“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.


“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


“Taxidermy Beach” Fiction by Douglas Ford

Lost Beach Road begins on the edge of Vissaria County, and it leads to a destination that even the locals treat as forgotten.  An aura of bad luck hangs over the area, presaged by the line of shipwrecks forming a barrier between the wider Gulf of Mexico and a small inlet. 

            The beach does serve as a useful landmark for drivers, for rising over the tree-line appears the base of an old lighthouse, its top sheared off during a rough storm that came ashore decades back.  Took much of the surrounding community with it, and the road that leads there likely derives its name from that chapter in history.  The remaining locals look sickly and unusually white for a part of the world so renowned for sunshine.  Doesn’t matter what sort of lives they lead—butcher, mapmaker, even landscaper—pale and beleaguered, all of them, as if wakened from their respective graves.  Someone passing through might not pick up on what makes them look so peculiar at first.  Sometimes they attribute it to a thin gene pool, but genetics don’t explain everything.  They just avoid the sun.

            Not like other parts of Florida, the quiet beauty of Fort Walton Beach, nor south of here, the sandy paradise of Siesta Key Beach, nor east of here, the wild festivity of Daytona Beach.

            The air over Taxidermy Beach hangs quiet.

            A truck driver remembers seeing the remains of the lighthouse sticking up like a smokestack during one of the back-road journeys he took to avoid weigh stations.  He describes it to a grieving couple, telling them they ought to search out that area.  If he could recall its name—Taxidermy Beach, the local if not the official appellation—he’d never suggest it.  Yet this couple knows so little about the state they’ve driven into, and they thought they could just go right up to the shoreline of any beach they came to and let the ashes of their son scatter into the wind.

            But you could get arrested.  Those are human remains, you’re talking about.  Arch, the truck driver hates how these words sound coming out of his mouth.  He wishes he didn’t say “human remains.”  The urn that the woman clings to contains their son, a little boy who died of blunt force trauma, a head injury resulting from jumping head-first into a shallow swimming pool.  Arch has met this boy’s parents at a rest stop off of the highway after offering to help them make sense of a map.  Not long later, he finds himself sitting at a picnic bench with them, having accepted their offer of a peanut butter sandwich.  The urn sits on the table, the fourth member of their party, the one he just called “human remains.”

            The dead boy’s father, Derek, says that his wife keeps the urn with her at all times.  They’ve driven all the way down here because their son loved the water and would have wanted his ashes scattered into the wind on one of those beautiful, sunny beaches he never lived long enough to visit in person. 

            Their story touches Arch, the kind truck driver.  He doesn’t like picturing the two of them humiliating themselves by strolling past tourists and drunk college students to do something so noble, so sacred.  He walks them over to the giant Florida map nestled between the two bathrooms of the rest stop and points to where he remembers seeing the small sliver of road.  Derek follows the line of his fingers with eyes gazing through thick glasses.  He nods, but then asks Arch to point again, nods just like the first time, so the truck driver has doubts that he’ll retain those instructions.  Already feeling guilty about the prospect of sending this bereaved couple on a trip that will leave them lost and confused (he imagines the wife, Claire, holding the urn in her lap while Derek struggles to remain awake on unfamiliar, rain-swept roads), he follows them back to their car, a hatchback so green-faded that it looks like it has molded. 

            There, Derek stops and turns to the driver, shakes his hand firmly while Claire waits so she can put her arm around his neck and press her cheek against his grizzled beard.  Between their two bodies he feels the press of the urn, and when she breaks the contact, he finds himself avoiding her eyes, startled by something electric that passed through him.  She cradles the urn next to two of the fullest breasts Arch has ever seen.  The top of the urn pulls down her v-cut shirt, and he can see the white curvature of the one on the left, along with a thin strip of bra.  He almost apologizes for what he fears looks like a blatant display of lust, but she speaks first. 

            Jared thanks you, she says, he’s here with us now.  Can’t you feel him, his presence?

            She embraces him again, and even though he tries to turn to the side, he fears she must notice the erection he has sprung.  Evidently not, because she presses him even harder, as the urn contains a spark of spirit that might pass into his body.

            Not that the driver believes in such things as spirit, but he can’t help but feel affected as he watches the two of them drive away, thinking how he needs to cut down on the driving and spend more time with his own kid—not that his shrew of an ex would allow that.  She enjoys getting those monthly checks, he reckons.  He tries to imagine the ex holding an urn in the same manner he just witnessed.  He can’t imagine as tight a grip as what Claire showed. 

            As he starts up his rig, Arch thinks fondly of the couple, even at the risk of their contagious sadness.  Their son died, and his marriage died.  Would he trade places with them?  No way in hell.  Would they trade places with him?  Maybe.  Placed in their position, he just might, too.  He knows they’d trade places with Jared, the dead boy.  Anyone would do that.

#

            Deliveries made, he decides, days later, to skip the weigh station again and take the route that crosses Old Beach Road.  The couple never left his thoughts, especially as his journey takes him past an inordinate number of memento mori—those roadside markers commemorating lost lives.  Elaborate floral arrangements, some shaped in a cross and accompanied by stuffed animals, others cruder, looking like nothing more than scrap wood.  As he nears Lost Beach Road, the designs become more curious, and now he recalls the name he’d heard spoken at one of his stops:  Taxidermy Beach.  This recollection occurs when he passes what looks like an iron wire bent into a sideways cross—the shape of an X—with what resembles a small fox fastened to it. 

The purpose of such a thing eludes Arch, though he knows the native artists have peculiar talents.  It looks surprisingly sacrilegious for a region re-known for its conservative nature.  Perhaps he simply misperceived a ragged toy of some kind, a likely possibility considering his going 65 miles per hour.  But a mile or so further, he sees another one, and then another.  This time he slows to get a better look, and yes, he can identify it now—not a fox as he first thought, but a coyote, mangy besides dead, and wired crudely to a sideways cross.

            Seeing this makes him think of the woman with the urn.  Claire.  It unsettles him to imagine what she must have thought, seeing such a grotesque thing on the side of the road, such an obscene reminder of death.  He pictures her hands tightening around the urn, a gesture of intensified clinging.  She needed something that would encourage her to let go.  Even someone as bumbling as him, someone who doesn’t have sense enough to not stare at a pair of tits, knows that.  A gesture of release.

            Now he can’t stop thinking of her.  Not just her mourning, but the sexual thing, too.  Surely, she felt his erection.  She tightened her embrace because she felt it.  He thinks of the white curve of her bosom, the glimpse of her bra.

            Gravel crumbles as he pulls off the road.    The car behind him honks, but he pays it no attention as he unbuckles his jeans and lowers his jeans and underwear.  Remaining behind the wheel, he jerks off, thinking of Claire and the bra barely concealing that white flesh.  It takes him only seconds to finish, and when he does, he wipes the mess off on his jeans and the seat, wishing he said something sanitary to wipe with.  He feels disgusted with himself.  Through his open window, the breeze rises, as if ceremonially acknowledging his completion.

            Ahead he can see the lighthouse remains, maybe half a mile away. 

            He needs a walk.  Some water to cleanse himself, water to clean off the shame of his ejaculation.  His legs feel shaky as he leaves the rig parked there, and once he eyes a path in the brush, he sets off in the direction of the water where he knows that little boy’s ashes may have settled not so long ago.  He can make amends that way, a lie that reassures him somewhat.

            Before long, he finds himself at the water’s edge.  What would it feel like to just scatter parts of himself across its surface, never to be reconstituted, the currents drifting the ashes further and further away?

            A growl diverts his attention.

            Looking over his shoulder, he sees it.

            A coyote.

            Its eyes appear white as the seed he just spilled, its emaciated body showing ribs.  He wonders if the thing is blind, that maybe it can’t see him through a fog of cataracts.  Pity for the thing surges through him—for just a moment though, because the thing growls again.  Then, as if summoned, two more just like it appear from the tree-line and add their own growls to what has become an unnerving chorus.

            The trucker knows he should run, but the coyotes block the path back to the rig.

            He must run in another direction.  He chooses the way toward the remains of the lighthouse, hoping that it will offer a harbor of safety.

            As he runs, he ponders the absurdity of his situation.  These creatures, he knows, should exhibit a shy deference to people.  They don’t even belong in this fucking state, but natural migration, climate change, he sure as fuck doesn’t know, has resulted in a growing population in recent years.  He assumed they scavenged for food and certainly did not hunt human beings.  And they shouldn’t look like this, he realizes with quick glances over his shoulder, hobbling on bony legs, perhaps the reason he has managed to stay ahead of them.  On one, he swears, he can see the white suggestion of exposed bone. 

            Whether he can make it to the lighthouse without them overtaking him, he can’t say.  Already a sluggish runner, he feels himself tiring, weighted down by the bulge of flab he has neglected for years.  The protrusion of light house gets closer, so he clings to what little hope remains.  As he nears, he passes over something strange, a soot-colored circle of sand, the remains of a bonfire perhaps.  Blackened bark and what looks like drift-wood sticks up out of the sand.  One bears a disconcerting nob on one end.  It looks like a human femur.  His breath catches.  The likelihood of a heart attack looms.

            Despite the hindrance of his flab, the animals gain little ground on him.  It becomes tempting to think that they never intended to catch him at all, but rather that they simply wanted to protect their territory.  As he nears the lighthouse, he feels ashamed of himself for being frightened so easily.  Still, as much as he gasps and wheezes, he can’t bring his legs to a full-stop, not until he gets inside—the entrance, thank god, just a yawning aperture with no sign of ever having contained a door of any kind. 

            Before him, an iron stairway spirals to an open sky.  Doubled over, his hands on his knees, he gazes up to the broken, hollow tip.  Grasping the railing, he begins the climb, knowing that only up top can he find true safety.

