“Bedguard” Horror by Josiah Furcinitti

Man falling into darkness from "Bedguard" by Josiah Furcinitti

Maybe he’s cheating.

The emptiness which has grown between them each night, inch by inch, is a dark gray storm cloud on a beach day, pregnant with the possibility not of rain but of something far worse than a ruined vacation, a sign that a storm is on the horizon; that trouble is indeed here. Each night waking with her legs and feet cold due to the deprivation of his constantly warm body against hers, something to which she had grown accustomed in their marriage, is a thunderclap booming in the hollow places of her mind, a crashing boom saying that her husband of fifteen years no longer loves her, no longer finds comfort in her arms, can no longer be satisfied with her love for him.

She lays on her bed on this January evening, having woken up an hour ago with her usual 2 AM full bladder (it’s like the thing is on a schedule, she thinks every time she wakes and sees the clock), body and heart feeling tense and heavy, bogged down by her anxiety. Though she has been trying for the past hour, she is unable to get back to sleep.

As she struggles against the intrusion of this horrid explanation of her husband’s distance, the voice of her therapist echoes in her brain, assuring her that, “such thoughts are manifestations of your anxiety,” telling her that, “such imaginings, especially based on such scant “evidence” (Anna could picture her clear as day doing the air quotes with her fingers), while they ought not be merely pushed away (and here, doing a pushing gesture; therapy with Dr. Matthews was no mere auditory event), they also ought not be given right to run amuck in your mind to such an extent that they are keeping you up and hurting your relationship with your husband.”

But of course, it wasn’t just the distance in the bed, though that alone would’ve been enough to freak her out. It was also the far-off, almost haunted look in his eyes when he was “zoning” as he put it; it was the way his answers seemed shorter and more terse; it was the way he wasn’t nearly as playful with her as he always had been up to this point.

“Oh, but those could be symptoms of so many different things!” Mind-Matthews countered, “Stress at work, trouble entering REM sleep, a strained family relationship,” she went on, the possibilities pouring out of her mouth smooth as a lake on a windless day, hands working and moving with each option as though kneading them like invisible dough into something far more palatable than infidelity.

But, she thinks, answering her therapist, the space between us is the worst. From the first night of our marriage until these past five days, he has always slept snuggled right up against me, as close as he possibly could be. It was like he couldn’t sleep unless he was touching me in some way. And now…

She turns to him now, looks at him, watches his back –

(why his back, he always used to sleep on his back, not on his side with his back facing me, why all of a sudden – )

expand and contract with his deep breaths, each intake announcing itself with a light snore, something she has always found endearing rather than annoying. She takes her own deep breath and reaches out and shakes him lightly.

“David. Hey, David.”

He draws a sharp breath and turns toward her, his sudden waking producing a snore of the sort that, done more regularly throughout the night, probably sent many a man to the couch.

“Huh – “

He turns around towards her and she can tell his sleep has not been deep or restful. He has bags under his eyes the size of suitcases and his face is a sickly yellow-pale.

“What’s up, baby?”

“Well… I – I’m sorry to wake you, love.” She smiles at him, laughs nervously. “You know what, it’s not even that big a deal, we can talk about it in the – “

He turns and flips on the lamp on his side of the bed and then props himself up on his elbow as he turns to face her again. He smiles back and puts his right hand on the left side of her face, brushes gently at her cheek with his thumb, a gesture that never fails to calm her.

“We can talk about it now. Better to face whatever it is while it’s still fresh on your mind. Did you have another nightmare?”

“No, I haven’t had one tonight. Not yet anyway.”

She had indeed been plagued with nightmares for the past week or so: another possible cause, Mind-Matthews pointed out, to the current flare-up of her anxiety; lack of sleep was a famous perpetrator of all kinds of breakdowns of the mind and emotions. These nightmares were incredibly reminiscent of the nightmares that she used to have as a child: indeed, she had forgotten that she had even had such horrid nightmares until, with a sick familiarity like a past trauma being triggered by some sense, these ones arrived. Then and now, she could never remember exactly what happened upon waking, but she always woke with the sense that she had narrowly avoided something; something evil and sentient, something meticulous and insidious, something not content with merely attacking, but something that enjoyed the hunt as much as, if not more than, the kill. And she always felt upon waking that the slimy residue of whatever beast haunted her dreams was still in the room, that it wanted her to know that she had only just missed it, but that she ought not worry – that it would be back.

She takes a deep breath.

“Babe…” She pauses for a moment before letting it out. “Are you – are we good? Like, we’re happy, right? And our marriage is good? And – ”

The more she stumbles on, the bigger his smile grows.

“Honey,” he cuts her off, gently; “you are amazing and we are amazing. I love you more every day that I get to know you and be with you. There is certainly nothing wrong with you and there is nothing wrong with us.”

The smile falters a bit.

“Where is all this coming from? Did something happen?”

“Well, no, not exactly. I mean, like, it’s just – it sounds so silly.”

He brushes her cheek again with his thumb and she takes a deep breath and goes on.

“Well, it’s just that for the past week or so it seems like each night you’re moving farther and farther away from me throughout the night. And, you know, we both sleep like rocks normally; I remember your brother telling me that when you guys were younger and shared a room he used to check to see if you were still breathing sometimes because of how still you were.”

She laughs a little.

“And, I don’t know, it just seems like you’ve been more – “ she pauses, thinking for a moment, hands moving in unconscious imitation of Dr. Matthews, “ – more stressed. Or distracted. Or something, I don’t know.”

He nods slowly, thoughtfully, taking it in.

“Honestly, honey…” he pauses, thinking, and Anna’s blood pressure spikes. She loves nearly everything about this man, even after six years of marriage, but this is the one thing that drives her up a wall, especially with her anxiety being what it is. When she is upset about something and he is trying to talk her through it, he will think about it, start to say something, and then pause to think some more, as though he were being asked to give a speech on the spot that will change the course of history rather than merely trying to comfort his anxious wife. She knows he is just a thoughtful man and is trying to be careful with his words, but it drives her nuts all the same.

“Yes?” She says, goading him on, a hint of annoyance creeping into her voice. Most times she lets him do his thing in his time, but her patience in the midst of anxiety at a normal hour, let alone at three AM, is about as plentiful as breathable air in a middle school gymnasium.

“Well, honestly, I haven’t been sleeping well the past week. I’ve been super exhausted. And I’ve actually been having some pretty awful dreams as well.”

His smile is totally gone now, replaced by a look she hasn’t seen before: fear bordering on terror.

“It’s pretty weird – I usually don’t remember my dreams, if I even have them at all. But these ones are super vivid. And they’re pretty much all the same too. We’re laying in bed together and you’re asleep and I’m awake and at first, it’s like the atmosphere of the room changes somehow; everything seems darker and there’s this weird smell in the room like rotting meat or something. Then out of nowhere my heart starts racing and I get this feeling of absolute terror and fear; it almost feels like I’ve developed some kind of supernatural sixth sense and I can tell something is coming for me.”

His breathing picks up and she can see beads of sweat forming on his upper lip and his brow.

“And then I hear a slithering, slimy noise from under the bed like the world’s biggest snake escaped from the zoo and came to our house and I want to scream and jump out of bed and tell you that we have to get out of there, but I’m paralyzed, I’m frozen, I can’t move or speak – “

His words are running together, each phrase running out of his mouth on rapid gusts of breath.

“And then the slithering starts to happen on the bed frame and I can feel the mattress moving as though something is trying to climb on it and then – “

He is shaking now and Anna sits up all the way, the sheets pooling around her waist, and she grabs him and pulls him into an embrace. She can each hot breath against her breasts, can feel the sweat coming off him and dripping between them.

“It’s okay sweetie, it’s just a dream. I know it’s scary, but it’s only a nightmare. Trust me, if anyone knows nightmares, its me.”

She rubs his shoulder and he lets out a little nervous laugh.

She pulls back for a moment and put the back of her hand against his forehead.

“You know what, you do feel a little warm. Maybe you’re coming down with something. A fever can cause some pretty strange nightmares, you know. I remember once my sister had a temp of 103 and she had a waking nightmare that there were spiders crawling all over the ceiling, poor kid.”

His breathing is slowing down now and he reaches up to wipe the sweat off his brow. As he does, she sees light scratches all up and down the inside of his arms and on his ribs, some fresh, some beginning to heal already. Her heart skips a beat. She thinks about asking him, even opens her mouth and feels the words starting to form, but just before they are out, she stops them. He is just beginning to calm down and she doesn’t want to upset him again.

“Do you think you could go back to sleep?”

He thinks for a moment.

“Yeah, I think so.”

He looks up at her, his eyes pleading.

“Do you think you could hold me for a little while I fall asleep.”

She smiles at him and pulls him back into herself.

“Of course.”

She holds him and after a while feels his breathing finally slow and before she knows it, she is asleep too.


She doesn’t know whether it is the thump or the scream that wakes her, but before she can even begin to register what she is hearing, she rolls to the now empty side of her bed that her husband usually occupies and looks over the side. He is there on the floor, on his back, chest heaving with huge, hitching, hyperventilating sobs. His breathing is way too fast and he is shaking and he is going to pass out if he doesn’t calm down soon.

Well then, why don’t you get the hell out of bed and try to stop that from happening, idiot? Her own internal voice screams at her and she rolls the rest of the way out of bed and kneels down beside him, rubbing his arms and chest, whispering “shh” and “it’s okay” and other little comfortisms that bypass her rational mind entirely and flow out naturally as she tries to calm him.

After a minute or two, he calms to the point that she no longer fears him hyperventilating himself into unconsciousness and she reaches up and grabs one of his many open water bottles from his nightstand. She unscrews the cap and, after helping him to sit up against the nightstand, raises the bottle to his lips, telling him, “Drink.”

He takes two long gulps and then pulls back. He moans.

“Are you hurt? Did you hit your head?”

He moans again and she forces him to look her in the eyes.

“Babe. Did you hit your head?”

“No,” he moans, “I fell on my butt.”

“Do you think you can get up?”

He straightens against the nightstand and pushes himself off the floor. Anna helps to steady him and helps him climb back into bed.

“It almost got me this time, Anna. I could feel it and smell it.”

His eyes are half-lidded and he speaks in mumbles and she is sure that he must be half-asleep, despite the fall; that his mind was still clinging to whatever nightmare had pushed him over the edge of their bed, like milk holding the scent of whatever it’s next to in the fridge.

“You’re okay baby, you’re okay. Just go back to sleep. We’ll figure this out in the morning.”

He mumbles something else and turns over. She rubs his back for a little while, until his breathing deepens once again, and then she turns over and attempts to call sleep back to her own mind.

But every time she closes her eyes, she sees him writhing on the floor; she hears him weeping, hears his voice telling her that he could “feel it and could smell it,” and now she could swear that she, too could feel something, could smell something in the room with them.

When, after about half an hour of restless tossing and turning, she finally accepts that sleep, like a cat, cannot be controlled but can only be lured if it wants to be lured, she sighs and grabs her phone from under her pillow.

She does her usual fruitless scrolling through the usual social media platforms, seeing all the colors and words and lies, but not really taking any of it in. Halfway through her Facebook News scroll, an idea comes to her. She opens Amazon. She searches Bed guard.

As she scrolls through the results, her first thought is a flood of memories. Her mom and dad were very strict on Anna sleeping in her own bed once she turned two – not only because they were ready for their privacy once again, but also because, as a young child, she tossed and turned like a student the night before a test. In fact, on more than one occasion, they had come into her room in the morning to find her sprawled on the floor next to her mattress, having rolled off at some point in the middle of the night.

But when her dad died only two years after, she spent nearly every night in her mother’s bed, leading her mother to buy a bed guard of the very same sort of those which she was seeing. The padded railing with a cloth mesh netting across brought back memories long since forgotten: looking at it as she pretended to sleep as her mother wept softly into the pillow, waking up with her face in the netting and seeing the red tattoo it left on her cheek as she brushed her teeth.

Her second thought: damn, these are expensive. The first page had 15 different options, with prices ranging from $25 to $99, this one claiming that, “Twin, Queen, King: no matter the size, we’ve got you covered!” the other assuring her that, “even a baby elephant couldn’t fall off the bed with this guard in place!” She snorts at this, checks the price, snorts again. $99. For that, she could just buy a nice air mattress to put next to the bed. At least it would continue to have use once this – whatever this was – passed.

She finds a middle-of-the-road one for $50, sees it has same day shipping and will arrive before 10 PM, and adds it to her cart. She checks out and then turns to her husband. He is still sleeping, his breathing still deep and regular, and then checks the time. 5:19 AM. If she can fall asleep before 6 or so, she can get at least two more hours of sleep, which might be enough to stave off extreme grumpiness, so she turns over and soon thereafter falls asleep.


“Babe, I really don’t think this is necessary. I mean, last night was the first time I’ve fallen off a bed, maybe ever.”

He speaks to her from across the room as he strips off the robe he wears after showers and before bed and folds it carefully, putting it over the back of his desk chair.

She thought that perhaps he would protest, at least a little, and this feeling was confirmed the moment she saw his face as he walked into the room and saw the bed guard already installed on his side of the bed. Though he is a man far sweeter and less macho than most men she has met, he is still a man and thus still had his pride. But she was ready for this.

“And hopefully it will be the last. But until we’re sure that these nightmares have worked themselves out of your system, perhaps it would be better for your body and for both of our sleep just to have this as a safety net – no pun intended.”

She walks over to him, hugs him from behind, rubbing his chest.

“If anything, do it for me. It’ll make me feel a whole lot better to know I won’t wake up to find you in a pool of blood on the floor because you hit your head on the corner of the night table after rolling out of bed.”

He laughs and spins in her arms so that they are face to face.

“I guess it’s better than those little corner guards you put on everything when you babysit for my sister’s kid.”

She makes her eyes go comically wide and her voice jumps up into Mickey Mouse range as they always do when they are joke-lying.

“No yeah, definitely didn’t buy any of those.”

They both laugh and kiss each other, lightly at first. Then the kiss deepens and he lifts her and she wraps her legs around him and he carries her to the bed.


She can hear him cursing under his breath as she climbs out of sleep the next morning. She blinks and turns around. Her eyes are still blurry with sleep, but she can see that his side of the bed is empty; he is next to the bed kneeling down and looking at the bed guard. She blinks again and her eyes clear and she draws in a sharp breath, then utters her own curse.

“What the hell happened?” she asks once she has caught her breath.

“I have no idea.” He doesn’t look up at her as he answers, he just continues to study the bed guard. A fist-sized hole has been ripped in the center of it and there are tiny brownish-red droplets hanging off the ragged ends of the mesh around the hole. She can see the graying speckles of three-day growth on his face through the center of the hole and she realizes that she has never seen more than the beginnings of a five o’clock shadow on him. “I must have punched it or ripped through it somehow. I think I had another nightmare last night. I don’t remember it, but I feel exhausted, like I didn’t sleep at all last night. And – “

He stops himself; she prods him.


“And I’m scared, Anna.” He finally looks her in the eye. “I have no idea what’s going on here, but I know something is going on.” He stands and begins to pace next to the bed. “Maybe if I sleep on the couch tonight. Or if I get a hotel room or something, I don’t know.”

She gets out of bed and walks around to him.


It’s as though he doesn’t hear her. He continues to pace and goes on.

“I mean, maybe just changing the scenery. I don’t know, maybe I can take some NyQuil or something and – “

David.” She speaks with force, not quite yelling, but close. He finally stops and faces her. “I know you’re scared, honey.” She walks to him and hugs him. He cringes a little at first – it breaks her heart into a million pieces, but she goes on anyway. “And I don’t know what’s going on either. Maybe you saw something last week that brought up some childhood trauma –“

“No, I’ve been thinking about it and – “

Or,” she cuts him off, “maybe it was something you ate,” she lifts a finger before he can interrupt again, “or maybe something else totally that we don’t understand. We both struggle with anxiety and depression and we both know full well that these kind of things are sometimes cyclical and seasonal. Maybe this is just a new season and a new thing to deal with.”

She lifts her hand up to his face and rubs her thumb against his cheek, imitating the way he comforts her.

“Whatever it may be, I am here with you and for you and we will figure this out and everything will be okay.” She looks deep into his eyes, gauging whether he is really listening. “Everything will be okay,” she repeats, holding his face in both hands.

He takes a deep breath and smiles. It doesn’t reach his eyes.

“You’re right, of course. Everything will be okay. Listen, I’m gonna shower and head off to work, okay? Johnson will kill me if I’m late again.”

She looks at him for a moment, debating whether to argue the point with him. She sees in his eyes that further arguments or pleadings will do nothing and forces a smile.

“Okay babe. Wash your butt good, you stink.”

He crinkles his nose at her and gives her a gentle push away, but she can tell his heart is not in it. He walks off to the bathroom and she looks down at the torn bed guard, wondering how in the world he could’ve done this, especially without waking her.


“Just let me do it, okay?” He raises his voice at her for only the second time in their marriage.

He was quiet when he got home that day, quiet during dinner, quiet while washing the dishes after, quiet in the shower. She tried to start conversations several times, but after the third failed attempt while they washed dishes together, she joined him in his silence. The silence ended when, after watching their show together, David gathered his blanket and pillow into his arms and climbed out of bed.

“Babe? Where are you going?”

“I’m sleeping on the couch tonight.”

He put up a hand before she could even begin to respond.

“Babe, it’s not up for debate. Look at this.”

He gestures with his full hands at the bed guard.

“What if I do that to you in the middle of the night instead of to that thing? How’s that gonna feel?”

“David, you’re not gonna do that to me. You’ve never been remotely violent to me, sleeping or awake and – “

“But we really don’t know what could happen, do we? As you yourself pointed out, this is unprecedented. We will figure this out together and if, after a couple nights on the couch, I’m not punching or ripping holes in anything, I’ll come back to the bed. But for now – “

“Babe, come on! This is – “

“Just let me do it, okay?”

They are both silent for a moment, both breathing heavy in the heat of the argument. He crumbles first. He comes around to her side of the bed and kneels down in front of her.

“Listen, babe. I would never forgive myself if I accidentally hurt you because of some stupid nightmares, okay? It’s just a couple nights and I’m just down the hall. It’s for the best, Anna. You see that, right?”

She still doesn’t agree, would still rather be able to keep an eye on him, but once again that male sense of pride and stubbornness is more than she has the energy to deal with. So, she takes a deep breath and responds, “Yes, David, I see. Just a couple nights though.”

“Yes,” he says, smiling, “just a couple nights.”

He kisses her on her forehead, then each cheek, then on the lips and lingers there for a moment.

“I love you, Anna.”

“I love you too.”

He kisses her once more and then stands again and walks around the bed and, after giving her one more look, down the hall to the living room, closing the door gently behind him as he goes.


The creaking of the bedroom door wakes her.


No response. For a moment, there is no sound at all. Then the door opens all the way and he shuffles in.

“Hey baby. Can’t sleep down there? That couch is absolutely awful on the back.”

Still no response. He comes to his side of the bed, dragging his feet as he goes. He stands before it for a moment, then grabs the bed guard and tries to rip it off.

“Wow, wow, wow, what are you doing?” Anna says, shifting over and grabbing his forearms. She feels the muscle rippling under her hands and he is still not saying anything.

“Babe.” Her voice has a little more alarm in it now, but he still acts as if he doesn’t hear her.

She gets out of bed and pulls his arms to his side, leads him to the bottom of the bed so that he can climb in around the bed guard. He doesn’t put up a fight, and for that Anna is grateful.

“Come on. Should’ve listened to me in the first place.”

She finally gets him into bed and tucks him in.

“Goodnight, baby.”

Still nothing. He has never sleepwalked like this before; but he has also never had nightmares like this before.

Time to pick up the therapy conversation again, Anna thinks as she drifts off.


This time, she is sure that it is neither the thump nor the scream that wakes her; it is the rustling of the bedsheets. First, the slimy progress over the bedsheets of what sounds like a den of snakes slithering onto her husband’s side of the bed and then the louder rustling of him being dragged off of it with them in their descent. Her eyes flick open and the first thing she sees is her husband being dragged through the bed guard, which has been mangled even further, the padded railing ripped in two, one arm reaching straight up into the sky and the other at a slight downward angle. His eyes flutter open and look directly into hers just as he is about to fall and he opens his mouth to scream and as he does a slimy red tentacle tipped in long white claws slides up his chest and into his mouth. Instead of a scream, he emits a strangled choking sound and then he is gone and she hears the thump and him being dragged under the bed.

She breaks her paralysis and goes to the edge of his side, looks over. He is already gone, but she sees the trailing end of one tentacle. It scratches at the floor as it retreats under the bed. Just before it disappears, it stops for a moment and she stares in horror as it turns over, nail side down, and hundreds of tiny eyes look at her and wink all together.

She screams as the thing disappears and she screams as the darkness encroaches and she screams as she passes out.

8 (Epilogue)

She wakes sometime later, her heart already racing, her breath already hot and fast in her throat. She looks at the clock on the nightstand and sees that it is 2:17 am.

Just a nightmare, she tells herself, just another nightmare.

She tells herself this over and over as she rubs the new scratches on her arms and as she settles back into her side of the bed, where she awoke.

Even though, she thinks, even though I know I fell asleep on his side of the bed but it’s okay, I didn’t really because it was only a nightmare, only a nightmare, only a nightmare.

She tells herself this over and over and over even as she starts to fall asleep, even as she hears –

But it’s not real, its only a nightmare, only a nightmare, only a nightmare, only –

– a slimy rustling movement under her side of the bed.

Josiah Furcinitti lives on the South Shore of Massachusetts with his wife. While he has
always enjoyed reading and been interested in writing, he began studying and delving into the
craft in the past year. He is currently working on his first novel as well as other short fiction.

The Saturday Night Special: “The Minister’s Black Veil” Horror by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1836)

Detail from a portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood in 1840
Detail from a portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood in 1840

The sexton stood in the porch of Milford meeting-house pulling lustily at the bell-rope. The old people of the village came stooping along the street. Children with bright faces tripped merrily beside their parents or mimicked a graver gait in the conscious dignity of their Sunday clothes. Spruce bachelors looked sidelong at the pretty maidens, and fancied that the Sabbath sunshine made them prettier than on week-days. When the throng had mostly streamed into the porch, the sexton began to toll the bell, keeping his eye on the Reverend Mr. Hooper’s door. The first glimpse of the clergyman’s figure was the signal for the bell to cease its summons.

“But what has good Parson Hooper got upon his face?” cried the sexton, in astonishment.

All within hearing immediately turned about and beheld the semblance of Mr. Hooper pacing slowly his meditative way toward the meeting-house. With one accord they started, expressing more wonder than if some strange minister were coming to dust the cushions of Mr. Hooper’s pulpit.

“Are you sure it is our parson?” inquired Goodman Gray of the sexton.

“Of a certainty it is good Mr. Hooper,” replied the sexton. “He was to have exchanged pulpits with Parson Shute of Westbury, but Parson Shute sent to excuse himself yesterday, being to preach a funeral sermon.”

The cause of so much amazement may appear sufficiently slight. Mr. Hooper, a gentlemanly person of about thirty, though still a bachelor, was dressed with due clerical neatness, as if a careful wife had starched his band and brushed the weekly dust from his Sunday’s garb. There was but one thing remarkable in his appearance. Swathed about his forehead and hanging down over his face, so low as to be shaken by his breath, Mr. Hooper had on a black veil. On a nearer view it seemed to consist of two folds of crape, which entirely concealed his features except the mouth and chin, but probably did not intercept his sight further than to give a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate things. With this gloomy shade before him good Mr. Hooper walked onward at a slow and quiet pace, stooping somewhat and looking on the ground, as is customary with abstracted men, yet nodding kindly to those of his parishioners who still waited on the meeting-house steps. But so wonder-struck were they that his greeting hardly met with a return.

“I can’t really feel as if good Mr. Hooper’s face was behind that piece of crape,” said the sexton.

“I don’t like it,” muttered an old woman as she hobbled into the meeting-house. “He has changed himself into something awful only by hiding his face.”

“Our parson has gone mad!” cried Goodman Gray, following him across the threshold.

A rumor of some unaccountable phenomenon had preceded Mr. Hooper into the meeting-house and set all the congregation astir. Few could refrain from twisting their heads toward the door; many stood upright and turned directly about; while several little boys clambered upon the seats, and came down again with a terrible racket. There was a general bustle, a rustling of the women’s gowns and shuffling of the men’s feet, greatly at variance with that hushed repose which should attend the entrance of the minister. But Mr. Hooper appeared not to notice the perturbation of his people. He entered with an almost noiseless step, bent his head mildly to the pews on each side and bowed as he passed his oldest parishioner, a white-haired great-grandsire, who occupied an arm-chair in the centre of the aisle. It was strange to observe how slowly this venerable man became conscious of something singular in the appearance of his pastor. He seemed not fully to partake of the prevailing wonder till Mr. Hooper had ascended the stairs and showed himself in the pulpit, face to face with his congregation except for the black veil. That mysterious emblem was never once withdrawn. It shook with his measured breath as he gave out the psalm, it threw its obscurity between him and the holy page as he read the Scriptures, and while he prayed the veil lay heavily on his uplifted countenance. Did he seek to hide it from the dread Being whom he was addressing?

Such was the effect of this simple piece of crape that more than one woman of delicate nerves was forced to leave the meeting-house. Yet perhaps the pale-faced congregation was almost as fearful a sight to the minister as his black veil to them.

Mr. Hooper had the reputation of a good preacher, but not an energetic one: he strove to win his people heavenward by mild, persuasive influences rather than to drive them thither by the thunders of the word. The sermon which he now delivered was marked by the same characteristics of style and manner as the general series of his pulpit oratory, but there was something either in the sentiment of the discourse itself or in the imagination of the auditors which made it greatly the most powerful effort that they had ever heard from their pastor’s lips. It was tinged rather more darkly than usual with the gentle gloom of Mr. Hooper’s temperament. The subject had reference to secret sin and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from our own consciousness, even forgetting that the Omniscient can detect them. A subtle power was breathed into his words. Each member of the congregation, the most innocent girl and the man of hardened breast, felt as if the preacher had crept upon them behind his awful veil and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought. Many spread their clasped hands on their bosoms. There was nothing terrible in what Mr. Hooper said—at least, no violence; and yet with every tremor of his melancholy voice the hearers quaked. An unsought pathos came hand in hand with awe. So sensible were the audience of some unwonted attribute in their minister that they longed for a breath of wind to blow aside the veil, almost believing that a stranger’s visage would be discovered, though the form, gesture and voice were those of Mr. Hooper.

At the close of the services the people hurried out with indecorous confusion, eager to communicate their pent-up amazement, and conscious of lighter spirits the moment they lost sight of the black veil. Some gathered in little circles, huddled closely together, with their mouths all whispering in the centre; some went homeward alone, wrapped in silent meditation; some talked loudly and profaned the Sabbath-day with ostentatious laughter. A few shook their sagacious heads, intimating that they could penetrate the mystery, while one or two affirmed that there was no mystery at all, but only that Mr. Hooper’s eyes were so weakened by the midnight lamp as to require a shade.

After a brief interval forth came good Mr. Hooper also, in the rear of his flock. Turning his veiled face from one group to another, he paid due reverence to the hoary heads, saluted the middle-aged with kind dignity as their friend and spiritual guide, greeted the young with mingled authority and love, and laid his hands on the little children’s heads to bless them. Such was always his custom on the Sabbath-day. Strange and bewildered looks repaid him for his courtesy. None, as on former occasions, aspired to the honor of walking by their pastor’s side. Old Squire Saunders—doubtless by an accidental lapse of memory—neglected to invite Mr. Hooper to his table, where the good clergyman had been wont to bless the food almost every Sunday since his settlement. He returned, therefore, to the parsonage, and at the moment of closing the door was observed to look back upon the people, all of whom had their eyes fixed upon the minister. A sad smile gleamed faintly from beneath the black veil and flickered about his mouth, glimmering as he disappeared.

“How strange,” said a lady, “that a simple black veil, such as any woman might wear on her bonnet, should become such a terrible thing on Mr. Hooper’s face!”

“Something must surely be amiss with Mr. Hooper’s intellects,” observed her husband, the physician of the village. “But the strangest part of the affair is the effect of this vagary even on a sober-minded man like myself. The black veil, though it covers only our pastor’s face, throws its influence over his whole person and makes him ghost-like from head to foot. Do you not feel it so?”

“Truly do I,” replied the lady; “and I would not be alone with him for the world. I wonder he is not afraid to be alone with himself.”

“Men sometimes are so,” said her husband.

The afternoon service was attended with similar circumstances. At its conclusion the bell tolled for the funeral of a young lady. The relatives and friends were assembled in the house and the more distant acquaintances stood about the door, speaking of the good qualities of the deceased, when their talk was interrupted by the appearance of Mr. Hooper, still covered with his black veil. It was now an appropriate emblem. The clergyman stepped into the room where the corpse was laid, and bent over the coffin to take a last farewell of his deceased parishioner. As he stooped the veil hung straight down from his forehead, so that, if her eye-lids had not been closed for ever, the dead maiden might have seen his face. Could Mr. Hooper be fearful of her glance, that he so hastily caught back the black veil? A person who watched the interview between the dead and living scrupled not to affirm that at the instant when the clergyman’s features were disclosed the corpse had slightly shuddered, rustling the shroud and muslin cap, though the countenance retained the composure of death. A superstitious old woman was the only witness of this prodigy.

From the coffin Mr. Hooper passed into the chamber of the mourners, and thence to the head of the staircase, to make the funeral prayer. It was a tender and heart-dissolving prayer, full of sorrow, yet so imbued with celestial hopes that the music of a heavenly harp swept by the fingers of the dead seemed faintly to be heard among the saddest accents of the minister. The people trembled, though they but darkly understood him, when he prayed that they and himself, and all of mortal race, might be ready, as he trusted this young maiden had been, for the dreadful hour that should snatch the veil from their faces. The bearers went heavily forth and the mourners followed, saddening all the street, with the dead before them and Mr. Hooper in his black veil behind.

“Why do you look back?” said one in the procession to his partner.

“I had a fancy,” replied she, “that the minister and the maiden’s spirit were walking hand in hand.”

“And so had I at the same moment,” said the other.

That night the handsomest couple in Milford village were to be joined in wedlock. Though reckoned a melancholy man, Mr. Hooper had a placid cheerfulness for such occasions which often excited a sympathetic smile where livelier merriment would have been thrown away. There was no quality of his disposition which made him more beloved than this. The company at the wedding awaited his arrival with impatience, trusting that the strange awe which had gathered over him throughout the day would now be dispelled. But such was not the result. When Mr. Hooper came, the first thing that their eyes rested on was the same horrible black veil which had added deeper gloom to the funeral and could portend nothing but evil to the wedding. Such was its immediate effect on the guests that a cloud seemed to have rolled duskily from beneath the black crape and dimmed the light of the candles. The bridal pair stood up before the minister, but the bride’s cold fingers quivered in the tremulous hand of the bridegroom, and her death-like paleness caused a whisper that the maiden who had been buried a few hours before was come from her grave to be married. If ever another wedding were so dismal, it was that famous one where they tolled the wedding-knell.

After performing the ceremony Mr. Hooper raised a glass of wine to his lips, wishing happiness to the new-married couple in a strain of mild pleasantry that ought to have brightened the features of the guests like a cheerful gleam from the hearth. At that instant, catching a glimpse of his figure in the looking-glass, the black veil involved his own spirit in the horror with which it overwhelmed all others. His frame shuddered, his lips grew white, he spilt the untasted wine upon the carpet and rushed forth into the darkness, for the Earth too had on her black veil.

The next day the whole village of Milford talked of little else than Parson Hooper’s black veil. That, and the mystery concealed behind it, supplied a topic for discussion between acquaintances meeting in the street and good women gossipping at their open windows. It was the first item of news that the tavernkeeper told to his guests. The children babbled of it on their way to school. One imitative little imp covered his face with an old black handkerchief, thereby so affrighting his playmates that the panic seized himself and he wellnigh lost his wits by his own waggery.

It was remarkable that, of all the busybodies and impertinent people in the parish, not one ventured to put the plain question to Mr. Hooper wherefore he did this thing. Hitherto, whenever there appeared the slightest call for such interference, he had never lacked advisers nor shown himself averse to be guided by their judgment. If he erred at all, it was by so painful a degree of self-distrust that even the mildest censure would lead him to consider an indifferent action as a crime. Yet, though so well acquainted with this amiable weakness, no individual among his parishioners chose to make the black veil a subject of friendly remonstrance. There was a feeling of dread, neither plainly confessed nor carefully concealed, which caused each to shift the responsibility upon another, till at length it was found expedient to send a deputation of the church, in order to deal with Mr. Hooper about the mystery before it should grow into a scandal. Never did an embassy so ill discharge its duties. The minister received them with friendly courtesy, but became silent after they were seated, leaving to his visitors the whole burden of introducing their important business. The topic, it might be supposed, was obvious enough. There was the black veil swathed round Mr. Hooper’s forehead and concealing every feature above his placid mouth, on which, at times, they could perceive the glimmering of a melancholy smile. But that piece of crape, to their imagination, seemed to hang down before his heart, the symbol of a fearful secret between him and them. Were the veil but cast aside, they might speak freely of it, but not till then. Thus they sat a considerable time, speechless, confused and shrinking uneasily from Mr. Hooper’s eye, which they felt to be fixed upon them with an invisible glance. Finally, the deputies returned abashed to their constituents, pronouncing the matter too weighty to be handled except by a council of the churches, if, indeed, it might not require a General Synod.

But there was one person in the village unappalled by the awe with which the black veil had impressed all besides herself. When the deputies returned without an explanation, or even venturing to demand one, she with the calm energy of her character determined to chase away the strange cloud that appeared to be settling round Mr. Hooper every moment more darkly than before. As his plighted wife it should be her privilege to know what the black veil concealed. At the minister’s first visit, therefore, she entered upon the subject with a direct simplicity which made the task easier both for him and her. After he had seated himself she fixed her eyes steadfastly upon the veil, but could discern nothing of the dreadful gloom that had so overawed the multitude; it was but a double fold of crape hanging down from his forehead to his mouth and slightly stirring with his breath.

