Her distorted face merged with the streaks of soapy foam and the stained purple jacket, until it was just one melting pot of color. Even her own muddy brown eyes were lost in the cycle. The hum of the washer filled the corners of the desolate laundromat. She continued to watch her reflection dissolve and twist with the water. Ten minutes remained on the timer.
The humidity of the laundromat stuck to her skin, weighing her body down to the stiff bench she sat on. She wanted to stand under a running faucet and scrub at her skin until it was pink and raw of any faults. For a moment, she considered climbing into the washer so the floral disinfectant soap would fill her mouth and clean her insides.
A warm hand reached out and rested on her shoulder. It firmly pressed against her body, anchoring her to the seat. She stared straight ahead, the long white talons of her mother’s nails in her peripheral vision.
“It’ll be alright, Samantha.” Her tenacious grip grew tighter against her shoulder.
Samantha glanced over her mother’s nails and noticed the flecks of red as small as a needle point against the stark white paint. It stood out like a coffee stain on a t-shirt to her but would be unnoticeable to any other eye. She whipped her head back around to face the washer door.
Her mother reluctantly loosened her grip and dropped her hand back to her side.
Samantha clasped her hands together as if in prayer and watched as the clothes fell over one another. A pair of jeans. A blue blouse adorned with sleek black buttons on the front. Then the purple jacket broke through, the red stains peeking out before being overshadowed by another article of clothing. Her Dad had bought it for her, three years before the local mall closed. She had worn it every day to school and wore out the zipper so fast he had to replace it with a new one.
She didn’t think she could wear it ever again now. The stains would never wash out, even if she scrubbed at it with a sponge. His blood would still be on it.
She had tried to convince herself it was just paint, a spill from a silly art project. When she blinked, the still image of bodies intertwined on a mattress proved otherwise. She would never forget the lady’s blonde hair splayed out on the bed, like golden silk. And the glint of the knife in her dad’s back, with her mother’s nails wrapped around the handle. The image of their slack-jawed expressions pressed against the bed was forever stuck behind her eyelids.
The shrill sound of sirens could be heard off in the distance, just beyond the deserted parking lot. Samantha unlocked her hands from their death grip on each other and hung her head forward. Her mother’s unshakeable hand reached out and grasped onto her shoulder again. She looked toward the washer door, at the blinking orange light. The buzzer had gone off amidst the sound of the sirens.
The load was finished.
Kira Blake resides in Northern California and is currently working her way towards a BA degree in creative writing. She can be reached through her firstname.lastname@example.org
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They were woven with tasteful white lace. You could tell they were new because the bands were still taut and springy. The crotch covered with brightly coloured butterflies, wings outspread, floating over a baby blue field.
I found the panties in the back pocket of James’s work khakis, crumpled up inside the laundry hamper. It was a Sunday. He was out day-drinking at some microbrewery.
So, this is your special project. The one that’s been keeping you at the office so late.
I was irate. I wanted to hammer his watches into bits. Pour all his fancy whisky down the toilet. Set his Audi on fire.
I’d given all my best years to James. Spending Christmas with his alcoholic mom and politically stunted brothers. Doing his laundry and nursing his hangovers. I’d been a loyal girlfriend, fiancée, wife. Soon to be mother.
It’s not like I’d never been tempted, either. Like I haven’t had my opportunities over the years, ones I’d passed by with the nonchalance of passing a street busker. At this point, who knows what opportunities I’d get? Now that I was six months pregnant there was hardly any choice. Like it not, I was tethered to James for life.
Still, I wanted him to suffer. After careful contemplation I threw the panties into my bedside drawer. Then I loaded up the washing machine with the rest of our dirty clothes. I pictured them spinning around and around as I lounged on top of the bedcovers, listening to Nina Simone.
It was dark when James stumbled back home, perfumed with IPAs and menthol cigarettes.
“In here,” I yelled from the bedroom. “How was your day?” “Hoppy. So much beer.”
I could hear him in the hallway, struggling to take off his boots. The telltale thrashing and swearing.
When he appeared in the doorway I was laying there on the bed – wrapped in my silk nightgown like a piece of candy – and as he took me in his eyes sparkled with desire.
“Still thirsty?” I said.
“Could do another.”
James unbuttoned his shirt with surprising dexterity. Next went his belt, then his underwear – completely oblivious to how unattractive he looked wearing nothing but socks.
He mounted the bed and slid his body towards me like a seal. Immediately he went for my breasts, then he began to migrate down to my belly, his beard prickling its way past my navel to deliver some half-hearted foreplay.
Eventually he found his way on top and initiated his awkward, drunken collisions – undoubtedly thinking of that girl from work. I did my best to feign engagement, even reciprocation, to which he seemed innately oblivious. The inebriated aloofness which I used to find so endearing now just came off like blatant solipsism. I felt like a corpse he was trying to bring back to life.
While James was out I went to the cemetery and stole flowers from the grave of a child. Afterwards, I headed to the market and bought chicken feet, mug wort, and cat’s claw. I had remnants of wormwood at home. There was just one more ingredient I needed for this to work.
The next moment I grabbed James’s back – pulling his body towards mine – and as I did I dug my fingernails deep into his white skin.
Hope you like it rough baby.
Numbed by lust and beer James barely reacted to the blood I drew, continuing his incessant crusade towards orgasm. Thankfully, it wasn’t long until he collapsed, and without missing a beat James rolled over on his side, surrendering to the sleep of the drunk.
After I was sure he’d passed out, I opened my bedside drawer and fished out the panties. Then I lowered the covers and wiped the crotch against the fresh scratches on his back, smearing the butterflies in James’s blood.
This should be enough, I thought as I rose out of bed. Careful not to disturb my sleeping husband.
The next day I read the local paper cover to cover. A young woman who plummeted down an empty elevator shaft in the middle of the night. Another one who drowned in the river. A building that went up in flames. Freak accidents – meaningless and unforeseeable. The Devil worked in mysterious ways.
James came home at six o’clock that day, quiet and dismal.
“Hey there. Thought you said you were working late tonight.”
“Change of plans,” he said, avoiding eye contact.
“I made your favourite. Lamb stew.”
We ate in silence, James looking downcast, eating practically nothing. I devoured the meal and got up to rinse my bowl before he’d even taken his second bite.
“Honey, could you take the clean laundry out when you’re done eating? I complete forgot about it last night.”
He glanced up at me then, and as he did, I thought I saw a tear shimmer in the corner of his eye.
“Alright,” he said, coughing to clear the lump in his throat. “You got it.”
George Oleksandrovych was born in Kiev, Ukraine, but has lived in Vancouver, Canada for most of his life. He has previously been published in East of the Web, Rejection Letters, Idle Ink, Fairlight Books, and others. He does his best writing after everyone else has gone to sleep. Check out his work at georgenev.blogspot.com.
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When their teachers call our homes, reporting absences and erratic behavior, we tell them we know nothing.
We don’t tell them about the relief we felt, the collective exhale we sighed, when our daughters began to show an interest in that singing show. Any mother would prefer it to the sort of reality TV where scantily clad women compete for male attention, the only kind of reality TV that seemed to be on those days. In fact, we were so relieved that their interest was piqued by something so wholesome, so normal, that we even encouraged them to watch it, taking turns hosting view-parties, providing them snacks and beverages, letting them stay up late and sleep through their morning classes. When our daughters began to idolize Marcella, the soulful contestant who wore cardigans and long skirts, with messy, braided hair and eyes so light that, through the TV, it looked like she had only pupils, we thought it was nice that they had a modestly dressed, talented, and naturally beautiful woman to look up to.
When the police come knocking on our doors, their uniforms freshly pressed, smelling of both starch and mildew, we tell them we know nothing.
We don’t tell them that the song, Marcella’s song, was catchy. It was so catchy that we would find ourselves humming it as we did the dishes, as we bought the groceries. A touch of magic, my sweet divine, oh darling, I’ll make you mine. We don’t tell them that, as much as our daughters enjoyed the show, we enjoyed it too, stealing glances at the television above their heads, eagerly watching Marcella enchant the judges with her deep voice, night after night after night.
When our neighbors gossip in grocery lines, whispering what they’d heard second- and third-hand, and look at us, expectantly, to contribute, we tell them we know nothing.
We don’t tell them how our daughters’ idealization soon grew to obsession, and we smiled, remembering what it was like to be teenage girls and to feel a part of something. When they stopped straightening their hair and chose instead to wear it loose, with intricately woven braids peeking through their ringlets, the way Marcella wore hers, we thought it was lovely that they were wearing their hair natural, that they had stopped bleaching it to try to look like whichever celebrity was frequenting the covers of the tabloids those days. We even helped them braid the back of their heads, those tricky areas they couldn’t reach.
When the reporter from the local newspaper approaches us for an interview, begging for a quote to use in her piece, asking us questions about corpses with bite marks and empty eye sockets, we tell her we know nothing.
We don’t tell her that, when our daughters threw away their denim shorts and crop tops, we were the ones who bought them long, silk skirts, in the same shade of baby blue that Marcella wore each night. They started covering their shoulders with scarfs and cardigans, leaving only the skin on their faces exposed, and we thought it was wonderful that their role model was so modestly dressed.
When the detective from out of town meets us at the station, showing us photographs of what remained of the sixteen men from the next county over, demanding to know what we know, we tell him we know nothing.
We don’t tell him that, not long after the show ended, our daughters’ eyes started fading, first to a sandy brown, then to an ashen gray, then finally to a hue so light that the whites and the irises were muddled together, indistinguishable. And when they looked at us, with those pale eyes, and told us to take them away from the city, to drive them to the mountains, that they were going to meet Marcella, that she would be waiting for them, we packed them overnight bags and sandwiches. We thought it was good that they were seeing more of the world.
And when the victims’ families appear on the news, begging anyone who knows anything to come forward, to do right, to bring the monsters who did this to justice, we change the channel, back to re-runs of that old singing show, that old star, what was her name again? Marcy? Marsha? Marcella— that’s it. Whatever happened to her, anyway?
Watching her sing feels like recalling a dream we had, a long time ago. She reminds us of something so familiar, like a word we can’t place, or a nostalgic scent from a childhood memory that always seems just out of reach. We’d always dreamed of having daughters one day, and if we had, wouldn’t we want them to be just like her? Modestly dressed, talented, and so naturally beautiful.
Mali Schaeffer is a student of the UCLA Writers’ Program. She lives and writes in San Francisco, although she spends most of her time imagining other worlds entirely. Her work has been nominated for the James Kirkwood Literary Prize.
