“Darkroom” A Dark Tale by Mick Benderoth

A high fashion photographer’s life is not as glamorous you’d think. Myriads of too beautiful models…they start to look the sameI’m top dog, Dax Miller. Twenty-five years. Jaded. Just another job.

Then, WHAM! No…not the models…the model’s agent, Samantha Brooks, The Brooks Agency CEO. Cool, calm, collected. Class on the half shell. Venus. Lauren Bacall at thirty-five. Shoulder length, page boy, dirty blond, coiffed hair, oversize blue tinted glasses, tailored Cassini silk business suite, Italian high heeled shoes topped with a solid gold Tiffany ankle bracelet. Knocks me out. Unapproachable. Don’t even try. I don’t. I just keep shooting. Prada’s Spring line. But I can dream.

In the darkroom. Printing the days shoot. Don’t trust anyone else to do it. Burn out assistants by the dozen. Alone. Deeply immersed. Outside Red-light signals, Do Not Disturb. Universal. A knock at the door. What dimwit can’t see the light. Pissed, I walked through the black security curtains, closed the darkroom door, step into the small ante-room. I unlock, open the door. There stands Samantha Brooks leaning against the jam. “Loved what I saw on the monitor, Dax. Guess that’s why you cost so much. Got anything to show me?” Before I could recognize the innuendo, Samantha pushes me inside the ante-room, kicks the front door shut with her heel, pins me to the wall.

“This door lock?”, in a sultry voice. “Oh, here it is”, CLICK.”  Dare I say it. Yes, she is. Outrageous. Two hours later, adjusting her clothes, she saunters into the studio. Not even turning, “Dinner, Dax? Per Se, Masa? Your call. Tables at both”.

My, my, my.

Desire grabs my libido, twists it, twists it again. I’m addicted to a woman I know little about, save she owns the hottest modeling agency in the city, country, world. Captivated. Falling. Hard. Was she using me? Of course. For what? I don’t give a damn. She had me. I’ll pay the price.

Obsessed. I need to know more. One evening, late, late, dead of winter, coldest ever, we leave my Soho loft, always my place, never hers…a whole  brownstone, flat iron district. I escort her to her limo. She grabs my hair. Deep kiss. Icy breath. “Goodnight, Dax.” Walks away. Turns to me, “Tomorrow”.

“Of course,”.

“Till then”.

Limo peels. A peeling limo. Cut me some slack.

I decide to tail her home one night. See her infamous New York City digs. I follow her in my Porshe. Her limo drives to a desolate, run down part of the city. This ain’t no flat iron district. I park way behind, get out and follow her, as she purposefully walks through side streets and alleys, then…disappears. I search. Nothing. I hear loud voices from a boarded vacant store. I peek through in window. Mindboggling. Candle lit room. Circle of dark purple robed woman, wearing disfigured masculine face masks. The only differentiation, their shoes. There it is, gold Tiffany ankle bracelet. Samantha Brooks, delivers a hissing, bitter vent ,“The male patriarchy governing the world must be obliterated. We must infiltrate the belly of the beast, disembowel it from within until…it is dead. Extreme prejudice our mandate”.

I turned to slip away, accosted. By two masked, robed women, something wacked me hard. Unconscious. Inside the room, I revive, face to mask with the ranting leader, Samantha Brooks, “Now they send spies to eradicate us. An example must be made!”.

Stripped nude, bound to a chair. Brooks herself grabs me by the hair, no kiss this time, as her apostles smear me with lipstick, mascara, eye liner. The group bursts into wild, crazed laughter, pointing at me, as Brooks holds a mirror up to my eyes. My face, a horrible, bizarre, debauchery.

Brooks forces liquor down my throat, douses me with it. Two women drag my chair out onto the center of the deserted street.

A make shift sign slapped on my naked chest “Dead Men”.  Brooks, sternly. “Enough”. They scattered in the night. I shiver in the frigid air. I see him. My savior. A  bedraggled homeless man from the shadows. “Whatya been up to buddy? Whatever it was, looks like ya lost”, he cackles. “You need some TLC”. Got money?”

Whispering, weakly, “Much as you want”.

Police station, smelling of liquor, draped in a blanket. Lawyer by my side. I tell Detective Dalgliesh, yes, Dalgleish, my ludicrous, terrifying tale. I do not identify Samantha Brooks. She’s mine.

Monday. My studio. Closing out the shoot, there she stands. Sultry smile. No glimmer that I know…everything.

I conceive my plan. Tech nerd buddy, Arch Clafield fashions a remote control Minox, triggered by a wireless switch. The darkroom. Hide the camera atop the wall timer. The switch, under the enlarger.

I instinctively know the inevitable moment will be manifest…it is. I take her, now reviled, with a perverse sexual vengeance, kissing, pawing, tearing. Nude, sweat glistened bodies making not love, nothing near it. Switch secretly hit, camera silently clicks. It ends quietly. We dress, go to dinner, part with a steamy kiss.

I  process, enlarge every print, making sure Samantha’s face is clearly recognized. I stand, stare as they hang drying, slip them in a manila envelope, lable it in red marker SAMANTHA BROOKS.

I get to the deserted street, before the group arrives. The dreaded torture cell. I use my Amex platinum to slip the lock. Stale, high-end perfume redolence choke. I place the envelope in the center of the room, and leave.

Next day. My entire studio staff way freaky, nonstop cacophony. Archy, smiling slyly shows me the Daily News. Front page. Samantha Brook’s disfigured frozen body in a drainage ditch, kicked to death. Victim of an unsolved, brutal murder. I didn’t wish her this. This is what she got. Revenge, served frigid. In my darkroom. Developing prints. A gun is pressed hard against the back of my head. The last sound I hear is the hammer cock.


Mick Benderoth was a screenwriter/filmmaker working in Hollywood. He now lives and writes in New York City. Contact: alexanderbenderoth@gmail.com


“Blue Genie” Horror by Robb White

Part 1: Lottery Ticket

Rebecca rounded the corner of Giant Eagle’s main entrance to check out the produce. She had  white bean soup for dinner in mind, although leeks weren’t her favorite recipe item. No matter how much they were washed, grains of sand wound up at the bottom of the bowl. 

The voice behind her jarred her out of her cooking reverie, thrusting her into one worse:  Eleanor Ragsdale, her one-time best friend, looked at her with scrunched-up face behind the shopping cart where a chubby toddler waved around a piece of paper and screamed, “Mommy! Boo-gee-gee, boo-gee-gee!”

“Hello, Becky.”

“Hey there, Ellie.”

They wore matching frowns. These rare but always awkward meetings in public always distressed Rebecca, reminding her of her losses: the husband and family she never had.

“Everything OK, hon? You made such a sour face I thought a tarantula jumped out of a bunch of bananas.”

Rebecca forced a smile. “Ah, I see you brought your helper.”

The child’s name—what was it? Some clever-cutesy thing.

“Boo-gee-gee!” the child howled.

“Blue Gee-nie, Rainbow, Blue Gee-nie.”

Blue Genie?

Eleanor’s face, never her strongest feature, bloomed with pride; her expansive bosom beneath the double chin was, she suspected, the main reason why Bill had been lured away just before senior prom. Acid reflux shot up her esophagus every time.

The child thrust a paper at her.

“Becky, Bow wants you to have it.”

Rebecca leaned down to the child’s level. “Thank you for the lovely picture.”

Hardly lovely . . . A genie caricature, not Disney’s Aladdin, either—huge teeth, jet-black goatee and matching spit curl peeking beneath a turban cinched with a ruby pendant. Rainbow’s genie leered at her with a stare that tracked owing to his bulging eyes. The asymmetrical nose and mouth had been applied by stickers. Rainbow’s work. The whole cockeyed alignment made him more sinister. 

The little girl shifted buttocks in the cart, releasing noise followed by gaseous vapor.

“I farted!”

“Yes, you did, honey-bunny.”

Rainbow kicked her mother’s thighs, yelled: “Mommy, go! Cu’cakes!”

“Say ‘You’re welcome’ to the nice lady, so we can get you a yummy cupcake.”

That elicited a mini-tantrum.  

“Shush, Bow, sweetie, we’re going!”

Mugging for her friend, Eleanor delivered an eye-rolling visage of an overwhelmed parent accompanied by a theatrical sigh. “Sometimes I envy you single women. I really do.”

Mother and daughter headed to the bakery section. Eleanor gave her child a smooch on her mop of curls. Rebecca burned with a pang of envy.  She clutched the child’s blue-faced genie, her meager crumb from a feast she’d never enjoy.

A clerk behind a counter where razors, tobacco, and matches were sold along with lottery tickets muttered “Good luck” to a customer. She’d never bought a lottery ticket in her life, not even when the country was consumed with lottery fever after a massive jackpot. Something propelled her toward the window.

“What’ll it be?”

A placard behind the clerk showed penciled-in sums for the Powerball and Mega Millions drawings. Staggering figures: 67 million and 118 million.

“Ma’am?”

“Sorry,” Rebecca replied, “is there one for less money than those two?”

“Wow, that’s a first.”

“What is?”

“Somebody wanting less money. Well, there’s Ohio Classic. A lousy hundred grand.”

“OK.”

“Brought your lucky genie with you, huh?”

Rebecca’s face turned hot. She didn’t realize she’d placed Rainbow’s picture on the counter.

“I’ll take that one, the last one you said.”

“Auto play?”

Rebecca had no idea what that meant.  “Yes.”

“One dollar.”

Ticket in one hand, genie in the other, she abandoned any idea of food. When a customer’s cart triggered the automatic doors, she fled. 

* * *

Part 2: Make a Wish

Nothing for supper the last two nights but Mac & Cheese and a can of Chef Boyardee’s spaghetti. Replacing the bundle of celery in its row, she dug out the ticket from the bottom of her purse and walked over to the same counter she’d purchased the ticket.

The clerk behind the counter was different and seemed intent on ignoring her. Becky noticed the ticket scanner at the end of the counter. A small rectangle of LCD screen above the laser scanner beamed digitized joy: “Welcome! Place Ticket Here.”

She inserted it. Nothing happened. She was about to crumple the ticket and toss it into the receptacle next to the magazine kiosk when the clerk grimaced at her, said, “Put the barcode inside the viewfinder, ma’am.”

Becky’s face flushed; she immediately reversed the ticket.

What happened next came out of dream time that slowed everything to a molasses crawl. Bells clanged, party whistles whooped, and the tiny machine proclaimed in a tinny voice: “Winner! Winner! Winner!”

Her face turned crimson. Everyone in earshot stopped pushing carts to watch.

The clerk sidled over, her scowl replaced by curiosity. “I ain’t ever heard that much whoopty-doo before.”

A crowd gathered around like bees in a hive. People pointed at her.

“Could be a mistake. Gimme the ticket.”

She slid it under Plexiglass.

A deep male voice behind her mumbled, “Damn if I’d hand over that ticket. She’d pull back a bloody stump first.”

Rebecca stood there, still as a post, hoping the crowd would go back to shopping. The opposite happened: more people wandered over, magnetized by the small commotion. Every person in the checkout lines was looking her way. Being stared at brought back the worst time in her life. That old terror welled up.

“Winner! Winner!” the machine kept bleating.

“Can’t find nothin’ wrong with it,” the clerk said. “Looks like it’s the real McCoy.”

Real McCoy . . . her father’s expressions . . .

“How much is it . . .”

“The whole shebang, lady. You got yourself a hundred thousand, cash money. What’s your name anyway? We gotta put you up on our Winners’ Board.”

The clerk jabbed a thumb over her shoulder at a poster board. $5, $10, $20, $100, and $500 denominations were written beside the names of customers in black Magic Marker. Beneath: “Congratulations to All Our Winners!!!” was slathered in glitter.

