“The Thwarted Kingdom” Fiction by Titus Green

Major General Thomas Harrison, 1616-13 October 1660

He stirs, opening his crusty-lidded eyes, leaving reluctantly the dream of a parliament of saints which left him contented. He hears the distant church bells wistfully, knowing he will hear them chime just one last time. Their dense resonance deepens his sorrow, as they signify the church and the sermons he’ll never attend again. He groans and picks up the empty drinking vessel off a slimy, dank floor. Hadn’t he implored Christ to fill it with water as he whispered scripture with hands clasped and throat parched?

There is no furniture in this dark, fetid cell at Newgate Gaol. A narrow shaft of morning light, from the pitiful concession for a window, illuminates the jacket of his tattered Bible propped up against the wall. Seeing the amber radiance light up the face of God’s great volume cheers him with its hint of revelation. Could God be showing this as a sign not to give up his belief?  Did it support the stunning prophecy that Daniel saw in the Persian tyrant’s dream all those centuries ago? Fulfilment of this prophecy is his main concern now, as he prepares to be publicly eviscerated by order of the king.

His eyes widen as the sun’s ray settles on the gold thread of the intricate brocade pattern covering this 1640 edition of the Bible he has never, on principle, called the Bible of King James. His excitement grows as the book seems to glow brighter and brighter. There can be no doubt: “It is a sign! The coming of the days of our Lord is nigh and the Kingdom of Heaven is imminent at last! Oh, thank you Lord for not forsaking me in my darkest hour.” The euphoria numbs his senses, and he pays no attention to the faecal stench of the overflowing privy which is just yards away.  “Although I shall die, by shining your light you show me the path to the Kingdom of Heaven. A path that I will soon take without fear.”

He clasps his hands and mutters intense supplications to the mute god of the Testaments, praying more than anything to lose the sensation of pain when the hangmen take the red-hot blade to his belly.

“Lord, I beseech you to ready for me this last journey. Walk with me and guide me up your sublime steps to the door of Heaven I implore you.”

“That’s right. Say your prayers, Harrison. The Almighty’s the only one listening to you now.” He hears the hideous cackle of Ives, one of his gaolers, at the door and the rusty friction of the lock mechanism being operated. This is followed by the screech of the bolt that will reinforce his captivity for just one more bleak night. The oak door, reinforced by iron panels, creaks open, surprising a squat spider nestling in its hinges which scrambles for refuge in a wall nook.

Ives, a course, ugly man whose buck-toothed face is covered in sores, enters carrying a bowl of gruel and a cup of water.    

“Here’s yer breakfast. Eat it up heartily for it’s to be your last on this ere’ earth!”

He places the items on the freezing cold floor and grins at his shivering prisoner.

“What’s the matter Major General?” He says using the captive’s title sarcastically. “Are you shaking with eagerness to meet your master at Charing Cross tomorrow? I hear they’ve got a special hurdle to take you there in style!”

Harrison does not answer, considering conversation with the man to be sinful. He has treated Ives’ colleagues with the same reticence during the months of imprisonment, speaking only for the necessary transactions to gain him minimal comforts, such as not having to wear shackles and obtaining a couple of blankets. He refused their offers of ale for a couple of groats. For this snub, one of them spat on his Bible, and he suspects they have spat in his food, poisoning it with their loathing. He peers into the gruel and sees the maggots who remind him of the turncoats and traitors of the Levellers who dumped all their principles for pardons and personal enrichment. Where were these Judases now? How would they be able to look their children in the eyes, clasping their pieces of silver? Godless, avaricious sinners they were who would be scorched by hellfire in due time. His beliefs tell him to welcome his brutal death that is coming soon, as he is dying for the most glorious cause: the ending of carnal man’s world and the ushering in of God’s.

“I wonder where they’ll stick your head Harrison. I’d say it’ll be on the gates of Parliament.” Ives sneers, and Harrison recalls the day he and Cromwell stormed into the chamber and scattered the dithering rump parliament. Now a very different parliament was dismissing him, with a jury full of turncoats, opportunists and knaves sending him to death.

“Get away! Leave me to pray with what time I have left,” he tells Ives curtly.

“Ha! Don’t trouble yourself. No amount of prayers can save you from hell, Harrison, because that’s where God sends killers of kings.” Ives spits on the floor and then reaches for a bucket outside the cell. He throws the bucket of water diluted with pig offal and urine into the condemned man’s face. Harrison grimaces and retches several times, cursing Ives and wishing the Lord would hand him one of his favourite cavalry rapiers so that he could run the insolent dog through with one decisive thrust. He reckons Ives is abusing him for refusing to gift his gold ring to him on the morning he will be sent for. He is not going to gratify this sinner’s avarice.

“I’ll be back at dinner. We’ve got a little surprise meal prepared for you. You can call it your last supper.”

“Get out you blasphemous wretch!” cries the major general, and moments later he is alone, forlorn and reeking of piss. However, despite his wretchedness he resolves to do one last thing, ask one final question and find one critical answer: when will the Messiah rule in the Kingdom of Heaven?

***

Hours later, after the rotting pig’s head has been thrown into his cell­­––the last hideous insult of his captors––he doubles the concentration in his prayer as the light filtering through the narrow slit in the wall gradually fades. With the closure of the day comes his sombre understanding that his last day of life has passed. He has just one more morning to live and one central role to play in a horrific ritual of English justice. He will be killed on a scaffold and his death will be as gruesome as that suffered by the doomed, drugged victims of Aztec sacrifice pageants. The golden lion of royal vengeance was going to be set on him; he was  going to be the first of the regicides to feel its iron claws tear into him at Charing Cross. He was going to be their main example of maximum punishment after all. An example that spoke not in words but in disembowelment while conscious and said: shed royal blood and see what happens.  He’d been a ringleader and advocate for trying the king, strutting through corridors in his breeches, giving sanctimonious speeches and preaching the Fifth Monarchy’s coming to reluctant ears. He had grabbed the doubtful by the scruffs of their necks and drilled the Book of Daniel into their minds, leaving spittle on their cheeks. Then, in that January like no other, he’d picked up the tatty quill, dipped it in the ink and scribbled his signature in the third column of the grainy parchment that authorized the beheading of the king. Now eleven years later, that same document that condemned the king to die condemned him also; the smudged wax seals next to the regicide’s signatures sealed his doom in this grim parallel. He pictures the damning scroll, no longer mere material but the living agent of the Stuart bloodline’s revenge which refused to decay. It hovers in front of him, and its surface starts rippling and within seconds it has become a three-dimensional resemblance of the executed king’s face. King Charles’ eyes glow and his lips twitch into a grin and Harrison cries out. The vision vanishes.

More time escapes in the darkness and he groans in pain at the wounds from civil wars one, two and three that never properly healed. The cracked ribs on his left side caused during the Battle of Powick Bridge ache still. That day he saw Prince Rupert leading a cavalry charge in the distance with his sabre brandished like the Macedonian Alexander. He had been a formidable enemy, a foreign mercenary both virile and terrifying riding against the soldiers of England’s new constitution with his weapons brandished. 

He grips his Bible, his eyes straining in the meagre light of a solitary candle, reading for the thousandth time the passage in the Book of Daniel where the Hebrew soothsayer satisfies Nebuchadnezzar with his description and interpretation of the King of Babylon’s baffling dream:

In the days of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and this kingdom will not pass into the hands of another race: it will shatter and absorb all the previous kingdoms and itself last for ever.

As his eyes scan this Old Testament paragraph, he searches desperately for a deeper understanding of its import because he is now troubled by very serious doubts. Had they misinterpreted these ancient, obscure scribes? Was there contrary meaning buried in this cryptic prophecy? God forbid, had they been deceived? Did its future verbs describe the republic’s destiny, or the House of Stuart’s restored fortune? He steps into the text, becoming an invisible witness to the scene in the scripture, standing between Daniel with his boyish looks and flowing locks, and the stern, bearded king dressed in his shawl and covered in gold. “Tell me what I dreamt,” Nebuchadnezzar commands, and Daniel, speaking in a sonorous voice, obliges his master. He explains the statue of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream with its golden head, silver arms, bronze belly, iron legs and brittle clay feet about to be smashed into smithereens. Harrison is absorbed by this spectacle, this epic biblical dialogue taking place in his mind. His concentration increases when Daniel explains that the disintegration of the statue’s feet symbolized the end of the Babylonian King’s kingdom and its absorption into the greater and more glorious Kingdom of Heaven. The tyrant Charles was long dead, but instead of the Fifth Monarchy, the glorious republic of mankind that he and Hugh Peters had promised to the soldiers of parliament, there was this wicked, licentious hound with continental manners and a crown on his head; the whoreson of the tyrant returned to the throne!  

With shaking hands, he puts his Bible down. His furrowed face is cadaverous in the candlelight. Scurvy fills his body and yet he barely notices the physical pain with the greater spiritual trouble that preoccupies him. The crumbling feet were supposed to presage the end of Charles Stuart’s reign and the demise of all royal tyrants for eternity, but yet here was the perfidious noble bloodline restored!

“Was it not prophesied by Daniel that we were destined to be the Fifth Monarchy that ushers in the Kingdom of Christ? Oh God, have we gravely mistaken this message?”

The graffiti scoured onto the wall opposite, some of it centuries old and written in unreadable Middle English, refuses to answer. He has stared at it for hours during breaks in his prayer and reverie, only making out meaning in isolated Latin phrases. They are curses: vulgar, defiant messages from the doomed of the past to nameless captors now long since buried by the years. Now, here he was treading in these pitiful strangers’ condemned shoes. Was he destined to be just another obscure victim in history’s vast catalogue of tyrants, and how would Major General Thomas Harrison’s deeds be depicted in the pamphlets and conversations of posterity?

He starts at the sight of Oliver Cromwell, or more precisely his exhumed corpse, watching him from across the cell within the confinement of a gibbet with heavy corrosion on its bars. What remains of the former Lord Protector’s face looks like that of a melting wax dummy. The distended features are covered in muddy slime and the eyes have liquified. His decaying doublet is teeming with maggots which pour out of his collar and sleeves.

“Oliver!” he stammers.  “It is frightful to to see you in such a wretched condition, but I know this is merely your temporal body and that you are now surrounded by angels in Paradise.” Cromwell’s corpse is silent.  

“Has the Lord God given you a sign when the Kingdom of Heaven shall reign? Will it start in 1666 as the auguries say? Will the Fifth Monarchy rule for eternity as the scripture tells? I am desirous of an answer, for the Stuart bloodline now sits upon the throne of England again and I am beginning to dread that our time will never come to pass.”

The phantom fades gradually, blurring into translucence. Desperate for assurance he summons his past, delving into memory to seek signs of the destiny of the Fifth Monarchy, which he is certain will bring a thousand years of peace to Earth. He recalls various battles, with the deafening blasts of cannon, the fluttering standards engulfed in smoke and the cacophonies of cavalry charges still as vivid as the day he experienced them. He thinks of the Putney Debates of 1647 at which, jostling with powerbrokers and agitators of the New Model Army, he had to shout to make himself heard in the raucous din of the assembly rooms. That was when he called for the king, that ‘man of blood’, to be tried for treason and faced a barrage of haughty resistance from ruddy-cheeked, affluent landowners with agendas and mistresses across England. Carnal men who wished to maintain the sinful conditions of the world.