            He would never make it to the top of an undamaged lighthouse.  As he climbs, he passes crude graffiti, much of it consisting of crudely drawn figures engaged in obscene acts, some even involving bestiality.  But these don’t disturb them as much as the series of X’s that appear with every few steps, crude chalked figures attached to the inscriptions, like the coyotes nailed to the crosses.  They make him think of the memento mori he passed earlier, and his uneasiness grows.  Whatever the case, he senses a forbidden meaning, one suggesting a resurrection of some sort.  Not that he could claim to be a religious man, he doesn’t know what sort of religion they could possibly represent.

            He reaches the highest point, the remaining lip of the lighthouse just high enough for him to peer over and see the ground below.  There, the coyotes amble around, sniffing, his perspective rendering them into broken ants.  They circle the burned circle he ran through moments ago, but they do not enter it, nor do they come close to the lighthouse.

            He waits, watching the sun fall further in the sky, until the Gulf begins to swallow it, squeezing from it colors of orange and streaking purple.  Eventually, the coyotes limp back into the trees, and only then does he descend the stairs.

#

            Instead of going back to his rig, the trucker, in his weariness, walks up Lost Beach Road, thinking he might get lucky and find the Trading Post he’s observed on past trips.    If that luck holds out, he’ll find a cold root beer waiting for him along with someone who might offer him a ride back to his truck.

            Headlights coming from the opposite direction brighten his hopes.  He waves and thanks the lord when the car slows down and finally stops in front of him.

            As he walks closer, he can see that the car looks familiar while the driver does not.

            The driver looks like a lot of people in this strange area—hollowed out eyes and gray, almost white skin.  When he offers him the passenger seat, Arch hesitates.  The car strongly resembles the one he saw the bereaved couple driving days ago.  He has enough experience on the road to recognize the hatchback’s make as commonplace, and he knows that more than one car on the road has that sun-beaten moss color.  Still, the coincidence unsettles him, and he has to think about it before he accepts the driver’s offer and heads around to the passenger side to let himself in.

            Not a problem at all, the driver answers his mumbled thanks.

            The driver continues in the direction away from the Trading Post, back to the place from which Arch started his walk.

            I hate to complain about the kindness of a stranger, Arch says, explaining his dilemma.

            The driver assures him that it won’t be anything but a short errand, then he’ll turn around and go in the other direction.

            See the moon? says the driver.

             Just above the horizon it has risen, full and bursting with light.

            The driver says, It’s a blood moon.  In profile, the man’s cheek looks sunken, the bones of his face resembling a hawk in flight.

            Arch asks about the errand.

            Without looking, the car’s driver gestures with his head toward the back seat.

            Arch looks and freezes.

            He sees the urn.

            The same urn held by Claire.

            The driver says, I’m sure that it’ll strike you as a little morbid, but I need to scatter some ashes.

            Arch cannot remove his eyes from the urn.  The name comes out of his mouth before he can stop himself.

            Jared.

            Hearing the name spoken, the driver looks at him curiously.  Maybe a bit suspiciously, too.

            He says, That’s my name.  Don’t recall mentioning it.

            They look at each other.  Long Beach Road rolls on beneath the tires.  The car, during this moment, seems almost driverless. 

            Arch wants this moment to end quickly.  He asks, Whose ashes are those?

            Jared answers quietly, almost a whisper.

            My parents. 

            Arch looks again at the urn in the backseat.  He notices two X’s scratched near the bottom.  It seems like he should know what these mean.  But he doesn’t.

            Jared says, Tonight’s the night they to be scattered.  Up here’s a good beach to do it.  Nobody comes here, but you probably already know that.

            I do.

            It’s lucky I came across you.  Coyotes are bad here.

            I know that.

            I suspect you do.

            They park near a gap in the trees and a sparse patch of sea oats.  Jared gets out, opens the back door, picks up the urn carefully.  More slowly, Arch gets out too and stays on his side of the car.  The moon sheds light down on the turret of the broken lighthouse.

            This way, Jared says, and he starts over the sane, not looking behind him to see if the truck driver follows.  But he does follow.  He does so in spite of his fear, because he needs to see what will happen now.  He maintains distance as Jared walks into the wet sand near the breaking waves.  Jared looks back at him over his shoulder.

            I wouldn’t walk over there.  Jared indicates the burned circle.  Lots of glass and shit from the locals.  They’re not a careful bunch.  All that debris will cut through your shoes.  Don’t even go near it.

            Arch obeys and stays outside of the circle, which seems to glow with moonlight as Jared opens the urn.  He reaches inside and takes a heap of ash in his hand.  Then he extends his arm and lets the breeze take it.  That breeze grows into a steady wind as he takes another handful and does it again.  Some of the ashes go in the water.  Some of them ride the wind all the way back to where Arch stands.  He feels particles of ash strike his face and arms.  By the third and fourth handfuls of ash, the wind blows in gusts strong enough that even more ash strikes his body.  He feels them coating his body.  These people I met just a few days ago, thinks Arch, are sticking to my face, my skin, my clothes. It doesn’t seem to matter to Jared whether or not they go in the water.  He doesn’t seem to care where they go.  He just needs to empty the urn, thinks Arch.

            You see any coyotes? Jared asks the question without turning around.       

            Arch checks the line of trees hiding the road.  He looks for white eyes.  Something gleams there, he doesn’t know what.  Maybe those are eyes.

            I don’t see anything.  I don’t think.

            When he turns back around, he sees that Jared has finished scattering ashes.  Without no visible sign of movement, Jared has managed to move closer and now faces him.  They regard each other for a few ticks before Jared speaks.

            My parents would be honored to know you shared this moment with them.

            Arch nods, but his voice still cracks.  I’m happy to do whatever I can for them.

            In the moonlight, Jared steps closer.  His eyes appear whitish and a badly healed scar mars his forehead, the sign of some long ago blunt force trauma.  Jared says, I didn’t get a good look at you before.  You a colored man?

            Arch starts to say something.  Instead, he licks his lips and shakes his head.  He tastes the ashes of Jared’s parents.

            No matter.  I’ll still give you a ride.  

Speaking these words, Jared begins the walk toward the waiting vehicle.  Arch follows.

#

We’ve met before, haven’t we?

The drive back to his rig seems to take an eternity, and when he hears this question, Arch shifts in his seat and looks out the passenger window.

I know it’s down here, Arch says.  We couldn’t have passed it, not going this slow.

Jared nods.  It’s down here.  Just a little further.

Arch has his doubts.  In the moonlight he sees one of the iron sideways crosses pass them by.  It stands bare now, just an X.  No dead coyote.  Maybe this one is a different one, Arch thinks.  Maybe someone took it the animal.  Maybe buzzards ate it.

I’m sure we’ve met before, says Jared.  We have an undeniable bond, you and me.  And I owe you a lot, doing what you did.  You know, standing out there while I let those human remains go flying off into the wind.  And hey, you still got some on you.

His left hand still on the wheel, Jared reaches out with his right and presses his index finger into Arch’s cheek.  He holds it there, pushing it hard, as if intending to break through the skin and come out the other side, inside Arch’s mouth.  But finally, he releases the pressure and removes his finger.  He holds it out to show Arch the ash-black tip, and then it puts it in his mouth.  Arch watches as Jared licks the finger clean.

Nothing’s ever truly gone.  See?  Here’s your rig.

Yes, finally, Arch can see it in the headlights.

           Nothing’s ever truly gone, he says again, pulling off the side the road.  You know, you should’ve gotten into the water when we were down there by the beach.  Clean off all that ash.  Of course, you could just rub it just like I did with that spot on your cheek, but if you do, you’ll look like a colored man.  You’ll get lots of funny looks around here if you go and do that.  Fact is, someone might shoot you.  If you walked into Trading Post up ahead like that, that’s just what they’d do, shoot you dead, because you’d give them such a fright. Then they’ll cut off your head and mount it on the wall, such a marvel you’d be to them.  Lots of fellows practice taxidermy around here in their free time.  Most of them love it so much they do it for free, won’t even take as much a nickel in exchange.  Good work, they do, too.  You been up in that lighthouse? 

            Arch lies and says he has not.  To admit he has would mean inviting knowledge he would rather avoid.  And even though he has answered in the negative, the boy goes on as if he has said the opposite.

            Then you saw the X’s on the walls.  All those marks where mounted heads once were.  They went all the way up to the very top, just winding their way along the walls, going up and up til they reached the very top.  The day that storm came and blew half it down, it left behind a flood, and everywhere you looked heads were floating.  No small job collecting all of them—the ones that didn’t wash out into the gulf, that is.

            Arch recalls seeing X marks on the urn.  He wants to turn his head and look on the backseat, where the empty urn now rests.  If he looks, he may or may not see them.  He can’t say for sure which possibility he dreads most.  To look in the direction of the backseat would mean looking away from the boy’s steady gaze, and he will not risk that.  He also does not want to risk seeing something else in the backseat.  Two heads, for instance.

            You go ahead and get on out now, says the boy.  I think you ought not stop here in the future.  Not without checking the lighthouse first.  If you keep driving past here and you look up one time and see a light coming from the top of that, shining out over the water, you’ll know that I did what I always wanted to—restore that big boy to its old glory and let its light shine out on the water and on everything that surrounds us.  When you see that light, you pull over right here where you are now, get out, and come meet me again.  That light’s supposed to bring people coming.  Right out of the Gulf if need be.  What else would it be for?

            Arch says he’ll keep watch for it, even though he knows he will never drive near Lost Beach Road again.  He gets out of the car, about to close the door behind him when the boy reaches over the seat and blocks him.  His unblinking white eyes look serious.  He says, The coyotes ought to be long gone by then.  You won’t see them anymore.

            Arch nods and tries to close the door, not caring about Jared’s arm in the way.  But that arm remains rigid because Jared has one more thing to say.