“You beat ‘em all, hon.”

Rebecca protested she didn’t want her name on it. She was terrified she was gibbering. Her vision lost clarity in moments of panic like this. The edges of things blurred—furniture, people’s faces.

She gripped the counter to keep from falling to the floor; her knees gave out. She clipped the counter with her chin going down to the floor.

Before the light faded, a face loomed above hers: a man’s, not unpleasant. His face stared down at her from the edge of the crowd surrounding her, the only one not expressing panic or concern.

She would recall his frank appraisal later in perfect detail.

When she opened her eyes, the man was still there. This time he was smiling. He swiveled his head at the crowd pressing in. “Folks, move back! Give the woman some air! C’mon, folks, move back!”

Kind but forceful—like her father. No matter what state the grieving family was in when they arrived at the funeral home for calling hours, he was a pillar of strength. He knew exactly what to say and to whom. He gave the same pep talks to the same kinds of people year after year until his stroke. His favorite being the “The-Lord’s-Will-Be-Done” speech he used inside the parlor. In the hospital once, she caught his expression in the convex security mirror in the corner, but it was distorted into a grimace of rictus, a look that terrified her young mind.

The man was striking in looks: a full head of closely barbered hair slightly graying at the temples, deep brown eyes, and a strong jawline. Not Hollywood handsome but good looking by Midwest standards. The slim gold watch on his wrist winked under fluorescent lighting; she noted the gemstone ring, the ironed points of his shirt collar.

The man helped her to her feet.

“Let me help you,” he crooned.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” she repeated, rising to her feet slowly.

Nonetheless, the stranger had her triceps in a firm grip, leading her as if she were blind, past the onlookers, through the Express Lane and out the pneumatic doors.

“Let go,” she pleaded, “you’re pinching my arm.”

“I’m so, so sorry.”

They stood on the pavement beside racks of white, yellow, and orange mums for sale. She blinked into the late autumn sun, her stomach queasy. Behind the store’s plate glass, people stared at them. She wanted to get away, far away.

The strange man’s eyes bulged.  “Wait! Your lottery ticket!”

He rushed back inside. She stood transfixed, fearful she’d stumble or faint again. Her stomach roiled with bile. An odd sensation of floating in a cone of ambient light hadn’t yet receded from her vision.

The man came out the exit doors guiding the ticket clerk.

“I brought her,” he said unnecessarily. The ticket woman glared at him.

“I wasn’t gonna hand this ticket to nobody but you,” she said.

Rebecca meekly thanked her.

The man’s smile was radiant. “You never know, dear. Decent people turn into dogs when it comes to this much money. My name’s Ted—Theodore, actually—but I go by Ted.”

“Thanks for—thank you . . .Ted.”

She lacked a handy exit line to depart gracefully. Before she realized what was happening, he was walking beside her, talking the while, in no hurry. She wondered if he was a salesman, maybe a telemarketer. That seemed unkind for his assistance.

Mentally fatigued and drained, she barely replied to his banter. Instead, she thought of Delphinia, her ginger cat, asleep on the ottoman. 

“I hope you don’t consider me presumptuous,” he said, standing beside her car door, “but I told you my name, you haven’t told me yours.”

“Rebecca.”

“A beautiful name,” he whispered, “my mother’s name.”

Rebecca thumbed the key fob. The chhkk of the door unlocking soothed her jangled nerves; she set the ticket in the cup holder and shut the door.

He gave her that look again. She drove off, her heart thumping.

Three days later, answering the doorbell, she found him on her porch with a box of candy and a bouquet of red gladiolas.

* * *

She looked back on that moment as pivotal. She had choices. She could have borrowed a page from Ellie Ragsdale’s book and told him to shove off and take his flowers and candy with him. Or cocked a hand on her hip in the doorway, put Ellie’s arch look on her face and growled, “Say there, Teddy, this doesn’t have anything to do with my coming into a hundred grand now, does it?”

She did neither. She stood there blushing like a moonstruck girl, cutting her eyes from his beaming face to the flowers, then to the candy, then back to his face. Her armpits perspired and a moustache of perspiration began forming above her upper lip.

Before she could say anything other than a stammer of greeting, he was inside the foyer.

His “excuse for dropping by” was her fainting spell, but she wondered how he knew where she lived. The funeral home’s name and number remained changed since her father’s death. Her social awkwardness, aggravated by her semi-reclusive life, left her confused and self-conscious.

Handing him a microwaved cup of decaf, she almost blurted out that her lottery winnings would be deposited in her bank account any day.

Ted was a good listener—in fact, he was a great listener. He really looked at her when she spoke. Not many people do that, she knew. She used to ask Ellie to stop interrupting the middle of her sentences with the beginnings of hers, a rebuke that bounced off Ellie’s head.

He wanted to know about her. It thrilled her.

When he checked his watch, apologizing, saying he had to be somewhere, she was aware of her keen disappointment.

“Thank for the coffee, Rebecca. Do you mind if I call you that?”

His mother’s name, he’d said—

“Call me Becky. My friends all do.”

A tiny fib, she thought. What friends? Job’s comforters, the lot of them or traitors like Ellie.

She didn’t own a cell phone, much less have a “presence” on social media platforms. She wasn’t sure what that meant when he asked her about “family online.” She kept a shoebox in her bedroom closet full of old photos, most dating from her parents’ time. Her father tall beside the casket, neatly shaved, black tie, and suitcoat, beaming, thick horn-rimmed glasses—his first funeral. Her mother in a Jackie Kennedy hat, looking shyly at the camera. They were flawed by camera flash and revealed red eyes like raccoons, not a plain, middle-aged couple. 

The “Bill photos” she could not bear to look at.

Ted was a successful contractor, often on the road in neighboring counties with various projects.

“I don’t get my hands dirty anymore,” he sighed between sips of the bland decaf. “I miss hard work—you know, tearing off a roof, replacing pipes, work that makes you feel good at the end of the day.”

Over the course of two months, they “dated,” although she didn’t like to think of their relationship so formally. He hinted about past relationships that “hadn’t panned out” or were “amicable splits.” She inferred these were amorous events in other states. He briefly mentioned a grown son and daughter that he flew out to visit during holidays.

“Randi’s currently in Indianapolis,” he mentioned. “Ronnie’s in Nevada.”

He didn’t pry into her past, and yet she found herself revealing secrets she thought had been clamped down. He always backed off when he felt he’d trespassed onto private grounds. She reassured him that was not the case, always revealing more than she expected to.

On their first date, he begged her to take him on a tour of her house.

“It’s like a palace, so many rooms. I’ll bet you haven’t even been in some in years.”

She didn’t want him to think she was some kind of neurotic spinster—was that the word people still used?

She took him downstairs for a look at the embalming rooms.

He followed, commenting on the size of the green-tiled walls and high ceilings, ignoring the scuppers in the corners and the unsold display caskets lining one wall, their satin and polyester liners having turned an antique white over time.

She flipped a light switch. Fluorescent lights crackled.  She stood aside to let him enter.

“So, this is where the magic happens?” He lost his smile when he noticed the expression on her grim face. “Sorry, that was tacky.”

“No, no,” Rebecca replied. “It’s just that I haven’t been down here in years.”

The faintest smells overlay the quiet of a room long shut, a familiar redolence of formaldehyde, disinfectant, and the pungent aromas left in the wake of hundreds of corpses.  Powerful olfactory memories tumbled from her neocortex—too many to banish like the dust motes swirling in the faint light streaming from the glass-block lights above their heads at ground level.

He walked along the counters, one hand trailing, passing through the dust over the array of instruments laid out and kept at the ready:  graspers, scissors, staplers, the boxes of gallons of embalming fluid neatly stacked in the corner, extra tubing coiled like transparent snakes on the gleaming counters, the scalpels for making slits beneath the armpit and groin for draining fluids.

Her father’s image arrived unbidden—splash gown rolled to the forearms, the black hairs of his hands vigorously massaging the muscles of “the decedent” (never “the dead” or “the body”). After arrival from the hospital or nursing home, he first had to eliminate blood clots after rigor once the body was stripped and washed on the slab.  Her first jobs as his assistant were to set the face, cant it at a 15-degree angle for proper viewing upstairs. She’d glue the eyelids, seal the mouth in a natural expression—“extremely important,” her father insisted, because embalming fluid would make it impossible to change the features later.

Ted asked simple questions, nothing gross.

“I’ll bet you were great at the makeup.”

“My father taught me to do hair and makeup first. My mother and I pitched in. It was expected. I was still in high school. He thought it would be a good idea to learn a few things before mortuary science at Gannon.”

He had wanted her to succeed him as he had succeeded his father in the mortuary business. Her failure to finish mortician college crushed him. Not even her mother’s death from stage-4 breast cancer hurt as much as that betrayal.

The unasked question hung in the air.  Ted looked at her.

“I—I left school before completing my associate degree,” she said. “See, it was my turn to insert the trocar—”

“Trocar?”

“An instrument designed for removing fluids. It goes into the abdomen.”

She felt that rapid, heart-fluttering sensation as though she were standing in that same room, not here. The 3-sided cutting point, its obturator, and cannula all flashing back to a tactile memory of that day when she hesitated at her instructor’s direction to place it inside “Benny.” Benny was the foam corpse students practiced on.

“What happened?”

“I fainted.”

“I . . . understand.”

“No, you can’t. My father never understood how a stupid practicing dummy made me faint after I’d worked on so many bodies down here right beside him. But it happened. I fainted to the floor. I left school that evening.”

Before she knew it, she was sobbing in Ted’s arms. They made love for the first time that night.  She was so grateful for the release of pressure that she wanted to please him. Unlike her teenaged lovemaking with Bill, this was adult sex. She had her first orgasm.

Weeks passed in bliss. Ted drugged her with sex.

“My God, I’ve missed so much,” she told him in bed that first night.

She dressed for him, made herself more attractive. She tossed out all her negligees and sleepwear for more erotic attire.  She made him meals that took hours to prepare. It seemed that, more than the lottery winnings, her wish for a lover was granted in spades.

Ted pulled the Blue Genie picture attached to the fridge and crumpled it to throw it away.

“You don’t need his magic now. You have me.”

“Please, don’t,” she begged. “He granted me my wish.”

“You mean the money?”

“No, you.”

She understood that men were the sex-seekers, and this was what they craved beyond the homemaking, the dinners, and pillow talk—even more than the tenderness and gentle kisses in daytime. Still, it was strange, unsettling to see him lean against the counter so casually with that look on his face. He slowly undid his belt and shove his pants down to his knees. The bulge in his underwear drew her gaze.

“Come here,” he ordered.

She walked to him, zombie-like, hoped he meant to kiss her passionately. Instead, he pressed her shoulders down, guiding her over the rough fabric of his clothing.

“Do it.”

Her first blowjob. It seemed harsh; it seemed . . . like rape.

He hissed something, gurgled, then grasped the back of her head and thrust his crotch into her. She adjusted to the aggressive rhythm of his thrusts, unable to control anything. She was less afraid of gagging than of what she might see if she removed his erection and looked up into his face.      

* * *

“Get that, hon.”

He sat at the table in his underwear reading. She wanted to protest she was the one doing some work; the moment passed, so she dried her hands on a dish towel and went to the door.

A man in his mid-twenties stood there. At first, she thought he was a salesman, but he didn’t look the part. In fact, he was scruffy looking with long hair and a dark, untrimmed beard. Tattoos on his hands looked crudely drawn, something done in a jail. A duffel bag lay at his feet.

“I’m Ron,” he said. “Where’s my dad here?”

“Your d-dad?”

“Did I stutter? Yeah, my dad. Ted Mayfield.”

Ted shouted from the other room: “Who is it?”

“Your son . . . he says.”