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The crickets chirruped their summer song as Pablo walked down the main road out of town, down to the olive tree fields. Olive oil was the lifeblood of all the small towns in this Northeastern area of Andalusia. Chiclana, like the other towns, lacked the sounds of playing children in the streets, Pedro’s school bus would travel through 8 towns before reaching school, gathering up what little children remained. But it was the harvest, so school was closed.
Nobody in his town or in his class had ever seen a cricket, everyone knew they rubbed their wings when they were warm, crying out in the late afternoon until the moon was well above the olive trees. Nobody cared about never seeing the source of the chirrups. Perhaps understandably so, the yearly disappearances of random children from the surrounding area remained unsolved, there was much unrest among the remaining families. Pablo had lost his best friend Paco two years ago, but he was tired of the fear routine, he was going out on his own this evening, and he was going to catch one of those damn crickets.
The crickets were going strong after the day’s heat. Pablo wiped the sweat from his face with the bottom of his muddy T-shirt, leaving him dryer but dirtier. He paused under the shade of the oldest tree and took a licorice stick out of his pocket. The chirping seemed to come from behind the unfarmable hill terrain on the edge of the Peseta plot. Pablo’s father worked that plot this season, he made his way to the top of the hill.
This was the loudest Pablo had ever heard it. The other side of the hill was deceptively steep, the dry grass was too weak to hang on to. The way down shamed the way up in its tediousness, it had to be descended belly-up on all fours. The droning crickets engulfed the atmosphere when Pablo reached a small level area surrounded by dead, thorned, impenetrable thicket. He stood before a man-made cave in the hillside. The size and look of the megaliths carrying the load from the earth above them hinted at a time long before his. The chirrups ceased immediately as Pablo stepped into the cool darkness. His eyes slowly recalibrated to the light coming in from behind him, stretching his shadow before him into a circular cavern within the cave.
Hand-carved wooden cages were scattered at different heights around the concave walls of this inner cavern. Their tiny shadows dancing in different directions as they dangled from their intricate wooden chains. Pablo looked into a brightened cage by the entrance. Two nervous antennae reached up to him from the small head of what looked like a smaller, stubbier, shorter-legged version of a grasshopper. Large circular onyx eyes investigated his, two brown wings unfolded from the top of its bulbous, dual-spiked abdomen.
‘’A cricket’’ Pablo whispered. There was something carved on the side of the cage’s base. Pablo turned that side to the light. It read Jose. A knot formed in his stomach. He checked the next cage, Manuel. A drop of cold sweat ran down his spine as the hair on the back of his neck stood to attention. Maria…Ana…Paco…they were all names of children that had disappeared over the years. Pablo stood petrified staring at the last name…Paco. The crickets all stood in silence, watching Pablo.
He turned his attention to the center of the cavern. A carpenter’s workbench and a wooden stool. Alone on the workbench, a carving blade, and an empty cage. He slowly approached the brand-new cage and held it up against the light…Pablo. The cage fell to the ground as something blocked off the light from the entrance.
Luis P. Verhelle was born in 1983 to a Spanish mother and Belgian expatriate father. His youth was spent living in multiple countries. With a master’s degree in banking and corporate finance, he works as an accountant out of Barcelona, but his mind always drifts to the most nightmarish landscapes.
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I’m late for work, but I check in on her. I open the door and peek. She lies there. Naked. Pale. Surrounded by white. Perfect. She is curled in wanton modesty, an arm covering all of one breast but only the tip of the other. A slight tuft of pubic hair escapes the curve of her thigh.
It reminds me of the very first time I saw her. It was summer, hot. The world sat by its window, hoping for a breeze. She had closed her blinds but not completely. I suppose she wanted room for the air to move, an invitation to the breeze goddess.
Whatever the reason, she was visible from my high point of vantage. Her hair then, as now, was strewn about her head and shoulders. Unlike now, her body gleamed with sweat. When she moved, the sheets were patchy-dark with it. She moved very little, though. Only far enough to escape to pale, dry sections of sheet. When she moved, she moved slowly and stiffly, as though hating the effort involved. The slatted light played in op-art patterns on the succulent contours of her body. Her hair tangled on body and bed clothes. I was mesmerized. She is different now, cool and completely still. She is paler and unmarked by zebra stripes of light and shadow. I am still mesmerized. She looks delicious.
It took a week to figure out which apartment held that window, another week to learn the name of the tenant, and yet another for a second sighting, outside and fully clothed. The blinds were never open again, though I looked ceaselessly.
I struck up an acquaintance with the building’s super. Through him, I managed an introduction. We ran into each other in the market and had a short conversation. She agreed to a date. My mouth watered for her but I was most polite and circumspect. I had all the time in the world. She would be mine.
She did not hunger for me. I knew that. It was all right. That wasn’t necessary. When she seemed disinclined to go on a second date, I told her that she had no choice. She was to be mine forever. She was to become a part of me, bit by bit. She laughed and said she didn’t think so but agreed to another date.
I prepared more carefully for that date than for anything in my life. I spent money I still don’t have. I thought of every contingency and covered it. The date was glorious.
We wined French, dined French, and danced the night away. There were violins and violets. A horse drawn carriage. Paper boats in the fountain in the square. We laughed and sang and held hands. We watched the sun rise from the highest point in the city. We had eggs Benedict and Champagne on my terrace at seven AM. She went to bed at nine, alone in the spare room. I didn’t object. I suggested it. There is time. I know she’ll never leave me.
She hasn’t. I see the perfect repose in her face and know that I was right. It was worth it. We shall be one for all time. The time for me to go to work has come and gone, however. I must be away. I’ll be back soon. Quietly, I secure the freezer door and leave.
M. L. Owen lives and writes under the ancient redwoods of Northern California and has had fiction published in numerous literary journals, including, WENSUM Literary Magazine, Cowboy Jamboree, The Headlight Review, Sequoia Speaks, and many others. Prime Woman was published, in 1997, in a small, now defunct, journal named FAYRDAW.
Knowing that this was the last waiting room I would ever visit filled me with a desperate, visceral panic. My thigh vibrated frantically against the seat, twitching with the ache to run back through the sealed aluminium doors; to feel on my cheeks even the feeblest ray of sun, which filtered down through the tainted clouds. The clock saw my panic and ticked mockingly, rebukingly at me; its cold hands curved in a metallic sneer. I tore my eyes away from it to gaze nonchalantly around the room, trying to feign calmness, boredom even. I couldn’t see any cameras, but they had long since stopped advertising their presence. Being watched was a guarantee now, not a possibility. Regardless, I couldn’t help resisting, searching desperately for a way to escape the inescapable.
The clock was amused by this.
The way it dripped with scorn made me think of a painting I had seen as a child at school, back when you could learn about things like art. I couldn’t remember its title, or the lesson that my gentle, curly-haired teacher had failed to teach us about it, while we ignored her, giggling, and gossiping under our breath. I could only recall the picture itself: the clocks dripping down a table, like blood from a gunshot wound, and how the sudden sight of it glowing on the screen had stopped me in my tracks, the secret note from my friend forgotten in my hand. I ached to make this clock melt like that, to stop it from laughing at me and from tick-tick-ticking away these last minutes.
For a moment, this blistering yearning overpowered the fear of what I knew waited for me when my name was called.
This fear was also forbidden. Heretical, even. Officially, days like these are nothing more than a fresh start. A tabula rasa. They always said those words oozing with the expectation of gratitude, as if we should thank them for wielding the erasers which wiped us clean. As if today were a liberation, not a robbery. Our memories, our differences, our desires, they were glitches which were corrupting the system of the world, a lacquer of grease and grime which jammed the cogs of society. Thinking of it like that was supposed to make things easier.
They didn’t say for whom.
When I received my notice a few weeks ago that I was due for Recalibration, I did try to think of it that way. I tried to forget that I used to be a word and not just a letter. I tried to see it as a squashed, sideways H, just another meaningless symbol. I wrote it over and over again until it stopped making sense, I reduced it to a doodle, a line and a dot, a dot and a line. It became a flower with all the petals plucked off, the stem and the stamen, she loves me, she loves me not. Sometimes it morphed into a person, with their head detached and floating away from them, weightless and empty like a balloon. I tried to make my head like that, vacant and vacuous. But I couldn’t stop the ‘I’ from jumping out at me in every word, from playing peekaboo on every shop window, from lurking in every television broadcast. So, I gave up. I let my fingers trace it absent-mindedly on my thighs, on tables, I whispered it in my head as a mantra on the bus, in the office, in the toilet. It pumped through my veins again now.
My fingers drummed unevenly against the underside of the fabric-coated chair. I relished the feel, tried to drown in the miniature royal-blue ridges of synthetic wool. My fingers tapped against a loose clump of fibres. They stopped suddenly, and without quite knowing why, a wave of exhilaration bloomed in my stomach. Slowly, cautiously, even though I knew the movement would be hidden under the chair, I pinched and rolled it into a ball between my thumb and forefinger. My heart raced with fervour, my breath quickening in my mounting excitement. I pulled it and felt the ball, my ball, coming loose, I heard the soft tear of nylon fibres, like the snapping of a neck. It was the sound of destruction and it made me hungry. With a rush of private, sadistic triumph, I flicked the clump of blue thread violently away from me; ‘Ha!’ I spat defiantly at the clock in my head, my lips curving into the slightest, most inconspicuous smirk. My blood hummed in my veins, calling ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ with each of my heartbeats, as I ran my finger over the void where the fibres had been, alive with the joy of my legacy, my indelible mark on the world. No matter what they did to me in there, this chair, if nothing else, was irrevocably different because of me, this me. It would stand forever as a relic from this version of myself, like a prehistoric cave etching, screaming into the abyss, to the generations to come. It was a primal, luxuriant joy.
It couldn’t last.
In the end, they didn’t even call my name. A cold, metallic voice whirred around the room, with no discernible source: “Ready to commence Recalibration. Patient may enter.” A door opposite me swung open.
“No,” I breathed quietly. “No. I’m not ready.”
“Ready to commence Recalibration. Patient may enter.”
“I said I’m not ready.” I screamed, my words bouncing, distorted off the pristine walls. I curled up into a ball on the chair, my chest heaving, my arms clinging to each other around my knees.
“Irrelevant. Ready to commence Recalibration. Patient will enter.”