“No,” said she, aloud, and smiling, “there is nothing terrible in this piece of crape, except that it hides a face which I am always glad to look upon. Come, good sir; let the sun shine from behind the cloud. First lay aside your black veil, then tell me why you put it on.”

Mr. Hooper’s smile glimmered faintly.

“There is an hour to come,” said he, “when all of us shall cast aside our veils. Take it not amiss, beloved friend, if I wear this piece of crape till then.”

“Your words are a mystery too,” returned the young lady. “Take away the veil from them, at least.”

“Elizabeth, I will,” said he, “so far as my vow may suffer me. Know, then, this veil is a type and a symbol, and I am bound to wear it ever, both in light and darkness, in solitude and before the gaze of multitudes, and as with strangers, so with my familiar friends. No mortal eye will see it withdrawn. This dismal shade must separate me from the world; even you, Elizabeth, can never come behind it.”

“What grievous affliction hath befallen you,” she earnestly inquired, “that you should thus darken your eyes for ever?”

“If it be a sign of mourning,” replied Mr. Hooper, “I, perhaps, like most other mortals, have sorrows dark enough to be typified by a black veil.”

“But what if the world will not believe that it is the type of an innocent sorrow?” urged Elizabeth. “Beloved and respected as you are, there may be whispers that you hide your face under the consciousness of secret sin. For the sake of your holy office do away this scandal.”

The color rose into her cheeks as she intimated the nature of the rumors that were already abroad in the village. But Mr. Hooper’s mildness did not forsake him. He even smiled again—that same sad smile which always appeared like a faint glimmering of light proceeding from the obscurity beneath the veil.


“If I hide my face for sorrow, there is cause enough,” he merely replied; “and if I cover it for secret sin, what mortal might not do the same?” And with this gentle but unconquerable obstinacy did he resist all her entreaties.

At length Elizabeth sat silent. For a few moments she appeared lost in thought, considering, probably, what new methods might be tried to withdraw her lover from so dark a fantasy, which, if it had no other meaning, was perhaps a symptom of mental disease. Though of a firmer character than his own, the tears rolled down her cheeks. But in an instant, as it were, a new feeling took the place of sorrow: her eyes were fixed insensibly on the black veil, when like a sudden twilight in the air its terrors fell around her. She arose and stood trembling before him.

“And do you feel it, then, at last?” said he, mournfully.

She made no reply, but covered her eyes with her hand and turned to leave the room. He rushed forward and caught her arm.

“Have patience with me, Elizabeth!” cried he, passionately. “Do not desert me though this veil must be between us here on earth. Be mine, and hereafter there shall be no veil over my face, no darkness between our souls. It is but a mortal veil; it is not for eternity. Oh, you know not how lonely I am, and how frightened to be alone behind my black veil! Do not leave me in this miserable obscurity for ever.”

“Lift the veil but once and look me in the face,” said she.

“Never! It cannot be!” replied Mr. Hooper.

“Then farewell!” said Elizabeth.

She withdrew her arm from his grasp and slowly departed, pausing at the door to give one long, shuddering gaze that seemed almost to penetrate the mystery of the black veil. But even amid his grief Mr. Hooper smiled to think that only a material emblem had separated him from happiness, though the horrors which it shadowed forth must be drawn darkly between the fondest of lovers.

From that time no attempts were made to remove Mr. Hooper’s black veil or by a direct appeal to discover the secret which it was supposed to hide. By persons who claimed a superiority to popular prejudice it was reckoned merely an eccentric whim, such as often mingles with the sober actions of men otherwise rational and tinges them all with its own semblance of insanity. But with the multitude good Mr. Hooper was irreparably a bugbear. He could not walk the street with any peace of mind, so conscious was he that the gentle and timid would turn aside to avoid him, and that others would make it a point of hardihood to throw themselves in his way. The impertinence of the latter class compelled him to give up his customary walk at sunset to the burial-ground; for when he leaned pensively over the gate, there would always be faces behind the gravestones peeping at his black veil. A fable went the rounds that the stare of the dead people drove him thence. It grieved him to the very depth of his kind heart to observe how the children fled from his approach, breaking up their merriest sports while his melancholy figure was yet afar off. Their instinctive dread caused him to feel more strongly than aught else that a preternatural horror was interwoven with the threads of the black crape. In truth, his own antipathy to the veil was known to be so great that he never willingly passed before a mirror nor stooped to drink at a still fountain lest in its peaceful bosom he should be affrighted by himself. This was what gave plausibility to the whispers that Mr. Hooper’s conscience tortured him for some great crime too horrible to be entirely concealed or otherwise than so obscurely intimated. Thus from beneath the black veil there rolled a cloud into the sunshine, an ambiguity of sin or sorrow, which enveloped the poor minister, so that love or sympathy could never reach him. It was said that ghost and fiend consorted with him there. With self-shudderings and outward terrors he walked continually in its shadow, groping darkly within his own soul or gazing through a medium that saddened the whole world. Even the lawless wind, it was believed, respected his dreadful secret and never blew aside the veil. But still good Mr. Hooper sadly smiled at the pale visages of the worldly throng as he passed by.

Among all its bad influences, the black veil had the one desirable effect of making its wearer a very efficient clergyman. By the aid of his mysterious emblem—for there was no other apparent cause—he became a man of awful power over souls that were in agony for sin. His converts always regarded him with a dread peculiar to themselves, affirming, though but figuratively, that before he brought them to celestial light they had been with him behind the black veil. Its gloom, indeed, enabled him to sympathize with all dark affections. Dying sinners cried aloud for Mr. Hooper and would not yield their breath till he appeared, though ever, as he stooped to whisper consolation, they shuddered at the veiled face so near their own. Such were the terrors of the black veil even when Death had bared his visage. Strangers came long distances to attend service at his church with the mere idle purpose of gazing at his figure because it was forbidden them to behold his face. But many were made to quake ere they departed. Once, during Governor Belcher’s administration, Mr. Hooper was appointed to preach the election sermon. Covered with his black veil, he stood before the chief magistrate, the council and the representatives, and wrought so deep an impression that the legislative measures of that year were characterized by all the gloom and piety of our earliest ancestral sway.

In this manner Mr. Hooper spent a long life, irreproachable in outward act, yet shrouded in dismal suspicions; kind and loving, though unloved and dimly feared; a man apart from men, shunned in their health and joy, but ever summoned to their aid in mortal anguish. As years wore on, shedding their snows above his sable veil, he acquired a name throughout the New England churches, and they called him Father Hooper. Nearly all his parishioners who were of mature age when he was settled had been borne away by many a funeral: he had one congregation in the church and a more crowded one in the churchyard; and, having wrought so late into the evening and done his work so well, it was now good Father Hooper’s turn to rest.

Several persons were visible by the shaded candlelight in the death-chamber of the old clergyman. Natural connections he had none. But there was the decorously grave though unmoved physician, seeking only to mitigate the last pangs of the patient whom he could not save. There were the deacons and other eminently pious members of his church. There, also, was the Reverend Mr. Clark of Westbury, a young and zealous divine who had ridden in haste to pray by the bedside of the expiring minister. There was the nurse—no hired handmaiden of Death, but one whose calm affection had endured thus long in secrecy, in solitude, amid the chill of age, and would not perish even at the dying-hour. Who but Elizabeth! And there lay the hoary head of good Father Hooper upon the death-pillow with the black veil still swathed about his brow and reaching down over his face, so that each more difficult gasp of his faint breath caused it to stir. All through life that piece of crape had hung between him and the world; it had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman’s love and kept him in that saddest of all prisons his own heart; and still it lay upon his face, as if to deepen the gloom of his darksome chamber and shade him from the sunshine of eternity.

For some time previous his mind had been confused, wavering doubtfully between the past and the present, and hovering forward, as it were, at intervals, into the indistinctness of the world to come. There had been feverish turns which tossed him from side to side and wore away what little strength he had. But in his most convulsive struggles and in the wildest vagaries of his intellect, when no other thought retained its sober influence, he still showed an awful solicitude lest the black veil should slip aside. Even if his bewildered soul could have forgotten, there was a faithful woman at his pillow who with averted eyes would have covered that aged face which she had last beheld in the comeliness of manhood.

At length the death-stricken old man lay quietly in the torpor of mental and bodily exhaustion, with an imperceptible pulse and breath that grew fainter and fainter except when a long, deep and irregular inspiration seemed to prelude the flight of his spirit.

The minister of Westbury approached the bedside.

“Venerable Father Hooper,” said he, “the moment of your release is at hand. Are you ready for the lifting of the veil that shuts in time from eternity?”

Father Hooper at first replied merely by a feeble motion of his head; then—apprehensive, perhaps, that his meaning might be doubtful—he exerted himself to speak.

“Yea,” said he, in faint accents; “my soul hath a patient weariness until that veil be lifted.”

“And is it fitting,” resumed the Reverend Mr. Clark, “that a man so given to prayer, of such a blameless example, holy in deed and thought, so far as mortal judgment may pronounce,—is it fitting that a father in the Church should leave a shadow on his memory that may seem to blacken a life so pure? I pray you, my venerable brother, let not this thing be! Suffer us to be gladdened by your triumphant aspect as you go to your reward. Before the veil of eternity be lifted let me cast aside this black veil from your face;” and, thus speaking, the Reverend Mr. Clark bent forward to reveal the mystery of so many years.

But, exerting a sudden energy that made all the beholders stand aghast, Father Hooper snatched both his hands from beneath the bedclothes and pressed them strongly on the black veil, resolute to struggle if the minister of Westbury would contend with a dying man.

“Never!” cried the veiled clergyman. “On earth, never!”

“Dark old man,” exclaimed the affrighted minister, “with what horrible crime upon your soul are you now passing to the judgment?”

Father Hooper’s breath heaved: it rattled in his throat; but, with a mighty effort grasping forward with his hands, he caught hold of life and held it back till he should speak. He even raised himself in bed, and there he sat shivering with the arms of Death around him, while the black veil hung down, awful at that last moment in the gathered terrors of a lifetime. And yet the faint, sad smile so often there now seemed to glimmer from its obscurity and linger on Father Hooper’s lips.

“Why do you tremble at me alone?” cried he, turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. “Tremble also at each other. Have men avoided me and women shown no pity and children screamed and fled only for my black veil? What but the mystery which it obscurely typifies has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend, the lover to his best-beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin,—then deem me a monster for the symbol beneath which I have lived and die. I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a black veil!” While his auditors shrank from one another in mutual affright, Father Hooper fell back upon his pillow, a veiled corpse with a faint smile lingering on the lips. Still veiled, they laid him in his coffin, and a veiled corpse they bore him to the grave. The grass of many years has sprung up and withered on that grave, the burial-stone is moss-grown, and good Mr. Hooper’s face is dust; but awful is still the thought that it mouldered beneath the black veil.

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The March Issue of The Chamber Magazine is Out.

The Chamber Magazine: Contemporary Dark Fiction and Poetry--The Strange and Dark and Beautiful

The Chamber Magazine

“The Armoires” Horror by Dylan Nicholson

“The Devil in the Pear Tree” Flash Horror by Joanna Theiss

“HMO” Social-Realist-Horror by Billy Stanton

“Sleigh Bed” Psychological Horror by Heather Webb

“Frozen in Time” Horror by Alec Glisson

“Fragile Guts” Dark Science-Fiction/ Fantasy by Caleb Coomer

“Void with Teeth” Dark Science Fiction by Dan Dellechiaie

“The Frisk Whispers” Ghost Story by Mansi Rathore

“L’Inconnue de La Seine” Horror by Chloe Spector

“East, Sleep, Repeat” Horror by Sarah Muldowney

“Gold Dust Woman” Surreal Horror by Elizabeth J. Wenger

“Archon Fugue” Dark Fantasy-Horror by Titus Green

“The Brownstone” Horror by Rhema Sayers

“Emerald Palace” Horror by S. Eamma

“Household Gods” Horror by Josh Hanson

Flash Fiction

“To Be a Butterfly” Horror/Thriller by N.V. Devlin

“Grinny: Free to a Good Home” Monster Tale/Micro Horror by Douglas Gwilym

“Feminine Growl” Horror Microfiction by Madison Randolph

“Dispassionate” Dark Fiction by Joseph Townsend


“Late Night Recitation” Dark Poetry by Thomas Piekarski

Dark Poem by Alistair Thaw

Two Poems by Jay Horan: “i sustain i engrain i heal from the pain” and “a-people”

“The Brownstone” Horror by Rhema Sayers

"The Brownstone" Horror by Rhema Sayers

The brownstone was more than one hundred and fifty years old, standing between two others in a block of rowhouses in Chelsea, just north of Boston, sad and decrepit. The adjoining houses were in better shape, having been renovated a decade or so ago. The house wasn’t cheap, but it had incredible potential. We bought it, Meg and me. We’d been married almost three years then. She was still in law school, and I was a resident in Emergency Medicine at Mass General. The brownstone was ideal. But first we had to make it livable. It had been unoccupied for years. The realtor never did say why.

For weeks we labored every spare minute, cleaning out debris on the first floor, just to make a space so that we could live in. Once we had a kitchen, a bedroom, and a functioning bathroom, we moved in. For the next year we poured time and money into the three-story building. Actually, there were five floors, if you counted the basement and the attic.

One Sunday afternoon, I was battling the aged and obsolete plumbing and wiring on the third floor. A back room had a balcony over a tiny backyard. I wanted to make the entire third floor into the master bedroom suite, including a sybaritic bathroom complete with huge sunken tub, and huge shower.  The view from the bed would overlook the back wall, someday festooned with climbing roses, giving a glimpse of the Boston skyline.

As I was bludgeoning my way through walls and removing pipes that were out of spec before Moses was born, I found an old tin box stuck in the wall. I had a hell of a time getting it out. It was about eleven by fourteen inches by five inches, and it was heavy. Together Meg and I manhandled it out into the daylight. The wall studs were barely wide enough to get it out. Anderson’s Biscuits was written in flowing black script across the pastoral scene on the lid.

After wiping off the dust and spider webs and accumulated desiccated insect bodies, I pried it open. Inside there were seven thin, blue fabric bound volumes, all identical. I opened one at random and found it to be a diary. Spidery handwriting took up each page. A quick check confirmed they’d all been written by the same person. Fascinated, I wanted to stop right then and read them, but Meg gave me a look that said I’d better get back to work.

Later that night while Meg lay snoring gently beside me, I pulled out the box and examined my prizes. Finding them dated, I went to the earliest and started reading.


April 17, 1909, My name is Ingrid Johannsen and I have lived in this house all my life. I was born in the kitchen, a few minutes before my mother died. She was nineteen years old, immigrated from Sweden in 1896, sponsored by Arthur Samuels, whose house this is. She was an indentured servant, although they don’t call them that anymore. But the Samuels brought her to America, paid her way, and took her into their house as a servant. She owed them a lot of money. My poor mother never got the chance to be free. I was born in 1899 and am now ten years old. I don’t know who my father was.

April 20, 1909, The cook, Emilda, told me once that when Mother died and left me an orphan, Mr. Samuels was all for sending me to the orphanage on Washington Street in the South End. But Mrs. Samuels said no. She had a daughter not yet six months old and wanted to keep me as a playmate and servant for Elizabeth. In one sense I was lucky. For had I gone to the orphanage, I would have learned about sewing and knitting and household duties. At age twelve I would have been placed in a private home to be trained as a servant. Growing up with Elizabeth Samuels, I have been taught to read and write. I love reading. There is a library on the third floor, but I will go through all the books in It soon. I shall go mad if I have nothing to read. I suppose I could go back and reread the ones I’ve finished, but I want new adventures, new stories, new information. Our teacher, Mr. Sanderson, says I am very advanced for my age.

May 6, 1909,  One of my favorite chores is taking care of the beehives. Elizabeth won’t go near them, but the little creatures like me. I put on white coveralls and a hat with a veil on it and I collect the honey. I think the bees sense when I am coming to check the hives. They come out and dance around me. I get to eat a little bit of the honey before I bring it in the house.


My eyes drooped and I put away the diaries. The next two weeks went past in a flurry of work and exhaustion. I was on call in the hospital every other night, covering for another resident. I had no time for anything else but work and sleep. When I pulled out Ingrid’s diaries again, I read a couple of entries each night, most of which dealt with life in the Samuels’ household and the daily routine. Much of the time she was treated as one of the family. Sitting at Elizabeth’s side, Ingrid absorbed knowledge like a sponge. She developed an obsession with the written word and read everything she could reach in the household library, (which I discovered was in the room with the balcony). She read literature, poetry, history, and whatever books were available dealing with the sciences and mathematics. Since her room was in the attic, she habitually sneaked down to the library every night for books. She salvaged the daily newspapers from the garbage whenever she could and read those as well. She begged her teacher, Mr. Sanderson, for more books and he obliged her, lending her books he had acquired over time.

Then came this entry.


July 7, 1909, I must write this down. It will be painful.

Elizabeth and I are usually obedient. Or at least I was. Elizabeth is the youngest child, a girl in a family of boys, who are all grown now, and she is spoiled. Very spoiled. She thinks she is a princess in her own little kingdom. But I thought we were close friends. I know that I have special privileges because of Elizabeth.

One morning a week ago, we had been playing hide-and-go-seek in her father’s closet, when the door opened and the man himself loomed over us. He was supposed to be at his office or we would never have dared to enter his bedroom. He looked down at Elizabeth and frowned. As he opened his mouth to scold her, I stepped out from behind his fine beaver coat and stood beside her.

I took the blame in a whisper, terrified, but I thought it was the right thing to do. Elizabeth stared at me, surprised. Mr. Samuels also stared at me a moment, then rang the bell for his valet. Branson appeared instantly, as if he’d been just outside.

Mr. Samuels waved at me vaguely and told Branson to take me and punish me. He dragged Elizabeth into his study.

Branson regarded me coldly. Then he grabbed my wrist and pulled me along behind him. Down the stairs and outdoors to the garden shed. There he shoved me inside, in the dark, and he came in after me.

 Branson’s voice was cold as he said he’d kill me if I screamed or ever told anyone. Then his hands were on me and I whimpered. He slapped me.

 He pulled off my clothes, threw me to the filthy floor and raped me. I tried to get away, but he punched me in the stomach and I threw up. I cried quietly until it was over. I will never forget the smell of his disgusting breath or the feel of his greasy hands. I don’t want to write anything more.


I leaned back against my pillow and stared at my half-painted wall, horrified. I went several days without reading the diaries after that. Partly because I was busy, but mostly because I wasn’t sure I could face reading more. Meg was reading them too, but we hadn’t discussed them. Somehow it seemed a very private thing. Just between me and Ingrid. As if I were the only person in the world she wanted to confide in. Finally, one night I picked up where I had left off.


July 15, 1909, Mr. Samuels saw me as Branson dragged me back into the house that day. Blood was running down my legs onto the floor. He stopped us, looking shocked and demanded to know what he had done to me.

Branson smirked when he said he’d punished me his own way.

Mr. Samuels stared at him, then told him that if I should die, Branson was out of a job. He was ordered to take me to Mrs. Tranberg, the housekeeper, and never to touch me again.

Branson seemed taken aback by this, but he only nodded and pulled me off to the servants’ quarters. Mrs. Tranberg had never been particularly friendly to me. I think she resented the position I enjoyed as Elizabeth’s companion. I won’t say friend here. Not anymore. After Mrs. Tranberg had cleaned me up and put me to bed, Elizabeth came to see me. She wanted to know about my ‘punishment’. I lay still, facing the wall and said nothing. After a while she said that I shouldn’t have talked her into playing in the closet, although she had been the one to drag me in. And then she left.

The bleeding continued for hours, but eventually stopped. Afterward I developed a fever and was sick for days. I don’t remember much of the next week, except that Mrs. Tranberg seemed to be there every time I woke up. I don’t think Elizabeth was there even once.

I woke up last night. It was dark except for an oil lamp next to my desk where Mrs. Tranberg sat reading. I called her name. She came to me, concern, and relief in her face, her eyes soft and kind, asking how I felt.

I was shocked by the warmth in her eyes and voice. I could never remember feeling cared for before. She told me I’d been very sick  but was getting better.

And she was right. I am feeling better. I know I should be shamed by the rape, but all I am is angry.


When Meg and I finally talked about the diaries, the difference in our attitudes astounded me. I found the story heartbreaking. She only considered it fascinating. She couldn’t consider that it was real – that it had actually happened. To her it was a novel, fiction. Or at least it had happened so long ago that it had no bearing on us, on now. I was obsessed by the story.

She looked at me with those bright blue eyes, brushing an errant brown curl back behind her ear. “You always want to help people. Here is this little girl in horrible trouble that you cannot help. And it’s tearing you up. Now either stop reading the damn diaries or put up some walls between her and you. And I don’t want to hear about her again.”

With that she kissed me and went off to school.

I tried staying away from Ingrid for a week but found that I needed to know what was happening in her life.


August 15, 1909, Mr. Samuels caught me coming out of the library in the middle of the night. The master bedroom is right across the hall. He was very angry, wanting to know why I was sneaking around in the middle of the night. I said I just wanted to get a book to read. He grabbed the book I had selected, a collection of poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and looked at it and then at me.

Holding the book up, he stared at me. He asked why Tennyson and, surprised, I answered that I liked him.

There was a trace of a smile on his face, something I had never seen before, when he admitted that he liked the poet, too.

We were at the bottom of the stairs that led to the attic. Mr. Samuels sat down on the stairs, and we talked about poetry. His favorites were Byron and Shelley, while I loved Wordsworth. I don’t know how long we talked, but later, he stood up and groaned as if his back hurt, saying that he had to go back to bed. He told me that I could read any book in the library that I wanted. After a hesitation he said he was sorry about Branson and disappeared into his suite.


Further entries told of the deterioration of the relationship between the two girls.

Elizabeth started going out to parties at the homes of people in the same social class as the Samuels, and Ingrid, of course, was not invited. Elizabeth would come home excited and talk endlessly of dresses and shoes and hair styles. Ingrid was bored and Elizabeth became annoyed by her inattention. They squabbled frequently.

February 12, 1910, This afternoon Elizabeth and I were fighting again. We had been shouting at each other when Mrs. Samuels appeared and grabbed my arm. She yanked me away, screaming into my face that Elizabeth was my mistress, that I was a servant and must never, ever raise my voice to her again.

I hung my head, crying.She grabbed my chin and forced me to look at her, snarling that I had been warned.

Then she grabbed Elizabeth by the arm and dragged her off.

I am still crying as I write this. I don’t know what to do. I will have to be careful about what I say. But what if I lose my temper?

That was the end of the first volume.


The holidays came and with them came a tide of pneumonia, influenza, heart attacks, and bleeding ulcers at the hospital. I worked long hours and Meg was studying for finals. We barely saw each other. Work on the house stopped. And I read no more of the diaries.

Two days after Christmas I was studying in the kitchen, unable to sleep. Starting to get drowsy, the text no longer making sense, I heard a humming noise. Looking up, I noticed that the basement door was slightly open. I could hear the roar of the old furnace down below, but above that was a hum, like a distant swarm of bees. Shivering, I crossed to the door and started to close it when I noticed two red lights at the bottom of the stairs. I couldn’t remember anything down there, so I flipped the light switch. There was just the basement – nothing with red lights. I
stood for a long moment regarding the empty stairwell, then shrugged and went to bed.

The load at the hospital began to lighten up after Christmas – fewer sick people, fewer admissions. I went back to reading the diaries. The next several entries were few and far between and spoke of the growing estrangement between Ingrid and Elizabeth. Apparently, Mrs. Samuels had stressed the importance of keeping strict divisions between the classes because Elizabeth became more aloof, treating Ingrid like a servant. Ingrid’s words in the diaries were angry and resentful.

March 3, 1910, I HATE ELIZABETH! She’s being so nasty to me. “Get me this and get me that and run downstairs to see if lunch is ready.” The worst of it is that she’s enjoying it. I always knew she could be mean. But now she’s not trying to cover it up. I am trying to behave as Mrs. Samuels said. But it is so hard.

May 30, 1910, I tried an experiment today. I went out to the beehives without my white clothes and veiled hat. The bees were there to greet me as usual, swarming around me. I opened the hives and started to collect the honey. They landed on my arms, my dress, my hair, everywhere. I just moved slowly so as not to disturb them. It was like they were dancing on me. I could feel their tiny feet moving, tickling. Then when I was finished, I told them I had to go inside and they all lifted off me, circling around a couple of times, then went back into the hives. 

The diaries were full of anger and resentment that she could only express in secret. Her one ally, Mrs. Tranberg had been sent away at the end of November with a ‘wasting disease’. From Ingrid’s description, I suspect the woman had tuberculosis.

December 22, 1910, Branson nearly caught me alone today. I have been careful to avoid him since last year but have seen him looking at me when we’re in the same room. I know he wants to do it again. There’s no one I can turn to. Mrs. Tranberg is gone. Mr. Samuels is rarely here. I’m all by myself.


The next entry was nearly six months later.

May 3, 1911, Branson forced the door to the attic in February and raped me again. He threatened to kill me if I told anyone. But who would I tell? The only one I can think of who might believe me is Mr. Samuels. I have no proof. It would be my word against Branson’s. I have reinforced my door. I stole an old padlock I found in a kitchen drawer and a chain from the cellar. He has tried to get in again several times, but without success. I will have to do something. But what?

The rest of that volume dealt with her resentment of her treatment in the Samuels household and her terror of Branson and many entries about her only friends – the bees. Elizabeth continued to distance herself from her former friend. Mrs. Hathaway, the new housekeeper, started instructing Ingrid in her duties.       


November 5, 1911, Mrs. Hathaway handed me the dust cloths and mop and told me to clean the dining room today. I worked at it for an hour and went to report to her. She inspected and found fault with everything and made me do it all over again. When she made me do it a third time, I  yelled at her and she slapped me. I cannot live here like this. I have read of other lives. Surely there is a place for me somewhere? The only friends I have here are bees.

The entries were heart rending as Ingrid slipped farther and farther into herself and began living a fantasy life.

January 15, 1912, The games Elizabeth and I used to play, I now play by myself. I pretend I am a princess, kidnapped by foul miscreants and forced to do hard labor or be whipped and starved. I know that I will be rescued and find a handsome prince because that is the way stories are supposed to end and if I believe in the prince and the happy ending enough, maybe it will come true. Please?


Spring had come to Boston and flowers were everywhere. The first floor of the house was totally remodeled with living room, dining room, kitchen and bath. We had moved the temporary bedroom up to the second floor, which would eventually be a study/ library/ office for the two of us and two bedrooms, ideal for children with a bathroom between the bedrooms.

One evening I was studying when Meg called out to me hoarsely. I found her in the kitchen, back against the wall opposite the cellar door. Pale and shaking, she pointed at the open door. I saw nothing until I went to the head of the stairs. There at the bottom were two red lights that winked out as I watched. Somewhere a humming stopped.

I slammed the door and got Meg to a chair. “What was it?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Red eyes. They were coming up the stairs!”

I searched the basement but found nothing. Meg was upset for a while, but then I think she began to realize that she had been exhausted and maybe the eyes were just the product of her exhaustion. I didn’t mention the red lights I had seen.


March 2, 1913, He caught me again today. I have been so careful not to go into the cellar when he’s around. Today Mr. Samuels went to Worchester on business and I thought that Branson had gone with him. Midmorning I went down to the cellar to gather some cleaning supplies. I opened the door to the supply closet and he grabbed me from behind and forced me inside. His hand was over my mouth, and I bit it. He swore and threw me down and I began screaming, but he kicked me in the head, and I knew no more for a time. When I came to, he was astride me, grunting. I hit at him and tried to fight, but he is much bigger and stronger. He smacked me across the face and grasped my wrists tightly in one hand while he finished. When he was getting off me, I tried to kick him in the crotch, but only managed to strike his knee. He grabbed my ankle and twisted it until I thought it would break. Kneeling beside me, he slapped me again and threatened to kill me if I talked.

Mrs. Samuels saw me as I dragged myself up the stairs. Branson had just come up a moment before. She must have seen him. She asked what had happened to me.  I told her I had fallen down the stairs. She looked at me, at my filthy dress and apron, at my battered face. Then she looked at the door Branson would have used to leave the house.

Staring back at me with a smirk on her face, she told me to get cleaned up before I served dinner. And she turned away.

I am going to kill him.

That night I tossed and turned. I finally got up about 2 AM and went downstairs for a glass of milk and some cereal. I was just sitting down at the new kitchen table when the cellar door flew open. A cold wind with a foul odor blew from the stairwell. The sound of bees filled the air. Two red lights burned in the blackness at the top of the stairs.

“Ingrid?” My voice quavered.

The lights and the sounds disappeared. I found myself staring at the closed cellar door, my mouth hanging open. I had slopped cereal and milk all over the table and floor and myself and I hurriedly cleaned up while I brought my pounding heart and trembling hands under control.

Should I tell Meg? I was fairly certain that she would want to leave the brownstone. We had so much invested in the property that I could not see any way to leave. The financial crunch would be devastating. So, I decided that I had been half asleep and had just had a very vivid dream.

Should I destroy the diaries or finish reading them? I was well into the sixth book, with one more to go. I now knew Ingrid better than had anyone she had ever met. The changes in her were frightening. She was ‘now’ fourteen years old and had been raped multiple times by the monster, Branson. She detested the people she lived with and worked for with the possible exception of Mr. Samuels, although he never had another conversation with her. She was consumed with fear and hatred and kept making references to a plan.


April 3, 1913, My birthday was last week. No one noticed. Actually to be fair, Emilda, the cook, did fix me a rather special dinner that night with a little roast beef left over from the family’s dinner and an apple and even a bit of pudding for dessert. Emilda has always been kind to me. As if she were somehow responsible for me since I was born in her kitchen. I am ready to end my terror. I know what I must do. And soon – before he realizes that I am not just a frightened child.

The next two entries were of the usual sort, complaining that Elizabeth was insufferable with her constant nattering about the fashions at the girl’s private school she was going to. Ingrid’s access to a tutor had been cut off when Elizabeth started attending Mrs. Choates’ Day School for Young Ladies.


I wasn’t prepared for the next entry.

May 13, 1913, Since it was Tuesday, Branson had the day off. But he often stayed around on his days off to see if he could catch me. This morning I saw him at the top of the back stairs, waiting to see where I would go. I worked for a while in the kitchen until Emilda went out to the garden to pick lettuce.

Then I gathered up a basket and walked down the cellar stairs. I turned on the light that hangs just above the stairs, but otherwise the only light came through the windows near the ceiling on both sides.

The furnace was running, and I needed to shovel some coal in, it being a cold, rainy morning. I went directly to the coal bin, picked up the shovel, and waited. The roar of the furnace covered any other sound, but I could see him from the corner of my eye as he crept closer and closer. When he started his rush at me, I swung the shovel around in an arc that connected with his face. He tried to lift his arm up, but he wasn’t fast enough.

Falling back against the hot furnace, he screamed, but the roar of the flames covered his cries. I dropped the shovel and, pulling out the butcher knife from my basket, I stabbed him. His eyes grew round and wide as saucers. He opened his mouth in a large “O” but all that came out was blood, a flood of it. I yanked the knife free and stabbed him again and again and again. He stared at me as he died, as though he couldn’t quite believe it.

I bundled him up in an old blanket I had put down there next to the furnace. Most of the blood had erupted onto this. Then with great effort, I shoved and pushed and lifted him into the furnace. My bloody uniform went in next after I used it to wipe my hands and face. I quickly donned the one I had secreted there earlier. I slammed the door shut on Branson and let the fire have him. The flames leapt up and I could hear him sizzling. The smell would have been a problem, but Emilda and I were the only ones in the house and the smells in the kitchen were overpowering.

After cleaning up the blood, I climbed back up to the kitchen. I washed the knife and put it away. I felt quite faint for a time, but when Emilda came back in, red cheeked and sopping wet, I was able to help her off with her coat and take the lettuce to the sink for washing. I checked the furnace before the family was due home. There was some residue, but not much and I shoveled several loads of coal into the furnace’s hungry maw.

He’s gone. Forever. And I’m a murderer. But all I feel is relief. I’m not afraid tonight.

I sat stunned, unable to take in what she had written. Good God! What she had endured!


I was almost afraid to read more, but after a few days I had to know what had happened. I came home early and sat in the finished living room with the last diary. I have only reprinted a few of the entries.

June 1, 1913, Mr. Samuels was upset when Branson disappeared. He made inquiries, but nothing came of it. The household has quieted down again. I do my work and don’t complain. I am rereading some of the books from the library, since I have gone through every one of them now. And that is how I spend my time. I work and I read and I try to avoid sleeping. There does not seem to be anything else for me.

Killing Branson was horrible. My dreams – Oh, God! – my dreams! I am terrified of sleep. And being in the cellar fills me with dread, almost as if he were still down there.

June 19, 1913, I saw something yesterday down in the cellar. I have been very worried about going down there. The place gives me chills. But I cannot avoid it. In the afternoon I came down the stairs to get some canned goods for Emilda. I went around the furnace-giving it a wide berth and collected the cans. As I started back to the stairs, I saw two red lights in the midst of a darkness blacker than night. I ran, my heart in my throat. Now I am truly terrified of the cellar. What can I do?

July 30, 1913, Mrs. Samuels and Mrs. Hathaway have noticed that I’m not going into the cellar. I have seen the ghost – for that is what I believe it is – twice more now. The air becomes frigid, smelling of carrion, and I hear the sound of the wind in the trees. Then the red eyes appear. The thing hates me and I’m sure it’s Branson. I can feel the hatred radiating off it with the icy cold. Mrs. Hathaway has hit me several times to force me into fetching things. I cannot leave this place legally until I am eighteen. I am desperate.

September 7, 1913, Mrs. Hathaway is dead. It was an accident. We were arguing in the kitchen. She wanted me to fetch a bottle of wine for the family’s dinner from the stock in the cellar. I refused. I told her there was something horrible down there, but she didn’t care. She hit me and I pushed her away, and she fell backwards into the stairwell. I watched her tumble down the stairs. She hit the bottom and just lay there. I ran. Putting on my coat, I fled to the garden and was busily weeding when Emilda came out yelling that Mrs. Hathaway was dead. I don’t think anyone suspects me.