The man brushed past, exclaiming, “Hey, old man, what’s up?”

She turned to behold father and son embracing. Ted gave the youth a hard clap on the shoulder.

“What took you, Ron.”

“Hon, this is Ron. Ron, Becky.”

They shook hands. Father and son walked away, both talking, conversing in a shorthand she didn’t understand. She heard “Seattle” and “docks,” but that was all she understood.

She wondered if she should say something about the duffel bag. Instead, she closed the door and returned to the kitchen.

“Where’d he go?”

“Oh, Ron’s going to stay with us for a couple days. I know, it’s sudden. He should have called, the rascal. I swear, hon, if he weren’t big enough to eat apples off my head, I’d tan his hide for him.”

“Ted, this is not—this is an . . . imposition.”

A fatuous word, but she had nothing else in her vocabulary to fire.

“I told him he could stay at the end of the hallway upstairs.”

“Ted, I don’t let strangers barge in here on a whim.”

Strangers? He’s my son, damn it! I haven’t seen him since last Christmas.”

They’d never argued. This was a shock. She finally relented to Ted’s pleadings, and agreed to “a few days, no more.”

He kissed her neck—more a dismissal than an apology. “That’s my girl!”

Ron stayed out of sight, avoided her. She told Ted to ask his son to share a meal with them that evening. She wanted things to be normal. This seemed like an appropriate truce to bring her and Ted back together. Ted told that morning Ron expected to get work in Cleveland “soon.”

“He’s short of money at the moment. This’ll make all the difference in the world to him—and to me.”

She thought being “short of money” ironic. That expression was on Ted’s lips often these days. She’d already “loaned” him $300 for a contracting job in Andover that fell through at the last minute and left him short of spare cash. “Just to tide me over, sweetie.  That farmer ripped me off. I lost twenty-two hundred on the job. I’ll have to go to court to see any of it back.”

On the day Ron was packing to leave, upstairs waiting for his Uber to take him to Cleveland, another knock at the door summoned her away from the Highsmith novel she was reading in the breakfast nook. She slammed the paperback shut—her first quiet moment dissolved. She was glad Ted had left her alone for a while. She was suffocated by the constant presence of father and son in the house. Her romance had evolved through a rapid progress of honeymoon stage through mid-life crisis to a stressful being taken for granted. Ted hadn’t volunteered to pay a dime for household expenses since that first week she allowed him to move in. 

She parted the sheers and looked out the big front window. A dark-complected male sat behind the wheel of a Honda Civic with its engine running.

Thank God, his ride is here, she thought.

She opened the front door to signal the driver to wait while she called Ron. But she found herself looking into the face of a young woman, age hard to discern because of the matte-black, dyed hair, the purple-tipped bangs, and lip studs at each corner of mouth, all topped by a large nose ring. Her tattoo sleeves, if anything, looked more elaborate than her brother’s and extended to the backs of her hands.

“Hey, I’m Randi. My father said you’d be here to let me in.”

Hell, she told her reflection in the bathroom mirror five minutes later where she ran to weep silent tears. I’m in hell.

* * *

The sanctity of her home wasn’t just gone, it was obliterated—first by Ted, then by his son (whose job mysteriously “evaporated”), and now by his surly daughter; she moved in across the hall from Ronnie. Randi moved ghost-like about the house, rarely speaking to her unless the encounter couldn’t be avoided.

“Randi’s had a hard time,” Ted told her, sheepdog look on his face as phony as everything he said nowadays.

What else is a lie, she wondered. Had he stalked her from Giant Eagle that very day the scanner bleated out “Winner!”?  

“You told me you always wanted a family,” he complained over breakfast, his tone surly. “You said that was your fondest wish, huh.”

She got up without a word and went upstairs to cry alone in her bed, muffling the sound of her sobs with a pillow. She thought about her simple life before Ted. The life she thought she hated. Tending the tomato-and-pepper garden out back, feeding the birds and squirrels, grooming Delphinia, tossing dinner scraps to the occasional stray cat.

She would have traded this life for her former existence in a heartbeat. Another old expression of her father’s flitted across her mind’s eye, one used frequently after her disgrace from college: 

Worse always come to worse . . .

* * *

Part 3: Careful What You Wish For

The catastrophe was complete the day she discovered $500 she kept in a linen closet missing. She accused Rand.

“Bitch! I didn’t touch your money!”

Screaming brought Ted downstairs.

“Hey, hey! Why are my two favorite ladies squabbling?”

“Your daughter’s a thief!”

“You’ve been under a lot of stress lately, babe. Take it easy. Maybe you only thought you had money in that drawer.”

“Who told you it was hidden in a drawer? Go ahead, ask your daughter. She’s been sneaking around ever since she showed up.”

“C’mon, Becky, that’s harsh. Randi, did you take the money?”

“Hell no.”

“That settles it.”

She’d stepped out of the shower an hour ago and caught Ronnie leaning against the wall looking at her. She was so flustered that the towel dropped to her knees before she could gather it up to her chest.

“You’re a real redhead,” he said. “Most redheads are dye jobs or else go bald.”

Angry, shocked, disgusted all at once, she screamed, “Get the hell out of here, you lout!”

“Kiss my ass,” Ron said.  He smiled, winked, and flipped her the bird from behind as he casually walked down the hall.

She’d avoided the upstairs bathroom because of the mess Ron and Randi left it in. Sanitary pads and Kleenexes spilled out of the wastebasket, urine spots on the toilet lid, her ceramic figurines broken or chipped. Splashed shower water seeped into the grout and popped it loose in places.  Worse now that boyfriends picked up in bars spent weekends sleeping with her. Randi thought it funny to splash water all over the mirrors, floor, and walls. Two nights ago, Rebecca’s bladder aching, she risked a quick trip to “their” bathroom. Big mistake. Cracking the door, she saw outlined against the shower curtains Randi and a rail-thin male engaged in coitus.

“Wait! You hear that? It must be that bitch out in the hall.”

“Babe, who—uh—gives—uh-uh-uh—a shit,” the boy grunted, not pausing in his humping.

Randi took the money, no doubt, and it went to keep her and her sleazy boyfriends in drugs.

Ted having been out of the house for two days, she planned to confront him as soon as he got back. I almost said ‘home,’ she realized. He has no right to bring his lowlife children into the house my parents worked for all their lives.

Ted arrived in the foyer around ten-fifteen, very drunk; the booze reek reached her before she stood in front of him. He fumbled at placing his jacket a coat tree hook like some blindfolded child trying to Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

“Shit,” he growled. The whole rack of coats, mostly hers, tumbled to the floor.

“I want to talk to you,” she demanded.

“So, talk, light of my life.”

“Look at me, Ted.”

“I am lookin’, Re-becca, mine, and I’ll tell you what I see. I see someone who’s going to the bank with me tomorrow. Someone whosh—who’s going to keep her goddamn promise to put me on a shared checking account like I been askin’ for the last got-damn week.”

“Over my dead body.”

“That can be arranged.”

Said with an icy coldness that rooted her to the floor. He staggered toward her, and she stepped aside to let him pass. Instead, he stopped in front of her and slapped her hard across the head. She flew into the wall and collapsed to the floor.

“See what you made me do, cunt?’

He stepped toward her. She cowered, raising her hands to cover her face and head in case he meant to swing again.

“Hey, sweetheart, look, I’m sorry! It’s just you jumped me comin’ in the damn door like that—”

She scuttled away, on all fours like an insect, launching herself up the stairs, stumbling, slamming into Ron coming downstairs. He gripped her under the arms and raised her up.

“Hey, what the hell’s going on?”

She broke free and bolted past him to her bedroom. 

The following days were all eerie silence and hostile glares from Ted’s children. On the fourth day, he laid down the law, bringing them all together at the supper table. She wasn’t permitted to cook or even set the table. He served London broil (underdone) and asparagus (overcooked), and a store-bought Mississippi mud cake that stuck in her craw. Ted tried to jolly them into “pleasant  conversations about everyone’s day.”

“Like, what the frig we s’posed to say?” Randi snapped.

“Language, Randi. Just be pleasant.”

Randi turned to her and sneered, “So how was your day?  Mine was fine, thanks for asking and see you later.”  She jumped up from the table, knocking Rebecca’s wine glass to the floor, grabbing Ted’s car keys from the sideboard. The door slamming behind her rattled the dining room windows.

Ronnie laughed. “Ha, ha, Randi’s on the rag.”

Ted stared at his son as though some secret communication had passed between them. She shivered. She pushed food from one side of her plate to the other.

“May I be excused?”

Ronnie snorted.

“Are you sure, sweetie? You hardly ate.”

“Yes, I’m fine. It was good, thanks. I’d like to go upstairs and nap. I’ve had a migraine all day.”

She slammed the door loud enough for them to hear downstairs. She waited ten minutes and crept down the stairs, shoes off, placing her feet carefully, locating places she’d memorized years ago to avoid the creaking steps. Her father suffered from insomnia toward the end, and she didn’t want to alert him to her presence. Meetings between father and daughter in those days were fraught with shame and a burning anguish she found unbearable.

When she thought they were sure she was asleep upstairs, she worked her way to the oaken pocket doors and held her breath, listening.

Ronnie: “You sure about this?”

Ted: “Are you stupid? You can see she’s going to give us all the boot any day.” 

Ronnie: “Yeah, but I thought—”

Ted: “Thought what, Ron?  Thought we’re going to get another shot at a hundred grand?”

Ronnie: “We—I mean, you been doin’ good so far, right? Cracking into her checking and savings accounts, right. You always said the women were too embarrassed to report you to the cops.”

Ted: “Chickenfeed, Ron. I want a big score this time. This property’s worth a couple hundred grand, easy. Who knows what else she’s got squirreled away for her lonely old age? I mean to get it, son. Every goddamned dime of it.”

Ron: “I can do this one, you want. Choke her out just like her damned cat. Won’t even need the railroad gloves to keep from getting scratched.”

Ted: “No way. She’s all mine. I’m looking forward to it. That nagging bitch is going for a stainless-steel ride on that slab in the cellar.”

Ronnie: “Ha-ha. Wait! I heard something.”

Ted: “Heard what?”

She glided away like a phantom into the semi-darkness of the big hallway as soon as she heard the scrape of a table leg.

She had no sleep that night. Like those cups she used to place over the eyeballs of the decedents to keep the eyes from sinking into the face, she lay awake staring at the moving shadows the big maple’s branches outside her window cast on the ceiling.

At dawn, she rose. A little tired—but also exhilarated. Her brain swarmed with images all night. She knew she didn’t have much time. Ted was returning from one of his mysterious “errands” after lunch, and they were going to the main bank downtown. Once his signature was on her accounts, her days were numbered.

With Ted gone, Randi off on another drug binge with a new boyfriend, only Ronnie remained in the house to worry about.  Around seven, she came downstairs and found him sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee.

“Everyone gone, I see?”

“Yep.”

She removed the Blue Genie picture from the fridge, folded it, and put it in her pocket.

“What is that ugly-ass thing anyway? It crept Randi. Dad said not to touch it or you’d have a shitfit.”

“Just a keepsake from an old friend of mine from years ago, her daughter gave it to me.”

“Whatever.”

She smiled, said: “I told your father I’d get busy cleaning out some junk in the basement.  He’s been pestering me to do it for weeks now.” She tried to get the tone right. She didn’t want him suspicious and come down there looking for her. Lately, he reminded her of a pit bull who followed his father’s voice commands—just barely.

“Ha-ha, you mean like a dead body? Like in what’s-that-movie, Nightmare on Elm Street.”

Psycho, moron.”

“Whatever.”

“Who knows? Maybe my father kept dead folks down there if the family didn’t pay the bill.”

“That’s sick, lady.”

“I know.” 