            Or maybe you will.  Because like I said before, nothing’s ever truly gone.            

Then he removes his arm, and the door closes.


Douglas Ford’s fiction has appeared in Dark Moon DigestDiabolical PlotsTales to Terrify, along with several other small press publications. Recent work has appeared in The Best Hardcore Horror, Volumes Three and Four, and a novella, The Reattachment, appeared in 2019 courtesy of Madness Heart Press.  Other recent publications include a collection of short fiction from Madness Heart Press and a novel set to appear from D&T Publishing.


“The Last Taste of Whiskey” Fiction by Shane Huey

Springfields still echoed somewhere off in the growing distance as night fell. He awoke, engulfed in dark and smoke. With great difficulty, he drew for breath and it pained him. He pulled himself up against a lone, tall pine at field’s edge and, back against the tree, put his fingers to the holes in his chest left there by the Minié balls. He coughed a choking cough. Bright, red blood streamed from the corners of his mouth and the holes in his old, grey coat leaked froth.

Surveying the aftermath of the battle, he could recognize nothing resembling human life remaining. Here he sat, by all appearances, the lone survivor. The blue coats must have mistaken him for dead, an honest mistake, else he would himself now be dead. No matter, death would come soon enough. There was no field surgeon now and nothing that a good doctor could do for such wounds save numb sensation of body and mind with what barely passed for whiskey and, if so inclined, as oft good souls were, provide some company until the end.

The soldier’s soul had been numbed long ago by pain of loss of country, his ancestral land, his family. Innumerable deaths were witnessed and replayed over and over in his mind. Once a devout man, he no longer feigned such, daring to declare that God himself had abandoned the South along with all the faithful therein.

Between fits of coughing and the adamantine pangs of death, he reached into a coat pocket fiddling for his flask. It was not to be found. After battles, mostly victories, those now fewer and farther between, General would ration out whiskey to the men and celebrate with them. Occasionally, the whiskey would be a balm for mourning after a defeat. There would be neither such this evening. All of the men, even the good general, lay before him carpeting the battlefield a dead grey.

What I would not give for one last taste of whiskey. It is funny what men think of generally but, perhaps, more so when upon death’s doorstep. And then his mind turned toward his wife, Sarah. This time of an evening, she would have finished up supper, said prayers with the children, and soon be tucking them into bed. He could not know that Sarah rarely slept these nights but, rather, spent them in a rocking chair in front of their bedroom window, curtains drawn, keeping watch over the path in the front yard for his return. Everyone knew that the war was drawing to a close and Sarah never lost faith that he would one day return to her.

From another pocket, he took hold of his journal. He took pen to hand and, within its pages, described this, his last battle, under the entry “The Battle of Sulphur Creek Trestle.” He described the events of the day, as best he could, how the valiant men all lay dead, how hope was now all but lost for his countrymen, and then his mind wandered back to his home and to Sarah and the children. He lay there dying, a mere seven-mile ride by horse from his home in Athens. If only he could make it home to say his final goodbye. He would have to write it and hope that the words found their way to Sarah.   

Sarah awakened in the middle of the night. She had dreamt that her husband lay dying in a silent field, propped up against a long, tall pine, body riddled with bullets. He lacked all comfort save those to which he could recourse in his own mind. A man ought not die like that, especially a good man. How she longed to embrace and hold him, to comfort him in all the ways a woman can comfort a man. To wipe his face with a water-soaked rag…to put a swig of good whiskey to his lips. The dream was more vivid than the present dim and dull reality. She had seen him writing in his old, dirty, now heavily bloodstained leather journal and read every word until the end, feeling as having been there with him through it all and with him still at the very last. But she could not decipher that which he wrote finally—a single line of script. Try though as she may, she was wisped away from the dream to reality against her will, filled with the anxiety that only words unspoken, those impeded by the encroachment of death, can impart.

She sprang up, drenched in cold sweat, feet to the hardwood floor of the old, two-story antebellum which creaked as her weight displaced upon it. She made her way to the antique, oak armoire and retrieved a dusty, crystal decanter and poured herself a glass of whiskey. It was still stiff and hot. She poured another, drinking it swiftly, as medicine for nerves burned frazzled.

On edge, senses heightened from the dream, to which she was still trying to reenter, she heard a rustling noise outside. Someone was on the front porch and, at this hour, this could not bode well. From a drawer within the armoire, she carefully removed her husband’s Griswold & Gunnison .36 caliber six-shooter sliding it from its well-worn, leather holster. She crept down the stairs, walking to the edge to avoid alerting any intruder to her awareness of the situation. She was ready to kill a Yankee if she had to, or one of those bastards who refused to fight with the real men, and even boys, of the South.   

She took her French chemise gown in left hand and pulled it up as she glided silently toward the front door, black powder firearm in the right. A lone candle on the mantle cast just enough light. Back to the wall, she could clearly discern the shuffling of feet and heard the wooden planks of the porch creak. It was almost as if something were being dragged across it. Sarah inhaled a silent, but deep breath, slowly turned the key in the cast iron passage lock praying for no “click” or “clank.” She swung the door open and pulled back on the hammer, cocking the pistol and found herself pointing it toward a specter of a figure standing shadowlike in the inky darkness of the night. 

Sarah was terrified but she would not show it. “State your business stranger and make it quick! We are quick on the trigger in these parts!”

He stood there in the darkness, silent. Or at least she thought it to be silence but then, at once, she could discern that the stranger was, in fact, speaking, rather trying to speak but so softly as to barely be audible over the cool, southern wind rusting through the magnolias.

The man stumbled forward and it was enough that the candlelight illuminated his face. It was her husband. Before she could say his name, he fell toward her and as he fell, she quickly dropped the gun, catching him, falling to the floor alongside him. A hard breeze blew past them, the candle flickered, their eyes met glistening in the dim light accented by tears as precious as diamonds.  

She held him. She said his name over and over. She cried. She placed her hands upon his now gaunt, ashy, and bloodstained cheeks, fixing her eyes upon his, then closing them, and pressed her lips gently against his, red and salty from the tint of blood. She tasted death. He tasted whiskey. And then he passed from this life to the next, steadfast in her arms.

The sun was soon up and shining morning’s first light in through the doorway. Sarah, lay there, still, having never let him go all the while weeping inconsolably through the final hours of night.

It was by light of dawn that Sarah noticed the tattered journal protruding from underneath the flap of a coat pocket. She took it carefully to hand and turned through the stained pages and read, best she could, through a veil of saline. Remembering her dream, she turned to the last entry and read of the efforts of the valiant men in the battle for the trestle, moreover their homeland, and the subsequent tragedy of their demise. She had, indeed, seen from within her dream, or so it seemed to her, her husband write these very words. She read further…fond recollections of herself and of their children. And then, finally, she came to that last line penned by her husband within his journal on that fateful night…those words that she had tried so very hard to read in the dream before she was so abruptly divorced from that place and returned to the cold reality of her present life. It read, “Sarah, wake up.”


 Shane Huey lives in sunny South Florida with his wife and son from whence he enjoys telling honest lies with prose and penning the occasional haiku. His works have appeared in Black Poppy Review, The Chamber MagazineRaven Cage Zine, and Purple Wall Stories. Learn more at www.shanehuey.net.


“Tic-Fucking-Toc” by George Gad Economou

It was one of those perfectly silent nights; except for the strong breeze and the deluge hitting like a bulletstorm the half-open window, nothing disturbed the peace of a dawning Sunday. George had his feet on the desk, puffing on a rolled-up cigarette and sipping rotgut.

A distant clock broke the graveyard silence. He sat up, straightened his back, and peered about with bulged eyes and a fluttering heart. There were no working clocks in the apartment; the one sitting on a bookcase had run out of batteries years ago. Yet, the tick-tock reverberated demandingly within the confines of the four deaf walls. He swigged down more bourbon and refilled the lowball; the bottle was getting dangerously empty.

Tick-Tock.

He cast a sidelong glare at the closet; apart from the black-and-white pictures of heroes past that hung there, his reflection in the mirror stared back at him judgmentally and vengefully. On the coffee table, according to the mirror, stood a dirty old glass pipe. He licked his lips and spun around on the desk chair. Nothing there.

On the coffee table stood only an old candle (that had been lit twice in order to impress former one-night flings) and a collection of Poe’s works and Fante’s short story collection Big Hunger. He glanced back at the mirror; the glass pipe was right there, between the books.

Tick-Tock.

Death in the Afternoon fell off the stacked bookshelves. He started, and every single hair on his body stood in attention. A violent gush flung the window wide open and the relentless, freezing wind swept clean the desk of all the empty tobacco pouches, the broken lighters, and the yellow papers forgotten there for months, if not years. With the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of the reflection in the mirror that showed a different reality: there was no wind, the coffee table was hidden under several unsteady towers of books, and a small chunk of junk sat atop a copy of Wild Boys. And on the couch, she sat.

In spite of the violent wind, he sat petrified and breathless, ignoring the chill creeping into his bones and the rain washing down on his desk and computer screen. In the mirror, Emily sat on the couch—alive and laughing—and he sat next to her holding her hand and caressing her cheek while she rested her head on his shoulder. His neck produced a crack when he turned around; the blue foldout couch was empty. His gaze returned to the mirror; it reflected the harsh, lonely reality.

Ηε shut the window and threw himself back on the chair without picking up the trash scattered all over the floor. Tick-Tock; the same damn clock said once more from somewhere afar—yet so near—and cold sweat streamed down his neck. The copy of Death in the Afternoon lay on the floor; its cover emanated her soft, warm glance and he felt her phantom touch. Yet another ghost from some long-forgotten time; Tick-Tock, and there was nowhere from whence the sound could come. Only from behind the mirror; huffing and puffing, he opened the closet and dug into the piles of wrinkled underwear, socks, and clothes. Nothing there; no watch, clock, nor any other sound-producing mechanism had sneaked its way amid the clothes. He leaned back on the chair, fired up a cigarette, and had a good swallow of rotgut.

