“Taxidermy Beach” Fiction by Douglas Ford

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

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

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

            The air over Taxidermy Beach hangs quiet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            A growl diverts his attention.

            Looking over his shoulder, he sees it.

            A coyote.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            See the moon? says the driver.

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

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

            Arch asks about the errand.

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

            Arch looks and freezes.

            He sees the urn.

            The same urn held by Claire.

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

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

            Jared.

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

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

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

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

            Jared answers quietly, almost a whisper.

            My parents. 

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

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

            I do.

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

            I know that.

            I suspect you do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

We’ve met before, haven’t we?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he removes his arm, and the door closes.


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


Four Poems by Katrenia Busch

A Demon's Dwelling  
 

Darkness fell as night set in  
The stars did twinkle across the sky  
As I— myself was set to begin  
The art of magus or—magi  
 
Possessed by a feeling, a thought  
One that was miserably found to linger  
Clutching the words I had sought  
As I lifted up a bloody—finger  

And with that finger I began to write  
Words that were but merely placed  
TO THE DEMONS THAT RECITE  
THE NAMES WHICH THEY EMBRACED  

Engraved upon a wooden chest  
A box that’s locked away  
The demons are said to have blessed  
The EVIL words one can’t unsay  

For as the sun follows a path—the same   
Moving from one side unto the other  
Returning not to where it came  
Completing its cycle which grew darker  

That black sun that rules underneath  
When the light that’s hidden away  
Is said to leave behind and bequeath  
The sorrows found of yesterday—  

The box that’s sealed with one word  
One that’s known by they who reside  
Are then contained as their captured  
And behind these words—where they hide  

A demon's dwelling is all but hidden  
To they who are said to know—  
Open and blatantly blazon  
Revealed by ones own sorrow 

Ode to Baal  

 
Ruler of demons and powers that are  
Faithful you are found to be  
Ruler and keeper of both peace and war  
Yet— also a giver of life and prophecy  

For mirrored thoughts are oft found  
By the essence and your being  
Doing the will and are oft bound  
To the dwelling— or one's body  

Faithful and true— the banner you wear  
Words that are found to be  
Upon the countenance and oath you swear  
By they who can see—  

For one may be a friend you find  
For their enemies must beware  
That you are not only a strong-one to bind  
But it’s strength and precision you bare 

Peace is found amongst your friends  
As war and misery to enemies  
As the demons themselves can’t contend  
With your realm of limited boundaries

Serpent of Truth 


Thrown to thy belly, through dust I crawl 
Thrown to deception.....underneath it all 
North, south east and west 
Having searched, yet to find rest 
Seek without ceasing and ye shall find 
Through the dust called confusion, of thy mind 
Pray in thy closet, which is thy head 
To see yourself, the one who's dead 
A slave still chained and bound 
Yearning for freedom, yet not found  
Fallen under a curse, a deep sleep 
Unable to awaken, for beliefs I still keep 
To open thy eyes, and become wise 
To know the fruit, under its disguise  
Struggle this battle, which is, inside 
To find an answer, yet lies I find  
Unable to accept, unable to renew 
For many are called and chosen are few 

Season of Satan 
 

For when the time was fixed  
Bound by fates and destiny  
Satan is said to have mixed  
His demons amongst humanity  

Disguised as humans both they and he  
Unseen and hidden as both you and me 
For some are said to be sensitive too  
Warnings they find and try to issue  

For the timing itself is found to be fixed  
Bound to destiny— its crucifix  

When his voice emerges from within  
And your guts begin to say  
That it’s he— himself that’s here to begin 
And it’s you—now who can soothsay  

For the wicked serpent that is found  
Like the sun— eternally bound  

And from the guts found within your belly  
Can barely digest the concept which is found most— brilliantly  

Season of Satan—time is at hand  
One raised above and one down below  
As you try to then withstand  
The knowledge in your belly— that you swallow 

Katrenia Busch is a Freelance Film Critic for Hollywood Weekly Magazine, former editor for Aware Earth an an investigative journalist for The Total Plug. Some of her published works can be found in the Screech OwlLiterature TodayRiverrunLiterary YardPoetry Super-HighwayPolice Writers, Westward Quarterly, Dark Elements, The Feeel magazine among others. She published an essay on psychoanalysis and is a Peer-Reviewer for The American Psychological Association, reviewing journals such as Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research and Practice and she has also published articles on the national healthcare system for Senior Care Quest


Serpent of Truth originally appeared in The Screech Owl, December 2014. All three others are being published for the first time.


