“My Crugantis” Horror by Jonathan Williams

In a place of simple darkness, came a faint echoing ring. Like the sound of two pots hitting each other. Over and over again.  What was making that noise?  I felt the world shifting in and out of focus becoming darker than lighter and less and less blurry. I came to, lying on a cold cave floor. I got up and looked around. There were torches surrounding me, and a disturbing silence other than a faint repeating sound. I chuckled to myself as I looked around. This was a dream. One of those dreams where you’re aware you are dreaming.  However, this dream… It didn’t look too inviting. But there was nothing around. It was more creepy than scary. I could just wake myself up, but it was always a hassle trying to fall back asleep. Besides, the faint ringing was eating away at my curiosity. What could that noise be? It was always hard trying to get myself to fall asleep. But trying to sleep puzzling over an unsolved mystery? Next to impossible. The solution was simple. Find the source of the noise. If it’s scary, I’ll wake up and eventually forget this situation entirely. 

So I grabbed a torch from the cave wall, and ventured towards the sound as it echoed throughout the cave.  The sound became louder and louder, and I followed it’s bangs with one ear covered and one hand to hold the torch. I followed it to a dead end where I found it’s source. Two pipes were loose from opposite ends from a line on pipes and hitting each other over and over again.  I sighed. It was nothing exciting. This trip wasn’t worth it. It was odd how I didn’t notice the line of pipes on the cave ceilings, but it wasn’t much in terms of a discovery. So I sighed and made my way back, round a corner and trying to think where exactly I took this torch from so I could return it. 

“You survived?!”

I dropped the torch with shock and jumped back, falling on the hard floor. I whipped my head around to see a man sitting in a ball, but his head was poking out like a child seeing if the seeker was near in a game of Hide And Seek. I took a second to catch my breath as I gasped for air shaking. This man had been so quiet, I had completely missed him while I searched for the source of the banging sound. It didn’t help that the torch I had used casted a narrow light. As I looked closer at the man two things immediately struck me. The man was thin. Really, really thin. And he was in a cell. The cell looked strong enough to hold a dragon. I took another look at the man, with baggy eyes and brittle thin arms.  He didn’t really seem to fit the type of person or creature that this prison was built for. Then his words finally sunk in. It was amazing I could understand him. His voice had the raspiness and shakiness of a person who was very old, hadn’t talked in a very long time, and who forgot when they last had water. 

“S-survived? What do you mean?” I asked. 

The man was very twitchy. His eyes were widened and his eyes darted around the room. 
“You survived? You survived that beast? “ his voice dropped several notches lower. He sounded like he deeply regretted his sudden outburst. 

“Beast? Survived what?” I asked, getting up and backing away several inches from him.

“The Crugantis” he hissed in as loud a whisper as he could as he launched himself backwards, hugging the wall. It might have been fitting to see foam coming out of his mouth. 

I blinked. “The who-da-what-now?” 

“The Crugantis!” the man unhelpfully repeated, and with my continued look of confusion he tried to illustrate his point with his hands. “You know. Massive teeth and claws? Banished here 1,000 years ago? Trapped In chains?”

I shook my head. The man held his palm to his face and sighed and looked at me like I was an idiot. “How did you miss it?! You were right there!” 

I looked to where he was pointing. He was pointing to where I was before. But there was nothing where he was pointing. Certainly no mythical beast in chains. 

“Look… I was there, but I didn’t see anything that matches that description. Like at all.” I eventually said. 

The man raised his voice, but only slightly “Are you mad, boy? How did you miss it?! It’s over 25 feet tall, and can swallow a person whole! You must have at least heard it! It’s constantly trying to free itself from the chains it was put in years ago! Listen! The noise is there now!” 

I sighed. I finally understood what was going on. “Look, I’m sorry if there was any confusion, but that banging sound is just from two hanging pipes. I didn’t see a monster.” 

“No! No. You fool! It’s the Crugantis! I know it!  I grew up listening to the stories!” the man said, his voice rising a little more.  

“Is the..Crugantis was it? Was that who the cage was made for? How did it escape with it so intact? And how did you wind up in it?” 

The man burst out laughing, a horrible, insane, high pitched laugh. “The cage? For the Crugantis? Foolish lad. I built this cage. I built it from nothing. I built it so when the Crugantis finally breaks it’s chains, I might have a chance to live!” 

I blinked. This man was nuts. He heard a banging sound, and without ever once getting the smallest glance of its origin, had built himself a cage and locked himself in it for who knows how long. There was water dripping in from the cell ceiling, so the man had water, but the menu of this place couldn’t be all that appetising. 

“Look, I hear the noise too. And I followed it. I promise you it isn’t anything scary. You can kinda see it from here. Look!” I responded. I looked at the shadowy shape of the two clanging pipes. I realised the man was a bit to the left of me and moved to show him where to look. I realised those slight movements had me face to face with a corner of the wall.  It wasn’t a large corner,  but it was protruding enough where from the man’s spot you could no longer see the pipes. The man looked at me like he thought me crazy. I sighed. 

“O.K. New idea. You tell me how to open this cell, and I’ll show you. I promise there is nothing to fear.” 

The man gasped. “You. Y-you’re working for it aren’t you? That’s how you survived! And you’re looking to get your masters’ next meal aren’t you?! Well I’m off the menu!” 

I grunted with anger. This man made no sense. Who would want him as a meal? You could probably get more calories by nibbling on a twig. And if “the Crugantis” was real and as powerful as the man made him out to be, how would that cell provide any protection whatsoever? I turned my back to the man. I assumed that it wasn’t worth it to tell him any of these thoughts I had, and they would continue to fall on deaf ears. Whatever. This was boring now.  So I walked away from the man who began laughing. 

“Yes! Leave! Tell your master you failed! You’ll never trick me!” he cried after me. 

Whatever. I made my way through the maze of the cave, the sound of my feet timed perfectly with the sound from the pipes.  Relief washed over me as I finally reached the door. I gave the handle a tug. I pulled the handle again. I gave it another pull.  I began twisting the handle like crazy, throwing my weight against the door. I fell to the ground for the second time that day, mouth agape. I stared at the door, frozen in horror. Then, finally, something did escape my lips. I chuckled. I giggled. I began to laugh.  I finally understood the cosmic gag. The man and myself were the subjects of the same joke. I laughed harder and harder, achieving a laugh like that of a true madman, as tears flowed down my face. The darkness and silence of the cave was pierced and interrupted by the torches’ dim and flickering light, the sound of two men laughing, and the sound of two pipes continuously and meticulously banging together.


Jonathan notes: “I’ve been writing for a long time. However, I recently realised that I write to process and understand myself and the world around me. I write for its freedom. And I write with the hope of finding my freedom outside the world of writing as well.”


“Multiplication Tables” Science Fiction by Travis Flatt

“Kayla, come up to the front,” says Ms. Ngo, our STEM instructor.

I stand and smooth my purple uniform, then slide up the aisle toward the hovering screen. In the children’s section of the Light Sail, the gravity is set to Earth’s, and I feel heavy–heavy physically and heavy with worry at the prospect of facing twenty grinning twelve-year-olds. Sharp children, elite children: children selected from my ex-planet, a burnt planet where my mother died among the stranded billions, probably screaming and dashing about in a chaotic–

“Kayla, please balance the expression.”

My attention is wrenched back to the sterile, white classroom, and several classmates giggle. I blush and stare at the orange digits balancing in air. Last night, my father and I played a concerto for the Gold Council; I was tired afterward and didn’t study. 

I begin.

“That’s incorrect,” says Ms. Ngo, and she swipes her hand over the corner of the screen,  refreshing the expression to moments before my erroneous attempt. This delights my classmates. This week we began algebra, but Thomas Cunningham told me last night that the Gold class is already onto trigonometry.  “Sit, Kayla. Remember class: the order of operations is ‘PEMDAS’–parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction. Can anyone tell me what Kayla did wrong? Raise your hands.”

***

After school, two Blue Uniforms–security and custodial caste–march me to a tiny, white, box-like room that I’ve never seen before and then leave me inside to wait. Soon, a booming voice fills the box: “Kayla Carr. You’ve been struggling with mathematics. Your Selection Examination indicated no deficiencies. Did you cheat, Kayla Carr?”

Inside the box there’s a hiss. My breath rushes out. “No,” I  gasp.

“Kayla Carr–what is twelve multiplied by eighteen?” The wall in front of me splits and slides open, revealing space–black, endless space–speckled with countless stars. I can just make out a thin membrane of plasma holding out the deadly cold. I feel the back wall slowly inching forward, pushing me toward the membrane.

“Twelve multiplied by eighteen,” the voice repeats.

Desperate, I mentally multiply. “Twelve by twelve is one-forty-four,” I think, “And then six times twelve…” The wall has pushed me halfway out. I thrust a hand forward to feel the plasma partially mold around my hand. It’s freezing, but it doesn’t break.

“216,” I shriek.

The membrane grows sturdier, and I feel the wall retreat behind me. “Correct.”

***

That night, I meet my dad outside the Gold Council hall. He holds my violin and his cello. He looks worried. “Where were you?”

I break into tears. Dad sets his cello case down and drops to meet me eye-to-eye. “What’s wrong, baby?” he wipes the tears off my cheeks with a dark thumb. I throw my arms around his neck.

“I had a bad day… at school.”

He squeezes me. My violin digs into my back, but I don’t care. “Well, that’s okay, baby. We’ve got to go play. Let’s go meet Yvet and play.” Yvet is our pianist.

On Earth, before the Light Sail left for the colonies, we were both in the L.A. Philharmonic. I was the youngest first chair in history–thanks to my dad. He taught me from birth; he can play anything–any instrument.

The Gold Council is eight old white men. They always eat noisily while we play. So far as I’ve seen, they’re the only ones who get solid food on the Light Sail. Dad and I eat nutrient gels and powders.

Dad is upset tonight: he’s stiff on Schubert’s piano trio. It throws Yvet off. When we finish, the Gold Council doesn’t offer their usual, cursory applause. Elder Cunningham, the youngest of Elders, stops us at the door. “I’d like the Carrs to stay.”

Yvet is out the door, but my dad and I slink back to our chairs. The Gold Council hall isn’t white and smooth like the rest of the Light Sail: it’s covered with soft, amber rugs and deep honey-colored carpet. The walls are lined with tall bookcases. Their table sits raised a few carpeted steps above the rest of the room.