Then he recalls the time he was assigned to escort the captive King from Hurst Castle to face the extraordinary court in London. At one time the trial had seemed no more than a fantastic, idealistic dream. And then, God brought his fist of retribution down upon the table of England and demanded justice be done and it was. Praise be to the Lord, the most ancient and venerable judge!

He supervised the cavalry escort, making sure to select the most disciplined and vigilant horsemen to ensure the sly rogue would not escape on his watch. God had given him this vital mission, and he would not fail. He remembers his amazement at the diminutive, gently spoken man he had accompanied in the carriage; his fragile appearance and manner were so incongruous with the rampaging tyrant of his imagination that had cavorted across the country so destructively and flattened it with his hubris. He had bowed but refused to address him as your majesty when he introduced himself and led the prisoner to the carriage. Harrison was pleased by the look of pique on the face of the deposed monarch so accustomed to deference.

On the way to London, the rattling sound of the coach substituted for conversation as it made its way through the rutted roads and for most of the journey there was a wary silence between them. This was broken as they were approaching the capital city, when the king leaned forward and spoke:

“Colonel Harrison. They say you are plotting to do me harm. What say you? Is there substance in these rumours I hear?”

He looked at the haughty tyrant, determined not to show any fear. He responded with silence at first, but the king would not be denied.

“Well? Speak! What do you have to fear from me now that I am your prisoner?” Charles Stuart spoke the words with aristocratic scorn and Harrison recoiled at them. The snake! The treacherous serpent of sedition that sued for peace while mustering foreign armies! He was not about to disclose anything to him. As for nothing to fear, he was aware of the abstract threat of this traitor’s extant children, should their despicable throne ever be restored. However, he saw no harm in giving this criminal a hint of the justice coming to him. Harrison answered:

“You may put your mind at rest on this point, for the Lord has reserved you for a public example of justice. What is done will be open to the eyes of the world.”

The king expelled a mocking laugh. “And what, pray, will happen when this ‘divine justice’ you speak of has been served? Who is to rule England’s subjects? Who is to keep order? Or maintain the peace?

Keep order. Maintain peace. If only royalty was as rich with its appreciation of irony as its vaults of gold! Harrison hesitated, thinking it unwise to share his innermost convictions with the enemy. Then he answered:

“The God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and this kingdom will not pass into the hands of another race,” he said quoting the scripture, before adding: “And this will be Christ’s kingdom, not the Stuart’s, the Tudor’s or any other mortal despot’s. This kingdom will last for eternity, unspoiled by the arrogance and lust of men like you!”

“Is that so?” asked the king with an ironic smirk.

“It was Daniel’s prophecy in Babylon,” Harrison replied defiantly.

The king clasped his hands together, with his dainty fingers full of jewels encased in gold rings.

I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. We are the divinely ordained, Harrison. Don’t you understand? God requires us to exist and carry out his work. We will never be usurped!”

***

The autumn wind howls, like a final lamentation of his life as seconds dissolve, minutes escape and hours desert him. Soon the sun will make its final appearance on the horizon of his existence. The clock of the heavens will say time’s up with its bloody orange smile. He shivers and pulls the blanket closer, considering the futility of sleep on this night. There will, by god, be no reason to be wide awake on the morrow.

He relives the show-trial, seeing Pompous Pilate Judge Orlando Bridgeman stymie his attends to defend himself and shout him down at every turn while the calculating Solicitor General Heneage Finch destroys his reputation with sanctimonious rhetoric in the Old Bailey dock. Worst of all, he catches the smug faces of fellow regicides and signatories of Charles’ 1649 death warrant grinning at him from the safety of the public gallery.

Soon he hears the chiming of distant bells announcing the day of his slaughter. The sunlight peeks through the aperture, this time not illuminating anything profound except his filthy smock. He has spent the last hour praying desperately to God for an answer to the troubling question of the Fifth Monarchy’s future. Neither words nor cryptic epiphanies came. At seven o’clock there is the sound of a convoy of boots in the corridor. The rusty locks are worked, and instead of Ives a cluster of dragoons in lobster-tail helmets enters the cell.

“Thomas Harrison!”

Harrison needs effort to rise and the guards with a strict death schedule to keep are in no mood for delay. A soldier steps forward and pulls him to his feet. The former commander and favourite of Cromwell is so gaunt and weak that his execution seems unnecessary. Summoning his last traces of strength, Harrison composes himself for his escorts.

“So, I am to be crucified like the Son of God? Quartered like a pig?  But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter; And I did not know that they had devised plots against me.

As he leaves the cell, a sense of being watched forces him to turn around. Where he lay, Nebuchadnezzar’s dream statue stands. To his dismay, all parts of its anatomy from its bulging biceps, chunky pectorals and chiselled abdominals glitter brilliantly in gold. Suddenly, rays of sun shine through the narrow aperture in the wall and strike its torso, causing a dazzling starburst. As the light passes across Nebuchadnezzar’s face, it morphs  into the features of Charles I and then into the nearly identical visage of his son who was restored to the throne.

“Lord help me! Royalty is immortal,” cries Harrison as he is led out.


Titus Green was born in Canada but grew up in the UK. His short fiction has appeared in numerous online and print magazines, including The Collidescope, Adelaide Literary Magazine, HORLA, Literally Stories, Sediments Literary Arts, Stag Hill Literary Journal, Sediments Literary Arts and others. He teaches English as a foreign language for a living. His published writing can be found at http://www.titusgreenfiction.com.


“Who Are You Talking To?” Psychological Horror by Harold Hoss

Casey-Linn cleans her home, starting in one corner and working her way to the next. She wants to have the place clean when the love of her life, Doctor John-Michael Fern, gets there. She wants to see the look on his face when he walks in, looks around and sees just how clean the place can be. She knows how proud it will make him. How impressed he will be.

“One who maintains cleanliness keeps away diseases,” Doctor Fern likes to say.

He has lots of little sayings like that. His favorite saying is: “a healthy mind in a healthy body.” Doctor Fern talks to Casey-Linn about health a lot, but he’s usually just saying the same thing in different ways. A sound mind in a sound body, he might say. Or mens sana in corpore sano. As if saying it again in a different language will make the message stick.

            Casey-Linn finishes one corner of her home and moves towards the next, only to pause at the nightstand, where a picture of her and Doctor Fern, standing side by side, sits. Doctor Fern’s wearing his white coat and scrubs, of course, but if she squints, she can imagine him in a tuxedo and her in a ballgown, standing on some red carpet or coming out of some fancy charity dinner. She can imagine Doctor Fern complaining – not really complaining, but half complaining and half joking – about having to attend so many fancy events while she listens with an indulgent smile.

            Casey-Linn holds the picture, tenderly, like a baby. She caresses Doctor Fern’s forehead with her thumb and smiles. She puts the picture back in its place on the nightstand when she hears something. The voice of a young boy. Her son. Only he isn’t calling out to her. Instead, he’s whispering, careful to keep his voice low and hushed. As if he’s trying not to be heard.

            Casey-Linn puts the picture back, careful not to make a sound, and takes a deep breath. She listens intently. Her son’s whispers have the ebb and flow of pauses that come with a normal conversation, but she only hears one voice.

            Turning, she wonders who he’s talking to and moves towards the sound of the voice.

            Casey-Linn’s footsteps are light and barely audible but, clinging to some childhood superstition, she holds her breath and closes her eyes, although she knows the latter won’t make her any less visible. Eyes closed, she inches closer and closer to the sound of her son’s voice, until she knows she’s standing close enough that she can reach out and touch him, then she balls her fists and rubs them in her eyes, hard enough that the darkness behind her eyelids flickers and the shadows twist.

            Casey-Linn opens her eyes and there’s her son, crouched on the ground and facing away from her. The blue blazer and red trousers of his schoolboy uniform are wrinkled and the curly brown hair he refuses to comb sticks out at all angles.

            Casey-Linn’s body goes rigid, her jaw clenches, her shoulders tense, and her hands slowly close into fists. She works so hard to keep the home clean. Doctor Fern works so hard to put a roof over their heads. Everyone works so hard because everything is so hard.

            Except for her son. Her son, who has everything. Her son, who can do anything. Who can be anyone. And who instead sits here. Alone.

            “We can’t go outside. It’s against the rules,” he whispers. He waits for an answer only he can hear, then he shakes his head. “I did ask. She said no. I can’t ask again. She’ll get angry.”

            Her nails dig into her palms. She can’t have him acting like this, talking to shadows under the bed or cracks in the floor or whatever it is this week. Doctor Fern will be here soon. She can’t have him embarrassing her. She won’t let him embarrass her. Not again. Not in front of Doctor Fern.

            Before she knows it, Casey-Linn marches across the room, clearing it in a few seconds, barely giving the boy time to turn and look, his eyes wide with fear and surprise. She grabs him by the shoulders and shakes. He squirms at first, then goes limp, like a mouse in a bird’s talons, resigned to its fate.

            “Who are you talking to?” she says. When he won’t answer, she screams, “Who are you talking to?”

            She shakes him like a child would shake a piggy bank, lightly, then, excited by the sound of something rattling inside, harder. When nothing comes out, she shakes harder.

“There’s no one there! So whoare you talking to?”

            She keeps shaking, and she keeps shouting, but nothing changes. She knows what Doctor Fern would say. He would say you can’t do the same thing over and over and expect a different result, but she doesn’t know what else to do, and she has to do something. So, she keeps shaking, and she keeps shouting, and nothing happens.

<><><> 

            “Casey-Linn,” the sound of Doctor Fern’s voice cuts through the air with such force that the lights in the tiny hospital room almost flicker. “Who are you talking to?”

            Doctor Fern stands in the doorway. Knowing his eyes are hidden behind opaque glasses, he lets them scan the small room. It’s mostly barren save for a generic bed and nightstand with a book and an empty picture frame. Nothing, and certainly no one,for Casey-Linn to be speaking to.

            He takes a breath and slowly stretches out one hand towards Casey-Linn. He has his palm out, the same way someone would approach a wild animal.

            “Casey-Linn,” he says again, his voice softer. “Who are you talking to?”

<><><> 


Harold Hoss is a former entertainment attorney who enjoys reading horror, watching horror, and writing horror – always with a cup of coffee in his hands. When he isn’t reading, watching, or writing he can be found running with his dog Margot. 


“The Jets” Psychological Horror by Keith LaFountaine

When Jan came home from work, she found her husband curled in the fetal position on the living room floor. He had stuffed two pieces of cotton in his ears. In the distance, Jan heard the approaching growl of the F-35s – at least, the one that was trailing behind his four other pals. They were making so many loops it was challenging to keep up with their schedule.

            Dropping her bag next to the kitchen counter, Jan rushed toward her husband, her heels clicking against the wood floor. The door slammed behind her, and when she reached Peter, the jet came thundering over their house, the sound of its engine drowning out everything in a hundred-foot radius.

            “Peter!” she shouted. She felt the strain in her throat as the words slipped out, but the jet engines stole their power. She wrapped her arms around Peter, pulling him into a seated position. He trembled to the point that she worried about the possibility of a seizure or some other serious injury. But no – when she looked in his eyes and pressed her palm against his cheek, she saw her Peter there, lucid as ever – terrified, certainly, but conscious.