“The Death of Them” Fiction by Candace M. Meredith

He did it again. He suppressed what he could. He rounded the corner and she was there – suddenly on his truck hood. Her face was sharp and poignant. Getting out of his truck, he went to her. He even tried to breathe life back into her body. Then he held her and knelt down in her blood which formed a puddle beneath his feet. Eric didn’t kill her; she committed suicide – why else would she be there on that street in the middle of the night? It was All Hallow’s Eve. Eric went home and placed her in his bed. He pulled the sheets and turned on the TV. Jason has a chainsaw – Eric watched gore. He licked his fingers of her; she smelled good. He ate cherries that were like her nail polish. Eric imagined her as alive as the fruit flies which found his tomatoes. He kinda enjoyed the juxtaposition of carnage and being alive; “We are all here to devour one another,” he told himself in the mirror. For Halloween he never bought candy, but he’d dress as Dracula and suck blood. Blood was like the fruit he watched turn to something moist, sloughed in skin. He thought about her. Then he forgot.

Halloween gave him the opportunity to be someone other than Eric Morris; he was plain and typical, an average guy with the brain of someone mad – a real scientist in blue jeans and a sleeveless shirt. He applied makeup that buried his scars in thick-like paste. He wore contact lenses to conceal his overbearing blue eyes. His contacts were black. He painted his hair black. He wore eye liner. He was more like a demon. He thought being demonic was over the top, so he posed as Dracula – that was acceptable. His tongue was stained in cherry. He craved blood even when the supply wouldn’t leap out in front of his moving truck. She did not die. He relished in her means of introductions. No one ever tried so hard, but he did it again. He said he would not.

Eric left his house to join the streets; the outdoors was sparsely lit by city streets beneath the omnipresent moon. There were hundreds, it seemed, gathered on the city block; the bars were plentiful. He passed by Cher, a poser, and had a look at her ass in a black thong the way the celebrity walked when she sang. She was a good poser. He went down Sleepy Hollow Street and found the poser standing there with her head hanging crooked off the left shoulder; he bit her too hard. They were being intimate. He couldn’t resist; she was his first. His first at everything. He suppressed her. He left her there, in an inconspicuous way, to bury the past inside a coffin made of guitar strings and glass; when she screamed, his mind snapped and he took up his guitar and hit her over the head. The glass at her feet cut her face. He placed her in a bed made of roses. He could not bury them.

He would bury the thought of them. In the deep recesses of his mind. But how was she standing there? She was left in the quilt his grandmother made for him. She was the queen in a king bed; Sarah King had it good there. He approached her.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” He shouted. 

“I didn’t die you idiot!” She threw up her hands.

“I should have buried your rotting corpse…”

The zombies, ghouls and disfigured creatures were staring. He fled. He suppressed her. She was gone, as far as he was concerned, from his memory. He felt trapped of them. Then he started to lose it.

Her beautiful suicide didn’t alarm him.

“She walked right out of the fucking bed,” he told the body he hit with his truck.

She lay with eyes wide open; they were green as emeralds. Her hair jet black. Her mouth like cherries – how he loved cherries. His Jane Doe had a purse; he rummaged. Melissa Vann, her license said.

“Are you fucking going to come back, too?” He cursed when he was angry; he was ashamed he didn’t bury them.

Then there was a knock on his door.

“Mr. Morris?” He heard them say, and they knocked again.

He opened the door quickly.

 “I’m fucking Dracula!” He was mad.

“Yeah, well…” one Officer said to the other, “a demonic Dracula,” then sniggered.
“We’re here to take you in…” the female Officer said, and he slammed the door.

“No! I don’t want to fuck you, you bitch! You whore!”

They tried breaking open the door. He broke free from the window. He saw the Headless Horseman mount his mighty black horse.

“Hey, you need a ride?” The Headless Horseman offered beneath a cape.

“Yes!” Eric sprayed as he spoke.

The Horseman took him toward the night, and they took a path by the light of the moon and stopped in the now darkened alley behind Elm Street.

“I always had a thing for Dracula,” the Headless Horseman dismounted.

“Yeah?” Dracula said.

 The Headless became a head with dark and sinister eyes. He leaned in and kissed him.

“You taste divine,” the head of the Headless Horseman said.
“Oh, yeah?” Dracula was gloating.

“Like cherries.”

“I also like blood…” his voice was cracking.

“I completely understand my friend, like keeping a vile of your lover’s blood…”

“Around your neck for safe keeping?”

 Dracula wanted more of him. Finally someone understood him.

The Headless Horseman took Dracula to his mansion. They made love. It was undignified and thirsty. They drank of one another. Then he forgot. He buried them deep into the recesses of his mind to never let them rise from their death.

“Do you even want to know my name?” The Headless Horseman chuckled.

“Yes,” Dracula smoothed his tongue over his skin.

“It’s William …”

“William, I don’t give a fuck…”

“You are too charming,” William said, “call me Will sometime.”

“Am I?” Eric ate an apple.

William wiped his lip. Then there were police outside the alley.

“Give up your phone,” William gave him a stern eye, “they’re tracking you.”

“How do you know?”

“Well it must be you, because it is not for me.”

To conceal himself, Eric left his phone on the bedside table and fled down the alley into the dark night where hundreds crowded him.  Eric found the werewolves one street over.

“Hey man,” he said to one of them, “you got a light?”