“Mr. Carr,” Cunningham says, gnawing on a greasy chicken bone; he’s a big man, always greasy with food. “Who taught your daughter on Earth?”

“Her mother and I. Her mother was a nurse.”

There’s muttering around the council table. Then, Cunningham says, “We didn’t need those. Only doctors, and–” he’s gesturing around with the bone, “–the Red Uniforms assured us they’d have those goddamn robots finished by now.” When he says “robot,” I think of Mrs. Ngo. The kids say she’s holographic.

My father is kneading his hands in his lap. “But Kayla went to public elementary school. And made excellent grades. We just thought, with all the rising crime–”

“Mr. Carr, where did you go to university?”

Modest, and looking at his Purple Uniform shoes, my dad says, “Julliard, sir.”

A Gold Councilman sitting next to Cunningham brings up a small screen in the air, and gestures with bony fingers to summon a picture of dad with text. This new Councilman confirms: “Julliard.” 

Cunningham makes a dismissive gesture with the chicken bone. “Girl, go study. Mr. Carr, you have some business with these men.” Without my noticing, the two Blue Uniforms from this afternoon have appeared in the Council Hall, and they follow us out. As I leave, I watch them marching him down the white hall. Over his shoulder, he glances back at me, confused.

***

When our pod door slides open late that evening, it isn’t my father. Instead, a Red Uniform scientist comes in and stands beside our holographic table. Living pods are tiny, so as I sit on my bed, the Red Uniform and I are very close. “Kayla, your father isn’t coming back.”

I sit stone-faced.

“I can play you the video if you like,” he says.

I shake my head.

“We don’t allow children to live alone, so we’ve devised a new living arrangement.” He scoots further into my room, and a young woman walks in. She wears a purple uniform and carries a cello case.

She smiles and waves. “Hi.”

“Who are you,” I say. She looks a bit like my mother.

“I’m Tamara.”

My mother’s name was Tamara.

The Red Uniform nods. “Our science team has learned a lot about genetics, and, well… Tamara is a combination of you and your father’s DNA.”

I choke back a  yelp. Tamara keeps smiling. I crawl back on my bed and say: “Is she a holograph?”

“Organic,” the Red Uniform says. “We developed cloning before the Light Sail left Earth. Well, ladies, I’m going to let you two get to know each other.”

The Red Uniform scoots around behind Tamara; our door hisses open for him. He leaves us alone. I sit there staring up at myself. Staring up at my new mother.


Travis Flatt lives in Tennessee. His stories appear in Ripples in Space, Bridge Eight, and other publications. 


“An Eye for an Eye” Horror by Andre P. Audette

The Ancestors of Demeter knew the ways of the earth. They farmed an abandoned mining town between a frac sand pit and an overgrown forest, harvesting wild onions and ramp and repairing the land worn by layers of human settlement. The community was largely solitary, although members would occasionally appear at small town festivals to trade incenses and seer services. Children were homeschooled, often succeeding well beyond their non-Ancestor peers academically, and a few had gone to nearby Christian or Jewish schools to study history, engineering, or pre-med, though they rarely completed the program of study.

I was an Ancestor of Demeter, and I have seen things no one has seen or should see.

Our people believe in the duality of sight. Growing up I learned many things about the earth. We were taught to observe things that we were told others could not see. The way the seed broke open to give life. The ways trees fell after a slow decay. The way mosquitos pierced the skin to draw out their life’s blood. And to really see.

On the sixth of the month Thargelion, we would see as our community gathered to sacrifice of our harvest. But some years on that date there was more to see, as the community celebrated our wisdom of sight. On years where Ancestors reached the master number – age 11 – our community held a special ceremony where the master would be paired with another to gain new sight. I partook in the ceremony three times as a child.

Our families would go to the woods under the tallest tree in what we knew of the forest. There we observed and learned what we could see through the dark. There was hot fire that had been burning since the Noumenia. It was the only time we ate of the flesh of our animals; the three largest male sheep were slaughtered and cooked for the community. We drank wine made from our vineyards, and feasted on herbs, morels, and other delicacies gathered from our lands and preserved for the night. We danced, sang, and those old enough would try to conceive a child, who in a duodenary cycle would also be paired. When the moon crested, the eldress would announce the name of the one who the master would be paired with.

Both masters would drink of the ram’s horn, a special drink I have neither seen nor heard of anywhere else, a mixture of wine, tea, nightshade, rapeseed oil, and plants from the steppe. The masters would shriek with joy upon receiving the substance, lying next to their pair as the substance would overtake their senses. Meanwhile, the community’s celebration had ceased, as there was work to be done. Carefully, the eldress would use the tools from the fire, passed down from our ancestors. A spoon-like knife, dipped in the drink of the ram’s horn, would extract one eye from each master. It was a beautiful sight as we children observed the red and clear liquids, blue eyes and brown eyes, and other pure colors of the process. Then using the air, ice, and eye buckle, the eyes would move from master to master. As the children lay there for the next few days, we took care of their bodies as their eyesight restored. Then they experienced the duality of sight.

As a ten-year-old Ancestor, I tended the vineyards, carefully cultivating the root system, pruning the vines, and watering them extensively. I had been selected for the role because of my knowledge of the process and my ability to control the weeds. Though my knowledge of history, religion, and mathematics was average, I had found my niche. Next year, I would find my pair. I hoped it was one of two girls who attended school with me. They could see things about religion, in particular, that I could not. Persephone had beautiful blue eyes that shined in the sun in summer days. When she smiled, her eyes crinkled in the corners as if the eye itself was smiling. Erinys had deep green eyes that looked almost pained beyond her nine years, the kind that could see the passing of time. When you talked to her, she looked as if she could see through to your soul to know you better than you knew yourself. Their beautiful colors would pair well with my deep brown, earthy eyes better than my younger brother, the only other child near my age.

The eldress prepared me well for my pairing. As I worked in the vineyard, she spoke of how sight is a spiritual experience, how all the great healers in the ages restored sight beyond seeing the world as it is. She instructed me on the intimacy of sight, to experience what others could not and to make memories from our sight. Though she was well advanced in years from me, I felt as though I had a glimpse of her sight in her life and beyond. I felt ready to be paired.

Despite my training, though, on the night of my pairing, I was nervous. I knew that my sight would soon become a responsibility for others, for them to see the vineyard and the land of the Ancestors through my eyes. I ate and drank the rare gifts we had produced. I made small talk with my brother, Erinys, and the eldress as we feasted. I tried to take in all the sights of the night, though even as it was a celebration of sight – my sight – my sight memories are shallow and few. But I remember one sight more vividly than any other to that point in my life. As the fire glowed around us, as the community looked at me and the eldress stood next to me, I watched the faces of each person as my pair was announced. It was as if time slowed down for me to catch a photograph of each person. And when the name had fully escaped the lips of the eldress, I saw the space between the lips and the nose begin to rise, the mouth corners rise more than they fell, a small white glimpse of teeth show, and the deep eyes flash with a viridescent flame as Erinys’s name was called and she gave an awkward smile before being consumed with congratulations by others. I suppose it was almost a first experience of love as we drank of the ram’s horn together and I felt the warmth of her soul as she lay down next to me.

After that night, I also remember waking up to a new and wondrous sight. Nothing like what I saw before the ceremony, nor like the dreams, nor fantastical in any way… The wondrous sight was to see not only from my perspective, but to see what Erinys saw as she also awoke. I had entered a new world of consciousness, seeing my brother propping my head up as I also saw Persephone propping up Erinys’s head. I moved my head to face my brother but perceived not only his face as I looked straight onward, but also the bark of the tree that Erinys examined as she stood up. Erinys must have fallen to her knees as I then saw the leaves and detritus of the forest on the ground as I tilted my head upwards to see a morning sun. The light hurt my eyes, so I too quickly looked down to the ground. At once, I could see deeply into both the sky and the ground, experiencing the dual nature of the earth as I learned of my duality of sight.

From that day forth, Erinys and I had become a special pair, to be able to see and share in the experience of each other. I saw as she read the scrolls of our religion and began to understand the words for the first time. She saw as I tended the vineyards, strengthening the roots and uprooting the weeds. At night we even shared dreams, mythical and frightening, mundane dreams of our class at school, or of our work. The day after, we held an intimate understanding of each other’s experience, not even needing our other senses to describe what we saw. My world expanded by two as my brown and green eyes took in new sights, not only of my own experience, but of Erinys’s too.

At times, she might close my eye in moments of rest or of private matters, and I the same with her. On particularly sunny days, she might close my eye and I could see the sunshine through her eyelid, or see her phosphenes dance around as I closed my eye to have our splashes of colorful lights create an aurora of various shapes. As we grew, I longed to learn more of her life and to see what else I might experience, and to share my experiences with my eyes wide open. Maybe it was more than I should have.

Erinys continued advancing in her study, and I began to care for larger plots of land. We got to experience the pairing ceremonies of other children, as they entered into our world of sight duality. With each ceremony, we came to understand more and more the gift we had been given, to experience the world in ways the unpaired could not. Erinys and I cared for each other and worked to ensure that our sight experiences would be as beautiful as possible for the other. Though we never said it out loud or even dared to think it in a romantic way, I had never loved or known love before or since.

Erinys soon received exciting news. She had been accepted to university to continue her study of religion and philosophy and would be leaving our community for a trial semester in the fall. I was genuinely excited for her, and for me, as we would experience the vision of a world different from our own. I could tell she was nervous by the way her hand shook when she signed the paper to attend the school, and in the long talks I observed, reading the lips of her parents and the eldress as they reassured her that the education would benefit our community if she remembered where she came from.

The world of university was exciting. Casting away our agrarian way of life, Erinys was now in a world flooded by people and buildings, all new sights to take in. Everyone wore funny, non-utilitarian clothes. The living spaces were all cramped together, and the food was just laid out in a giant room. She read lots of policies about what she could and could not do at the school: no visitors past 8pm, any visitors of the opposite sex must sign in and out, feet on the floor at all times, no plagiarism, no alcohol, no tattoos, a faith statement with things I did not even understand… Still, with all the rules, this world still seemed so large with so many choices. Erinys had a roommate, a Christian looking girl named Dalia, whose eyes reminded me of my own: brown and simple. She decorated their room with pictures of people and dogs, a homemade-looking metal cross, and of trees, which reminded me too of my life back home. I went outside to look at the trees that looked incredibly similar, but Erinys closed my eye.

