is so muffled, I can tell she has her hands pressed over her mouth.Then: “Ethan! Oh my God! You’re awake!”

                                                                          # 

I open my eyes – really open them this time.

And everything is silver.


Kate Bergquist has an MA in Writing and Literature from Rivier University in New Hampshire. Insurance
agent by day, dark fiction writer by night, her short fiction has appeared in The Chamber Magazine and
other periodicals. She finds inspiration along the Maine coast, where she lives with her husband and
several old rescue dogs.


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“Midnight in the Presidential Palace” Historical Horror by Kevin DG Johnson

John Adams circa 1800-1815. Portrait by Gilbert Stuart
John Adams circa 1800-1815. Portrait by Gilbert Stuart

Washington March 3, 1801

My Dearest Friend

Something has given the horses a startle. Their shrieks carry from the stables to the great room. Perhaps it was the young rider, whom I have just sent off with the last of the commissions. Lord willing he can navigate the dark and muddy streets at this late hour. No less than the future of our Federalist system hangs in the balance.

The full moon’s glow has vanished, blanketed by an angry squall approaching from the East. A damp, cold chill slices through the air. The servants are outside doing battle with the elements, calming the horses, making preparations for tomorrow’s damned inauguration.

And here I find myself alone. An old, defeated man, scribing with trembling hands, squinting with watery eyes, flinching with aching teeth. Alone, yes.

Painfully alone.

All I have for company is a meek fire and a thimble’s worth of Madeira. The flames do little to warm this room, nor the other twelve fireplaces across this empty sarcophagus they call a Palace. Some Palace, indeed, with its barren walls and stacks of dusty crates. If not for the clothesline you left behind, there would be no trace of civilization whatsoever in our Nation’s illustrious new capital. Oh! Curse the day I agreed to leave Philadelphia for this place. The 4 o’clock stage cannot come soon enough.

I believe it is time for rum. 

One bottle remains in the kitchen. I intend to finish it. Better to drink myself into a reunion with our poor Charles than live to see Thomas Jefferson enjoy a single drop of spirit left behind.

Oh Abigail, curse me for thinking such things. I do not know what has become of me, or why I write to you now. Surely, I will arrive home long before its delivery.

Perhaps a moment to vent is all I need, to scribble my thoughts on paper lest I go to sleep with a crowded mind. I already feel better, as is always the case when I think of you. But I fear sleep is not in store for me tonight. There is so much work to be done. I have packing to attend to and am running out of time to waste.

The sky has come to life with rolling thunder and harsh lightning. There is something else, too. A queer noise, one of a peculiar cadence. Distant, yet close. Disagreeable, yet enchanting. Foreign, yet familiar. I cannot place it. Some type of animal, no doubt. Lord only knows what creatures lurk in the vast, foul swamp.

No matter. My procrastination must come to an end. I cannot wait to be home, for good, forever more. Losing this election may well have been for the best. I shall see you soon, but not soon enough.

Most affectionately yours,

J.A.

March 3 1801. Tuesday. 10 O’clock.

The rum suits me well. Each sip gets smoother, more refreshing. It will serve as the fuel I need to make it through the evening. Most importantly, it will keep my thoughts from Charles.

I cannot recall the last time I recorded a journal entry, but tonight seems a fitting return. In years past, I could fill pages and pages with the day’s accomplishments. But alas, on my final night as President, I have nothing but the mundane to report.

Writing and packing. Packing and writing. That is what remains for me.

Walking, too. Less a vigorous walk of exercise and more an aimless wander, stalking the halls of this empty palace like a spirit, candelabra in hand, the flames clinging to life through every whistle of wind. I am less a President and more an echo of the past, a footprint left in muddy sand, waiting for time to erase me from existence.

Judging by the rumbling walls and blinding white flashes, the worst of the storm will be here soon. The brightest strike occurred mere moments ago, as I wandered into the great room. It brought forth the cobwebs on the ceiling, the soot along the walls, the garments hanging across the clothesline.

And it brought forth Him.

His portrait, fixed atop the fireplace, perfectly centered, with its regal gold frame and glossed finish. There he stands, the conquering hero, the father of the nation, in his finest blue-and-buff uniform, watching over me. Always watching.

Of all the things this blasted palace exists without – proper plumbing, furnishings, ventilation, finished windows – they made damn sure not to forget Him. Will there be a portrait of me, someday, I wonder? Doubtful. And if one should ever exist, it will be half the size and tucked away in a powder room.

Ay, President Washington, I see you now. I stoked the fire so we can sit face to face, like our days in the continental congress, two young revolutionaries with grand ambition and little sense.

Tell me, do you remember who convinced you to lead our newly formed army? Do you remember who provided you the men, the muskets, the powder, the blankets, the linen, the bandages? Do you remember who spoke on your behalf when your stoic face could not be bothered to move but an inch? Where are the songs about me, then? Where is my grand portrait? Nay, sir, you are the hero and I am but the man who followed the hero.

Of all the challenges of my Presidency, there were none greater than living under your shadow. And here you are, still, on my last night, to see me away. Here you–

That strange noise again. A scream? No, more of a wail. A howl. One of the servants, perhaps? They should all come inside. The storm is upon us. I shall call for them at once. The company would be most welcome anyhow.

10:34.

The servants have gone! Lost to the wilderness, to the twisted trees and moss-covered ground, the knee-high brush and icy marsh. I remained outside as long as I could bear it. There were footprints in the muck, leading into the swamp, scattered like an aimless stampede. I followed them as deep as I dared go, until the trees swallowed me whole and the grime caked my boots.

That is when I saw it.

A set of men’s clothes. A very tall man, by the looks of them. Wide in the shoulder and long in the leg. A suit of brown Hartford broadcloth with metal buttons in the shape of Eagles. Shoes with silver buckles and mud-stained stockings. But, what is most striking is the sword. Not a typical dress sword, no. Long and sharp, made from the finest steel I have ever felt. It left a cut on my right index finger with a simple touch.

Who would leave such an impressive uniform behind? Am I to believe a naked man is frolicking about in this weather? Braving the unknown swamp? Might that have been the source of the mysterious noise? Does a man lay dying at the footsteps of the Presidential Palace?

I have brought the clothes inside and locked the doors. The sky has unleashed a fierce tempest. I pity anyone outside in this weather. They are in for a wicked evening, without the comfort of rum.

10:48.

I am beginning to suspect something frightened the servants away. What could cause twenty able-bodied souls to run off in such a manner, I do not know, but I shall not venture outside again to find out.

As the skies have opened, so too, have the noises. Oh! These damnable noises! For every clap of thunder, every strike of lightning, every rush of rainfall, there is a scream, a wail, a guttural snarl, sounding less human with every passing minute.

The noises are all around me, echoing in this dark labyrinth of plaster and smoke. I swear, too, that I have seen a pair of eyes, orange and glowing, burning bright, roaming from window to window. As if they are watching me. As if something circles its prey.

Alas, there is a good chance this is only the rum speaking. I find myself a quarter into the bottle not one hour since opening it.

10:55.

As I think more on the matter, I am reminded of a story, one I heard aboard the Boston during my first voyage to France.

I recorded the tale in one of my prior entries. I shall go search for it now. The details could be of great assistance. Oh! The loudest crack of lightning yet. I must hurry. This night grows harsher.

11:22.

My hands are thick with dust. Cobwebs cover my fingers. I have inhaled enough indoor contaminants to make Benjamin Franklin wheeze in his grave. But I have found it. The journal entry from all those years ago. It is more striking than I remember and fills me with grave concern. Could this be what lurks beyond the walls?

I have included the entry below:

February 19 1778. Thursday.

The Heavens blessed us with strong winds today. Captain Tucker advises that we are back on course after that minor squabble with our British adversaries. But the seas remain rough, unforgiving. I do not know which is worse, the constant rocking or the stench of stagnant water. My stomach remains in a fragile state.

I write under a dripping wooden ceiling. It creaks and groans in slow, measured breaths. John Quincy is fast asleep beside me. I must admit, the boy’s bravery has surprised everyone onboard, his father most of all. I am so happy I brought him.

I am not certain how Charles would fare out here. He is younger, to be sure, but I do not think he has the disposition, nor the fortitude, to withstand a journey like this. I pray he is behaving himself while I am away. 

Despite the perils that lie ahead, I must admit to fearing very little. There is a peculiar French seaman on board who keeps us entertained, distracted. He will not share his full birth name and insists we refer to him only as “Henri.” His hair remains drenched with seawater, always, and what few teeth he has left are black and rotting.

But the man has a penchant for storytelling. He gathers the passengers below deck every evening and regales us with tales from his homeland. Tonight, he told the most fascinating tale yet, and though I had to cover John Quincey’s ears at parts, I will be damned if I should lose such a story to time and old age…

There once was a great French knight, handsome and noble, save for one curious flaw. Whenever the moon was full, he would vanish into the woods, never telling a soul of his whereabouts, or what kept drawing him in. He would return home days later, naked as Adam, soiled clothes at his side.

As the years pass, his wife grows incensed by his behavior. One night, she confronts him upon his return. The knight tells her:

My lady, I turn Bisclavret;

I plunge into that great forest.

In thick woods I like it best.

I live on what prey I can get.

The knight hides his clothes near an old chapel, for if they should disappear, he will become Bisclavret for eternity. Horrified by what she hears, his wife devises a plan to escape his wicked curse. She enlists the help of another knight, one with a keen eye for her, and steals her husband’s clothes during the next full moon, damning him to live out his days as the monster Bisclavret.

One year later, while the King is hunting in the woods, he comes across Bisclavret. The King is alarmed at first, but calms when Bisclavret drops to a knee and kisses his feet. The King spares his life and takes Bisclavret in his court.

All does not end well, however. Soon after, the King hosts a grand feast, and Bisclavret’s devious wife and new husband attend. Blinded by a feral rage, Bisclavret attacks, sinking his teeth into the knight’s throat, tearing his wife’s nose from her face.

The King sentences Bisclavret to death, but his wife confesses her misdeeds and returns his clothes. Horrified, Bisclavret refuses to dress in public. He waits until he is alone, ashamed now of his true form, damned to a life from public view, in absolute solitude…

When I inquired with Henri as to how Bisclavret translates to English, he paused, thought for many moments, touched a finger to his rugged chin. Finally, his lips pursed and curled, as if forcing the words from his mouth.

Werewolf. Bisclavret means Werewolf.

Washington March 3, 1801

Dear “Mr. President”

I must admit, good sir (and I use that term in the loosest possible sense), that you have taken me for a ride. Here you have me, at thirty minutes to midnight, locked in my study, scouring through old journal entries, jumping like a small child at the slightest bit of noise, drinking rum at a torrid pace, and working myself into a frenzied state.

Bravo, Thomas. Bravo.

It all makes perfect sense. How did I not arrive at this conclusion earlier? This is all your doing. Yet another Republican scheme to drive me to madness. You think you have me fooled, but you do not. It has always been you behind the scenes, has it not? The ultimate puppet master, twirling the strings of your Southern cronies while they do your putrid bidding. You might have fooled the Nation, but you will never fool John Adams!

It was your idea to have the capital moved to this godforsaken swamp. You insisted I move in before the end of my term, before the damned thing was even finished. Why? So you could torment me. How many of you are outside right now? How many Republicans dance around this house? Risking all manner of illness on this wet and frozen night, just so they can run back to you like dogs and get a pat on the head.

I remember the names, my old friend, every last one of them. I do not recall any protest from you when your Southern colleagues dubbed me, “His Rotundity.” I am all but certain you snickered under your breath.

And what about the others? Did you snicker at them, too? John Adams the warmonger, the monarchist, the repulsive pendant, the gross hypocrite, the egregious fool. And, my personal favorite, the hideous hermaphrodite. If my Harvard education is of any value, I do believe that a hermaphrodite possesses the sex organs of both male and female. And if that be the case, then I cannot think of a more apt description of you, good sir, as your flaccid demeanor and aversion to public opinion make it impossible to determine which side of any issue you stand!

Some Vice President, you have been. You spent the last four years so effectively separating yourself from my administration, and the duties of governing, that you could not be held accountable for anything that has disappointed, displeased, or infuriated anyone. Leave me to take all the arrows. Perhaps my memory fails me again, but I do not recall your private objection to the taxes, the standing army, the Alien act, the Sedition act, or anything else for that matter.

But perhaps the greatest ruse of your career was to convince a majority of delegates, and the citizens at large, that you are a champion of the people. Nay, a man of the people. Ha! I dare say there will never be another pied piper as effective as you, fooling the poor and working class that a wealthy land baron has their best interests at heart.

This is the same Thomas Jefferson who hails from a southern mansion, is it not? The same Thomas Jefferson who wears blue frock coats, abhors city life, and prefers to spend his days reading literature in his robust library while an army of slaves tends to his every want and need? No need left unfulfilled, right Thomas?

Perhaps that is where the servants have run off to. Did you round them up and herd them straight to Monticello to build yet another wing? Could you stand the sight of servants doing the bidding of anyone but yourself?

I shall leave you with this lovely poem from your dear southern friend, John Page, another insult I committed to memory that I have no doubt you endorsed:

I’ll tell in a trice–

‘Tis old Daddy Vice

Who carries of pride an ass-load;

Who turns up his nose,

Wherever he goes

With vanity swelled like a toad.

Well I, good sir, much prefer to be a toad than a swine.

Regards,

J.A.

P.S. – Oh! And one more thing, with reg–

11:47.

I am shaken to my very soul. How do I describe what has transpired? Best to lay out the facts, only the facts, state my case and let the jury decide – as I have done (quite well, I might add) throughout my career.

As I was finishing my formal welcome letter to our Nation’s new President, the great and admirable Thomas Jefferson of Montezillo Monticello, there was a loud, sudden noise. A grand thud, striking over and over, as if the Royal Army had landed again on our shores and taken a battering ram to the entrance.

I dropped my quill and, on unsteady legs, hurried over to investigate, forgetting for a moment about the creature that may or may not be roaming the grounds. I propelled my feet forward, one in front of the other, down the dark hallways of this unfinished monstrosity, the flickering light of the candelabra proving a questionable guide. The rain fell all around me, cascading from the roof, like a giant wave was preparing to sweep me away.

As I approached the great doors, the thudding continued, but weaker in strength. I paused for a moment, took a quick breath through my nostrils and out my aching mouth. Bang! One final blow sent the doors rattling.

That is when I heard it.

A scream. Not the same scream as before, no, this one more… human. Yes, I thought to myself, that scream belongs to a man. An ailing man.

I broached a timid step toward the great doors. A lightning strike charged the sky, its glow bathing through the windows. Time ceased to move.

“Who goes there?” I asked, perhaps louder than I needed. There may have been a crack in my voice, so I asked again. “Who goes there?”

Another scream. This one, worse than before. I leapt forward and reached for the handle, but another burst of lightning sent me stumbling backwards. The windows glowed in unison, a widening set of tarantula eyes.

And there he was.

The young rider from earlier, his bloody cheek pressed against the glass. He tried to speak, tried so hard, but nothing sensible came out.

“Good heavens!” I said, or something to that effect. With a rush of bravery, I gripped the door handles with all my might, pulled the blasted things open. A blast of wind, of cold air, of stabbing rain overtook me and almost knocked me off my feet. A lesser man (like Thomas Jefferson, for example) would have fallen, but I held my ground.

“Hurry,” I yelled. “Come inside at once!”

I do not know if the rider heard me, the storm was so loud, but he staggered forward and fell inside all the same. I tried to bring him to his feet, but at my advanced age, my strength is not what it used to be.

The poor boy, I thought. For that’s what he was, a boy. Fresh-faced. Clean shaven. Curly, brown hair. For a moment, with the glow of the candles at my side, I dare say the rider resembled Charles. My dear, departed Charles.

But I could not dwell on that thought. I bent over and dragged the ailing rider across the parlor and into the great room, the large fireplace roaring. The rider’s body left a crimson trail in its wake.

“Stay with me, son,” I kept saying, “stay with me!”

This next part, I admit, is difficult to write.

His throat was torn from chin to chest, the muscles visible when he tried to speak, pulling and tightening like splintered rope. I held my finger to his lips, tried to keep him quiet, so that he did not strain himself. I tried to reassure him. I tried to tell him everything would be fine.

My dear Charles. My sweet boy. 

His clothes clung to him in ribbons. I moved him close to the fireplace, propped him up against the wall, told him to wait for a moment, to try and breathe. Surely, I could have repurposed some of the hanging garments to stop the bleeding. I had enough rum left to dull his pain. There were other things I could have done, too. If he could just hold out until the morning, when the stage arrived, when the storm had passed, I could get him to the nearest town, get him proper medical care.

But it was all for naught.

He died in my arms.

I was too late. If only I had come to the door sooner, perhaps I could have saved him. If only my Presidential duties had not interfered. Why had I sent the rider out with such weather approaching? I saw the warning signs, but chose to ignore them.

Charles was dead. Killed by a horrible beast, a horrible beast that still roamed the Presidential Palace. I held him against my chest, his blood soaking my clothes There was nothing more to be done.

A rumble of thunder gave the roof a shake. The rain lightened, stopped, started all over again. I do not know what came over me, but I reared back my head and screamed. I cursed the beast, this palace, God himself, Thomas Jefferson, Republicans, Federalists, the lot of them. And myself. Myself, most of all. I screamed and screamed until I could scream no longer. Until my lungs set ablaze. 

Then the clock struck midnight, and I wept.

I still do.

I never stopped.

Washington March 4, 1801

Dear Charles

My son, I am so sorry. I have failed you again. I have wasted so much of my life fathering an ungrateful nation that I neglected my duties as a real father. And look what it did to you.

I learned of your death the morning of December 3, the day the electors convened. It is not as if the news did not strike me, but I admit to feeling a certain numbness. I took those feelings and buried them deep in my stomach, somewhere unseen, unfeeling, and carried on about my day. Channeling all that sorrow into the election. Channeling all that rage.

The rage that comes when a father knows he is to blame, for everything. For I knew the drink had grabbed hold of you, squeezing your life with every drop. I remember the last time I saw you, your constitution was so shaken, every movement a dreadful, painful chore. Your mind seemed so deranged. The vibrant, young boy I once knew was gone. A lost, pained man now stood in his place.

The pressures of being the son of John Adams, the younger brother of John Quincey, the heir apparent to the political throne, must have weighed on you so. And yet, I said nothing. You were a boy of many interests, a child so tender and amiable, yet I forced you to follow in my footsteps – to farm, to practice law, to be a statesman. It was all so natural for John Quincey, but not so for you. Rather than embrace your unique spirit, I ignored it, forced you down a path you did not wish to travel. And for that, I am ashamed.

What is worse, I saw the toll this life took on you, yet I demanded you get on with it, toughen up, as if I am one to speak on such things. There is too much of my own father, Deacon John, in me. God rest his soul.

When I learned that you had disappeared, gone bankrupt, lost your faith, and turned to the drink, I said such horrible things, thought such horrible things. I would do anything to take them back. I would do anything to see you again.

And now, as darkness settles over this horrid land, and the fireplace dampens in this horrid room, and the beast continues its horrid dance around this horrid palace, waiting for the moment to burst through the walls and finish what it started, I shall wait.

I shall wait for it to put me out of my misery. I shall wait for it to reunite us in eternity, where I will be in your debt, begging for forgiveness.

Your tender father

J.A.

March 4 1801. Wednesday. 12:30.

I have retreated to one of the guestrooms for the remainder of the night. I feel safer here. The fireplace provides good warmth in close quarters. I am writing on the floor, tucked away in the corner, with a small candle to my left and the rum to my right.

I fixed the bed against the door and pushed the wooden dresser in front of the window. My clothes have been stripped and tossed into the fire. If I should die, be ripped limb from limb, I would rather it be in my natural state than in clothes stained with the blood of my dead son. 

Outside, the rain has calmed, but the lightning and thunder continue, trading blows like two towering knights in and endless joust. The beast is circling the grounds. Always circling. Always howling. Whatever pleasure it got from killing Charles has not quenched its bloodlust.

I shall see what happens first. Daybreak, or the beast gaining access to the palace. I fear the latter is far more possible.

12:48.

The great grandfather clock ticks away, echoing down the mighty halls. That is how I am keeping time. An exact science, it is not. But it is helping to keep me sane. That and the rum, this sweet sweet rum that has numbed me to the point of total indifference. If the beast is to come inside, let it. I am ready.

12:55.

My mind has begun a tournament of cruel tricks. Across the room, a pulpit rose from the ground. Deacon John emerged, dressed in his finest cloth, arms raised to the sky. From under the bed came the pained tears of an infant. I would swear on my mother’s life that Susanna, our poor little girl, was suffering through her fatal illness all over again. Abigail appeared, too, weeping tears of blood, pointing at me, her arm a quivering arrow.

On and on these visions have come. I cannot stand this much longer.

1:03.

Oh! The sound of shattering glass, somewhere in the house. The beast is inside. It has come for me.

1:06.

Footsteps, marching along the floorboards. Two long shadows appeared beneath the door, moved away. Perhaps it has not heard me. Perhaps it is confused. Perhaps I am safe after all.

1:08.

Something has angered the beast. It is ripping open doors, one after the other, clawing at the walls, frothing at the mouth, howling its terrible howl. It is only a matter of time before it arrives again at my door. God be with me.

1:09.

It is here. God have mercy, it is here! Outside the door, the shadowed feet have returned.

1:10.

I cannot believe it.The beast laughed. In place of its animalistic howl, a deep belly laugh rang through the halls. Then, the beast continued on, resuming its destruction in the next room, tearing through the Presidential Palace like some kind of manic storm.

1:12.

 If only Thomas Jefferson could see me now. He and all his Republican cohorts. Alexander Hamilton, too, that damnable villain with the devil’s eyes, and all the Federalist minions he bamboozled. If all of my enemies could see me, they would undoubtedly join with laughter of their own. Perhaps louder than the beast!

Here sits President John Adams, cowering in fear, a naked old fool of a man, counting down the minutes until his inevitable demise. A mere boil on the hindquarters of George Washington. Just like they all suspected. I have become the myth they made me out to be.

But no longer.

While I still remain in the Presidential Palace, I intend to act like the President. I will not sit idly by while some abominable beast runs amuck, destroying the People’s property, waiting to be killed like some ailing pig!

I shall avenge Charles’s death. Or I shall die trying.

Washington March 4, 1801

My Fellow Americans

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one person to dissolve a ruthless monster from its own head, so it must be done. For we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights (Benjamin Franklin’s idea, it should be noted), that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Anything that stands in the way of these rights, be it of earthly or supernatural origin, shall be dealt with in the most absolute manner, using the full power of the Presidency. And until Thomas Jefferson rides up from his sprawling estate at Montezillo Monticello, I am still the President, and I will do my duty.

Yes, I, John Adams, having never fought in battle, having never donned a uniform of war, having never fired a musket at the enemy nor manned a cannon, will lead the charge. For even though I lack the experience (and youth) of a soldier, I have served this nation with something far greater. My mind.

Though I was not granted a second term, I am filled with Pride. I am prideful of the new navy of more than 50 ships and 5,000 officers, prideful of our peace with France, prideful of an administration without a hint of scandal or corruption (my eyes to you, Mr. Hamilton), prideful to have staved off the warmongers who would lead us to ruin, prideful to have secured the backing of powerful allies during the Revolutionary War, prideful of the part I played in the first Continental Congress, the second Continental Congress, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the founding of this very nation.

I accept the decision of the electors, of the American people, and will take my defeat with grace. The American people do not deserve a broken and bitter President, incessantly airing their grievances and blaming others for their misgivings. For that is the ultimate sign of weakness. And I am done being weak.

As I write this, a beast runs rampant through the Presidential Palace. It wishes to destroy me and wreak untold havoc across our lands. But I shall not stand for it. I will march out of this room with my shoulders back and my chin high. I will take up arms against it. I will defend this land, as I have done throughout my life. I will defend my people.

I, therefore, President John Adams of the United States of America, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of my intentions, do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these United States, solemnly publish and declare, that I will kill the beast.

You’re Welcome

J.A.

3:22.

My body is covered in all manner of blood, viscera, brains, the messy coating of a man who has been reborn. I will describe what has transpired in real time, exactly as it happened:

The Hunt.

Rum splashes across my lips, the last drops trickling from an empty bottle. I toss it on the floor but the glass does not break. I will need to show more strength than that in my duel with the beast.

I clear my throat, swallowing back a lump, another lump, my body protesting what is about to transpire. On wobbly knees and aching feet, I march forward. The fireplace crackles behind me, washing the walls in shadowed flame, breathing against my naked back. I inch forward, closing and opening my fists, knuckles cracking with the flames.

The bed is easy to move, easier than I thought, for it was not as secure against the door as I intended. The beast could have breached it, gained access to the room, and killed me in an instant. But that was before, when courage evaded me. Now, it is firmly in my grasp.

I crack the door ajar and peer into the hallway. Darkness shrouds my view, but the Palace is alive with noise. Howls, heavy footsteps, scratching along the walls, froth and drool swirling inside a cauldron-like mouth. The beast is close, yes, somewhere in the black abyss. I have a small window to act. And act, I shall.

The floor is cold against my feet. I walk with a measured pace, careful not to slip and fall, which would all but seal my fate. My skin comes alive with gooseflesh.

Deep scratches run along the walls. The floor is rife with holes. Sharp gusts of wind whip down the hallway from every direction. The windows have been shattered.

The weather worsens, but it is not unwelcome. The lightning guides me forward. The thunder steadies my heart. Raindrops run down my back, keeping me alert.

The bedroom door seems so far away now. I think of turning back, of locking myself away again. This was a horrible mistake, the ludicrous idea of an old, drunken fool. Yes, I must turn back.

But something emerges in the distance. Two glowing orbs at the end of the hall, close together, narrowing. A flash of lightning reveals the lupine creature, crouching on four legs, thick with black fur, baring talons for teeth.

I have reached the point of no return. My mission shall proceed.

I turn back towards the great room and press forward, my pace quickening. A gallop starts behind me, gaining in speed. But this is the Presidential Palace, and I know it as well as the farms of Braintree. I can throw the beast off my tail.

I bank hard to the right, through the kitchen, past the servants’ quarters, feeling my way through a blackened fog. My sudden movements have confused the beast, taken it by surprise, just as intended. It crashes from wall to wall, its large body struggling through unfamiliar terrain. The woods are its natural element. But it is in my element now.

With the time I have afforded myself, I hurry into the great room, the fireplace still alive, the portrait of George Washington watching over me. The clothes are right where I left them, the only thing in the house the beast has not disturbed. It howls, somewhere in a nearby room. I must be quick.

The sword is awash with red flame, glistening near the fire. I raise it from the ground, the handle hot to the touch. I hold it high in the air, studying the blade, attempting to stab at the electric sky.

I think of Abigail, the children, the grandchildren. I think of plunging my hands into fresh tilled soil. I think of the mosquito-filled days of Summer in Philadelphia, spending countless hours in cramped quarters with wig-clad statesmen, forming this nation which we are fortunate to now reside. I smile. Perhaps my first of the night. Perhaps my first in ages. I close my eyes tight, imagining it all.

Then I hear it.

The approaching footsteps, fast at first, but slowing. Slowing until they come to a full stop. There is a deep breathing, a few inches from my face, pouring out of wicked nostrils. A foul odor fills the room.

I open my eyes to the beast, so close we stand nose-to-snout. It sits back on its hind legs, straightening its back, until it towers over me, blotting out the room. The fireplace, the clothes, George Washington, all of it gone.

We stare at each other, our unspoken game, neither backing down. No clap of thunder, no strike of lightning, no whisk of wind, nothing will break our concentration. Not even the tick of the grandfather clock. The hour turns to three.

The beast stands tall, proudly, blood coating its mouth. It has the body of a bloated wolf, stretched to unimaginable limits, the physique of a fierce Hessian mercenary. Its face, a terrible face, with burning eyes and a serpentine tongue, curling its mouth into a demented smile, no doubt waiting for me to attempt the first blow.

“You do not scare me,” I say, as if it speaks American English. “I have faced worse enemies than you.” I tighten my grip on the sword. “In fact, one will be here tomorrow. And he is much uglier.”

The beast cocks its head, trying to understand. It drops its claws for a moment.

That is when I strike.

Sparks erupt, the sword’s blade colliding with raised claws. The beast blocks my first swing, but I do not give in. I strike again, harder, but the beast follows the blade with its paw. Strike and block, strike and block, two great fencing partners engaged in a delicate dance. The beast roars after another block, lowering its face towards mine. I roar back, not giving an inch.

We go back and forth like this for an eternity, working our way around the room. I am fatigued, but I try to push through it. My form is looser now, sloppy, as the strength in my arm recedes. My shoulder wails in pain with each strike. I stab at the beast, straight ahead, wildly, but it jumps backwards, causing me to stumble.

This is my fatal error, for the beast strikes a crushing blow, cutting me from wrist to elbow. The sword falls to the ground. I reach for it, but the beast digs its claws into my chest and, with a swift, upward motion, sends me hurling across the room.

I hit the floor knees first, wrapped in a painful cocoon. I tumble against the wall. The portrait of George Washington rattles above me.

My thoughts again turn to Abigail as the beast approaches, its long shadow working across the floor, climbing up the wall. Oh Abigail, how I wish to have seen you one last time. How I regret to leave you in such a manner. Perhaps you will rest easy knowing your husband fought until the bitter end. That he died defending his country.

The beast plants its monstrous feet in front of me, claws plunging into the floor. It crouches back again on its hind legs, mouth wide open. The laughter returns, rattling the walls. The portrait swings back and forth, bringing George Washington to life, like he is ready to burst through the brushstrokes and charge into battle. An idea strikes me.

As the beast rears back its foul head one last time, I summon whatever strength I have left and spring to my feet. I bring my fists back against the wall as hard as I can. The portrait falls, loosened by a night of commotion. I catch it on its way to the ground, the great frame heavier than I anticipated, but I cannot let that stop me. I raise the portrait in the air, leap off the balls of my feet, and smash it on top of the creature’s head.

By the sounds that come from its mouth, the beast does not appreciate the warm embrace from General Washington. I sympathize. Its arms are fixed at its sides, struggling to break free from the golden frame. I do not have much time. I must make my move.

The sword glistens in the distance, showing me the way, leading me to it. I maneuver around the beast and pick it off the ground. I return, weapon in tow.

The beast howls, shrieks. Dare I say, a look of panic crosses its face. I have it now.

I lose count of the strikes to its neck. More than ten. Less than fifty. Blood splatters along the walls, coats the floor, covers my face, dampens the fire, but I do not stop. I think of all my enemies, standing in front of me, with one collective neck. I strike and strike and strike until a severed head hits my feet and the monstrous body follows suit.

My shoulders slump. I take in measured gulps of cool, night air until the flames on my lungs are extinguished. I holster the sword in an invisible sheath.

I lean forward, hands fixed to my knees, and wretch. It all comes out of me, the Madeira, the rum, this morning’s hard cider, all of it. With the contents of my stomach empty, I catch my breath.

The severed head has the size and girth of a young bull. It begins to shrink, to change form. The black fur peels off, the eyes expand, the snout disintegrates. The face of a beast washes away. The face of a human emerges.

My face. By God, it is my own face! It stares back at me with dead, lifeless eyes. The head of John Adams. Bidding one final adieu to the Presidential Palace.

And then it melts away, until it is nothing more than a festering puddle of muck. The night is over. The beast is dead. 

Washington March 4, 1801

My Dearest Friend

Though it is still too early for sunrise, I feel the day beginning anew. I am writing as a man ready to embrace the next chapter of my life, ready to leave the past where it belongs, and to let historians be my judge. Most of all, I am ready to be the husband, father, and grandfather that my family deserves. It is what Charles would want.

The crates are packed, but please do not be disappointed if I have forgotten a thing or two. I am an aging man, after all. So much so, that I had a minor fall in the wilderness which left me with many cuts and bruises. Do not be alarmed, I shall recover. And as for my loose-fitting clothing, well, that is a long affair to recount.

I bid farewell to the Presidential Palace with a smile across my face. This is a residence more suited for a man like Thomas Jefferson anyway. I made sure to leave behind a letter congratulating him on a hard-earned victory. I also left him a special gift in the main bedroom. It is sure to give him a frightful surprise.

The stage is approaching now, emerging from the rain-soaked swamp, clearing the fog as it goes. Despite tonight’s turbulent weather, it appears I shall be leaving on time. I cannot wait to be with you again. I cannot wait to tend the land, to read, to be amongst my countrymen as a citizen of this great Nation. Oh Abigail, I am ready to be home.

Most affectionately yours,

J.A.


Kevin Johnson is a Product Manager by day and a writer of creepy tales by night. He grew up in the horror aisles of Blockbuster Video and lives by the creed, “what if you added a monster?” You can find him on Twitter @KevinDGJohnson.


If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “The Thwarted Kingdom” dark fiction by Titus Green.

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“Shift of Doom” by Alan Catlin

"Shift of Doom" by Alan Catlin in The Chamber Magazine

“A moving shadow means more to us than a body at rest. We are no longer taken in by a fixed grin.  We know only death has a rictus.” –Joseph Roth

“God made time; he made a dreadful lot of it.” –Patrick O’Keefe

Five o’clock in the morning, watching the storm leaving a slick jacket of ice on Western Avenue.  Nothing moving at all, except the sagging phone lines, the overburdened barren tree limbs, icicles forming as I watched.  I wasn’t going anywhere.  Not for a long time.

When I was in college, a hundred million years ago, my friends and I used to fantasize about being snowed in for the duration at our favorite bar, drinking, and carrying on, until we were beyond comatose.  What we were planning to use for money all that time, why we thought the owner and staff would abide our presence for a long siege, in a bar, for an Upstate winter, escapes me now. As did, what we planned to do once we reached the gibbering stage, once we reached the point of severe alcohol poisoning, and the end of consciousness.  I suppose, we felt that if something abstract, like actual death happened, our passage into that other place would be a happy one; we’d be drunk and presumably that would be a good thing, in that world, as it was in this one. 

Presuming there was another world. Presuming we woke up in it, and it would be a better place than where we currently were. And that this better place would have endless Happy Hours and theme Beer Blasts for us to while away eternity drinking, telling raunchy jokes, and reciting obscene limericks, making up new ones when the old supply had been exhausted, pausing in our revelry occasionally to get laid, or, stoned, as the occasion arose.

We’d always be twenty-one in those days, and there would be no threat of being drafted into a foreign war no one in their right mind agreed with.  The company would always be agreeable, and there would be no finals, at least, not the kind we couldn’t handle.  The weather might be awful, but with time, this too would pass, and there would be variations on a theme to enliven the routine. Variations involving outdoor recreations, loosely organized sporting events, and an endless supply of beer, hard whiskey, and drugs.  

Best of all there, would be no killer hangovers, or nothing that some hair-of-the-dog-that-bit me, couldn’t cure.  Perpetually wasted, or working on becoming so, seemed like nirvana. In real life, basically being drunk and stoned, perpetually, for twenty years or more, had its downside that got worse with age. Some of us had never completely given up on the idea that this was the ultimate desirable state of being. 

Even after we were hooked, and, had no other choice, and a million excuses for why we were not hooked, and how being hooked and able to feed the beast, was a strange comfort offered by profession.  That the profession chose us, instead of the other way around, was not readily apparent.  Especially not at an unseemly hour in the morning, marooned after hours in a bar, with no way out, and home an impossible distance away from where you were.

The only sensible thing to do seemed to be, settle in and wait it out, beer in one hand, a large, very large, scotch on ice, with a splash of water nearby for creature comfort. Especially, once the power lines snapped under the burden of the storm’s leavings, and the supply of palatable stuff for drinks, would eventually be exhausted.  The last weather advisory suggested a stalled front, untold inches of ice, followed by extreme cold and then.  Then the darkness.

Ice on the phone lines.  Just a matter of time before they went as well.  Who would you call anyway?  No one was going anywhere until the weather allowed them to.  Just my luck: first a freak snowstorm in October that crippled the region, and now a February ice storm.  Only on my shift. The shift of doom.  Fate’s three ring circus, the freak parade, as the stoners used to call it, as they’d settle onto stools in the far corner of the bar, where the best view would be. For the inevitable show that would take place, where they could clearly observe whatever weirdness I had brought with me.  No one else did that as well as I did.  I was the best.  Everyone said so.  I had a strange kind of glow, a weirdness magnet that drew stuff to me the way no one else could.

“How does it feel to that weirdness magnet?  Isn’t it like completely fucked up?” Stoners asked, not really expecting an answer.           

“Hang around and find out.”