He observed his reflection on the mirror mimicking his every move, puffing on the cigarette exactly as he did. He averted his gaze, physically unable to stare at his own self for more than a few seconds.

Tick-Tock.

Again, and again; the sound’s frequency and volume continued to increase. Something was approaching. The storm intensified, the heavy rainfall and wind threatened to shatter the window. The toilet was flushed. He leaped off the chair, toppling it over. He stood there petrified, waiting for the bathroom door to open with his fists clenched. Nothing happened. He sank the remaining bourbon and tiptoed to the bathroom; no light was coming from behind the door and the narrow kitchen appeared undisturbed. He pushed the doorknob down, his heart taking permanent residence in his mouth.

Tick-Tock and he let go of the knob, leaping backward.

He opened the kitchen drawer and grabbed a hammer he had never used; with the lit cigarette dangling from his lips—the rising smoke tickling his nostrils—he kicked the bathroom door open, holding the hammer over his head. The room was empty.

He yanked the shower curtain aside, peeked behind the door; there was nothing. He turned on the light and buried his face under the tap. He lifted his head and his eyes met the small mirror. He wasn’t there. Instead, he was sitting on the toilet seat, a rubber band girdled around his upper arm. He still had a full head of long hair; the first signs of baldness had not yet made their atrocious appearance. With his heart drumming behind his ear he watched himself burning some junk in a Coke bottle cap, then shooting it. He began nodding in and out of consciousness and a grin illumined his face; an unadulterated joy he had forgotten glimmered in his eyes. “Are you alright in there?” Christine’s voice blared into the apartment. “Yes,” his own rusty voice came from within the mirror, “almost done.”

Tick-Tock; loud, emphatic, demanding. Whatever the clock signaled for, it was approaching.

He stepped out of the bathroom and turned the light off. The mirror showed himself backing away petrified, befuddled, and pale like a ghost. He almost jumped off his skin, when a thunder quaked the apartment. He leaned against the kitchen counter holding his heaving chest. He wiped the sweat off his forehead with his forearm, then encountered a brief vision of himself standing by the open front door during cold winter nights and hastily smoking a cigarette before returning to some cold embrace.

After a couple of minutes of catching his breath and mentally reassuring himself he was hallucinating, he returned to the main room. Everything appeared quiet and normal. He picked up Death in the Afternoon and stared at its cover as he poured more rotgut in his lowball.

With a cigarette in his lips, he caressed the book and traveled back to that sunny, comfortably warm spring afternoon he sat next to Christine on the bus and commented on her reading Hem. It didn’t take him long to let everything go to Hell and effectively shove her away from his life, for good. He continued to stare at the book through watery vision and could only recall the good times of the happy few months that taught him there was a way out of permanent midnight.

Tick-Tock; he dropped the book and the cigarette trembled in his lips.

Another thunder blared and for a brief second the lightning illumined the room and more than a hundred ghosts stood there, judging him, criticizing him, plotting against him. According to the mirror, he was on the couch and a tall, slim blonde was sitting next to him.

She climbed on his lap, kicking an almost full bottle of expensive wine off the coffee table. He could not remember her name, but he recalled that night: they had gotten high on ice and had sex against the closet, which had resulted in her head causing the first hole on the thin wooden door, which was now concealed under a black-and-white photograph of Fitzgerald. Abruptly, the woman faced the mirror. He met the reflection of the younger version of his face hidden behind a long, thick beard and long, dense hair.

How long ago was it?—he managed to ask before realizing the reflections were staring not at the mirror (that was there at the time) but at him. The chair rolled backward, landing on the couch. He gaped at the smiling reflections of a past long gone. His own self waved, then guffawed. The woman blew him a kiss. His heart pounded against his ribs. His reflection leaned forth and grabbed the glass pipe (the same one he still possessed, now hidden under clean towels in the bottom shelf of the closet).

Tick-Tock; another lightning bathed the apartment momentarily with its bright, heaven-esque light. Then, everything reverted to normal. The mirror showed him sitting on his chair, sporting a look of sheer terror. He rubbed his eyebrows, rolled the chair back to the desk, and had a good swallow of bourbon.

Warmth overwhelmed his intestines, his mind grew slightly numb, and he felt a tad more relaxed.

Will it last? Is it over?—he wondered, then lit the cigarette that had fallen on his lap. The first plume of blue smoke rose in front of his face and within it, he encountered countless smiles and glances that once upon a long time ago had been part of his life, some for nine months and others for nine hours. He leaned back, dragging long puffs and taking big sips, heading straight to blackout island. Tick-Tock; the two bookcases in the corner shook. It could not be an earthquake; only the bookcases trembled and, besides, he did not live in a seismogenic area.

Rationality flew out of the window the moment he felt a gentle, yet stern, touch on his shoulder. He did catch a glimpse of the soft fingers before turning his head. Christine’s hand protruded from within the mirror, as she stood right in front of him—albeit behind the glass—with a wide grin emitting comfort and warmth.

She let go of his shoulder, yet her hand—still wearing the armband he had bought for her once upon a time during a walk—remained in front of him in what he called reality. He could not touch it; he reluctantly raised his arm, wiped his palm on his stained and burned t-shirt a couple of times. He did not dare touch her. Her smile began twitching downward until it turned into a lower.

Tick-Tock.

She dissipated into thin air; the mirror once more reflected the cruel reality. The bookcases stood still; only a handful of books had fallen. He scratched his head as he observed them, and every title he read brought a new shiver down his spine.

The Great Gatsby, a copy of which he had given as a present to someone whom he once thought important but had turned out to be nothing more than a far too prolonged one-night stand; he stared at the copy he had bought to fill the hole in the bookcase. Ask the Dust, which he had encouraged an old fling to read while he spent a restless Sunday morning cooking the five grams of ice for which she had begged him. Love is a Dog from Hell, many of which poems he had read to various women that had visited his apartment over the years. Catch-22, a conversation about which had led to a heated autumn week spent in bed with someone whose face he could hardly remember. The Divine Comedy, about which he had often joked with Emily, once calling her his Infernal Beatrice.

He choked down more rotgut, unwilling to go near the books, let alone pick them up. He dragged a long puff and glanced back at the rain and the flooded street. He drank, wondering if hooch can cause hallucinations; especially after Christine reached out through the mirror for him. He poured more rotgut down his quivering liver, hoping the haziness would make it easier to dismiss the whole ordeal as a dream.

Tick-Tock.

The alarm clock on the smaller bookcase to his left came back to life; even though it did not have batteries in. It was moving too fast—backward—covering days in matters of seconds. The watch rang and would not be turned off. The switch was not working. The alarm was loud, demanding attention. It would not be switched off, it would not be ignored.

In desperation, he hurled it at the wall; several pieces rained down on the blanket on the couch and the ringing finally ceased. His lips quavered under the heavy sigh that escaped them and he swigged more bourbon; Christine appeared in the mirror. She was wailing while dialing a number on her phone, with tears welling down her eyes. “Don’t,” came his hoarse voice from the bed; he knew which day it was.

She had found him on the bed with the spike in his arm. She dashed to the bed, disappearing from the mirror and his sight; he could still hear her muffled sobs. He even felt her wet kisses on his cheeks—he felt their warmth, the love they contained. Tick-Tock; he reached for the mirror wishing to touch her one last time. Nothing but cold glass under his fingertips.

Tick-Tock; Emily sat on the couch, reading Kerouac. Her shoulder-long blonde hair glistened under the sunlight, the bangs covering her forehead and brushing against her thin eyebrows waved from the air. “This is far better than the other one,” she said. He stepped into the picture; barely twenty years old. He set two mugs of steaming coffee on the table and flung himself on the couch. “No doubt,” he smiled and she pressed her lips on his.

A tremendous weight crushed his chest; he wished to reach for Emily, to feel her soft touch once more. He didn’t dare to stir. She was not alive—all that she was and all that she could have been had been buried several years ago in an unmarked grave on a rainy autumn Sunday morning. She was gone; and yet, there she was in the mirror kissing passionately his younger self.

Tick-Tock; the clock refused to die. It grew more emphatic with every passing minute, more threatening. Whatever it signaled for, it was near. Almost there.

He buried his face in his palms and screamed. The mirror showed nothing but the accurate soulless reflection of his dead apartment. And yet, for a glorious moment, it had felt as if she had come back to life; perhaps, she was still alive in some other magical realm he had been given one chance to reach and had wasted it.

He wiped the tears away and entered a staring contest with his reflection, observing the bloodshot eyes, the unkempt beard, the unwashed and still long hair thinning dangerously on the top. He offered a faint, semi-honest smile to himself, then rolled and lit another cigarette.

The bottle was getting empty fast and it was his last one. It was too late in the night, there were no open drugstores or liquor stores in the vicinity. He drank long, realizing he was heading for a long, dry morning. At the moment, with one more lowball still left in the bottle, he didn’t care. He puffed on his cigarette; TICK-TOCK.