* * *

Part 4: Your Third Wish Is Granted

The drug would help. She’d gone through Randi’s room that morning with the vacuum cleaner switched on but searching drawers until found her stash of MDMA and Ketamine inside a pair of electric-blue bikini panties. Googling “Mollies” and “Special-K,” she learned about dosages and side effects. Her father’s drug cabinet in the prep room was loaded with various combinations, but none she trusted that old.  

She cut out a small portion of MDMA for herself, laughing to herself, thinking it was exactly like a recipe: “Two tablespoons MDMA, set one tablespoon aside.”

Her sensibilities needed to be dulled when the time came. No more fainting spells. Hard work ahead, she told herself. Suck it up, bitch, borrowing from Randi’s vocabulary for her own pep talk. She’d studied it in textbooks years ago, watched her father hundreds of times.

* * *

“More iced tea?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Ted avoided looking at her through dinner—a sure sign he’d moved closer to carrying out his designs on her.  Randi, ever surly, wanted to be off fornicating with some “rando male,” as she eloquently put it to her father when he ordered her to stay for dinner.

“I don’t recall that last one being so friggin’ wonderful,” Randi whined.

Marijuana smoke had wafted from both back bedrooms all afternoon. Ronnie and his sister were still high, giggling at each other across the table. The weed worked to her advantage.

She thought it odd how obstacles in one’s path were smoothed away when you needed it.  Like her smiling blue genie coming to her aid. 

Ted sipped his tea. “I’m going out later,” he mumbled at her.

“Oh, want some company?”

Giggles from the siblings.

“No, no. It’s a job site in Rome I got to check out.”

“Long way for a job, Dad,” Randi quipped.

That cheap wit sent her brother into a raucous burst of guffaws.

“Rome, Ohio. God damn it, you two morons. Off Route Forty-Five. Christ, you nitwits.”

His bad-tempered swearing was another sign she was on a short clock.

Ted gulped the last of his tea and stood up—or, rather, he tried to.

“Got-damn.”

“Something wrong, sweetheart?”

“Wrong, you idiot? My legs! I can’t stand up!”

Peals of laughter from his children, Ronnie nearly falling over from belly-laughing.

“Let me help you, sweetheart.”

“What . . . what . . . are you doing?”

“Wrapping your legs in duct tape so you can’t move.”  All deadpan delivery but her heart thumped, and she fought dizziness. In seconds, Ted was secured to the chair legs. The next seconds were critical. She had to keep clear of his fists, his fingers.

“Ronnie! Randi!”

“Holy shit, I can’t get up,” Randi complained; “my legs are cramped up.”

Ron suddenly looked sober. He looked at his father, shook his head like a dog casting off water, and swiveled his head to take in Randi.

“Going on . . . what’s going . . . Hey, bitch, what . . . you do to them?”

“Ron, look out!”

Before he could rise, she brought the hammer down on his head. He sat there stunned like a bull in the kill chute hit with a cattle gun. As fast as she could, she wrapped Ron’s torso to the chair.  Randi tried to bite her when she did the same to her, foaming at the mouth, screaming, and cursing. Rebecca had never heard most of those words.

She returned to Ted, re-wrapping him thoroughly around legs; then she moved to his chest, careful as a bird avoiding a snake. He slathered her with curses, entreaties—a mishmash of hate-and-love gibberish, slurred from the drugs she’d put into his tea.

Randi and Ronnie received the same attention.

“What now, you crazy slut?”

“You’ll see. You will all see.”

It was safe to go down into the basement to gather her supplies set aside that afternoon, humming a Puccini aria. Upstairs, Randi screamed “Help!” but her dopey condition made it sound like someone wheezing.

“Go ahead, wear out your lungs, Randi,” she whispered. “That way I won’t have to listen to your potty mouth.”

Lugging everything she needed up the steps, she placed identical items—bucket, tubing, scissors, scalpel, trocar, and tape—around each chair leg for easy reach.

She stood up. “Before I begin, I’d like to say a few words.  You’re all scum and you deserve what’s going to happen.”

A slushy volley of oaths, imprecations, and threats were hurled at her from all three at once.

“You can’t move, but you’re going to be aware of everything happening,” she resumed. “The best part is that you can look at one another across the table as it happens.”

“Becky, Listen, angel, Becky, Becky, what’s . . . going . . . listen to me . . .”

“Better you experience it,” she replied, ignoring Ted’s pleas. “Words won’t suffice.”

She started with Ronnie; the heaviest male meant the most blood.

She cut a small patch of his Levi’s below his belt with her scissors. “Sorry if I hit flesh. This will pinch a bit. There now. Better if you don’t squirm so much.”

“K-kill you—”

When she made the incision with a short, scythe-like flick of her wrist, he howled in pain.

“I know that hurt,” she said softly, “but this will hurt worse so don’t move too much.”

She fed the tube into his abdomen, poking it around to find the best location for placement. The other end she fed into the bucket.

The pump would be faster, but gravity would do the trick.

“Oh God, no.”

“Oh God, yes.”

Ted glared at her while she worked on him, played the tough guy, ground his teeth as she cut into him an inserted the hose. “You and your boy should time out together,” she said, “if I did my calculations correctly.”

Instead of the onslaught of usual cursing—silence. It was as they they’d morphed into a bizarre medieval tableau with herself as the maestro. Three pairs of eyes bored into her face, looked across the table at the remains in the dinner plates, and saw the same fear and terror in one another’s expressions.  

Randi sobbed and cried, begged her not to hurt her, offered to do sexual things to her if she’d stop.

“That sounds interesting, sweetie, but you deserve this almost as much as your scumbag father.”

When she inserted the tube, Randi evacuated her bowels, filling the room with a nauseating stench.

Meticulously, painstakingly, she moved around each one, taking away dinner plates and glasses, utensils. She checked bindings, retaped tubes as needed; it couldn’t be helped—their contortions, struggles to move against the tape locking each one into his or her place at the table.

Clips on the tubing held off a too-quick exsanguination. The tinny drip, drip, drip of blood was the only sound other than her turning on the faucet to wash and wipe her hands frequently. The human body is a warehouse of filth and bacteria, her father always said.

Fifteen minutes, eighteen minutes, twenty minutes. Their movements against the restraints grew more sluggish, their eyes acquired that filmy glaze of dead birds. Each bucket filled at the same pace.

Seeing their eyes cloud and their sensibilities fade, she knew it was time. The dose of MDMA she took hit her like a fist. At first, she feared it was too much; then a warm, fuzzy glow of sensory overload rocked her backward on her heels. She adjusted to the new feeling.

“Time for the pièce de resistance.” she announced to her sluggish guests at the table.

With a flourish, she placed the gleaming bone saw in the middle of the table, polished to silver brightness.  Every detail of this Last Supper for Ted and his worthless clan of home invaders had been spun out of her anguish that night she lay awake.

They all recognized it at the same time. Randi vomited up a yellow bile that spattered the table and dribbled off her chin. Ron, silent, strained against the tape. Ted wheeled his head in her direction, the light in his eyes not yet faded, a final plea for mercy.

She placed the black tarp all around the chair legs, tucking it here and there; the carpeting was going to be trashed regardless, so the idea was to keep blood out of the tongue-and-groove floorboards beneath the carpeting and therefore visible from below.

“I’m done with you all,” she said.

She went round removing all the clips. Blood that trickled gushed into pails. One by one, their heads lolled, then sagged on their chests. She gave each a tap with the hammer in case anyone played possum. None did.

The girl who couldn’t stick a trocar into a foam dummy had the strength—albeit with a little help from Randi’s supply—to dismember each limb from three adult human beings. Arms piled up on the table. By midnight, legs joined them. At two a.m., all that remained were the heads. Her forearm tendons aching from sawing, she detached all three, Ted last, and placed them in a row, all staring through sightless eyes in the same direction.

Taking a break, she drank half a fifth of vodka from Ron’s room, passing out until the sun pawed her eyelids, forcing her awake. By late afternoon, still groggy, half-drunk and a little high, she staggered into the dining room and saw her work in toto. She opened a window to remove some of the coppery smell of blood and other fluids; however, cadaver flies homed in on the feast in seconds and she was forced to shut the window. 

Limbs were taken out to the garden first, followed by the heavier torsos, which consumed most of the time she allotted for the whole task. A Wagner opera playing from the kitchen for accompaniment, she was indifferent to body parts and placement into the separate holes.

Memorial stones she’d made as a little girl and retrieved from the shed—tiny cement hexagons decorated with plastic colored stones—were placed where the heads were buried.

“I have my family now, Genie. All thanks to you.”

She unfolded Baby Rainbow’s picture of the blue genie and attached it tenderly to the refrigerator with kitchen magnets. She couldn’t be sure, tired as she was, but she thought he was staring right at her, his big-toothed smile agleam—smiling and winking right at her.


Robb White is the author of 2 hardboiled detective series: Thomas Haftmann & Raimo Jarvi. White has been nominated for a Derringer award and “Inside Man,” published in Down and Out Magazine, was selected for the Best American Mystery Stories 2019. “The Girl from the Sweater Factory,” a horror tale, was a finalist in The Dark Sire Magazine’s 2020 awards. When You Run with Wolves and Perfect Killer were named finalists by Murder, Mayhem & More for its Top Ten Crime Books of 2018 & 2019. “If I Let You Get Me,” a crime story, was selected for the Bouchercon 2019 anthology. 


“Then the Lady Sang” A Macabre Story of Two Brothers by Fariel Shafee

Mrs. O Brien shut the window with a bang and put the large puffy white pillow on her face.  Everything in this room was white or light blue.  Even the medicinal mixture she took at 11 pm was light blue.  That was not by choice, though.  She would have gotten up an hour early to oversee breakfast and to tend to the newly planted saplings by the fence, to make her presence known to the workers.  But instead, she had decided to sleep. Perhaps she wanted to be in another reality where that piece of paper did not sit on the little gray table by the fireplace.  She also wanted to forget the call from the other world that had pervaded her air after dinner, when she had visited her room for her regular medication.

She had heard it before she lit the candles.  It was a bizarre sound that was harsh and it made her feel squeamish at once.  When she made it to the dresser, found the matches and lit the candles, the room looked unfamiliar, as though a misty veil had covered her furniture. 

After she had gone to bed, the sound came once again, penetrating the wooden window and the dawn pillow.  The sound was shrill and coarse, artless, as though a large dodo had been released from a hellish farmhouse to wander about in confusion and squeak, to eat up the new lemony leaves and the wood shavings scattered by the workroom, before the awkward bird would bang onto the verandah and collide with the rocking chair.

She knew there was no bird.  The face she had seen.  It was a momentary perception.  The eyes were large and dark, and the hair was long and disheveled, as though the uninvited visitor had left her house while she was busy tidying herself up.  Her skin was wrinkled and pale.  The person was short, around four feet tall.  She could have been Mary, had she been thirty years younger and a foot and a half taller.  But Mary was a gentle soul.  Also, Mary was dead.

Mrs. O Brien had squarely placed the blame of the unearthly visitation on that spoonful of sleeping medicine, though that tag would perhaps disobey causality.  It was the face first, and then she opened the drawer, took out the bottle. No, it was the syrupy bitter fluid.  She did not wish to think.  The liquid in the bottle was good.  It helped her not to think.

Now, in the dining room, the two brothers, Adam and Jones sat at the opposite sides.  The two hardly ate together.  Adam would leave for work: gunning down rabbits in the marsh or foraging.  His main objective was to discover signs of black gold seeping out through a crack.  The boy from Pike’s Hill had gotten rich.  He now owned a farm and a mansion. Land sold for cheap in the locale, and others did not have to be told what they did not have to hear.  Finders keepers.  One day he could be king.  But Jones — he might not exist.  Perhaps Adam felt sympathy for his brother now.  He felt a hollow sac floating erratically inside his soul.  Mrs. O’Brien’s older son, though, saw no reason for extended, cheap sentiments.  He, however, was hungry.