Erinys studied lots, reading thicker and denser books than I had seen before. She studied a chapter titled “Matthew,” and a line “if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee.” I knew the phrase by heart after she memorized it and repeated it on an exam, a strange phrase for an Ancestor. There were also religious stories that bored me, enough that I went outside to work while Erinys read. Sometimes I would close her eye to help her focus in preparation for her exams. The wonderful images I imagined I would see were becoming more routine: sit in class and watch a man in a brown coat talk, eat food, and go back to her room to read books. I made sure each morning to try to catch a sunrise or the rainfall from back home to lessen the routine. In a way, I thought, this must be part of the beauty of the duality of sight – coping with the mundane relations of the world. I would tell Persephone about Erinys’s studies, her blue eye smiling at the thought of Erinys and I sharing a new world together.

Things changed one night, as Erinys went away from the usual college buildings. She walked down a dark street, and I could see parts of her roommate walking alongside her under the occasional streetlight. They approached a rundown house that had red cups laying out on the front lawn. As they went inside, there was a haze around a bunch of people drinking alcohol, dressed in weird varieties of clothes while others had no shirt. As Erinys talked to them, she began moving closer toward one of the men standing there. They started toward another room in the house, the bathroom, and it was there that I witnessed her having sex with the man, right in front of the full-length bathroom mirror. She could have closed my eye, but she left it open for me to see. I stood outside in the vineyard, unsure how to communicate anything to her. This was not part of our relationship. Eventually she closed her eyes and fell asleep on the floor of the bathroom. I scrawled a note for her to see as soon as she woke up: “don’t do that again.” I wanted to cut that godforsaken eye out, but I was too afraid to lose my connection to Erinys. And there was a strange part of me that liked what I saw.

Erinys continued spending more time away from her college campus, sometimes with the man from before, sometimes with other people, all the time leaving my eye open. She never communicated a note back to me and continued living her life as if I was not seeing and experiencing it too. I started sleeping more to block out the sights, but there were only so many hours of the day I could convince myself to sleep. She stayed awake for what felt like days on end, seeing and doing things no Ancestor should see and do, and dragging me along.

One evening I decided to go out for a long walk on a dark night. It was late – almost as late as when Erinys and I were paired – and I passed along the outskirts of the forest. Erinys was out too, as usual, in a dark part of town. For the first time since the initial excitement of university, it almost felt as if we were seeing eye to eye again, so to speak. That is, until I realized what Erinys was carrying. She had a hammer in her hand as her roommate carried the metal cross from her room. I was no university educated person, but somehow it seemed as if they were not out to build a religious altar.

My fears turned out to be true, as they went to the same rundown house as before, with the red cups still outside. My step pace increased as theirs decreased, as they came to the door and didn’t knock or wait to be let in. What I saw then was nothing like the beautiful red blood shed during a pairing ceremony. This was the blood of anger, as Erinys and her roommate went through the rooms of the house, catching various men off guard as they hammered and gouged their eyes, right before my very own. The men were left dead, with hammer holes where their eyes were and their genitals lying beside them.

I vomited in the woods. I left her eye open to see it.

The next day I told the eldress, who sent for Erinys at university. But Erinys was not there, I observed. I saw her walking the streets of the city, entering a store with thousands of little boxes on the shelf. She made a purchase and went to the bathroom with my eye closed. I saw her leave the pharmacy and pick up the hammer she had stashed in a dumpster and enter a nearby house. This one I had never seen before, but I immediately felt the terror as I saw an old couple sitting in their chairs and watch Erinys approach them with the hammer.

As she left the house, my eye saw a neighbor watching Erinys leave. I saw lights flashing. I saw the ground getting closer as Erinys fell. Then I watched the ground for hours, unsure of what happened. I thought about asking the eldress to remove Erinys’s eye from my head, but I knew the sin of the memories could not be removed.

Eventually, my sight was covered by a white sheet, and Erinys must have been moving as the lights flashed beyond the white sheet. In the days to come, I saw what I’ve now come to understand as an autopsy room, as medical examiners put scalpel to my eye to test if it was truly Erinys’s. The experience of the morgue ended as Erinys was pushed into a crematorium, and my eye and sight were soon no more.

In time, the police came for the Ancestors and our community became no more. The eldress was sentenced to prison, the children were placed in protective care, and the adults removed from our land. Despite these challenges, the rest of the community still tries to practice the duality of sight.

I try not to.

While the crematorium was the end of my physical eye, the duality of sight is a spiritual experience, as the eldress explained to me years ago. Erinys conceived a child with one of the men she murdered, and I now see her fate. When Erinys’s eye is open, I see her repeatedly giving birth in a forest much like ours, as a beast stands before the fire to consume the child. I cannot look at the beast directly, for it is a sight and color that, as I said before, is a scene no one has seen or should see. But I see the piercing stare of the beast reflected in the eyes of the child as it is consumed. I have tried to keep Erinys’s eye closed as much as possible, but I still have dreams that cause both eyes to awaken, along with the vision that haunts me to this day. With even the best mechanical tools or attempts to remove the eye, the spiritual roots of the eye remain. The flames burning behind the eyelid where the eye used to be are so bright as to keep me awake all night. The flame has only intensified, as have the episodes of the beast needing new Thargelion sacrifices.

Therefore, this is my last testimony of my life as an Ancestor. It is time that I join my pair, my beloved Erinys, and to sacrifice on behalf of the people who have given, and taken, so much from me.


Andre P. Audette is a little-known writer from a little-known town who writes about little-known subjects to explore the (little-understood) human experience. 


“Open Tuning” Horror by Harrison Kim

Jay is an imposter.  He knows it but doesn’t know why.  Nothing he does feels real, not even his guitar playing.  He moves his fingers to make the chords, yet are the thumbs totally under his control?  “This is not my body,” he thinks as he comes home at midnight and stares up at the cracked ceiling of his musty room.  He stands up and opens his guitar case.  He goes for the sensual, for the rhythm of the moment.  There’s no depth to that, but there’s a stroking, a fingering that moves him on.  

It’s a note-by-note massage, every sound hits a different pressure point.  He plays the classical guitar five hours a day.  The fast songs bring fluttering down his back, the slow numbers ripple up his arms.  

“Your music has such feeling,” says his girlfriend Lana, her dark, even bangs falling in a straight line.  “I sense the notes all over my skin.”

“I know,” says Jay.  “I watch you as I play, and I see you shiver.”

Lana presents an open, smiling face and gestures with her palms towards her heart.  Her voice is a light wind upon him, but that doesn’t relieve his disconnect.

He rides the bus home, aware of the people, he notices the ragged edges of the riding crowd, the lame and the pushy, the loud and the mentally sick.  He imagines them all as skeletons.

There’s one man he always sees, a stumbler, a night drinker.  Aged and alone, this white-haired shrunken wanderer comes round corners when least expected, as if he’s been called.  Every time, the wanderer stares at Jay as if in shock, as if his presence is recognized but unexpected.  Jay locks into that gaze and the two of them cannot move, they’re joined in a timeless look.  As he stares, Jay imagines a terrible shadow, an event between he and the wanderer that overlaps, and possesses them both.  It’s the thing that wakes him at night when he calls out for his body “please give me back my hands!”  And raising his arms, he sees fingers above him and must admit them as his own. 

That night at the concert hall Jay’s backstage, hit by itching static from the crowd sounds, he has trouble staying still, he’s being pushed around by the cacophony.   He scratches the back of his neck until it’s covered with red lines. 

“You have to go on now,” says Lana.  

Jay peers out at the audience.  He sees all their flaws, ears sticking out, tight mouths, scattered laughter.  He peels back their skin in his mind, imagines them as bones.  Still, he can’t stop perceiving what’s on their outsides, their whispers feel like scratches on his back. He has trouble placing his guitar on his knee.  It doesn’t fit into the right place anymore.  

Then he sees someone familiar in the audience.  The sunken chested wanderer.  The hollow cheeked man’s sitting there in the back, and he’s smiling his stoned smile, rocking back and forth.  How could they let this junkie in?  Jay bites his lip and adjusts another string.  

He thinks of Lana, tries to take his mind off the wanderer.  He tunes all his strings to an open E note.  He looks directly at the audience, and begins to play, only using his right hand.  He makes a drone.  All the strings vibrating in sync, a most basic and deep sound.

Jay chants to this drone, and looks out at the audience, at his skinny white-haired nemesis.  He lets his mind go, begins chanting and vocalizing as the sound sends him into a void.  The guitar drones with him, under the power of his left hand.

All falls away, a floating and a rising. Jay pictures his body.  He drifts away into the audience, above the aura of the wanderer, and looks back. Who he sees performing is not himself, it is a skeleton with different flesh and skin.   He hears his voice call from the stage “that is the body of an imposter.  That is not my flesh covering his bones.”  

Jay hears a cacophony of boos, they become louder as he awakens onstage clutching his guitar, he hears people mocking him by droning out of tune.  Others look stricken and concerned. The entire space between him and the wanderer is filled with sound, the vibration of their two lives thrumming across it.

Lana and the stage manager try to pull the guitar from his hands.

“Jay,” says Lana.  “You have to let go.”  

He stops playing.  “That’s the best I’ve ever done,” he says into the mike.  

The wanderer stands in his seat, turns.  Then he claps, and as he claps, he moves to the exit, the back of his head, his fuzzy white mane, bobbing, the rest of him a shadow near the back stairs.

“Thank God you’ve stopped,” A woman in the crowd yells at Jay.  “I will applaud that.”

Jay puts his guitar on the stand, gets up and shakes his arms and legs.  He feels flutters caressing all up and down his spine.  Lana and the stage manager move back.  Jay walks offstage, rubbing his shoulders.  “No more Segovia, no more Bream,” he tells Lana, and treads home alone, back to his single occupancy room.

He paces in his stinky, littered room and can’t sleep.  He goes out to walk the wee hour streets, watching for shadows, for flaws and fissures, breakdowns in the night. He sidles into the park, listening for prowlers stepping on broken branches, for the whirling bicycle wheels of blood poisoned addicts, and all the time the droning of the guitar drones through his head.