When I had finished reading that entry, I realized that I was crying. My poor, poor
Ingrid. What had life done to you?


December 23, 1913, Mrs. Samuels has gotten meaner and meaner. She makes me work harder than ever since Mrs. Hathaway died. They interview candidates for the position of housekeeper, but Mrs. Samuels finds fault with every single one. Meanwhile I work twelve to thirteen hours every day, until my legs shake with exhaustion, and I sometimes have to crawl up the attic stairs. I cannot go on this way.

December 25, 1913, Mrs. Samuels sent me to the cellar for a bottle of wine after dinner. I grabbed the bottle and turned to leave, but I felt an icy breath on my neck and heard the wind. I screamed and threw the bottle behind me, shattering it. The red eyes appeared, coming closer and closer. Wailing, I retreated. Mrs. Samuels’ voice came from the stairs, shrieking that I had broken the bottle, calling me stupid and careless. I nearly knocked her down racing past her to the kitchen. That thing is after me. I think it’s Branson – and maybe Mrs. Hathaway, too.


January 4, 1914, I collapsed on the dining room floor yesterday. I had been cleaning all day, preparing for a dinner party. While serving the main course, I fainted and dropped two plates. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. I tried to get up. Mrs. Samuels was furious with me because I caused a scene, but Mr. Samuels told her to be quiet and picked me up. He carried me all the way to the attic and laid me on my bed. A short time after he left, Emilda came up with a dinner tray. I’m afraid to go downstairs. Mrs. Samuels will still be very angry.

I ran into Elizabeth on the stairs. She smirked at me. “Mother’s going to kick you out. She says you’re too incompetent and lazy to stay here. It’s too bad Branson’s not here. He would be happy to take you away.” And she sneered at me. I slapped her. She ran off to tell her mother.

I have returned to the attic. I will wait here for Mrs. Samuels.

Later – Elizabeth and Mrs. Samuels are dead . I have killed them. I waited for Mrs. Samuels in my attic room and stabbed her when she came in. I found Elizabeth in her room, trying on a new dress.

The dress is ruined now.

Mr. Samuels wasn’t here for which I am grateful. He went to New York on business and won’t be back for several days. And it’s Emilda’s day off.

I had to kill them. They hated me. Mrs. Samuels would have thrown me out. I had to protect myself. Didn’t I? The thing in the cellar worries me. I should block up the door.

I wrestled Mrs. Samuels’ and Elizabeth’s bodies down the stairs. Steeling my nerve, I grabbed Elizabeth by the hair, pulling her to the furnace. I picked her up and began to shove her into the fiery mouth, but it felt as if she were clinging to me, trying to pull me in with her. I yanked free of her grasp and, using the shovel, poked her until she was far enough in so that I could fit Mrs. Samuels.

Elizabeth’s eyes watched me as her face singed and sizzled.

Mrs. Samuels was easier to lift and thrust into the flames, but again I felt her hands grabbing at my clothes, trying to draw me in with her. Her mouth opened in a silent scream as the fire took her.

And then I heard the sound of the wind. When I felt ice on my neck and breathed the reek of death, I whirled around and the eyes were there. They seemed far off at first, but came speeding toward me, growing larger and brighter, twin meteors from Hell. The sound of the wind grew to a shriek. I fled back into the kitchen and slammed the door closed. Something slammed into the door from the other side. I backed away but the door crashed open. I flew up the stairs to the library. Barring the door will probably not save me. I hear a wind below me. It’s searching for me. The odor of death is getting stronger and the wind! I feel its icy fingers through the cracks in the door. Oh, God! I am lost.

I will put this volume with the others, in the biscuit box. There is a hole in the wall behind one of the bookcases where I hide these. If someone finds these, pray for me.

 It is coming.


That was the last entry. I put the diary down and sat staring into space. Meg found me that way. She dragged me away from the diaries, threatening to burn them. We argued and she stormed into the kitchen. I followed.

“Meg,” I started, but something slammed into the cellar door from the other side, and the door shuddered and rattled. I grabbed Meg, shoving her behind me. The cellar door exploded open, wood splinters flying everywhere. An icy, stinking wind knocked us against the wall. We fell together. I heard Meg grunt in pain as I came down on top of her.

“Run, Meg! Get outside!” I yelled over the shrieks of the wind and the sounds of a huge swarm of bees.

Red eyes appeared in the stairwell.

Meg tried to rise, but doubled over, grabbing at her right side. Her eyes were wide as she stared at the stairwell. The eyes were coming closer. The wind howled and dishes on the counter crashed to the floor. Napkins took wing, flying into the darkness and vanishing. Pieces of broken dishes scraped along the floor and disappeared into the oily blackness that flowed out of the cellar door, red eyes in the center. Bees began flying around the kitchen, bumping into walls. My heart raced and sweat poured down my back despite the frigid air.

“Ingrid!” I called. “Ingrid! I know you will not harm us. Ingrid! Help us!”

The darkness seemed to hesitate, the wild wind calming slightly.

I whispered to Meg, “Get outside.” Instead, she grabbed my belt and pulled herself up to stand beside me, holding on to me tightly.

The blackness began to swirl, eddies forming in the blackness. I could see mottling with grey and brown, like paint being mixed. The movement within the shade became violent and the mottling more widespread. The wind, which had died down, now shrieked around our heads, sounding like a thousand fighting cats. A refrigerator magnet careened off my forehead and blood began to run down my face. Frying pans which had been hanging from a rack vaulted into the maelstrom, pulled into the dark. The window shattered and glass shards flew past us into the blackness. I felt sharp pains as slivers of glass hit my face.


From within the shade a hand appeared, fingers widespread. Leaping forward, I grasped it and was clasped in an icy grip. I heard Meg cry out, but I didn’t hesitate. Reaching farther in, I got a handful of cloth and pulled. Ingrid began to emerge, crying, face scrunched up in agony.

I slid my right hand around her waist and strained. Meg was with me now, both of us pulling on the girl. My right arm was on fire. I couldn’t tell whether it was frozen or burning, but the pain was tremendous. We were all screaming. Then, like a boot coming out of the mud, Ingrid popped out.

The three of us had fallen to the floor and lay in a heap. I looked up and the inky mass had risen up so that it touched the ceiling. The red eyes glowed right above us. It gave out a howl that shook the house and leaned down toward us. Ingrid stood up and faced it, the darkness inches from her face.

“Enough!” she screamed. “No more! You’ve tortured me for too long.” But the blackness swooped down on her and the upper half of her body disappeared into it. I yelled and grabbed her around the waist and Meg held onto me. A banshee howl again shook the house.

I was being pulled into the foul night, my shoes slipping on the tiles. My face was approaching the inky surface. I turned my head but couldn’t avoid being sucked under. I knew Ingrid immediately. A brutish man, two women, and a young girl, surrounded by roaring flames, were pulling on Ingrid. Their faces were horribly burned, and fire spouted from their eyes. I shouted at them to let go, to leave us alone.

Meg grabbed my belt. Setting my feet, I slid my grasp around Ingrid’s shoulders and yanked her back. Meg kept a constant pull. All at once, the bees appeared, hundreds and hundreds of them. At first, they swarmed around us, moving aimlessly, frantically, a wild Brownian motion in a humming mass of bees.

Ingrid screamed “Get them. Stop them. Help us!” Her voice rose in a wail.

The bees became even more frenetic while my feet started slipping out from under me again. Meg’s head was entering the inky mass. Then the little creatures became organized. Instead of an amorphous mass of insects, there were four arrows, brown and humming, aimed at the four people in the blackness. The arrows shot forward and the four became covered with angry bees. I heard horrible screaming. The suction disappeared. The four had let go and the three of us fell back onto the kitchen floor.

Ingrid rose to her knees, tears flowing down her face. She spoke, but I couldn’t hear her words. The darkness backed away, the screams diminishing to a mewling. Then dwindling, the blackness became smaller and smaller until with a little pop, it disappeared. The only sound was the roaring buzz of a thousand bees.

Meg and I lay sprawled where we had fallen, exhausted. Ingrid turned to us. For a moment we gazed at each other, a century apart, but inextricably linked. There were tears in her eyes as she smiled at us. She reached out her hands but became translucent and faded away like smoke in a breeze until she was gone. Meg and I sat on the floor, holding on tight to each other.

Finally, I crawled to the outside door and opened it. A vast cloud of bees exited into the afternoon sunlight.


I was a little hesitant about staying in the house after that, but Meg talked me into making it our home. She seemed to feel that the ghosts had been exorcised. I knew she was wrong. But I gave in.

We finished our schooling and we each got jobs here in Boston. We still live in the brownstone. The remodeling was finished shortly after Meg gave birth to our first child, a daughter that we named Kelsey Ingrid. The house is noisy now with three children and two dogs.

But I know there is still one more resident, up in the attic. At times, I go up there to keep her company. I feel welcome.

                                                                             * * *


Rhema Sayers is a retired ER doctor who always wanted to write but never had time. After retiring from medicine, she started writing seriously and has had moderate success in being published. She lives in the Arizona desert just outside Tucson with two dogs and one husband.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines.

If you like more mainstream fiction, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.

“Feminine Growl” Horror Microfiction by Madison Randolph

"Feminine Growl" Horror Microfiction by Madison Randolph: woman holding large drill

“Control is an illusion which is in and of itself a cliche or an illusion of knowledge. A double illusion if you will, but I digress.” She ran her fingers lightly over the tools spread across the table. A feminine movement, albeit yet one she was loath to stop herself from performing. 

“You know darling,” she sighed, her fingers slipping around the handle of her favorite drill, “you’ve always known how to” she clicked the button the whirl filling the room, “turn me on.” 

For a moment all was right in the world. Unfortunately, it was too late to see the fear in her eyes as they’d already been removed, but her ears worked wonderfully well for someone who had been ignoring her genius for the past fortnight. 

As the drill tip lowered towards the knee, her body tensed up in preparation for the unimaginable pain. 

To fight against the flesh is spiritual, and while her mind had always egged her on towards greatness the indolence that seeped from her bones turned her limbs to mush at the slightest hint of effort. 

There was no obstacle, no force, no patriarchal demon that held her future dormant. It was then that morning when the alarm clock went off again after the fourth snooze that it occurred to her the problem. The flesh is weak, but the drill is not.  

Madison Randolph is attending the University of Texas Permian Basin to earn her Master’s in English. Her works have appeared in Friday Flash Fiction, The Drabble, Bright Flash Literary Review, Spillwords, The Chamber Magazine. Also, 101 Words as Ryker Hayes. She can be found on Instagram madisonrandolph17 or Twitter @Madisonr1713

If you would like to be part of The Chamber family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines.

If you like more mainstream fiction, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.

“The Devil in the Pear Tree” Flash Horror by Joanna Theiss

"The Devil in the Pear Tree" Flash Horror by Joanna Theiss; Painting by Tompkins Matteson (1853) "Examination of a Witch"
Painting, oil on canvas, Tompkins Matteson (1853) “Examination of a Witch”

A bang-smack, the punch of the airbag and a sizzle of hot fluid pissing from the undercarriage. In the cinder darkness, the hood of my mother-in-law’s car has crumpled like a wet napkin.

When something like this happens, I tell myself it’s a dream. I am asleep next to Katie, not standing in a frozen cornfield, not about to call Derek for a tow, who will rag on me for wrecking yet another car.

Outside, the air stinks of dying radiator. Headlights aim uselessly into the field.

“Not again, you drunk piece of shit.” This is my mother-in-law, Marsha, whose voice plays in my head when she’s not there to yell at me in the flesh. This is me, apologizing, out loud, into the black. “I didn’t have that much, I swear. It’s just bad luck.”

“Good luck, I say!”

Not Marsha, but a man’s voice, shiny as silver. The tree I’ve slammed into shudders and something round and hard drops on the hood and lays between two peaks of cracked steel. It’s a pear, pale green like when you’re about to be sick, like I might be, at the idea I could have killed whoever is talking to me from within the branches.

“Is there someone up there? You need help getting down?”

“You hit the nail on the head.” A chuckle like this is a magnificent joke. “All you have to do is say, ‘Release Satan from the pear tree.’”

I’m not a religious man, but something about this feels off, not to mention corny.

“Ah,” the voice says. “Pardon me, I’m a bit rusty. You’ll be wanting something in return.”

So many things. “Happen to have a tow truck?”

“I can do you one better, sir.” A flare of light and Marsha’s busted car is no longer hugging a tree. It’s running, the radiator intact, hood and fender smooth as the sea, the engine humming like a chorus.

The pear rolls off the hood.

“I can’t thank you enough,” he says. The man with the voice bows to me, his toe pointed. He looks like a movie star and smells like mulled wine. Dressed like a historical reenactor at Old Bedford Village but like one of the villains, like a preacher who would have hung some witches back in the day.


 “Care to make an exchange?” he asks.


“Yes. First, I grant your deepest desire, and then –”

Now that the car is fixed, I have one remaining desire: that Marsha won’t ride my ass for how late I get in.

He smiles. “I can get rid of her for you.”

Sounds nice, but Katie wouldn’t appreciate that. “I just wish she’d stop talking.”

He’s very formal, this dude, so we shake on it. He adjusts the fingers on his satin gloves and says, “Now. I’ll need the man that ran the blacksmith shop here, right beside this tree. Do you know him? He is very arrogant and very clever. A magician with metals.”

“I don’t know any blacksmiths,” I tell him, and he gives himself a shake so his cape falls evenly across his shoulders, a gesture that says this is the wrong answer. I tell him he must mean Derek. Yoked and tattooed, been around town forever, got a gift with cars. Probably could have fixed Marsha’s in only a few more minutes than it took this man, but he is a real son of a bitch to deal with.

A half an hour later, I am tucked in beside Katie. She rolls into me, lifts her face to mine, and slips her hand into my boxers, and I feel like a man who has won the lottery.


Across the breakfast table, Marsha is giving me the stink eye. I’m staring at her over the rim of my coffee as Katie runs in with her phone in her hand, pale as last night’s pear.

“That was Cynthia. Derek is dead. They found him this morning in his shop. He was covered in blood, she said.” Katie moans and pushes into my lap. Stroking her back through the soft terry cloth of her robe, I hear the man’s radio voice, solving my problems with a nod, the word he lobbed at me like a gnarled pear.

Exchange.             “Isn’t it awful, Mom?” Katie says, but Marsha, who should be hollering about poor Derek, taken from us too soon, can’t say a word.

Joanna Theiss (she/her) is a writer living in Washington, DC. Her short stories and flash fiction have appeared in journals such as Aquifer: The Florida Review Online, Bending Genres, Anti-Heroin Chic, Fictive Dream, and Best Microfiction 2022. Links to her writing are available at www.joannatheiss.com.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines.

If you like more mainstream fiction, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.

Dark Poem by Alistair Thaw

Dark Poem by Alistair Thaw: woman bathed in multi-color neon lights
I made that dead thing
from what I found inside your mouth
it was my project, for you
a baby of sorts
ours, to keep and cherish
to have and to hold
in our hands
and, between our fingers
when I remember where I left its head
we can crown it together.

Alistair Thaw is a poet who has work due for publication with The Piker Press. Thaw is also an electronic musician who has recorded numerous horror-themed projects, such as hole house and kindred spirits. Currently, he records as the haunters. 

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.

“Frozen in Time” Horror by Alec Glisson

"Frozen in Time" Horror by Alec Glisson: ice cave

“We need to go in,” Pierce says, his dirty snow boots tapping the ice. A few flurries stick to his coat, nothing compared to the blizzard that flattened their town in snow last week. The blizzard melted under harsh mountain sun, leaving piles of mushy, soot-colored snow. Afterwards, a hole of ice appeared in the woods behind Brett’s backyard. 

The ice hole is special, Brett realized the second he almost fell in during their game of tag. Around the size of a tire, crystallized in a sheet of ice. The ice, like an infection, spreads out from the abyssal interior. They dropped rocks into its mouth, listening in awe as the ice swallowed the fading clinks. The hole does not go straight down, but instead curves into the earth like a water slide. 

“You’re fucking crazy,” Drew says, now throwing sticks down the hole.

“What? You don’t wanna check out Jack Frost’s Gloryhole?” Pierce crouches down, yelling into the hole, his screams disappearing inside. 

“You’ll get stuck. We won’t be able to pull you out,” Drew says. Pierce smiles, internalizing the compliment. This year he poured all his effort into football and wrestling, and it shows. 

“Brett, you’ll go in then. You’re the smallest out of us.” Brett’s body becomes as cold as the ice they stand on, hating how certainties spill out of Pierce’s mouth: you’ll go in. Pierce has always teased Brett for his late bloomer status, not having a single hair under his armpits while a forest grows under Pierce’s. In fact, Brett rarely enjoys spending time with Pierce, but still craves his approval; perhaps it’s because Pierce represents everything Brett isn’t: tall, muscular, confident, athletic—the epitome of masculinity. 

“I don’t know.”

“Come on, dude. We can lower you down, then just pull you right back up. Worse comes to worse, we’re literally right next to your house. Your dad’s still home, right?”

“I think so.”

“Then there’s no reason not to go in—unless you’re a pussy.” Brett hates the hold this insult has over him. He can’t be afraid. And, something’s been calling him ever since he spotted the ice hole. A ravenous curiosity needing to be fed. 

“Fine. I’ll go.”


Pierce holds one boot while Drew holds the other, lowering Brett’s body into the ice hole. “Head first,” Pierce ordered earlier. “Or else you won’t be able to see inside.” Brett’s body does not dangle, but instead lowers onto a sheet of ice that slopes downwards. Still, he feels a pull yearning to take him further down. 

Brett is shocked by the never-ending tunnel’s brightness. The ice above reflects his body, like he’s been swallowed by a mirror. His reflection does not look afraid, and he smiles. 

“What’s down there?” Pierce’s voice calls; it sounds distant, despite him standing just outside the hole. 

“It goes pretty deep.”

“That’s what she said.” Pierce and Drew’s laughs travel down the chasm. They must lose focus, missing how Brett’s snow boot slips from his foot. Momentum pushes Brett forward, causing him to slide out the other boot as well. A scream launches from his throat, circling around him in haunting echoes. 

He stops sliding. Voices, now sounding miles away, call from the surface: “Brett, we’ll go get your dad! I’m sure he has a rope or something we’ll use to pull you out. Just hold on!” Then the voices are gone, and he’s left with silence.

Tears slide down his face, freezing into ice before they even leave his cheek. His raspy breaths create a cloud of panic around him. He wipes his snot on his yellow Pikachu gloves. The gloves his Mom gifted last Christmas since their dog Lucie destroyed his old ones. His thoughts turn to the worst: Will he ever see them again? Will he freeze to death down here? Will a rope even allow him to escape?


The only measurement of time are his rapid heart beats. Even then, Brett is sure at least thirty minutes have passed. The walls coil around him. When looking up at his reflection within the ice, he sees a red-faced child with frozen tears pouring out of hopeless eyes; not the brave, smiling boy from before. 

He tries to turn his body around, but only ends up sliding deeper into the tunnel. His toes, without boots to shield them, start to burn as the cold drives needles into his skin. Taking deep breaths proves impossible with his choked-up throat, snot-filled nose, and the stagnant air shredding his lungs. 

A hand grabs his foot, and he breathes a sigh of relief. “Dad? Dad, thank you. Please pull me out.” Silence responds. He shifts his weight to his side so he can turn his neck around. No one crouches behind him, yet the pressure on his foot is undeniable: a tight vise-grip. Is this what frostbite feels like? he thinks, but that thought melts as something sharp digs into his foot, drawing blood. 

He hears guttural breaths that are not his own. The breaths morph into a syllable, like someone trying to shove a word out of their mouth, but can’t.

His screams, despite their volume, somehow do not shatter the ice. He kicks at this unknown being, but the pressure only increases. He crawls forward as fast as he can: the only direction he can go to escape. Deeper into the ice.


Pierce, Drew, and Brett’s father stand in a circle. No one utters a single word; they can’t find any. Their brains, it seems, have shut off, becoming lumps of flesh out in the snow. No questions circle their mind—only disbelief. A snowflake even lands directly on Drew’s eye, but he doesn’t notice it. The ice hole, open a few minutes prior, has now sealed shut.


The deeper Brett crawls, the smaller the tunnel becomes, until the icy walls start to squeeze his skin. The pressure on his foot has ceased, but a stinging pain persists. A light calls to him at the tunnel’s end. A scratching sound follows him, as if someone’s just above or below the ice, desperately trying to escape. He does not find the many rocks and sticks they threw inside. 

He’s hoping for some form of opening in the tunnel. A space large enough to turn his body around. Still, the idea of possibly encountering the creature that left these wounds creates a knot of anxiety in his stomach.

The tunnel continues to narrow. He removes his thick, heavy coat in order to slip through the crushing walls. Just when the tunnel narrows so tight that he’s positive he’ll be unable to progress, he reaches the light. 

He squirms out of the tunnel’s confines, into a cavern, reborn anew. Fresh air, for the first time since he fell into the hole, graces his lungs. He can stretch his arms and legs—a luxury he’ll never take for granted again. 

His fear ebbs as he admires the giant dripping icicles stuck to the cavern’s ceiling; water collects at their tips, plopping down onto the floor. Cracked fissures run along the cavern’s walls, the jagged ice like teeth. 

His eyes lock on the expansive ceilings. How is he this far underground? A cavern like this shouldn’t exist here. He didn’t crawl that deep, right?

The water droplets continue falling from the icicles; the sound jolts his body. He feels another presence in here, staring at him through the walls. Light pulses across the ice, like veins pumping blood. In this underground ice cavern, without a coat, he’s not cold. In fact, sweat starts to collect on his forehead and hands. He takes off his Pikachu gloves, shoving them into his pocket.

Removing his sock to check his damaged foot, he almost bites his tongue off. A word carves into his flesh: FREE. The letters are sloppy, frantic. A deep hiss pierces through the ice. An intense urgency to leave this cavern, as if he’s an intruder, overwhelms his entire body. 

Brett sprints towards the tunnel he entered from. His bare feet slip on the ice. Tumbling backwards, his tailbone smacks into the ground. A scream unleashes from him, and, as if the ice reacts to his pain, the hissing sound increases. 

His heart is about to burst. His hands shake as he pulls himself up, running to the tunnel’s entrance.

Except there is no entrance.

The tunnel is gone.

He runs his fingers along the cavern’s icy walls, as if there’s some secret button he needs to press to reopen the tunnel. Two pairs of eyes meet his gaze from beyond the ice. He screams again, his voice hoarse from a lack of water.
There’s more than just eyes. There’s a child encased in ice, her unicorn pajamas ripped and stained. Her face, on the other hand, does not have a single cut on it. She’s smiling. Her pupils do not move, but Brett feels them moving. Her blonde hair extends upwards, braided by ice. 

Next to her, a boy is also suspended in the ice, his eyes frozen open like hers. He, too, smiles. A baseball uniform with an alligator stitched into the fabric crinkles against his pale skin. His palms are open. Dirt, possibly from a baseball field, buries underneath his fingertips. His overgrown shaggy hair wraps around his ears and neck.

A clicking sound echoes from somewhere in the distance, drawing closer. Brett curls into a ball, tears pouring down his cheeks. He’s beginning to accept that he will die down here. He cannot escape. No one will save him. 

A presence looms behind him. Even then, he does not turn. Just kill me, he thinks. End this. End this all.

“It’s not an end; it’s a beginning,” the voice whispers. 

He cannot wait any longer. He turns around. 

After seeing the creature, he fully accepts his future death.

The creature’s face is a fusion of children’s faces, their expressions frozen and animated simultaneously: their sorrows, hopes, dreams, pain, anger, love. It hunches on all fours, the vertebrae of its spine jutting upwards, twisting and turning with every slight movement. Icicles poke out the surface of its waxy, shimmery skin, like it’s being consumed by ice. 

The creature smiles, revealing a gaping, reflective hole. Children’s screams escape from its mouth, and Brett cannot tell if they’re screams of joy or fear; it sounds like they’re on a rollercoaster. Steam rises from its vibrating body, creating that hissing sound he heard earlier. Its claws dig into the ice, creating more cracks and fissures. Its icy tail wriggles, twisting upwards like a scorpion. 

“Why?” Brett says, but he’s not sure he speaks aloud. Even then, the creature still responds.

“We want you to stay,” it whispers; the sound does not come from the beast, but instead comes from an invisible entity that speaks into his ear. 

“Please. I just want to go home.” He forces these words out, mixed with his tears. 

“It only gets worse if you leave. Trust us.” The creature’s tail undulates. The scratching sounds from inside the walls increase. Its mouth opens wider, now the size of an arm. “Look inside. You’ll see.”

Brett steps forward. Whatever this creature plans to do with him, he needs it to be over with. He stares inside the creature’s black hole. 

And sees his future. All of it, in an instant, the memories filter through him, then become one inside him. They burrow into his consciousness, and he falls to his knees, screaming, crying, clutching his head in his hands. 

“Help! Help!” he begs, collapsing into a ball.

“We can help. Let us help,” it says, its tail eagerly moving downwards. “You can stay here instead. With us. Forever.” 

“Make it stop!”

“We can.”

“Let me stay! I’ll do anything to stay!”

The hissing stops. All the lights in the ice cavern disappear, swarming the abyss in shadow. And yet, he can still see all the children, hundreds of them, frozen in perpetuity, their smiles and eyes fixed on him. 

The creature’s tail lowers, then opens like a flower bud blooming in spring. Within the blooming flower, a blinding light engulfs him, and he’s never seen something so bright and pure. He stares into the light, transfixed. A smile spreads across his face. 

The creature’s tail closes around his face, delicately, as if he were glass; it’s warm inside. Icicles emerge from his skin. The creature’s mouth must open again, because Brett hears the familiar screaming, but he now knows it’s one of joy; they must be running around on a playground during recess. The sound grows louder. And louder. 

All he sees is light, and eyes, and smiles embracing him, protecting him. The tail snaps shut, encasing Brett. He sinks into the ice, forever staring into that light, the biggest smile of his life seared into his youthful face.

Alec Glisson studies English Education and English and creative writing at the University of Iowa. His interests beyond reading, writing, and teaching include yoga, theater, and sci-fi/fantasy TV shows. Originally from Springfield, Illinois, he hopes to one day live somewhere that doesn’t have 6-month winters. 

If you would like to be part of The Chamber family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines.

If you like more mainstream fiction, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.

“Fragile Guts” Dark Science-Fiction/ Fantasy by Caleb Coomer

CONTENT/TRIGGER WARNING: This story contains material of a sexual and/or mature nature that some people may find distasteful, upsetting, or offensive and which may not be suitable for younger readers. If you feel you are such a person, please move on to the next story. The Chamber Magazine wants all its readers to have an enjoyable experience.

"Fragile Guts" Dark Science-Fiction/ Fantasy by Caleb Coomer blue woman

Wooden spikes embellished with runes, markings of her ancient clan, protruded through her fluorescent purple nipples. Her white breasts turned pastel blue as they sank and rose with the pulse of their dance. His back clung to the drab cotton sheet weeks past due for a wash. He looked up to see pale eyes turn cinnamon-spiced brown; even the whites of her eyes changed, and a rancid, lime-colored milk drudged out from the corners, but she continued to throb and ride. His hands gripped her sides with determination.

Her teeth, once white, transitioned, and now a piss-colored smile glistened over the boy as she sang to him in words black and slimy like the tongue dangling from her mouth, and his manhood replied with reinforcement. She grabbed his neck, and he returned the grip by clinching her warm sides, just above the hips. As he grasped her tighter, the flesh grew cool, and his nails plunged into it. Her smile turned to a grimace, and he braced.

The cold encased her entrails, and her insides near froze the boy’s penis as he ejaculated. Her sides stung where he tore into her. Millions had looked upon her icy transmogrification, but in thousands of years, this young man was the first to hold tighter. She held his seed inside her. Her sides struggled to heal, and now she sat on his bed in full form—white hair, blue skin, black tongue, yellow teeth, bulging blue breasts with dark-green nipples, pointed ears, and a face decorated with scars obtained during the escape attempts of former lovers. The boy smiled. He moved to grab her left breast before she turned away, sliding backwards on the bed.

“What are you?” she asked.

“Patrick,” the boy replied, smiling.

“How old are you?”

“Six and ten years.”

_A sweet young fool_, she thought. Confused, she stood up to leave.

“Don’t go! Please, I want to be with you! Again and again!”

“I have work to complete,” she said.

“It’s the middle of the night,”

“The witching hour is the only hour my work is done.”

“Come back, please. Tomorrow come back.”

She leapt from the boy’s window. Until her vault, the boy hadn’t noticed her frail, tattered wings. _An angel_, he thought. “My angel!” he screamed to the black, starless sky.

She skirted along the wind and removed a grey ceramic vial from her satchel. She ejected the boy’s semen into the cylindrical vessel, sealed the container, and tucked it away. At the end of the evening’s work, she returned home with several vials. She opened her bag to submit the tubes of man seed to the clerk at the collection and distribution desk of the dispensary. Her work contributes to her specie’s old tradition of cross-breeding with humans, a practice upheld to accomplish a strategic goal unknown to her. She assumed power to be the primary motivator, as it had been in most affairs of the royal, both man and beast. She held the warm, stone-colored tube and recalled his distant yell—_my angel_! Her sides pulsated where he had squeezed her; a series of tingles scattered inside her stomach, a feeling foreign to her. She kept the sample, refusing to submit it to the endless menagerie of human sperm.


The next night, she was scheduled to fly the east corridor in a forty-square-mile block. She diverted, and in twenty minutes, she reached the boy’s unhatched window. He woke to see the pale-skinned, fire-haired woman he had lain with the night before, but in her unnatural form—the appearance of a woman, with white teeth and no blue skin.

“I prefer your other form,” the boy said.

She looked down at her pink-white feet like polished silver. The feet turned gnarled and grey blue, with protruding bones and spiked toes capped with brown nails. When she looked through her brown, leaky eyes, she noticed the boy’s smile and the protrusion of his penis through the single unkempt sheet. She walked to him, and this time she lay under him. Again he penetrated her stomach with the tight grip of his supple hands, the hands of a young man, new to the touch of another. She absorbed his seed.

“I must fly; I am far behind,” she said.

“What do you mean? Just stay, please. Don’t abandon me again.”

“I have to work.”

“What is your work? Who are you?” he asked.

“Please forget me, my sweet boy.”

She flew back to the east corridor to relinquish lost time, but she arrived at the dispensary short on vials and had to fly twice as fast and collect twice as much the next evening. Three days passed before she returned to her boy lover. She returned to see the boy awake under the covers, a candle in hand, writing in frantic, harsh motions, perhaps doodling. She fluttered away. He jumped from the covers in a decisive and violent thrust of the legs, ignoring the fate of the flame in his hand. He ran to the window.

“Come in!”

She turned back and entered the boy’s room. The boy’s skin smelled of peppers and earth, his eyes red and lined with purple and black flesh. She flew in with some hesitation. The walls were littered with paintings on parchment and tapestry, blue women with black tongues and dainty wings.

“You create these figures. Why?” she asked.

“Oh, I am so glad. Oh, my. I love you! I do. I love you; tell me your name. What is your name, my angel? What is it?”

She knew from his blood-wrenched eyes that what had been fear and hate in the millions of other men was a dangerous passion and ravenous lust in him. The boy admired her, but his mind had turned wild all the same. _I thought you different, my lovely boy, and you are, but my sting penetrates your mind nevertheless; the rot grows in you_. She went to bed with the boy. She desired the burn in her sides left by the cut of his sharp nails and the twinge in her belly when she parted from him.


A fortnight passed before she returned to the boy. His head was bare, only white skin, skin far more pale than his soiled face. An array of multi-colored bruises covered his flesh, black and blue, purple and black, yellow and green.

“Oh, my angel, my angel, my wonderful angel. I need not your name. My angel. That is your name. My fair and true angel, that’s what you are. Please come in, my angel.”

He had painted the room with black ink and blue paint and the juice of berries; the rock walls were drenched in silhouettes of her kind, Patrick’s angels. Utensils and crusted fruit and berry skins scattered the floor. _All for his walls and not his belly, I’m sure_. The boy appeared famished, and his flesh transmitted the scent of vinegar and soft cheese. She assumed he was days without sleep, and she knew he was several days without bathing.

“Who cares for you, boy?” she asked.

“Why, my angel, do you call me ‘boy’? How many years are you? Eight and ten at the most, yes? My angel, come to me, please.”

“I am as old as many generations, my sweet boy; who cares for you?” she asked.

“I do, my angel, only me. I am all I need, and you of course. Myself and my angel, all I need. Please come to bed, my angel.”

The thought of how he had once looked at her with desire as her flesh fell off in his hands made her stomach tingle. The damage dealt to her tender sides by the boy’s ragged nails had given her a long internal burn. What she felt now, standing in front of this bald, tainted boy, was another new feeling, one unlike the feeling conjured by the boy’s touch. This new feeling happened internally like the tingle, but it was a violent eruption. _I am a daughter of Lamia_, she wanted to tell him; _I came about in the Bronze Age. You are the first to smile, the first to pierce my fragile guts_. Her face wore the scars of past lovers, countless men, but her sides wore only the fresh scars of this boy, her sweet boy. The pain of his grip lingered still, moons after their last affair. Her mind rattled with words she could not speak.

“I said forget me, boy!” she proclaimed in a growl, in a language meant for beasts. The boy could not interpret her language, but he understood her meaning all the same.

“My angel, please, you are my love! You are my angel!”

“Boy, you will be no more; you must forget me!” she said in his tongue.

“I would die before—”

She squealed and hissed. Jars shattered, stone walls shivered and cracked. The boy dropped to his knees in tears. She scooped him up and flew through the window snapping the hinges, his gaunt arms tangled with her own as her wings worked to support the extra weight. Her black tongue slipped into his mouth, feeling every corner.

On a grass hill, he dug into her sides, and she whispered to him, “My boy, you are my sweet boy.”

He replied, “You are my angel.”