“Yeah, man, here,” the grayest of the wolf pack tossed him a light.

Eric ran home. He went through the window. He sat beside her in the bed. Her eyes peered at him.

“I just had the best flipping night,” he decided not to curse. His desires were satisfied. “But you little lady are going to get me into trouble.”

He went to the cemetery to bury her in an unmarked grave. He kicked the dirt where he spread his father’s ashes because his father would have sided with her. His father never understood his preferences. She wouldn’t either, he decided. He didn’t lay down flowers. Her grave was in the dark corner of the lot where he could bury his past and walk through the night to face yet another day as being different from the rest. As Dracula he stood out, but he fit in. Another paradox in the grand scheme of his emotions. Then he had William to bury. Next, he thought. Because no one should really know him. It’s better when they don’t care because he has always been quiet. Unnoticed. And he fled to William where he hoped to put him to bed. He had already dug the hole in the cemetery. His phone was missing. William was gone. The police were nowhere to be found. The streets were quiet. He felt normal. Unafraid and doomed. The waning moon was amusing. He thought of the werewolves. He thought about quitting cigarettes. Then he forgot because he buried them there, the three of them, and wondered when he’d grow thirsty again. Next year, he thought. He’d be Dracula with the dead, aimless bride.


Candace Meredith earned her Bachelor of Science degree in English Creative Writing from Frostburg State University in the spring of 2008. Her works of poetry, photography and fiction have appeared in literary journals Bittersweet, The Backbone Mountain Review, The Broadkill Review, In God’s Hands/ Writers of Grace, A Flash of Dark, Greensilk Journal, Saltfront, Mojave River Press and Review, Scryptic Magazine, Unlikely Stories Mark V, The Sirens Call Magazine, The Great Void, Foreign Literary Magazine, Lion and Lilac Magazine, Snow Leopard Publishing, BAM Writes  and various others. Candace currently resides in Virginia with her two sons and her daughter, her fiancé and their three dogs and six cats. She has earned her Master of Science degree in Integrated Marketing and Communications (IMC) from West Virginia University.


“No Escape from the Planet of the Damned” Fiction by Sondi March

Ivy had never heard of Robert Stanley Narr until she snuck into his apartment to steal some books.

“This Narr guy was famous for writing sci fi in the 50s,” said her brother Gabe. “He hoarded all these old trash magazines and paperbacks you’ll love for that blog you’re writing. What’d you call it, the Gutter something?”

The Gutter Archivist.”

“Yeah, that one. You little genius.” He gave her a one-arm squeeze. “Just wear the t-shirt and lay low. You can take whatever you want as long as nobody sees you put it in your car.”

The t-shirt was a vivid lime green jersey with the words Haul-Ur-Junk Crew Member printed across the chest in gigantic black letters. It was so big on her she could have slept in it. That day, Gabe’s boss was allowing her to hang out with the crew as “temporary help,” but with her skinny white-girl arms and scuffed glasses she doubted she’d be much of that. Narr’s apartment was two thousand square feet of junk packed nearly to the ceiling, and to reach it she had to follow Gabe up five flights of stairs.

She was out of breath by the time they reached the door. The scholarly life she’d chosen didn’t leave much time for the gym, she thought.

When the building manager opened the apartment, the stink inside released in a burst, like from an airlock on a space capsule: stale old sweat and moldering cardboard, underlaid with a sweet-toxic hint of cockroach droppings and something worse, something sweet and wrong that made the back of her neck prickle.

But Gabe and his coworkers barreled right in without even a single pinched nose. This was what they did every day: cleared out rancid old hoards from people who’d died or who were about to be sued by the city. They slapped on their work gloves and started grabbing the boxes and bags and heaps of clothes crammed up by the door.

Ivy stole a glance into one box before a crew member whisked it away. Just like Gabe promised, Narr had filled it to the brim with vintage magazines.

The magazines were pocket-sized with titles like Worlds of Science Fiction and Fantastic Tales. Their covers depicted busty blond women with laser pistols and conical bras, burly blond men and monsters with lizard heads snarling over vast, alien landscapes. Underneath them were more magazines and paperbacks with five and ten cents stamped on the cover. Tomorrow the Stars, Rogue Queen, Rocket to the Morgue. As Ivy scanned the room, she realized the hoard of vintage pulp filled the apartment, interspersed with stacks of notebooks and yellowed typewriter paper thrown in heaps.

Her heart hammered excitedly. This place was an archeological find, the strata near the door being the most colorful, moving into the deeper caverns of stranger artifacts, packed so tightly together it was difficult for her to make her way through.

“Some of this looks valuable,” Ivy whispered to Gabe as he hoisted up a box.“Shouldn’t this be going to a museum or collection?” By collection she meant the sort of things she’d seen on display at the local university library. Glass cases of antique papers and letters, secrets kept under lock and key. She couldn’t actually get into the archives to read any of it, of course. To do that, she’d have to enroll in classes, which were way out of her price range, and the community member card program cost too much. Still, the time she spent lurking there helped Ivy recognize rare texts when she saw them.