He glimpses a shadow stumble across the grass, towards the river.  He senses who it is, the white hair streaming out under the moon, and as he closes in, he sees the wanderer’s thin shoulders under a torn grey blazer.  Jay doesn’t make a sound, as he feels again that void, that emptiness between his current body and the wanderer’s.  He rushes forward into emptiness as the wanderer slopes his shoulders in the water’s direction.  Before the skeletal figure dives, Jay leaps out and grabs the collar of that blazer and pulls the old man down.

He feels bones beneath the grey cloth covered back, such a thin cover on top. Jay’s thrown down a sack of bones, he jumps up and the sack turns around and shows its face. The little flesh the sack has resembles Jay’s brown skin, especially when it raises its arms and the fingers grab out against the sky, like they’re playing some kind of invisible instrument, and the hairs on the arms are shadowed black under the moonlight.

“Oooooooh,” sings the wanderer inside the sack, and the mouth grins.  “Ooooooh,” Jay hears the drone, in his own voice.

“I’m just like everybody else,” Jay thinks then.  “I am everybody else.”

He lies on top and lets the wanderer sing below him.  He knows that he’s split apart, flesh on top, bones below.   He that perfection of tone.  Now he hears it from the lipless mouth beneath him.  He listens, and pushes down, listens some more, and pushes again.  He stands up, turns away, and leaves behind the calling bones.  The sounds fade as they sink into the earth.  

He meets Lana the next day for a coffee. 

“You seemed kind of possessed last night,” says Lana.  “In some kind of frozen state.”

“Jitters,” he says.

“What was that you said about Segovia?” she asks.

“I want to play my own music,” Jay answers. “And I want to play with you.”

The coffee shop server tells him to go round the side to pick up his drink.

“Give me the coffee right here,” says Jay.  “It’s in your hand.”
“You’re a stubborn guy,” says the server, and passes him the drink.

“Consider yourself lucky to have followed my directions,” Jay calls out.  

He turns to Lana and moves his mouth into a skull like grin.

That night, in their lovemaking, Jay makes rhythm to hear Lana’s perfect moan, to push the inner most sounds from her body.  When he overcomes Lana beneath him, she cries in ecstasy.  His fingers touching her are the same as his spirit, connected and alive.  He raises an arm and looks at it, feels the weight of covered bone, and because he’s fused this flesh to his mind, he’ll claim it as his own.  


Harrison notes: “I live and write in Victoria, Canada.  Many of my stories are inspired by the years I worked as the teacher at a Forensic Psychiatric Hospital.  My blog spot is here: https://harrisonkim1.blogspot.com . “


“Storm” Horror by K. Williams

Jack braced himself against an icy breeze as a myriad of stars shimmered above the cold dark alleyway. A crashing roar of thunder made him jump and he looked up to see a fast moving cloud of darkness swiftly covering the stars. 


Disoriented by the harsh weather, Jack stumbled aimlessly down a sea of endless identical streets, his hope of getting home before the rain dashed by a sudden downpour and a raging wind which tore through his wet clothing, causing a sudden chill.


With shaking fingers Jack searched his coat pockets for his precious bottle, but when he uncapped it and held it to his lips, only a drop of the coveted liquid slid down his throat. He shivered, let the empty bottle fall from his numb fingers, and the glass shattered silently amid a roar of thunder.


Jack headed for home in what he thought was the right direction, when the sky grew quiet and he heard crunching glass. He turned, saw only shadows in the darkness, convinced himself it was nothing, and stumbled onward, streetlights flickering around him. 


After wandering around for what seemed like hours, he at last recognized the name of a street and hurried along with thoughts only of a warm bed.


As Jack paused to get his bearings, he heard footsteps behind him, stopping when he stopped. He turned but saw nothing. “Are you following me?” he asked, taking a few steps backward. 


When the other footsteps echoed his, he ran, stumbling over the garbage in the streets, and when he couldn’t take another step he stopped, panting and listening as the footsteps began to advance slowly. And now Jack could see the source, a faint outline in the shadows.


He forced himself to run again, veering unsteadily through the darkness, away from the shadows. Soon he could see his apartment building, identical to all the other dingy decaying derelicts which occupied this side of town.


Breathless, one block from his destination and underneath a streetlight, Jack dared to turn around. His pursuer appeared to have vanished, or been only imaginary, he hoped. 


The elevator in his apartment was always ‘Out-Of-Order’ so exhausted though he was, he had to climb the stairs. When he reached the third floor he was beyond winded. 


After he wiped the sweat from his face with the filthiest handkerchief in existence, he fumbled in his pants pockets for the door key, which he dropped twice before being able to open his door with it.


Jack looked fearfully down the hallway by the light of one dim bulb before he entered and slammed the door, locking it immediately. Now he felt safe and secure, the memory of his pursuer fading. He knew he had another bottle of liquor somewhere but he was too tired to search for it. 


Jack stripped off his drenched clothes before he gratefully sank into bed. He covered himself with his thin frayed blanket and drifted towards sleep, dimly aware of noises which he assumed were just thunder.
With his face turned away from the window and his eyes closed, he couldn’t see the lightning flash that illuminated the figure now standing by his bed.


First published in Yellow Mama in 2020.


K. A. Williams lives in North Carolina. Over 200 of her stories and poems have been published in many magazines including The Chamber, 365 Tomorrows, The Creativity Webzine, Corner Bar, Altered Reality, View From Atlantis, Aphelion, and Trembling With Fear. Apart from writing, she enjoys rock music, and CYOA games.       

                                             

“Honey Bunny” Horror by James Hanna

I call her Honey Bunny—an utter cliché. That’s lame, I know, but I value clichés. They do set limits. And limits are the bedrock of sanity: without them passions would be too dark, wounds too deep, and fear would never take a holiday. So thank heaven for good stout clichés.

My mother, bless her soul, called everyone honey bunny: even my uncle who began creeping into my bedroom when I was twelve, even my brother who quit school because it was interfering with his porn habit—even my father who only seemed endearing after he got shot to death thirty years ago. And my mother died at the ripe old age of ninety-five—died with a Bible in her hand, a twinkle in her eye, and a monkish insistence that God will protect us.

I strive to be more like my mother was, but I have only one honey bunny in my life. I met her a year ago in San Francisco—at the annual Pink Parade. The parade, as usual, depressed me—perhaps because of the total irrelevance of what it was celebrating. Why on earth would I want to celebrate being a lesbian, and a failed lesbian at that? I may as well celebrate the color of my hair, the length of my fingernails, or the alarming frequency with which I masturbate. And so I hung despondently at the edge of the crowd and listened to the boisterous shouting of the dykes on motorbikes.

It was she—my very own Honey Bunny—who started the conversation.  Touching my elbow ever so gently, she asked me if I had a hair clip. A hair clip! You can buy those anywhere so I knew she was reaching out to me. There was something so very pathetic about her: she was thin as a rake, paler than ivory, and her eyes were like the eyes of a beggar. Yet those sorrowful eyes looked straight into my soul—my shoddy, pedestrian soul. Thankfully, her gaze was charitable—it seemed that her own life, an obvious shipwreck, had spared her the conceits of judgment. It also appeared that she needed rescuing.

“Here,” I said. Removing a hair clip from my already-disheveled mane, I handed it to her. She protested—“Oh no, you still need it”—but when I pressed it into her palm, she took it without hesitation. She pinned back her dark bangs, and I was able to look at her more critically. Her forehead was shiny and swarming with freckles, her jaw was entirely too weak, and her ears were clownishly large. Only her eyes, her dark luminescent eyes, rescued her from homeliness.

We drank iced teas at an outdoor café—she paid—and I listened as she rambled on about her life. She was an interior decorator but not a very accomplished one—she had not worked in months. Her love life, like mine, was the ultimate cliché: her husband had left her for a man. And she was an alcoholic now struggling to recover. I listened to her with staccato nods of my head. I wanted to appear cosmopolitan. I wanted to appear chic. I wanted to appear breezy. I wanted to be anything but what I was—a farm girl from Iowa suddenly in love.

She patted my wrist before she left and handed me her business card. It read Annabelle Chilton, Living Rooms & Kitchens, Visits by appointment. “In case you drum me up some jobs,” she said—another sure signal. With the entire internet at her disposal, why would she need me to find her jobs? Clearly, we had made a once-in-a-lifetime connection. Or perhaps we had known each other in another life: a life cut short by some cruel circumstance. The plea in her eyes, the sob in her throat, the tremor in her hands all told me that there was unfinished business between us.

 I pocketed her card as though it were a check and walked away from the parade.

*

I phoned her the following morning. She answered on the very first ring—probably she had been waiting for my call. I invited her to lunch and she accepted at once. I told her it was my turn to pay.

I dressed conservatively: sandals, a cream-colored blouse and a dark pair of slacks that minimized my stocky hips. I shortened my hair with a pair of scissors, teased it into a pageboy do and then stood before the full-length mirror that hung from the door in my studio flat. I barely recognized the woman looking back at me: with every hair in place, I looked more like a CEO than a part-time nurse’s aide. But Annabelle needed a person of stature—someone to anchor her free-floating spirit.

We met at the same café. She was sitting at a table, bent over a pack of tarot cards, three of which she had turned face-up. The way she nibbled her lip as she concentrated on the cards was absolutely touching. “Oh,” she said, startled by my sudden appearance. I sat down beside her, and she returned her attention to the cards.

“Are you reading my fortune?” I asked.

She put down the deck. “If you must know, I’m reading mine. Things are so crazy I have to read it every day.”

“Why every day? That Death card looks scary.”

“People usually think that,” she laughed. “But it’s actually a card of transition.  It means old things die—new things replace them.”

“My father was young when he died,” I replied. “And no one took his place, thank God.” I don’t know why I told her this—the incident, though traumatic at the time, was now more of an embarrassment to me than anything else. But when something is ordained—when it is plainly in the cards—there is not much point in holding back.

“I’m so very sorry,” she said. And she meant it.

“Don’t be,” I replied. I did not want her pity—that would never do. “He was shot to death in a hovel, you know—a goddamn brothel. Some say he needed killing.”

She turned over another card—the Queen of Swords.

 “Now that bitch is scary,” I said.

  She laughed. “She can be mean.  But she’s really a card of judgment.”

“A dyke with a sword? What kind of judge would she make?”

She giggled like a child. “Not a very good one, I’m afraid. She’s too conflicted herself. She’s part man, you know.”

Her come-on was so banal that I could only smile indulgently. Opposites attract. Opposites repel. And so the game goes on. I scooted my chair closer to her and watched as she reshuffled the cards.