Oh, they hung around all right. All the time.  Though the fuckers never offered me a stick of anything worthwhile.  Not once. But they tipped well, which was something.  I guess it was a kind of sympathy thing. Sort of like the most beautiful girl in your high school class fucking an awkward, harmless, loner kid, who couldn’t buy a date, out of the goodness of her heart; a mercy fuck.  There are limits to kindness, whereas evil is boundless. 

Or, so it seemed to me as I worked through the endless panels of a Bosch surreality that was my life in bars, that was working at my unchosen profession. Working, while keeping myself well lubricated, so that I would blend in with the rest of the demons, devils, and plagued semi-human forms, romping through a world of untold pestilence, pain and deprivation.  Living in this manner, was like giving a guided tour of Dante in your own head, sort of a “Fantastic Voyage” gone wrong, where the base pay was insultingly bad, but the tips were decent, and you got to see stuff no one else did outside of a locked-in ward, or a state prison for the criminally insane.  The more you drank though, the more that journey through the body became, a Voyage in the Dark and then, one day, without you knowing, instead of being the person giving the tour, you become one of the freaks.

I can’t say when I had become aware of what my life had become untenable.  And what was I doing about it?  Drinking.  Drinking as if my life depended upon it.  Drinking as if there were no tomorrow.

Tomorrow.

It was already tomorrow, and I was exhausted.  Every minute spent working in a bar, tensed and at a heightened state of awareness, is time spent multiplied by ten.  It would be difficult to say what is more tiring: the physical workout of hours spent relentlessly busting tail, without a break, working a full house of screaming banshees, or enduring ten hours of abject boredom, watching reruns of dreadful movies, cop dramas or classic sports reruns, carefully managing your alcohol intake so as not to become totally inebriated and non-functioning, before the eleven o’clock news.  Both a challenge to be sure.

The ice.  Melting.  In the sink wells and in the machines. Water dripping, taps leaking, the spray of the ice on the picture window and on the glaze of blacktop outside.  Ice in my mind.  Melting.

Tomorrow.

And how many miles to go before I sleep?

Now.  As I sit, think, maybe if I just close my eyes for a while.  Lie back in the plush booth far away from the prying eyes of the picture windows.  The eyes. 

Ice on the windows like fingernails on glass.  Fingernails tapping lightly on glass.  Trying to get inside.

And the distant sound of low voices.  A chatter of conversation in the dark.  And the sound of the jukebox cycling tunes.  Choosing most played, random numbers, leftover tunes on someone’s dollars from the night before. Sometimes the jukebox plays itself for hours when no one can hear.  When no one is listening. Like now.

The voices more distinct.  Not arguing, not imparting news, not conveying messages from the world beyond.  The world beyond the glass. Or, the world inside.

As my senses sharpen, as the realization becomes clearer: discovering that I am locked inside the bar, after hours, presumably alone, the idea of voices, any voicing, becomes a frightening one.  Who belongs to these voices?  Where do they come from?  How did they get inside?  In here?

Cautiously, I ease my way from the booth I had been resting in, careful not to upend the glasses on the table.  I can see no one reflected, sitting or standing, in the side mirrors along the walls opposite the bar. The mirrors are situated in such a way that all the space in the front room may be seen from the back without being observed.  That is depending upon where you are standing.

Where I am, there is a dark space by the front picture windows where the room juts out toward the street, and two eight top tables are arranged with their chairs resting legs facing up toward the fake tin ceiling.  Vinyl over wood, painted to look like tin and stained by a million cigarettes, to give that lived-in, authentic look.  Stained, as the wall is stained, by chicken wing sauce, dried ketchup, thousands of spilled beers, and left-overs from disgusting shots.  Atmosphere shaded by darkness; a black hole in the sight line.

And, I think, as I inch forward toward the bar, am I visible among the upturned chairs on tables in the back room?  Visible to those people by the bar.  Of course, I am.  What can be observed from the back, can be observed from the front.  That’s the whole point of the mirrors, isn’t it?  That is, if anyone cares to observe. Have a need to look.

 By the jukebox glare, I pause, close my eyes, take a deep breath, and, prepare to face the unknown.  What I see, when my eyes reopen, is not shocking, no longer surprising. Still, I wonder how stools had been turned down without my hearing, or noticing. Or, how the all-the-way-down dimmed lights, have been brightened. Or, how these people at the bar seemed not only not surprised to see me, but kind of glad.  At least, that’s how I interpret the warmth in their eyes, the mostly, hidden mirth; anticipation, somehow, realized by my being here, behind the bar, as I was meant to be, was the last piece missing from the puzzle.

I am wondering not so much about their being here, they seem to have always been here, are as regular, and as natural as the furniture they sit on, but how they had been served.

The small bald guy in the corner bar seat, bending his sipper straw in folds, answers the unstated question for them all, “The day guy is in the shitter.  Once he gets in there forget it.  Could be hours.  Days.  Weeks.  That boy’s insides are bad.  I wouldn’t go in there if I were you.  Not for a good while anyway. “

“You know, you guys really ought to put an outside, overhead, circulating fan in there.  Clear the air but good.  I can get you one through my contacts at the school.  Just say the word.”

“We served ourselves.  Not to worry, though, I’m keeping track.  We pay at the end.

We always do.  All of us.”

“So, what numbers do you want?”

I watched the old guy holding a pencil in one shaking hand, and, a pocket pad with numbers written on the top sheet, in the other.

“Numbers?”

“Daily numbers.  What’s wrong with you?  You just wake up or something?  When the day guy said a new man was coming on, I thought he meant one who could speak English.”

I looked closer at the old man.  He looked like some kind of unwell, test crash dummy, who had been in one hit too many walls for his own good.  There was something about his complexion, the sallow skin that sagged, where it should have been firm, the too obvious bones in his face and hands, the sunken pits of his eyes, the few remaining teeth that suggested unwell, not long for this world.

“Don’t pay any attention to him. He’s just an old crank.  I’ve been giving him money for numbers for twenty years and I haven’t won a dime.  I haven’t even seen a ticket from him.”

The dissenting voice came from another old man, one stool over.  He was wearing a baseball style adjustable cap that said GOLF NUT on it.

The first old man replied, testily.  “You have to play every day.  You want to see the tickets, fine, come over the house.  I have them all filed, by day, per year, all the way back as far as the daily numbers go.  You should have seen those guys at State Tax when they tried to call me on the gambling thing the year, we hit for twenty-one grand.  Handed him twelve boxes of losing tickets, indexed by month, and day, and told him to go to town, if he didn’t believe me. They owed me money.”

“Good, then you can buy me a beer.” Golf Nut said.

“You see what the hat says.  Don’t believe it. He’s just plan Nut for short.  Because he can’t play golf worth shit, and, he’s only got one ball.”

“I’d like to see you play golf.  You probably never set foot on a golf course in your life.”  

“You’re right.  I never have.  Stupidest fucking game ever invented.  One thing you have to remember if you’re going to work here is, Mr. Nut will do anything to get a free beer.”

“Even talk to you. That’s about as desperate and as low as a person could go.  I should go over to Hall and drink for half of what it costs here.”

“Except they wouldn’t let you in.  You can’t go anywhere else, and that’s all there is to it.  So, get used to it, and quit whining.  Give the pain-in-the-ass a beer.  I hate to listen to a grown man whine.”

I reach into the cooler for a frosty Molson’s Golden and pop the twist off.  I don’t even think twice about what I am doing.  Somehow, I know this is why I am here.

“Don’t let that old fart fool you, “Golf Nut says, “his name is pain-in-the-ass.  Everyone who comes here knows that.”

“I see it says Senior Night happy hour.  I’m a senior, are you giving me the special senior discount?”

“That’s for college seniors only.  Graduation is coming up.  There’s a whole week of specials for the graduating seniors.”

“I never went to college.  But I graduated from high school.  Does that count?”

“Not really.  Now if you had a college ID that says you were a graduating senior, I could help you with happy hour prices.”

“I have an AARP card.  Says I’ve been a senior for fifteen years.”

“That’s how long it took him to graduate from high school too.” Pain-in-the-ass says.

“And fuck you very much too.  He should talk, he never got past the third grade.”

“Did to, and you know it.  We were in the same class.  Last one before the War.”

“And then you got drafted.”

“So did you.”

“The hell, I did.  I enlisted.”

“So, did I.  Or did you forget? We were in the same unit.”

“He’s so full of shit.  I was in the Marines, and he was in the Army.  Same unit, my ass.   If you don’t feel like calling him pain-in-the-ass, shit-for-brains will do.  He’ll answer to either one.  Most people call me Boomer.  Or Mister Lynch.”

Shaking his hand, I ask, “Which do you prefer?”

“Tommy.”

I don’t know what to think as old Baldy chimes in,” Don’t let him kid you, son.  He’s actually older than I am.”

“Older than him, right.  What, by three weeks?” 

“Almost four.  My name is Willy.” Baldy says, holding his shaking hand out to me.

“Yeah, Willy.  Like Dick. Limp Dick.  Why don’t you and your pain in the ass go get laid?”

“I can’t.  Not since they started me on that new treatment program, I can’t get it up anymore.”

“Didn’t you ever hear about Viagra?”

“Heard about it.  But they don’t advise it for someone with my condition.”

“I’ll bet all the old ladies over at the Anne Lee Home were glad to hear that.”        

“They were. So was your wife.  You should really stay home more and take care of business.  A woman gets lonely.”

“What do you mean by a ‘woman gets lonely’?”

“For male companionship.  You know, a little kindness, lovey dovey stuff.  Intimacy they call it now.”

“She’s 76 years old.”

“Never too late to start.”

“Let me ask you this, were you drinking before you came out today?  I want to know because you sure are acting drunk.”

“Of course, I was.  I can’t eat anymore. Can’t screw around.  Can’t do much of anything I used to be able to do, so I might as well drink.”

“Might as well.  That’s what you’re good at.”

“Damn straight.  So, what’s your numbers.  I’ll bet you thought I forgot.”

I looked at Baldy. Now that I knew something about him, could see the gleam in his eyes, and the wretched attempt at a smile through all the pain he must have been feeling. I saw a sort of elf in decline, a man trying to salvage a few laughs at the end of the road he was on. 

“I had thought you might have forgotten.”

“Don’t think that.  I never forget.”

“He’s like an elephant that way.  If you get down wind of him, you’ll notice another way he’s like an elephant.  You should really bathe once in a while, Willy.”

“Fuck you, Lynch.  And the golf cart you rode into town on. Did you got to mass today?”

“Of course, I went to mass.  I go to mass every day.”

“Did you confess?”

“Maybe. What’s it to you?”

“Nothing. I hate to think of you as not having gone to confession.  Your mortal soul is in danger.  Drinking and swearing and carrying on the way that you do.”

“And you’re a saint, I suppose?”

“Saint Willy of the Divine. Has a kind of ring to it.”

“Yeah, like Peter Piper Pecker Eater.”

“Was that a joke, Mr. Lynch?  If it was that was pretty clever.  Almost like a riddle.  Can you say that fast five times?  While he’s busy screwing that up, why don’t you give me a couple of numbers.  Buck each.  If you win, I’ll bring in the ticket tomorrow. Otherwise, I keep the losers.”

“For the box.”

“Yep, that’s how it works.”

And so it goes.

On and on and on


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.


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“Addictive Sunglasses” by Callum McGee

"Addictive Sunglasses" by Callum McGee

‘Nice got an iPhone. Got enough for my weed.’ Jess polishes a cracked iPhone screen in her hands.

‘Great, you rob phones now?’ I try grabbing the phone, but she shoves it into her blazer pocket. Why does she put me through this? My heart palpitates, dreading one of her park victims confronting us. ‘Why are you trying to get us in trouble?’ I hope she notices the frustration in my tone.

‘Oh, shut it, will you? If you won’t pay for my blunts, I’ve got to get money somewhere.’ She goes back to admiring her steal of the day. Why does she still do this? We are back to square one with two weeks of peace and no bitter weed coming off her clothes. To think Mum thought she was responsible. Wasting money on death sticks isn’t what I’d call responsible.

I glance at the blue lapis lazuli around her neck. The gold spots gleam in the spring sunlight like they did around Mum’s neck. I can tell by how she rubs the stone she still misses her. She thinks I don’t understand, but how couldn’t I? I lost her too.

I doubt Mum would approve of what she’s doing now. Luckily, I am not Jess. The foul bleach taste of alcohol and head throbbing numbness that comes from weed makes my stomach churn. What’s the point? You have to face reality the next day. Still, I wish Mum looked at me like she did with Jess. I swallow the brimming envy in my throat, noticing some dried cuts peeking out of her sleeve. I can’t remember the last time she smiled, not since before Mum’s mammogram. I miss who she used to be when her giggles and silly dances brightened up the house. Now she is an aimless moth, a shell of herself, longing for a light that has long died.

‘Can’t believe my luck, Rose,’ she jingles the coins around her palms. ‘Got a five and a tenner.’ Her pockets are a clinking orchestra for school kids’ loose change. I pray the police don’t catch onto what she’s done. But how couldn’t they? I don’t know one school kid who doesn’t keep their distance from her in lunch lines.

I realise what’s left of our sisterly bond is a withered shoelace. Thin and ready to snap. But I am pulled back before taking the first step, knowing we both share the gaping holes eating at our hearts. Glancing out our windows at the silent stars, wondering if Mum is out there. I imagine Mum’s soft bony hand rubbing my fingers. ‘Please, Rose, she needs you.’ Her words haunt my dreams and daily thoughts. But she was right. Jess is all I have, and time is running out.

‘I know you miss Mum, but stealing isn’t going to solve anything.’ Jess pauses on the path. I feel her left-hand clench around my jumper.

‘I don’t give one,’ she lets go, excessively scratching at her neck. ‘Mum’s not here anymore.’ I feel queasy seeing the moist rashes and fingernail marks across her flesh. I’m sick of giving her reality checks, but mentioning Mum is the only thing that gets through to her. I slide my arm into hers.

‘Sorry Jess, I’m just worried about you,’ she raises an eyebrow at me. ‘Mum wanted me to take care of you.’ Her face turns sour.

‘Worry about yourself. I can look after myself.’ Her comment sticks with me for a bit. How can she enjoy something so toxic?

We reach the end of our path, surrounded by sweet smelly yellow daffodils near an old park bench. I feel Jess’ elbow nudge into me as a sunbeam illuminates a woman in a purple dress. She doesn’t notice us, but she’s wearing a long indigo veil with a violet niqab around her face. My heart sinks, realising what Jess has in mind. She wouldn’t steal from an old woman, right?

‘Come on, she might have something for us,’ of course. Before I can protest, I already feel Jess’s grip around my sleeve. We sit down on the damp bench, hearing the coo of Pigeons flocking around us. The woman is tossing bits of breadcrumbs to the birds pecking at the pavement. She glances at us, her eyes almost hypnotic.

‘Lovely day, isn’t it?’ She says in a sweet elderly tone. I give her a brief smile trying to conceal my shame.

‘Yeah, it is. How are you doing?’ Says Jess, cupping her hands together like an innocent toddler. My teeth grind as she puts on a sweet, oblivious accent whenever she butters up her victims.

‘I’m good young lady, just feeding the birdies,’ she tosses more crumbs to the scattering Pigeons.

‘Aw, that’s nice. I love your sunglasses.’ Jess points at the folded red sunglasses on her lap.

‘Thank you, love, but they’re not mine. They’re not for wearing.’ Jess’s eyes shoot open from her comment. Damnit, old woman, she’ll want them more now.

‘Oh, why is that?’ The woman looks over both her shoulders, lowering the indigo cloth so that we can see her glittering lips.

‘I shouldn’t say anything. Why don’t you girls go play and have fun?’ Jess clasps her hands.

‘Please, Miss, I’d love it if you told me.’ 

‘Well, if you’re sure,’ she unfolds the sunglasses, sliding her index across strange, dotted symbols across the temples. ‘You might think I’m nuts, but they have mystical energy. I can’t say more than that, I’m afraid.’ She twiddles the frames between her crystal ringed fingers. Something about the curved plastic horns on either side of the lenses makes my heart race. Why are my hands shaking?

‘Jess, Maccie’s will close soon—’ I feel her shoe sharply kick into my shin.

‘It doesn’t close, stupid,’ she looks back at the woman. ‘So, you like spiritual stuff then?’ Jess quickly tries to slide her hand into the woman’s pocket, failing as she looks up.

‘Well, spirituality is a hobby of mine, you see. I like to collect all magical things, good or bad.’ She folds the glasses, putting them into her long robe. ‘Oh, you must think I’m a right old fool. Talking about this silly nonsense.’ Jess interrupts her, putting her hand over her shoulder.

‘Of course not. I think it’s cool you do that,’ Jess glances at the old oak tree near us. ‘So, is everything magic?’

‘Well, some things more than others.’ The woman pats the glasses in her robe.

‘Do you think that tree behind you is magic?’ The moment the woman cranes her neck, Jess swipes the sunglasses from her robe. I restrain the urge to stop her as I don’t want to be guilty by association. God, what would Mum think?

‘Well, all things have souls, dear—’ Jess yanks my hand.

‘Aw, thanks for all of that, bye,’ we are already halfway down the path when we’re far enough from the woman. ‘My God, what a moron. Falling for the oldest trick in the book.’ She laughs, yanking the glasses out of her pocket. I can’t refrain from smacking her shoulder.

‘That was well low.’ She ignores me, staring at the shiny red texture reflecting the evening sun. She stares at them. Of course, she’d love something with Devil horns and blackout shades. ‘Put them tacky things down. I’m not getting bad karma because of you.’ I try to reach for them, but she suddenly smacks my hand away.

‘Leave them!’ She clutches them to Mum’s necklace. I hold back, laughing as her arms fold over them like Gollum with his precious. But I keep it down, not wanting another smack. ‘Well, come on, swat, let’s go.’ She walks me back through the park but doesn’t say anything.

We are already out the gates when amber sunset ripples stretch across our faces. My scalp starts sweating, wishing I didn’t have to see her fondling a pair of sunglasses. She slides her deviant stumps across the lenses and pushes the bridge over her flushed nose. The edges of her lips widen so much that I can see her inner gums. I don’t know if I should be happy or creeped out. I can’t remember the last time she’s grinned. I try to ignore her until she exhales out of nowhere.

‘Rose, you’re gonna think I’m mad, but I think I’m high,’ I can’t help looking at her weirdly. ‘I don’t know, but I feel great since I put these on. I feel like I’m flying.’ She exhales in pleasure again. A silver gleam shines across her scalp. I pick at it. ‘Ouch, the hell did you do that for?’ I dangle three white hairs in front of her.

‘You always had these?’ She yanks them out of my hand.

‘Don’t know. Probably stress from last year.’ I gnaw my gums for the next twenty minutes, forced to listen about how much time she wasted inhaling weed when she could have felt this ‘natural high’ from a pair of sunglasses. I think back to what that woman said on the bench. From what she’s saying, she must be higher than a kite. But since when has she had grey hairs? Magical energy? Na, surely not. But my stomach starts knotting at how silent she is. I expected her to keep rambling about the glasses until she suddenly yanks Mum’s necklace off. She pulls the stone off and throws it onto the pavement.

‘Why did you do that for?’ I pick the stone up.

‘What? Me’ glasses need the string,’

‘But Mum gave it to you.’ I swallow the ball of emotions in my throat, wondering how she could casually throw this away.

She glares down a dark alley next to us. A robust herbal stench penetrates the street air. A far away streetlamp reveals a figure leaning on a fence. Please, God, don’t let it be weed.

‘Hey, you!’ A bright flashlight of a phone illuminates the shadows. A small Indian boy with a tied black bun looks over at us. ‘Give us’ the cig.’ Jess holds out her palm out, those ridiculous glasses covering her eyes. Before he can walk away, Jess rushes him, grabbing the front of his school shirt.

‘You mad? Get off.’ He tries to push her back, but his light hand smacks do little to her.

‘What are you doing? Stop!’ I try yanking her arm back, but she effortlessly pushes me back. The power in her shove winds me slightly. Since when is she this strong? She tugs the boy’s collar.

‘The fucking cigarette….’ Before I can do anything, she pulls out something from her pocket. The nearby lamp reflects a sharp sliver gleam in her hand. I want to do something, but what? I yank her arm back, wrestling the blade out of her hand. The red glasses fall off her face as the boy crawls away, a bitter urine stench filling the area.

‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ She stands up, her face blank, rubbing her eyelids.

‘I don’t know,’ she scratches at her bloodshot cheeks. ‘I’ve never been that desperate for a cig.’

‘You, feeling all right?’

‘Wait, where are they?’ She pats all over her blazer pockets, picking the glasses off the pavement. I don’t dare go near her, though. Why did she attack that boy? What happens if another innocent person passes us with something she wants? These thoughts spread goosebumps across me.

We near a bright McDonald’s sign in the distance, but I can’t keep ignoring the knot in my naval. I don’t know if I’m crazy, but a weird heat is coming off her arm.

‘Jess, you’re scaring me,’

‘What you on about?’

‘You’re freaking me out! You attacked a lad.’ her still expression does little to soothe me.

‘So? I wanted a smoke. He had one, and I got one.’ A brunette teenage girl passes us. I immediately know what will happen when Jess sees a triple camera iPhone 13 Pro in her hand.

‘Jess, no!’ I feel a sharp prick as I try to grab her. Her fingernails are pointed and curved, lemon-yellow claws protruding out of her fingers. She wraps her hand around the girl’s neck as the McDonald’s light reveals the whites of Jess’s eyes completely engulfed in inky blackness.

‘What are you doing?’ The brunette girl shrieks, piercing my eardrums, but Jess shakes her like a bobblehead.

‘Give it to me, you little—’ I gasp as she lifts the girl up with one arm.

‘Put her down!’ I wrap my left arm around her slimy neck, hoping the chokeholds she taught me work. But her strength is suddenly greater, her beefy shoulders flinging me off. The back of my skull slams against the pavement.

‘I swear I’ll kill you.’ Jess growls, her ginger hair turning ghostly white, her square teeth crumbling away into Pennywise fangs. She deepens her claws into the girl’s neck, judging by how much she is thrashing.

‘For God’s sake, stop.’ The girl gasps for breath as I yank Mum’s gem necklace out of my pocket. Hot tears flood my cheeks as I wrap my arms tightly around Jess’s bony chest. I take the chance to shove the stone into her palm. ‘Look at yourself. What you’re doing,’ I stumble as my throat swells up again. ‘Would Mum want this?’

Only now do I see her state. The rims around her eyes are dark, the outlines of her skull appearing through her leathery skin and ball joints like an elderly woman. No, a hag. ‘Jess, please come back. Please?’ I sob on her back, feeling her withered ribcage in my arms. ‘I need you.’ I feel her tremble, her black tears dripping down her strawberry skin.

Those glasses… Those damned evil glasses. They’ve done this. ‘Take them off.’ I cautiously reach for the sunglasses, feeling Jess’ scolding body temperature lowering. She lets me slide them off her long nose, dropping the blue-faced girl to her knees.

‘What, me, done?’ She claws at her elongated cheekbones as the brunette gags and splutters.

‘Jess?’ I caress her scaly skin. She looks up at me.

‘Yes?’ Before I answer, I slam the glasses onto the road.

‘This is for your own good.’ I stomp my body weight into the frames, my heel barely grazing it.

‘Thief!’ I feel my spine knock against the curb as she digs her hot claws into my wrists. ‘Give me,’ she yanks the glasses off the road, sliding them back over her pointy ears.

She sighs in a pitiful pleasure.

‘I need them.’ Her lips tremble. My heart sinks at the sight of her. They’re clearly doing more harm than good. I snatch the glasses off her, remembering the fun times with Mum, and with all my arm strength, the bridge snaps in half. She howls out, scrounging for the broken pieces. Have I failed her? Should I have done more to help? But no matter what I tell myself, her pitiful whimpers are still unbearable to hear. ‘You hurt me too? Like Mama.’ She buries her crooked red nose into my chest. I place my hand around the lazuli stone still tightly clutched in her right claw. I stroke her white straw hair.

‘No. I promised Mum I’d look after you, and I will.’ A year’s worth of bottled grief gushes from her as I delicately stroke circles onto her cheeks like Mum used to.

I look up into the cloudy night sky, looking for a brief twinkle of a star in the thick darkness. I feel Mum’s love emanating from my fingers as I place a delicate kiss on her sickly head. This isn’t the end. Maybe it’s a new beginning for both of us.


Callum McGee is a passionate, creative writing student at Edge Hill University. His short horror story was published in the EHU magazine/newspaper, the Quack’s blog. Callum is a neurodivergent writer who writes poetry tackling societal issues such as pollution, class discrimination, bullying, and inequality toward neurodiverse people. He believes poetry is an expression of one’s feelings and should be used to help people who are discriminated against in overall society. 


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“Proof” Science-Fiction by Grove Koger

"Proof" Science-Fiction by Grove Koger

“I can prove it to you, if you like,” I told Sandford that night. “I can absolutely prove it to you. Would you like me to do that?”

# # #

John Sandford was the closest thing I had to a neighbor, and I sensed that I owed him something for what he’d done for me over the years. I’d been less than candid, quite a bit less, but I felt it was safe enough to tell him now.

Not that, in Sandford’s opinion, he’d done much. Despite being blind, he’d steered away the occasional stranger who came to his door asking too many questions about the area. I’m not sociable, and living in the woods suits me fine, but it’s been useful to have someone like Sandford living fairly close—half an hour’s walk, in this case—to provide just the right amount of misdirection when necessary. He understood how I felt, or thought he did, and I owed him something, especially at this point. His sight had faded away years ago, before I arrived here, and I could tell that the rest of his body was fading away too. He knew it, of course, and had told me that his children were making arrangements to move him to a “home”—a word he spat out angrily and a little sadly. He’d gotten along quite a while with having frozen meals delivered every week, but I knew from an occasional remark that he’d been having some sort of trouble with them lately.

We both had phones, but I never bothered to call. He always heard me on the path, long before I reached his door, and always seemed glad to have the company—and someone to share a drink or two with, although I declined as gracefully as I could every time.

As usual, I took a careful look around before I sat down, and as usual, everything was in its place. There was a bottle and a squat glass, half-full, on a table on one side of his chair and a radio on a rolling cart on the other. Through the kitchen door I could see a sleek K-cup brewer on a counter. He didn’t need eyes to pour a drink or make coffee. Beyond those few things, there was nothing else of note aside from a wall full of books. I wondered whether he sometimes ran his fingers over the spines, recognizing them from their width or the texture of the binding.

Over the years, Sandford and I had talked about dozens of different things, or rather he’d told me—history (he’d been a professor at a nearby community college), politics, even sasquatch and the like. He’d once been fascinated by the creatures, he’d told me—this was the Pacific Northwest, after all—but had given up hopes of anyone’s ever finding one. “You can’t find what’s not there,” he’d concluded. But UFOs were something else, and naturally I paid attention to what he had to say. He’d mentioned early on that his parents had known Kenneth Arnold, and that’s what had led to his interest. He couldn’t read any more, of course, but he kept up on the subject thanks to what he heard on the radio. He knew that most of what he heard was nonsense, he assured me—”crazy stuff”— but he could filter that out, leaving what he was pretty sure was the truth.

It was a very odd coincidence. I could tell him things about UFOs myself, although I’d been careful not to. But now it was time to make good on my debt. And there was no longer any danger. As he’d pointed out more than once, he’d gone from being an old fool to being a blind old fool. I was in a position to tell him things that I knew he’d find meaningful, but no one would ever believe him if he were to repeat them.

# # #

“Years ago,” I explained, after we’d chatted a few minutes, “I was involved unofficially with some scientists who were looking at the things pretty carefully. And what they were doing was unofficial too. I don’t know whether you’ve heard of the study group called the Invisible College—Hynek, Vallée, those people—but this was even more invisible.”

At the mention of the names, Sandford smiled and nodded vigorously.

“Over time, and after looking at quite a bit of material, this group I’m talking about—they never gave themselves a name—became convinced that UFOs were real. UFOs or UAPs, or whatever they’ll be called tomorrow. Like you’ve pointed out once, most reports were nonsense, or so fragmentary as to be useless. Or outright hoaxes, like those early airship sightings. But “most” is a relative term, and the remainder added up to a large number, given the resources these people could draw on. And that remainder formed a kind of pattern. Or patterns, really.”

I told Sandford that he’d be disappointed to hear that the scientists couldn’t make up their minds about the “flying saucers” Arnold had seen in Washington State in”47, although I was pretty sure they were alien craft. “But the odd thing is that ten days later—July 4—the crew of a United Airlines plane flying over a little town in Idaho sighted what the group felt sure were real. The crew and the passengers watched them, five of them, for several minutes.

“Then Roswell came along a few days after that. This group I’m talking about decided that the Roswell event was real, too, that a UFO really had crashed, and I’m sure they were right. If the ship’s trajectory had been a little flatter, it would have ended up in the Pacific. Given the fact that 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered with water, it was their guess that over the centuries quite a few had disappeared like that. Of course, the government covered things up, and by the time the truth started coming out, the facts were hopelessly muddled.”

We both knew that “muddled” was just fine, from the government’s point of view.

I explained that the group started looking back farther, a lot farther, and the patterns became clearer. There was the “Wheel of Ezekiel” in the Bible, for instance, and tantalizing reports by Plutarch and Pliny. And so on and so on, for more than an hour, until the light had faded from the windows and Sandford’s attention had begun to flag.

I cleared my throat.

“Anyway, this group came to the conclusion that the earth had been visited regularly, that maybe the planet had been “seeded” with life in the first place, although of course there’s no way to be sure. And they thought the visits were of all kinds. Some were military surveillance, some simply seemed to be visits by the curious, some seemed to be hunters, some were scientists, and some were damaged craft that had flown wildly off-course and crashed. Quite a few were engaged in things beyond the group’s comprehension, bizarre things. They were all kinds, and they came from all over. And they were common. Are common.

“Now, I’ve talked a lot tonight, John. But— I can prove it to you, if you like. I owe you that. I can absolutely prove it to you. Would you like me to do that?”

He nodded, but started to remind me that there was no way he could see whatever I was going to show him.

I told him it didn’t matter, so he sat there, waiting expectantly, alert, his sightless eyes wide. But as I began pulling off the mask, he flinched. He was dismayed by the sound, I could tell. In any case, Sandford suddenly looked like a frightened old man.

“I’m going to pull my chair up closer now,” I told him, and I did, the wicker creaking and groaning as I got up and moved the chair and then sat down again.

“Now hold your hand out.” He hesitated again before he finally did so.

“It’s all right,” I assured him. “I’m just going to take your hand in mine.”

I did, and then I leaned forward and guided his hand to my face. He flinched at the first touch and pulled away, his face even paler in the pale light, his sightless eyes wide, his mouth stretched open. But then he raised the hand back toward my face, tentatively, and I let him touch me again, feel my face, one side to the other.

He understood.

“John,” I said, “It’s been a long evening. Take care.”

I got up, moved the chair back, and walked out the door. There was no moon that night, and the sky was overcast, so it was dark beneath the pines. But “dark” is a relative term, of course, and I could see perfectly well.


Grove Koger is the author of When the Going Was Good: A Guide to the 99 Best Narratives of Travel, Exploration, and Adventure, Assistant Editor of Deus Loci: The Lawrence Durrell Journal, and former Assistant Editor of Art Patron.


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“Specimen” Horror by Ron Sanders

Devon passed out.

That’s what they told him, anyway.

He’d been waiting in line like everyone else, and next thing he knew he was the center of attention for a ring of bystanders, a pair of old ladies were rubbing his arms, and the bank manager was asking if he needed an ambulance.

The worst part, initially, was the embarrassment.

But on the drive home an icy fear crimped the back of his neck, made his shoulders lock  and his elbows seize, made his hands sweat all over the wheel. What if it happened again? What if it happened while driving? He could be barreling along nicely, completely absorbed in the intricacies of lane surfing, and—BAM: dead man. Or find he’d unconsciously plowed through a crosswalk full of horrified lunchtime toddlers. Splattered innocence, crippled joy.

That image was so appalling Devon had a phantom episode, imagining, in one missed heartbeat, that he’d blacked out again, and was surfacing anew.

He pulled over with extreme caution; using only the rear-view mirror lest, in looking back for even a moment, some inexplicable mini-seizure should send him hurtling into a compound bloody fireball. Devon was marinated in his own sweat. He’d always been the healthiest of men; didn’t drink, didn’t touch drugs, didn’t over-exert. The tremors passed gradually, but not so the terror; it had become a vital shadow in the center of his skull. Devon called a cab and a tow truck. He sat slumped in the back of the cab, steadying his breathing. The driver was a talker; Devon let him roll on. All he could see was the cab’s windshield, streaked and spotted, a broken mosaic of shocked baby faces that never had a chance to grow.

*          *          *

“Your scans are clean,” Dr. Goodman beamed.

The big clipboard was tucked against his chest, hiding its secrets. “I think we can cheerfully write this off as one of those little anomalies that pop into our lives, shake us up a bit to give our egos some perspective, and then pop right back out as though nothing occurred. And who knows? Maybe nothing did. Sometimes nature just drops the ball for no apparent reason. I like to compare the body to a complex harp with one or more strings always out of tune, and hard work and healthful living as the elements that re-tune those—Mr. Devon?”

Devon blinked at him. A low hum had just passed through his brain like a train through a tunnel. There were things in there, moving around, clattering without sound. It was as if his thoughts were loose shingles on a roof, responding to a sudden high wind. Devon blew over.

He opened his eyes to another perspective. It was not his own; this was a skewed view of three vulnerable specimens frozen in a brightly lit box. The action resumed: staring receptionist slipping out of room, frowning doctor standing squarely before seated patient.

Goodman’s entire demeanor had changed. He tapped his pencil on the clipboard—thuda-thuda-thud—little alien heartbeats in rubber on pressed cork. “You’ve heard of narcolepsy, Mr. Devon? Once we’ve ruled out the obvious—epilepsy, tumor, arrhythmia—we have to rely on conjecture, which, in a modern, mature practice, always comes down to empiricism rather than guesswork.

“What I’m attempting to impart is this: symptoms are templates. Narcolepsy is a known condition, but it’s not a common one—though I’m reasonably sure there’re plenty of cases going misdiagnosed. I won’t beat around the bush here. In narcolepsy, the brain’s steady-state waking electrical activity is abruptly interrupted—the subject goes to sleep on the spot, rather than drifting away naturally. Why? The current’s been cut off, the lights shut down. Why? We don’t know yet; and there’s that dreadful non-answer which of course seems, to the anxious layperson, an evasion rather than a helpful response. But it’s all we’ve got. That, and a medication I’m prescribing. Although still in its trial stages, it shows tremendous promise in the short term. However, there’s a caveat: you must be prudent in your approach to everyday activities whenever a recurrence might prove injurious to yourself or to others, and you must curtail these activities any time you experience symptoms that are in any way out of the ordin—”

*          *          *

“Mr. Devon?” Goodman’s smile was frayed around the edges. “Are you feeling all right now? We were discussing your prescription when you appear to have relapsed momentarily. I’ve checked your vitals and you’re good as gold. The episode was quite brief, yet it absolutely confirms my immediate diagnosis of narcolepsy.”

He drummed his fingers on the clipboard. “Miss Aines is going to administer a single dose of your prescription, and you are thereafter not to approach the medication without my approval over the phone. Then I want you to go home and take a load off your mind as well as your feet. I’d prefer you walk rather than take a cab or bus. Moderate exercise is always a precursor to healthful recovery.”

He pulled open the door, hesitating halfway. “If you experience a recurrence, or become morbidly anxious, or entertain any weird, traumatic sense of alienation, I want you to give me a call right away. Miss Aines will produce my home and cell numbers as soon as you’ve received your medication and taken that single dose.”

He smiled genially while ushering Devon out. “You’re going to be just fine.”

*          *          *

Strangest thing.

How can a man know what’s going on around him, behind him, within him—when he can’t see or feel a thing?

Devon was unconscious. The vague electrical discharges were unlike anything he’d ever experienced, so he had no point of reference, but he absolutely knew his brainwaves were being scanned…somehow. His ideas, his dreams, his very identity were being manipulated by somebody or something. Devon was being violated, from somewhere bleak and far away—for reasons of cold research, for inhuman experiment, for purposes that made no sense whatever in regular terms. Only hatred and frustration crossed the ether connecting whoever he was with whatever they were…and he knew that if he let go for even a second they’d—

*          *          *

“Sir?”

A thumb peeled back Devon’s eyelid.