Too loud, almost as if the clock was inside his head. He choked on the smoke gliding down his throat; he gagged and burst into a coughing fit. He was sitting on the couch, swigging bourbon straight from the bottle and puffing on a long, fat joint. “Still awake?” Christine’s voice came from the kitchen, as she took her shoes off. He couldn’t see her but he knew. He had seen her back when the scene had taken place. “I lost track of time. Don’t worry; it’s the last match of the card.” “How much did you drink?” she shrieked when she stepped inside the room; three empty bourbon bottles lay on the coffee table. “Not much,” he shrugged and bit the corner of his lips in an atrocious smirk. “You’re smoking pot, aren’t you?” “Needed something to take the edge off,” he stated. “Why are you doing this?” she sat next to him and threw her arm around his shoulder. She blew a faint kiss on his cheek, he didn’t even flinch. “It won’t take long; half an hour, probably. It’s the main event, the show’s almost over.” “Fine,” she sighed and shook her head, “you mind if I watch it with you?” “Of course, feel free. Want a sip?” he offered her the bottle, she declined sternly both the bourbon and the blunt. “How was your night?” he asked in a cold, robotic voice, his eyes fixated on the television screen. “It was fun; we had a couple of beers, talked. You know how it is, going out with friends you haven’t seen for quite a while.” “Yeah, I know,” he nodded, having hardly listened to a word she said. “So, you sat here watching wrestling all day?” “Pretty much. I tried to write, but there was nothing. So, I just drank some and watched a show. Then, another one. And so on. Till you came.” “Sounds exciting and productive,” she rolled her eyes. “It helps with taking my mind off of things, so, that’s good.” “Haven’t you had enough to drink?” “No, I’m good.”

Tick-Tock.

Why was I such an asshole?—he rubbed his closed eyelids when the scene ended and reality reappeared in the mirror. A lighter flickered in the kitchen, for a brief second the sparkle illumined the room. He peered at the door connecting the two rooms and saw nothing.

Only a faint cloud of blue smoke; he lunged to the kitchen. Nothing. He turned on the light; still nothing. Only some ash in the sink; he ran his fingers through his hair, the scent of lingering smoke crawling into his nostrils.

Tick-Tock.

He turned off the light and embraced the absolute darkness of the stormy night. He returned to the living room and poured the last glass. Yet another empty bottle; another addition to the sea of broken glass, of false promises, of burned down dreams.

He picked up the half-smoked cigarette from the ashtray and lit it; according to the mirror, he was not alone. He was sitting cross-legged on the chair, hunching over toward the couch. He was holding hands with Bircan, whose eyes were covered under a film of glistening tears. “It’s beautiful to dream of, but,” she said and his heart sank because it did back then. “Damn it, don’t fall for her lies, you moron,” he bellowed. Both he and Bircan froze and peered at the mirror with arched eyebrows.

What the hell, he gulped the lump in his throat down and sat frozen like a statue on the chair, gawking at his reflection approaching the mirror. His eyes were bloodshot and exhausted; “can you hear me?” he whispered to his reflection. There was no immediate response. Only a tilting of the head and a film of perplexion in the eyes.

His reflection touched the mirror and felt nothing but glass. George clambered up to his feet and extended his shaking arm toward the mirror. With only his index finger, he reached for the reflection’s hand; he touched skin. Instantly, they both leaped back. “What’s going on?” Bircan asked from within the mirror. “Nothing,” mirror-George shuddered, still glaring at the mirror.

Tick-Tock; the merciless phantom clock stated, yearning for attention. And the scene disappeared. He had a gulp of bourbon. It was the middle of the night, too long until the stores opened. He poured water in his lowball, extending the rotgut’s life for a short while by weakening it.

Tick-Tock; he had a small sip and recalled the nine months he wasted with Bircan, falsely believing he felt something for her instead of realizing she was just a cheap replacement for Emily and Christine.

And it all began with that phrase, “beautiful to think of,” which had led to their first kiss that was supposed to be their only, and, instead, turned into a nine-month fairytale that never should have been.

He fired another cigarette up—she had been the one that often sent him to the kitchen to smoke, especially after she broke up with her boyfriend for his sake—and inside the sheath of blue smoke, he encountered a pair of bright, green eyes staring back at him. His chest heaved, his heart squirmed, and he sank the watered-down bourbon.

The glass was almost empty and his heart sank deeper into the abyss of despair. How could he sleep without enough alcohol in his bloodstream? He dragged long from his cigarette, trying to postpone his worry for after the glass was completely dry. He slapped his hand away from the glass.

Tick-Tock; again, even louder, even more ominous. The moment was almost there; whatever it was, it was too close.

George opened the closet and fished out the glass pipe from under the towels; it was dirty, it contained the taste of a thousand lips and the scent of countless pieces of ice and rock. He held it between his fingers and brought it up to his eyes. An artifact from a previous existence, a memento of simpler, in some ways, times. With a sigh, he put it on the coffee table.

Tick-Tock; almost there, he thought he heard a voice announcing. Perhaps, it was his own mind.

He choked down the remaining bourbon when Emily and he appeared in the mirror, sitting next to each other on the blue foldout couch, which, through the years, had grown more stained and worn out by usage and countless pieces of rock, ice, and junk smoked and injected on it. They both looked horrible; his eyes were bloodshot, his body appeared weak. Emily was pale and had cried herself dry of tears.

Tick-Tock; what’s the point? the moments never change, the past remains. Tick-Tock; a warning, a chance? or just a game?

He was an idle, and helpless, spectator of the moment that had plagued his mind for years. His reflection placed a chunk of junk on a spoon and heated it up. Emily was the first to go for the needle; she drew the melting junk into the syringe. “NO!” He bawled; for a moment the reflections froze and peered about. Unfazed, Emily rolled up her sleeve and found a vein.

“Stop her, you bastard!” He bawled. “Call for an ambulance!” He pleaded with his younger self. All his reflection cared for was the spike. He filled it up and the needle penetrated the exposed vein. They were both knocked out, trotting around in flaming meadows and chasing mocking dragons. Perhaps, it was only he that did that.

Emily was gone. Overdose.

He burst into painful tears; he reached for the mirror. Tick-Tock. “Do something, you useless junkie! It’s not fair, damn it, it’s not fair!” He rested his forehead on the mirror, algid glass against flushed skin. Tick-Tock. “Shut up!” He yowled at the invisible clock. “Shut up! What do you want, damn it? What is it?” He demanded and graveyard silence was the only response he received.

His younger self and Emily still sat on the couch, both peacefully out of consciousness, both trying to erase the memory of the abortion and the harrowing thought of having murdered their unborn child because they knew they could not become parents to a poor baby that would be born addicted to junk and would carry their defective genes.

“She’s dead! Wake up, you useless piece of shit!” He screamed one last time. Nothing came of it. It was lights out for both of them.

Tick-Tock; “what do you want?” He demanded from the phantom clock. Tick-Tock; nearer, louder, more threatening with every passing second. “Screw you!” George headbutted the mirror. A crack appeared and blood entered his eyes. He wiped it away and sniffled.

Tick-Tock; “fuck you!” Another headbutt on the mirror; Tick-Tock. He clocked the glass and the mirror shattered. Emily’s reflection disappeared. He winced at the small pieces of glass protruding from his torn skin. It was all over. No more Tick-Tock; perfect silence. Even the raging storm was dying out.

He sat back down and tilted the empty glass in his mouth. He hurled it at the wall and a short-lived rainfall of glass fell over the couch. He picked up one of the bigger pieces from the shattered mirror and caught a final glimpse of Emily sitting on the couch, conquered by the spike.

His lips curled into a half-smile that illuminated his exhausted face, and he lit a new cigarette. Emily was gone; instead of a mirror, he saw his hanging shirts and it was perfectly alright.

Tick-Tock; distant, faint, barely audible. A bone-chilling shiver traversed his spine and crawled into his numb brain.


George Gad Economou holds a Master’s degree in Philosophy of Science and resides in Athens, Greece, doing freelance work whenever he can while searching for a new place to go. His novella, Letters to S., was published in Storylandia Issue 30 and his short stories and poems have appeared in literary magazines, such as Adelaide Literary Magazine and Modern Drunkard Magazine, and his first poetry collection, Bourbon Bottles and Broken Beds, is slated for publication in 2021 by Adelaide Books. 


“The Binding” Fiction by Alison Kaiser

Doug lay on a scrap of plywood between two joined retaining walls. Together, those walls encased a half-mile portion of median between the north and southbound lanes of Route 47. When he looked up, mostly all he could see was concrete. He couldn’t stand it anymore. He cupped his hands around his eyes and tilted them, so that all he could see was a slash of sky. “I hate it here,” he said, “Why doesn’t it ever get dark?”

Roxanne sat on a cinder block beside him and stared at a spread of tarot cards. “It does get dark, or I wouldn’t need this,” she said, adjusting her headlamp.

“But the sky. Look at it. It just looks orange,” he said.

Roxanne frowned at the cards.

“Rox?”

“What,” she said.

“Why’s it look like that?”

“It’s light pollution.”

“Seems like heavy pollution, if it could change the color of the sky.”

“Christ, Doug. Light pollution,” she said, stabbing a finger against her headlamp.

Doug didn’t think that sounded right at all. Toxins caused pollution, and garbage. He sat up and scanned the enclosure, which, despite the brightness of the sky, was blanketed in shadow. Only the white carcasses of crushed Styrofoam cups seemed recognizable in the darkness. “We should leave this camp, live in the woods,” he said.

“In the woods,” she said and scoffed.

“Yeah. I could take care of you in the woods. I’m serious, Rox. I’m as good with rope as you are with those cards. I could net fish, trap hare with it. Whatever we need.”

Roxanne lit a clove cigarette. “Yeah. You really are the salt of the earth, Doug,” she said through the smoke.

Doug looked up at her, searching her face for some clue as to what she’d meant. She was always saying things like that. Things he didn’t understand, and he wondered if she’d been making fun of him. He didn’t feel like he could blame Roxanne if resentment was edging out her warmer feelings toward him. He felt useless, and at moments like this, he felt sure that if she wasn’t terrified of leaving the enclosure, she would leave him. Even cast in the dim orange glow of the sky, under the white-yellow beam of her headlamp, Roxanne looked cool as stone. She wasn’t laughing.

“I’ve been providing just fine for both of us,” she said, gesturing toward the cards. She looked back at Doug and took another drag of her clove. She motioned to a notebook beside him, and he reached out to hand it to her. She lowered her gaze to the crease of his arm, and the beam of the lamp settled on a small constellation of fresh punctures. The flesh beneath them was scarred and bruised. She scoffed. “Live in the woods.” she said.