She told me a bit more about her life, and my pity for her grew. She had gotten married straight out of a Catholic women’s college. For five years, she had clung to a safe but passionless marriage. When her husband had confessed to an affair with another man, she settled for a no-fault divorce and came to San Francisco to pursue a new dream—that of becoming an interior designer. It was a dream for which she lacked the slightest qualification—a dream as fanciful as her bullshit marriage and her trust in those silly tarot cards. But her tenacity, even in the pursuit of lost causes, was to be admired. My own bullshit marriage had ended years before my ex-husband came out of the closet. It had ended in its very first month—when I heard him brushing his teeth for the two-hundredth time. Try as I may, I couldnot stand the sound of him brushing his goddamn teeth. And so, when I got my divorce papers, I gleefully packed a bag and set off for San Francisco—not to chase a dream, but to put as much distance as I could between myself and Iowa.

She plopped down another card. It was the Magician.

“Now what does he stand for?”

She laughed and patted my wrist. “He has very striking powers,” she said.  “He turns gravel into gold.”

*

As it turned out, it was the Queen of Swords who had striking powers. She was not an abstraction—an interplay of yin and yang—but an actual person: a towering drag queen who was approaching our table like a ship that had drifted off course. She was vampire-pale with Madonna-length hair, and her eyes were looking daggers straight at me. I recognized her instantly as a hustler, one of those bottom feeders that hung around the Mission District—the kind who preyed on the homeless waifs that poured into the city every day. What did she want with my Honey Bunny? Did she want her to sell drugs, work as her pimp, pose for lewd photos?  I could tell by Annabelle’s demeanor—the way she stiffened as this bitch approached—that she had already been caught in her snare. What a silly thing to do, but that’s my Honey Bunny.

The Queen of Swords sat at our table, glowering like a sunset as Annabelle introduced me. She introduced me as Rebecca—the name I had adopted since coming to San Francisco, a name that symbolized my complete and utter relocation from Iowa.

“Eve,” she said hesitantly. “Eve this is Rebecca. Eve and I are roommates, you know.” She spoke the word roommates as though she were describing something vile—a mooring of desperation. A port of last resort.

Charmed,” the Queen of Swords muttered. She took my hand, squeezing it with a man’s grip. I was stunned by the reptilian strength of her fingers. But I was also rather glad to meet her. Now I knew my mission. Now I knew what my Honey Bunny needed to be rescued from. Now I knew what would make me the Magician in her eyes.

 An invasive chill settled over the table—a chill as penetrating as that of an Iowa winter. It was Annabelle, dear and vulnerable Annabelle, who broke down first. “Eve was in a movie,” she blurted. This was not a disclosure so much as a cry—a frantic attempt to break the silence.

I nodded woodenly. Movie, my ass. It was probably a film clip: the kind you saw in the Mission Street sex shops. So that was the Queen of Swords realm—the goddamn basement of the goddamn porno industry. Was she planning to recruit my Honey Bunny—get her into those flicks? I swore I would never let such a thing happen.  

 Arching my eyebrows, I looked back at Eve. “I don’t much like movies. They get on my nerves. But you are very photogenic.” I said this not to flatter her, but because I could easily picture her face on a police mug shot.

The bitch lit a cigarette—a Salem—and smiled like a ghoul. She had accepted my comment as a compliment, but this did not stop her from blowing a veil of smoke in my direction. “Take care of your gifts, darlin’,” she said. “I’m sure you have gifts of your own.”

I shrugged. “Not a one,” I confessed. “Not unless loyalty counts.” That was a lie, of course. I had never been loyal to anything in my life—certainly not to my uncle who tried to bribe me with a kitten, my ex-husband who hid gay porn under our bed, my mother who never lost that fucking twinkle in her eyes.  But today—today—I was ready to make a change.

Eve blew more smoke at me and chuckled. “I do hope you’re fibbing, darlin’.  What good is loyalty in the Mission?”

I looked at her as though I were looking at a piece of shit. What a hypocrite she was to say something like that. As though she, the Queen of Swords, had not demanded total fidelity from my Honey Bunny. “Do I look like I’m fibbing?” I snapped.

She groaned, her tenor voice giving way to a deep baritone. “Maybe to yourself, darlin’,” she said. “You look like a woman in search of a cause.”

I continued to stare at her. It did not matter that she had read me like a book, that I had broadcasted my intentions, that my soul was so barren, so utterly transparent, that even this street shark could take its measure. I had stood up for my Honey Bunny. That was enough.

But now it was time for a strategic retreat—time to go home and plan the first step of my campaign. I rose from the table, feigning indifference when my Honey Bunny frowned at me. Don’t leave me, please was the plea in her eyes—she looked like a jilted lover. But I would have to leave the silly creature for now.

“I must go,” I said firmly.

Her eyes began to water. “Go where?” she blurted. “You were about to buy me lunch.”

I smiled mysteriously. “To the movies,” I said.

*

I went straight home and lay down on my bed. I hated to abandon my Honey Bunny, but I needed some time to think. Time had always been my ally; it had served me well after my father was shot to death thirty years ago—after I identified his body, as stiff as a manikin, lying upon a gurney in the county morgue. Only time could have mitigated my memory of his drunken fits. Only time could have given me a few bits of nostalgia: he had taught me how to hunt—how to load and unload a gun. And time would assist me where Honey Bunny was concerned. Since her sanctification was vital to my mission, I needed time to forgive her her folly—time to accentuate the very best in her. Dreams are so very vulnerable, after all.

I started with an e-mail, a few short sentences that I revised several times.  When the message was ready, I looked at it with satisfaction. 

Annabelle,

Can we meet?  Not in a restaurant but a cavern—a place where only the Magician might appear. Remember, it was Eve who forsook Paradise, Eve who perverted Man—Eve who stole the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. I will wait to hear from you.

Your friend,

Rebecca          

I pressed the send button and waited for a reply. I waited several days, but that did not surprise me. Were my Honey Bunny quick-witted—were she able to think on her feet—she would not be caught up in a hustler’s web. Her reply, when it finally came, was short and succinct—a sharp departure from her usual ramblings.

Dear Rebecca,

Thank you for the invitation. I’m afraid I must decline. A little knowledge can go a long way.

                                                                                                Regrets,

                                                                                                Annabelle

Was my Honey Bunny miffed at me? Probably—I had walked out on her at the restaurant. Or were these Eve’s words? I sincerely hoped they had come from Honey Bunny. Good things protect themselves, after all, and now I could truly hope that my Honey Bunny was not promiscuous—that her precious affections would have to be earned. Be wary of finding your love on a single night. Love that comes too easily is too often counterfeit love. 

I composed another message:

Annabelle,

Thank you for your reply. A little knowledge does go a long way. There is no need for you to meet me—I understand why you can’t. But drop me a line now and then—just a few words to let me know how you are doing. That will be enough, and enough is as good as a feast.

                                                                                                Your friend,

                                                                                                Rebecca

I forwarded her the message along with an invitation to be my Facebook friend. She did not answer right away, thank God: her reticence gave me time to reflect, time to consider my options, time to woo her in small increments. Rapture, after all, is better pursued in degrees—otherwise, the impact could prove overwhelming. And so I sent her one e-mail a day—one and only one—just to remind her that I would be there no matter how perilous the journey. After a month, she replied.

Rebecca,

Enough is not a feast. Enough is enough. Do not correspond with me further.  Abandon your notion that we’re good for lunch. Invite the Magician if you wish, but leave me out your daydreams.  Please.

                                                                                                Annabelle

I re-read her e-mail and gasped. How desperate my Honey Bunny must be to resort to so silly a code. Was it a fear of rapture that prompted her to do this, or was it her obedience to The Queen of Swords? In any case, her message—Do not abandon me, please—was too disturbing to ignore.

Thankfully, I still had her address. It was printed on her business card—how convenient. She lived in a fleabag hotel in the Mission District—at the intersection of 24th Street and Folsom. It was an hour’s walk from my flat in the upper Castro, but what did distance matter? It was imperative that I check up on my Honey Bunny right away.

I walked the entire twenty blocks to her hotel. By the time I got there, my feet were so blistered that I could barely hobble. I should not have worn flip-flops for such a long walk.

  It was a mercy to my feet that I did not have to wait long. In a matter of minutes, she emerged through the doorway to her hotel—as though the Magician had summoned her. Thank God, she’s psychic. Thank God, she came so quickly. But when I saw her, my heart began to bleed. She was hollow-eyed, shoeless and clad in a cheap summer frock. And—surprise, surprise—she was with that bitch, Eve. What Eve had done to my Honey Bunny, I could only imagine—but gone was her vitality, her lively innocence, the childlike luster in her eyes. She looked like a crack whore.

I waved—hoping to attract her attention. She noticed me at once, and her face began to soften. She then jerked her head in Eve’s direction—an urgent effort to warn me away. A few minutes later, the pair of them disappeared into a subway tunnel.

I walked back to my flat—the entire twenty blocks. My feet were like pulp by the time I got home, but what did that matter? For the sake of my Honey Bunny—my dear and precious love—I was prepared to give my life.

*

It’s so strange to be knocking upon heaven’s door. What if it were to open too quickly? What if I were unworthy of walking through it? What if heaven were too great a challenge—not only for me but for my Honey Bunny as well? As I thought more about it, I started to choke; it felt like a python was crushing my lungs. Thank God, I could turn on some music.

Desperate for YouTube, I went on line. I selected one of my favorites, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”—not the Bob Dylan original but the more dynamic version performed by Guns N’ Roses. As I listened to the riffs of the lead guitar and the gravelly drawl of Axl Rose, I began to get out of my skin. And soon I was singing along. “Knock knock knocking on heaven’s door—hey, heeey, yaaay.”

But it was time I knocked louder. And so, when the song ended, I composed another e-mail to my Honey Bunny.

Dearest Annabelle,

Don’t snub the Magician. He is wiser than us both and far more resourceful.  And, after seeing you this morning, I fear it is time for a transition. But come to me on your own accord—not like a lamb but a fearless queen. Don’t make me play the Death card on you.

                                                                                                Your friend,

                                                                                                Rebecca

I paused before sending the message. What if my Honey Bunny had been turned against me? What if she were less courageous than I imagined her to be?  What if Eve were to intercept the message?