Her kind and their ancient curse had scoured many minds, but never before had she watched as her toxins sank deeper into one’s viscera, fostering steady deterioration of the mind and body. Her sweet boy had held tighter, he gave her an admired pain, and now she gave him what none before received, her attention. Many moons came and went as she watched him from afar; the boy tore his bed to pieces, making a blue-painted altar to his angel. He wrote in scribbles, attempts at writing the old tongue she spoke to him, a language long dead and impossible to scribe. She watched as he cut toes from his molding feet. She watched the toes decay in an assortment of jars. The toes turned blue like the color of her breasts, and he cherished his toes in the same manner, caressing them in his palms, until they turned black, and he tossed them from his window. She watched, hovering in the sky, when the boy tossed himself from the window, shattering his neck on the mildew-covered ground below.

Four vials of her sweet boy’s semen remained in her satchel pocket. She took them to an old friend, Zarik, a leader in the distribution department of the dispensary. She promised Zarik any favor if she helped her find the most impeccable suitor for her precious seed. She accompanied Zarik and a breeder on the journey north, where a young woman lay in a decayed farmhouse. Her golden hair swam around her full body, a body prepared for a child. Four chances for the seed to take.

She held no expertise in human reproduction; collection was her work. The firm-bodied breeder flew into the farm girl’s window on his sturdy wings, her sweet boy’s semen injected into his loins, and bedded the fertile girl. Now she watched from afar, hoping the seed took and hoping the seed was true. She longed for a boy to be born of this woman, a boy to look upon her icy skin and tattered face with delight and pierce her delicate sides. This hope summoned the welcome intestinal tingle and the persisting heat of her mangled flesh.

Caleb works as an analyst in Washington, D.C. His passions apart from reading and writing fiction include film, basketball, bourbon, and traveling with his wife Melody. 

If you would like to be part of The Chamber family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines.

If you like more mainstream fiction, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.

“Eat, Sleep, Repeat” Horror by Sarah Muldowney

"East, Sleep, Repeat" Horror by Sarah Muldowney


I was going to start off by saying I haven’t always been big, but that would be a lie. And not one of those little white lies either, but a huge, big, fat one – just like me. I’ve been fat, seriously fat, verging on the morbidly obese from the mere tender age of six. But, in my defence, I couldn’t have turned out any different, all things considered, because I just didn’t know any different.

Both my parents, my mom AND pop, were ‘big’ (that’s how they always liked to refer to themselves – big) living off TV dinners, greasy take outs, bagfuls of candy and gallons of sugary soda. I really didn’t stand a chance.

My aunties and uncles were fat. My cousins were fat. My gran and grandpa died young because they were so fat; I never even got a chance to meet them. Even the damn dog was fat, the poor thing. Snuffled around the floor like a vacuum cleaner hoovering up all the scraps, never taken for a walk and pooped wherever it fancied all over the goddam trailer. Luckily for her my pop wasn’t fast enough to catch the slow waddling mutt to whoop its fat butt as he wasn’t even capable of a slow waddle himself, but boy he wanted to so bad and no mistake.

Sometimes the poops were picked up but more often than not they sat there dried and forgotten about just like the unceremoniously dumped pizza boxes and take out cartons along with the dropped food that all eventually became a part of our home furnishings. Turns out the less you moved the less you noticed and the less you wanted to notice the less you moved. A kind of lazy ass win/win in our home. But there was a time when I did used to notice and it got me real down. I even tried to clear up after everyone on occasion but I couldn’t keep on top of it as well as going to school and running errands for them as they both made a silent pact to never step foot outside the place.

And so the cycle began.

I got more depressed about it and so ate more to feel better and also to stuff down the hate that had started to rise from the pit of my ever growing stomach – that pit was fat, like me, and so the hate was too. I couldn’t let that devil out in fear of what it might make me do, weren’t ready for that. So I kept pushing it down with more and more food, just like I saw my momma and pop do every day of all the days I can remember remembering. And boy, did it work too. We had managed to create our own version of ‘Happy Ever After’ despite how sick the actual truth of our lives were. Of course  even more eating helped with that uncomfortable truth if ever it decided to try and rear it’s ugly, fat head.

We weren’t in denial, nothing like that, we obviously knew we were fat – real fat – we just didn’t need the constant reminding of it. But hey, we got it anyway. We got it on the street, we got it in the parking lots, we got it in the mall, we got it at the stoplights from other rides pulled up alongside. Some nasty ass guys felt it was their God given right to shout through their open windows about how fat we were before speeding off ahead when the stoplights turned to green leaving us stranded as our own exhausted vehicle struggled to set off with us all crammed in, leaving us tight lipped, never to speak about, but wide mouthed on our return home, ready to stuff our faces once again.

That’s why we stopped going out.

It became easier and easier to keep it all down, all in, as we swallowed down food we never even tasted to keep our anger and shame suppressed deep down under the weight of all we stuffed ourselves with. Eventually we were all just too darn heavy to leave even if we wanted to, which we never did. The effort and energy it would have taken to propel us from where we chose to slump ended up being as stagnant as our voice. So, deliveries and take outs it was. Day and night. Even the dog stayed in with us as it began not to care whether it ever went outside again either, not that she was ever really given much choice.

I know that to be cruel now, especially as I am someone who has always loved animals way more than people, still do, but I go without since she died right where she ate her last pizza straight out of the box it came in, her own little pizza box coffin, she probably would have liked that except only half of her fit, and it was a super size.

I remember when she had been cute and pretty and full of life before turning ugly and fat like the rest of us. She was one of those little yappy lap dogs, easy to carry under your arm, until she wasn’t no more. I didn’t mind cos I was ugly too so of course I was always gonna love her just the same. I got a kind of peace with my obesity and ugliness; I reckoned it must have been God’s will for me to have turned out the way I did. Mom and pop always said the same about themselves and I guess that’s what made it all kind of okay in the end. I’ve had time to think about it while I lie here; time to think about a lot of stuff I hadn’t allowed myself to think about before and I reckon that probably weren’t true at all, that maybe they just made it all up to make me feel better about myself and no doubt to make them feel better about themselves too. My whole life I’d been convinced of it, that it had been ordained by the Almighty himself to be just so. It’s hard to accept now that it had all been a load of old bull. It’s no wonder then that I loved to eat so much; a pizza and a couple twinkies became my medicine, even my best friend.

I promised I wouldn’t lie, so I won’t.

I never just had the one pizza, it always came with all the extras – the wedges, the chicken wings, the cheesy garlic bread. And as for the twinkies it was more like a couple packs. It feels better to be honest. Might as well get it all out there as I’m feeling real shit anyway. And that is exactly why cake was invented.


I must try and move a bit more; staying in the one place is making me feel uncomfortable. Easier said than done if you’re me. But I’m going to give it a go, all by myself. There’s no-one here to help me so I don’t really got a choice.

I pull down hard on the rope that hangs from the ceiling right above me, it was put there just for me. It took a while to set it up right as it turned out it needed more than just the ceiling itself to hold it as well as me when I pulled on it. When it was fitted it was practically the only time I got to see anyone else apart from him. Him – the one who fed me and tended to my every need.

The guy He chose to do it came recommended, He assured me of that as I was embarrassed at the thought of someone from the outside coming in and settling their eyes on me while I laid there, here, immobile and useless. It was okay, turned out he was used to seeing others like me and so was neither fascinated or appalled by my appearance. It seemed he knew exactly what he was doing as he got to work quickly and efficiently, obviously experienced in fixing my tug rope securely and safely so I need never worry about pulling the house down around me when my weight was on it, no fear of the ceiling collapsing all about me followed by the walls that held it. He proved to be polite and courteous as he worked around me under the ever present watchful eye of He who loved me the most in the world.

I manage to hoist myself up a bit so as I am in more of an upright position rather than my usual reclining one. I cannot ever be flat in fear of my weight crushing down hard on my compromised heart and lungs which would absolutely guarantee a death I’m not quite ready for despite being acutely aware that I’m not truly living either.

I’ve always felt like I’m in some kind of limbo, some sort of holding place where I just sit and wait, have waited for so long to either take control and actually exist in a place with others who share this world beyond these walls or choose to lose any will I might barely have left and give up my body and hope that the soul that resides within it moves on to another host in which it can be free. I fester between the two possibilities.

It feels like I’ve been alone here for days now but I know it can’t be, boredom does that. Boredom is an enemy that corrupts time and confuses me. The lack of windows mean I can’t tell if it’s night or day so it’s easy to lose track. I guess it doesn’t really matter. I’ll keep myself busy with memories.

I never had any friends, ever, apart from my dog, the once cute, joyous dog that we turned into one of us. She used to always sit with me and share my bed at night. She never left my side (she could probably feel my loneliness) except to poop on the floor, snuffle for dropped food after which I’d help her back into the couch beside me using my fat hand on her fat behind to give her a helpful push.

I can almost remember the moment she stopped wagging her tail and it wasn’t because she was unhappy, more probably because it was too much like hard work, but I knew she was happy as she always had a stupid droopy grin on her face while she panted heavily next to me as I petted her. She was such a good girl. I still miss her to this day.

After the dog died I felt more alone than ever. My mom rarely left the bedroom and my pop watched games on the television from his worn sunken chair with the flip out foot rest that gave up working some time back. I could either sit and watch him watch TV as he ate and drank and scattered what was left around about him or I could go lie on my bed that groaned like an old galleon ship as it tried so hard to hold me aloft. I worried that if it were to collapse beneath me I might never rise again but just die where I laid.

The irony of that concern is not wasted on me. I must have seen into the future or something. If it wasn’t so hideously true I might have laughed, who knows, maybe I still might. It’s not over till the fat lady sings. What does that even mean? Maybe I should get to practising.


I did used to go to school, when I was little, before the kids the same age as me noticed I was at least twice their size. When they were little they didn’t care or didn’t notice and even though I’m pretty sure their parents did (judging by the way they gave me the side eye) it hadn’t yet rubbed off on their own. I reckon it was probably because they didn’t want to have to be explaining nothing to them just yet, there was plenty of time for that and that time came round a darn sight quicker, looking back, than I remember it seeming back then.

I didn’t feel excluded as I was always getting invited to the birthday celebrations of my class mates. It wasn’t till I was older I learned that I was the only one never to be invited for a play date or a sleepover on my own. That would have been ‘distasteful’ so I heard later on. ‘Distasteful’. I hope you’ll agree that their behaviour was the only distasteful thing going on. I honestly don’t know how I would have felt knowing all that at the time. Maybe it would have triggered me to eat even more or just maybe I might have been more capable of change than I ever have been since.

If I were to say I’d tried healthy eating, dieting, some form of exercise (even low impact in a chair) I’d be blatantly lying, which as you know I’m not going to. I will say that by middle school people in authority started to get real interested in my size, advising me to do all the things I just mentioned but never did. It seemed like way too much hard work and my mom and pop threw all the letters and leaflets they’d been sent for me straight into the trash, making sure they were covered real good with ketchup and mustard so I’d never retrieve them. Funny how they moved their butts then. They always said they were doing me good by doing that while they opened a fresh pack of twinkies and handed me a few as a reward for having done the right thing by ignoring it all. Turns out they were the ones who were ignoring it.

It’s amazing what you can see, clear as day, when you have time to think about things. Thinking is also a strategy I am using to fill up my time, my head and hopefully my belly as the gnawing hunger is getting more difficult to dismiss. It will do me good to go without. I know it will. This is how it starts, right? The journey to a lighter body, a body that just might be able to function unaided. It’s been so long since I last did anything for myself. I’m not sure I’ll remember how to do it right. It’s gonna be like being a kid all over again. This time, though, I’m gonna grow up how I want to, choose the life I want, not the one handed to me in take out boxes by my parents. I know I am not them, I am me.

I’ve got to try and move myself again, don’t want to be getting bed sores in places I can’t reach and treat. Those things can kill you. I’ll try and move onto one side a little, it don’t feel nice, reminds me of what’s underneath, it ain’t pretty and I don’t wanna look. It’s too soon for that. Not sure if I’ll ever manage to.

Middle school could have been an opportunity for me but it was taken and in its place came more of my favourite food. Me, my mom, my pop and dog were all part of the one same. Like a giant organism in four parts that all relied on each of us to keep us going in the way we were accustomed to. If any part of this family were to break off all the other parts might well have died so we kept feeding us and we all grew more and more reliant on each other to keep up this way of life. Turns out if you ignore people for long enough they don’t bother you no more. The term “You’ve made your bed, you can lie in it,” couldn’t have been any more appropriate. The only thing I would say contrary to that is the beds we lay in were never made, that required far too much effort on our part. We had all managed to drop out of society which back then felt like a kind of victory; at least people stopped looking and commenting. There was nothing victorious about it – I know that now.


Old Mrs Dooley from a couple trailers down always checked in on us. Her husband had left her years before and her only son had died while serving in the military. She’d kinda decided she needed to fill her time caring for us instead. She never judged, she’d just come round take our dirty clothes off our backs and launder them while quietly throwing things into garbage bags which she then took out for us. We became so reliant on her twice weekly visits that one time, when she was ill, my dad cursed the fact she ‘hadn’t bothered turning up’. Turns out she was pretty sick. She didn’t actually return home from the hospital at all. After everything she had done for us we couldn’t even get off our fat behinds to go show our respect. We never spoke about it but I could tell that my mom was most ashamed about that. I was too young back then to have gone alone and let’s face it, who was gonna take me anyways? My pop used this as even more reason to feel sorry for himself and eat more. After Mrs Dooley died there were no more visitors and that made me real sad but I knew candy always helped with that. And soda – lots of sugar sweet fizzy pop soda.

We lived off disability even though we weren’t really disabled, we were incredibly obese, and that was our fault. I find it hard to believe that we could ever come under ‘disability’ – it’s an outright insult to those who are born handicapped or those maimed in wars. I still find it embarrassing to think of it. We were gluttonous pigs who chose to eat till we couldn’t move. It disgusted me and it disgusts me still as I lie here incapacitated, unable to carry out the most basic of tasks and all because I was taught to choose food over anything else. Oh, I know I’m sick alright, that’s a no brainier, but disabled? Absolutely not. Even though I was never the one that ordered the take outs, all that fast food and sugary candy and pop that strips the enamel from your teeth, I was the one who picked it all up and shoved it into my waste pipe of a gullet. Barely even catching a taste of it on my tongue as I shovelled in mouthful after mouthful of total garbage.

I look down at my body and I don’t recognise it as human. My entire form is a huge blur of grey and red crusty hills that are arid and spotted and monstrous. My hands and feet look ridiculous in comparison to the rest of me. Tiny yet bloated, misshapen, as the ingested fat has burrowed its way into every nook and cranny in which to settle causing toes and fingers to flare out in different directions. I laugh at how they had been made to look pretty by the nails being painted rosy pink. That wasn’t me, I wouldn’t have been able to. It was Him, of course. Strange how the one thing He always wanted to look real pretty were my nails; He’d go to all that trouble, painstakingly choosing the right colour and then applying it perfectly, making sure not to get any of the varnish on the distended skin that held my nails firmly in place – if it ever did He’d use a q-tip and varnish remover. It amazed me that a man would even know how to do that, it was as if He must have practised or done it before. Oh God, He must have.

I feel sick.

He’d done it before hadn’t He?

Im not special, like He said.

He lied.

I want to puke. I mustn’t, I won’t, I can’t. Who’s going to clear it up?

I can’t.

It was our Friday night thing – ‘date night’ He liked to call it. Not that we ever went anywhere, ever. He would do me up real nice, spend time brushing my hair and putting it up to make me look more sexy and also so He could admire the fat building around my neck that had long stopped looking like a neck, a neck should be narrower than the head it holds, not twice the size. He’d bought make up especially for these occasions and apply it how He wished, sometimes real slutty and at others all girly and fresh. I don’t think He preferred one look over the other, more like whatever suited His mood that particular evening. When He finished He would triumphantly hold a hand mirror to my face so I could admire my reflection which I don’t remember ever admiring. It made Him happy, He called me beautiful over and over as He started taking the photographs. He would get real excited when He started taking the photographs.


I should probably tell you how we met because you really must be thinking, ‘Hang on there a sweet second, how the hell she gonna be getting hooked up with a guy when she never went out?’ and you’d be right to wonder. I’d want to know if I were you.

Some do-gooders a few years back decided they wanted to do their bit, you know, charitable types that wanted to be of help to those that are beyond helping themselves. Somehow they found out about us, the long forgotten obese trailer park family. They no doubt knew it was too late to save my mom and pop but they should at least try and do something for their poor blameless daughter – me. A second hand computer was donated to us, to me, in the hope I might find something of interest, something I might want to consider studying, learn about, which might move me on to who knows what. Maybe if I furthered my cut short failed education I could get a job perhaps. I get what they were trying to do but where the hell was I supposed to start?

The screen and keyboard became a portal to the outside world. I spent the first few months watching YouTube and catching up on things other young adults my age were interested in. I could game online with others who only ever knew my avatar, not the real me. I finally had friendships. This new exciting distraction didn’t stop me eating but it did stop me thinking about food every minute so it was definitely a good thing. It got to a point where I didn’t bother talking to my parents anymore – I didn’t have to. They didn’t try either so we co-existed in the same shared space without taking any notice of one another. I reckon if my mom or pop had died back then I wouldn’t have known till they started to smell. It’s bad, I know, but it’s how it was and I didn’t know any different. They’re still not dead.

I wonder how long it would have taken them to notice if I’d stopped breathing.


After a while I started to get real chatty with a fellow gamer BigLove30. Whenever we finished a gaming session we would private message and that’s how we got to truly know about each other. As we got more and more comfortable we slowly began revealing things we hadn’t shared with anyone else. He told me He chose the username BigLove30 because He just loved big women, the bigger the better, He claimed. This was a revelation, a turning point, the turning point. Until that moment I had no idea there were men out there who loved big women, and when I say big I mean REAL BIG! I had never allowed myself to entertain the thought of having any kind of relationship, let alone with a man. It went against everything I knew to be true.

The words He wrote to me made me feel safer and safer until I knew I could show myself for who I really was, which of course was nothing like the sexy, hourglass avatar I had hidden behind. He asked me how big I was and obviously I lied, not wanting to scare Him off, I made myself smaller,

took off a good few pounds. To my surprise He seemed disappointed, said that I was small compared to the women He was usually attracted to. I told Him I was more than capable of putting on a few more pounds if He would like. He said that would make me just about perfect. He let me know what His desired weight for me would be and I made sure to fulfil His fantasy, I didn’t want Him to lose interest in me. When I reached the goal He had set for me thats when He told me He loved me and right then I knew I loved Him too.

I was delirious with happiness.

We stopped gaming that night, instead I would message Him with a list of all the things I had eaten throughout the day and give Him a weekly note of my latest weigh in, like He asked. He said He felt like He’d died and gone to heaven and I told Him I did too.


I’m starting to itch terribly, it crawls underneath me where it knows I cant reach to scratch it. It’s an all consuming sensation despite my skin being more like hide. Even as I hold on to the rope above me to try and jiggle my gross mass from side to side in the hope that whatever lies beneath me might help chase the itch away I know the effort is probably a futile one. I haven’t had the usual creams massaged into my cracked, elephantine skin for some time and it’s starting to show. The cream isn’t even on the bedside table where it always stood so I can’t even have a go at applying it all on my own. I’m telling myself its pointless to worry about it seeing as there’s nothing I can do, but it doesn’t help. I must use all my willpower to try and ignore it but we all know how poor that particular trait is in me. If it doesn’t go away soon it might well drive me mad.

I’m probably mad already.


I must have slept. For a second there I forgot where I was, it’s disorientating. The hunger growling in the pit of me helps to remind me. That’s probably what woke me. I can just about reach the water bottle that still has a mouthful or two left, I’ve been consciously rationing, it’s nowhere near enough to quench my thirst or stave off the desperate pangs in my belly, but it will have to do.

It’s His fault, all of this, His fault. If I’d never been given that stupid computer in the first place I wouldn’t be here right now. I wouldn’t be like this. Nothing like this. BigLove30 was sent by the devil himself. Sent to tempt me, lure me away from everything I had ever known. Trouble is what I had known was bad, toxic and by the time He entered my life I was more than ready to get away. More than anything I wanted to feel loved, cherished, desired and most of all looked after, I wanted someone to actually look after me. He offered me everything my mom and pop had long forgotten about giving me. That’s why I did it.

It’s so easy, in retrospect, to see how many alarm bells I switched off before they were allowed to ring loudly and bring me back to my senses. I heard them eventually, loud and clear and way too late. I knew it and, worst than that, He did too. That’s the moment He turned, the moment when He knew I was absolutely beholden to Him, at His complete and utter mercy. He had made sure to become my everything while He fed me more to make me completely useless and under His total control. He grew horns and a forked tail that only I could see. It was just for me.

I can tell you, there is no heaven and there is no hell, the devil walks the earth just like the rest of us, and He is way worse than any religious doctrine could have you believe. This is the only truth you need to know.

It’s too late for me.


After a few dates (Him visiting me at my house, my catatonic parents showing very little interest) He wanted me to move in with Him (my parents sure took notice then). I looked about me, at my life, at my mom and pop’s sorry life that I didn’t want and quickly made the decision. There was never going to be another opportunity like it and, well, I was in love.

The day of the move He helped me to His pick up truck – I was pleased it was a pick up truck as I knew it would be strong enough to take my weight. The bench front seat was big enough for both of us to sit comfortably side by side. He held my hand the whole drive, squeezing it every now and then to let me know everything was going to be just fine. I needed that so bad as the heavy fluttering of hundreds of butterflies waking in my belly weren’t from excitement and nerves alone, they were also from fear. Fear of the unknown. I swallowed down the rising nausea and reminded myself we were in love, I was safe. The way He looked at me on that drive helped. He looked at me the same way guys did in the movies. Turns out it wasn’t just the guys in the movies who were good actors. I should have listened to what my body was trying to tell me but those sensations were all new to me and so hard to read having had no previous experience of it. I hadn’t been prepared for anything in life. My parents failed me, the system failed me and, worst of all, I can only think how badly I had failed myself. That is the hardest thing of all.

After an hours drive or so we pulled up outside a detached bungalow that looked the same as all the others on the street. I hadn’t given a thought to what His home might be like so I was neither impressed or disappointed. I guess the only thought I did have was that at least it was a step up from the trailer, so that was definitely something. Inside it had everything you needed but lacked anything you might want for yourself to make it your own. At least the floors were clear, the sink was empty and the trash cans weren’t over flowing. It was weird not to smell anything on entering, I mean literally nothing. If I didn’t know for sure it was His home I would have thought it might be a rental He had just leased for us.

The rooms were large, square and spacious. The halls and doorways were wider than usual, even my mom and pop wouldn’t have to turn sideways to try and squeeze through. The bedroom was at the back, he led me straight there to proudly show off the huge bed he’d had specially made – solid, sturdy, purposely built to take someone like me. Until that moment I hadn’t given any real thought to the fact we’d be sharing a bed. I hadn’t thought about the fact we’d be having sex like everyone else who were in love and lived together. Neither of us had even mentioned it despite our intimate conversations covering food and my ever growing size. I should have wanted Him to want me in that way but I was terrified of exposing my body, losing my virginity, being with a man, even the man I loved. He must have sensed this as He was gentle, handling me with kid gloves at all times, in fact He never, in all our time together, ever made love to me, not properly. It was the folds of my body, my belly, my thighs that he would intimately rub himself against, between, in order to climax, and that suited me just fine. Seeing Him get so much pleasure relieving Himself in this manner made me happy too.

There were no windows in the bedroom.

How wrong it all was.

The only time He would touch me intimately was to wash me. As I grew larger and larger the more He fed me the more I had to rely on Him to maintain my personal hygiene. If you’re my size and you don’t look after yourself properly, clean every hidden inch of your landscape, you can get sick real quick and neither of us wanted that to happen.


I wish someone was here to help with my personal hygiene now; not Him, I don’t want Him anymore, He is responsible for the gross monster I have become. But the smell, it’s overwhelming and seems to be getting worse by the minute, bringing me out of my reverie, the reverie that I am so desperately relying on to forget who I am now.

The water bottle beside my bed is now bereft of its last dribbles so I can’t afford to feel nauseous despite its creeping presence. Nausea makes my mouth drier and then the retching will start. I cannot retch, I must keep what little is left inside me, I need to eke out it’s last remnants of nourishment in order to keep me alive. I am not prepared to give up – not now. Also the vomit itself will cover me and make the stink worse, the stink that I already cannot bear. There’s no one to clean it up, no one to clean me up so I absolutely cannot vomit no matter how much my body wants to eject all the fat and sugar and shit that sits rancid and rotten in every fibre of me. Any human trace I was born with has long been forgotten and replaced with all the bad stuff my parents gave me and that He continued to force into me.

Of course it didn’t start like that with Him. The food He offered and gave to me was more than welcome at the beginning. A fat girl like me having a guy that relished the fat and having more joy adding to it, was like a gift.

Until it wasn’t.


How attractive and loving and generous He was. I was beautiful to Him, my rolls and mounds were art to Him. I was His artwork and He was the artist that created me.

The pride He showed when He measured me, the tops of the arms, tops of the thighs, calves, the width of my back and shoulders, my chest, waist, stomach, hips, even my neck. All of them kept growing, and the more they grew the more He wanted them to grow. There was one moment, a weird moment when it seemed I became totally lucid, and I looked down at me and I looked over at Him and for the first time I felt used, abused even, and in reaction to this thought I refused to eat what He sat before me and I refused to let Him measure me or photograph me, twisting my head this way and that as He tried to make me over for date night. I was having none of it.

He taught me a lesson after that, a big one, one I didn’t see coming. He acted all normal as He got ready to leave for work on the Friday morning. He didn’t return until the Monday. An entire weekend He left me with a solitary bottle of water, nothing else. I cried and cried like a baby as I sat in my piss and shit, like a baby. I had become a big, stupid, pathetic, useless baby and I knew how much I needed Him. And so did He.


Boy, did He punish me after that.

No longer was I spoon fed gallons of ice cream but funnel fed it. He made damn sure it was going to get straight into me and stay there and no mistake.

I’d given up the fight, I knew it was a pointless endeavour after His ‘lesson’ and honestly what else could I have done? I was trapped. Trapped by my body, trapped by Him, trapped in the house, trapped by the fact I had become invisible to all but Him and me. There was no escape, no secret key to be found that might release me from this hell.

The weekly phone calls to my parents that He had permitted and sat in on were no more.

The cartons of ice cream got bigger, as did I.

I had become my own horror movie.

I am my own horror movie.

My bed is a cess pit. Faeces, piss, other bodily fluids and rot are my bedfellows, all a reminder of what is there. I don’t want reminding. It was deserved, there’s no denying it, but as I lie here enduring the unendurable consequence of my action, in retrospect I know I should have played it differently. But something inside me snapped. An opportune moment had arisen which my mind had made a rash decision over. I didn’t even allow myself time to consider it. It had already been done, acted upon.

How stupid He was to have crawled onto the bed after rolling me onto my side so He could wash deep into the crack of my dirty and disgusting arse and how utterly degrading and humiliating for me. I’d had enough, I rolled myself back to stop Him. Surprisingly He didn’t make much noise and neither did his body as it crushed under me, my fat and blubber acting like a muffler over and around Him. I can’t remember Him struggling even, maybe he couldn’t. I don’t care anymore.

The lump beneath me has flattened greatly over time but now it oozes out from underneath me, as if I’d juiced it. And now that’s all there is for me, this juice, me and the brown red oozing juice. Just so happens juice is wet and I am thirsty, so thirsty. It’s supposed to be His job to keep me fed and watered and even in death it seems He shall continue to do so. I reach down a hand, dip in a finger to get myself a taste. My rancid finger makes it to my mouth and I suck on it like a baby and taste Him in the knowledge that I am truly insane. I giggle to myself as I replace the use of my index finger with both my hands as if readying myself to make a hand print painting, like a baby.

His big baby.

I can’t even smell how bad it is anymore which is just as well as there’s no one here to clean it up. My giggle turns to full on maniacal laughter. I really haven’t thought it through properly, have I?

Bio pending.

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“Unknown Worlds” Horror by Patrick McEvoy

"Unknown Worlds" Horror by Patrick McEvoy

Wyl wanted to cry, he wanted to scream. The frustration level had reached a point where he needed to release the turbulent emotions that had begun bubbling up within his very self. Except to do so, to release those emotions in that way, would prove to be quite difficult if not impossible. That would require going back, and, well, he didn’t know how that exactly would work, except to say that would entail solidifying his presence in the world which he would call reality.

The world that didn’t seem to exist anymore.

Remember that popular spot a couple blocks away? Where the hotspot not only attracted many people but low-key and cool? Or maybe consider how nice a stroll through a park could be during an autumn day. Finding the latest release of a video game to be as captivating as the previous version, if not better. Chomping into a nice hot snack.

Wyl recalled. That was what he was doing over the past several … moments? Hours? Days? He didn’t know how to define time anymore. Didn’t know if he existed in such a concept.                                                                       

Whether he simply existed beyond such a construct after, after, well, his little navigation exercise involving his mind. A journey that pushed beyond the typical physical and mental barriers. He pictured his life to get himself back to where the word familiar would be given meaning. He pictured …

The time when he reached out to Val in the supermarket just as she was tripping, falling, his right hand grabbing her left arm, pulling her to himself, their sudden closeness stirring feelings within them.  

Muscle stretching and contracting underneath flesh…

Envisioning when he joined the softball team, standing at the plate feeling doubts, yet connecting with the ball in a way to create a feeling within himself, not to mention how he then ran with such a gusto around the bases, getting just a little bit of confidence when he needed it…

Hamstrings and tendons churning the body forward…

Even a simple act – no, the chittering – the chittering again! Wyl wanted to scream, call attention, say something, anything. Except no one would hear. No, he seriously doubted that anyone would hear anything he had to say. Maybe never again.

But – a simple act. Akin to bursting for the subway just before the doors closed…

Blood running through veins…

Taking the sip of a fine wine during a cold night outside…                                                           


Synapses firing in the brain…

Tasting that slice of pizza right out of the oven…

Eyes processing the information being called in the by the light provided from many miles away …

Lips meeting that lover thought about, yearned for…

All that resided in another existence. Another world. The world he had lived in before being compelled to experiment with his mind. Driven by more than the science, the chance for magic. The chance to go somewhere no one else had ever visited. Oh, this place couldn’t be put on a search map, this wouldn’t be quantified and be inserted into the system as just another place.

“But aren’t you worried?”

“Who knows what you might access?”

Wyl had been sitting with his friends Renee and Kollan in a near empty restaurant the night before he went on his venture. Most patrons had already cleared out after devouring their meals. He let his friends know he will not be communicating anytime over the next couple days. They responded with skepticism about the method in which he would walk pathways in his mind, the mix of tech, self-invented at that, and chemicals used.                                                          

“I think I have a trick to ensure that will not happen. That I’ll be able to call myself back.”

Renee sat back and shifted in her latex pants, picking at whatever was left of her tofu and curry. Kollan swirled the scotch in his glass. They both seemed alarmed and interested, if only at the moment. The moment that keeps appearing, then vanishing. One of the few sights Wyl could still see.

“But you think you’ll really – what now?” Renee said.

“Find a part of the brain that might strengthen me, open up something. Or…?” His voice trailed away. Words unspoken. Though perhaps simply not remembered.   

“Or what?” Kollan said, sitting back in his appraising manner, as if gauging the right texture to use with his sculpture.

“Or gain access to…somewhere else. Being able to shift locale merely by mind. Visit other worlds.”

“And even if you do this amazing feat, can’t you … get trapped?”

An answer came. He had an answer. THE answer. The answer to tether him to reality like an astronaut doing work outside the space station. Except gone now. Wyl went through a part of his mind, one that may be accessible anywhere. A spot that opened up into different worlds, far away, so far away, almost unrecognizable. Stopping time, enabled to interrupt the flow of the universe. Except, there was a world, a world in the many places he ventured …

That did not want him there.

And Wyl had trapped himself. Sitting now, not being able to move. His sight, his senses, subjugated beneath another realm.

One in which he heard the creatures stirring…

Coming ever and ever closer to him…

They sounded ever so angry…

A former writer and editor for several sports publications, Patrick McEvoy has had stories included in various comic book anthologies such as Emanata, Continental Cryptid, Uncanny Adventures, Indie Comics Quarterly, and GuruKitty’s Once Upon a Time and Gateway to Beyond. Illustrated stories have also appeared on Slippery Elm’s website, Murder Park After Dark Vol. 3 and in New Plains Review. A short story has also appeared on Akashic Books’ website. In addition, short plays he wrote were chosen to be performed at the Players Theatre in New York as part of their various festivals (Sex, NYC and BOO) in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2019. And he wrote and directed short plays for Emerging Artists Theatre’s New Works series in 2021 and 2022. A play anthology called What May Arise was also streamed June 30-July 6th 2022 as part of the Rogue Theater Festival. He also wrote and directed Directions, which appeared in the 2022 Dream Up Festival. Photography has also been exhibited with the Greenpoint Gallery, Tiny Seed Literary Journal, Molecule, riverSedge and Good Works Review.

“Lover” Dark Flash Horror by Alan Caldwell

"Lover" Dark, Supernatural Fiction by Alan Caldwell

It doesn’t happen often, and then only in the fall or winter, but never seemingly connected to any specific celestial event or lunar phase. I never subscribed to the notion that the stars or moon influence our personality or behavior in any substantial way.

It always occurs in exactly the same manner. I begin to first feel a bit queasy, a wave of vague sickness, as if I might vomit, then a mild dizziness, and then I invariably awake somewhere in a forest, or in a field, generally naked, and always besmirched with blood.

I still recall the first time it occurred. I was a young man, a college student. I awoke bewildered, and followed the stars till I found a familiar setting.  I made my way back to my dorm room just as the sun broke over the horizon. I had been drinking, but no more than many college boys do. Surely the alcohol explains the blackout, I thought. Since I couldn’t identify its source, I tried to ignore the mysterious blood on my hands and face . The next time it happened, almost two months after the first, I had no ready-made excuse. I had retired, sober, and at a reasonable hour. I enjoyed a dreamless slumber, and then awoke just before sunrise in a muddy livestock pen not far from the village limits. In close proximity to my muddy bed, I discovered seven white goats of various ages, all dead, their throats torn as if bitten by a beast with immense teeth and jaws.