“But I could kick,” Doug said, “I’m really going to this time.”

Doug searched Roxanne’s face, hoping for some indication that she’d taken his words to heart this time, but her face was hard to read in the strange light. He thought he saw a flash of teeth. Maybe she smiled, he thought.

“You’re not going to,” she said.

“What does that mean? It’s like you’re telling me not to.”

“Don’t have to,” she said, “You’re predictable, Doug. It’s my favorite thing about you.” And when she smiled that time, Doug was certain that before, she hadn’t been smiling at all.

#

The following day, Doug had no trouble getting over the wall with his ropes. He began to unknot them the moment his boots hit the pavement on the other side. He knew if he didn’t, the fibers would weaken. As he zippered his backpack closed, something in his gut loosened and sank. The pull of the passing cars and trucks felt as though they might suck him away from the wall and into traffic. That, plus the climb, and the certainty of illness to come, left him giddy with nerves. He walked the narrow shoulder on wobbling legs and waited for his chance to cross.

He was already feeling ill when he arrived at Isobel’s Metaphysical. His entrance set off a string of bells above the door. As they tinkled, he scanned the room. It always reminded him of a headshop, or a pawn shop—filled with potions and mysterious antiques. It made him uneasy to be in such a place no matter how many times he’d been there. It always reminded him of his life before Roxanne.

Doug reached to grab a candle from a small display, but when he heard the bead curtain at the back of the room clack and rustle, his hand shot away from the candles, as if he’d meant to steal one. He turned toward the curtain and his face reddened when he realized Isobel had seen. He would never steal anything from her. He hadn’t stolen anything from anyone, since Roxanne had started helping him, but his past had marked him, like a brand. “I guess you startled me,” he said.

Isobel sashayed toward him, breasts spilling from her corseted tunic. Below the corset, soft flesh bulged against the gauze blouse. She smiled and gestured toward the rack of candles. She’d set her intention with the new moon and now, the moon was nearly full. She couldn’t take her eyes off of Doug in his tank top. She couldn’t help but feel the world was opening, allowing her a coy glance at the fruit she was soon to harvest. “Roxanne wants to bind someone,” she asked.

 “Buy someone?” Doug said.

“To bind someone,” she said, adding an extra syllable to help her catch the “d.”

 Doug rubbed the back of his neck, “What? No.”

Her belled sleeve grazed Doug’s arm as she reached over him. “You were looking at the spell candles,” she said. She rolled the wick of the candle between her fingers. “When I saw you reach for this candle, I thought she’d finally decided to take my advice.”

 “Roxanne doesn’t believe in spells or curses, only karma. She thinks people get what they deserve no matter how hard they try to avoid it.”

Isobel stood still, like someone listening to a whisper in another room and a silence settled between them. “What do you believe?”

 Doug squinted. “About magic?”

“About life, “she said.

“You mean, do I think people get what they deserve?” Doug contemplated this while studying his hands. He noted the old fight bite and the wandering tail of his track scars. New callouses scored each palm and cushioned new blisters on the layers beneath. He hadn’t noticed, until that moment, how dirty his fingernails were. He eased his hands into the front pockets of his jeans and said, “I’m starting to believe people just get more of what they have already.”

Isobel made no attempt to disguise the hint of persuasion in her tone. “But you want something different than what you have,” she said, and raised a brow at him.

Doug wondered if she meant it as a question. It didn’t sound like one, so he didn’t answer. Instead, he fidgeted with the zipper of his backpack. “Before I forget,” he said. He grasped Roxanne’s notebook and extended it toward Isobel.

Isobel’s eyes locked on Doug’s, as she grasped the notebook. “If she won’t help you, Doug. I will,” she said.

“Help me how,” Doug asked.

“… with your problem,” she said. She moved closer to retrieve the notebook and rubbed her thumb over the crease of his arm. “I’ll do the binding on you, keep you from harming yourself.”

“I don’t see how it could help,” Doug said, gazing back at the rack of candles, “I’ve tried everything.”

“You’ve tried a spell before?”

“No.”

“Then you haven’t tried everything,” she said. She pointed a finger at him and smiled. “Do you have a picture of yourself?”

Doug pulled a picture from his wallet. “You don’t need to cut Roxanne out of it do you?”

Isobel bit her lip as she walked to the counter and slid the photo into the register. “I shouldn’t dream of it,” she said. “I mean wouldn’t.” She could see that Doug hadn’t comprehended the implications of her misspeak, but she still felt a jolt of panic rise within her. She felt a trickle of sweat snaking through the hair behind her ear. Play it cool and you’ll get what you desire, she reminded herself. The world is opening.

She handed him a stack of bills left by Roxanne’s clients, along with a scrap of paper, upon which she’d recorded the cards they’d drawn for Roxanne to read over the following week. Doug tucked the paper in his pack and began leafing through the bills. “Business is good,” he said when he finished counting.

“There will always be people who want someone else to tell them their future,” she said.

Doug nodded. “You’re not one of them?”

“No,” she said, “are you?” She made a show of glaring at his arm.

 Doug rubbed his hand over his stubbled jaw, then sighed and handed her two crisp bills. Having seen the chalk board sign out front for years, he knew it was what she charged for spells. “This’d better work,” he said. “If it doesn’t, I’m gonna be sick,” he said.

She tucked the money into the pocket of her long, wide skirt. “Oh, Doug.” She laughed, patted him on the shoulder. “You’ll be sick, but then you’ll get better.” She guided him down a narrow aisle of cluttered shelves and stooped to pluck a glass tube from one of the displays.

“If you’ve got a potion for dope sickness you can have it all,” he said, reaching for his wallet.

She waved her hand dismissively. “The only potion for that sickness is Heroin.”

Doug started to speak, but she shooshed him. “I’m trying to tell you something here, Doug. All magic has a price. Your addiction: it has a price. You, getting better: It’ll have a price.”

Doug nodded, “What makes it magic then?”

“Intention,” she said. “Once my intention is released. It’s up to the universe, as it sees fit, to manifest that intention.”

“What’s that mean? Manifest?” 

Her face was kind. She didn’t roll her eyes or snort or scoff like when he asked Roxanne what things meant.

“Manifest is to show or demonstrate,” said Isobel. “Your future without heroin already exists among many other realities. I’m going to choose it for you, Doug, and then the universe will show it to you.” She smiled and he smiled back, exhaled through his mouth, in a sharp burst, and smiled again. She handed him the glass tube.

Doug rolled it back and forth in his palm, “What’s this?”

 “Peppermint oil,” she said, and then she told him how it could be used to ease the symptoms of withdrawal.

Doug was doubtful a plant oil would help much, but then again, heroin was from a plant, wasn’t it? He thought of asking her that, but something else came to mind. “You know what ‘salt of the earth’ means?”

“Salt the earth?”

Doug nodded, assuming he’d gotten it wrong. “I heard it somewhere. You know what it means?”

“It’s from olden times. It was punishment for those deemed unvirtuous.”

“Punishment?”

“Yes. They’d pour salt on a person’s land, and nothing would grow,” she said.

Doug felt something twist in his gut. What, exactly, had Roxanne said? Did she think he was poison?

Isobel kept talking, but Doug couldn’t focus. He felt as though his whole core had been scooped out and was spilling onto everything around him. I’m poisoning myself, poisoning Roxanne, he thought. Then, something in Isobel’s tone of voice shifted, made him pay attention.

“There’s one more thing I’ll need,” she said. “You use a rope, right? For getting in your camp?”

Doug believed this was his last chance to make things right with Roxanne. Whatever Isobel had asked for, just then, he would have given her. He unzipped his backpack and uncoiled one of the thin, shorter ropes he used to assist his climb on the main rope. Isobel untwisted it, removed a few cords, and handed the rest back to Doug. As he tucked the weakened rope into his bag, he thought of the land he shared with Roxanne, the sharp gravel strewn over grease-soaked construction soil. It was a wasteland, but he felt hopeful that soon, they would both be free of it.  

When Doug left the shop, Isobel tracked his progress through the window. When he was out of sight, she reversed the “open” sign and locked the door. The moon would be full in just over three hours, and she needed to prepare. Everything was coming together perfectly, but she didn’t want to overlook a thing. She would perform two binding spells. One for Doug and one for Roxanne. They were both to blame for Doug’s addiction. It only made sense to bind his enabler too. If she forgot the part that was supposed to keep Roxanne from doing harm to herself, Doug would never know. He’d probably blame himself, and then, finding himself alone, would it be unreasonable for him to feel a sense of love and devotion toward her afterwards? It would just look a lot like Doug falling into a well-worn groove. Perfect. It’s decided, she thought, and she began preparing her alter for three spells.

#

On Doug’s third sleepless night after visiting the shop, he remembered the oil and left his squat on the north joint for the main camp. Roxanne was snoring softly beneath the tent. Doug made as much noise as he could, crunching over the gravel. Maybe he was jealous of her ability to sleep. Maybe he really felt he couldn’t trust himself. He was too raw to be sure of his intentions.

When Doug closed his bag after retrieving the oil, he balked at the sound of the zipper. It had always been the first, in a series of sounds that would launch him back into his routine. Zip! Then, the slap of the ropes, his feet hitting the dusty shoulder of the highway, his fingernail flicking the seam of a glassine bag, the squeak of leather tightening around his arm. The sounds roared in his ears and the lead-brick feeling in his gut doubled him over. Roxanne stirred, and he felt something within him unclench. Then, she rolled over and began, again, to snore.