But what if I did nothing? What if I abandoned my Honey Bunny to drugs and destitution? Surely, I would be hell-bound—deservedly so—without a prayer of ever reuniting with her. And so, there it was. One of us would have to be brave.

I took a deep breath and looked fear in the eye. And then I hit the send button.

*

An hour later, I heard a knocking on my door. Had heaven come calling so soon? I rather doubted it. But, having taken the leap, I was prepared for whatever was to come. Be it bliss or be it woe, I was ready. Anything was better than this maddening limbo.

Quickly, eagerly, I opened the door. Standing outside were two dykes wearing pantsuits. They were stately, tall and beautiful, and their faces glowed with the righteousness of angels. Why couldn’t my Honey Bunny be so brave? The women were an escort—that was clear—and I was ready to be escorted. And so, I said nothing when they slipped the bracelets over my wrists, walked me down the hallway and eased me into the back seat of a police van. One of them scooted in beside me and began reading the warrant. But I wasn’t listening.

“You look like Wonder Woman,” I said.

She laughed. “Take it easy on me.”

“Were you sent here by a queen?”

“Take it easy.”

The one who was driving glanced over her shoulder. “It was a homely- looking chick with dirty feet. She seemed kinda batty.”

I smiled with relief. “That’s my Honey Bunny,” I said. “Crazier than bat shit.”

“She isn’t worth jail time—that’s for sure.”

I laughed and agreed. But, of course, I was lying. For my Honey Bunny, I would gladly go to jail. I loved her with all her flaws. I loved her in all her moods.

*

I saw her three days later during my arraignment. She was sitting at the back of the courtroom, and she looked like a train wreck. Her hair was disheveled and greasy, her dress was badly rumpled, and her eyes were so dark that she looked like a mugging victim. But I was a fright myself: clad in a jail-issued jumpsuit—no makeup on my face at all—I was not at my best for Honey Bunny.

She looked at me and blushed, and I felt my pulse starting to pound. What  joy—to know that she was penitent, to know that she yearned for a glimpse of me.  But how heartbreaking to see her in such a state.

My public defender, a short owlish man, told me I could probably take a plea.  I could cop out to five years probation—the standard term for felony stalking—and agree to a ten-year stay away order. My heart leaped at the possibility. How merciful. How utterly convenient. I could never put my Honey Bunny through a trial.  I could never force her to take the stand—to submit to the whiplash questioning of a lawyer. I could never ask her to betray me publicly. Such an experience would crush her bird-like spirit forever.

No, no—a thousand times no. I would stay loyal to my Honey Bunny. I would continue to set the standard. And one day, she would surely come to me.

*

She wrote me while I was still in jail—unmindful of the restraining order the judge had issued. The letter was brief, a single mottled page that appeared to be dappled with tearstains.

Rebecca,

The DA said not to write you, but write you I must. I never thought the Death card could be scary. But now I see you each night in my dreams. In my dreams, you are the Charioteer—a most unsettling card. In my dreams, you wear a bright-red tunic and come to me like a conqueror. Iwant these dreams to end.

You scare me, Rebecca. You scare me so.

                                                Annabelle  

   I put down the letter and started to weep. The subtext—I want you so—was plain enough, but it was the body of the letter that most affected me. The fact that no good deed goes unpunished was simply unacceptable where my Honey Bunny was concerned. I would have to let her know—and know right away—that only the Queen of Swords need be feared.

I composed a quick note.

Dearest Annabelle,

I confess. I want to be your hero. And you need a hero, my darling. Still, I would rather die than frighten you for even an instant. So let us dispense with chariots and tunics. Let us settle, instead, for a single red rose. Tape a rose upon the door of your hotel if you want me to come to you. I will check your hotel every day for a rose. A rose is all I need.

            Your friend, 

Rebecca

I stuffed the note into an envelope—thank God they don’t monitor the correspondence in here—and gave it to the jail chaplain to mail out. I waited a week and then shivered with joy. Since lightning did not strike me—since the DA did not bust me for violating the restraining order—I knew for sure that my Honey Bunny was having second thoughts. I knew, without a doubt, that our love would win out in the end.

*

Thirty days later, I went back to court. I stood before the judge, held up my head, and nodded stoically as he recited the terms of my probation. When I had taken my plea bargain, I looked around the courtroom, hoping for another glimpse of my Honey Bunny. She was there, of course, but how sad she looked. Sitting again at the back of the courtroom, her face buried in her hands, she resembled a mourner at a wake. When she finally looked up at me, my heart almost burst. Oh, for a bit of lipstick! Oh, for a dab of rouge! With my pasty complexion—my jailbird pallor—I must surely have looked like a ghost.

The following morning—alone in my flat—I reevaluated my strategy. Since I was now a specter to her—a shadow from heaven’s door—I would have to approach her as such. Shattered as she was, my Honey Bunny could only handle ghosts, pallid reminders of what still might be. And so, I created a Facebook phantom—a parody of my masculine self—and I named him Ruhben. The anagram of Ben-Hur would be instantly apparent to her: an assurance that the Charioteer was not to be taken seriously.

It seemed almost redundant to send her a friend request. She was with me constantly now, her presence like a warm breeze that caressed me daily—or sometimes like an arctic winter chill. But it wasn’t enough that she was psychic—I needed to hear from her as well. And so, I sent her a Facebook invitation—one that she instantly accepted. She even posted my “picture”—that of a bronzed surfer dude—on her friends page. Ruhben, she wrote coquettishly. Are you from India?  What a tease she can be.

The next day, as I walked to the probation department, I felt such joy that I almost floated. How good it was to be out and about, to feel the warmth of sunshine on my skin again, and to know my Honey Bunny was thinking of me. I had lost my job at the hospital—thank God. Now I was free—free at any hour of the day—to dash to her side and kiss away her tears. Who knew when she might need me? Who knew when she might call for me?

liked my probation officer—a handsome woman who reminded me of Jamie Lee Curtis. After she had referred me to a therapist and given me a chit for food stamps, we talked about movies. You’ve got to know how to handle these people if you want them to cut you some slack. I even patted her shoulder before leaving her office, and promised I would report back to her in a week.

Later that day, after checking my Facebook feed, I went out to feed myself.  The taqueria at 24th and Folsom—the one across from my Honey Bunny’s hotel—was perfect. There, I could be closer to her. There, I could feel the full strength of her vibes. There, I would be ready if the love she so feared, yet so desperately wanted, delivered her to my arms. And so, I went back, every day for a month, and watched for a single, red rose.

*

Betrayal has so many faces. Omission is one, denial another, and settling must certainly qualify. But first one must betray oneself. First, one must sanctify dark habits. First, one must decide that another dead-end marriage—another bullshit union—is not salve but salvation. What is beyond your capacity seek not. My mother used to quote that from the Bible whenever she wanted to put me in my place. And maybe she was right. But I felt only grief—unfathomable grief—when  I read my Honey Bunny’s announcement.

To all my Facebook friends:

You are invited to the wedding of Annabelle Chilton and Emmanuel Vasquez—stage star and illusionist. Our hearts are full, our faith in life restored. Love has truly found us.

Services will be Saturday afternoon, 1:00 p.m., at Glide Memorial Church.  Refreshments will be served afterwards at the Treasure Island Yacht Club.  Come one, come all, and share in this magical moment.

I lowered my head and wept. What a sell-out! What a farce! And who was Emmanuel Vasquez? I studied the picture she had posted beside her own—that of a tall, sweaty man in a T-shirt. I practically retched when I realized it was Eve. How utterly disappointing to see her out of drag—to realize she was not a vampire but a slob. Oh, Annabelle. Dearest, dearest Annabelle. How very frightened of life you must be.

Thankfully, I was still brave enough for the both of us. Thankfully, I was bruised but unbowed. Thankfully, my freedom, my life, my very soul, were not too much to risk for my Honey Bunny. I would give them all up for an instant of bliss, a single, sweet smile from my beloved’s lips.

Dispensing with Ruhben, my own sad illusion, I composed a short e-mail.

My Dearest,

A boat in port is safe. But that isn’t what boats are designed for. So please do not rot in a withering harbor. Instead, put your faith in a mutinous sea. For only the lost—only the truly lost—can ever be found.

                                                                                                  Rebecca

After sending her the e-mail, I dashed from my flat, flagged down a cab and gave the driver directions to her hotel. I asked him to hurry, but he all he did was poke along. It was twenty minutes—twenty excruciating minutes—before we pulled up alongside her building. And still, I hesitated. What to do now? Should I push my way past the security clerk, pound on her door, throw myself at her feet? Of course I should—even if it meant jail. Since my Honey Bunny was alreadyimprisoned, it was only fitting that I share in her fate. Her pain was my pain, after all.

And so, I felt proud, incredibly proud, when I heard the murmur of a siren—when a squad car pulled in front of the cab. And I smiled when my probation officer, accompanied by two uniformed dykes, approached me.

I got out of the cab. “I surrender,” I piped. “Don’t shoot me.”

She chuckled. “It didn’t take you long to fuck up.”

I stood like Joan of Arc as she fitted me with handcuffs and read me my Miranda rights. After I was strapped into the squad car, we chatted a bit more.

“It sure didn’t take you long, Rebecca.”

I shrugged. “I guess not. But that’s kind of a blessing.”

“I was staking out the building, you know.”

“Did she call you?”

“This morning. She told me she was getting married. So I knew it wouldn’t be long until I saw you here.”

As we drove to the city jail, my heart felt astoundingly full. So my Honey Bunny, my crafty but timid Honey Bunny, had been testing me—testing the depth of my love. And surely I had passed—passed with the brightest of colors. Together, we would now bear the weight of her cross. Together, we would bind ourselves to exile.  And together we would be when this test—this loathsome test—had paved our way to heaven.

*

My probation revocation hearing was a disappointment, not because of the sentence I received—it was only the two-year minimum—but because my beloved wasn’t in the courtroom. I craned my neck, hoping to get a glimpse of her, but she was nowhere to be seen. But that may also have been a blessing: had they put her on the stand—had they made her admit she had trapped me—she might never have forgiven herself. And I wanted her to come to me like a child—like the child she truly was—when I held her to my heart.

A few weeks later, the prison bus took me to the Reception & Diagnostic Center at San Quentin. But even at San Quentin, even in my six-by-eight foot cell, I could anticipate the joy of my persistence. The rock-solid walls, the perpetual racket, the frozen bars were nothing compared to the bliss I would feel when I reunited with my Honey Bunny. And so, my happiness endured—even as I completed a battery of tests, even as I stood before the inmate classification board, even as I was transferred to the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla.