The next morning, I collected the remainder of my tuition money from the strongbox at the foot of my bed, bought a tall black gelding and left my school and my town. So as to preserve those I loved, I wrote no letters home and set out on the road alone. That was just over a century ago. I have not since aged in either body or countenance. I still roam from town to town, faster now by car than gelding. I find work and lodging and remain till I can no longer do so. It always happens again, that aforementioned pattern. Sometimes it will not appear for many months and I pray to the God who made me that I might, at last, be released from my fate.

Then once more I will feel the sickening wave and know I am anything but free. When It’s over, I search the local newspapers and recoil at the tales of the horrid and unaccountable slaughter of pets, and livestock, and yes, even people, many people, more people than beasts now. And again, I must take to the road.

I had a lover many years ago. I should have known better, but my loneliness clouded my judgment.  She served sodas and milkshakes. She was very beautiful. She smelled of cinnamon and vanilla. I am thankful that I can’t remember what I did to her.

Alan Caldwell has been teaching in Georgia since 1994 but only began submitting writing in May 2022. He has since been published in Southern Gothic Creations, Level: Deepsouth, oc87 Recovery Diaries, Black Poppy Review, The Backwoodsman, You Might Need To Hear This, The Chamber, Biostories, Heartwood Literary Journal, American Diversity Report, and Rural Fiction Magazine.

Three Dark Poems by Jon Humphreys: “I, Phone”, “William”, and “Muse”

Three Dark Poems by Jon Humphreys: "I, Phone", "William", and "Muse"
I, Phone

"There will come a time when it isn't 'They're spying on me through my phone' anymore. Eventually, it will be 'My phone is spying on me.'"  - Philip K. Dick (1928 - 1982)

Your fingers,
warm against my cheek,
caressing like pages 
of sacred scrolls.

Your eyes are
vacant hotel rooms,
green glowing 
in the dark.

The slack of 
your jaw, the heat 
of your breath,
So inviting. 

Through the mirror,
rivulets of black
and red crawl 
into your mouth,
lining your throat, 
wiring muscle and bone,
burrowing copper
deep inside pink folds.

Your voice, your body,
a conduit.



Our silver station wagon 
is peeled open and spilling 
across Rogers Avenue 
like a can of tomatos. 
Bent through the window, 
my father speaks glass and teeth. 
My mother siezes in the 
front seat. White eyes 
of an oracle, quivering. 

The phone rings on the 
hospital wall. "How is she?" 
a quaking voice asks.  
The shock of my mother's 
broken body speaks for me.  
"We're fine," is all 
I can say to the driver. 

I still think about him 
sometimes. Just out 
of high school then,
he might have children 
of his own by now. 
The burden he must 
still hold weighs on me, 
and I wish he could see 
my parents, smiling, as they 
play with their grandkids.



Conjured once again, 
she lies in an exhausted 
heap of cream linen and 
feathers on my kitchen floor.
I wait, impatiently, while 
she peels off another piece 
of vellum skin. Ignoring her
frantic screams, I place 
my inkwell beneath the 
crimson fountain, pluck 
a quill from eider wings,
and write. 

Bio pending.

“How to Become a Butterfly Martian” Dark Flash Fiction by Jeniya Mard

"How to Become a Butterfly Martian" Dark Flash Fiction by Jeniya Mard

First, find two butterflies. 

Butterflies are a crucial part of your transformation, you can’t fully convert without two, so find the biggest, healthiest ones you can. Make sure they're happy, give them nectar, a soft place on your finger to perch, and whatever else they need until a week goes by and they’re still alive and well in your care. Once the butterflies begin to hover around your room, land on your pile of dirty clothes, and stick their thin legs to the lip of your drinking glass, as if tap dancing against it, then you know it’s time. 

Second, set the table. 

First impressions are very important, so it's even more important that you get your scenery correct. If your kitchen table isn’t facing a window with clear access to the moon, move it into a spot where it is. Once the table is in its spot, make sure that all of the lights are off, including any cell phones or smartwatches; it has to be completely dark. Gently set the butterflies down so they lay on their backs against the table, as if they were in some sort of a frame. 

Third, wait until the moon rises. 

Once it’s high enough in the sky that your table is engulfed in the gentle grey hue of the night, pick out a metal spoon and take your seat in front of the table. When the moonlight is hitting your face through the window, take the tip of the spoon and place it in the corner of your eye.

Four, begin scooping. 

You’ve practiced it a lot of times, so there shouldn’t be any hesitation. Penetrate the cornea if you have to, dig into the back and sever nerves and binding tissue if you must, but don’t flinch. You wouldn’t want to scare the butterflies away. Continue until the spoon holds your eye, and allow it to roll onto the table, your iris shivering in the moonlight. 

Repeat until the second eye is out. 

Fifth, reach forward. 

It’s dark, but it won’t be for long. With what little breaths you can take in between the never-ending rush of blood gushing down your face and into your mouth threatening to drown you, take a hold of the butterflies, careful not to pinch or snag at their wings as you used your pointer finger and thumb to raise them. 

Sixth, transform. 

With their feet flailing before your face, place the butterflies within your sockets; press onto their backs with a gentle, asserting force as their feet and wings bob in an uncertain commotion, only for their resistance to stop as they begin to have a taste. Sweet like berries you are; they begin to dig, their antennas dragging against the inside of your sockets as they burrow deeper and deeper until the world suddenly burst with color; the crystallization of their bodies leaving you in awe; vulnerable and willing, all for the moon. 

Jeniya Mard is a writer from Metro-Detroit and has a passion for writing strange, thought-provoking pieces of fiction and poetry. She loves to push the boundaries of what traditional writing looks and feels like, often writing about topics some tend to steer away from, pieces that make a reader uncomfortable in curiosity; wonder. Her writing has appeared in The Central Review, Quirk Magazine, Sky Island Journal, and others. 

“Shadow Dance” Dark Fiction by Dylan Webster

Dark Fiction by Dylan Webster “Shadow Dance”

Rennie’s Burgers stands defiant of all architectural progress, on the corner of 35th and Gunther. It’s always been there, it seems, and perhaps it will always remain. In the way that things on the West Coast can have that odd in-between feeling of not modern, but not quite decrepit, maybe Rennie’s Burgers will withstand the test of time. 

I pull into its shadow and slot my rusted red bike into the bike rack. I lock it up and wipe the beads of sweat that formed on my forehead in the seven-minute ride to get here. The searing heat of this city seems to assault you from above and below; the sun bears down with the hottest breath that seems to just bounce up from the asphalt, trapping you here, in the middle. 

I slick my hair back as much as I can, checking my faint reflection in the glass of the restaurant window. Uncooperative, strands of my hair fray in obstinacy. Accepting the futility of it, I walk through the doors to the vestibule. I breathe in the cooler air. I always stop here for a moment in the vestibule – this wonderful little purgatory. I’m here, so I’m not late, but I’m not quite here yet. I step through to the dining room.

The white tables silently rest where they always are, along with the chairs and their decades-old painted metal backs. Green here, red there. Maybe a faded blue that has almost become turquoise from age. 

There’s a couple seated in the far corner. I never understand why anyone chooses to sit there. I suppose it’s because that table is the farthest from the counter, therefore farthest from the teenage rattle going on in the kitchen. But the thing is, that table, in the farthest corner, is surrounded by glass. The western sun shines its final brilliance right there, as if the architect wanted to line it up with the brightest point of the summer sun. I would never sit there to eat my dinner in the summer. The sun isn’t just bright, it’s thick. Gold blasting you, wrapping all around you and filling the whole area with itself. One last intrusion, one last infusion of its light and heat. 

But, there they are. 

I walk through the employee door, which is easy to do considering it must be the original wooden door of this shoddy construction. It doesn’t close properly.

I swear…

The light pours in through the top corner. The bottom has this Tim Burton-esque slant to it, so I half expect some anthropomorphic creature to walk through and take me to a different world. 

At the small closet where we keep our things, I slough my corduroy backpack off my shoulder and let it drop into a plastic chair. The timeclock is there on the wall. Large, old, imposing. A disgusting dark pea-green, with chips all over it. It looks like it fell out of a pick up truck on the way here for a bad burger. I take out my slip and slide it under. Pressing the reluctant button, it smashes down onto the card with what must be hatred. I look at the card. 7:58pm.

I stare at the ink on the card, slightly slanted. It almost looks like a library card. Like this card I had when I was twelve, and I’d gotten these books that – 

“Thank God, you’re here! I’m dying.”  Natalie whines. I break my trance to meet her glance. 

“Yeah, and two minutes early, too, so there you go.” 

She chuckles. Her eyes resemble crushed emeralds glinting in the sun. 

“Hey, man.” It’s Greg, the shift leader. “Natalie’s drawer’s balanced. Your till’s in register two, ready to go. I’m heading out. See you later.”

I suppose he meant that for the two of us, because he raised his hand for about half a second. Now, he’s already in the vestibule, on his way out. Soon I’ll hear the roar of his obnoxious muscle car, and I’ll hear him needlessly peel out. I just wonder if Natalie will watch him drive out on Gunther in the front of the store. I know he does that so we can see him. 

But she doesn’t.

Natalie is just grabbing the last of her things and stuffing them into her backpack. Like me, she doesn’t have a car. Normally, at school, I see her mom drop her off. But to work, she takes the bus. I always want to offer her a ride home, but I don’t have a car with which to offer. I suppose I could offer to walk her home. 

But then again, I’m here, working. So I’m not sure how I’d do that, either. 

She slings the bag over her now exposed shoulder. I’m in awe of how perfect her skin is. We’re just looking at each other, and I cannot for the life of me think of anything to say. 

“Well, I’ll see you tomorrow,” I say, and immediately regret it. 

She looks down for a moment, hands on the strap of her bag, hair loosely askance. “Yeah, see you tomorrow. Have a good night, Andrew.” 


A couple of hours later, I’m completely alone in the restaurant. I’m going to lock the doors to the dining room pretty soon. A burger place doesn’t typically do all that well throughout the night, but this particular one has a long history of remaining open all twenty-four hours. The owner, Rennie, doesn’t want to change that at this point.

It’s what built this place. Its spirit is service. Duty. Persistence, I hear him say in my mind.

I really shouldn’t complain. If he hadn’t had this shift open, then I’d have been out of a job. But I hate this shift. And I especially hate being here alone.    

I’m not sure why I thought this would be a good idea. I am not a fearless jock. I’m actually a nervous wreck most of the time. I get here two minutes early to my shift, every single time. No earlier, no later. Exactly that time. And really, that’s a lie. I know exactly why I’m here. 

I needed a job but couldn’t find one that I wanted. So, my stepdad, being the great guy he is, told me to come here, told me to apply, told me to interview. And when they offered me the job, he told me to take it. 

So, I took it. 

And so, I am here now. 

I’m not the type of person that enjoys solitude. There’s too much happening in my mind. I wish I hadn’t taken the job. My stepdad tells me all the time that this is good, though. Really builds character. And discipline. 

Both of which I need, I guess.

I wanted to get a job doing something creative. I’d have loved to have gotten a job at a theater or something. Maybe working for the art department, creating intricate backdrops for low -budget productions. Hell, even the damn ticket booth would have been better. 

My back suddenly hurts. I’ve been slouching here too long, sulking. I look through the drive thru window. I don’t see anyone. And at 10:45 p.m., I don’t really expect anyone. I lean out and peek into the dining room. All the chairs are upside down on the tables, and the checkered tile is ready to be mopped. 

The flooring makes me think of the tiny tiles in the school bathrooms. I always stare at them when I’m in the gym showers, imagining what it would be like if one of them were chipped, but I failed to see it. In this daydream, while I’m showering and moving around, I jam my moist and swollen toe on it, tearing into the pliable flesh. I don’t feel it right away, but I look down and see the smoky red mixing with the water, the deepest crimson spilling out of the split toe. 

My foot begins to tingle inside of my shoe, bringing me back, and I look away from the tile. Closing my eyes, I try to think of something else. Anything else.

I walk to the closet and grab the mop. The bucket water clouds as I pour in some sort of solution. It almost smells fresh, but at the same time, somehow manages to smell old. Dingy. Almost like an ancient public restroom that was just wiped down. 

I’m plunging the mop in and out of the water mindlessly. The water sloshes and mixes. I’m thinking of Natalie. Now, of course, so many things populate my mind. All these things would have been great conversation starters. 

Hey, so how close are you to getting a car? 

Oh, not close enough! She’d say. And she’d laugh, tossing her hair. 

I’m going to get an old Firebird with a huge engine and race Greg, I’d joke, and this would of course make her laugh even more. 

I roll the mop and bucket out to the dining room, the headset still on so I can hear if anyone shows up at the drive thru. I fling the mop out onto the miniature tiles. Outside, the dull glow of the streetlamp filters into the dining room. I glance over the counter to the drive thru window. It’s dark. 

I continue to mop, thinking of Natalie, thinking of –

 Shit. I forgot to lock the front doors.

I take my keys out and make my way to the front entrance. I force the key into the door and turn. It clatters roughly, resisting my hand, but eventually falls fully into place. I look out the glass of the door.

It is really dark tonight.

I search for the moon, but it must be a New Moon; it’s nearly black out there. I hardly see any stars, and they seem to be receding. Falling farther away and disappearing completely. It’s as if there are clouds, but maybe they’re so thick and full of dark rain that I just can’t really see them. 

I turn around in the vestibule and make my way back to the mop. 

I freeze. A chill brushes against my spine. 

Every chair is out. Lined along the walls in an interlocking pattern. Some are right up against the glass. It’s darker outside now. Thick. And writhing. 

Every muscle in my body seems rigid. I can hardly move, and even breathing takes effort. I don’t know exactly what I should do right now. Worse, I’m not even sure that I’m still sane. 

No. it’s not real. I’m here by myself. It’s late. It’s empty, I repeat to myself with my eyes smashed shut. The chill that whispers up my spine turns to icy sweat beads, and my shirt sticks to my chest. I can see it moving with my breathing, which is rapidly becoming heaving

I glance at the door, then look at my register, focus on it. I’m determined.

I wait, build up the courage, then sprint. 

I run with wide strides, covering as much ground as I possibly can. I’m almost there, I’m so close, but – 

Oh shiiiiit! 


I’m slipping on the tiles, still wet from my mop. My left foot loses the last bit of grip it has, and my weight shifts. I reach out my hand, but I’m quickly becoming horizontal. My right foot follows suit and before I know it, I’m on my back. My head radiates with pain, and I realize I must have hit it. I don’t lose consciousness, thank God, but I’m in pain. I clutch my head for a moment, trying to think clearly. Trying to see clearly. 

I slowly get up, feeling like everything is vibrating. Beneath my feet, at the tips of my fingers. I rub my head and turn toward Gunther Street. 

All of the chairs are back on their tables. Upturned, revealing the dry tile, yet to be mopped. 

You fucking idiot

I take a sharp inhale, expanding my lungs, relaxing the rest of my body. I exhale slowly and continue my internal mantra of, Everything is normal. It’s just my mind getting to me. 

Although, the windows are still writhing.

Oh my God, I hadn’t noticed. But now I’m watching the billowing of whatever this blackness is. Complete absence of light plowing into the windows. The dull glow of the streetlamps is swallowed whole in this massive nothingness. This absence. Like a black hole’s mouth came down and swallowed the restaurant up whole, with me inside it. 

Through the thin glass of the window, it looks like smoke, but deeper than the color black can convey. It’s billowing and swirling, dancing against the glass. Swallowing everything up. I can’t hear the traffic on the street, can’t see any light. I press my ear to the glass – frigid as ice – and I can’t hear a thing. Even through the thinness of this antique glass. 

Antique. Old. 

Oh God, what am I doing?

I jerk away from the glass. I stare intently through the window, as if my eyes are tied by rope to the window, and it’s trying to pull me out. Which is really how it feels. I am repulsed by this yet drawn to it with nearly irresistible curiosity. 

I’m forgetting to breathe. 

I inhale and close my eyes. But as soon as mine are closed, I feel a new set upon me. From behind the counter, behind me. I can feel them. Like marbles placed in the space between my shoulder blades. I shiver almost violently. 

I swivel and open my eyes. 

Small, squat, and square. A creature. A female of some kind. Patches of blond blurting from her cracked and bleeding skin, darkened with decay. 

Oh God – 

My stomach lurches, but I’ve nothing to vomit. I retch. My stomach is striving to vacate its very self, to turn inside out and leave my body altogether. I raise my head, but she’s gone. And I knew she would be. But she’s actually gone. I feel that she, or it, is gone . . . but that I’m still not alone. 

Back at the window, new figures outline the smoke. The cloud. Whatever this black nothingness is that presses in on the old building. They’re tall, and gaunt. No color, and no real distinguishments. They’re just there, looking in. Or maybe It is there, just multiplied, all staring at me through nonexistent eyes. Sensing me. Feeling me. Knowing me. 

The figures all seem to press in on the glass. 

Something comes from my throat, I guess it’s a scream. Although at this point, I’m not sure if the sound is real or only in my mind. But now they step back, dissipating into the mass of black nothingness. The night fog. And it begins to move as one. Swirling. Rapidly. 

I can’t help but wonder if there is some sort of eye above us forming. Perhaps unintentional. But an opening. I can’t keep pondering that though, because with the movement, I hear and feel the windows rattling in their places. They’re old, perhaps forty years at this point. I have no confidence whatsoever in them. 

I decide to continue my sprint from before. 

And almost telepathically, the smoke smashes into the windows, rattling them to the point that I can feel the vibration in my feet, through my shoes. The entire building seems to recoil at the assault. 

I approach the counter and hurl my body over it. I land on my shoulder, hard, but I’ve arrived, and the pain seems much less than it ought to. My adrenaline is really carrying me. 

Something within the great dark mass of amorphous cloud screeches. High pitched. Nearly pitiful, if I could ignore the pure rage in it.

I hadn’t noticed before, but I’m crying. And shaking. 

Oh God! 

What the hell am I doing here? What the fuck is this?

There is no time to contemplate this, as while these thoughts seem to be right here and now, I hear the doors violently shake. I freeze, the breath frozen in my lungs, suspending them in a painful expansion.

I exhale and jump to my feet. I sprint back to the doors to make sure this damned thing won’t get in here and… I don’t know, try to choke me or control me or just kill me for pleasure. 

I arrive at the doors, and they’re shaking with the intensity of earthquakes. The very frames themselves violently convulse. I hold them tight, and look down at my hands, trying to ignore this living darkness. This cloud of hatred. Tears wrench themselves from my eyes and drench my hand. Movement outside of the window catches my eye. 

The shaking stops as suddenly as it arrived. The street is dark and empty, the light reflecting on the late-night dew that hangs in the air. A clear night sky stretches above me. Every star shines individually and proudly.

Oh God, I’m fucking losing it. 

I stop for a moment to breathe. I repeat my mantra. 

I’m here alone. I’ve been alone all along. It’s late. I’m just seeing things.

I turn around and –

It’s there. By the counter. The figure. It’s not a female. Clearly dead. The tufts of hair sprouting are white with age and use. Its ancient hand is already clasped around my throat, oh God! I’d call it a monster if it didn’t look so human, so familiar… 

It has no lips, and its teeth are long and gaunt and slanted in every way but straight. Its nails are long enough to sink into the back of my neck. It has me pressed against the glass, hard. I don’t know for certain if this is me – in some form or another – that I’m looking at, but I don’t care. 

I raise my hands and bring them down, crashing as hard as I can against its forearms. The crack is loud and settles into my ears with a ringing. I feel the detachment, the disconnection in the grip of its hands around my throat. It reels back. Its hands of decaying flesh hang from my neck momentarily, while its body collapses about four feet away from me. 

Scurrying past the heap of his handless body, I sprint back into the lobby. The headset is long gone, and I have no idea if anyone is in the drive thru. I run my hand through my cold, sweaty hair. I’m trying to think. 

Spinning in place, I look around the lobby. The chairs are returned to the tables, statuesque. The windows are full of thick darkness again. Writhing with more anger, more intensity now.

Oh my God. Oh my God. Ohmygod!

My heart is blasting my rib cage with fear and anxiety. I don’t know what else to call it: there is an entity surrounding me – supposedly me, myself – and I cannot get away. I cannot reason with its animalistic instincts. It surrounds me. It pounds furiously against the windows now with formless hands. The entire building shudders under the ferocity of this blackness, this nothingness. 

I crouch down and plug my ears. I’m crying. The floor vibrates ceaselessly. 

Suddenly, I think of Natalie.

The craziest fucking thing happened to me last night, I’d say. 


Yeah, I guess I fell asleep or something at the register, and I had this nightmare that this crazy cloud of like a demon or something fell over the whole building. It was trying to kill me. I even saw a version of myself,  long dead. I don’t know what the hell it was all about, but it scared the shit out of me. 

Holy shit, for real? Her eyes would widen here, full of disbelief, but also brimming with compassionate interest. 

Yeah. But then I woke up, thank God. Anyway, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I wanted to see you so I thought I’d –

The floor shakes again, as if lightning struck just steps from the front entrance. I finally lift my head and uncover my ears. 

Before me stands the dead version of me, again. Handless, lipless, bleeding.

I can’t scream. It’s inches from my face. Now I realize it’s eyeless, too. The blackness in the abnormally large holes seems so unreal that I can’t stop thinking, It must be fake. The absurdly long teeth grate together in what must be either hatred or fear. 

Oh, shit. Fear. 

I look at it, and it supposedly stares at me.

It fears me. 

Its teeth part as if it would fain to say something, but being tongueless, it is incapable of speech. It just groans in a pitifully dark yaw. But I don’t need to hear anything: it’s trying to tell me to get the hell out of here while I still can.

I scramble to my feet, and the creature straightens as well. 

Something crashes hard. In the kitchen. Pots, pans, cacophony; all seems to disassemble in a maelstrom of preternatural hatred. 

I turn to look, faster than I have ever moved, toward the kitchen. The death doppelganger beside me fixes its visionless gaze ahead, over the counter and into the kitchen. All the while, a rumble begins to vibrate our feet, working its way up our ankles. It begins a silent sprint that only a corpse could accomplish, but is instantly impaled by a thick, writhing cloud of blackness and cold. Boxes of frozen food and dishes explode from the kitchen into the dining room in shards. Pieces lacerate my body and face painlessly. 

The doppelganger hangs limp and is dropped. Its body shatters upon meeting the tile. A million fragments of whatever this thing was gather at my feet, like porcelain dropped from rooftops. 

A figure emerges. Absence. Blackness, smoke. Nothingness. Nearly formless. Yet writhing, and multitudinous in its failing uniformity. It’s alive, it’s conscious. 

“What do you want?” I scream at the mass.

It disassembles into a cloudlike shape and screams toward me, the screaming a complete inhuman and guttural sound. Something a fallen angel must sound like on its descent to hell. Agony. Pain. Regret. 

I turn and sprint. The chairs are flinging from their tables and hurtling toward me. I dodge two and crouch beneath a third. Finally, I approach the glass. 

It’s thin. Too thin. Four decades old. 

I grab the fourth chair on its warpath toward me, and spin it around to redirect its inertia to the window. It impacts the window just as my body does. I fly through the shards. I can feel them elegantly pierce me. They imbed themselves. Deep. I have this oddly serene feeling of knowing that very important parts of my body are badly damaged instantaneously. I am flailing, and suddenly my body collides with asphalt. It pushes the more reluctant shards deeper into me. 

More pieces of glass clatter and chime around me, bouncing off the cement. The sodium glow of the streetlamp refracts a million times around me, like glitter. 

Rennie’s Burgers stands defiant of all architectural progress on the corner of 35th and Gunther. I pull into its shadow on my rusty old red bike. Slipping it into the bike rack. I attempt to fix my obstinate hair in the reflection of the glass…

But I can’t; the glass is shattered. 

I rush to the vestibule and stop. I see Natalie through the doors, in the dining area, amid a mess of twisted colored metal and blood. She’s bawling. Greg stands there, arm around her, but his face betrays him. He’s frightened. I instinctively step through the doors through which I burst out of seemingly moments before. But suddenly, there are police everywhere, as if they’ve materialized. 

I whirl every which way, but find myself out of place. I can’t sense anything right. I rush through the crowd of first responders, but they don’t notice me frantically shoving through. 

Out on the sidewalk is a mangled mass of shredded flesh and cloth, matted together with congealed blood.                  And over the blazing curve of the setting sun, creeps the darkest plumes of absence.

Dylan Webster (he/him) lives and writes in the sweltering heat of Phoenix, AZ. He is the author of the poetry collection Dislocated (Quillkeepers Press, 2022), and his poetry and fiction have appeared, and are forthcoming in, anthologies by Quillkeepers Press and Neon Sunrise Publishing; as well as the journals The Dillydoun Review, Last Leaves, The Cannons Mouth by Cannon Poets Quarterly, and Amethyst Review. 

Dylan has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize as well as the Best of The Net. 

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“Hartway & Burrough” Cosmic Horror and Satire by Samuel Bostwick

"Hartway & Burrough" Cosmic Horror and Satire by Samuel Bostwick

I am a happy, happy drone at Hartway & Burrough LLC, a for-profit charity with headquarters in Baltimore.

I tell people that I work in data entry. I punch dates, dollar amounts, and names into spreadsheets from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM, sitting in a cubicle surrounded by other cubicles. The white walls and bright lights keep me from falling asleep between visits to the break room coffee machine. In passing, I usually end up running into Basil from Accounting, or Sheila in Public Relations. Dodging eye contact, we have interchangeable conversations with cookie-cutter responses.

How’s it going? Good.

Busy today, isn’t it? Sure is.

I don’t love my job; my hands cramp up by the end of the day, becoming stiff, awkward instruments I can barely hold a fork in. But I’m good at it, and it pays, so I swallow my gripes. I have become deaf to the nonstop clacking of the keyboard, accustomed to the eye strain from the blinking cursor.

Today, I’m cataloging potential hosts for our next gala, alongside an estimated budget for the event. The scroll bar gets a little longer with each addition. My mind begins to dull.

Walters Art Gallery – $10,000

Hampton Inn $5,325

Pierce’s Park – $2,400

I pause, forgetting my place on the long list of transcribed names. It’s frustrating, squinting at the fine print where all the type jumbles together. I vent my frustration in the most childish way I can think, then backspace quickly, before anyone sees. All our screens are monitored, but I haven’t given HR cause to look.

Dickhead Boulevard – $5

After a hard blink, I try to divert my focus back to the sheet. I notice a blotch that wasn’t there a second ago, making the paper sag like somebody spilled oil all over it. The spot is black, and it spills down the page like a trail of syrup.

My confusion turns to disgust when the smell hits—raw sewage, fetid and mildewy-sweet. As I feel bile rising in my throat, I look up; the ceiling tile directly above me has loosened at a crooked angle, feeding a consistent drip of what I could only call sludge into my cubicle. It looks slightly more viscous than water.

I marvel in repulsion for a few seconds before standing up. What a mess.

When I step out of my cubicle, the look on my face must have been manic. I lock eyes with Harvey from Marketing, a friend of mine. Bald, heavyset, mid-forties, always in a blue shirt; I think we watched a Ravens game together, once. He complains about headaches a lot.

He spares a glance toward the faulty tile. “You’re deep in it now, huh?” he says, with a husky chuckle. “Let me help you out.”

I follow Harvey to the supply closet. Per company policy, we’re not supposed to be in here. But the two of us sometimes ‘appropriate’ cans of air freshener left lying around: it’s cheaper than a run to the dollar store.

He drags out a metal waste bucket that hasn’t seen the outside of the closet for months. “This’ll do.”

I wave at Harvey before returning to my cubicle. I keep thinking to ask him, we should go out sometime again, get some wings. Next week I will; next week for sure.

Although the company frowns on ‘non-productive activity’ outside of regular lunches and breaks, I discreetly take a generous helping of kleenex to my desk and wipe it down, then print a fresh list of gala hosts. The old list isn’t illegible, but it is disgusting: I crumple it into a ball and pitch it into the trash bin. I’m relieved to see the mess contained, but over time, I start to notice the sound. Every so often, my focus is interrupted by a wet splat as the ceiling regurgitates more mess.

I hear the splatter at random intervals; multiple times within a few seconds, or sometimes, minutes of silence before a wet one slops against the bottom of the can. I almost flinch at the noise; I can’t tune it out like I can the ambient chatter of the office. It’s driving me up a fucking wall.

I don’t have to take this. I shouldn’t have to. Fed up, I decide to draft an email to upper management. All correspondence goes through upper management; that much was made clear during the onboarding process; I email them, they email somebody else. It’s all very efficient, so I’m told.

It takes three drafts before I can phrase my request professionally. My inbox dings immediately after I hit ‘send.’ I don’t get my hopes up: more than likely an automated reply.

Thank you for your email. I will be out of the office for the next week and will have limited access to email. If this is an urgent matter, you can reach our senior staff during business hours at 555-6167.

Best Regards,


My eyes glaze over the cut-and-paste response right as another drip hits the bucket.

Yes, Jenny, this is an urgent matter—so I dial senior staff. Waiting. Ringing. Waiting. Ringing.

A click.

“Thank you for calling Hartway & Burrough. A mediating team member cannot take your call right now; please hold for a response.”

The receiver dips in my palm. I tap my foot against the carpet tile while senior staff twiddles their thumbs. The hold music consists of upbeat acoustic guitar fed through a bad connection, looping every few seconds.

Every second I’m left on hold, I’m conscious of the bucket, slowly filling with this slop. After five, ten, twenty minutes, I give up on hearing back from them. If they won’t answer my emails or pick up my calls, then I’ll have to submit a formal complaint to upper management in person. I went through the proper channels and got nothing; I thought I was at least entitled to an answer.

I pass by cubicle after cubicle occupied by happy drones like myself, hunched over keyboards with listless eyes dead to stimuli. I’m sure they’re all thinking the same thing: how much longer until I clock out? Lucky them; they can work without distractions.

At the end of a long walk, I step out from the office into a hallway. The stairs going up are blocked with yellow tape: construction. It’s been ‘under construction’ for as long as I can remember. Instead, I step inside the elevator just beside the stairwell.

Upper management sits on the 33rd floor. I press the button and watch the analog face tick higher. I blink hard, thinking how to approach the issue with my superiors. Do I butter them up and hope I win them over with a smile? Or, should I bluntly state the issue and demand immediate action?

It only occurs to me that I could be fired for speaking out of turn. But then, losing this job wouldn’t be so terrible, would it?

Then comes a stinging pain. It throbs in my forehead: a headache that’s been acting up all week.

With budding anticipation, I watch the analog interface hit 33, punctuated with a ‘ding!’

I blink again. The doors open. I’m standing in front of the ground floor lobby. Pale daylight filters in through translucent sliding doors, the marble white floors squeaking with foot traffic.

What was I doing again?

Throat dry, I check my watch. Oh. Closing time.

A familiar fatigue washes over me. Frankly, I’m just glad to go home after the same old daily drudgery.

* * *

It’s morning now, the start of the working day, and I’m standing in front of the coffee machine in the break room. While I empty the last grains of sweetener into a styrofoam cup, Basil from Accounting walks past me.

“Is that a new shirt? Looking sharp today.”

It’s not a new shirt. It’s the same shirt I wear every day. But I nod and say thanks out of reflex.

As usual, I head to my cubicle with my coffee in hand. Upon reaching my desk, I stop dead in my tracks, staring blankly.

I want to retch just looking at it. That thick, dark sludge from yesterday has completely engulfed my working space. My computer monitor is coated in it, and it seeps between the gaps of the keyboard. Black liquid trickles down the partitions of the cubicle, leaving ugly trails and fat splatters. My monogrammed, stainless steel pens lie on the floor in an unsalvageable state. The bucket Harvey gave me has long since overflowed, toppled on the ground as the liquid flows freely around it. How could I have forgotten?

When the stench hits, I’m almost knocked flat. It smells like the curdled contents of a dumpster wheeled out into the rain; like rotting carcass left out in the sticky August heat. A lump in my chest forces its way up before I pinch my nose shut. I can’t stand to be around it.

No one else seems to be bothered by the continuous slew of waste seeping from the ceiling, not even my cubicle neighbors, who should have at least picked up the smell. Having lost my appetite, I pitch my coffee on my way to the elevator. I don’t get paid enough for this.

 A sense of self-righteousness hastens my gait to the elevator; if the company can’t be bothered to pick up my calls, let alone deal with the mess, then I can’t be bothered to work. I drive home through morning traffic, expecting a pink slip or a furious voicemail by the time I get home. I’m white-knuckling the wheel; in place of the triumph I ought to feel at ‘sticking it to the man,’ I’m wracked with dread and fear. This will have dire consequences—I know it.

I pull into my townhouse driveway and order takeout on the couch. Not just a sad Whopper or something: a full course of dim sum and dumplings and a fifth of the bottle of Jack from my cabinet. If I’m going to be fired, I may as well treat myself to a good meal before running myself ragged on a job search.

I don’t get up from the couch for the rest of the day, only making exceptions to eat, shit, and sleep. My life is over, I tell myself, the TV’s light searing images into my retinas in the dead of night.

I don’t recall sleeping: only a bleary state that recedes when daylight breaks. Pain bounces between the walls of my skull. Maybe it’s a hangover.

I think to myself, this is release. I’m free of my shit job. I should be happy.

But right now I’m shivering in a threadbare blanket, straining at the sunlight in the window.

This isn’t living.

By some nervous compulsion I shamble over to my home office where my desktop sits. The plastic monitor shell, once opal-white, has long since yellowed.

I scroll through my inbox. No reply from upper management. No scolding from the boss. It’s 10 AM. I’m supposed to be clocked in right now. By all accounts, my head should be mounted on a pike. I keep expecting the floor to collapse from under me. Any minute now I should be fired, shamed. But the minute never comes.

I go to bed, but I don’t sleep. Can’t sleep.

The ensuing days and weeks are dull. It’s like work, in a sense: the same thing on repeat. I get food. I stare at a screen. I sleep. This mindless ass-scratching can’t go on. And yet it does.