            “Baby,” she said, cradling his face, “what’s wrong? What happened?” She plucked the cotton out of his ears. To her shock, they were soaked with blood.

            “Did you hear them?” Peter whispered. “Oh, God. Jan – the screams! Can’t you hear them?”

*

            Peter slept soundly, his snores rumbling in their tiny bedroom, his mouth hanging ajar, a thin line of drool spilling down his bottom lip. It was six-thirty – a far cry from the usual time they went to bed (or, when she would lay up at night knitting, when he would crack open whatever paperback he’d brought home from the used bookstore down the road). Odd, but not a crime. Truth be told, she couldn’t get the image of the blood-drenched cotton swabs, nor the fear in his tone when he spoke. As she returned to the living room, Jan figured that whatever Peter had experienced more than earned him an early night.

            She considered grabbing her knitting needles from the bedroom but instead decided to make a quick dinner. Crossing through the living room and into the kitchen, she rummaged around the fridge until she found some soup she’d made the night prior. As she put the pot on the stove, the drone came again – soft and in the distance, but unmistakable.

            “Christ,” Jan muttered under her breath. The Governor had warned that they would be starting night runs soon, but a part of her foolishly hoped better ideas would prevail. Ideas like not bothering people with cacophonous jets around the time they were preparing dinner.

            Slapping a pot onto the stove’s electric coil, she scooped in a few spoonfuls of the cold soup and turned the burner on high. As she watched the burner turn a bright crimson, the first of the jets came flying over the house. As it did, the structure shook with it. The whiskey bottles on their bar rattled around; the pictures on the walls twitched left and right; dust shifted from the lamps and fell to the floor; the windows made an awful grating sound as they chittered about. And that was just the first jet. There were five, each as droning and annoying as the next. Sure enough, as steam rose above the warming soup, the next came. Again, the house did its little jig.

            That was when she heard Peter screaming from the bedroom.

            Instinct kicked in. Leaving the soup behind without flipping off the burner, Jan dashed through the kitchen, hooked left, and sprinted down the short hallway toward their bedroom. Upon flinging the door open, she saw Peter standing naked in front of their window, the one that overlooked the driveway. She saw a jet speeding ahead into the distance in the darkening sky, turning left, heading toward the highway. The third jet came, and it seemed to put a little oomph into its engine. The roar was so loud Jan felt her ears pop, and the glass of water on Peter’s nightstand came tumbling down on the floor, where it shattered, sending jagged blue pieces of glass skittering every which way.

            If Peter heard the sound of the glass breaking, he didn’t indicate it. Jan yelled at him as she approached, straining her voice to do so. Even before he turned, her heart lurched. Dark blood streamed from his ears like there was an internal leak in his brain. Maroon tributaries ran down his neck and his chest, dripping onto the floor. And still more came. Her stomach wobbled when she saw the blood was being pumped out, fresh batches dousing his earlobe and slicing down the side of his face.

            When her husband turned, her heart jolted again. The fourth jet came flying over, and in the wake of its fading drone, she heard her husband whisper something. In his right hand was one of her knitting needles, its pointed edge glimmering with a devilish hunger, backlit by moonlight.

            “Peter,” she said, trying to enunciate. The fifth jet, the last of the bunch, was still approaching. “Peter, give that to me.”

            “Can’t you hear them?” Peter cried. Tears ravaged his cheeks, burning down his face, parallel to the blood pumping from his ears. “Jan, you have to hear them! They’re…they’re crying, Jan! God, they’re screaming! Why can’t anybody hear them?”

            The fifth jet tore through the sky, its sound ripping the world in two, and that was when Peter drove the knitting needle into his bleeding ear. Jan didn’t hear the sound of the needle puncturing his brain, nor did she hear her screams. The jet engines stole all.

            She ran as he fell, catching his body before his head cracked against the wood floor. The F-35 flew away, twisting to follow the group, and as it did, Jan sobbed, unsure of what to do or who to call. In her arms, Peter seized, his body jerking around uncontrollably, and eventually Jan had to lay him down on the floor, run to the kitchen for her phone, and call 911. The stove’s burner hissed as the soup boiled over the sides, unleashing gouts of white smoke.

*

            In the weeks that followed Peter’s death, Jan participated in a handful of police interviews, answering the same questions repeatedly: did your husband have a history of depression; what happened prior to his suicide; did he have any enemies that you know of; did he often talk about being upset with life or wishing he could disappear? Aside from pricking her heart again and again with barbed needles, the questions served only to prove how ridiculous the notion of Peter’s suicide was. It was the word to describe what happened, yet it didn’t explain any nuances. The Peter she knew was buoyant and hopeful. The Peter that had died…well, he had been someone else entirely. Driven mad by the jets, as odd as that was to say. Jan only allowed herself to consider the cause-and-effect of the jets when she was alone at home, often wallowing away in a steep glass of wine, sitting in sweatpants stained with her hot tears.

            And still, overhead, the jets thundered on.

*

            The first night after the funeral, Jan drew a hot bath. She found some salts and bubble bath squirreled away under her bathroom sink, and she dumped half of each into it. After lighting a few candles and putting calming music on, she brought a bottle of rosé and uncorked it. Then, settling into the warm water, she drank and cried.

            When the first jet flew overhead, she rolled her eyes, pulling one hand from the bubbly water to flip off her ceiling. As silly as the gesture was, something settled in her gut then: a comforted rage, satiated for the moment, even as she remained confused and addled by the trauma of that night. Sucking down some more wine, she listened to Hozier croon from the speaker on her sink, and she closed her eyes, settling deeper into the bath. Warm water licked at her chin, and she placed the bottle on the side of the tub, resting her weary, tear-streaked eyes.

            The second jet came screaming by soon after. The description was too accurate, though. Jan opened her eyes as it passed overhead. She did hear screaming. A high-pitched wail. The kind she would have expected in a cheesy slasher movie, with Jason cutting down a few too-horny-for-their-own-good campers. But then the sound was gone, fading into the distance. Until the next jet came, and she heard it again. This time, she kept her eyes closed. In the darkness, she saw a mouth, unhinged; a tongue pulled back in reflexive terror; eyes with dilated pupils; hands clutching something close, holding it tight, some precious thing.

            Jan shook her head and sat up in the bathtub. Water sloshed over the side, spilling onto the tile floor, and the cold air in the bathroom raised goosebumps on her chest.

            It can’t be, she muttered, shaking her head. It’s the trauma. It’s losing Peter. I’m just hearing things.

            When the third jet boomed by, she heard it again, though. This time the screaming was more pronounced: an unmistakable wail of terror, a word she didn’t recognize. It was screamed in a higher register, and when the deeper boom of the F-35’s engines kicked into gear, the word was lost to her.

            But she heard it with the fifth jet. It stole her breath. Jan reached her hand up to her neck. Her heart thumped in her chest, hard and fast, and she whispered her husband’s name, though that sound was stolen by the engines and the screams, too.

            The word she heard, clear as day, was HELP.

*

            The Governor’s email was about as bare bones as she expected, given the lack of clarity in her initial query. Underneath her email, which (among other things) requested a stoppage to the jets flying over her neighborhood, was a cold response.

            Dear Mrs. Anderson: we understand your concerns and apologize for any inconvenience. However, Governor Scott stands firmly in support of our military and will not hinder their pursuit to protect our freedom.

            Jan rolled her eyes and cursed under her breath. After snapping the laptop closed, she stood from her living room couch and returned to the kitchen. Typical politician bullshit. Jets doing loop-de-loops over residential neighborhoods protected her to the same degree that Brent the Mall Cop did while standing outside the Macy’s in South Burlington.

            The jets returned that night. With them came the screams, the pleading for help, the sound of vocal cords breaking. Jan huddled in her bedroom closet, slamming the door shut behind her. But even the additional walls were unable to drown out the sound of terror. The engines roared overhead, shaking the house, and with the shrieks came new sounds: wailing bombs falling to the ground, exploding; the chatter of gunfire, pocking an arid landscape, shattering bones and spraying the soil with blood; the faint moans of the dying, holding bloody stumps where elbows had once been, holding throats that seeped crimson, gurgling and coughing; another high-pitched warble as an additional bomb blasted the Earth, akin to the sound Wile E. Coyote made after falling off a ledge.

            When the final jet passed over, Jan pawed at her cheeks. They were awash with hot tears. Even as the engines faded into the distance, she heard the horrors of war in her head, drilling deeper, wrapping around her brainstem with fiery hands. As if acting on instinct, she curled into the fetal position and pressed her palms against her ears. In the dark closet, the sounds of destruction were omnipresent.

*

            “Jan, you can’t just leave!”

She’d expected Andy, her boss, would say something along those lines, but the truth was her role was easy to transfer into a remote role.

“I just do a lot of writing,” Jan retorted, putting her cellphone on speaker and rushing around her bedroom. She yanked a red suitcase from her closet, zipped it open, and tossed it on her bed. “I’ll still hit my deliverable, don’t worry. I just – I need to get away. Losing Peter, the aftermath. I just need to get away.”

            “I get that. And I told you that you could take some time if you needed it. Nobody would be upset if you did that.”
            Forgoing folding, Jan heaped clothes into the suitcase. She checked her watch. She still had time. The jets wouldn’t come by for another hour – by then, she would be a few counties away, safe from their engines, safe from the cries of terror and the whine of exploding shrapnel.

            “Andy, I can’t lose the PTO,” Jan demurred. She grabbed a phone charger from her nightstand, averting her eyes from the window, the place that still stank of blood, even after being professionally cleaned. “I just need you to listen to me, okay?”

            Her boss’s sigh was heavy, and her phone’s speaker crackled. Then, Andy said, “Fine. I can give you two weeks. Just stay in the state, okay? But I need you in the office after two weeks. Got it?”

            “Yeah, got it,” Jan said. “Thank you.” The phone beeped three times, indicating the call was over, and she returned focus to the suitcase.

            Forty-five minutes, Jan thought when she finished packing. She glanced once again at her watch. Her heart thumped hard and heavy in her chest. Blood pounded in her ears, and a faint metallic tang coated the back of her tongue. Ignoring her palpable fear, she grabbed the suitcase by the handle and lugged it out of her bedroom. In the kitchen, she snagged her car keys. They jangled when she stuffed them into her pants pocket.

            She turned back once to look at her living room. The sun streamed in through the window, laying out a blanket of yellow warmth on the floor. The couch looked inviting, with its soft cushions, and the remote on the coffee table called out to her. Throw something on the TV, it said. Watch a show. Relax.

            Turning away from the hell that had once been her haven, Jan opened the door and slipped out. She fumbled with her keys for a brief moment before stuffing the silver one into her lock. She twisted hard, and the ka-chunk of her lock slamming into place sent a stone of heat spiraling up into her chest. Jan stuffed the keys back into her pocket and marched toward her car, still lugging the suitcase by hand.

            Once Jan stowed it in her trunk, she slid behind the wheel and stuffed her large black key into the ignition. As she turned it, her motor made series of ruhruhruhruhruh sounds, as if it was gasping for breath.