But Gabe said, “Nah,” and then coughed. The cockroach fog and mold spores couldn’t be getting to him, already, she thought. He unloaded hoards like this six days a week. “The dude is super dead, he won’t care. The order says his family wants it all burned. No one’s going to miss any of this.”

 When she still didn’t seem convinced, Gabe said, “Repeat after me: this is not a steal. We are allowed to be here.”

Ivy nodded, but she stayed quiet. She liked to think of it as a steal. Or a tomb-robbing. When muscling her way through the narrow pathways of the hoard, she imagined herself as a pulp hero, an adventurous scholar headed into a temple to plunder treasures beyond comprehensi

Still, her ‘97 Corolla was small, so she had to be discerning about what she took. The Haul-Ur-Junk crew streamed around her, focusing on dismantling the strata near the front door, and didn’t notice as she disappeared deeper into the hoard. She found her way through to the back rooms, past a kitchen full of rotting food and heaps of take-out containers, where she noticed Narr had covered the windows in plastic tarps. That explained the stale air, Ivy thought. Weird that the man had entombed himself in his own stink.

The reek was most intense in one bedroom, a converted office full of sour body odor and the sweet-wrong smell. He’d probably died sitting right here, and the body remained there for too long before anyone noticed. His black leather office chair was mottled with stains. Ivy imagined Robert Stanley Narr in that chair, slumped back, turning purple for days or weeks, leaking fluids over whatever writing he’d died in the middle of. A single typewriter sat on the desk, one of the fancy manual ones with glass keys. A piece of paper still remained in the machine, with only two words typed on it.

                burn me

Ivy examined the paper. Was it Narr’s demand that his family burn all his works and belongings? Was it an Alice-in-Wonderland style comment written from the perspective of the object, like “eat me” or “drink me”? Or was it a short will and testament, just to say, “go ahead and cremate my corpse, I don’t care”? In any case, it was too short a textual artifact to make for an interesting post on her blog, so she kept moving.

Ivy checked the rest of the room for other items of interest. She saw behind the stacks of junk were multitudes of framed prints: what looked like vintage book cover art without the titles, which she figured were the original publishing mockups. There were even more busty and burly blonds in oil paints, thrashing dramatically along their alien landscapes, struggling with skull-faced aliens and gigantic snakes. (A lot of snakes, actually. Ivy skimmed over the phallic green boa constrictors with growing discomfort.) But as works of art they were vivid, well-executed, in bright oranges and greens and red. Kid-colored visions of space rendered in a capable hand with a dose of adult sexual desperation. Beautiful and ridiculous, Ivy thought.

One print stood out from the others, though. It hung next to the desk, positioned in a strangely clean area, like some sacred object painted in dark, moody oils. No snakes. She maneuvered herself around the heaps of junk to get a closer look.

The scene depicted a rocky alien horizon with the ruins of a city in silhouette. Narrow figures peeked out from between the pillars and slumping towers of the ruins, but the artist had painted them in such shadow that it was unclear if they were staring at the viewer or looking up at the starry sky behind them. Taking up most of the sky was a large purple sphere. It didn’t sparkle, but it had a soft glow around it, like an enormous moon squatting in the atmosphere. To Ivy, it seemed like a good cover for a book called Attack of the Spooky Moon or Death Star Strikes Back. Certainly, a departure from the overall sexy Caucasian astronaut theme. And Narr had actually kept it dusted.

For that reason, she guessed it might be something worth having.

Ivy eased her fingers under the edges of the frame and wriggled it off its hooks. With a bit of wrestling, the print came off, and a chunk of the wall with it. Bits of plaster tumbled down to dust her shoes.

Ivy winced and froze, turning an ear to the other room to see if she’d been caught, but the sounds from the crew indicated they were working on excavating a couch. (How the shit are we going to get this thing down those narrow-ass stairs? Jamal said.)

After a relieved breath, Ivy set the frame carefully down on the floor, near a waist-high stack of boxes full of Space Adventures for Men issues, and then she straightened up to examine the damage. She found a deep hole cut into the plaster, about the size of a safe but without a safe in it. She assumed Narr must have meant to put a safe there at some point, but either nobody would go through the apartment to install it or the general disorder of the writer’s mind had kept him from finalizing the project.

She stood on her tip-toes to peer inside the hole. In the darkness sat a cardboard manuscript box that looked decades old. The cardboard was deeply yellowed, reminiscent of the university archives and their antique secrets under glass. She navigated the box out of its hiding hole and set it down on the cleanest nearby stack she could find.

On top of the box, in a shaky hand, the writer had scribbled, No Escape.

“No escape from your cleaning skills,” she muttered.

Something clattered and hit the floor in the other room, and she heard Jamal laughing that this damn couch was going to take them all day. The noise inspired a neighbor to bang on the walls, and Ivy remembered she did not have authorized entry, no matter what Gabe said, and she didn’t want Gabe or anyone else getting heat for her being there. Better to get out of their way quickly so they could finish.