The piece of paper was off white.  It sat still in the living room.  They all pretended not to have seen it when they walked past.  It looked mundane, like those useless pieces of trash you never read.  They wished they had not read it!  The demands made were heavy.

Jones would leave for the war.  He, like the rest, knew that there was no escape but to a certain bloody death.  A boy who ran days back was shot in the head.  They had left the corpse in the street.

Adam did not say much to his brother while they munched, and then sipped the tea together.  A little bell jungled from the verandah.  Perhaps there would be no other Christmas together.  Perhaps this was the end of time for one.

“I will be back in the evening,” was all that Adam said, as he got up, picked his thick waterproof bag and his large boots. 

Jones nodded.  He did not wait for his mother.  He would walk into the study and write some important letters.

“Dear Ruth,” he started to scribble. “My darling, I do not know if we will meet again.”

He had started the letter at night, once her mother had left for the room.  Inside his strong, undaunting cage, he felt lost still.  Within the frame of bravery there was sorrow creeping in in the same manner the songs of life and love were dispersing out.

In candle light, the room had looked mysterious just like life that night.  What did it all mean in the end?

He had sat on the red cherry chair that was built years back and had remembered himself and Ruth chasing a small dear within the woods in summertime.  The shriek was sudden.  It shook him as though he was already hit by a bullet.   It sounded like a bird.  The creature, he thought, was in pain, as though it was being dragged to be sacrificed, and saw the sharp blade hanging. 

Jones tried to shrug off the fears of the night gone away, now that the sun was bright.  Tomorrow he would be elsewhere, marching to glory or damnation.

Jones collected himself and closed his eyes for a moment.  When he looked out through the window.  It was a bright Monday.  Far away, the workers had started to till the land.  Most of them were women.  Jones was one of the last men to be called in for the war.  Their influences were all exhausted.  “Was it unmanly?” he thinks.  Mostly it was his mother.  He had duties towards the family too.  Who would look after the old lady, the property?  It was she who had reached out, spoken personally, pushing back the inevitable.

Now even under the lusty vivid sun, dust had dispersed all about the scorched earth.  At times, the thirsty trees looked blurry or washed out.  The saplings were near the fence.  Mother had planted some herself.  Those were a mix of fruits and flowers. 

Jones scanned the yard for a bird – a big bird.  It could be an unseemly flightless creature, perhaps flaunting red beaks, large yellow eyes, and a tuft on top of its crown.  What could indeed have squeaked in that manner while he sat alone at night?

He, however, remembered the ensuing image.  After the squeak, there was a pause.  He was scanning the room for more candles, and for the rifle.   Finally, what he had seen could not be expressed properly.  It was a human body, a female.  The picture persisted only for a few moments before it disappeared, as though the atoms had dispersed all about with a bang.  The apparent human was small, about four feet tall.  She had long disheveled hair and large red eyes.  Jones did not know if it was blood, but the crimson within which the eyeballs floated looked vengeful, as though the world should be torn down into pieces.  She wore a gray robe that fell down to the ground.  But he felt that she was floating, that her legs were not on the earth.  She had looked at him for a moment, only.  But how loathsome was that look – as though he ought to rot, lie wounded and alone in the battlefield!  A very cold shiver had then traversed through his spine.  Jones did not wish to write any more.  He needed to grab a drink.

Now that life was in full rhythm of the day he was writing once again.  He was thinking about Ruth and what life could have been in a year.  But that wrinkled hag kept popping up from elsewhere, from right inside his head where the night’s moments had settled with some permanence.

Mrs. O Brien sat up on the bed and poured some water into her glass.  The jug was on the table, and she had filled It herself at night.  No, she had not forgotten the routines even in her distressed moments up until the morning.   She was a little dizzy still, and the room looked hazier than usual, as though the edges of the desk and the nightstand were blurry.  She saw those large eyes in the midst of the room again.  This was just a figment of her mind.  Then she opened the drawer of her bedside table and took out an album.  It was an old item and the off-white cover had stained into yellow here and there.  Inside, pictures from another decade popped out.  Here she was with that other girl, and there, again in the beach, baking in a summer of desires and hidden contempt — both smiling profusely though.  The black and white still images ushered a variegated reel of events from the past.

Mary was younger than herself.  She was also thinner and taller.  Her hair was the red of burning bushes, unlike Mrs. O Brien’s solid black.   Mary was also less worldly wise, too open, and too loud.   She was direct about her desires, about her unhappiness with Mrs. O Brien’s rendezvous.  He had betrayed Mary first.  But she was direct with Jill.  Yes, Jill – that is what she called her.  Jill didn’t have the right.

As the Mrs. O’ Brien of today shuffled the pages of the album, the funeral was dragged back from the past.  There she was in all back.  Mary was nailed in for good.  The only living sister stood right next to Jim, Mr. O Brien of the future that is.  She could have opted for some space, out of respect for Mary.  But the emotions then were strong.  Mary had slapped her the night before.

The death was not Jim or Jill’s fault.  The death was nobody’s fault.  Mary had gone to the forbidden corner of the enclave.  She had fallen.  She had fallen a hundred feet to her demise.  Almost all her bones were broken.  Jill could have warned her about the spot her sister had chosen for her art project.  But did she really owe that?  It was common sense, wasn’t it?

Mrs. O’Brien felt a warm little tear drop on her cheek.  She was unsure who she was crying for – the dead or the one who might soon become the fallen.  She then saw that face in a flash – the hag.  It was her memory.  The face was ugly and old.  Mary would shout and then forget.  Her anger never persisted.  Not through decades.  Would she be so mean as to seek revenge – come for an innocent boy?  Was it her own guilt that had made that face up?

Mrs. O’Brien felt a shiver.  Then she got up, put on her silk robe, headed down to the kitchen. 

Life and time would persist.  She would face both boldly.

Adam felt a little numb as he made his way through the swampy patch.  He wore a dark short coat and black plastic boots.  His thin lips were colorless and his short hair stuck closely to his scalp.  A solid brass stick helped him keep the balance.  His right leg was weak – a fall from many years back.  The doctor had feared that he would not walk again.  But he did get up, cross the room on his own and then walked up to the school bus.  He had felt angry then about his own stupidity, about the hare he wanted to trap.  But now that leg had saved him. 

Adam felt sorry for Jones.  He wanted to hug him at the breakfast table.  But his brother had put up his usual shield of defense – impermeable pride that drew a line.  Adam, so, had simply smiled.  It was a nervous, curt smile.  Jones had nodded.  They had both quickly stared at the rifle that hung upon the wall next to the head of a large dead brown bear.

As the day progressed, Adam passed through the thin thorny shrubs and moved into the rocky part of the landscape.  The stones were dry and reddish with some speckles of blue and gray.  The earth was scorched and rough.  He would find no black gold here.  He wanted something flat in the roughness – peace. 

In half an hour Adam reached the edge where steep rocks have made up the boundary between earth and untouched paradise.   He had found that edge where a single tree stood tall.  The leaves were few and long, slightly faded.  There was a nest at the top.  He could not see the birds.

It is now 11 am.

Adam sits and takes out his water bottle from the bag.  The heat will recede in an hour.  He wants to watch the birds circle above-head and then gaze at the lush below.  The plateau beneath has a river.  In it, fish swim in schools of abundant colors.  Wild beasts guard their very own kingdom.  In the evening, Adam wants to watch that elusive green flash and then walk back home.  Tomorrow, there will be gun shots.  Jones will be in a barrack.

Soon the afternoon melts into evening.  Light begins to flicker away.   A mysterious thickened veil obscures much of reality.  The moon is up in the sky as though it is half transparent within the daylight not yet removed.  Perhaps it is time to leave.  One more moment – he decides.

As Adam sits and watches a single white bird circle the sky, he hears a strange chant.  It is faint, as though the source is far away.  But the softness soothes him immediately.   He had heard of singing mermaids.  Those fishy maidens were unreal.

The air now is cooler, and Adam closes his eyes.  The sound gets louder, yet remains soft.  The tune is from a far away land and carries with it the allure of a beautiful life as it mixes with the breeze, wraps him from all around.

When he opens his eyes, he sees a maiden standing by the tree.  She is tall and slender with a head full of crimson hair.  Her lips are full and red.  Her silver robe extends to the rocks below as though she could flow away on a smooth and silky wave. 

She looks at him for a moment, but that look pierces into his soul.  He knows her, he thinks.  She is part of his very own flesh.  Then she disappears.  Adam tries to find her behind the tree, but she is nowhere. 

Only a feather floats in the air.

“My love, life is sweet,” he whispers.  “Why is it that we fight?”

Adam thinks of getting up to return home.  Maybe he will hug his brother this night.  He will hold him tightly and wish him well.  In the morning Jones will ride alone to the West.

As Adam gathers his belongings – the empty water bottle, a pair of binoculars and a small blanket, he feels a sharp pain on his palm.  The pain soon propagates up to his shoulder and the unearthly tune returns only to fade away.  It is only then he hears the rattling sound of the snake.  He bites his lips. 

Home is far away.  Nobody knows his location.

Wednesday morning that same week is sunny unlike Tuesday, when the sky cried out its agonies.  The earth looks fresh now.  But the O’Briens are somber, quiet.  One of them had departed. 

They are clad in black, standing in front of the coffin.

At night on Monday, when the sky was still clear, and when the announcement had come that the war had ended, Adam was happy and sad.

He did not look for Jones.  Instead, he had gone back to the study, and had torn down the note written to Ruth.

A boy had found the body in the forest the next afternoon.  Adam did not look anguished or unhappy, though his arm was blue.

Mrs. O Brien now looks at his son and his peaceful face and wonders if life to him had been kind in the very last moments.

She looks again for the face, the unhappy sister she had lost.  The maiden though is nowhere.  Nothing squeaks. 

“We are ready,” someone announces.


The author has degrees in science, but enjoys writing and art.  She has published prose and petry in decomP, Blaze Vox, Illumen etc.