Sensible impressions were returning. The sounds of traffic. The interior of a paramedics’ van. A man’s face; a face like any other. “Sir, can you feel the pressure of my hand on your arm?” A pinching above the elbow. “How about now?” The full-screen thumb splintered into five fingers on a rocking hand. “Follow my hand with your eyes, sir.” The face turned. “He’s receptive.” The face turned back. “You’re in an ambulance, sir. We’re bringing you to the emergency room at Mother Of Mercy Hospital. But we’ve determined this is no emergency; that’s why we’re not using the siren. So just relax; what’s going on is purely procedural. You appear to have blacked out while sitting on the bus bench at White and Lincoln, yet no one observed any evidence of seizure or foul play. There’s no indication of brain trauma, no signs of physical injury, and all your responses to outside stimuli are well within the normal range. Do you feel okay now?”

Devon’s voice phased in and out. “Yes, yes, I’m fine. I just need to—”

Two strong hands gripped his biceps.

It was the second paramedic, leaning over the first.

“You’ll have to remain quiet, sir. Until you’ve been thoroughly examined you’re under our supervision. It won’t be long. There’s the hospital now. We’re pulling up to emergency. Try to stay calm.”

“I can’t be strapped down. I…that’s what they want.” Devon’s mouth was too dry for more.

The paramedics exchanged looks. The first rattled a prescription bottle. “The label reads fifty. The count is forty-nine.” He looked back down at Devon. “I’d call yours a pretty extreme reaction. Now just relax.”

The van stopped with the gentlest jolt. A moment later the rear doors swung open. The second paramedic climbed out, and the first, hesitating, said loudly, “Sir, you’re under restraint only for your own safety, okay? We can’t have you blacking out and rolling off the gurney now, can we?”

The driver poked in his head. “What’s the hangup?”

“We’re fine back here. One of the straps is tangled. Just give me a second.”

The driver’s head disappeared. The paramedic brought his voice down to a patter. “Look, fighting only makes it worse. They’ll get in sooner or later, so unless you enjoy being flattened out of the blue, over and over and over, you’re just gonna have to play it cool. The more you resist, the worse it gets. And don’t listen to anybody telling you it’s all on account of medication, or that you have a condition, or that you’re losing your mind, or anything like that. Let them get what they want and they’ll go pick on somebody else. Take it from a guy who’s been there. Read my lips.” He strapped a small oxygen mask over Devon’s nose and mouth and said noiselessly, with exaggerated movements of the lips, “Stay down.

A hydraulic whine, a rocking and settling. A voice came out of the floodlights: “Okay to roll.”

The bright assault of antiseptic fluorescence made Devon’s eyes burn.

Faces looked on curiously as he was wheeled by; faces just as indifferent as the paramedics, as indifferent as Dr. Goodman’s, as indifferent as that burned-out receptionist behind the glass, as—

*          *          *

The electrical activity, Devon realized, functioned incidentally as a conduit. They were getting into his head, and they were learning what it means to be human, but it was tough work. Through this connection he’d become electrically empathic—able to glean their drive and exasperation, to know that, through their resolution, they were going to learn what they needed, if they didn’t kill him in the process, or if he was unable to kill himself first. He was experiencing their excitement as well as their frustration, their urgency and their demand. He was losing hold, losing self-control. He knew it. He could feel it.

*          *          *

“Well, I’m taking him off the medication, at least for the present, and I don’t give a good holy crap what you or Lancet have to say on the matter, is that clear enough for you? As of right now he’s under our care. Your prescription arguably precipitated this patient’s arrival, and there’s absolutely no reason to believe it’s mitigating his condition in the least. Fine. Feel free to talk to the coordinator in the morning. I’m presently handling Mr. Devon, and this conversation is officially concluded. Now go back to sleep!”

Devon embraced the room’s hard white light like a lover. He kept his eyes fixed wide, afraid even to blink, as Dr. Grant replaced the receiver and turned, hands clasped behind his back.

“Mr. Devon, you’re doing great. You’ve been through a bit of a scare, but there’s no reason to worry. Your provider has authorized any necessary procedures, though I’m confident we’ve no cause for alarm.” He raised Devon’s prescription bottle like a dead lizard. “As of this moment you’re off these—and that bastard Goodman should be sued for malpractice. Don’t think he’s heard the last of me.”

“No,” Devon managed. “Not the medicine. Like I told you, this started before I was given the prescription.”

Grant leaned in grimly. “And, like you told me, you’ve been riding a roller coaster ever since. Okay? Voices in your head; that kind of nonsense. A misdiagnosis of narcolepsy from some predatory quack who will have his license suspended, mark my words. Delusions of channeling aliens or whatever—you’re a victim of too many horror movies, Mr. Devon, plain and simple. Now I want you to stop fighting it. Please. You’re only making things worse.”

Not my imagination,” Devon stressed.

“Would you listen to yourself?”

Grant leaned back.

“Narcoleptic episodes, my friend, aren’t just muggings out of nowhere. Reports suggest transitory events that are only occasionally violent; analogous to, but not equivalent to, minor epileptic seizures.”

“Not narcolepsy,” Devon tried. “They’re knocking us out. They can only read us when we’re unconscious, the deeper the better.”

“And how,” Mr. Devon, “have you managed to divine all this?”

“We’re wide open to them once they’re in. I can tell what they’re thinking when I’m out. It’s like some kind of open line, but through…space, I guess.”

Grant could barely contain his disdain. “They think, or speak, in English?”

“No, no, doctor. It’s a different kind of communication. Both sides are transmitters and receivers. And it’s not just me. It’s a whole lot of people.”

The room froze up. Dr. Grant leaned in.

“And you’re ready to point out these people? You’re prepared to corroborate your claims?”

Devon shrank into himself. “I think I’ve said all I want to say.” He clammed right up.

“You never should have been allowed on the street in the first place; not without a guardian, not without a complete examination. I’m going to give you a little injection here—it’s just something to help you relax—and then we’ll let the specialists have a go at you.”

Devon instinctively scooted in reverse. “I feel better now. I just want to go home.”

Grant again zoomed himself in. “I give you my word of honor it’ll be painless. These are some of the best men in their field, and they need to get a real good look at you right away. Now, I’d like you to just stretch out on the recliner, close your eyes, and make a fist. You’ll feel the tiniest pinprick.”

“No, please…give me something that’ll help me stay awake. They’re getting closer. If I fall asleep they’ll be right back in.”

Dr. Grant stepped to a wall intercom, his expression sour. His hand moved up to the call button. “Who’s getting closer?”

*          *          *

Facets of his identity were being shed like flakes of dandruff. Memories were being stripped, copied, filed—Devon’s humanness was being assaulted, weakness by weakness. The excitement was palpable—he was naked, he was down, he was road kill. His flaws were being recognized and categorized, in some universal way only a natural predator could understand. The meeker humans were easy; they were fait accompli. Devon could struggle all he wanted, but he was pinned and purpling, a pretty bruised butterfly. He thrashed, but didn’t budge, called, but didn’t peep, screamed, but didn’t—

*          *          *

“The harder you fight me,” the security guard snarled, “the harder I fight back. You got that?” He shoved Devon into a plastic chair, one of many lined against the wall.

“Listen to me!” Devon begged. “I can’t hold on any longer. Please. Something.”

The guard sneered over his shoulder. “I’ll give you something. Now for the last time:  Do. Not. Fight it!” He pressed the intercom’s call button. “Security on floor one, east wing. I have a disturbed patient who somehow got out into the hall. Not a biggie, but Riley and Forbes, I’d like you to assist. Wills, call in a van and get straight back to me.”

*          *          *

The feelers were in. He was going. A great company was in his skull; a kind of delirious clamor and buzzing crescendo. Devon was a transparent display, every nerve-ending under intense scrutiny.

Ecstasy, comprehension, anticipation: his mind was being peeled open; his nightmares, his mistrust, his mortal horror.

*          *          *

Devon leaped from his chair, tore the guard’s gun from its holster, crammed the barrel in his mouth.

A bear hug and shattering of teeth. The gun went spinning across the floor.

A hard stomping down the hall, a flurry of shouts, the pulsing buzz of an alarm.

Devon hit the plate glass window like a bug smacking into a windshield. He blew out into the night, a mass of porcupine shards, blood spraying in his wake. He heard Dr. Grant puffing behind. “Mr. Devon! For the love of God! Don’t fight it! Somebody call the gate. Devon!”

*          *          *

His arms were shaking wildly, his eyes bursting in his skull—he was seizing—they had him by the cortex. Devon’s very consciousness was being eviscerated: through that real-time conduit, his thoughts were being pasted to an empathic helix, synapse by misfiring synapse. And they’d grown exasperated. Devon was about to learn the hard way that, no matter how grounded a body might be in reality, a mind is wide open to compromise:

Liquid fire tore through his frame, spewed from his mouth and nostrils, set his fraying hair ablaze. His head snapped back and his mouth ripped open at the corners, peeled off his face and blew away in shreds. Devon’s rib cage shattered from the sternum down. He was being zipped open, torn apart, dug into. With a shriek of bone his spine snapped free, his pelvis collapsed, his skull halved to expose the hysterical animal writhing within.

*          *          *

A number of men hit him in a compound flying tackle.

An orderly snarled in his face, “Stay down, damn you!”

Now Dr. Grant’s pulsing round head broke into a crazy wheel of arms and nightsticks. “Sedate him, for Christ’s sake! I don’t care if you have to use chloroform. Drag him over to the shack.”

*          *          *

Night sucked him up like a giant straw. Consciousness was a black wiggly thing, all-pervading, all—and a flashlight’s beam hit him right in the eyes. For a long hazy second he was dazzled by the badge on the gate guard’s cap. Devon was logy and going fast, his limbs uncooperative, his toes and fingers numb.

“I’ll tell you one more time, and then I’ll brain you if I have to—stop fighting it!

The guard’s eyes became compassionate. Mentoring. “They’ll get what they want and be done with you. Then you can go back to whatever you’ve always been doing.”

He tried to mask his shame with a pretense of fellowship. “Look, friend, they’ve been at it forever—knocking us out and picking our brains, trying to figure out what makes us tick. But we’re tough nuts to crack. So now you’re finding out what’s it’s like to be psychologically raped—to be mentally dissected—in real time, just like the rest of us. And simultaneously you’re reading them back as they work, just like the rest of us. And pretty soon your identity will be appropriated, and you’ll be eating right out of their hands. Just like the rest of us.”

The guard gripped Devon’s shoulder.

“Listen, man, it can get really really bad, okay? And nobody, but nobody’ll ever take you seriously. So you gotta learn to kind of switch off when they get busy, and play it off as humbly as you can. But there’s no disgrace in obeying; not when you have to survive. I mean, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.” He looked around uneasily. “We’re just human beings, right? We’re not supermen.”

From outside came Dr. Grant’s familiar voice barking orders, followed by the gentle rumble of an approaching vehicle. The sound of doors swinging on their hinges. A new voice called out: “Okay to roll.”

The guard looked back. “Anyway, there’s not a damned thing you can do about it. So stop fighting—just let go and relax.”

He passed a hand back and forth over Devon’s eyes. “Is any of this getting through?”

“Yes,” Devon said thickly. “Hear you.”

“Good.”

The guard patted him on the shoulder. “It’s not the end of the world. Just another boss.”

He placed the hand over Devon’s eyes.

“Now sleep.”


Bio pending.


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“The Puddlers” Apocalyptic Fiction by K. Hartless

Daybreak is dry. There’s no drip from brewed coffee or slurp from cereal bowl, those luxuries long ago evaporated. It’s my business to sniff out every drop. My ears attuned from years of training to follow any trail of moisture to the sated end.

Despite the droughts, dawn is a Puddler’s favorite time of day. Moisture gathers overnight even in an arid climate, and in the dawn, goldmines, precious drops perched on blades of grass. 

It is for this reason that I have spent the night on a peeling park bench, surrounded by the incessant creaking of parched insects. One alights on my chest, and although his hind legs are faltering, I can’t bring myself to end his suffering. When the sun appears from behind the high rise, the chirping quiets, I resume my search. 

The battery on my vac pack says 70 percent. Perfect. Means I have the juice to bring in a haul, should I find one. The tank is heavy when I slide it on, but with any luck, it will be heavier when I trudge it in at the end of my shift. 

“Morning, sir, care for a coffee patch?” A thin-skinned lady in black and white loafers works a stand near the edge of the park. She’s to remind us of happier times, but I can only think of how her lips are dried around the edges and her voice rasps when she speaks. 

“Perk me right up, thank you, kindly.” I extend my arm and she rolls up the sleeve to apply the patch on the optimum ingestion site. Then, she salutes–thumb, index, and middle finger, the wave given to heroes.

“Happy hunting, Puddler.”

“Many thanks, and a damp day to you as well!” I force my face to smile. So much rests on keeping up appearances. I imagine the pour of a steaming cup of coffee, the caffeine enters my system, clears my mind so I can focus on finding some real liquid.

It all comes down to H2O. That knowledge and perhaps the coffee patch give me the boost I need to begin my search and find the water that my moisture meter tracked to this location the day before.

“Dried pumpkin bites, sir?” A man in a bowling shirt scoops from a cart. 

 “Why yes, don’t mind if I do. And when the man refuses my bills, I give him a doubly wide grin.

He raises the salute. “Hauls us in some, sir.”

“Will do, my good man. Got a drip lead going right now.” I am blessed in my line of work with an abundance of gratitude. It is, after all, my kind that keeps the rest of the world alive. But with each passing season, the water is scarcer, the sweetness of the mission evaporates. Dehydrated pumpkin tastes more stale than sweet, and I walk away with a full belly, but the guilt of an empty pack.

Of course, the rivalry doesn’t help. 

When Aquaprima and Dezani announced they’d be sending out separate Puddlers, it forced everyone to pick sides. Both companies usually keep to their own territories, but you never know when a rival might be slurping at the same puddle. 

Dezani loyalists use the three-finger salute seen here in the park, and their workers carry blue packs, a stripe added for each year of service. Mine looks zebra-like from my time chasing liquid.

Aquaprimians carry red packs, salute with their last three fingers. Usually, both companies keep to their own neighborhoods, but you never know when a rival might be slurping in your same puddle. I scan the lawn but don’t spot any red flags. Means I’ve still got time to take in my load. 

The geese in park are waddling this way and that as if dizzy. When I see them head for a place off the path, I take a hunch and follow their lead. These natives may know something we don’t, and I stop to vacuum up a few precious drops dotting the grass along the way. 

As if sensing a tail, the waddlers pick up their pace, making their way down a steep ravine. I scoot downwards on my bottom, the pack too heavy for steep inclines, and I would likely topple if I lost my footing. 

Midway down, I find a small treasure: a plastic water bottle, a relic from the before, but this one has a small sacred puddle trapped inside. I pause to vacuum the tiny pool, thinking of my sweet granddaughter, Ella Mae. Her freckled face. I imagine her swimming, submerged in liquid, like we all did, in the olden days. I can picture her running over to me dripping wet in her lavender swimsuit. 

“Don’t you dare,” I’d hold up my hand, but Ella Mae would squish down on my lap and plant a drippy kiss on my cheek. Wetness would expand on my shirt. Dampness will never feel that good again.

There is wetness along my brow and back. I use a small nozzle to capture the drops on my forehead. Nothing can be wasted now. Stabbing pain ascends from my sciatic nerve as I slide almost vertical, gripping tree branches and terrain to make it the last few feet of the descent. 

At the bottom of the ditch, there is moisture. It hits you square on the face, the way a sauna used to do, and even though the weeds down here are almost as tall as me, I stoop down and press my hand into the ground. 

It sinks. Incredible. It’s muddy. My fingers drip as they rise, cool and coated. 

Above my dirty fingertips, square in the middle, the most glorious thing: my own reflection in a six, no eight-foot puddle. Small snags are visible in my uniform from the descent, but what I notice most is the branching red lines of dry eyes. 

I reach down and touch the surface, sensing the motion of a ripple. It’s the first ripple I’ve seen in years and it’s harmonious, a suite of instruments playing in the same key. Part of me wants to wade in, submerge. Paddle, float on my back, even. But I pause, thinking of Ella Mae. This one’s for you, baby girl. 

Readying the hose with my widest nozzle, I spot it. A rebellious red, out of place at the bottom of the ravine. I hear a familiar sound. A vacuum starts.

“Hey, Puddler!  Stop, this instant. This one’s mine!”

The vacuum stops. “What’s that, old man?” The Puddler shouts. Maybe because his earbuds are still in. The Aquaprimian’s half my age; his loud metal music drifts over the puddle. Moving toward him with long strides, I reach out a hand, smack a bud free from his ear. 

“YOU tracked me here. This is my guzzle, young chap!”

“All’s fair in wet and war, Benjamin. Oh, and by way of thanks,” the boy winks, “I’ll let you take a slurp.” His bud back in, he restarts the vacuum before I have a chance to respond.  

Carl? Could it be? All these years playing cat and mouse, he’s been my shadow. I trained him a decade ago, let him date my daughter, only to watch him jump ship taking Aquaprima’s sign-on gallon and stealing my sweet girl’s heart in the process.

The raging red vac sweeps left to right. 

“No so fast, Carl.” I smack his earbud lose again; it dangles from his uniform. “This is my puddle, you bastard.” I push him, but he barely budges. “This…this is outrageous.” 

Carl turns his vac off to speak to me again, but not without swallowing a huge gulp of air.

“Smart following those geese, Benjamin. You know, if you sniff an old dog long enough, you can still learn some new tricks.” He lifts his nozzle. “Tell Ella Mae daddy says ‘hi.’ And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got clearing to do.”

Over my dried-out body!” I yell, and without thinking, I grab my legs and jump, straight into the puddle, water droplets fly around me like geese taking to the air. It’s enough of a mess to upset Carl, and soon he is stepping into the pool to try and stop me from ruining the haul.

“That’s what we call a cannonball, son. Doubt you’ve ever done one. Now, a final lesson. I’m gonna teach you how to swim, either that or how to sink.” 

From this angle, it’s easy to drag Carl down into the water beside me. “First,” I whisper in his earbud-less ear, “you gotta get on your belly.”

I sweep his legs and watch as he falls face first. I hit the eject button on his pack releasing his stash.

“Next, you gotta spread your arms and legs. But oh, I forgot the most important part. You gotta put your face underwater.” I hold the back of his head underwater, watch as his legs and arms start to flail.

“That’s it. You’re getting it.”

I hold firm. Think of his arrogance, of my daughter heartbroken, left to raise Ella Mae alone. Maybe with this haul, we can finally afford to give Ella Mae her first swim.

“There, now that wasn’t too bad, was it? You’re floating fine now, young chap.” And I let go of Carl’s collar, his corpse floats freely across the surface.

There isn’t time to say any words. No, simply no time for pleasantries.  I start the vacuum and get to work. When my vac pack fills, I use the Aquaprima pack to capture the rest, including the special hose for corpse extraction. The geese stand around the edges as I extract their watering hole, occasionally honking a weak protest. 

With both packs full, I claw my way out of the ravine. Lifting one pack, moving slowly, going back for the other, but it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Water is more valuable than gold.

 I’m saving humanity, I tell myself. Besides, one should always respect one’s elders, even in times of crisis.


K.Hartless is a free spirited fiction writer, educator and word trapeze artist. She’s been recently published in 365tomorrows, Luna Station Quarterly, and Last Girl’s Club. Check out her Yardsale of Thoughts at khartless.com or follow her healthy haiku habit on Twitter @hartless_k.


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Two Works of Flash Fiction by Dylan Thomas Lewis: “Hallowed Cliff” and “They Did It for their Freedom”

Hallowed Cliff

The archway stood firm under the shroud of night, its heart spelled in dripping letters: Hallowed Cliff Cemetery. He could still discern the entrance atop the sodden hill despite the starless sky, through the rain and sweeping winds. The image had been blistered into his unconscious. He marched on through the marshy soil as if he could rid himself of it by way of physical exertion; or perhaps cleanse his spirit with heaven’s baptismal waters. He dared not stop for fear of sinking through the earth and residing himself to an unceremonious yet eternal tomb. Though the world would not make it easy. Several times he lost his footing and slid upon the mud before slamming the shovel head into the ground and forcing himself up, carrying on with stubborn consternation. 

He wiped the muck on his pants as he passed under the arch and trudged forward among the aisles. Over the fresh and dying roses, the pink and purple larkspurs. Past endless processions of graves. Stones of granite. Stones of marble. Sandstone and slate. Some brandishing themselves to the eye, almost arrogant in their novelty. Others having been neglected for centuries, their texts gone as if washed away by Mother Nature for some unutterable slight against her. He eyed the years as he went, capricious, interchangeable; like philosophical tauntings from beyond, calling to him, demanding he decipher their unanswerable ponderings. 

The shovel struck into the ground as he removed a pewter flask from the inside of his shirt, then took a swig and stepped to the grave before him. He looked upon the head with bloodshot eyes, compelled to take in the marking over and over again by light of Zeus and Selene; inconstant; uncertain. 

Eva Meridian Mara
February 21st, 1981 — July 8th, 2021
A Mother
A Friend
A Person
Rest in Peace
Could’ve thought of better.

He drank, then replaced the flask and stepped to the grave opposite. He unbuckled his belt and pissed into the sloshy soil. 

“Apologies, miss — errr — mister.”

He flicked his member clean and redid the front of his jeans, then took the shovel in hand and returned to the opposite grave. With a last look at the stone, he stabbed the shovelhead into the mud and lifted a mound of green and black muck from the earth, tossing it to the side and splattering little balls on the opposing marker. Shovelful after shovelful. Foot after foot. He spent an hour laboring deeper and deeper into the earth, stopping at several points to pour water from his shoes. Finally he was done, breath unsteady, a salty sweat amongst the rain on his brow. 

A great hole sat before him, four by eight in dimension with a depth of six feet, the lid of a dark red casket peeking out the bottom. He lowered himself in and dug along the side until he found the latch. A light hiss escaped as he undid it, like a snake warning him from its burrow. It drew his thoughts toward the darkness within. Toward the all-knowing nothing entrapping the poor soul inside. It struck him with what he felt was an unnatural reverence. A connection and understanding unique to him and him alone. 

He’d always found an allure to such things. A morbid, yet uncompromising curiousness for the shadows — of both sight and mind. For the implications they presented. The universal and contradictory lessons that fed him without frame left him frozen in place, unable to comprehend what lay before him, regardless what his conscious mind would admit. The horror. The humor. The eternal void just below the surface of all. 

He lifted the lid by a foot and shined his phone inside. He saw an arm veiled by a wispy white dress, stiff and pale like a cheap manikin. Spitting onto the earth wall opposite, he slid his phone in and let the lid drop, removing the flask and downing what remained. He washed what mud he could from his hands, limbs, and torso, then rubbed his hands across his face and put his head back to run them through his hair. With a final breath, he gave a glance toward the waning moon in the east and crawled inside.

He set the still shining phone on the cadaver’s stomach and burrowed his way next to it, snuggling close with his arm under the neck. His hands grasped the rigor, the penetrating cold. His eyes traced up and down the ghostly vessel. He imagined her origins, physical and ethereal. Tried to unweave the mysteries and intricacies of her being as well as those who’ve come before and will come long after. The marks of his existence and what it all amounted to. The incalculable sum rendered indistinguishable from its antecedents. 

Rubbing his fingers across her cheek, he stared at the unflinching eyelids, decorated with red and black eyeshadow. At the plush raven hair, the light reflecting off it like stars in the vacuum of space, ever expanding, shifting further and further away. His body began to shake. He smashed his eyes shut and swallowed the snot creeping down the back of his throat. Tears of regret leaked onto his cheeks. A great breath entered his lungs and returned as if unsure of the vitality of its own purpose. 

He reopened his gaze to the eyelids. He reached with trembling hands and placed them directly under. He moved to lift the lids from their perch, but shot back upon touch, reeling as if scorched by some invisible spark. His head hung, he cried harder than he’d ever done. His eyes, half drowned in tears, stared past the light into the darkness and beyond. It stared back. He clutched the body close, burying his head into the bosom as his weeps filled the tomb, echoing back into his shattered sense of self.

They Did It for their Freedom

The sun rose as they moved the slaves young and old through the gates of Cathartra. Off the hardened pozzolana and onto the crude, unkempt path towards the Anglo River. The slaves in their thin, ebony rags amongst the Cathartrans in their flowing, ivory robes. Two days prior, the former had taken captive three of the most powerful families in the land, raiding their property and moving them to the valerian fields in the dead of night. Just before dawn, they allowed one of the captives to flee, instructing him to inform the Council of Six of what had occurred. 

The child dashed through the streets in his soil stained garments until he came to the council building, a band of warriors stationed at the front. Flamed with righteous indignation, the Council rushed to conduct an emergency session. Noon came and the slaves approached with the three families in their grasp. They did it for their freedom, they said. They wished to speak with the council and negotiate a peaceful resolution between their people. To raise the land as equals under Cathartran law.

The eldest seven were invited to discuss terms. For hours the soldiers stayed planted outside, watching the slaves with distrustful stares that were readily reciprocated. The tension pranced amongst them like a phantomed, temptress mare, urging them toward bloodshed until the negotiators reemerged.

The slaves were promised full rights under the courts as well as a mule per person and land at the outskirts of town; roughly forty acres per family. Men were granted entrance within the military and the group as a whole would no longer remain responsible for the trades previously forced upon them. Rather, tasks would be split evenly between them and the Cathartrans and training was to begin immediately so that all could become educated on such matters. Upon graduating from this instructional period, the two groups would come together as a single labor force.

The last promise was, to symbolize their status as true citizens, each slave would be taken to engage in the Rite of Till at the Temple of Kings. In two days time, a party of Cathartrans would lead half the slaves to conduct the ritual while the rest would attend the morning after. This latter group would remain in Cathartra to commence preparations as they awaited the others’ return. Once these terms were announced, the slaves released the families and took camp in the valerian fields while the Council called the soldiers in for the night.

It was noon when the first party marched onto the boats. Cries from the infants had been audible since they left, resounding through the ranks and vexing the Cathartrans’ ears the further they traveled. They docked on the opposite shore and continued on through the Fifteen Fields. Soon the slaves began to sing songs of torment and sorrow. At first, but a single child recited the tunes, though, within the hour, the entire party had joined, rousing a powerful chorus that resounded through the land. Though they spoke in tongues foreign to the Cathartrans, the emotions touched deep within their marrow.

The vocals continued as they entered Brown’s Forest at evening’s dawn, sentiments still rocking like great, granite swings from the gods. From there, the Temple would not be far. As they trudged forward, the grass and trees grew thick and tangled, blocking sunlight from their struggling forms. It didn’t take long for the singing to diminish and eventually die within the darkness, giving once more to cries of infants.

The Temple was dilapidated, overrun with vines and other forms of wildlife. A screech sounded in the distance as an unrelenting stench sauntered about. The Cathartrans looked to the building with a familiar air while the slaves gaped with mixed emotions. Even the children fell silent upon arrival. The Cathartrans led them inside, the lone source of light now the torches in hand. Hordes of cobwebs were scattered about the place, all coated in a clean sheet of dust, including the aged, yet dominant obelisk at the center. It reached near the very top of the Temple, inscribed with pre-Cathartran text.

The Cathartrans rested their torches upon bronze sconces as the slaves gathered around the obelisk, vying for proper views. The eldest of the negotiators shuffled to the front and roamed once around the pillar, sliding his fingers across the text in a slow, gentle stroke, pondering as if caught in a profound, yet forgotten memory. He crouched to examine the base, then rose and whispered in a vernacular unrecognizable to anyone. It was as he did this the Cathartrans unsheathed their swords.

****************

Evidence was taken of their deed as a warning for those left in Cathartra; menial objects such as clothing, necklaces, and bracelets. Some then graduated to thieving sections of the slaves themselves. Eyes, scalps, tongues — even severed legs of the children. The survivors gathered their torches and trudged out of the Temple. The return journey through the Forest was cruel and arduous on account of their labor and the blood-soaked robes holding them down.

When they maneuvered their way into the Fields, there was but a single ray of sunshine glistening over the horizon. The last image one could see as it disappeared and gave way to night was that of their demented figures, united in a call to slaughter. Crimson shapes in the dark. Hellish protectors of their way of life. They stepped forward and left the Forest behind them, marching backward through the night. On toward Cathartra, the glorious polis they loved without condition.


Dylan Thomas Lewis is a writer and musician from Kirksville, Missouri. He graduated from Central Methodist University in May of 2019 after serving as co-editor of the college’s literary magazine for two years. He writes screenplays, short stories, and music, playing guitar for Electronic Rock band Secular Era. His favorite writer is Cormac McCarthy. His favorite filmmaker is Stanley Kubrick. 

His first submission “Hallowed Cliff”* can be classified as Southern Gothic. The second submission “They Did It For Their Freedom” is an experimental piece loosely based on a story from ancient Sparta, mixing elements of Horror, Fantasy, and Historical Fiction. 


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“Mary’s Garden” Flash Horror by Thomas Falater

"Mary's Garden" Flash Horror by Thomas Falater

Mary was proud of her garden: it was lush, green, and magnificent. Mary had more than just a green thumb; she had an almost magical power to grow anything she planted and this power would be put to the test in a most unusual way.

She lived with her husband Elliot and they were both retired. Mary spent most of her time in the garden while Elliot liked to watch her from the front porch. They lived in the town as far back as people could remember and they kept to themselves. Their only regular visitor was their doctor, Mark Thompson, who came to treat Elliot for cancer. His condition was getting worse and worse.

Mary and Elliot went on daily walks through the town, usually in the evening. Mary liked finding plants that other people threw away. She had a knack for bringing plants back to life, and she could even just break off a stem or leaf from a plant and grow a whole new one in her garden.

Mary’s neighbors told others that they could hear Elliot groaning in pain at night while Mary tried to comfort him. They wouldn’t talk about it but the rumor was that Elliot didn’t have long to live.

One day, Mary went to the hardware store and bought a large chainsaw. When the manager asked her what she planned to do with it, she told him to mind his own business. People speculated that she would probably cut trees on her property, but they couldn’t see how a woman her age could do that on her own.

Sometime later, there was a terrible commotion of noise in Mary’s garage at night. Her neighbor heard that she was using the chainsaw, and Elliot was screaming. He called the police, but Mary would not let them on her property. She told them that she was cutting up fish heads to fertilize her garden and it was none of their business. After she agreed to keep the noise down, the police left. 

Doctor Thompson came to check on Elliot the following day, but Mary stopped him at the gate. She told him that Elliot wouldn’t need him anymore. He pleaded with her to let him inside, but Mary assured him that Elliot was resting and comfortable. The doctor left with the promise that he would return in a few days.

Curiosity grew about what was really happening at Mary’s house. People saw her digging in her garden in the middle of the night, planting something. It was not unusual for Mary to be working in her garden, but why do work at night? And where was Elliot? Usually, he watched her from the front porch but he hadn’t been seen for days.

Doctor Thompson became increasingly concerned that he needed to see Elliot in person to check on his condition and he even threatened to take the police with him if Mary would not let him into their house. Rumors spread that Mary had done something to Elliot or that Elliot had died and Mary buried his body in their garden. 

When Doctor Thompson arrived at Mary’s gate, a crowd of people had already gathered to see whether Elliot was alive or not. Mary came to the gate, and even though she was upset by the group of onlookers, she let them enter anyway, explaining that Elliot was resting comfortably in the garden. She led them across her front lawn and through the side gate of her backyard.

In the middle of the garden, there sat Elliot on a wooden bench seemingly alive and well, although a bit pale and dirty. Doctor Thompson was astonished to find him in good health, the cancer had gone away. The neighbors and people from the town were surprised as well. Some even felt embarrassed about their own thoughts about Mary and what she might have done.

As the small crowd huddled over Elliot, Mary quietly raked the last remaining piles of dirt into the hole she buried Elliot’s arm in just a few nights ago, happy for her green thumb, her new husband, and her garden of magic.


Tom is a freelance writer from Southern California. His most recent work appeared in ’50-Word Stories’,  ‘Half Hour to Kill’ and ‘Three Line Poetry’.  He can be reached at tfalater@yahoo.com 


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The Saturday Night Special: “Casting the Runes” by M.R. James

April 15th, 190-

Dear Sir,

I am requested by the Council of the —— Association to return to you the draft of a paper on The Truth of Alchemy, which you have been good enough to offer to read at our forthcoming meeting, and to inform you that the Council do not see their way to including it in the programme.

I am,

Yours faithfully,

—— Secretary.

* * * * *

April 18th

Dear Sir,

I am sorry to say that my engagements do not permit of my affording you an interview on the subject of your proposed paper. Nor do our laws allow of your discussing the matter with a Committee of our Council, as you suggest. Please allow me to assure you that the fullest consideration was given to the draft which you submitted, and that it was not declined without having been referred to the judgement of a most competent authority. No personal question (it can hardly be necessary for me to add) can have had the slightest influence on the decision of the Council.

Believe me (ut supra).

* * * * *

April 20th

The Secretary of the —— Association begs respectfully to inform Mr Karswell that it is impossible for him to communicate the name of any person or persons to whom the draft of Mr Karswell’s paper may have been submitted; and further desires to intimate that he cannot undertake to reply to any further letters on this subject.

* * * * *

‘And who is Mr Karswell?’ inquired the Secretary’s wife. She had called at his office, and (perhaps unwarrantably) had picked up the last of these three letters, which the typist had just brought in.

‘Why, my dear, just at present Mr Karswell is a very angry man. But I don’t know much about him otherwise, except that he is a person of wealth, his address is Lufford Abbey, Warwickshire, and he’s an alchemist, apparently, and wants to tell us all about it; and that’s about all — except that I don’t want to meet him for the next week or two. Now, if you’re ready to leave this place, I am.’

‘What have you been doing to make him angry?’ asked Mrs Secretary.

‘The usual thing, my dear, the usual thing: he sent in a draft of a paper he wanted to read at the next meeting, and we referred it to Edward Dunning — almost the only man in England who knows about these things — and he said it was perfectly hopeless, so we declined it. So Karswell has been pelting me with letters ever since. The last thing he wanted was the name of the man we referred his nonsense to; you saw my answer to that. But don’t you say anything about it, for goodness’ sake.’

‘I should think not, indeed. Did I ever do such a thing? I do hope, though, he won’t get to know that it was poor Mr Dunning.’

‘Poor Mr Dunning? I don’t know why you call him that; he’s a very happy man, is Dunning. Lots of hobbies and a comfortable home, and all his time to himself.’

‘I only meant I should be sorry for him if this man got hold of his name, and came and bothered him.’

‘Oh, ah! yes. I dare say he would be poor Mr Dunning then.’

The Secretary and his wife were lunching out, and the friends to whose house they were bound were Warwickshire people. So Mrs Secretary had already settled it in her own mind that she would question them judiciously about Mr Karswell. But she was saved the trouble of leading up to the subject, for the hostess said to the host, before many minutes had passed, ‘I saw the Abbot of Lufford this morning.’ The host whistled. ‘Did you? What in the world brings him up to town?’ ‘Goodness knows; he was coming out of the British Museum gate as I drove past.’ It was not unnatural that Mrs Secretary should inquire whether this was a real Abbot who was being spoken of. ‘Oh no, my dear: only a neighbour of ours in the country who bought Lufford Abbey a few years ago. His real name is Karswell.’ ‘Is he a friend of yours?’ asked Mr Secretary, with a private wink to his wife. The question let loose a torrent of declamation. There was really nothing to be said for Mr Karswell. Nobody knew what he did with himself: his servants were a horrible set of people; he had invented a new religion for himself, and practised no one

M.R. James 1900
M.R. James
1900

could tell what appalling rites; he was very easily offended, and never forgave anybody; he had a dreadful face (so the lady insisted, her husband somewhat demurring); he never did a kind action, and whatever influence he did exert was mischievous. ‘Do the poor man justice, dear,’ the husband interrupted. ‘You forget the treat he gave the school children.’ ‘Forget it, indeed! But I’m glad you mentioned it, because it gives an idea of the man. Now, Florence, listen to this. The first winter he was at Lufford this delightful neighbour of ours wrote to the clergyman of his parish (he’s not ours, but we know him very well) and offered to show the school children some magic-lantern slides. He said he had some new kinds, which he thought would interest them. Well, the clergyman was rather surprised, because Mr Karswell had shown himself inclined to be unpleasant to the children — complaining of their trespassing, or something of the sort; but of course he accepted, and the evening was fixed, and our friend went himself to see that everything went right. He said he never had been so thankful for anything as that his own children were all prevented from being there: they were at a children’s party at our house, as a matter of fact. Because this Mr Karswell had evidently set out with the intention of frightening these poor village children out of their wits, and I do believe, if he had been allowed to go on, he would actually have done so. He began with some comparatively mild things. Red Riding Hood was one, and even then, Mr Farrer said, the wolf was so dreadful that several of the smaller children had to be taken out: and he said Mr Karswell began the story by producing a noise like a wolf howling in the distance, which was the most gruesome thing he had ever heard. All the slides he showed, Mr Farrer said, were most clever; they were absolutely realistic, and where he had got them or how he worked them he could not imagine. Well, the show went on, and the stories kept on becoming a little more terrifying each time, and the children were mesmerized into complete silence. At last he produced a series which represented a little boy passing through his own park — Lufford, I mean — in the evening. Every child in the room could recognize the place from the pictures. And this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn to pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among the trees, and gradually it appeared more and more plainly. Mr Farrer said it gave him one of the worst nightmares he ever remembered, and what it must have meant to the children doesn’t bear thinking of. Of course this was too much, and he spoke very sharply indeed to Mr Karswell, and said it couldn’t go on. All he said was: “Oh, you think it’s time to bring our little show to an end and send them home to their beds? Very well!” And then, if you please, he switched on another slide, which showed a great mass of snakes, centipedes, and disgusting creatures with wings, and somehow or other he made it seem as if they were climbing out of the picture and getting in amongst the audience; and this was accompanied by a sort of dry rustling noise which sent the children nearly mad, and of course they stampeded. A good many of them were rather hurt in getting out of the room, and I don’t suppose one of them closed an eye that night. There was the most dreadful trouble in the village afterwards. Of course the mothers threw a good part of the blame on poor Mr Farrer, and, if they could have got past the gates, I believe the fathers would have broken every window in the Abbey. Well, now, that’s Mr Karswell: that’s the Abbot of Lufford, my dear, and you can imagine how we covet his society.’