Heat flashed in Jan’s face. She tried again, turning the key.

Ruhruhruhruhruh.

            “Please,” she whispered to her dashboard. “You can’t do this. Not now. Please.”
            On the third try, the motor coughed to life, though the sound of her car turning over was about as lazy as a car could sound. Jan glanced in her mirror – and that was when she saw the traffic on the road behind her.

            As Jan turned her car around, she glanced at the clock. Thirty-two minutes. She still had time. With thirty minutes, she could make it to Montpelier. Hell, if there weren’t any Stateys lurking in their green cars and the roads were clear, she could make it in less than twenty.

            But traffic wasn’t moving. A black SUV blocked her into the driveway, though the driver behind the wheel – a white woman with a frazzle of blond hair and two kids in the back seat – laid on her horn and opened her mouth, likely hurling some expletive. Jan fought the instinct to thrust her palm against her horn, too. The Mom in the SUV certainly couldn’t move.

            Ten painstaking minutes passed. Every thirty seconds or so, Jane craned her head to look down the road, seeing the long line of cars get shorter. The SUV was long gone. Now, blocking her in was a ratty Toyota. Rust ate away at the white exterior, while duct tape covered one of the back windows. It crept forward, its tires crunching over the pavement.

            “God damn it!” Jan roared, slamming her palm against the wheel. Thoughts swirled in her mind: if you just left twenty minutes earlier; if you didn’t pack that book; if you didn’t take the time to call Andy until after you arrived. If, if, if: the self-critiques stripped her bare, squeezed at her heart, and sent the pounding pulse of panic into overdrive.

            They’re coming, she thought. Christ, the jets are coming.

            It was an additional five minutes before she was able to sneak into traffic, cutting off a blue Honda, which earned her a squeal from its horn. She flipped the bird out her window and drove on, pulling into the right lane and speeding by the expanse of cars. As she approached the end of Pine street, she saw what had cut her precious time in half. A construction crew was actively churning the ground up at the intersection. Through the hole, she saw a pipe gushing dark black sewage. The smell was so fetid it managed to sneak through her car’s ventilation system. Jan wasted no time aggressively passing by the mess, cutting right at the next intersection and going up the hill toward Shelburne Road. Her brakes squealed as she pumped them, slowing to a stop at the next intersection. A sixteen-wheeler with pictures of produce on its side blew by, its engine uttering a churning gargle. The sound sent a flash of anxiety coursing down Jan’s spine. She resisted the urge to recheck the car’s clock. She knew time was running out – what was the use in wasting precious seconds?

            There was an accident up by the onramp, which slowed traffic to another halt. Jan let out a riotous bellow when she saw the Jeep’s smoking hood, dented inward, and the BMW’s shattered taillights. They were pulled off to the side of the road, in Jan’s lane, and a uniformed cop was ushering traffic forward while another took down notes. Jane crept forward, her foot slipping between the brake and the gas every few seconds. She looked up at the sky. It was a perfect powder blue. The sun still shone down with its friendly yellow rays. Birds chirped and cawed as they flew overhead. It was, by every definition, an impeccable day in Vermont.

            But they were coming. The roars, and the cries, and the destruction. They were coming.

            It only took a few minutes for the cop to wave her through, but it felt like eons to Jan. She sped forward, weaving by the cop and sliding onto the onramp. Twisting with the road’s circular descent, her body absentmindedly rocked back and forth. Then, when she hit the straightaway, she slammed her foot on the gas and sped forward. As she merged into the left lane, she checked her clock.

            Ten minutes.

            The cars in the right lane honked their horn at her. Jan ignored them, just as she ignored the needle on her speedometer, which was approaching ninety-five miles an hour. Before her, the highway spread out: two lanes, revealing open fields and lush trees on both sides. Up ahead, there was a bend in the road, and she slowed down to eighty. The last thing she needed was to spin off the road.

But as she took the turn and stared at the giant green road sign that read MONTPELIER: 32 MILES, she heard them. In the distance still, behind her surely, but they broke the sky, nonetheless. The echo of their engines was unmistakable, a cry of fury, high-pitched and warbling. With the echo came the softest whisper, a plea, a desperate suggestion.

Save us, please!”
           

Jan hit the gas again, even as she roared by a statey’s green car. His lights flew on, and he pulled into her lane. The silver Toyota that was behind her hit its brakes to allow the cop to enter. The speedometer’s needle climbed again: eighty, eighty-five, ninety, ninety-five. She didn’t know how far she could push her little Subaru, but as she approached the big 100, the car started to shake. In the sky, those sounds grew louder, piercing the protective barrier of her car’s cabin, sliding through the glass windows, writhing its way into her ventilation system. The drone was louder, the plea more hurried than before, the voice sounding as though it was right next to her, seated in the passenger’s seat with hands clasped and eyes watering.

Please, save us!”

The cop’s lights were flashing a frenzy of blue and red, and its sirens were warbling, though the roar of her Subaru’s engine drowned out some of the noise. Up ahead, there was another curve in the road coming: a sharper one, where the only thing keeping her from crashing down into an expanse of forested mountain roads was a metal guardrail. Jan looked in her rearview mirror and realized blood was seeping from her ears, trickling down her neck, tainting her white blouse.

The curve came fast and hard, and Jan pulled her wheel to the right. Well, tugged was more what she did, as the wheel resisted being turned at such speeds. As her car careened around the curve, the wheels on her left side lifting off the ground, the first jet flew overhead. With it came the sound of a bomb falling, whisking through the sky with a cartoonish howl, soon followed by a distant boom. The voice beside her was only growing more frenzied, more desperate.

“Please help us!” it shouted. Jan could tell it was a mother’s voice. There was something about the desperation with which the woman shouted. She was not scared for herself but her children. In an instant, Jan could see them, their faces pressed against the hot fabric of the woman’s dress, their eyes peering through her the gaps between her fingers, looking up at the sky with wide-eyed dread. And then, when the bombs boomed, they screamed, and their screams were akin to the screeching of metal on metal or the whine of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar at Woodstock.

Jan realized that it was not just the screams she heard but also the sound of her axles snapping as her Subaru desperately tried to make the turn and maintain its hellish speed. Jan jerked the wheel to the left out of instinct, trying to avoid the car turning over. Another scream, this one purely from her car, and the Subaru bucked.

The second jet passed overhead as the Subaru flipped sideways, smashing into the guardrail. Hot sparks jetted from her door as metal tore through metal, and her window shattered, sending sparkling fragments through the interior of her car. The Subaru flipped end over end, burnt metal breaking off and clattering across the road. The cop swerved behind her, managing to avoid disaster. Black smoke rose in the air as the cop car slammed on its brakes, as did the stink of burnt rubber. It was going too fast. The vehicle further ahead, a black SUV, not unlike the one that Jan saw while leaving her house, hit its brakes, likely in response to the sight of a cop car speeding toward it, lights flashing and siren blaring. The cop slammed into the back of it, and the sirens were cut off with a petulant wee-whoo.

Blood stained Jan’s face. Darkness swarmed her vision. She was held in place, upside down, by her seatbelt. As consciousness waned, the jets continued to pass overhead, and she heard it all, more intensely than ever before. She heard the gut-churning sound of limbs being torn from shoulder sockets, of children screaming for their mothers with outstretched stumps spurting dark blood. When the third jet screamed overhead, she saw the mother again; only, her eyes were wide and empty, her body torn apart by gunfire. Blood seeped into the sand underneath her, congealing the particles, turning them as dark as sackcloth. In the distance came the next round, carrying more horrors with it, but Jan did not hear them. Darkness overwhelmed her vision, the black spots swelling into each other like hungry amoebas, and she spiraled into the void, wishing for death, praying for silence.

*

            She came to in a warm bed, and for a moment Jan wondered if the afterlife was that simple. But when she craned her right eye open, she recognized the stark white walls and the acidic smell of chemical cleaners. Life crept back into her veins, and with it came the dread of living.

            Beside her, a machine beeped endlessly. Its monotonous tone drove into her ears like a dull nail, and she winced as it picked up with the rapid beating of her heart. Soon enough, it started to chime, flashing red and orange lights. Not long after, her nurse came in.

            “Good to see you awake,” she said. “I’m Annie, your nurse. Let me just shut this thing off.” With a quick hustle, she moved across the room and sidled up to the machine, tapping its screen a few times. The alarm, and the chirp of her heart rate, dissipated.

            “Thank you,” Jan croaked. “Can I…” She licked her lips. God, her mouth tasted like cotton. “Can I get some water?”

            “Sure, hon,” she said. “I’ll check with your doctor, make sure you’re cleared to have oral fluids. Okay?”

            Jan nodded, and Annie left the room, closing the heavy wooden door quietly behind her. Jan pushed her head back into the pillow, trying to find the right crease. She wanted to sleep, wanted the yawning blackness of infinity to swallow her again.

            The TV on the wall was on. From it, she heard the drone of a news anchor. Last night, the President continued strikes…

            “Please. help us.”

            Jan jerked her head to her right. There, sitting in one of the metal chairs, was the woman. Half of her face was a burnt mess of scarlet flesh. An eyelid was fused over its glassy sphere, and her bottom lip was torn in two. Charred blood glistened under the hospital lights, and when the woman spoke, only one side of her face emoted. The other eye, the one that was caked in dried blood but still lucid, sparkled with terror.

            “Please,” the woman begged. “My children.”
           

“No!” Jan yelled, the cry cutting through her dry throat. “No!” Beside her, the machine began to beep again, its rapid tone wailing. Or was that the woman? Or her child? Jan turned again, and she saw the woman holding a wad of bloody cloth. From it peeked a small hand with half the fingers missing, in its place bloody stumps.

            Overhead, the first jet droned by.

            The machine continued to wail, and Jan mimicked it. She grabbed at the IV in her arm and pulled, yelping as a scarlet haze tinted her vision, at the lancing pain that tore up her arm. The IV didn’t come loose, and soon enough, another nurse – not Annie, but a heavy-set white woman with brown hair and bloodshot eyes – came barreling into the room. She shouted some medical jargon out the door before rushing to Jan’s bedside.

            “Hey, that can’t come out,” the nurse said in a calming voice. Was it southern? An accent blunted the edges of her vowels.

            “The jets!” Jan wailed, still clutching the plastic tube in her arm. “Can’t you hear them?”

            “I know,” the nurse said. “They’re definitely annoying. It’s okay, though; you’re safe.”

            Jan looked in the nurse’s eyes, searching her green irises for some sort of recognition. But she could see the truth in her blankness: she didn’t hear the screams, the bombs droning, the chattering gunfire. She heard nothing more than a loud engine. At that moment, Jan recognized herself in the nurse: how she must have looked when she rushed over to Peter.

            Tears slipped out of her eyes. Another jet droned overhead. With it came the mother, a thousand mothers, screaming for help.

            Jan released her IV and grasped the nurse’s sleeve. The fabric of her scrubs was almost papery. “Please,” she moaned, her voice hovering above a whisper, “please kill me.”
           

The nurse shook her head. “It’s going to be okay, Janice. Everything’s going to be okay.”
           

“Why can’t you hear them?” Jan sobbed. “Why can’t anybody hear them?”