It gets stranger when I receive a paycheck. And another. And another. I receive them all with a kind of bewilderment. The pay stub indicates hours that I’m being compensated for—hours that I did not work.

This is more than just a clerical error. Hell, I could go to jail for this. But whose fault is it, really? The checks keep piling up on my kitchen counter and I’ve stopped questioning why.

Two months into this bizarre retreat, I start to fantasize, the way people do when they imagine winning the lottery. I get the idea of flying from this urban hellscape: just getting in my car and driving as far as the highway will take me. I want to feel the wind in my face and get sloshed on watered down beer. I want to get in a fistfight and lose a tooth. I want to wake up in the bosom of a woman I don’t know. Anything to get away from sterile life at Hartway & Burrough.

s I look out the window and contemplate my flight, I start to feel my head tighten. It hurts; it hurts so bad. There’s a horrid pulsing in my skull, thumping, banging. My vision goes fuzzy, the slightest tilt of my head bringing on a spell of vertigo. It’s not just a headache anymore—I have to make it stop. I’d do anything to make it stop.

I strain to focus on the edge of the kitchen counter. I want to bash my head against the sharp corner and let the boiling blood spill out. It has to stop; I’ll make it stop. I’m gripping the granite top now. It’s too bright, too loud. My head is on fire and I’m going to put it out. PUT IT OUT. PUT IT OUT.

I blink. I’m standing in the kitchen island, hunched over the counter with a strange intensity. I can’t explain what I’m doing here, like walking in a room and forgetting why.

It’s quiet in this little townhouse. I can’t remember the last time I made genuine contact with another person. Even if it’s tedious, mindless work, maybe I was better off at the company. Maybe I should go back.

Next morning, I slip back into a familiar routine with far more ease than I fell out of it. I shave, put on my shirt, shine my shoes, and microwave an egg sandwich on my way out. There’s something strangely comforting about the ritual, as if I’m meant to do this. While I navigate my commute on the interstate, my time away from Hartway & Burrough feels like a distant dream.

My arrival back in the office is received without fanfare. I pass by Sheila from PR on my way to my cubicle. I put on a smile, as does she.

“Lovely weather today,” she says. I agree.

The building is the same as I left it: the light panels flickering slightly above; the brown coffee stains on the thin, polyester carpet; the indistinct murmur of three dozen phone calls at any given moment.

Upon reaching my cubicle, I remember why I left.

I stand at the edge of a roiling pool of black sludge. Nothing from my desk has survived, all congealed into a dark mass of absorbed shapes and protruding edges.

I gape uselessly, my face a caricature of shock like The Scream.

The stuff seeps out into the walkway and into other cubicles, yet nobody pays it any mind. My coworkers walk around it, through it, over it, leaving black tracks on the carpet. The sludge clings stickily to their shoes, dragging their steps, but they go about their morning like it’s not even there.

“What seems to be the problem?”

I whirl around to see a woman I’ve never met. She wears a sanguine skirt suit and glossy black heels that stand out against drab surroundings, her blonde hair tied up in a bun. She beams at me but through her dark-framed glasses I can see that her eyes are creased, impatient.

I mumble something about an unsafe work environment, gesturing feebly to my cubicle.

“Oh, right. I got your email some time ago. I’m Jenny. So sorry for the inconvenience; I’ll see that you’re relocated promptly.”

Like a lost lamb to a shepherd, I follow behind Jenny. She walks with a peculiar rhythm, click-clack click-clack, never faltering or slowing.

She stops at a cubicle identical to my own—rather, one that was identical to my own. Everything seems to be in pristine condition: a waste basket, a polished desk, and a shiny new monitor.

She smiles again. I don’t think her smile ever dropped, actually. “Here we are. Let me know if there’s anything else I can help with.”

I ease into my new swivel chair, my chest deflating with a breath. I remember how to do this; I remember how to work, I tell myself.

Like everything else today, it comes back easily. I am a happy, happy drone at Hartway & Burrough LLC.

Another spreadsheet. More names. More dates. I punch them into an ever-expanding database, a page with no bottom. I’m efficient, and I waste no time. That’s why they hired me—right?

I blink. I must have lost my place in the sheet again. Before I resume working, I can’t help but glance over at the hole in the ceiling that compelled me to move. It’s not a steady drip anymore: only the last bit of runoff from a slanted tile. But the damage is already done.

I crane my neck to the screen and ignore the faint whiff of the sludge creeping up my nostrils.

At the end of the day, I hear lively chatter—a rare sound in the office. I’m more accustomed to the droning, client-friendly tones we habitually take over the phone. Following the sound, I find myself at the forefront of the break room, which in actuality isn’t a separate room at all: just a meager alcove in the labyrinth of the office floor.

It’s a party. Streamers drape the ceiling, red solo cups laid out next to generic dollar-store colas on the table. A dozen or so people are gathered here—celebrating what? They smile, they titter, but their faces don’t light up at all: just glazed happiness.

At odds with the party atmosphere, I approach Basil from Accounting, chatting up some woman too young for him as he props his arm up against the fridge. When we lock eyes, I ask about the occasion.

He turns to me right as the target of his unwanted affections leaves. I notice a sort of drunken sway in the tilt of his head, but it can’t be alcohol because drinking is strictly prohibited on building premises. “Didn’t you hear? Harvey’s getting promoted to upper management.”

Harvey—a name that hadn’t crossed my mind for months. Did he notice I was gone? Did he care?

Basil grins, the wrinkles of his pink cheeks accentuated by the strain. “The man of the hour hasn’t shown yet. What a guy, eh?”

I find myself pressing further. How did Harvey climb the ladder? I’d never heard of anyone managing a feat like that until now. Even if it’s not proper workplace etiquette, I voice the inquiry to Basil, wondering what he did to impress the bigwigs.

His fingers drum on the fridge. It’s strange, looking in his bespectacled eyes. I almost feel like I’m staring into the back of his skull: there’s nothing going on inside. Just a vacant stare that happened to be aimed in my direction.

“There’s a real shortage of documents and policy, you know?”

I take a second to process what Basil just said, waiting for it to make sense. But it doesn’t. Slowly, I repeat my question about Harvey’s promotion, rephrased just slightly.

He nods and says, “Weather today? Shirt suit sharp looking you think might. Soon productivity soon preferable excellent.”

It’s all nonsense, strung together in a way that sounds almost coherent. My heart quickens a little; has Basil lost touch with reality, or have I? Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t understand anymore. He still smiles at me, like he’s waiting for me to catch onto a joke. I back away slowly. Coming back to work was a bad idea.

That’s when I notice it. I must have mistaken it for a blemish or bruise earlier. An abnormality of the skin—a thin black vein that blushes darkly around Basil’s crown, running up his head and disappearing into his thin combover.

My stomach sinks as I eavesdrop on the conversations around me. I can only parse it as babble disguised as English, imitating the cadence and rhythm of conversation. Promotion Harvey great. Excited good metrics. Metrics ticket SEO.

Head spinning, I look around and see the same, dark vein rippling in the heads of everyone at the break room. I barely resist the urge to run far, far away; there’s no people here, only animals in suits and ties.

All except Harvey. I glimpse him standing alone at the window wall, cup in hand. I remember the Ravens game, getting hot wings with him inside a packed sports bar. He had me cracking up talking about the coach’s ‘square-ass face,’ but I can’t recall how the joke went. Maybe he’s different, so I pray. Desperate for a sane conversation, I sidle past my blissfully absent coworkers up to my friend.

He glances at me as I take my place beside him. I stare at him, wide-eyed, looking for any trace of the vein on his face. If I see it again, I might scream.


Silent, he looks back toward the city street below. His expression is weary, though lucid, gazing somewhere distant.

After a shaky breath, I try at small talk. The wife. The kids. What’s on TV. He gives short answers, never pulling his gaze away from the streets.

Then I ask how he got his promotion. He stops cold, glances at me in the corner of his vision, and brings the cup to his lips. His hand shakes.

“I tried getting out of here. Tried. But upper management said they got something for me, something that’ll change my mind,” he says. “It feels like I don’t really got a choice. Crazy, isn’t it?”

He smiles, but I can see the terror written on his face.

No, I tell him, not at all.

His smile fades.

When I think nobody’s listening, I ask him a simple question: are you happy, Harvey?

* * *

The following morning, I see everyone gathered by the break room window. Their faces are pressed against the glass like kids at an aquarium.

A murmur of gibberish floats in the air.

“Tragic sad condolences. Thoughts severance family.”

With a mounting sense of urgency, I shove past the suits until I can see it for myself.

Two-hundred feet down, Harvey is splayed across the curb. I recognize him by his wide frame and his blue shirt, not his face. His face is red mush. I don’t understand. Then I see the tire treads traveling up his chest, and realization sinks in.

Harvey has jumped in front of a bus.

I scream, shrill and raspy. The sound jumps out of me involuntarily, and I’m shocked to recognize it as my own voice.

The eyes of the office are on me now, incredulous that I’d react in such a way.

I remind them of his name. Harvey! Harvey is dead!

The crowd is unmoved. If only I could make them understand.

Taking advantage of the silence, I tell them that the company did this to him. I cry out that Hartway & Burrough has blood on its hands. Again, the crowd is unmoved. My heart pounds louder in the quiet break room.

Then, Sheila from Public Relations approaches me with a maternal smile, her eyes crinkled so kindly at me. I can’t help but focus on the black blemish in the skin beneath her forehead, a blossoming flower of bulging veins.

“Don’t be—”

She gets a few syllables out before she gets out a wheezing cough. She gargles on her words, bile spattering the floor.

No, not bile; it’s black, and reeks of something oversweet. It dribbles from the corners of her lips and onto her chemise: the same sludge that coated my desk. My coworkers look on with half-lidded eyes, unfazed at the sight.

I bolt from the break room, panting, sweating. I need to get away from them, those animals. I don’t know what they’ll do to me if they get ahold of me, but I don’t want it. I run, and I hide.

After many panicked turns, I find refuge under my desk, cradling my head in my hands. The shade is comforting because the light is harsh. They can’t hurt me under here, in the dark.

Facing the cubicle wall, I lay wide awake for minutes, which bleeds into hours. I have no sense of time with no window to look through, but I know the building closes soon. What happens past dark? I don’t know; I haven’t thought that far ahead.

The chatter of the office becomes quiet, but never truly silent. I want so badly to cut across the floor to the elevator, but I can’t. If I see one of them again, I’ll pass out. I get why Harvey did it now. He didn’t want to end up like them.

I tell myself I still have one chance—that I can still leave and succeed where he failed.

I jolt and bang my head on the underside of my desk at the sound of numerous footsteps, coming from the opposite end of the office. I’m familiar with this meandering procession, because I’m usually part of it: the start of the day, 9:00 AM sharp.

It hits me that I’ve been holed up inside the building for a full day now. It didn’t feel like it, but it most certainly was.

Rising from my hiding spot, I peer out the window and see light, overcast clouds, confirming my fears. No one stopped me. No one even checked on me.

When the incessant noise of clacking keyboards starts up again, I remember that I shouldn’t be here. I need to get away. Now.

I look frantically around like a twitching rat, weighing my options. I tried to leave, once. They pulled me back; this I know to be true, but I can’t explain how.

If I can’t leave, then I’ll force them to remove me from the premises. That’s the only way out now.

With newfound determination, I lift the computer monitor off my desk. Hoisting it overhead is a terrible strain. My muscles must have atrophied in the time I’ve been working at Hartway & Burrough.

I shout, and throw the damned thing down to the floor, ripping out the cords in the process. The black display shatters into hundreds of little shards. Good. I start stomping the plastic shell beneath my polished dress shoes. There’s a manic joy I take in watching company equipment buckle, bend, break. I love this. A massive weight lifts from my shoulders, one that I never knew was there; I think I wanted to do this for a long time, before Harvey and before the sludge.

When I’m done, I stand up on my chair, almost falling off when the wheels move on the carpet. From this high up, I stand above all the cubicles in the office. Still riding the high, I cast my keyboard and pencils out into the maze. Did I strike anyone? I don’t know. I sing, I yell, I laugh.

My grin falters when I survey the cubicles again. None of my coworkers react to my show, my desperate little cry for attention. Their sagging, bloodshot eyes squint at the glow of their own monitors at their own desks. There is no acknowledgment, not even a sidelong glance.

A mix of fear and shame compels me to step down, like a misbehaved child meeting their father’s disdainful gaze.

I emerge from my cubicle into the maze and demand to be released, to be fired. My voice is hoarse, guttural; I want to sound forceful, but it comes out desperate. I will be free. I will not die as Harvey did. I will be free.

Click-clack, click-clack.

My pulse quickens at a familiar sound half-identified: an instinctual reaction. From a blind intersection emerges a pair of black heels in a slender—or maybe spindly—frame.

Jenny from upper management stands opposite me in this white aisle of cubicles. My eyes are naturally drawn toward her. In a monochrome-gray office she wears red. Surrounded by hunched animals she stands upright. Where all eyes are glazed over hers are alert. Short of breath, I realize she’s not like the others. Not even like Harvey. She looks like any other office worker, but her presence is otherworldly—something neither animal nor man.

“Is everything alright?” she asks; a formality, of course. There is no warmth in her stiff posture, hands steepled at the waist.

No, I tell her, I want to get the hell away from here.

No sooner after I voice my intention to leave does the pain strike: a killer headache knocking on the inside of my skull. Something is trying to cow me into submission, but I won’t let them. My knees wobble, not of my own accord. I can hardly stand. The elevator doors aren’t far; I can make it there, one step at a time…

“This doesn’t really seem like a productive use of your time,” Jenny says, her voice like a knife in my brain. “Why don’t you take a few deep breaths and try to focus on work?”

Breathing heavy, I tell Jenny to eat shit. The paychecks can’t make me come back. I let her know that I’m going to run far away from here and forget all about this. My life is my own.

I hobble past her, and she steps aside without complaint. Even with my back turned to her I can still feel her hawkish gaze, prying for weakness.

“Don’t you want to know?” she suddenly asks, in a tantalizing tone unlike her usual professional prattle.

I look over my shoulder, knowing she has nothing good to offer me. And yet I listen anyway.

She smiles at me. There’s something inhuman about her mouth, a little too thin, a little too long: red lipstick smears end to end, as if she’s bit into some succulent fruit.

“Harvey was going to see for himself. Got cold feet at the last second,” she explains, feigning disappointment in her voice. The black tinge blooms inside her head, throbbing like a heartbeat. “But you don’t have to end up like him. Come and see—the thirty-third floor.”

I blink. Jenny is gone, disappeared, but I remember what she said with perfect clarity.

My migraine is lifted. The elevator beckons me: a chance to escape!

My gait hastens to a full-on sprint. I press the button over and over. The steel doors part, releasing cold air.

And then I am alone inside a metal box.

I can leave now. I’m free.

I swallow a lump, staring long into the elevator buttons. My finger hovers over ‘ground floor.’ It’s so easy. All I have to do is push it and run when the doors open.

I consciously avoid looking at ‘33’ until I can bear it no longer. I expect something terrible to happen, but it’s only a button, I tell myself.

A dangerous thought crosses my mind.

Would it really be so bad to see it for myself? Just to satiate my curiosity—one peek, that’s all. It’s strange. Minutes ago, I wanted nothing more than to be free of this place, but now I feel like I haveto know the secret of this building. The question would haunt me if I left now.

My hand glides to the button labeled ‘33.’ The motion is graceful, almost effortless. Against every impulse of my rational mind, I press the button.

One by one, I watch the numbers tick up. Judging by the elevator’s long ascent, the building is much taller than I remember, impossibly so. The temperature falls chill, and I feel my breath start to hitch, as though I’m scaling a mountain.

A chime marks the end of my journey. 33, the analog interface reads.

The elevator opens to a cramped hall. A single, dim bulb lights outside the elevator. To my right is a dead end. To my left is a long stretch of hallway. I can’t even see the end of it through the darkness.

This must be where Harvey turned back and gave up, I realize. Unbearable anticipation swells in my chest, and when the lift closes behind me, I feel trapped.

The far end of the hall calls out to me in a way that defies the senses. I can’t explain how; it simply does. So I walk, guided only by the bulbs that light up one-by-one with my approach. Dear Christ, the smell; a single whiff makes my uvula quiver and my chest heave. It’s like I’ve buried my nose in it, the oxygen tainted with the scent of melted caramel and fly-swarming manure.

The smell heralds its arrival, of course. The black, bubbling sludge seeps from every orifice of the corridor, between the cracking seams of the walls and ceiling. It thickens to a fine paste on the floor, and I’m forced to wade through the ankle-deep puddles at my feet. It weighs me down every step, cold where it touches my bare skin.

Strange as it is, I’m not afraid. The pounding in my heart could be likened more to excitement more than anything else. And that terrifies me. Have I already gone mad? Am I no different than the mindless beasts wandering the office floor? I can’t be sure anymore. But I must walk.

As I walk further, the squalor spreads. The drywall has crumbled, revealing crumbling supports infested with rot. It looks more like a cave dwelling than a building now. I stand before a door, made of aged, termite-eaten wood with a greasy gold knob. There’s a sense of finality at this threshold, as if all the answers I seek are waiting on the other side, for better or for worse.

I open the door.

My eyes widen and water.

Dear God.

The walls are flesh, and the floors are flesh, and the room is beating, living flesh. I can only describe the texture as meat: red, pulpy meat.

My coworkers are here too. They cling to the walls like helpless babes, sucking on the teat of red, ringed tendrils. I watch their swollen lips pucker around the tip, and how they seem to shrivel for moments like they’re being drained from a straw. They feed from the tendrils. The tendrils feed on them.

Their cheeks are sallow, skin sunken. Their upper halves are identifiably human, but their lower halves bulge and swell beyond recognition, all slugs’ tails that beat contentedly on the floor beside their torn clothes. Black sludge pours out from their flabby skin, slipping through the gaps of intestine on the floor. My heart skips a beat, as I realize the cause behind the fallen ceiling tile in my cubicle.


At the center of the room sits a thing that defies classification. Bulbous and huge, it sits in a coil of itself, with that same pinkish slug’s tail as its brood. It lacks eyes, but bears many nostrils, in places where nostrils don’t belong. Its upper half sags beneath the weight of six breasts, and its mouth is a gaping sucker lined with teeth. Stringy cords adorn its body, connecting it to the walls of the chamber. It is the beating heart of this building.

It’s so beautiful. Mother! Mother, mother!

She has no eyes to see me but she must know I am here.

I tremble and shake with joy. I ache to be closer. I ache to be with her. I ache.

I take my last step closer, triggering metamorphosis.

My head is about to burst. I can feel it, birthing out of me.


My jaw is forced open by something from within. The bones crack loudly, the sound ringing in my ears. At last, a wriggling tail protrudes from my mouth, large and fat. The worm emerges from its willing host. For the first time it feels warm air on its smooth, segmented body. I am grateful to have nursed such a precious creature into existence, for this is what I’m meant to do. My agony is a small thing, compared to the euphoria of serving mother.

I am a happy, happy drone at Hartway & Burrough.

Sam Bostwick is a Midwest-based author with a love for the strange. He is studying English at North Central College. 

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Short Fiction

“Stitched Jack” Short Story by Billy Stanton

“Papa’s Candy Store” Dark Fiction by Hanna Bäckström

“The Event” Sci-fi Horror by Kate Bergquist

“Midnight in the Presidential Palace” Historical Horror by Kevin DG Johnson

“Shift of Doom” Dark Fiction by Alan Catlin

“Addictive Sunglasses” Dark Fiction by Callum McGee

“Proof” Dark Science-Fiction by Grove Koger

“Specimen” Horror by Ron Sanders

“The Puddlers” Dark Apocalyptic Fiction by K. Hartless

“Warmth that Chills” Dark Fiction by Hareendran Kallinkeel

“Never Again” Dark Fiction by R.P. Singletary

“Urban Appetites” Horror by Kilmo

“My Heirloom You’ll Be” Dark Fiction by Dimas Rio

“Tomato Seeds” Dark Fiction by Maggie Hall

“The Guest” Science-Fiction by James Hanna

Flash Fiction

“Tide Turners” Flash Horror by Billy Stanton

Two Works of Flash Fiction by Dylan Thomas Lewis: “Hallowed Cliff” and “They Did It for their Freedom”

“Mary’s Garden” Flash Horror by Thomas Falater


Three Dark Poems by Joseph Farina: “icon”, ” the danger in reading words in darkness alone” and “portrait”

“Eye Spy” Dark Poetry by Michael Lavine

The Next Issue Appears December 2

Any time is a good time for chocolate.

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Short Fiction

“Stitched Jack” Short Story by Billy Stanton

“Papa’s Candy Store” Dark Fiction by Hanna Bäckström

“The Event” Sci-fi Horror by Kate Bergquist

“Midnight in the Presidential Palace” Historical Horror by Kevin DG Johnson

“Shift of Doom” Dark Fiction by Alan Catlin

“Addictive Sunglasses” Dark Fiction by Callum McGee

“Proof” Dark Science-Fiction by Grove Koger

“Specimen” Horror by Ron Sanders

“The Puddlers” Dark Apocalyptic Fiction by K. Hartless

“Warmth that Chills” Dark Fiction by Hareendran Kallinkeel

“Never Again” Dark Fiction by R.P. Singletary

“Urban Appetites” Horror by Kilmo

“My Heirloom You’ll Be” Dark Fiction by Dimas Rio

“Tomato Seeds” Dark Fiction by Maggie Hall

“The Guest” Science-Fiction by James Hanna

Flash Fiction

“Tide Turners” Flash Horror by Billy Stanton

Two Works of Flash Fiction by Dylan Thomas Lewis: “Hallowed Cliff” and “They Did It for their Freedom”

“Mary’s Garden” Flash Horror by Thomas Falater


Three Dark Poems by Joseph Farina: “icon”, ” the danger in reading words in darkness alone” and “portrait”

“Eye Spy” Dark Poetry by Michael Lavine

The Next Issue Appears December 2

Any time is a good time for chocolate.

“Mr. Fate” Horror by Billy Stanton

"Mr. Fate" Horror by Billy Stanton

The poster seemed an immovable and ancient feature of the stone facade of the theatre, so perfectly was it fixed to the wall and so antique was its appearance. This impression of antiquity came not from any fading, yellowing or other cosmetic damage to the thin paper; rather, the advertisement was in perfect nick, as fresh and bold and inviting as it had probably been at the moment of its original printing. It was instead the imagery, the colour and the overall design that spoke of some bygone, even timeless, age: white-faced clowns in conical hats laughed silently, flame-haired girls in black leotards gyrated down the edges of the bill, great exotic animals glittered with gold and silver trappings like they’d been plucked from a march alongside Hannibal and strong-men and acrobats completed their long-forgotten routines with a dignified flourish. ‘MONKEY MADNESS’ was boasted by a subtitle in thick black lettering below a poorly-rendered illustration of caged primates at play. ‘POOLEY’S CIRCUS’ was the headline spelt out in blue on a gold sash, which clashed with the overall deep red background of the piece, and was held aloft by a tiny suited figure in a far-right corner. If one cared enough to squint, there was a name scrawled beneath the feet of this near-silhouette: Mr. Fate.

It was Mr. Fate alone that was the unlikely star at the Odeum tonight. The appearance of this promotion that relegated him to the status of a sideshow was surely little more than either the desperate trick of a showbiz pauper, trying to hoodwink a passing potential audience with the promise of greater and more varied thrills than those which were actually going to appear this evening, or admittance of defeat in the face of a current budget which couldn’t extend to any new marketing materials. To Richard, this seemed odd: surely a solo act at this venue, such a historic staple of the West End, would be expected to hold a much higher standard of operation, and be in possession of enough capital to at least be able to print up a solo bill? Richard couldn’t imagine the process by which this result had been signed off by everyone from personal agent to theatre manager, social media content producer to board member. He did not, however, quibble. After all, it was the tantalising promise of the unusual and unexpected that had drawn Richard to the hellscape of tourist-land against all his better instincts. It had been the limited but provocative copy of the Time Out listing (“Mr. Fate: Music Hall, Vaudeville and Variety Classics, Comedic and Musical, from an Accomplished Pro; remember how it used to be done and weep for the present”) that had first sparked an interest in him; it appeared to represent a temporary passing over at this theatre, for the length of a very limited engagement, of another musical adaptation of an old film that was familiar to far-flung overseas visitors mainly because it was also safe enough to have reached them without being withheld by their national censors, and this was surely be welcomed. Richard had only been made more curious by his inability to find out much more about the show or the performer anywhere else, as every online source for the theatre’s schedule or content repeated those same few words ad nauseam and without addition or amendment. 

So he’d purchased his ticket online- at a cost far, far below the usual three-digit figure for even the cheapest, most pillar-obstructed plush velvet at the conventional shows- and now he stood in line for admittance at the Odeum for the first time in probably decades. The same gold-blue-red colour scheme of the poster was repeated in the simple awnings that had been fixed around the theatre’s doorways. There was no name on these boards and no further suggestion of what was to be seen within. Mr. Fate was, it appeared, an open secret not to be shouted about too loudly. Was the Odeum embarrassed? Did this explain the front of a circus, rather than the admittance of only a single disreputable performer? Was tonight- and the rest of the week- a stop-gap presentation that had arisen out of the commercial necessity of keeping the doors open even when more popular shows left an unfortunate gap in the calendar that needed filling? If the last of those suggestions were truly the case, then the men-behind-the-curtains must have been rubbing their hands together in unexpected delight: there were enough people outside, and within the foyer itself, to suggest an evening at at least two-thirds of capacity. 

The crowd, Richard noticed, was oddly mixed. There were tourists, true, who stood around slightly perplexed, quite possibly utterly unaware of what tickets had been foisted upon them by whoever was organising their vacations, and on the verge of a nasty shock. There was also the expected humble elderly contingent, clearly anticipating a night of cloyingly sweet nostalgia, and currently blocking passages of entrance with their tiny, trembling frames. Other people were evidently aficionados of this sort of thing; a combination of scholarly-looking types, probably carrying Dickens’ biography of Grimaldi in their coat pockets, and men who lived up to every negative physical stereotype of the dedicated follower of obscure and esoteric interests. Amongst this lot, however, were two unexpected classes (and the emphasis was really on the word ‘class’ in one instance). First, there was a slice of the self-contented, clearly affluent, friendly but unfriendly, grey haired and silver-watched crowd that propped up the business of most genuinely culturally-important institutions in the city, while forever loudly twittering in their little groups about their shared holiday plans and cosseted opinions, all of which were both definitively received well in advance and frighteningly un-insightful. Richard knew that this type was as well-disposed to decorative nostalgia as their more age-advanced and modest forebears entering the lobby, even if their nostalgia was often of a supposedly superior sort; but he was still somewhat surprised to see them pick Mr. Fate over another evening spent in the company of the same Schubert symphonies they’d heard performed live six or seven times already. The presence of another societal subsection was far more startling: teenagers and twenty-somethings, the majority of them self-consciously retro in their appearance and dress sense, although retro in a way that spoke of very different periods and subcultures than the ones that Mr. Fate had winged his way in from. Richard found their appearance on this scene somewhat puzzling; even at such a low cost, he hardly imagined that this was the sort of thing that could part them from their cash, and he wondered where exactly they could have picked up an interest in, or even much awareness, of traditional vaudeville or the crusty mildew melodies of the music hall. Scattered about were the disbelievers who formed the rest of Richard’s tribe, and who were surveying the scene with much the same confusion as himself. 

The doormen were mute; they swung the doors open to each ticket-holder with an unpleasant robotic motion, their eyes confessing their decision to situate themselves- in every aspect but the physical- in some other distant place. When Richard finally made his way past them he tried not to look at them too much; they were almost frightening to him, like zombies from show nights long-passed, reanimated by the devil dust Mr. Fate had blown into their restful faces once he’d prised open their coffins. Indeed, an odd drowsiness had settled upon the general evening since his arrival, for all the denseness of persons. Richard was reminded of the sort of hypnagogic drift that directed his thoughts on the verge of sleeping; he seemed now to be almost guided across the carpet, past the gilt-framed bills that added an ostentatious greeting note to those who had struggled their way inside, and towards the bar in the manner of a semi-sleep-walker, a somnambulist who would have fitted in well as an act alongside the rest of the circus folk that once populated Pooley’s Circus. A vodka with ice was in his hand without him being too conscious of its purchasing; he sucked on the decorative lime that he peeled from the edge of the glass unaware of any bitter flavour or breaking of social decorum. He noticed many of those around him bore a similar manner in their expressions and movements. They appeared to alternately glide or jerk about the place in a way that set Richard to thinking of another old treat: namely the mechanical jockeys that used to complete their horse races along steel beams in glass-fronted cases at the drop of a penny in the seaside arcades. Eyes were glazed all about; conversation was conducted haltingly in whispers or monotone; the teenagers looked ready for a nap, let alone the old folks. The only real point of great animation came from a middle-aged, rotund fellow further down the bar. Richard moved closer to him, hoping some of this life and energy would rub off upon him and knock him from his stupor. 

He came to regret his decision almost instantly. The man was bloviating loudly and looking for a target who wouldn’t try to squirm away from the forceful flood of his words. His wife, obviously worn down by the constancy of his torrential downpours, was a mute and detached figure whose current perfect silence and stillness was most likely a consistent feature of her personality, and not a result of the same spell which had been cast upon most of the rest of the room. The man’s eyes fixed on Richard’s, and he extended his hand for the shaking in a needlessly violent motion. Indeed, every one of the man’s actions was made with the hope of projecting a self-confidence, a superiority, a great satisfaction that outranked that of his conversational partner. Richard was caught between slinking away and defiantly meeting him halfway. He opted for the latter approach. He shook the man’s hand. 

“I’m Graham.” 


“Nice to meet you, Richie. Nice to meet you. You looking forward to the show?”

Richard nodded, somewhat rankled at the patronising liberty taken with his name. “I’m curious about it.”

“Me too mate, me too.” 

Graham’s voice was plummy and utterly untraceable to any particular region of the country. He wanted to be known as an everyman, and occasionally- purposefully, theatrically- he dropped an aitch or an arr in the hopes of further solidifying and signalling his position as such. 

“What bought you here tonight?” Richard asked. 

“I want to see if this bloke- this Mr. Fate- is up to it.”

“Up to what?”

“Up to it. I want to see if he can do it properly like he promised; like it used to be done. How it was done when we still had a sense of humour we could be proud of in this country.”


“Yeah. I couldn’t resist when I saw it. We need proper variety back nowadays, y’know. A good old laugh at teatime on a Saturday- that’s what held us together as a people back in the day. The ones nowadays, half of them try it and haven’t got the wit or the skill. Not since Jerry died. He was the last one, the last old pro.”

“I was never much of a fan.”

In truth, Richard thought Jerry was a twirling fool; a purveyor of hack gags- cleaned-up for the early evening audience- and mediocre dance steps, an old twinkle-toes with a barely-disguised mean streak. He’d always seemed the sort who’d knock a couple of quid off a contractor’s pay based on the length of time they stopped for a tea break and had outlived his time on television by a good few decades, supported by the last vestiges of a soppy audience. Richard’s contempt was probably audible in his clipped dismissal and it put Graham on the defensive. 

“You’re wrong there, pal. He had something for the whole family. The whole lot could enjoy him.”

Strictly the dewy-eyed grandmas thought Richard, but he said nothing. Graham looked around for someone better to talk to. He could round up no one else and turned back to Richard to strengthen his argument.

“It’s lads like him who made us what we are. He made your struggles during the week- slaving your guts out- worth it; he made you forget it all. Nowadays, you turn on the television and all you get is hectored; everyone’s got something bad to tell you, everyone’s got something bad to say about you. You’ve got to feel guilty all the time. Like you want to hear all that after you’ve been sweating it at the foundry. You want a bit of glamour, a bit of glitz, a few cheeky laughs; it puts a new burst in you for Monday morning. Without people such as Jerry, I tell you, we’d have fallen behind the rest of the world a lot earlier; we’d have been too miserable to make it in after the weekend, and the whole bloody thing would have ground to a halt. Like it has now.”

“I’ve always preferred the sketch comedians from that time.”

It was an opinion offered as a peace-making gesture on Richard’s part, one chosen instead of- quite fairly- enquiring on the exact date that Graham had last toiled at the foundry.

“Fair play to you there, fair play. They were great. Don’t see much of their like either now. That’s all the special interest groups and the bloody elites diluting it all, telling us what we should like rather than giving us a bit more of what we actually do like.”

Richard, tiring of the same old talking-points, decided to change tack. “I don’t know if Mr. Fate is going to be much like Jerry. He seems to be doing something a few decades older.”

“It’s close enough, isn’t it?”

Richard supposed it was. He excused himself and went for another drink. Some of his sleepiness had worn off, and he now put that earlier strange mood down to the warmth of the lobby. 

There was more of a crush now around the bar. Richard joined the back of it and noticed the woman next to him was crying. No, not just crying- sobbing, bawling her eyes out. Her partner held her to his chest, stroking her hair. 

“I don’t want to go in, Charlie. I don’t. I don’t.”

Her partner pattered her on the head and pushed her face further into his coat. He said a few more comforting words, but the woman kept weeping; she began to shake more and more, and Richard thought her legs were going to give way. The man ushered her away and they were lost to Richard’s sight for a few seconds; when he caught a glimpse of them again through the throngs he could see that the man was all but forcing her towards the open doors of the auditorium. He whispered in the usher’s ear as they were asked to present their tickets, and the two of them together helped carry the woman to her seat. 

Richard only had time to briefly consider if she had some form of agoraphobia before he was ordering his second drink. It arrived and he downed it one. The bell rung. 

“Seats please, ladies and gentlemen!” 

An usher, holding an old brass megaphone, was standing on the balcony that led to the upper stalls. His silver buttons gleamed in the overhead fluoresce; he wore little white gloves and thick, shining black shoes. His hair was slicked back so forcefully that his forehead and brow jutted forwards with an unnatural, furious tightness. He lifted the megaphone to his lips again. 

“Enjoy your trip with Mr. Fate!”