“The Sea of Purple” A Tale of a Terrifying Future by Ethan Maiden

Welcome to Evergreen.
	Tis a place known to no map in the old world. Its beauty lies rich and vibrant; endless green farmland and vast woodland surround it, protect it, this village of endless spring. 
	As residents we know not of winter, of snow or rain, we only know of warmth and the eternal youth the fruit shall bring. 
	We are not allocated a traditional name one associates with people of a similar appearance in the old world. Instead, we are given a letter from birth by our Elders. 
	I am K. Along with me, there are three other K’s in the village, all born on the same cycle.
	Teachings of the old world cite that offspring come from the womb of a woman, in Evergreen we come from the womb of the earth. We are chosen by a greater power to come to this place and mask in the beauty, forever young until the time comes for us to return from which we came.  
	We’re assigned chores by the Elders.
	Some of us are assigned washing duties, others prepare the meals.
	And some pick – the fruit.
	The fruit grows in the spanning fields, spawned from some ancient and otherworldly force known only to us as - The Sea of Purple. 
	I pick the fruit, it’s no bigger than my palm. The round squidgy texture glows with an orange shimmer. The basking colour inside makes it hard to resist, it’s inviting to just take it into your mouth and bite down. The juices would flow through our veins, making us ripe once again. 
	However, we’re forbidden to eat the fruit by the Elders during the picking; we eat when they tell us to eat. 
	I usually pick three baskets of fruit a day, although I can tell the quantity is dwindling as I’m struggling to now fill one. The fruit is becoming harder to find and that means a summoning by the Elders is imminent.
	The fields are flanked by fruit trees on either side, most of which are just shy of my height. Approaching is a familiar face. It’s one of two J’s of the village. She has pale flesh, blonde hair in a ponytail hidden behind a white veil. J’s dress is red, flowing above her tight white tunic and flaring from the waist.
	J and I had always been close. We’d attended the teachings of the Elders together, learning about the old world. When J was assigned picking duty I was ecstatic, spending time in this field searching for the orange glimmer all day, one can become quite lonely.
	‘Good day,’ I said as we met. I looked in her basket and saw a dozen pieces of fruit, not nearly enough for this time of day. ‘The fruit runs scarce for us it would seem.’
	She nodded looking down at her basket, ‘Madam Elder will be announcing a summoning any day now.’
	I concurred, ‘aye, I believe it would be your time to bless the earth.’			
	J crouched down to the hard dirt and ran her hand over the loose gravel. ‘Tis a great honour to become one with the earth again,’ she said standing, her face falling distant. ‘I have to say that I would have enjoyed more time with you before I leave.’
	Tis true; the feeling was mutual. 
	As residents of Evergreen, we are forbidden to have any physical contact with another. Physical relations result in rotten fruit, and that could bring an end to our beautiful society. But it would be a lie to say that I didn’t feel the warmth flare in my body when I laid eyes on J.
	‘Aye, it’s a shame our friendship will be over prematurely,’ I said, feeling a small ache in my chest. 
	When we returned to the village, we placed our half-filled baskets in the temple hall ready for collection. 
	W, who is one of the food preparers came and looked what we had managed to scrape together. He was a bullish boy with a few strands of hair mopped over his shiny head.  
	‘Is that it?’ he sniggered. ‘With what the others brought, I will barely be able to feed the village.’
	‘The fruit is hard to come by at the moment,’ I said.
	W looked up at J, ‘it shall be you who redeems the fields then, huh?’
	‘And with great honour,’ she replied without hesitation.
	As I made my way back to my shed I wondered about J’s words. She would have liked to spend more time with me? This sounds foreign, I’d never heard of any member of the community with a distaste of giving themselves to The Sea of Purple. 
	A peculiar notion. Since birth from the ground I have always looked forward to when my time comes to nourish the fields. It’s our purpose to serve the Elders and give ourselves to The Sea of Purple. 
	There was tightening in my chest, a prodding burden. I couldn’t get J out of my head, her pretty face refusing to leave my vision. 
	I entered my shed and bolted the door.
	The community sheds were identical. They were made from the wood of the forest, sculptured from thick trunks. It was a haven, a place to recuperate before the next day’s hard work.
	We had a wooden block to lay on and rest and at the moment - think. 
	When the dark came, we would stare out to the night sky and prey to the Great Ones, as Madam Elder taught us. 
	They have given us a sanctuary to live until we are called back to the gut of the world, she had said on many a teaching. 
	Yet tonight, I couldn’t forget J. 
	Dinner was served in the temple as nightfall fell upon the village. 
	The temple was a vast structure, towering above all else. It was where the Elder’s resided and seated the entire village, twenty-three of us on either side of the long table. At the head was another table that faced us seating the seven Elders, with Madam Elder at the center. She was tall, thin, with a mop of blonde hair to her bony shoulders. Madam Elder had small piercing eyes, hazel in colour and dressed in a long white robe with blue collar. The other Elders were matched in the same clothing. Three male and three female, all with the same stern and piercing expression as they watched us. 
	Along the middle of the table were bowls of fruit, shining under the candlelight.
	Across from me sat J, the glow in her face from earlier had become absent.
	With a twang of the drum, Madam Elder rose, towering like a goddess.
	‘As you all can see, the fruit is falling in numbers by the day,’ Madam said, her voice
echoing off all the walls. ‘The time has come for a summoning, where we will grace the earth and
be rewarded with new life. It is tomorrow, under the night sky where we shall present our gift to
the great Sea of Purple.’
	Madam Elder looked over to J and smiled, ‘do you accept this honour, child?’ she asked.
	‘I do,’ J replied.
	Madam Elder then turned to the other J sitting further down the table, ‘and you, child?’
	‘Yes, Madam,’ the burly boy replied.
	‘Then it shall be tomorrow where you shall arrive in your purest forms. Tonight, you will
feast,’ Madam Elder said holding out her hands. ‘But first we pray.’
	Madam Elder sat and we all placed our palms on the table in tandem. 
	It was Papa Elder sitting to Madam’s right who spoke the words:

Thank you for the fruit, 
It shall fill our veins and replace our blood.
We shall remain young, faithful and ready at your will,
when the time comes, we shall bow in all your grandeur.
There is no death in Evergreen, only rebirth.
It is under your guidance and grace,
that we continue to live free and in paradise.
	Amen.

	‘Amen,’ we all said together.
	‘Feast, children,’ Madam Elder instructed.
	Then we ate and ate well. The aches in our bones vanished. The lines under the elder’s
eyes reversed and youthfulness flourished across their brows.
	My eyes locked with J’s, a sadness laid between us that I’d never felt before.
	After dinner, I went back and laid in my shed, staring at nothing. J’s face, that’s all I could
picture as the darkness drew in.
	When the knock came on my door, I sprang up, thankful for the distraction. It was J stood
outside, her eyes glistening in the light of the burning torches planted around
the village.  
	‘J, are you all right?’ I asked.
	She nodded and took my hand within hers. ‘It’s my last night in Evergreen, I was
wondering if you’d accompany me to the place where this world falters and the next begins?’
	My head told me to stay and decline the offer, if Madam Elder found out that we’d been
out together then the repercussions would be dastardly. Yet, my heart pushed me out the door, my
hand gripping J’s tightly.
	To the north of the village sat Eden hill, the tallest point that looked out over the village
and endless woodland. It was forbidden to venture there, only the Elders were permitted to look
beyond Evergreen. Planted in the middle of the hill was the tall oak, the tree full of bloom which
held the ripest of fruit. Again, it was the Elder’s privilege to taste the fruit that fell from the tall
oak.
	‘I don’t think we should be up here, J,’ I said as she dragged me up the final steps of the
incline.
	‘I am giving myself to Evergreen,’ she replied. ‘To gaze upon where the sky ends is
something I have to see.’
	We reached the top of Eden and fell to the ground exhausted. 
	Nothing could have prepared me for what flowed beneath the other side. A terrain of
colour swirled in a pool of purple where the night sky ended. The greens and oranges
mingled and caressed one another back and forth.
	The Sea of Purple. 
	It was glorious. 
	‘And there it is,’ J said. ‘The place where Evergreen ends and another world begins. The
Sea of Purple, the great one that comes alive when summoned.’
	‘What do you think is beyond this great sea?’ I asked fixated on the sparkling pool.
	‘The book of Evergreen speak of a place not like ours.’
	‘You read Madam Elder’s transcript?’ I asked aghast.
	J didn’t directly answer me, she just said: ‘The book speaks of a world where people like
us grow old … together. A place where the night sky is alive with twinkling light and a white sun.
Tis a place where people like me and you hold one another, where we give life to offspring.’
	I frowned, ‘the fruit?’
	J smiled, ‘the fruit does not exist in this other place.’
	‘Then how do the Elder’s stay young?’
	‘There are no Elder’s,’ J replied. ‘In this other world, you grow old until the time is right.’
	It almost killed me but I managed to pull my eyes away from the purple vortex and stared
into J’s eyes. 
	‘I think we need to be heading back,’ I said.
	J smiled and nodded, ‘you know, I would enter this void now to see this other world, if
only you’d come with me.’
	I reclined in fear as J grabbed my hands.
	‘We could be more,’ she continued. ‘Evergreen isn’t the end, there is so much more, it’s
just Madam Elder is reluctant to share her knowledge. We could leave and grow old together, K. I
have read the transcript and know this to be true. My heart aches as I know yours does too, we
could be together in another life.’
	‘Tis true that I feel something odd whenever I think of you. Yet leaving Evergreen is not
something any of us should consider. We are a family and the family needs the fruit.’
	J peered down solemnly. ‘I know you’re right,’ she whispered. ‘It was unfair of me to
bring you here.’
	‘No, I’m glad I saw such beauty.’
	‘It is beautiful,’ she replied staring at the void of purple.
	‘I wasn’t talking about the sea,’ I said, my eyes now firmly on her.
	J stared back and bloomed.
	Back at the village I walked J back to her shed and bid her goodnight. As I strolled down
the path back to my dwelling, I saw the tall imposing figure of Madam Elder stood outside the
temple.
	‘K, come forth,’ she said.
	The tone in her voice made my chest pump.
	‘Yes, Madam.’
	‘What are you doing out of your shed at such a time?’ she asked.
	I declined to answer, one does not tell lies to Madam Elder.
	‘You’ve been somewhere you shouldn’t have?’ she probed.
	She knows … she knows I have seen where the world bounds with another … the Sea of Purple.
	‘Aye, Madam,’ I replied. ‘There is no excuse for my treason. I shall serve with any debt
you deem adequate.’
	Madam Elder placed her long finger against my lips and stared into my soul with those
bright eyes. ‘Shushh, child,’ she whispered. ‘In Evergreen, thou shall be tested by many a thing.
Tis how you come through those tests which determine what kind of Evergreen resident you are.’
	I nodded.
	Madam said: ‘Tomorrow is the summoning, where we bring forth the great one, the one
who will cherish us with life, I would like you to stand beside me, child.’
	My eyes studied her, ‘that would truly be an honour, Madam,’ I said.
	‘Then go and rest,’ she replied.
	As the warmth of day returned, I felt different. The words of Madam Elder had placed me
at ease, even though she knew of my treachery.
	At breakfast and lunch, I kept my head down. I felt two sets of eyes staring at me as I ate:
J’s and Madam Elders. They were both watching me, I could feel it, both for different reasons.
I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t feel a flicker of sorrow losing my lifelong friend at the
summoning. But that is what we have to sacrifice to live here in Evergreen, the eternal beauty and
life comes with a price. I had to shun away those warm feelings in the pit of my stomach.
	I locked myself away the shed for the rest of day, surprised that there were no knocks at
the door. I thought that J would give it one last attempt to run away to this so-called other “old
world”. 
	Yet, J did not come forth. Instead I was left with nothing but my thoughts and they were
consumed with the Sea of Purple.
	The drums boomed out as darkness fell on the village.
	It was time.
	In my small wooden cabinet was the summoning attire. It consisted of a long flowing
white robe, blue collar and the mask carved from the woodland trees. I placed it on the front of my
face and tied the rope behind my head. The mask was heavy with thick slits chipped out where my
eyes fell. The masks of the villagers matched with one another, the Sea demanded we appear equal
during a summoning.
	Once ready I exited the shed. Many of the other residents were already stood outside with
their masks on and flaming torches in hand. I grabbed my burning torch and waited patiently. 
	The whole village fell silent. No sound other than the flickering flames.
	The Elder’s walked down the road, Madam’s flowing dress made her appear as though
floating like some goddess. She wore the huge Elder wicker mask that matched her grandeur. Papa
walked next to her followed by the other Elder’s; they strode straight ahead with purpose. Behind
the Elder’s: the two J’s. Both of which were absent of clothes, their pale flesh looking as pure as
when they came into this world.
	The village followed behind them in tandem.
	When the head of the group reached me, I waited to see if J would give me one last glance
… she didn’t.
	I studied her naked body and felt that warmth enter me again. J’s long blonde
 hair now
dropped to her bare shoulders. She was true beauty to behold, only matched by that of Evergreen
and the Sea of Purple.
	I joined the group as the Elder’s marched us to the bottom of Eden hill. There we stopped
and Madam Elder took off her mask turning to face the group. 
	‘Tonight, we summon the one that shall bring us fresh and eternal life,’ Madam said. ‘The
great one shall take their prize and bless us with the fruit that binds us together, maybe even create
us new lives to cherish.’
	Madam Elder held out her arms to bring forth the two J’s. They walked up and stood
beside her, one on either side. 
	Madam bellowed: ‘The chosen ones must now leave us to rejoin with the earth from which
they spawned.’ Madam Elder looked at me, a shot of cold eyes, ‘K, join me,’ she said.
	The group all turned and when I stepped forward, they parted without hesitation.
	Reaching out I took Madam Elder’s hand. She placed me next to J and I felt my heart beat
faster, a longing to hold her one last time. 
	Madam Elder continued, this time her voice louder – unworldly: ‘Great one, the one who
resides in the Sea of Purple and wonder. Come forth and take these offerings we give to you. Bless
us with your beauty and wonder.
	Silence.
	Followed by rumbling beneath my feet. 
	Madam’s eyes grew bigger, ‘the great one has heard our plea, now all must shield your
eyes, we are too inferior to gaze upon the great ones wonder,’ Madam said picking up her mask
and placing it back upon her crown.
	The rumbling was followed by an almighty growl that made my ears yelp.
	The ground shook harder as I clenched my eyes as tight as I could.
	There were shrieks, whistles and gusts of wind as the darkness came alive. 
	I twitched my hand with contemplation to reach over and take J’s.
	The sound boomed and was thunderous before slowly subsiding and fading away back to
silence.
	Instinctively I reached out and grabbed nothing but thin air.
	‘You are now free to open your eyes,’ Madam Elder said.
	Quickly, I snapped my hand back by my side before anyone had the chance to see my
conflict.
	J was gone.
	‘The great one has taken the offering, be gone now and prey that they bless us with fresh
life,’ Madam ordered.
	The residents of Evergreen took their leave back to the village.
	As I went to walk, Madam grabbed my arm.
	‘Tis with great bravery that you shunned your desires,’ Madam whispered. ‘You have
proven yourself to be a noble resident. Perhaps there is potential to be an Elder in you,’ Madam
said.
	‘Really? An Elder, me?’ I asked aghast. 
	‘Many a more challenge shall come forth, my child. It is how you deal with those
challenges which determine Elder status.’
	‘But Madam, I’m K, next in line for the summoning.’
	Madam took off her mask and smiled. ‘If there is Elder status in you then the great one
shall spare you, child, just as it did with me. The Sea of Purple and wonder are more than we
could ever imagine. If you are chosen, there are secrets that you shall learn. Until then, rest.’
	The following day I headed out to pick the fruit. 
	Specks of crimson sprayed the fruit trees with chunks of pale flesh scattering the fields and
on the floor. Crouching down I ran my hand over the remains of J, now seeding the earth.
	‘Your beauty will endure,’ I said.  
	As I stood, I peered into the distance, gazing at the shimmer of light.
	Flashes and sparkles of orange.
	Fresh fruit had begun to grow.
	The Sea of Purple had given us our blessing.