“Please.” I begged, sniveling, without knowing who I was begging. “Please don’t do this.” I gasped for air, staring imploringly at the clock. “Do something,” I yelled at it. “Don’t just stand there looking at me!”
A metallic chittering approached from the darkness of the corridor which had unfolded in front of me. I thought of nails on a chalkboard, of axes gouging metal walls, of the needle on a record player scratching its path. I thought of home, the dew on the grass of our garden, the almond smell of my scented felt-tips, the stuffed bear I’d had as a child. I couldn’t remember its name. “Please, please, just a minute longer, just let me think.” Nothing in my life had ever been so important.
“Negative. Ready to commence Recalibration. Retrieving patient.”
The lights went out. I screamed into the void. It didn’t answer.
Two trainers walked softly through the black corridor. Five fingers absent-mindedly trailed along the wall, lightly feeling their way along. Her other hand swung nonchalantly by her side, occasionally brushing against her trousers. She stepped casually into the waiting room, pushing the door closed behind her as she entered. She made her way towards the exit, without registering the clock hung above her on the icy walls. Her feet carried her closer and closer towards the door, and as she left the room behind her, she crushed underfoot a small, insignificant bundle of blue fibres.
“The killer is among us,” the pastor said gravely, his eyes roaming over the pews, sparsely occupied by the uneasy villagers. “He, or she, is in this room, hearing my voice, breathing this air. Our air.” He paused to let the gravity of the situation seep into the bones of his congregation, along with the ever-present, creeping tendrils of mist. His voice began to rise, as if to drown out the anxious thrumming of heartbeats, the whispered prayers, the stench of fearful sweat. “This ends tonight. We will have no more death on Mortay Island. No more!”
The villagers broke out into a deafening mass of sobs, cheers and shouts of “no more!” Among the uproar, the pastor scanned the room. He allowed a few moments to pass, then held up a single finger. Silence fell instantly. He turned his hand to point at the heavy-set oak doors behind the crowd. “These doors will remain locked until the killer is found. Nobody will get in or out of this church until we are absolutely assured that he will never again strike fear into our hearts, never again rip our loved ones away from us.” His voice escalated into a roar. “Never again take our earthly lives! Never again! Never again!”
The townspeople joined his cry, chanting as one voice, one body, one mind. The pastor smiled with one side of his mouth, satisfied. He confidently stepped down off the stage, making his way toward the audience.
“Now,” he said quietly. The crowd hushed. “Does anyone here have anything they wish to confess,” he paused, looking up at the church ceiling, then continued. “Before God.” He gestured around at the room, “before your fellow man,” he cried, his voice booming around the damp stone walls. “Speak now and be redeemed! If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Silence rang out through the church like a funeral knell. The pastor sighed in exaggerated grief. “Very well.” He proceeded down the nave, away from the stage and towards the doors. Heads turned imploringly as he passed, families, wives and husbands waiting for his next word, for his reassurance. He discretely moved his hand under the black robes to his pocket and turned the match over and over in his fingers. He reached the end of the aisle, his feet were almost touching the door, splattered with mildew like flecks of blood. When he finally spoke, he kept his back to the villagers. “You will make them as a fiery oven in the time of your anger; the Lord will swallow them up in His wrath, and fire will devour them.”
Their eyes fell onto the lit match between his finger and thumb, then to the hungry flames rapidly devouring the cloth hangings on the wall, the fire making its way to the thatched roof. They were stunned into silence. “Farewell, my lambs.” He said quietly, before lifting the heavy iron bolt, slipping out of the door with a flourish, and closing it behind him. He turned the key in the lock just as a clamour started to rise up from the other side of the walls. He took the padlock from his pocket, and clamped that on, for good measure.
With a swift, simple motion, he cast off his robes and left them in a pool by the door. The screams echoed behind him, fading into the silence as he left them all behind, embraced by the snaking arms of the mist.
Hannah Woodvine is a writer and poet from Brighton, England who loves speculative fiction and spoken word. Beyond her job as an English Teacher, she is embedded in the Brighton poetry scene, reaching the final of Hammer and Tongue Brighton’s 2023 slam. This is her first published fiction since childhood.
It was desperation, not faith, that brought me to this temple. I had nowhere else to turn when I decided to make the pilgrimage, and I knew that only the Hundred Idols could possibly save me—whether I believed in them or not.
I spent half a day walking up the mountain. It was early in the afternoon when I arrived at the gate. A kind old man received me there. He was my appointed watchman, and after we exchanged a few greetings, he showed me inside and led me to my room. There I took a bath and rested for a while, until the watchman knocked on the door and called my name. We left the building and walked together to the sacred garden that was the home of the Hundred Idols.
The garden covered an expansive area and was separated from the rest of the temple grounds by a stream with a short wooden bridge over it. The watchman was careful not to step on the bridge; he told me to take off my shoes and cross it alone. On the other side there was total stillness. I was the only thing that moved or made a sound in the garden. The idols were scattered everywhere under trees and among rocks. I had to go up to each and every one of them according to the prescribed order, prostrate myself on the ground, recite the official prayer that the watchman had taught me, and then add my personal request at the end.
The idols were humanlike statues made of smoothly finished stone, all in various seated positions. With their agonized faces and gaping mouths they looked like the victims of an epidemic in death throes. It felt ridiculous to expect these grotesque sufferers to have the power to save anyone. But I was not in a position to entertain such doubts. I started walking from one idol to the next, praying, begging for a sea change in my life, while keeping careful count to ensure I didn’t miss any of them. But after the ninety-ninth idol I was suddenly at the bridge again and the watchman congratulated me on my return. I was embarrassed at his enthusiasm, and immediately told him about the missing idol. I apologized and said I must have skipped one on the way, or perhaps miscounted how many I had faced. But he just laughed it away, saying that such a mistake would have been very unlikely.
The following day was devoted to a nauseating repetition of the same process every two hours. After crisscrossing the garden several times, I was certain that there were indeed only ninety-nine idols. At some point I mentioned this to the watchman and asked him where the hundredth idol was. His reply was: You should not ask anything about the idols; asking is a sign that your self-reliance is still fighting for its survival, and the idols don’t help those who try to help themselves; you must persevere until the actual number no longer matters to you.
It took me two more days of the same routine to reach that indifferent state of mind in which there was no counting, only walking and praying. Much of the praying, however, was for the whole ordeal to end. I felt my confidence slipping away and was sure I was about to fail. But then, on the fourth evening of my stay, the watchman took me to see his superior, the watchmaster, in his private quarters.
As soon as I entered the room the watchmaster greeted me with the news that I was in fact on the cusp of salvation. He invited me to have dinner with him. It was a sort of feast, with me as the guest of honor. I sat at the table and the watchmaster served me a curiously flavored drink in a silver goblet. When I had emptied it we proceeded to the meal itself. We spent about an hour eating and chatting. He wanted to know everything about the circumstances that had pushed me into the arms of the Hundred Idols, and I described the darkness of my life as if I were already looking at it from outside, from the safety of daylight. Then it was time to leave, and the watchman was summoned to take me downstairs. I thought I was going to bed, but he was taking me outside again.
The garden was lit with burning torches that were planted in the ground at even intervals, forming a route that connected all the idols in the familiar order. Now the idols were covered in black sheets, and following the watchman’s instructions, I faced each of them in silence and without any action. When I had moved past the ninety-ninth idol the route curved back into the garden instead of leading to the bridge as usual. I followed it into a thicket where it ended abruptly with one last torch.
I began to feel exhausted. At first, I thought it was because of the long day, or because I had had too much to eat. But it was rapidly getting worse, and I had to lean on a tree to keep myself steady. As I tried to catch my breath, I heard a soft voice asking me if I wanted to sit down. I turned around and saw the watchman emerging barefoot from the shadows. Yes, I said, I am too tired to stand. He held my hand and supported me while I sat on the ground. Then, when I no longer had the strength to resist, much less to escape, he finally told me the truth.
Now we are simply waiting for the inevitable. The smooth stone surface is relentlessly creeping upward, liberating more and more territory from my unhappy control. Soon enough the missing idol will make its appearance, but only the watchman will still be here to see it.
Dan Bornstein is a language specialist in Japanese and a writer of speculative fiction, poetry, and essays. His work in English has appeared, among other places, in Daily Science Fiction, Star*Line, and the anthology book Lay Buddhism and Spirituality. His personal website is danbornstein.com.
Her “friends from church” a no-show, she sat there alone at her table and Pat, feeling bad for her, picked up his coffee and sat down with the well-dressed and probably-crazy Irishwoman at Nellie’s in East Durham.
He cocked his ear toward her and over the band music and in a brogue she told him that as a young girl in Ireland, they had pigs. Her job was to go out to the pigsty when the pig had a litter and make sure the piglets – who are blind at birth – didn’t accidentally wander into the mother’s mouth while they were looking for an open teat. Because the mother pig would swallow them and eat them.
A week later, perched on a barstool at Chieftans, there sat Oliver McGovern. He was Pat’s age, but he looked like a kid. Pat could have sworn that Ollie McGovern was dead. Nevertheless, Pat told him the Irishwoman’s pig story. Like a good Irishman, Oliver in turn told his own pig story.
One of ten, Oliver said that when he was a kid they had a family get-together and all the kids and all the cousins and friends were in the barn. The adults hadn’t heard from the kids for a while, so they went to check on them. Turns out the kids had learned that pigs will eat live chickens, and by the time the adults got there, the kids had fed the pig like seven of them.
After Oliver finished his pig story, and then his Guinness, he slid down off his barstool and skipped off to the pisser and he never came back.
Sitting alone at the bar, Pat remembered the night that Little Ollie’s parents and aunts and uncles, highballs in hand, had stumbled out of the big house to the barn and to the pen where poor Little Ollie McGovern had perched himself, and to the pig that would eat anything that fell into its pen.
Pete Lindemann lives and works in Cobleskill, New York, USA.
The hypnotic way the clothes danced in the dryer and the clicking, hissing and spinning of the washers made me sleepy. I could tell the clothes were getting dry by the way they tumbled. When the wet clothes would reach the top of the dryer, they would fall hard to the bottom because of the weight they carried, but as the laundry got dry, they would float around like butterflies- Free.
“They ‘bout finished,” I announced, looking up at Momma’s sad face. She had a heaviness about her like wet laundry. After putting the last folded towel in the basket, we headed for the door. Daddy would be arriving any time to get us.