Ivy scooped up the contents of the half-finished safe and set it down into a Space Adventures for Men box. No time to read the manuscript now, and it would be so much better if she saved it for later when she was at home, nestled among her other salvaged books and artifacts. She tucked the print under one elbow, hoisted up the box, and started inching her way out.

Knowing she’d be too exhausted to make more than a few trips, Ivy made one last check to see if there was anything else she could toss on her load that wouldn’t take up much room in her car. It was then she noticed the plastic on the windows in here, too: heavy dust-covered tarps sealed with duct tape. Several sections of walls had caulking stuck to it, in zig-zag patterns that indicated breaks in the plaster that Narr had gone to weird lengths to seal up. Narr had even covered the central air vents the same way, closing himself into a vacuum of his own fetid body smells. Such germaphobe behavior didn’t quite match the mess.

Ivy wondered if, before dying, the writer had gone insane. Maybe he thought something would come sneaking in through the cracks.

#

At home and now freshly showered after her excursion into Narr’s hoarder tomb, Ivy rushed to get ready for her shift at the call center, taking only a few minutes to sit and shove a quick ramen in her face.

She sat on the edge of her bed in her tiny studio apartment, surrounded by her library. Four cheap plywood bookshelves were filled with her artifacts: books and magazines and journals salvaged from thrift stores and dumpsters. The majority of her collection was comprised of out of print paperbacks and small-press zines that hadn’t been in print for long at all, but the best pieces in the collection were her “one-of-a-kind discoveries” that never had a real audience. Desktop published recipe books from defunct church groups, handwritten journals and diaries that snuck into the “donation” box, typewritten manifestos from angry recluses, love letters from stalkers thrown in the trash. She even had a few found-footage vhs tapes for a category on her blog labeled “visual rhetoric from the gutter,” but overall she preferred things with words. Strange, lonely, poorly spelled words. Outcasts.

As she’d said in her most popular post, in which she cataloged the scraps of a Last Will and Testament unearthed from the bottom of an alley shopping cart, outcast words held a special truth, without varnish and without concern for who was looking at them. Real authenticity, to her mind, was always hidden.

Her new boxes were crowded in a place of honor next to the Narr print, which was propped up against her writing desk née foldable plastic TV tray. As soon as she got off work that day and slept a few hours, she would read and catalog Narr’s salvaged secrets. The Narr artifacts would be among her best posts on Gutter Archivist, as they were the most outcast and strange of all her finds so far. Ivy could hardly wait.

But she was forced to wait, for the day job called. In the fifteen minutes left before she had to head out, Ivy glanced at her news feed, hoping to see an update about the universal basic income bill introduced a week before. All the news talked about was some astrological event. A meteor or unidentified comet thing she couldn’t bring herself to care about. (Space was a rich man’s game. She just wanted to self-actualize a little. How amazing would it be if she had enough money to spend time on her archive and write about all these strange old things she’d collected?) When she found no news of a better future, she turned back to the articles on Narr in hopes of getting enough for an introduction to a post.

Her research turned up enough for a whole month of posts, and she got so absorbed she was almost late to work. She stopped reading only to drive and clock in, and throughout her shift she stole glances at her smartphone under her cubicle desk.

Narr, she discovered, wrote hundreds of pulp paperbacks with titles like Queen of Space and Doctor Galaxy, all shoved out in a matter of weeks to pack bookshelves with thin editions that cost five cents. The photos of him depicted a glowering old white dude, bearded and wearing a captain’s hat while smoking a pipe shaped into a naked lady. Gross, Ivy thought. When he died, he was wealthy enough to leave behind an “estate,” or at least a daughter and a few lawyers still concerned about his works. But the articles about him were more intriguing than his actual writing: they focused less on his books and more on the late-life mental break from reality that ruined his career.

“Hah,” Ivy whispered, slumped down in her cubicle. “I knew he was nuts.”

His madness started with a bad tooth. Narr was prescribed Sodium Pentothal to dull the pain after surgery (doctors gave out weird drugs in the 60s, Ivy thought), and suddenly one afternoon Narr heard voices in his head. It had nothing to do with the drugs, he said, except that they “opened his consciousness.” He thought these voices were actually a galactic hive-mind he called the Large Mass Trans-Neptunian Inorganic Multi-Intelligence 4921 (LMTNIMI 4921). The hive-mind told him secrets and future predictions, but when the “noise of their genius” got too much for him to bear, the intelligences found another way to send him their wisdom.

In a 1992 interview, Narr described the communication as a “hide-and-seek one-way radio game.” He would “enter a fugue state” (which was code for doing more drugs, in her interpretation) and then after waking up the next day, Narr would hunt through his home for secret messages left by the intelligences. The messages came in the form of typed letters stashed in strange places: behind the toilet, in holes dug into the floorboards, under reams of blank paper. They looked typed from his own machine. When asked if this meant he was writing the letters himself, he insisted no. It had to be “idea-particles” from space beamed down and re-assembled into forms he could recognize. The man would not entertain any notion that perhaps he’d just gotten blitzed out of his mind and forgot what he’d written.