There were a few cheers for this, which were followed by a low murmuring. Then Richard was caught up in a rapid pouring forward of the crowd towards the waiting doors. Behind him, he could hear a couple more members of the audience crying as they too were propelled onwards by the irrepressible movement around them. There was no question of turning back, or slipping out of the mass; everyone had very quickly become too tightly packed. Richard felt himself being lifted off his feet; the ushers gave up on checking tickets and simply stood aside to let the crowd through with vacant grins. Richard turned his head as the sobs behind him turned to screams; he tried to see if people were being crushed, as he felt he might soon be. He saw that a line of people was pushing the rest of the audience forwards from the very back of the congregation. The faces of these stormtroopers were red and contorted with the pressures of their exertion. Richard wanted to shout at them to stop, that someone was going to get hurt, but his chest and lungs were being too heavily pressed to allow for speech. He focused only on his breathing- and blocking out the terrible wailing- as he was carried into the stalls. As he came through the door, a good number of those in front of him collapsed, and soon Richard too was rolling down the aisles with them, bruising his back as it hit against individual steps. When he stopped falling he was lying atop a groggy, near-purple middle-aged woman. He apologised profusely and helped her up. She said nothing, put a friendly hand on his shoulder, and then went in search of her seat. To his left, Richard saw Graham laughing delightedly in Row BB. He gave Richard a thumbs-up; apparently, nearly everyone here was desperately, devotedly on his side- they were willing to kill to get a bit of that old variety back.  

Indeed, most of the crowd had reacted as if this display was the normal, accepted way of entering a performance hall. As people pulled themselves up or were caught against the backs of the first row of seats, they then worked themselves free, adjusted their clothes and hair, and wandered off with a calm, even contented demeanour. The banshees of the crush had been silenced; there was an expectant, excited hush in the place now. Richard could see a few others looking around with a similar sort of apprehension as himself, but the pressures of conformity soon weighed, and even they went about seating themselves in much the same way as the rest of the room. 

Richard, too, followed their lead and sat himself down. Gazing up at the balcony and the rest of the stalls, he noted that his early guess of two-thirds capacity was an underestimation- surely, this was a near sell-out. Richard’s neighbours were composed mainly of the same geriatric folks he’d seen on arriving, broken up only by the occasional forty-something like himself, and a couple of youngsters- their dress sense caught somewhere between 1965 and 1995- perched somewhat uncomfortably at the end of Row KK. A few of the oldies were sucking on hardboiled sweets like they’d stepped out of some cheap advertisement. One of them proffered a bag of humbugs to Richard; he politely turned down the invitation. 

There came a great whirring noise, and then a long musical note, the sound of which was somewhere between that of a church organ and the burst of a laser gun. The stage and its red curtains lit up in splashes of purple, blue and yellow light and an elegant behemoth of a Wurlitzer came up through a trapdoor in the orchestra pit. It shone in pure, blinding white, was topped by silver pipes, and was decorated by dancing green and gold bursts that hopped jauntily across the multiple cascading keyboards and up into a system of buttons and pullies. A man in a wide-cut grey suit, his hair also slicked back to an impossible point like the announcer’s, made an unlikely medley out of Autumn Leaves and Everybody Loves My Baby. There came coos of delight, hands clapping, other tunes being hummed in counter-point. Richard himself could not help but get caught up too, leaving behind any wondering about how exactly this instrument had been installed in the theatre, and how much such an operation would have cost. Surrendering himself, he drifted out of his body to float above the innocent pier of seaside memories, a wash of striped-bathing suits and Sunday bests below him. The music seemed at once an orchestrated version of the sound of two penny pieces clattering down in the push machines, the clicking of a hawker’s camera offering deckchair candids to pretty factory girls and dads in rolled shirt-sleeves, and the meetings of steel forks and plates cleared of haddock, chips and even lemon. Richard’s spirit perched itself upon the top of a helter-skelter, an enormous tower in red-and-blue spirals, that had grown to a size of several hundred feet, and was still soaring upwards, carrying him towards the muggy clouds of a hot bank holiday afternoon. Then he was cast off and was falling towards the grey nothingness of the sea, straight through the nailed boards of the pier walkways, before he was caught on a lattice of fine, oiled ironwork beneath the pier, and suspended- crucified- in perfect, beaming happiness. The dancers and fairies of the circus bill poster flew in loop-the-loops high above him, becoming angels; he watched them go, as an acrobat, carrying a cartoon weight, made easy work of walkathons up-and-down the inches-thin handrail of the platform above him. The music started coming to an end; Richard was struck by melancholy as he became aware that these weren’t his own memories, dreams or visions, but just the construction of some great shared store of memory and imagination, all of it infinitely sweetened beyond reality, and not much beyond ghosts flattened and mulched into universally familiar patterns. But it was all sweet, so, so sweet, that it hurt to reawaken to the murkiness of the theatre. The magic lantern clicked off. The Wurlitzer sunk back into its subterranean resting place, and he was left choking on his tears. 

Before his nostalgia could curdle any further, Richard’s attention was stolen by someone shouting; he saw a youngster breaking for the doors. He was met by an usher who bear-hugged him and manhandled him back to his seat, letting the kid writhe and kick out the whole way. Once plunked back down, a guard was kept.

Before the audience could protest, a man appeared on the stage; a spotlight turned on him and made his face blue. The response was immediately rapturous, geed up by the tender majesties of the organ.

“You remember, don’t you,” the man said, in tones attempting for the sonorous but letdown by an underlying asthmatic weakness, “the glory days of theatres such as these?”

He approached the front of the stage, then dropped and backward-rolled and stood again on the spot he’d started from. 

“Magic and laughter, tears and delightful delicacies. France’s finest legs kicking the cancan, jokes and routines from the funniest men alive that would send you- the audience- into convulsions. Indeed, didn’t it seem like every hall needed a standby St Johns ambulance, to cater to those whose collars had gotten too hot, or who had been forced into cardiac arrest by the brilliantine brilliance of the final punchline?”

Members of Richard’s row were nodding. 

“Do you remember Charlie?” The man imitated the Tramp’s walk. 

“Do you remember the songs?” He offered a line of a Flanagan and Allen favourite. 

“Do you remember the tricks?” He produced a pack of cards from his suit pocket and showed a five of clubs to the audience. “That was your card, wasn’t it?”

There were chuckles. The man walked closer to them. Richard could see him better now; white paint had been caked upon a face approaching old age, marked by a surfeit of deep, dark wrinkles. Around each eye was drawn, in black wobbly lines, a large circle, and these were connected by an even shakier line across the bridge of the nose to form a false pair of round spectacles. His eyes were brown but animated, even fiery. His teeth were stained yellow. He repulsed Richard and made him involuntarily draw back in his seat to escape the gargoyle leer that was now fixed upon them. The stage had been claimed by a sad Pierrot partly infused by the spirit of a particularly malicious Harlequin. 

“I am Mr. Fate,” said the man. He was acting as his own compere; there clearly was no support, no other attraction. “This is the biggest show I’ve ever played. I hope you’ll bear with me.”

A roar boomed over the theatre’s speakers and made every one start.

“Exit, pursued by a bear!” Mr. Fate bellowed. He ran off stage left; then his head appeared round the curtain, caught in a paroxysm of panting pain that was too real, too immediately suggestive of a genuine and sudden heart-attack victim, to be in any way amusing. Roaring and growling continued to fill the auditorium. Mr Fate ran towards stage right, his suit shredded and a large pair of boxer shorts, in the customary bright red love heart pattern, showing through the remains of his trousers. Now the audience- or parts of it, at least- laughed. He disappeared around the curtain again, and then stuck his face back out with the same grotesque expression upon it as previously, except now he’d become aware that no one thought this particularly funny, and brief flashes of both frustration and sadness passed across his otherwise fixed countenance. His response to this negation was to double-down: his fake agonies only became more outrageous, more monstrous. 

He re-emerged into the fullness of the spotlight, with only his boxers and heavily-polished brogues remaining to cover him. The crowd liked that. Mr. Fate pretended to be embarrassed, shielding his modesty with outstretched hands. 

“What a way to begin my show!” 

He stepped up again to the lip of the stage. 

“Like I said, I’m not used to venues of this size. Not at all, not at all. Holiday parks, holiday camps, that’s more my thing. Performing for the tanked-up inbreds who can’t afford a trip abroad, and who end up bored out of their skulls in the wind-blasted rot of coastal England. But even those places are going away. Good riddance, I say. Especially if I can get gigs at all the world’s Odeums, eh?”

The tone of those words had been serious- poisonous- and met with general bemusement. Mr. Fate grinned, stood back, and caught a cane that was thrown in from off-stage. He twirled it and picked up the tune of the Flanagan and Allen number again. 

We’re always on the outside

On the outside always looking in

We never know how fortunes are made

For the sun, when it shines, finds us still in the shade

We’re always on the ebb tide

But we’ll keep on trying till we win

For we know someday we’re gonna be on the inside

Instead of the outside always looking in.”

He performed a few rudimentary dance steps as an unseen small orchestra caught up the pensive melody; Richard thought Graham would be happy, as the routine seemed to have been half-inched from one of Jerry’s. It turned into a fake foxtrot and then a waltz, Mr. Fate taking his cane as a willing partner.

“Isn’t it hard to find a dame these days, fellas?” 

The question was asked in a New York drawl. He followed it by throwing away his prop and dancing the Charleston, wildly and with a relish that belied his age. Then feet were caught in a choreographed tangle, and he was on his back, staring up at the stage lights. It was from this position that he performed the next and final verse, gifting the slender words a real, precious wistfulness. 

Were very ordinary people

We never make any fuss

Were the easygoing kind, 

if you look around youll find

Theres a million like us

Were always on the outside

On the outside always looking in.”

He rolled onto his stomach, resting his face in his hands and looking out cutely at the audience, then jumped up as the orchestra struck a new tune. He sang it in a quavering voice.

Twas down in Cupid’s Garden

 I wandered for to view 

The sweet and lovely flowers that in the garden grew, 

And one it was sweet jasmin, the lily, pink and rose; 

They are the finest flowers that in the garden grow. 

I had not been in the garden but scarcely half an hour, 

When I beheld two maidens, sat under a shady bower, 

And one it was sweet Nancy, so beautiful and fair,

 The other was a virgin and did the laurels wear.”

The orchestra continued playing as Mr. Fate bowed to the audience and shuffled his way off-stage. There was applause, but also a palpable edge of disquiet; the song was much too old to be familiar to anyone in the room, as Richard suspected the first may well have been to most of the audience also. He had thought himself more likely to hear variations on Always Look On The Bright Side of Life or similar, but Mr. Fate was chasing some form of authenticity, with a wide historical remit, at the very least. 

When he returned, Mr. Fate was wearing a top hat and tails. His face was still tainted blue by the spotlight. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen, I welcome your kind response to my first routine. It is the sort of thing that one dreams of during yet another night in a motorway-adjacent Travelodge, kept awake by the howls of a domestic in your neighbours room while trying to keep down the cheap lager and slimy Hunter’s Chicken the janitor-cum-chef managed to under-microwave. It’s a tough life on the road, I tell you. A tough old life. You know, the other day in one of those places I met a fellow with one leg called Smith.”

He turned to the audience expectantly and was met with silence. He visibly sighed and made a tiny gesture to the gallery. A voice boomed out of the speakers, crackling, almost warped.

“One leg called Smith? What was the other one called?”

Some laughs, mostly polite. 

“‘Cor blimey. Let’s go again, eh? Woman gets on to the bus and says to me ‘I say, is this the Barking bus?’ Me, I respond ‘No, madam, this one just goes toot toot’.”

The same response followed.

“A waiter in a top London restaurant was sacked today for having his thumb in the soup when he served it. A topless waitress has been dismissed for two similar offences.”

There was more appreciation for this one. Mr. Fate looked a little disheartened.

“That more your line is it? A little bit blue? Oh, I say! Boys will be boys, won’t they? Lucky for you, girls, otherwise you’d get no fun … now … listen!”

Mr. Fate spun and broke into a fit of maniacal laughter. The sound rang out through the hall; it grew to such a pitch that it could almost have shook the balconies and rattled the lighting system. Richard’s discomfort rose. He wanted to turn and flee from the sound, the horrible unceasing sound, but he worried that any break would be met by the ushers in the same mysterious manner as the teenager’s earlier attempt at gaining freedom. Richard turned his head, battling against the cackling assault that near-paralysed him, and saw the usher was still looming over the boy. Very few others around seemed to notice this or care very much. 

A few laughs eventually rose to uncomfortably meet Mr. Fate’s, and this apparently spurred him into stopping. He smiled, and the orchestra played another tune. Mr. Fate once again broke out the same limited dance steps as earlier, enlivening them with a couple of strategically placed, still fully-trousered, moonings of the crowd, each one accompanied by a fluttering upwards of his coattails. He belted out the words with gusto. 

When I was a nipper only six months old

My Mother and my Father too

They didn’t know what to wean me on

They were both in a dreadful stew

They thought of tripe, they thought of steak

Or a little bit of old cod’s row

I said, Pop round to the old cook-shop

I know what’ll make me grow.

Boiled beef and carrots, Boiled beef and carrots

That’s the stuff for your ‘darby-kel’

Makes you fat and it keeps you well

Don’t live like vegetarians, on the stuff they give to parrots

From morn till night, blow out your kite

On boiled beef and carrots.

When I got married to Eliza Brown

A funny little girl next door

We went to Brighton for the week

Then we both toddled home once more

My pals all met me in the pub

Said a feller to me, Watcha Fred!

What did you have for your honeymoon?’

And just for a lark I said

Boiled beef and carrots…”

The invisible orchestra cut out, and Mr. Fate fell into a cross-legged sitting position. 

“The great Harry Champion, that one. Truly great. Not like me, not like me. Oh, I know I’m not up too much,” he said quietly. “You don’t have to tell me. I know it.”

He looked out at his wide-eyed following. 

“I’m like so much of you lot. ‘Theres millions like us. I came along too late, much too late for myself. Or I just let my time pass, without grasping it properly-“

He stopped and smiled sympathetically at them all. 

“Doesn’t have to be that way, though, does it? Does it? That’s why you’re all here, after all. Because it doesn’t have to be.”

Someone in the audience whooped. Richard looked around to see who was so excited by Mr. Fate’s melancholic pleas and saw another member of the audience being restrained by the doors. The balcony announcer took hold of the woman’s wrist and dragged her back to her seat. It was Graham’s wife. Mr. Fate took no heed of her. 

“I’ve given you a bit of a reminder of what was, in my own sorry way. Now it’s your turn to do the rest, to do what we’ve come here for. Now, we can get time back. Our time. Better, happier times, the real thing. And it will be better than this, I promise, so much better. Don’t you want that, boys and girls?”

The crowd grew more and more excited. The room was melting for Richard now; reality was dripping away and congealing on the floor in thick, gloopy puddles. He could see this was a false world before him; an alien world, a terrible place, a bad photocopy, an ersatz reproduction printed in the wrong hues and with the lines smudged. He tried to stand, but another usher came up behind him and pushed him down. He could see, out the corner of his eye, that a small army of them had arrived from somewhere- like they’d shot up out of the old floorboards- and were pinning down any resisters, any who weren’t now fixing the stage with the same rictus delight, or waxen death-mask serenity, as the rest of Richard’s row. Most of those being held were audience members of his age or younger, but even scattered amongst those of fewer years he could see others who were consenting and exuberant. So many in the hall now seemed to him possessed of some secret knowledge, an idea of a secret aim to the proceedings, that he’d arrived tonight completely unaware of. He wondered how many were like him. Who had spread the word to the others? Had it even been put abroad, or had the educated not otherwise just been drawn here by a mysterious instinct, a voice that whispered to their most futile desires? Had Mr. Fate this evening been in their heads, their hearts, telling them things from inside that could never reach Richard; trilling in the gaps between his gags and songs in a tongue only to be understood by the initiated? 

“Cover their eyes!” Mr. Fate pointed at the usherette militia, directing them. A smooth, supple pair of hands cut off his view of the stage. 

“Sing along!” Mr. Fate bellowed. “I need all of you that can manage! It won’t work without most of you willing- willing! I’ve got a sheet for you to read from, there’s no excuse! Start the music!”

The fantasy orchestra started up again. The Wurlitzer sounded deep, rumbling, sizzling hellfire from below the pit. 

“Time again, time again!” Mr. Fate shouted, and leapt into the words of the song. The crowd joined, uncertainly at first, but then with great enthusiasm, with glory in their bellies and golden syrup in their mouths. The song turned from the rinkydink to the sublime; it could have filled the greatest cathedrals in the world and sent the sheer grey sullen spires of God toppling. Richard struggled against his captors, but more hands were placed on him, more held him in place.

Well smile again

With the sun through the rain

As we welcome back those good old days we knew

No more goodbyes 

No more heartaches and sighs

Well awake to realise our dreams come true

Those happy days, happy ways

Are the things we sigh for

Theyll all come true, Mister Blue-

Richard felt the ground shifting beneath his feet; the whole hall began rocking left and right at a tremendous velocity. The hands confining him slid and skidded across his face and body; behind him, the bodies to which they belonged tried to keep themselves upright. Flashes of blue and red light blinded him when his eyes were free. The sideways movements turned into great lurchings backward and forwards. Richard gritted his teeth and dug his fingernails into the hard plastic beneath the thick velvet of his armrest; blood started dripping down his fingers. Mr. Fate took an opportunity to encourage the crowd.

“C’mon now, ladies and gents, boys and girls! Don’t be frightened! The golden pathways are opening for you; all you’ve lost is returning, all that’s passed is coming back. This is what we need!”

Someone- Graham?- cried out. “England! My England!”

Mr. Fate finished the song with the audience.

What ya gotta cry for

Turn the lights on

For the darkness has gone

Arm in arm lets sing a grand refrain

The world is with us 

So well smile again.”

Everything stopped. The theatre was still. The hands were withdrawn from Richard’s eyes, and the ushers melted back into the walls’ scarlet shadows. Richard looked around him; much of his row was caught between a new radiant happiness- old faces crinkled in children’s expressions of wonder- and an ambiguous dabbing at wet eyes with the edges of hankies. The young couple at the end of the row looked around in search of something or someone, or some clue as to the outcome of this mass seance. 

Mr. Fate, who had been missing from the stage when Richard’s vision had been restored, returned.

“You’ve done a wonderful job. Oh, joy of joy, day of days! Isn’t it a shame we don’t have any windows in this place? But I’ve popped backstage, ladies and gents, and let me tell you- this isn’t the same city we left behind! Oh, it’s so much better.”

He gave a little jig and sang a song of his invention. 

Start again, start again, oh what can be, what can we be, now we can start again. We’ve left the cruelty of our age behind; the bitterness and the division. Oh Christ, how cold we’ve all been, eh? How bloody, bloody cold. Well, throw off your shawls, Mother Brown! Chuck the hot water bottle out from under the eiderdown. Go you lot, go!”

The majority of the audience thew themselves from their seats and once again battled their way towards the door, clambering and clawing their way over each other to get towards- what? Mr. Fate’s promised land, a new shining paradise beyond the foyer? Richard watched the crush develop- the lost and lonely stragglers, regretful or befuddled, joining after the worst of the stampede- and remained rooted in his seat. Mr. Fate had gone again; the stage lights were dimmed and eventually shut off. A kinder, gentler usher than the earlier paramilitary equivalents appeared at his elbow and helped him gingerly out of his seat and towards the door. No words were exchanged; Richard’s guide, although pinched and grey, walked with a puffed chest and a solemn stateliness.

They passed through the foyer and then out the the theatre; the usher left him and went back inside. Richard looked about and his legs buckled, and his head almost hit the pavement as he swooned. As Mr. Fate had promised, the Strand was indeed not the Strand he had come in from; the cladding and chrome, the lurking monsters of concrete frames and glass exteriors were gone from the margins of the scene around Charing Cross, and the familiar chain restaurants and shops had been replaced on this great stretch of life. The occasional horse-and-carriage or cart held up the lanes of early motorised hackney carriages, half-open to the elements and stinking with their dense fumes. The buildings had taken an almost Victorian appearance, a long line of tall soot and smoke-stained facades dropping down into the striped canopies and block-colored awnings of fancy shops. The people hurried about- the pace of their lives had changed little- but they were long overcoats, wide-brimmed hats and suits in great acres of fabric or peculiarly dumpy and formless dresses.

A pair of brogues stopped at Richard’s crown. A hand came to meet his, and after a few seconds of exertion from a samaritan almost out of puff, Richard was standing with a comforting arm around his shoulder. The man holding him was Mr. Fate, smiling warmly with his yellow teeth and his flaking make-up. 

“Bit of a shock, isn’t it? Even for the most willing ones, it will be.”

Richard nodded. He couldn’t form words. 

“Nineteen twenty-six. For God’s sake, I wish I’d got a better year. I hoped to avoid the Blitz at least; I managed that. But the crash is right around the corner.”

He shrugged his shoulders. Richard stood gaping at him. 

“Still, it’ll be alright for me. Entertainment’s always boomed in hard times, and I’ll be on a bill with the best- heck, I’ll steal most of their routines before they’ve even thought of them. Bully for me. I’ve got my public. It’s the others I worry about. I needed them- of course- but I worry they didn’t quite think things through. To be honest, I think I took most back further than they were expecting. Not quite a Christmas Eve recording at the BBC Studios, is it? All dancing girls in elf costumes, and the comedian as a great big erect Santa. That’s what they really wanted- if they ever really did know for sure what they wanted. Oh, well. They’ll pull through. They’ll find a silver lining, and so will you. Call me if you need help.”

Mr. Fate slipped a business card into Richard’s coat pocket. He started to stroll away, with a grand promenade air, but Richard stumbled over and grabbed at his poleyster sleeve.

“Is there any way back?” 

It was all he could manage to say, and he had to lean right into Mr. Fate’s ear to make himself heard. Mr. Fate shrugged once again. 

“Get a few hundred of those who want to go the opposite way in a room and give it your best shot. It’s the only way. You might be able to round up a nice little crowd after the crash. They might even be knocking down your door to go forwards a little. Good luck with it, if you decide to make a go of it.”

Mr. Fate patted his shoulder and was away and swallowed by the Saturday evening crowd. An old song resounded in Richard’s head. 

Life begins at Oxford Circus…”

He watched a car hurry past and contemplated throwing himself under the next, or beneath the hooves of a horse. But then one of the old contraptions stopped before him and he climbed in and asked for the place the song had named. As they merged with the rest of the traffic, and avoided the masses of jay-walkers and delivery boys who recklessly pelted off the kerb and slipped through the tiniest spaces between the cumbersome vehicles, he tried to send himself back again to the latticed metalwork underneath a long-distant pier, on a hot summer’s day from someone else’s photo album, but found the sun had long since already set and all the joys of the seaside had disappeared into the black of the night. He wept.  Back at the Orpheum, a blue-overalled workman, overseen by a courtly, august shade in all-black, carefully extracted the POOLEY’S CIRCUS poster from the wall, rolled it up and pushed it inside a cardboard tube. He received a nodded dismissal from his inspector and went down the side of the building, bill in hand, towards the tradesman’s entrance. The shade watched him all the way, before turning, stepping back inside the theatre and motioning to a waiting usherette to lock the front doors. 

Billy Stanton is a young working-class writer and film-maker based in London, and originally from Portsmouth. His short story ‘Screwfix’ was recently published in the psychogeography collection ‘New Towns’ (Wild Pressed Books). His short fiction has also appeared in Horla and The Chamber magazines. His latest short film ‘Noli’, dealing with the rituals of modern British drinking culture, is currently in post-production.

If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “Cruel” dark, legendary fiction also by Billy Stanton.

While you’re here, why not drop by The Chamber’s bookshop?

“The Dare” Dark Fiction by Kate Bergquist

"The Dare" Horror by Kate Bergquist

We snuck out to the Goat Man’s place every Halloween night. It was our secret tradition. First, my brother Joey and I did some bad-ass trick-or-treating, racing from house to house throughout the neighborhood. Our covert mission was to score at least a handful of candy at each stop to stuff into our pillowcases. We only had about two hours before our parents would return to pick us up in the station wagon, and we didn’t want them to know where we spent most of the evening.

Out behind Pine Woods Cemetery.

That’s where the Goat Man lived, alone, in a rambling Victorian cottage. Perched on a knoll down a long driveway behind the cemetery, it boasted all the hallmarks of a real haunted house, right down to its crooked shutters, peeling paint, and squeaky iron gate.

In other words, it was scary freaking perfect.

All us kids called him The Goat Man, but he didn’t herd goats or even own them. He didn’t possess any goat-like qualities, either, except for the gray hairs that sprouted from his chin like steel wool. His real name was Earl Ruskin. He was a hunched over and skinny old man, perpetually dressed in a tattered black suit, even in summer, and he wore thick wire-framed glasses and kept his straggly white hair pulled back into a rat tail. He seemed like a hundred years old to us then, but looking back, he was probably only sixty.

I even felt sorry for him, sometimes. I was a sensitive, nervous girl, the kind who worried about missing cats and dogs in the neighborhood and often went out to search for them. To me, Earl was sort of a stray human. The way I figured it, he probably didn’t deserve all the things people said about him. Maybe he just needed rescue from a lifetime of loneliness.

People rarely saw him out and about in real life, but we all heard the whispered stories.   If you stare at his face for more than ten seconds, it changes from human to wolf. Some older kids said he chased them from the cemetery one night, and that he could run lightning fast. He was behind them, and then, in a flash, he was ahead of them, levitating above one of the headstones.

And if that wasn’t scary enough, some of my fifth-grade classmates said they peeked in through his dining room window one night and saw him eating handfuls of spiders. Some of them crawled around on his face and hands while he was chewing. Well, it didn’t take long for that story to morph into Earl slurping brains from a silver ladle, dipped from the open skull of a dead goat. Hence the moniker.

Our dad told us that when Earl was young, he was more of a normal guy with a just few odd quirks. His family owned the old shoe factory in Milford for generations. When Earl inherited it, the Ruskin Shoe Company was one of the largest employers in our little corner of Vermont — half the town worked there. Earl was good to his employees, too, and for the most part they all liked him well enough; he was a fair and even-handed boss; he didn’t talk much, and he never came down on anyone too hard for being late or for asking for a raise.

But he was a loner, and never socialized, not even at company events. He often stayed late at the office so he could walk home in the dark. And he didn’t have one single friend that anyone could recall.

Earl was also shy around women. But he earned the name Earl the Hugger because during the holidays, at bonus time, he hugged each female employee when he handed out checks. He never said a word to any of them, just gave them the eye, if you know what I mean, and pressed them close for a few furtive seconds. Some of the women squirmed, others giggled, and some outright declined.

He never tried to hug the men.

His peculiar holiday hugs added to his creep factor. And despite his decent looks and wealthy bachelor status, no one wanted to go out with him.

Including my namesake, my aunt Emmaline. She was a beautiful, raven-haired young widow with ethereal blue eyes and a gentle smile. As the story goes, Earl was love-struck, and tried without success to garner her affection.

Still grieving the loss of her own husband from a car accident, Emmaline was upset by Earl’s behavior. He waited for her in dark hallways, and often hovered near her desk, staring at her. One Saturday morning, Earl showed up unexpectedly at the house. He held a huge bouquet of dead roses. When Emmaline saw who it was, and what he carried, she fled upstairs and dove under the bed. My dad, who was only eleven at the time, slid underneath to hide with her. She told him Earl had rancid breath and questionable manners, and that something about him frightened her. There’s something wrong with that man, she told him, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Emmaline needed a fresh start. She had big plans for a whole new life, and had just accepted a position as a Shore Excursions Manager with a major cruise line. She couldn’t wait to see the world. She gave her two-week notice to Ruskin Shoes, and was on her final countdown to freedom.

But tragically, on her very last day at Ruskin, a massive fire erupted at the plant, right in the middle of second shift. All the employees managed to escape the flames – all but Emmaline. As a shift supervisor, she must have felt it her duty to go back in to make sure everyone had gotten out safely. But she never made it back out again.  

She was only twenty-two years old. Her whole family —and the entire town for that matter — was devastated by her death.

Including Earl. Although the Fire Marshall deemed the fire purely accidental, caused by faulty wiring, Earl was so broken he couldn’t rebuild. Instead, he became a black-suited recluse, and the object of two generations of childhood mischief.


“Check out the moon, Emmie,” Joey said, his breath trailing clouds. “It’s like a huge severed head rising behind the pines.” It didn’t look that way to me; it was missing the whole severed part, all the blood and gore. Besides, there was a bit of a gravity problem.

“Severed heads don’t rise, they fall.” But the moon was really big and full that Halloween; it cast long, eerie shadows on the gravestones. I kept my head down as we crossed the wooded path through the cemetery, just in case Earl was floating nearby. That would be a gravity problem, too, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

We crept to edge of the high row of overgrown shrubs by the front gate. As the wind rose, the temperature dropped, and both of us shivered in our costumes. The cold stung our faces and numbed our hands. There we crouched — a hairy biped and elegant princess – staring up at the Gothic windows.

A milky light flickered inside.

Joey lifted his furry mask. “I go first,” he mumbled, his mouth full of Snickers. He was a year older, almost twelve, a lot bigger than me, and very bossy. Last year he went first, too.


“Look at me and count to three.”

I watched, giggling, as he reared up to his full height and beat his furry chest. I attempted a deep, royal intonation. “One…two…three…and a dare from thee.”

“I’ve got a good one, your Highness.”

“Pray tell, Bigfoot.”

“I dare you…to knock on the Goat Man’s front door, and when he answers, tell him you’re cold and you want to come in.”

“Are you crazy?” No one, to our knowledge anyway, had actually ever stepped foot inside the Ruskin house. Except for Earl, of course. Even the Amazon delivery drivers never made it past the front porch.

“It’s a solid dare. You’re a sissy if you say no.”

Last year, he dared me to clang a bell at the front gate and then toss some candy onto the grass. The previous year, I dared Joey to drape toilet paper on all the low-hanging branches. Harmless, innocuous stuff.

Until now. This dare felt a full level higher on the danger scale.

But I was pretty confident that Earl wouldn’t answer the door.

With dramatic flair, I flipped my white and silver embroidered veil over my right shoulder. “I hereby accept on one condition.”


“You go with me.”

Joey didn’t say anything. But I could tell he was thinking about it.

“Time’s it?” I asked, trying to keep my teeth from chattering.

Joey checked his watch. Then he cracked a wicked grin. “It’s Goat Man time!”

We dropped our stuffed pillowcases and squeezed through the narrow opening in the gate.          


Shimmering moonlight flooded the stairway. In fine princess fashion, I ascended the steps slowly, regally, admiring the ornate trim and gingerbread cutouts. I held on to the balustrade as I climbed, noting how steep and uneven the steps were. Almost twice as steep as normal stairs. At the top of the landing, I looked back down, and Joey gave me a tense wave before ducking behind the railing. I turned to the imposing, wrought iron front door, with its elegant scrollwork and reached for the black iron door knocker.

My heart skittered as I took a deep breath, and knocked.

At first, silence. I backed away from the door to see if Joey was still at the bottom of the stairs. He urged me on with a verbal push.


I stepped forward and knocked again.

And heard footsteps approaching from the other side of the door. 

A male voice, “Yes? Who is it, please?”

I wanted to run. But I was frozen in place. 

The door opened a crack. I heard a sharp intake of breath. And then it opened wider. Standing there, in the flesh, was The Goat Man.

He wasn’t what I expected. Not at all. He wasn’t skinny or hunched over. He wore a dark suit and slippers. And his suit wasn’t worn at all; quite the opposite. It looked expensively stitched, made with very fine material. His white hair was shiny and thick, brushed back from his forehead. His skin wasn’t even wrinkled; he was clean-shaven. He didn’t even wear glasses. His twinkling gray eyes looked very surprised to see me.

“Um, hi,” was all I could manage.

Then I saw his face clearly, and realized that the look I saw there was much more than surprise. It was raw pleasure. He broke a smile; his teeth were small and very white.

“Come in, come in, oh my dear–you must be so cold out there!”

I took a tentative step across the threshold. The door closed behind me with a swoosh and a soft thud.

I wasn’t scared then. Not yet. The veil shrouded my face; it felt like it protected me.

“Are you lost? No one is with you? Oh, my sweet dear, that’s such a pretty costume. And such a lovely veil. You look like a lost little princess bride. And a princess needs a house befitting royalty.”

He bowed dramatically, gesturing me to enter. I took another step inside. The heat hit me full blast. It must have been eighty degrees in there. An antique woodstove cranked in a corner of the kitchen, and I could see a fire roaring in the grand fireplace in the living room.

“Would you like a cup of herbal tea, dear? That’s what I’m having. It will warm you up.”

I found my voice; timid and hoarse. “It’s not what I thought.” I forced a smile. “Neither are you.”

“Ah. Lots of scary stories out there about me, eh?” He laughed and his whole body shook. “Do I look like some kind of decrepit old monster to you?”

I gave him a cautious look. Shook my head. “You really don’t even look that old.”

“Tell me, what do they call me these days?”

“The Goat Man.”

“Ah. Hadn’t heard that one.” As he pondered it for a moment, he picked something out of his right ear. I hoped he wouldn’t ask for further explanation.

 He grinned and leaned in close. His breath smelled like decayed fruit.  

“My name is Earl. Earl Ruskin. And what is yours, my dear?”

He held a delicate teacup. It had tiny black birds painted on it. I could see his fingernails were clipped short. He seemed very elegant. I felt shy in his presence, maybe even star-struck. Meeting Earl was kind of like meeting a celebrity. And he seemed so sweet, so nice.

So safe.

I gently moved the veil away from my face and looked up at him, directly into his eyes. In my mind, I quickly counted to ten.

I was relieved to see his face stayed human.

“Emmie,” I said, “Short for Emmaline.”

Earl’s pale eyes bulged. That made me a bit uneasy. Then, his jaw started trembling. I was started to regret accepting this dare. Joey was going to have to give me all of his candy to make up for this. Gray hairs sprouted from his chin. The skin on his face rippled. He let go of the tea cup and I braced for the crash.

But it didn’t fall. It hung there, tipped over and suspended in mid-air. The tea stayed in the upside-down cup. The cup twirled a bit in the air but stayed aloft.

 “Oh, it is just as I have always hoped!” Earl exclaimed. “Just as I have prayed! Yes! My prayers have indeed come true!”