Doug felt the snoring, more than he heard it, rattling along the end of every nerve. He wanted to tear down the entire camp. He wanted to shake her awake and yell at her, but even at his worst, he knew he could never hurt her. He was the kind of guy that punched walls, not people. He’d never be like Xander, her ex—a drug dealer, who wrote all the rules for her and changed them without notice. It’s why she’s with me, Doug thought, but the thought only made him feel ashamed. He threw the vial of oil at a cinder block in the corner, and it landed with a crack. The smell of peppermint filled the small space and burned Doug’s nostrils as he squatted beside her.

“What the hell?!” She said, pressing her fingers against the bridge of her nose where she could feel the cool burn of the oil. She reached for her head lamp and flicked it on.

“It’s like you don’t even care if I go back out,” Doug said.

Roxanne’s eyes began to water against the sting of the oil fumes. She pulled the neck of her shirt up to shield her face.

“It’s just oil, Rox. Could you stop thinking about yourself for one goddamn minute?”

Roxanne pulled the shirt down to reveal her face, underlit by the headlamp in her palm. It twisted with disgust. “Thinking about myself?” she said. “If I was thinking about myself, I’d have…”

Doug was breathing hard through his nostrils and the menthol fumes ripped through his sinuses. He pinched the bridge of his nose against the onslaught. “You’d ’ve what?”

“Never mind.” Her hands trembled as she brushed shards of glass aside with the sole of her empty boot.

Doug’s eyes watered and burned. He was barely resisting the urge to bat his way out of the tent. “Why won’t you help me?”

Roxanne looked frightened, and her panic only spurred Doug’s mounting rage.

She reached into her bra and slipped a damp twenty-dollar bill into his palm. “You won’t get high with that. Just take the edge off, Doug. Please. You’re scaring me. I feel like I don’t know you when you’re like this.”

He threw the bill at her feet, then caught his shoulder on the flap of the tent as he stomped off. “You’re supposed to be supporting me through this,” he said over his shoulder. She yelled something back, but the crunch of his footsteps swallowed the words. He returned to his exile at the north joint.

For the next three days, the sky was cloudless, and Doug had only the buzz of flies and the stench of his own sickness for company.

He’s too stubborn, Roxanne thought as she pulled Doug’s unknotted ropes over her palm. She toyed with them, trying to replicate the knots she’d watched Doug tie a thousand times, wishing she’d paid more attention.

Roxanne approached Doug in his corner, and he fought the urge to kick his chuck bucket over in anger. I’m really not myself, he thought. He wretched and doubled over the bucket. Only dry heaves. Something seemed lodged inside him, unable to work itself out. He spat and heaved again. Roxanne handed him a jug of water. He took a sip and held it in his mouth awhile before swallowing. She convinced him to go back to the tent with her, where the smell of peppermint lingered, and would help ease his nausea.

They walked to the tent and sat together on the plywood board. Roxanne’s sleeping bag was rolled in the corner.

Roxanne took Doug’s hand and said, “I was trying to help you, you know. I don’t see why it has to be cold-turkey.”

Doug knew that she knew why it did, but he said nothing. He let her rub his hand as he stared at the dark patch of gravel in the corner. Every visible shard of glass had been removed from the tent. He wondered if there was still glass, fine as powder, sinking deeper with the vibration of every truck that passed.

Roxanne cleared her throat. “I thought it might help you feel better, if you keep busy doing something you like.” Doug’s eyes rose to meet hers. “Why don’t you show me some knots?”

Doug cracked a smile for the first time in days. He could talk knots for hours and he did. The sun rose in the sky and began to sear Roxanne’s back through the tent. She grew impatient. It was only a matter of time before he’d lose his cool and start ranting and raving like Xander. It scared her to think that a person could change. She’d seen it happen before. She loved Doug, and trusted him, but still, when he expressed any negative emotion, all she could see, was Xander diminishing her world, until he was the only thing that fit. “Show me the one you use when you climb,” she said, trying not to sound eager.

“Ah. The prusik,” Doug said. He tied a short thin rope to the long thick one. Then, he tied a loop into the end of the thinner rope. “It’s too easy. You just slide it up and step into it, then when you take your weight off that one, you slide the other rope up. Then, you step into that.”

“Yeah?” She’d been rummaging through her purse for another clove. As she uncrossed her legs to retrieve her lighter from her jeans, she realized how dead her legs had gone. Just keep him talking, keep him happy, she told herself, trying not to wince as a sharp, tingling pain crawled down her leg. Just keep him tying those knots.

In the wake of so much peppermint, she felt almost stupefied by the warm scent of the clove. He kept droning on, and all she could do to stay awake was tune him out, coach herself through her next moves.

 “Your best instincts can kill you with that knot. Even expert climbers grab the knot when they’re falling sometimes. They know the knot won’t catch if they grab it. It’s one of the only things that’ll make it fail. They know better in their head, but for some reason the hand just grabs it and won’t let go. They need to let go though, for the knot to catch.”

When he looked to her for some reaction, she considered asking him to repeat himself, then, thought better of it. Why risk angering him? She scanned his face. “Woah” she said, without missing a beat. She rubbed his back and reassessed just how much more rope talk she might have to suffer through to get that harness tied around her. “I’ll try to tie the other one and you tell me what to do as I go,” she said.

Doug shook his head no.

“Why?”

“That one’s frayed and it’s too thin now,” he said.

Maybe it’s too thin for you, Roxanne thought, but not for me. “It wouldn’t hurt to do it just for practice,” she said.

“No point,” he said, “A prusik won’t do its job if the rope’s too thick or too thin.” Doug rolled the cord of rope between his fingers, held it close to his eyes, and squinted at it. “Well, it’s borderline-too-thin. It might just work.” Deep creases formed in Doug’s brow as he worked at the knot and when he finished, he held the main rope taught between one hand and his boot. With his other hand, he slid the knot up and tugged on the end to test it. “I’ll be dammed,” he said with a grin. In the next instant, he was doubled over in pain.

Roxanne rubbed his back and waited for him to stop groaning. “You just have to keep distracting yourself. Everything physical comes from the mind, right? Here,” she said handing him another length of rope, one Doug didn’t carry in his pack. It was the rope Doug had used to harness her on her first and only descent.

Doug frowned and opened his mouth to say something.

Roxanne spoke first. “Just for fun, Doug,” she said, “Make me a harness. Hook me up to the rope.”

Doug sucked his teeth and glanced, again, over her shoulder at the patch of gravel, dark with oil. He sighed in reluctant agreement, and bound Roxanne’s pelvis in the ropes. Then, he connected the thicker, of the two thinner ropes to her harness, and connected that to the main climbing rope with a prusik knot. He’d spent countless hours imagining the day he’d weave those ropes around her hips and watch her ascend. Doug smiled at her. Maybe that day was closer than he thought. Maybe when he stopped being sick, when his mood was stable again, she wouldn’t be so scared of him, so scared of everything. Maybe then, they both could leave this awful place.

“You’re still aching,” she said placing a hand on his shoulder.

Doug nodded.

“I’ll give you a back rub.” 

“You don’t have to,” he said, but that was Roxanne, always taking care of him, taking care of everything. I’m gonna be the one taking care of her soon and everything will be different, better, Doug thought as he lay, face down, on the plank. She straddled his hips and the ropes, still fastened around her, pressed against Doug’s flesh. She worked her hands over his shoulders and his pain subsided. Doug closed his eyes and drifted into the first sleep he’d had in days.

Roxanne wasn’t nervous about the climb. She had a harness, after all, and she was glad she’d tuned out whatever Doug had had to say about it. It would’ve only scared her. It was simple physics. Anyone could learn to tie these knots and use them. She had a loop for her foot on a prusik knot and a harness on a prusik knot. That was all she needed. A person could climb that way. She’d heard him speak of it before. She could swear there was even a name for it. Texas style? What did it matter? Soon she’d be back over the wall with the heroin, and everything would, once again, be predictable, safe—back to how it was.

Doug awoke suddenly, his heart thrumming in his chest. He couldn’t tell how long he’d slept, but he could see the sun through the tent and its position hadn’t seemed to change. He struggled to force his aching body up and out of the tent, and as soon as he did, he wished he’d done so sooner. Roxanne was near the top of the retaining wall, suspended thirty feet from the ground.

He noticed that she hadn’t bothered to knot the end of the rope. Cold sweat beaded on his brow. That knot needed to be there to catch her if her prusiks failed. He ran toward her, but the world seemed to slow around him, as his thoughts raced. He had to tie it for her but feared he’d make it worse. It might put on extra tension or add extra slack. Could that cause the prusiks to fail? He couldn’t think of a time he’d seen a safety knot tied after a climber had ascended.

Roxanne saw him approaching and she couldn’t let him stop her. She couldn’t explain it to him when he was like this. When she came back with the heroin, that would be the time to talk. He wouldn’t be able to resist if it was right there, and once he was through with his miserable sickness, he’d be docile as a kitten again, dozing in the sun and playing with his yarn. The top of the wall was inches out of reach. She was nearly there. She pressed her weight into the loop around her foot and it broke, just as she was sliding up the loosened prusik, the only knot tethering her harness to the main rope. The prusik started slipping down the main rope and she grabbed it as tight as she could, but it was still sliding, slipping faster and faster. She was falling.

Doug shouted, “Let go!” It’ll catch, he thought, if she’d just let go, the safety knot won’t matter. He was still a yard away, when he heard the sickening crack of her head as it struck the base of the wall. He checked her pulse, it was faint. I should get some help, Doug thought, but he couldn’t bear to leave her. Not yet. These could be her final moments, he thought as he cradled her in his arms and sobbed, “Why couldn’t you have just let go?”

When Doug was released from police custody, cleared of murder, he was given bus fare and a desk appearance ticket for trespassing. He boarded the bus, planning to get high, but when the bus rolled past Isobel’s shop, he found himself pressing the tape, exiting through the rear. The doors closed behind him. It was too late to turn around. My body’s just doing what it knows, he told himself. She’d been part of the run for years. Maybe she’d loan him some cash.