            And then Annie came rushing back into the room, along with a security guard. In Annie’s thin hand was a vial of clear fluid, which she attached to Jan’s IV with a quick twist.

            “It’s okay,” Annie said, her voice calming. She pushed on the vial’s plunger, and Jan felt cold fluid seep into the inner fold of her right arm. Annie twisted the vial off and then pumped fluids in behind it. Another cold, seeping feeling. Jan’s heart slowed in her chest, and the machine stopped its annoying screams.

But the jets continued to thunder overhead.


Keith LaFountaine is a writer from Vermont. His short fiction has been published in various literary magazines, including Dread Stone Press and Wintermute Lit. He tweets from @KL_writing, and his work can be found on his website: www.keithlafountaine.com.


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

Franz Kafka, 1906

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

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

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

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

          The phone rings. It’s my boss.

          ‘Just checking in’.

          ‘Anything to report?’

          ‘Nothing, really’.

          ‘How’s the company doing?’

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

          ‘My dead ant hat?’

          ‘Your what?’

          ‘Nothing’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

          Hang on, what was that?

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

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

          ‘I . .I . .’.

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

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

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

          ‘How do you know about Chatwins?’

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

          ‘You’d better come inside’.

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

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

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

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

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

          ‘Just don’t shoot’.

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

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

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

          ‘True . .’.

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

          ‘Why are you pointing that weapon at me?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

          ‘Afraid not, Bob’.

          ‘You know what the silly thing is?’

          ‘Go on’.

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

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

          ‘I know’.

          ‘Say, Bob’.

          ‘Yeah?’

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

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

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

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


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


“Furry Children” Dark Fiction by A. Elizabeth Herting

The dog and the cat were seldom in agreement, that was just a given. There were very few times over the course of an average year when they would actually work together for the greater good. Like when food was dropped onto the floor or the back door left open just a crack, allowing them a brief taste of mutual freedom. In times like that, Marie would always hold back, giving them a quick moment to savor their victory before intervening in any given situation. She wanted them to be a team, for that is what they were. Dog, cat, human, all starting out a new chapter in life–the three of them against the world.

            Now she watched as they sat, side by side, heads swiveling in perfect synchronicity, clearly fascinated by something that Marie couldn’t see. She turned, suddenly, to look behind her, feeling more than a little ridiculous. Perhaps a stray bug had somehow gotten in, a loose floating string or an errant beam of sunshine? Nothing. Complete still silence.

            Marie shook her head and turned back to watch them. She saw, in complete wonderment their fascinated expressions, both feline and canine. She calmly tried to tamp down the sudden chill that tickled the base of her spine. It’s only the beginning, way too early to be cracking up, she thought sadly. He has only been gone for two weeks, I need to keep it together.

#

            Marie couldn’t recall the exact moment when her marriage began to unravel, but remembered it was pretty anti-climatic. A mutual exhaustion after trying too hard for over twenty years, with a dash of infidelity thrown in for good measure. She was loathe to admit it, but they were the typical middle-aged couple, slowly growing apart as their waistlines grew out. The spark was still there, but neither one of them cared to look for it anymore, or remembered how it all began in the first place.

            John, of course, just had to have the typical mid-life crisis, trading her in for a younger model–that stupid, overused cliche in the flesh. A new fling, she assumed, who would give him children since Marie never could. Not for lack of trying, but it seemed that Marie was the problem. She was barren. Or whatever the cold, impartial medical term was for it these days. Marie made her peace with it long ago, letting her “furry children” fill the painful void in her heart, but it would seem, that Johnny had not.

            They had gone through several sets of pets throughout the years, living a comfortable life together, such as it was, or so she thought. The day he left, he talked about taking the animals with him, but Marie wouldn’t relent. She’d never give them up. They’d only been in the new house for about a year and there were too many other things to fight over. Bills, mortgage, mistress and a thousand other things that made Marie want to dive under the covers in complete despair. He could walk out on her, on their marriage, but he would never take them. Never.

#

            The dog eagerly wagged his tail, almost in greeting, as the cat rubbed her face against the dog’s front leg, purring loudly. Marie looked around the room again, trying to figure out what had them acting so strangely. The real estate agent told them when they bought the house that something bad  happened here. Marie didn’t want to know anything about it, but Johnny looked into it. Something about a murder-suicide. They’d gotten such a good deal on the house that Marie refused to entertain the notion of a haunting, that stuff was pure nonsense as far as she was concerned. Now, with her animals acting this way, she wondered if maybe there was something to it after all? Hadn’t she heard somewhere that pets could see things that their owners could not?

            “Hello?” she said out loud to the empty room, “Is there anybody here?”

            As if in response, a late autumn breeze lifted the curtains around the open window, making Marie jump a little. That’s all it is, she thought in relief. No ghosts, just a passing distraction outside, they’ll calm down in a minute or two. The dog let out a sudden bark making Marie nearly leap out of her skin. He walked right past her and sat down heavily, making a small whining noise. The cat jumped down from her perch and joined him there, both of them looking up in anticipation. She heard it then, a slight noise behind her. Some sort of shifting as Marie felt a sudden jolt of adrenaline, her heart slamming against her chest.

#

            He told her in the garden, while both of her hands were buried deep in the wet earth. Marie was very proud of her garden, she’d started out as an Iowa farm girl and had managed to keep that part of her identity even living out here in the wilds of suburbia.

            He was in love he said. He hadn’t planned for it to happen, but it did. She needed to let him go. She remembered standing up and grabbing the shovel, turning the dirt over and over while he stood pleading with her, insisting that he no longer loved her, that their marriage was finished. They would both be better off he told her, this had been coming for a long time–it was time to be honest about it. She couldn’t remember a thing after that, just the endless digging and turning of her beloved soil until she could no longer hear him.

            Now she stood crying in her shower, great heaving sobs of misery that he would betray her this way, that he would break his vows. The steam and hot water were washing her body clean, but the shower was unable to cleanse her broken heart, her shattered soul.

#

            The dog came into the bathroom, alerted, like he always was, when Marie was upset. She turned the water off and opened the glass door, noticing that he had a large object in his mouth. He loved to play “keep away” with her, waggling his entire back end and playfully growling as Marie fumbled, trying in vain to grab it from his mouth. The dog was covered in dirt, with what she assumed was topsoil from her garden. A foul smell assaulted her as she reached out in a panic and managed to get a hold of it.

            A hunk of blackened, rotting flesh came off in her hand as the dog pulled the severed arm away, enjoying their little game as usual. He turned and dashed away, forcing Marie to run through the house completely naked to chase him down. She caught him near the compost pile in her garden, the dog reveling in his newfound treasure. Pieces of dismembered corpse were strewn across her tomato patch and onto the lawn like a gruesome crop ready for harvest. Marie picked up her battered old shovel and went to work reburying her faithless husband.

#

            Marie knew without looking that she was no longer alone, but then again, she always could sense when he was near and had for over twenty years. A blast of hot, rancid breath hit the back of her neck as the cat and dog pranced and leapt all around her, delighted in this supernatural reunion.

            “Honey, I’m home,” Johnny croaked into her ear, fresh earth plopping onto the floor as his one good arm snaked around her shoulders, “I’ll never leave you again.”

            Marie didn’t know what to expect when she finally turned around, but she knew one thing for certain. Johnny was finally honoring his vows and “til death do us part” was about to take on a whole new meaning.


A. Elizabeth Herting is an aspiring freelance writer and busy mother of three living in colorful Colorado. She has over 60 short story credits, podcasts, and reprints as well as non-fiction work, and two collections of short stories published by “Adelaide Books,” “Whistling Past the Veil” and “Postcards From Waupaca” available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

For more of her work/contact her at aeherting.comtwitter.com/AmyHerting or facebook.com/AElizabethHerting


“Furry Children” appeared previously in Friday Fiction and Dark Fire Fiction.

“Last Chance Cabin” Horror by John Ryland

David stood in the doorway of the empty cabin. His breaths came in rapid pants, fogging into the empty room. The wind gusted behind him, swirling snow onto the floor at his feet.  His tired eyes swept the room through another frozen breath. There was a small stove near the center of the room, a cot along the far wall, a desk and chair, but not much else.  After trekking for days through knee deep snow, the cabin looked like the Ritz.

     He stomped the snow from his boots and stepped inside, shoving the door closed against another gust of wind. With no windows, the room went pitch black, so he opened the door again with a reluctant sigh.

     Moving into the room, he went to the stove. His hand touched the metal, searching for warmth he knew wouldn’t be there. He pushed the hood of his parka from his head and scanned for fire wood. There was none.

     There were also no traps, no snowshoes, and no other sign this was a trapper’s cabin. No pictures hung on the walls, laying claim to it. The room was bare. It was a last chance cabin, built and left open by the state to aid unfortunate souls trapped in the weather, like him.

     Him. The man who considered himself a survivalist, an outdoorsman. He’d allowed himself to get lost in the middle of winter. The embarrassment and shame he felt had long since faded, giving way at an adamant desire to survive, and the possibility that he might not.

     He knew that most of his toes were lost to frostbite, and probably some of his fingers. He hadn’t eaten in days, sustained only by snowmelt to drink. The weather had come down on his third day out here. That was four days ago. He was lucky to be alive.

     David ran his gloved hands over his beard, knocking the frozen spittle from his face. He needed to start a fire. Even though he’d found shelter, he would still freeze to death if he didn’t. The cabin would be better than the snowbank he’d slept in last night, but it was still freezing.

     With no hope of finding wood outside, he looked around the room. Whatever he burned would have to come from the cabin. His eyes went to the wooden, ladder back chair. That would do. Now, all he needed was something to start a fire. If he still has his pack, he could use the flint, but that was long gone. 

     He went to the desk and snatched one of the drawers, expecting it to be frozen shut. It released easily and flew out of the desk, dropping to the floor. A stack of old, crumpled papers fell out, along with a few stray matches. He smiled, thankful for his fortune. 

     David stuck his hands into the iron stove. He could see the tiny flames lapping at his bare flesh, but he couldn’t feel it yet. That would take a while.

     He smashed the drawer and fed the fire carefully, smiling though his body was shivering. He’d be okay now. The cabin would shelter him, and the fire would warm him. With any luck he’d find something to eat, and in a few days, he would be strong enough to travel.

     “It’s going to be alright.” His voice echoed back to him sounding hollow and unsure.

     David fed the last of the drawer into the fire and leaned back in the chair. The cast iron stove popped as it expanded with the heat. It was still very cold in the cabin, but the mere sight of a flames felt like heaven. The fire lifted his spirits, lending him the energy to explore his sanctuary.

     He spun in the chair and lifted some of the loose papers from the drawer. He expected notes from previous occupants. What he found was several pages of chicken scratch that were barely legible.

     He dropped the papers back on the desk and picked up a sheet of paper from the floor. It had fallen from the drawer and somehow avoided becoming a fire starter. The handwriting was rough and uneven. Like a man who was freezing to death, he thought. He shook his head and tossed the paper onto the desk. He had his own problems, reading someone’s else’s didn’t appeal to him. Yet. Maybe, if he got bored later. Boredom was a luxury of those well footed in the land of the living. He wasn’t quite there yet.