‘Yes, I think he has all the possibilities of a distinguished criminal, has Karswell,’ said the host. ‘I should be sorry for anyone who got into his bad books.’

‘Is he the man, or am I mixing him up with someone else?’ asked the Secretary (who for some minutes had been wearing the frown of the man who is trying to recollect something). ‘Is he the man who brought out a History of Witchcraft some time back — ten years or more?’

‘That’s the man; do you remember the reviews of it?’

‘Certainly I do; and what’s equally to the point, I knew the author of the most incisive of the lot. So did you: you must remember John Harrington; he was at John’s in our time.’

‘Oh, very well indeed, though I don’t think I saw or heard anything of him between the time I went down and the day I read the account of the inquest on him.’

‘Inquest?’ said one of the ladies. ‘What has happened to him?’

‘Why, what happened was that he fell out of a tree and broke his neck. But the puzzle was, what could have induced him to get up there. It was a mysterious business, I must say. Here was this man — not an athletic fellow, was he? and with no eccentric twist about him that was ever noticed — walking home along a country road late in the evening — no tramps about — well known and liked in the place — and he suddenly begins to run like mad, loses his hat and stick, and finally shins up a tree — quite a difficult tree — growing in the hedgerow: a dead branch gives way, and he comes down with it and breaks his neck, and there he’s found next morning with the most dreadful face of fear on him that could be imagined. It was pretty evident, of course, that he had been chased by something, and people talked of savage dogs, and beasts escaped out of menageries; but there was nothing to be made of that. That was in ‘89, and I believe his brother Henry (whom I remember as well at Cambridge, but you probably don’t) has been trying to get on the track of an explanation ever since. He, of course, insists there was malice in it, but I don’t know. It’s difficult to see how it could have come in.’

After a time the talk reverted to the History of Witchcraft. ‘Did you ever look into it?’ asked the host.

‘Yes, I did,’ said the Secretary. ‘I went so far as to read it.’

‘Was it as bad as it was made out to be?’

‘Oh, in point of style and form, quite hopeless. It deserved all the pulverizing it got. But, besides that, it was an evil book. The man believed every word of what he was saying, and I’m very much mistaken if he hadn’t tried the greater part of his receipts.’

‘Well, I only remember Harrington’s review of it, and I must say if I’d been the author it would have quenched my literary ambition for good. I should never have held up my head again.’

‘It hasn’t had that effect in the present case. But come, it’s half-past three; I must be off.’

On the way home the Secretary’s wife said, ‘I do hope that horrible man won’t find out that Mr Dunning had anything to do with the rejection of his paper.’ ‘I don’t think there’s much chance of that,’ said the Secretary. ‘Dunning won’t mention it himself, for these matters are confidential, and none of us will for the same reason. Karswell won’t know his name, for Dunning hasn’t published anything on the same subject yet. The only danger is that Karswell might find out, if he was to ask the British Museum people who was in the habit of consulting alchemical manuscripts: I can’t very well tell them not to mention Dunning, can I? It would set them talking at once. Let’s hope it won’t occur to him.’

However, Mr Karswell was an astute man.

* * * * *

This much is in the way of prologue. On an evening rather later in the same week, Mr Edward Dunning was returning from the British Museum, where he had been engaged in research, to the comfortable house in a suburb where he lived alone, tended by two excellent women who had been long with him. There is nothing to be added by way of description of him to what we have heard already. Let us follow him as he takes his sober course homewards.

* * * * *

A train took him to within a mile or two of his house, and an electric tram a stage farther. The line ended at a point some three hundred yards from his front door. He had had enough of reading when he got into the car, and indeed the light was not such as to allow him to do more than study the advertisements on the panes of glass that faced him as he sat. As was not unnatural, the advertisements in this particular line of cars were objects of his frequent contemplation, and, with the possible exception of the brilliant and convincing dialogue between Mr Lamplough and an eminent K.C. on the subject of Pyretic Saline, none of them afforded much scope to his imagination. I am wrong: there was one at the corner of the car farthest from him which did not seem familiar. It was in blue letters on a yellow ground, and all that he could read of it was a name — John Harrington — and something like a date. It could be of no interest to him to know more; but for all that, as the car emptied, he was just curious enough to move along the seat until he could read it well. He felt to a slight extent repaid for his trouble; the advertisement was not of the usual type. It ran thus: ‘In memory of John Harrington, F.S.A., of The Laurels, Ashbrooke. Died Sept. 18th, 1889. Three months were allowed.’

The car stopped. Mr Dunning, still contemplating the blue letters on the yellow ground, had to be stimulated to rise by a word from the conductor. ‘I beg your pardon,’ he said, ‘I was looking at that advertisement; it’s a very odd one, isn’t it?’ The conductor read it slowly. ‘Well, my word,’ he said, ‘I never see that one before. Well, that is a cure, ain’t it? Someone bin up to their jokes ’ere, I should think.’ He got out a duster and applied it, not without saliva, to the pane and then to the outside. ‘No,’ he said, returning, ‘that ain’t no transfer; seems to me as if it was reg’lar in the glass, what I mean in the substance, as you may say. Don’t you think so, sir?’ Mr Dunning examined it and rubbed it with his glove, and agreed. ‘Who looks after these advertisements, and gives leave for them to be put up? I wish you would inquire. I will just take a note of the words.’ At this moment there came a call from the driver: ‘Look alive, George, time’s up.’ ‘All right, all right; there’s something else what’s up at this end. You come and look at this ’ere glass.’ ‘What’s gorn with the glass?’ said the driver, approaching. ‘Well, and oo’s ‘Arrington? What’s it all about?’ ‘I was just asking who was responsible for putting the advertisements up in your cars, and saying it would be as well to make some inquiry about this one.’ ‘Well, sir, that’s all done at the Company’s office, that work is: it’s our Mr Timms, I believe, looks into that. When we put up tonight I’ll leave word, and per’aps I’ll be able to tell you tomorrer if you ‘appen to be coming this way.’

This was all that passed that evening. Mr Dunning did just go to the trouble of looking up Ashbrooke, and found that it was in Warwickshire.

Next day he went to town again. The car (it was the same car) was too full in the morning to allow of his getting a word with the conductor: he could only be sure that the curious advertisement had been made away with. The close of the day brought a further element of mystery into the transaction. He had missed the tram, or else preferred walking home, but at a rather late hour, while he was at work in his study, one of the maids came to say that two men from the tramways was very anxious to speak to him. This was a reminder of the advertisement, which he had, he says, nearly forgotten. He had the men in-they were the conductor and driver of the car — and when the matter of refreshment had been attended to, asked what Mr Timms had had to say about the advertisement. ‘Well, sir, that’s what we took the liberty to step round about,’ said the conductor. ‘Mr Timms ‘e give William ’ere the rough side of his tongue about that: ‘cordin’ to ’im there warn’t no advertisement of that description sent in, nor ordered, nor paid for, nor put up, nor nothink, let alone not bein’ there, and we was playing the fool takin’ up his time. “Well,” I says, “if that’s the case, all I ask of you, Mr Timms,” I says, “is to take and look at it for yourself,” I says. “Of course if it ain’t there,” I says, “you may take and call me what you like.” “Right,” he says, “I will”: and we went straight off. Now, I leave it to you, sir, if that ad., as we term ’em, with ‘Arrington on it warn’t as plain as ever you see anythink — blue letters on yeller glass, and as I says at the time, and you borne me out, reg’lar in the glass, because, if you remember, you recollect of me swabbing it with my duster.’ ‘To be sure I do, quite clearly — well?’ ‘You may say well, I don’t think. Mr Timms he gets in that car with a light — no, he telled William to ‘old the light outside. “Now,” he says, “where’s your precious ad. what we’ve ‘eard so much about?” “‘Ere it is,” I says, “Mr Timms,” and I laid my ‘and on it.’ The conductor paused.

‘Well,’ said Mr Dunning, ‘it was gone, I suppose. Broken?’

‘Broke! — not it. There warn’t, if you’ll believe me, no more trace of them letters — blue letters they was — on that piece o’ glass, than — well, it’s no good me talkin’. I never see such a thing. I leave it to William here if — but there, as I says, where’s the benefit in me going on about it?’

‘And what did Mr Timms say?’

‘Why ‘e did what I give ’im leave to — called us pretty much anythink he liked, and I don’t know as I blame him so much neither. But what we thought, William and me did, was as we seen you take down a bit of a note about that — well, that letterin’—’

‘I certainly did that, and I have it now. Did you wish me to speak to Mr Timms myself, and show it to him? Was that what you came in about?’

‘There, didn’t I say as much?’ said William. ‘Deal with a gent if you can get on the track of one, that’s my word. Now perhaps, George, you’ll allow as I ain’t took you very far wrong tonight.’

‘Very well, William, very well; no need for you to go on as if you’d ‘ad to frog’s-march me ’ere. I come quiet, didn’t I? All the same for that, we ‘adn’t ought to take up your time this way, sir; but if it so ‘appened you could find time to step round to the Company orfice in the morning and tell Mr Timms what you seen for yourself, we should lay under a very ‘igh obligation to you for the trouble. You see it ain’t bein’ called — well, one thing and another, as we mind, but if they got it into their ‘ead at the orfice as we seen things as warn’t there, why, one thing leads to another, and where we should be a twelvemunce ‘ence — well, you can understand what I mean.’

Amid further elucidations of the proposition, George, conducted by William, left the room.

The incredulity of Mr Timms (who had a nodding acquaintance with Mr Dunning) was greatly modified on the following day by what the latter could tell and show him; and any bad mark that might have been attached to the names of William and George was not suffered to remain on the Company’s books; but explanation there was none.

Mr Dunning’s interest in the matter was kept alive by an incident of the following afternoon. He was walking from his club to the train, and he noticed some way ahead a man with a handful of leaflets such as are distributed to passers-by by agents of enterprising firms. This agent had not chosen a very crowded street for his operations: in fact, Mr Dunning did not see him get rid of a single leaflet before he himself reached the spot. One was thrust into his hand as he passed: the hand that gave it touched his, and he experienced a sort of little shock as it did so. It seemed unnaturally rough and hot. He looked in passing at the giver, but the impression he got was so unclear that, however much he tried to reckon it up subsequently, nothing would come. He was walking quickly, and as he went on glanced at the paper. It was a blue one. The name of Harrington in large capitals caught his eye. He stopped, startled, and felt for his glasses. The next instant the leaflet was twitched out of his hand by a man who hurried past, and was irrecoverably gone. He ran back a few paces, but where was the passer-by? and where the distributor?

It was in a somewhat pensive frame of mind that Mr Dunning passed on the following day into the Select Manuscript Room of the British Museum, and filled up tickets for Harley 3586, and some other volumes. After a few minutes they were brought to him, and he was settling the one he wanted first upon the desk, when he thought he heard his own name whispered behind him. He turned round hastily, and in doing so, brushed his little portfolio of loose papers on to the floor. He saw no one he recognized except one of the staff in charge of the room, who nodded to him, and he proceeded to pick up his papers. He thought he had them all, and was turning to begin work, when a stout gentleman at the table behind him, who was just rising to leave, and had collected his own belongings, touched him on the shoulder, saying, ‘May I give you this? I think it should be yours,’ and handed him a missing quire. ‘It is mine, thank you,’ said Mr Dunning. In another moment the man had left the room. Upon finishing his work for the afternoon, Mr Dunning had some conversation with the assistant in charge, and took occasion to ask who the stout gentleman was. ‘Oh, he’s a man named Karswell,’ said the assistant; ‘he was asking me a week ago who were the great authorities on alchemy, and of course I told him you were the only one in the country. I’ll see if I can catch him: he’d like to meet you, I’m sure.’

‘For heaven’s sake don’t dream of it!’ said Mr Dunning, ‘I’m particularly anxious to avoid him.’

‘Oh! very well,’ said the assistant, ‘he doesn’t come here often: I dare say you won’t meet him.’

More than once on the way home that day Mr Dunning confessed to himself that he did not look forward with his usual cheerfulness to a solitary evening. It seemed to him that something ill-defined and impalpable had stepped in between him and his fellow-men — had taken him in charge, as it were. He wanted to sit close up to his neighbours in the train and in the tram, but as luck would have it both train and car were markedly empty. The conductor George was thoughtful, and appeared to be absorbed in calculations as to the number of passengers. On arriving at his house he found Dr Watson, his medical man, on his doorstep. ‘I’ve had to upset your household arrangements, I’m sorry to say, Dunning. Both your servants hors de combat. In fact, I’ve had to send them to the Nursing Home.’

‘Good heavens! what’s the matter?’

‘It’s something like ptomaine poisoning, I should think: you’ve not suffered yourself, I can see, or you wouldn’t be walking about. I think they’ll pull through all right.’

‘Dear, dear! Have you any idea what brought it on?’ ‘Well, they tell me they bought some shell-fish from a hawker at their dinner-time. It’s odd. I’ve made inquiries, but I can’t find that any hawker has been to other houses in the street. I couldn’t send word to you; they won’t be back for a bit yet. You come and dine with me tonight, anyhow, and we can make arrangements for going on. Eight o’clock. Don’t be too anxious.’ The solitary evening was thus obviated; at the expense of some distress and inconvenience, it is true. Mr Dunning spent the time pleasantly enough with the doctor (a rather recent settler), and returned to his lonely home at about 11.30. The night he passed is not one on which he looks back with any satisfaction. He was in bed and the light was out. He was wondering if the charwoman would come early enough to get him hot water next morning, when he heard the unmistakable sound of his study door opening. No step followed it on the passage floor, but the sound must mean mischief, for he knew that he had shut the door that evening after putting his papers away in his desk. It was rather shame than courage that induced him to slip out into the passage and lean over the banister in his nightgown, listening. No light was visible; no further sound came: only a gust of warm, or even hot air played for an instant round his shins. He went back and decided to lock himself into his room. There was more unpleasantness, however. Either an economical suburban company had decided that their light would not be required in the small hours, and had stopped working, or else something was wrong with the meter; the effect was in any case that the electric light was off. The obvious course was to find a match, and also to consult his watch: he might as well know how many hours of discomfort awaited him. So he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far. What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being. I do not think it is any use to guess what he said or did; but he was in a spare room with the door locked and his ear to it before he was clearly conscious again. And there he spent the rest of a most miserable night, looking every moment for some fumbling at the door: but nothing came.

The venturing back to his own room in the morning was attended with many listenings and quiverings. The door stood open, fortunately, and the blinds were up (the servants had been out of the house before the hour of drawing them down); there was, to be short, no trace of an inhabitant. The watch, too, was in its usual place; nothing was disturbed, only the wardrobe door had swung open, in accordance with its confirmed habit. A ring at the back door now announced the charwoman, who had been ordered the night before, and nerved Mr Dunning, after letting her in, to continue his search in other parts of the house. It was equally fruitless.

The day thus begun went on dismally enough. He dared not go to the Museum: in spite of what the assistant had said, Karswell might turn up there, and Dunning felt he could not cope with a probably hostile stranger. His own house was odious; he hated sponging on the doctor. He spent some little time in a call at the Nursing Home, where he was slightly cheered by a good report of his housekeeper and maid. Towards lunch-time he betook himself to his club, again experiencing a gleam of satisfaction at seeing the Secretary of the Association. At luncheon Dunning told his friend the more material of his woes, but could not bring himself to speak of those that weighed most heavily on his spirits. ‘My poor dear man,’ said the Secretary, ‘what an upset! Look here: we’re alone at home, absolutely. You must put up with us. Yes! no excuse: send your things in this afternoon.’ Dunning was unable to stand out: he was, in truth, becoming acutely anxious, as the hours went on, as to what that night might have waiting for him. He was almost happy as he hurried home to pack up.

His friends, when they had time to take stock of him, were rather shocked at his lorn appearance, and did their best to keep him up to the mark. Not altogether without success: but, when the two men were smoking alone later, Dunning became dull again. Suddenly he said, ‘Gayton, I believe that alchemist man knows it was I who got his paper rejected.’ Gayton whistled. ‘What makes you think that?’ he said. Dunning told of his conversation with the Museum assistant, and Gayton could only agree that the guess seemed likely to be correct. ‘Not that I care much,’ Dunning went on, ‘only it might be a nuisance if we were to meet. He’s a bad-tempered party, I imagine.’ Conversation dropped again; Gayton became more and more strongly impressed with the desolateness that came over Dunning’s face and bearing, and finally — though with a considerable effort — he asked him point-blank whether something serious was not bothering him. Dunning gave an exclamation of relief. ‘I was perishing to get it off my mind,’ he said. ‘Do you know anything about a man named John Harrington?’ Gayton was thoroughly startled, and at the moment could only ask why. Then the complete story of Dunning’s experiences came out — what had happened in the tramcar, in his own house, and in the street, the troubling of spirit that had crept over him, and still held him; and he ended with the question he had begun with. Gayton was at a loss how to answer him. To tell the story of Harrington’s end would perhaps be right; only, Dunning was in a nervous state, the story was a grim one, and he could not help asking himself whether there were not a connecting link between these two cases, in the person of Karswell. It was a difficult concession for a scientific man, but it could be eased by the phrase ‘hypnotic suggestion’. In the end he decided that his answer tonight should be guarded; he would talk the situation over with his wife. So he said that he had known Harrington at Cambridge, and believed he had died suddenly in 1889, adding a few details about the man and his published work. He did talk over the matter with Mrs Gayton, and, as he had anticipated, she leapt at once to the conclusion which had been hovering before him. It was she who reminded him of the surviving brother, Henry Harrington, and she also who suggested that he might be got hold of by means of their hosts of the day before. ‘He might be a hopeless crank,’ objected Gayton. ‘That could be ascertained from the Bennetts, who knew him,’ Mrs Gayton retorted; and she undertook to see the Bennetts the very next day.

* * * * *

It is not necessary to tell in further detail the steps by which Henry Harrington and Dunning were brought together.

* * * * *

The next scene that does require to be narrated is a conversation that took place between the two. Dunning had told Harrington of the strange ways in which the dead man’s name had been brought before him, and had said something, besides, of his own subsequent experiences. Then he had asked if Harrington was disposed, in return, to recall any of the circumstances connected with his brother’s death. Harrington’s surprise at what he heard can be imagined: but his reply was readily given.

‘John,’ he said, ‘was in a very odd state, undeniably, from time to time, during some weeks before, though not immediately before, the catastrophe. There were several things; the principal notion he had was that he thought he was being followed. No doubt he was an impressionable man, but he never had had such fancies as this before. I cannot get it out of my mind that there was ill-will at work, and what you tell me about yourself reminds me very much of my brother. Can you think of any possible connecting link?’

‘There is just one that has been taking shape vaguely in my mind. I’ve been told that your brother reviewed a book very severely not long before he died, and just lately I have happened to cross the path of the man who wrote that book in a way he would resent.’

‘Don’t tell me the man was called Karswell.’

‘Why not? that is exactly his name.’

Henry Harrington leant back. ‘That is final to my mind. Now I must explain further. From something he said, I feel sure that my brother John was beginning to believe — very much against his will — that Karswell was at the bottom of his trouble. I want to tell you what seems to me to have a bearing on the situation. My brother was a great musician, and used to run up to concerts in town. He came back, three months before he died, from one of these, and gave me his programme to look at — an analytical programme: he always kept them. “I nearly missed this one,” he said. “I suppose I must have dropped it: anyhow, I was looking for it under my seat and in my pockets and so on, and my neighbour offered me his, said ‘might he give it me, he had no further use for it,’ and he went away just afterwards. I don’t know who he was — a stout, clean-shaven man. I should have been sorry to miss it; of course I could have bought another, but this cost me nothing.” At another time he told me that he had been very uncomfortable both on the way to his hotel and during the night. I piece things together now in thinking it over. Then, not very long after, he was going over these programmes, putting them in order to have them bound up, and in this particular one (which by the way I had hardly glanced at), he found quite near the beginning a strip of paper with some very odd writing on it in red and black — most carefully done — it looked to me more like Runic letters than anything else. “Why,” he said, “this must belong to my fat neighbour. It looks as if it might be worth returning to him; it may be a copy of something; evidently someone has taken trouble over it. How can I find his address?” We talked it over for a little and agreed that it wasn’t worth advertising about, and that my brother had better look out for the man at the next concert, to which he was going very soon. The paper was lying on the book and we were both by the fire; it was a cold, windy summer evening. I suppose the door blew open, though I didn’t notice it: at any rate a gust — a warm gust it was — came quite suddenly between us, took the paper and blew it straight into the fire: it was light, thin paper, and flared and went up the chimney in a single ash. “Well,” I said, “you can’t give it back now.” He said nothing for a minute: then rather crossly, “No, I can’t; but why you should keep on saying so I don’t know.” I remarked that I didn’t say it more than once. “Not more than four times, you mean,” was all he said. I remember all that very clearly, without any good reason; and now to come to the point. I don’t know if you looked at that book of Karswell’s which my unfortunate brother reviewed. It’s not likely that you should: but I did, both before his death and after it. The first time we made game of it together. It was written in no style at all — split infinitives, and every sort of thing that makes an Oxford gorge rise. Then there was nothing that the man didn’t swallow: mixing up classical myths, and stories out of the Golden Legend with reports of savage customs of today — all very proper, no doubt, if you know how to use them, but he didn’t: he seemed to put the Golden Legend and the Golden Bough exactly on a par, and to believe both: a pitiable exhibition, in short. Well, after the misfortune, I looked over the book again. It was no better than before, but the impression which it left this time on my mind was different. I suspected — as I told you — that Karswell had borne ill-will to my brother, even that he was in some way responsible for what had happened; and now his book seemed to me to be a very sinister performance indeed. One chapter in particular struck me, in which he spoke of “casting the Runes” on people, either for the purpose of gaining their affection or of getting them out of the way — perhaps more especially the latter: he spoke of all this in a way that really seemed to me to imply actual knowledge. I’ve not time to go into details, but the upshot is that I am pretty sure from information received that the civil man at the concert was Karswell: I suspect — I more than suspect — that the paper was of importance: and I do believe that if my brother had been able to give it back, he might have been alive now. Therefore, it occurs to me to ask you whether you have anything to put beside what I have told you.’

By way of answer, Dunning had the episode in the Manuscript Room at the British Museum to relate.

‘Then he did actually hand you some papers; have you examined them? No? because we must, if you’ll allow it, look at them at once, and very carefully.’

They went to the still empty house — empty, for the two servants were not yet able to return to work. Dunning’s portfolio of papers was gathering dust on the writing-table. In it were the quires of small-sized scribbling paper which he used for his transcripts: and from one of these, as he took it up, there slipped and fluttered out into the room with uncanny quickness, a strip of thin light paper. The window was open, but Harrington slammed it to, just in time to intercept the paper, which he caught. ‘I thought so,’ he said; ‘it might be the identical thing that was given to my brother. You’ll have to look out, Dunning; this may mean something quite serious for you.’

A long consultation took place. The paper was narrowly examined. As Harrington had said, the characters on it were more like Runes than anything else, but not decipherable by either man, and both hesitated to copy them, for fear, as they confessed, of perpetuating whatever evil purpose they might conceal. So it has remained impossible (if I may anticipate a little) to ascertain what was conveyed in this curious message or commission. Both Dunning and Harrington are firmly convinced that it had the effect of bringing its possessors into very undesirable company. That it must be returned to the source whence it came they were agreed, and further, that the only safe and certain way was that of personal service; and here contrivance would be necessary, for Dunning was known by sight to Karswell. He must, for one thing, alter his appearance by shaving his beard. But then might not the blow fall first? Harrington thought they could time it. He knew the date of the concert at which the ‘black spot’ had been put on his brother: it was June 18th. The death had followed on Sept. 18th. Dunning reminded him that three months had been mentioned on the inscription on the car-window. ‘Perhaps,’ he added, with a cheerless laugh, ‘mine may be a bill at three months too. I believe I can fix it by my diary. Yes, April 23rd was the day at the Museum; that brings us to July 23rd. Now, you know, it becomes extremely important to me to know anything you will tell me about the progress of your brother’s trouble, if it is possible for you to speak of it.’ ‘Of course. Well, the sense of being watched whenever he was alone was the most distressing thing to him. After a time I took to sleeping in his room, and he was the better for that: still, he talked a great deal in his sleep. What about? Is it wise to dwell on that, at least before things are straightened out? I think not, but I can tell you this: two things came for him by post during those weeks, both with a London postmark, and addressed in a commercial hand. One was a woodcut of Bewick’s, roughly torn out of the page: one which shows a moonlit road and a man walking along it, followed by an awful demon creature. Under it were written the lines out of the “Ancient Mariner” (which I suppose the cut illustrates) about one who, having once looked round —

              walks on,
And turns no more his head,
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

The other was a calendar, such as tradesmen often send. My brother paid no attention to this, but I looked at it after his death, and found that everything after Sept. 18 had been torn out. You may be surprised at his having gone out alone the evening he was killed, but the fact is that during the last ten days or so of his life he had been quite free from the sense of being followed or watched.’

The end of the consultation was this. Harrington, who knew a neighbour of Karswell’s, thought he saw a way of keeping a watch on his movements. It would be Dunning’s part to be in readiness to try to cross Karswell’s path at any moment, to keep the paper safe and in a place of ready access.

They parted. The next weeks were no doubt a severe strain upon Dunning’s nerves: the intangible barrier which had seemed to rise about him on the day when he received the paper, gradually developed into a brooding blackness that cut him off from the means of escape to which one might have thought he might resort. No one was at hand who was likely to suggest them to him, and he seemed robbed of all initiative. He waited with inexpressible anxiety as May, June, and early July passed on, for a mandate from Harrington. But all this time Karswell remained immovable at Lufford.

At last, in less than a week before the date he had come to look upon as the end of his earthly activities, came a telegram: ‘Leaves Victoria by boat train Thursday night. Do not miss. I come to you to-night. Harrington.’

He arrived accordingly, and they concocted plans. The train left Victoria at nine and its last stop before Dover was Croydon West. Harrington would mark down Karswell at Victoria, and look out for Dunning at Croydon, calling to him if need were by a name agreed upon. Dunning, disguised as far as might be, was to have no label or initials on any hand luggage, and must at all costs have the paper with him.

Dunning’s suspense as he waited on the Croydon platform I need not attempt to describe. His sense of danger during the last days had only been sharpened by the fact that the cloud about him had perceptibly been lighter; but relief was an ominous symptom, and, if Karswell eluded him now, hope was gone: and there were so many chances of that. The rumour of the journey might be itself a device. The twenty minutes in which he paced the platform and persecuted every porter with inquiries as to the boat train were as bitter as any he had spent. Still, the train came, and Harrington was at the window. It was important, of course, that there should be no recognition: so Dunning got in at the farther end of the corridor carriage, and only gradually made his way to the compartment where Harrington and Karswell were. He was pleased, on the whole, to see that the train was far from full.

Karswell was on the alert, but gave no sign of recognition. Dunning took the seat not immediately facing him, and attempted, vainly at first, then with increasing command of his faculties, to reckon the possibilities of making the desired transfer. Opposite to Karswell, and next to Dunning, was a heap of Karswell’s coats on the seat. It would be of no use to slip the paper into these — he would not be safe, or would not feel so, unless in some way it could be proffered by him and accepted by the other. There was a handbag, open, and with papers in it. Could he manage to conceal this (so that perhaps Karswell might leave the carriage without it), and then find and give it to him? This was the plan that suggested itself. If he could only have counselled with Harrington! but that could not be. The minutes went on. More than once Karswell rose and went out into the corridor. The second time Dunning was on the point of attempting to make the bag fall off the seat, but he caught Harrington’s eye, and read in it a warning.

Karswell, from the corridor, was watching: probably to see if the two men recognized each other. He returned, but was evidently restless: and, when he rose the third time, hope dawned, for something did slip off his seat and fall with hardly a sound to the floor. Karswell went out once more, and passed out of range of the corridor window. Dunning picked up what had fallen, and saw that the key was in his hands in the form of one of Cook’s ticket-cases, with tickets in it. These cases have a pocket in the cover, and within very few seconds the paper of which we have heard was in the pocket of this one. To make the operation more secure, Harrington stood in the doorway of the compartment and fiddled with the blind. It was done, and done at the right time, for the train was now slowing down towards Dover.

In a moment more Karswell re-entered the compartment. As he did so, Dunning, managing, he knew not how, to suppress the tremble in his voice, handed him the ticket-case, saying, ‘May I give you this, sir? I believe it is yours.’ After a brief glance at the ticket inside, Karswell uttered the hoped-for response, ‘Yes, it is; much obliged to you, sir,’ and he placed it in his breast pocket.

Even in the few moments that remained — moments of tense anxiety, for they knew not to what a premature finding of the paper might lead — both men noticed that the carriage seemed to darken about them and to grow warmer; that Karswell was fidgety and oppressed; that he drew the heap of loose coats near to him and cast it back as if it repelled him; and that he then sat upright and glanced anxiously at both. They, with sickening anxiety, busied themselves in collecting their belongings; but they both thought that Karswell was on the point of speaking when the train stopped at Dover Town. It was natural that in the short space between town and pier they should both go into the corridor.

At the pier they got out, but so empty was the train that they were forced to linger on the platform until Karswell should have passed ahead of them with his porter on the way to the boat, and only then was it safe for them to exchange a pressure of the hand and a word of concentrated congratulation. The effect upon Dunning was to make him almost faint. Harrington made him lean up against the wall, while he himself went forward a few yards within sight of the gangway to the boat, at which Karswell had now arrived. The man at the head of it examined his ticket, and, laden with coats he passed down into the boat. Suddenly the official called after him, ‘You, sir, beg pardon, did the other gentleman show his ticket?’ ‘What the devil do you mean by the other gentleman?’ Karswell’s snarling voice called back from the deck. The man bent over and looked at him. ‘The devil? Well, I don’t know, I’m sure,’ Harrington heard him say to himself, and then aloud, ‘My mistake, sir; must have been your rugs! ask your pardon.’ And then, to a subordinate near him, ‘‘Ad he got a dog with him, or what? Funny thing: I could ‘a’ swore ‘e wasn’t alone. Well, whatever it was, they’ll ‘ave to see to it aboard. She’s off now. Another week and we shall be gettin’ the ‘oliday customers.’ In five minutes more there was nothing but the lessening lights of the boat, the long line of the Dover lamps, the night breeze, and the moon.

Long and long the two sat in their room at the ‘Lord Warden’. In spite of the removal of their greatest anxiety, they were oppressed with a doubt, not of the lightest. Had they been justified in sending a man to his death, as they believed they had? Ought they not to warn him, at least? ‘No,’ said Harrington; ‘if he is the murderer I think him, we have done no more than is just. Still, if you think it better — but how and where can you warn him?’ ‘He was booked to Abbeville only,’ said Dunning. ‘I saw that. If I wired to the hotels there in Joanne’s Guide, “Examine your ticket-case, Dunning,” I should feel happier. This is the 21st: he will have a day. But I am afraid he has gone into the dark.’ So telegrams were left at the hotel office.

It is not clear whether these reached their destination, or whether, if they did, they were understood. All that is known is that, on the afternoon of the 23rd, an English traveller, examining the front of St Wulfram’s Church at Abbeville, then under extensive repair, was struck on the head and instantly killed by a stone falling from the scaffold erected round the north-western tower, there being, as was clearly proved, no workman on the scaffold at that moment: and the traveller’s papers identified him as Mr Karswell.

Only one detail shall be added. At Karswell’s sale a set of Bewick, sold with all faults, was acquired by Harrington. The page with the woodcut of the traveller and the demon was, as he had expected, mutilated. Also, after a judicious interval, Harrington repeated to Dunning something of what he had heard his brother say in his sleep: but it was not long before Dunning stopped him.


“Montague Rhodes James (1862 – 1936) was an English born medieval scholar and provost of King’s College, Cambridge from 1905 – 1918 and then moved on to Eton College from 1918 – 1936.

“Best known for his ghost stories, M.R. James invigorated the genre by using more realistic and contemporary settings than his predecessors. He is known as the originator of the “antiquarian ghost story.” James published his first collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, in 1904. Most of our favorite stories featured here are from this collection.

“Although he is famous for his ghost stories, M.R. James was a formidable scholar and his medieval scholarship is still held in high regard in today’s academic circles.”

from americanliterature.com


If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “The Banshee’s Wail: a Ghost Story” by Benjamin Wylde.

While you’re here, why not drop by The Chamber’s bookshop?

“Mr. Fate” Horror by Billy Stanton

"Mr. Fate" Horror by Billy Stanton

The poster seemed an immovable and ancient feature of the stone facade of the theatre, so perfectly was it fixed to the wall and so antique was its appearance. This impression of antiquity came not from any fading, yellowing or other cosmetic damage to the thin paper; rather, the advertisement was in perfect nick, as fresh and bold and inviting as it had probably been at the moment of its original printing. It was instead the imagery, the colour and the overall design that spoke of some bygone, even timeless, age: white-faced clowns in conical hats laughed silently, flame-haired girls in black leotards gyrated down the edges of the bill, great exotic animals glittered with gold and silver trappings like they’d been plucked from a march alongside Hannibal and strong-men and acrobats completed their long-forgotten routines with a dignified flourish. ‘MONKEY MADNESS’ was boasted by a subtitle in thick black lettering below a poorly-rendered illustration of caged primates at play. ‘POOLEY’S CIRCUS’ was the headline spelt out in blue on a gold sash, which clashed with the overall deep red background of the piece, and was held aloft by a tiny suited figure in a far-right corner. If one cared enough to squint, there was a name scrawled beneath the feet of this near-silhouette: Mr. Fate.

It was Mr. Fate alone that was the unlikely star at the Odeum tonight. The appearance of this promotion that relegated him to the status of a sideshow was surely little more than either the desperate trick of a showbiz pauper, trying to hoodwink a passing potential audience with the promise of greater and more varied thrills than those which were actually going to appear this evening, or admittance of defeat in the face of a current budget which couldn’t extend to any new marketing materials. To Richard, this seemed odd: surely a solo act at this venue, such a historic staple of the West End, would be expected to hold a much higher standard of operation, and be in possession of enough capital to at least be able to print up a solo bill? Richard couldn’t imagine the process by which this result had been signed off by everyone from personal agent to theatre manager, social media content producer to board member. He did not, however, quibble. After all, it was the tantalising promise of the unusual and unexpected that had drawn Richard to the hellscape of tourist-land against all his better instincts. It had been the limited but provocative copy of the Time Out listing (“Mr. Fate: Music Hall, Vaudeville and Variety Classics, Comedic and Musical, from an Accomplished Pro; remember how it used to be done and weep for the present”) that had first sparked an interest in him; it appeared to represent a temporary passing over at this theatre, for the length of a very limited engagement, of another musical adaptation of an old film that was familiar to far-flung overseas visitors mainly because it was also safe enough to have reached them without being withheld by their national censors, and this was surely be welcomed. Richard had only been made more curious by his inability to find out much more about the show or the performer anywhere else, as every online source for the theatre’s schedule or content repeated those same few words ad nauseam and without addition or amendment. 