Isobel led him into her tiny apartment above the shop. She folded her bed back into a sofa and offered him a seat. When Doug told her what had happened, she ran her hand along his shoulders. Beneath his grief, he felt a new emotion stirring, something like excitement, but rounder, fuller, like the sound of a deadbolt clicking into place, if a sound could feel like something. That was what he’d felt the day he met Roxanne, and the more the feeling swelled in him, the more he believed some divine, or cosmic force was drawing him to Isobel. And as ashamed as he was to admit it to himself, he couldn’t help but notice all the little ways that Isobel was different, better. It wouldn’t be for years, but Doug would come to understand the feelings that he’d had that day. On a scored stool behind the beaded curtains, he would fill a special order, one that called for oils of cedar, spruce, and vetiver. He would hold the mixed vial to his nose and inhale deeply, longing for the woods.


Alison Kaiser is a former associate editor of Mudfish. Her work has appeared in literary magazines such as Skidrow Penthouse, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, and Café Lit, among others. She has work forthcoming in Yellow Mama. She lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn.


“Abject Permanence” Fiction by Andrew Davie

The applause in the concert hall lasted for a full minute before it subsided. The energy was unlike any Elias had ever experienced, and he shut his eyes to better let it reverberate through him. 

                                                                        ***

            Doctor Golan lit a Marb Red. The contradiction caught Elias off guard, and his anxiety kicked in at that moment. Every fiber of his being commanded him to march to the bathroom in the hallway and wash his hands thoroughly. He looked down at them. The skin around his knuckles was white, cracked, and brittle; it looked like a skating rink that hadn’t been smoothed by the Zamboni. Bits of dried blood and scabs crisscrossed like latticework. 

He could never properly explain the feeling to people. His OCD was a constant irrational fear of death. 

            Elias gripped the arms of his chair and took a deep breath. He prayed the feeling would subside, or at least the volume would be turned down. 

            “It’s happening right now, isn’t it?” Doctor Golan asked. 

There was a sheen on his teeth like Vaseline and Elias groaned audibly. 

            “Yes,” replied Elias through gritted teeth. 

He didn’t remember exactly when these attacks started. He had just a vague notion from years ago.  Now, it was like they’d always been there. 

            It would begin with a trigger; for example, he would grip a handrail while on the subway only to feel some sort of condensation. His mind would begin to ramble incoherently like a drunk who had attempted to prove his sobriety and had failed. 

            Scenarios were created in which he had contracted a life-threatening disease simply from touching the subway pole. He would imagine chancres opening on his body like flowers opening, and no matter how long he spent examining himself for scratches, cuts, lesions, any sign that he’d become terminally ill, it was futile.

            Deep down, he knew it was all an illusion. His mind was a funhouse full of distorted mirrors which forced him to view everything through a skewed prism. 

            In the beginning,  he could manage with therapy, then prescription drugs. His anxiety got worse over time to the point where his whole life needed to be changed. Eventually, he became a recluse. 

            His only salvation was music. 

            He’d spend hours playing his sonatas and requiems. Any money he got went toward accumulating vinyl LP’s for his vast collection. He’d shunned the advances in technology for the turntable he’d been giving when he first started playing the piano. 

            Music continually reverberated throughout his home. It came from either his fingertips or the speakers, and it filled him with immense joy. One day, he would play in the grand ballrooms. They would speak Elias’s name with awe and respect. It would validate his existence. 

            “Elias?” Golan said.

            “I’m sorry.” 

            “Let me guess? The headshrinker you’ve been seeing hasn’t helped, and the medication you’re on barely breaks through the surface.”

            Elias nodded. 

            “I’ve seen it all before,” Golan added. “Everyone looks the same. They have dread dripping from their pores.” 

Golan’s voice changed to one of confidence.

            “But I can help you.” 

            Elias faked a smile. 

            Dr. Adam Golan: Yale, Johns Hopkins, residency at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, indicted by a grand jury, and stripped of his license. 

Elias imagined how Golan’s office must have looked at the height of his prestige. Now, in the aftermath of his plummet from grace, the man commanded a two-room office in a fifth-floor walk-up in an outer borough of an outer borough. 

            Elias had had to step over an unconscious derelict to use the stairs. Thinking of it now sent shockwaves through his nervous system. 

            “Imagine, never having to deal with this again.” Golan offered, stubbed out the cigarette, and laced his fingers behind his head.” 

Elias licked at his lips and swallowed audibly. 

            “OK. What do we do?

                                                                        ***

            His energy had been sapped, and Elias collapsed onto the couch. He didn’t know if he could suffer through two more nights. The performances should have been his greatest achievement. Sold out shows at concert hall; it was something he’d dreamed of since he’d started playing. 

                                                                        ***

            It took almost twenty-four hours to recover from the procedure. Elias was bedridden most of the time and wracked with fever dreams. He had trouble deciphering what was real. He was still in Golan’s makeshift recovery room, which was just his adjoining the office: a clothes hanger, which dangled from a coat rack, held his IV drip. Finally, Elias regained enough of his equilibrium to sit up. After a cursory examination, Golan seemed to be satisfied. 

            “Everything is on the mend.” 

            Golan hit the pack of his cigarettes with the heel of his hand. 

            “Have you experienced any anxiety attacks?” Golan asked. 

            Elias paused to think about it.

            “I don’t think so.” 

            “Well, let’s find out; shall we?”

            Golan reached into his pocket produced a soiled rag. 

            “What is that?”

            “It’s nothing.”

            Before Elias could reply, Golan threw the balled-up rag at Elias who caught it before it could hit his body. He braced himself for the recoil and the sensation of overwhelming fear he was certain would envelop him, but nothing happened. He examined the white rag, noted some discoloration, and calmly flung it back to Golan. 

            “Anything?” Golan said. 

            Elias grew animated.

            “Nothing.” He could barely get the words out. Overcome with emotion, he had trouble maintaining his composure. However, Elias was disturbed by what he thought had been a faint moan coming from the main office. 

Golan looked toward the sound.  

            “Well, then, I guess the two of you can go.”

            Golan walked over to the door, opened it, and stepped back. Golan folded his arms across his chest. 

            A person filled the door frame. Except it wasn’t a person. 

            The Shape moved slowly and deliberately through the door as it pained him to do so. The right leg was so misshapen it dragged on the ground. Elias had been prepared for this moment, but it was nothing like he had imagined. 

            “A couple of things you should know,” Golan began, lit the cigarette, and took a deep drag. The cigarette stuck to his bottom lip as he spoke.

            “It’s a symbiotic relationship. He can only exist if you are alive. When you die; he dies too.”

            “How about the other way around?” Elias asked. The shape looked down at the ground as if ashamed for its existence. Golan laughed. 

            “Think of him as an organ, a kidney. You could live without one of them, but who knows what sort of ramifications it might have.”

            “So, it’s like a living colostomy bag. Can I get it wet or feed it after midnight?”

The Shape looked up attempted what Elias could only imagine was a smile. 

            “Gremlins,” The Shape said. 

                                                                        ***

            Elias had experienced the euphoria almost immediately.

            When they stopped at a gas station, he could navigate through a crowd of people and not worry about catching their germs. He was even able to use the grotesque-looking bathroom without flinching. It was like being born again, and he relished the feeling of being released from his shackles. He noticed, however, each time he came upon a situation that would have triggered his anxiety, The Shape reacted. 

            The Shape now sat on the couch in the living room; a weary look was on what passed for its face. 

            “I guess you can sleep on this for now, until we figure something else out.”

            The Shape shifted its gaze to look from the floor to Elias. 

            “I’m going to play some music for a while,” Elias said. 

            For the past two days, he felt like he was going to burst at the seams unless he was able to play his piano. He sat on the bench and the world dissolved around him. He paused for a moment to gather his thoughts and calm his nerves, and within a few seconds, he was at peace. His fingers descended onto the keys. 

            The sound caused him to lurch back. He tried again, but the piano only returned dissonant notes. He made similar attempts for the next five minutes. His compositions regressed from complicated measures to basic scales. Through his frustration, he’d bloodied his fingers and crimson prints smeared the keys. He stood in shock and backed away from the piano. Then he saw The Shape. Elias lunged for it. It attempted to defend itself but was unable. Pustules ruptured, and ropey cords of mucous and blood sprayed from The Shape’s malformed nose like confetti. Elias flung The Shape onto the ground, backed away, and collapsed onto the floor. 

            When he awoke, he didn’t know how much time had elapsed. 

            His body was depleted of strength. It was the sound of the piano which stirred him. 

A Concerto by Brahms had echoed throughout the apartment. It was so resplendent Elias felt he’d been picked up off the ground as if carried by the music. He watched in awe and fascination as The Shape sat at the piano and deftly maneuvered its hands over the keys. 

                                                                        ***

            “Right here, sir, seat number six.”

            “Thank you.” Elias took the program from the usher and sat down. He was in the back row of the amphitheater. He wore dark glasses. Elias glanced at the program to see what pieces he’d be playing tonight, rolled it up, and put it in his pocket. 

            The lights dimmed a few minutes later, and the conversations ceased. Applause erupted when The Shape was led on stage with the help of one of the staff. They stopped in front of the grand piano, and The Shape took a bow. The roar subsided, and The Shape sat down on the bench. 

            It was The Shape’s idea to suggest a car accident. 

            “How else to explain the disfigurement?”

            The days became weeks. Elias remained indoors. The Shape’s recitals were newsworthy, and his videos were soon streaming 24/7. The concert had sold out in about half an hour. Elias shut his eyes and listened to the creature play. 


Andrew Davie has worked in theater, finance, and education. He taught English in Macau on a Fulbright Grant and has survived a ruptured brain aneurysm and subarachnoid hemorrhage. His other work can be found in links on his website https://andrew-davie.com/