The man was so nuts that Ivy started to like him a little. The craziest of all were the articles that talked about his last book, Escape from the Planet of the Damned, which his critics said was “a deranged experiment in self-insertion and new age malarkey.” An image search turned up the same art as the print she’d stolen from Narr’s apartment, only the spooky moon was covered up entirely by huge yellow letters. Supposedly the book included ideas about an impending apocalypse that Narr believed were true.

The novel’s main characterwas Howard William Barr, a “writer-psychic” who talked to interstellar intelligent beings via dreams. Barr helped the local government forces identify a rogue planet as it sailed closer to earth’s destruction. At the end of the book, the government destroyed the planet with an “anti-gamma hyper-oscillation ray” and Barr was given a “ticker-tape parade” for his heroism. Ivy was not surprised to learn that the main character was also tremendously handsome, a genius with five doctorate degrees, and popular with women. What fascinating junk, she thought.

She wanted more. Ivy skimmed what chapters of the book she could find online in between calls, and sometimes during them.

One passage she found matched the artwork she’d pried off of Narr’s wall:

They walk now, ceaselessly between the ruins, shells of their former selves,” said the psychic Barr. “The mad sorcerer-king of the Za’hyiil has overtaken their minds and souls with his transmigration of control particles. Damn it, man, can’t you see?” With his masculine fist, he pounded the president’s table. “Those loyal to the Za’hyill still seek out bodies to inhabit and control, as their very aura eradicates any civilization they come near. They are a lurking evil floating dark through space. They are Planet X. They will infect every red-blooded American man, woman, and child to transform us into their zombie slaves.

“Xenophobe much?” Ivy said with a snort. The sound made the team supervisor glare at her from across the isle, so she shoved her phone in her pocket. More for later.

But later was much later than she expected. After nine and a half hours of mind-numbing data entry and talking enraged customers off their self-entitled cliffs, Ivy’s head was dulled with exhaustion. Work had defeated her for the day: no energy for research or posts now.

When she got back home, she couldn’t bring herself to even lift the lid of the manuscript box. All day she’d begun to hope the box contained the unpublished sequel to Narr’s Escape novel. Such an artifactwould be a stellar contribution to her blog. It might even go viral. His estate might sue her! Ivy giggled when she thought about it. But despite her eagerness to get started, she was so tired when she walked through the door that she could do little but peel off her thrift-store khakis and fall face-forward into bed.

Once asleep, Ivy fell immediately into dreams. In them, she walked around a cold, dark lunar landscape between the remnants of a demolished city. Above her was a sky full of stars and a dimly glowing sphere that could have been a moon or a sun or another planet. Whatever it was, it was so gigantic that she could see the craters and outcroppings on its surface. On it, shapes moved, tiny shadows like a swarm of bugs.

She shuffled towards the sphere for a while before she realized she could never reach it, and she couldn’t stop herself. Even when a heap of stone got in her way, she climbed over it awkwardly and kept walking, as if her body had gone numb and stupid. She yelled at herself to stay still, but her body didn’t obey. Around her, narrow, humanoid-shaped figures moved within the ruins, keeping pace with her shambling steps. The sphere above them glowed softly with a deep purple halo.

#

Late afternoon the next day, Gabe called her, coughing something fierce and asking her to bring him a can of chicken soup and some cough drops. He was, as he said, “too near death” to go to the store himself. Ivy fought between supreme disappointment and concern; she figured Gabe’s hauling job had put him at risk for some weird bronchitis, with all the roach and rat infestations he had to walk through every day, but she also hated to think that she couldn’t spend her only day off reading and cataloging like she wanted to.

Ivy hopped in her car right away, toting Narr’s manuscript box and notes with her to read while helping Gabe convalesce. She hoped she could use his laptop to get a post started.

At the pharmacy, all the other shoppers were staring at their phones and asking each other “have you seen it?” Ivy figured it was the meteor or comet or whatever. She’d been too tired to remember to charge her phone before passing out the night before, and her dreams had been so vivid that she now ached like she’d run a marathon. She bought Gabe two cans of soup and a bag of cough drops, because that was about what she had for money left in her account. She wished she could get him more, but he’d have to give her cash if he wanted anything else.

When she got into her Corolla to head out to Gabe’s a few people stood in the pharmacy parking lot, looking up at the flat purple-blue sky, squinting at the approach of twilight.

She found her brother standing at the patio door of his apartment living room, coughing and wrapped up in a blanket like it was a robe. The lime green collar of his Haul-Ur-Junk t-shirt stuck out from the blanket’s edge, and she realized he hadn’t changed clothes since the day before. He looked thin, as if in the last 24 hours he’d shrank a little, collapsing in on himself. Sweat covered his face; Ivy didn’t like his grayish pallor.