So he’d purchased his ticket online- at a cost far, far below the usual three-digit figure for even the cheapest, most pillar-obstructed plush velvet at the conventional shows- and now he stood in line for admittance at the Odeum for the first time in probably decades. The same gold-blue-red colour scheme of the poster was repeated in the simple awnings that had been fixed around the theatre’s doorways. There was no name on these boards and no further suggestion of what was to be seen within. Mr. Fate was, it appeared, an open secret not to be shouted about too loudly. Was the Odeum embarrassed? Did this explain the front of a circus, rather than the admittance of only a single disreputable performer? Was tonight- and the rest of the week- a stop-gap presentation that had arisen out of the commercial necessity of keeping the doors open even when more popular shows left an unfortunate gap in the calendar that needed filling? If the last of those suggestions were truly the case, then the men-behind-the-curtains must have been rubbing their hands together in unexpected delight: there were enough people outside, and within the foyer itself, to suggest an evening at at least two-thirds of capacity. 

The crowd, Richard noticed, was oddly mixed. There were tourists, true, who stood around slightly perplexed, quite possibly utterly unaware of what tickets had been foisted upon them by whoever was organising their vacations, and on the verge of a nasty shock. There was also the expected humble elderly contingent, clearly anticipating a night of cloyingly sweet nostalgia, and currently blocking passages of entrance with their tiny, trembling frames. Other people were evidently aficionados of this sort of thing; a combination of scholarly-looking types, probably carrying Dickens’ biography of Grimaldi in their coat pockets, and men who lived up to every negative physical stereotype of the dedicated follower of obscure and esoteric interests. Amongst this lot, however, were two unexpected classes (and the emphasis was really on the word ‘class’ in one instance). First, there was a slice of the self-contented, clearly affluent, friendly but unfriendly, grey haired and silver-watched crowd that propped up the business of most genuinely culturally-important institutions in the city, while forever loudly twittering in their little groups about their shared holiday plans and cosseted opinions, all of which were both definitively received well in advance and frighteningly un-insightful. Richard knew that this type was as well-disposed to decorative nostalgia as their more age-advanced and modest forebears entering the lobby, even if their nostalgia was often of a supposedly superior sort; but he was still somewhat surprised to see them pick Mr. Fate over another evening spent in the company of the same Schubert symphonies they’d heard performed live six or seven times already. The presence of another societal subsection was far more startling: teenagers and twenty-somethings, the majority of them self-consciously retro in their appearance and dress sense, although retro in a way that spoke of very different periods and subcultures than the ones that Mr. Fate had winged his way in from. Richard found their appearance on this scene somewhat puzzling; even at such a low cost, he hardly imagined that this was the sort of thing that could part them from their cash, and he wondered where exactly they could have picked up an interest in, or even much awareness, of traditional vaudeville or the crusty mildew melodies of the music hall. Scattered about were the disbelievers who formed the rest of Richard’s tribe, and who were surveying the scene with much the same confusion as himself. 

The doormen were mute; they swung the doors open to each ticket-holder with an unpleasant robotic motion, their eyes confessing their decision to situate themselves- in every aspect but the physical- in some other distant place. When Richard finally made his way past them he tried not to look at them too much; they were almost frightening to him, like zombies from show nights long-passed, reanimated by the devil dust Mr. Fate had blown into their restful faces once he’d prised open their coffins. Indeed, an odd drowsiness had settled upon the general evening since his arrival, for all the denseness of persons. Richard was reminded of the sort of hypnagogic drift that directed his thoughts on the verge of sleeping; he seemed now to be almost guided across the carpet, past the gilt-framed bills that added an ostentatious greeting note to those who had struggled their way inside, and towards the bar in the manner of a semi-sleep-walker, a somnambulist who would have fitted in well as an act alongside the rest of the circus folk that once populated Pooley’s Circus. A vodka with ice was in his hand without him being too conscious of its purchasing; he sucked on the decorative lime that he peeled from the edge of the glass unaware of any bitter flavour or breaking of social decorum. He noticed many of those around him bore a similar manner in their expressions and movements. They appeared to alternately glide or jerk about the place in a way that set Richard to thinking of another old treat: namely the mechanical jockeys that used to complete their horse races along steel beams in glass-fronted cases at the drop of a penny in the seaside arcades. Eyes were glazed all about; conversation was conducted haltingly in whispers or monotone; the teenagers looked ready for a nap, let alone the old folks. The only real point of great animation came from a middle-aged, rotund fellow further down the bar. Richard moved closer to him, hoping some of this life and energy would rub off upon him and knock him from his stupor. 

He came to regret his decision almost instantly. The man was bloviating loudly and looking for a target who wouldn’t try to squirm away from the forceful flood of his words. His wife, obviously worn down by the constancy of his torrential downpours, was a mute and detached figure whose current perfect silence and stillness was most likely a consistent feature of her personality, and not a result of the same spell which had been cast upon most of the rest of the room. The man’s eyes fixed on Richard’s, and he extended his hand for the shaking in a needlessly violent motion. Indeed, every one of the man’s actions was made with the hope of projecting a self-confidence, a superiority, a great satisfaction that outranked that of his conversational partner. Richard was caught between slinking away and defiantly meeting him halfway. He opted for the latter approach. He shook the man’s hand. 

“I’m Graham.” 

“Richard.”

“Nice to meet you, Richie. Nice to meet you. You looking forward to the show?”

Richard nodded, somewhat rankled at the patronising liberty taken with his name. “I’m curious about it.”

“Me too mate, me too.” 

Graham’s voice was plummy and utterly untraceable to any particular region of the country. He wanted to be known as an everyman, and occasionally- purposefully, theatrically- he dropped an aitch or an arr in the hopes of further solidifying and signalling his position as such. 

“What bought you here tonight?” Richard asked. 

“I want to see if this bloke- this Mr. Fate- is up to it.”

“Up to what?”

“Up to it. I want to see if he can do it properly like he promised; like it used to be done. How it was done when we still had a sense of humour we could be proud of in this country.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. I couldn’t resist when I saw it. We need proper variety back nowadays, y’know. A good old laugh at teatime on a Saturday- that’s what held us together as a people back in the day. The ones nowadays, half of them try it and haven’t got the wit or the skill. Not since Jerry died. He was the last one, the last old pro.”

“I was never much of a fan.”

In truth, Richard thought Jerry was a twirling fool; a purveyor of hack gags- cleaned-up for the early evening audience- and mediocre dance steps, an old twinkle-toes with a barely-disguised mean streak. He’d always seemed the sort who’d knock a couple of quid off a contractor’s pay based on the length of time they stopped for a tea break and had outlived his time on television by a good few decades, supported by the last vestiges of a soppy audience. Richard’s contempt was probably audible in his clipped dismissal and it put Graham on the defensive. 

“You’re wrong there, pal. He had something for the whole family. The whole lot could enjoy him.”

Strictly the dewy-eyed grandmas thought Richard, but he said nothing. Graham looked around for someone better to talk to. He could round up no one else and turned back to Richard to strengthen his argument.

“It’s lads like him who made us what we are. He made your struggles during the week- slaving your guts out- worth it; he made you forget it all. Nowadays, you turn on the television and all you get is hectored; everyone’s got something bad to tell you, everyone’s got something bad to say about you. You’ve got to feel guilty all the time. Like you want to hear all that after you’ve been sweating it at the foundry. You want a bit of glamour, a bit of glitz, a few cheeky laughs; it puts a new burst in you for Monday morning. Without people such as Jerry, I tell you, we’d have fallen behind the rest of the world a lot earlier; we’d have been too miserable to make it in after the weekend, and the whole bloody thing would have ground to a halt. Like it has now.”

“I’ve always preferred the sketch comedians from that time.”

It was an opinion offered as a peace-making gesture on Richard’s part, one chosen instead of- quite fairly- enquiring on the exact date that Graham had last toiled at the foundry.

“Fair play to you there, fair play. They were great. Don’t see much of their like either now. That’s all the special interest groups and the bloody elites diluting it all, telling us what we should like rather than giving us a bit more of what we actually do like.”

Richard, tiring of the same old talking-points, decided to change tack. “I don’t know if Mr. Fate is going to be much like Jerry. He seems to be doing something a few decades older.”

“It’s close enough, isn’t it?”

Richard supposed it was. He excused himself and went for another drink. Some of his sleepiness had worn off, and he now put that earlier strange mood down to the warmth of the lobby. 

There was more of a crush now around the bar. Richard joined the back of it and noticed the woman next to him was crying. No, not just crying- sobbing, bawling her eyes out. Her partner held her to his chest, stroking her hair. 

“I don’t want to go in, Charlie. I don’t. I don’t.”

Her partner pattered her on the head and pushed her face further into his coat. He said a few more comforting words, but the woman kept weeping; she began to shake more and more, and Richard thought her legs were going to give way. The man ushered her away and they were lost to Richard’s sight for a few seconds; when he caught a glimpse of them again through the throngs he could see that the man was all but forcing her towards the open doors of the auditorium. He whispered in the usher’s ear as they were asked to present their tickets, and the two of them together helped carry the woman to her seat. 

Richard only had time to briefly consider if she had some form of agoraphobia before he was ordering his second drink. It arrived and he downed it one. The bell rung. 

“Seats please, ladies and gentlemen!” 

An usher, holding an old brass megaphone, was standing on the balcony that led to the upper stalls. His silver buttons gleamed in the overhead fluoresce; he wore little white gloves and thick, shining black shoes. His hair was slicked back so forcefully that his forehead and brow jutted forwards with an unnatural, furious tightness. He lifted the megaphone to his lips again. 

“Enjoy your trip with Mr. Fate!”

There were a few cheers for this, which were followed by a low murmuring. Then Richard was caught up in a rapid pouring forward of the crowd towards the waiting doors. Behind him, he could hear a couple more members of the audience crying as they too were propelled onwards by the irrepressible movement around them. There was no question of turning back, or slipping out of the mass; everyone had very quickly become too tightly packed. Richard felt himself being lifted off his feet; the ushers gave up on checking tickets and simply stood aside to let the crowd through with vacant grins. Richard turned his head as the sobs behind him turned to screams; he tried to see if people were being crushed, as he felt he might soon be. He saw that a line of people was pushing the rest of the audience forwards from the very back of the congregation. The faces of these stormtroopers were red and contorted with the pressures of their exertion. Richard wanted to shout at them to stop, that someone was going to get hurt, but his chest and lungs were being too heavily pressed to allow for speech. He focused only on his breathing- and blocking out the terrible wailing- as he was carried into the stalls. As he came through the door, a good number of those in front of him collapsed, and soon Richard too was rolling down the aisles with them, bruising his back as it hit against individual steps. When he stopped falling he was lying atop a groggy, near-purple middle-aged woman. He apologised profusely and helped her up. She said nothing, put a friendly hand on his shoulder, and then went in search of her seat. To his left, Richard saw Graham laughing delightedly in Row BB. He gave Richard a thumbs-up; apparently, nearly everyone here was desperately, devotedly on his side- they were willing to kill to get a bit of that old variety back.  

Indeed, most of the crowd had reacted as if this display was the normal, accepted way of entering a performance hall. As people pulled themselves up or were caught against the backs of the first row of seats, they then worked themselves free, adjusted their clothes and hair, and wandered off with a calm, even contented demeanour. The banshees of the crush had been silenced; there was an expectant, excited hush in the place now. Richard could see a few others looking around with a similar sort of apprehension as himself, but the pressures of conformity soon weighed, and even they went about seating themselves in much the same way as the rest of the room. 

Richard, too, followed their lead and sat himself down. Gazing up at the balcony and the rest of the stalls, he noted that his early guess of two-thirds capacity was an underestimation- surely, this was a near sell-out. Richard’s neighbours were composed mainly of the same geriatric folks he’d seen on arriving, broken up only by the occasional forty-something like himself, and a couple of youngsters- their dress sense caught somewhere between 1965 and 1995- perched somewhat uncomfortably at the end of Row KK. A few of the oldies were sucking on hardboiled sweets like they’d stepped out of some cheap advertisement. One of them proffered a bag of humbugs to Richard; he politely turned down the invitation. 

There came a great whirring noise, and then a long musical note, the sound of which was somewhere between that of a church organ and the burst of a laser gun. The stage and its red curtains lit up in splashes of purple, blue and yellow light and an elegant behemoth of a Wurlitzer came up through a trapdoor in the orchestra pit. It shone in pure, blinding white, was topped by silver pipes, and was decorated by dancing green and gold bursts that hopped jauntily across the multiple cascading keyboards and up into a system of buttons and pullies. A man in a wide-cut grey suit, his hair also slicked back to an impossible point like the announcer’s, made an unlikely medley out of Autumn Leaves and Everybody Loves My Baby. There came coos of delight, hands clapping, other tunes being hummed in counter-point. Richard himself could not help but get caught up too, leaving behind any wondering about how exactly this instrument had been installed in the theatre, and how much such an operation would have cost. Surrendering himself, he drifted out of his body to float above the innocent pier of seaside memories, a wash of striped-bathing suits and Sunday bests below him. The music seemed at once an orchestrated version of the sound of two penny pieces clattering down in the push machines, the clicking of a hawker’s camera offering deckchair candids to pretty factory girls and dads in rolled shirt-sleeves, and the meetings of steel forks and plates cleared of haddock, chips and even lemon. Richard’s spirit perched itself upon the top of a helter-skelter, an enormous tower in red-and-blue spirals, that had grown to a size of several hundred feet, and was still soaring upwards, carrying him towards the muggy clouds of a hot bank holiday afternoon. Then he was cast off and was falling towards the grey nothingness of the sea, straight through the nailed boards of the pier walkways, before he was caught on a lattice of fine, oiled ironwork beneath the pier, and suspended- crucified- in perfect, beaming happiness. The dancers and fairies of the circus bill poster flew in loop-the-loops high above him, becoming angels; he watched them go, as an acrobat, carrying a cartoon weight, made easy work of walkathons up-and-down the inches-thin handrail of the platform above him. The music started coming to an end; Richard was struck by melancholy as he became aware that these weren’t his own memories, dreams or visions, but just the construction of some great shared store of memory and imagination, all of it infinitely sweetened beyond reality, and not much beyond ghosts flattened and mulched into universally familiar patterns. But it was all sweet, so, so sweet, that it hurt to reawaken to the murkiness of the theatre. The magic lantern clicked off. The Wurlitzer sunk back into its subterranean resting place, and he was left choking on his tears. 

Before his nostalgia could curdle any further, Richard’s attention was stolen by someone shouting; he saw a youngster breaking for the doors. He was met by an usher who bear-hugged him and manhandled him back to his seat, letting the kid writhe and kick out the whole way. Once plunked back down, a guard was kept.

Before the audience could protest, a man appeared on the stage; a spotlight turned on him and made his face blue. The response was immediately rapturous, geed up by the tender majesties of the organ.

“You remember, don’t you,” the man said, in tones attempting for the sonorous but letdown by an underlying asthmatic weakness, “the glory days of theatres such as these?”

He approached the front of the stage, then dropped and backward-rolled and stood again on the spot he’d started from. 

“Magic and laughter, tears and delightful delicacies. France’s finest legs kicking the cancan, jokes and routines from the funniest men alive that would send you- the audience- into convulsions. Indeed, didn’t it seem like every hall needed a standby St Johns ambulance, to cater to those whose collars had gotten too hot, or who had been forced into cardiac arrest by the brilliantine brilliance of the final punchline?”

Members of Richard’s row were nodding. 

“Do you remember Charlie?” The man imitated the Tramp’s walk. 

“Do you remember the songs?” He offered a line of a Flanagan and Allen favourite. 

“Do you remember the tricks?” He produced a pack of cards from his suit pocket and showed a five of clubs to the audience. “That was your card, wasn’t it?”

There were chuckles. The man walked closer to them. Richard could see him better now; white paint had been caked upon a face approaching old age, marked by a surfeit of deep, dark wrinkles. Around each eye was drawn, in black wobbly lines, a large circle, and these were connected by an even shakier line across the bridge of the nose to form a false pair of round spectacles. His eyes were brown but animated, even fiery. His teeth were stained yellow. He repulsed Richard and made him involuntarily draw back in his seat to escape the gargoyle leer that was now fixed upon them. The stage had been claimed by a sad Pierrot partly infused by the spirit of a particularly malicious Harlequin. 

“I am Mr. Fate,” said the man. He was acting as his own compere; there clearly was no support, no other attraction. “This is the biggest show I’ve ever played. I hope you’ll bear with me.”

A roar boomed over the theatre’s speakers and made every one start.

“Exit, pursued by a bear!” Mr. Fate bellowed. He ran off stage left; then his head appeared round the curtain, caught in a paroxysm of panting pain that was too real, too immediately suggestive of a genuine and sudden heart-attack victim, to be in any way amusing. Roaring and growling continued to fill the auditorium. Mr Fate ran towards stage right, his suit shredded and a large pair of boxer shorts, in the customary bright red love heart pattern, showing through the remains of his trousers. Now the audience- or parts of it, at least- laughed. He disappeared around the curtain again, and then stuck his face back out with the same grotesque expression upon it as previously, except now he’d become aware that no one thought this particularly funny, and brief flashes of both frustration and sadness passed across his otherwise fixed countenance. His response to this negation was to double-down: his fake agonies only became more outrageous, more monstrous. 

He re-emerged into the fullness of the spotlight, with only his boxers and heavily-polished brogues remaining to cover him. The crowd liked that. Mr. Fate pretended to be embarrassed, shielding his modesty with outstretched hands. 

“What a way to begin my show!” 

He stepped up again to the lip of the stage. 

“Like I said, I’m not used to venues of this size. Not at all, not at all. Holiday parks, holiday camps, that’s more my thing. Performing for the tanked-up inbreds who can’t afford a trip abroad, and who end up bored out of their skulls in the wind-blasted rot of coastal England. But even those places are going away. Good riddance, I say. Especially if I can get gigs at all the world’s Odeums, eh?”

The tone of those words had been serious- poisonous- and met with general bemusement. Mr. Fate grinned, stood back, and caught a cane that was thrown in from off-stage. He twirled it and picked up the tune of the Flanagan and Allen number again. 

We’re always on the outside

On the outside always looking in

We never know how fortunes are made

For the sun, when it shines, finds us still in the shade

We’re always on the ebb tide

But we’ll keep on trying till we win

For we know someday we’re gonna be on the inside

Instead of the outside always looking in.”

He performed a few rudimentary dance steps as an unseen small orchestra caught up the pensive melody; Richard thought Graham would be happy, as the routine seemed to have been half-inched from one of Jerry’s. It turned into a fake foxtrot and then a waltz, Mr. Fate taking his cane as a willing partner.

“Isn’t it hard to find a dame these days, fellas?” 

The question was asked in a New York drawl. He followed it by throwing away his prop and dancing the Charleston, wildly and with a relish that belied his age. Then feet were caught in a choreographed tangle, and he was on his back, staring up at the stage lights. It was from this position that he performed the next and final verse, gifting the slender words a real, precious wistfulness. 

Were very ordinary people

We never make any fuss

Were the easygoing kind, 

if you look around youll find

Theres a million like us

Were always on the outside

On the outside always looking in.”

He rolled onto his stomach, resting his face in his hands and looking out cutely at the audience, then jumped up as the orchestra struck a new tune. He sang it in a quavering voice.

Twas down in Cupid’s Garden

 I wandered for to view 

The sweet and lovely flowers that in the garden grew, 

And one it was sweet jasmin, the lily, pink and rose; 

They are the finest flowers that in the garden grow. 

I had not been in the garden but scarcely half an hour, 

When I beheld two maidens, sat under a shady bower, 

And one it was sweet Nancy, so beautiful and fair,

 The other was a virgin and did the laurels wear.”

The orchestra continued playing as Mr. Fate bowed to the audience and shuffled his way off-stage. There was applause, but also a palpable edge of disquiet; the song was much too old to be familiar to anyone in the room, as Richard suspected the first may well have been to most of the audience also. He had thought himself more likely to hear variations on Always Look On The Bright Side of Life or similar, but Mr. Fate was chasing some form of authenticity, with a wide historical remit, at the very least. 

When he returned, Mr. Fate was wearing a top hat and tails. His face was still tainted blue by the spotlight. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen, I welcome your kind response to my first routine. It is the sort of thing that one dreams of during yet another night in a motorway-adjacent Travelodge, kept awake by the howls of a domestic in your neighbours room while trying to keep down the cheap lager and slimy Hunter’s Chicken the janitor-cum-chef managed to under-microwave. It’s a tough life on the road, I tell you. A tough old life. You know, the other day in one of those places I met a fellow with one leg called Smith.”

He turned to the audience expectantly and was met with silence. He visibly sighed and made a tiny gesture to the gallery. A voice boomed out of the speakers, crackling, almost warped.

“One leg called Smith? What was the other one called?”

Some laughs, mostly polite. 

“‘Cor blimey. Let’s go again, eh? Woman gets on to the bus and says to me ‘I say, is this the Barking bus?’ Me, I respond ‘No, madam, this one just goes toot toot’.”

The same response followed.

“A waiter in a top London restaurant was sacked today for having his thumb in the soup when he served it. A topless waitress has been dismissed for two similar offences.”

There was more appreciation for this one. Mr. Fate looked a little disheartened.

“That more your line is it? A little bit blue? Oh, I say! Boys will be boys, won’t they? Lucky for you, girls, otherwise you’d get no fun … now … listen!”

Mr. Fate spun and broke into a fit of maniacal laughter. The sound rang out through the hall; it grew to such a pitch that it could almost have shook the balconies and rattled the lighting system. Richard’s discomfort rose. He wanted to turn and flee from the sound, the horrible unceasing sound, but he worried that any break would be met by the ushers in the same mysterious manner as the teenager’s earlier attempt at gaining freedom. Richard turned his head, battling against the cackling assault that near-paralysed him, and saw the usher was still looming over the boy. Very few others around seemed to notice this or care very much. 

A few laughs eventually rose to uncomfortably meet Mr. Fate’s, and this apparently spurred him into stopping. He smiled, and the orchestra played another tune. Mr. Fate once again broke out the same limited dance steps as earlier, enlivening them with a couple of strategically placed, still fully-trousered, moonings of the crowd, each one accompanied by a fluttering upwards of his coattails. He belted out the words with gusto. 

When I was a nipper only six months old

My Mother and my Father too

They didn’t know what to wean me on

They were both in a dreadful stew

They thought of tripe, they thought of steak

Or a little bit of old cod’s row

I said, Pop round to the old cook-shop

I know what’ll make me grow.

Boiled beef and carrots, Boiled beef and carrots

That’s the stuff for your ‘darby-kel’

Makes you fat and it keeps you well

Don’t live like vegetarians, on the stuff they give to parrots

From morn till night, blow out your kite

On boiled beef and carrots.

When I got married to Eliza Brown

A funny little girl next door

We went to Brighton for the week

Then we both toddled home once more

My pals all met me in the pub

Said a feller to me, Watcha Fred!

What did you have for your honeymoon?’

And just for a lark I said

Boiled beef and carrots…”

The invisible orchestra cut out, and Mr. Fate fell into a cross-legged sitting position. 

“The great Harry Champion, that one. Truly great. Not like me, not like me. Oh, I know I’m not up too much,” he said quietly. “You don’t have to tell me. I know it.”

He looked out at his wide-eyed following. 

“I’m like so much of you lot. ‘Theres millions like us. I came along too late, much too late for myself. Or I just let my time pass, without grasping it properly-“

He stopped and smiled sympathetically at them all. 

“Doesn’t have to be that way, though, does it? Does it? That’s why you’re all here, after all. Because it doesn’t have to be.”

Someone in the audience whooped. Richard looked around to see who was so excited by Mr. Fate’s melancholic pleas and saw another member of the audience being restrained by the doors. The balcony announcer took hold of the woman’s wrist and dragged her back to her seat. It was Graham’s wife. Mr. Fate took no heed of her. 

“I’ve given you a bit of a reminder of what was, in my own sorry way. Now it’s your turn to do the rest, to do what we’ve come here for. Now, we can get time back. Our time. Better, happier times, the real thing. And it will be better than this, I promise, so much better. Don’t you want that, boys and girls?”

The crowd grew more and more excited. The room was melting for Richard now; reality was dripping away and congealing on the floor in thick, gloopy puddles. He could see this was a false world before him; an alien world, a terrible place, a bad photocopy, an ersatz reproduction printed in the wrong hues and with the lines smudged. He tried to stand, but another usher came up behind him and pushed him down. He could see, out the corner of his eye, that a small army of them had arrived from somewhere- like they’d shot up out of the old floorboards- and were pinning down any resisters, any who weren’t now fixing the stage with the same rictus delight, or waxen death-mask serenity, as the rest of Richard’s row. Most of those being held were audience members of his age or younger, but even scattered amongst those of fewer years he could see others who were consenting and exuberant. So many in the hall now seemed to him possessed of some secret knowledge, an idea of a secret aim to the proceedings, that he’d arrived tonight completely unaware of. He wondered how many were like him. Who had spread the word to the others? Had it even been put abroad, or had the educated not otherwise just been drawn here by a mysterious instinct, a voice that whispered to their most futile desires? Had Mr. Fate this evening been in their heads, their hearts, telling them things from inside that could never reach Richard; trilling in the gaps between his gags and songs in a tongue only to be understood by the initiated? 

“Cover their eyes!” Mr. Fate pointed at the usherette militia, directing them. A smooth, supple pair of hands cut off his view of the stage. 

“Sing along!” Mr. Fate bellowed. “I need all of you that can manage! It won’t work without most of you willing- willing! I’ve got a sheet for you to read from, there’s no excuse! Start the music!”

The fantasy orchestra started up again. The Wurlitzer sounded deep, rumbling, sizzling hellfire from below the pit. 

“Time again, time again!” Mr. Fate shouted, and leapt into the words of the song. The crowd joined, uncertainly at first, but then with great enthusiasm, with glory in their bellies and golden syrup in their mouths. The song turned from the rinkydink to the sublime; it could have filled the greatest cathedrals in the world and sent the sheer grey sullen spires of God toppling. Richard struggled against his captors, but more hands were placed on him, more held him in place.

Well smile again

With the sun through the rain

As we welcome back those good old days we knew

No more goodbyes 

No more heartaches and sighs

Well awake to realise our dreams come true

Those happy days, happy ways

Are the things we sigh for

Theyll all come true, Mister Blue-

Richard felt the ground shifting beneath his feet; the whole hall began rocking left and right at a tremendous velocity. The hands confining him slid and skidded across his face and body; behind him, the bodies to which they belonged tried to keep themselves upright. Flashes of blue and red light blinded him when his eyes were free. The sideways movements turned into great lurchings backward and forwards. Richard gritted his teeth and dug his fingernails into the hard plastic beneath the thick velvet of his armrest; blood started dripping down his fingers. Mr. Fate took an opportunity to encourage the crowd.

“C’mon now, ladies and gents, boys and girls! Don’t be frightened! The golden pathways are opening for you; all you’ve lost is returning, all that’s passed is coming back. This is what we need!”

Someone- Graham?- cried out. “England! My England!”

Mr. Fate finished the song with the audience.

What ya gotta cry for

Turn the lights on

For the darkness has gone

Arm in arm lets sing a grand refrain

The world is with us 

So well smile again.”

Everything stopped. The theatre was still. The hands were withdrawn from Richard’s eyes, and the ushers melted back into the walls’ scarlet shadows. Richard looked around him; much of his row was caught between a new radiant happiness- old faces crinkled in children’s expressions of wonder- and an ambiguous dabbing at wet eyes with the edges of hankies. The young couple at the end of the row looked around in search of something or someone, or some clue as to the outcome of this mass seance. 

Mr. Fate, who had been missing from the stage when Richard’s vision had been restored, returned.

“You’ve done a wonderful job. Oh, joy of joy, day of days! Isn’t it a shame we don’t have any windows in this place? But I’ve popped backstage, ladies and gents, and let me tell you- this isn’t the same city we left behind! Oh, it’s so much better.”

He gave a little jig and sang a song of his invention. 

Start again, start again, oh what can be, what can we be, now we can start again. We’ve left the cruelty of our age behind; the bitterness and the division. Oh Christ, how cold we’ve all been, eh? How bloody, bloody cold. Well, throw off your shawls, Mother Brown! Chuck the hot water bottle out from under the eiderdown. Go you lot, go!”

The majority of the audience thew themselves from their seats and once again battled their way towards the door, clambering and clawing their way over each other to get towards- what? Mr. Fate’s promised land, a new shining paradise beyond the foyer? Richard watched the crush develop- the lost and lonely stragglers, regretful or befuddled, joining after the worst of the stampede- and remained rooted in his seat. Mr. Fate had gone again; the stage lights were dimmed and eventually shut off. A kinder, gentler usher than the earlier paramilitary equivalents appeared at his elbow and helped him gingerly out of his seat and towards the door. No words were exchanged; Richard’s guide, although pinched and grey, walked with a puffed chest and a solemn stateliness.

They passed through the foyer and then out the the theatre; the usher left him and went back inside. Richard looked about and his legs buckled, and his head almost hit the pavement as he swooned. As Mr. Fate had promised, the Strand was indeed not the Strand he had come in from; the cladding and chrome, the lurking monsters of concrete frames and glass exteriors were gone from the margins of the scene around Charing Cross, and the familiar chain restaurants and shops had been replaced on this great stretch of life. The occasional horse-and-carriage or cart held up the lanes of early motorised hackney carriages, half-open to the elements and stinking with their dense fumes. The buildings had taken an almost Victorian appearance, a long line of tall soot and smoke-stained facades dropping down into the striped canopies and block-colored awnings of fancy shops. The people hurried about- the pace of their lives had changed little- but they were long overcoats, wide-brimmed hats and suits in great acres of fabric or peculiarly dumpy and formless dresses.

A pair of brogues stopped at Richard’s crown. A hand came to meet his, and after a few seconds of exertion from a samaritan almost out of puff, Richard was standing with a comforting arm around his shoulder. The man holding him was Mr. Fate, smiling warmly with his yellow teeth and his flaking make-up. 

“Bit of a shock, isn’t it? Even for the most willing ones, it will be.”

Richard nodded. He couldn’t form words. 

“Nineteen twenty-six. For God’s sake, I wish I’d got a better year. I hoped to avoid the Blitz at least; I managed that. But the crash is right around the corner.”

He shrugged his shoulders. Richard stood gaping at him. 

“Still, it’ll be alright for me. Entertainment’s always boomed in hard times, and I’ll be on a bill with the best- heck, I’ll steal most of their routines before they’ve even thought of them. Bully for me. I’ve got my public. It’s the others I worry about. I needed them- of course- but I worry they didn’t quite think things through. To be honest, I think I took most back further than they were expecting. Not quite a Christmas Eve recording at the BBC Studios, is it? All dancing girls in elf costumes, and the comedian as a great big erect Santa. That’s what they really wanted- if they ever really did know for sure what they wanted. Oh, well. They’ll pull through. They’ll find a silver lining, and so will you. Call me if you need help.”

Mr. Fate slipped a business card into Richard’s coat pocket. He started to stroll away, with a grand promenade air, but Richard stumbled over and grabbed at his poleyster sleeve.

“Is there any way back?” 

It was all he could manage to say, and he had to lean right into Mr. Fate’s ear to make himself heard. Mr. Fate shrugged once again. 

“Get a few hundred of those who want to go the opposite way in a room and give it your best shot. It’s the only way. You might be able to round up a nice little crowd after the crash. They might even be knocking down your door to go forwards a little. Good luck with it, if you decide to make a go of it.”

Mr. Fate patted his shoulder and was away and swallowed by the Saturday evening crowd. An old song resounded in Richard’s head. 

Life begins at Oxford Circus…”

He watched a car hurry past and contemplated throwing himself under the next, or beneath the hooves of a horse. But then one of the old contraptions stopped before him and he climbed in and asked for the place the song had named. As they merged with the rest of the traffic, and avoided the masses of jay-walkers and delivery boys who recklessly pelted off the kerb and slipped through the tiniest spaces between the cumbersome vehicles, he tried to send himself back again to the latticed metalwork underneath a long-distant pier, on a hot summer’s day from someone else’s photo album, but found the sun had long since already set and all the joys of the seaside had disappeared into the black of the night. He wept.  Back at the Orpheum, a blue-overalled workman, overseen by a courtly, august shade in all-black, carefully extracted the POOLEY’S CIRCUS poster from the wall, rolled it up and pushed it inside a cardboard tube. He received a nodded dismissal from his inspector and went down the side of the building, bill in hand, towards the tradesman’s entrance. The shade watched him all the way, before turning, stepping back inside the theatre and motioning to a waiting usherette to lock the front doors. 


Billy Stanton is a young working-class writer and film-maker based in London, and originally from Portsmouth. His short story ‘Screwfix’ was recently published in the psychogeography collection ‘New Towns’ (Wild Pressed Books). His short fiction has also appeared in Horla and The Chamber magazines. His latest short film ‘Noli’, dealing with the rituals of modern British drinking culture, is currently in post-production.


If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “Cruel” dark, legendary fiction also by Billy Stanton.

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“The Dare” Dark Fiction by Kate Bergquist

"The Dare" Horror by Kate Bergquist

We snuck out to the Goat Man’s place every Halloween night. It was our secret tradition. First, my brother Joey and I did some bad-ass trick-or-treating, racing from house to house throughout the neighborhood. Our covert mission was to score at least a handful of candy at each stop to stuff into our pillowcases. We only had about two hours before our parents would return to pick us up in the station wagon, and we didn’t want them to know where we spent most of the evening.

Out behind Pine Woods Cemetery.

That’s where the Goat Man lived, alone, in a rambling Victorian cottage. Perched on a knoll down a long driveway behind the cemetery, it boasted all the hallmarks of a real haunted house, right down to its crooked shutters, peeling paint, and squeaky iron gate.

In other words, it was scary freaking perfect.

All us kids called him The Goat Man, but he didn’t herd goats or even own them. He didn’t possess any goat-like qualities, either, except for the gray hairs that sprouted from his chin like steel wool. His real name was Earl Ruskin. He was a hunched over and skinny old man, perpetually dressed in a tattered black suit, even in summer, and he wore thick wire-framed glasses and kept his straggly white hair pulled back into a rat tail. He seemed like a hundred years old to us then, but looking back, he was probably only sixty.

I even felt sorry for him, sometimes. I was a sensitive, nervous girl, the kind who worried about missing cats and dogs in the neighborhood and often went out to search for them. To me, Earl was sort of a stray human. The way I figured it, he probably didn’t deserve all the things people said about him. Maybe he just needed rescue from a lifetime of loneliness.

People rarely saw him out and about in real life, but we all heard the whispered stories.   If you stare at his face for more than ten seconds, it changes from human to wolf. Some older kids said he chased them from the cemetery one night, and that he could run lightning fast. He was behind them, and then, in a flash, he was ahead of them, levitating above one of the headstones.

And if that wasn’t scary enough, some of my fifth-grade classmates said they peeked in through his dining room window one night and saw him eating handfuls of spiders. Some of them crawled around on his face and hands while he was chewing. Well, it didn’t take long for that story to morph into Earl slurping brains from a silver ladle, dipped from the open skull of a dead goat. Hence the moniker.

Our dad told us that when Earl was young, he was more of a normal guy with a just few odd quirks. His family owned the old shoe factory in Milford for generations. When Earl inherited it, the Ruskin Shoe Company was one of the largest employers in our little corner of Vermont — half the town worked there. Earl was good to his employees, too, and for the most part they all liked him well enough; he was a fair and even-handed boss; he didn’t talk much, and he never came down on anyone too hard for being late or for asking for a raise.

But he was a loner, and never socialized, not even at company events. He often stayed late at the office so he could walk home in the dark. And he didn’t have one single friend that anyone could recall.

Earl was also shy around women. But he earned the name Earl the Hugger because during the holidays, at bonus time, he hugged each female employee when he handed out checks. He never said a word to any of them, just gave them the eye, if you know what I mean, and pressed them close for a few furtive seconds. Some of the women squirmed, others giggled, and some outright declined.

He never tried to hug the men.

His peculiar holiday hugs added to his creep factor. And despite his decent looks and wealthy bachelor status, no one wanted to go out with him.

Including my namesake, my aunt Emmaline. She was a beautiful, raven-haired young widow with ethereal blue eyes and a gentle smile. As the story goes, Earl was love-struck, and tried without success to garner her affection.

Still grieving the loss of her own husband from a car accident, Emmaline was upset by Earl’s behavior. He waited for her in dark hallways, and often hovered near her desk, staring at her. One Saturday morning, Earl showed up unexpectedly at the house. He held a huge bouquet of dead roses. When Emmaline saw who it was, and what he carried, she fled upstairs and dove under the bed. My dad, who was only eleven at the time, slid underneath to hide with her. She told him Earl had rancid breath and questionable manners, and that something about him frightened her. There’s something wrong with that man, she told him, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Emmaline needed a fresh start. She had big plans for a whole new life, and had just accepted a position as a Shore Excursions Manager with a major cruise line. She couldn’t wait to see the world. She gave her two-week notice to Ruskin Shoes, and was on her final countdown to freedom.