  The Warden at Chowchilla, impressed by my high IQ score and my meager criminal history, assigned me to work in the prison library—a trustee-type job. And there, it was so easy to access the internet. Using the pseudonym Miranda—a reference my Honey Bunny would quickly grasp—I created a new Facebook account. She accepted my friend invitation at once and our accounts, like our hearts, were intimately joined.

But perhaps, I should have left well enough alone. Perhaps, I should have left her to the sacrament of my memory. Perhaps, I should have vilified her: at least, as a Jezebel, she would have stayed mischievous and lively to me. Because her life—the life intertwined with my own—was not going well. How heartbreaking to learn that, unable to find work, she had moved into a public housing project in the Tenderloin.  How devastating to know that she had developed a type of leukemia and was undergoing monthly radiation treatments. And how sad that her marriage had already ended. This was bound to happen—the marriage was a sham—but even a sham can provide someone with a semblance of company. And now, my Honey Bunny was utterly alone. 

I wish I could say that I rose to the occasion, but I found myself shying away from Facebook. If one must serve time, it is best to serve it as a hermit. And so I let myself fall into a deadening routine: a routine of meals, sleep and shelving books—a routine that kept my spirit numb and my earned credit time intact. I did not even allow myself a pauper’s thrill—the titillation a prison affair might have given me.  That would have been the ultimate betrayal. That would have sealed my unworthiness of her.

*

I have always been prone to sudden depressions—not the garden-variety blues but gut checking, hand wringing, crippling depression. I go down like a dazed boxer, my senses reeling from the punch. I go down so hard that there is no up or down. And so the ultimate checkout—the forfeiture of my remaining senses—can seem like a sort of deliverance. Of course, it would be a sin to hurry death along but, given the utter worthlessness of my life, it could hardly be much of a sin. But how could I leave my Honey Bunny behind? How could I face myself in the afterworld if I allowed her to dwindle in a slum? How could I leave her to flounder and fade when there’s room on the chariot for two? Were I to abandon her, not even purgatory would parole me.

It took almost a year—a year of forbearance—to get myself on parole: a parole based not upon self-renewal but the deadening of my soul. And so, it was not until I was leaving the prison that I began to feel the full weight of my funk: a funk that only increased as I collected my three-hundred dollar gate fee and a bus ticket back to San Francisco. And by the time I had gotten off the bus, reported to the district parole office and checked into a state-sponsored halfway house, I felt like a pallbearer at my own funeral. But there was still a bit of the zombie left in me—enough, at least, for me to last a week at the New Beginnings Halfway House. It was an entire week before I had had my fill of petty regulations, enforced curfews and pedantic staff members—themselves former felons. After that, I had to check out.

I still had my gate money—thank God—and so I bought myself a little chum.  The gun—a Glock .27—looked almost like a toy. How easy to buy a gun in the Mission. How easy to hide it inside my bra. And how simple it was to find my Honey Bunny. Of course, her address was unlisted but the police do know how to find people. I only had to go to the nearest police station, file a false harassment report, and beg them to serve her with an emergency protection order from me. Sure enough, the next day I had her address: it was on the receipt of service. Thank you, thank you, Keystone Cops. But I felt no triumph, no conquest, no thrill—it was all I could do not to bawl like a child. Never, never in my wildest dreams, did I imagine I could be so devious. Oh Annabelle, Annabelle, Annabelle. Have you cast a spell on me?

She was still living in the Tenderloin—in a subsidized-housing project not far from the strip joints. I had walked past the project once or twice in my rambles, so I had no trouble finding it. But it sure wasn’t much to look at: a dozen crumbly apartments accessible through a breezeway. The apartments looked like prison dorms; the breezeway smelled of urine. Surely, my Honey Bunny deserved better than this. 

I stationed myself at a Cantonese restaurant on the opposite side of her street. I treated myself to sweet-and-sour pork, a dinner that had all the solemnity of a last meal. And when I could eat no more, I rose from the table, left a fat tip, and went looking for my Honey Bunny’s flat. Thank God, it was evening: the shadows were dark, impenetrably dark, and the streetlights were glowing like halos.

Her apartment was so very easy to find. The address made me chuckle—69 Hyde Street—an erotic joke, perhaps, but an omen as well. The numbers on her door—so naughtily suggestive—were nothing if not providential. Oh Annabelle—dearest Annabelle. What more of a sign could we want?

A light was on in the window, so she had to be at home. I waited a minute. I took a deep breath.

  I knocked.

*

When she answered the door, I almost didn’t recognize her. She was thinner than I remembered, her hair was bottled blonde, and she was leaning on a cane. But her brow was still freckled, her ears were still large, and her eyes had recovered their luster.

“Rebecca,” she breathed. The cane clattered to the floor as she pulled my hands into hers. “Rebecca. How long you have been in my thoughts.”

She kissed my chin—her breath smelled of wine— then she wrapped her arms around my neck. I crushed her body to mine and wept. How frail she was—how much like a bird. And how I wanted her: my nipples were like bullets. Oh, my darling. My darling. My darling.

A minute passed before I released her. Or did she let go of me? I’m not really sure what happened. I only knew that she was giggling. I only knew that she was flushed. I only knew her apartment looked dreary: a ten-by-twelve foot hovel—nothing in it but a bed, a refrigerator and a tiny television.   

“I knew you were coming,” she whispered.

I gasped.  “Was that in the cards?”

No, you silly queen. You had me served with a protection order.”

I laughed. I kissed her lips. How warm and soft they felt. “Protection,” I said.  “What a con that can be. What a sad and silly con.”

She looked at me oddly and nibbled her lip. Had foreboding reclaimed her?  Had she felt the gun inside my bra? Had the police been coaching her? Buy yourself time. Tell the stalker what she wants to hear. But all she did was titter. “I knew you were coming, Rebecca. I bought you a present.”

As she limped away from me, I noticed Eve’s picture on the windowsill—Eve in drag. How vapid it looked, how totally dead—like something that belonged in a museum. But inside the refrigerator, there was something fresh. She giggled as she took it out. It was a rose, a single red rose, in a slender vase of water. My hands trembled as she handed it to me. The scent was so pure, so tangy and ripe, that I almost swooned. 

I gazed longingly at the rose. I licked the petals. My lips were damp when I looked back at her. “Thank you,” I said. “I have so wanted this.”

Of course, she was holding a gun on me now—a standard-issue Glock the police must have lent her. But that too was a gift. What better time to go than now?  And what better way than at the hands of my beloved?

She was bracing the gun against her hip, pointing the barrel up at me. Her face was like wax. “I w-wish,” she stammered, “that you didn’t want this also.”

She was trembling so much that my heart almost burst. I had to make it easy on her. I had to stop her from thinking about it. Otherwise, she would fail me once again. I stumbled towards her. 

She fired. 

I gasped.

How clean was the blow that walloped my chest—a kick from the chariot’s most-powerful stallion. I rose, I literally rose off the ground, before I felt the floor pressing upon my back. The room was now ringing—a shrill but thrilling sound. I never knew an explosion could be so earth-shattering.

It was not until the ringing subsided that I heard her sobs, that I saw her dear face above me—that I noticed that my chest was as red as a robin’s. And her floor was wet, so terribly wet, that I hoped she would hand me a towel.

 She was holding the gun in both of her hands, pulling it against her groin.  Her face was remarkably tender, but it was tender in betrayal. Why, oh why, did she hesitate? Put two in her breastbone then one in her head. Wasn’t that what the police had told her? Yet all she did was sob.

I noticed my gun—it was somehow in the palm of my hand. Surely, my Honey Bunny had seen it first. Surely, this explained her procrastination, her betrayal, the tentative hope with which she looked at me.

Ever so slowly, I lifted the gun. It would be a sin, a cardinal sin, not to oblige her. And so, I wept—wept like a child—as its weight pulled my hand to the floor.  How very heavy it was.

But, no—no let it be this way. Let me precede her to the afterworld. Let the debt be hers. When her turn arrived—and it would probably not be long—she would fly to me straight as an arrow.

A blow stung my wrist—the gun went spinning from my hand. There were others in the room now: police, paramedics. A sharp voice interrupted my Honey Bunny’s sobs. “Ya shoulda emptied the gun.” It sounded like the voice of my father.

How irritating the paramedics were: loosening my clothing, tightening a compress to my chest, loading me onto a gurney. Why were they trying to rob me of life—of a few vital moments with my Honey Bunny? How much I had paid for those moments. How dearly I had earned them. And yet those few moments were not to be: the voices of the medics—somber and surreal—prevented me from even hearing her. “Just how bad is she hit?” I heard one of them say.  “Bad enough,” said another.  “It’s amazing what a hollow point can do.”

My body is numb—deliciously numb—as they roll me out of her apartment.  The police are now bat-like: they dart to and fro as though locked in some grainy, old movie. But although I hate movies, my heart skips a beat. Two naked strangers—hermaphrodites—are standing in the breezeway, watching me. How handsome they are—how regal and tall. As I roll through the breezeway, one of them says, Rebecca, your chariot waits. 

An ambulance is parked on the street, its bright lights racing, chasing off shadows, bathing me in a rosy red glow. Yet my skin is cold—so sticky and cold that I cannot feel any warmth. Without her dear kisses, what more can I be but a statue made of wax?

And so, on an evening far shorter than any other, I throw away the Death card.  I go like a mariner into the night.  I go to make a home for her.


“Honey Bunny” originally appeared in The Literary Review.


James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, four of which have won awards, are available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/-/es/James-Hanna/e/B00WNH356Y?ref_=dbs_p_ebk_r00_abau_000000


“Silver Lining” Horror by Roseanne Rondeau

“Hey, you alright?”

Nick opened his eyes to a dim swamp-green haze. He lurched to his feet, weaving his fists in the direction of the voice.  Pain shot through his skull, and he grabbed the side of his head. His fingertips traced the edge of a sticky crater under his matted hair. His vision doubled and he staggered falling backward against iron bars. He slumped to the floor. 

When Nick’s eyes opened again, he lay motionless. His body ached and the wound hiding under his hair throbbed. He studied his environment.

 He was surrounded by cavernous walls glowing faintly with a blue phosphorescence.  Heavy brackish fog snaked throughout the cave and disappeared into blackness at the far end. There was a sourness to the air making his eyes water.  Thick oxidizing bars pressed against his spine blocking the only exit he saw.  This was a cell, and he was the captive.