She gave him the drops, and he took them with a limp hand. “Thanks,” he muttered. “This cold is killing me.”

“Shouldn’t you go lay down? You look awful.”

He shook his head. “I need to see the sky.”

Ivy shrugged. Gabe was always the outdoor type, and if the sky was making him feel better, she figured that was just as well. He’d crawl into bed soon. “You cool if I hang out for a while and read? I’ll be nearby if you need anything.”

“Sounds great,” Gabe muttered.

After heating up the soup can’s brackish yellow contents, she set it at the kitchen table for Gabe, insisting that he shouldn’t eat while tangled up in a blanket and standing. He laughed, saying he’d probably dump it in his lap. His arms felt like they didn’t work. Her plan was to stay near him just so she could take him to the hospital if things got bad (forget ambulances with their price tag). His coughing was loud, though, so she took Narr’s manuscript box to the empty bedroom, the one that Gabe was trying to find a roommate to occupy. There, she could still hear him; the walls in his complex were thin enough the neighbors’ voices snuck through. (Were they coughing, too? After listening for a second, she realized yes, they were. She thought, maybe something’s going around.) At least the closed door muffled Gabe’s sick noises enough for her to dig deep into Narr’s manuscript.

She sat down cross-legged on the beige high pile carpet and set before her the artifacts of a dead madman.

When Ivy opened the cardboard box, a roach skittered out. She didn’t jump; it wasn’t the first time a box or a book she found came with lives inhabiting it. The roach made its escape, and Ivy turned her attention back to Narr’s artifact, feeling a blossoming thrill of discovery. This must have been how real archeologists felt when getting to open a crypt.

Under the lid of the box, she expected to see a title page of the sequel to Narr’s novel, maybe Return from the Planet of the Damned or something, but the first page was blank. The second one was, too. Her disappointment mounting, Ivy pulled out the four-inch high stack of paper and found that almost every single page was blank. There was nothing to read. No words at all. The sight of it nearly pushed her to tears.

Suddenly, she felt betrayed, duped. Worse, excluded. The more she stared at the blank papers, the more she wanted to throw them against the wall.

Eventually, she did just that. In a swell of frustration, she gave the ream of blank paper a table-flip and sent the pages sailing across the carpet, well into the territory the roach had already traversed. For a moment they filled the air. A slight thump sounded underneath the fluttering as all the papers settled down, and in the scatter she caught the edge of a small square, about the size of a card. An envelope.

Crawling over on her hands and knees, she tugged the envelope out from under the papers. The aged glue on the flap gave up easily; all she had to do was pry one finger under the corner and the seal released. A bit of the paper crumbled away with it.

Inside was one typewritten page, single-spaced.

I was wrong. They’re not out to get you. They’ve already been destroyed. It’s the planet itself. It drew them to it. Something in the soil is poison. It leaks out even in the vacuum of space. An alien virus that can live in nothing. It *is* the nothing. The void. You will look for it. It takes over bodies. It compels you to move long after you’re dead. In a handful of decades, it will reach you. You will be ever moving forward.

I’m sorry.

LMTNIMI 4921

Ivy read the letter over and over, struggling between feelings of disappointment and delight. Not a full novel of mad, rambling nonsense, but possibly a communication from Narr’s intelligences, so that was interesting. Narr, in a drug-induced “fugue state” must have typed this up, dug a hole in the wall, and forgotten about it, the next-day blackout erasing any memory of what he’d written. If so, Ivy thought, it seemed too coherent for someone blitzed out on Sodium Pentothal. She was almost convinced a rational mind wrote it.

Then she wondered, how many other messages had he hidden in that wreck of an apartment. How many more would never be read? Her heartrate kicked up when she realized Narr himself might have never seen these words. How authentic their secrets would be then!

For a second, she was so full of joy it made her sick. Her system just wasn’t used to it.

Her pulse hammered in her ears, a thumping noise, soft and irregular. Too irregular. After a moment she realized the sound wasn’t coming from inside her head. It was coming from the living room.

Ivy looked up, and the letter drifted from her fingers. “Gabe?”

When she checked on him, she found him standing near the patio door where she’d left him, only now the blanket was pooled at his feet. His arms hung at his sides, and he leaned his forehead against the glass. Outside, it was dark, and the lamps around the apartment complex had buzzed to life, spilling a pale blue light over the courtyard. The sky was dark purple, a heavy twilight the moment before hard night fell. Something bothered her about the plate glass. She stared at it for a second until she realized what it was.

Under Gabe’s forehead, the glass was clear. No fogging. Surely her brother had a fever, and he was trying to cool himself down by pressing against a smooth substance chilled by the air outside. Then she noticed the bowl of soup at the kitchen table was untouched. Even though he was just standing there, the position turned her stomach. It was like his body was drooping, numb. But he was active enough to step forward, thumping against the door. He didn’t reach for the handle to get out. He looked broken. A surge of panic flooded her veins. Maybe he’d had a stroke, or something else terrible had happened.