In walked Miss Ruby. My grandma, who always spoke in King James Version, told me that Miss Ruby was a woman of ill repute. I didn’t know what that meant. All I knew was Miss Ruby was nice to me and Daddy. Every time he would take me to her house, she would give me a coke and a coloring book to occupy my time while she and daddy went into the other room to talk. Always smiling and laughing, Miss Ruby looked like the porcelain dolls I saw in magazines, with painted blue eyelids, and lips and hair as red as her name. I liked her just fine and smiled when she walked in. Momma, on the other hand, wasn’t as happy.
Grandma once said about Momma, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” She talked about Daddy like an introduction from the Bible; Cain was the son of Adam, and my daddy was the son of Bitch. I never knew my dad’s mom and never knew her name until then.
One thing I knew for sure- this day, my momma was mad. Her sky-blue eyes turned dark as she dropped our freshly folded laundry on the floor. She cocked her hand back and like lightning, struck Miss Ruby’s cheek, making it blood red- redder than her lipstick. Miss Ruby called out the name of my dad’s mother and grabbed Momma’s golden curls and pulled her over to a washing machine. She crammed Momma’s head in and repeatedly slammed the lid. Someone belted out an eerie, high-pitched scream. I think it was me. Momma punched Miss Ruby’s stomach and while she was bent over holding her belly, Momma somehow regained her head and composure from the washing machine. Momma pulled Miss Ruby’s hair and oh my god, it came off in her hands. All of it! Miss Ruby put both hands on her head and screamed. My eyes were as big as dryer doors, staring at her fiery red hair in my momma’s hand, being held up in the air like a trophy. Momma was totally insane. She was foaming at the mouth and growling like a mad dog.
All my thoughts were in King James Version: Miss Ruby shalt not hurt Momma. Momma shalt not kill Miss Ruby. HELL- hath arrived at The Corner Laundromat. I shalt not puketh on the clean laundry. What does “ill repute” mean anyway?
I became fixated on Miss Ruby’s head for a minute. She had mousey brown hair all tightly pinned to her head with a million bobby pins. I was more confused now than ever, but I snapped back into reality when Momma’s clinched fist connected with Miss Ruby’s face, sending her head sideways and her body tumbling backwards into a washer. Miss Ruby slid down the washer and landed on the floor. Momma cocked her foot back to give Miss Ruby a final kick in the face when I screamed, “MOMMA!”
The world stopped spinning. My stomach did not. The scent of dirty socks, bleach and blood agitated my stomach like the final spin of a washing machine.
As I raised my head from spilling my guts on the floor and with a sour taste still in my mouth, Momma was kneeling by Miss Ruby. She was propped up against the washer. Momma retrieved one of our towels from the floor and gently pressed it on Miss Ruby’s bleeding face. She put Miss Ruby’s hair back on her head and smoothed it with both hands. As Momma gently touched Miss Ruby’s forehead, she whispered, “I’m sorry.”
Miss Ruby replied, with a nod, “Me too.”
The door of The Corner Laundromat chimed as Daddy walked in. Momma told me to sit with Miss Ruby. She floated to her feet, extended her hand to Daddy and gave a Come-Hither gesture. Momma said with a smile, “More Dirty Laundry.”
What a sight to see in The Corner Laundromat that day; Daddy, standing there with a puzzled look on his face, Miss Ruby propped against a washing machine like a rag doll and Momma looking like dry laundry.
Paula is from Shelby North Carolina. She is currently seeking her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Creative Writing. Paula is also in the process of writing a memoir of her life. When she’s not studying or writing, you may find her on a road trip adventure or spending time with her family and friends.
A twitch. Just a quick twitch. The slightest, imperceptible jerk of the right index finger. Unnoticeable. Subtle. A bit of movement from the left middle toe. Quick spams. Followed by the right eyebrow. Random. The body slowly, gradually, stirs one small muscle and involuntary shudder at a time. Sensations flutter, struggling to return. Awakening. Consciousness is blurred and inconsistent. Sporadic. Foggy. Weak.
Wuhh…? Uhh…? Confusion.
Breathing gradually strengthens, though retarded. Heavy and inconsistent. The pace quickens slowly. Fitfully. Incrementally. Deep, intermittent gasps for breath. Inhaling stale, earthy air. A stagnant quality. Occasionally choking and coughing with every attempted gulp. Trying to fill the lungs, but never quite enough. Urgency. Growing increasingly desperate. Strained.
The right hand begins to move with every ounce of strength available. Inching. Sensing. Inching gingerly centimeter by centimeter across the front of a pair of jeans, feeling the denim fabric. Something coarse. Gritty. Rough to the touch. Shivers. Shivering. The air is cold and musty. Dank. Malodorous.
Wha…? Whe…? Confusion.
Hard. Rigid. Uncomfortable. Sharply aware now of a stiff, unforgiving surface below. Left hand immobile. Stuck. Lying pinned underneath. Useless.
Hurting. Pain. A severe migraine. Becoming increasingly conscious of a dull, throbbing ache in several places. Discomfort. Bruising.
Trying, with a marginal increase of strength, to bend the left knee upward ever so slightly, propping it up with the foot. Tortuous. Scooting it back along the surface below, making a scratching, dull scraping sound. Then…thump. Thump.
Heart rate increasing. Intensifying. Fluttering. Beginning to race. Breathing becomes rushed, quick, and convulsive.
Joseph A. Schiller is a high school social studies in Houston, TX USA, where he lives with his wife. He has previously published a fantasy novel in addition to several poems and short stories. Joseph is currently working on a non-fiction historical investigation, a graphic novel, and sci-fi novel.
She was staring intensely, fascinated by the contours of his ears, the way they seemed to pout outwards, the fleshiness of the lobes. Of course, she couldn’t scientifically prove any of this, but she was convinced that the shape of one’s ears could provide wonderful insights into a person’s character.
The crisp December air chilled her to the bone. She tightened her feathered boa around her neck and buttoned up her velvet jacket. “Vincent, you’re not cold?” she asked. Her companion loosened his neckerchief and shook it out. It was yellowed and covered in grimy splotches of linseed oil and pigment and reeked of turpentine. He mopped his brow with the filthy rag then stuffed it in his threadbare pocket. She noticed with squeamishness that his fingernails were unkempt and stained with half moons of gritty black charcoal and paint.
“Let’s have some Absinthe,” Vincent said to the waiter, “and bring some fried sardines, too. Paula,” he said turning to his companion, “you’ll see we have the freshest fish here in Arles.”
“It’s the Absinthe I’m worried about,” she said. “Isn’t it a little strong?”
“Ah no, and yes—just a little bitter like wormwood. It transports me and brings me to celestial heights. See that sky up there—that starry night sky? In my eyes these are not just stars. They are eyes themselves, pulsating eyes, portals to the great mysteries behind this flimsy sheet of paper we call the heavenly vault. I can see God Himself behind those stars…”
Paula remembered how Vincent had boasted how he had once been a preacher a while ago. She looked around at the café interior. In the gaslit gaudily painted room were strung bold colored yellow and red Chinese paper lanterns swaying in the breeze escaping from the gaps in the glass door. In the background, a musician was lazily punching out a tune on his concertina that he was pulling in and out as if kneading a lump of bread dough. He looked up briefly from his accordion and grinned at Vincent. “Do you like that tune?” Vincent asked.
“My Darling Clementine?” Paula asked incredulously.
“I told him you’re my American friend. He wanted to please you.”
The waiter arrived and placed two fluted glasses filled with a greenish liquor before them. He affixed a slotted spoon at the top of each glass, placed a cube of sugar in the center and covered it with a few shards of ice. The fried sardines were wrapped in day-old newspaper that was seeping with darkened oil stains. “Bon Appetit,” he said with assurance.
“How do I drink this? I don’t know…”
“Like this,” Vincent said demonstratively removing the spoon and downing the vile looking glass of garish liquor in a few quick gulps. Paula stared in wonderment as his Adam’s apple seemed to flap up and down excitedly like a bobbing sparrow’s head. She reached in her cloth bag and pulled out a pair of calipers. “What the deuce is that?” he asked.
“Just a craniometric tool, that’s all. It’s my hobby,” she replied impassively. “Something’s not quite right here. Be quiet, I must measure your head.” She positioned the instrument against the top of his ear and gauged its length, then stretched the hinges from the top of his brow to his chin. “No, no, this isn’t right,” she remarked. “Your lobes are disproportionately long and narrow. And there is a suspiciously thick, fleshy fold running vertically to the tip. Petulance. And heart trouble.” Vincent stared at her with his steel-blue eyes, which were becoming more limpid and unfocused. “And your brow. It’s clearly vestigial, this jutting Cro-Magnon protuberance. There is an abnormality in the mounds of color and order…”
“But I am an artist!”
“They are misshapen. And your pointed, narrow chin…” How could she tell him that this was a sure indication of a weak, unstable personality? The overpowering smell of stale fish was beginning to upset her. She was now twisting uncomfortably in her seat. “I’m sorry, Vinnie, but your faculties of reasoning are clearly impaired…”
Vincent’s eyes were glazed over by now and his florid complexion was becoming unnaturally flushed with a network of angry broken capillaries. He sank precipitously to his knees and buried his ginger-colored head in her lap pinning her arms down with his trembling hands.
“Let me go!” Paula cried with revulsion.
“Can’t you see? I love you—what does it matter what my head looks like, or my ears or my forehead. I must have you. I w-want to m-marry you!” He began to stutter and slur his speech incoherently while his features began to look as brutal and desperate as a madman’s.
“We hardly know each other!” shouted Paula with mortification.
“But we w-went walking in the c-cornfields today. Here in France, in this region, once you agree to walk with someone alone—surely, you s-see we have an understanding?”
“Let me go—you are mistaken! Look at you. You’re flushed and feverish. You’re not in your right mind!” She pulled herself away forcibly, knocking the table with its contents onto the floor, and ran out the café down the dimly lit street to her hotel room across the town square leaving her companion sobbing hysterically and thrashing about like a quivering knot of worms.
In the dead of night a few hours later, the town was awakened by a series of blood-curdling, savage animal shrieks that echoed up and down the terrified square. Early the following morning as Paula prepared for breakfast, she heard a knock on her door. “For you, Mademoiselle,” said the messenger, a young street urchin. She examined the sealed paper bag covered in grubby fingerprints and opened it reluctantly. Inside a small glass jar filled with greenish liquid smelling of strong alcohol was swimming the tip of a creased earlobe, clean, pink and spongy and drained of all blood.
Paula dropped the gift, grabbed her belongings and left on the first train headed north.