Ethan works for a utilities company in South Yorkshire. Currently he is editing his first novel that he hopes to be completed this year. The works of Stephen King and H.P Lovecraft are influences behind his fiction.


“Melinoë” Microfiction by Maria Balbi

Hours after the accident, the campfire’s lights give my kindergarten class hazy features.

“Bedtime Story!” Maggie wipes ashes from her face.

“Mother of Ghosts!” Tommy rubs his eyes.

In my feverish state, I repeat, to keep the kids calm, the collector of souls’ local legend.

Silent flashlights twinkle among the trees.

Is it the search party?

A slight puff of smoke emanates from Tommy’s arm.

Crude barking approaches.

Dense mist engulfs the kids.

“She is here.” Maggie coughs.

An ethereal veiled woman opens her arms as they join her entourage of unburied.

Our corpses are still burning inside the bus.


Maria Balbi (She/Her) is an Argentinean Psychologist living in Buenos Aires with a grumpy cat named Benito and a tendency to abuse Dulce de Leche. Her works were published in HellHound Magazine and Friday Flash Fiction.  @alejandrabalbi9


“They Flew Over the Mountains” Fiction by Fariel Shafee

The figure lies at the corner, twisted and spread out, as though a matchstick figure has been trashed out with the junk.  The inside of the garage is smoggy and dark.  A musty smell floats in the air.  Cobwebs hang from edges of the gray wall.  It is, after all the second garage, the one that sits waiting for the special day.  Beside the car are stacks of discarded and unneeded broken pieces of a dynamic life – three legged chairs, smashed mirrors in decent frames that could be salvaged someday, the rag dolls with missing teeth or eyes that did not find a place in the almost full attic upstairs. 

Jane looks back at that figure.  She or her younger sister Sarah never possessed a doll the size of the object sprawling in the distant left by the wall.  It is the size of a real human, perhaps taller than herself.  She cannot see the clothes or the hair even as darkness settles as the norm and the rods begin to get busy in the eyes.  What lies is more a shadow than a man or stacked old clothing.   She squeezes her eyes as she reaches out for the light switch.  The white small board is hard to locate within the shelves and the haphazardly placed canisters.  The wall is rough.  Little bugs scurry as she feels the cracks on the wall.  Jane shivers.  She was not afraid of a spider or a lizard.  But did that large doll suddenly move?  Did it twitch?  Did she hear it moan?  A handful of dusty air swirls up, making it hard to conclude.

“Don’t,” somebody shouts.  The word is clear and the voice is deep.  There is authority in that tone.  Jane stops.  Something potent holds her back.  That something is pinned inside her mind and tells her to listen, obey. 

“Please don’t turn on the light,” the person now is pleading.  From the depth of the voice, she can place him between manhood and boyhood.  But he is confident.  He is certain even when he begs.

“Come here.  Help me.” 

Jane knows the boy is not a local.  He is not even from the country.  The accent is pointed, clear – from another era or from a story book.  Did a little green frog that had made that corner its abode suddenly become a prince?  Jane laughs.  She and her three mates were partying the night before.  Jane had put on a tiara and a large cape.  It was a fake tiara, cheap.  They had broken into this garage.  Diane had taken the car out.  They were playing hard rock from another age: “We built this city in rock and roll,” “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” The drums were loud.  Mother and father were not expected before midnight.  But the police came.  The doleful, decrepit neighbor was not happy.

That’s why she is in the garage again.  It is her punishment.

She would have to take the car out, wash it.  Then she would have to stack the books.  After all those chores are done, she would have to read her own books, write a report and read it aloud.  On top of it all, she was grounded for three days.

“I need you,” the voice states again.  She is unsure if it is a command or a pleading this time.  If it indeed is a command, she does not mind becoming a temporary order bearer.  She feels compelled, attracted.  The crumpled figure is surely helpless, alone.  He would not grab her from the back, assault.  She knows that much even in the darkness.  Pity though does not drive her.  That charm that compelled is stronger.  It forces rather than empowers.  She is the one that’s weak here.

Jane now moves away from the wall, pushes back on the car, making herself believe that she can get in and dash out if she wishes.  Her legs though feel heavy.

“How did you get here?” she was the one who sounded guilty inside her own house.

“The door was open.”  There was indeed definitive reason for that guilt.  She had allowed him in – the sham princess in her drunken moments was the perpetrator.

“I am wounded.”

Jane feels a little numb, slightly squeamish.  Was there a shootout, or a fist fight?  Was he hiding from the police?

“Don’t worry.  I am not a criminal.”  He seems to read her mind.  Jane feels unprepared, embarrassed.

“Water,” he whispers.

“Of course,” she obliges.

As Jane puts the glass of cold water on the floor closer to the boy, she glimpses a partial view of the face.  It is pale, as though he has bled profusely.  His hair is dark and tidy.  His lips are thin and his nose is sharp.  She cannot see his eyes but she knows that they sparkle.  His body is lean and solidly built.  He is wearing a long coat.  The cut is different from what is sold in shopping malls.  Jane almost wants to touch him.

As though he can sense that feeling, the boy moves away.  Does she disgust him?  She almost wants to take away that glass and call the police, but then she does not.

The boy now looks at her.  His eyes are the blues of the ocean and they indeed shine.  He can see right into her soul.  She slides back close to the car and he drinks quickly, relishes, and then falls back on the floor, lies flat.

She picks up the glass and stumbles.  Would he know that the act was intentional?  As her hand touches his finger, she feels scared though.  She looks at him and asks almost immediately: “Should I call a doctor?”

He is as cold as a corpse.

“I am fine.”  He sounds strong, in command again.  “If you can, come back tomorrow.”

Jane goes back into the house, reads her books, writes a report as though she is an android.  All the words are there, but the lines make little sense.  Luckily, her parents are busy.  They don’t have time for inspection.  The report is five pages long.  Punishment has been served.

In the morning, before she leaves for school, Jane walks back into the garage.  She does not look for the light switch but walks up to that boy.

“I have a blanket for you,” she states.

“Thank you,” he is curt.

When Jane opens the door, a slice of the sun peeps in.  She scans the garage and then fixes on the figure that is partly lit.  The boy is almost a man.  He is pale still, but he looks gorgeous in his silky dark coat and with his immaculate look.  Everything about him is expensive.  But now he has shut his eyes, and he has brought his arms to the front to shield him from the world perhaps.  He looks strong yet scared.

“Shut it, please,” he blurts, as though he almost would have grabbed her, thrown her out if she misbehaved.  Jane does not feel threatened.  He looks strong, manly.  Jane wants to feel secure within that strength.

 She leaves, but she thinks of him all throughout the day.  When she goes back in the evening, she carries with her two boxes: takeout from the diner across the street.  She has brought soup for him, made of fresh thyme and mussels and she has gotten a large pork chop.

“For me?” he whispers.

Jane nods.

She knows that he is smiling, but he does not touch the food.

“Were you afraid that I would die?” he asks, as though Jane should have been concerned, as if she knew him so intimately that she ought to have cared.

Jane nods.  She does not why.

“Would you like to live forever?” he questions.  The voice is raspy, tired.  Living forever must be boring.

Jane wants to laugh but does not.  She feels that same shiver again as she leaves the garage.  She now locks the door and puts the key inside her bag.  Mother should not be let in.  The stranger was not yet ready to walk out on his own.  His legs were spread like lifeless logs and his head was leaning against the wall.  Perhaps he is like the little bird that had fallen from the nest years back.  It was pale and weak as well, and could not stand up on its own.  Mother wanted her to throw it out.

“You will get a disease.  Plague!  Rabies!”  Mother was paranoid.  Birds did not transmit the plague.  Mice did.  This boy too would not kill.  He was sweet and strange.  It was unclear how he was wounded though.  Jane would have to get that story out by herself when she would come back in the evening.

When Jane returns in the evening, she brings in a piece of apple pie and a chicken roast leg, some mashed potatoes and a bottle of whiskey. 

“I feel better today,” the visitor announces.  “I will perhaps leave in a day or two.  You will not be bothered again.”

Jane does not want him to leave somehow.  She wants to know more, learn more.  Most of all, she wants to touch him – that expensive fabric and that pale chiseled face – the lean arms and the straight silky hair.

“I got you some food,” she declares, hoping to be appreciated.  That’s when she notices that the soup bowl is still full.

“If you want to live, forever or not, you’ve got to eat, you know.”

The faint smile could have been a smirk, a ridicule.  Jane feels sorry and annoyed.

“Do you like mashed potatoes?  I got you chicken.”

The figure nods and waits.  Jane does not leave.  She wants to hear the story.

“Have you ever seen how beautiful the world looks when you are flying above the alps?  It is all white, snowy.  No man.  Sometimes you see a small house here and there.”