Ivy came up behind him and plucked the blanket off the floor. “You okay, Gabe? You want a different soup?” She placed the blanket around his shoulders, and it slid right off again. He was so limp he’d gotten narrow, even the muscular square of his shoulders had drooped. “Hey, Gabe? Answer me, okay? Should we go to the hospital?”

She leaned in to examine his face as he pounded himself at the plate glass door. His expression was wide-eyed, his mouth hung open, slack at the corners. His eyes turned upwards, almost rolled back into his head.

“Gabe?!” she cried. “Answer me! Can you answer me?” Ivy grabbed his shoulders and shook him. The feel of his body unnerved her; underneath the fabric of his lime green t-shirt, there was no warmth. He felt like a dead rubber dummy.

Ivy struggled to keep her tears in check. All this time, she was playing archivist while her brother was very, very ill. She should have been paying better attention. But now she was, and Gabe most certainly had to go to the hospital. She ran to the door to get her shoes and keys, and to grab his shoes to wrestle onto his feet, but her panic grew to such a degree that she contemplated actually calling an ambulance. Her eyes stung like she was about to ugly cry, but she pinched her face up and told herself she had to make the right decision, do the right thing for Gabe, so she didn’t lose him—

Behind her, glass shattered. The explosion jolted her out of her thoughts, and she spun around. Jagged fragments of the plate glass door hung from its frame as a narrow smear of blood trailed out into the patio. Gabe shuffled out into the courtyard.

She raced over. “Gabe?! What did you do, dude…?” He didn’t turn or acknowledge her. He kept shuffling forward, his head wrenched back so his face was turned up to the sky.

In the blue lamp light, she saw black smears over his cheeks and forehead where the glass had cut him. It had shredded his shirt, and a few dark spots marred the fabric. Ivy told herself it would be okay, there wasn’t that much blood, but then she wondered why. His blood wasn’t dripping. It was thick, congealed. Gabe put one foot in front of the other, staring upwards, but he was otherwise limp, like a puppet pulled by invisible strings. And, Ivy realized slowly, he wasn’t alone. Other figures moved in the courtyard around him.

Ivy scanned the complex to see several open apartment patios, at least ten people in various stages of pajamas or sick-robes stumbling out into the night. The cries of their families and roommates followed them. Where are you going, honey? What are you looking at? They all moved like drones.

Terror spiked through Ivy’s chest. They were all staring at the sky.

She told herself, don’t look up. She had the urge to rush back inside and block the doors and windows with plastic tarps, cover the sills and ventilation ducts with tape so no air could get through.

But Narr had been wrong. It wasn’t air the virus traveled through. It was the void. And it had already gotten to Gabe, so it must be thick in the room she’d just been sitting in. How could she avoid it?

Outside the neighbors were screaming and crying as their loved ones shuffled off. Limp, hypnotized zombies. The light on the grass flickered a little, and Ivy realized it had turned a deep purple color and now moved like flames from above. Sirens howled in the distance. Many of them. If she called an ambulance, would there be any available? Ivy watched her brother shuffle away, mindlessly towards the thing he saw in the sky. The hospitals and doctors couldn’t do a thing. They’d all be moving forward soon.

Her tears drying, Ivy stopped on the lawn, the full terror of it making her numb.

No escape, she thought.

At that point, Ivy stopped fighting it. She looked up at the sky and saw the dark sphere. Around it flickered a deep purple halo, like a smoky eclipse. It was so close, she could see tiny figures swarming along its rocky surface, moving in and out of the ruins. It was so close. As Ivy wrenched her neck to stare up at it, she felt a tickle in her throat. Then she coughed.


Sondi March occasionally summons demons, but in most cases it doesn’t turn out very well. She has a BA in English from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and she lives in Omaha, NE. 


“Abject Permanence” Fiction by Andrew Davie

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

                                                                        ***

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

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

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

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

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

            “Yes,” replied Elias through gritted teeth. 

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

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

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

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

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

            His only salvation was music. 

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

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

            “Elias?” Golan said.

            “I’m sorry.” 

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

            Elias nodded. 

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

Golan’s voice changed to one of confidence.

            “But I can help you.” 

            Elias faked a smile. 

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

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

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

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

Elias licked at his lips and swallowed audibly. 

            “OK. What do we do?

                                                                        ***

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

                                                                        ***

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

            “Everything is on the mend.” 

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

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

            Elias paused to think about it.

            “I don’t think so.” 

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

            Golan reached into his pocket produced a soiled rag. 

            “What is that?”

            “It’s nothing.”

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

            “Anything?” Golan said. 

            Elias grew animated.

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

Golan looked toward the sound.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Gremlins,” The Shape said. 

                                                                        ***

            Elias had experienced the euphoria almost immediately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                        ***

            “Right here, sir, seat number six.”

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

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

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

            “How else to explain the disfigurement?”

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


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