Author of the critically applauded debut novel Twelfth House, and Shaded Pergola, a new work of short poetry that features her original illustrations, E.C. Traganas has published in a myriad of literary journals and enjoys a varied career as a Juilliard-trained concert pianist & composer. https://www.elenitraganas.com
Gooed cheddar blanketed runny eggs. Deirdre aligned waffles edge to edge and lined crisped bacon in rows. She heard the shuffle of rigid soles enter the room and took her assigned seat.
Charles surveyed the steaming plates.
“What’s with the spread?”
“It’s all your favorites. I just, well, I should know better. I’m really sorry.”
“I hope so.” His hand swung at his coffee mug and froth puddled over the table and floor.
“Why is this so full? Jesus, Dee.”
“I’ll get it.”
She wiped the table and bent down, sopping up foam with a clenched jaw. Deirdre displayed a mannequin face when she stood up and smiled at his forehead. He grunted and toreinto the eggs and meat.
Her eyes counted the bites he took with a mouth gnawing and slurping, never hesitating. Deirdre didn’t eat breakfast, but today, a twinge coiled in her stomach, a hunger that normally dared to crawl out when the house was empty.
Before she could pour her morning tea, his fork, heavy with the last bits of yolk and pork, fell to the floor. His chair screeched. His mouth parted, full of air fighting to scream.
Charles crashed. She studied his tainted belly and wilted legs expiring by the second and giggled, peering into eyes desperate to seethe. The ache within her expanded, a space howling to be filled, and she could wait no longer.
Pancakes. She would make pancakes.
Margaret is a neuropsychologist and consultant who resides in California. She writes informative assessment reports by day and has been published in The Journal of Head Trauma and Rehabilitation as well as the abstract issue in Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology.
As my grandmother cooked matzo ball soup, I played in the tall yellow field. She hummed, watching me from behind the window. I had been told by her before: Never go into those woods! When she turned around, I moved farther down the forbidden path. Trees, once on the horizon, grew over me. I lost myself in the sounds of a whistling brook and the deep hum of hornets. The summer leaves turned a golden crisp, glimmering against the sunlight. Captivated by beauty, I hardly noticed rocks protruding from the ground. I tripped and fell into a green mass covered with bright chicory. In the strange form, I found eyes and lips mangled in the earth. A man’s face and body had become a part of the woods. I screamed and dug, searching for his heart, but all I found was a rib cage filled with mud and grime. Why was he here? I asked him over and over again. But everything was quiet. I stayed, waiting for any sign of life, but the man never moved. My grandmother called in the distance, “Katarina! Katarina!” I didn’t want to leave and never find him again. “Katarina! Katarina!” Returning to the canary grass, I ran toward the familiar cottage door. Pausing only once to look back at the horizon, but the woods behind me had disappeared.
Jamie Seibel’s work is forthcoming in Versification Poetry Zine, Wingless Dreamer, The Tiger Moth Review, Plum Tree Tavern, and Poetry Pacific. Her poem “War Stone” was published in a previous issue of The Chamber Magazine. This story is her first published micro-fiction.
BAM! Something hard hits me on the side of my head and I’m out.
I float in a murky sea for what seems like an eternity. I have no sense of time or distance, no thoughts, no emotions, just the sensation of water flowing through me as I slowly sink.
Then I hear a voice, thin and far away, as if it someone were calling through a string telephone. I see the lighted surface above me and I desperately struggle towards it.
I regain consciousness with my face pressed against cold concrete, my ears ringing, my head pounding from the blow. I open my eyes slowly. My vision is blurred but I can see that it is night-time. Apparently, I’ve been unconscious for—I don’t know—five, six hours? I can’t recall exactly what time it was when I was hit. Or what I was doing there. Or even who I am.
I hear the voice clearly now, a woman who is bent over beside me.
“Viktor,” she says, “Can you hear me?”
I nod groggily and struggle to get to my feet. She grabs my arm. “Careful,” she says as she pulls me up, “Let’s just take it easy until you regain your balance.”
I stand still for a minute, my legs wobbling, looking around in the darkness. My vision is beginning to clear and I try to figure out where I am. But nothing is familiar.
Except her. She is slender, brown hair, unremarkable at a glance. Her face is soft, with blue-white skin and deep-set eyes that hint of sadness. I know her from somewhere and she obviously knows my name. But the complete memory refuses to ignite.
“Do you think you can walk now?” she asks.
“I’m sorry,” I answer, “Have we met?”
“You don’t remember me?” She shakes her head and laughs softly, “I’m not surprised. It must be hard keeping track of all of us.”
“I’m Elsa,” she continues in a matter-of-fact tone, not bothering to extend a handshake.
I give her a confused look. She seems amazed at my denseness.
“Elsa?” she says, “Berlin? 2008? Ring a bell?”
Berlin! Yes! Now I see her face, staring out at me from a black-and-white photograph. I remember that she’s a single mother with two small children and that she’s earning a living as a waitress.
And Karl. For some reason, Karl also begins emerging from the fog in my head. I don’t know his last name, or even if his real name is Karl. He has an accent, maybe Eastern European, maybe South African, who knows? He shows up when there’s a problem.
“You’re a solution,” Karl tells me, “That’s what I pay you for. I don’t care about right or wrong, fair or unfair, none of that crap. All I want is a solution. As long as that’s you, we’re good.”
“Let’s start walking, Viktor,” Elsa says as she takes me by the arm and begins leading me forward.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
She ignores my question and follows with one of her own. “I’m curious, Viktor. Are you a religious person?”
“No,” I scoff.
She frowns thoughtfully, then continues.
“I used to be,” she says, “I was a good Catholic, believed in heaven and hell. I believed you pay for your sins when you die. My girlfriend, Jana, on the other hand, was a Buddhist. She believed you pay for past sins in your present life.”
She sighs, shakes her head.
“They’re all wrong,” she continues, “All the theologians and philosophers. They scrape off a few crumbs from the edge of a world they cannot see. And from those few crumbs they think they can extrapolate the entire length and breadth of the spiritual universe.’ It’s all so absurdly naïve.”
She pauses as if she’s waiting for all of this to sink in, then she resumes with finality.
“There’s no heaven or hell, at least not the neatly packaged version that Christians believe in. And it’s not about paying for your sins. It’s about maintaining a cosmic balance between good and evil.”
As we continue walking, it dawns on me that I have yet to see any recognizable landmarks. No houses, trees, sidewalks. But now we’ve stopped and we’re standing in front of a large windowless building with a single door. She turns to face me.
“That’s where your case becomes relevant,” she says.
I study her face again and finally realize who she is. I see her walking out of her apartment in a waitress uniform, a smile on her face as if she had just kissed her children goodbye. I am on a rooftop across the street with a Russian SV-98 sniper rifle. I frame her face in the crosshairs of the scope. A single shot from 250 meters out.
She places her hand on the door and pushes it open.
“An evil act creates an imbalance that has to be restored. That’s what we’re here for,” she pauses for a second, then shoves me through the door.
“Restoration,” she says, walking in behind me and closing the door.
We are in a dimly lit room. A small group of people are gathered in the shadows along the back wall.
“You probably remember Alfredo. Miami 2019.”
She nudges me towards the group of people.
“And Sean, London, 2015,” she says, “They all want to meet you.”
Invisible hands reach out from the crowd. As they pull me towards them, I hear the voice of Karl from years ago.
“You’re good, kid,” he said, “You have no empathy. I like that. You’ll make a lot of money. But enjoy it now, because nobody gets old in this business. You start getting old, you start slipping, you start making mistakes. You become a problem instead of a solution. Then one day, you’re walking down the street, and out of nowhere—BAM!”
Louis Kummerer is a technical writer working and living in Phoenix, Arizona (USA).
One does not set fire to a world which is already lost.
“Shall I stay with you?”
“No, that won’t be necessary. Thank you. I’ll be fine.”
“I will be right outside the door. Just call if you need me.”
In one of the room’s corners, a man sits motionless, facing the wall, his hands resting on his knees.
The visitor sits down at a table in the center of the room. He takes a folder from his briefcase and puts it on the table. He sits in silence for a few minutes before speaking.
“Benjamin,” he says.
The man neither moves nor responds.
“Benjamin,” he calls again, this time a little louder.
The man turns his head and looks over his shoulder at the doctor.
“Please, come join me here at the table.”
Benjamin turns back to the wall. The doctor begins to hum a lullaby. Benjamin turns his head again and looks at the doctor.
“I know that,” he says.
“I know you do. Why don’t you come over here and sit with me?”
“I don’t want to.”
The doctor continues humming the tune and pretends to be reading Benjamin’s file.
“You shouldn’t do that,” he says. “It’s not right.”
“What’s not right? Come over here and sit with me and tell me what’s not right.”
Benjamin rises and walks to the table. The doctor pours two glasses of water and places one in front of his patient.
“Please, sit down.”
“Water puts out fire, you know.”
The doctor remains silent.
“But I like ice better.” The man leans forward. “I dream about it sometimes.”
“You do? What do you dream about ice?”
Benjamin sits still, looking at his glass of water.
“What do you dream about ice?”
He looks up at the doctor.
“I don’t have to tell you.”
“That’s true; you don’t have to tell me. It’s just that I’m curious.”
“Killed a cat once,” he says, pleased with himself.
The doctor smiles.
“Ah, but they say that satisfaction brought it back.”
“Do you know what an ice pick is?”
“An ice pick? Yes, I think so.”
“There was one in my dream, a long one with a very sharp point. It had a red handle. He kept stabbing a big block of ice with it, over and over and over again, but only very tiny pieces came off.”
“Benjamin, he who? Who was stabbing the block of ice?”
Benjamin does not respond.
“Do you know who was stabbing the ice?”
Benjamin repeatedly rubs his upper front teeth over his bottom lip.
“No, I don’t.”
“Are you sure? Was it you? Were you stabbing the block of ice?”
Benjamin bends forward and rests his head on his crossed hands on the table. He is quiet for several minutes.
“It was made of lace.”
“My mother’s dress, it was made of lace, beautiful, coffee-colored lace.”
He sits up and looks at the doctor.
“He burned it.”
“Who burned it?”
“How do you know he burned it?”
Benjamin begins to rub the top of the table with the fingers of his left hand.
“I was with him. He made me watch. He dug a shallow hole and put the dress in it and set it on fire. ‘Daddy,’ I said, ‘I don’t want to be here.’ But he would not let me leave.”
“Do you know why he burned your mother’s dress?”
“Can you tell me?”