But tragically, on her very last day at Ruskin, a massive fire erupted at the plant, right in the middle of second shift. All the employees managed to escape the flames – all but Emmaline. As a shift supervisor, she must have felt it her duty to go back in to make sure everyone had gotten out safely. But she never made it back out again.  

She was only twenty-two years old. Her whole family —and the entire town for that matter — was devastated by her death.

Including Earl. Although the Fire Marshall deemed the fire purely accidental, caused by faulty wiring, Earl was so broken he couldn’t rebuild. Instead, he became a black-suited recluse, and the object of two generations of childhood mischief.

                                                            #

“Check out the moon, Emmie,” Joey said, his breath trailing clouds. “It’s like a huge severed head rising behind the pines.” It didn’t look that way to me; it was missing the whole severed part, all the blood and gore. Besides, there was a bit of a gravity problem.

“Severed heads don’t rise, they fall.” But the moon was really big and full that Halloween; it cast long, eerie shadows on the gravestones. I kept my head down as we crossed the wooded path through the cemetery, just in case Earl was floating nearby. That would be a gravity problem, too, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

We crept to edge of the high row of overgrown shrubs by the front gate. As the wind rose, the temperature dropped, and both of us shivered in our costumes. The cold stung our faces and numbed our hands. There we crouched — a hairy biped and elegant princess – staring up at the Gothic windows.

A milky light flickered inside.

Joey lifted his furry mask. “I go first,” he mumbled, his mouth full of Snickers. He was a year older, almost twelve, a lot bigger than me, and very bossy. Last year he went first, too.

“Okay.”

“Look at me and count to three.”

I watched, giggling, as he reared up to his full height and beat his furry chest. I attempted a deep, royal intonation. “One…two…three…and a dare from thee.”

“I’ve got a good one, your Highness.”

“Pray tell, Bigfoot.”

“I dare you…to knock on the Goat Man’s front door, and when he answers, tell him you’re cold and you want to come in.”

“Are you crazy?” No one, to our knowledge anyway, had actually ever stepped foot inside the Ruskin house. Except for Earl, of course. Even the Amazon delivery drivers never made it past the front porch.

“It’s a solid dare. You’re a sissy if you say no.”

Last year, he dared me to clang a bell at the front gate and then toss some candy onto the grass. The previous year, I dared Joey to drape toilet paper on all the low-hanging branches. Harmless, innocuous stuff.

Until now. This dare felt a full level higher on the danger scale.

But I was pretty confident that Earl wouldn’t answer the door.

With dramatic flair, I flipped my white and silver embroidered veil over my right shoulder. “I hereby accept on one condition.”

“What.”

“You go with me.”

Joey didn’t say anything. But I could tell he was thinking about it.

“Time’s it?” I asked, trying to keep my teeth from chattering.

Joey checked his watch. Then he cracked a wicked grin. “It’s Goat Man time!”

We dropped our stuffed pillowcases and squeezed through the narrow opening in the gate.          

                                                            #                                                                     

Shimmering moonlight flooded the stairway. In fine princess fashion, I ascended the steps slowly, regally, admiring the ornate trim and gingerbread cutouts. I held on to the balustrade as I climbed, noting how steep and uneven the steps were. Almost twice as steep as normal stairs. At the top of the landing, I looked back down, and Joey gave me a tense wave before ducking behind the railing. I turned to the imposing, wrought iron front door, with its elegant scrollwork and reached for the black iron door knocker.

My heart skittered as I took a deep breath, and knocked.

At first, silence. I backed away from the door to see if Joey was still at the bottom of the stairs. He urged me on with a verbal push.

Sissy.

I stepped forward and knocked again.

And heard footsteps approaching from the other side of the door. 

A male voice, “Yes? Who is it, please?”

I wanted to run. But I was frozen in place. 

The door opened a crack. I heard a sharp intake of breath. And then it opened wider. Standing there, in the flesh, was The Goat Man.

He wasn’t what I expected. Not at all. He wasn’t skinny or hunched over. He wore a dark suit and slippers. And his suit wasn’t worn at all; quite the opposite. It looked expensively stitched, made with very fine material. His white hair was shiny and thick, brushed back from his forehead. His skin wasn’t even wrinkled; he was clean-shaven. He didn’t even wear glasses. His twinkling gray eyes looked very surprised to see me.

“Um, hi,” was all I could manage.

Then I saw his face clearly, and realized that the look I saw there was much more than surprise. It was raw pleasure. He broke a smile; his teeth were small and very white.

“Come in, come in, oh my dear–you must be so cold out there!”

I took a tentative step across the threshold. The door closed behind me with a swoosh and a soft thud.

I wasn’t scared then. Not yet. The veil shrouded my face; it felt like it protected me.

“Are you lost? No one is with you? Oh, my sweet dear, that’s such a pretty costume. And such a lovely veil. You look like a lost little princess bride. And a princess needs a house befitting royalty.”

He bowed dramatically, gesturing me to enter. I took another step inside. The heat hit me full blast. It must have been eighty degrees in there. An antique woodstove cranked in a corner of the kitchen, and I could see a fire roaring in the grand fireplace in the living room.

“Would you like a cup of herbal tea, dear? That’s what I’m having. It will warm you up.”

I found my voice; timid and hoarse. “It’s not what I thought.” I forced a smile. “Neither are you.”

“Ah. Lots of scary stories out there about me, eh?” He laughed and his whole body shook. “Do I look like some kind of decrepit old monster to you?”

I gave him a cautious look. Shook my head. “You really don’t even look that old.”

“Tell me, what do they call me these days?”

“The Goat Man.”

“Ah. Hadn’t heard that one.” As he pondered it for a moment, he picked something out of his right ear. I hoped he wouldn’t ask for further explanation.

 He grinned and leaned in close. His breath smelled like decayed fruit.  

“My name is Earl. Earl Ruskin. And what is yours, my dear?”

He held a delicate teacup. It had tiny black birds painted on it. I could see his fingernails were clipped short. He seemed very elegant. I felt shy in his presence, maybe even star-struck. Meeting Earl was kind of like meeting a celebrity. And he seemed so sweet, so nice.

So safe.

I gently moved the veil away from my face and looked up at him, directly into his eyes. In my mind, I quickly counted to ten.

I was relieved to see his face stayed human.

“Emmie,” I said, “Short for Emmaline.”

Earl’s pale eyes bulged. That made me a bit uneasy. Then, his jaw started trembling. I was started to regret accepting this dare. Joey was going to have to give me all of his candy to make up for this. Gray hairs sprouted from his chin. The skin on his face rippled. He let go of the tea cup and I braced for the crash.

But it didn’t fall. It hung there, tipped over and suspended in mid-air. The tea stayed in the upside-down cup. The cup twirled a bit in the air but stayed aloft.

 “Oh, it is just as I have always hoped!” Earl exclaimed. “Just as I have prayed! Yes! My prayers have indeed come true!”

Earl slipped his left hand into his suit coat pocket.

I was completely mesmerized by the levitated teacup. We were having a gravity problem. A big one. And now I was scared. Earl flipped his hand from his pocket and flung sparkles at my face. “Princess dust for the princess bride,” he said.

Everything happened so fast. I winced and coughed; the cup dropped and shattered. I took a step backward, away from the shards, away from the dust that stung my eyes and nose. There was a loud noise, it came from Earl’s mouth, I couldn’t make out what he was saying. He looked down at the mess, then at me. His lips were moving.

He grinned. His teeth were all yellow, decayed. Slimy. His hair was thin and brittle and pulled into a rat tail. I felt so dizzy. I couldn’t control my arms or legs. As I tried to steady myself against the spongy wall, I could see into the living room. 

Blooms of black mold patterned the walls. The impressive gold drapes were shredded. The tiles in the fireplace were cracked and some were missing altogether. The heavy dining room set had fallen to ruin; some of the chair legs were broken. Everything was covered in dust and cobwebs. The table was on its side, the varnish bubbled and cracked. A marching column of insects emerged from the cracks.

Earl’s voice dialed back in, loud and tinny. “You’re so, so beautiful. Even more than she was.” His suit was torn and threadbare; it hung in ragged strips from his skinny frame.

I took a shaky step backwards; my hand was sticking to the wall.

A large spider scuttered across my left foot. Earl flicked out a bony arm and grabbed it in a second, popped it into his mouth, crunched it. “Mmmmm.” His pointed, yellow tongue darted out and licked his cracked lips. He rubbed his sunken stomach and belched. Something gray glistened at the edge of his shriveled lips.

He tilted his head, bemused by my horrified expression. “Oh, my dear, what kind of host am I? You must be starving.”

I screamed, but the sound didn’t come out of me. It went in; I felt it blast through my veins like lava, ricocheting into my muscles. The pain knocked me off my feet; I slumped to the floor.

                                                            #

I think I passed out for a few seconds; as I came to, my head seemed a little clearer. But unfortunately, my Halloween nightmare was still playing out in high definition. I drew a shaky breath. The hallway floor seemed to be rippling. Earl was swaying in front of me, his mouth moving incessantly. Black house flies buzzed in and out of it.

I thought of my parents, how upset they would be when Joey and I weren’t at our usual pick-up spot in front of Jensen’s Pharmacy. We had let them down. My mom said the worst thing to do to someone you love is lie to them. Joey and I didn’t lie, really. We just didn’t tell them the whole truth. Was I being punished? If so, the punishment didn’t seem to fit the crime.

It just wasn’t fair. Halloween was supposed to be fun-scary. And the impossibility of what I was seeing had put me into some kind of split-brain mode. Part of me terrified, the other part angry.

I decided to focus all my energy on the angry part.

“You’re just a horrible…thing!” I screamed at him, and the words punched out of me like hot coals. Earl cackled and danced around like an emaciated marionette. He started to sing, oh yeah, oh yeah, I’m just a thing called Earl. Come here little lady and I’ll take you for a whirl. Yeah baby, you’re my princess girl…then he lunged at me with a clawed hand, his feet hovering several inches from the floor.

I ducked away from the swipe. “Ugly stinking lump!”

Come here, my beautiful one. Emma—Emma–Emmaline. With the ocean blue eyes. We are destined to sail together across the sea of life.

“No one would ever want you! I hate you! And my aunt hated you, too!”

That hit the mark. Earl’s feet struck the floor, hard. He fixed me with a vicious stare.

My outburst made me realize something. Something important. Something that might save my life.

I was no snuffling little sissy.

“You’re a very cruel child,” Earl said, as if correcting me, and bared his disgusting teeth. His eyes were red slits. He opened his horrible mouth wide, and this time, the flies that issued from his mouth buzzed like tiny chainsaws, swirling into a funnel. Dozens of them. Hundreds.

 I flashed back to a family camping trip up in Maine. We were staying near a lake and I was playing in a sandy area near some low bushes. All of a sudden, I heard my dad yelp. He was running up from the lake. I could hear him yelling, Run, Emmie! As fast as you can, in a straight line! To the car! Get inside and close the doors! And the swarm of bees was an undulating black cloud around his head, and I turned and–

–fled down the Goat Man’s hallway, away from the bees, trying to stay in a straight line, trying to stay upright; the floor was still moving beneath my feet. Run, Emmie! Don’t flail your arms! I felt a few of them pinging me, sharp little zap zaps on my head, pinch, ping, then my face, my arms.

Hold your breath, Emmie! It makes the bees blind. That was the hardest part, when all you want to do is scream out, ragged and raw. But more than anything else, I wanted to see my dad’s face again. And my mom’s. And Joey’s.

So, I held in my breath. I held back my screams.

I burst into a bedroom and slammed the door closed behind me. I dragged a heavy chair against it. In the dim light, I spied a canopy bed, heaped with quilts. I grabbed the top one and stuffed it under the door. I glanced around for a closet, but there wasn’t one. The only place to hide was beneath the bed. So that’s where I crawled. I could hear my heart hammering in my chest. A few bees still crawled on me; some were stuck in my veil. I tried to make myself small and breathless. The stingers hurt. I washed them with silent tears.

Everything seemed quiet. No buzzing. No sign of Earl. As soon as my heart found a slower tempo, I lifted the edge of the bed ruffle and peered out.

This room was very clean. Nothing fancy, just clean. The windows were small and dark. One ceramic lamp rested on a wooden table; it flickered like candlelight.

I was gathering my courage to slide back out and check the windows. I could bang on them. Yell for Joey. Maybe they would open. Maybe Joey had already run back and called the police. I couldn’t stay here. I had to find a way out.

That’s when something swung past my face, like a pendulum.

I heard a rustling, creaking noise in the bed. And a pitiful moan.

And realized the pendulum was a bony arm.

I flew out from beneath the bed, too terrified to look. I was at the window in two steps, and immediately my heart sank; I could see they would never open.

They were fortified with metal security bars.

I shrank into the curtains. Where could I go? I forced myself to look at the bed. The lump of quilts moved and turned, and then coughed. I could see the shape of a human head. Then a voice; female, weak, and very raspy. “Is…someone there?”

I was still terrified, but at least she wasn’t Earl. And I prayed she wasn’t worse.

Please, God, don’t let her be worse. “Um, yeah.”

The woman jerked at the sound of my voice. She pushed the blankets to her lap and looked over at me. Then she started to weep.

“Oh, lady, I’m sorry if I scared you. I’m not mean like Earl.”

Was this his mother? She looked very old. Her skin was thick and leathery, like elephant skin. Didn’t she pass away like a zillion years ago?

“Earl is more than mean, child.” She reached for the glass by the bedside, took a feeble sip. Her upper body was skeletal. Her gray, braided, hair fell to her elbow.

“Then you should leave here. Leave with me.”

“I can’t. He would never allow it.” She patted the blanket and motioned me to come closer. “Let me see you, child. I haven’t seen anyone other than Earl in a very, very long time.”

She seemed so nice. But I had been fooled by that “nice” trick before.

“What’s your name, little one?”

“Emmaline. But I go by Emmie for short.”

Her smile was sad. “That’s a lovely name. Did he…hurt you, Emmie?”

“I think he wants to.” I saw the woman wince, press her fingers against her eyes. I wanted some answers. “Is he…a demon?”

“He’s a very sick human being. He’s evil. He is very practiced at it. He can make you see things, awful things, things out of a scene from Hell.”

A heavy rapping at the door. Then two more sharp knocks, louder. The door had a red tinge around the edges. It was starting to bulge. The woman bolted upright. I could see fear shining in her eyes. “Child. Listen. You are in terrible danger. He’s very angry.”

Her eyes darted about the room. Where could we go? I couldn’t see any way out other than back through the door. “Quick,” she said, “get under the covers. I’ll hide you.”

She reached over and rustled around in the drawer in the bedside table. “Earl has plenty of evil tricks in his arsenal. But — I’ve got one too. I only wish I tried this years ago.”

The door erupted right off its hinges. I dove under the blankets. I could see a blood-red glow even through the heavy black wool. I wondered if Earl’s rage had turned him into a dragon. I was having trouble taking a full breath; it was if all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room. I heard the woman scream out, “No! I forbid you! She is not yours; she will never be yours!”

I heard something pop, then a squelchy noise, followed by a small explosion. And then, the most blood-curdling scream I have ever heard. It sounded like the hellish howl of a dying animal.

The old woman pulled me tight to her, covered my head with a blanket. “Brace yourself, child. Don’t look. Just hold on to me and don’t let go.” We were out of the bed and moving through some kind of tunnel. It felt like my skin was melting. I held on. We crawled through muck and slime and smoke. Something hard fell against my shoulder. My knee pressed into a nail. I was choking. We kept crawling. The heat was unbearable. The old woman was wracked with coughs but she kept going, pushing, pushing me forward, and then a sudden, delicious blast of cold air; I heard voices, lots of them, Joey was screaming my name, and there were sirens, and someone yelled, two survivors–the female adult is critical with second-degree burns and a female minor is stable. We are in transport to UVM Medical Center.

                                                            #                     

I was on the bench seat, getting hydration therapy. The EMT told me my parents and brother were following us to the hospital. The old woman was strapped in a stretcher beside me. Paramedics attended to her, busily attaching wires to her chest and administering intravenous fluids. Her eyelids fluttered open. She looked over at me with the kindest eyes.

I studied the intricate pattern of scars on her face. Her private road map of a life of pain.

She still had a kind of beauty, haunted and ravaged. She motioned for me to come close.    I slid off the bench seat and pressed my ear near her mouth.

“Do you want to know a secret?” she asked.

I nodded, then leaned back in.

“My name is Emmaline, too.”


Kate Bergquist holds an MA in Writing and Literature from Rivier College in New Hampshire. Insurance agent by day, dark fiction writer by night, Kate’s work was nominated for Best New American Voices. An original dark thriller screenplay NO FORCIBLE ENTRY (co-written with Patricia Thorpe) was honored by Showtime, nominated for a Tony Cox award and won top honors at Scream Fest and Reel Women. She finds inspiration along the craggy Maine coast, where she lives with her husband and several old rescue dogs.


If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “The Broken Doll” horror by Kate Bergquist.

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“Cat People” Urban Horror by K.C. Callender

"Cat People" Urban Horror by K.C. Callender

“When lightning strikes yah, it turns yah into a cat.”

Those were the words of grandma. Even after she died fifteen years ago I can still hear her guttural voice when she replied to my question, “What happens when lightning strikes you grandma?” I thought people died when lightning hit them but thanks to my superstitious Grandma we all turned into …

There are two types of people in the world: cat people and of course just people. Cat people are people, mind you. It’s just their unsettling penchant for felines that separates them from the rest. I never knew my grandmother to be a cat person but the way her mustache grew stringy and long like whiskers, I had no reason to doubt it – she was one of them.

She died on July 16th 1993, in Room 456 of Freetown Hospital – now derelict – with a tube poking out her nose and her neck connected to a noisy machine. Mom said that the machine generated wind and blew it into her lungs so that she could breathe. Grandma died an easy death. We all expected it. She lost her left foot in the war, the right one to Diabetes and she was lucky enough to be one of the first people in Freetown to get a heart transplant. Now who would put a Freetown native on the city’s long transplant list? Dad thought that the heart she received was indeed the heart of a …

I thought I had rid my life of those kind of people after the passing of grandma but my wretched twenties found me moving back to Freetown with my wife, Mandy. I lost my job in the city and the rent was too high for someone who mopped floors and emptied corporate trash bins for a living.

Freetown’s population was dwindling. There were more houses than people now. The delicatessen and the coffee house were still there. The chapel’s steeple was still the tallest thing in the area. My house was still in the same lot – still had up the Christmas lights and the reindeer of the front,  a deck with awning, a grill, and of course a vegetable garden. It was so empty the whole town probably heard when I parked my old Chevy in the front and got out, slamming my luggage on the ground and waving at Ma who stepped out holding a rifle across her chest.

“Wasn’t expecting yah boy!” She yelled, cigarette hanging from the corner of her chapped mouth. “Come on in before the cats get yah!”

Cats?

“Aww,” Mandy gushed, cheeks turning red as she ran up the steps to greet her cigarette-puffing mother-in-law. “I didn’t know yah had kittens Gray.”

I didn’t know either.

“Kittens? These ain’t no kittens. These ‘re some tigers! Hunt all day eat all night, my babies looking for more than tuna these days. Be careful callin’ ‘em kittens, now that’s a felony!”

Mandy paused then turned to look at me like she was internally yelling, “Help Me Gray!” But I owed her one for persuading me to come back home. I picked up my luggage and walked past her towards the door. Ma pointed the rifle at me and joked, “Yah ain’t taller than this fella yet but yah still my baby!” then pinched my cheeks like she was gushing at a toddler.

When we got in I was expecting to see cats. The kitchen hadn’t changed. Ma’s messiness hadn’t either. The tap was dripping in a steady haunting rhythm, the fridge was as rusty as a wet nail and the sink was full of dishes and leftovers. I swore I saw a mouse too. Ma, who just propped the gun by the door said, “Don’t worry. The cats would get him.”

“Ma, where are the cats?” I asked, opening the fridge to grab a beer. I tossed one to Mandy.

“They come at night. That’s when yah see them. Don’t worry. They’re real friendly.”

Whenever mom spoke of the cats her tone held a tincture of eerieness. As if there was something different about those cats. Something sinister. I bet they weren’t just cats. Maybe she adopted a tiger and was reluctant to show us in fear of being judged. Even that stupid thought calmed me more than the thought of a house full of…

Dad turned the corner to the living room, nearly knocking me over with his hissing electric wheelchair. He handled it like a car, maneuvering the joy stick to reverse into the living area. I hadn’t seen dad in years – he looked ten times skinnier and the vertex bald patch was getting wider, now he only had sideburns and a mighty mustache (the type that hung over the lips). 

“Hey bud. Good to have yah back home. The lawn could do with a trimmin'”

“Yah haven’t cut the grass in ten years pops?” I said, tossing him a beer. He caught it, opened it and chugged. 

“Oh hell yea he cut the grass just not as good as you Gray pudding.” (Can’t believe she still calls me that). 

“Yeaaa…” Dad echoed, like he was just about to say the same thing. He was a bit slow with getting words out, must be the stroke. The doctor called it expressive aphasia.

“Come on. Have a seat!”

The dining table was more nostalgic than the town itself. It was the same one that I grew up with – Bingham tablecloth with a plastic over it, that coffee stain on mom’s end and a small tear on my end. They changed the vase though. 

“What happened to the old ones?” I said, pointing at the centerpiece.

Ma had just turned away from the fridge carrying a large pie; she kicked open the oven and tossed it in. Mandy’s eyes followed it gleaming like a little girl who’d just won big at the county fair. The smell was satisfying but Ma’s next words killed my appetite. 

“Ehhh… that one’s been a goner since last February. The cats knocked it over. Broke it into so many pieces. Couldn’t put it back together again… like Humpty Dumpty.”

Cats. She keeps talking about these cats but not one in sight. The thought of them in my room made me sit up straight. Mandy rubbed my hand, “Whats the matter dear?” She asked.

Nothing.

“So how’s Freetown been since I’ve been gone?” I asked, cutting into the pie.

Ma just sat down to eat. Dad rolled over to his place. Mandy gestured for us to hold hands and say grace. 

“God. Bless us. Bless this food. Bless these souls. And most of all thank you Jesus for bringing our little Gray Pudding back home.”

I was a bit nervous. Thought she was going to pray about or for the cats. But she kept it low-key. Less cat talk the better. 

I cut a slice for each of us. Ma lit a cigarette and pulled on it in between bites, “Freetown’s been same old same old. Everyone you knew is either dead or bedridden. Only had a few young gals left. Not that much to go around if you know what I mean,” she said and winked at me. “Billy knocked up Angel. Hugh knocked up both Claire and Jenny. Now Frances is pregnant.”

“Who’s Frances?”

“A thirteen year old down the street. Remember the Perkins, the old miners, Catholic couple?”

I remembered them vaguely. They used to go to church every day of the week except Mondays. They had a daughter named Chelsea. She used to play with us until one day we never saw her again. Rumor had it that she got sent away to a Catholic boarding school out of town. 

“The youngest one been fooling around with a couple o’ them bad boys from outta town now she’s about to pop!”

Dad shook his head in disgrace. “That’s why I’m blessed to have a boy!”

Mandy tried to stifle a laugh. I saw a truck lurch forward through the small kitchen window. The driver just tossed a cigarette butt out. 

“What about Billie Jean?”

“Billie Jean,” Ma said, rubbing her chin and slitting her eyes to look at the ceiling.

“Yea. Used to be our neighbour before the fire took the house,” I reminded her.

Dad hit the table causing Mandy to jerk. “Aha! Blonde little Billie Jean. Your first crush!”

“The poor things. House was never insured. Heard her mother fell in love with the plumber from East Fryes and they moved in with him only two months after the fire. Love sure is convenient.” She said, stubbing out the cigarette in the ashtray. She pulled out another one and lit it.

Dad’s fork hovered over his plate for a while. He stared at it like he thought his secret telekinetic powers would bring the food to his mouth. “You know son. I think you did a good thing by leaving this old town.”

“Why’d you say that pops?”

He slowly pulled a napkin to wipe his mouth clean. “It’s just that… the… people here are getting old. Ain’t no youth like it was in the old days. Everybody has just gone. Gone with the wind.”

At this moment, as if nature was copying his words, a ghostly gust blew. It was the remnant of a pur. Like the cry of a …

“Folks like us. We’ve never been to the big city. But you. You did it. You’ve been places ma, me and all the generations before us have never been.”

“Yea… you made a wise choice son,” Ma chimed in, “And yah picked a good one too,” she said smiling to Mandy.

“Yea. He sure knows how to pick em.”

Mandy blushed, hardly looking away from her pie. “What’s the secret recipe?” She asked. She must have felt it too – that level of uneasiness that made her so desperately want to change the subject.

“Oh my. It’s a family secret,” Ma replied.

“Hmmm… well I’m part o’ the family now. Let me in!”

Ma cracked open a Mountain Dew with her teeth. “Okay dear. You’re right. I should tell yah the recipe. But don’t be scared when I tell yah. Yah still wanna hear?”

“It’s her foot.” Ma’s eyes landed dead on mine when she said this. “Grandma’s foot,” Then that insidious drunken chuckle followed. She pulled hard on the cigarette, it burned to the middle then she blew a cloud of smoke out. Mandy choked, fanning the thick fog. 

Mandy glanced at me. “Well… she sure as hell has a tasty foot!”

Ma hit the table three times, laughing until she coughed, hawked and spat in the sink but missed.

“Kentucky’s where I’m from by the way,” she said turning to Mandy. “We had a farm. My mom used to help make the juice. She used to crush all them berries with her foot. So she does the same with her pies. I seen her get those store-bought berries and stomp on ‘em til they nice and mushy.”

Mandy nodded. I knew she had some reservations now by the pace of her chewing.

A silence as slurred as dad’s speech interlaced with the knocking of cutlery on poor man’s China came after that. Every one had his head bowed. Ma started picking the ash from her fingers. Mandy looked at me then lifted her beer for a toast. “Cheers. To Grandma’s foot!”

“To Grandma’s foot!” We all said and knocked bottles. 

#

Fortunately Ma didn’t give my room to the cats. She left it just how I left it – a child-sized bed with the Batman bedsheets, a lamp, study table and my stratocoaster all packed below the sloped wooden ceiling.

“So it wasn’t such a bad idea to come back. See. I told you?” Mandy said, climbing under the dusty covers. “Didn’t know you had an attic bedroom while growing up. You’re cool as school,” she said, playfully bumping my arm.

“Yea.” The lamp flickered then died. We sat in the dark.

“Whats the matter?” her voice came. “Is something bothering you? I could see it at the table. We can leave if you want too. I mean I’ll go wherever you go.”

Mandy’s soft lips pressing on my cheek was all I needed to resist me from bolting out the door and getting onto the next Greyhound.

“No. It’s just that so much has changed. Ma wasn’t a chain smoker when I left. She wasn’t that into cats either.” I looked to the darkness where I saw Mandy’s face last. The darkness didn’t let up, not even an outline of her face just yet.

“Yea… what’s up with your folks and cats?” she joked.

“Yea… what’s up with my folks and cats.”

Mandy had already pecked me, turned and said goodnight. Before I could say anything else she was asleep. It was with great trepidation that I pulled the covers to my nose. Every shadow in the room could’ve easily been a cat. That’s just how things were now. Everything was a cat until proven otherwise.

That night I dreamt about …. 

#

Billie Jean. 

There she was, standing infront of the fridge in the back of the store, twirling her hair and snapping loudly on some gum. She must have heard me coming or she heard my voice, whichever one, the soft widening of her eyes told of an unexpected but pleasant surprise. 

“Look what the cat dragged in…” 

I paused at that comment. I paused a little longer at her racoon left eye.

“Don’t ask questions. My old man ain’t changed. Still drunk off that Jim Beam… he still thinks I look like mama.”

“Hell Billie Jean. I thought you said you were gonna get out. Can’t believe yah still stuck in Freetown.” 

“Yah the only lucky soldier. Get out while yah still can.”

“Well. You can say that twice. I’m back.”

“For good?”

“Looks like it. Atleast for now. Ain’t got work in the big city. All the folks with higher education gettin’ them better jobs if you know what I mean.”

“Yea. I know. Only University around these parts is the flour mill. Ain’t nobody learn shit.”

We both started off laughing. Ma had been trying to get me to work at Freetown Flour Mill since I graduated from elementary school. It was guaranteed to get a Christmas turkey on the table every year and definitely enough to raise three kids. Dad used to work there and he raised us good – well until he got the stroke.

I was so deep in thought I didn’t realise how close Billie Jean was to my face, “Yah still look like Kurt Cobain,” she blushed, brushing my hair from my forehead. “You still play guitar?”

“Haven’t touched it since but I see ma still held onto it.”

“Yah should play again for me someday. Like you used to.”

She winked, giggled and walked past me to the counter where she rest a six-pack of beer, a bag of sugar and a pack of Wrigley’s. She wore a ripped denim shorts, short enough to reveal half her butt cheeks, a pink brassiere and went barefoot. That was the Freetown way of dressing for a store stop. “Bye Gray.” Still flat-chested and somewhat rude. Still my Billie Jean. My eyes followed her until she disappeared down the street.

“Thirteen fifty,” said the cashier who looked half-asleep. Harris convenience store was still standing. Back then it was the face of old Mr. Harris himself behind the counter. This was probably his son. I pulled out some rumpled bills and put them in his hand. 

“Preparing for the storm eh?” He said, staring at the two tins of corn I just bought, “That ain’t going to be enough.”

Before I could say, “What storm?” the dull voice of the reporter from the overhead TV caught my attention. 

“A thunderstorm warning has been issued. The greatest storm in Freetown is approaching and about to make history. An active front is expected to move over the northwest of North Carolina in approximately ten days. It is expecting to bring heavy rain and strong winds. The Mayor of Freetown is asking all residents to take safety precautions immediately, abandon all mobile homes that can blow over in high winds. The Freetown Hospital can be used as a shelter for all those residents who are unable to leave.”

Freetown hospital? “Ain’t that where grandma died?” I asked, looking back at the lazy-eyed cashier.

“My pops died there too. It’s the only hospital we have. Thirty twenty five.”

His eyes glazed over my pockets, then he began packing more tins that I’d just run back to get. “Have a good day. See yah after the storm.”

“Are you going to evacuate?”

“No. My store is sturdy, more concrete than my house. I’ll stay here. Should only pass for one night.”

That was the Freetown state of mind right there. Nothing could harm us. We were so forgotten even nature must have thought us unimportant. I nodded and walked out the door. 

#

The storm.

It was coming in ten days. The sky was crispy blue but in the near distance some gloomy dense clouds closed in. Strange. I roused the lawnmower to a rattling start, stuffed a cigarette in my mouth and started on the front lawn. We didn’t have a fence so it was legal for Billie Jean to watch me (bareback and sweaty) from her lawn chair in bikini and sunglasses, sunbathing the Freetowm way, whistling at me every chance she got. The heat made her look wavy. I kept my eyes on that dark haze from afar, untrusting of the weather, let alone the weatherman. 

“Yah think they lied?” I asked dad who was sitting by his bedroom window, pointing out the patches of grass I missed. 

He too saw the darkened skies. “Might as well pack up and head for Freetown Hostel.”

“It’s not a hostel dad. Hospital.”

“Ain’t that the same thing?” He joked.

“No.  When you say it that way, makes it sound creepy.”

“I bet it is creepy. That thing shut down since hell knows when. Probably full of mice and cats.”

The lawnmower choked and died. Two yanks and it was back up and rumbling again. I didn’t like the idea of sheltering in an abandoned hospital especially where Grandma died. Let’s head out of town. That’s what I thought. Didn’t get a chance to actually say it, that’s because a solid roar tumbled overhead like a stampede in the sky. The sun’s rays dulled within seconds, clouds merged to form a black ceiling. Then raindrops like daggers came pelting down. I looked to Billie Jean but she was gone. Shutters shut, lights out. 

“Get inside boy!” Dad yelled. 

The only bulb in the kitchen, hung from a feeble electric cord, swinging and spattering shadows. It blinked a couple of times then went out.

“Mandy!” I screamed. She came through the doorway that gave on the kitchen feeling her way towards me. “What happened? What was that loud noise?”

“The storm’s come. Where’s ma?” 

Her eyes glowed in shock. “But I thought they said ten days. We ain’t had no time to prepare. We’re gonna die. All of us!”

Dad rolled over to a trap door in the far end of the kitchen, “Never thought I’d have to use this in my life. Come on, let’s head down to the cellar!”

“I’ll get mom,” Mandy called, getting ready to turn around.

“No. I’ll do it. You head down.”

The torrents of rain were like God’s angry fist, punching with the intention of beating our little house down. We could’ve been smashed in no time. I found mom passed out on the bed with two empty whiskey bottles laying beside her. I shook her, did the sternal rub and all but nothing. She had this strange staccato breathing like she was choking so I knew well enough to turn her on her side. Her eyes fought to open themselves, a thick drool trailed down her lips, she coughed and said, “Gray… Gray… leave me here. I – I can’t leave without them…”

“Without who?” Now why did I ask? A flash of lightning struck, showing up a small grey cat with humongous white-out eyes on the boudoir.

“The cats…”

I dragged her outside. The boudoir was dark again. Only God knew if it was still there or if it moved. Only He knew if it was now behind me. Dad was waiting by the trap door, Mandy was emptying the fridge and cabinets of anything that could feed us while we were down there. I lifted Ma on my own down the stairs. The wind slammed the door shut behind us.

#

The Cellar.

Dingy. Dark. Smelled like a mixture of old mouldy paint and small animal poop; reminiscent of a confined space locked up for years. The circle of white light from the flashlight pointed at me. Dad had put it down. I heard him trying to light an old lantern. A few squeaks, the smell of gasoline, the raking of a matchstick then pop, a tiny flame engulfed the room. Now I could see everybody. Huddled together, each of us looked more scared of what could possibly be hiding in the cellar than the relentless storm outside. The plaster on the walls was peeling, the bricks were crumbly and mouldy. The staircase was crooked. Two wooden pillars flanked its rear, some pipes and cables ran across the ceiling. I spied the corners, had to be a rat somewhere.

Ma lay on me. Her drunk snores overpowered by the thudding downpour and the lashing wind. Dad’s lips were moving but the storm was too loud to hear him speak. He looked helpless in his chair but he did his best to protect us.

Booom!

Mandy jumped and clung to my arm. Dad released a relieved sigh. We were fortunate enough to have this forgotten cellar down here. The cloudburst ran on for thirty minutes atleast; we heard the clanking of metal on metal and the pelting of trees, banging on our roof. 

Ma was starting to come around, a few paces away from me she lay on her back mumbling. At first it seemed benign but then the mumbling transformed into weird chants like she was under some type of spell. Her chest raised from the ground making a small arch, her eyes rolled back slowly then her body shook.

“She’s seizing again,” Dad said, rolling over to hold her.

Mandy gave me a startled glance. She was thinking what I was thinking. That was no seizure.

Somehow her voice climbed to a pitch louder than the storm. She just kept saying, “We abandoned them… we can’t leave them… we abandoned them… we can’t leave them… we abandoned them…. we can’t leave them.”

Mandy and I were smart enough to know who she was referring too: the cats.

I began scanning the room for any sign of those white-eyed monsters.

“Your mom is crazy,” Mandy bent over to whisper in my ear. I had no other emotions inside me but fear. The flame in the lantern was getting smaller. A premonition louder than the storm outside swept across the room. I looked to the trapdoor- it flapped… once… twice… thrice.

Ma was now standing, pacing the floor in her white nightgown. We had no idea if she was awake and knowing or if she was unconscious and possessed. Anything could’ve happened now. 

“We need to let them in… we need to let them in…” Mandy grabbed her before she reached the staircase but she scratched and pushed her violently to the floor, hissing and chattering like one of them.

“Ouch!” Mandy cried, glancing at the sharp slashes she made on her left arm. Ma was at the trap door now. I was too scared to stop her. Dad couldn’t do anything in his wheelchair. Just as soon as she un-latched it, a lull came. She paused, pulled her hands to her face and then fell backwards.

“Ma!” I screamed.

Dad rolled over to her.

“The cats are out there. She was going to let them in. It’s all a trick!” cried Mandy, her face cold with fear.

Dad looked at me while he brought Ma’s face to his, patting her cheek but she didn’t wake up. 

It was as if no storm had ever passed. No more squalls. No more rain. Just some residual thunder rolls. We waited for thirty minutes more when we were sure the storm had passed. Mandy tremulously unlatched the trap door. It was just the kitchen and a panoramic view of a giant dark thunderhead above us.

“Oh man… it took our roof,” Dad said sadly, moving up the rail in his wheelchair. 