Earl slipped his left hand into his suit coat pocket.

I was completely mesmerized by the levitated teacup. We were having a gravity problem. A big one. And now I was scared. Earl flipped his hand from his pocket and flung sparkles at my face. “Princess dust for the princess bride,” he said.

Everything happened so fast. I winced and coughed; the cup dropped and shattered. I took a step backward, away from the shards, away from the dust that stung my eyes and nose. There was a loud noise, it came from Earl’s mouth, I couldn’t make out what he was saying. He looked down at the mess, then at me. His lips were moving.

He grinned. His teeth were all yellow, decayed. Slimy. His hair was thin and brittle and pulled into a rat tail. I felt so dizzy. I couldn’t control my arms or legs. As I tried to steady myself against the spongy wall, I could see into the living room. 

Blooms of black mold patterned the walls. The impressive gold drapes were shredded. The tiles in the fireplace were cracked and some were missing altogether. The heavy dining room set had fallen to ruin; some of the chair legs were broken. Everything was covered in dust and cobwebs. The table was on its side, the varnish bubbled and cracked. A marching column of insects emerged from the cracks.

Earl’s voice dialed back in, loud and tinny. “You’re so, so beautiful. Even more than she was.” His suit was torn and threadbare; it hung in ragged strips from his skinny frame.

I took a shaky step backwards; my hand was sticking to the wall.

A large spider scuttered across my left foot. Earl flicked out a bony arm and grabbed it in a second, popped it into his mouth, crunched it. “Mmmmm.” His pointed, yellow tongue darted out and licked his cracked lips. He rubbed his sunken stomach and belched. Something gray glistened at the edge of his shriveled lips.

He tilted his head, bemused by my horrified expression. “Oh, my dear, what kind of host am I? You must be starving.”

I screamed, but the sound didn’t come out of me. It went in; I felt it blast through my veins like lava, ricocheting into my muscles. The pain knocked me off my feet; I slumped to the floor.


I think I passed out for a few seconds; as I came to, my head seemed a little clearer. But unfortunately, my Halloween nightmare was still playing out in high definition. I drew a shaky breath. The hallway floor seemed to be rippling. Earl was swaying in front of me, his mouth moving incessantly. Black house flies buzzed in and out of it.

I thought of my parents, how upset they would be when Joey and I weren’t at our usual pick-up spot in front of Jensen’s Pharmacy. We had let them down. My mom said the worst thing to do to someone you love is lie to them. Joey and I didn’t lie, really. We just didn’t tell them the whole truth. Was I being punished? If so, the punishment didn’t seem to fit the crime.

It just wasn’t fair. Halloween was supposed to be fun-scary. And the impossibility of what I was seeing had put me into some kind of split-brain mode. Part of me terrified, the other part angry.

I decided to focus all my energy on the angry part.

“You’re just a horrible…thing!” I screamed at him, and the words punched out of me like hot coals. Earl cackled and danced around like an emaciated marionette. He started to sing, oh yeah, oh yeah, I’m just a thing called Earl. Come here little lady and I’ll take you for a whirl. Yeah baby, you’re my princess girl…then he lunged at me with a clawed hand, his feet hovering several inches from the floor.

I ducked away from the swipe. “Ugly stinking lump!”

Come here, my beautiful one. Emma—Emma–Emmaline. With the ocean blue eyes. We are destined to sail together across the sea of life.

“No one would ever want you! I hate you! And my aunt hated you, too!”

That hit the mark. Earl’s feet struck the floor, hard. He fixed me with a vicious stare.

My outburst made me realize something. Something important. Something that might save my life.

I was no snuffling little sissy.

“You’re a very cruel child,” Earl said, as if correcting me, and bared his disgusting teeth. His eyes were red slits. He opened his horrible mouth wide, and this time, the flies that issued from his mouth buzzed like tiny chainsaws, swirling into a funnel. Dozens of them. Hundreds.

 I flashed back to a family camping trip up in Maine. We were staying near a lake and I was playing in a sandy area near some low bushes. All of a sudden, I heard my dad yelp. He was running up from the lake. I could hear him yelling, Run, Emmie! As fast as you can, in a straight line! To the car! Get inside and close the doors! And the swarm of bees was an undulating black cloud around his head, and I turned and–

–fled down the Goat Man’s hallway, away from the bees, trying to stay in a straight line, trying to stay upright; the floor was still moving beneath my feet. Run, Emmie! Don’t flail your arms! I felt a few of them pinging me, sharp little zap zaps on my head, pinch, ping, then my face, my arms.

Hold your breath, Emmie! It makes the bees blind. That was the hardest part, when all you want to do is scream out, ragged and raw. But more than anything else, I wanted to see my dad’s face again. And my mom’s. And Joey’s.

So, I held in my breath. I held back my screams.

I burst into a bedroom and slammed the door closed behind me. I dragged a heavy chair against it. In the dim light, I spied a canopy bed, heaped with quilts. I grabbed the top one and stuffed it under the door. I glanced around for a closet, but there wasn’t one. The only place to hide was beneath the bed. So that’s where I crawled. I could hear my heart hammering in my chest. A few bees still crawled on me; some were stuck in my veil. I tried to make myself small and breathless. The stingers hurt. I washed them with silent tears.

Everything seemed quiet. No buzzing. No sign of Earl. As soon as my heart found a slower tempo, I lifted the edge of the bed ruffle and peered out.

This room was very clean. Nothing fancy, just clean. The windows were small and dark. One ceramic lamp rested on a wooden table; it flickered like candlelight.

I was gathering my courage to slide back out and check the windows. I could bang on them. Yell for Joey. Maybe they would open. Maybe Joey had already run back and called the police. I couldn’t stay here. I had to find a way out.

That’s when something swung past my face, like a pendulum.

I heard a rustling, creaking noise in the bed. And a pitiful moan.

And realized the pendulum was a bony arm.

I flew out from beneath the bed, too terrified to look. I was at the window in two steps, and immediately my heart sank; I could see they would never open.

They were fortified with metal security bars.

I shrank into the curtains. Where could I go? I forced myself to look at the bed. The lump of quilts moved and turned, and then coughed. I could see the shape of a human head. Then a voice; female, weak, and very raspy. “Is…someone there?”

I was still terrified, but at least she wasn’t Earl. And I prayed she wasn’t worse.

Please, God, don’t let her be worse. “Um, yeah.”

The woman jerked at the sound of my voice. She pushed the blankets to her lap and looked over at me. Then she started to weep.

“Oh, lady, I’m sorry if I scared you. I’m not mean like Earl.”

Was this his mother? She looked very old. Her skin was thick and leathery, like elephant skin. Didn’t she pass away like a zillion years ago?

“Earl is more than mean, child.” She reached for the glass by the bedside, took a feeble sip. Her upper body was skeletal. Her gray, braided, hair fell to her elbow.

“Then you should leave here. Leave with me.”

“I can’t. He would never allow it.” She patted the blanket and motioned me to come closer. “Let me see you, child. I haven’t seen anyone other than Earl in a very, very long time.”

She seemed so nice. But I had been fooled by that “nice” trick before.

“What’s your name, little one?”

“Emmaline. But I go by Emmie for short.”

Her smile was sad. “That’s a lovely name. Did he…hurt you, Emmie?”

“I think he wants to.” I saw the woman wince, press her fingers against her eyes. I wanted some answers. “Is he…a demon?”

“He’s a very sick human being. He’s evil. He is very practiced at it. He can make you see things, awful things, things out of a scene from Hell.”

A heavy rapping at the door. Then two more sharp knocks, louder. The door had a red tinge around the edges. It was starting to bulge. The woman bolted upright. I could see fear shining in her eyes. “Child. Listen. You are in terrible danger. He’s very angry.”

Her eyes darted about the room. Where could we go? I couldn’t see any way out other than back through the door. “Quick,” she said, “get under the covers. I’ll hide you.”

She reached over and rustled around in the drawer in the bedside table. “Earl has plenty of evil tricks in his arsenal. But — I’ve got one too. I only wish I tried this years ago.”

The door erupted right off its hinges. I dove under the blankets. I could see a blood-red glow even through the heavy black wool. I wondered if Earl’s rage had turned him into a dragon. I was having trouble taking a full breath; it was if all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room. I heard the woman scream out, “No! I forbid you! She is not yours; she will never be yours!”

I heard something pop, then a squelchy noise, followed by a small explosion. And then, the most blood-curdling scream I have ever heard. It sounded like the hellish howl of a dying animal.

The old woman pulled me tight to her, covered my head with a blanket. “Brace yourself, child. Don’t look. Just hold on to me and don’t let go.” We were out of the bed and moving through some kind of tunnel. It felt like my skin was melting. I held on. We crawled through muck and slime and smoke. Something hard fell against my shoulder. My knee pressed into a nail. I was choking. We kept crawling. The heat was unbearable. The old woman was wracked with coughs but she kept going, pushing, pushing me forward, and then a sudden, delicious blast of cold air; I heard voices, lots of them, Joey was screaming my name, and there were sirens, and someone yelled, two survivors–the female adult is critical with second-degree burns and a female minor is stable. We are in transport to UVM Medical Center.


I was on the bench seat, getting hydration therapy. The EMT told me my parents and brother were following us to the hospital. The old woman was strapped in a stretcher beside me. Paramedics attended to her, busily attaching wires to her chest and administering intravenous fluids. Her eyelids fluttered open. She looked over at me with the kindest eyes.

I studied the intricate pattern of scars on her face. Her private road map of a life of pain.

She still had a kind of beauty, haunted and ravaged. She motioned for me to come close.    I slid off the bench seat and pressed my ear near her mouth.

“Do you want to know a secret?” she asked.

I nodded, then leaned back in.

“My name is Emmaline, too.”

Kate Bergquist holds an MA in Writing and Literature from Rivier College in New Hampshire. Insurance agent by day, dark fiction writer by night, Kate’s work was nominated for Best New American Voices. An original dark thriller screenplay NO FORCIBLE ENTRY (co-written with Patricia Thorpe) was honored by Showtime, nominated for a Tony Cox award and won top honors at Scream Fest and Reel Women. She finds inspiration along the craggy Maine coast, where she lives with her husband and several old rescue dogs.

If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “The Broken Doll” horror by Kate Bergquist.

While you’re here, why not drop by The Chamber’s bookshop?

The Chamber Magazine October 2022


Short Fiction

“Garden of Moths” Dark Fiction by Colt Fry

“Hurdy-Gurdy” Horror by Billy Stanton

“Mentone” Supernatural, Psychological Thriller by Sjoerd van Wijk

Things Have Been Strange Around Here” Psychological Horror by Amelia Slater

“Mr. Fate” Horror by Billy Stanton

“The Dare” Dark Fiction by Kate Bergquist

“Cat People” Urban Horror by K.C. Callender

“Ryan O’Shaughnessy Battles an Ape” Dark Urban Fiction by James Hanna

Flash Fiction

Three Works of Flash Fiction by Conor Barnes: “The Dream Eater”, “The Duel”, and “Void”

“Safe Space” Dark Flash Fiction by Alan Caldwell

“Just a Phase” Dark Flash Fiction by Alan Caldwell


Two Dark Poems by Joseph A. Farina: “syndrome” and “skid noir”

“The Uncanny Resurrection of Tellurian Scenes” Dark, Surrealistic Poetry by Ashleigh Genus

Five Dark Poems by Meg Smith:  “Offleash Werewolf Park”, “Maxime”, “Backstairs Ghost”, “The Crocodile, Unbound”, and “The Incorruptible”

“A Skeleton’s Toast” Dark Poem by Thomas White

“Getting Ready to Stalk the Living” Dark Poem by A.J. Huffman

Three Dark Poems by John Tustin: “The Room is Yellow”, “Spitted Nails”, and “Stigmata Blood”

Three Dark Poems by Stephanie Smith: “Breeding”, “The Dance”, and “Thorns”

The Next Issue Appears November 4

“Things Have Been Strange Around Here” Psychological Horror by Amelia Slater

"Things Have Been Strange Around Here" Psychological Horror by Amelia Slater

Andrew Heiss saw her through his window on the ground floor, peeking onto the street that led alongside their apartment complex. It was a dark day spattered with rain that drizzled down the glass, slightly obscuring his view. That didn’t stop Andrew from being able to make out her figure in the rain. Penelope’s rain jacket marked her as a splash of bright yellow in the dismal scene. Her back was turned to him while she stared at the passing cars in front of her. Her blurred arms lifted to remove her hood, exposing her blonde hair to the downpour. It immediately matted down with water, turning two shades darker as it soaked. Andrew’s grip tightened on the windowsill as her hair began to gently float. One tendril at a time drifted into the air as if gravity no longer insisted. A sharp spike of pain was nagging at his hands as the edges of the windowsill cut into his flesh, yet Andrew paid it no mind. A halo of hair surrounded the back of Penelope’s head now, like a monstrous spider was flaring its legs around her head. He was just about to back away from the gutting spectacle when he noticed Penelope turning back toward their apartment window. Very slowly, methodically, not expending any energy. A stroke of fair skin became visible again amidst the yellow. Andrew waited for a nose or drops of light blue eyes to show from beneath the hood, but the pale skin didn’t end. Only smoothness unmarked by facial features. He felt blood dripping from his palms onto the wall.

She did not have a face. The hair fell limp to her sides.

            Andrew jolted awake, inhaling sharply at the sight of his dark room. He sat up and slouched forward, peeling his sweaty legs apart and ripping off the blanket. The coolness of the night air was welcomed. He looked to his left and saw Penelope sleeping soundly next to him. The rise and fall of her small frame was so slight he sometimes frightened himself into thinking she was dead. That wasn’t the only sleeping scare he had experienced with her, either.

            The kitchen light was excruciating, but the darkness didn’t feel comfortable tonight. Andrew wiped sleepy seeds from his eyes and made some chamomile tea to sip on. He needed to shrug off that nightmare. He didn’t dream often, but occasionally he would be struck by dark dreams so bizarre and twisted that he would be affected for days afterward. As if a film was left on him, a faint slime he couldn’t see. He turned on his phone and let the stimulating blue light sweep him away from the bad memories for a moment. He swiped through some photos that he and Penelope had taken the other night when they were on a date, and then landed on a video he had taped the night prior to that.

            Andrew frowned. He didn’t recall taking that video. The thumbnail was just darkness, so curiosity compelled him to play it.

            The moment it started he instantly remembered why he had taken it. He was in their bedroom, and Penelope was standing facing the door. She was sleepwalking again, and just like all of the other instances, she could not be woken up. In the video Andrew was shaking her shoulder, saying “c’mon baby, wake up, don’t do this again. I have to get up early in the morning. Please.”

            As usual, it was to no avail. Penelope continued walking toward the closed door, gently knocking her head as she met her obstacle. She made no sound or movement with her other limbs. Just steadily walked. That was all the video contained. After the dream he just had, Andrew wished he hadn’t watched it.

            He and Penelope had been dating for three months now, and just started living together the past month. At first Andrew felt like they were moving a bit fast, but rent was expensive by himself; besides, what’s the worst that could really happen? She wouldn’t be on the lease, and Andrew was pretty sure he was falling deeply in love with her.

            He took a sip of his chamomile tea and opened the notes app on his phone. He never did spend money on a physical journal when it was more convenient to type your thoughts whenever you needed to. The last few entries had all been about Penelope’s sleeping habits.

            February 26th, 1:13 AM

            I keep trying to wake her up. I don’t know why I keep trying when I know the result is the same, so maybe I’m really just going insane. But I don’t know…I had another nightmare just now and I can’t stand her not being able to wake up. It freaks me out.

            February 27th, 4:01 AM

            The paramedics just left. She was sleepwalking and fell and hit her head, so I called 911. They asked me if she was on any medication or drugs, and I said no. They asked me all of the usual things, like family health history and whatnot, and then asked if they could take her to the hospital because she wouldn’t wake up. I said no. They insisted. I insisted as well and said no. They eventually left. In the end they had told me she didn’t sustain any injuries, so I didn’t see the point in having her stay somewhere else for the night when I knew she would wake up at the same time anyways. So I guess we will see.

A creaking sound interrupted Andrew’s reading, and his head snapped toward the source of the disturbance. It seemed to have come from the bathroom. He placed his cup in the sink and walked into the small space. Black ropes of fear tugged at his throat. He knew it was childish to be afraid of the dark, but as of late, the dark had harbored nothing but ugly and unknown things. As he reached for the light switch, his eyes flickered to the mirror. There was no reflection in the glass.

            He stifled a scream that came out as a strangled yelp, and jerked backward. His finger caught the light switch as he did so, and beautiful light illuminated the bathroom. He saw a man with large, frightened eyes and accompanied with a horrific bed-head. After a minute his breathing calmed and his heart rate returned to normal. He waved a hand in front of the mirror and blinked. He roughed up his hair. He smiled and relaxed. Yes, his reflection seemed to be behaving normally. However the trick of the darkness in the mirror had rattled him to his core, and it was at that moment that Andrew knew he wouldn’t be sleeping tonight.

            He crawled back into bed with Penelope. Like usual, even his small scream didn’t wake her up. He drew his knees to his chest, and waited for the sun to rise.


            Penelope got up at 8 o’clock on the dot, just like she did every single morning. She sat straight up, yawned, and hugged Andrew before she got out of bed.

            “You look beat. Did you sleep badly last night?”

            “Yeah, I slept awful. I had a horrible dream about you turning into some kind of monster. Fun stuff.”

            Penelope put on her robe and turned to him. “I’m so sorry, honey. I’ll make you some breakfast and coffee and maybe that will help a little bit.”

            It did help, a little bit. Being awake for the rising sun was a horrible feeling when you were sleepless, and Andrew couldn’t fight off that sickening sensation of sleep deprivation no matter how much coffee and bacon Penelope gave him. As he finished off his coffee, he asked, “this is a weird question, but do you ever get freaked out by mirrors? Something about them makes me feel uneasy.”

            Penelope poured her own coffee and sat down with him. “Yes, I do. Some cultures regard mirrors as portals to other realms, and I think I agree with them. Sometimes I don’t think the reflection is really me.”

            “Yikes. That’s a horrifying thought. I wasn’t going to go that far. In fact, I was all wired up last night from my nightmare and for a second I thought I didn’t have a reflection at all! I turned on the light, though, and obviously I saw that everything was fine. Still, I couldn’t sleep after that.”

            Penelope stared into her coffee. Her eyes had that slightly glazed look she would get when she was lost somewhere else completely. Andrew often wondered where she went. “I think there’s a lot of things we don’t know,” she said at last.

            Andrew was going to have her expand on that statement before she picked up her phone and shot out of her chair. “It’s 8:45. You should get ready so you’re not late.”

            He barely made it to work on time. He settled into his desk, and was content to have his mind wander to the monotonous work in front of him. It was a welcome escape from the chaos of the night.

            5 pm rolled around very slowly, as if time were attempting to elude him. At long last he slumped into the driver’s seat of his car. Thank god he lived a five minute drive down the road. He would buy a bicycle if he wasn’t so lazy.

            He was at a stoplight when he happened to look over to his right. An elderly lady was driving a garishly red Prius. He had never seen one that color. “I hope I have a better taste in design when I’m that old,” he muttered, and the light turned green. The lady in the red Prius turned right to merge onto the freeway southbound.

            There was one last intersection just before he got home. Normally Andrew was so zoned out while driving that he didn’t notice small details in his surroundings. However today he felt a strange prompting to look outside his right window again. An elderly lady in a blistering red Prius was right next to him.

            Andrew looked back toward the road, then whipped his head back in the former direction. He stared for a moment. His eyes had to be deceiving him; he knew this woman had taken the freeway south. There was no way to loop around toward his neck of the woods fast enough to catch up with him. Yet despite the impossible circumstances, here she was. She drove off past his apartment complex, a sharp honk alerting Andrew back to the road ahead of him. The light was green. The world felt thick around him as he shifted into gear. Almost like he was in a dream.

            The apartment was quiet when he entered the cramped space. A one bedroom studio was all he and Penelope could afford, and that was with two incomes. He threw his keys onto the kitchen counter and crawled into bed. Penelope was working the closing shift at the restaurant tonight, so he didn’t have to worry about being disturbed. Exhaustion quickly overcame him as he sighed in contentment. He rolled over to his left in an attempt to get comfortable when he noticed the drawer in Penelope’s nightstand was very slightly ajar.

            Andrew felt like they were close to each other most of the time, but it was times like these that made him feel like there was a side to her he didn’t really know. We all have our secrets, but he felt like she had a lot more than he did. She was quiet, reserved, and creative. When she spoke, her words were always well crafted and meaningful. While this was something Andrew loved about Penelope, it was also something that tickled at him. He was not a snooping kind of person and respected privacy, but traits like hers brought even the most trusting person to do a bit of detective work. Besides, she always kept that drawer locked. It was impossible to resist.

            The drawer made a slight noise as it opened that made Andrew flinch. The rest gave way easily to reveal a single piece of paper and a pen. The paper rustled in his shaking hands as he delicately unfolded it. He curled his fingers into his palms in an attempt to relieve the clammy sensation, to no avail. There was a lot of text, and Andrew had no idea when it had been written.

            How does a god fill in all the gaps?

            I ask this because I have never struggled with it before. I have never dreamt of such a place that is its own realm with its own entities. In fact, I have also never been able to write so clearly, or come back from being awake only to find that the world here has moved on without me. I have determined that all realities must be dreams of sleeping gods, upon which all religion is founded. Is this realm mine to do such? I don’t know. I barely have any power here. I cannot change things at will nor transport myself with a mere thought. I have to muster incredible willpower to simply move through a wall; this is what has made me realize this place is real. I have found that when I do acts like this, bizarre disparities occur. Objects will duplicate or simple physics will momentarily glitch, so to speak. What’s worse, I have fallen in love with a denizen here. That’s you, Andrew. Please do not be alarmed. We will speak when I get home. I am excited to share the truth with you. The future is bright.

            Your love, Penelope.

            The paper was hurled against the wall in a crumpled ball. Andrew rolled over onto his back and covered his face with his hands. He grabbed a pillow and threw it as well, then tugged at his hair. “God, I have to call her.” He fumbled the phone out of his pocket. The minute it took to ring felt like an eternity, and the voicemail message was like sealing his own coffin. “Damn it!” He stood up out of bed and paced around the small living room. “She’s going insane. I should’ve been talking to her more about how she’s feeling. I knew she was bipolar or something.” His breathing quickened when he thought he saw her standing outside the window. He ran over to the glass, only to see strangers passing by on the sidewalk. He caught his breath, lost it, and caught it again. The air was getting stuck in his throat. He couldn’t breathe. What did people do when they were hyperventilating again? The cabinet under the kitchen sink was torn open to grab a plastic bag. In, out, in, out.

            Once he could breathe again, he sat down on the sofa to think. It was two hours before she got off work. He didn’t know how he was going to be able to wait that long. Besides, the thought of her coming home to approach him about these ‘ideas’ made him feel sick to his stomach. It was already twisting in knots. Of course Andrew didn’t believe a word she was saying, but when he thought back to her sleepwalking a wave of paranoia swept through him. He didn’t have anyone to call and talk to about it. Except for perhaps the hospital.

            He punched the number into the keypad on his phone, and hesitated. Andrew was not without mental crises throughout his life. If someone had submitted him to the mental hospital against his will, he might have never trusted them again. He needed to hear her out and give her a say. So he waited.


            The bottle of vodka was half empty by the time the door opened. A jangle of keys and rustle of quiet footsteps were the only cues Penelope had come home. Besides Andrew sitting in the living room right in front of the door, of course. It was a studio after all.

            “How was work?” Andrew asked, and then chuckled a little bit at his casual tone in such a dire situation.

            “Oh, you know, busy as usual. Even for a Thursday night. I have to tell you, I had a few tables that made me just want to––ugh! God, I seriously don’t understand some people, you know?”

            “No, I actually think I do understand most people.” The words came out a lot more sloshed than Andrew preferred, then he decided he didn’t care. “The thing is, Penelope, I don’t understand you.”

            Penelope sat down next to him on the couch in a way that made her bounce off the cushions a bit. She ran her hands through her hair to get it out of her face. Another thing she did that signaled her mind was somewhere way different than the current conversation. “Mm, I assume you’re referencing the letter you must’ve found.” Her nose wrinkled in an exaggerated frown. “You know it’s not good to snoop in other people’s property, baby.” The frown broke into a wide grin. She poked his nose. “I’m just kidding hun. I wanted you to find it. What did you think?”

            Andrew’s neck rolled his head over to look at her, leaning into the couch. “Oh, what did I think? I wonder what I think.” He stood up and parted his hands as if he were introducing a character in a freak show. “I think you are certifiably insane, darling! And you need serious help! Unless you were joking, of course. In which case it would not be very funny anyway.”

            Penelope looked at him with a demure expression. “Are you so blind to the world around you that you haven’t been noticing anything strange lately?”

            Andrew took a swig straight out of the bottle. “Funny you should mention that! Yes, actually. The thing we have discussed endless times; you don’t wake up when you sleep and it freaks me the hell out! We don’t even have to mention, oh, the nightmares and potential hallucinations and all that jazz. So yes, I guess you could say things have been strange around here.”

            “Nightmares and hallucinations? Don’t you think you’re the one that might be insane?”

            “Do NOT turn this around onto me. You are the one who wrote that schizophrenic delusion of a letter. I am not involved in the conversation about who’s crazier right now.”

            Penelope chewed on her lip and twirled a strand of hair between her fingers. “Alright. That’s not what I wanted to talk about anyway.” She leaned forward. “Andrew, where do we go when we sleep?”

            “Penelope, you know that’s a question that’s never been answered for sure. I know you have your theories, but we cannot entertain ideas like–”

            “Answer the question, please!” Her foot was tapping against the ground.

            “I don’t know, and I don’t care. Go ask a brain doctor. If you are so fascinated with the subject, do actual research. I would love to know the answer as well, but it’s pointless to chase these sorts of things. They drive you mad because they are endless.”

            A slight smile tugged at her small lips. “What if I told you I know where we go?”

            Andrew shifted his weight from foot to foot. “If your answer is what I think it is, I would call you insane.”

            She went on regardless. “Andrew, most dreams are the playthings of a brain burning off steam. You know, discharging excess energy and emotion. That’s why so many dreams are emotionally fuelled and symbolic. When you lucid dream in these playgrounds, anything can happen because you are inside yourself. However, once in a blue moon you will come across what I call ‘realms’. Whole other multiverses that the dreaming soul accidentally stumbles upon. I believe that if you lucid dream in these worlds, you become a god of sorts. That’s how religion was founded, and how there’s so many of them!” Penelope stood up and walked over to Andrew. She placed her hands on his chest and looked up at him with baby-blue eyes. “I am not of this world, Andrew.”

            He stepped back, leaving her standing a few feet in front of him. He set the bottle of vodka on the kitchen table and shook his head. “I am so sorry, but you need some serious help, hun. Is it ok if we make an appointment for you to get some professional help? It’s ok to reach out. Honestly I’m glad you’re telling me all this.”

            Anger flashed through her face. “The only reason I can’t immediately prove it to you is because my power is weaker in a developed realm. The rules are already set here and I have to break them. I know how to show you.” She pushed past Andrew into the kitchen and withdrew a knife from the knife block. Her arm was raised when Andrew screamed and slammed into her.

            “NO! You’re not ok, Penelope. Let me help you. LET ME HELP YOU.”

            He wrestled the knife out of her hands. She was screaming now, hitting him and scrambling to get her hands on another weapon. He pushed her to the cold kitchen tiles, resting all of his body weight on her slender frame. Her hands beat on his back and her cries pierced his ears. Using his right hand he reached down into his back pocket and dialed 911.

            “Yes, this is an emergency. Hi, I need you to get here as soon as possible, my girlfriend is having an episode and is trying to hurt herself. Please, I need you to hurry, she is extremely unstable and she needs to get to a hospital. Yes, here’s my address. Across from the 24 hour grocery store. Yes, thank you.” He threw his phone onto the ground and looked down at Penelope. She had stopped struggling and was staring blankly into the distance. Cautiously, Andrew pushed himself off her to pick her up and carry her to the couch. “It’s ok. Everything will be ok.”

            The ambulance arrived shortly afterward accompanied with two police vehicles. The flashing lights signaled a blur for Andrew through the following events. Penelope didn’t protest as the paramedics wheeled her into the back of the ambulance. She only stared directly at Andrew with hatred in her eyes.

            A sheriff approached Andrew. “We need to ask you a few questions. What led to her having a psychotic break? Was she showing any clear signs of distress?”

            Andrew clenched his fists. The screams were definitely heard over the call, and that made him look extremely bad. “She’s been acting really strange the past few days. She sleepwalks and won’t wake up no matter how hard I try, to the point where I called the ambulance one time. This morning she was commenting about how things aren’t what they seem, or something like that. The main thing was that she wrote a letter about how none of this is real and we’re all in a dream. She brought it up to me tonight and when I told her that was crazy, she tried to hurt herself to prove it.”

            The sheriff nodded and scribbled something down on his notepad. “Do you have that letter?”

            “Yes, actually. Allow me to go grab it.” He ran inside his apartment to fetch the crumpled paper on the bedroom floor. He rounded the foot of the bed. It wasn’t there. His brow broke into a cold sweat. I know I threw it around here. He grabbed clothes and threw them around, shoved items off the dresser, tore the blankets off the bed. Nothing. It was simply gone.

            His heart pounding out of his chest, he walked back to the sheriff. “I am so sorry, I seem to have misplaced it. She might’ve thrown it out without me knowing.” Which was a lie.

            The sheriff’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t comment. “Screams were heard over the call, including shouts of ‘let me go’. Could you please explain that to me?”

            “She was trying to hurt herself with a knife and I knocked it out of her hand. I was laying on top of her when I made the call so she wouldn’t try to do anything worse.”

More scratching on the notepad. “Miss Penelope has not indicated that she has been abused, but we will continue to question her about her home life. In the meantime, she’s being submitted to the hospital to stay overnight until we have more details. Do you know of any family of hers we can contact? She was not responsive to the question.”

            Andrew shook his head. “No, as far as I know she hasn’t contacted her family for years. I’m her only emergency contact.”
            “I’ll put you down as primary contact, then. That’s all for tonight. We will continue our investigation with her and if necessary, the hospital will contact you in the morning to discuss your plan of action. Good night Mr. Heiss.”

            The sheriff walked back toward his car, glints of red and blue reflecting off everyone’s faces. Andrew stood there until they left, and then there was nothing but him and the darkness.


            The ringing of his phone pierced through the heavy silence of the night. Andrew jolted awake, slick with sweat once more from another nightmare. No-faced Penelope was back, and this time she was in his mirror.

            The phone went quiet, and then began ringing again. Andrew rolled over and squinted at the light emanating from the screen. It was a number he didn’t recognize, but no one called him at 5 in the morning. He answered. “Hello?”

            “Mr. Heiss. This is Strawberry Fields hospital. We were performing our night checks on our patients and we found Penelope to be missing from her room. We do not understand how this has happened, other than the possibility that perhaps you have helped her escape. Is she with you now?”

            “What? No, she’s not. How could she have escaped? Are you not a huge hospital?”

            “We are. Everyone is on full alert and we are trying to figure out what happened. The only other explanation is that a staff member may have assisted her in getting out. Since she is regarded as being a danger to herself, we have police searching for her as we speak. We ask that you attempt to contact her and find out her whereabouts. If you do, please call emergency services as soon as possible. We will call you back when we have more details.”

            “Wait!” Andrew shouted, but the hospital had already hung up. He sank back into the bed and pulled the covers over himself. The shadows were growing long and it was so dark in the apartment it appeared that they were dancing in the corners. He scampered out of bed and turned on the light. The shadows retreated, and he let out the breath he was holding. Until he heard a resounding thump in the bathroom.

            No, no. He could not handle this. Creaks came from the bathroom, as if someone was walking. His heartbeat was going so wild he thought he was going to have a heart attack. He leapt back into his bed with the lights still on and pulled the covers over himself. Eventually, the noises ceased.

            He knew he would have to go in there. If not just to prove that nothing was there, to prove he still had some semblance of mahood left within him. At this point he was acting pitiful. He kicked the blankets back off, and marched out of the bedroom. Penelope was crazy, nothing she said was true, and the apartment was locked. Andrew assured himself he was being completely irrational.

            The bathroom was a black hole in the apartment. It seemed blacker than usual, like no light could escape it. Mustering all of his courage, Andrew stepped into the bathroom. He forced himself to look at the mirror. There he was, barely noticeable in the tiniest captures of light. Another sigh of relief. He flicked on the light switch.

            He screamed, fell backward onto his bottom, and screamed harder. His hands tore at the wall behind him. Penelope was in the mirror, smiling down at him. It seemed like she was having trouble arranging her face. Her eyes kept moving in unsynchronized movements, and her smile looked like it was molded from playdough.

            “I…told you…I’d show you! All dreams!” She giggled, and it was a wet laugh.

            Andrew tore out of there. He was wearing only his boxers as he ripped through his door and ran as fast as his legs would allow through the crisp night air. The sun was coming up soon, and he only had to run until it did. He would find the solace of the light eventually.

            Yet until then, darkness surrounded him. It swallowed him up and found him at every turn, and in the obsidian realms of unseen corners, Penelope followed him.

Bio pending.

If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “Dream Errors” psychological horror by Jay Charles.

While you’re here, why not drop by The Chamber’s bookshop?

“Open Tuning” Horror by Harrison Kim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have to go on now,” says Lana.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He meets Lana the next day for a coffee

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

“Jitters,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Multiplication Tables” Science Fiction by Travis Flatt

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

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

“Kayla, please balance the expression.”

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

I begin.

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


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

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

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

“Twelve multiplied by eighteen,” the voice repeats.

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

“216,” I shriek.

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


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

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

“I had a bad day… at school.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

I sit stone-faced.

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

I shake my head.

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

She smiles and waves. “Hi.”

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

“I’m Tamara.”

My mother’s name was Tamara.

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

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

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

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

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

“My Crugantis” Horror by Jonathan Williams

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

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

“You survived?!”

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

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

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

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

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

I blinked. “The who-da-what-now?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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