“I think you will feel better if you tell me.”
“Benjamin, you can tell me. It’s all right to tell me. I won’t tell anyone else. It will be just our secret.”
Benjamin stands up and walks back to his chair in the corner of the room.
The doctor writes some notes, places Benjamin’s file back in his briefcase, rises, and leaves.
Benjamin begins to sway in his chair, rocking slowly back and forth to the rhythm of a lullaby buzzing inside his head.
Gershon Ben-Avraham writes short stories and poetry. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek” (Image), received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. His short story “All’s Over, Then” appeared June 23, 2022, in The Chamber Magazine and was nominated for a Pushcart Award.
Jess slumps into her seat, pushing in her earbuds and pressing play. Loud music floods her mind and she closes her eyes, letting her head tip back as the train starts moving.
“What a day,” she mutters to herself as exhaustion sweeps through her, her limbs heavy and sore. It’s a forty-minute journey home and she’s tempted by the thought of a nap. She cracks open an eye and pops her head over the seat, scanning the rest of the carriage. Her head swivels.
It’s empty. Perfect.
Jess sits back and, after setting an alarm on her phone, closes her eyes again. Her heavy eyelids block out the harsh fluorescent lights on the train. She lets the gentle bob of the moving carriage sway her into sleep.
“Just a quick nap,” she whispers before letting herself tumble into darkness.
And then he appears, stepping through from the adjoining carriage. He spots her immediately, asleep and vulnerable. He did not come this way with any intentions at first but now, a dark impulse throbs inside his mind. An opportunity. There is a brief flicker of hesitation in his movements but… no. She should not have fallen asleep alone. Silly girl.
His mind set, the man slinks down the aisle, sliding himself onto the seat next to Jess without disturbing her. He looks at her a bit closer then; her mahogany skin is set against the inky black outside the window, her long hair tucked under the collar of her jacket, her mouth slightly parted as she snores gently. He sees her earbuds and knows she won’t hear him. She’s wearing a thick jacket with her arms crossed but he knows that some gentle manoeuvring will open her up to him.
He licks his lips in anticipation, casting one last look around the carriage to check they’re alone.
It’s empty. Perfect.
If she wakes up, he can just leave. No one is around to believe her. The thought emboldens him. The man reaches out, slowly, and starts unzipping her jacket.
Her eyes snap open. But it’s not Jess who’s awake.
She stands so suddenly that the man falls backwards, out of the chair and into the next set of seats.
He yelps and scrambles, trying to gather himself and his set of excuses at the ready. But when he looks at her again, all the words fall from his mind.
She draws herself up to her full height – she is tall, taller than Jess – and steps into the aisle. Her limbs stretch and her face warps into something else, something unnatural. The train lights flicker wildly above them while the carriage rocks on the tracks. The man is immobile, mouth open, eyes wide as he watches her lean forward. Before he can run, she slams her palm against his forehead and holds it there. His jaw hangs, his back arches, he spreads his arms. He could not pull away if he wanted to.
Words fall from her mouth, both in a whisper and a scream. He does not understand them, they are not of this world. She unfurls her wings, blacker than the night sky, blacker than anything he has ever seen; as though they absorb the light around them. But it is her eyes. Her eyes.
They pool with red until it overflows, spilling down her cheeks. A dark crimson, the colour of blood. Her eyelids are gone and she does not blink. She does not let him look away. He is transfixed. Terrified. The zipper of her jacket dangles from where he had pulled it down.
When she speaks again, he can understand her.
“You will feel everything you have put out into this world,” she says, her voice double-layered as though two people are speaking in tandem. And he does. He feels everything.
She releases him abruptly, dropping him onto the seat. She shrinks back to her regular size, back to Jess. Her face pulls itself back together, the whites of her eyes appearing again. She looks at him flatly.
“I’m sorry,” he whimpers, covering his mouth with one shaky hand. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”
He repeats himself even as he scrambles away, fleeing to the next carriage, or maybe the next after that. Jess watches him leave and picks up the earbuds that fell out of her ears. She settles back into her seat.
“What a creep,” she mutters, popping them back in.
“Agreed,” the demon housed inside her replies. Jess closes her eyes again and drifts off to sleep.
Storm has worked as a ghostwriter of romance stories and is currently writing her first full-length novel. She has a soft spot for horror and the ‘final girl’. In her spare time, she likes to write flash/micro fiction on her blog – http://www.stormlomax.wordpress.com.
A finger protrudes his mouth, nails claw around his elastic lips.
A new vegetable came out, they said it was made in a lab, somewhere in Nebraska. The color of fuchsias.
One fist emerges, small but bigger than the last I saw. Covered in saliva. And blood, the color of fuchsias.
They transported them out in masses, on planes, trucks and trains. Glittering with green stems, they rolled them out in grocery stores, Costcos, convenience stores, farmers markets.
The head pops out, it stretches and rips the corners of his mouth, screeching and kicking. People run away, as if it’s going to get them. We all know who it’s trying to get. I stay and call 911.
Tom Cruise was the vegetables’ first spokesperson. He came up on the tv screen and did some actiony stuff, when Netflix first started doing advertisements. They gave the vegetable a name, Turaples, bad marketing, I thought. But most people liked it.
Next is the body, naked torso, flailing and thrusting like a worm. It wedges its way through the man’s mouth. The paramedics arrive and sedate him. His eyes fall shut. Maybe they’ll save him. I think. I hope. I try not to look away.
Everyone told us the Turaples would relieve our stress. One bite and our worries would dissipate into the thick tainted air. Our anxiety would wash away with the acid rain. Parents packed them in our lunch bags. “A Turaple a day keeps the doctor away.”
It’s chewing on his face now. They all come out with teeth, it gnaws on his cheek. Paramedics get guns now, for instances like this. If they get there fast enough, it can be useful. A young man fumbles through his medical bag. His aim is weak and his hands are trembling. “Just do it…just do it,” I whisper.
The first case occurred somewhere on the East Coast. Initially, no link was made to the Turaples. It was ruled out as a freakish virus so we all quarantined ourselves until scientists sensed a pattern. My father, a religious Turaple eater, died 18 years after his first consumption.
The man with the gun shoots. I can tell he’s never shot a gun before. I’m pretty sure he did it with his eyes closed. He misses the creature and shoots the man right in the skull. The man is already limp from the sedation but his head jolts violently, blood with bits of brain spray the sidewalk. It looks like froot loops that have been left in milk for too long.
My friend Betsy got it prematurely. She ate a lot of Turaples. Luckily, she had symptoms so the doctors caught the parasite growing inside of her and gave her treatment. The treatment doesn’t always work and it’s a horrible process. Betsy spent her days hovered over the toilet bowl, puking out the parasite. When she wasn’t doing that she was in the hospital being studied for future treatment plans. She’s alive but she’s still eating Turaples. We don’t talk much anymore.
The police pull up.
“Who gave the rookie the gun?”
“We’re all rookies with the gun,” a paramedic is holding their hand to the man’s head, to catch the blood spilling from the bullet hole. He’s dead, I think. I walk away before the body bag.
Ten years ago they stopped the campaigns that told us to eat Turaples and started campaigns that told us to stop. The Turaples are addictive. I saw it in my parents and the way they itched. It’s hard to escape once you’re hooked. People tried hypnosis, ate other vegetables, and popped pills prescribed by their physicians.
I walk home through the quiet suburban streets. For a moment, I forget. I see the maple trees. I feel the autumn sun on my back. I spot a squirrel peeking around a white picket fence. Then I pass Carly James’ house and I remember that her wife died in the summer.
My mother still eats Turaples. She hasn’t cut down as much as she says. I know she eats them in the backyard at midnight, during her drive to work, on her way to pick me up from school.
She must be gardening because the screen door is propped open. I call for her and walk down the back hall to the bedrooms. There’s a Turaple on the carpet, a chunk bitten out from the side.
She’s lying on the bed with her parasite.
Chunks of her flesh, gone.
Chloe Lawrence is graduating in May with a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing from Montclair State University. In the fall, she will be attending the MFA in Creative Writing program at American University. She writes dark fiction and nonfiction for school and in her spare time. When she’s not writing, she will read anything she can get her hands on.
A drunk Falstaff lay upon the kitchen floor. Beside it, Angel’s father. Another dozen or so cans of beer scattered across the kitchen table, as if a battle had taken place, and the cans were the crumpled carcasses of soldiers emptied of their sprits. The body of the living man twisted in fractured ways. His face held both grimace and smile. A dribble of spit crept from the corner of his mouth and fastened onto the collar of his shirt. His snore droned like the throated chants of monks. His Angel watched him from the door.
She put her schoolbooks on the counter and righted a fallen chair. Each can clunked like a deadened bell as she dropped them into the trash. The dishrag gummed with the dried beer. Angel rinsed the cloth multiple times before the tabletop was clean. All through this, the man did not move. She wiped the spittle from his chin.
The kitchen in a new order, Angel took a beer from the refrigerator and sat at the table. She opened the beer and drank. Angel sagged in the chair, like old when sat in the sun, and left. Life moved around her. She was the immobile center.
Her father began to roll to one side. He moaned, almost as if he were the dead losing the last glimpse of light before the descent into the underworld, then he splayed, arms and legs askant, crucified upon the kitchen tile.
“Jesus,” Angel said.
She knelt beside her father.
“OK, old man,” she said, “let’s get up.”
The man’s head rested on his daughter’s lap for a moment as she worked her arms beneath him. With a heave, he sat up. Angel put his hands on the seat of the chair and coaxed him onto his knees, as if he were in prayer.
“On three,” Angel said. “One. Two.”
Her father stood on his own.
“I’m fine,” he said.
The young woman steadied him.
“I just need to some sleep.”
“I’m going to tell you about my day.”
The man and the woman tacked from the table to the counter to the doorframe to the hallway.
“I scored a perfect on my history test.”
Her father raised his hand to pause. He breathed heavily. Sweat matted his hair.
“I should make the honor roll again this semester.”
They continued to the bedroom door.
“I’m probably going to get elected to the May Day court. Maybe even the Queen.”
One step into the room, the drunk man’s knees buckled. Angel pushed him headlong onto the bed.
“The volleyball team should make it to the tournament.”
She laid him out, as if for a viewing.
“Your mom would have been proud.”
His breath labored. Angel smoothed his hair.
“I love you,” he said.
“I know. I love you, too.”
Angel kissed her father on the cheek.