The Alps are far away.  Jane does not see the connection.  Yet she feels transported to a zone of tranquil beauty, like the space contained within the creature in front of her.  She wants to ask if he was a pilot, if he owned a small plane.  But then the man speaks on his own:

“The disease.  Oh that was horrible.  How they all died like flies.  The blood. Oh.”

Jane is unsure what disease he was speaking of.  If something happened near the Alps, she would not have known.  News was never her penchant.

“They let them all die,” he whispers, and she feels the shiver again.  However, she quickly gains her footing, and finally musters her courage:

“Your injury.  How did you get hurt?”

The silhouette of the boy gets quiet.  He looks stiff, as though Jane had pulled him out from his reverie.

“I fell.”  The answer is curt and definitive.  He would not be saying more. 

“I feel better now,” he then adds in a softer tone.  “I shall be leaving by Thursday.  You will not be bothered further”

Jane feels insulted and annoyed at once.  She wants to know more.  She wants him to get closer.  She wants to touch that silky coat that has been cut and sewn by a master craftsman.  But she does not speak either.  She picks up the discarded food container and reaches out for the soup bowl.  She wants to touch his cheek, his forehead.  But just as she reaches for the bowl, the shadow retreats, crawls right into the darkness, further away from his host.

At night mother father, Jane and Sarah are at the dinner table together.  This is the first time in the week that they have made time to cherish the existence of each other.  Mother had several board meetings to attend.  Father had to see clients out of town.  Sarah had been busy with celeb gossip with her friends.  The friends and she had been to a club, Jane knows.  The parents had not been told.

A large bowl of pasta soaked in white sauce sits in the middle of the table.  Mother has baked the garlic bread sticks herself.  Then there is the apple pie.  That though has come from the supermarket.

Mother pours some cocktail into her tumbler and looks straight at Jane, as though time had shrunk to three days back.

“So, the garage is clean?” she sounds eloquent, chatty.

“yes, almost done.”

“Almost?”

”Well, I had to write the report.  You saw it.  I will finish it up tomorrow.”

Mother did not read that report, but pretends that she indeed did.  Stating otherwise would be bringing down her own self together with the daughter.

“I tried to get in today, but it is locked!” mother sounds surprised.

“Yes, I left the key somewhere.  Was extra careful after we kept it open that other night.”

Mother nods.

They all finish their pasta.  Sarah declares she would retire to her room to attend to important calls.  Jane knows she will listen to music, play video games.

Father gets up for coffee.

Jane makes it to her bed and thinks of snowy white mountains and of circling the sky in a small plane with a handsome millionaire.

In the morning, father drives both to school.  Mother does not use her car any more.  The office sends off her own sedan with a chauffeur.

On her way to class, Jane thinks briefly about her dreamy romantic escapade.  She is consumed by her new hero until the chatter of the students and the loud unkind voice of the teacher bring her back to reality.  She will HAVE to clean up the garage in the evening.  If that boy is still wounded, she should call up his family or take him to a clinic.  She thinks of discussing the issues with Lara, her best friend gawking perpetually from within her large black spectacles, but she does not.  Her secret bird was too pretty for the time being.  The girls were mean, even if some were best friends.

In the afternoon, when class is over, Jane googles the list of local hospitals and jots down some numbers.  She also gets a torchlight and a pair of new batteries.  If the visitor were to be shifted to the medical center, she could not use their family car.  So, she checks numbers for the local taxi.  She would also need an excuse.  So, she sends a text to Lara, asks her to meet at the mall at eight pm sharp.

When she opens the garage door, she feels a cheerful vibe.  Nothing has changed, but perhaps someone did shift, evolve.

“I feel much better,” he says.  “I will leave tomorrow.”

In the shadows, Jane sees the empty boxes lying around.  “Good you ate,” she says. 

“So tomorrow, I won’t be here.  Thank you.”  The man is authoritative.  He has taken his decision.  Jane just did her job.

She feels a deluge of rage all of a sudden.  Maybe she does not know what this unseemly feeling is about.  Did she want him to hug her, kiss her, take her to the alps?  Perhaps, he could have offered a number, an address, or an invitation?

“I will have to see your wound,” Jane is equally commanding now.  “I cannot just let you leave my house, injured and in this manner.  I will have to see.  I will have to take you to a doctor.”

“No,” the man demands.  “I say stop there.  Go back.  I am thankful for all you did.”

Jane’s anger does not recede.  Somehow, she feels used. 

“Come on, let me see that,” she commands as she turns on the torch, aims it at the vulnerable stranger as though she’s pointing a gun, the door still half open behind her.

The light bounces off of that figure and hits her eyes, and almost automatically, Jane shrieks.  The boy at the doorstep of manhood is standing now.  He is very tall, about six feet six, and he is paler than she had assumed.  He almost looks like a corpse dressed up for the final journey.  But the nose is sharp, ambitious still, and the eyes are lucid.  The bloodless lips are thin, proud, as though a simple smile could lash her.  Every piece of his attire from the shoe to the bow tie and the white shirt, stained here and there, is exquisite.  But the man, now standing in a defensive pose, trying to fend her off, casts no shadow.  The light helps her see the figure but does not create a pool of darkness behind, as though the man is opaque and transparent at once.

Jane freezes wants to fly away, but cannot.  Her shock throttles her urges.  But the man now moves forward, grabs her from behind, puts his hands atop her mouth to ensure she would not shriek, perhaps ever again.

She feels cold – very cold.  He feels like a corpse that occupies the moving speaking body.  Her charming prince is not earthly.  Perhaps, he is from another world.  Jane does not desire that world, but wants to live in her own.  He pushes her next to his body and it gets colder.  There is no heartbeat beneath that ribcage.

“I am sorry my love,” he whispers.  His breath too is cold as though he has brought the Alps into the small garage.

Jane feels frozen.  Her own heart races.  She wants to move, but her legs feel stuck.  She just stands and waits as he brings his face closer to hers.  His hair brushes her cheek.  He is not kissing.  His eyes sparkle in lust – the lust for life.  She feels a sharp pain in her neck.  Her skin burns.  Then her blood burns.  Something has bitten her, or a pair of needles have pushed into her vein.  The pain soon propagates into her shoulder and then to her arms.  She wants to scream but she cannot.  As she feels suffocated, she also feels she is flying. 

The man from the mountains holds her tight, and the duo glide up to the sky.  From the top, she watches the lights flicker and then she hears a humming sound.  Something strange is inside her body.  It is painful and it is all-devouring.  It might be a potion that would transform her into an immortal being like her mate.  Alternately, the bugs are marching in, in packs of thousands, through her open would, to claim what is left of the body.


The author has degrees in science, but enjoys writing and art.  She has published prose and petry in decomP, Blaze Vox, Illumen etc.


“Musk” Fiction by Mehreen Ahmed

“Not even the fragrant musk was as intoxicating as this story.” 

The storyteller told sitting on a swollen root of an aged tree on the edge of a forest. He addressed a gathering of enthralled people.

One dreary afternoon, under the opaque clouds, when the mists had curtained much of the peninsula’s profile, a tea boy made tea. He had a stall near the same place where the storyteller was also telling his stories. It was the boy’s job to make tea as long as the storytelling lasted. He made it in an iron cast kettle over a makeshift stove kindled by dry wood and brown leaves. The kettle steam was a beacon that fueled the desire of many to travel thus far. The brew carried a distinctive aroma.

The storyteller had a large following. They gathered here not just to listen to the story but also to indulge in the hot tea served from the stall. This storytelling helped the boy’s business to flourish. The boy poured the tea in small pottery bowls and handed them over to the rapt listeners. The more they drank, the more they listened.

This tea boy was an orphan. He was fifteen. He lived with the storyteller who had adopted the child when he lost his parents in the last great flood. They had lived on the sea line of a rugged peninsula. This place didn’t have much to offer apart from a school, a spice bazaar, and a few odd dry-fish shops. 

Deeper into the woods on the same peninsula, the storyteller now lived with the boy. They lived in a hut near a shaded pond. Tall poplars and their verdant saplings rendered much of this shade. In the evening, when they lit a lantern in the hut, a glow would illuminate a darkly spot outside and light up a pond’s pod corner. The jungle’s wild animals transformed in the full moon, especially the musk deer. This sparked the storyteller’s imaginations.

Neither the jungle nor the deer knew what treasure it possessed, not at least until the musk pods were wrenched out of the deer bodies. The deer didn’t know how crazy earthlings was for its musk. It couldn’t smell its own. The others could. The sensuous properties drove humans to madness, wild with gluttony where fantasy fed reality.

Where would they stop, though? How far would they go to get it? Not even the formidable amazon could stop them. And it was not just the musk but insatiable human greed … said the storyteller and stooped to pick up an object loosely stuck on the bottom of the tree trunk. His breathing intensified. Inch by inch they stole the natural providence. They ate away like bite-sized like termites into the planet without replenishing: poaching animals, cutting trees, mining gemstones: red rubies, green sapphires, blue lapis lazuli, the sparkling diamonds. His audience listened mesmerized as he told them this old story retold, and the tea boy to sell innumerable kava clay bowls. His coffers filling up soon with silver coins and gold jewels.

No matter, this storytelling was free. No one ever paid to listen. But drinking tea was essential, said the storyteller. Because the delightful tea glued those stories together. Even on a hot day, it had to be served. People tread miles to come here to listen, but more so for the thirst of the tea. No other could make it like this boy, magic in the brew, the word rang true.

One day it happened. The storyteller stopped and looked closer at the object he held in the tip of the index finger. It was a cast-away gold ring that also had a story to it. 

“What happened?” the listeners gasped. 

Sitting on the ground, they looked at him hooked to the hot tea. Today, the mist of the day and the tea vapour played a twister in the sky.

“The tea boy became sick,” said the storyteller. “He couldn’t make tea anymore. The boy lay cold on the ground of his hut groaning in agony.”

“Oh no!” the listeners gasped.

There was no afternoon tea. People fidgeted and looked at the empty stall. But the tea never came. 

“It was not the story, you see?” the storyteller told. “But it was his tea which brought them here.”

Where was the boy anyway? His listeners wanted to know. They demanded to see him. He grimaced and pouted his mouth in hesitation. But they were adamant. They stood up, held hands, and formed a niche circle fomenting unrest. They protested in a slogan, “no tea, no story” and walked in the circle. In the beating heart, this addiction baffled the storyteller who then realised that he had failed to stir them. He morosely nodded his sage white head as he relented and asked them to follow him to the hut.  By then, the night had fallen a full moon lit up a yellow pathway.

It was a menacing jungle. But people didn’t mind. They walked over sodden leaves, shed snakeskins, dry blood, fallen horns and ivory, torn human clothing, hanging bats, and swinging monkeys. They must find the boy. They paced up and they reached the hut beyond the poplar pond. The bare bone sat unadorned on earth’s blue bowl. Not stark as Mars, Earth’s fowl-play tarred and scarred.

The storyteller asked them to wait outside as he went in to find the boy. But people were restless. They couldn’t wait it out. The mob forced themselves into the hut and looked in a frenzy for the prized fugitive. However, when they searched the small hut, they didn’t find him, at all. What they found though, was the last thing they had dreamed of. They found a white-bellied musk deer instead. He was the same small size as the tea boy, lying lengthwise across the space without a musk pod.


Mehreen Ahmed is widely published and critically acclaimed by Midwest Book Review, DD Magazine, The Wild Atlantic Book Club to name a few. Her short stories are a winner in The Waterloo Short Story Competition, Shortlisted in Cogito Literary Journal Contest, a Finalist in the Fourth Adelaide Literary Award Contest, winner in The Cabinet of Heed stream-of-consciousness challenge. Her works are three-time nominated for The Best of the Net Awards, nominated for the Pushcart Prize Award. Her book is an announced Drunken Druid’s Editor’s Choice.