     He got up and stumbled to corner, searching both cabinets. Nothing was left but frozen dust. He went to a wooden box built into the floor and opened the lid. His eyes bulged when he saw the stacks of canned goods.

     Dropping to his knees, he groped one of the cans and pulled it out. Holding it in the dim light of the open stove door, he read the label. Beans. A smile slid across his cold face. It wasn’t a gourmet meal, but it would do nicely. His hand washed over the cans, counting eleven of them. If he were prudent and rationed them, he could make them last two weeks easy. By then the weather would break and he could walk out of here.

     David peeled back the top of the can and dug his knife into the frozen beans. The few slivers of ice danced on his tongue, reminding him how to taste. A hot meal would warm him, and the full belly would let him sleep well. “It’s going to be alright.”

     He picked up the can by the lid, peeled halfway back from the top of the can. Eating with two fingers, he savored the first lukewarm bite like it was a seasoned steak. He moaned and shoveled more into his mouth.

     When he forced himself to stop at two cans, his stomach clamored for more, but he refused. He wanted to eat everything right now, but it wouldn’t help him much. At best he’d be able to stay a few days then would have to search for food again.

     Instead of gorging on the food, he broke up another drawer and stoked the flame. He closed the door to preserve the fire and pulled the bed close to the stove. He sank into the simple cot with a sigh. His body ached, and now that his feet were thawing, his toes were starting to hurt.

     He wrapped himself in the wool blanket and stared at the stove. He watched the flame dance through the thin crack around the door and drifted off to sleep with a smile.

      David sat up on the cot, his eyes going to the door. The heavy timber still laid across it though it trembled at the mercy of the elements. He’d heard something. He told himself it was the wind and laid back down. The sound was just the wind. Nothing else. He pulled the cover tight around his shoulders and settled back into the cot.

     His eyes had barely closed when the sound came again. Now that he was awake, he knew what it was. It was a howl. He opened his eyes but didn’t move. It couldn’t have been a wolf. They’d be in their den this late at night, especially when the weather was up.

     When the howl came again, closer, he sat up on the cot. The cabin was pitch black except for the faint glow of embers escaping the stove. His eyes darted around the room, making sure it was secure. The only way in or out was the door, and it was barred. Whatever was out there wasn’t going to be getting in.

     Now wide awake, he broke up the fourth of the five drawers and fed the coal bed. The dry wood ignited instantly, and a fire sprang forth. He smiled, watching it dance on the new fuel as it consumed the splintered drawer.

     He clutched the blanket to his shoulders and slid closer to the stove. The cabin was much warmer than it had been, but it was still cold. There was a chill in his bones that might never go away.

     His eyes followed the stove pipe to the ceiling. It was the smoke that brought them, he thought. They would smell the smoke and know a human was nearby. Wolves were smart. They knew a human couldn’t survive in these conditions long. To them a human was just another meal, especially in the dead of winter.

     He got up and checked the door. It was thick and sturdy and the bar across it was solid. With most of the cabin buried in a snowbank, the door was the only way in. He’d be okay.  

     The echo of a long, screeching howl filled the cabin and he jerked around, looking behind him. His heart hung in his throat. That one was close. It didn’t sound exactly like a wolf. Maybe some kind of big cat? 

     It might be something else.

     David shook his head, pushing the thought from his mind. It was a wolf, or a big cat. That’s all it could be.

     He went to the desk and rifled through the pages, eager for something to occupy his mind. Pulling the chair closer to the stove, he opened the door and examined them. The writing was hard to read. In the dim light, his eyes narrowed, as he slowly began to decipher the first line.

I don’t know what it was, but it was something big.

     His brow furrowed as he sifted through the pages, finding the beginning of the letter. The writer introduced himself as Addle Fleming and explained that he’d gotten lost in the woods. He stumbled onto the cabin by a stroke of luck. A fur trapper by trade, he’d gotten caught in an unexpected storm on his way home from running his lines. He spent two paragraphs explaining his surprise at not being able to find his way, since he’d lived here all his life.

     David nodded and scratched his cheek. “It happens, my friend.” He shifted back to the second page and began reading again.

      I don’t know what it was, but it was something big. At first, I thought it a wolf, or a mountain lion, but I don’t know   now. As it got closer, it began to not sound like either.

David cast a wary eye at the door and sighed, then went back to the letter.

      It is close now. The door is solid and I’m sure it can’t get in, but it’s still unnerving to hear. I’ve got plenty of wood and several cans of beans and a few packs of dried fish. I should be fine for a few weeks. Surely the weather will break then.

     He looked into the fire, rubbing his face. Addle Fleming had gotten himself into the same predicament as him. It’s not an unusual situation, he told himself, trying to calm his nerves. This was, after all, a last chance cabin. It was built and stocked for this very situation. Of course they both shared similar fates. This was rough country, especially in winter.

      I was woke from sleep by a scratching at the door. It wasn’t hard, but more of a testing. Something was curious. I thought it might be another traveler, so I went to the door and yelled. No one answered. I pounded on the door and whatever it was ran away. I opened the door. There were big tracks in the snow, to big for a wolf, or even a cat. All I had was a lantern, and I couldn’t see none too good. I don’t know if they were my tracks or not, so I closed the door and barred it. I don’t know what it was.

     A howl pulled David’s head up from the letter. He swallowed hard as his eyes swept the room. The letter was right. It didn’t sound exactly like a wolf or a big cat. It sounded like-

     “No.” David stood, tossing the pages back to the desk. He couldn’t allow his mind to begin to wander. There were plenty of legends and ghost stories about these mountains, but that’s all they were. Sure, people went missing, but they probably froze to death and were buried in the snow. In the spring, before the weather allowed much travel up the mountain, their bodies were found by the animals and eaten. It wasn’t a pleasant thought, but it explained all the disappearances.

     That, he thought adamantly, was what happened. That and nothing else. He paced the room then came back to the stove. His eyes went to the papers and he shook his head.

     He wadded the first two pages and tossed them into the fire, smiling as the flames consumed the writing. Good riddance.

     Sitting back in the chair, he pulled the middle drawer from the desk. Two stubby pencils and a few pages of loose paper fell out. He tossed the two pencils into the fire and laid the papers on the desk before breaking up the drawer.

     After feeding the fire, he looked back at the new pages. The paper had yellowed, and the writing was different. Another occupant of the cabin had left his account. His hand had a slight tremble as he picked them up. Leaning closer to the fire, he began to read.

I ain’t even got no idear what the hell made the noise.  wernt no wolf like I thought it was. It’s got to be a lot bigger. I could hear it walking on the roof last nite. I thought it could be a bar, but it cut lose a howl and I knew it wernt no bar. Sount like a woman hollerin. A woman in some kinda pain.

     David sighed. The letter wasn’t right, but it wasn’t wrong either. The howl didn’t sound like a woman screaming, or a wolf, or even a big cat. It sounded like all three in one. He swallowed hard and slid closer to the stove, holding the letter to the light.

       I dun herd the damed thing screeming for 3 nights in a row now. It keeps me up so I sleep some when its day     time. Last nite it come real clost agin. It was scrachin at tha door. Not hard. Like it was testin it, in case it did want to come in.

     David picked up the first set of pages, examining the passages that spoke of the scratching at the door. Both stated the same thing. Had the same thing happened to both men or had Addle read the first letter and thought he’d heard scratching? It could have been the wind and the power of suggestion. Being cooped in such a small place had a way of working on a man’s mind sometimes.

     The door rattled against a gust of wind then went still. The sound of David’s thundering heart filled his ears as he stared at the brace on the door, waiting. His eyes widened when a soft scratching came against the wood. Something hard moved against the door, pushing it against the bar holding it closed. The tension on the door released, then another long scratch from top to bottom.

     David bolted from the chair and went to the door, slamming his fists against it. “Get out of her!” he screamed. The wind gusted again then went silent. 

     He turned and leaned his back on the door. The soft light of the fire cast long shadows in front of the stove. Inside, a knot popped in the flames, and he jumped, yelping like a kid.

     An unsteady hand wiped across his lips as he scanned the room. He needed to know what happened to the others. That would tell him what to expect. He hobbled across the room and fell into the chair. His toes were hurting, but they would have to wait. He had to know.

     I herd it again. It was on the roof when I shot at it. I spent up all my shot but one. When I was dun shootin it just left. It wernt skeered of the shot. It wanted me to shoot at it to spend all my shot up. It new I could not kill it. I don’t know what it is. God help me.

     David sifted through the papers and found a similar passage in the newer letter. Addle had a pistol and shot every bullet but one at the sound, having the same effect.

     He shook his head. “Don’t you see,” he said, his voice faltering. “That’s what it wants. It wants to torture us. Drive us crazy. That’s what it wants.”

     The screeching howl ripped through the cabin. He jumped and spun around quickly. He stared at the ceiling, his eyes wide with freight, ignoring the bead of sweat running down his temple.

     “I hear you, you bastard.” His eyes swept back and forth across the ceiling, then came back to the papers in his hand. He nodded. Yes. The secret was in the letters. They would tell him what to do.

     This is my third day. The screeching has been relentless. I can not sleep. I don’t know what it is, but I know it is big. I know that it knows I am here. Why doesn’t it just bust the door in and come get me. I only have one shot left. One shot, and I am saving it.

     David’s eyes narrowed as he looked at the paper. Saving it for what? he wondered. For yourself? He shuffled the page to the back and bent closer to the fire.

       I do not know what is happening to me. I hear things from everywhere. The door, the roof. I hear scratching and howling, and today there is a new sound. Like the wings of a giant bird. But how can I hear it through the  snow? Something is outside waiting for me. I cannot stay here forever and it knows it. Soon I will have to try to make a break. I think that’s what it is waiting for.

     David leaned back in the chair with a heavy sigh. That was his plan too, but now he was second guessing it. But what was he to do? He could last two weeks, if he rationed the food and melted snow to drink. After that it would only be a matter of time. If he waited, he’d be weaker. That was what they wanted, wasn’t it? Whatever was outside could wait him out and it knew it.

     He looked at the box in the corner. Why wait at all? he asked himself. Eat all the food now, get some energy back, and go. Don’t wait. Don’t play the game. Maybe the element of surprise would be in his favor.  No, he thought. Maybe that’s their plan. They want me to think I’m surprising them, but they’d really be surprising me. He nodded his head, stroking his beard. No, you bastards, not this time. I’ll outthink you.

     He stumbled to the cot and fell into it. He was still tired. He just needed rest. He laid down and pulled the covers over his head. Rest. That’s all I need. Just some rest. I’ll be fine. Beneath his eyelids, his eyes darted back and forth. A smile pushed his beard back. Just some…. He didn’t finish the thought before he fell into a restless sleep.

     David awoke suddenly. He sat up in the bed, disoriented. Where was he? He looked around the room and found the faint orange glow in the shape of a square. Other than that, the room was pitch black. He tilted his head, still breathing heavy. What was that shape? What was the light?

     He wiped sweat from his brow and stood. The cold washed over him instantly, setting off the shivers. He was freezing. He grabbed the blanket and wrapped it around his shoulders as he staggered forward. He extended a hand toward the source of light. There was also heat. Good.

     He bent forward, bringing his nose to within inches of the stove. He could smell the coals, the hot metal. His mind lurched forward, telling him it was the stove in his cabin.   