Richard Stimac has published a full-length book of poetry Bricolage (Spartan Press), over forty poems in Michigan Quarterly Review, Faultline, and december, and others, nearly two-dozen flash fiction in Blue Mountain, Good Life, Typescript, and three scripts. He is a poetry reader for Ariel Publishing and a prose reader for The Maine Review.
Jeb Trahan slips his seventh card into his hand, fills his spade flush. Heated betting has taken out three cowboys. Now only Tag Donnelly, bully and bushwhacker, faces him.
“First, I’ll take his bankroll,” Trahan muses. “Then end his malignant life. For Medah. And all peaceful citizens in the territory.” He has high confidence from his long years of Army frontier patrols, and barracks gambling.
“Bet five.” Donnelly’s coin skitters over the table’s felt cloth.
“And… raise five,” Trahan responds. But how? A quick bullet to the head? Or slow and lingering hurt, stake him out in the desert sun?
Donnelly meets the raise. “Soldier boy’s bluffing.” Malicious grin. “Kin always see it in their eyes.”
Trahan hesitates. The blood stain on the floor beside him diverts his attention. Double armed, purplish, ingrained in the ash wood floorboards, the spatter mystifies onlookers. Some times it shows crusty or gauzy; other times iridescent under kerosene lighting. Irish Kate, abovestairs madam, swears one arm will indicate the gentle cowboys, where her girls can feel safe. Defrocked Reverend says it’s an omen of divine retribution. “Ain’t nobody can know its methods.”
Trahan knows the stain as a hard reminder of his present business: the blood of Medah. Mescalero Apache. Spirit walker, Army scout. His friend. Back-shot by the coward, Donnelly, and bled out here with noone to help him. Now to receive justice for his wandering soul.
A slow hanging from the oak tree near his shebang at the edge of town, Trahan decides. At home. Where he can keep eternal company with the monsters of his night dreams.
He spreads his winning hand.
Donnelly leans over his chair arm to spit. “Lotsa time ‘fore you leave – beat up or broke. I ain’t ‘customed to losing.”
Donnelly stiffens as the blotch shifts and sparks. A thick mist rises, binds his gun hand like a copper cable. Ropey tendrils enwrap his mouth and face. With a muffled scream he lurches onto the table, dead eyes staring.
Trahan eases the mounded winnings toward the saloon’s owner. “Fit in new flooring. I’ll carry the medicine board to Medah’s tribal hunting grounds for burial.”
Gary Thomson is retired in Ontario, where he still enjoys sitting back for a showing of a spaghetti western, or a John Ford classic. His flash / short fiction / commercial magazine articles have appeared in various outlets.
We shut the door behind us with haste, locking it, barricading it, and with a bit of my magic left I used my barrier spell to enhance the door so that the monsters won’t come in and kill us with deadly silence. As far as this room is concerned, across is one bed for two people, one shower at the end of the room, one tv next to the bed, and thankfully no windows. I sat down on the bed taking off my jacket, my shirt, and my pants only to reveal horrible wounds all over my body I winced trying to get comfortable in the bed. “Damn… Still have a lot to learn, don’t I August?”
“Of course you do, idiot!!!” said the white rabbit preparing a healing kit from his backpack. With a sigh, August breathed in and out, cooling off from his frustrations. “…Listen Luke, just because you have shield magic doesn’t mean you have to be oh so confident on striking our enemies, especially if we don’t know who’s our enemy.” With the med-kit set, the white rabbit prepped up the gauze, combining it with healing herbs and antidotes. “Now, I want you to turn back against me and lean forward. Don’t worry about your arms I’ll get them as soon as I’m done with your back. And before you ask about my quick healing, it’s all kaput thanks to your recklessness.”
“Thank you for being honest with me August. I’m real grateful.” I said, I winced again, cool and pain lighting up my senses. “Ack! God that hurt…!”
“Please hold still Luke!” August replied while stitching up my back wounds, his hands carefully treading over my back with one part being patched up after another. “Geez Luke… You really need to take care of yourself out there, you’re not a crash dummy! Besides, we were completely outnumbered and didn’t stood a chance you know? Honestly…” His bunny ears drooped down, “We couldn’t afford to lose you Luke, you’re too invaluable to us. We are your friends, best friends, friends since our folks took us to our favorite daycare center since we were kids. And for you to lose your life right now…” He says, closing his eyes thinking about the times he, Luke, and the others spend time together as well as thinking about what would happen if things goes horribly wrong in the future.
“Look August, you’re right about me reckless and everything…” I said, I can hear him crying a bit behind my back as it affected me a bit. “Never mind, you’re doing a good job by the way. If you keep this up, even Patru would be proud of you Augy.” Suddenly, August who’s been healing me hugged me from behind so tightly bursting out tears on end.
“I’m… I’m not gonna let anything happen to you Luke! Not Midorou, not Solson, not Hendric, not Carro, and not even my Patru! I’m gonna keep you all alive no matter what!!!” He says, it’s as though he’ keeping it all inside and now’s the right time to say whatever he’s got bottled up inside. “And I promise you, I will do everything I can to keep you all alive and safe so we can play games, eat yummy food, and make it to graduation day! You got that Luke? I don’t want you to be reckless again alright?”
I thought hard on what August said to me… “You’re not wrong… I know I want to protect everyone especially my friends and family, but even I have so much to learn from my powers. And with my state now I couldn’t even hold out an entire mob of those creepozoids. So in that case, I’ll try my best to keep an eye out before I act.” I said rubbing his floppy ears to comfort him. “Although, just make sure you keep an eye out for me as well ok?”
“Mmm, fair enough Luke.” August says, with my back completely patched up he gets out of bed as he walks towards the bathroom. “Give me a second Luke, let me wash my face and we’ll go to sleep alright?”
“Alright, I’ll just lay down and close my eyes and have beautiful nightmares.” I said, I laid on my back carefully while stretching my four patched up limbs which were treated like a chew toy. I stare at ceiling along with the fan that’s placed on top, I wouldn’t worry less if it’ll fall on top of me thanks to my shield magic. Slowly by the second I closed my eyes thinking about what do to when I get together with Midorou again. “My wolf in shiny green armor… I hope I get to hug you again…” I said, off I go drifting off to sleep. Bless this overnight sanctuary.
Mr. Soler-Ramirez writes: “I’m Jose Soler-Ramirez, and I aspire to be an indie horror novelist. When I was young, I’ve always been curious about horror and scary content like Creepypasta for example. However, I’m also fond of the 80s decades as well as anything that involves nostalgia and the music genre synthwave.
“Recently I have been seeing lots of analog horror stories which I find fascinating, thus gave me an inspiration to make “Nostamania” a novel series that takes place in the year 208X which involves a group of college students are solving a complex mystery while going face to face with monsters that are inspired by internet horror stories as well as mythos and real world objects.
“Throughout my life I’ve always been thinking about what to do next, what to make for lunch for work, what to wear after shower, what games should I play or what to think in my mind, etc. I always wonder what’s going on in my mind only to have myself drifting off to daydreams, but despite of that I always have one thing in mind which is my novel idea, and the more I think about it the more I can focus on my series.”
Heather walked on the road that passed the meadow, the one place she remembered the most from her time with Travis, the boy now laid down under in his family cemetery.
Gone in a week at Seaton South from a virus. Alone in the night.
The enormity of her tragedy, signified by Travis’s death, weighed on her mind. Today marked the second anniversary of his passing. He was the only tie she had to what existed before the hurricane transformation of her community. A change that was slowly breaking her. The pain in her chest after Travis was intense for weeks. Sleep was hard, dreamless, with rapid, usually unstoppable thoughts.
She researched broken heart syndrome and went into therapy. The therapist recommended she go to her GP. Unfortunately, she canceled the first appointment and missed the second. On the third, she struck a particular providence. The EKG was expected, and after a referral to a cardiologist for further testing, they found no abnormalities. Afterward, the physician recommended a follow-up in six months and for Heather to discuss dealing with her sleep disorder with the therapist.
His grave faces the outskirts of Kyle, the city that was only a little town thirty years ago. Situations change like the temperature when a blue norther blows down from the Canadian prairies. In the morning of life, one could wake to endless plains dotted with scrub brush and cedars; in the afternoon of existence, you wake from a nap to see the surroundings transformed into a labyrinth of concrete and corrugated steel.
She looked toward the solitary live oak at the crest of the hill overlooking the meadow. It stands now sick and fading.
She suspected poison again. The land was expensive, therefore, profitable. Although the tree was a historical landmark, it stood in the way of speculators and landowners wishing to embrace their offers.
Before Heather was born, the ranchers had already sold out. Now the horse farms were bailing out for the bucks. So now, the holdouts are under pressure to sell.
Heather awkwardly stepped through the rusting barbed wire fence, pulling her green knapsack behind her. She moved through the tangle of brambles to reach the meadow and walked toward the live oak.
She felt it was time to do the work here. The Hunter’s Moon was tonight, which burned brightly in the sky shortly after Autumn Equinox. For Heather, the Moon is vital in understanding its linkage with the past, one’s ancestors, and in particular, those close who were now gone. Heather spoke a little about it with her therapist, who had a sympathetic understanding of what Heather wanted to do to heal herself. Heather believed the time of this Moon was an opportunity for catharsis, a transformative experience that would help her recover from the loss of Travis. In so doing, they discussed change, rebirth, and the need to move on.
Heather felt that Laura was different and younger, perhaps a punk rocker or a Goth in an earlier time. However, Laura did have multiple ear piercings, and in a couple of sessions, Heather spotted a glimpse of tattoos exposed at the edge of Laura’s collar.
After initial hesitation by Heather, they got along very well. Laura asked the right questions—the kind parents and friends avoided, such as How are you feeling? Where do you see yourself in the future?
Everyone has a past, as now do I, Heather thought, believing finally heard.
Especially important was in asking: What is your day like tomorrow? Heather wanted to hear these questions during unbearable sorrow and loss, mainly when people did not listen to her. Still, though, Laura was sometimes not asking the right question for her to answer. But she was patient when she could unveil herself to the therapist.
She reached the oak, caressing the scaly texture of its grooves and ridges with tenderness. She grew sad when she saw the bark crumble to her touch, indicating that the oak was dying. Heather opened her knapsack to pull out what she needed for the night. She spread the white cotton sheet, tapering down the corners with stones, and brought out the things she needed for the night.
After settling down, she fanned herself with her grandmother’s fan. The weather is hot in October, although cool down enough to be comfortable in time for the Moon’s rising.