The frontdoor dangled on one hinge. We had to step over shards of glass to get outside and when we did, the scene was unbelievable. Freetown was vandalized: ravished trees lay in the middle of the road, houses were now pieces of wood scattered around like a pack of cards, a thick veil of haze lingered close to the ground. Mandy helped me lift a small branch from off the hood of my Chevy. We all crammed inside, Ma and dad in the back, Mandy in the passenger seat looking back with her mouth fixed open and me, driving. The Chevy started up with an agonizing whinney. 

Then all of a sudden Mandy and dad started yelling, “Drive, drive!”

Through the rearview mirror, spinning towards us at a dizzying speed like a life-size top toy, was a tornado. Twisting and pulling everything in its path to its center, whirling at a slant. My mouth dropped and I couldn’t bring my lips back together. The Chevy zoomed over the fallen branches like they didn’t exist. Keeping my eyes ahead and behind me was hard enough, causing the car to swing from side to side. A smaller cyclone of black dust formed behind it, funneling from a thunderhead and when it reached the ground the Chevy bounced. I had enough gas in the engine.

“Gray!” Mandy cried. Another smaller tornado formed. There were now three on our tail, each leaving a trail of destruction behind it.

“Gray! Watch out for that cat!”

A tiny cat with the same wide white eyes stood ahead on the damp road. It was drenched. It had patches of white fur, wore a necklace and a pink … bikini? chewing on what looked like gum.

Billie Jean? I thought leaning closer to the window screen. 

We forgot that what was behind us was more deadly than a small seemingly harmless cat on the road. “Gray! Drive!” Mandy wrestled with me for the steering wheel. “The cats are coming. The cats are coming. The cats are coming,” Ma chanted.

“Shut up!” Mandy said looking more terrified than ever. I slammed the accelerator. The tornado was almost ready to whip us into the air. 

“Where are we going?” Mandy cried, as I turned up the hill and tore through a copse. On the other side stood the spooky remains of … 

#

Freetown Hospital.

The tornadoes turned off track as if happy we went where we went. The building looked untouched; faded and brown-bricked with windows either boarded up or too grimy to see through. The rain drizzled but it gained momentum quickly. Soon it was a downpour, rushing us through the moss-covered door.

The inside was quiet. The ground was full of leaves and decomposed debris. Still… it felt like someone was there.

“Hello?” I called. Only my echo replied. Dad rolled down the corridor checking each room then he turned to face me. “Nothin’ here,” he called. 

Some tiles in the ceiling were missing, exposing faulty wires and scampering vermin. A staircase led us down to the basement which had more corridors. A sign with the words Maternity Wing hung on a closed door. 

“That’s where yah were born,” Ma said, her breath landed on my shoulder. She was back to herself, not as perky though. It was as if the storm sapped all the energy out of her.

I paused for another look down the corridor then opened the door to find some Freetowners huddled like a pack of scared kids on Halloween night in a haunted mansion. I immediately recognized the guy infront as the guy from the store. He was holding a baseball bat, ready to swing as if expecting a ghoul to barge in any minute. A pregnant girl sat in the corner, holding her belly wincing. That had to be Frances. A boy in football jersey kneeled beside her caressing her hair. They all seemed relieved but scared at the same time. 

“Is the storm over?” The store guy asked. 

“This ain’t no storm,” the pregnant girl cried, “This is a message from Hell!”

“Yea! They took my Billie Jean!” another guy got up and lunged at me.

I warded him off with my hand but his chest was up, he was ready to fight me. “Billie Jean you say?” I asked.

“Yea… my girl. She, she was with me then the lightning struck and I didn’t see her anymore. Where’s she? You’re that new kid from down the street. She’s been talking ‘bout yah a whole lot. What did yah do with my Billie Jean!”

The store kid raised his bat. That assuaged him enough.

“Can someone tell me what’s going on?” The pregnant girl said, looking to me as if she expected me to know everything. 

I looked around at dad and Ma and Mandy. “Has anyone seen any cats around?”

“Cats?” the store kid asked, “Yea. Cats been around Freetown for years.”

Like if a bulb went off in her head, the pregnant girl got to her feet and ran to me, “Yea… I seen ‘em too. They got big white eyes.”

“What are you saying?” The guy said, pacing the floor seeming to be on the verge of pouncing again. 

“My grandma used to tell me this story about a storm… she said that Freetown was gonna get it someday… and the lightning when it strikes… it turns you into… cats.”

All I got were blank stares. The pregnant girl sat back down when a cramp came.

“It’s like the storm wanted us to come here. There’s something here that someone wants us to see…”

“Something like what?” the store kid asked.

“I don’t know. We were all born here and we’ll probably die here.”

The store kid let the baseball bat fall to the ground. There was a great sense of dismay in the room.

“Dude. You’re trying to say that the lightning turned my girl into a …”

A sound like a bark pedaled through the roof. The door flung open and a shadow moved in. Whatever was coming to the door was towering. Mandy clung to my arm. 

“We need to go now!” I said.

“Are you nuts? That thing is coming for us!” someone cried.

I stormed through the door and ran the other way. I didn’t care who followed me. Neither did I bother to look back at whatever was there. I came up on a dead-end. The store kid punched the wall in frustration. Mandy gave me a sidelong glance and held my hand, mouthing the words I love you. We all turned around, each of us anticipating the worst sight to ever be seen.

About halfway down the corridor, sat a row of white-eyed cats. More cats came from behind them and sat on top the row below it, building a wall of ….

The pregnant girl screamed then fell to the floor. 

I spied a half-opened window in the room to our right. Room 456. We could exit through there. I grabbed Mandy and ran towards it but something stopped us. Inside, lying on a frayed cot, with a tube in its left nostril and a ventilator attached to its neck, wearing a pearl necklace and a floral dress was a large furry cat with amputated hind limbs; its whiskers so long they could almost touch me. And with a smile wider than its face, it said, “My little Gray, I see the lightning didn’t get yah yet!”


K. C. Callender is a young Barbadian emerging writer with a soft spot for speculative fiction. Her work includes prose, poetry and song and has appeared in Planet Bizarro Press. Her poem ‘Black Beauty in Resistance’ was awarded bronze & published in the 2011-2012 Arts NIFCA Winning Words Anthology. 


If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “Nemesis” post-apocalyptic feline horror by Rudolfo San Miguel.

While you’re here, why not drop by The Chamber’s bookshop?

“Ryan O’Shaughnessy Battles an Ape” Dark Urban Fiction by James Hanna

"Ryan O'Shaughnessy Battles an Ape" Dark Urban Fiction by James Hanna
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly,
                                        A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.
			    “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”-Lennon and McCartney

Ryan O’Shaughnessy stands in front of a strip club in King’s Cross, the red-light district of Sydney. He is a muscular man with a severe harelip—a disfigurement he welcomes since he does not want the whores to hassle him. His back leans on the wall of the club; his hands, heavy for a short man, hang loosely from the belt of his jeans. His collar is turned up Elvis Presley style; his shirt, partly buttoned, reveals his hard chest. His hair, a more stunning anachronism, is clipped into a crew cut and bristles with white flecks—yet he is not out of place in the Friday night ambiance of the street. His gaze is proprietary as he watches the drifting cars, the stationary hookers and the barker who paces back and forth in front of the club. 

            A traffic light turns red, and cars drift to a halt. The windows stay rolled up although the prostitutes beckon cheerfully; their clinging skirts and brassy shouts have no effect on the stalled drivers. The club’s marquee is also deflected: the letters pulse impotently on the shiny hoods of the cars. The letters flash kniP rehtnaP kniP.

            When the cars again move, Ryan pushes himself off the wall. The barker seems to be calling him back as he walks away from the club, but Ryan has no use for girlie shows—he is focused on earthier matters. He is a vagrant who has just been released from jail, and he is looking for a piece of ass, a couple of hits of acid and a brawl.

The prostitutes hop out of his way like frogs. Although he has been there most of the night, they know he is not a patron; his face is too scarred and menacing, and he moves like a lynx on the prowl. Ryan curls his lip as he walks, exaggerating his aura of menace. Since the streets and jails are his elements, it is comforting to be a thug.

            The city lights bloat as he waits for a break in the traffic. They leap back to size after he wipes his glasses. The goldfish bowl lenses restore his weak vision; he now clearly sees the towering boy on the opposite side of the street. The boy, his drug dealer, is as stiff as a scarecrow. His eyes sweep the sidewalk like lighthouse beams. With a wave of his hand, Ryan signals the boy who nods like a marionette. Ryan starts to cross the street.

            A traffic cop shouts, glaring at Ryan as he carelessly steps in front of a car. The cop’s white-gloved hands flutter like doves in flight. The chirp of his whistle punctuates the angry admonishment of the motorist. A chorus of horns from other stalled cars joins the blast of the whistle.

            Ryan covers his ears. He jumps to the curb, and the traffic behind him starts rolling again. Not wanting to draw more attention to himself, Ryan looks away from the cop. He walks toward the boy, but changes his mind and decides to hide from the cop instead. The police have Ryan’s number, and Ryan is too poor to buy them off.

A coffeehouse offers him refuge. He pushes the glass door open and saunters toward the counter. The prune-faced woman behind it gasps at the sight of him. She stares at him as though he’s diseased when he asks for a pack of Camels. Handing her a grungy bill from his small disability pension, he says, “Where’s the fire, grandma? You act like you’ve seen a spook.” The woman picks up the money as though it might burn her hand. Trembling, she gives him his cigarettes along with a bit of change. Ryan tears the pack open; he surveys the room, flinching when he hears funhouse laughter. Noticing a pair of drag queens at a table, he decides to make them shut up. They need to know that his nerves are raw and their laughter is pissing him off.

            The queens, lost in their chatter, do not notice him leaning over them. Although powdered like corpses, they squeal like children; their wigs bob and nod while their laughter erupts. Ryan raps his knuckles on their table. Their chatter evaporates as their grainy faces turn towards him.

            “Ladies!” he jeers.

            Unimpressed, the queens continue their chat, and Ryan straightens his back. He picks at the pack, shaking loose a cigarette. His match winks like a firefly before hitting the floor. He creeps to the door and peeps at the street. The cop’s attention is back on the traffic, and Ryan shivers with relief. It’s bad enough that specters stalk him; he does not need cops after him too.

            The towering drug dealer is still awaiting him, but Ryan moves guardedly, staring into storefronts so it won’t look like he’s making a buy. He almost steps on a fleshy street artist, displaying his paintings beneath a moth-covered streetlight. The man talks with a tourist while Ryan stoops over the paintings and feigns an interest in art. The pictures—red sunsets and bosomy nudes—only make him wary. He does not like to look at paintings because they are similar to hallucinations. The last time Ryan was in jail, a psychiatrist gave him a warning. He said, unless Ryan took soul-numbing meds, his hallucinations would only get worse. Psychiatrists talk too fucking much and oughta be pistol-whipped.

As he pretends to study the paintings, the fat painter notices him. The man’s sweaty face blanches, and his voice becomes tight. “Ya find one ya like, mate?” he bleats.

            Ryan shrugs. “I live in Hyde Park,” he snaps. “Plenty of sunsets there.” He holds out the package of cigarettes. “Have a smoke, baby. I’m not gonna hurt you.”

            The painter picks tentatively; Ryan shakes the pack. “Come on now!” he mumbles.  A bit of ash drops like a feather from the cigarette in Ryan’s mouth.

            When the man has picked more cigarettes, Ryan snatches one back, which he lifts to his own. When the flame is transferred, Ryan offers it back and the painter accepts it with shaky hands. Ryan salutes the painter dismissively then looks around for the boy.

            The streetlights cast motionless shadows—the boy is nowhere to be seen. The cop at the crosswalk orchestrates traffic as though he’s conducting a band.

            Ryan tosses the butt as a pearly cloud escapes him. The red eye scatters upon the sidewalk. Feeling like an abandoned dog, Ryan pockets his powerful hands. Fortunately, he still can lay claim to his mission: a piece of ass, some fisticuffs and a couple of hits of acid that he may have to buy somewhere else. These primitive goals are a godsend—proof that his ghosts do not own him.

            A prostrate form almost trips him—a bum. As he steps over the body, avoiding a vein of piss, a double-decker bus stops beside him. Its engine growls like an ogre, its headlights comb the night, and a pale conductress stands in the stairwell and inspects him with frozen eyes. Ryan waves the bus on and sighs like a kettle when it pulls away from the curb. 

            The towering boy, having reappeared, is now waiting for him on the opposite side of the street. He has turned his back on Ryan and is studying a movie marquee. This is an obvious guise since the ticket booth is empty. The lettering on the marquee reads Last Show Ends at Midnight.

            These words seem grimly prophetic, and a chill invades Ryan’s spine. He crosses the street, strides over to the boy and slaps him on the back. “Baby,” he laughs, “gimme some love.”

            The boy nods politely. Despite his skeletal demeanor, he seems to be callow and kind. His manner suggests indiscriminate warmth. Only the smell of him is intrusive: a pungent aroma that smells like bad meat.

            Ryan tells him, “The usual. Gimme two hits.” His thick fingers snap like a rifle shot, bringing the boy to life.

            With practiced fingers, the boy opens his jacket. Two small paper squares appear like magic in his palm.

            Ryan holds out his hand and winks at the boy. The boy’s wormy fingers relinquish the squares. Ryan pockets them hastily. Removing his wallet, he slips the boy a few dirty bills.

            The boy’s slender fingers close over the money like an octopus grabbing a crab.  When he opens his jacket to pocket the bills, his odor makes Ryan gag.

Ryan needs to disengage from this cadaverous presence, so he pretends to wind his wristwatch. The boy limps away, and his ambling gait reminds Ryan of leg irons. The boy trips as he walks.

            Ryan feels his shins prickle. His eyes flicker, dart. The clang of a jail cell comes suddenly to mind. Although his memory is fried, his instincts still protect him. He swaggers up to another street vendor as though he is merely out for a stroll.

The vendor, an old man with mocking eyes, has spread cuckoo clocks on the sidewalk. Ryan stoops over the clocks, studying them carefully. They are expertly carved and shiny with paint. The vendor holds up one of the clocks as though it’s a peace offering. “Cuckoo,” he teases. “Cuckoo, cuckoo.”

Ignoring the jibe, Ryan points to his wristwatch. “Stuff it, gramps. I’m traveling light.”

            He is recalling places the clock might have fit: small pockets of time that have grown so remote that they float like flotsam on the scrambled surface of his mind. Thankfully, the memories are too trite to be reliable: he remembers a dirty flat, he remembers his mother’s coffin, and he remembers a Catholic orphanage where the nuns whipped him with switches. He recalls little more than the smell of his mother: a boozy whore with huge flaccid breasts and weary bloodshot eyes. She sweated a lot from her boozing, and her sweat stank like Limburger cheese. Had she died when he set fire to the flat they had lived in and had that landed him in the orphanage? Since his dementia is growing stronger, he can dispense with these parodies of memory. It is enough for him to challenge the vacuity of the moment—a vacuum he can fill with some ass and a brawl. Hell, even a noisy party would keep the darkness at bay.

            Ryan walks away from the cuckoo clock vendor—his mission is yet unfulfilled. High above him, a street lamp is boiling with insects—a sight that ennobles his hunt. The bugs, undeterred by the heat from the lamp, keep tapping on the glass.

            An urchin comes up to him and asks for a quarter—a small teenage girl with dirty bare feet. Her face is waxy, her eyes bright as buttons. She reminds him of an elf.

            Ryan shrugs warily. Is she a phantom? He must put her to a test. “I’ll give you ten dollars to strip,” he jests. He laughs, embarrassed by his joke as the girl walks away from him. He dips into his pocket. “Oi, baby!” he cries.

            The quarter he flicks her spins like a top. The girl shakes her head as it bounces on the pavement beside her. She sits down in front of a porn shop and does not look at the coin.

Feeling himself blush, Ryan bows his head. That there are limits to his depravity is not a comforting thought. The streets are a jungle, after all, and no place for charity.

            A song from a car radio batters his ears. A voice sings, “It’s now or neverrrr…” The car hurtles by and the voice recedes. Ryan’s heart thumps like a bill collector pounding on a door.

            Across the street is the city stadium, a gray brick building with a gigantic marquee.  The marquee proclaims A Battle of Champions,and Ryan feels his brawler’s heart race. Two wrestlers in profile are featured on the marquee: men that look like gorillas. They watch him from the corners of their eyes as he hurries across the street.

Ryan pauses to light another cigarette. He blows out the match when the flame bites his fingers. Provoked by menacing marquee, he walks with a gunfighter’s swagger. Keep looking at me like that, Ryan thinks, and I’ll bash in both your skulls.

            The crowd at the ticket booth separates, allowing him a wide berth as he struts past the stadium. They are mostly foreigners—Arabs and Greeks—and their chatter is unintelligible to him. Some are glancing at the cars that slow down beside them. The hookers in the cars are cruising in pairs, but no customers join them. The cars gather speed and melt into the night.

            The chatter grows faint as Ryan strides up a hill. It is finally drowned out by the drone of deep breathing. Ryan strays towards a lamppost, props himself up and labors to catch his breath.

A police car passes him and then sinks out of sight when it reaches the top of the hill. Ryan sighs, relieved once again that the cops did not cuff him up. Before he is back in the slammer, he will have time for some ass and a party.

He is standing beside a massage parlor—a building with frosted windows that emit a hoary light. He tosses a butt and watches as it strikes theOpen sign. The parlor is beckoning him to go in, and Ryan feels his skin crawl.

Ryan holds onto the lamppost, transfixed by the parlor’s wintry light. His scalp tingles like ants are devouring it. Thankfully, his mission awaits him. The hill is now plunging. He lights another cigarette and takes a heavy drag.

The milky glow from the massage parlor fades as he starts to descend the hill. As the streets become darker, he sees only shadows. His shoes faintly echo. His spark remains bright.

*

            A piece of ass, a brawl, a couple of squares of acid. These are not diversions but staples—life values to be celebrated with beer and song. They are palpable, after all, and offer him proof that he thrives.

            He is sitting on a couch in the Last Call Saloon, a rowdy gay bar near the west side of town. He has found himself at a party: a place of music and dance. If his luck continues to hold, he will also score some ass.

            He has swallowed both hits of acid, and the walls are starting to breathe. He looks at the dancers that hover above him. Contained within cages and plumed like peacocks, they seem immune to the sweaty crowd below them. Although they are out of reach, these queens smile enticingly. Their bodies swell and contract as though they are made of elastic. A band is playing “Hang On Sloopy,” and Ryan is ready to dance.

            He can practically trace out his name in the air, and the people around him seem drugged by the smoke. A willowy singer is crooning the song, but the band is drowning her out. The drummer, a boy with a sunken chest, ought to be punched in the gut. His drumming, which sounds like a death rattle, freezes Ryan’s pulse. Ryan does not want his heart to stop, so he must keep the beat alive.

            Ryan unbuttons his shirt and starts tapping on a low table in front of the couch. His head sways like a reed in a stream, and soon he is soaked in sweat. He hesitates only to pick up his glass—a superfluous gesture since most of the beer has spilled onto the table, which glitters like blood. Ryan’s mouth is now drier than lint and aches with incredible thirst. He takes a sip of beer before continuing to flog the table.

            The bar is packed with men, some in leather. They seem irritated by his pummeling hands, but he pays them no notice. He must keep his blood pumping, or his heart will stop like an unwound clock.

A piece of ass is approaching him: a cherub-mouthed hussy with a shiny, blonde wig that spills down over her shoulders. She is far more tempting than the fickle jailhouse punks he has known, and she is toting a glass of beer. Ryan seizes her wrist as she tries to crowd past him.

            “I’ll have it here.”

            She giggles. “Naw, you don’t.”

  She holds onto the glass. Ryan squeezes her wrist. She’s giving him a workout.

            He answers, “Gimme!”

            “It’s not for you, honey.” She pries his hand from her wrist.

            Ryan leaps to his feet, but his lunge is in vain and his thumb, electrified by the rubbing of the couch, sparks feebly on her dress. He has grabbed only air, so she might be a ghost but his head still bobs with triumph. His heart is thudding like a war drum; he is going to stay alive.

            Ryan points to his crotch as she stomps away from him; he must keep the quarrel going. Rolling his hips, he announces, “She blew me!”

            She whirls around and stares at him as though he is not of this world. Her face has turned into the face of a monkey—she looks ready to bite off his head. She leans closer to Ryan. “Weirdo, piss off!” Her voice is now deep and gravelly as though coming from a well.

            “She bleeeeew me!” Ryan sings.

            Her teeth are bared. She balls her fists. She is ready to hit him in the nose, but Ryan waves her off as though she were a fly. He will not diminish his manhood by slugging it out with a queen. Ryan snorts with indignation as she fades into the crowd.

            Ryan sits down and keeps pounding the table. The acid is making him antsy; he is having a very bad trip. But a more fuckable queen is perched near the bar. This queen is vampish and slender. She is looking at him with lust in her eyes. Ryan winks at her and rises from the couch. The drums keep time with the throb in his cock as he pushes his way towards her.

            Dance, Ryan thinks, and the shadows won’t linger. Dance and goblins will turn into clowns. Dance and the phantoms of memory will vanish into the night.

            This queen has pupils like saucers—she must be high on meth—but Ryan bows deeply and grins like a fox. “Dance with me, baby?” he pleads.

            She nods and smiles thinly—a coy one is this one. He takes her arm gently, his thick fingers throbbing, and guides her out onto the dance floor.

            Releasing her arm, Ryan struts like a gamecock—a toe-to-heel motion. His knees bend and bob. This causes a spasmodic snap to his wrists; they seem tied to his knees with invisible threads, and his feet nimbly skip behind opposite ankles as he deftly raises his puppeteer hands.

Dance and shadows won’t linger. Dance and your heart will still pound. Dance and the goblins and boogeymen will go back to where they belong.

            He bumps into a waitress who is toting a pitcher of beer. His soles nearly slip as the pitcher explodes, but Ryan springs quickly and pivots full circle avoiding the beer that creeps towards his feet.

            Ryan isn’t unnoticed as he hops to the rhythm. The bouncer is watching him like a jailer, but Ryan has thwarted the reaper—he isn’t going to die. He wipes his forehead and waves to the bouncer who warningly shakes his head.

            Ryan whirls—now alone—and the strings become tighter. His hands have grown heavier. His legs feel remote. When a strobe light flickers, he feels like he’s trapped in an old-time, Charlie Chaplin movie.  The room is now stifling; his legs are cramping. Although most of the revelers have left the dance floor, a few remain. They keep dancing with Ryan who claps his hands loudly and shakes to the tune.

            The music dies in a rattle of the drums. The barkeeper shouts, “Last Call!” Ryan hears hands clapping, applauding him, and so he continues to dance. But the dance floor is barren. The cages hang empty. The room comes awash in a smoky gray light.

            The applause thickens, pauses, and then once again swells as he finishes his performance with a leg split and bow. His brow lapses forward—touching his knee; he spreads out his arms like an eagle in flight. The room starts to spin, but he holds his pose until the bouncer grabs him by the collar.

*

            The bar is closing. The street awaits him. The bouncer says, “Piss off, asshole,” so he lurches toward the door. But a silver-haired man is now blocking his way and looking at him with interest. The man’s skin is leprous, his face wan and wrinkled; his flat cold fingertips touch Ryan’s own. Ryan backs away, and this fiend does not follow—the sharp frame of a mirror contains him.

            A pair of strong headlights stabs Ryan’s eyes as he stumbles to the sidewalk. The glow of a streetlamp is brighter than flame. Although he closes his eyelids, two saffron orbs linger. They bounce like flaccid tits, even when he opens his eyes, but he can see beyond them. He can see a huge dirty building beside him, a warehouse for dairy products. He can tell by the wind, which is ripe and sour—a rancid assaultive breeze. The cheesy stink dies as the wind grows stronger. The air is freshened by warm drops of rain. The moon, which looks like his mother’s face, watches him stagger along.

            The rain passes. The street starts to dip. An angry gust of wind snatches his cigarette pack from his hand. Ryan pauses a moment, doubting his eyesight; the wind is also assailing a woman in a long, black billowy gown. The woman hurries toward him, waving her hand as though she is wielding a whip. A cab, trailing smoke, pulls alongside the curb and she slithers like mercury into the cab. Ryan shakes his head, unconvinced by this sight, then resumes walking. As he crosses the street, an approaching car comes shrieking to a stop.

            The twin orbs linger as the sidewalk accepts him. A dark silhouette, his shadow, crawls before him on the sidewalk. He picks up his pace and overtakes the shadow, but it hops back out in front of him like a prisoner making a break. Blue and red lights canter behind it as though in hot pursuit.

            The lights dance like a coven of witches. A police siren freezes his pulse. He glances about him; an alley awaits him. He leaps into the alley and hides behind a dumpster.

            The scent of ripe urine withers his nostrils as he presses his back to a dirty brick wall. The cop car streaks past the alley as though he is not even there.

Ryan peeks from the alley, his breathing still shallow. A garbled noise tickles his ears, but Ryan has no time for voices. Somewhere in the city, salvation awaits him: a fight with his name on it.

            A short distance away a crowd is collecting, the probable source of the voices. The faces are fleeting and clownishly rouged by the police car’s rotating lights.

            Ryan’s curiosity overpowers him, and he steps back onto the sidewalk. The crowd expands as he hurries downhill. Something wicked is taking place, and he must know what is going on. He orbits the crowd until an opening appears then he hunches his shoulders and bulls his way in.

            He has seen knifings before in the county jail, and the pool of blood excites him. It expands upon the pavement like an uncharted fountain of youth. The victim—some tramp with a shiv in his chest—is as stiff as a mannequin. His face looks as though it’s been carved from wood and is frozen with surprise. His palsied hands clutch the knife handle as though unwilling to turn it loose.

            A wiry policeman disperses the crowd as an ambulance murmurs then pulls to the curb. Ryan drifts away from the crowd. He has no business here. The night is not over, and Ryan needs action. He also has ghosts to outrun.

            The police car eases past him. Its lights are no longer flashing, a promising omen. Ryan’s feet skip a beat as he struts along, and he puffs out his chest like a toad.

The stadium is dark now, shadows have deepened. Small clouds of men stand by the entrance as though waiting to catch a bus. The hookers, successful now, pull their cars to the curb. They let passengers out; other passengers join them. Doors slam as the cars pull away.

            Ryan struts past the johns, feeling bold and superior. He will not waste his seed on a whore. He picks up his pace as though late for a date, and the hookers drive on by him. A few minutes of walking are all that it takes to return once again to his post near the strip club.

            The club’s racing lights are now rimmed with huge halos, but the barker seems unaware of this. He is still calling out to passing pedestrians and pacing back and forth.

            The lights in the coffeehouse seem softer, perhaps because Ryan is thirsty. His tongue feels glued to the roof of his mouth, and he cannot even swallow. He pushes the glass door open and walks into the coffeehouse. An ape of a man with a cruel, meaty face watches him from one of the booths. A bouncer, most likely, or maybe a wrestler. Could this be the brawl he is looking for? Ryan’s heart begins to race.

Feeling the ape’s eyes upon him, Ryan pays for a cup of coffee then he sits in a vacant booth that allows him a view of the street. The burgundy leather is soft on his back. The coffee, still frothy, is scalding and sweet. Ryan’s glasses are fogged when he sets down the cup, and a ghostly veil hides the street.

            Deathly fatigue arrests him. He starts to nod although the cup stings his palms; he drifts off for a moment. He wakes with a jump. The twin orbs have returned; they are bloodshot now and glitter like the eyes of a cat. They obscure the warm pool he has spilled onto the table. They leap to the carpet, the counter, the wall as he staggers out of the booth. They blur even the ape who now looks up at Ryan; the ape is unmoved by his visitor’s plight, but his huge jaw tightens and his beefy face flushes when Ryan leans over and calls him a pussy.

            The orbs glide away, redder than sunsets as the ape musters Ryan out of the coffeehouse. On the sidewalk, the orbs mingle with sharp points of light that swirl around him like a carousel.

            And Ryan is battling the ape!

            The ape grips his collar and pummels him vigorously. Ryan grunts from the punches—“Hey there!” he shouts. His specs splash on the pavement. “Ho!” The blows—not unpleasant—pound his shoulders and the cropped top of his head. One of them bangs off the door of the coffeehouse, producing a shower of tinkling glass. Now Ryan is slipping on wafers of glass and throwing wild blows at the ape. The ape’s fist pounds his mouth—he can taste his lip. It’s as plump as a sausage and warms where it’s cut.

            A wall, hard and grainy, squashes Ryan’s shoulder. He turns towards the pavement, facing it flat; it is dotted with ruby-red beads. As he pushes the pavement away, his tongue strokes his front teeth. They are still in place—just barely cracked. On the street, the headlights are swollen and spinning, but the cars are still rolling along.

            Then comes the shoe. It jolts his side, emptying his lungs, and Ryan rolls onto his back. This way he can see the ape. The ape has taken his belt off to flog Ryan soundly. He raises the belt gingerly; his hand must be hurt. He is gasping for breath.

            Ryan pumps his foot at the blurred, beefy face. Missing his target, he pumps it again. He hears a sound like a chestnut exploding. The ape is struck!

            Ryan rolls to his chest. He gropes the pavement for support. He can move without too much pain although slivers of glass cling to his palms. Ryan climbs to his feet, glancing about. The ape is on the ground, breathing raggedly. Ryan has broken his nose.

            The street is still spinning. Ryan tries to stand up straight, but a current keeps pulling his head to the sidewalk. A bleating keeps time with his galloping heart. Already, the barker is marching toward him, and out on the street, from between the cars, the policeman is blasting his whistle.

            Ryan must run—he must run for his life, he must run like a wounded gazelle. He shuffles forward, leaps over the ape, and takes off down the sidewalk. His shoes strike the ground like hammer blows; his hands slice the air like scythes. Still, the whistle grows louder. It stabs his ears. Shoes faster than Ryan’s strike the pavement behind him; hands soon will drop on his collar and neck.

            A pedestrian shouts and jumps out of his way. A vehicle skids as he crosses the street. More calls fill the air as Ryan sprints on. His lungs are tugging, his legs are like rubber—yet the footsteps behind him are mere inches away. The corner is too sharp where he changes direction. His hand skids on its heel—his knee dents a trashcan—but as quick as he falls Ryan leaps to his feet.

            Like a deer Ryan bolts, his pursuers close behind him. The whistle is dead but the footsteps grow louder—a resolute, walloping sound. The traffic light is green at the end of a block, and Ryan dashes safely out into the street. The cars wait as he passes, but their engines are snarling. Their headlights glare like flame.

            A towering blur at a bus stop awaits him—an open two-decker bus whose engine is humming. It drifts from the curb as Ryan draws near it then slowly builds speed as if entering the race. Ryan gains on the bus—he can make out the license plate. Behind him, the footsteps are gaining on him.

            The bus is now inching away from him. As the platform recedes, Ryan sucks one more breath. Although his legs have dissolved and his lungs are on fire, the vertical pole by the stairwell is only a few feet away.

            Ryan loses his balance—his run a mere stumble. His fingers close desperately over the pole. He is jerked like a rag doll but stays on his feet, his momentum preserved by the pull of the bus. Pain knifes through his shoulder—the socket is wrenched—but his burning fingers are cooled by the pole and refuse to forfeit their slippery hold.

            As the bus gains more speed, he leaps onto the platform. He sits in the stairwell and labors for breath. His chest glistens like oil. It caves and expands. Punishing blows pound his temples and ears, but the bus keeps rolling along.

            The conductress is looking down at him. Her face is as pale as ivory, her eyes are as brilliant as opals, and she stares at him like an angel of death as she waits to receive his fare. Her bony hands rest on a change maker; it winks when a streetlight hits it.

            “Almost,” Ryan says.

            He searches his pocket, locates a quarter—the precise amount of his fare. His hand shakes like a cornered rabbit as he presses it into her palm.

            “Almost, kid.”

Ryan clutches the pole and pulls himself to his feet. The iron is stained red from his grip. The girl slips the coin into the change maker, and he gives her a victory sign.

Grinning, Ryan pinches the bill of her hat and pulls it down over her eyes.
“Hah!” he exclaims. He buttons his shirt up.

He climbs to the top of the bus.


James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. “His books, all of which have won awards, are available on Amazon.” (Global Book Awards recently gave James’s latest book, The Ping-Pong Champion of Chinatown, a gold medal.)


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“Garden of Moths” Dark Fiction by Colt Fry

"Garden of Moths" Dark Fiction by Colt Fry

Graduating college is different for everyone, I suppose—but for me—it was almost nothing. My only close friend, Grey, was so excited. When I looked into her eyes, I could see her future. A husband—handsome and kind just like she deserved—three kids, the damn works. When we stood with our caps and gowns, the crowd seemed to focus on her. A spotlight shined brightly on her, and she squealed in delight as they handed her a tiny statue of herself to wave proudly in my face. Maybe that didn’t actually happen, but feelings matter, ya know.

There would be a party for her the next night, but on this night, there was Hibachi, my treat. I hate to admit this, but it was like I was buying her dinner to celebrate her, on her special night, for her graduation. Yes, she offered to pay, and she insisted on making her party a celebration of both of us. And yes, I declined both offers and my bath of tears was drawn by myself alone.

As fire exploded around us, my heart raced a little, sizzling filled my ears and warmed my heart. Metal clanged as the chef mixed—steak for Grey, chicken for me—with freshly cracked eggs, some peppers, and all sorts of yumminess. The aroma felt like dancing barefoot as a little girl. Seriously, Hibachi is that damn good.

After a few mouthfuls of watered down sake and enough of our food to curb our ravenous appetite, Grey said, “I’m going to become a nurse and then either a nurse practitioner or a doctor.” I waited for more, but she simply scooped up a perfect mouthful with precise chopstick work and started munching.

I knew she wanted to be a nurse or whatever. Just didn’t know where this was going. Not knowing what to say, I tried to do the same as Grey, fumbling with my sticks until I decided, fuck it, and grabbed a fork. Grey was staring at me now. “Well, Evee, what are you going to do?”

My name is Evelyn, but a select special few people are allowed to call me Evee. Grey qualified with high marks. “I majored in liberal arts. I’m going to eat this tasty grub and then I’m going to work at McDonald’s.” I paused for effect. “Or become a stripper as long as red heads are still in style.”

Grey chuckled, though I wasn’t sure if she meant it. “I like your red hair.”

“That’ll be ten dollars, then.”

Grey didn’t laugh this time. “Evee, I’m serious. If you don’t care, why did you even go to college in the first place?”

I shrugged, feeling uncomfortable. “To get the fuck out of Oregon?” Grey chuckled for pity’s sake and I continued. “I used my sexual charms and c plus wit to get all the way out of Redwood, and now I’ll get out of the state with my charisma and prestigious Corban University diploma. Well, as long as I don’t lose it.”

“You’re always joking, Evee. You always deflect.”

She was right, but I wasn’t done yet.

“Majored in psychology now?”

“Just like that! You did it again. I want to speak with Serious George.”

I laughed. She always resorted to “Serious George” when I pushed her too far with my sarcasm. “Look, both my parents are dead, I don’t really have much to strive for. What, am I supposed to try out for the Olympics as a mediocre runner?” The uncomfortable talk and just my own mentioning of running made me yearn for it. It’s like a reboot for my brain.

“That’s the whole reason you should be trying to find something. Don’t you wonder about who you really are?”

The clatter of metal a table away, laughter of children and indistinguishable chatter faded—and for the first time in years, I let myself ruminate on that question. Not about who I am, but if I cared enough to wonder. Part of me honestly just wanted to read, watch tv, have sex with an average looking man who didn’t ask too many questions, and run both as a hobby and to keep my lazy ass from getting too fat. All these things are great activities, but alone, was that a life? Was I a person at all if I lived like that? If I never once bothered to help other people—to even include them? Or—to run forever. What if I just Forrest Gumped for the rest of my life; worked for him. But then, those people followed him. I didn’t want people following me.

In my fantasy, I didn’t want the man’s love, only sex. I wanted to hang with Grey, of course, but I wished she was less pushy. But if she isn’t pushy, is she even Grey anymore?

And that’s where it stopped—where my thoughts have always stopped in regards to who I am. I would never let myself get any further. It was as if something inside me feared what I really wanted—was terrified of my true desired relationship with other people. And perhaps, my aversion was warranted.

Just as I realized I was staring at nothing, I felt Grey’s hand on mine. She was the only person whose touch didn’t make me uncomfortable these days. “Evee, I don’t want graduation to be the end of us.”

I shrugged. “It won’t be.” Damn, I wanted to run. I could expand my lungs, feel the air whipping around my head, stop thinking.

“You don’t know that.” Her eyes glimmered with prenatal tears. Before they could fall from her eyes, she aborted them with a wipe of her hand. Not one for abortion myself, I fought my own tears from ever developing in the first place.