A man with greying skin and untamed white hair emerged from the recesses dragging a tattered blanket and humming to himself. Nick watched him scamper in and out of the darkness until he stopped and squatted at the edge of the shadows. He placed a tied bundle of fabric on the cave floor and worked the knot. Unfolding the loot, he pulled out a broken stick and set it aside, then he rummaged through a pile of yellowing bones. He lifted one, held it to his eye and peered through the shaft. He showed it to the stick and giggled, “Oh, it’s a good one.”

 He secured the bundle and set it aside, then gently picked up the stick and carried it along with the bone and blanket to an outcropping of blue rock. He nestled the stick in the blanket next to him.  He sniffed and turned the bone between his fingers.  Placing it in his mouth, he rolled it back and forth like a fine cigar, every so often offering it to the stick.

 The old man sucked and chewed at the bone. He shook it trying to dislodge the last bits of dried marrow at its center.  Nick turned away in disgust.

The old man caught the movement and darted to Nick’s side.

“Hi,” he said, grinning, the scent of carrion wafting around him. Nick grimaced. The man pressed his papery skin against Nick. “I’m Hazen,” he said, nodding so fast Nick thought his head might pop off and roll across the floor. Hazen pressed his palms on the warm flesh of Nick’s arm and leaned closer.

“Get away from me. I don’t give a shit who you are.”  He shoved Hazen backward. “Don’t touch me,” he growled. Hazen skidded across the rocky floor scrubbing the flesh off his knees. Nick jumped up and gripped the bars of the cell. “Someone better get down here, now!” Hazen dragged himself from the ground, stumbling.

“Stop,” he pleaded. He grabbed Nick’s hands pulling and prying at them.

“Hey, I know you’re down there!” Nick’s voice reverberated through the corridor.

“No, stop it, they’ll come. Be quiet,” Hazen tugged frantically at Nick’s arm. Nick rammed his elbow across Hazen’s cheekbone, blood splattered through the air as his skin split. Hazen dropped to the ground moaning and cupping the side of his face. Red seeped through his fingers and ran down his wrist. He rocked back and forth whimpering.

“Thought we could be friends,” he said looking his bloodied hands. He touched the wound on his face, wincing.

 “Pathetic. There’s nothing I want from you,” Nick said glaring down at the crumpled body on the floor.

“But I know how to stay alive,” he whimpered. He gathered his stick and blanket and crawled into the shadows of the cave.

#

The wound on Hazen’s cheek had clotted and was a dry brown smear when he re-emerged from the back of the cave. He draped the tattered blanket over his shoulders as he moved along the cave wall, tannin tainted mist swirling in small eddies behind him.

Nick was still gripping the bars and staring down the corridor. He listened to the muffled whistling, stomping, and uproar of a crowd in the distance.

“What’s down there?”

Hazen kept one eye on Nick as he approached the front of the cage and peered through the bars.

“It’s the Game Room.”

“What the hell is the Game Room?”

 “Can you remember, before here?” Hazen whispered as he pulled the blanket tightly around his shoulders and looked at Nick.

“Don’t mess with me,” Nick spat. Hazen shied and backed away.

“Look around. This isn’t Earth.” Hazen ran his hand over the sparkling blue cave wall.

“Make sense or I’ll crack the other side of your face.”

Hazen winced and paced the room. “Can’t we be friends?”

“You’ve already got one.” 

Hazen looked at the stick in his hand. His voice thinned, “I been here a long time.” He picked at the wound on his cheek. “No one stays.”  His hand trembled through his snarled hair as he paced the void in the center of the cave, his eyes darting. He raised the stick to his ear. He shook his head. “No…I can’t. It’s mine,” he whispered.  His pace quickened as he argued under his breathe. A few moments later, he stopped and nodded. Hazen placed the stick on a glimmering outcrop of rock then walked toward Nick.

 “Here,” Hazen stammered, “you… can have it.” The rotting blanket dangled from his hand like a prized pelt.

Nick slapped the offering to the ground. “Get that away from me!”

Hazen shrieked as the blanket sank to the mud. He pulled the blanket from the floor and stroked it against his cheek.

 “I just want someone to talk to…another… person,” he whispered.

His focus drifted as he mumbled into the tattered fabric, “A silver lining…mom said find the silver lining.” He nodded, staring into the blackness at the back of the cave.

Nick grabbed him by the shoulder.

His vision cleared and he stared at Nick. “You have a choice,” he said, “you don’t have to go to the Game Room. Stay here. Stay with me.”

Nick dropped his grip and stormed back to the bars, bellowing down the corridor. Hazen stumbled to his side. “It’s not so bad here,” he rattled.  His eyes jumped between Nick and the darkened hall, “stay…please.”

Nick’s demands boomed and echoed through the thick air and bounced off the hallway walls.  “Stop, you got to stop,” Hazen pleaded.  Nick shouted louder. Hazen slumped to the floor at Nick’s feet. “Please, don’t call them,” he moaned.

“It’s about damn time.” Nick glared at three advancing shadows against the hallway wall. “Results,” he said, and looked down at Hazen. The spot at his feet was vacant. He looked over his shoulder, but the old man was gone.

Nick dropped his grip on the bars as the figures drew close. The slick skin of their towering frames glistened in the pale light. Folds of skin connected their arms to their torso, like the wings of a bat, and rippled with their every step. Nick stared into the gaping hole hiding behind a mass of urchin-like tentacles dangling from the center of their faces. They spoke in clicks and snaps as they stared down at Nick with tiny coal spot eyes.

Nick backed away.

“Hazen?” He scanned the shadows behind him. The barred door swung open, and the creatures entered the cave. “Hazen!” Nick screamed and scrambled backward.

In one flowing movement, the creatures surrounded him with their fleshy wings and shoved him into the hallway. The door slammed shut.

Hazen pressed his hands over his ears until Nick’s screams faded down the corridor.

#

Nick peered down the grid that lie spread before him. He was the only human lined up for the game. All the players stood on the starting squares like pawns in a life size game of chess. He did not recognize any of the creatures assembled here, but he could tell they were also here against their will.

Nick turned his attention to the playing field. It reminded him of old coliseums he’d seen on television except the ground was divided into a giant checkerboard of colored squares. Some squares were yellow, some red, others were covered in a grassy mat, but most of the squares were made of textures he’d never seen before.

His thoughts turned to Hazen cowering on the floor muttering about staying alive. He had to find a way out, now. Blood surged through his legs, and he bolted from his square, heading for an archway twenty yards behind him. Before his third step touched turf, he slammed to the ground jolting and convulsing. A small black ball whizzed and circled above him, electricity zipping across its surface ready to strike again. Nick crawled back to his designated square.

As the crowd packed into the stands, they taunted and jeered the players.  A whistle sounded and a hologram appeared. It demonstrated a mock game and a visual set of rules. Nick’s jaw tightened.  The object was simple- get to the other end of the game board alive.

When the Grand Marshall, king or whatever it was called, rolled a multicolored die, the player that was up, had to move through the squares to that corresponding color. Easy enough, except according to the hologram half the squares held things that could kill you. The yellow squares, at least, were safe zones.

Violence erupted down the line, and Nick watched three electrified balls whiz past him. Another whistle blew and the crowd exploded. The game had begun.

Each player took their turn and stepped onto the squares. It was Nick’s turn and he looked to the Grand Marshall. Hazen was sitting at his feet.

“You son-of-a-bitch!” Nick lunged toward the stands. A black ball snapped to attention spitting white hot sparks and drove him back to the game.  He glared at Hazen.

 Hazen buried his face in his blanket. “I tried to help,” he cried.

The Grand Marshall rolled the die. Nick made his choices and survived. Hazen watched each player as they advanced across the board. Bloody corpses littered the grid, and only a handful of players crossed the halfway line.

It was Nick’s turn again. He glared at Hazen then looked to the board. Hazen absently chewed his fingertips and rocked back and forth gripping his blanket. The Marshall rolled. Nick had to get to a rust-orange square.

He studied the board. His first two jumps were yellow squares, safe zones. He made the moves easily. Then he contemplated his options. The square in front was covered in weeds and grasses. The squares on either side of the grass were covered in a red powdery clay. He stared at the clay, then back to the grass. He wiped his forehead and stepped toward the clay on his right. He stopped. Something rippled below the surface. Two serpentine heads poked from the clay, hissed and spit venom at each other, then darted below the surface again and out of sight.  Nick jumped to the grass and froze. Nothing happened.

Hazen sighed. The Marshall looked down at him, made a clicking noise then reached out his large smooth hand, and stroked Hazen’s head.

Nick still had another move to make to reach the orange square, but the end of the game board was in sight.  Another roll and he would walk off the grid and deal with the old man. He should have warned him.  He tightened his fists, glancing at Hazen sitting like a dog at that monster’s heels.

Nick let out a breath. Sweat rolled down his forehead and he wiped it away. The crowd hooted and stomped rattling the stands.

A red clay square was in front of him. To the left, the square bubbled with a pungent gel, the vapors burning his nostrils. He looked to the right. That square was a solid block of concrete. He looked at the red clay again and didn’t see any movement, but he didn’t trust it. 

“Come on, come on…” Hazen whispered, chewing at his nails. Nick eyed the cement one more time then scowled at Hazen. He jumped, landing firmly in the center of the mortar.

Hazen’s mouth dropped. It happened so fast that Nick still had a smirk on his face when his body hit the ground. As his feet landed on the cement, laser wires sprang from below and sliced through his flesh. He hit the ground like a carcass in a slaughterhouse.

#

Hazen pulled the blanket tightly around his shoulders and rocked in the darkness of the cave. He heard them coming and looked up. The creatures chattered back and forth as they opened the cage door. They whistled and clicked in Hazen’s direction and slid a large bowl toward him.

 Hazen poked through the gift, passing by black entrails and yellow leathery hide, until he saw the glint of crimson. Human muscle. He held it reverently as he gave thanks to his mama for teaching him to find the silver linings. He offered the first bite to the stick.


Roseanne Rondeau fell in love with sci-fi, ghosts, and speculative fiction at a very young age and enjoys writing these types of stories. She lives in New Hampshire with her family and has been published in Midnight Times, Alien Skin Magazine, and Nocturnal Lyric.