     He smiled and took another step toward the light, and the heat. His left foot struck the iron leg of the stove and shockwaves of pain tore through his damaged toes. His feet. Yes. He remembered now. His feet were hurt. Frozen. The pain helped him strip away the fog as he slowly put things together in his mind.

     Despite building up the fire, he couldn’t stop shaking. Shivering. He pulled the sock from his foot in uneven tugs. The fabric rolled slowly back as he unfurled it from his skin. His toes were black, the skin hung on them loosely. The last three were solid black. They were done for. The big toe and the one next to it were discolored near the tips but might be saved.

     Using the tip of his hunting knife, he peeled the dead skin from his pinky toe. It fell away, revealing a wet lump of black tissue. He grimaced and peeled the skin from the next two toes.

     They were gone. There would be no saving them. If he were in the hospital, they could amputate and save his foot. But he wasn’t in the hospital. He was miles from civilization and his chances of getting back were growing slimmer with each black toe he found.

     He ran a hand over his hair and sighed. The longer the dead tissue stayed on his foot, the more he would lose. Shivering wildly, he crowded closer to the stove, straddling it. The dead toes had to come off.

     Outside, another howl pieced the night. They’re celebrating, he thought, shaking his head. They knew that in this condition, he wouldn’t be going anywhere soon.

     The blade of the knife was hot. David grimaced as the metal seared his foot. That was a good sign. If he could feel it, he was in live tissue. Moving quickly, before he could change his mind, he brought the heel of his boot down on the back of the knife. The metal slid through the flesh, lopping off his last three toes.

     He fell back onto the cot with an agonizing scream. In the distance, another howl answered his. He pounded his fist into the cot, gritting his teeth until the pain subsided enough to sit up.

      The hope of cauterizing the wound as he amputated the toes vanished when he saw the bloody stumps. He shook his head, then looked at the stove. A knot tightened in his stomach. He had to stop the bleeding.

     David awoke with a start. He sat up on the cot and looked around. The smell of cooked meat hung in the air. His mouth almost watered with delight, but then he remembered what had been seared. The pain in his left foot screamed when he hauled it up, inspecting the wound. The flesh was red and swollen, but the bleeding had stopped.

     David paused, his hand holding the coiled wire of the stove handle. His eyes went to the cabin door as it pushed in against the thick timber. A long, scraping sound filled the cabin. He picked up a boot and hurled it at the door. When the sound stopped, he opened the stove and stuck the blade of his knife into the bed of red coals.

     The knife hadn’t been hot enough before. He couldn’t make that mistake again. If he passed out before cauterizing the wounds, he could bleed out. He couldn’t let that happen. He’d die alone and in pain and that son of a bitch outside would howl all night.

     He was halfway through his third can of beans when the sound of crunching snow filled the cabin. His eyes went to the ceiling, tracking the sound of the footfalls. It was walking on the roof. Whatever it was, it was right there. If he had a gun, he could kill it. He could shoot it through the ceiling.

     A scream filled the cabin, but it took a moment for David to realize it was his own. He screamed and the creature answered with a hollow, piercing howl of its own. He screamed again, and the creature answered again.

     David laughed loudly. “You son of a bitch! Not me. You’ll not get me.” He dropped the can and opened the door of the stove. He wrapped a gloved hand around the handle of his knife and removed it. The blade was glowing red.

     He bent and shoved the blade into the flesh at the base of his toes. His scream tore through clenched teeth as the hot steel sank into his skin. Outside, the creature answered his cry.

     David awoke, slumped on the cot. He opened his eyes, watching his breath fog before him. Each ragged breath turned to smoke as it left his body then dissipated in the air before him. He straightened himself and looked at the stove. The warm glow was gone. He’d been asleep long enough for the fire to burn down to hot ash.

     Groaning as he bent forward, he opened the door and looked inside. The stray embers awoke as he blew on them. The fire hadn’t gone completely. That was good. He reached down for some firewood but stopped.

     His hunting knife lay on the floor next to his foot. Next to the knife two lumps of black tissue lay on the floorboards like rotten grapes. Brushing the toes aside with a grunt, he picked up the wood and tossed it into the stove. 

     He wrapped the blanket close and slid closer to the stove. Gripping the papers with a trembling hand, he tilted them to read by the light of the fire.

      I went outside. The snow has stopped, but it is waist deep. Walking out will be nearly impossible, but I can’t stay here. The scratching at the door was worse last night. I slept in the corner with my pistol, but it never broke through. I think it might be easier to just give up. It’s going to get me either way. I’m just prolonging things. I still have one bullet left.

     David shook his head. “Don’t give up, man. You gotta make it. If you made It so can I.” His eyes went to the next entry.

     I cain’t take it no more. the howling and screaming is driving me crazy. It’s like a pack of dogs outside. It comes from everywhere at once. I know it ain’t wolves, or no mountain lion. I wish I knew what it was, that way I might have a chance of beating it. I been here a week and it’s getting hard to stay. I wish it would knock the door in and come after me.

He swallowed hard and flipped the page to the back. Wiping sweat from his lip with the back of his hand, he continued reading:

     I may get my wish. Whatever it is was at the door. The screaming made my blood run cold. This might be my last entry. I done ate all the food I had. I didn’t wanna die  cold and hungry. If it comes through the door I’m going to turn the gun on myself. That way I won’t be alive when it gets me. Either way I’m almost done for. I’m either going to           freeze, starve to death, shoot myself, or make a break for it. Or whatever the hell that thingis will get me. I just wish I knew what it was. I ain’t never heard nothing like this.

     David tossed the paper onto the fire and rubbed his face with both hands. His options were pretty much in line with old Addle, except he didn’t have a gun.

     He pulled the blanket tight over his shoulders and slid up to the stove, nearly touching it. He extended his hands to the stove, watching them shake. Closing his eyes, he concentrated on making them be still. When he looked again, they were shaking worse.

     “Dammit.” He moved his hands closer but misjudged in the dim light and brushed against the hot steel. He jerked his hand away and looked at the tips of his fingers. Small circles of gray, ashy skin stared back at him like so many dead eyes.

     Outside the door, a screech rang out in the night.

     “You liked that, didn’t you? You bastard.” Anger rose in his chest as he stared wide-eyed at the door. “You’re not going to get me.” David shook his head and armed sweat from his brow. “You hear me!” he screamed. “You’re not going to get me.”

     He huddled back beneath his blanket and shook his head. “You’ll never get me,” he mumbled. “Maybe you got the others, but not me.” He shoved more wood on the fire and wiped sweat from his face. No, he wasn’t going out like that. Not him. “You’ll never get me.” His eyes went to the door. “Never!” he screamed. His laughter filled the cabin as another howl rang out in the night. “Never!”

     Outside, the howling grew louder. Closer.

     A young man wearing an Alaska Wildlife Management uniform exited the cabin. He shook his head as he stepped into the bright sunshine. Putting the empty gas can down, he wiped his hands. 

     The mountain side around the cabin was awash with lush green grass and wildflowers. Jagged rocks, gleaned from the mountainside by ice, littered the landscape. The scene was typical for this time of year, rugged and beautiful.

     “I don’t get it, boss. It seems like a good cabin. Got some years on it, but it’s still sturdy.”

     “It’s not my call, Tom. The big boss wants it gone.”

     Tom Rutherford looked at his boss and shrugged. “I know all that stuff is weird and all, but it’s still a good cabin.”

     “They did find a dead man in here. He’d slit his own throat. And all those notes about things attacking them. It’s nuts.”

     “Do you think it’s true. The stuff in the notes, I mean.”

     The older man laughed. “You ever been snowed in way out here?”

     “No.”

     “It’s not fun. Your mind starts playing tricks on you. If you’re injured, maybe got a touch of fever it’s worse. The isolation on top of the cold and hunger alone gets to some folks. I’m surprised they didn’t find the older notes when they restocked last year.”

     “Probably not much reason to inspect much. There wasn’t a body before.”

     “Guess you’re right there.”

     Tom scanned the mountainside and shook his head. “But both sets of notes claimed to hear noises. You’d think with all the snow it’d be silent out here.”

     The older man nodded. “You’d think so, but it’s not. Listen.”

     Both men stood in silence as the wind picked up. A low whistle resonated along the mountain side.

     “What’s that from?” Ton asked.

     “It’s just the wind on the mountain, the rock formations and the terrain. It’s a geographical anomaly. I’ll bet with some snowfall it sounds pretty creepy at night. If the weather really gets up, like it usually does around here, it can sound pretty wicked.”

     “Surely you don’t think it was all the wind.”

     “Look, Tommy boy. There’s all sorts of crazy stuff that happens in these mountains. Take some wind, some weird rock formations, and a fella who’s tired, hungry, and scared to begin with. There’s no telling what he might hear. There’s also no way to tell what he’ll think he hears.”

     Tom shook his head. “It still sounds like a stretch to me.”

     “My guess is that the first guy that heard it thought he heard something. He got scared and left a note in the drawer. The next guy probably heard it and might not have thought anything about it. Until he reads the note. Then he starts thinking too much. It’s cold and dark, miles from anything and you’re on your own. Days and days, holed up in a tiny cabin with nothing to do but think. Like I said, your mind can do weird stuff.”

     “But what happened to the other guys? They never found any bodies.”

     “I suppose they panicked and make a break for it. Got lost in the snow and froze to death. Early in the spring the animals found them. It happens. You should read the ‘Bone Report’. Some crazy stuff.”

     “But this?” Tom jerked his thumb at the cabin. “The report said he sliced his own throat after cutting off five of his own toes. That’s a lot for the power of suggestion. Do you know how desperate a man would have to be to do that? It doesn’t make sense.”

     “And some kind of monsters stalking them makes more sense?”

     Tom shrugged, conceding the point. “Still seems like a heck of a reason to burn down a last chance cabin. A lot of people have been saved by these things.”

     “They’re building another one back up the ways a bit. They’re also leaving a pamphlet explaining the nature of things for outsiders. Hopefully, we’ll avoid this mess again.” He looked at Tom and shrugged. 

     “I just can’t wrap my head around it.”

     “If you’d ever been snowed under you would understand it better.”     

“I hope I don’t find out this way.” Tom looked up the mountain. He sighed and shook his head, wondering if it was really the wind, or if there was something out there. Above him, the wind gusted. Moving through the rugged terrain, the slightest of whistles drifted down into the valley.


Mr. Ryland notes:

“I have published work in Eldritch Journal, Otherwise Engaged, The Writer’s Magazine, Birmingham Arts Journal, Subterranean Blue, and others. My collection Southern Gothic and novel Souls Harbor are currently available on all major markets. My upcoming novel The Man with No Eyes, will be published by Moonshine Cove Press in March 2022.”


“Body Neutral” Dark Science Fiction by DL Shirey

He looked 18 or 19, well within the desired age range Avril was hired to target. His sparse scruff of wannabe beard was the same sandy color as his hair. There was no subtlety in the way he stared at Avril. He pushed off from the wall he had been leaning against and gave a playful shove to two of his half-dozen cronies, parting them to get a better look.

          “Da-amn,” he said, elongating the word into two syllables, adding, “Look at this chiquita.”