“I will always be your friend, but some space will be good for you. Grey, I hold you back.” The words tasted like bland earnestness, and I realized that they were true, despite how much I hated them.

“You don’t hold me back!” Exclaimed Grey as I fought back laughter and sobbing.

“Don’t bullshit me, Sugar Cube.” I used my first and least utilized nickname for her—the one she hated most—as a weapon of endearment in that moment. “I’m being serious with you, be honest with me.”

Grey fidgeted in her seat. “I am being honest with you. You’re just as smart as I am. Just as pretty; even prettier in my opinion. You have a huge heart, Evee.”

“No I don’t,” I said, colder than I’d intended. “You do. You have the huge heart. You help people, you love people. I just sit around, satisfying my own simple urges. It’s really all I do.”

“Evee—”

“Why aren’t you confused?” I continued. “Why don’t you question whether you should be a nurse or not?”

“I do,” she interrupted.

“No you don’t! And you shouldn’t, Grey. Because you’re going to be the bombest nurse in the building. You won’t be perfect, but you’re going to do awesome, and you’ll truly care for your patients. You’ll have a great family, you’ll die old and still pretty. You don’t need me hanging on you.”

“Are you jealous, Evee?” She asked this as if the notion was the absurdist thing she’d ever heard.

I meant to say no, but instead said, “I am, but not of those things.” Having already started, I decided to continue. “I don’t even want any of those things. I just wish I felt sure about what I want.”

“I’m not always sure,” Grey said.

“Of course you are,” I countered. “You’re obnoxious, Grey. You expect the best for yourself and give your best in return. You want to be a nurse or a doctor. You want a family. You know your place in the world, and you deserve all of it. What do I deserve?”

I expected a fight to follow, but instead, she just stared at me—looked into my eyes. I could feel her searching them, trying to find the me she knew and loved. The little perfect red headed doll she hoped I would one day become. I still wonder if she ever found that little bitch in that moment. And I fear that she realized that there was nothing to find at all.

The party was lame. We both liked hardcore punk, but Grey played some upbeat pop songs I’d never heard of in order to appease her softer guests. There were too many people for my taste, dressed up more than me in fancy slacks, buttoned up shirts, dresses. Shyla, a girl I didn’t know very well and couldn’t decide if I liked, had on a low cut shirt to show off her ample ta tas, and a frilly short skirt. She did a lot of smiling and giggling for the boys as if she was on a mission to get—and I don’t mean to seem rude—any of them to have her for the evening. She might have been pushing for Asher, the only boy in the bunch I’d spent any time talking to, but she seemed to have her options open.

Grey wore an elegant silver dress, making her the absolute framed picture she was. My jeans and Severed Head of State t-shirt—a skeleton riding a skeletal horse—stuck out like a flare in a night’s sky. She did her best to keep me included, but I fought back too hard with scowls and a lack of eye contact. Pretty soon, no one paid any attention to me.

I stared out the overly clean window and I remember so clearly a little boy in a bright nearly neon green shirt chasing a moth around as the sun was almost down, lighting the street like a spotlight. I’d chased moths like this before when I was a kid, in the old apartment. As I stared out, feeling the setting sun depress me, I saw their faces more clearly than I saw the boy playing. Their deep red and black wings like capes on a flamboyant magician, their black eyes always pulled me in, forcing me to imagine secrets within them. They scared and compelled me when I was young. Mom had called them Cinnabar moths, said that they had been brought to Oregon to control a sort of weed back in the seventies. Didn’t explain why they hung around our shitty apartment.

A man’s voice tore through my thoughts. “Aiden, I told you to get back in the house!” The voice was quiet through the window—I would never have even heard it had I been paying attention at all to the party—but his angry bass-filled voice ripped through my body as if he were screaming into my ear. I’ll never forget the joy as it melted off of the boy’s startled face. His shoulders slumped, he walked in the direction of his home as though wearing weights on his shoulders. Selfish bitch that I was, I didn’t even feel for him, but for myself. I’d seen my mom’s face fade just like that.

And again, my thoughts went back to the old apartment as they always did. When we moved there, I could picture the grey sky, the fork in the rutty dirt road that at first only went left until I looked just so and could see the twisting path to the right.

There were never any kids out there when I would play or when we would pull up in the car. I could always hear playing and giggling when I would sit by the window. Sometimes I would even see them playing, but they were always too distracted to notice me—the weird red headed girl staring. I wanted to play with them, to hear my screaming voice harmonize with theirs, but I always played alone when we lived there.

Mom would sing punk songs—lighter than the ones I listen to—and she would dance. She always wore light sundresses, rain or shine. Her dark hair would whip around almost dangerously. Fuck, in that apartment it was dangerous—the dancing, I mean. There were holes in the floor below the old brown carpet. She would take me into her arms, dance all around the holes, and I would giggle until I hurt. Sometimes I would stare into her eyes, dark like a chalkboard and just as informative. She would point out little secrets in the home and explain to me why they were beautiful.

Dad would tell us to stop, that the holes would break our ankles. But then he would hold Mom and me in his strong arms and laugh with us. “Look at those fuggin’ holes, my girlies!” he would say. “Breag ya angles they will!” I hated his stupid fake accent back then, but as I stood alone at the party, I missed it so much.

He was right about dancing. The carpet, stale as if burnt by cigarettes without actually being burned, would sag into the holes—some just a few inches wide, others a whole foot. And sometimes the carpet seemed taut, enough to trick you, and you would stumble. It was almost like the carpet was alive, moving taut or hanging loose at its own will. I always believed that it was trying to trip us, but not to hurt us, only to play tricks—cheeky carpet.

That old place always smelled of chocolate, because Mom kept chocolate cosmos flowers around, her favorite flower. Sometimes even she would smell like chocolate, as if she’d been rolling around in them.

It was starting to rain outside the party—the kind of rain that only Oregon gets—the kind that tugs at your heart, or at least mine. And I remembered the moths. They would bounce playfully against the glass of our balcony. I would stare at them for hours sometimes, thinking they were like me staring at the children on the playground. They would stare back sometimes. “I wanna play with you, Evee,” they would say with their black eyes. And I would press my fingers to the glass.

Mom would come for a look too. We never said anything, just lost ourselves at the sight of them. Dad would look at us and roll his eyes. “Fuggin’ things are gross, girlies.” Mom would smile at me, her gorgeous face would wrinkle up around her eyes—and no matter how I felt—I would smile back.

Her joy faded along with her looks when she got sick. Sometimes I can only remember her beautiful smile, and other times only her coughing, eyes sunken, the dark light in them faded to ashy grey. The rattle in each exhale terrified me as a girl.

Asher ran his fingers through my hair and I gasped. I couldn’t believe he was touching me like that, it was surreal. And yet, my whole body prickled, it was hazy like a dream. The look on his face wasn’t predatory like a man looking for sex. He looked worried, caring, ready to protect me. And if I’m being completely honest, I felt safe with his touch. I yearned to be held by him.

“Please, dance with me,” he said, and I wanted to. Thinking back, that moment was a hidden crossroads for me, just like the one to the apartment. If I had squeezed his hand, let him guide me into the party, and danced my awkward ass off—then perhaps I would have fallen in love with him. I could have flashed Shyla a “loog at this, girlie” face. Would we have gotten married? Would we get jobs and get out of Oregon, away from that wretched apartment? Would I have forgotten it?

I had so many excuses. He was into classic rock music, liked to work out to AC/DC. He liked to read like a nerd, though I enjoyed the same sci/fi he did. But who reads? I did. He was halfway a jock, but he wasn’t an asshole like some were, and he was always sweet—not just to girls either—but to anyone who was genuine, whether they were popular or not. Maybe I should have said yes to him and I think the reason I didn’t, is only because that old apartment still had a hold over me.

I jerked away from him. I told him that I hated dancing. His face flashed confusion and worry, the kind of look only a sincere boy can pull off. Grey grabbed me by the arm and took me into her bedroom.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” she said.

I didn’t answer, thoughts swirled inside me, too fast to catch and turn into words for her. I was getting hot for some reason. My legs itched to run.

She was yelling at me. “Asher is nice. If you don’t want to dance, fine, but you can’t be rude to him! He doesn’t deserve that.”

Of course she was right, but I didn’t say a word. I was breathing hard. I was angry for some reason.

“Are you okay?” Grey asked.

And that’s when I erupted.

“No! I’m not okay!” I glared at her as if I wanted to tear her apart, and I have no idea why. “I don’t belong here with this shit music, with any of these people!”

Grey reached for me. “What are you—”

I cut her off by pulling away—and I ran. I felt eyes on me as I bursted out her door. Asher chased after me. So did Grey. But they couldn’t catch me. I ran and ran. It was dark now, a half moon, and I let the cool night air rush around me, the rain pelting. My lungs opened up, swallowing my thoughts, my feelings—until all I felt was my endorphins. I ran until I was in the woods. Trees whipped past me in a haze and all I could hear was the damned old apartment calling to me. I knew as I ran that I would have to go back. I would have to face it.

As I drove on the dirt road, the crumbling under my tires filled my ears, along with the whining of my old Dodge Neon, until I became tired of it and I blared some Black Flag to shut everything the fuck up except Greg Ginn’s hypnotic voice shouting, “I can’t think straight; my mind’s a mess. I can only see straight when I’m being led.” True fucking words. A few hours left to go, I screamed with Greg, our hearts becoming one.

I thought of Mom on her last day. She was wheezing worse than usual, but she’d made breakfast. It was something called splat—like a breakfast burrito without the tortilla—and bacon. The bacon had been fine, but the splat wasn’t seasoned right. Too much salt, not enough pepper, and the sausage wasn’t cut right. The chunks were too big. I had complained like a spoiled cunt that morning. Mom just smiled and apologized before coughing for minutes into the sleeve of her white robe—her only one—striped vertically with pretty colors. I remembered the blood that mixed with her spit; how it dribbled down her sleeve. It shut my stupid ass up quick.

“She thinks she’s getting better, but her conscience won’t let her!” screamed Greg as I drove, barely conscious of the road.

Dad knocked over his chair when he went to her. She wheezed some words I couldn’t understand. Tears were stinging my eyes. For a long time I hadn’t heard anything until the banging. I jerked my head toward the balcony. The moths—a black and red sea—were smashing against the glass—so hard that some of them crushed their heads and fell dead. I’d been mesmerized by them. As my dad held onto my mom, now on the floor, writhing, fighting for each breath, I ran to the balcony door. I remember screams coming from the moths, though I know that can’t be so. Maybe it was me, or Dad, or some horrible noise escaping my mom.

I jerked, startled to find Mom now standing behind me. She slammed her palms against the glass as she nearly fell into the door. The moths continued to crash against it, and Mom only stared as she stole air into her dead lungs.

Dad shouted, “Get back here!” And then he tripped over a hole in the floor, landed with a thud, and screamed curses.

“It hurts to be alone, when it hurts to be alone,” Greg said, filling my memories with his voice.

I pulled mom away from the door just long enough to open it. The moths flooded the living room, drawn to Mom as if hungry for her, and they swarmed. She remained standing, her body covered. It had looked like a dress, the moths all over her. Despite my feelings being razor blades ripping me apart, I’ll never forget how beautiful she looked with those moths smothering her.

Dad was standing now, screaming at the moths, worried they were ripping her apart or something, but something inside me didn’t feel that way. Dad pulled Mom to the ground shrieking nonsense at the moths, killing any in his way. “It’s okay,” he said to Mom through sobs. “Evelyn, close the fucking door!” he had screeched at me with no love in his tone. I remember that he’d called me Evelyn instead of Evee. It’s weird what we remember in moments like this.

I hadn’t obeyed his order. I simply stared at the moths as they swarmed. They wouldn’t leave Mom alone. They clung to her as if mourning, or trying to save her. Dad pounded his fists into the ground, squashing a few of the moths. I remember I cried for them when I saw their dead bodies twitching until still.

The heel of Dad’s hand was blue from the liquid that left their bodies. All I felt was sadness for the moths, for my mother, for all the world that my six year old mind could fathom.

Greg finalized my feelings as I drove. “She’s black, it’s out of my hands, everything I hate.”

When Mom went still, so did the moths. They stopped fluttering, no more panic. They paused, their wings tucked in, looking like little capes or dress tails, and stared, and I swear they were staring directly at me, into my burning teary eyes.

In small clutters, they flew away, but not out through the open glass door. Instead, they found spots all around the apartment to hide in—every crevice, every secret spot—each corner in the ceilings they hid away.

As I drove I remembered how Dad had called me Evelyn, and how he hadn’t hugged me. He’d cried, wailing in ways I hadn’t known he could. His moans filled my ears, tore into my heart, and shook my body. I’ll never forget how he sounded as he cried for my mother, and I’ll never forget how unmended I felt as I stood there sobbing, all alone.

When my attention finally snapped back to the road, I smashed the brake and slid on the loose dirt. My car skidded sideways, preventing me from hitting the old bitter cherry tree. As always, I almost missed the crossroads. But there it was, that old tangled path to the right. I eased my heart, slowed my breaths, corrected my car, and rolled slowly onto the road.

My Black Flag was finished playing—probably had been for awhile—and I didn’t bother playing any more music. For the rest of the way, I listened to only the Neon’s engine and the dirt.

When I arrived, I recall fretting, but once I nutted up and stepped out of the car, a sort of serenity washed over me—a calm I can’t explain. I hadn’t expected such a feeling when I came here to this place. I’d expected dread, anger, loathing, melancholy, anything but this.

There were cars parked, but I sensed that no one was actually here. It had often felt that way when I lived here. I remember hearing neighbors, but never really talking to them.

The lobby was dirty—and as always—empty. I realized that I couldn’t really tell if this place was abandoned or not.

The lobby door was tight as if locked, but with a bit of strength, I opened it. Musky dust assaulted my nostrils. It was always like this—had always been.

I stepped into the narrow hall, greeted by a familiar creaking under my feet. The fluorescent light—the same lamp as always—flickered. The dull green wallpaper was peeling just as badly as I remembered. I felt pleasure with each creaking step—and yet—I was timid. It reminded me of ice fishing with Dad the few times he’d taken me; the sweet smell of freezing dew, the shrinking steps of my feet against crackling ice. Even the chill was here—the type of cold that doesn’t sink into your bones—just keeps you awake and alert.

I faced the door the way I would face an enemy—as if we were about to duel. I was surprised when I noticed a fairly large rectangular hole in the door, framed by long strands of splintered wood. Had someone punched or kicked it? Was this recent?

As I peered inside, it seemed that almost nothing had changed. There were still divots where the carpet sunk into holes in the floor. Still there was a dining table in the corner of the living room, though it was a slightly different table. Our table had been small, brown, circular. This one was white and square. The walls were still dirty looking no matter what—a yellowish film over the original white. It no longer smelled of chocolate, but musky like the hallway.

I put my hand through the hole in order to turn myself at an angle to get a look at what else I might see. A hand grazed mine.

I pulled back and gasped. A child’s giggle didn’t put me at ease right away. She pressed her face into the hole—a little girl—and smiled.

“Hi,” I said as I caught my breath.

Her smile remained, but she said nothing.

I didn’t know what to do, so I said, “what’s your name?”

She said nothing. There was something white on her chin.

“What’s on your face?” I asked.

Her smile morphed into a shit eating grin. “Ice cweam.”

I chuckled and before I could say anything else, she opened the door. “Come in and play, girl with red hair.” I paused, but then did as she asked.

I marveled at the way so little had changed in the house. The walls were the same piss yellow, the furniture while different in design, were placed in the same places we had put ours. The ceiling fan still hung a tad tilted, each blade now caked in dust. Whoever was renting now must not clean like my mom had. The only window in the living room was now blocked by a rusted sheet of metal, and the glass door to the balcony was hidden by a dark red curtain.

There was beauty in this place, I could see it now—just how Mom had pictured it all those years ago. It was ugly and yet, it wrapped itself around you like a quilt. It was like a friend with a twisted face that you grow to love because they tell amazing jokes and always cheer you up when you’re down—until you begin to forget about what their face looks like—even begin to cherish it.

“My name is Evelyn,” I said, hoping this would prompt her to tell me her name.

“No it’s not,” she said. Her hair was a mess, she was dressed in dirty pajamas with unicorns on them—only not unicorns with rainbow colors or any bright colors at all—realistic looking unicorns with expressions on their faces that were almost angry. She looked to be about three years old.

“Oh yeah? If my name’s not Evelyn, what is it?” I asked with a chortle.

“It’s Evee,” she said, a bratty giggle of her own.

I froze. Why would she call me that? How would she know? I forced myself to consider it nothing.

“Did you know that some people do call me Evee?”

“I know lots of things,” she answered.

“I don’t believe you,” I said. “If you know so much, then what’s your name?”

She laughed quietly. “Ice cweam.” Her own words sent her into a fit of giggles, though she again kept them quiet.

“Alright, Ice Cream, where’s your parents?”

When she didn’t answer, I took a short tour. On top of the laminate counter there was a calendar—a year behind—and on top of it was a singular moth. It was more red than black, and the way it stood made it appear heart-shaped.

“Hey, Ice Cream, you get a lot of these moths around here?”

A girl’s voice answered, but it wasn’t Ice Cream. “We do.”

I turned quickly to find another little girl—older than Ice Cream—around five or six, the same age I was when I first lived here.

“Hi,” I said, beginning for the first time to feel like an intruder. “If she’s Ice Cream, are you Gumdrop?” I was still a cheeky bastard.

“I’m Katherine,” she said, but didn’t offer her hand. She seemed shy. Her hair wasn’t as messy as Ice Cream’s, but it was un-brushed; she too wore pajamas, plain blue and not so dirty.

“I’m Evelyn,” I said, not bothering to offer my hand. She was too nervous for that.

Blushing, she said, “she called you Evee, can I call you Evee too?”

I told her, “only if I can call you Katie,” then asked, “how long have you lived here?”

She shrugged right before a man’s voice screamed, “Katherine!”

The man emerged from the bedroom, torn forest green robe, bottle of liquor in his hand. The girls cowered, Katie held Ice Cream’s hand tightly.

He seemed not to notice me as he slammed his bottle down on the counter, squashing the moth in the process. I winced. It felt just as when Dad had killed them so long ago.

My sadness heated into a bit of anger. How could he care so little for life? And these girls, how could he be so calloused? They were so cute and innocent.

It’s so weird for me to think about now, but back then, I actually didn’t want any kids. And yet, still, I felt for them.

“Katherine! Why the fuck did you let someone in!”

The girls were trembling—and there was something about his voice that got to me as well.

I tried to apologize, tried to explain why I was here, but he just started sputtering, “get out!”

There was something odd in his tone. He was ferocious, but his tone was void of anger. Instead, his voice was soaked in fear, panic spraying out of him. He sounded like a little boy screaming at his abusive mother.

I didn’t say anything snarky, I promise; I just left. My chest was tight and I was shaking, but then I thought about Ice Cream and it eased my nerves. Her messy mouth and grin reminded me of how Dad really did try after Mom had died. There was a pathway I wasn’t familiar with—and ordinarily I wouldn’t have taken it—but a singular moth seemed to be hovering over it, inviting me.

As I walked in a daze, I recalled a day when Dad had really tried. He’d called me Evee that morning. Rather than comforting me, the word sounded foreign coming from his mouth, and it made me tense up. I was too young to recognize his effort.

The lulling inviting tune of the ice cream truck filled our apartment, and I didn’t even ask. I knew he wouldn’t let me, so I just stayed still. But then—with an awkward smile—he said, “let’s go,” and so we did.

Dad had always loved rocky road, but he ordered vanilla, as if his ice cream had to suit his mood. I tentatively asked for chocolate. I remember hoping to see the other kids around, waiting in line, but none were there and none came. As we ate, saying nothing, Dad’s forced smile became real. It reminded me of when Pinocchio went from wooden to flesh.

It seemed as though he was going to take me to the playground, maybe push me on the swingset like old times, until a moth started to circle Dad’s head and his mood instantly morphed. He threw his ice cream on the ground and frantically batted at his head until he finally hit his mark. The moth, now injured, spiraled to the ground. He didn’t say anything to me about it; I didn’t either. He just stared at me, half dead, half remorseful.

The unfamiliar path led me to the playground, only it was a little different. I paused. Children’s laughter surrounded me. The aroma of chocolate was everywhere. The beautiful deep red flowers surrounded the playground like a protective gate. How could this be? Mom had always loved chocolate cosmos because of her time in Mexico. She moved there for a year to get away from the pressures of college, and had fallen in love with the exclusive flower. The reason I’d grown up with them in our apartment was that she’d had them imported. They weren’t supposed to be growing here.

Watching the kids play warmed my heart. I never thought I would feel this way, seeing children. I’d always been calloused, always thought brats just weren’t for me, but in that moment, my ovaries fluttered like butterfly wings. I was almost horny as if I wanted to make children right then and there. It was like some animals when they go into heat anytime they’re in need of procreation. I tried to chalk it up to nostalgia. All my life, I’d wanted to play with the kids in this playground and I’d never been able to, and now here they all were—right in front of me—no glass barrier. But I know now that there was another reason.

Too busy in play, the kids paid me no attention. Squealing of the old metal merry-go-round and the pitter patter of their running feet harmonized with their laughter, and I watched. None of the children seemed to notice how dilapidated the equipment was—how the paint had mostly chipped off the metal structures, the sun’s rays bouncing brightly off the dull steel. It was full of sand instead of wood chips and I remembered how it felt when the sand would fill my shoes as I used to play carelessly. What I couldn’t remember was if there were always lush dark green plants all around. There was now—mossy looking things, almost like vines—twisted around a rusted chain link fence, and even seemed to be growing within the sand. The air felt damp, almost like a forest. Just like Katie and Ice Cream, the kids were all dirty, their clothing worn down, even torn.

Moths were scattered about, all facing the children, seemingly watching as well. I smiled at them as if we were all a bunch of soccer moms proudly gazing upon our chubby little brats.

When Katie and Ice Cream joined, I said, “I’m surprised your dad let you come out here.”

Ice Cream in her feral way, said, “he’s sleeping like he always does.”

Anger swirled in me. I envisioned him chugging another mouthful of liquor, slurring his words before falling over on the floor. I steeled myself and tried to make light of the situation. “You’re silly, Ice Cream.” She giggled.

I picked up Ice Cream and put her onto the crackling weather-beaten dark blue seat of a swing and started to push her gently. Katie leaned against the support structure. She shot me an adoring face and I blushed.

“I used to live here,” I told them. When they didn’t gasp in surprise, I added, “I actually sort of enjoyed the holes in the floor. Do they bother you?”

Ice Cream said, “shhh,” but then giggled.

Katie said, “it’s okay, we can talk to Evee. My sister likes to play in them. I hate them. I always forget to look and twist my ankle. I don’t know why the people at the office don’t fix em. Evee, I don’t like this place. I don’t like what it’s done to our dad. He used to tickle us and he was funny, but now he just yells and sleeps.”

I nodded, still pushing Ice Cream. “What about your mom?” I asked.

“Get away from them!” I turned sharply behind. Their dad was marching in a stagger toward us. “I told you to leave!” he screamed at me.

The power of the snark was strong with me. “I don’t take orders from geezers,” I snapped. I was so angry at that moment. “You don’t deserve these girls!”

Every single face was on him now; mine, all the children’s, the moths. He ignored us all and came close. His glare shot to Ice Cream. “What did I tell you about eating ice cream?” he said as if eating ice cream were tantamount to killing a baby.

“But daddy, I didn’t mean—”

“You didn’t mean to? Your face is covered in it, you filthy little brat!”

The way he said the word, “brat” made my blood run cold, and I decided right there at that moment that I would never use that word again.

Ice Cream cowered, trembling. Katie and I both stepped forward as he said, “I told you before not to eat that shit, and you didn’t listen.” He stared at each of his hands, then back at the little girl. “I will have to make you listen.” His voice was frosty, jagged, like a sharp icicle ready to impale Ice Cream’s heart.

Katie jumped in front of Ice Cream. “Don’t yell at her!” she screamed. “Yell at me. I’m the one who’s been telling Evee about the holes in our floor.”

I braced myself for his anger, but it dissolved instantly into fear as he turned to me. Tears streamed down his face. “This is your fault. You’re doing this! They were mad enough that I started drinking again. I told em that I was just trying to cope. I have to cope somehow, don’t I? But now they won’t get out of my head, and it’s because of you! The girls are telling you lies because you’re forcing them to. You’re soiling us. Get out. Get out! Get out!”

I honestly wasn’t sure if he was even still talking to me, or something inside his head.

The scent of alcohol mixed with the chocolate in the air filled my nostrils and black and red haze showered us as moths swarmed.

The girls’ dad shoved me with more force than I would have guessed and I fell to the ground. Anger and fear danced inside me, anger leading. He didn’t deserve these fucking amazing girls!

He turned to Ice Cream and Katie swooped to intervene. As he swatted at the moths, he struck Katie’s face, sending her screaming to the ground. He didn’t even seem to notice as he flailed within a mess of moths.

I was angry that he’d shoved me, that he’d struck Katie, but the static cold fury that gripped my heart in that moment wasn’t due to any of that. I realized that the reason I was so mad was that he was acting just like my own father. The smell of rain mixed with the chocolate of the flowers. Drops turned to pouring and I slowly stood.

The moths were now engulfing him, and he was pleading. “I’m so sorry!” he squealed pitifully. “I didn’t mean to, I just—”

His voice was muffled now. Inaudible screams drowned in a storm of moths. They formed around him, creating a shape like a cape—no—it was like a dress. The shape around him was femenine looking. His screams ceased, his frantic waving stilled. The moths and man moved as one, growing taller as more moths flocked to the group. It walked slowly, taking steps toward me until it was close enough that I could hear the fluttering of each set of wings. I was soaked and cold and wondered how the moths could still bat their wings against the heavy water falling on all of us.

The man full of moths fell to a knee and knelt before me, lowering his face to mine. Fluttering pounded in my ears. Behind the storm of red and black, there was a face, but it was no longer the face of a man, but of a woman. My mother’s face.

My anger turned to hatred.

When Dad died, he died screaming. We’d had a fight, one of many, he went outside for a smoke, which he’d just taken up, and waved his hands around at a bunch of moths and shot himself in the head. I froze for a long time before finally running outside. At some point, I called the police, and it seemed like forever before they showed up. He looked just like this father, panicking and screaming.

“You did this to him, didn’t you?” I said, coldly. “He called me Evelyn instead of Evee, or you saw him drinking, or smoking, or maybe he yelled at me, and you killed him, didn’t you?”

The giant monster in front of me—a fluttering mess of grotesque—somehow a reflection of my own mother, bowed her head. At that moment, I couldn’t stand the creature, couldn’t stand my mother.

“You drove him to it! You deemed him unworthy, but it was you who was driving him crazy! You put him through hell, and now look, look what you’ve created! I’m jaded, I’m alone, I haven’t the slightest clue who the fuck I am!”

Children formed a cluster behind the monster, faces full of protective fury. “Get away!” I screamed. “Get away from that monster!” None obeyed, all stayed standing still.

Moth Mom kept her head down, shaking left to right and I’d had it. “Look at me!” I screamed in agony. When she only shook harder, I pleaded, “look at me! I could have gotten married, could have had a career, could have known something of who I was, but now I’m lost, Mom. I’m lost! Look at what you’ve turned me into!”

I was sobbing now, convulsing. Whatever happened would happen and I would have no control over any of it.

She finally did look up, meeting my eyes. Moths fell from her eyes, a pile of dead moths forming on the grass at my feet. She twisted her head to the side, then more, until her head was completely upside down. Her face contorted, a screeching sound conveyed her pain until through fluttering—a voice similar to someone speaking into a fan, she said only two words. “I’m sorry.”

I sobbed for every second as one by one, moths fell to the ground—twitching or still—all dead. When every single one had died, I was on my knees shaking. All the flowers were dead along with the moths, and I noticed that all of the children were weeping with me. I expected their hatred to follow, to feel tiny fists battering my useless body. But instead, they came and held me, comforted me while we all wept.

I understood Mom then. I’d never known the love of children and so I dismissed them as brats. But now that they were consoling me, I understood just how potent this was. I craved their touch, their tears, their love.

I wiped my own tears and stared into the eyes of the children, Katie and Ice Cream amongst them. I had let their father die and killed my own mother with my hatred. These children who’d once spent their days playing and laughing amongst the moths who protected them, now stood alone just as I had for so long. I’d left them with nothing.

I kicked at the dead flowers—dry and brittle—they crumbled at my monster’s feet. I continued to kick and stomp, shouting obscenities at myself until I almost stomped on a living flower. I stopped myself. Perched on top was a cinnabar moth, still alive, looking at me curiously. So slowly I reached out and it tentatively crawled onto my hand. I brought it to my face.

“I’m so sorry,” I pleaded.

It shook a little and did something similar to coughing. Red human blood escaped its mouth—just a tiny drop—onto my hand.

“I love you,” I said as it then drank the blood back in.

Calming, my breaths slowing, I peered at the children as they began to surround me. And I smiled at them.

I wasn’t meant for Mcdonald’s or a strip club afterall. Now I have children who all love me. I never got married, but I know exactly who I am now, just like Grey. I never made it out of Oregon, but I suppose I was never meant to. If you ever wanna visit, there is an old bitter cherry tree. Perhaps you’ll see only a path to your left, or maybe you’ll see a fork and a twisted path to your right. Take the one to your right and wave a hello to this ole bitch. Just make sure you treat your children right while you’re here. I get dreadfully cranky if you don’t; me and my many friends.


Colt Fry, hailing from Colorado, fell in love with writing at the age of ten, when he tried to write the scariest book in the world. It was okay. He’s better now. He loves watching MMA and spending time with his beautiful wife and rowdy tike of a son.


If you liked this story, you may also like “Night” by Amita Basu.

“Mentone” Supernatural, Psychological Thriller by Sjoerd van Wijk

"Mentone" Horror by Sjoerd van Wijk

Last Summer – the last day

“Arrevedeci, Mentone!” someone blurted out in the crowded hallway of Menton station.

He jumped at those words. His otherwise slightly crooked back straightened with a jolt – his frayed, slightly oversized red coat fell in line. His clunky leather shoes clicked together and the gaping hole between his bent legs disappeared.

No one noticed him. People rushed past, holing up in their sunglasses and their earbuds and their newspapers as a train came to a halt at the platform nearby.

He scratched in between his short messy fat hairs. And started: “Well…”

An electric shock surged through his hand and he stood even straighter. She had taken it, caressing it softly. His eyes went from her black hairs, twinkling brown eyes, bemused smile with thin lips, down to her flowery dress, tanned legs, and her massive white sneakers.

He then looked straight past her. Some fluffy white dog, owner unknown, stared at him from the platform.

“It was fun,” she said in the half English-French concoction they used to speak.

Now she had to get back to university life. He himself had to return home to Cologne to analyze data in spreadsheets.

That dog didn’t let go of his stare from afar. His heart skipped a beat.

She poked his sides to laugh at his shrill shouts of surprise. Then she hugged him. He wriggled a bit. But she held him tight – ever tighter than before.

He wanted to tell her, “So…”

She turned him loose, grabbed her bag and walked to the train, petting that white dog in passing. He followed quickly, eyeing the dog which eyed him, her, and the train she was boarding.

In the train’s doorway she blew a kiss, blurted out another ‘goodbye, Menton’, disappeared into the opposite aisle and that was that.

Mid December – morning

The corded streetlights of Menton boulevard dangle in the winds this early morning before sunrise. As do threads of his frayed red coat as he walks underneath, casting a tall shadow. Despite the long train ride here he had tossed and turned in bed during the night.

“Goodbye, Menton,” her voice resounds with each blow of the wind.

It’s almost Christmas here, making the Mediterranean chilly. He ducks himself in more, absent the heat of day. Wrappings of sweets race past him in spurts until they reach some broken garbage can in between two holed up sidewalk cafes. A blue plastic bag barely covers the contents that spill out over the cobbled street.

He makes fists in his pockets. He freezes – not from the cold.

A white mop of a stray dog rummages through the rubbish. The dog unaware pants in the same rhythm as the flapping threads of his red coat. Its tongue almost rolls right over the floor.

He walks slowly past. His knuckles white from the chill turn red.

At this point of the boulevard, it stretches out for miles back and front. It’s packed with hotels boarded up for this winter’s sleep. Nary anyone else in sight – just a dilapidated palm tree here and there. The waves crash over boulders nearby.

And the wind cries in her voice, “Goodbye, Menton.”

He quickens his pace and sets his eyes on a point far away. A parasol somehow left open through the night by its careless owners. Sweat drenches his skin, pricking everywhere on his body. He resists the urge to scratch as he races on. Just the clicks of his crummy leather shoes resound in the winds.

He pauses and closes his eyes for a deep breath near the parasol. Then freezes. 

Mrrrwf. Something bumps his legs.

Last Summer – the third day

“Hi,” she said.

The dog still bumped against his leg – he tried wishing it away, gazing at the sea.

“Hello?” she said again.

He looked in her general direction. Her red summer dress popped in the sun. He had to squint for a while.

He stepped sideways to escape the dog for a moment. “Hi.”

Her index finger pointed up. “I’m here.”

He followed it until he stared right into her big shades.

She removed them and laughed. “He doesn’t bite. Isn’t he sweet?”

He glanced sideways. “Oh, OK.”

She knelt to pet the dog. The wind swept up strands of her black hair.

“Are you scared? Really?”

He laughed back sheepishly.

She stood up again and held her palm high. “There’s nothing to worry about. You see?”

The dog jumped high to reach for her hand, then it turned on him.

He stiffened and hid his shaking hands wet from its snout in his pockets.

She chuckled. “All right, I’ll save you.”

She took that white mop. Held it tight against her. It hummed as she stroked it now and then. They walked to a bench through the masses, hurrying past unfazed by the dizzying sun. They sat down for a while. She asked all kinds of questions about him and he answered as best he could. Her English was as rusty as his French, but they managed. He did something right because she had to laugh more than once.

As they parted, she winked. “If you ever find courage, meet me in front of the casino at eight.”

“Su…” he began.

She freed the mop from her grip, then ran off after it.

Mid December – morning

He tries shaking his leg. To no avail. That white mop still bumps against it. He runs away despite some initial resistance from below. A mrrrwwllf of surprise. After a short while, he glances back anxiously.

“Woooo.”

He startles, stumbling right on top of a great big Santa, sporting a great big grin which falls backwards under his weight. From behind, he can hear the dog panting heavily. He gets up quickly to run.

Santa’s meant to welcome visitors to a market that serves as this place’s sole reminder of Christmas. The stalls enforce makeshift avenues within. Air rushes through creaks and crevices as if the market’s alive and whistling. He runs past signs of sausages, traditional tableware, dried fruits and some tableau of Jesus Christ born eternally in Maria’s lap, her loving gaze molded in plastic.

The wind doesn’t die down here. With each blow, her giggles reverberate throughout the place.

He cuts some corners. Dilapidated palm trees cast their shadows over the stalls here and there, large enough for a person to hide in them.

Again, her giggles resound.

A bark in the distance responds.

He flits his eyes from side to side. Cuts another corner for something cold to prick his sides.

“Aaaah!”

He sways his arms around. A figure rolls over until it stops underneath a palm tree. Out of the shadows Santa stares at him sideways, sporting his great big grin.

He runs past it out of the market and on to the port, where the boats drift as yet untouched by their owners. The blackened border mountain hovers over them like a big kid picking on someone smaller.

“Just look closer,” the wind whispers from behind in her voice.

Last Summer – a week in

She pointed at a bright white spot in the port he couldn’t discern even after three clarifications.

“Just look closer. It’s there!”

He bent over some more and shielded his eyes from the sun with his hands.

“Never mind,” she said. “Let’s go.”

She slapped him on his bottom. His cheeks tightened. Then she took his hand and walked.

He complied, nervously glancing at some white mop of a dog staring at him from a distance. He tried to make some pun about boats – but it got lost in translation. When he jumped in the boat under the watchful eye of the dog following them, she did crack a smile. The boat rocked violently as he barely kept his posture, flapping his arms around.

“Don’t rock the boat, you silly…” she said.

“I am a bit silly,” he said.

Gliding through the blue-green waters – the motor really plowed in there – the mechanical noise drowned by the breeze. They moored at some rocks. The boat swayed in the waves and he instinctively put his hand on one side of it.

Standing tall, she undressed. Her white bikini over browned flesh almost seared anyone’s eyes who dared to look closely at her. He held his head down as the boat rocked again.

“Why don’t you take it off?” she asked, pulling at his worn out green shirt.

He tried to get up, to get used to the left-to-right rhythm of the boat. Then tried to remove his shirt under her watchful eye.

“I’m so clumsy,” he said when he got stuck.

She laughed. He gave the shirt a stern last pull and removed it.

“Do