By nightfall, the temperature had dropped. In the meantime, Heather played music she and Travis liked. One song, in particular, was a country song by Jerry Jeff Walker, “About Her Eyes.” Her friend Billy played it often on his guitar, signing it to her late into the starry Central Texas night. Something magical about it was his voice, and playing the haywire background melody with his bottleneck took Heather to a different place.
In this time of sorrow and memory of loss, the song brought comfort, helping Heather narrow her focus to making an invocation.
To make this and achieve its intent was not anything elaborate. Heather wanted to say goodbye to Travis and for his spirit to hear her.
Starting with her mothers’ books on magic and searching for more information at the magical bookstores in Austin and Dripping Springs, Heather believed she had learned enough to get the ritual correctly. She feared opening the door to the malevolent, yet was willing to take the risk. As darkness began to fall while sitting under the live oak, Heather felt safe.
Heather chose rose quartz they found together on a trip to Arkansas to summon Travis and an Amethyst to protect her. The crystals lay in front of her on the sheet.
When the orange Moon rose above the horizon, Heather recited the memorized incantation and waited.
Heather received a response from Travis.
She screamed and ran from the meadow.
What Travis told Heather was not what she expected—and wanted—to hear.
Because the dead know to ask the right questions
Mike Lee is a writer and editor in New York City. Work published and upcoming in many journals and anthologies. His book, The Northern Line, is available on Amazon.
“How…?” My shaking fingertips grazed its coarse fibers. “How did I get down?”
Cool tiles pressed against the backs of my naked arms. My eyelids fluttered at the fluorescent light bulb swinging back and forth above my head, throwing shadows along the bathroom walls. A rope dangled from it, its end looking like it’d been chewed off by one of those giant New York City rats.
I swallowed. My throat didn’t hurt.
Blisteringly cold hands glided over my cheeks, my forehead. My skull rubbed along the tile’s grout lines as I tilted my head back, my neck arching–locking–at the pale face staring into mine.
Scars and bruises gilded their skin. Their short, cropped hair stood on spiky ends. Their lips were sewn shut with bleached thread, and their brown eyes were so deep, so liquid, I thought muddy droplets might pour from their tear ducts at any moment.
They were me, and I was them. I saw through them, my ghost.
Those scars had once been mine.
Those bruises; once mine, too.
I glanced down at my bare arms, my legs exposed by ripped jean shorts. I had none of those painful markings. Not from my abuser’s lashing tongue. Not from years of wrestling for her unquenchable approval. Not from my false conviction that her emotions rested on my broken shoulders. It was as if my old skin had molted away; fallen from a cocoon spun by another’s cruelty.
“Get up.” My ghost’s words sunk into my ears, though their sewn lips didn’t move. “Get up. You’re free.”
Free. I sucked a deep breath into my lungs.
Free. I clawed at the rope digging into my throat.
Free. A knife glinted in my ghost’s hand. They slid its teeth beneath the cord and cut it away.
Rubbing my throat, I lay on the floor in wonderment as my ghost faded into the air, sucked away into another space, another time, another life. I stood up, clutching the rope in one hand, and stumbled over to a cracked mirror hanging above a porcelain sink.
Into the shards I looked, no bruises on my neck, as I mouthed my answered prayer: “Butterfly.”
N.V. Devlin writes dark and speculative fiction to better make sense of the world. N.V. was the 1st Runner-Up for Indecent Magazine‘s 2022 Queer Quivers Contest and has had or will have work appear in the Creepy Podcast, Tales from the Moonlit Path, and Rebellion LIT’s The Start anthology. Some favorite authors include Edgar Allan Poe, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Joyce Carol Oates, Shirley Jackson, and Neil Gaiman, and N.V. aspires to someday write even a fraction as well as them. Find N.V. on Instagram (@nvdevlin).
Maybe you don’t have a place in your heart for this adorable (?) little fuzzball, but if you know anything about her (we think it’s a her), please contact us. We can’t figure out what she eats. You can see the teeth on her, but I’ve never seen her so much as nibble a donut.
Technically, she’s Mom’s. But Mom is dead and our place is “no pets”. She died on Thanksgiving, rest her soul. We swoop in for turkey (NOT politics) and then she keels over in the cranberry sauce, flips over and tangles with the bird. Cranberry sauce down her best dress—looked like somebody shot her. Last thing she ever said wasn’t about us, it was about the fuzzball, how it was almost “done with her”. Crazy.
Ma loved the thing, called it something that sounded like “Grinny”, but who knows since we could never-ever get my mom to wear her teeth. Grinny is still here and likes loud white noise. She hides by the AC, but likes AC/DC even better. Ma used to put on my old tapes at breakfast. The neighbors didn’t like that, but maybe yours won’t judge. Running the blender and dishwasher and microwave all at once works pretty okay too tho. (Pro tip.)
Don’t agitate Grinny. If things are too quiet, that’s what you get. Turns everything out and upside-down. Comes from behind the fridge and goes for the trash, couch cushions, potted plants. Juney saw her half lodged in the toilet bowl last week when we were in, cleaning the place. Seemed like she was looking for something but I don’t think she found it.
Sometimes Grinny disappears for as long as a week. When it happened to Ma, she said she missed the company, but she got sleep.
“Why would anyone want this monster around?” you’re asking. Well, that’s the thing. When you pet her you feel… good. Like anything is possible. Her fur isn’t soft the way it looks (it’s prickly like rows of Xactos), but you get used to that. And then it’s all good. Everything is really good. You could sit there, and sit there, just moving your arms rhythmically, never needing to be anywhere else, or do anything else. I don’t know how to explain it, but thinking thoughts and being places seems stupid when you have your hands in that fur.
We can’t get Grinny to eat anything out of a can. Not anything out of a bag either. We tried dog food. Chinese. Primanti’s. Mineo’s. We’ve done everything we know how to do and we’re starting to worry. She’s getting weird. Okay, weirder. Restless. Maybe she’s almost “done with” us too.
Anyway, call or text or whatever, and do it soon. We’re tired, and worn out, and I have to get back to work, and the estate’s not settled, and Juney doesn’t look so good. Like maybe she’s coming down with something. And right when it’s almost time for Christmas.
Douglas’s story “Poppy’s Poppy” is on the preliminary ballot for a Bram Stoker Award this year, and “Year Six” appeared on Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror #14 recommended reading list after making the preliminary ballot last year. He is co-editing The Midnight Zone’s upcoming first edition, Novus Monstrum, which is jam-packed with modern legends of weird fiction, but is also a showcase of new talent. Read his stories in Lucent Dreaming, LampLight, Penumbric, Diet Milk, and Tales from the Moonlit Path, or listen on Bloody Disgusting’s Creepy podcast or Tales to Terrify.
I took the VCR tape from his grey shaking hands, his nails clipped but chipped; yellow. Veins protruding, pumping proudly beneath the skin of his hands, lower arms, and neck. I studied his face; the sockets of his eyes were sunken and dark. His eyes were red, but not bloodshot red, they were more of a dull crimson. They looked dry and painful.
“How long have you got?” I asked more out of interest than concern; years of war reporting and hardnosed political journalism dulling and hardening my sensitivities toward death and mayhem.
“Not long,” he answered without emotion, “maybe a couple of days, a week max.”
“That’s a shame,” I said, “I’m sorry.”
Aldric nodded slightly. “Sailor Vee,” he said, immediately selling me a beaming smile, instantly transforming him from a dying old man into a charming, charismatic dandy.
He really would have been something in his day, I thought, somewhat alarmed and uncomfortable that even now, he still could turn on the charm, and draw people toward him.
“You mean, c’est la vie?” I corrected.
“Oh no,” Aldric answered with a thin smile, lisp, and twinkle. “Sailor Vee always asked how long I had. But he knew the answer well enough. He was such a lovely, lovely man, a Chief Warrant Officer at the naval base on Treasure Island. I used to call him my own personal Rear Admiral, lower half, of course. He’s gone now. Like all the others, all gone!”
Above his wounded smile, I could see a tear welling in the corner of his right eye. His eyes remained parched and sore. The tear was yellow, his liver playing one last indignity on the old man.
“This tape, this cassette,” I asked, “it tells your story?”
“Oh, yes, it tells my story. It tells all my friends’ stories, chronicling our demise, both here and in New York. I had friends and lovers in both San Francisco and New York. And before the 80s we had a blast. Lived the high life! The colour, the creativity, the gentle souls, and free love. Then AIDS came along and changed the world, ravaging the community we fed on. Then it ravaged us. It decimated us. One by one we expired; dried up, turned to dust.”
“So, what do you want me to do with this tape?” I asked.
Aldric looked at me, his face open and relaxed. “I want you to tell our story. I want you to play this tape on your television program. I want the world to know that vampires existed. That we lived, we killed, we loved, and we died. That we were not mythical! I have given my executor instructions that you are to be notified of my death. You are not permitted to play the tape before then—understand?”
“Yes, of course,” I reassured, “but Aldric, one thing I don’t understand is that HIV, is and was contained mainly within the gay and drug communities. How did you and your friends contract the disease?”
“Oh, come on, Lester,” Aldric scorned, “you are not that naive. We are, or at least were, creatures of opportunity. We were creatures of convenience. We targeted those who would not have been missed: the addicts, the young gay men who may have run away from home. And Lester my darling, I may be old and close to death, but only a moment ago, I sensed your loins stir! We are androgynous, we are bisexual, we are vampires, and we will be gone very soon.”
“There are highly effective treatments these days,” I responded, “drugs that suppress the virus, boost the immune system. Why don’t they work on you? Didn’t work on your friends?”
“I’m not a doctor, nor scientist, but the viral suppressants kill us quicker than the complications of HIV. Our choice was simple. Die almost immediately by taking the drugs—believe me, many chose this path. After I contracted AIDS, I had nothing to live for, except, that is, to tell our story. And this is where you come in, Lester.”
Aldric attempted to stand, his elbows struggling to lock as he pulled himself out of the chair. His arms shook, and he wobbled. I rushed over, bending over to support him. He leaned forward, his arms embracing me, pulling me close. I smelt his cologne; I felt his breath on my throat. I wasn’t afraid.
“You would have been easy,” Aldric whispered in my ear. “Very easy.”
Roly Andrews lives in Nelson, NZ, in his spare time he enjoys tramping. After many years of practicing, he is still trying to learn to play the trombone! A champion for everyone, he has mentored rough sleepers and supported people affected by suicide. He advocates for the rights of people living with disabilities.