          For Avril, a male/dominant like this was golden. His reaction would have a greater influence on the marketing statistics than these other six teenagers combined. Yet it was Avril’s job to treat the m/dom like any other consumer: forget he was cute, don’t add twitch to her hips or throw back shoulders to thrust out her chest. Just be a normal girl walking the mall, don’t even think about the stats.

          The outfit she wore today was stylish, yet bland: a long-sleeve cashmere turtleneck that showed just a hint of tummy, vintage Levi’s that fit well, but not too tight, and scruffy Chuck Taylor’s. People were to see Avril as a fashionable young woman in her early twenties, but not linger on her clothes or the shape of her body.

          Avril loved modeling. She enjoyed being the focus of attention, turning heads and feeling eyes upon her. It was exciting. Yet, thanks to some training in disciplined anatomics, Avril kept color from flushing her cheeks. Any change to her body could skew the results for this job.

          She glanced at the m/dom and made sure he was looking, then shook back her shoulder-length purple hair. Avril’s earpiece registered his eyetrace.

          “I’d die to get with that,” the m/dom said and followed with a mime. He pulled the trigger of his finger pistol and mouthed POW as the mock bullet exited his opposite temple. A head snap completed the improv until the laughter of his fellows brought the m/dom back to life.

          Avril ignored the performance.

          A chime from her earpiece indicated that the requisite amount of consumer impressions had been reached. It had taken three laps around the mall to achieve the numbers. Now Avril could relax a bit and let go a few of her anatomizations.

          Mall walks were hard work, even for someone trained as a Variegate. Well, partially trained. Avril had cut short her apprenticeship to model full time. She felt she had mastered her craft enough and it seemed like a good decision. Her career was progressing nicely. The agency had booked her for more runway jobs and even paid for Avril’s travel to better-paying mall gigs, like this one. If she could maintain her numbers, Avril’s future would be filled with the glamour and attention she craved.

          She stretched her neck to pull out stress. Twenty minutes of forced anatomics took its toll. Tremendous muscle control was needed for a Variegate to configure specific body features, such as lifting the cheekbones or elongating the neck. She’d been told that a few more years of apprenticeship would train her to modify properly, without the stress that novices endured.

          But Avril knew better and her status proved it. She was still a rising star at the agency, though that one job had gone terribly wrong. Every model had a bad day now and then, even full-fledged Variegates. Avril pushed the incident from her mind.

          She trudged up carpeted stairs to the nondescript offices on the third floor of the mall and her skin darkened with each step. Coloration was one of the easier things to turn on and off, and reverting to her normal skintone saved energy. This assignment called for a specific look, so until the job was done, Avril could not totally unbuild her present augmentation. It took hours to construct the required anatomy and only minutes to lose it, should Avril’s concentration slip.

          What she wouldn’t give to let the strong hands of a masseuse soothe her aches and stiffness. Avril often scheduled a massage following a job, not only to relax, but also to luxuriate in the feel of strong hands on her skin. Being touched was something she did her best to avoid while working.

          She opened an anonymous door to a very small room. There was one desk on the far wall behind twin monoliths of frosted glass. The panels were four-feet wide, parallel to one another, and stretched floor to ceiling. They did not resemble a toaster, but that was the appliance Avril thought about each time she stepped between the opaque partitions. She couldn’t move for two minutes and by the time the download was complete, her skin color would be its normal, cinnamon brown. Cinnamon toast, she thought.

          But the colors most important to Avril were the ones appearing on both slabs of glass; silhouettes of her body, front and back, rendered in reds and greens and blues. This was a visual aggregate of everyone who had fixed eyes on her; the colors translated to hot, medium or cold depending on which body parts had been gawked at the longest and those ignored:

hair

face

neck

shoulders

arms

hands

chest

stomach

waist

hips

butt

thighs

calves

feet

The colors mixed and pooled into a body-cloud of subtle color variations: reddish browns and rosy yellows on all the popular parts, violets for areas receiving mixed assessments and shades of blue for least viewed regions. Finally, streams of numbers tallied themselves next to each body part. These were viewer stats based on audience type, categorized by dom, subgroup, age and sex.

          Avril’s earpiece chimed again and she sidestepped from the toaster. The colorful outline of her body remained on glass. Avril studied the numbers and smiled. Round Three had registered neutral viewer stats on most body parts, except hair— those numbers exploded. Which was the whole reason for today’s job, to see which hair color attracted the most attention.

          Avril felt a small pang of conflicting emotions; virtually no eyeballs had lingered on her tummy. Totally blue, for the third time today. She was pleased to a point because it meant she had remained body-neutral and wouldn’t have to re-do the session. But it could also mean that the poof of belly fat was viewed as unattractive. Avril didn’t like that. Neither would the agency.

          Back to business, Avril thought.

          She walked over to the desk, referred to the assignment board and typed Purple #122-3479-3 on the console. Thumbing the ENTER key made the anatomic heat-map disappear from the twin towers of glass.

          Avril removed the purple wig from her scalp and placed it on the plastic headform. She raked her manicured nails where it itched most, just above her ears. Her stubbly sidewalls were growing out and would soon need another buzzcut. Avril rubbed, but did not scratch, between the five tight rows of crocheted braids, pulled back from her wide forehead. She checked to see that the tiny ring of elastic at the nape of her neck was still doing the job of holding the braids taut.

          On to Round Four; twenty minutes with the jet-black wig and she would be done for the day.

          Avril pulled on the hairpiece, aligning the mop-cut bangs above the arc of her eyebrows. She rarely wore make up, but this job stipulated lipstick. She reapplied the designated shade. One final check in the full-length mirror and she was ready for Round Four. There was only a moment’s hesitation as she pulled down the sweater to try and hide her belly. Avril was capable of redistributing her body fat, as she did for runway jobs, but there were only so many anatomical balls she could juggle at one time.

          This was the one regret Avril had for leaving training; not being able to render all those fine details that a certified Variegate can do to perfection.

          By the time she reached the mall’s first floor, Avril had repigmentized her skin and double-checked that all configurations were in place.

          She recognized many of the people she had passed in previous rounds. Repeat eyeballs were an important metric. The eyetraces of those who had noticed her before would be compared, the differences measured, and any reactions to Avril’s hair analyzed in micro-impressions. Avril tried to walk the same path, at the same speed, with the same posture, to gather as many Repeaters as possible.

          “Wasn’t her hair purple before?” The f/dom said it, a robust black lady, pack leader for six mall-walking seniors, all women. They were clad in colorful workout clothes, stretching in preparation for their walk, adjusting socks and sweatbands.

          Avril had seen them before, gathering like a flock of hens, the f/dom headmost in the pecking order. She and Avril had locked eyes before. Now, the woman was really giving Avril the once-over.

          “Kids these days.” The f/dom was talking to her group, obviously speaking loud enough for Avril to hear. “I mean, she struts around here with clothes tight enough to show everything God gave her.” The gaggle clucked and muttered in agreement.

          Avril assumed the comment was about her breasts. Had she not been on a job, Avril could have shocked the women by increasing her cup size. It would require her to release the hold on the other body parts she was governing and rechannel fluids to her chest. Avril could only imagine the looks on their faces as her bust enlarged.

          Avril caught herself smiling, then realized how the last few seconds might affect the results of Round Four. She needed to concentrate on maintaining the required configuration and keep walking or she might have to abort this black-wig session and start it all over again. One thing the agency did not like was a re-do.

          Avril elongated her stride slightly, intending to put distance between her and the seniors.

          “Step lively now, ladies,” came the voice from behind.

          Avril needed to tamp down her emotions, or at least keep them from affecting her appearance. Others watching her might see a thrusted chin, knitted brow or a narrowing of eyes. Any body differential could adversely affect the numbers.

          Dealing with Instigants, like these women, was the worst part of mall jobs. Avril wanted to stand up for herself, but that would negate an entire day’s work. Sure, the data-collection system would weed out stats from anyone who instigated verbal contact with Avril, hostile or otherwise. But if a confrontation escalated to a certain level, it could nullify a whole job’s worth of data gathering. Especially if an Instigant touched Avril.

          “I’d rethink that outfit if I was you. That top is too short,” the woman said from behind, between breaths, “And those jeans, a little snug in the crotch, don’t you think?” The mall-walkers chittered with laughter.

          Avril realized she was clenching her teeth and the first taste of panic made her mouth go dry. What if the woman caught up and put a hand on Avril’s shoulder? Any unexpected physical contact and Avril could lose control of her body. It had happened in the past; that sudden gush of adrenaline would undo everything Avril was holding together.

          Avril couldn’t afford another invalidation, the agency wouldn’t stand for it. She decided to make a hard right, go up the stairs to the second floor, hoping the women would not follow. But her escape was cut short by a familiar pack of teenagers.

          “Chiquita,” the m/dom said as his posse blocked the stairs, “Long time no see.”

          He angled his scruffy beard into a smirk, then reached out and grabbed one of Avril’s hands. He whispered something close to her ear.

          It wasn’t the disgusting words that made Avril repulse and push away, it was ebbing of her restraint. She could feel all those little dams of muscle control start to give way. As hard as Avril tried to resist, the backslide progressed. And with it came fear.

          The older woman changed instantly from antagonist to ally. She stepped up beside Avril. “Keep your paws off of her, young man. Who do you think you are?”

          Avril held up her hand to keep the woman from intruding.

          The m/com laughed and grabbed Avril again, this time by both her shoulders. Rage coursed through Avril’s body and she could no longer maintain the tenuous hold she had on her anatomy.

          Avril shoved the m/dom. Hard.

          “No, I got this,” she said to the woman. Avril’s voice lowered to a growl.

          “That’s right. You go girl. Show ’em what you’re made of,” sang the chorus of mall-walkers.

          Avril snatched off the black wig and threw it to the ground. She swallowed hard, letting loose an Adam’s apple that wasn’t there before. Fists clenched in anger, Avril took one threatening lunge toward the m/dom.

          “I ain’t fighting no girl,” the teenager said as he backed off. “Or whatever you are.”

          The flimsy sweater tightened around Avril’s bulking shoulder and arm muscles as they returned to normal girth. Avril took another step toward the teenagers and felt his penis and testicles descend, pressing on the inseam of his jeans.

          “What in God’s name,” the old woman exclaimed when she saw the coarse stubble shadow Avril’s cheeks and chin. “Time to move on, ladies.”

          It took every bit of restraint Avril had to keep from taking a swing at the scruffy teenager. The m/dom stood his ground for one long moment, then pushed past his six sidekicks and retreated up the stairs. They all followed.

          Avril felt the heat leave his cheeks. He could have sped up the process, but didn’t have the strength. All he could think about was how the agency would react. His budding career was in jeopardy now that it had happened twice.

          Picking up the wig, Avril walked back toward the office. He tried not to make eye contact with the shoppers who stopped and stared. Avril knew many of them had seen him before, as his earpiece chimed over and over again, still registering their eyetraces.   Everyone was looking at Avril.


DL Shirey lives in Portland, Oregon under skies the color of bruises. Occasionally he lightens up, but his dark fiction can be found in Confingo, Zetetic, Liquid Imagination and in anthologies from Truth Serum Press and Literary Hatchet. Find more of his writing at www.dlshirey.com and @dlshirey on Twitter.